Academic journal article The Comparatist

"I Have No History": Negotiating Language in Vassilis Alexakis's: The Mother Tongue

Academic journal article The Comparatist

"I Have No History": Negotiating Language in Vassilis Alexakis's: The Mother Tongue

Article excerpt

In Le Monolinguisme de l'autre, Jacques Derrida suggests that we never possess the language that we speak (70). The speaking subject is split between its desire to ensure its oneness and language that keeps insisting on its otherness. It is conditioned not only by its inherent multiplicity, but also by the paradox of linguistic normalization: what is meant to regulate forcefully in fact reveals all relevant irregularities (69). In order for the ensuing jealousy and madness to be overcome or at least bypassed, every time language is produced there has to be an inherent promise of a more perfect language, one that would no longer claim its exteriority to the subject. This promise, however, is made with the assumption that its imperfect vehicle, the language at hand, is one, in other words, other (126). This begs the question: how can anyone achieve oneness when the principle underlying its attainment undercuts the very notion of unity? The subject may never speak the promise of the perfect language because that promise is a ploy meant to keep reenacting the unilateral imposition of language as epitomized otherness, canceling the subject's performative power.

Derrida's definition of monolinguisme owes much to his personal history as a franco-maghrebin. He explicitly states that there is no natural native language to inhabit and that, consequently, there are as many exile stories to be told as there are exiles (112-113). Following the text's reasoning within the larger frame of Derrida's thought, however, leads the reader to believe that these stories, no matter how diverse or original, are bound to speak the language of the other. The most obvious way to resist is to undermine the system and destabilize its authority by annulling its referential function--to take meaning away from language, to make language purely self-referential, sacred ("Des Tours de Babel," 248). Translation practice as theorized by Walter Benjamin in "Task of the Translator" and further discussed by Derrida in "Des Tours de Babel" and L'Oreille de l'autre questions the dichotomy between original and translation, suggesting that to a certain extent the promise and potential of a text's translation lie between its own lines (Benjamin 82). By recognizing its own alterity and internalizing it, not only does language-as-reference break down, but its provenance is invalidated because the very idea of origins is undone. The notion of a generator of language, of an other, may now be heavily contested.

Does this make language natural? Not really. It allows, however, for a radically creative move. The speaking subject may use its own lack of unity to initiate a dialogue, to negotiate its ontological status as enunciator, and, finally, to redefine language not as the metaphysical longing for perfection that Derrida's promise entails, but rather asmeta-linguistic--that is, to discern in language the ability to function beyond its own means, to turn absence into presence and silence into speech (and vice versa). The monolangue, inescapable though it may be, becomes a negotiable space of eidetic pluralism, and the politics of language, a collapsible category.

Abdelkebir Khatibi wrote in "Un Etranger professionnel" that he is in search of a plasticite, a space adjustable to the powerful in flux of words that is language (128). In Amour bilingue he spoke of the balancement euphorique that is the double flux of the bilangue (52-53). In agreement with Derrida that "toute unite est depuis toujours inhabitee" (109), he uses the notion of bilangue not so much to say that there exists a space of linguistic harmony, but rather to suggest that negotiating that space, "rythme[r] la separation," is at the heart of the matter. In Amour bilingue, that rhythm involves two languages: French and the Moroccan dialect, the mother tongue. Are these languages comparable to Derrida's monolangue, languages of the other? To the extent that they require constant negotiation, that they engage the host body of the speaker in truly political terms, we may speak of two separate monolingualisms and of the bilangue as internal resistance. …

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