Wittgenstein became fond of a line from Goethe, “In the beginning was the deed”. The reason for his attachment to this saying was that it reverses a certain picture of language as something discarnate and inert, somehow floating apart from embodied human life and action. Against this, the later Wittgenstein insisted that language arose out of and lent meaning to particular forms of human life: “to imagine a language game is to imagine a form of life” he writes in the Philosophical Investigations. Action is meaningful, not least because some actions are linguistic (speaking, writing…), but also because the wider array of actions we can perform are incorporated into our lives as linguistic, meaning-bestowing animals – thus kisses, handshakes, salutes, sex, and shared meals, amongst much else. On the other hand meaning is a bodily, practical, matter, incarnate in our somatic lives, which limit its possibilities just as it extends theirs.
Undoubtedly influenced by Wittgenstein (whose thought reached the English Catholic left of the later 20th century through McCabe), Turner adopts this view of the interconnectedness of meaning and corporeality (a corporeality which, because governed by conventions is of necessity social). He uses it to supply an exegesis on Merleau-Ponty’s take on a key Marxist notion, praxis: “…the meaning which works itself out spontaneously in the intercrossing of the activities by which man organises his relations with nature and with other men”. He poses an agenda setting question: if thought is so intimately related to social practice as the applicability of the concept of praxis and the operative picture of meaning might suggest, how can it be that thought misrepresents social reality, as many understandings of ideology seem to suggest that it does?
I am unapologetically signed up to the Wittgenstein/ Turner approach to understanding meaning, but it has a dated feel in the context of contemporary discussions of relationships between Christianity and the political left. Between Turner’s writing and now the reception of postmodernism took place, followed by its disintegration into a myriad of identity politics. Common to these is a stress on the arbitrariness of meaning: why need a kiss mean “I love you”; why need this piece of paper be a banknote? In one sense, of course, this is uncontroversial – things could have meant otherwise. But on the other hand, the line of questioning can become obsessional and perverse. (Wittgenstein remarked that the language-game is “just there, like life”.) Meaning comes to be thought of as too plastic an affair, its rootedness in social practice is either forgotten or written off as inherently oppressive (that some social practices are oppressive does not, of course, entail that all are). Similarly the extent to which we are limited by our bodies is understressed. Whereas Christianity and Marxism alike see hope in the constrained possibilities contained within (or in the case of Christianity, given to) frail fragile bodies, our corporeal natures are now viewed as potential sites of limitless transformation.
The unfortunate thing is that, as far as I can see, the impetus to recover a view in which meaningful bodiliness is a source of some stability is, within contemporary politically-aware Christianity the preserve of reactionaries. Think, for example, about a particular kind of anti-feminist reception of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Yet surely the left needs just as much a better picture of language (and, dare I say, a less ideological one) than that bestowed by the intellectual fads of recent decades. Solidarity is a matter of socially instanced meaning, bodies move with purpose in demonstrations, and words of revolt arise out of lives of toil. It is no small irony that Turner’s favoured picture has the resources to explain its own demise: as the violent upheavals of neoliberal capitalism uprooted the more stable forms of life of the past, people became less able to speak and think of themselves as the linguistic animals they in fact are. The challenge is to recover that ability.