On the Ethics of Not Understanding

THE LANGUAGE OF FOREIGNNESS

Part 2.4

Three years in Delhi and another one in South India. Enough Hindi to maintain a two-minute rudimentary discussion, not to mention anything in Kannada besides oota, neer and illa. If one is to focus on the matter of foreignness and language, one question should be addressed in priority: any language, in a situation of foreignness, is in general an unknown language. Language and foreignness should first rhyme with foreign language. And if one is to question foreignness and language in a personal and reflexive manner, as I claim, one enigma persists: how to justify having remained foreign to all non-English languages encountered during four years in India? This is hardly a real question. It is an obvious accusation, calling at best for a mea culpa. Nothing could defend one’s sustained unfamiliarity with languages spoken by millions of locals around him.

I may announce with joy and a certain pride that I have accustomed myself to the Indian life, that I am more comfortable here than back in France, but my beginner’s – or less than beginner’s – Hindi and Kannada unambiguously betray a lack of adaptation to my ‘new world.’ I generally rely on a few reasons to explain – but never to justify – this fact. One is laziness. I did try to follow a teach-yourself method of Hindi before and soon after my arrival, followed by a few sessions with a teacher, during my second semester. The everyday interactions with merchants, rickshawalas and passersby could thus be satisfied, but the next level, which included grammar, lexicon and syntax, called for a prolonged effort. While my first year left me with lots of free time (I was only registered as a casual scholar in philosophy), the two following years, occupied with a Masters in Buddhist Studies, kept me too busy to consider taking extra classes. Occupation would become even heavier after joining my second Masters program in South India. My stay at Manipal also highlighted another reason that could be brought up to explain my lack of mastery over languages. A private university targeting, by necessity, mostly wealthy students, Manipal offered me with certainly the most comfortable social experience of these four years, in terms of language: virtually everyone would be fluent in English. In such a context, taking the time to learn the state language would be justified only for the sake of discussing with locals, who, too, often speak enough English to maintain a short exchange. The same could not be said for my stay in Delhi. The university audience of the Masters in Buddhist Studies was the opposite. With a really easy entrance examination, and straightforward course contents, the department attracted a number of Indian students who had found closed doors in the other departments: central university graduates, political union contestants, hostel seekers and civil service examinations candidates. Number of them spoke at best a broken English; a few of them even refrained from speaking directly to me, asking for mediation through the two or three students who surprisingly found themselves there, with an authentic interest in Buddhism, and coincidentally, a significantly greater ease in English. Not making the effort to acquire some familiarity in their language was, shamefully, almost an ideological message: it meant that I did not find the potential discussions with them worthy of the efforts to learn Hindi. This way, not knowing the spoken language of a place where one migrates may be the expression of a social or class prejudice. By focusing only on acquiring mastery over English, I was not only taking care of the strength of my education profile; I was also making an almost explicit statement as to which audience I was aiming at conversing with in the course of my expatriation.

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Not understanding a language means being always at distances from the everyday conversations of a people, being always foreign to their urgency and needs. Not understanding his peers, the foreigner can tune off to his own inner thoughts and, when it suits him, go back to his exotic environment and attempt a guessing game as to what this neighbor in the metro or that bystander at this event are saying.

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Another reason could also be mentioned to explain this situation. It is a phenomenon that affects the life of a foreigner somehow unknowingly, and which sets it back into a profoundly uneasy ethical perspective. It could be argued that by not understanding local languages, and not trying to understand them, I, as a foreigner, have found a certain comfort in not partaking in the discursive life of this culture. Not understanding a language means being always at distances from the everyday conversations of a people, being always foreign to their urgency and needs. Not understanding his peers, the foreigner can tune off to his own inner thoughts and, when it suits him, go back to his exotic environment and attempt a guessing game as to what this neighbor in the metro or that bystander at this event are saying. By not making the effort of learning and understanding a language, the foreigner risks to continue the Orientalist approach already criticized at length by Edward Saïd and other Post-Colonialist authors. One component of this attitude is the imagination of the locals, whether denigrated when two screaming speakers are assumed to be discussing petty matters, or idealized, when playing kids are believed to be sharing innocent discussions. By not understanding local languages, the foreigner remains foreign and finds a contradictory comfort in his foreignness. Contradictory, because he had left his culture to discover another one. Now that he is there, his curiosity has somehow collapsed and he finds satisfaction in a very unique cultural shelter, a world of no one but him, alone, with his peculiar form of interculturality. The foreigner did not want to try another culture; he wanted to step away from all the problems possibly connected with any culture. Seen in this light, foreignness may be the renouncement to cultures.

Such arguments can hardly be countered. Foreignness may be an increasingly more recurrent phenomenon in our societies, it remains a very vast and complex problem, including at the ethical level. A contemporary philosopher has recently asserted that “the philosopher is always a stranger, clothed in his new thoughts” (Badiou 2009, 26), and the foreigner that I am would be tempted to follow this idea literally. The foreigner – especially in the perspective of Madison’s existential migration – is a philosopher almost by default: his priority is to discover the world and to try to understand it. The position of foreignness, of strangeness, may be favored by some philosophers, but it is definitely endorsed by any foreigner, as one, if not the greatest undertaking one could do in her life. The foreigner often portrays his choice to become a foreigner as an unregrettable one, and one that all humans should realize. But behind the position of the foreigner lies a problem, similar to what we may call the ‘paradox of the monk.’ A monk may argue that his lifestyle is the purest, he nonetheless relies on non-monks, that is, on working laymen and laywomen to provide him with alimentation and material goods so that he can focus on his spiritual practice. Similarly, the foreigner may invite all to become foreigners, but his very status as foreigner is possible only because he is surrounded by people who are non-foreigners, that is, who are citizens of a country, currently residing there, actively participating in its culture and not necessarily sharing his feeling of the unheimlich. This way, the foreigner clearly benefits from a form of privilege that could not be open to the rest of any society. Things need to remain foreign to the foreigner for him to remain a foreigner. His world is foreign to him because he is foreign to this world.

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To maintain the local language as undecipherable, as incomprehensible, as exotic, may be a way to perpetuate the experience of foreignness, and the need for unfamiliarity to keep the individual always looking for more.

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How could this apply to language? If one needs to maintain a ‘level’ of foreignness around him to remain a foreigner, then persisting in not understanding local languages is a way – as indirect and unintended as it looks – to satisfy this purpose. Not understanding a local language cannot be justified ethically, but it can be explained structurally, in the structure required for the very event and status of foreignness to take place. Certainly, understanding a language would not directly give one all the keys to understand the whole of a culture and therefore lose all status of foreignness towards it. But language is clearly the first step, and the richest tool, to permit this unveiling. In other words, to maintain the local language as undecipherable, as incomprehensible, as exotic, may be a way to perpetuate the experience of foreignness, and the need for unfamiliarity to keep the individual always looking for more. We need to go back to Heidegger at this point. The German thinker recommends curiosity as a lifestyle to liberate ourselves from our cultural illusions and to accept the rootlessness of life as well as the undeniable ultimate destiny of death. This curiosity culminates in its third characteristic, never dwelling anywhere, and it is this subtle move that may correspond to the problem of not understanding languages. Understanding a language may decrease the level of distraction, of novelty of the local culture, therefore inviting one to the temptation of a settled attitude towards it. On the other hand, not understanding a language would risk being an attempt of evasion, of avoidance of the actual encounter of one with a culture and its multifarious universes of meaning. In this light, the foreigner is still tarrying to a form of living, and not going to the encounter of the novelty. This is maybe the ultimate reformulation of the problem of foreignness, in relation to language and through the mediating and meditative insights of Heidegger: the authentic life, the never-dweller, the real foreigner, must access cultures profoundly, and simultaneously maintain its novelty, that is, prolong his surprise, his curiosity. This is the uncomfortable, yet unavoidable instability of he who has decided to undergo the foreign life.

References

Image courtesy: Wallpaperest

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