Daniel Barbiero
Language, Desire, Liminality

Francesco Aprile’s introduction to the writing experiments undertaken under the auspices of the Liminalist group (Word For/ Word 37) raises an important and interesting question about the relationship between language and desire. This relationship stands at the center of the Liminalist project for, as Aprile explains, Liminalism takes desire as its point of departure and the “desiring text” as its point of arrival; consequently, Aprile explains it, the group’s manifesto/anti-manifesto, the product of a process involving collective and sometimes simultaneous writing by different hands, was meant to model a “no-monolithic movement based on the concept of desire” in which the notion of singular authorship collapses into a “liminal zone of desire.”

Aprile’s idea that liminality is a useful concept through which to understand desire and its possible relationship to language is striking and, I believe, opens a fruitful clearing from which to throw light on one of language’s more obscure dimensions. It is a dimension in which meaning shows up as significance—an extra-referential variety of meaning woven into a network of affective and other associations operating at the idiolectical level of language. This is something I believe André Breton touched on when, in his essay “Marvelous versus Mystery,” he invoked the “emotional life of words” which manifests itself when “they are brought together according to secret affinities that let them combine in all kinds of new ways.” As it will turn out, it is these “secret affinities” that will provide the key to unlocking the door behind which desire secretes itself within language; one way to create the “desiring text” may well be through the kind of combinations Breton announces.

What I would like to do here, then, is to look at the relationship between language and desire not from the point of view of an authorship that has dissolved into a liminal zone of desire, but from the reverse side: to consider desire from the point of view of language and to see language as, if not the liminal zone of desire, then at least as the matrix through which desire, in all its liminality, may disclose itself. What I wish to do here is not to write a commentary on or criticism of the Liminalist (anti) manifesto but rather to weave a kind of countermelody out of some of the themes it states. Beginning with the first and most important of these themes—desire.


“Desire” is the concept at the heart of our consideration here, but what does it mean? As we experience it in our lives, it can mean many things and take many forms. It can be directed toward many different kinds of objects in many different contexts; it can be something of more or less urgency, depending on what we feel is at stake; it can be directed toward a physical object, another person, or a purely symbolic indicator of, for example, status; it can even be something prompted in us by the example of others rather than something entirely native to ourselves. All of these different manifestations of desire, though, come down to one fundamental meaning that unites them, and that is lack. What we lack we desire; lack is the motivating force that gives rise to desire. Whether the lack at the origin of desire is for something we need—something we must have for survival, for example—or simply for something we want, whether for its own desirability or because others desire it, really doesn’t matter. In either case, lack manifests itself in a way whose original felt or “subjective” (for want of a better term) aspect is desire. Desire is always my desire, regardless of its origin; it is something present to me in and through the contingencies of my given situation. “Desire” then is the manifestation of lack as lack makes itself known to us, in a concrete manifestation specific to us as given individuals.

Desire is sometimes described as a propositional attitude, that is, as a psychological state held in relation to a proposition. But as understood here it is more than that; it is an existential structure of human being, a way of projecting oneself into the world out of a need to liquidate a lack. We don’t simply “feel” desire so much as we are in the world in the mode of lacking, as lacking is disclosed to us concretely. Desire is “existential” just because it is an element of the pattern of lack→liquidation that stands at the very center of our way of being in the world and that gives the human experience of temporality its intrinsically futural direction. After all, it is precisely through lack that we project ourselves into a future in which that lack will be liquidated. Still, describing desire in terms of a propositional attitude, while reductive and missing the larger context, does capture something important and interesting about desire--that it is something that is disclosed psychologically as well as, in many cases, physically; that it is the medium through which lack appears to us. And it is on the basis of this appearance that we project ourselves into a possible future in which that lack may be made good.

Desire may also have something of the liminal about it. Desire may focus on a specific object or it may remain vague and without a defined ontic commitment, which is to say that we may not know exactly what it is that we desire, but only that we lack something, whatever it may turn out to be. In this case, the object of desire is a mystery or an elusive thing registering at an obscure depth. Desire here can be inchoate; it can lack a clearly delineated object, or its object may like just beneath the threshold of awareness, in a twilit region whose objects hover just out of reach of consciousness per se, but are still present to us even if as an indeterminate shadow. Inchoate desire is liminal desire; its ontic commitment is an obscurity inhabiting a netherworld of semi-formed, yet fully felt, impressions which are, despite the nebulous form they take, a reality for us. Yet whether the object lack projects as the medium through which it will be made good is clearly grasped or only liminally felt, it is an element that defines our concrete situation.

Desire & Meaningfulness

Desire helps to imbue the world with meaning. It is through the lens of desire that one sees one’s situation as containing possibilities through which lack can be addressed and liquidated. Consequently that situation and those possibilities take on varying degrees of significance—they matter to us to the extent that desire touches them and discloses them as relevant to us in our efforts to satisfy desire. Desire is the ground of a particular kind of meaning—not only to the extent that its objects, no matter how liminally present to us or mimetically acquired through the emulation of others, are in themselves meaningful, but also to the extent that desire, in moving us to act, is the motivating force behind a project, the projected end state of which provides the value by which this particular kind of meaning is measured. Desire organizes the world in such a way that things, events, situations and others take on a meaningfulness charged with a more or less powerful force. What desire makes meaningful is what is relevant to us, whether as instrumentality or as obstacle, as we project ourselves toward the future state in which lack is liquidated and desire is satisfied.

It follows that the meaning that desire imparts to the world around us isn’t meaning in the sense of a propositional or referential meaning with truth conditions or conditions of adequacy measured against a given state of affairs, but rather is a meaning that relates to our needs and wants as we know them and as they motivate the projects we undertake to meet them. In keeping with the concrete nature of desire, this kind of meaning always is meaning for someone, a given person with given concerns and commitments, with a given history and background and an understanding—no matter how accurate or unreliable, no matter how explicit or implicit, no matter how free or conditioned, no matter whether in good or bad faith--of him- or herself within his or her world. The meaning imparted by desire is meaning as meaningfulness and hence—at least potentially—of affective weight rather then of truth or falsity, or of descriptive or indicative adequacy.

Through the meaningfulness it gives rise to, desire grasps the world through an affectively weighted, spontaneous and originally unreflected-on understanding, an understanding that may well remain just beneath the threshold of explicit understanding—a liminal, or sub-liminal, understanding. (Given the liminality of some desires themselves, meaningfulness, to the extent that it is unarticulated and prereflectively felt, represents a case of second-order liminality—a liminally grasped affect arising from a liminally grasped desire.) As a liminal phenomenon, meaningfulness may never break through into the light of a fully reflective state and, as a result, may not find articulation within the rational order that full reflection presupposes, but this doesn’t mean that it is precluded from making itself felt through language. It does, but it does so at an often-overlooked level of language.

Koiné & Idiolect

Language is a Janus-faced thing. The public, outward-looking face of language is language as the common property of a community defined in part by the language they share. This is language as koiné, as something standard and held in common by a group. Language as koiné is language as an always already there accumulation of meanings, practices, and rules of use, something pre-existent that is outside of us but that we nevertheless inhabit and that inhabits us at the same time. In Mallarmé’s often-quote formula, it is the well-worn coin placed silently in my hand—placed there by the historically dynamic, self-renewing community of users into which I gain entrance by virtue of learning and using their language. The generally accepted and agreed-upon meanings of words, along with the proper ways to use them, define the koiné as such and are the provisionally stable products of the multiple intentions and actual uses of those members of the language community.

But because language has to be assimilated by individual users, each with his or her own history and experiences, competences and limitations, and exposure to others within the language community, language is, at the level of the individual user, idiolectical. Idiolect is the mode in which language inhabits us. Not all language users within the same community will grasp, say, meaning and grammar in the same way, and the finer-grained the understanding of meaning and grammar for any particular user, the more likely we are to find variations of shading and nuance peculiar to that user alone. This is a matter of how words represent rather than what they represent: a matter of the aspects under which they represent their referents to individual language users. (The idea that language exists “within” its individual users as idiolect doesn’t contradict the idea that there are communities of users holding a common language; presumably agreement across idiolects on meaning, usages, rules, and so forth at a relatively coarse-grained level is all that is needed to make effective communication possible in all but a minority of instances, and thus to mark a user as a member of a given language community.)

Idiolect & Association

Beyond the variations showing up at the semantic or referential level, individuals’ idiolects will include a layer or dimension of meaning encoded as a network of associations that may connect words or other language units, some as small as morphemes or phonemes, with images, colors, sounds, memories, scents, and so forth. A series of correspondences, in other words, reminiscent of the correspondences Rimbaud drew between individual colors and individual vowels. And because idiolects are defined by their variations across individuals, we would expect that individual associative networks will themselves vary, being more fully developed in some than in others; likewise, the quality of these associations—their vividness, salience, strength and ramifications of correspondence and richness of connection—may also be expected to vary across different idiolects as well. Nevertheless, we might expect to find them present within any given idiolect, to whatever degree.

Among these associations are associations forged in the context of desire and on the basis of the meaningfulness it bestows on things, events, situations and others in the world. It is there that desire discloses itself within the idiolect, in the affective weights that words and other language units carry. The traces of a personal history of desire and its projection onto the world become encoded in idiolects through these associations; desire is memorialized when the extra-referential significances attaching to or binding together words and other language units stand as the sedimented remains—the fossil record, as it were—of desires and of the effects, practical, hypothetical, and imaginary, made to fulfill them.

Two caveats are due here. The first is that desire may not be a factor in all of an idiolect’s associations. Extra-referential associations may attached to language for any of a number of reasons arising from the contingencies of one’s life. But given the importance of desire as the motivating force in human life, it stands to reason that it is at the root of many, and perhaps even a majority, of them. Second, these associations are not necessarily symbols for or signs of particular desires. Desire may be the prime mover behind them, when it is behind them, but as such it stands far enough upstream on the causal chain that it may not necessarily be identifiable in the associations that carry its traces.

“The Emotional Life of Words” as Incidental to Koiné

Whatever their origin in the life and situation of the individual language user, it is here, in these extra-semantic, idiolectical associations that what Breton called “the emotional life of words” can be found. The significances these associations carry give language an affective meaningfulness or emotional charge that overflows its semantic meaning and imports a logic into language that virtually parallels the logic of its everyday use, like an underground stream running beneath an open path. Like human emotional life itself, the emotional life of words is directed by a logic seemingly on the margins of, or hidden beneath, the logic of the rational mind and its discourse. It is this logic that Breton described in terms of “secret affinities”--a logic of affective correspondence rather than rational implication.

The meaningfulness encoded in an idiolect’s network of associations is highly personal and yet only incidental to language when language is considered as a commonly held medium of communication--as koiné. And even within an idiolect, the extra-referential affective and other correspondences that attach to words may be something the language user ordinarily is only marginally and dimly aware of—at least in part because of their apparent irrelevance to the everyday practicalities of communication. In fact, this network of associations permeating one’s idiolect is something of a liminal phenomenon in itself—its formation may be by virtue of obscure and possibly indirect processes buried within one’s history, the logic of whose connections may be only vaguely understood, if at all.

(And here I should say that I am agnostic as to whether or not an unconscious or the unconscious, whether Freudian, Lacanian or any other, is the mechanism behind the formation of associative networks within idiolects or in the assimilation and transposition of language-as-koiné into language-as-idiolect. It does seem that these processes transpire mainly or even entirely at a level beneath the threshold of conscious awareness—the notion of liminality, once again, offers its dark light of illumination—but whether this implies anything beyond a cognitive process of which conscious awareness is unaware is a matter I leave to others to hypothesize.)

The Logic of Associations & the “Desiring Text”

To the extent that a language object—a poem, a prose work, even an anti-manifesto—is organized on the basis of language’s idiolectical associations, to that degree it at least potentially takes on the character of a desiring text. This is so to the extent that the level of meaning at which desire is memorialized in language—the level of idiolectical associations and correspondences, where words show their “secret affinities” with one another—can be made the basis of a text when language is organized according to the logic of associations and correspondences rather than to the logic that drives conventional communication—the logic of the koiné.

Organizing the language object according to the anti-logic of associational logic is what Breton seems to have had in mind when he asserted that, “once the reins of common sense are dropped, another kind of sense, a compelling and divinatory one” comes into play. In keeping with his fascination with what he took to be the revelations of the unconscious, whether in automatic writing and drawing or in the coincidences he saw as instances of “objective chance,” Breton envisioned this other kind of sense as revelatory of an occult layer of the human psyche that ordinary language use suppressed. We need not follow Breton this far, unless we wish to consider the desiring text, organized on the basis of the affective values words carry within an idiolect, as containing latent meanings to which the verbal surface—the actual juxtapositions of sounds and shapes, the words themselves as they are linked together on the basis of their positions within the web of the writer’s associations rather than on the basis of logical or even grammatical rules—provide clues to be deciphered in order to reach a deeper level of psychological disclosure. This is certainly one possibility, but another, perhaps less recondite possibility is that such a text is revelatory not of hypothetical unconscious mechanisms of repression and the fantasies and desires over which they attempt to assert their control, but rather of the larger world within which the writer moves, as he or she grasps his or her human and natural environment as always already charged with a meaning understood through a spontaneous and largely implicit, unarticulated grasp. An understanding that, only occasionally breaking through the threshold of awareness, is in its own way liminal.

Or: we can just let the text stand as it is and allow its words to lead what Merleau-Ponty, in “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence,” termed “the vague life of colors.” The desiring text is a poetic text whether by design or in spite of itself; in confronting it, we may simply wish—allowing Breton the final word—to “[give ourselves] up to these combinations [and] not try to find out where the sphinx...[is leading us].”

Epilogue: Idiolect Without Idios

As an artifact of collective, and often simultaneous, authorship, the Liminalist (anti) manifesto is an intriguing document. It is composed of discursive fragments juxtaposed against passages contrived according to logics of their own: it is a bricolage of linear exposition and logically opaque linkage, a polymodal text brought to an internally tenuous equilibrium. A state of fragility, as Aprile aptly describes it.

A major source of the text’s fragility, quite apart from the tensions inherent in the heterogeneity of its content, is the provisionality and instability built into the process with which it was composed. If any single hand can alter and overwrite anything written by any previous hand, the result quite naturally will be an alternation of inscription and erasure, of formulation and effacement—a literal give-and-take that results in a text that resembles a body of water roiled by the seemingly random crossings of a series of waves, mutually reinforcing or canceling each other out as the case may be.

To the degree that contributors’ interventions are driven by associative rather than discursive logic, the text presents the strange and paradoxical prospect of containing traces of an indiolect in aggregate—an idiolect originating in multiple sources from multiple hands and voices and, in the guise of an emergent collective, accumulating into a synthetic whole proper to no one hand or voice. We consequently have a hybrid text that represents its own, anonymized idiolect—an idiolect without ἴδιος, which is to say an individual language with the individual subtracted out. A language of one’s own, but without the one who owns it. The idea of who is writing, whose voice is speaking through the text, is thus neutralized; the sign of authorship, embodied in the recognizable voice or hand able to stabilize and bind together the words on the page, becomes a perpetual placeholder or variable unable to hold one fixed value.

What’s interesting, in the context of the consideration of desire, is that to the extent that it embodies an ongoing process of inscription and erasure, the (anti) manifesto represents the larger movement of lack->fulfillment->lack. The original lack at the commencement of writing is made good by the contribution of one hand, which is then voided and converted into a new state of lack by its negation through the action of a second hand, which subsequently makes good this new lack by its own contribution—which will be voided by the next hand, and so on, until the text is finished or (and this is more or less the same thing) abandoned. The text is the site of a project, of multiple projects, in fact; with each contribution the contributor projects him- or herself into the text, takes up the possibilities to be found there and brings about a new, temporary equilibrium that itself will be found to be lacking by the next contributor, who reenacts the process of projection and action and brings about a new, also temporary equilibrium.

Thus the (anti) manifesto renders itself liable to being read as a “desiring text” through its structure, quite apart from the way it might engage the question of desire through its content. The process by which it was created mimics the action pattern associated with desire—the pattern of lack→projection→lack-made-good--and does so in a way that conveys something of the never-ending cyclicality that that pattern takes on in the life of any given individual. Individual desires may be fulfilled—or frustrated—but desire itself never is; the fact of desire is that it is the engine of human action, a dynamic force whose satisfaction is ever only temporary. What Aprile describes as the tumultuousness of the Liminalist text turns out to be the tumultuousness of desire-driven life, in microcosm.


Francesco Aprile, ed., Liminalism (special feature), in Word For/Word 37.

André Breton, “Marvelous versus Mystery,” in Free Rein, tr. Michel Parmentier and Jacqueline D’Amboise (Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska Press, 1995).

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Indirect Language and the Voice of Silence,” in Signs, tr. Richard C. McCleary (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U Press, 1964).