Language and the Written : The Tool of Foreignness

DE L’INFINI : A FOREIGNER’S METAPHYSICS

BOOK III

US, FOREIGNERS : THE RECONSTRUCTION OF FOREIGNNESS

Part 2

Heidegger’s Being and Time opens with an intriguing vocable. The German philosopher asks a very particular question : what is the meaning of Being ? It is not question, here, of the truth, the entity, or the existence of Being. Decades before the ‘turn’ of the later Heidegger, the shift towards language as the main locus of specificity for the human is already operated. Without this, no post-structuralism. Language, thus. One, if not the most powerful grid of analysis of the human. The human, a language-dweller. What kind of dwelling is that ? What are the figures of foreignness within our very own language practices ? And what about the foreigner’s very peculiar rapport with language ? These are the questions we shall briefly address in the present section.

No one speaks her own language. Every human has, arguably, an idiolect, but never would this small set of variations not depend largely on pre-existing language systems. We just mentioned, with Levinas, how coming to life is experiencing the event of welcome, of shelter, of home ; we can now extend this to the integration of the individual in a linguistic community. Learning to speak, it is appropriating for oneself the linguistic codes of a group. The intuition is basic but unexpectedly disturbing : all modern, liberal states guarantee the freedom of expression for each individual, but it is an expression that is, for its major part as linguistic, utterly limited by the grammatical, structural and lexical peculiarities of the languages in use. Indeed, the individual does not encounter a linguistic language in general, with certain fundamental, universal or one may say ‘metaphysical’ limitations : this encounter is always contextualised, specific – one always interacts with the possibility of language through a particular language – one encounters Hindi, Russian or Lingala, and not just language in general, as a generic entity. 1 That is one of the central realisations of Derrida in his quasi-autobiographical text Monolingualism of the Other or the Prosthesis of Origin 2 : one’s native language is never one’s own. One always borrows an other’s language to express oneself, even in the most intimate level of the native language. One enters language always from the outside, onto an already occupied terrain:

“Consequently, anyone should be able to declare under oath : I have only one language and it is not mine ; my “own” language is, for me, a language that cannot be assimilated. My language, the only one I hear myself speak and agree to speak, is the language of the other.” 3

Just as in the case of the event of foreignness as a whole, the subject enters a linguistic territory from the outside. A speaker always starts as a stranger. And just as in the event of hospitality, one’s speaking a language, even one’s so-called native language, requires a process of welcoming. But this is not an invitation of the first level : language, as heritage, is the terrain now inhabited by users who, them too, were once welcomed from the outside : “It is not to be opposed to the other, nor even distinguished from the other. It is the monolanguage of the other. The of signifies not so much property as provenance : language is for the other, coming from the other, the coming of the other.” 4 Derrida’s lyrical élan is not casually decided here. Could we consider, with him and Levinas, that just like one’s home is first and foremost defined as that which can welcome and host the other, similarly here, one’s language would have as its first property to be able to be open to outsiders, to invite them to enter this particular linguistic home, in the very acts of learning and speaking the language ?

guill top right

The native language is more than an appendix added upon one’s life and requesting only the translation of each referent onto its corresponding word in the medium. The native language is so much more than a medium of naïve, referential expressivity, that it affects the life of the subject altogether in its very construction as a subject. But what happens when one steps away from her own native language ?

guill bottom left

Our language is always the other’s language. Expressing oneself means complying and formatting oneself to the peculiarities of a specific language. The old referential theories must be far behind us: at this stage, it is not only the meaning-making of the eternal examples of linguistics (“table,” “chair,” “pen,” etc.) that must be accounted for. After Heidegger, it is undeniably much more fundamental, existential and arguably universal terms that a profound account of language must explain. It would be a rich question to ask Heidegger to what extent one’s experiences of angst, or joy, are pre-linguistic. It may be too hasty to disregard the possibility of a pre-linguistic ‘sense’ – for lack of a better word – of these states. But, to say the least, such pre-linguistic ‘sense’ would undeniably get further calibrated or formatted through the vocable and usages of a particular language and of its linguistic communities. In other words, whether these states are pre-linguistic or not, in any case they do get affected by the way we refer to them in language. A more radical position would be to assert that the human is so deeply a being of language that such ‘senses’ do not arise in her before she enters language. The idea of a profound construction of the individual’s psyche, based on her linguistic past, is the cardinal hypothesis of Freudian psychoanalysis, further radicalised with Lacan. There, the native language is more than an appendix added upon one’s life and requesting only the translation of each referent onto its corresponding word in the medium. The native language is so much more than a medium of naïve, referential expressivity, that it affects the life of the subject altogether in its very construction as a subject. But what happens when one steps away from her own native language ? This is the phenomenological experience of the foreign language.

Analogical to our hypothesis of foreignness as a second thrownness, the experience of the foreign language resembles on many traits the individual’s welcoming and formatting of oneself in one’s native language as language of the other. How does it differ from the encounter with the native, non-foreign language ? Primarily, the entry in a foreign language may arise at later stages of psychological developments, thus allowing the subject to experience it with a greater sense of awareness, with a more acute attention. There, each feature is simply more evident. If the native language required the user to attempt an approximate translation of pre-linguistic ‘senses’, a vague, blind trial in a language whose subtleties transcend her, the approximation is even more explicit with the foreign language. Speaking in a language, and in particular a foreign language, requires going for a leap of faith. The foreign speaker is often, if not always, not totally sure of what the words mean, what they may connote and denote, what they may evoke in the native’s ears. Secondly, there is a more explicit process of welcoming from the native speaker towards she for whom it is a foreign language. It is a welcoming simultaneous with the larger event of hospitality. A local welcomes a foreigner in a new space, but also in a new linguistic universe. Thirdly, there is a logic of compulsion, of forceful adaptation to a linguistic format. This restriction is even more limiting than before, with the so-called ‘native’ language. Having experienced one’s attempt at expression in her ‘own’ language, the user entering a new language realises how further limitations are brought by the peculiar features of each new language. But speaking in a foreign language marks also a higher level of exteriorisation. When the native speaker exchanges with an interlocutor, she adopts a medium shared with the latter. This allows her to compare her statements as external expressions of her being, to the statements of any interlocutor. And, speaking in a foreign language, the subject hears herself in a voice differing from her own, ‘native’ one. Speaking a foreign language, it is discovering oneself as the Other ;  it is hearing a play of linguistic layers within oneself ; it is realising the pleasant surprise of a multiplicity within our supposedly unitary self.

line 1

Speaking a foreign language, it is discovering oneself as the Other ;  it is hearing a play of linguistic layers within oneself ; it is realising the pleasant surprise of a multiplicity within our supposedly unitary self.

line 2

Entering into language, I comply with the very same medium that others rely upon to assess me. But one’s ‘native’ language is never a neutral medium, being ridden with cultural, familial, personal connotations and taboos. This is where the foreign language becomes a greater experience of externalisation : the linguistic user adventures through a language free from all its unsaid rules, norms and prohibitions. Kristeva dwells extensively on this point, finding in one’s experience in a foreign language a moment of linguistic, and thus symbolic liberation. But the author notes how this externality also brings another, unexpected outcome : “The foreigner’s speech can bank only on its bare rhetorical strength, and the inherent desires he or she has invested in it. But it is deprived of any support in outside reality, since the foreigner is precisely kept out of it.” 5 The foreigner enters a new language bereft of the heavy connotations his interlocutors, the native speakers, cannot liberate themselves from. He can thus become an artist of the form, interacting and adopting linguistic formats with the comfort of a light, playful mind, but, as Kristeva remarks, he also risks to be noted by his interlocutors as precisely plastic, superficial, because he lacks a profound, cultural and unconscious connection with the language.

guill top left

It is the written, the infinite or quasi-infinite realm of the marks, and my own traces entering the patient agora of the world’s written heritage. My writing is as external to me as it is to the possible reader : “The situation of the writer is, concerning the written text, basically the same as that of the reader.” (Derrida)

guill bottom right

All these observations have dealt with language in general – one’s entrance in language from a pre-linguistic state, one’s entry in an existing language and its community, and one’s explorations within a liberated, foreign language. But this is forgetting one major facet of language : the written. Language, a restrictive tool of expression and a terrain of linguistic hospitality, is also the possibility for the graph, the marks, the traces. As is well known, it is particularly this aspect of language that interested Derrida. Spoken language is already, as we mentioned, a medium shared with the other, thus the terrain of a commensurability, the possibility of a comparison of myself vis-à-vis the other, and vice-versa, through one’s imagined projection of what the other may experience when she speaks, or when I speak to her. But the spoken is transient, instantaneous, disappearing as early as it is uttered. Writing brings temporal extension onto speech. And it does so in a radical way : if one considers the possibilities of repetition and copying (what Derrida calls iterability), writing permits as much as the eternality of the message altogether. This very possibility enhances the power of externalisation. Once penned down, my expression, my being in this instant, is laid on an external plane that does not belong to me. It is the written, the infinite or quasi-infinite realm of the marks, and my own traces entering the patient agora of the world’s written heritage. My writing is as external to me as it is to the possible reader : “The situation of the writer is, concerning the written text, basically the same as that of the reader.” 6

But who gets a chance to benefit from this liberation of the linguistic self from the oldest unconscious associations ? What are the conditions allowing someone to rediscover life and oneself through a new, foreign language ? Everyone can casually try, at home, to utter a few words or attempt a short dialogue in a foreign language, but the realisation arises only through elongated periods, when the social and cultural surrounding is truly one of a foreign language, when the subject is forced to reinvent herself in the only language her interlocutor and herself have in common. Thus, this realisation is very conditional, if not, a privilege. Only those able or forced to move abroad can experience it. Unlike basic sources for pleasure and happiness in life, but like certain aspects of self-realisation, self-transcendence through a foreign language would be a luxury for the few. Its ethics would thus be questionable : central in the life narrative of the subject, it remains absolutely out of reach as a desired experience for most individuals across the world’s communities.

line 1

The written text requires an acceptation, a peaceful entry, a welcome or welcoming on the part of the reader. ‘Entering a text’, it is taking the time and preparing oneself to patiently notice and explore the uniqueness of the piece, on the form and on the content.

line 2

But it is perhaps at another level that we can locate the ethicality of language and language forms. Building upon Derrida’s minute critique, 7 Levinas published in 1974 his second magnum opus, Otherwise than Being. 8 Here, to bypass the surviving reductive, ‘thematising’ or ‘metaphysical’ language of Totality and Infinity, Levinas suggested the central distinction between the said, as content of the language utterance, necessarily metaphysical and reductive, and the saying, or the very act of language, which is the locus of ethics, the call to the Other, the expression of one’s vulnerability and dependence upon the Other. We may elaborate this intuition towards the written in particular, noting how the written text requires an acceptation, a peaceful entry, a welcome or welcoming on the part of the reader. ‘Entering a text’, it is taking the time and preparing oneself to patiently notice and explore the uniqueness of the piece, on the form and on the content. The spoken, in contrast, enters the agora of competition, of noise, of instantaneity. The written, laid down, waiting patiently for its reader, is perhaps a more profound instance of the aforementioned idea of response : before my own participation, the writer risks an attempt, opens his vulnerable intuition to the potentially destructive reception of the readers. Before the response of the reader, there is always, as Derrida said previously (yet in a different context), the yes of a writer opening up an exchange. One may even say that because of its non-intrusive nature, the submission of the text is an even more peaceful invitation than the face-to-face, fundamental for Levinas, yet nonetheless still an inescapable imposition on the Other. 9 This is perhaps possible because every text is foreign to itself, discovering its nature and form in the process of its making, betraying its design at the very moment of its realisation. Foreign to itself, the text forces its author to modesty, and invites the reader for some clemency. Clemency, but also, and even, forgiveness. In a passage of the documentary Derrida, Elsewhere, the philosopher says the following:

“I still can’t defend myself against a burst of laughter or an expression of modesty: “Why do you write ? You seem to think that it’s interesting. You take it to your publisher ; you write therefore you think what you write is interesting.” In a way, such an act is absolutely obscene. The act of writing is unjustifiable from that point of view. So you beg pardon, like someone stripping off. “There, look, I’m exposing myself.” And naturally, you ask forgiveness right away. “Sorry for showing off.” So, whenever I write, I say sorry to the other, and even to the intended readers, for the impropriety of writing.” 10

The written is a format, a modality of language, but it is also a history. Undeniable, it is global dynamics and political forces that make languages happen, both scripted and spoken. Language is shaped, maybe frozen by political decisions. The aforementioned experience of the native speaker experiencing oneself anew in a foreign language is never that innocent and generic : there are always rapports of force between any two languages. Derrida, himself born from a Jewish family in French colonised Algeria, develops this critique :

“Today, on this earth of humans, certain people must yield to the homohegemony of dominant languages. They must learn the language of the masters, of capital and machines ; they must lose their idiom in order to survive or live better. A tragic economy, an impossible counsel. I do not know whether salvation for the other presupposes the salvation of the idiom.” 11

Just like language is not a naïve, innocent channel to simply stand for referents, it is also not just the generic medium of application of political decisions. Language is imbued with politics. This scenario is inhabited by the evidently colonial episodes of world history : within Algeria, but one may also think of India, where any language-based culture grows and behaves in a colonial manner :

“All culture is originarily colonial. In order to recall that, let us not simply rely on etymology. Every culture institutes itself through the unilateral imposition of some “politics” of language. Mastery begins, as we know, through the power of naming, of imposing and legitimating appellations.” 12

This power is very concrete, very foundational in the elaboration of any dominating community : it is the power of naming, of regulating, or legislating :

First and foremost, the monolingualism of the other would be that sovereignty, that law originating from elsewhere, certainly, but also primarily the very language of the Law. And the Law as Language. Its experience would be ostensibly autonomous, because I have to speak this law and appropriate it in order to understand it as if I was giving it to myself, but it remains necessarily heteronomous, for such is, at bottom, the essence of any law.” 13

guill top right

If language is always language of the other, then law, too, is law of the other. Its acceptation, its incorporation in the subject’s perspective and conduct, that is, its autonomy within oneself, is only the effect of its coming from the outside, its hetermonomy.

guill bottom left

The conclusive rejoining is indeed necessary : if language is always language of the other, then law, too, is law of the other. Its acceptation, its incorporation in the subject’s perspective and conduct, that is, its autonomy within oneself, is only the effect of its coming from the outside, its hetermonomy. How could one extricate oneself from this historical and structural heaviness ? The particularity of India may be a case in point. Not only is the individual confronted to possibly more languages, in the very, everyday life, than ever before in the history of the world. But India also gathers one of the highest density of written scripts. 14 Such is a formal aspect we did not mention earlier. But if (spoken) language restricts or opens one’s self-realisation, and if (written) language exemplifies the moment of the patient, vulnerable, modest response to the risky attempt of an apologetic writer, we must go beyond and remark that a multiplicity of scripts extends at once this opening and the humility of this response. Being personally surrounded by a variety of scripts, it is having, available at hand, various paths towards a more pacified expression of oneself. That is, of a more respectful, patient and serene movement to the Other. 15

What happens when the script, the written, and language altogether are conquered, like a foreign land ? What can be done — what can be said within the premises of language and its traces ? This calls us to explore one of its possible forms, as an instantiation of language, but also, naturally, as reflection and self-reflection : philosophy.

[placenotes]
References

Image courtesy: Gost Works

Share!

Footnotes

  1. The parallel (or is it its root ?) is remarkable with Heidegger’s thrownness : we are not just thrown in general, we are thrown in a very specific context.
  2. Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other or the Prosthesis of Origin, trans. Patrick Mensah (Stanford University Press, 1998).
  3. Ibid., 25.
  4. Ibid., 68.
  5. Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 21.
  6. Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc (Northwestern University Press, 1988), 8.
  7. Jacques Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics”, in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London, UK: Routledge, 2012).
  8. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Existence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht, Netherlands, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991).
  9. Pierre Delain, “Le visage ne signifie pas, il s’exprime, il est derrière le signe, il se donne en personne, comme la parole vive ou la voix,” Idixa, http://www.idixa.net/Pixa/pagixa-0505171205.html (accessed November 25th, 2013).
  10. Derrida, Elsewhere, DVD, directed by Safaa Fathy (New York: Icarus Films, 2001).
  11. Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other, 30.
  12. Ibid., 39.
  13. Ibid.
  14. See for instance: http://scripts.sil.org/cms/sites/nrsi/media/ScriptsMapPlain.png.
  15. In the case of India, its multiplicity of languages and of scripts, we should also analyse the hegemony of Sanskrit in the past, and today, of English over Indian languages for the elites and the educated, and of Hindi over other regional languages. This may illustrate and extend Derrida’s reflection on the unavoidable political and even colonial dimension of languages.