Those who have seen (or in my case, binge-watched) the Comedy Central series Key and Peele may be familiar with this clip. A schoolyard bully’s reign of harassment has one curious twist: he describes the deepest personal realities behind his every action and statement. The result of this obscene display is a very baffled victim, who hastens to point out an intriguing contradiction. How could someone so clearly articulate the conditions underlying their ‘symptoms’, and yet still be compelled to perform them?
This objection rests on an intuition which deserves some scrutiny. In our lived experience, there seems to be a fundamental division between the behaviors we follow and the objective, at-distance description underlying them. Often times, we’ll repeat our mistakes until we gain that crucial bit of insight that gives us the self-knowledge necessary to stop. Access to this ‘third person’ description appears to be limited to those who have already worked through their problems.
And yet, it’s often the case that we can discover the underlying truths of our behaviors while still being stuck with them. This curious observation, which is commonplace in the world of psychology, also brushes up with considerations of language. Specifically, it raises the question of metalanguage and how it operates in our daily discourse.
What is metalanguage?
The prefix ‘meta’ is Greek for ‘above’ or ‘beyond’. This explains its use in the word metaphysics, for example, which investigates the essences of things outside their given presentation to us. In common vernacular, meta can also be used to refer to an aspect of fiction which transcends its construction and reaches out into the real world . Breaking the fourth wall in theater is an example of a moment that could be considered meta. Abed from Community is probably the most decisive example of meta on television; he frequently describes his character’s situation which parody television culture itself.
With that in mind, we can begin to understand what is meant by the word metalanguage. In its most general usage, a metalanguage denotes a language about a language. This linguistic definition is probably the most intuitive to us. Words like sentence, verb, and word are examples of metalanguage. Phrases like ‘I hereby declare’ can also be considered metalanguage, since they refer to the statement being made. This paragraph itself, in fact, is a prime example of metalanguage — it’s using language to dissect the use of language itself.
When we endeavor to use language in these instances of self-reference, it can lead to some curious consequences. Specifically, the potential for a sentence to refer to itself results in one of the most ancient and widely discussed logical problems: the liar paradox. Is the statement “this sentence is a lie” true or false? If it is true, then it is truthfully designating itself as false, which makes it false. And if it is false, then it is erroneously designating itself as false, which makes it true. What this means is that the truth value of the statement simply cannot be determined: to say it is either true or false brings forth, logically, the opposite conclusion.
The logician and mathematician Alfred Tarski attempted to resolve this paradox and similar ones over the course of his life’s work. He began by establishing a difference between a metalanguage and what he called an object-language. Whereas the latter refers to the actual language being used, the metalanguage is devised to make statements about the object language. Tarski’s goal was to establish a system whereby every statement can be assessed strictly as either true or false: a ‘fully interpreted language’ which is free of blemishes like the liar paradox.
What Tarski found was that truth is not a criteria which can be determined using only the object-language. This result, called Tarski’s undefinability theorem, means that a mathematical statement cannot be proven true by its own language: a metalanguage must always be developed, above and outside the object language, in order to ascribe truth to the object-language. And crucially, this metalanguage must have an expressive power exceeding that of the object language. Namely, the metalanguage must contain (among other things) a series of axioms which are sufficient to evaluate the semantic property of ‘truth’ in the object-language.
Armed with these definitions, we can return to our Key and Peele sketch with a more discerning eye. It seems that the bully’s insults comprise a kind of object-language, proceeding automatically, while his justifications are a kind of metalanguage which reveal their truth by explaining their origins in his lived experience. In the ‘formal system’ that is the bully’s discourse, two levels are perceptible, and his metalanguage (consistent with Tarski’s finding) does seem more ‘rich’ than the object-language insofar as it possesses a certain degree of self-knowledge: understanding of his family circumstances, his inner insecurities, and so on.
Whereas Tarski confines the status of truth to a metalanguage, Kurt Gödel’s celebrated incompleteness theorem sets heavy limitations on the capacity for metalanguage, at least in algebraic systems. Gödel started by developing a system called Gödel numbering, which allows mathematical statements to be represented as a certain number. As a result, the mathematical statement remains on the level of an object-language, while its corresponding Gödel number becomes its inscription in the metalanguage. Thus, algebraic logic could be expressible in math itself. Godel used this system in order to ascertain whether algebra, as a formal system, is ‘complete’. In this context, ‘completeness’ refers to syntactic completeness: a system is complete if all statements or their negations are provable from a given set of axioms. This is not unlike Tarski’s goal to develop a ‘fully interpreted language’.
But what Gödel found was that, for first-order algebra, no set of axioms would ever suffice to prove all the statements within math (mathematical formulas). Thus, he proved that the truth of algebraic statements cannot all be shown by a proof within the system itself. In algebra,, no metalanguage can be bootstrapped out of the object-languages which proves all of its truths. This is a corollary, or logically necessary conclusion to, the idea that as ‘performers’ of math, we must always rely on a set of axioms which are not provable given math itself.
Gödel’s finding should be enough to give us some renewed skepticism towards the self-referential bully. Is what is true for algebra also true for human subjectivity? If so, it would appear that we can never approach the whole ‘truth of ourselves’ using only metalinguistic descriptions of our behaviors. Gödel’s incompleteness theorem demonstrates that, at least for algebra, there are truths which must lie outside of metalinguistic descriptions.
Now the question becomes: is such a ‘metalinguistic’, outside perspective on the part of the subject to explain his own ‘bullying statements’ impossible in the same way that it is impossible for a formal system to asses the truth of all algebraic statements? To answer this question, we must leave the world of logic and mathematics and dive into the symbolic order: the world of language and subjectivity.
Metalanguage and the French post-structuralists
The second half of the 20th century was a hotbed of intellectual development in France, whose salons were filled with writers, artists, and philosophers. Their labors have given us critical theory and post-modern studies, subjects which inspire either intense respect or incredulity among American students. But the product of this intellectual outgrowth, post-structuralism, should be known in its historical context in order to be fully understood.
Structuralism is a philosophy founded on structural linguistics, which maintains that the meaning of language can be found in relation to other elements and not in some essence contained in a single word or phrase. The most well-known structuralist was the cultural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who analyzed cultures not based on any inherent trait of theirs but within the context of their own traditions. This is especially relevant because in Levi-Strauss’s time, Western anthropologists tended to investigate foreign cultures by grounding them and contrasting them with Western traditions. By contrast to this hegemonic approach, Levi-Strauss sought to analyze a cultural ‘internally’, not externally. In order to accomplish this, he relied on inherent binaries which were present in a given culture. Male/female and culture/nature are two of such binaries which Levi-Strauss identified as universal fulcrums of mythology and cultural practice.
Post-structuralist philosophers, on the other hand, are skeptical that such an approach can lead to a complete understanding of culture. This is because the binaries which are present in a given cultural system contain certain value structures and implicit factors which go beyond the binaries themselves. For this reason, the ‘truth’ of a cultural practice cannot be reduced into the binary system which it presents to the viewer.
Here, the ideology of Jacques Derrida stands among the strongest critiques of structuralism. In opposition to structuralist models of cultural studies, Derrida developed his own method, called deconstruction, which aims at revealing the inherent and presupposed binaries that exist in a given sociocultural group, political movement, or piece of literature. Derrida is adamant that we cannot construct a positive identity without implying its negative counterpart; a presence cannot have meaning without reference to its absence. For example, the concept ‘man’ has no fixed meaning, accessible immediately to a user of language: its meaning is dynamic and depends on the subject’s presuppositions of its opposite, ‘woman’.
Derrida’s critique of language, it follows, leads him to be quite skeptical of metalanguage. One can imagine, for example, what kind of metalinguistic description a government might develop for a piece of propaganda, which would be used to justify it and fix its meaning in something immanent. But this even applies to the language being used for the endeavor of deconstruction itself. In other words, because even a deconstructionist is still limited by language in order to analyze a given text, there is no way for them to ‘get outside’ the difficulties of their language, even when they are in the process of actively identifying and frustrating the presupposed dichotomies which exist in a text. We cannot ‘escape’ these inherent difficulties of language, even if we use language to expose these inherent difficulties themselves. This is why Derrida is always careful not to fall into the ‘trap of metalanguage’, which would be to believe that some forms of discourse can be outside its own inherent hegemonies and limitations.
The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, always one for aphorisms, stated later into his career that “there is no metalanguage”. Although he isn’t typically considered in the post-structuralist tradition — owing to his strong influence by prominent structuralists like Levi-Strauss and the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson — his deliberations on concepts like metalanguage were often in dialogue with the major post-structuralists of his time.
Lacan agrees that binaries are a part of language because binaries structure the symbolic realm, and our introduction to language is a birth into the symbolic realm. But Lacan focuses on the presuppositions of our language insofar as they occur in a clinical setting: a kind of anticipation of meaning. All language is addressed to an interlocutor, the Other, which retroactively sets the meaning of our statements. Therefore, Lacan was less interested in whatever power dynamics underlie the already-present binaries in society (good/evil, citizen/foreigner being established by a hegemonic colonial power, for example), but rather how subjects themselves construct these binaries by presupposing them into the symbolic order, the realm of the Other.
For Lacan, metalanguage is not impossible simply because there is no purely objective way to describe state of affairs (because of the inherent factors at play in language: its binaries, its supposition of fixed meaning, and so on). Rather, it is impossible in a more absolute sense: there cannot be a metalanguage above and beyond object-language because the object is an ever-present force in language. Even when language piles up with self-referential statements, there is still an object which pulls the strings of its course, although this object cannot be signified itself. This hidden object is, in Lacanian psychoanalysis, the objet petit a: the un-symbolizable void around which language can only encircle elliptically.
In his typical fashion, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek provides a nice example of this tricky Lacanian concept. A Soviet-era joke tells of a gallery containing a painting titled ‘Lenin in Warsaw’, depicting Vladimir Lenin’s wife in bed with a young cabinet member. When an onlooker responds with the obvious question — “but where is Lenin?” — the curator responds simply, “in Warsaw, of course!” What the onlooker’s reaction demonstrates is a conflation between the subject and the object of the picture. He is caught, to use Zizek’s words, in the ‘trap of metalanguage’, which suggests to him that the title of the picture is a metalinguistic description of the ‘object-language’ of what is presented to the viewer. Rather, it is Lenin in Warsaw which is the object, although he is not present in the picture, because it is a necessary condition for the picture to exist at all (his absence being necessary for his wife’s affair).
The object of the picture, therefore, denotes a negativity which is nonetheless a formal condition of its presentation to us. In the same way, language is for Lacan driven by objects which can only be ascertained by their influence on speech. A proponent of metalanguage may imagine an infinite cascade of descriptions-about-descriptions, starting with one baseline object-language. However, Lacan would identify this structure as nothing more than a series of object-languages, where the ‘object’ is not some immediate essence which can be captured by a metalanguage, but rather what the speaker is ‘getting at’ by producing this set of statements itself.
Where, then, does this leave the subject of truth in Lacanian theory? Lacan dedicates his paper Science and Truth to this exact topic. In it we can find a characterization of truth that refutes Tarski’s conception: truth is not a qualifier ‘about’ a statement in an object-language, which can be expressed using a richer and more extensive metalanguage. Rather, truth itself is a cause of speech, and simply cannot be grounded in an at-distance description of speech.
Thus, Lacan would say that the idea of the bully in the Key and Peele skit is an impossibility. We cannot possess a capacity to create metalinguistic statements about our own speech: something about our condition is already ‘inscribed’ within our description of it. There is no way to achieve an objective distance from yourself and totalize the truth in a statement. In fact, Lacan would argue, the bully is in a state of active repression by believing that his metalinguistic descriptions comprise a locus of truth. In essence, we can always ask, “but what inspired you to speak about the conditions of your speech in the first place?”, and the resulting discussion would be guided by his object cause of desire. Indeed, Lacan did not believe that truth exists in a complete and total form, waiting to be discovered through a conversation: it is rather something which is created by the dialectical movement of the conversation itself.
What are some practical consequences of this idea? That every description of ourself is still open, that the pursuit of self-knowledge is not a gradual uncovering of an inner truth, but rather a process which is guided by a truth operating as cause of speech. Perhaps, then, the best way to approach the truth is not by asking which statement describes us most accurately, but rather what desire most accurately explains what statements we are making in the first place.
Just try not to do that in an elementary school parking lot.