Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Can a Language Go Mad? Arendt, Derrida, and the Political Significance of the Mother Tongue

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Can a Language Go Mad? Arendt, Derrida, and the Political Significance of the Mother Tongue

Article excerpt

The purpose of this article is to examine Jacques Derrida's criticism of the significance Hannah Arendt ascribes to the mother tongue. Derrida develops this criticism in The Monolingualism of the Other, or the Prosthesis of Origin, challenging Arendt's contention in her acclaimed 1964 interview with Günter Gaus that one's mother tongue cannot go mad.1 Derrida argues that the notion of the "mother tongue" is itself mad, exposing us not to an originary context of meaning as Arendt suggests, but rather to our always already fractured and distant relation to this origin. In raising this objection, Derrida makes an integral and widely overlooked intervention in the discourse on the mother tongue.2 Yet, I intend to show that Derrida and, more recently, Donatella Di Cesare in her endorsement of his objection, fail to appreciate the political concerns at work in Arendt's commitment to her mother tongue. My aim, therefore, is to bring into focus the political stakes involved in the question of the mother tongue and, in so doing, demonstrate that we must develop a deeper understanding of Arendt's reasons for holding this view of language before we can reach a verdict on Derrida's intervention.

To this end, I turn to Arendt's claim in the 1964 interview that those who forget their mother tongue only have recourse to clichés in their new language. I take this up in light of her discussion of language in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil to show that Arendt identifies a danger involved in forgetting one's mother tongue through her analysis of Adolf Eichmann's incessant and incoherent use of clichés. Arendt suggests that in their interchangeability, these clichés give rise to "empty talk" or an instrumental use of language, which, in its meaninglessness, marks a departure from the mother tongue.3 As I shall demonstrate, Eichmann's empty talk is characteristically totalitarian; it shields him from the reality of his deeds by divorcing him from both his singularity and the nexus of relations that grant him this singularity. I thus turn to this text to draw attention to the decisive role Arendt believes the mother tongue plays in political life, suggesting that for her, our primary language reminds us of our radical singularity and, with this, our responsibility to the world in which we find ourselves. Hence, by putting Derrida in dialogue with Arendt on the question of the mother tongue and by reframing Arendt's attachment to the German language in terms of her broader political project, I argue that Derrida's intervention by no means settles the question of the mother tongue; instead, it raises new questions concerning the political significance of our relation to language.

1. DERRIDA'S INTERVENTION IN THE QUESTION OF THE MOTHER TONGUE

Derrida addresses Arendt's remarks concerning her mother tongue in a footnote in The Monolingualism of the Other. As Michael Naas explains, Derrida's discussion in this text is distinctive insofar as it recasts the familiar theme of spectrality in a political register through the language of the phantasm. According to Naas, he is especially concerned to draw our attention to the phantasm of "any putatively pure origin, indeed of any phantasm of purity and of any simple, seemingly self-evident or axiomatic origin, and indivisible, inviolable center."4 Derrida accomplishes this by deconstructing the presumed purity of the language in which he finds himself. One of his most autobiographical works, he takes his point of departure in The Monolingualism of the Other from his own experience of language as a French speaking Algerian Jew, which leads him to conclude that we only ever have one language, but this language is never our own.5

The criticism Derrida raises against Arendt gives further contour to the broader themes he addresses throughout The Monolingualism of the Other. For Derrida, speaking French does not deliver him over to an originary and orienting context of meaning, as it does for Arendt. …

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