Frames /sing


The Sprache of Achilles: The Panoply of Speech

The Man that Does Not Think by Oneself

I want this post to both grow out of a comment Carl from Dead Voles made on the thread Heidegger “Never says…” and Harman says… and also to be an expansion upon the thoughts I began on my recent post Human Competence: Achilles On the Mend. There is a certain compatibility between Wittgensteinian language game approaches and the speaking strategies of Achilles, the hero of Homer’s Iliad, and it is my hope to use the figure of Achilles to point forward toward a way that is neither tragic, nor alienated in the world of objects, a post-human world of forces and coherent assemblage.

Carl was responding to a line from the neo-Marxist/Spinozist Etienne Balibar, that that reflects something of Wittgenstein’s well-known Private Language Argument: “If no man ever thinks alone, then we might say that to know really is to think ever less by oneself”

This is making me think of Wittgenstein’s private language problem. Perhaps we’ve come full circle and back to your original post. In with the not-said is all of the rules and tools that any particular language game makes available to take for granted. These are the conditions for any intelligible and communicative statement. In practice they arise out of discourse communities, which are associated with ways of life, which are conditioned by all sorts of things starting with food and up through durable institutions. I trust I can wave my hands like this and convey a gist.

We make our own worlds, but not in conditions of our own choosing, as Marx said. So I couldn’t agree more when you say “I find it more valuable to see how we can invest the tradition itself with new possibilities, to change the tradition from within. And whether it is the tradition that is doing the thinking, or us as originals, really doesn’t matter.” Except I’d say it’s both, always both…

We had been discussing Graham Harman’s appropriation of Heidegger’s notion of Dasein and implied objecthood, coupled with his stout refusal to grant that Heidegger held such an idea as is originally his own, that objects other than human beings could have their own Dasein determination. The idea is meant to be both implicitly found within Heidegger, but also excluded from Heidegger. In a sense, it partakes in the authority of Heidegger, but aims to be immune to critiques of the same. In this regard, Carl suggests (at least it seems to me) that within a Wittgensteinian terminology, the language game of Heidegger’s description of the world might be seen to have within its possibilities of Graham Harman’s assertions regarding forever hidden, real objects, although these possibilities were not develped by Heidegger.

Achillean Immanence vs. Odysseus’s Instrumentality

In my previous post on the difference between the heroic figures of fierce and woeful Achilles and the table-turning, wandering Odysseus, I pointed out that Western Philosophy, particularly in its modern manifestations, took on the wrong Greek hero. Instead of the radiating Achilles who defines himself by his bonds and presents himself as a pure man of action (or inaction), of which speech was a considerable means, philosophy concerned itself with the No-man traveler of endless turns, the serial human being whose only defining characteristic is his mind’s capacity to dexterously articulate itself amid the contingencies of Being, all the while largely homeless, spread across the earth.

There is an important factor in the story of Achilles though that narrows the point and brings us directly back to the comparison to language games that Carl draws. And this is Achilles’s linguistic strategies as found in his speech of the Ninth Book of the Iliad. For those who are unfamiliar, or need to be refreshed, Achilles the greatest warrior of the Greeks has withdrawn from the Trojan War because his rightfully awarded prize Briseis was taken from him by Agamemnon who is nominally the chief of the Hellenic contingent, as some sort of recompense for his own war-prize, a daughter of a priest of Apollo having to be returned. The Hellenic warriors now are loosing the battle without their most powerful ally, and Agamemnon is faced with the shame of having acted unrightfully. Achilles has been convinced to come to a great hall meeting where he is to make a plea articulating his being wronged. As it has been put, “Achilles needs to be paid, but he cannot be bought off”. 

Now this is the interesting thing. Achilles in our collective memory is largely thought of as some kind of glorious and blood splattered athlete, a kind of brute beauty perhaps, a pure articulation of body. But this is not at all the case in the minds of the listeners of Homer. He is a master of the lute and song, learned in the secrets of medical arts, and adroitly mesmerizing in speech (muthos). In his speech to the hall, in rebuttal to Odysseus’s finely constructed argument, he combines personal expression and ethical character argumentation (I am this way, Agamemnon is that way) to present a plea which strains the very form of the heroic hexameter verse in which it is to appear.

The Book 9 Speech: The New and the Old

There has been debate about the unique uses of language forms by Achilles ever since Adam Parry’s 1956 article “The Language of Achilles” which claimed that Achilles’ abuse of the heroic form actually indicated his pure and existential alienation from the rigidity of human ordination. He was in a sense, cut off from history, and in the end performs some sort of transcendental and divine reconsilation. David Claus in his 1975 “Aidös and the Language of Achilles” denied Parry’s conclusions, rather arguing that Achilles in speech only melded the heroic code to its new possibilities, bending and transforming its rules. The context of these interpretations can be seen in the informative essay, “The Language of Achilles: Reconstrution vs. Representation,” Steve Nimis (1986)[click here]. There Nimis sums Claus’s understanding of Achilles’ maneuver as the following,

Achilles, Claus argues, does not simply negate the heroic “code” (taking this term to mean a pattern of meaningful behavior and speech), but rather stretches and bends it in order to articulate his own ideal view of that code. Hence despite the formality and rhetorical predictability of his overt statements, [Achilles] manages to suggest a division of the heroic world into men who feel and love, who can fight, who have proper joy in their possessions, and those who rely on “things” to defend themselves against heroic sthenos, who seek to be kinglier than others, whose possessions are nothing good to them, who do not even know what a life is worth. Again, while this rejects Agamemnon and all his ways, it leaves the heroic code, at least as Achilles idealizes it, intact.

It is this I would like to focus on, the way in which an Achillean ideal type, through the force of his Being, his ideational and bodily capacity to act, takes hold of the existing “language game” and torques it to express what cannot otherwise be expressed within it. And in so doing, idealizes it by living out the expression he/she has formed. And it is specifically at the nexus of valuation that Achilles draws his distinction within the heroic realm. There are two kinds of men:

1. Men who feel and love, who can fight, who have proper joy of their possessions.

2. Those who rely on “things” to defend themselves against heroic strength [sthenos], who seek to be kinglier than others, whose possessions are nothing good to them, who do not even know what a life is worth.

Beneath this division is really the instrumentality of valuation, the unbodied, placeholder conception of “things” (objects and situations) as separable units of deploy vs. the lived and built bonds of enfleshed alliance. It is the difference between instrument and prosthetic grafting. Achilles forms his words out of his very fleshed circumstance, fully committed to what he can do. Agamemnon (and Odysseus) has politically weighed and buried self-interest against the possibilities of advance.

Nimis, taking both interpretive positions of relative alienation in hand, then qualifies Achilles’s speech act within the linguistic distinction of rule-governed creativity, and rule-changing creativity:

Both Claus’ analyses of Achilles’ speeches and Parry’s notion of Achilles’ alienation can be rethought in these terms, taking our cue from the distinction linguists make between rule-changing creativity and rule-governed creativity. All communication occurs in terms of conventions, but such conventions are constantly being used to “say” new things by various creative strategies. Rule-governed creativity is defined as the production of a new phrase or message which is a combination of conventional units in a way governed by prior conventions. Thus the sentence “there is a golden mountain on the moon” would be a “new” expression, but able to be understood given the existing conventions of English. Wallace Stevens’ famous line, however, “green colorless ideas sleep furiously,” is an example of rule-changing creativity, since the production and interpretation of this phrase require the establishment of a new convention which does not yet exist. Achilles’ speeches can be said to be examples of such rule-changing creativity. Like Wallace Stevens, he is a sign-producer who wishes to change the “code”, to articulate a meaning for whose communication and accurate reception no adequate conventions exist as yet. The situation seems to be paradoxical: if communication is based on conventions, how can it occur where no conventions exist? Yet unless we assume that language is “natural” in the strict sense (i.e., that it is immanent), all language must have become conventional by some form of rule-changing creativity (4)

Aside from the fact that Donald Davidson does have an answer for how language can occur without shared conventions, we can glimpse at the way in which Achilles’s speech act is to be idealized as the exemplar of almost all creative artistic activity. It is the attempt creatively change the rules of the game that refuses your articulation, rather than play by the rules (and break them secretly when you can). And in so doing attempt to isolate and express the purpose of the language game in the first place.

Now there is something a bit Hegelian about this take of Nimis’s, and it really shows up in his conclusion, but I would like to focus on Achilles’s alienation. He is not alienated from human beings as a class, for he gets along well with his Myrmidons who he leads, and Protroclus who he loves, and Briseis, and Phoenix his old mentor (despite disagreements), and his mother the goddess Thetis. He alienated from his moment in history, the condition he has found himself in, as an injustice has been suffered. And he experiences this not as a personal injustice, which it is, but as a crisis in leadership itself, in the unkingliness of the said King who does not fight nor act equal to his position. This is shown much later in the Hellenic games Achilles presides over, after Agamemnon has left the narrative, showing the correct form of generous rule. Fair is not a calculation. So Achilles’s is not an ontological alienation under which he is somehow removed from his very Being, but a contingent insufficiency of expression, wherein his constitutional bonds are stretched. In this way, Achilles creatively stretches the heroic form, and with great expense steps away from the game so to affect it with his absence. A great portion of the tale is told with his absence as the main actor until finally it is only his armor that arrives. Achilles is the full inhuman and divine breadth that is in what’s human.

Achilles as Actor

When I suggest that the Achillean answer to the traditional Odysseus problems of philosophy is available, it is this that I emphasize (to select a few).

1. A substanced capacity to live through your bonds and attachments, and not simply use or deploy them.

2. The capacity to realize that speech acts are fully material acts, and that we can readily use rule-changing creativity to express what is within a rule-governed game.

3.The rhetor and the gnostic become the same person because the difference between the political and performance is collapsed.

4. Maintaining the hyper-human (divine) and trans-human (inanimate, elemental forces) spectrum of action, drawing on all our capacities to manifest (Solar Achilles).

5. Employ the immanence of one’s power as necessarily a limit reachable by mercy, the affirmation of custom renewed (Priam).

6. The value of things is fate.

7. Don the Achillean armor of immanence carefully, prudently (Patroclus); you are already wearing it.

8. When you make the corpse (Hector), turning the living into surface through the inscription of your desire, you must release it.

This is far from the self-negating existentialism of Odysseus (at least before he comes home to Ithica, as he becomes qualified by later Attic Tragedy). The human being takes its place within a panoply of historical objects, each fighting to bring forth its full expression. And bonds formed between living an inanimate things are as solid as atomic bonds, the forceful living through, and by the others around us. Man does not travel on his own temporal river, sequestered from the world, blessed/cursed only with the negating power of his consciousness. Man does not travel cloaked with the negating power of his own mortality. In the figure of Achilles it is not the illusion that man is both angel and animal, and therefore neither, the gap between them, but rather as all things are so constituted, man is a spectrum of forces brought to bear in their moment of history, finding the articulation that is best possible for them, those voices and those continuities.


8 responses to “The Sprache of Achilles: The Panoply of Speech

  1. Mark Crosby March 11, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    Kvond, you might be interested to know that Peter Sloterdijk poses a similar contrast between “Achillean Immanence” and “Odysseus’s Instrumentality” in his 2006 book ZORN & ZEIT. See the recent free review essays on ZORN & ZEIT at

  2. kvond March 11, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    Absolutely wonderful. Thank you.

  3. kvond March 11, 2009 at 9:30 pm


    I’ve just read Klauser’s review here:

    And did not pick of the explicit contrast of Achillean Immanence vs. Odysseusian Instrumentality, but there seems very heavy cross-weave in my interest in Achilles, and the crticism of Western values. Very much appreciated. If you run into any other reviews and such, please pass them my way.

  4. Mark Crosby March 12, 2009 at 11:11 am

    (second try here – I hit or something and lost what I’d typed ;( Actually, neither of the two reviews of ZORN & ZEIT mentions Odysseus. Miguel de Beistegui’s review is more critical, noting: “Whereas eroticism [EROS – perhaps played by Odysseus or, better, by Dionysius ?] indicates ways towards the ‘objects’ that we lack and in the possession or proximity of which we feel fulfilled, thymotics [THYMOS – explicitly represented by Achilles] opens up ways for the human being to value what it has, what it can be, what it is, and what it wants to be”. Like De Beistegui I “wonder whether there isn’t a certain naivete in the belief that an aristocratic economy of the gift, which would replace the ordinary economy dictated by the ‘vulgar eros’, could ever abolish debt and indebtedness, and thus anger and resentment”. We probably need three musketeers: Thymos, Eros, and Pragmos (don’t know any Greek, so that last one may not be a proper name 😉
    Sloterdijk’s heroic gift economy

  5. kvond March 13, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Ah, Mark, thanks for redirecting me to de Beistegui’s review (!), it is so much more rich. I’ll certainly be putting up a post soon on the ideas raised there. Just fantastic.

    Briefly I’ll say, I can see something of my Odysseus constrast of Instrumentality buried in the turn to objects as Eros lack (though am unsure how much Odysseus himself expresses such an Eros, his is a wonderlust of displacement, perhaps expressive of such a lack). But to a very great degree I find myself in ever more harmony with Sloterdijk’s appeal to the thymotic, and am formulating an answer to de Beistegui’s very significant objections. I think the point of focus comes in the very concept of the “aristeia”, the promoted brilliance of expression, instead of the Aristocratic. The heroic needs to be atomized, so to speak, perhaps something closer to an ecology of Thymos, rather than an Economy of Anger.

    Wonderful ideas though presented therein.

  6. Carl March 17, 2009 at 10:15 am

    Sorry I missed this! Great stuff, lots of thoughts, have to run to class for the day. These are just placeholders, I’ll be back –

    Achilles not newer but older ideal?

    objects communicating reciprocity

    objects communicating hierarchy

    symbolic of essential distinction

    symbolic of performative distinction

    symbolic of relational distinction

    Douglas and Isherwood, The World of Goods

  7. kvond March 17, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Carl, I really look foward to your views.

    If you find that they’re substantive and interesting to you, post them your blog to bring more people in on the conversation; but of course alternately anything here is valued. I’ve been working on a longer post incorporating Sloterdijk’s appeal to Achilles, brought up by Mark so I believe that there a lot to work from here.

  8. kvond March 18, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Carl: Achilles not newer but older ideal?

    Kvond: Yes, older, in the sense, not a path taken by modernity, but newer in the sense that Achilles indicates how one can renew, or make new the language game of customs. An older renewance.

    Carl: objects communicating reciprocity

    Kvond: Not sure what you mean, but yes, the reciprocity is not the reciprocity of abstract valuation, but of direct forces applied against each other.

    Carl: objects communicating hierarchy

    Kvond: The way that I read this in terms of heirarchy is that if indeed there are needs of heirarchial relations, there is an abject responsibility placed upon those in power to be just in their acknowledgements. Part of this comes from the reciprocity of objects.

    Carl: symbolic of essential distinction

    Kvond: Unsure what you mean here. Perhaps that the heirarchial must reflect the reciprocal?

    Carl: symbolic of performative distinction; symbolic of relational distinction\

    Kvond: These all seem subsumed under integrity.

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