Prosody of the Citizen

May 10, 2021

Lisa Robertson

“a discovery that speech is never simply single”
- Clark Coolidge, The Crystal Text

Sometimes “here” has no walls. There are some pieces of corrugated cardboard, a square of tarp and a sleeping bag, a deck of cards for solitaire. Or, following the movement of thinking, a woman escapes the confinement of identity, moving into the open of language as it discovers her. The most temporary membranes serve as shelter, and the city is a density of desire. Amidst this flux speaking begins, makes its tenuous continuities near and in spite of the accreted institutions that compel anyone to obey, violate and buy, to be placed on identity’s grid. But speech is never simply single. Value moves between us or is foreclosed. The exchanges are conditioned by profoundly ancient and constantly reinventing protocols, protocols we enliven, figure, and transform with our bodies and their words, by beginning. This beginning is what anyone belongs to.

The zone of collective discourse wanders, improvises, unmoored to any stable geographic or architectural foundation. We citizens constitute ourselves according to the movement of subjectivity in language, as well as being administratively identified by shared, conventional borders, and a historical concept of collective and individual rights (or their lack).  This tracing of subjects fleetingly coheres in vernacular speech as that speech configures itself at any living juncture with another speaker. Language, the historical mode of collective relationship, is also the aptitude by which humans innovate one another as subjects: the ego is the one who linguistically addresses another, and it is only through this address that each, in a reciprocal entwining, may fashion herself as “I”. In this co-movement of significance there can be no opposition between individual and society—each person comes into an awareness of herself as a speaking being within the society of language. Neither individual nor instrumental, the linguistic aptitude accompanies the beginning of humans as a nature through which each subject, uttering “I”, “you”, “we”, emerges and survives or perishes. Any subject is supported, spoken, and carried or disallowed and foreclosed by others, in a matrix of reciprocity and power that conditions the very possibility of embodiment. As soon as she speaks and names, the political subject emerges. Her agency is a verbal one; architecture and governance can only interpret or abstract the fluency of the linguistic given.

Because of the social primacy of this linguistic beginning, and because political space is an effect and an historical accretion of linguistic circulation, I’d like to lay out a prosody of the citizen, where the term prosody describes the historical and bodily movement of language amongst subjects.  This opening of the discourse of prosody away from the technical conventions of measure, towards the movements of a generative immateriality, contributes to an interpretation of the domestic sphere that’s aligned with the shifting vectors and intensities of embodiment. A prosodic thinking of politics will carry Hannah Arendt’s statement concerning the polis into the domestic sphere also: “The only indispensable material factor in the generation of power is the living together of people. Only where men live so close together that the potentialities of action are always present can power remain with them. . .” (Arendt p201) In The Human Condition Arendt, following Aristotle, argues that polis is the exchange of speech, and arises anywhere and each time this free exchange takes place.   In Arendts’ thinking, it is the beginner who is the guarantor of political freedom, the beginner, born into speech, speaking to the world, to other beginners. The human social beginnings—of birth, of speech—define the shared condition—natality, in Arendt’s coinage– and ensure that action reveals the improbable yet always renewing freedom inherent in collective life. Without speech, she argues, action would lose its subjects and become violence. It is this ethos of a necessary alignment of speech and action in the subject that ensures that embodied political speech cannot be subordinated to a simplistically communicative and instrumental role, a means to an end, a violence, but carries with it always a revelatory, innovatory, and transformational agency. It is through speech that the citizen acts and freedom articulates its claim on subjects. The subject begins in the co-movement of speech. Natality and prosody are terms that underscore the necessary vitality of this movement, natality from the point of view of  the recognition of embodied subjectivity as incipiently ethical, and prosody from the point of view of the linguistic traversal and elaboration of that subjectivity.

Arendt’s refusal to define the shared condition of the political subject in terms of  mortality was a powerfully implicit critique of Heideggarian ontology, and of the claims of the eschatology of the Church Fathers on European thought. Now the need to align political thinking with life and beginning, rather than with a morbidly theological end-thinking, becomes increasingly urgent in the present escalation of state-sponsored, economically determined violence in its many guises. Arendt’s defense of natality as the form of life has inflected current discussions around biopolitics, where citizenship is before all else an co-embodied belonging. The citizen’s body, in its charged relationships to other bodies, is the temporal matrix and radical mediator of politics. Each body, each birth, each coming into speech, bears the radically unquantifiable potential of co-transformation.  The domestic sphere, that urgent foundation for natality, will here be considered in terms of a mediating skin, rather than in terms of a private interiority conceptually opposed to a social outside. This mediating condition will be inflected temporally, rather than spatially, since its limit is less structurally architectural than flexibly transformative: the taking in and preparation of food, of erotic encounter, of various modes of work, of reproductive labour, of the production of an affective surplus and the constant re-initiation into a freshened verbal motility– at best the place of rhythmic protection of the vulnerable body, while sleeping, in illness, age, and childhood, often while eating and washing, while resting, while talking and working. So the domestic sphere isn’t private just as the body and its modes of conviviality, reproduction and care aren’t private—it expresses a complex temporality that includes coded information from the past as it moves always in the light of the polyvalent and self-inventing present. In terms of subjectivity, the domestic sphere emerges as an embodied vector that breaks open, floods the habitual containment of the public-private binary. In this shift away from a spatial metaphor of the domestic, a displacement of power occurs. The time of the body is generative, commingled, gestural, enacted; in a temporal interpretation of the domestic sphere, power innovates itself as an improvised co-embodiment. In this sense ecology rather than economics might provide the circulatory model of a mutually embodied, and temporally vulnerable power-in-relationship, as long as one considers ecology in terms of complex processes of disequilibrium and emergence instead of an image of harmonized closure. Systems of integration, mutuality, rejection, dispersion and synchronous transformation, rather than a structural semiotics of bordered exchange, characterize domestic activities and interactions.   Across these constantly shifting melodic thresholds, the flow of spoken language, from birth-cry to digital transmission, evades spatial reduction, and rhythmically innovates the time of our collectivity. This collectively spoken time is the sole incubator of subjectivity.

In De Vulgare Eloquentia, Dante developed a poetics of the vernacular—the collectively accessible speech of the household and the street, distributed uniaterally rather than intentionally acquired via a disciplined pedagogy of grammar, and transformed in open bodily exchange, irrespective of social position, gender or rank. “The vernacular”, Dante says “[is] the language which children gather from those around them when they first begin to articulate words; or more briefly, that which we learn without any rules at all by imitating our nurses.” (Dante, 47) A vernacular is not structured according to a valuing hierarchy or an administration of history, it is improvised in tandem with the rhythmic needs and movements of a present-tense yet tradition-informed body among others, each specific. There is no general vernacular; it is intrinsically grammarless. Vernacular speech can only ever begin and can never achieve closure. Lacking spatial propriety, it crisscrosses institutions. In Dante’s definition it is the language spoken by women and children, thus it is the first, and natural language; “The whole world uses it through its diverse pronunciations and forms.” (48)  As a generator of temporality, the vernacular over-determines any bounded circulation concept or singularity of origin—it moves every-which-way continuously, so an excess or an innovation may erupt at any point, initiating various kinds and intensities of consequences that can never be predetermined.

Dante reversed the traditional political values of the vernacular and the language of institutional tradition—government, economic and religious. This reversal opened to a recognition of the politically transformative agency of vernacular speech. He called grammar “secondary language” and the vernacular “illustrious”, claiming for it the aesthetic and political position traditionally reserved for Latin, the hierarchically structured grammar of authority. Part of his substantiation for this reversal of value was aesthetic; he observed that Provencal lyric poets sang in the vernacular in royal courts, and that lyric songs, canzone, are the most widely copied, transmitted and reproduced. Another part of his revalorization was political in the popular sense; all people, of any class or gender, speak and sing and seize a vernacular; at any point in history, a received potentiality of living language has situated us as human. For Dante, the vernacular of lyric, whose ‘sweet new style’ was turned from the incipiently wandering language of women and of exile by the Stil Nova poets, was a matrix of potential resistance, radical mobility, and human dignity. Written during Dante’s own exile from Florence, De Vulgare Eloquentia seeks to consolidate a vision of a unified national language by claiming an exilic vernacular as the exemplary speech of the citizen. In this sense it is a deeply conservative text, a precursor to the imposition of standardized national languages carried out much later by European colonial regimes through-out the world, through control of education, print media, health and healing practices and other such quotidian standards. At the same time De Vulgare Eloquentia’s textual radicality unties its own political will, revealing in its ambivalence how vernacular counter-language is at the core of collective resistance and political self-invention.

Now language and money circulate using the same medium, a grammar which is digital, horizontal and magnetic, and politically determined. Maybe all language will be eventually administrated as an institutional money: a contained and centrally monitored instrumental value. On the other hand, the digitization of value could mean that language in its vernacular expression can infiltrate and deform capital’s production and limitation of social power. If it is to be the latter, then vernacular language’s magnetism will reorient the polis.

In his 1969 book Indo-European Language and Society, French linguist Emile Benveniste studied, in his words, “the formation and organization of the vocabulary of institutions”, where “institution is here understood in a wider sense: it includes not only the institutions proper, such as justice, government, religion, but also less obvious ones which are found in various techniques, ways of life, social relationships and the processes of speech and thought.”( p 10) His method was to meticulously reconstruct a shifting social context around a chosen word and its historical variations. Turning to the very earliest textual instances of a given term, he traced the minute irregularities and transformations in recorded usage, in this way revealing obscured or suppressed divergencies and correspondences in institutional circulations of meaning across time. This method is strongly apparent in the work of Foucault and Derrida, but here I am less interested in the Benvenistian method generally as a precursor to Post-Structuralism than I am in the specific paths of his research into the thicket of concepts that continue to structure our collective experience. Benveniste was not engaged in the search for origin as a value; rather he charted the situated differentials of change in its institutional contexts. Siring, giving, hosting, buying, hiring, marrying, swearing by oath, measuring, supplicating and healing are subjected to profound lexical diachronic analyses, revealing how the emergence of new ideas and cultural and social practices requires that specialized applications are supported by changing institutional structures which next preserve the altered meaning, often in contradiction to the forgotten or diverging history of a given concept.

In rendering these transformations or elisions legible, Benveniste’s linguistic fieldwork makes possible a freshened, altered perception of those specialized, but seemingly transparent concepts that continue to condition our collective experience. Like Dante, Benveniste placed language, in its profoundly social and collective dimensions, at the fundament of human experience. For each, language is man’s nature, not a secondary tool or acquired artifice.  In this sense too, for Benveniste institutions are integral to and inseparable from human history and becoming, and a deep analysis of linguistic history and change can’t proceed apart from an analysis of institutions. Perhaps a contact with the historical traces of lexical differentiation, and the regulatory work performed historically by institutions upon linguistic signification, can begin to loosen the mythic hold of dualism, for example, as a seemingly self-evident regulating structure in almost every institutional formation. Thinking archaeologically into lexical counter-histories as Benveniste does may offer the ideological clearings necessary for an informed critique and future disengagement of the fixed and fixing dualisms of signifying institutions.

In Indo-European Society, Benveniste analyzes the Latin words Civis and Domus, finding that the earliest written uses of these terms did not pertain to concepts of bordered and material spatial limitation, and that both Civis and Domus related to immaterial concepts of collective reciprocity. “The authentic sense of civis is not “citizen”, as it is traditionally translated, but ‘fellow-citizen’” he specifies. “A number of ancient uses show the sense of reciprocity which is inherent in civis, and which alone accounts for civitas as a collective notion” (Benveniste, p274). In a similar dematerialization of meaning,Domus “denotes the “house in its social and moral aspects, and not as a construction.” (257) He aligns the Latin domuswith the Greek oikos, which also indicated a community of companionship and quotidian participation: the sharing of food, worship, and the “works of peace” in Aristotle’s words, not a built architecture, defined the household. These everyday operations were at the centre of a scaled series of collective concepts, which progressed outwards from the household to the polis. The domus was that group—related perhaps but not necessarily by blood, but more specifically by shared everyday operations—that group which used the same door as a point of arrival and departure. Both domus and civiscorrespond to the specific milieu of a social reciprocity. The difference between them is not qualitative or oppositional, but is one of scale. No sense of private or public, in the way we now understand these terms in relation to ownership or to interiority and experiority, appends itself to either.

Benveniste did not draw conclusions from his research. One of his purposes in carrying out this fine-grained analysis was to transform linguistics’ disciplinary understanding of the mode of signification of language. He added to Saussure’s semiotics of the sign as a dual, designating structure—signifier/signified—an additional, mediating concept, the semantic. The mode of signification of language as semantics was in his thinking collective and institutional; Benvenistian semantics refers to the movement and circulation of meaning as intersubjective exchange in a specific and changing historical matrix. His starting point in this etymological work was Saussurian designation, then he proceeded to describe problems and discontinuities in designation, through comparison and diachronic analysis of lexical usage in recorded historical sources, in this way teasing out a narrative of the problematic complexities of social and institutional transformation. For Benveniste, language is inextricably discursive, in social movement. His profound lexical scholarship in the Indo-European language groups led him to discern irregularities, fractures, and transformations in discursive fields and institutions. In the word-groups domus and civis then, the point of irregularity can be located in the transformation in referentiality to a materially identified bordered enclosure from a circulation of reciprocity. The household and the city changed into structural limits, from systemic circulations.

In the milieu of the reciprocally significant matrices domus and civis, a vernacular figures its speakers as co-determining participants in a collective valuing. The insistence on the founding and maintenance of situated material borders as designators and differentiators of identity will never become a libratory rhetoric, only a rhetoric of gridded delimitation. Co-citizens, in Benveniste’s historical linguistics, are those who speak together, and their home is the vulnerable shelter that speaking together offers them, for the duration of speech’s intensity. Urban, architectural, sartorial, and semiotic surfaces may receive, refract and carry the traces of such meetings, but cannot limit them. The space of the citizen is not bounded but semantically inflected.

It is in this sense of semantic intensities that we can begin to hear a poetics, and a prosody, of the citizen. Unlawlike and exceptional, across household and city alike, a vernacular’s dispersed mediality gestures and folds into and throughout the semantic field of the collective. This continuous language of collective formations is the commons. In his essay “Vernacular Values”, Ivan Illich looks to early use of the word vernacular, before 2nd century Roman historian Varro connected it specifically to language, Illich defines the earlier sense of word as “sustenance derived from reciprocity patterns embedded in every aspect of life.” For Illich, the vernacular is what comes from the commons, as opposed to what is obtained through formal and institutionalized exchange. It can include language, as well as food, healing, mending and other daily practices. Carried and transmitted as it is in the variable texture of daily living, rather than embedded in an administrative superstructure, its transformational potential is enormously powerful.  As a verbal event, the vernacular differentiates itself from official languages not only through its collective and many-bodied origins, and its horizontal means of acquisition and circulation, but through its refusal of teleological protocols and eschatologies.  A vernacular constitutes events apart from ends; it refuses instrumentality, evades the gridded centrism of capital, supports a meaning as uncontrollably embodied among others. A vernacular does not produce or even make; it supports, carries, enlivens and transforms an ethos, and only via a specifically and changeably embodied co-movement. So what is at stake with the vernacular–and this is what Dante seized upon– is not specific to linguistics and its anthropological branches, nor to an aesthetics of literature, but extends infinitely into a poetics of politics, where politics is the nature of the human and poetics is the invention and description of linguistic reciprocity patterns. In a vernacular, where poetics and politics circulate through one another to untie the gridded duality of ethics and aesthetics, a poetics of the citizen innovates time as a gestured co-improvisation, in deeply ingrained reference to the shared fact of embodiment, and bodily continuity. The vernacular is the movement for which language is not the state, but the condition of presentation of the subject to and for others. It is grammarless rhythm, a mobile, patterned regime of compromise. Something infinitely vulnerable.

Given this spectral shimmering, one’s great fear is that vernaculars could disappear, quantified then subsumed by the instrumental grammar of capital. The fragility of speech, whose proper location is anywhere people face and receive and act towards and for one another, could be anywhere, as we have discerned, and yet it seems that there are fewer anywheres, and many somewheres, fewer anybodies, and many somebodies. The public sphere and the private sphere, those attractive products of Romanticism and Enlightenment economic thought, each radiate a mystique in which even the political functions as nostalgia and not event. In the current economy, public and private lose their differentiation, but not in a manner convivial to freedom. Domestic space is not redemptive space in the homework economy; it offers no Rousseauian shelter of innocence, rather the unchallenged site of the abuse of labour. Any current representation of the domestic sphere must bleakly iterate Poussin’s critique of the pastoral—Et in Arcadia Ego. Now the cumulative force of a convivial ethics must flood the conventional thresholds, untie the instrumental binaries.

What do poems have to do with an ethics of conviviality?  The urgent social abjection of poetry might act as shelter to a gestured vernacular. Covertly the poem transforms that vernacular to a prosodic gift whose agency flourishes in the bodily time of an institutional and economic evasion. Let us suppose here that poems are those commodious anywheres that might evade determination by continuously inviting their own dissolution in semantic distribution. In poems and through vernaculars citizens begin themselves, because only here speech still evades quantification, escapes the enumerating sign, and follows language towards its ear, which is anybody’s. Here my use of the word poem parts from the conventions of aesthetic autonomy that have resulted from commodity culture’s limits and heroisms, to propose that the poem is the shapely urgency that emerges in language whenever the subject’s desiring vernacular innovates its receivers. The poem is the speech of citizenship. The poem distributes itself according to the necessity of subjects to begin, to begin speaking to anybody, simply because of the perception of continuous co-embodiment as the condition of language. This shaped speaking carries the breath of multiple temporalities into the present, not to protect or to sanctify the edifice of tradition, but to vulnerably figure historicity as an embodied stance, an address, the poem’s most important gift to politics.

In this discussion I’ve been using the concepts natality, prosody, and the vernacular as energetic, temporal innovators that insist on language as always already political, in the air between the changeable subjects it fleetingly constitutes. I have wanted to test the ways the institutionalized, and gendered dualism of civis and domus as spatial contraries might be capsized by the historical and temporal force of rhythmed popular language.   In this speculation, linguistic relations of reciprocal embodiment coalescence in a process of subjectivization that vehemently overflows the bordered and policed containment of identity, in either its “public” or “private” manifestations. Prosody, in this thinking, is the dynamic and specifically historical relation of subjects to language. My redefinition of and insistence upon prosody as an open politics rather than a convention of formal measure leans heavily on the work of the French linguist and poet Henri Meschonnic.  Meschonnic, whose work closely followed Benveniste’s, laterally shifted or opened Benveniste’s active concept of semantics from the field of linguistics to the field of poetics. Meschonnic seized upon Benveniste’s  lexical analysis of the idea of rhythm, a re-opening that stressed rhythm as a moving figuring, an improvisational continuance, emphatically notmetre, not measure, nor the alternation of beat.[1] For Meschonnic, poetry is the critique of the duality of the sign, and rhythm is the poem’s—and thus the subject’s – agency.  It is only within such a continuously enacted critique that the subject can emerge as irrevocably ethical. He used the term geopoetics to prise open the conventional cultural and geographic borders that disallow the free movement of subjectivization as continuous rhythm. Within his proposition, politics does not refer to the spatialized economics of governance, but to the necessary proposition of a shared corporal duration. And too within this proposition, we don’t know definitively what language is—this is why it can remain open as an inquiry. Meschonnic’s work on rhythm claims orality as the mode of the political. In his words:

“Literature and poetry oblige us to define orality. What they make apparent is that orality isn’t and never has been the opposite of the written, the living voice opposed to the dead letter. Which is what the world continues to believe: this dualism of the sign and of occidental thought. I call poetics the work that uncovers the inanity of this model, its cultural and historical character which passes for nature. Poetry is a critique of the sign. Poetry shows us that rhythm and prosody are the basis of the ways to signify, the material of the subject, the subject who makes in language that which has never yet been made, and which becomes the path from one voice to another voice”  (Meschonnic, Politique du rythme, p598 my translation)

Saussurian linguistics fixed language as its object by intersecting language’s temporal, changeable  plane with the structuring vector of synchrony. But such a materialization of language as structure can be provisional at best, since language’s immaterial circulation as relational intersubjectivity remains barely articulated although it is continuously self-innovating. The development of the concept of semantics in Benveniste’s thinking, or discourse, in the closely related work of Foucault, begin to provide a way to think the problem, but we don’t know why language continuously speaks among subjects, voices. This is the equivocal quest of poetry. In the poem language is not object, it is subject. And it is within the history of poetry that we have a record of subjectivity’s movement in language. In this sense poetry is the record of the description of the problem of the immateriality of language as politics. Through the poem we receive rhythm, or the specificity of continuance as a disposition, a momentary form, and we receive the urgent call to always renew our vernaculars, to set them melodically adrift in the civis, in the domus, among bodies. Poetry may show us that when we sing to the subjectivity of the other, without determining that subjectivity, this is politics. “The politics of rhythm”, Meschonnic says, “are the politics of plurality and specificity, the historicity of the subject” (p. 598).

The poem refuses any assuaging or redemptive role, but claims for its reader, who is also its speaker its subject, the incommensurable work of refusal as continuity, where this continuity lives in the vernacular. It is worth pointing out here that a vernacular is not what other, supposedly more demotic folks speak. That definition results from Herder’s museology of national origins. Rather, a vernacular loosely gathers whatever specific words move a given situation, a given meeting, as it is being lived by its speakers. Characterized not by lexical economy and simplicity or limitation, as in Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s formulation, nor by a misappropriation of tradition or heritage as redemptive closure, but by wit, excess, plasticity, admixture, surge, caesura, the wildness of a newly turned metaphor, polylinguality and inappropriateness, the vernacular is the name for the native complexity of each beginner as she quickens. If in the Greek polis and in the Roman city citizenship was limited to male speakers of the master-language, in a pointed elimination of women, beasts, and barbarous speakers from a linguistically bordered polity, her domus, her civis, the commodious, illustrious and exilic vernacular, will shelter her for the rhythmic duration of a refusal. And the poem, with its provisional distributions and tentative relationships, temporarily gathers a received and spoken reciprocity, where the and the you create one another for the pleasure of a shapely co-recognition. To maintain this urgent errancy, a disposition that is at the same time ethical and aesthetic, the vernacular needs the poem; where they confer, a citizen, beginning again and again with the pandemonium at hand in the present, rhythmically invents her quorum: Illustriously useless poesis.


Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press. Chicago, 1998.

Benveniste, Emile  Problems in General Linguistic,s (tr. Mary Elizabeth Meek) University of Miami Press, Coral Gables, Florida, 1971

Benveniste, Emile Indo-European Language and Society,  (tr. Elizabeth Palmer) University of Miami Press, Coral Gables, Florida 1973

Illich, Ivan Vernacular Values (accessed July 17, 2011)

Menocal, Maria Rosa. Shards of Love: Exile and the Origins of the Lyric, Duke University Press, Chapel Hill, 1994

Meschonnic, Henri Politique du rythme, politique di sujet. Verdier, Paris 1995

Shapiro, Marianne. De Vulgari Eloquentia: Dante’s Book of Exile, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1990.

[1] in Benveniste’s 1951 essay “The Notion of ‘Rhythm’ in its Linguistic Expression,” he follows a philosophical  transformation in the use of the word rhythmos, from the work of Democritus to Plato.  Benveniste insistently disarticulated rhythm from its now custumary etymologies, which connect the word to the natural recurrent movement of waves. In pre-Platonic usage, he summarizes “ The citations suffice amply to establish: (I) that rythmos never meant rhythm from the earliest use down to the Attic period; (2) that is was never applied to a regular movement of the waves; (3) that its constant meaning is ‘distinctive form, proportioned figure, arrangement, disposition’ in conditions of use that are otherwise extremely varied.” (285) He goes on to establish that “We can now understand how rythmos, meaning literally ‘the particular manner of flowing’ could have been the most proper term for describing ‘dispositions’ or ‘configurations’ without fixity or natural necessity and arising from an arrangement that is always subject to change. The choice of a derivative of rein for explaining this specific modality of the ‘form’ of things is charcteristic of a philosophy which inspired it; it is a representation of the universe in which the particular configurations of moving are defined as fluctuations. (286) Benveniste is clear that this moving pertains to a human making or a set of human dispositions, such as a manner of gathering the folds of a cloak, or the arbitrary shaping of a written character, not to an interpretation of nature.