Since time immemorial, people have expressed nostalgia for a time before the development of language, for a supposed time when homo sapiens lived like animals, with no language and thus nothing that could taint or complicate man’s needs and wants… In such nostalgic views, language is deemed the source of a great many evils. People are considered to be naturally good, loving and generous, it being language that allows for perfidy, falsehood, lying, treachery, and virtually every other fault with which human beings and hypothetical extraterrestrials have been taxed. From such standpoints, language is clearly viewed as a foreign element inopportunely foisted upon or grafted onto an otherwise wholesome human nature. Writers like Rousseau have beautifully expressed what Lacan calls man’s alienation in language. According to Lacanian theory, every human being who learns to speak is thereby alienated from him or herself.
– Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject, chapter 1
While nonlinguistic animals might be wild, unconstrained by culture, they aren’t free. Their hungers and their drives are almost entirely hard-wired, instinctual, pre-programmed. The free-range beast is a slave to its programming, seeking food when it’s hungry, mating when the opportunity presents itself, settling into its natural place in the hierarchy of the pack or herd. It could legitimately be said the individual animal is “spoken” by the “language” of DNA, except that in a world without symbolic communicators this linguistic interpretation of genetics would never come to mind. It’s like talking about the earth pulling us by gravity, as if the earth were an intentional agent holding us on the ground. Referring to the genetic language of DNA is to use a linguistic metaphor as a tool for understanding a natural phenomenon, much as a chemist might regard a formula as a language for constructing complex compounds out of simpler elements.
The only way these invocations of language aren’t metaphorical is if we assert that languages can speak themselves without intentional agents using language as a communication tool. We could assert the existence of suprapersonal language-using agents whose intentions transcend the plane of individual human understanding. We might speak of a Creator who purposely designs or assembles the world out of tools like chemical valences and genetic sequences as an expression of a cosmic intent which we cannot grasp. Or we might regard the “invisible hand” of the marketplace as a metaphor not for unintelligent self-organizing structure but for a collective societal super-intelligence that moves buyers and sellers around in conformance with some higher-order intent that cannot be grasped by individual consciousness.
Anyhow, Lacan contends that language constrains desire by assigning it a name that directs its expression and fulfillment into socially-acceptable channels. Surely this is true. But for prelinguistic animals there is no escape from the predetermined channels: whether alone or in the pack, the individual’s “self-motivated” behavior is dictated by its environment and its genes. Language carves channels of tamed desire through the culture, but it also opens channels that would never have existed had they not been named. Monogamy, polygamy, polyandry, casual dating; homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual; your place or mine; scrambled, poached, over easy; jazz, rock, classical. If we can’t name them they aren’t real because they don’t occur to us as possibilities. If we can name things in between the categories then they too become real.