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Reading Derrida on Being Monolingual

Rey Chow

New Literary History, Volume 39, Number 2, Spring 2008, pp. 217-231 (Article) Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/nlh.0.0028

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Reading Derrida on Being Monolingual*

Rey Chow

n his moving autobiographical account of his relationship to the French language, Monolingualism of the Other; or, the Prosthesis of Origin,1 Jacques Derrida surprises us with a series of thought-provoking rhetorical turns as he reects on the familiar power dynamics pertaining to colonialism. While acknowledging the politically hegemonic status occupied by the French language in Algeria, Derrida does not, as might be expected of someone who spent his childhood and adolescence in a colony, lay claim to a more originary language, one that typically was in use among the natives before the arrival of the colonizers. Instead, Derrida repeatedly describes himself as having only one language, going so far as to name this monolingualism an absolute habitat: I am monolingual. My monolingualism dwells, and I call it my dwelling; it feels like one to me, and I remain in it and inhabit it. It inhabits me. The monolingualism in which I draw my very breath is, for me, my element. Not a natural element, not the transparency of the ether, but an absolute habitat. It is impassable, indisputable : I cannot challenge it except by testifying to its omnipresence in me. It would always have preceded me. It is me (1; emphasis Derridas).2 Having addressed his linguistic condition as one of complete penetration and occupation, as it were, by French, Derrida nonetheless depicts his own response in the form of a lackspecically, a lack of proprietary identity or oneness with the language. In what he calls a logical contradiction or performative contradiction of enunciation (2, 3), he offers this lyrical refrain: I only have one language; it is not mine (1); it will never be mine, this language, the only one I am thus destined to speak, as long as speech is possible for me in life and in death; you see, never will this language be mine. And, truth to tell, it never was (2).3 Finally, in anticipation of the charge that he is simply playing the card of the exile and immigrant worker claiming that French has always been a
* This essay is in part the outcome of a series of conversations I have been having with Rda Bensmaa on language and postcoloniality. I am indebted to him for many suggestions and insights, and most of all for the gift of his friendship. A modied version of this essay is forthcoming in the anthology Enduring Resistance: Cultural Theory after Derrida (La Rsistance persvre: la thorie de la culture (d) aprs Derrida), ed. Sjef Houppermans et al.
New Literary History, 2008, 39: 217231


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foreign language to him, he reminds his readers: I have never spoken of a foreign language (5); When I said that the only language I speak is not mine, I did not say it was foreign to me (5; emphasis Derridas).4 With these rhetorical turns, Derrida foregrounds the important question of the relationship among language, property ownership, and sense of belonging. His apparent logical or performative contradictionalways speaking and writing in French, while claiming that the language is not his and yet not foreign to himmay thus be seen as a way of confronting us with the problem of language as legacy: what does it mean to have a languagewhen we believe that a language belongs to us, that it is ours? Does having a language mean inheriting it like a bequest from authentic ancestors, and/or being able to control the languages future by handing it down to the proper heirs? Is such possession through descent and/or posterity a privilege that is exclusive to native speakers? Not surprisingly, these eminently philosophical, yet also practical and mundane, questions lie at the core of a memoir about an authors experience with colonialism during his most formative years.5 As is demonstrated in the arguments of well-known African writers such as Albert Memmi, Chinua Achebe, and Ngugi wa Thiongo, the fundamentally alienating encounter with the colonizers demands often leave those who have lived through such an encounter feeling haunted for the rest of their lives.6 We may surmise that Derridas rst-hand relationship with the legacy of French in colonial Algeria, too, must have left indelible imprints on his process of coming to terms with language, including his need to deconstruct it. As Hdi Abdel-Jaouad puts it: Derrida invites us to read Monolingualism of the Other not only as yet another avatar of his autobiographical anamnesis, his nostalgeria, but also as a demonstration of deconstruction in the act, as a method of reading closely the intricate relationship between autobiography and language. Derridas personal history in Algeria, Abdel-Jaouad suggests, explains his unquenchable desire de donner lire linterruption, in an ever-proliferating lexicon of interruption, of which the term deconstruction has become the most legible signature, synonymous with Derrida himself. Indeed, what is deconstruction if not absolute outsideness, non-belonging, and tranget in the Camusian sense?7

Confessions from an Absolute Habitat

Among the details Derrida narrates, it is those about his own reactions to things Frenchthe literature, the language, and other French users accentsthat are the most captivating, in large part because of his mildly exhibitionistic and often self-agellating sense of candor. Being

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introduced to French literature, for instance, is, he writes, an experience of alienation as well as of enjoyment: not only does it reinforce the haughtiness of the literary from non-literary culture; it also effectuated a brutal severance . . . fostering a more acute partition: the one that separates French literatureits history, its works, its models, its cult of the dead, its modes of transmission and celebration, its posh districts, its names of authors and editorsfrom the culture proper to French Algerians (45).8 And although Derridas French was undoubtedly of native uency, he writes that he has not quite lost his French Algerian accent, adding, in a derisively self-revelatory tone, that I would like to hope, I would very much prefer, that no publication permit my French Algerian to appear, believing in the meantime that no one can detect by reading that he is French Algerian (46; emphasis Derridas)9that is, that he can pass as authentic as long as his speech is seen and not heard. This pursuit of linguistic purity, gauged at the level of speech despite Derridas famous critique of phonocentrism, a purity that must remain untarnished by any unseemly accents, leads to a ready intolerance of those who do not measure up, an intolerance that borders on (racial) discrimination.10 Again, it is through Derridas unyielding honesty that we begin to grasp the depth of his anguish over this issue. Impure French accents tend to make him squirm, yet he also cannot forgive himself for feeling and reacting that way: these compulsive attitudes, judgments, and reactions, which he frankly acknowledges, imbue the following series of confessions with noticeable intensities:
I am not proud of it, I make no doctrine of it, but so it is: an accentany French accent, but above all a strong southern accentseems incompatible to me with the intellectual dignity of public speech. (Inadmissible, isnt it? Well, I admit it.) Incompatible, a fortiori, with the vocation of a poetic speech. . . . Throughout the story I am relating, despite everything I sometimes appear to profess, I concede that I have contracted a shameful but intractable intolerance: at least in French, insofar as the language is concerned, I cannot bear or admire anything other than pure French . . . I still do not dare admit this compulsive demand for a purity of language except within boundaries of which I can be sure. . . . It simply exposes me to suffering when someone, who can be myself, happens to fall short of it. I suffer even further when I catch myself or am caught red-handed in the act. (46; my emphases)11

Of course, the psychic burden exacted by the French language in Derridas case could be understood simply as a typical consequence of colonialism, with something of the psychic burden exacted by whiteness that authors such as Memmi, Frantz Fanon, and W. E. B. Du Bois, among others, have described. The obsession with pure Frenchtogether with the sense of discomfort at detecting any improper accent, including


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ones own, and the concomitant sense of shame/guilt about such discomfortis, in this respect, not unlike the black mans obsession with whiteness, replete with the tormenting feelings of hyper-self-consciousness, self-revulsion, self-pity, and self-hatred that accompany such obsession, in what amounts to a vicious circle of ressentiment derived from skin color.12 So goes the drama of the man who is a product and victim of colonization, writes Memmi of this situation. He almost never succeeds in corresponding with himself.13 To this extent, the entangled feelings of submission, self-vigilance, and shame/guilt Derrida admits toward what he refers to as the interdict (linterdite) instigated by French is one manner of explaining his phrase monolingualism of the otherwhich means, rst and foremost, a monolingualism coerced and imposed by the other (39). The other in this instance is, quite straightforwardly, the colonizer who, operating on the foundation of a repressive sovereignty, demands that the colonized adhere to a single language, against which the colonized is, moreover, always found to be inferior. Hence Derridas uneasy awareness that he probably still has an accent: not everything in my French Algerian accent is lost. Its intonation is more apparent in certain pragmatic situations (anger or exclamation in familial or familiar surroundings, more often in private than in public, which is a quite reliable criterion for the experience of this strange and precarious distinction) (45).14 In addition to inducing in the colonized an unfulllable yearning for linguistic purity and hence a general sense of disability, this monolingualism of the other legitimates itself by getting rid of likely competitors, by making sure that native languages such as Arabic and Berber become increasingly marginalized and useless. During Derridas youth, the study of Arabic, for instance, was restricted to the school, where it was presented as an alien language, an option like English, Spanish, or German, while Berber was never included. As a result, fewer and fewer students who gained access to the lyce, including those of Algerian origin, selected Arabic as a discipline, except when the language was deemed convenient for meeting technical and professional purposes (3738). The monolingualism of the colonizer means that the development and renement of the mind that come with literary, philosophical, and humanistic culture (in what may be called a liberal arts education) was allowed to take place, in Algerias case, only in French. As AbdelJaouad writes, this monolingualism is for Derrida a living paradox, an aporia incarnated, . . . since whatever he rejects about French he must declare in French, the only language he has, but which he, nevertheless, cannot call his own.15

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Language as Habitus: An Approach to Derridas Legacy

As an absolute habitat that constitutes him, the monolingualism of the other, as Derrida describes it, recalls another, etymologically related, concepthabitus, which, as is well known, was adopted and popularized by Pierre Bourdieu in his empirical as well as theoretical research on human socioeconomic behavior under capitalism in the twentieth century.16 What is of interest is the fact that Bourdieus thinking about habitus was based in part on the ethnographic and statistical studies he did in Algeria, of the workers of Kabylia or Kabyle society, from the late 1950s to the early 1960s.17 In this early work, Bourdieu denes the habitus as a system of durable, transposable dispositions which functions as the generative basis of structured, objectively unied practices; the internalization of the objective situation, . . . the structure unifying the system of dispositions, which presuppose practical reference to the objective future, whether it be a matter of resignation to or revolt against the present order or the capacity to subject economic conduct to forecasting and calculation (A vii, 92). In other words, by habitus, Bourdieu intends an alternative method of understanding acquired and embodied practices (including beliefs, perceptions, and dispositions), a method that would transcend the more rigid division, in the discipline of sociology in particular, between subjectivism and objectivism. While a habitus may not be directly or positivistically observed, it makes way, conceptually, for a more uid grasp of social, interpersonal practices as individualsconsidered by Bourdieu as agentsmake their maneuvers in the objective world. Like taste, which Bourdieu describes as social necessity made second nature, turned into muscular patterns and bodily automatisms,18 habitus is that collective imaginary-cum-practice that gives one a sense of ones place. In an essay published more than three decades after his studies in Algeria, Making the Economic Habitus: Algerian Workers Revisited,19 Bourdieu reiterates and further claries his intentions. What he seeks to mobilize by habitus is, in effect, a way of conceptualizing a specic kind of experiencewhat may be described as practical transitioningthat people accustomed to an older socioeconomic order (with its signature practices of purchases, gifts, honor, debt, and so forth) have to go through in order to participate in a newer one (based on the spirit of calculation) under capitalism and modernization. The habitus, as it were, becomes perceptible during such experience, when a noticeable discrepancy emerges between agents economic dispositions (and by extension, their traditional ways of conducting interpersonal relations and the social codes associated with them) and the economic world in which they have to act. As with many of his works, Bourdieus critique, aimed


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as it often is at capitalist bourgeois societys preemptive hierarchical value judgments and their putative complicity with the political power derived from the status quo, may be seen as a redemptive valorization and vindication of the underprivileged and oppressed classes (often disappearing) ways of life. (This is a kind of critique that puts Bourdieu in the considerable community of scholars inuenced by Marxism and romanticism, from Walter Benjamin and Georg Lukcs to Raymond Williams and John Berger.)20 In reality, he writes of those who live in precapitalist societies, agents brought up in a quite different cultural tradition can only succeed in adapting to the cash economy by means of a creative reinvention which is the very opposite of a purely mechanical and passive forced accommodation (A 4; my emphasis). Notwithstanding the differences between their disciplinary and professional orientations,21 Bourdieus habitus allows us a pertinent, if somewhat unexpected, perspective on the absolute habitat of the French linguistic order as Derrida recalls it. For are not those poignantly honest, self-tormenting details in Derridas accounthis love for the sounds of pure French; his unease at hearing someones impure accent (his example being Ren Char [46]); his shame/guilt at recognizing this inadmissible, disturbingly discriminatory tendency in himself; his helplessness against these impulses that in fact embarrassingly contradict his own teaching about language and purityprecisely descriptive of a certain disposition, one that is acquired nondiscursively (even as it manifests as symptoms of a hypersensitivity toward language), practiced so intimately as to become entirely spontaneous since childhood, and inhabited so naturally as to erupt time and again as intuition, as visceral sensation? As a kind of imperceptible but denitive boundary of existence, the habitat of French is at this level fully embodied and acted out as a habitus, replete with the illiberal feature of disgust at impropriety, at those who do not speak properly. As Derrida confesses, it is simply unbearableindeed, a form of sufferingto hear a southern accent. But let us approach Derridas maneuvers a bit more patiently, as Bourdieu approached the Kabyle workers maneuvers. As I mentioned, at the level of recapturing the monolingualism of the other as the French linguistic order in colonial Algeria, Derrida has given an unattering, because utterly candid, account of a certain lack in himself. Such a lack is at the heart of the passage from douard Glissants Le discours antillais that Derrida cites as an epigraph and repeats in his own text: Lack does not reside in the ignorance [mconnaissance] of a language (the French language), but in the non-mastery (be it in Creole or French) of an appropriated language (epigraph page; cited again on 23).22 To this extent, the absolute habitat of French seems logically to have resulted in the habitus (the sum of the colonizeds relation with such a habitat)

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dened as a (post)colonial lack, a lack that, under many circumstances, would be the source of profound melancholy. Derrida, however, does not simply respond to such a lack as nal. Herein lies, perhaps, the uncanny intersection between his philosophical meditations on language as legacy and Bourdieus sociological meditations on the habitus as a structure of durable dispositions. Just as the agents of a precapitalistic economic order are shown by Bourdieu to be engaged in a process of adaptation when confronted with a new economic order, so is it possible, I believe, to view Derridas resistance to the mastery so naturally presumed of the French language under colonialism as, ultimately, a unique ethos/ethicsthat is, an endeavor to live beyond or survive the rigid boundaries as imposed by the colonial habitat. If, as a cultivated disposition, the habitus enables each agent to generate, from a small number of implicit principles, all the lines of conduct consistent with the rules of the logic of challenge and riposte (and no other conduct) by means of unlimited inventions which the stereotyped unfolding of a ritual would in no way demand (A 116), could not Derridas workindeed, his lifelong preoccupation with language as diffrance, as temporal noncoincidence and defermentbe seen as nothing less than the creative reinvention emerging from an actively adapting habitus? Characteristically, this creative invention specializes in leaving language in a spectral rather than fully ontologized state, as though to ward off the potential blasphemy (or curse) of any form of substantiation, especially political substantiation (such as colonization). Accordingly, where the word mastery may carry the meaning of cultural supremacy in a more Manichean reading of colonialism, Derrida insists that the master himself is never completely master: contrary to what one is often most tempted to believe, the master is nothing. And he does not have exclusive possession of anythingincluding his language, which he does not possess exclusively, and naturally (23; emphasis Derridas). Bourdieu, describing the dynamics of ritualized exchanges in Kabyle society, puts it this way: even the most ritualized exchanges, in which all moments of the action and their unfolding are rigorously prescribed, allow a confrontation of strategies, inasmuch as the agents remain the masters of the time-lag between the obligatory moments and consequently are able to act upon their opponents by playing with the tempo of the exchange (A 116; emphasis Bourdieus). Is it a mere coincidence that, of all possible strategies from his agents, what Bourdieu underscores is that of time-lag, the type of (economic-linguistic) maneuver of which Derrida was, in his own way, master? It follows that whereas the ethnographic orientation of Bourdieus work highlights a type of difference that is culturally inected (Kabyle society confronting French colonialism and modern capitalism)with


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strong implications of the cultural inequity that entailsDerrida, arguably, goes one step further in the registering of such inequity. Cultural difference and inequity are reconceptualized by him as mere determinable differentiations that, in the end, do not conjure what is most signicant about the legacy of language, including the linguistic order under colonial dictation. To this extent, Derrida reads colonialism as both specic and universal: colonialism is a specic instance of the appropriation of language by the use of force or cunning; at the same time, all practices of language involve such appropriation. Referring to the colonial master, for instance, he writes: because language is not his natural possession, he can, thanks to that very fact, pretend historically, through the rape of a cultural usurpation, which means always essentially colonial, to appropriate it in order to impose it as his own. That is his belief; he wishes to make others share it through the use of force or cunning; he wants to make others believe it, as they do a miracle, through rhetoric, the school, or the army (23).23 Having identied colonialism thus as an unnatural process of politico-phantasmatic constructions (23), he nonetheless states his reluctance to analyze language strictly according to colonialism because, he explains, colonialism applies to all culture: I cannot analyze this politics of language head-on, and I would not like to make too easy use of the world [sic] colonialism. All culture is originarily colonial. . . . 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 (39).24 Derrida thus puts a very different kind of emphasis on the signicance of time: whereas Bourdieu, in what I have referred to as a redemptive kind of analysis, alerts us to how the arrival of capitalism in Algerian society led to an impoverishment and disappearance of the indigenous, traditional way of conducting social relations of the past (in that all transactions, in particular economic ones, must now be subordinated or reduced to capitalisms logic of calculation), Derrida, his sympathetic understanding of such impoverishment and disappearance notwithstanding, approaches the habitat-cum-habitus of language from an emphasis on the futureunderstood as the other that is unexpected and yet to come ( venir). Hence, rather than pointing to a determinable other/past culture (for example, Algerian) as an antidote, or as an alternative, because originary, way of thinking about language-as-habitat/habitus,25 Derrida argues that otherness as such must be recognized as what resides within, as what constitutes language. Language as something that no one, not even the master and colonizer, can possess; language as what inherently undoes any attempt at appropriation and property ownership; language as what is ultimately nonlocalizable and noncountable (2930);

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language as a type of translation involving only target but no originary languages (6061): these reections constitute what for Derrida is the more profound sense of the phrase monolingualism of the other. Monolingualism in this instance is less the sign of imposition by political force or cunning than it is the promise of the singular, a promise that remains open ended and thus messianic in character: It is not possible to speak outside this promise . . . that gives a language, the uniqueness of the idiom, but only by promising to give it. There can be no question of getting out of this uniqueness without unity. It is not to be opposed to the other, nor even distinguished from the other. It is the monolanguage of the other. The of signies not so much property as provenance: language is for the other, coming from the other, the coming of the other (68; emphases Derridas).26 For Derrida, in other words, the phrase monolingualism of the other cannot be limited to the understanding of the brutality and terror of colonial hegemony, as is indicated in his personal history with the French language as an Algerian Jew. Such understanding, including its consequent subscription to the possibility of political revolt and liberation, is for him simply a matter of a trick (un tour) (24), which veils the truth about language. Instead, the history of colonialism, with its innumerable specters of power struggle, should alert us to how language, an other that is by nature multiple and legion rather than unied, dwells (in us) and always dwells (in us) as a future, in the sense of a calling forth of the unknown: it is always up to a language to summon the heterological opening that permits it to speak of something else and to address itself to the other (69).27 As Abdelkebir Khatibi writes in Amour bilingue (the same novella from which Derrida takes the second epigraph for his text): from language to language, an occurrence appears and disappears, an exceptional occurrence which requires extraordinary energy. An occurrence we call bi-langue, different from all thought which afrms itself and obliterates itself in translation. Ill even say that this we is the scenario of the rst reader I am, facing any other reader, and that in this face-off, I will nally recognize myself in him, I will nally give him a part of my divided soul.28 Just as it can signify the foreclosure of possibilities by politics, then, so can the monolingualism of the other, understood here as a legacy beyond ownership, suggest utopian potentiality, the coming of the other (68; emphasis Derridas). In this manner, as Abdel-Jaouad writes, Derrida transforms a lack of a language into a surfeit of languages, the exclusion from one language into a surrender to language.29


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The Status of Monolingualism and Multilingualism: Questions Remaining

Derridas astute othering of monolingualism, turning it into an openended, incalculable phenomenon, is a remarkable intervention in the more fashionable contemporary debates about languages and literatures. In such debates, monolingualism often tends to be invoked pejoratively, with the implication that it can only be a parochial, impoverished, and shameful opposite to a sophisticated, cosmopolitan multilingualism. Oh, I grew up speaking French, Arabic, Japanese, and Spanish!: when assertions like this are made in public these days, one implied moral assumption (and self-justication) is that I am so much more cultivated than and superior to the hick in Kansas who only knows one language. For Derrida, this attitude toward multilingualism, which treats languages as individuated entities (as prized commodities or exoticized fetishes) that can be factually and discretely enumerated, with the implication that the larger the number one possesses, the better and richer the experience, is problematic. As he writes: it is impossible to count languages (30).30 In the same passage, he goes on to assert that the One of a language, which escapes all arithmetic (ac)countability, is never determined. The One of the monolanguage of which I speak, and the one I speak, will hence not be an arithmetical identity or, in short, any identity at all. Monolanguage remains incalculable, at least in that characteristic (30).31 Stemming from a lifelong reexive wrestling with the more restricted sense of monolingualism of the otherindeed, with the need to deconstruct and exceed itDerridas ethical stance on language as fundamentally plural and multiple, and thus indeterminate, is entirely reasonable. In the spirit of supporting his larger vision, I would like to conclude with a couple of questions that remain from his powerful intervention. First, notwithstanding his characteristic utopian stance on language (gesturing toward an indeterminable future), when it comes to the utopian notion of egalitarianism, Derrida is, interestingly, not focused so much on the future as on the pastspecically, on some originary condition, as we read in assertions such as these: All culture is originarily colonial; Every culture institutes itself through the unilateral imposition of some politics of language (39). The somewhat troubling aspect here has to do with the rather negative (and pessimistic) manner in which egalitarianism is invoked: the only moments when we can/might be somewhat equal, Derrida seems to suggest, are when we are originarily colonial and want to impose some politics of language on others. Does this imply that egalitarianism as such should simply be abandonedthat even if it may seem to be a form of utopianism, it is a bad forman oppressive sameness, intrinsic to humans, from which we should strive to be liberated?

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Second, as a consequence to this way of viewing egalitarianism (as mere oppressive sameness), Derridas argument is not exactly helpful regarding the ongoing inequities among languages as they are lived in different parts of the world because of the histories of colonialism. These are the inequities caused, for instance, by the dominance of English and French in formerly colonized lands, where such dominance continues to this day to exercise functions of mental subordination, social stratication, and cultural stigmatization.32 These inequities are what lead an author such as douard Glissant to insist on thinking of languages, be they Creole or French, with none other than a sense of egalitarianism, which Glissant himself associates with multilingualism: For a long time . . . the arrogant imperialism of monolingualism accompanied the spread of Western culture. What is multilingualism? It is not only the ability to speak several languages. . . . Multilingualism is the passionate desire to accept and understand our neighbors language and to confront the massive leveling force of language continuously imposed by the Westyesterday with French, today with American Englishwith a multiplicity of languages and their mutual comprehension.33 Were we to submit to the logic of Derridas claim that All culture is originarily colonial, we would simply have to stop worrying, as Glissant does, about such inequities among languages (because they are inevitable), and shift our attention instead to the other form of utopianismthe good form?for which language is primarily the coming of the other. Whereas for Glissant, endorsing the multiplicity in multilingualism is the ethical way to confront the massive leveling force of language continuously imposed by the West, for Derrida such multiplicity always already and ontologically resides within language as such, in the form of the aforementioned coming. As diversity is not the opposite of oneness (because oneness is never one), so neither is multilingualism the opposite of monolingualism. But where would this leave the historicality of the unequal encounters among languages, of which Glissant rightly (to me at least) reminds us? Remembering the second part of Derridas book title, the Prosthesis of Origin, one must, at this point, pause and wonder about the phrase originarily colonial that supposedly (according to him) applies to all culture. Reading as Derrida himself has taught us to read, must we not insist on going further, by deconstructing (the very positing of) this originarily colonial condition, this condition of coloniality taken for the origin of all culture? That is to say, must we not treat such an origin as a prosthetic add-on, rather than, as Derrida seems to suggest, as an authentic origin, as the original? Derridas legacy here would compel us to ask what coloniality-as-prosthesis would look like, especially in language. Much work still to be done awaits us in this direction. Brown University


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1 Jacques Derrida, Le monolinguisme de lautre ou la prothse dorigine (Paris: Galile, 1996); Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin, trans. Patrick Mensah (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 1998). To reduce cumbersomeness, hereafter page references to the English translation will be included in parentheses in the text, while the original French passages will be cited in the notes whenever appropriate. 2 Je suis monolingue. Mon monolinguisme demeure, et je lappelle ma demeure, et je le ressens comme tel, jy reste et je lhabite. Il mhabite. Le monolinguisme dans lequel je respire, mme, cest pour moi llment. Non pas un lment naturel, non pas la transparence de lther mais un milieu absolu. Indpassable, incontestable : je ne peux le rcuser quen attestant son omnipresence en moi. Il maura de tout temps prcd. Cest moi. Le monolinguisme, 1314; emphasis Derridas. 3 Je nai quune langue, ce nest pas la mienne; Or jamais cette langue, la seule que je sois ainsi vou parler, tant que parler me sera possible, la vie la mort, cette seule langue, vois-tu, jamais ce ne sera la mienne. Jamais elle ne le fut en vrit. Le monolinguisme, 13, 14. 4 Je nai jamais parl, jusquici, de langue trangre; En disant que le seule langue que je parle nest pas la mienne, je nai pas dit quelle me ft trangre. Le monolinguisme, 18; emphasis Derridas. 5 For other autobiographical reections by Derrida, see, for example, Derrida and Geoffrey Bennington, Jacques Derrida, trans. Bennington (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993); Points . . . : Interviews, 19741994, trans. Peggy Kamuf et al. (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 1995). 6 See, for instance, Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, intro. Jean-Paul Sartre, trans. Howard Greenfeld (New York: Orion, 1965; Boston: Beacon, 1967), expanded edition with afterword by Susan Gilson Miller (Boston: Beacon, 1991); Ngugi wa Thiongo, The Language of African Literature, in Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1994), 43555 (this piece is an excerpt from Ngugi, Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature [London: James Currey, 1986], 833); Chinua Achebe, The African Writer and the English Language, in Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory, 42834 (this piece is an excerpt from Achebe, Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays [Garden City, NY: Anchor/ Doubleday, 1975], 91103). 7 See Hdi Abdel-Jaouad, Derridas Algerian Anamnesis; or Autobiography in the Language of the Other, in Remembering Africa, ed. Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002), 266, 260. This essay offers a nuanced and compelling discussion of Derridas numerous autobiographical publications besides Monolingualism of the Other. 8 [U]n sevrage sans mnagement livrait . . . une partition plus aigu, celle qui spare la literature franaiseson histoire, ses oeuvres, ses modles, son culte des morts, ses modes de transmission et de clbration, ses beaux-quartiers, ses noms dauteurs et dditeursde la culture propre des Franais dAlgrie. Le monolinguisme, 77. 9 [J]e crois pouvoir esprer, jaimerais tant quaucune publication ne laisse rien paratre de mon franais dAlgrie. Je ne crois pas, pour linstant et jusqu dmonstration du contraire, quon puisse dceler la lecture, et si je ne le dclare pas moi-mme, que je suis un Franais dAlgrie. Le monolinguisme, 77; emphasis Derridas. 10 For a discussion of Derridas hang-up over pure French, see Rda Bensmaa, La langue de ltranger ou la Francophonie barre, Rue Descartes 37 (2002): 6573. Bensmaas sympathetic reading of Derridas condition is part of a larger critique of the effects of alienation created by an identication with the French language, effects which he (Bensmaa) traces in the controversies over Francophonie.

reading derrida on being monolingual


11 Je nen suis pas er, je nen fais pas une doctrine, mais cest ainsi: laccent, quelque accent franais que ce soit, et avant tout le fort accent mridional, me parat incompatible avec la dignit intellectuelle dune parole publique. (Inadmissible, nest-ce pas? Je lavoue.) Incompatible a fortiori avec la vocation dune parole potique . . . . travers lhistoire que je raconte et malgr tout ce que je semble parfois professer dautre part, jai contract, je lavoue, une inavouable mais intraitable intolrance: je ne supporte ou nadmire, en franais du moins, et seulement quant la langue, que le franais pur . . . je nose avouer encore cette exigence compulsive dune puret de la langue que dans les limites dont je suis sr . . . . Elle mexpose seulement la souffrance quand quelquun, et ce peut tre moi, vient y manquer. Je souffre davantage, bien sr, quand je me surprends ou quand je suis pris en agrant dlit. Le monolinguisme, 7879. 12 See, for instance, Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1967). W. E. B. Du Bois famously described the American Negros world in terms of double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at ones self through the eyes of others; Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties, and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretence or revolt, to hypocrisy or radicalism. The Souls of Black Folk, intro. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1903; New York: Bantam, 1989), 3, 142. 13 Memmi, Colonizer and the Colonized, 140. 14 Je crois navoir pas perdu mon accent, pas tout perdu de mon accent de Franais dAlgrie. Lintonation en est plus apparente dans certaines situations pragmatiques (la colre ou lexclamation en milieu familial ou familier, plus souvent en priv quen public, et cest au fond un critre assez able pour lexprience de cette trange et prcaire distinction). Le monolinguisme, 77. 15 Abdel-Jaouad, Derridas Algerian Anamnesis, 266. A parallel here would be the gure of Echo in the myth of Narcissus. Echo, we remember, is cursed with not having a language of her own in that she can only speak by repeating the others words; yet the story may also be read in terms of how, precisely by appropriating the others voice (for her own purposes), she turns her predicament (of being held hostage linguistically) into a form of agency. Derridas interest in Echos story as an instance of the monolingualism of the other can be seen during an interview recorded in the documentary lm Derrida, directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman (New York: Jane Doe Productions/Zeitgeist, 2002). 16 See, for instance, Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1977); Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984), in particular part 2. It should be noted that Bourdieu was not the rst person to invoke the philosophical concept of habitus (which is present in the works of other thinkers) but adopted and reelaborated it from Marcel Mauss. In the essay Les techniques du corps, Mauss revived habitus to designate the totality of learned habits, bodily skills, and other practices that take the form of embodied actions or accepted, nondiscursive knowledges in a particular society. See Mauss, Les techniques du corps, Journal de psychologie 32, no. 34 (1936); reprinted in Mauss, Sociologie et anthropologie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950). Mausss point is that habitus is social by nature: It does not designate those metaphysical habitudes, that mysterious memory, the subjects of volumes or short and famous theses. These habits do not vary just with individuals and their imitations; they vary especially between societies, educations, proprieties and fashions, prestiges. In them we should see the techniques and work of collective and individual practical reason rather than, in the ordinary way, merely the soul and its repetitive faculties. See part 4, Body Techniques, in Mauss, Sociology and Psychology: Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), 101; emphasis Mausss. Instead of the year 1936, as given in Mausss Sociologie et anthropolgie, 363, Brewsters translation gives 1935 as the year of the original publication of Mausss essay (see Mauss, Sociology and Psychology, 122).


new literary history

17 Bourdieu, Travail et Travailleurs en Algrie (Paris: Mouton, 1963); Algrie 60 (Paris: Minuit, 1978). For purposes of the present essay, references will be made to Algeria 1960 (containing the essays The Disenchantment of the World, The Sense of Honour, The Kabyle House or The World Reversed), ed. Bourdieu, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979). The English text is a shortened version because it does not include the data and other supporting material of Bourdieus research apparatus that are provided in the original French. Hereafter cited as A. 18 Bourdieu, Distinction, 474. 19 Bourdieu, Making the Economic Habitus: Algerian Workers Revisited, trans. Richard Nice and Loc Wacquant, Ethnography 1, no. 1 (2000): 1741. 20 For an informed assessment of Bourdieus contributions, including a judicious critique of their methodological aws, see John Frow, Cultural Studies and Cultural Value (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 2747. The works by Bourdieu that Frow discusses do not include Algeria 1960. 21 As is well known, Bourdieu has criticized Derridas radical philosophy as in keeping with Kantian notions of taste, aesthetic judgment, and social distinction (and their accompanying monopoly of the denition of humanity); see Postscript: Towards a Vulgar Critique of Pure Critiques, Distinction, 485500 (the brief reference to Derrida is on 49495). Although I do not necessarily agree with Bourdieus criticism in this regard, a discussion of it will need to be postponed for another occasion because my focus in this essay is the more restricted one of Derridas account of monolingualism as it pertains to his experience with French colonialism. 22 Le manque nest pas dans la mconnaissance dune langue (le franais), mais dans la non-matrise dun langage appropri (en crole ou en franais). douard Glissant, Le discours antillais (Paris: Seuil, 1981), 334. For an English translation of Glissants book, see douard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, trans. J. Michael Dash (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1989). 23 [P]arce que la langue nest pas son bien naturel, par cela mme il peut historiquement, travers le viol dune usurpation culturelle, cest--dire toujours dessence coloniale, feindre de se lapproprier pour limposer comme la sienne. Cest l sa croyance, il veut la faire partager par la force ou par la ruse, il veut y faire croire, comme au miracle, par la rhtorique, lcole ou larme. Le monolinguisme, 45. 24 Je ne peux pas, l encore, analyser de front cette politique de la langue et je ne voudrais pas me servir trop facilement du mot colonialisme. Toute culture est originairement coloniale. . . . Toute culture sinstitue par limposition unilatrale de quelque politique de la langue. La matrise, on le sait, commence par le pouvoir de nommer, dimposer et de lgitimer les appellations. Le monolinguisme, 68. 25 This is borne out in a thought-provoking moment recorded in the documentary Derrida, when Derrida recalls his experience with racism and anti-Semitism during his childhood in Algeria. The paradox of that experience, he says, was that after being expelled from the French schools (and thus from francit), he was not happy or comfortable being enclosed in the Jewish community eitherthat a part of him rejected solidarity with that community. 26 Il nest pas possible de parler hors de cette promesse . . . qui donne, mais en promettant de la donner, une langue, lunicit de lidiome. Il ne peut tre question de sortir de cette unicit sans unit. Elle na pas tre oppose lautre, ni mme distingue de lautre. Elle est la monolangue de lautre. Le de ne signie pas tant la proprit que la provenance: la langue est lautre, venue de lautre, la venue de lautre. Le monolinguisme, 127; emphases Derridas. 27 [I]l revient toujours une langue dappeler louverture htrologique qui lui permet de parler dautre chose et de sadresser lautre. Le monolinguisme, 129. 28 Abdelkebir Khatibi, Love in Two Languages, trans. Richard Howard (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1990), 67.

reading derrida on being monolingual


29 Abdel-Jaouad, Derridas Algerian Anamnesis, 268. 30 Il est impossible de compter les langues. Le monolinguisme, 55. In a similar vein, Naoki Sakai asks: Can the multiplicity of languages without which translation seems unnecessary be measured numerically, so that one can assume that languages are countable? What constitutes the unitary unit of a language that is not implicated in another language or other languages? Sakai, Translation and Subjectivity: On Japan and Cultural Nationalism (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1997), 3. 31 [L]Un dune langue, qui chappe toute comptabilit arithmtique, nest jamais dtermin. Le Un de la monolangue dont je parle, et celui que je parle, ne sera donc pas une identit arithmtique, ni mme une identit tout court. La monolangue demeure donc incalculable, en ce trait du moins. Le monolinguisme, 55. 32 For an informed discussion, see, for instance, Bensmaa, La langue de ltranger. 33 Glissant, Caribbean Discourse, 249; my emphases.