Language, Discourse and Culture

Contemporary Philosophical Perspectives
(69,179 words)

Franson Manjali

Anthem Press

2007 Contents
Preface 1. Discourse and Subjectivity 2. Linguistics and Postmodernism 3. Metaphor and Space 4. Infinite Narration 5. Translation and Imagination 6. Philosophy, Literature and the Discourse of Purity 7. Nietzsche, Derrida and the Deconstruction of European Linguistic Modernity 8. Derrida and Nāgārjuna: Ethical Dimensions 9. Derrida: Language and Philosophy 10. On the Indeterminacy of Context 11. Ethics, Events, Truths 12. Deconstructing Community: Jean-Luc Nancy on Writing and Sense 13. Politics and Aesthetics of Being 14. Elsewhere English: Some Acute and Some Obtuse Remarks. 1 11 22 43 57 67 78 103 112 122 131 144 157 170 179 ***

P fa e re c
This book consists of fourteen chapters most of which were written for presenting at talks or conferences. Unmodified versions of several of these essays have appeared as papers / articles in journals or chapters of books. The specific bibliographic detail of each published original paper is given in footnote on the opening pages. I wish to express my thanks for the permission to publish papers or chapters that have previously appeared in the following journals or edited books: § International Journal of Communication (New Delhi) for Chapter I. § International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics (Trivandrum) for Chapters 2, 7 and 10. §Visio: International Journal of Visual Semiotics (Quebec city) for Chapter 3. § Reason, Dialectic and Postmodernism, (edited by) R. P. Singh, Faridabad: Om Publications, for Chapter 4. § Journal of Interdisciplinary Crossroads (Allahabad) for Chapter 6 and Chapter 12. § Yearbook of the Goethe Institute of India, New Delhi: Mosaic Books and International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics for Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. § Śabda: Text and Interpretation in Indian Thought, (edited by) S.K. Sareen and M. Paranjape New Delhi: Mantra Books, for Chapter 8. § Trajectory of French Thought, vol. 2. New Delhi: French Information Resource Centre, for Chapter 9 § International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics for Chapter 10. § Post-structuralism and Cultural Theory: The Linguistic Turn and Beyond, (edited by F. Manjali) New Delhi: Allied Publishers, for Chapter 11. Some of these papers have an even deeper pre-history. Though it is impossible to account for all the traces of occurrence of the contents of the essays that appearing, I wish to acknowledge their partial publications earlier.

The essays that form this volume bear a relation of continuity with those that appear in my earlier two books since 2000, namely, Meaning, Culture and Cognition and Literature and Infinity. The latter monograph published by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla, in 2001, had already announced a break with the cognivistic and the ‘mainstream’ linguistic and semiotic currents that I had followed till 1998, the year I joined up as a Fellow at the IIAS. A strongly ‘cultural’ and within it a distinctively ‘poststructural’ orientation can be clearly discerned in the present essays. The difficulty with cognitivism is that, even when it addresses cultural questions, it decidedly ignores – for the sake of its rapid practical application – the historicity and within it the hegemonized and hegemonizing experience of specific groups of people. This is not to say that language and cognition can be studied only in terms of ‘history’ and ‘politics’ as these terms are understood today. Language is a mode of constituting cognition, and therefore language and cognition are both processes that contribute to the future political and historical experience of people everywhere. The term ‘culture’ signifies today not just what has happened in the past of any people, nor what they are experiencing today, but even more what we hold out to ourselves and between ourselves and to others or between ourselves and others. I wish to thank to a number of persons and institutions that played a role in the intellectual and material manifestation of this book. First and foremost, I wish to thank Harjeet Singh Gill, who initiated my shift from langue to parole in linguistic matters. Rustam Singh opened my eyes to the poststructural possibilities. I wish to acknowledge that since October 2001, I have received the untiring love, support and inspiration from Jean-Luc Nancy from far-away Strasbourg. I am truly grateful to him. Much of my intellectual expansion would not have been possible without institutional support received from Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris, and I am very grateful to its former Director, Maurice Aymard. And on the publication front, I am grateful to Varyam Singh and Saugata Bhaduri for making possible the impossible. Franson Manjali Paris, June 2007.

1. Discourse and Subjectivity*
The relationship between discourse and the subject of discourse is very often taken for granted, especially in linguistically-based analyses of discourse. The fundamental assumption involved here is something that is endemic to most varieties of the so-called ‘mainstream’ linguistics, namely that there exists a neat division between the world of matter and the world of the mind. According to this idea — essentially Cartesian —, the mind as an active force, at least in its ideal state, provides a ‘reflection’ of the state of the world. Language, here has a very minimal role to play: that of ‘expressing’ faithfully, in all its purported transparence the luminous contents of the mind. The process of communication is consequently seen as a sort of ‘transfer’ or conduit of some ideal content in an objectified form from the mind of the speaker to the mind of the listener. In this perspective, according to which language has the role of permanently sealing the solemn and ‘reflective’ union between mind and matter, the materiality and historicity of the linguistic signifier remains infinitely reduced. Language’s other inert companion in this naïve model wherein the world of matter is constantly stimulated by the world of mind, is the human subject. The subject is the fixed site of the mind, where the operations of a universally prevalent reason can take place, which in turn forces the world to yield forever to its dictates. In giving voice to the otherwise silent working of the human mind, language can at best function as its mute slave witnessing the ever-widening domination of matter by mind. The prejudices guiding mainstream linguistics briefly outlined above are shared equally by the formalist and functionalist accounts of discourse. Both take discourse as a stable and positive entity, analyzable independently of the historical chain in which linguistic signifiers are found to occur. The formalist approach considers discursive entities essentially in their interdependence or mutual relationship. Analysis of language beyond the level of the sentence is its point of orientation. The functionalist approach is concerned with the analysis of language in

Modified version of a paper presented at the Seminar on Discourse: Aspects, Issues and Themes organized by the department of linguistics, University of Delhi, Delhi, on 13th and 14th March, 2000. An earlier version has appeared in International Journal of Communication (New Delhi) vol. 10, 1-2 (2000), 1-11.

its use. It considers discursive units essentially in the context of their use in human affairs, social or cultural. The difficulty with these conceptions of language is that the subject of discourse is posited as existing exterior and anterior to the structure or the use of language. Language is supposed to be used as an instrument having a relatively fixed structure. Furthermore, the subject who uses language in its diverse manifestations is assumed to leave its structure — both at the level of its form and its content — unchanged and unaffected. Thus, either the structure is constant, and the use can appear as manifold, or the use is seen as constant and the structure variable. The Cartesian idea of a subject as a subject of unified consciousness, a subject that can reflectively deliver the truth of the world has been contested in wider contemporary scholarship for more than a century now. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the Austrian-born founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud are perhaps the two most important figures to have challenged Cartesianism in this regard. We must mention that within linguistics, a parallel challenge came in the form of the theory of linguistic relativity proposed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf. Sapir and Whorf’s arguments are well known in the linguistic milieu. On the basis of their investigation of some American Indian languages, especially the Hopi and the Maya, Whorf concluded that the people who speak these languages have a mode of thinking entirely different from that of what he those associated with ‘standard average Europeans.’ Whorf paid special attention to the mismatch between the temporal categories of Hopi and those of the European languages. Sapir and Whorf’s position was that the manner of thinking of a people was relative to ─ even if not fully determined by ─ their language of communication. Language, being both a material and a socially-shared phenomenon is anterior to thought, which is ideal and subjective. Further, categories of thought are dependent on the categories of language. Even though the theory of linguistic relativity was quite radical for the context of American linguistics of the second quarter of the 20th century, Sapir and Whorf remained within the paradigm of a formalist / structuralist linguistics which has been in vogue, especially in the United States, since Bloomfield. Despite the fact that Sapir and Whorf came very close to

articulating a theory of linguistic determination of thought — i.e., both thought and language taken in a relatively formal sense — they were far from accepting the idea of a discursive constitution of the subject (i.e., thinking or speaking subject) which had gained currency in Europe with the advent of the existentialist philosophy, and with the reworking of Freudian psychoanalysis. Being trained as a philologist, Nietzsche had developed a keen sensitivity to the historical vicissitudes of language in relation the questions of truth and power. He was also acutely suspicious of the philosopher’s division of discourses on the basis of truth and fiction. He believed that most of the philosophical attempts to constitute a ‘true’ discourse outside of and distinct from the experience of the lived world amounted to nothing but an interested lie. Philosopher’s notions of truth and morality, he held, were convenient fictions forged and fostered for the self-maintenance of the powerful people. Being bad fictions, these truths can be shown without difficulty to be inherently empty, or they were no different from the genre of the fable whose gaze, Janus-like, is directed towards both truth and fiction. Nietzsche abhorred the philosophers’ claim of self-sameness or identity between the truth of a discourse and the ‘reality’ corresponding to it. His reaction came in the form of a near-prophetic call for the destruction of this truth and for a perpetual affirmation of difference, or the implementation of a different discourse. An incessant and vigilant ‘reinterpretation’ amounting to a reevaluation, and a destruction of its truths was part of Nietzsche’s remedy to cure philosophy of its long-sedimented metaphysical notions. Some of Nietzsche’s central concerns were carried forward by Martin Heidegger, one of the founders of existentialist philosophy. Heidegger focussed on the question of the forgetting and the loss of authentic being. Starting with the search for an answer to the question, “What is it, to be?” Heidegger saw that though man is everywhere surrounded by beings or the existent things, authentic existence always eluded him. Man’s relationship with the existents of everyday life is inauthentic. Correlatively, in the domain of language, man is immersed in the chatter-like discourse of everyday life, which too is inauthentic. In the common language, words, by way of the formation of a rather rigid system of concepts, had lost their relationship with the beings of things. A human being can say ‘I’ only in relation to the language that she ordinarily uses. ‘I’ has

a meaning for her and for others only with respect to this language and its correlative system of concepts. The linguistic ‘I’ fails to reach the core of her being. The main point here is that there exists a gap or a difference between the (authentic) being of things and their (conceptualized) Being for us. Heidegger calls this difference, the ontico-ontological difference. Since language is considered as the ‘house of being’, the task of philosophy is to perform by way of etymologizing strategies, acts of ‘unconcealment’ which can restore beings to their (relative) authenticity. Heidegger calls his strategy a sort of ‘step back’ from the lived world and the current use of language. This involves, in fact a stepping outside of the given discourse of everyday, towards an authentic destiny, by taking recourse to the intellectual resources of the past. Of course, we know in retrospect that Heidegger was primarily concerned with the march of the destiny of Europe, in which the Nazi-led Germany would play the lead role, and for which the intellectual resources would come from the pre-Socratic Greek poetic-philosophical tradition, as well as from the German romantic tradition of the early nineteenth century. We may add here that Heidegger was convinced of the authenticity of the language of poetry (as opposed to philosophy), which according to him is “the primal language of a historical people.” One of the fundamental tasks that Heidegger assigns for philosophy is to liberate the self from the metaphysically-sedimented or the contaminated state of the language of everyday discourse in which one is ordinarily immersed. To think philosophically is to move out of the thought that has always and already been thought for one, and thus to speak authentically. Or, to speak like the poets is to move out of what has been always and already said for one. French existentialist philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty would later signify these two sets of oppositions as the opposition between a pensée pensée (thought thought) and a pensée pensante (thinking thought) and that between parole parlé (spoken speech) and parole parlante (speaking speech). In the context of structural linguistics, the ‘existential’ aspect of the use of at least of some of the linguistic units was suggested by Roman Jakobson and Emile Benveniste in the 1950’s. Taking a cue from the American mathematician-semiotician Charles S. Peirce, Jakobson emphasized the ‘indexical’ nature of the pronominal words. In his famous “Shifters” paper,

Jakobson points out that the pronominal elements that form a subclass of ‘shifters’ combine both a ‘symbolic’ function (where the reference is governed by a conventional rule) and an ‘indexical’ function (where there is an ‘existential’ relation between the sign and the referred object). The shifters, according to Jakobson, belong to the class of ‘indexical symbols.’ For example, although “the sign ‘I’ cannot represent its object without being associated with the latter ‘by a conventional rule’”, it also “cannot represent its object without being in existential relation with this object: the word I designating the utterer is existentially related to the utterance, and hence functions as an index.” (Jakobson, 1971:131) From a structural point of view the significance of the ‘shifters’ consisted in the fact that though these elements also belonged to the ‘code’ of language, their meaning can be apprehended only by “their compulsory reference to given message.” The structuralist-positivist perspective of language as a mere instrument of communication received further and perhaps more severe criticism from Benveniste. Opposing the Cartesian idea that the linguistic signs were invented by man, Benveniste would say that “[l]anguage is in the nature of man, it was not fabricated by him” (1966:259). Language is in fact, that which constitutes man, that is, in his interactions with the other people. It is impossible to perceive an (inventive) state of man anterior to all use of language that links him with the others. Moreover it is the use of language that constitutes both the symbolically designated objective world as well as the subjective world. The objective world is constituted symbolically in man’s attempt to communicate with his neighbour. Tracing a Heideggerian idea, Benveniste insists that “[I}t is in language and by language that man is constituted as subject; this is because language alone constitutes the reality of the subject, in its reality, which is that of being, the concept of ‘ego’” (ibid., p. 259). Subjectivity is thus essentially the capacity of a user of language to pose herself as a subject. And within language structure, this capacity is manifested in the use of the grammatical category of the ‘person.’ This idea of a linguistic / discursive constitution of the subject was stated perhaps even more forcefully in contemporary scholarship through the writings of the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. As is well known, the recourse to Saussurian structural linguistics figured prominently in Lacan’s attempt to give Freudian psychoanalysis a scientific vein. In fact, the structural field consisting of Saussurian-Jacobsonian linguistics and Levi-Straussian

anthropology was his main ally in this regard. However his philosophical anchorage seems to have been primarily on Hegel and Heidegger. We may summarize Lacan’s view on the main issue that concerns us, namely the discursive constitution of the subject, in the following manner. The development of the human personality, which begins with the early stages of the child as a speechless being, or infant, involves three stages of her alienation from her real being. At the first stage, that is, with birth, the child is painfully separated from her mother’s body. Henceforth, the infant remains an infant pulled instinctually in different directions, a state that Lacan, with his usual pun, refers to as that of the ‘hommelette’. This is followed by the famous ‘mirror stage’ of Lacan wherein the child, still inarticulate both in body and in speech, happens to look in a mirror and forms a holistic and apparently complete image of herself. At this stage which is that of the formation of the ‘ego,’ there is a sudden leap from a state of incompletion to an imaginary fullness of the self. This false realization that leads to the irrevocable formation of an ‘alienating’ identify for the human subject or his ego is referred to by Lacan as ‘méconnaissance’, or miscognition. This ‘ego’ or the inexorably misconstrued self-identity is destined to accompany the subject throughout her life, though in various shifting manifestations. The mirror stage represents for the child her first entry into the world of signification, here via the reflective surface. Following the famous Hegelian dictum “language is life that endures death and maintains itself in it”, Lacan would say that the image in the mirror is also the child’s first encounter, though unwitting, with non-existence or death. In other words, in and through language, the subject experiences its primary alienation with respect to the being or the thing, and of the self. The subsequent entry into language and the more general symbolic order is perhaps decisive for the child. It is here that child is forced to accept the pattern of categorizations that language provides it with, especially the one concerning sexual division into the male and female order, characterized by the presence or absence or the penis. This is where the perpetual desire for the opposite sex is set forth, which inevitably has its manifestations in the human subject’s conscious and unconscious patterns of behaviour, and especially in her linguistic discourse. Lacan’s main point of argument is that the unconscious – perhaps the most central category of Freudian psychoanalysis – is not something that is to be understood by reference to

some obscure depth-psycholigistic interpretations. The unconscious, or more pertinently the structure of the unconscious can be understood in terms of what gets repressed in the human mind when the child enters the symbolic world, especially language. And consequently, patterns of dreams or neurotic behaviour can be interpreted in terms of an endless chain or relay of linguistic signifiers ordered along the metonymic (i.e., syntagmatic) or metaphoric (paradigmatic) axis.1 Lacan’s notion of ‘méconnaissance’ was later to become the chief basis of Louis Althusser’s considerations on the subject’s constitution in ideology. As a political philosopher influenced by the current of structuralism that swept France during the fifties, Althusser was unwilling to define the Marxian concept of ideology as mere ‘false consciousness’. 2 He refused to view ideology as comprising a nebulous realm of mental phenomena, which themselves form part of the superstructure for a given politco-economic field. Ideology, Althusser claimed, had a ‘material’ existence in the ideological practices that comprised the functioning of what he called certain ‘ideological state apparatuses’. Ideology from this point of view is not a mental thing, but it exists as the “imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” This imaginary relationship to real conditions of existence was constituted and reinforced in and by the subject’s participation in the practices that make up a certain ideological state apparatus. Parallel to Lacan’s idea of the psychoanalytic subject being formed in the alienating symbolic order, Althusser holds that ideology functions by ‘hailing’ or ‘interpellating’ individuals as concrete subjects “by the functioning of the category of the subject.” Ideology exists only in and by the functioning subjects who have been already ideologized (by ‘interpellation’) within the given ideological state apparatuses.3


This proposal is based on Jakobson’s characterization of the ‘metonymic’ and the ‘metaphoric’ as two contrasting, but complementary poles of language, corresponding to the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes defined by Ferdinand de Saussure. See Jakobson, R., 1971b.

Althusser’s structural redefinition of the Marxian ‘ideology’ follows and is parallel to Lacan’s structural and linguistic redefinition of the Freudian ‘unconscious’.

The following are the ideological state apparatuses that Althusser lists for ‘contemporary capitalist social formations’: the educational apparatuses, the religious apparatuses, the family apparatuses, the political apparatuses, the trade-union apparatuses, the communications apparatuses, the ‘cultural’ apparatuses, etc. (Althussser, 1971: 143)

Probably, the most important contribution along this line of thinking has come from Michel Foucault, known for his articulation of the broad categories of power and knowledge. Althusser’s rather unwieldy notion of the ‘ideological state apparatuses’ is substituted in Foucault’s analyses by what we may call the discursive institutions of knowledge. Foucault’s initial analysis suggests that within history of ideas, what we discern are discontinuities in the discursive fields (including a discontinuity in the very object of discourse) rather than a historically continuous discussion on the same object. Thus ‘madness’ is an object that comes to be constituted discursively, in opposition to what is erected as ‘reason,’ the prime of concern for scholars of the ‘classical period’ of the seventeenth century. Such a discursively constituted opposition is accompanied by the exclusion of the mad from the ‘normalized’ space of the society, and simultaneously results in their confinement in special institutions or asylums for the insane. Seventeenth century is also the period of a more generalized exclusion and confinement in the European continent – of the sick, the criminals, the sexual delinquents –, a practice which until then had as its target only the community of lepers. Later, in early nineteenth century, there came to be more specialized discourses on the question of madness, resulting in the constitution of psychiatry as a new field of scientific inquiry. Similar specialist discourses appear during the same period around the question of sexuality, illness, and criminality, resulting in the emergence of new ‘sciences of man,’ and concomitantly new methods and practices of exclusion and confinement. Foucault observed that the discourses that constitute a domain of knowledge do not necessarily have the sort of continuity of thematic discussion that is usually attributed to it in the ‘history of ideas’. They involve preferential exclusion, prohibition, and selection of certain objects of knowledge / discourse in relation to the interests of power that is dominant for a given place and time. Without looking at the internal signification of a given discursive phenomenon, one can determine from the exterior how discourses are organized in terms of the regularity of their elements. Structures of discourse provide rather closed grids for the subjects to orient themselves in a given sphere of knowledge. These discursive grids determine, to a greater or lesser degree; the place that a subject can occupy in a given field of knowledge. Foucault points out that the exclusions and prohibitions that come to operate within a certain discursive field are not necessarily those which make up a discursive object on the horizon of knowledge. Such

practices may, on the contrary result in an ‘incitement to discourse’ as he goes on to demonstrate in The History of Sexuality. We can glean the main trajectory of his intellectual project from the following passage: The central issue… is not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex, whether one formulates prohibitions or permissions, whether one asserts its importance or denies its effects, or whether one refines the words one uses to designate it; but to account for the fact that is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said. What is at issue… is the over-all “discursive fact,” the way in which sex is “put into discourse.” Hence, too, my main concern will be to locate the forms of power, the channels it takes, and the discourses it permeates in order to reach the most tenuous and individual modes of behaviour, the paths that give it access to the rare or scarcely perceivable forms of desire, how it penetrates and controls everyday pleasure – all this entailing effects that may be those of refusal, blockage, and invalidation, but also incitement and intensification: in short, the “polymorphous techniques of power.” (Foucault, 1978: 11) The nature of the operation of power upon the human person by means of discourse is most forcefully brought out by Foucault in his discussion of the institution of prisons.4 From the experience of modern Europe, he argues that there has been a general system of subjection of the human body in order to make it a productive body and to free its labour power in the interest and for the benefit of the newly emerging bourgeois order of the industrial societies. And this subjection has not been and need not be attained solely with the use of physical force. The subjection of the body, Foucault argues, is not only obtained by the instruments of violence and ideology; it can also be direct, physical, pitting force against force, bearing on material elements, and yet without involving violence; it may be calculated , organized, technically though out; it may subtle, make use neither of weapons nor of terror and yet remain of a physical order. That is to say, there may be a ‘knowledge’ of the body that is not exactly the science of its functioning, and a mastery of its forces that is more than the ability to conquer them: this knowledge and this mastery constitute what might be called the political technology of the body. Of course, this technology is diffuse, rarely formulated in continuous, systematic discourse. …[I]t implements a disparate set of tools or methods. … What the apparatuses and institutions operate is, in a sense, a micro-physics of power… (Foucault, 1995 edn.: 26)

Michel Foucault,Discipline and Punish – the Birth of the Prison. (tr.) A. Sheridan. New York: Vantage Books. 1995 edn.

References: Althusser, Louis, 1971. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. (tr.) B. Brewster. London: New Left Books. (123-172) Benveniste, Emile, 1966. “De la subjectivité dans le langage” in Problèmes de linguistique générale. Paris: Gallimard. (258-66). Clement, Catherine, 1976. “L’imaginaire, le symbolique et le réel,” in La Psychanalyse, (eds.) C. Clement, F. Gantheret & B. Mérigot. Paris: Librarie Larousse. (48-62) Foucault, Michel, 1978. The History of Sexuality. London: Penguin Books. —, 1995. Discipline and Punish – the Birth of the Prison. (tr.) A. Sheridan. New York: Vantage Books. Heidegger, Martin, 1978. Martin Heidegger – Basic Writings. (ed.) D.F. Krell. London: RKP. Jakobson, Roman, 1971a. “Shifters, Verbal Categories, and the Russian Verb,” (reprinted) in Roman Jakobson – Selected Writings II: Word and Language. The Hague: Mouton. (130-47) —, 1971b. “Two Types of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” (reprinted) in Roman Jakobson – Selected Writings II: Word and Language. The Hague: Mouton. (238-59) Schiffrin, Deborah, 1994. Approaches to Discourse. Oxford: Blackwell.

2. Linguistics and Postmodernism*
I 1. We shall refer to an article in The Times Literary Supplement (dated September 4, 1998) entitled “The Naming Disease: How Jakobson’s Essay on Aphasia Initiated Postmodernist Deceits”. It is authored by James Drake, described by the journal as an ‘insurance broker and independent literary scholar living in California.’ The Roman Jakobson paper that Drake refers to is: “Two Aspects and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances” (reprinted in Roman Jakobson – Selected writings, Vol. 2, 1971). 2. According to Drake, “the essay made the study of tropes central to language. [Jakobson] claimed to have demonstrated from an analysis of the language of aphasia patients that semantics and syntax could be reduced to derived and direct expressions of similarity and contiguity. Metaphor and metonymy must therefore be the underlying principles of language.” 3. Drake deplores both the letter and the spirit of the paper by Jakobson. In his view, Jakobson distorts actual scientific evidence on aphasia, and then extrapolates his findings on metaphor and metonymy to make these tropes, or figurativity in general the central principle of language. Drake does not refer to Jakobson’s independent evidence on metaphor and metonymy in literary language, but claims that [though] “in aphasiology Jakobson’s essay has been forgotten,… in humanities Jakobson’s inventions played an important role in the generation of French postmodernist thinking.” However, Drake (perhaps ruefully) observes that Jakobson’s inclusion of the ‘poetic function’ as one of the six major functions of the linguistic sign resulted in the ‘aestheticizing of language’ which further implied “an ambitious research programme in which linguistics and literary criticism can be used for cultural criticism.” 4. As another milestone in what would be the deceitful march of figurativity, is mentioned an essay by Jacques Derrida (1971), “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy,”

Modified version of a paper presented under the title “Vicissitudes of Linguistic Studies in the Twentieth Century” at the Seminar on Fin-de-siècle: Twentieth Century in Retrospect organized by the Department of Romance and Germanic Studies, University of Delhi, Delhi in February 2000. Previously published under the present title, in International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics, vol. 30, no. 1, 2001 (59-68).

where according to Drake, the former “expands Jakobson’s ‘poetic function’ to all thought.” Quoting Derrida that “[m]etaphysics [is] the white mythology which resembles and reflects the culture of the west: white man takes his own mythology, Indo-European mythology as his own logos, that is the mythos of his own idiom, for the universal form of what he must still wish to call reason,” Drake bewails that this is “the academic version of a guerilla action; one undermines the ‘west’ by attacking the belief that there is such a thing as the grounds of knowledge.” Nevertheless, citing Derrida he is keen to inform us to know that Derridean strategy involves a “new attentiveness to metaphorical activity in theoretical or philosophical discussion.” 5. Later on in his article, Drake claims that “Derrida’s originality lies not in his ideas… but in having blended Jakobson with Heidegger.” Without much further elaboration on this point, he refers to the origin of the term ‘discourse’ in French philosophy, which he says ‘probably’ goes back to “Alexander Kojève’s integration of Heidegger’s theory of discourse with Hegel’s philosophy of language.” 6. Drake’s account skips in its entirety Heidgger’s philosophy of existence, but however, he refers us to Anthony Wilden’s introduction to Lacan’s work, where Heidegger is mentioned as the “most influential exponent in our century of a philosophical theory of ‘discourse’ which matches the more technically-oriented views of a number of linguists.” Curiously, one of the socalled matching definitions that Drake happily endorses comes from the ‘proto-structural’ American linguist, Edward Sapir, for whom the term discourse refers basically to the “cohesive units beyond the sentence.” 7. Leaving the reader in the dark about what is the central concern for Heidegger, namely how the preexistent discourse functions as the existential context or the life-frame for any individual, Drake mentions another article by Jakobson, concerning the linguistic ‘shifters’ or the indexical elements like pronouns and tenses, which are inevitably part of the use of language, and which also embed the speaking subject in particular discourses. However, he finds a subsequent article on the same topic by Emile Benveniste, entitled ‘Subjectivity in Language’ “an instance of the extremes to which this idea can be taken.” Drake goes on to travesty the Heideggerian idea of discourse as the existential background of a human subject by claiming that for Benveniste “[t]he

pronoun “I” is a term which must be considered “an instant of discourse that has only momentary reference”” (the inset quotation is from Benveniste). 8. Proceeding further ‘to show’ that “both Foucault and Barthes [who according to Drake were ‘occasional lovers’] were simply extrapolating from Jakobson’s notion of ‘shifters’ or pronouns to an “evidence for the existence of discourses,” Drake claims that Jakobson had simply renamed (in the context of his discussion of aphasia) naming itself as ‘metaphor and metonymy,’ syntax as ‘contiguity,’ contiguity as ‘metonymy,’ and pronouns as ‘shifters’. And at the end of the line, and in a similar way, Benveniste had merely renamed ‘shifters’ as ‘discourse’. 9. That is how the ‘disease’ of naming / renaming is diagnosed by Drake as central to the pathology of postmodernism. 10. On the basis of this discussion Drake concludes that since “the emphasis on metaphor and linguistics directly echoes Jakobson and since the validity of Jakobson’s theories derives mainly from misrepresentations, lies, and distortions, while a similar mendacity has played a role in their postmodernist manifestations, no aspect of postmodernist scholarship is proof of anything except the decline of some university departments into a condition where, like aphasia patients, they wallow in diseased naming.” Indeed, a shockingly unsympathetic perception of the condition of aphasia! II 1. In the western context, a philosophical concern with ‘correct naming’ is perhaps as old the ancient Greeks. We can discern in Plato’s Cratylus fragment a constant and nagging suspicion that one might after all be calling things by wrong names. In this regard, Socrates’ advice to his pupils is a permanent vigil in the investigation both into the nature of things, as well as their names. 2. This preoccupation with language has survived to this day. The beginning of the 20th century heralded in Europe what is referred to as the ‘linguistic turn’ in Philosophy, and therefore by contagion possibly in the rest of the humanities. Presumably this ‘turn’ was caused by the

recognition of the public and the shared character of language, as opposed to the private nature of consciousness on the one hand, and the unwieldy nature of the empirical reality, on the other. 3. Arguably, there are two rather unrelated directions of the linguistic turn: the one initiated by Gottlob Frege in Philosophy proper5 and the other initiated by the posthumous publication of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale (1916). While the first was directly concerned with the question of naming, i.e., the relationship between words and things, the second dealt more with the internal structure of language, as well as with the relationship between a language and the community of its users. 4. De Saussure had suggested that his ‘semiotic’ model of language, more specifically of the signifying aspect of language, could be extended to the study of the rest of the social field, i.e., to any phenomena possessing shared signification. 5. Strictly speaking, there is an important third line of linguistic research in the twentieth century. Emanating from the positivist philosophy of 19th century, and passing through behaviouristic psychology of early 20th century, it ends up in / as the American formalist linguistics of Leonard Bloomfield, and subsequently that of Noam Chomsky. Chomsky’s linguistics has seen at least three successive formalist phases: 1. mechanistic formalism, 2. mentalistic formalism, and 3. abstract–scientific formalism. 6. It can be seen that Frege and Husserl, the founders of two distinct European philosophical traditions, start from an opposition proposed by the Austrian philosopher, Franz Brentano, between the mental and the physical phenomena. As per Brentano’s formulation, only the mental phenomena have an intentional reference to things. This position would exclude both psychologism and positivism in the study of mental processes like thoughts. From this common starting point provided by Brentano, Frege proceeded towards an ‘intensional’ analysis of thoughts via an analysis of language (yielding what came to be called ‘analytical philosophy’), while Husserl, towards their ‘extensional’ analysis with respect to phenomena (yielding ‘phenomenology’).

Frege’s paper “On Sense and Reference” is seminal in this respect.

7. De Saussure’s ‘systemic’ analysis (i.e., structural linguistics) proposed the following initial dichotomies: a. diachronic vs. synchronic study of language;
b. langue (language system) vs. parole (language use);

c. syntagmatic and paradigmatic dimensions of linguistic organization. In addition, he had introduced the bipartite understanding of the ‘sign’ comprising a negatively-defined and differentially-related signifiers and signifieds, both of which are referred to as ‘mental entities’. De Saussure also emphasized the ‘arbitrary’ as opposed to the ‘motivated’ character of the linguistic sign, meaning thereby that there existed no necessary or natural relationship between the signifier and the signified. 8. De Saussure’s notion of ‘langue’ or the unconscious linguistic system bears a similarity with the phenomena discovered by two of his contemporaries, namely, the idea of the ‘collective consciousness’ of Emile Durkheim, and that of the ‘unconscious’ of Sigmund Freud.6 10. Roman Jakobson was indeed the most important exponent of Saussurian structural linguistics. A Jewish emigré from pre-revolutionary Russia, Jakobson had first moved to Czechoslovakia (Prague) and then to the United States (Harvard University). Jakobson’s role in polpularizing structural linguistics in Europe was more than that of any one else. Perhaps this is what prompted Michel Foucault to say in an interview with an Italian Journalist that “structuralism as such … was surely not discovered by the structuralists of the 60’s nor was it even a French invention. Its real origin is found in an entire series of investigations developed in the U.S.S.R. and the central Europe around the 1920’s.”7 11. Having researched in every conceivable branch of linguistics, Jakobson had great influence on a wide range of scholars even in the adjacent disciplines during the 1950’s. The prominent names in this list include Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Philosophy, Claude Lévi-Strauss

We shall avoid further discussion on this statement about two key terms, the contents of which are well known to scholars in humanities. 7 In Michel Foucault: Remarks on Marx – Conversations with Duccio Trombadori. New York: Semiotext(e). (Tr.) R.J. Goldstein and J. Cascaito, 1991 (1981).

in Anthropology, Jacques Lacan in Psychoanalysis, Louis Althusser in Marxist political theory, and Roland Barthes in literary and cultural criticism. 12. Jakobson’s main innovative contributions in linguistics include: a. the discovery of ‘distinctive features’ based on the principle of binary differential oppositions (with Nikolai Trubetzkoy); b. the identification of the specific semantics of the category of ‘shifters’ (indexical elements) whose meaning is wholly dependent on the context of enunciation. c. metaphor and metonymy as two contrasting but interdependent polar principles of language, corresponding to the paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes of language structure.
d. the characterization of ‘poetic function’ (again on the basis of the centrality of the

principle of metaphor and metonymy) among the six major functions of the linguistic sign.8 13. Among those who were influenced by Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss and Lacan were the most important. Lévi-Strauss was acquainted with Jakobson in the United States around 1950 and subsequently began to apply the latter’s (and Trubetzkoy’s) theory of phonological distinctive features, as well as the concepts of metaphor and metonymy in the context of his own analysis in social anthropology, especially in his analysis of kinship and myths and folktales. In fact, LéviStrauss was so enamoured of the ‘scientificity’ of linguistics that he was to write that “structural linguistics will certainly play the same renovating role with respect to the social sciences that nuclear physics… has played for the physical sciences.”9


The six semiotic functions of language are: the referential, the emotive, the conative, the poetic, the metalinguistic, and the phatic. Jacobson defines these terms as ‘relations’: the referential defines the relations between a message and its object, the emotive defines the relations between the relations between the object and the sender of a message, the conative defines the relations between a message and its receiver, the poetic function defines the relations between a message and itself, the phatic function defines the relations between the sender and the receiver of a message, and the metalinguistic function defines the relations between a message and its code. See, Pierre Guiraud, Semiology, for a detailed elucidation of these terms. 9 Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology Vol. 1, p. 31.

14. Lacan’s passionate acceptance of linguistics is perhaps the most noteworthy event in the context of linguistics’ spreading influence during the twentieth century. In order to reform and radicalize Freudian psychoanalysis Lacan had sought to incorporate a number of theoretical currents. But unlike Freud whose intellectual career seems to have traced a journey from the natural sciences to the humanities (Freud was a medical doctor who ended up having a profound interest in literature and mythology), Lacan at least in part seems to have traveled in the opposite direction: he was keen to make psychoanalysis (appear) scientific. The structural field comprising Saussurian-Jakosonian linguistic and Lévi-Straussian anthropology was his main accomplice in this respect. However his philosophical leaning seems to have been primarily on Hegel and Heidegger. 15. Lacan’s main theoretical moves were the following: a. From Lévi-Strauss he adopts the category of the ‘symbolic’ (as part of his own ternary set ‘Imaginary, Real and Symbolic” corresponding to Freud’s Ego, Id, and Superego respectively) to refer to the semiotic order in which an individual is situated.

(However,) following Heidegger, he places emphasis on the ‘concrete discourse’ that surrounds the individual. He shares Heidegger’s anti-Cartesian view that ‘language speaks man’ than the other way around. That a linguistic sign or symbol involves the ‘death’ of the thing signified is essentially a Hegelian notion.


But in the process, Lacan rewrites De Saussure’s definition of the sign: it is now the concrete signifier S standing over an essentially unstable signified s; the sign is now defined as an ‘algorithm’ S / s. (in their critical reading of Lacan, Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe call this Lacan’s ‘diversion’ of Saussurian linguistics.)


The ‘algorithm’ consists of a potentially infinite chain of signifiers related to each other by way of ‘metaphor’ and ‘metonymy,’ which are also Lacan’s linguisticized terms for the unconscious mechanisms that Freud refers to as ‘condensation’ and ‘displacement’ respectively. Having dethroned the cogito, now ‘desire’ is within the

Lacanian system, naturally the engine of the movement along the infinite chain of signifiers. 16. The last two moves are part of Lacan’s attempt to replace a depth-psychological interpretation of the images of the unconscious (e.g., dreams). For Lacan henceforth, ‘the unconscious is structured like a language.’ In other words, the images are seen as devoid of any inherent content. They are merely links in the infinite chain of signifiers, produced by the engine of sexual desire, which is nothing else than the desire for the other. It is in this sense that according to Lacan ‘the unconscious is the desire for the other.’ 17. As can be noticed that the goal as well as the overall effect of Lacan’s reworking of the psychoanalytical theory is akin to Jakobson’s work on aphasia: both these areas are sought to be tied up with structural linguistics in order to enhance their scientificity. 18. In their carefully articulated reading of Lacan’s work, Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe have pointed out that having ‘diverted’ Saussurian linguistics in establishing the ‘title’ or the authority of the ‘letter’, and having displaced the cogito, Lacanian psychoanalysis goes on to make ‘desire’ the centre of the new ‘scientific’ enterprise whose unquestionable founder would be Lacan himself.10


1. The significance of figurativity (i.e., metaphor and metonymy) for contemporary scholarship is not limited to its purely structural understanding. In relatively recent philosophical texts, especially that of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, we notice its existential and aesthetic relevance duly emphasized. 2. In this context, it is appropriate to consider the question of priority of literality over figurativity or the vice versa. Perhaps this is linked to the error of viewing writing as a

Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, The Title of the Letter – A Reading of Lacan. (Tr.) F. Raffoul and D. Pettigrew. Albany : SUNY Press. 1992 (1973).

‘secondary’ mode of representing speech. Outside the considerations imposed by the Greek alphabetical tradition, it is not difficult to see that writing originated in drawing or painting, and therefore in the ‘figure’.11 Thus it is possible to say that literality, rather than being contrary to, is always and already endowed with a primitive aesthetic of figurativity. 3. Nietzsche’s ambivalence towards figurativity has been subjected to a detailed analysis by Paul de Man.12 On the one hand, Nietzsche seems to be promoting an aesthetic of metaphor in literature, but on the other, he shows that it is the inevitable figurativity of all language that masks or masquerades as truth. To the question, ‘What is truth?’ he responds: “A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically embellished, and which after long usage, seem to a people fixed, canonical and binding. Truths are illusions we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and drained of sensuous force.” (In “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-moral Sense”) 4. Heidegger’s existential analysis starts from a rejection of Husserl’s essentialist phenomenology, which involves a withdrawal from our natural attitude towards lived experience (epoché) as well as an analysis of the thought-forms that supposedly correspond to the phenomenal world.

Following Nietzsche, Heidegger perceives a gap or difference between the unquestionably experienced and accepted world of the ontic and ontological being of reality (i.e., the ‘onticoontological difference’). As regards language, he identifies a parallel gap / difference between the ‘structures of significance’ that underlie the discourse of (average) everyday life, and the language for naming the true nature of things, which has been ‘forgotten’. Poetry according to Heidegger, alone is capable of ‘recalling’ things to their true nature. Recourse to poetry is essentially the way to the recovery of the authentic being, as well as of the being in language.

For instance, Roy Harris is of the view that writing began not as a mode of transcribing speech, but independently in the primitive forms of art, such as the rock art. See, R. Harris, The Origin of Writing, p. 126.

Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading, Ch. 5.

With specific references to the ancient Greek and the German (Hölderlin and Rilke) literary contexts, Heidegger would aver that “poetry is the primal language of a historial people.” 5. In 1906, Frege had written to Husserl: “The main task of the logician consists in liberation from language:”13 The task is quite different for the critical philosophical tradition to which Nietzsche, Heidegger, and more recently Derrida belong: the act of liberation consists in and through language. For Nietzsche, this involves a voluntaristic “affirmation of difference” in a supervening relation to the prevailing decadent human conceptual and moral order. For Heidegger, it involves similarly, the ‘destruction’ of metaphysics on the basis of our sensitivity towards the ontico-ontological difference. And for Derrida, it is the infinite ushering in, or the ‘coming’ of the other in the place of the logocentric priorities of the western philosophical and literary traditions. 6. For the more contemporary postmodern followers of this tradition the precise nature of this encounter has varied: it is ‘transgression’ (in the sense of G. Bataille) with respect to the field of discursive regularities for Michel Foucault; it is ‘deconstruction’ in the sense of an infinite vigil against a metaphysics of ‘presence’ for Jacques Derrida; and it is the constant liberation of the ‘libidinal’ and the ‘pagan’ in relation to an aesthetics of the sublime for Jean-François Lyotard. 7. What we notice in sum is that what has survived from structural linguistics is something that has appeared relatively inconsequential, namely the principle of difference. Incidentally, this is the very principle that Lévi-Strauss, imputing to it a certain positivity, had predicted would ‘renovate’ the social sciences. But, for the postmodernist theory, it is, as it was for de Saussure, a principle of difference that does not admit any positive content, and from which any possibility of a centre has decisively been banished. References: Benveniste, Emile, 1966. “De la subjectivité dans le langage,” in Problémes de linguistque générale, I. Paris: Gallimard. (258-66).


Quoted in Michael Dummet, Origins of Analytical Philosophy, p. 6.

Dummet, Michael, 1994. Origins of Analytical Philosophy. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press. De Man, Paul, 1979. Allegories of Reading. New Haven: Yale University Press. Drake, James, 1998. “The Naming Disease: How Jakobson’s Essay on Aphasia Initiated Postmodernist Deceits,” The Times Literary Supplement, September 4, 1998. Foucault, Michel, 1991. Remarks on Marx – Conversations with Duccio Trombadori. New York: Semiotext(e). (Tr.) R.J. Goldstein and J. Cascaito (1981). Guiraud, Pierre, 1975. Semiology. (Tr.) G. Gross. London: RK & P. Harris, Roy, 1986. The Origin of Writing. London: Duckworth. Jakobson, Roman, 1971. “Two Aspects and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances.” Reprinted in Roman Jakobson – Selected writings, Vol. 2. The Hague: Mouton. (Pp. 239-59) — 1971. “Shifters, Verbal Categories, and the Russian Verb,” in Roman Jakobson – Selected Writings, Vol. 2. The Hague: Mouton. (Pp. 130-47) Lévi-Strauss, 1967. Structural Anthropology Vol. 1. New York: Anchor Books. Nancy, Jean-Luc and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, 1992. The Title of the Letter – A Reading of Lacan. (Tr.) F. Raffoul and D. Pettigrew. Albany : SUNY Press. (1973). Wilden, Anthony, 1968. The Language of the Self. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

3. Metaphor and Space*
1. Spatial models Along with the decline of the logicist paradigms, there has been increasing reference to spatial modeling and schemata in contemporary linguistics and semiotics. Perhaps, it is the need to rescue linguistic, and particularly, meaning analysis from the obscurely mentalist accounts, and to give it a physicalist or materialist orientation that has prompted such a shift towards spatiality. Parallelly, scholars have shied away from the definition of language as an abstract system consisting of arbitrary symbols and the rules of their computation and interpretation. The semiotic field is no longer the container or the expresser of some otherwise indecipherable logical entities or processes, but it can henceforth be stretched out, so to say, on the ground in plain daylight. Language, which according to Saussure’s original idea, was analogically the substratum to which other cultural discourses could be compared and thus studied, now had to submit itself to an abstract or real space in order to render its structure clear. The guiding principle here is that by taking recourse to spatiality, the symbolic structure can be exteriorized. Consequently, The pre- or sub-symbolic base of the symbolic level is taken to be constituted of the spatial dimension. Further, in contrast to the mentalist approaches of the type followed by Noam Chomsky, which insisted on an uncompromising universalism, the spatial analyses were amenable to culturally specific accounts, while retaining for themselves the factum of the universality of ‘space.’ What Hjelmslev called the ‘localist hypothesis’ in grammatical theory, especially with reference to the debates within nineteenth century German scholarship (Hjelmslev, 1935; see Manjali, 1991 for a brief summary of the relevant sections of this work), seems to have returned as the methodological principle of ‘spatialization of form’ in the second half of the twentieth century. Lucien Tesnière in his proposal for an ‘actantial’ theory of syntactic structure, had suggested that the syntactico-semantic part of sentences could be viewed as a vitalistic ‘little drama,’ characterized by a theatre-like, and hence, anthropomorphic performers or ‘actants’ and contextdefining ‘circumstants.’ Edward Sapir had proposed a similar — actantial and localistic — model


Modified version of a paper previously published in VISIO, International Journal of Visual Semiotics, Vol. 6, No. 2-3, 2001 (149-63). It has also appeared in H.S. Gill (ed.) Signification in Language and Culture. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2002. (233-50) An earlier version of the paper was presented under the title, “Sticky Spaces, or the Inexorable Spatiality of Conceptual Metaphors,” at the International Conference on Culture and Space organized by the University of Laval at Quebec city, Canada, October 19-20, 2001.

of sentence-structure.14 In the more recent American context, the spatialisation of form principle has been more seriously followed by Charles Fillmore, Ronald Langacker and Len Talmy. The localist-actantial theory has been submitted to rigorous mathematical-topological formalisation in the works of the French scientists René Thom and Jean Petitot. Proceeding from Thom’s catastrophe-theoretical modelling, Petitot in his Morphogénèse du sens (1985) goes on to propose a Kantian-type of schematisation of linguistic and semiotic structures. In developing structuralism as a cognitive theory of ‘morphodynamics,’ Petitot has also reinforced Gilles Deleuze’s idea that structures are essentially ‘topological and relational,’ that is, even before they are filled with any specific content. What is assumed in this approach is an isomorphism between the dynamics of the rational interiority of the human mind and the physical dynamics of the external world.

2. Iconicity and motivation In order to understand the fundaments of the spatialisation project it is perhaps useful to take recourse, via Roman Jakobson, to Charles Sanders Peirce’s ‘Semiotic.’ The latter being a semiotics that subsists our logical understanding of the natural world, eschews Saussure’s imperative of a linguistic mediation between the ‘nebulous’ thought and the equally chaotic ‘reality’ of the world by the ‘system’ of discrete signs. At the top of Peirce’s ternarian hierarchy, signs are divided into icons, indexes and symbols. These are characterised by relations of ‘factual similarity,’ ‘factual, existential contiguity,’ and ‘imputed and learned contiguity’ respectively between the signifier and the signified (or, representamen and object in Peirce’s terms). In the symbol, its two parts are connected by a conventional ‘rule.’ Peirce avers that these are not names of pure sign-types, but are indications of certain predominant tendencies within each. These tendencies may and do exist as combinations in any given sign, including the linguistic sign. Jakobson notes in this context that according to Peirce “the ‘most perfect signs’ are those in which the iconic, the indexical and the symbolic characters are ‘blended as equally as possible.’” (Jakobson, “Quest,” p. 349)


See Roman Jakobson’s discussion in “Quest for the Essence of Language,” Selected Writings Vol. II, p. 351. Such models, especially the actantial ones, have an historical antecedent in the work of the 6th century Indian philosopher of language, Bhartrhari (see Manjali, 2000). According to Bhartrhari, sentence-meaning is comprehended as a unified whole, like a picture (citra-jñāna).

Equally important for our discussion is Peirce’s further division of icons into images, diagrams and metaphors. As per his definitions, the images are icons “which partake of simple qualities...”; the diagrams are “those which represent relations, mainly dyadic, or so regarded, of the parts of one thing by analogous relations in their parts;” and the metaphors are “those which represent the representative character of a representamen by representing a parallelism in something else.” (see Hiraga, 1994, p. 6, fn.) Thus, the specific properties characterising the three types of icons are qualitative imitation, structural analogy and imputed parallelism respectively. The images and the diagrams will have some objective correspondence between the representamen / signifier and the object / signified, while in the case of the metaphor-icons, the correspondence may be perceptually or experientially constituted on the basis of a parallelism. Peircean units seem to form a continuum starting from those having a maximum of objective correspondence between the object and the spatial / temporal form of the representamen as in the case of the image, and ending with the ‘arbitrary’ or law-like symbol, where such a correspondence is almost absent. In this continuum, the metaphor occupies a somewhat middle position, the nature of the correspondence here being a parallelism that is subjectively felt. The iconicity of the metaphor is thus part-objective, part-subjective. I.e., Obj. ICON (IMAGE, DIAGRAM, METAPHOR) – INDEX – SYMBOL pole Subj. pole

Peircean semiotics is thus directly amenable to a spatial perspective. The icon and the index with the similarity and contiguity principles that govern them, are clearly signs that subscribe to a spatial dimension. So are the two subtypes of icons, viz., images and diagrams. And when it comes to the metaphors as the third subtype of icon, Peirce refers us to a quasi-spatial notion of ‘parallelism.’ Only the symbol, among the first five types of signs stands apart as primarily based on arbitrariness / convention (‘law’). Even these are not exempt from being iconically or indexically conditioned. Saussure addresses the problem of the natural or conventional relationship between the signifier and signified, not by way of a typology of signs à la Peirce, but in terms of two ‘principles,’ motivation and arbitrariness, the latter being the dominant one. Since signs, individually or in combinations, are all arbitrary (except for odd instances of sound-symbolism and onomatopoeia),

according to Saussure, they do not resemble anything outside of language.15 Now, Jakobson, in his ‘Quest’ essay, makes it amply clear that iconicity or motivation can be attested not only at the level of unitary signs, but also at the level of syntax and morphology. Saussure himself was acutely aware of this issue, introducing it under the heading ‘Absolute and Relative Arbitrariness’ in his Cours de linguistique générale. Though he favours the ‘fundamental principle of the arbitrariness of the sign,’ he insists on the ‘limits of arbitrariness.’ As he outlines the problem: ...the whole system of language is based on the irrational principle of the arbitrariness of the sign, which would lead to the worst sort of complication if applied without restriction. But the mind contrives to introduce a principle of order and regularity into certain parts of the mass of signs, and this is the role of relative motivation. (Course, p. 133) (italics added) In any given language, though some signs (most of which appear to be individual ones) may be ‘absolutely arbitrary,’ other signs (which may appear in sign-combinations) can be spoken of only in terms of degrees of arbitrariness. Signs can be radically or relatively arbitrary, and individual languages may combine these two (sub-)principles in unpredictable ways: There is no language in which nothing is motivated, and our definition makes it impossible to conceive of a language in which everything is motivated. Between the two extremes – a minimum of organization and a minimum of arbitrariness – we find all possible varieties. Diverse languages always include elements of both portions that vary greatly... (ibid., p. 133) The weight of evidence in favour of the new principle of ‘relative motivation‘ is indeed strong. Providing us with useful lexical and syntactic examples, Saussure states that one can speak of ‘relative motivation’ whenever a sign can be syntagmatically analysed into parts, and any of the part/s thus obtained can be associatively compared with other signs (of the same system). His well-known example in this regard is the opposition between vingt and dix-neuf. The former is radically arbitrary and the latter, because of the associations its two components, dix and neuf have with other words in the system of the French language, e.g., dix-huit and vingt-neuf, is relatively arbitrary / motivated.

Though Saussure does not admit any direct extra-systemic similarity between the signifier and the signified, he accepts a principle of analogy working within the language system. The latter renders possible paradigms of (similarly) significant forms.

Let us follow Saussure’s argument more closely. Language is made up of discrete signs, which owing to fact that they emerge from ‘collective behaviour’ or by ‘convention,’ acquire the ‘irrational’ principle of arbitrariness, according to which there cannot be any natural connection between the signifier and the signified. The limited or partial motivation that the system of language has is due to our mind’s “contriving to introduce a principle of order and regularity.” And this is so because, the mechanism of language is but a partial correction of a system that is “by nature chaotic.” Saussure seems to be saying this: Because language arises due to convention, it possesses an irrational principle of arbitrariness, which makes it naturally chaotic. In other words, language’s being conventional gives it a chaotic nature. Mind introduces an order on it by reducing its arbitrariness, and making it partially motivated. It is because of the mind’s action that there are natural connections between some signifiers and the corresponding signifieds. Mind organizes the vast and chaotic array of arbitrary signs into a relatively well-ordered system of language by means of the classical (Aristotelian) principle of analogy.16 Without paying much heed to Saussure’s explanation of relative motivation in morphology and syntax in terms of the syntagmatic and associative axes of language, a method presumably forced on him by the linear and systemic character of language, Jakobson adopts a Peircean approach to the problem. True to the Peircean categories, Jakobson renames the Saussurean problem of relative motivation as the problem of iconicity in language.17 More precisely, in terms of the diagram-icon. And, correspondingly, he restates the problem as a problem of ‘parts and wholes’ within a syntagmatically analysable sign-unit: Not only the combination of words into syntactic groups but also the combination of morphemes into words exhibits a clear-cut diagrammatic character. Both in syntax and morphology any relation of parts and wholes agrees with Peirce’s definition of diagrams and their iconic nature. (‘Quest,’ p. 352)

What Saussure is saying amounts to this: Individual signs which arise from ‘collective behaviuor’ and established by ‘convention’ may be arbitrary in the sense of not having any natural connection between the signifier and the signified. But as part of a system of signs, the originally arbitrary signs have been subjected, at least partially, to some sort of analogical ordering by the action of mind. Here, as elsewhere in the Course, the economic metaphor might be at work: individual notes or coins may be arbitrary in realtion to thier monetary value, but within a particular currency system, there is bound to be an analogical ordering based on the size of the notes, or the weight of the coins. Higher the denomination, greater the size of the notes, or the weight of the coins.

In Cognitive Linguistics, the Jakobsonian term ‘iconicity’ is widely accepted.

Following Peirce and Jakobson, but in contradistinction to Saussure,18 contemporary Cognitive Linguistics tends to see iconicity in sentence structures. Consequently, even a correspondence between the order of the elements in a sentence, and that of the things / events in the referential world can be taken as a case of (diagrammatic) iconicity. Jakobson’s example in this respect is Julius Caesar’s famous words Veni, vidi, vici, which reflect the temporal order of the emperor’s deeds. This ‘correspondence in order between the signans and the signatum’ is regarded as a good enough principle of iconicity in Cognitive Linguistics. Now, we should note here that principle of analogy invoked by Saussure for accounting for the limitation of arbitrariness and the notion of diagrammatic iconicity suggested by Peirce and Jakboson are indeed parallel and conceptually proximate. Their difference is that whereas, the diagram, owing to its iconicity can function either within or without a system of signs, analogy lacks a direct and referential iconicity and suggests a parallelism that is merely system-internal. Thus the ‘relative motivation’ in morphology or syntactic structure, is strictly speaking, analogical and not diagrammatic. This iconicity principle has been used extensively by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their accounts of what they call the ‘conceptual metaphors.’ Lakoff and Johnson have argued that metaphors are not just linguistic entities or categories, but are in fact conceptual in nature. They claim that “metaphors partially structure our everyday concepts and that this structure is reflected in our literal language” (quoted in MacCormac, 1985: 57). The preponderance of metaphors in language use — whether they are dead, conventional, fresh, or poetic — and the systematic and networked relations among them suggest that metaphors are not just a matter of mere linguistic play, but are indeed the manner in which human beings conduct their thought or conceptualize. Metaphor is thus a universally prevalent and pre-eminent cognitive process. These conceptual metaphors, they further claim, function on the basis of iconicity, that is, their creation as well as use involve bodily-experienced or perceived similarity, between items or events in the world. Further, in the creation of metaphors, they assume a clearly discernible directionality: metaphorical meanings proceed from domains that are more concrete and more immediate to those that are less concrete or ‘abstract.’ Thus, they also conclude that our body is the ultimate and the most primitive resource for our more abstract perceptual and conceptual constructions. They also emphasize the importance of schemas derived from the structure and the basic functions and

Saussure takes most sentences, except the formula ones, to be a unit of speech (parole), and not of the language system (langue).

activities of the human body. Experientially-constituted ‘image-schemas’ based on the structure and basic actions of our body are at the root of our complex and abstract thought. According to Johnson our “very basic and very complex range of bodily experiences... occurring at [the] experiential and pre-linguistic level” results in the “embodiment of meaning, which provides a semantic basis for linguistic forms, meaning and the structure of speech acts.” (Johnson, 1992: 348) Lakoff and Johnson’s basic argument runs as follows. Primitive bodily experience gives rise to the ‘image-schemas’ with their iconic quality, play structuring role in our cognition and language. Thus, our cognition, language and other social practices bear definite traces of the bodily image-schemas. Even most of our new experiences and novel use of language are coloured by these traces. Owing to the iconic or image-schematic character of these traces, which in turn is a basic part of our cognitive processes, their linguistic manifestation at the syntactic, semantic or pragmatic levels of language should be thought of as a widespread occurrence of conceptual metaphors. Thus, even the literal language is suffused with metaphors, which are not dead, but which come alive every time the latent conceptual metaphors are again put to work. Poetic metaphors are only further creative extensions of this inexorable (bodily and iconically rooted) metaphoricity in thought and language.

3. The classical approach: imitation and metaphor Let us delve deeper into the problem. In Plato’s well-known dialogue, Cratylus, we find Socrates at first agreeing with Cratylus’ naturalist view on the origin and nature of language. Socrates argues that at the origin of language, a hypothetical name-giver must have employed some sort of sound-symbolism in order to arrive at the right names for things, just as the painter or the musician would employ the right forms and colours or the right sounds to undertake their respective artistic activities, with natural correctness. As Socrates puts it, the name-giver must have created: by letters and syllables a sign and a name for each and every thing, and from those names he compounds all the rest by imitation. The examples of such sound-symbolism that Socrates provides us with are indeed instructive. The consonantal sound r is (naturally) appropriate as ‘an excellent instrument for the expression of motion’ (many Greek words relating to motion containing this sound) because ‘the tongue is least

agitated and least at rest in pronunciation of this letter.’ He gives similar ‘natural’ reasons for the use of other consonants to express some primitive meaning essences: the sibilants and fricatives whose ‘pronunciation is accompanied by a great expenditure of breath’ are used for imitating ‘windiness’ involved in shivering, seething, shock, etc.; ‘the closing and pressure of the tongue in the utterance of d and t is expressive of binding and rest in a place’; ‘liquid movement of l, in the pronunciation of which the tongue slip, and in this he found in this he found the expression of smoothness. And as for vowels, Socrates mentions o, ‘which [is] the sign of roundness...’ Now, what is remarkable in these Socratic assertions, is not just the fact of imitation by sound, but indeed it is the specific character of the imitation. The sound r imitates ‘motion’ because its production involves the agitation of the tongue, and its lack of rest. The windiness of the sibilants and the fricatives imitates the rapid expiration involved in emotions like shock, anger, etc. These imitations involve certain rhythmic or steady movement of the tongue in time, and are therefore appropriate for imitating events or actions that have a sudden temporal / dynamic character. As a converse of r, closing and pressure of the tongue in d and t, imitates ‘rest in a place.’ Here a certain steady spatial posture of the tongue imitates a state of rest. And similarly, and perhaps more apparently, the rounded shape of the mouth while pronouncing o, which is also imitated in the shape of the Greek letter o, is naturally appropriate for imitating the corresponding sound o! It is really not just a case of a sound that imitates the meaning, but rather it is the shape of the mouth-orifice while producing a particular sound that mimics the meaning. A particular sound has acquired a corresponding symbolic meaning, because there is a mimetic relationship between the spatial (and temporal) mode of articulating the sound and a certain (spatial and temporal) ‘essence’ of the thing referred to. The iconicity here is indeed that of the bodily, i.e., the oral, gesture. One may add here that the view pertaining to oral iconicity put forward by Socrates in quasi-defence of Cratylus’ naturalism, if stretched to its impossible logical conclusion, would indeed seem to threaten the much avowed structuralist principle of double articulation. But this does not happen because any natural connection that may exist between a sound and its manner of articulation on the one hand and the corresponding meaning on the other, is progressively attenuated by means of analogy, metaphorization and compounding in the larger discursive process. (The same phenomenon of bodily mimesis can be attested elsewhere too. For example, it has been noted by the author that the syllable mu – which involves, in its articulation, a protrusion and near-closure of the lips – is present word-initially in the Malayalam language in a number words that contain the signification of pointedness or a sharp angle, e.g. the point of a knife, thorn,

breast, corner, etc. Here again, it is the shape of the mouth – and by extension the corresponding sound – that imitates the shape – an ‘essence’ – of the thing denoted.) If Socrates’ intuition in this respect is correct, then unlike in painting or music, immediate and intimate resources of the body are employed in linguistic imitation. Language, or ‘naming’ involves, according to Socrates, a ‘natural’ kind of action for imitating the essences of things. This imitation, he thinks, is different from the imitation in music and painting, which have to imitate only the sounds (in the former) and the form and the colours (in the latter) pertaining to events or objects in the world. Here, we notice that on the one hand, Socrates perceives a difference between the artistic imitation in such arts as music and painting, which is a kind of form-to-form imitation (where both the forms can be located in the spatial or temporal dimension) and the (art of ) linguistic imitation which involves an imitation of the essences of things by sounds, but on the other hand, he actually reduces these so-called essences that correspond to language to their spatial or temporal forms, which are in turn imitated by the manner of articulation of the speech sounds. These essences need not be a priori, but are constituted in our encounter with the objects and events, and the role of language is only to copy them with the given resources of our body. In this account, the very basic level linguistic articulation begins with mimesis, and language is essentially mimicry. (Notice that strictly speaking Socrates is concerned with two kinds of imitation in language, which correspond to the generic distinction between music and painting. For instance, when the sound r imitates motion, the type of imitation may be referred to as that involving a certain temporalrhythmicity, because it is the rhythmic movement occurring in time that is imitated by the articulation of the sound r. On the other hand, when the sound o imitates roundness, the imitation may be that of a spatial-figurative kind.) What is significant about this account of mimicry at the origin of language is that it is not forced on him by the nature of things. Things do not cause imitation. The latter results from the correct matching of a property extracted from (the nature of) things and a sound unit extracted from the phonetic stream. As such, the initial imitation is neither caused nor ‘motivated,’ nor is it random or ‘arbitrary.’ It is a creative action that man performs according to his sense of the fitness of things. The fundamental sound symbolism and mimicry is not just a process oriented to an objective truth, but rather a proto-æsthetic or a phonæsthetic activity.

The preceding discussion highlights only Socrates’ arguments in favour of naturalism. Later in the dialogue, he counterposes the thesis for an all-out naturalism with the anti-thesis of a strong conventionalism. He argues that the conception of natural correctness assumed by the hypothetical name-giver, could very well be wrong. And if that is the case, “we who are his followers” and have inherited his conception would also be wrong. It is at this point that Socrates distances from a position of strong naturalism: everyone should expend his chief thought and attention on the consideration of first principles:- are they or are they not rightly laid down? And when he has duly sifted them, all the rest will follow. Thus we see, at the base of language Socrates is arguing for a principle of natural correctness rooted in bodily mimicry, that is, oral gesture. But, one may discover this principle to be wrongly founded. The historically later followers of the hypothetical name-giver may progressively correct this founding principle, or they may invent more appropriate principles. Thus, there would be an increasing movement (at least from a historical point of view) from nature to convention; from mere natural correctness to the conventionally constituted truth without relinquishing the materiality and corporeality upon which imitation and similarity are predicated. The scenario Socrates presents us with is the following. The name-giver imitates the specific / assumed essences of things with his bodily / oral resources. The recognition of the semanticallyappropriate sounds is preceded by an analysis of the process of articulation. Articulation of sounds is appropriate for the expression of particular essences of things. There is a matching between the formal essences of things and the sounds at one level, and between the substantive form of the things and the manner of articulation at another level. Using Hjelmslevian terms, we can say that the first level involves an equivalence between the form of content and the form of expression, and the second level involves an equivalence between the substance of content and the substance of expression. The first results in ‘sound symbolism,’ and the second in ‘mimicry’: Essence of thing : (Form of Content) : Thing : (Substance of Content) : Imitating sound (Form of expression) Imitative action (Substance of Expression) (Sound symbolism)


But, such equivalencies may neither be adequate to begin with, nor would they hold for everyone and for all eternity. The correctness of the bodily and spatially articulated names are unstable. The names may not be equivalent to the things. The equivalence may be wrongly conceived by the name-giver. The names being given according to “the conception of the name-giver” may be more or less than appropriate to the things. The imitation may be more or less adequate. (This is not unlike metaphors, which are also signifiers that suggest an exaggeration or a diminution of the thing referred to.) In oral imitation or mimicry, the names are already distanced from and reconfigured in relation to things. They are already deviant, tropes. Though there can be more and more of names, more or less deviant, Socrates warns us that “[h]e who follows names in the search of things, and analyses their meaning, is in great danger of being deceived.” Names can never be entirely true to things. Besides, since the first imitation is not a plastic imitation, it is transmitted socially from the namegiver to other possible users of language. And because naming is imitative action displayed for the benefit of the others, there is a going-beyond of the name from the self to the others. Socrates: “And if [the name-giver’s] conception was erroneous, and he gave names according to his conception, in what position shall we who are his followers find ourselves? Shall we not be deceived by him.” But since ‘we’ also have just the same bodily and spatial resources and capacities for imitatively creating names, names which are ever-deviant, that is metaphors, these names constantly go beyond the things and our own selves, in a lateral process that can go on infinitely. Perhaps now we are in a position to better appreciate Aristotle’s discussion on imitation and metaphor in Poetics. According to Aristotle, imitation and metaphor are two special qualities that man is endowed with, and they are described as one of the two causes for the origin of poetry (the other is harmony and rhythm), and as the mark of poetic excellence, respectively. “Poetry has sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation he learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence for this... Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight

when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.” Thus, in the Aristotelian syllogism implicitly at work here, the ‘instinct’ of imitation is linked with learning. And learning gives man the ‘liveliest pleasure.’ Therefore, Aristotle is able to conclude that “men enjoy seeing a likeness...” This ‘likeness’ returns later when Aristotle discusses metaphor as one of the modes of linguistic expression. Metaphor is defined as the “application of an alien name by transference.” Though, poetic excellence generally involves observation of ‘propriety’ in the use of the modes of expression, metaphor has a very special status. Here propriety is not the matter of a pre-given or natural correctness in the relationship between the signifier and the signified. It is that of an aptitude for noting likenesses on the basis of which a name originally used for one signified can be transferred to another. Of all the poetic qualities, Aristotle notes, ...the greatest thing is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another, it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphor implies an eye for resemblances. Thus imitation, which is a natural human ‘instinct,’ is also an ideal tool for learning, and it therefore gives pleasure to all men equally. At the same time, the poetic metaphor, though it too involves ‘an eye for resemblances,’ is something special, perhaps restricted to those with strong artistic sensibility. It is a ‘mark of genius’ and cannot be learnt by way of instruction.19

4. Embodiment of speech and culture Unlike Socrates, for whom iconicity is a matter of spatial or temporal form which is imitated by the spatial resources of the body, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a phenomenologist of our own times, views the perceptual process as a result of the interaction between a person’s body and the spatial dimension into which she is thrown from her birth. Merleau-Ponty’s theory of cognition, itself based in the primacy of perception, is informed by his principal notions of embodiment, enaction

In his long and engaging discussion of the role of metaphor in philosophy, Derrida is not interested in the fact that for Aristotle metaphor has simultaneously an aesthetic and an aletheic status. See Derrida, J., 1982, pp. 230-45.

and embeddedness.20 A person uses her body as the central point of orientation while perceiving and conceptually describing both the space that surrounds her as well as the objects that appear in space. There is a continuous going back-and-forth between the space outside and the figure-space of the human body, which involves a projection of the body of the subject into the world, and a corresponding introjection of the world on the subject. The relation between body and space, is not to be seen as the relation of interiority between an physically-existing body and an objective space in which the former is located. Beneath the objective space, there is a “spatiality…which merges with the body’s very being. To be a body, is to be tied to a certain world, our body is not primarily in space: it is of it.” (Merleau-Ponty, M., Phenomenology of Perception, p. 148) Merleau-Ponty insists that this primitive ‘body-image’ plays a key role in our apprehensions of objects in space. “Body-image is …a way of stating that my body is in-the-world.” (ibid., p. 101) The presence of body-image in this manner is evident in our use of spatial prepositions: “When I say that the object is on the table, I always mentally put myself either in the table or in the object, and apply to them a category which theoretically fits the relationship of my body to eternal objects. Stripped of this anthropological association, the word on is indistinguishable from the word under or the word beside.” (ibid., p. 101) According to Merleau-Ponty, body and space are interrelated in two important ways. Firstly, a person recognises the spatial unity of her body enactively through perception and bodily movement in space. Secondly, a person’s body for her is not like any other object in the world. It is instead, the centre of the world. Space is like an extension or an organic envelope of the body which in turn sustains the unity of the body-space system, just as the heart sustains (and is sustained by) the body: Our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system. (p. 203) That is why we also understand the spatiality of objects in terms of the body’s spatiality. For example, we understand a cube not in terms of its purely objective properties arrayed in a disconnected manner, but as a fragment of space ‘enclosed’ between its six equal faces, just as we can experience ourselves as enclosed between the four walls of a room. (ibid., p. 204)

See Varela, F. (1991) for a useful discussion of the relevant issues.

The philosophy of Merleau-Ponty is characterised by a corporeal and perceptual materialism. The experience of body-in-space and the inter-relationship between body and its ambient space is the most fundamental experience for an individual. A subject experiences the world through her body and perception. Further, the body is the affirmation of one’s existence in the world. This affirmation is expressive in a ‘certain field of action’ formed by the external space and a person’s body. (ibid., p. 180) Merleau-Ponty would say, “the body expresses existence at every moment,” just as a word expresses thought, or a poem expresses its meaning. It is this capacity of body to be displayed in space, that makes it comparable to ‘a work of art,’ just as “in a picture or a piece of the idea is incommunicable by means other than the display of colours and sounds.” (ibid., p. 150) Language, according to Merleau-Ponty begins with the body’s (existential) expressivity, and in the perception of this expressivity in others. Therefore the source of speech is in bodily gesture. The oral organs which have other biological functions, are specialised in man for linguistic expressivity, giving rise to a more specific ‘oral gesticulation’ or a kind of ‘gestural onomatopoeia.’21 Thus, in spoken language: ... a contraction of the throat, a sibilant emission of air between the tongue and teeth, a certain way of bringing the body into play suddenly allows itself to be invested with a figurative significance which is conveyed outside us. ... For the miracle to come about, phonetic ‘gesticulation’ must use an alphabet of already acquired meanings, the wordgesture must be performed in a certain setting common to the speakers, just as the comprehension of other gestures presupposes a perceived world common to all, in which each one develops and spreads out meaning. The spoken expression, thus, is not something that can be computed from its parts. It stands as a whole, as a relief against the background of the speaker’s body and the surrounding space. It is a ‘gesture’ in the figurative (iconic) as well as the deictic (indexical) sense of the term. The spoken word is a genuine gesture, and it contains its meaning in the same way as the gesture contains its. (ibid., 183) And, The spoken word is a gesture, and its meaning, a world. (ibid., p. 184)

Gill, J.H., 1991: 95.

Similarly, we understand the speech of others too as gestures, gestures again directed to specific tasks in the world. These gestures, Merleau-Ponty says, stand on their own, and cannot be reduced to some shared and pre-existing intellectual meanings. They too are ‘understood’ as body’s intentionally-oriented responses to tasks in the world. What takes place in a verbal gesture is a body-to-body communication in a specific spatio-temporal world. “The meaning of a gesture thus ‘understood’ is not behind it, it is intermingled with the structure of the world outlined by the gesture, and which I take up on my own account.” (ibid., p. 186.) History of the verbal gestures between individuals, and by extension between communities, sets up progressively a ‘common world,’ and any novel gesticulations refer to this fund of previous gestures, which function like a common spatial world within which every gesture is understood. Thus Merleau-Ponty believes that behind the conventional language there exists a primary and more direct form of bodily signification, which is inter-subjectively recognised. “This incarnate significance is the central phenomenon of which body and mind, sign and significance are abstract moments.” (ibid., p. 166) Behind ‘the conceptual and delimiting meaning of words,’ there exists an “emotional content of the word, which [is] its gestural sense, which is all-important in poetry, for example.” If this is really the case, then “words, vowels and phonemes are so may ways of ‘singing’ the world...and their function is to represent things, not as the naïve onomatopoeic theory would have it, by means of an objective resemblance, but because they extract and literally express, their emotional essence.” (ibid., p. 187) Our gestures, including our oral / phonetic gestures have an unmediated, and indirect meaning in the world. It conveys the subject’s position in the world of meanings that constitute our ‘mental’ or cultural life, which “borrows its structure from the natural life” (ibid., p. 193). Thinking subject has its basis in an incarnate subject. Further, since the human body and its motility in space is responsible for the subject’s view of the world and for making this view come into existence, the body is also “the condition of possibility ... of all expressive operations and all acquired views which constitute the cultural world.” (ibid., p. 388) Now, since the expressive gestures take place in ever new spatial and cultural fields, speech, especially authentic speech, “puts up a new sense.” Considering that even the acquired significances were once new, Merleau-Ponty claims that there is ‘an ultimate fact’ of “this open and indefinite power of giving significance – that is both of apprehending and conveying a meaning – by which man transcends towards a new form of behaviour, or towards other people, or towards his own thought, through his body and his speech.” (ibid., p. 194) And this process can tend towards some sort of a cultural universal, which is “no

longer the overarching universal of a strictly objective method, but a sort of lateral universal which we acquire through ethnological experience and its incessant testing of the self through the other person and the other person through the self” (Merleau-Ponty, Signes, p. 150; Signs p. 120: quoted in Gill, J.H., 1991: 47; emphasis, the present author’s). Merleau-Ponty’s other name for this infinitely “lateral” process is ‘dialogue’: In the experience of dialogue, there is constituted between the other person and myself a common ground; my thought and his are interwoven into a single fabric (...). We have here a dual being, where the other is for me no longer a mere bit of behaviour in my transcendental field, nor I in his; we are collaborators for each other in consummate reciprocity Our perspectives merge into each other, and we coexist through a common world. In the present dialogue, I am freed from myself, for other person’s thoughts are certainly his... (Phenomenology of Perception, p. 354) This dialogue begins early in life with the child’s imitation of the (gestural) language of the adults in response to tasks for which common results are intended. In the process, a whole array of signs is acquired. Now, since communication is essentially inter-corporeal, the sedimented meanings of each of these signs are less relevant for individuals than the expressive effect that the signs can have over and above their permutations and combinations in actual speech. Here, what MerleauPonty calls the speaking speech (as opposed to the cognitively sedimented, spoken speech) becomes another layer of expressive gesture, which is like a personal or a specific cultural style. This style or perspective is what Merleau-Ponty in his unfinished last work, The Visible and the Invisible, views as the metaphoric mode. This second layer or reflective style is indicative of a certain “slacken[ing of] the intentional threads that attach us to the world...” (ibid., p. xviii). In this slackening, what is otherwise opaque becomes visible, and what is visible, is so only through the transparency of the style. The first of these movements means that, Language can vary and amplify inter-corporeal communication as much as we wish: it has the same source and style as the latter. Here too, what was secret must become public and almost visible. In language, as in inter-corporeal communication, significations come through in whole packages, scarcely sustained by a few peremptory gestures. (Signes, p. 27)

And owing to the style or the ‘metaphoric mode,’ which is also the cultural process of ‘slackening’:

The effective, present, ultimate and primary being, the thing in itself, are in principle apprehended in transparency through their perspectives, offer themselves therefore only to someone who wishes not to have them, nor to hold them as with forceps, or to immobilise them as under the lens of a microscope, but to let them be and to witness their continued being... (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 101) Thus for Merleau-Ponty, the metaphoric, being closely related to reflective mode of thought and to cultural mode of being, is a specifically human mode of language, situated mid-way between the entirely mystical and the too positive. It is a mode wherein one is able to ‘transport’ oneself beyond the subjective and the objective, and by means of which one establishes infinite intersubjective worlds.22

5. The sense of metaphor In the preceding sections we mainly focused on the spatial, the corporeal and the iconic dimensions of the linguistic phenomenon of metaphor. Whatever be the psychological and ideal aspects that it may be said to possess, fundamentally human language is an activity proceeding from the human body situated in an ambient space and time. Therefore, language is a sort of gesture occurring in space (and time). However, it is not a gesture involving the whole of human body, but is specialised in and limited to the oro-oto-laryngeal region of the body. In addition to this communicative specialisation which man shares with many other species of animals, he is endowed with the unique property of being able to oro-laryngeally produce an imitative fragment of certain essential properties of objects and events in the world around him. This imitation, as assumed by classical Greek thought, is not stimulus-bound, but is creative. Thus, the human vocal organs can produce non-instrumentally a copy of the forms and figures and in the world. Hence Socrates’ hypothesis about o replicating roundness, sibilants replicating windiness, and d and t replicating levelness, etc.


This idea, based on the etymological sense of metaphor as ‘transport’ has been eminently developed by E. Levinas, in his essay, “Meaning and Sense.” See reference below.

However, the copies need not always be vocally iconic. Just as the iconically produced voice is already another substance standing for the thing / event in the world, other substances such as letters and pictures can copy the thing. Further, there need not be a relation of concrete iconicity between the thing and its copy, i.e., either of the image or of the diagrammatic kind, in the sense of Peirce. Thus, substances that are not directly meant for the representational purpose, but which resemble an original thing or its assumed property, can stand for the latter. Such is the case, for example, with the emblematic signs. By extension, words and other representations of such substances can stand for the original thing. And so on and so forth. The imitation that inaugurates human language is not forced on man. Language is an quasi-artistic activity, and thus in part comparable with painting and music. Many thinkers agree that at the root of language there is iconicity, similarity and figurativity, proceeding from the most easily available natural objects, especially the human body: For Socrates, certain essences of things in nature can be iconically reproduced by oral gestures. In due course, these iconic forms are subjected to inter-subjective correction, and are conventionalised. For Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, the verbal gesticulation is decidedly a type of bodily display of existential / subjective responses in the situated space. Use of conventional signs, he argues, is a “late form of relationship between people, they presuppose an earlier means of communication.”23 Jean-Jacques Rousseau similarly believes that it is not physical needs like hunger and thirst, but moral needs and passions such as love, hatred, pity, anger, etc., that first resulted in language, and “figurative language was the first to be born.” Man’s “first words were singable and passionate before they became simple and methodical.”24 There is implicit agreement among these philosophers that the source of language, one way or another, is physis, i.e., the body in and of nature. At the source, the truth of the linguistic signs is figurative. The figurative truth at first represented in iconic or indexical signs (in the Peircean sense of these terms) undergoes corrosion and dilution through repeated use of these signs whose values are relatively fixed by way of tacit convention. The task of philosophy in its classical sense is to discover truth with regard to and in language as a system of arbitrary signs. It is an “excavation” of the system of language. However, truth of the physis (nature / body) already


Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. 187. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Essay of the Origin of Language, 1966 edn, p. 12.


figures in language.25 In Deleuzian terms, the series of the natural / figurative forms runs parallel to the series of the conventional / symbolic / arbitrary signs.26 Thus, the figurative is neither before nor after the arbitrary signs. But it is something ‘other’ than the conventional. This is why Aristotle is full of praise for the use of metaphor. “An eye for resemblance” involves an abandonment of the conventionality and the arbitrariness of the given linguistic signs, and establishes new and previously unnoticed relationships of similarity between two objects or two words.27 Since imitation and metaphor are related to learning, which in turn gives pleasure, the first two can what make our common and shared world other than what it conventionally is. Both cognitively and culturally, where the latter term encompasses both the aesthetic and the ethical, i.e., the intersubjective, dimensions of culture. While for Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, the existentially-charged language is a theatre-like display of emotions in real life. And metaphor is that indirect language which though emanating from the space of one’s bodily existence, speaks beneath one’s speech and does not speak while one speaks. Metaphor is that which transports us not towards the vertical luminosity of an eternal truth, but in a ‘horizontal transcendence’ of infinite creativity.

References: Aristotle, 350 b.c. Poetics. (Tr.) S.H. Butcher. (Internet version)


For a discussion of these and related issues, see Nancy, 2000.

This point, of course, is of great relevance for a theory of narrative as well as in psycho-analysis. Speaking of metaphor and metonymy in the context of structuralism, Deleuze says: “Ce déplacement relative des deux séries n’est pas du tout secondaire; il ne vient pas affecter un terme, du dehors et secondairement, comme pour lui donner un déguisement imaginaire des êtres et objets qui viennent secondairement occuper ces places. C’est pourquoi le structuralisme porte tant d’attention à la métaphore et à la métonymie. Celles-ci ne sont nullement des figures de l’imagination, mais d’abord des facteurs structuraux.” (Deleuze, G., 1973: 321) “This displacement relative to the two series is not at all secondary, it does not just affect a term, from the outside and secondarily, as if it to give an imaginary disguise of beings and objects that happen to secondarily take these places? That is why structuralism pays so much attention to metaphor and metonymy. These are nowhere matters of imagination, but first of all structural factors.” (Translated by the present author.)

This rather positive cognitivist account of metaphors, though not without pitfalls, is assumed by many. Earl MacCormac (1985), for instance, notes that “internally, metaphors operate as cognitive processes that produce new insights and new hypotheses,” and “externally, metaphors operate as mediators between the human mind and culture.” (p. 3)

Deleuze, Gilles, 1973. “A quoi reconnait-on le structuralisme,” in F. Châtelet, Histoire de la philosophie, vol. 8: Le XXeme siècle. (299-335) Paris: Hachette. Derrida, Jacques, 1982. “White Mythology – Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy,” in, Margins of Philosophy. (tr.) A. Bass. Brighton: The Harvester Press. Gill, Jerry, H., 1991. Merleau-Ponty and Metaphor. New Jersey: The Humanities Press. Hiraga, Masako, K., 1994. “Diagrams and metaphors: iconic aspects in Language.” Pragmatics 22: 5-21. Jakobson, Roman, 1971. “Quest for the essence of language,” in Selected Writings. Vol. II: Word and Language. The Hague: Mouton. Johnson, Mark, 1992. “Philosophical implications of cognitive semantics,” Cognitive Linguistics 3-4: 345-66. Lakoff, George, 1993. “The contemporary theory of metaphor,” in A. Ortony (ed.) Metaphor and Thought (2nd edn.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Levinas, Emmanuel, 1987. “Meaning and Sense,” in A. Lingis (tr.) Levinas – Collected Philosophical Papers. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff. MacCormac, Earl, R., 1985. A Cognitive Theory of Metaphor. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press. Manjali, Franson, 1991. Nuclear Semantics – Towards a Theory of Relational Meaning. New Delhi: Bahri. Manjali, Franson, 2000. “Body, Space and Metphorical-Cultural Worlds,” in Meaning, Culture and Cognition. New Delhi: Bahri. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, 1962 edn. Phenomenology of Perception. (tr.) Colin Smith. New Jersey: The Humanities Press. Merleau-Ponty, M., 1960. Signes. Paris: Gallimard. Merleau-Ponty, M., 1968 edn. The Visible and the Invisible. (ed.) Claude Lefort; (tr.) A. Lingis. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Nancy, Jean-Luc, 2000. “Entre deux,” Magazine Littéraire 392: 54-57. Paris.

Petitot, Jean, 1985. Morphogénèse du sens. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Plato, “Cratylus.” in, Hayden, D.E. and E.P. Alworth (eds.) Classics in Semantics. London: Vision Books. (1965) Radwanska-Williams, Joanna, 1994. “The problem of iconicity,” in Pragmatics 22: 23-36. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, 1966 edn. Essay on the Origin of Language. (tr.) J.H. Morgan and A. Gode. New York: F. Ungar. Saussure, F. de, 1974 edn. Course in General Linguistics. (tr.) Wade Baskin. Glasgow: Fontana. Varela, Francesco, Eleanor Rosch and Evan Thompson, 1991. The Embodied Mind. Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press. *****

4. Infinite Narration*

The study of narrative has been one of the major concerns in the ‘human sciences’ during the last three or four decades. Apart from those of scholars working in the fields of aesthetics and literary theory, narrative has attracted the attention of philosophers, anthropologists, cognitive scientists, psychoanalysts and historians. In the circumstances, we might readily approve of the suggestion that in our own times, narrative has acquired the status of a meta- or a universal concept just as reason or language had been, especially for the European tradition, in the preceding epochs. From such a perspective, narrative has been described as “a mode of verbal representation so seemingly natural to human consciousness” (White, H., 1987: 26). Analysts like G. Genette and T. Todorov have insisted that while ‘genres’ are historically attested discursive forms, narrative must be deemed as a trans-historical and a natural ‘mode’ of linguistic occurrence. The preoccupation of historians like Hayden White with the question of narrative is not difficult to understand, since the description of events and phenomena in historical time cannot avoid taking recourse to the narrative form. On the opposite end, the studies of a phenomenological philosopher, Paul Ricoeur have focused on the ineluctably temporal dimension of narrative. In fact, Ricoeur views metaphor and narrative as the two main axes of literary existence. These are also the two major, even if contrasting, modes of man’s organization of the experiential / external world. As Ricoeur puts it: “Just as metaphorical description governs the field of sensory, emotional, aesthetic, and axiological values, which make the world a habitable world, the mimetic function of the narrative has its effect on the field of action and its temporal aspect.” Further, “[i]t is in the capacity of working through or re-figuring the temporal experience – a victim of aporias of philosophical speculation – that resides the referential function of the intrigue or plot.” (Ricœur, P., Temps et récit 1, p. 13)1


Modified version of a paper that previously appeared in R.P.Singh (ed.) Reason, Dialectic and Postmodernism. Faridabad: Om Publications, 2001. (143-57) 1 See, Ricoeur, Paul, Time and Narrative vol. 1 (Tr.) Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, the University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1984, page, xi.

Many contemporary philosophers have shown a keen interest in narrative theory. Some of this interest owes itself to the post-structuralist perspective, which debunks the claims to truth made on the basis of an assumed universality of reason, or even in terms of a language of logical analysis. Narrative forms of interpretation and understanding have come to play a major supporting role in the current climate of anti-foundationalism fostered by the pragmatists and the postmodernists. It is perhaps the eminently narrative mode of philosophizing of many philosophers of the 19th century, especially that of the German romantics, and of Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, that has brought for them endearing respectability from the current crop of post-modernists. The philosophical and theoretical appeal of the narrative mode comes largely from the efforts to replace ‘the mimetic epistemology common to positivism and traditional narrative’ with ‘constructivism’, and correspondingly, the miming / matching function of consciousness with the ‘making’ function, or poiesis.2 In fact, the big battle in French literary theory in the last nearly thirty years or so, has been to oust mimesis and to replace it with poiesis. According to the mimetic position, which comes down into western aesthetics from the works of Plato and Aristotle, the more or less unchanging reality of the world can be fully copied by the more or less unchanging reality of a (literary) language. There can ultimately be a relationship of ‘reflective’ correspondence between language/literature and reality. Whereas, as per the idea of poiesis, the world is in continuous transformation, and so is literature; between the changing reality of the world and that of literature, there is a continuous feeding back and forth. For contemporary philosophers, Richard Rorty and Jean-François Lyotard, the narrative theory comes handy in their opposition to the claims of a ‘scientific’ epistemology. As per Rorty’s position, the narrativist perspective helps us to talk about the changing epistemological concerns and the historical contingency of scientific theories. New theoretical models or the ‘paradigm shifts’ in the sense of Thomas Kuhn are thus to be seen as creation of new ‘stories’ about old phenomena. Scientific theories, which claim for themselves universal validity, in this perspective, are those that tend to tell big stories (‘grand narratives’), suppressing the contingent,


Kreiswirth, 1995: 65, quoting Dominick LaCapra.

local descriptions, and discrepancies, as well as the aberrant and alternative patterns of organization and behaviour. The narrativist turn away from the universalist approaches of most classical philosophies has brought to it (or against it) a rather strong charge of relativism. Presumably, arguing against such criticism, and at the same time trying to constitute an ethical domain that is relevant for contemporary philosophy, Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum have resorted to the narrative perspective to incorporate the existential context of the human subjectivity and its actions. For MacIntyre, ethics is strongly linked to narrative. Rather than referring to a logical arrangement of logic of moral propositions human beings, he argues, understand and evaluate their own and others’ actions in terms of the ‘narrative unities’ that individuals and communities come about to construct, and which they live with and reconstruct from time to time. 3 Any given action is justified or not justified, in terms of these narrative schemas which are constituted out of the lived reality of the subject, and are not the formulations of an a priori rationality that is existentially external to it. Similarly, with reference to classical literary works, Nussbaum stresses the superiority of narrative models, over other discursive forms for contextually situating the self and in justifying moral decision-making. Lyotard sees the problem from a somewhat historical perspective, or more strictly in relation to the history, or the emergence, of modernity.4 His argument begins with the distinction that is drawn between the traditional or customary knowledge (savoir) and the modern or competence-based technical knowledge (connaissance). This opposition he characterizes as the one between narrative and scientific modes of knowledge. Lyotard points out that the customary or narrative mode of knowledge (savoir) is likely to involve: 1.

familial or communal apprenticeships;

Acknowledging the novelty of this perspective in contemporary western context, MacIntyre notes: “that particular actions derive their character as parts of larger wholes is a point of view alien to our dominant ways of thinking and yet one which it is necessary at least to consider if we are to begin to understand how a life may be more than a sequence of individual actions and episodes.” He also declares his preference for “a concept of a self whose unity resides in the unity of a narrative which links birth to life to death as a narrative beginning to middle to end.” (MacIntyre, 1981:190-1)

Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition – A Report on Knowledge. 1984.

2. 3. 4.

a multiplicity of ‘language games’ (in the sense of L. Wittgenstein); well-codified pragmatic rules of transmission (and reception); and a temporal rhythm (musical property).

In contrast, connaissance:

is crucially concerned with the truth (and correlatively, the ‘proof’) that is

communicated by a competent sender of a message; 2.

seeks the assent of the addressee; assumes a conformity between the referent and the expression (e.g., the ‘language

of science’); and 4. expects a consensus on the statements of truth in a debate between supposedly

equal partners. Lyotrad argues that the two modes, belonging to two different ‘discursive species’ can be seen to bear a relationship of dissymmetry. The scientific mode privileges the denotative language game at the exclusion of all others. It stands apart from (and above) the discursive modes associated with the already existing social bonds. Scientific competence is granted only for the sender; the addressee is assumed to exist in a relative knowledge vacuum (i.e., for the given domain). Science refuses to grant validity to reported facts if they are not certified by means of argumentation and proof. Further, it implies an autonomous historical development, with its own memory and project. Science doesn’t wish to enter into a communication with narrative knowledge. Moreover, narrative knowledge does not have separate channels for its own legitimization. Legitimization here is by way of the ‘pragmatics of its own transmission’. Most importantly, while narrative knowledge manifests an attitude of incomprehension and tolerance

towards scientific knowledge, the latter regards the former “as belonging to a different mentality: savage, primitive, underdeveloped, and backward… Narratives [from the latter’s perspective] are fables, myths, legends, good only for women and children.”5 The narrative problematic is more than evident in Freudian psychoanalysis, rooted as it is in a theory of the unconscious. Here it is as if one can map the relationship between the conscious mind and the unconscious onto that between rationality and narrative. Freud’s ‘master plot’ of the Oedipus myth is considered to have ‘decentred’ the contemporary understanding of human subjectivity, which has been hitherto based in the Cartesian concept of cogito which characterizes the autonomy of the rational subject. The ‘unconscious’ functions within the psychoanalytic theory as a dynamic sub-structure – formed out of the childhood sexual trauma – which can potentially and without warning disturb the conscious control that an individual is supposed to have over her self. There is no ‘conscious’ thought or expression that is not already touched, affected, or contaminated by the unconscious. Lacanian psychoanalysis has made it amply clear that the unconscious, which frequently erupts within the conscious, is ultimately based in the subject’s relationship with the other.6 And moreover, it has been suggested that the psychoanalytic practice, involving the linguistic exchange between the analyst and the anlysand, is itself like a recounting and interpreting of stories that tend to either block or facilitate the smooth functioning of the human personality.7 Before the study of narrative progressed on to the questions of its “how’ and ‘why’, in other words, and before it attracted wider intellectual attention, research in this domain concentrated mainly on the ‘what’ of narrative.8 This is where the structuralist ‘narratology’ has played its most significant founding role. One of the earliest systematic study of narratives can be

ibid., p. 27.


But then, ‘desire’ is the locus of this relationship with the other for Lacan. For a strictly dialogical philosophy like that of Levinas, the self’s responsibility towards the other precedes everything including desire and knowledge.

Cf. Brooks, Peter, 1994. Psychoanalysis and Storytelling. Oxford: Blackwell.


According to Ursula le Guin: having looked at the histoire, or the what of narrative, and the discours or the how of narrative, what has seemed most pressing in the last fifteen years is to look at the pourquoi, or the why of narrative and to re-examine its potential contribution in relation to questions and disciplinary assumptions that had formerly been approached in other ways and by other means. (see Kreiswirth, 1985:63).

obtained in the work of the Russian formalist Vladimir Propp, who in his Morphology of the Folktale (1928) sought to delineate the formal structure of what would be typically folk narratives, in terms of its ‘constant’ and ‘variable’ elements.9 The results of Propp’s study are too well known to deserve an elaborate account here. However, we shall mention the essentials. Propp identified 31 functions which are basically the actions performed by various dramatis personae, and which more or less exhaust the syntagmatic organization of the Russian folktales that he studied. He made the following significant observations about these functions:

the constant and permanent elements of the folktale are the functions of the

dramatis personae, whatever these dramatis personae be, and whatever manner these functions are satisfied. The functions are the fundamental constitutive parts of the folktale.
2. 3. 4.

the number of functions that comprise the fairy tale is limited. the sequence of functions is always identical. all fairy tales belong to the same type as far as their structure is concerned.

Thus this approach based on the linearity of syntagmatic functions is able to define the folktale in terms of a limited number of constitutive elements, their determined sequentiality, and their similarity within specific genres. What is attempted here is to describe the narrative structure, at least as far as folktales are concerned, in terms of a syntactic kernel made up of the functions. Lévi-Strauss’s professedly ‘structuralist’ approach that followed Propp’s formalist analysis of narratives emphasized both the content and context of the elements of narrative discourse. The narrative elements, he argued have a linguistic meaning, in so far as they are metaphors and metonyms, and these meanings can be traced back to the ethnographic context where the tales are found to appear. In the works of A.-J. Greimas, we obtain a more rigorously semiotic formalization of the theoretical concerns adopted by Propp and Lévi-Strauss.


Propp, Vladimir, Morphology of the Folktale (Tr.) Lawrence Scott. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1968.

The main attempt in the structuralist analyses is to identify the invariant as well as the randomly occurring formal elements of narratives, to assign signification for these, and to describe the manner in which these elements combine syntagmatically. The semiotics of narrative is essentially a method of studying the meaning effects produced in a text by way of its linguistic elements. The structural analysts were also acutely aware of the pervasiveness of the narrative form in a large variety and range of discourses. For example, in his seminal text of 1966 Roland Barthes wrote: The narratives of the world are numberless.(…) Able to be carried by articulate language, spoken or written, fixed or moving images, gestures, and the ordered mixture of all these substances; narrative is present in myth, legend, fable, tale, novella, epic, history, tragedy, drama, comedy, mime, painting (…), stained glass windows, cinema, comics, news item, conversation. Moreover, under this almost infinite diversity of forms, narrative is present in every age, in every place, in every society. (…) Caring nothing for the division between good and bad literature, narrative is international, trans-historical, trans-cultural: it is simply there, like life itself.10 Similarly, Greimas while discussing his actantial model says that one can see some sort of narrative structure (or, ‘crypto-narrative’) at work in what are otherwise non-narrative discourses as varied as the theological, classical rationalist, or the Marxist. For example, we can see that in classical philosophy, God is the Sender and Man the Receiver, Philosopher is the Subject, Knowledge is the Object, Mind is the Helper, and Matter is Opponent. Likewise, for vulgar Marxism, History is the Sender, Mankind the Receiver, Man the Subject, Classless society the object, Proletariat the Helper and the Bourgeoisie the Opponent.11 This view is consistent with the post-modernist argument concerning the intertwining of the scientific and the narrative modes of knowledge. Lyotard points out that from the epoch of the bourgeois revolution onwards, in the
10 11

Barthes, Roland, 1977: 79. Greimas’s actantial schema is as follows: Sender → Helper → Object → ↑ Subject ← Receiver Opponent

context of the socio-political context of scientific knowledge, ‘people’ are the hero (of the narrative), people’s ‘consensus’ the sign of legitimacy, and ‘deliberation’ the mode of creation of norms.12 Despite the suggestion of a narrative under-layer for any discourse whatsoever, the structuralist approach to narrative ran into trouble by the end of the 1960’s. The post-structuralist critique of structuralism was directed against two main points of view. Firstly, ‘structure’ understood in terms of a totalization and closure of content was not acceptable. Meaning is not trapped within a closed totality of discourse and language. The acts of meaning attributable to any specific and situated individuals always exceed this presumed closure. There is no ‘code’ that permanently fixes the meaning of utterances. Meanings are historically accretive as well as unstable. And moreover, even synchronically, the subject is not entirely the master of his own language and meaning. Furthermore, all utterances have a potential addressee, known or unknown. And, as Freudian (and Lacanian) psychoanalysis was able to show, the discursive expressions like words and sentences, refer not always to a pre-fixed meaning, but to other expressions along a possibly infinite chain of signifiers. This is why the post-structuralists were keen to take up as one of their central slogans the Saussurian statement that in language ‘there are no positive terms, but only differences.’ In the place of the closure of signification implicit in semiology proper, the structuralist field became infused with notions like dialogicality, différance and trace. The stable and the certain world of language and discursivity that the structuralists fostered have been rutptured by the post-structuralist and postmodernist principles of uncertainty, undecidability, and unreadablity. Though the structuralists had easily done away with the subject of discourse, idea that language reflected or represented the world had lingered on. According to this idea — essentially Cartesian —, the mind as an active force, at least in its ideal state, provides a ‘reflection’ of the

Referring to the narrative means of legitimization of knowledge, Lyotard says: “this return of the narrative in the nor-narrative, in one form or another should not be thought of as having superseded once for all. A crude proof of this: what do scientists do when they appear on television or are interviewed in the newspapers after making a ‘discovery’? They narrate an epic of knowledge that is in fact wholly un-epic. They play by the rules of the narrative game; its influence remains considerable not only on the users of the media, but also on the scientist’s sentiments. This fact…concerns the relationship of scientific knowledge to ‘popular, knowledge or what is left of it. The state spends large amounts of money to enable science to pass itself off as an epic; the State’s own credibility is based on that epic…” (1984: 27-8)

state of the world. Language, here has a very minimal role to play: that of ‘expressing’ faithfully and in all its transparence the luminous contents of the mind. The process of communication is consequently seen as a sort of ‘transfer’ of some ideal content in an objectified form from the mind of the speaker to the mind of the listener. In this perspective according to which language has the role of permanently sealing the solemn and ‘reflective’ union between mind and matter, the materiality and the historicity of the linguistic signifier remained infinitely reduced. What is characteristic of the modernist enterprise is the detaching of the thinking / speaking subject from the flow of the history of the discourses that surround her. The individual man is salvaged from this infinite flow and made to look at ‘reality’ with the aid of his innately provided and universally prevalent reason. The edifice of reason whose construction begins from the level of the individual subject has been built up hierarchically as an external source for the legitimization of ‘scientific’ knowledge. This knowledge, whose narrative dimension is effectively suppressed or repressed in the interest of the dominant political orders, stands apart from and above the narrative modes of knowledge. As for scientific knowledge, it looks out into the ‘objective world’, comprehends it by way of reason and represents the ‘nature’ of that world in a denotative use of language. The flow of knowledge here would be from the scientific ‘high’ to other knowledge modes which are low. Further, these denotative statements are assumed to have a right of privilege over and hence a right for, usurping the other ‘language games’ which rather than participate in the enterprise of science, can be seen to foster the intersubjectivity or the dialogicality that predates this modern enterprise. Dialogicality is also what is repressed in the totalizing ontologies and epistemologies of classical philosophies. A phenomenologically-oriented philosopher like E. Levinas, has sought to recover the question of dialogicality and that of the self’s infinite responsibility for the other which has also remained repressed since the advent of the Socratic thought. Similarly, the critical and creative writings of Maurice Blanchot have pointed to the implicit presence of such an infinite dialogicality in the practice of writing. Literature, Blanchot believes, exists in the neutral space that is detached both from the objective and the subjective spaces. Literary writing requires the writer and the reader to retreat into a space where the concerns of neither the objective nor the subjective worlds can prevail. Literature, in this perspective, is the terrain where

the mythicality of the representation of the objective world is always interrupted, interrupted by means of the fictional. The space of literature is also where following a permanent process of deconstruciton, dialogicality is constantly restituted, in and through the neutral space provided by fiction and poetry. This new understanding of writing (which since Derrida is another name for language in general) is also accompanied by a radically different notion of subjectivity. The subject is no longer the Cartesian one possessing a rational interiority expressible in the language of intersubjective communication. Nor is it the Lacanian one, which is a hapless product of the field of language to which it is exposed since birth. (In opposition to the expressive speech of the Cartesian cogito, Lacan had said: ‘Language speaks the subject.’) Writing is henceforth the exposition of the singularity of the self to that of a radically other other. Language is thus no longer the communication of an interior essence resulting in an inter-subjective cognitive fusion, or a communion. It is, instead, the infinite movement of a trace between differentiated exteriorities or singularities. Subjects as singularities, in this perspective, are constantly being differentiated. Subject is thus not a subject that ‘exists’ in a strictly ontological sense, but one which ‘desists’, to use a term proposed by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe.13 Literature and writing are thus to be seen in their role of interrupting both the community and its binding ‘myth’. Community appears not as a reality consisting of living individual subjects, but in their disappearance, or death. It is the disappearance of egos or ‘I’s in death that makes the appearance of a community made up virtually of ‘others’. Community is not a communion that has fused ‘Egos’ into a higher ‘We’. Community can be understood only as a ‘compearing’ or co-appearing of many others. Community is something that “takes place always through others and for others.” In this sense, according to Jean-Luc Nancy, it “occupies a singular place: it assumes the impossibility of its own immanence, the impossibility of communitarian being in the form of a subject.”14

See Lacoue-Labarthe, P., Typography. Stanford. 1989.


Nancy, Jean-Luc, The Inoperative Community. 1991: 15. Nancy’s central point is that the community is not something calculable or programmable. So, instead of seeing it as an ‘operative’ entity, it is seen as something to be constantly ‘unworked.’ The French version of the book, La communauté désoeuvré was written in response to Blanchot’s La communauté inavowable (The Unavowable Community. New York: Station Hill Press. 1988).

Unlike the liberal community of the enlightenment made up of individual subjects interacting by means of their interior contents or essences, Nancy’s deconstructive argument favours a community that is constituted by the exposition of singularities. Instead of an emphasis on production and completion, here the relevant notions are interruption, fragmentation and suspension. Nancy: “Community is made up of the interruption of singularities, or the suspension that singular beings are.”15 What this means is that the pre-constituted process / definition of a community always undergoes a shift, a change or an ‘interruption.’ This sort of an unworking of community, Nancy tells us, is not different from what G. Bataille called the ‘unleashing of passions,’ involving a certain ‘sacredness’ of the process. Bataille himself had associated this unleashing with a ‘contagion’ than with a ‘communication.’ ‘Passions’ here may be taken in the sense of ‘passivity’ or responsiveness to the other. According to Nancy, “only exposition to the other unleashes my passions.”16 The difference between the community of liberal individuals and that of the post-modern singularities of being is that the former is a matter of knowledge of intersubjective identities, “while the singular being does not know, but rather experiences his similar (son semblable).” For Bataille, the passion of being is the responsiveness of self to ‘those like me’. “Singularity is the passion of being.”17 In contrast to a community that is mythically founded by fiction, Nancy offers the idea of ‘being in common.’ In being in common the beings are said to ‘compear’ (appear together), that is, “they are exposed, presented, or offered to one another.” 18 This ‘compearance’ is the middle way that Nancy seeks between a mythic community and its contrary, the community’s disappearance. Community as compearance is the way by which the community resists its ‘infinite immanence,’ and continually creates an open space within it. The community of compearance comes to be not through a mythic process – which leads to a community as communion – but through the ‘interruption of myth’.

ibid., p. 31. ibid., p. 32-33. ibid. p. 33. ibid. p. 58.




Consider now a rather extreme point of view on the question of narrative preponderance, according to which life itself, prior to the appearance of any discursive form, is already narrative. According to Barbara Hardy, life itself is experienced as a narrative form, which can be regarded as a “primary act of mind transferred to art from life”. Narrative, which we usually take as a property of fiction, is most intimately connected with ‘lived experience’: “(f)or, we dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative.”19 This view has both its opponents and proponents. For example, Louis Mink, while admitting that narratives “are not imperfect substitutes for more sophisticated forms of explanation and understanding” thinks that life is indeed a more serious affair than stories. Life, unlike the story cannot be circumscribed in terms of “beginnings, middles, or ends.” Stories, in his view, are complete and finished, while there is an essential incompleteness about lives. Lives are lived ever forward, while the stories about our ‘hopes, plans, battles, and ideas’ can be told only retrospectively.20 MacIntyre, on the contrary, seems to fully endorse Hardy’s thinking on this matter. He suggests that we understand our own as well as other’s actions in terms of a ‘narrative unity’ defined in terms of the ‘tradition’ that we live in. For example, we allocate our conversations to distinct genres of narrative, “just as we do literary narratives.” And moreover, and perhaps more significantly, “it is because we all live out narratives in our lives and because we understand our own lives in terms of the narratives that we live out, that the form of narrative is appropriate for understanding the actions of others. Stories are lived before they are told – except in the case of fiction.”21 References: Barthes, Roland, 1977. “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives,” in Image, Music Text (ed.) S. Heath. New York: Hill and Wang.

Hardy, Barbara, “Towards a Poetics of Fiction: An Approach through Narrative” Novel 2 (1968): 5, quoted in Louis Mink, “History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension,” New Literary History I (1970): 541-58.

Mink, L., as cited above. MacIntyre, A., 1981: 197.


Blanchot, Maurice, 1995 edn. The Space of Literature. (Tr.) Ann Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Brooks, Peter, 1994. Psychoanalysis and Storytelling. Oxford: Blackwell. Greimas, A.-J., 1983. Structural Semantics – Research on Method. (Tr.) D. Mcdowell, R. Schlefer, and A. Velie. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Kreiswirth, Martin, 1985. “Tell Me a Story: the Narrativist Turn in the Human Sciences” in M. kreiswirth and T. Carmichael (eds.) Constructive Criticism: The Human Sciences in the Age of Theory. Toronto: Toronto University Press. Lacoue-Labarthe, P., 1998. Typography: Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics. (ed.) C. Fynsk) Stanford: Stanford University Press. Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 1973. Structural Anthropology, vol. 2. (Tr.) M. Layton. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Lyotard, Jean-François, 1984. The Postmodern Condition – A Report on Knowledge. (Tr.) G. Bennington and B. Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. MacIntyre, Alasdair, 1981. After Virtue – A Study in Moral Theory. London: Duckworth. Mink, Louis, 1970. “History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension,” New Literary History I: 541-58. Nancy, Jean-Luc, 1991. The Inoperative Community. (Tr.) P. Connor et al. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Propp, Vladimir, 1968. Morphology of the Folktale. (Tr.) L. Scott. Austin: University of Texas Press. Ricoeur, Paul, 1983. Temps et récit vol. 1. Paris: Seuil. (Eng. Tr.) Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, the University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1984. White, Hayden, 1987. The Content of Form – the Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ………

5. Translation and Imagination*

1. Let us, first of all, examine the English word ‘translation.’ The morpheme ‘trans-’ comes from Latin, and it suggests a crossing, indeed a crossing from one place or state to another place or state, where the palces or states are separated by some sort of a barrier. The morpheme ‘-latio’, again coming from Latin, suggests a carrying. Thus, the English word ‘translation’ is meant to suggest a carrying across (of meaning) from one language to another, something like the crossing of a barrier. Perhaps the barrier is nothing but the assumed boundary between one language and another. French language uses a different metaphor for the same process or action. The corresponding word ‘traduction’ is again derived from the Latin root, ‘trans-’ suggesting a movement across, and the root ‘ductio’ meaning a conduit or conducting, again from one place to another. The word ‘translatio’ itself was used in Latin for ‘metaphor’ rather than for translation. Thus translation, at least etymologically, is a carrying or conduit of meaning, across or through a barrier, from one language to another.22 It presupposes two distinct entities or spaces, and a movement of meaning across or through it. As far as the particular text that is translated is concerned, it also presupposes a temporal disjunction between its existence in the ‘source’ and the ‘target’ languages, the former temporally preceding the existence of the latter. So, the preliminary picture that we obtain of ‘translation’ is the following: there are two distinct entities, Language A and Language B, which may be thought of as spatially adjacent or contiguous, but separated by a barrier, and there is the movement of a certain domain of textual meaning from A to B, where that meaning exists in A temporally prior to its existence in B.23 This account straightaway begs a couple of questions. The first is the following: assuming that languages have a relationship with the world or ‘reality’, what is the nature of the relationship between the meaning of the text in the ‘original’ or ‘source’ language and the world

* 22 23

The German word for translation, Übersetzung, literally means ‘crossing’. Of course, here we are ignoring the special case of re-translation of a text, which needs separate treatment.

as such? Is it one of similarity, or that of difference? In other words, is it one of representation or of presentation? The traditional, Aristotelian thinking on the matter leads us to believe in the former. If we believe in the latter, that is, the relationship between the world and meaning of the text is characterised by difference, then we are considering the two as distinct not only in space, but also in time. The second question concerns the difference between source text and the translated text. The two are characterized not only by difference in their being, but also in their temporal existence. The translated text will naturally be an entity which comes into existence after the original text. Thus already, working towards our understanding of translation, we obtain two levels (spatio-temporal) distinctions: between the world and the meaning of the source text, and between the meanings of the first text and that of the second. Now, a third level of distinction opens up in our understanding if we cease to view languages as some sort of static, spatial entities. Languages, from our point of view are dynamic, open-ended temporal realities, which are constantly subject to change. Every use of language, by every speaker / writer of what is called ‘a language’ may be seen as taking place either at the centre of a stable entity, resulting in reproductions or repetitions of what that entity is already made up of, or as taking place at its tangent or periphery, subjecting it (i.e., the language) to real or potential, but often unforeseen, changes and transformations with respect to its given form. If this really is the case, then we can establish distinctions between the temporal states of a language, states demarcated by uses of language, especially those which turn out to be transformative. Note that as far as the being of languages is considered we are adopting the perspective of Heraclitus24 as per which everything is in the flux of movement and change, rather than a Darwinian one of ‘growth’.25 Now, the most relevant question in this context is: does this flux or movement have a purpose? If the views of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, as

We recall here Heraclitus’ famous dictum : “One cannot step into the same river twice.”


Many of the philologists of nineteenth century viewed language as an organism endowed with life, having a birth, process of growth and death. The survival of a language, according to a related perspective, shared by German linguistic philosophers like Herder and Humboldt, depended on the cultural vitality of the people who spoke it. Note that whereas the Heraclitian perspective questions stable identity of objects, the Darwinian perspective, nurtured by the aristocratic context of 19th century European scholarship emphasises growth and development of a stable organic identity, that is, a strengthening of identity.

presented in his famous essay “The task of the translator”26 are correct, it certainly has one. Benjamin thinks that all languages are in movement, through the activity of translation, in the direction of a ‘pure language’. We shall try to elaborate Benjamin’s notion of ‘pure language’ in the next section. 2. According to Benjamin, languages have a kinship – irrespective of whether they are related historically or typologically – in their ‘intention’. In his essay, which appears to be phenomenologically rather than semantically oriented, Benjamin uses the expressions, ‘object of intention’ and ‘mode of intention’ to distinguish between the elements of the referential world and the manner in which these elements are understood in a given language.27 Thus, the German word Brot and the French word pain have the same object of intention, corresponding to the English word, ‘bread’, but they have different modes of intention, resulting in a deep semantic disparity and non interchangeability in the use of these words, for the Germans and the French. Benjamin notes that while the object of intention, or reference remains quite stable with respect to the given languages, the mode of intention is “in a constant state of flux – until it is able to emerge as pure language from the harmony of all the various modes of intention” (p. 75). Thus, in contrast to the intentional or referential use of language, where meanings of words and sentences, though of temporary value, appear to be complete and self-contained for each language, the modes of intention of given languages (e.g., German and French) remain in conflict, but they supplement each with respect to the other language/s infinitely, and thus tend towards the ‘pure language’. The meaning associated with modes of intention, according to Benjamin, remains ‘hidden’ until the pure language can appear. The movement along the path to pure language is however not endlessly linear, that id, ‘till the end of time’; it is aided and abetted by translation. In Benjamin’s evocative and perhaps eschatological pronouncement: “it is translation which catches fire on the eternal life of the works and the perpetual renewal of language. Translation keeps putting the hallowed growth of languages to the test: How far

Walter Benjamin, “The task of the translator” in : Illuminations, (edited and introduced) H. Arendt, (tr.) H. Zorn. London: Pimlico. 1999 edn. (Pp. 70-82) 27 This distinction seems to parallel Gottlob Frege’s distinction between ‘reference’ and ‘sense’. According to Frege, The expressions ‘evening star’ and ‘morning star’ have the difference senses, but the same reference, i.e., the planet Venus). However, while Frege’s ‘sense’ is concerned with synonymy within a given language, and hence intralinguistic, Benjamin’s ‘mode of intention’ seems to be a interlinguistic affair. Nancy’s use of the term ‘sense’ also similarly, as we shall see later, goes beyond the boundary of a given language.

removed is their hidden meaning from revelation, how close can it be brought by the knowledge of this remoteness?” (p. 75) Thus, the ‘growth’ in the linguistic domain, if at all there is something like it, is never an isolated affair, never a matter of individual languages, as it was assumed by many of the historicists-philologists of the 19th century. It inevitably involves a process of translation, which “serves the purpose of expressing the reciprocal relationship between languages” (p. 73). And moreover, the ‘central kinship of languages’ is not something that is always and already available in the constitutive structure of languages (as suggested by Noam Chomsky’s theory of linguistic universals), but is something liable to manifest, through use, in an undeterminable future time; it “is marked by a distinctive convergence” (p. 73). “Languages are not strangers to one another, but are, a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express.” (p. 73, emphasis added). Benjamin goes on to suggest that the linguistic property of ‘translatability’ of languages is similar to the theory of ‘images’ associated with cognitive activity. Both are indispensable in so far as their respective domains are concerned. Just as there is no thinking without images, there are no languages without translatability. The important point to note here is that the common semantic features lf languages are not pre-given, but emerge as a result of the contact between and the latent convergence of languages through translation. External contact, rather than an internal analysis and comparison is what is more relevant in the assertion of a ‘kinship’ of languages. Translation aids the life of languages in one way or the other: “Translation is so far removed from being the sterile equation of two dead languages, that of all literary forms it is the one charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.” (p. 74.) Translation, from Benjamin’s point of view, is a constant dialogical process, raising the languages involved to an ever higher plane of existence, into a ‘purer linguistic air’ (p. 75). In translation, however, the foreignness of languages can only be provisionally – and never finally – overcome, and the transfer of informational content cannot exhaust the goal that a ‘genuine translator’ sets before herself. The language of translation acquires a creative or literary value which surpasses the informational content of the source text and of its language. The form and

content of the text, Benjamin tells us, are bound to be differently related in the original and the translated languages. As opposed to the functional tightness in the case of the former, the latter is characterised by a certain looseness, like that of ‘a royal robe with ample folds.’ It is this ability of translation to transform the original into a ‘more definitive linguistic realm’ that prompts Benjamin to regard translation as indeed a literary mode, on par with but different from poetry. Unlike poetry which is surrounded by the whole of the language in which it is created, a translation stands on the periphery of its language, adjacent to the original language and allowing its reverberation to affect the whole of it. “The task of the translator,” according to Benjamin, “consists in finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original” (p. 77). The translator is someone who is concerned with “integrating many tongues into one true language…” (p. 77). Thus, the translator’s task is not merely to faithfully transfer the content of a text from one language to another, but it is also to keep in view the emergence of a pure language out of the two, or between the two, which will be better amenable to truth as such. It is a language, according to Benjamin, in which “the languages themselves, supplemented and reconciled in their mode of signification, harmonize.” (p. 77) This pure language is an in-between language. It is not a stable language, but a transitory language, a language always in transition. Though languages appear to be closed and selfcontained, and their mode of intention seems complete, there is in fact the possibility of their meanings being infinitely supplemented, through translation. A good translation is not pulled by the force of gravity of the original language, by way of the translating language’s ‘fidelity’ to the former, nor does it attempt to remain entirely within the autonomous realm of the latter, through ‘licence’ or freedom. Rather than aim at equivalence one way or the other with regard to the original, in Benjamin’s view, “the language of translation can – in fact, must – let itself go, so that it gives voice to the intentio of the original not as reproduction but as harmony, as supplement to the language it which it expresses itself, as its own kind of intention” (p. 79). “A real translation … allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully” (p. 79).

‘Pure language,’ as Benjamin sees it, is that uncircumscribable and infinite language not yet realized in any given language, and that which cannot be employed in the service of any information or intention. Languages, as they are the unconscious creation of human life, carries with them, or contains within them all the rubble of particular human – social and political – conditions.28 Translation involves the overcoming the ‘crudeness’ of the language of ordinary communication. Thus ‘freedom’ in translation (as opposed to ‘fidelity’) is not merely the freedom within a given language of going beyond the faithful translation of information or content. In a deeper sense, ‘freedom’ is the incessant approaching towards the ‘pure language’ that is introduced in the translating language. It is the infinite quest for welcoming the ‘pure language’ into one’s own. Benjamin: “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language he breaks through the decayed barriers of his own language” (p. 80). Users of a language can never sustain indefinitely the myth of their perpetual monolingualism, which is often employed and exploited for the sake of their own political and ideological consolidation. From the discussion in the present section, we may discern the relevance of translation for cultural studies. In the ‘passage’ from one language to the other, translation, instead of letting either or both of the languages to be re-appropriated, in fact allows, an in-between or a neutral language of the other to ‘shine upon one’ and ‘to be released’ in the other. Translation ensures the perpetual restlessness of languages, an infinite disorientation and a disappropriation. This deconstructionist perspective is what Jacques Derrida calls the ‘monolingualism of the other.’29 He insists on the necessity of constant ‘invention’ in language, and regards language use essentially as a promise directed to the other, and oriented in a time-to-come. Benjamin’s ‘pure


This is what Mallarmé calls the ‘crude’ language, in opposition to the ‘essential’ language which is effectively none other than Benjamin’s ‘pure language’. 29 Derrida, Jacques, 1996. Le Monolinguism de l’autre. Paris: Galilée. Eng. Tr. Monolinguism of the Other OR The Prosthesis of Origin. Tr. P. Mensah. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1998.

language’ would be in Derrida’s parlance, the language ‘prior-to-the-first’ as well as a ‘promised language.’30 3. Thus, instead of a picture of languages ‘growing’ in their own monolingual (and monocultural) bliss, what we can affirm is that their (assumed) monolingual stability or closure is continually disturbed by opening out to other languages in the process of translation. In addition to this external mode of disturbance or deconstruction, we may indicate an internal mode. This takes place through imagination that users of a language exercise within it. In the semantic domain, we have seen, ‘reference’ is concerned with actual objects or events in the world, and ‘sense’ is that which is specific to a given language. The former is extra-linguistic and the latter intralinguistic, to use two widely adopted expressions. Sense is also concerned with how language users construct objects of the world in their own language. Along with the construction of an object in one’s language, it is constructed in one’s mental realm. The latter is done by means of images or imagination. Imagination ensures that there is never an identity, or a total similarity between an object or a relation that is in the world, and its appearance as meaning in language. It disrupts the stable view that we have of objects in the world. Our sense of a thing is that which proceeds from our own selves, and is not an imitation of something that is out there in the world. While ‘reference’ assumes a gap or distance between the object and the subject of language, ‘sense’ involves some sort an object-subject contiguity or contact. Sense is meaning which is also a ‘direction’ as well as a sensibility.31 Therefore, sense is the meaning of a word that takes it in a certain direction. It is not dependent on the object referred to. In this respect, sense is not dissimilar to imagination. In imagination, according to Jean-Paul Sartre,32 the imagining consciousness poses its object as non30

See further discussion of Derrida’s notion of ‘promise’ and its relationship with Benjamin’s idea of ‘pure language’ in the cahpater, “Nietzsche, Derrida and the Deconstruction of European Linguistic Modernity.”

In French, the word ‘sens’ means both ‘meaning’ and ‘direction’ and is more directly associated with the notion f sensibility. This polysemy has been productively employed by Jean-Luc Nancy in his writings on the ‘Sense’. See particularly his chapter “The ‘Sense’ of the ‘World’” in the book The Sense of the World, where Nancy notes: “The whole unity of sense is … the unassignable unity of sensing sense and directional sense.” (p. 77)

Sartre, Jean-Paul, 1980 edn. L’imaginaire. Paris : Gallimard. Originally published in 1940. I have also consulted the book, Qu’est que l’imagination by Christophe Bouriau, Paris. J. Vrin, 2003.

present, non-existing. In imagination, a subject wants an object to be in a certain manner, whether it is present or not, whether it is in that manner or not. The subject senses, that is, directs the object in its own consciousness.33 Imagination thus, is a mode in which we translate objects in the world, into an image in our own consciousness. This image is sensed; it cannot have a reference. It is a mode of harmonising the object with the lived human world. It humanizes and socializes the object. It directs the object from the physical to the human world, and carries it further forward into an inter-human or social world. Whereas the object remains imprisoned in the passive world of its own being, its sensing / directing in the human world, never comes to an end. Between the world of objective ‘reality’ – i.e., the world out there – and the human worlds, there are thus different senses, different paths.34 These senses are the products of imagination, of different ways of imagining. They reflect interlinguistic variation in the construal of objects and persons. From the perspective of our own ‘human’ world we encounter others – those who are not humanized or socialized in our own world – as quasi-objects in the objective world. When we try to sense others who are not in our own immediate world, we inevitably form an ‘image’ of them, a good, bad or indifferent image. Objectively, our own world and the world of others are intangible. However, we touch others’ world/s through our senses. Each one orients / directs herself with respect to the world of the other. In the absence of any direct perception of the world of others – i.e., their feelings, thoughts, etc. – we imagine it. It is something that is really ‘absent’ in the others that we imagine. And while imagining, we let ourselves to be other than what we are in the ‘objective’ world. Thus, through imagination we integrate our own non-real world and the non-real world of others in a world that does not have a

For Sartre, the distinction between perceiving and imagining is not one of degree (of impression on the consciousness), but of nature. “Aiming an object in imagination, is for it to be given in image. It is not the same thing as encountering this object, or receiving it” (Bouriau, 2003: 12). Imagining is ‘active’ and perceiving ‘passive’. According to Sartre, an image “is a certain mode in which the object appears to the consciousness, or rather, the mode in which the consciousness gives itself an object.” (Sartre, 1980 edn.: 21)

Consider this rather unexpected statement from L. Wittgenstein : “Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side no longer know your way about.” (Philosophical Investigations, p. 82)

firm reality in the given world. In other words, we imagine a world in common. A world that makes sense both to us as well as to the others. A sensible, but non-objective common world. Though, never a permanent world.35 4. The view we have tried to present in this chapter is that both translation and imagination are dialogical activities. Both involve an undermining and simultaneously an overcoming of our given, supposedly ‘objective’ world, which includes our given languages and their given senses. On the contrary, in the spirit of dialogicality, both translation and imagination, provide every time fresh giving / making of sense. Imagination undermines the ‘information’ that we associate with the perceived reality, and creates instead a world other than the perceived world, another world, where this imagined world is constantly approximating and ‘touching’ the world of the other. Translation, in the Benjaminian perspective, goes beyond the informational content of the text translated, and of the original language, towards the space of a ‘pure language’ that remains unmanifested in and is outside of all given languages. References: Bouriau, Christophe, 2003. Qu’est-ce que l’imagination. Paris : J. Vrin.


Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason had emphasised the human faculty of productive imagination in order to provide a groundless ground for man’s cognitive representation. The connections that Kant makes between cognitive ‘schema’, ‘imagination’ and image are important for our understanding of language, though we shall not develop it here. Kant: “… this representation of a general procedure of the imagination for providing a concept with its image is what I call the schema for this concept.” … “In fact it is not images of concepts but schemata that ground our pure sensible concepts. No image of a triangle would ever be adequate to the concept of it. … The schema of the triangle can never exist anywhere except in thought, and signifies a rule of the synthesis of the imagination with regard to pure shapes in space. …” “… This schematism of our understanding with regard to appearances and their mere form is a hidden art in the depth of the human soul, whose true operations we can divine from nature and lay unveiled before our eyes only with difficulty. We can say only this much: the image is a product of the empirical faculty of productive imagination, the schema of sensible concept (such as figures in space) is a product and as it were a monogram of pure a priori imagination, through which and in accordance with which the images first becomes possible, but which must be connected with the concept, to which they are in themselves never fully congruent, always only by means of the schema that they designate. …” Kant’s ‘schema’, we see, results from the combination of the logical and the aesthetic, i.e., symbolic and the iconic, in the Peircean sense of the terms. It is infinitely productive in time. It is seemingly, an image-producing and imagetransforming capacity, without here being any possibility of a final representation. From the very beginning of our encounter with the world, in-formation is continually submitted to imagination, or rather imaginary transformation.

Benjamin, Walter, 1999 edn., “The Task of the Translator,” in: Illuminations (ed.) H. Arendt, (Tr.) H. Zorn. Derrida, Jacques, 1996. Le Monolinguism de l’autre. Paris: Galilée. (Tr.) Monolinguism of the Other OR The Prosthesis of Origin. Tr. P. Mensah. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1998. Manjali, Franson, 2005. “Nietzsche, Derrida and the Deconstruction of European Linguistic Moderntiy,” in: Yearbook of the Goethe Society of India 2005: ‘Rethinking Europe.’ New Delhi: Mosaic. (81-107); Also in: International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics, vol. 35, no.1, January 2006 (143-165). (Chapter 7 in this volume.) Nancy, Jean-Luc, 1997. The Sense of the World. (Tr.) J. S. Librett. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. (Original French publication in 1993.) Sartre, Jean-Paul, 1986 edn. L’imaginaire. Paris: Gallimard. (Originally published in 1940.) Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 1958 edn.: Philosophical Investigations. (Tr.) G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basic Blackwell.


6. Philosophy, Literature and the Discourse of Purity*
1. Philosophers are often distrustful of language. A philosopher may shun language either for its ‘ordinariness’ or for its more or less constructed literariness. As an example of the latter, the story is told of the encounter between the Greek philosopher Xanthus and the disfigured Phrygian slave and storyteller, Aesop. To Xanthus’ query, “Do you want me to buy you?” Aesop retorts, “What do you mean? Do you think that you already own me as an adviser so that you can get advice from me about myself? If you want to buy me, buy me. If you don’t, move on. I don’t care what you do... No one is putting you under bond to buy me. You are entirely free to make your own choice. If you want to take me, pay the price.” (see Keenan, T., 1997, Fables of Responsibility, p. 52) 2. Socrates viewed philosophy as an endless correction of the conventionally accrued presuppositions that language as such and discourses in language carry along with them. In one of Plato’s dialogues, we find Socrates asking Cratylus, “Don’t you see that he who follows names in the search of things, and analyses their meanings, is in great danger of being deceived?” The purpose of Socrates’ ‘dialectical’ approach was ultimately to obtain a transparent picture of the true essence of reality in and through, and beyond language. 3. In modern times, a similar critique of language is suggested in the work of Gottlob Frege, the founder of analytical philosophy. For Frege, sentences should mirror reality, but ordinary language can only serve as a ‘distorting mirror’ (Dummet, 1994:6). Since language is ‘the only mirror we have’ it is necessary to analyse the semantic structure of sentences, so that we can arrive at a perfect language for representing ‘thought’ in all its logical and scientific purity. According to Frege, “[t]he task of the logician consists in liberation from language.”36 Truth, for Frege, is attainable by means of a thorough logical analysis of language, which in turn is viewed as being constituted of sentences.

An earlier version of his paper has previously appeared in Journal of the Interdisciplinary Crossroads, Vol. 1, No. 1, April, 2004. (143-53)

Without imputing any direct connection between Frege’s philosophy and his politics, it is important to note what Michael Dummet has to say about the latter: “There is some irony in the fact the man about whose philosophical view I have devoted, over years, a great deal of time to thinking, was at least at the end of his life, a virulent racist, specifically an anti-semite.” Dummet refers to a ‘fragment of a diary’ which “shows Frege to have been a man of extreme right-wing political opinions, bitterly opposed to the parliamentary system, democrats, liberals, Catholics, the French and, above all, Jews, who he thought ought to be deprived of all political rights and, preferably, expelled from Germany. When I first read that diary, many years ago, I was deeply shocked, because I had revered Frege as an absolutely rational man, if, perhaps, not a very likeable one.… From it I learned something about human beings which I should be sorry not to know; perhaps something about Europe, also.” (Dummet, 1981: xii)

4. Frege’s contemporary and the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl proposed an act of suspension or reduction (epokhé ) with respect to the facts of the ordinary world, which would render possible by means of philosophical analysis a description of the universal / elementary structures of subjective orientations in the world. Epokhé , which leads to the phenomenological essence of reality, consists of a “radical change of attitude by which the philosopher turns from things to their meanings, from the ontic to the ontological, from the realm of objectified meaning as found in the sciences to the realm of meaning as immediately experienced in the ‘life-world.’” (The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 579.) 5. For Martin Heidegger, Husserl’s well-known student, language exists as a pre-articulated ‘discourse’ always and already invested with a ‘structure of significance’. ‘Discourse’ is like a third realm, parallel to ontology and understanding. Rather than granting a human being the capacity for an original expression or communication, Heidegger would argue that it is language that speaks (man). At the same time, use of words is like gesturing, capable of engendering a world by making things appear. Here, we have something like a pragmatic-poetic function of language. It also refers to the literary opposition between mimesis, copy or reflection, and poeisis, creation, or production, as well as to the two contrasting definitions of truth, namely, adæquatio and aletheia. In these oppositions, Heidegger evidently favours the latter terms. Heidegger attributed the use of the poetic function of language to the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers (e.g., Anaximander). Instead of subjecting the world to a verbal reflection, these philosopher-bards would use words efficaciously in order to make a world come to be. It was the same ideal that Heidegger saw in the works of the German poets of national reconstruction, such as Hölderlin and to a lesser extent, Rilke. For Heidegger, the task of creating authentic existence, was in the hands of the poets, and he believed that the works of these German poets could create an authentic national consciousness, which would liberate it from the endangering and decadent influences of the two emerging (‘barbarian’) mass societies, represented by the United States and the (erstwhile) Soviet Union.2 Poetry, or dichtung, according to Heidegger reveals the truth of phenomena. This revelation takes place not in the form of an enlightenment or throwing light upon the world, but by means of unconcealment

We know that Heidegger was deeply implicated in the fascist regime of Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) party. As Rector at Freiburg University, during the years 1931-33 he was a vocal supporter of the party.

or disclosure, aletheia. Poetry has the task of clearing the nihilistic state of the world of its ‘mist and vapour.’ Language, may on the one hand have a representational dimension, but on the other hand, it has a poetic element that ‘summons to presence’ that which it names. This element is equated with a force that can make truth appear in its essential unconcealment. Poetry, as Heidegger puts it, brings truth into being. For Heidegger, art and poetry are immediately correlated, and both are in the service of truth (perhaps in the place of science and technology). “Art, as the setting-into-work of truth is poetry.” “Art lets truth originate” (Heidegger, Poetry, Language and Thought p. 74 and 77) Rather than denying a place for language in the quest for an eternal philosophical truth, as Frege did, for Heidegger it is the essentially the aesthetic/poetic dimension of language that is responsible for the unconcealment at specific historical junctures. Echoing Hölderlin, Heidegger suggests that poets have a special role in ‘a destitute time.’ Poets are responsible for making the destiny of the world. “To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the time of the world´s night utters the holy.” (ibid, p. 94) The poet is one who ventures to think another world, and make it appear, through the aesthetic dimension of language, and especially so in what is referred to as ‘destitute time.’ 6. Heidegger’s account of how poetry responds to the historical condition and the destiny of the world is one of the seminal contemporary orientations on the relationship among philosophy, literature and politics. We notice that however Jean-Paul Sartre, the most famous student of Heidegger, completely changed the nature of this orientation. In fact, Sartre seems to have unleashed a near-Platonic debunking of poetry. For Sartre, in the ‘poetic attitude’ (which the poets have chosen), words function as things rather than as signs. Poetry consists not in the conventional use of words, but in their cultivation as if words were “natural things which sprout naturally upon the earth like grass and trees.” (Sartre 1948/1998: 5) The poet deals with language as if it were part of the “structure of the external world.” (ibid, p. 6) Thus, “the poetic word is a microcosm,” perhaps a closed object. (ibid., p. 7) Poetry cannot be ‘committed’ (Sartre’s standard for literature), because even though it may be infused and injected with the emotions and the passion of the poet, the poet does not choose to “express” his emotions and passions in the poem. The poet withdraws from the emotions that she herself has injected into the poem. “Poets are men who refuse to utilise language.”(ibid., p. 5)

Prose, on the contrary, Sartre argues “is first of all an attitude of the mind.” (ibid., p. 11) Prose is, in its essence “utilitarian.” It may be difficult for us to believe, but Sartre goes on to the extent of saying: “...there is nothing in common between these two acts of writing except the movement of the hand which traces the letters... their universes are incommunicable, and what is good for one is not good for the other” (ibid., p. 10). Following a phenomenological point of view, writing prose according to Sartre, is an intentional act, an act that takes place in a situation, with the intention of changing that situation. Whereas for Heidegger, art as poetry, brings about the appearance or the unconcealment (aletheia) of the true world, by reconfiguring thought, for Sartre, prose is used intentionally to reveal the world (“the situation”) to myself and to others, in order to change it. For Sartre, while poetry tends to be some sort of futile self-indulgence with words, prose can be purposive and planned action aimed at transforming the world. Basic requirement of committed literature is the intentional use of prose for the creation of freedom, joy and value, both for the writer and for the reader. As regards ‘aesthetic pleasure,’ Sartre says, it is something that is ‘thrown into the bargain.’ The writer is responsible for the state of a given society, and she has the task of making an appeal for its transformation. In ‘situation,’ writer’s initial responsibility can only be partisan, directly siding the oppressed and the dominated (in particular, the proletariat), but eventually it could cover the whole of mankind. 7. Sartre formulated his theory of committed literature and of writer’s responsibility mainly during the post-war years (beginning from 1944) when the intellectual life in France was in turmoil in the wake of the trials for purging writers who were accused of collaborating with the much-tainted Vichy government in France, which owed allegiance to Hitler’s Nazi regime. In a recent book, Philip Watts (1998) has shown that much of the creative and critical writings in France of this period can be read as “allegories of the purge.”3 Though judicial and quasi-judicial courts were set up and activated for purging the collaborators, we are told that extra-judicial purges resulted in the death of 8,000 to 9,000 persons. The central concern of épuration, purification or purge, was the ‘national indignity’ that France had suffered at the hands of the collaborators. All other issues including that of the responsibility for the deportation and death of a large number of Jews, seem to have been subsumed under the theme of national indignity. As treason of the French “soul” was the central concern, even racism was not seen as a direct crime, but was regarded as part of an affiliation to and the affliction of Nazi ideology.


These writings were both in support of the purge, and against it. See, Watts, Philip, 1998, Allegories of the Purge — How Literature Responded to the Post-War Trials of Writers and Intellectuals in France. Watts’ account deals with two supporters of the purge, viz. Sartre and the communist poet, Paul Eluard, and two of its opponents, Maurice Blanchot, who contributed articles in pro-fascist journals in the 1930’s and Louis-Ferdinand Celine, a virulently anti-semitic writer.

The writer-collaborators were also accused of economic gains under the German occupation, and of having “fornicated” with Germany. According to the prosecutors in the purge, these writers had abused both their own talent and the literary prestige of French language. However, according to some of them, French poetry had withstood the onslaught of German occupation and the near-carnal temptation of collaboration. In the words of one commentator “She (i.e., French poetry) behaved admirably.” (see, Watts, 1998, p. 34) Indeed, the accused writers refuted the charge of intellectual collaboration. To the additional charge of having made economic gains, most of these writers pleaded an existence of poverty during the Occupation. They maintained that while majority of the French people had gained economically during the war, they themselves had remained “poor, pure and French.” (ibid., p. 41) 8. In retrospect, it can be vouched that Sartre and Maurice Blanchot were the most important participants-at-a-distance in the purge trials. Though they were not referring to the trials directly, their creative and critical energies were spent on what we may call allegorical acts of prosecution and defence respectively. Sartre had told his biographers, that most of his writings can be taken as “witnesses for prosecution.” (ibid., p. 59) (The fact that the trial of the most prominent collaboratorwriter, Robert Brasillach began several months before the trial of the head of the Vichy government, Marshall Philippe Petain, is an indication of the important place that writers occupied in the French political life.) The ‘prosecutors’ here, are alluding to and arguing for the political responsibility of a citizen’s acts of writing, and the defenders are pleading innocence for the fate of the alphabets printed in black and white, and which had emanated from the writer-citizens. In his response to a questionnaire that appeared in the Resistance journal, Carrefour, M. Vercors, the author of an influential work called La silence de la mer, would say: “... a published writing is an act of thought. The writer is responsible for the consequences of this act.” (cf., ibid., p. 61) Sartre himself maintained: “Literature is not an innocent and facile lyric capable of accommodating itself to any sort of regime, but by its very nature confronts us with the political problem: to write is to demand that all men are free.” (see, ibid., p. 66) And further, Sartre bluntly attributes lack of (political) responsibility to the writer’s class of origin: “All writers of bourgeois origin have known the temptation of irresponsibility.” (see, ibid., p. 67) In his What is Literature? Sartre suggests a parallel between the attitudes of the collaborators of his own times, and that of the 19th century bourgeois writers. Even if they did not collude with the repressive forces, both groups of writers shy away from the most obvious and immediate social and political responsibilities. These ‘bourgeois’ writers had withdrawn into irresponsible aestheticism. We have seen that according to Sartre, taking recourse to poetry, which has an essentially self-enclosed

character, is already a manner of evading the writer’s responsibility. Bad faith is the term that Sartre uses for this evasion and the concomitant seclusion from wider social contact. Moreover, he lampoons the fond adherence to solitude and marginality of the nineteenth century aesthetes, who according to him were producers of ‘bourgeois art.’ Sartre’s critical ire is unleashed on such talented and revered writers like Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Flaubert. Effeminacy and homosexuality are further charges that Sartre makes against these writers. Baudelaire, the dandy, Sartre says “sometimes looked like a woman.” In his book on Mallarmé, speaking of the Romantics, Sartre says: “Their outbursts, their swoons, their affectations of purity, their delicacy, their sentimentality, all this fuss, would make one think they were queens.” (quoted in Watts, 1998: 76). As regards Flaubert, the writer’s sexuality is identified as “feminine, passive, and homosexual.” From Sartre’s point of view, it was their solitude, marginality, and effeminacy that prevented the nineteenth century aesthetes, as well as the contemporary collaborators, from becoming robust social actors, and consequently, from writing intentionally-directed prose, or shall we say, a prose with strong muscles. Purging of the collaborators, implied for Sartre, it seems, the purge of a certain type of personality from the French literary history, as well as from the contemporary literary scene. It is important to note that Sartre later partly reversed all these charges against the personality of a good and responsible writer through the figure of Jean Genet. Genet, the loner, the marginal and the sexually passive, thanks to the class of his origin, now personified everything that was antithetical to the bourgeois writer and his world. Genet’s creative work represented, for Sartre, by its black and negative act, and in its celebration of impurity, some sort of an exorcism of all bourgeois pretensions to purity. (see discussion on this issue in Watts, 1998: 78-82) As regards Sartre’s more directly political inclinations, it is worth emphasizing again the rather wellknown fact that he remained silent about the purges of non-acquiescing writers and intellectuals during Stalin’s communist regime in the Soviet Union. 9. Blanchot’s literary writings can be read in one of the three ways: as a defence of the position of the collaborator-writers, as rebuttals of Sartre’s ideas on literature, or as construction of an independent theory of literature. Blanchot himself has been accused of writing journalistic articles in proto-fascist journals, during the 1930’s. In contrast to the Sartrean writer-hero who self-consciously produces intentional acts of prose, acts that seek the transformation and the freedom of his own and his reader’s world, for Blanchot, the space of writing is pervaded by an interminable impersonality. In his theory of literature, Blanchot purges both the reader and the writer from this neutral space, where the meaning of the written word can only trace an uncertain and undecidable trajectory. The responsibility implied in

writing is not limited to the place, time or the social position of the writer or the reader, but is an infinite responsibility, where each act of writing and reading is also an act of transgression that undoes or deconstructs the previous state of discourse in the world. Writing involves, for Blanchot, an impersonal and a permanent transgression without any possibility of transcendence. It was Blanchot’s close friend and one-time collaborator, Georges Bataille who had introduced the theme of transgression in response to Hegel’s idea of death playing the role of a dialectical negativity. Transgression as different from transformation, involves a movement towards a domain free from the operation of power and mastery. Transgression is towards an impersonal, neutral space, a no-man’s land, a space emptied of the play of power. According to Blanchot, literature like death, eliminates a person’s virile and active subjectivity, and that is why writing is a sphere of activity where power can hardly be exercised. It is a sphere of passivity where, to borrow an expression from Emmanuel Levinas, one is no longer able to be able (ne peut être pouvoir). It is a space where only an errant, evertransgressive movement is possible, and where even death has ceased to have any personalised and transformative capacity. Without sharing Heidegger’s view on the revelatory role of poetry, Blanchot too gives ontological priority to poetic language over the ordinary language. However, Blanchot’s own specific argument in this regard follows from a distinction that Mallarmé makes between ‘crude language’ and ‘essential language.’ In the former, form is transitory, having the simple function of conveying meaning. In the latter, which gives us the poetic language, the thing referred to disappears in signification, but the materiality of the form is retained. Further, the literary artefact or the poem as a whole remains a presence in absence or in other words, a trace of being in non-being. Blanchot would maintain that this null presence of the poetic language is the source even of ordinary language, which is, indeed got by suppressing the material dimension of the original, ambivalent trace. In a similar vein, Blanchot proposes that the artistic image has ontological precedence over the object. The last mentioned idea can be explained as follows. Any being, be it an object, a language, or the human person, which is in constant everyday transaction has already distanced itself from its ontological essence. We perceive / understand the former (i.e., the everyday entity) in terms of the latter, be it the image, the poetic language, or the corpse. Such a position is opposed to the more dominant Platonic approach to the problem. For Plato, there exists a natural hierarchy among the ideal form, the model or manifestation and the copy, where at each level a secondary represents the primary. As per this view, art is a representation of reality.

What Blanchot proposes instead, is a theory of ressemblance which assumes a difference in series or a relationship of resemblance, in the place of a hierarchy between the object and its image. In other words, to use an expression from Gilles Deleuze, there exists a ‘deep disparity’ between the object and its image. From this point of view, it is possible to say that irreality is primary and reality is constructed on the basis of the former. Blanchot suggests a similar disappearance of the literary subject from the subject in the real world. His The Space of Literature (1955) begins with a celebratory account of the ‘essential solitude’ of the writer. In the process of entering literature, the writer essentially desubjectivises herself. As the writer begins to belong to his work more and more, he runs the risk of extreme solitude. This is what has made many talented writers approach the space of madness and suicide. Blanchot would say: “To write is to break the bond that unites the word with myself.” Referring to Kafka’s diaries, he says: Kafka remarks, with surprise, with enchantment, that he has entered into literature as soon as he can substitute “He” for “I”. This is true, but the transformation is more profound. The writer belongs to a language that no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no centre, and which reveals nothing. He may believe that he affirms in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self. (emphasis added) (Blanchot, 1955 / 1995 edn.: 26) The writer’s loss of or retreat from his own subjectivity, does not however result in an escape from this world of daily trials and tribulations into a more surer and clearer world, a world of the Platonic ideal forms, or a Cartesian world of clear and distinct ideas. Rather, he enters an obscure world, which is a no man’s land, and where “I” transfigures into “no one.” When to write is to discover the interminable, the writer who enters this region does not leave himself behind in order to approach the Universal. He does not move toward a surer world, a finer or better justified world where everything would be ordered according to the clarity of the impartial light of the day. He does not discover the admirable language that speaks for all. What speaks in him is the fact that, in one way or another, he is no longer himself, he isn’t anyone any more. The third person substituting for “I”: such is the solitude that comes to the writer on account of the work. (ibid., p. 28) Only an impersonal, anonymous, exteriorised and powerless ‘he’ can prevail in literature:

The third person is myself become no one, my interlocutor turned alien; it is no longer being able, where I am, to address myself and the inability of whoever addresses me, to say “I”; it is his not being himself. (ibid., p. 28) 10. Paul de Man, who was himself posthumously accused of writing for fascist journals in Belgium during the war, had great respect for Blanchot’s perspective on literature. He modelled his own literary analysis in line with Blanchot’s. Writing on Blanchot writing on Mallarmé, de Man says that the impersonality in literature is obtained through a rigorous process of self-denial, or “askesis.” It involves “freeing [one’s] consciousness of the insidious presence of inauthentic concerns.” (de Man, 1983 edn: 78) It results in an “extreme purification” or épuration, which allows the writer to join the ever-moving, never-settled, murmur of literary language which has always and already preceded the language of everyday communication. That takes us to the horn of a dilemma! Are we to purify / purge the society of those writers who Sartre would regard as irresponsible and inflicted with bad faith? Or, are we to see the great and talented writers as individuals who have achieved de-personalization by purifying themselves of or by deconstructing the discursively acquired social and intellectual sedimentations, as suggested in Blanchot’s work? One further question would be: which of these approaches to literature will, in the long run, have a greater ethical value? According to Blanchot, this impersonality and the bad faith is essential for a writer to maintain the imposture, dishonesty, and ambiguity which make up the stuff of literature. Responding to Sartre, Blanchot would maintain that bad faith, rather than being a sign of inauthenticity, is part of the essence of literature: “ literature, as soon as probity enters the equation, imposture is already there. Here, bad faith is truth.” (quoted in Watts, 1998, p. 94) Literature cannot escape this paradox, this essential equivocation. Blanchot reinforces this point about the equivocation in literature: “in literature, deceit and mystification not only are inevitable but constitute the writer’s honesty, whatever hope and truth are in him...” (Blanchot, 1995 edn.: 310); “there is powerful trickery in literature, a mysterious bad faith that allows to play everything both ways and gives the most honest people an unreasonable hope of losing and yet winning at the same time.” (ibid., p. 338) In an essay that appeared in the journal edited by Sartre, Les Temps Modernes, Emmanuel Levinas evokes a similar sentiment about the essential irresponsibility in art: “, essentially disengaged, constitutes, in a world of initiative and responsibility, a dimension of evasion.” Art is bound to be

different from criticism that roots itself in intellectual concepts. “Art brings into the world the obscurity of fate, but it especially brings the ir-responsibility that charms as a lightness and grace.”4 In his essay on Blanchot, which was originally published in the French journal Critique in 1966, de Man had made a brief comparative evaluation of the critical works of Sartre and Blanchot, and gave the following prognosis, the veracity of which can be easily determined today: For some, like Sartre, [their political] self-assertion took the form of a frantic attempt to maintain a firm inner commitment in open and polemical contact with the changing trends. But others kept themselves more consciously out of the reach of the surface-currents and were carried by a slower and deeper wave, closer to the continuities that link French writing of today to its past. When we will be able to observe the period with more detachment, the main proponents of contemporary French literature may well turn out to be figures that now seem shadowy in comparison with the celebrities of the hour. And none is likely to achieve future prominence than the little-publicised and difficult writer, Maurice Blanchot.5 Before Blanchot died on February 19, 2003 at the age of 96, he was already recognized as the most important literary thinker in France during the twentieth century. References: Audi, R., (ed.) 1995. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Blanchot, Maurice, 1955/1982 (edn.)The Space of Literature. (Tr.) Ann Smock. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press. —, 1949/ 1995 (edn.) “Literature and the Right to Death,” in The Work of Fire. (Tr.) Charlotte Mandell. Stanford: Stanford University press. de man, Paul, 1983 (edn.). “Impersonality in the Criticism of Maurice Blanchot,” in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. London: Routledge.

Levinas, E., “Reality and Its Shadow” originally in Les Temps Modernes, 38 (1948). Reprinted in S. Hand (ed.) Levinas Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

de Man, Paul, “Impersonality in the Criticism of Maurice Blanchot,” in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. London: Routledge, 1983, p. 61.

Dummet, Michael, 1994. The Origins of Analytical Philosophy. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press. — 1981. Frege: Philosophy of Language (2nd Edn.). London: Duckworth. Heidegger, Martin, Poetry, Language, Thought. (Tr.) A. Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row. Keenan, Thomas, 1997. Fables of Responsibility. Aberrations and Predicaments in Ethics and Politics. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Levinas, Emmanuel, 1989. “Reality and Its Shadow,” originally in Les Temps Modernes, 38 (1948). Reprinted in S. Hand (ed.) Levinas Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, 1989. Sartre, Jean-Paul, 1948/ 1998 edn. What is Literature? (Tr.) B. Frechtman. London: Routledge. Watts, Phillip, 1998. Allegories of the Purge — How Literature Responded to the Post-War Trials of Writers and Intellectuals in France. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


1. Language as autonomous object In The Order of Things, while providing a masterly account of the shifts in the relations between words and things in Western science and culture, Michel Foucault presents us with a graphic picture of the discontinuities in the scholarly perception of language itself in the same context. He observes that during the Renaissance period, that is, till the end of the sixteenth century, meaning in and of language was primarily experienced in terms of ‘resemblance.’ Language coexisted with things in the world, and the meanings of both were understood through a network of resemblances. Language was one thing among other things, and things had meanings that could be deciphered. The whole world spoke a common prose which could be interpreted in terms of a closed grid of similarities. Whereas, from the seventeenth century onwards, that is during what Foucault calls the ‘classical’ period, this order of resemblance shifts towards an order of ‘discourse’ and ‘representation.’ Language is now understood as a system of signs which relate to things and ideas. For this Cartesian rational order, language was a preconstituted realm of transparent signs utilizable for the clear and distinct expression of ideas. Language belonged no longer to the domain of things, but constituted the mode of ‘discourse’ for signifying ideas and emotions. And finally, in what Foucault calls the ‘modern’ period, that is, from the end of the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries, language emerges as an ‘object’ having its own autonomy, an object of comparative and historical analysis, under the rubric of a new and vibrant field called ‘philology.’ In the place of a hermeneutic decipherability and a semiotic transparency in the preceding periods, what we have in the philological ‘modern’ period is the formal opacity of language. The whole of modern ‘formal’ and ‘objective’ analysis of language, which attempts to keep the hermeneutic and semiotic questions at bay, can be traced back to this shift at the inaugural moment of western modernity.37

This is a modified version of a paper that has previously appeared in Yearbook of the Goethe Society of India 2005: ‘Rethinking Europe.’ New Delhi: Mosaic. (81-107). Also in: International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics, vol. 35, no.1, January 2006 (143-165).

Among the three modes of compensation that followed ‘this demotion of language to the mere status of an object,’ Foucault mentions the critical dimension that philological study of language begins to accrue in the nineteenth century. Having become a dense and consistent historical reality, language [during the modern / philological period] forms the locus of tradition, of the unspoken habits of thought, of what lies hidden in a people’s mind; it accumulates an ineluctable memory which does not even know itself as memory. Expressing their thoughts in words of which they are not the masters, enclosing them in verbal forms whose historical dimensions they are unaware of, [people] believe that their speech is their servant and do no realize that they are submitting themselves to its demand.” (Foucault, 1966 / 1970: 297.) 2. Language and national consciousness It is this perspective of regarding the relationship between languages and peoples’ ways of thinking, conscious or unconscious, that became the hallmark of (early) nineteenth century European philology. In opposition to the Enlightenment view, say Kantian, where language has the least formative role with respect to the emergence and the process of universal rational thought, other thinkers such as Hamann, Herder and Humboldt, who stood outside the dominant framework of Enlightenment, considered thought in direct correlation with the emergence and the development of language, and even dependent on it. The transition from Foucault’s ‘classical’ period to the ‘modern’ period is thus characterized by a shift from the universalism of thought that gets expression in pre-constituted system of signs to the relativity of thought with respect to the forward movement of what we, in our modern times, have got used to perceiving as wellbounded languages associated with specific peoples situated in particular geo-political spaces.


a. We have provided a rapid summary of some of the salient points concerning language as presented in Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things. We shall return to the some more pertinent issues from this work later in this paper. b. The birth of western modernity characterised characterized by the Enlightenment philosophies, and that of philology, perhaps as a bye-product of the former, characterised among other things by the research and lectures of Sir William Jones at the Royal Asiatic Society in Calcutta, can be traced back to the same fateful decade of the 1780’s.

This shift, we can notice, on the other hand, is equally concomitant, if not with the emergence, then with the stabilization and consolidation of modern European (national) languages. British historian, Benedict Anderson, in his influential work, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983) presents a graphic and credible account of the emergence of modern national languages in relation to the material conditions that made it possible, and of how these languages served as the basis of the new national consciousness necessary for ‘imagining’ the new nation-states of modern Europe. Anderson tells us how the then nascent capitalism and print technology, prior to the emergence of distinct national consciousnesses and identities, created in Europe its early ‘print-languages’ along with what he calls ‘monoglot mass reading publics.’ The emergence of these pre-national ‘print’ languages, Anderson tells us, was at least initially, a ‘gradual, unself-conscious, pragmatic and haphazard development’, resulting from the “half-fortuitous, but explosive, interaction between a system of productive relations (capitalism), a technology of communications (print), and the fatality of human linguistic diversity.”38 It was the function of capitalism and its main agent of cultural change, the print technology, to homogenise, as much as possible, the form of languages as well as the content of the discourses written in them to suit their own twin exigency of the adoption by populations of the new economic and social relations as well as the new technology of communication. Anderson notes that what facilitated the formation of the modern national consciousnesses, is the institution of intermediate languages ‘below Latin and above the spoken vernaculars’39 by the gravitation of numerous dialects towards a central or would-be- standard dialect, and by maintaining a distinction between one such cluster and another. In the process, an intellectual cohesiveness was introduced within the reading public of a print-language, and a separation between two or more of such national communities made up of print reading publics. The newly-instituted print-languages also turned out to be more stable in time. As a corollary to this, Anderson points out that “print-capitalism gave a new fixity to language, which in the long run helped to build the image of antiquity so central to the subjective idea of the
38 39

Anderson, 1991 edn. : 42-43. Ibid., p. 44.

nation.”40 Furthermore, by displacing the hierarchically superior language of Latin as well as the inferior dialects from the national arena, the print-languages also became effectively ‘languagesof-power’. Unlike the old administrative languages, which were presumably handed down from above, the newly dominant languages apparently emerged as a result of competition between existing dialects and the success of certain of them which would be ‘closer’ (i.e., geographically or socially) to what would subsequently emerged as the national-print languages. According to Anderson, though the emergence of these culturally influential print-languages may have been haphazard, once they ascended to dominance they were imposed on the new national entities as a whole, in the name of promoting the national spirit. By eighteenth century, the modern national ‘print’ languages had clearly been institutionalised in Europe.41 Besides, as noted by Anderson, the newspaper and the novel, the two important commercial and cultural products of capitalism and print technology, had, through the medium of these newly institutionalised languages had ushered in a new apprehension of time, bringing people outside of the traditional religious communities and the dynastic realms, and consolidating them under the new national ‘imagination.’ And, conversely, these newly dominant languages had become the chief markers of national identity in Europe. 3. Philology and the philosophies of linguistic identities and hierarchies By the second half of the eighteenth century, even when the philosophy of enlightenment was reaching its summit in the works of Immanuel Kant, the question of language, especially that of the history of language in relation to human consciousness had acquired unprecedented importance. Kant’s bridling of the Cartesian powers of human reason, in relation to the limits of the human cognitive and representational apparatus, was not enough for his contemporaries such
40 41

Ibid., p. 44. The topic of the institution of modern European languages is so vast for us to be able to discuss here. We shall only mention a recent work on this: L’institution des langues – Autour de Renée Balibar, (Ed.) Sonia Branca-Rosoff. Paris: Editions des Maison des Sciences de l’Homme. 2001. Renée Balibar introduced the notions of ‘colingualism’ and ‘grammaticalisation’ in order to explain the institution of French as a national language. While, ‘colingualism’ is tentatively defined as “an association of languages written in the political and pedagogical fields,” the term ‘grammaticalisation’ “concerns the massive distribution of a language described by grammars and dictionaries, in such a way that in the 19th century, the grammatical French became the base of linguistic exchanges.” (BrancaRosoff, 2001: 1)

as Johann Georg Hamann and Johan Gottfried Herder. Hamann’s opposition to enlightenment thought greatly influenced the Sturm und Drang and the Romantic movements in Germany. To the enlightenment idea of the autonomy of reason, Hamann counterposed the significance of art, the role of subjectivity and language in human intellectual and aesthetic creations, and the social and historical underpinnings of human reason. As Frederick Baiser usefully informs us: “The metaphysical significance of art, the importance of the artist’s personal vision, the irreducibility of cultural differences, the value of folk poetry, the social and historical dimension of rationality, and the significance of language to thought – all these themes were prevalent in, or characteristic of, the Sturm und Drang and Romanticism. But they were first adumbrated by Hamann, and then elaborated and promulgated by Herder, Goethe, and Jacobi.”42 Herder is arguably the most well-known German philosopher, after Kant, during this period. He almost single-handedly invented a philosophy of history, which remained the mainstay of European, especially German philosophy during most of the 19th century. In this chapter, we shall be concerned with his philosophy of language, and of mind, and its intersection with the philosophy of history. Steering a middle course between the two horns of the Cartesian dilemma – whether the human mind is part of nature and therefore obeys mechanical laws or it is outside of nature possessing mystical properties, Herder opted for a vitalist theory of mind. We have to bear in mind that during the second half of the eighteenth century philosophy was increasingly weaning itself away from the grip of the physical and mechanical sciences of the 17th century, and had begun to depend more and more on the newly emerging life sciences. The paradigm of the eternal and immutable laws of physics was giving way to a perspective based in biological laws, which alone could account for growth and change. Life became a central organizing principle of the human reality, displacing to a great extent the belief in the mystical / divine or the mechanical order. Accordingly, in Herder’s vitalist philosophy, “mind is neither a machine nor a ghost, but a living organism.”43

42 43

Fredrick C. Beiser, 1987 : 16. Beiser, ibid., p. 128.

And moreover, Herder went on to explain the origin of human reason and language, in terms of the uniqueness of human life. Being inferior to other animals in his instincts and other bodily powers, for the sake of survival of the species, reason should have necessarily sprung in the human soul. Herder attributes the origin of both rational thought and language to a property he calls ‘reflection’: Man, placed in the state of reflection which is peculiar to him, with this reflection for the first time given full freedom of action, did invent language….Man manifests reflection when the force of his soul acts in such freedom that, in the vast ocean of sensations which permeates it through all the channels of the senses, he can, …, single out one wave, arrest it, concentrate its attention on it, and be conscious of being attentive. He manifests reflection when, confronted with the vast hovering dream of images which pass by his senses, he can collect himself into a moment of wakefulness and dwell at will on one image, can observe it clearly and more calmly, and can select in it distinguishing marks for himself so that he will know that this object is this and not another. He thus manifests reflection if he is able not only to recognise all characteristics vividly or clearly but if he can also recognise and acknowledge to himself one or several of them as distinguishing characteristics. The first act of this acknowledgement results in a clear concept; it is the first judgement of the soul – and through what did this acknowledgement occur? Through a distinguishing mark which he had to single out and which, as a distinguishing mark for reflection, struck him clearly. … The first distinguishing mark as it appeared in his reflection, was a work of the soul! With it human language is invented!44 Herder conceives of language and reason as both co-originating and co-developing historically. Human thought needs language to gather and organise facts about the world. Historically, human beings constitute ever larger and ever more complex aggregates of thought, stored in language. As Herder puts it: “Each person constantly produces a big or a small wave, each one modifies the state of a single soul, leaving the totality of these states constantly acts upon another soul, is constantly modified somewhat into another – the first thought of the first

Herder, J.G., “Essay on the Origin of Language.” Tr. A. Gode. In On the Origin of Language. New York: F. Ungar, 1966. pp. 115-116.

human soul is connected with the last thought of the last human soul.” … And since language is the medium of these undulatory contacts, Herder remarks: “… how great is the human language! A treasure of human thoughts where each in his own manner brings in something! The sum of the actions of all human souls.”45 It is this ceaseless accruing from one generation to the succeeding one, and similarly, the transfer from one location to another, of knowledge and information encapsulated in language that aids human survival. Reason, from this perspective is the progressive organisation of knowledge for the benefit of humankind, and not an a priori originating principle of man. Herder, at least to begin with, followed Kant’s dictum that everything in nature has a history, but then went on to apply this principle not only to physical phenomena but to human phenomena such as creations of mind and language. This is the basis of Herder’s so-called ‘genetic’ method. As per this method, human artefacts are neither eternal nor anatural. Being organisms endowed with a natural life, they have a historical point of origin, and it is with respect to this point of origin that these artefacts can be understood, and not merely as natural objects possessing an eternal structure. In Herder’s words: “Just as a tree grows from its roots, so art, language and science grow from their origins. In the seed there lies the creature with all its members; and in the origin of a phenomenon there lies all the treasure of its interpretation, thorough which our explanation of it becomes genetic.”46 Let us summarise Herder’s position. Though endowed with a certain ‘plasticity’ which alone is universally available for man, human artefacts such as language, rather than being eternal or god-given, are phenomena that originate historically, that is at a definite historical stage of human dvelopment, and culturally, that is bearing traits of the cultural context where they appear. Again, though evolutionarily human language co-originated with reason or reflection, in actual fact there is a plurality of languages which have historically progressed along partly similar and partly divergent agglomerative lineages resulting in an inevitable, cultural and linguistic diversity. Thus, any human / mental phenomenon, especially language can be understood only in

Herder, J.G., Traité sur l’origine de langue. Paris : Auber. 1977, p. 161. My translation and emphasis. This section of the Herder’s Essay could not be located in the above-mentioned English translation. 46 Quoted in Beiser, op cit., p. 142.

relation to its specific historical origin, and not in terms of universal properties. And since historical origin bears traces of the cultural characteristics accrued by any group of people, it alone can offer an interpretation of the contemporary phenomena. That is to say, only the origin, and not isolated facts nor an innate and universal structure provides clues to the understanding of human / mental phenomena. Herder’s principle of cultural and linguistic relativity thus denies any natural essence of man, other than that of his plasticity, or the inherent ability to adapt to circumstance of cultural, climatic or geographical conditioning. The subjectivity or the mentality of an individual or a group of individuals is largely shaped by the cultural institutions, including the linguistic, that surround him / them. During the 18th century, in Europe, only nation and national consciousness could have been the organizing principle of this relativity. As Herder pithily put it: “Every nation has the centre of its happiness within itself just as every ball has its own centre of gravity.”47 And further, every nation has its own genius or given mental characteristics, resulting from the particular conglomeration of its own people at its origin. The national genius would be the particular mental orientation of a people at the time of its emergence, and which is maintained as such in and though its own cultural / discursive institutions.48 Though human language originates from a reason that is common for all human kind, there are particular languages, and hence particular consciousnesses, existing for particular national formations. Herder: “Just as a single humankind inhabits the whole earth, there is one single language for man. And just as this immense human race is divided into so many different nations, so is there a diversity of languages.”49 Now, we know that Herder’s ‘genetic’ method became the cornerstone of philology which prospered in European scholarship during almost the whole of the nineteenth century. Aptly, his
47 48

Quoted in Beiser op cit., p. 143. The idea of ‘genius’ in the sense of a national (mental) characteristic already occurs in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s, Essai sur l’origine des langues where ‘passions’ and not reason are claimed to be at the origin of language. According to Rousseau, the oriental languages were closest to this passional origin: “The genius of the oriental languages, the oldest known, absolutely refutes the assumption of a didactic progression in their development. These languages were not at all systematic and rational. They are vital and figurative.” (The passage is quoted from J. H. Moran’s translation in On the Origin of Language. Moran’s rendering of the word genie as genesis, has been corrected here to ‘genius.’) 49 Herder, op cit., p. 163-64. Translated from French by the present author.

influential follower, Wilhelm von Humboldt is better known as a philologist than a philosopher.50 Trends in comparative philology, which functioned on genetic / historical principles, and of which Humboldt was the main philosophical representative, greatly reinforced as we shall see, Herder’s cultural and linguistic relativism, during the first half of 19th century. According to Humboldt, language – as it is the product of reason – can come into existence only spontaneously as an organism possessing a structural totality. At the level of meaning, every language thus possesses an ‘inner linguistic sense’ (innere spracheforme) which is in part universal, and in part historically acquired. The diversity of languages, according to Humboldt, appears in a double way: first, as a ‘phenomenon of natural history’ and then, as an “intellectual and teleological phenomenon, as a cultural mode of nations, bearing a rich multiplicity and an enormous originality of intellectual productions resulting in the most intimate relation among the cultured part of humanity, because it is based on reciprocal feeling of individuality.”51 And as such, the history of languages cannot be understood in terms of a ‘universal type of progress’ which would explain particular languages. “Everywhere in language, historical movement is associated with the action of the national genius.”52 What we notice in Humboldt’s writings is an interchangeable use of terms such as ‘genius’, ‘inner linguistic sense’, ‘national characteristic’ and weltanschauung, the last being a German word, the origin of whose current use is associated with Humboldt himself. It should be noted here that philology became, in the nineteenth century, a linguisticallybased study of world’s cultures – of the modern European national cultures as well as that of the others including those cultures newly colonized by the Europeans. It involved the study of languages as formal objects, the comparison and classification of languages that appeared to be

And, moreover, Humboldt, because of his more comprehensive study of languages on the basis of certain methodological principles, is also known as the founder of ‘general linguistics’, a widely accepted term in the 20th century. Of course, until 191- when Saussure would have usurped his place with the publication of Course in General Linguistics. 51 Humboldt, W. von, Sur le caractère nationale des langues et autre écrits sur le langage. (ed.) Denis Thouard. Paris : Seuil, 2000. p. 75. (translation from French by the present author.)

Humboldt, W. von, De l’origine des formes grammaticles. Paris : Editions Ducros. 1969. p. 13. (Translation from French by the present author; emphasis added.)

closely related, identifying and ‘reconstructing’ historical sources or source-languages thus compared, attributing a specific and a well-bounded identity to the ‘national consciousness’ corresponding to the languages thus studied by the comparative method. Humboldtian philology, in fact moved a step further than producing a mere genealogical / historical typology of the world’s languages.53 A grammatical or a ‘morphological’ typology was by and large Humboldt’s invention. According to this classification, the world’s languages fall into three of four ‘grammatical’ types. These are, following the order of the hierarchy, the inflecting, the agglutinating, the isolating, and the incorporating types of languages. The ‘classical’ languages belonging to the Indo-European ‘family’ of languages, Sanskrit, Greek and Latin have ‘inflecting’ type of structure and are held to be at the top of the hierarchy.54 Though the British colonial administrator-scholar William Jones had asserted the family relationship between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, and the superiority of Sanskrit among these, it was the later philologists like Humboldt who would place the idea of this superiority on a scientific pedestal. In Humboldt’s words: “The Sanskrit language is among the world’s known languages, the most ancient and the first to posses a proper system of grammatical forms, and along with this an organisation so excellent and so complete… . The Semitic languages are placed next to it. But, undoubtedly, it is the Greek language that has attained the highest structural perfection.55


One of Humboldt’s most important innovation in this respect is the ‘genealogical tree’ model of classifying languages historically. Languages, it is true, were seen as organisms, but as having forms more of a botanical kind. Hence the preponderance of botanical metaphorically used terms like root, stem, morph, tree, etc., in modern linguistics. The ‘tree’ of Chomskian generative linguistics, like that of his predecessor, is an inverted tree.

The so-called inflecting languages were reckoned to be superior by the German Romantics, because of their assumed ‘organic’ structure. In these languages, the root elements were seen to have a system of internal modifications for declensions, while the others, agglutinating, and isolating languages, were assumed to have ‘mechanical’ and ‘atomistic’ structures for their declensions. In her illuminating work Les metaphores de l’organisme (1971), Judith Schlanger notes that for the Romantics, the ‘organism’ as opposed to the machine, was a figure of a higher degree of rational and spiritual systematicity, as well as, of a more complex evolution of language. The assumed importance of the connection between organicity and language is revealed in the following statement from F. Schlegel: “In the Indian language [i.e., Sanskrit] and Greek, each root is truly, as the term itself indicates, a sort of a living germ.” (Emphasis and translation from French are mine) The quote is from F. Schlegel’s Über die Sprache und Weisheit de Indien (1808), Fr. Tr., A. Mazure, Essai sur la langue et la philosophie des Indiens, Paris, 1837, p. 47. 55 Op cit., p. 57. (Translation by the present author)

Alas! Adopting a perspective on the history of languages that is often described as Darwinian if not proto- or pre-Darwinian, and by superimposing a morphological typology upon a genealogical typology, comparative philology presented to the world of modern scholarship what seems to have been a potent racist potion!56 The idea of superiority of certain language/s over others has a long history. In the premodern period, the languages of religion (e.g., Hebrew, Latin, Sanskrit or Arabic) or of classical literature (e.g., Greek) were naturally assumed to be superior. From 17th century onwards, this transcendental principle of superiority begins to give way to principles of reason and historicity. Let us see how Leibniz formulated this problem with his project of studying the “Harmony of languages.”57 There exists a common (rational) understanding for mankind. Languages are the mirror of understanding. A language can be perfect to the extent understanding can be perfect with the help of it. Thus, there is the possibility of a common perfect language either in the past or in the future. The idea of Hebraic monogenesis of all languages, that is to say, the hypothesis that Hebrew is the mother-language of all peoples was already being questioned in 17th century. Simultaneously, there was enquiry into the common origin of European and certain Asian languages such as Persian. Here, the hypothesis regarding the Scythian origin of the European languages was the most prominent. And finally, there was also the “nationalist hypothesis” of linguistically tracing the path traversed by various European peoples from the borders of the Black Sea to their current geographical regions. Leibniz’s own research into the Caracteristicae universalis (universal alphabet / language of thought) was intended to yield a language, not so remote from the ‘Adamic’ original language, which would be the hypothetical mother-language, the most natural and perfect. The perfect language was supposed to contain the best fusion of sound and idea, i.e., perfect onomatopoeia.

Besides Herder and Humboldt themselves, the other German Romantics, A. Schleicher, and the two Schlegels (Friedrich and August von) actively participated in erecting the ‘modern’ apparatus (which is still in circulation) of cultural and linguistic hierarchization. 57 Our account below is based on Leibniz, G. W., L’Harmonie des langues, introduced, translated and edited by Marc Crépon (2000). This bilingual book contains three essays on the German language and on the relationship between languages, written by Leibniz between 1679 and 1710.

The measure of the distance – geographical, temporal or structural – of any given language was correlated with the distance from what would be the perfect language. It was also believed to be the measure of the purity or corruption of that language with respect to the assumed perfect language. In the German philological / philosophical scholarship from Leibniz to Humboldt and perhaps even beyond, after Hebrew and Latin had been chased out of their ‘superior’ positions, the claim was made regarding the proximity of the German language to the perfect language, be it Adamic, universal, Greek or Sanskrit. And hence its assumed superiority over other contemporary languages of Europe and elsewhere. Naturality, originality, purity and superiority. These were the qualities that were being claimed for the newly emerging national languages of Europe. In this respect, they were displacing the earlier languages of religion, while not being completely de-linked from them. These qualities, we may say, constituted for the pioneer nationalists the ‘genius’ of their language, and by extension, of their nation and their people. If these properties, in their development or in their proper maintenance, were in any way being hampered or prevented, it was the duty of the concerned people to protect, preserve and promote them.58 These tasks indicated by these three words we have italicized, were seen in the context of the modern nations, as the duties of their people towards their own languages, with respect to their present, past and future.59

In this context, it is worth mentioning a recent work by an Indian historian, Sumathi Ramaswamy, Passions of the Tongue – Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970. As per Ramaswamy’s thesis, linguistic nationalism of the Tamil people in southern India took the form of an obligatory devotion for the Tamil language on the part of the people of lower castes in opposition to the Sanskrit language of the high caste Brahmans, which was perceived as dominant and repressive. The figure of the Tamilttay (Mother Tamil) combined the ‘national’ identity of the backward caste Tamil people and the Tamil language raised to the status of a female divinity. As Ramaswamy puts it: “Tamil devotion would remain simply a rehearsal of Europe’s linguistic history if all that happens to Tamil in the course of being drawn into various structures of modernity is its recasting as ‘mother tongue,’ taymoļi Yet this is not only the kind of feminization that the language undergoes within the regimes of tamilparru [Tamil loyalty]. For lurking in the shadows of the ‘mother tongue,’ but frequently disrupting its hegemonic claim on Tamil, is Tamilttay (…), the apotheosis of the language as goddess, queen, mother, and maiden.” What prompts Ramaswamy’s feminist intervention in the history of the Tamil movement is that “… in the discourses of Tamil devotees, there is a ready slippage between tamil, Tamilttay, tayppal, mother’s milk, tay, mother, and taymoli, ‘mother tongue,’ all of which over time came to be synonymous with each other.” (Ramaswamy, 1998: 17)

Marc Crépon in his fascinating recent work, Le malin génie des langues (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Rosenzweig) (2000) notes that the “notion of ‘genius’ was not only the property that urged one to defend, preserve, cultivate [one’s language]. It was also that which made it exigent to be best acquainted with what is beyond the borders of the community. For the “we” which is visualised in the genius of one’s langue, the latter constituted the promise of an eternal recognition: ‘We the French, the Germans, the Italians, we shall always be existing, exactly as we are, to the

4. Nietzsche’s genealogy and the critique of philology Foucault, in the same paragraph that we cited above from The Order of Things, speaks of how it became necessary for scholars to escape from the “trap of philology”, i.e., out of the habitual modes of thinking imposed by the very structure of grammar itself, and to resort to a mode of exegesis. The need was “…to work one’s way back from opinions, philosophies, and perhaps even sciences, to the words that made hem possible, and, beyond that, to a thought whose essential life has not yet been caught in the network of any grammar. This is now we must understand the revival, so marked in the nineteenth century, of all the techniques of exegesis…. But now it is not a matter of rediscovering some primary word that has been buried in it, but of disturbing the words we speak, of denouncing the grammatical habits of our thinking, of dissipating the myths that animate our words, of rendering once more the noisy and audible the elements of silence that all discourse carries with as it is spoken.”60 In his usual cryptic style, Foucault then goes on to emphasize the hermeneutic disposition of three great critical thinkers of modern times: “The first book of Das Kapital is an exegesis of ‘value’; all Nietzsche is an exegesis of a few Greek words; Freud, the exegesis of all unspoken phrases that support and at the same time undermine our apparent discourse, our fantasies, our dreams, our bodies. Philology, as the analysis of what is said in the depths of discourse, has become the modern form of criticism.”61 Of these, Nietzsche, on whom we shall focus, was indeed a philologist-turned-philosopher and a critical thinker. In fact, much of his critical philosophy is based on a reappraisal of the basic
extent we would have given to the world an immortal work, a living testimony of the genius of ‘our’ language.’” (p. 10) 60 Foucault, 1966 / 1970 edn. : 298-299. 61 Ibid., p. 299.

assumptions of philology. Nietzsche refused to accept the naturality, originality and superiority of modern languages, especially of German language, with which he was directly concerned. His views on the origin of language, question the very premises of a Herderian philosophy of language which is rooted in the historical evolution of man’s rationality and in the cumulative human cultural progress. Nietzsche, on his part, is interested in linking the origin of language to aesthetics, particularly to music. He is, in fact, concerned with the progressive loss of this link. Secondly, he maintains that no language originates naturally, bearing a direct / true relationship with the external world. Languages are entirely of cultural and ‘metaphorical’ origin, and hence there cannot be any formal correspondence between the language of morality of any given society, and the referents of this language. Moral values are established and maintained in / by language, as a matter of social / political force, and not as disinterested and ‘true’ forms. It is this force that Nietzsche refers to by his expression, the ‘will to power’. His ‘genealogy of morals’ is an attempt to understand the particular cultural origin of moral values, which in turn depends on an active or a reactive force, the latter manifesting itself as ‘ressentiment.’ These two types of opposing forces in society, for Nietzsche, correspond to the ‘aristocratic’ and ‘slave’ moralities respectively. According to Nietzsche, language is derived not from a cognitive / rational essence but from an aesthetic / sensible source. The deep level of language is characterised by a ‘tonality’ which is a mode of responding to the experiences in the world. This tonality is more primitive than even the musical art. This ‘tonal background’ of language, constitutes some sort of an “original melody of affects,” that is to say, the domain of rhythms and pulsations, in response to the “fluctuations of the intensity of human desire.”62This ‘melody’ is in its turn the ‘echo’ of sensations of pleasure and displeasure which comprise the universal of desire. For, Nietzsche, language can be a ‘symbol’ only as a radically impoverished replica of the world. It is analogical without ever being imitation. Language can only be a “musical” or “Dionysian” “mirror of the world” (Abbild). ‘Symbolising’ meant for Nietzsche, analogical reproduction, but accompanied by progressive loss of exactness of correspondence. And moreover, language and music are intimately related since both are “encoding of affects.” As per this schema, the more language

The expression from Nietzsche’s Posthumous Fragments (number 12) is quoted here from M. Haar, Nietzsche et la métaphysique, 1993, p. 110-111. This paragraph and the next are derived from Haar’s text.

becomes symbolic, the more it becomes devoid of its original force of desire, which as we just saw, is part of language as tonality, a tonality that is anterior to music itself. Similarly, there is a loss of the originality of sense in language through progressive metaphorization, a topic dealt with in Nietzsche’s essay, Truth and lie in an extra-moral sense. He envisages in language two levels of ‘transposition’ with respect to sensory experience. Firstly, all perceptual experience is ‘metaphorical’ or is transposition. The intuitive images of an object, because it is mediated by a nervous excitation is already a transposition of our sensory contact with the world. Secondly, there is another type of transposition which produces words and concepts, which are metaphors totally abstract and arbitrary with respect to the first set of metaphors. Because, there is such a progressive leap from one level of metaphoricity to the next in our use of language from his point of view, Nietzsche categorically rejects any ‘naturality’ of language. On the other hand, but for the same reason he would insist on the ‘artistic’ activity of the human subject at the origin of language. It is however necessary that this ‘artistry’ or this invention of a ‘fiction’ is forgotten, for words and their meanings to acquire a certain amount of generality and objectivity. A forgetting of the primitive world of metaphors, and of the artistic subjectivity of the human inventors of the fiction of language, is a prerequisite for the functioning of a logic that is found on truth, as well as of a metaphysics. Through the forgetting of the human inventive acts, and of the infinitely differentiating sensible experience, language becomes the auto-dissimulation of the creative state from which it emerges. And moreover, because of the repeated use within the context of a given social community, of the most conventionalised metaphors, it becomes impossible to rediscover the working of the convenient fictions that comprise the account that we provide of our lived world. Our language and our discourse, from this perspective, are made up of worn-out metaphies deprived of any living sense. The language that is available for our day-to-day use, and the discourse that we ordinarily construct with it, as per this analysis, can be nothing but a socially acceptable lie which fosters and maintains the mentality of the herd in a given community. Nietzsche believed that the prevalent moral paradigms of the west, whether coming from post-Socratic Greek ontology, puritan Judeo-Christian religions based on the value of suffering,

or modern science with its joyless epistemology, signify the triumph of the ‘slave’ morality with its reactive forces, over the artistic, ‘Dionysian’ spirit that had thrust itself upon the world with its own ‘will to power.’ In order to overcome the nihilism imposed by these paradigms on the western world, he suggests the recovery of the active forces, rejection of the dominant ethical and ontological paradigms, and a constant renewal, on the basis of will a to power of our static interpretations, of our physical and moral world, in favour of a world where the uncertainty and the instability of art will have precedence over the stagnant permanence of knowledge and truth. With the aid of his philological insight, Nietzsche is able to argue that language is the locus of conflicts of power. The moral terms, such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ he notes, have undergone significant shifts in their meaning since their original Greek coinage. The word, ‘good’ was not introduced by the beneficiaries of ‘non-egoistic’ actions, to refer to the agents of these actions. “Rather, the ‘good’ themselves – that is, the noble, the powerful, the superior, and the highminded – were the ones who felt themselves to be good – that is, as of the first rank – and posited them as such, in contrast to everything low, low-minded, common, and plebeian.”63 With the revolt of the slaves in the ancient society, the weak began to use this term to denote themselves, and the word ‘evil’ to refer to the strong and powerful. Nietzsche points out that struggles over opposing value systems, which manifest as conflicts of interpretations is a permanent feature of human societies. And if that is so, any ontological description of the world, social world included, can always be subjected to a philologically-based critique, which is precisely what yields the genealogy of morals, a pre-requisite for the transformation of the cultural domain. For Nietzsche, all ontology is interpretation, and genealogy reveals the relationship between forces of power and the emergence of particular interpretations. It is important to note here that Nietzsche shares with the Romantics like Herder an interest in ‘life’ over system or machine. But, he does not limit to eulogising the progressively organic character of human phenomena like language and mind. And as far as life is concered, the quest for ‘health’ replaces the Darwinian perspective of mere ‘survival.’ Nietzsche is concerned with the ‘healthy’ and joyful life of individuals as against the decadent and nihilistic

Nietzsche, F., On the Genealogy of Morals, p. 12.

existence of the herd-like community. Such a life is possible only by ‘destroying’ the lifedenying metaphysical discourses (religious, moral and even philosophical) that surround us and that play a determining role in producing our subjectivity. It is our ‘will to power’ that can, by inducing a differential between the active and the reactive forces in society, create ever-new alternative interpretations to guide our lives. As Nietzsche ponders in the opening sentence of the second essay of his On the Genealogy of Morals: The breeding of an animal which is entitled to make promises – is it not the paradoxical task that nature has set before itself with respect to man? Is this not the real problem which man not only poses, but faces also?64 What we notice is that, in several of his writings Nietzsche is proposing a break with the historicism, so dear to the philologists.65 He stresses on the importance of ‘active forgetfulness’: “The temporary shutting of the doors and windows of consciousness, guaranteed freedom from disturbance by the noise and struggle caused by our underworld of obedient organs as they cooperate with and compete against one another; a little silence, a little tabula rasa of consciousness, making room for the new, making room above all for the superior functions and functionaries … such is the use of … active forgetfulness….”66 However, against this natural ability, Nietzsche suggests that man has invented a counter-faculty of ‘memory’ owing to which he “himself must have become calculable, regular, necessary even to his own mind, so that finally he would be able to vouch for himself as future, in the way that someone making a promise does.”67 In his view there has been a long period in human history, characterized by the ‘morality of custom’ (a work of man upon himself), which has made man “necessary, uniform, an

“‘Guilt’, ‘Bad Conscience’, and Related Matters,” Second Essay of On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche, Friedrich, Tr; D. Smith. Oxford University Press, 1996 edn., p. 39. 65 Nietzsche says in his “On the Use and Disadvantages of History for Life” : “We need history, certainly, but we need it for reasons different from those for which the idler in the garden of knowledge needs it, even though he may look nobly down on our rough and charmless needs and requirements . We need it, …, for the sake for life and action, not so to turn comfortably away from life and action , let alone for the purpose of extenuating the self-seeking life and the base and cowardly action. We want o server history only to the extent that history serves life: for it is possible to value he study of history to such a degree that life becomes stunted and degenerate – a phenomenon we are now forced to acknowledge, painful though this may be, in the face of striking symptoms of our age.” (F. Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, Cambridge University Press. Tr. R.J. Hollingdale. 1983 edn. : p. 59. 66 Nietzsche, On the genealogy of Morals, op. cit., p. 39. 67 Ibid., p. 40.

equal among equals, regular and consequently calculable.”68 At the end of this process, however, Nietzsche visualizes “the sovereign individual, the individual who resembles no one but himself, who has once again broken away from the morality of custom, the autonomous supra-moral individual … – in short, the man with his own independent, enduring will, the man who is entitled to make promises.”69 What Nietzsche envisages in these texts, is a prophetic shift from the man who makes promises without being entitled to do so, i.e., a man bred by the ‘morality of custom,’ to a man who is a “liberated man, who is really entitled to make promises, the master of free will, this sovereign…”70 5. Derrida: ‘Monolinguism of the Other’ Jacques Derrida broaches on the subject of ‘promise’ in a recent work,71 which while taking an autobiographical path, deals centrally with questions of language identity, appropriation, and belonging. Whereas for Nietzsche ‘promise’ is an ‘entitlement’ acquired along with one’s liberation from herd morality, and regarded as an ability marking one’s sovereignty, for Derrida, promise is more strictly embedded in linguistic considerations. Or rather, it is an act of language, which privileges the language of the other, and which simultaneously tends towards the ‘other’ of any language. Thus, it is a central aspect of a politics of language. However strongly we adhere to the notions – so dear to the philosophical nationalisms of nineteenth century – of identity, appropriation, and belonging, usually associated with one’s ‘mother tongue,’ it is not difficult to see on closer examination, their vacuousness. As per the conventional, i.e., mainly modern understanding, languages are supposed to have distinct boundaries, and hence a distinct identity with respect to other languages, an identity that imposes itself as the identity of the members of the community which speaks that language. This makes language seem like an entity that can be possessed as a property, by its users, and to which they can belong. The belief in the property-hood of language, Derrida goes on to show, is hardly
68 69

Ibid., p. 40. Ibid., p. 41. 70 Ibid., p. 41. 71 Derrida, Jacques, 1996. Le Monolinguisme de l’autre. Paris: Galilée. Eng. Tr. Monolinguism of the Other OR The Prosthesis of Origin. Tr. P. Mensah. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1998.

tenable. Language cannot be a natural property, since its property-hood is dependent on law, a law of belonging, whose cultural constitution is the prerogative of others (and not of the self who is deemed to ‘possess’ it). This is what prompts Derrida to make the oxymoronic statement that is meant to destabilise one’s own ‘monolingualism’: ‘I only have one language, yet it is not mine.’ And moreover, it is the inapproriability of language that poses itself as a threat to its own integrity. It is perceived as something “not only to be promoted and developed, but also to be protected and even saved. It becomes not only the instrument of salvation but its very element: that which saves in the process of being saved (that which saves in being saved).”72 It is the same inappropriability that leads to the madness of nationalist phantasms around the glory of and threat to, ones’ own language. From a second perspective, still conventional, a language will be a common property shared by all its users. Combining these perspectives, Derrida criticises of the myth of the ‘uniidentity’ (unidentité) of language: language is neither ‘one’ (une) nor is it ‘common’ (commune). What is not acceptable here is the idea of the homogeneity of language, both internal to itself, and to its users on the whole: the idea that language is an undifferentiated whole, available as such for all those who are identified with it. In the autobiographical section of his Monolinguism of the Other, Derrida take us through an excursus of his experience of what he calls a ‘disorder of identity.’73 The French-speaking Sepharadic Jewish community in Algeria to which he belonged, and which had been accorded French citizenship by the Cremieux decree in 1870, were deprived of it between 1941 and 1943, in the midst of the Nazi occupation of France.74 Abolition of the right to be French, meant for the

Crépon, Marc, “What We Demand from Languages,” in Manjali, F. (ed.) Post-structuralism and Cultural Theory – The Linguistic Turn and Beyond. New Delhi: Allied, 2006. Published originally in French as a chapter “Ce qu’on demande des langues,” in : Crépon, M., Les promesses du langage (2002). 73 Ibid., Chapter 3, p. 14. 74 Derrida informs us that Nazi-backed French government headed by Petain abolished the French citizenship of the Jews in Algeria, even though it was not in any way prompted by the German dictatorship. As he puts it with the most poignant effect: “Algeria has never been occupied. I mean that if it has ever been occupied, the German Occupation was never responsible for it. The withdrawal of French citizenship from the Jews of Algeria, with everything that followed, was the deed of the French alone. They decided that all by themselves, in their heads; they must have been dreaming about it all along; they implemented it all by themselves.” (Ibid., p. 16)

French-speaking Jews of Algeria, no language to be had as theirs, or for them to belong to. Not Hebrew, the language of Jewish religion, not Yiddish, the language of the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, and not Arabic, or Berber, the two more ‘native’ languages of Algeria. Derrida describes the cultural and linguistic plight of this Jewish community: “…here was a disintegrated “community,” cut up and cut off. …This “community” will have been three times dissociated by what, a little hastily, we are calling interdicts. (1) First of all, it was cut off from both Arabic or Berber (…) language and culture. (2) It was cut off from French, and even European language and culture, which, from this point of view, only constituted, a distanced pole or metropole, heterogeneous to its history. (3) It was cut off, finally, or to begin with, from Jewish memory, and from the history and language that one must presume to be their own, but which, at a certain point, no longer was. At least not in a typical way for the majority of its members, and not in a sufficiently ‘lively’ and internal way.”75 A state of thus having no ‘mother tongue’ to belong to, Derrida notes, though might seem like a special case of the Jews in Algeria, is in reality the general condition of all situations of language use. One’s own language is never a natural property, he continues to insist, just as language cannot be anything natural. Since language is never an individual property, and is something inevitably shared by a small or large group of individuals, it is always guided by implicit or explicit laws of interdiction: “You shall use only the language that is shared by all members of a community, and that in a manner acceptable by all. And correlatively, you shall not introduce as far as possible any foreign elements into your language, and you shall always protect your language from all foreign interference, as well as protect and promote its interests.” However, the question to be posed is: where do the laws of linguistic interdiction come from? They come as part of a hegemonic politics that informs the collective use of every language. The laws regarding what constitutes a language are culturally laid down – in spite of me, outside of me, before me and for me – just at the same moment as language is made the medium of law. All that is ‘cultural,’ Derrida would say, emanates from elsewhere, and is indeed colonial: “A

Ibid., p. 55.

coloniality of culture, and, without a doubt, also of hospitality when the latter conditions and auto-limits itself into a law, however ‘cosmopolitan’…”76 Therefore, one is able to declare: “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.”77 However evident this political fact of always speaking the language of the other, one cannot avoid, while speaking a language, being subjected to “an immanent structure of promise or desire, an expectation without a horizon of expectations…”78 When I am speaking in a language, I am also implicitly promising that I shall continue to speak in nothing but that language, and thus will maintain the integrity of that language, rather than disturb it. Thus there is an implicit agreement on the law that governs the sphere of my language. Since the sphere of my language is always potentially threatened by what is outside of it, or what it is not, there is in my use of it, always and already a promise about where I hall be taking it. “As soon as I speak, before even formulating a promise, an expectation, or a desire as such, and when I still do not know what will happen to me or what awaits me at the end of a sentence, neither who nor what awaits whom or what, I am within this promise or this threat – which, from then on, gathers the language together, the promised or threatened language…”79 Now, the most crucial question that Derrida poses for a ‘cultural’ politics of language is this: how can we, in each act of language, promise a language that does not necessarily fall within the sphere of the language imposed itself as an object of identification and appropriation? How can we promise a language beyond the ‘uni-identity’ (unidentité) of the language imposed upon us from outside, and appears as always and already present for us? This can be done, according to Derrida, only by inventing in one’s own language, “inventing a language different enough to disallow its own reappropriation within the norms, the body, and the law of the given

76 77

Ibid ., p. 24-25. Ibid., p. 25. 78 Ibid., p. 21. 79 Ibid., p. 22.

language…”80, a language that is “prior-to-the-first language” which exists only in anticipation. This language would be a ‘promised language.’81 The other name for this ‘invention’ in one’s own language, of the language of the other, which would also be the ‘prior-to-the-first’ language, is translation. Derrida tends to equate this invention with translation, “the translation of a language that does not as yet exist, and that will never have existed, in any given target language.”82 Similarly, for Walter Benjamin, there is in all creative language activity, including translation, something like a ‘pure language’ “that cannot be communicated,” and which is part of the “evolving of the languages themselves.”83 This pure language, messianic in its existence and content, is that which cannot be captured faithfully in any faithful renderings, but which moves back and forth between the source and target languages, in their mutual contact and evolution. It is a language that is outside of all given languages; it is no one’s language. Benjamin: “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the pure spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through the barriers of his own language.”84 In this sense, the work of translation would to be to pursue the pure language which would ‘shine upon the original,’ without there being an ultimate language of arrival. Through the medium of the pure language, in what would be an instance of good translation, Benjamin says: “meaning plunges from abyss to abyss until it threatens to become lost in the bottomless depths of language.”85 A monolanguage of the other, promise, invention and translation. What do these mean with reference to the category or state of what we call a ‘language’? Firstly, the impossibility of a stable and static identity for any language and for its users. Languages whose identity we take for granted are constantly made to differ from themselves. They differ in the direction of other languages, and in the direction of an ever-deferred language that does not yet exist and will never exist. A state of language, whether of one’s own or of the other is never arrived. Secondly, a
80 81

Ibid., p. 66. Ibid., p. 61. 82 Ibid., p. 65. 83 Ibid., p. 80. 84 Ibid., p. 80. 85 Ibid., p. 82.

language can never be the property of anyone. That is a state of coexistence of a subject and it language is never achieved. Instead of a language that is appropriated by the self, there can only be a language one promises to the other. A language that one forever gives, but never given to one. One translates one’s own language into one’s own ‘idiom,’ one marks it with one’s ‘signature.’86 This idiom and this signature ‘belong’ to a language that is ultimately impossible. And the translation involved here is an “untranslatable translation.” At the same time, Derrida argues, “this untranslatable translation, this new idiom makes things happen, this signature brought forth, produces, events in the given language, the given language to which things must still be given, sometimes unverifiable events: illegible events. Events that are always promised rather than given. Messianic events. But the promise is not nothing; it is not a non-event.”87

References: Anderson, Benedict, 1983 / 1991 edn. Imagined Communities. London: Verso. Beiser, Frederick, 1989. The Fate of Reason. German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press. Benjamin, Walter, 1968, “The Task of the Translator,” in Illuminations. (Tr.) H. Zorn. London: Pimlico. 1999 edn. Branca-Rosoff, Sonia, 2001. L’institution des langues. Paris : Maison des Sciences de l’Homme. Crépon, Marc, 2000. Le malin génie des langues. Nietzsche, Heidegger, Rosenzweig . Paris : J. Vrin. Crépon, Marc, 2002. « Ce qu’on demande des langues », in Les promesses du langage. Benjamin, Rosenzweig, Heidegger. Paris: J. Vrin. “What We Expect from Languages,” (tr.) Srinivas Reddy, in F. Manjali (ed.) Post-structuralism and Cultural Theory – The Linguistic Turn and Beyond. New Delhi: Allied, 2006.


For a more useful account of Derrida’s notions of ‘idiom’ and ‘signature’ in relation to language, see E. Grossman’s interview with him in Europe – Paul Celan, 861-862: pp. 81-91. Derrida says with reference to the German Jewish poet, Paul Celan: “What I have tried to think is an idiom (and idiom means clearly an individual property, what is one’s own) and a signature within the idiom of language, which is seen at the same time as the experience of the inappropriability of language. I believe that Celan has attempted a mark, a unique signature which was a counter-signature of the German language and at the same time something that happens (arrive) to the German language… (p. 83) 87 Derrida, 1998 edn.: p. 66.

Derrida, Jacques, 1996. Le Monolinguism de l’autre. Paris: Galilée. Eng. Tr. Monolinguism of the Other OR The Prosthesis of Origin. Tr. P. Mensah. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1998. Derrida, Jacques, 2001. “La langue n’appartient pas,” Entretien avec Jacques Derrida réalisé par Evelyne Grossman. Europe « Paul Celan », Jan.-Fev., 861-862 (2001): 81-91. Foucault, Michel, 1966 / 1970 edn. The Order of Things. An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Translated from French. London: Tavistock. Harris, Roy and T. J. Taylor, 1989. Landmarks in Linguistic Thought. The Western Tradition from Socrates to Saussure. London: Routledge. Haar, Michel, 1993. Nietzsche et la métaphysique. Paris: Gallimard. Herder, Johann Gottfried, 1966 edn. “Essay on the Origin of Language.” Tr. A. Gode. In On the Origin of Language. New York: F. Ungar. Herder, J.G., 1977 edn. Traité sur l’origine de langue. Paris : Aubier. Humboldt, Guillaume de, 1969 edn. De l’origine des formes grammaticales. Paris : Duclos. Nietzsche, Friedrich, 1996 edn. On the Genealogy of Morals. Tr. D. Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Nietzsche, Friedrich, 1998 edn. Beyond Good and Evil. Tr. M. Faber. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Nietzsche, 1983 edn. Untimely Meditations. Tr. R.J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Leibniz, G.W., 2000 edn. L’Harmonie des langues. Tr. M. Crépon. Paris : Seuil. Ramaswamy, Sumathi, 1997 / 1998 edn. Passions of the Tongue. Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal. Schlanger, Judith, 1971. Les métaphores de l’organisme. Paris: J. Vrin.

1. Our modest goal in this chapter is to provide a comparative perspective on the philosophies of Jacques Derrida, a contemporary French philosopher and Nāgārjuna, an Indian Buddhist philosopher of the first century A.D.88 At the outset I should mention that already considerable amount of writing exist on this problem, and that our intention is not to repeat the ideas which have already appeared in scholarly writings we shall refer to below. Our perspective may be marginally different from that of the others in that we shall be suggesting that though both Derrida and Nāgārjuna, though having lived in very different historical periods and geographical spaces, seemed to have shared a similar ethical orientation, from which other aspects of their philosophy, such as their approaches to ontology, epistemology and language, have followed. Comparing two philosophers of contrasting historical and cultural contexts, and therefore of contrasting styles, is indeed a risky enterprise. Derrida as the founder of deconstruction, bears at least an historical and typological relationship with the phenomenological and critical hermeneutic tradition that developed in western Europe, especially in France and Germany, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He does not seem to bear any overt or inclusive relationship with any religious tradition, though his proximity with and critical treatment of some of the philosophical questions of the Jewish tradition is clearly evident. Nāgārjuna, on the other hand seems to belong squarely to the Indian Buddhist religious tradition. As a philosopher who makes direct references to Buddha’s teachings, he is one of the most revered icons of Buddhist religion and scholarship, and is regarded by the followers of the Mahāyāna school as next in importance only to Buddha himself.

An earlier version of this chapter has appeared as an article in S.K. Sareen and M. Paranjape (ed.) Śabda: Text and Interpretation in Indian Thought. New Delhi: Mantra. 2004. (145-53) The paper was presented at the National Seminar on Śabda: Texts and Interpretations organized by the Centre of Linguistics and English, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi in February, 2004.

I am grateful to my friend Jonardon Ganeri, who is currently on the faculty of philosophy at University of Liverpool, U.K., for providing me photocopies of most of the bibliographic material used in this article. Without his help and inspiration, this article would have been neither conceivable nor possible. Considering Ganeri’s expertise in Indian philosophy, a field in which I have only a passing acquaintance, I should take upon myself all the blame for the inadequacies of this paper.

2. Derrida’s philosophy has received international attention and appreciation ever since his De la grammatologie was published in English translation in 1976.89 He has a very long list of publications for us to be able to provide individual accounts of each. As for Nāgārjuna, we shall be referring to what is considered as his principal work, Mūlamadhyamakakārika, of which several translations exist.90 Comparative studies of Derrida and Nāgārjuna have already appeared in several publications. The earliest of these seems to be Part III of Robert Magliola’s book, Derrida on the Mend (1984), which we have not been able to consult, but references to which are given in two of the publications below that we shall consider here.91 The five publications from then till 1993, which deal with our problem, are the following:

David Loy, 1987. “The clôture of deconstruction: A Mahayana Critique of Derrida,” International Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 27. (59-80) Coward, Harold, 1990. “Derrida and Nagarjuna,” Chapter 6 in Derrida and Indian Philosophy. Albany: SUNY Press. (125-146) Kenneth Libermann, 1991. “The Grammatology of Emptiness: Postmodernism, the Madhyamaka Dialectic, and the Limits of the Text.” International Philosophical Quarterly. Vol. 31, No. 4. (435-448) Bimal K. Matilal, 1992. “Is Prasanga a Form of Deconstruction?” Journal of Indian Philosophy, 20. (345-362) Cai Zong-qi, 1993. “Derrida and Madhyamika Buddhism: From Linguistic Deconstruction to Criticism of Onto-Theologies.” International Philosophical quarterly, 33, number 2. (185-195)






Derrida, Jacques, 1967. De la grammatologie. Paris: Minuit. Of Grammatology, Eng. Tr., G. Chakravorty- Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. 1977. Indian edition, New Delhi: Motilal Banarasidas, 1994. 90 We shall refer to David J. Kalupahana’s translation, Mūlamadhyamakakārika of Nagarjuna – The Philosophy of the Middle Way. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidas. 1991. 91 Magliola, Robert, 1984. Derrida on the Mend. Indianapolis: Purdue University Press. Brief references to the relevant sections of this book can be found in the article by David Loy and in the relevant chapter in Coward’s book. Loy informs us that “this book discusses Derrida in relation to Taoism, Mādhyamika, and Christian theology…” (Loy, 1987: 59)

3. In this section, we shall present quick sketches of the above-mentioned articles / bookchapters. a. As per Coward’s account, Magliola asserts the philosophical superiority of Nāgārjuna over Derrida. The former is said to ‘go beyond’ the latter, and in this process, Nāgārjuna is able to “find the solution for which Derrida is searching.” Derrida’s apparently ‘cursory’ characterisation of Eastern thought as nothing more than variations of logocentrism is vehemently criticised by Magliola for not taking seriously Nāgārjuna’s critique of identity. He insists that Nāgārjuna’s strategy and arguments in this respect long antedates Derrida’s. Magliola sees an equivalence between Nāgārjuna’s śūnyata (emptiness) and différance. The former is defined as “the absolute negation which absolutely deconstitutes but which constitutes directional trace.” Arguing in favour of Nāgārjuna, Magliola does not seem to be concerned about Derrida’s excessive worry over ‘logocentrism’, since Nāgārjuna allows for some role of language in a “beyond knowing [which] is not itself logocentric.”92 b. David Loy, in his article, taking a clearly pro-Nāgārjuna stance criticizes Derrida’s seemingly radical deconstructive critique of western philosophy as defective and argues that it is not radical enough. Derrida’s deconstruction, according to Loy, attains self-closure in the “half-way house of proliferating ‘pure textuality’¨” and hence cannot, like Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka philosophy cannot “lead to a transformed mode of experiencing the world.”93 He argues that, latter philosophy, is “another form of deconstruction,” because it involves the deconstruction of “common sense” dualities (inscribed in language, and thus are fundamental categories of thought), and of self-existing or self-present things. But Nāgārjuna’s critique is more complete, because it critiques our “mode of experiencing the world” by deconstructing even the opposition between subject and object, as well as the subjective and the objective, in favour of nirvāna or freedom. c. Unlike Magliola and Loy, Liberman is prepared to consider Derrida and Nāgārjuna on an even plane. He notes that deconstructionist’s endlessly proliferating (grammatological) interpretations leave no final residue or substance of the text. This is equated with the ‘śūnyata’ of the
92 93

Coward, H., 1990: 125-26. Loy, D., 1987 : 59.

Madhyamaka. For both, there is no origin, no end, no centre; there is only the ‘trace’ of the mutual dependence or co-dependence of opposing entities. d. Matilal, who takes a logical approach to the problem, concludes that since the task of both deconstruction and Mādhyamaka is the refutation of the metaphysics of presence, even while having to remain within the closure of metaphysics, both can be viewed primarily as “therapeutic methods.” And moreover, since “the goal [of both] is to dissolve the metaphysical enclosure and also to remain with in it,” critical apparatus either of the prasanga method of Mādhyamaka or of deconstruction can only be ‘provisionally’ accepted.94 e. Zong-qi sees in both the movement from linguistic deconstruction to onto-theological criticism. He identifies some important parallels between the two approaches:

Both Deconstructionist and Madhyamaka thinkers develop deconstructive theories of meaning based on similar ideas of differance and differentiam, and seeks to nullify logos, and the name of Non-Existence reified by both western idealists and the Buddhist Essentialists;

b. Both apply the same theories of meaning to deconstruct Matter ad Existence, reified by western Materialists and Buddhist Realists;

Both conceive of their double negation as an exercise of neither/nor logic and set forth their deconstructive formulas in terms ‘tetrapharmokon’ (Derrida) and ‘tetralemma’ (Madhyamaka)95;

94 95

Matilal, Bimal, 1992: 361-62. Zong-qi: “Both Derrida and the Madhyamika thinkers describe their double register deconstruction in terms of “neither/nor…. Derrida double negates a host of conceptual opposites endowed with onto-theological significance, and hen sums up the principle of deconstruction as a practice of neither-nor.” This is how this corrective middle terms of his (non-)logic of neither-nor works for Derrida: “…the pharmokon is neither remedy nor poison, neither good or evil, neither the inside nor the outside, neither speech nor writing; the supplement is neither accident or essence, etc.; the hymen is neither confusion nor distinction, neither identity nor difference, neither consummation nor virginity, neither the veil nor unveiling, neither the inside nor the outside, etc.; the gram is neither a signifier nor a signified, neither a sign nor a thing, neither a presence nor an absence neither a position nor a negation, etc.; spacing is neither space nor time; … Neither/nor, that s simultaneously either or;… (Derrida, J., Positions, p. 43, quoted in Zong-qi, 1993: 189). Zong-qi notes that “…Derrida is so fascinated with the idea of a fourth term that he names ‘pharmakon’ – one of his principal examples of difference – as ‘tetrapharmakon’ (ibid., p. 190). Similarly, the Madhyamika four-valued logic, is said to be a “double negation of the ‘Name’ and ‘Thing’ [which is] an exercise of exercise of ‘neither-this-nor-that’ logic.” “That a fourth term marks off Madhyamika Buddhism rom other philosophical systems is self –evident in he very name by which Madhamika deconstruction is best known – catụѕkoti, rendered as tetralemma or the four-cornered method of argument…” (see Zong-qi, 1993: 190)


Both abolish their own tetrapharmakon and tetralemma (catuškōti) and embark on their self-deconstructive courses along an aimless “supernumerary” and a linear “hexalemma” (a six-sided logic where both the new thesis and its antithesis are eliminated) “To overcome … an ontotheological reinscription [of their own positions], both Derrida and the Madhyamika thinkers undertake self-deconstruction.”96

Ultimately, both the deconstructive traditions are meant to lead to the end of philosophy. 4. We may quickly summarise some of the most points of similarity between Derrida’s deconstruction and Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka philosophy. a. Both are meant to be critiques of any and every metaphysics, and are therefore antiessentialist philosophies. They are intended to destroy the stability of existing (metaphysical) essentialisms be it in of the theological, ontological or epistemological kind. And further, they are vehemently against setting up an alternative metaphysics in the place of what they destroy. b. Methodologically, Derrida and the Madhyamaka philosophers propose a double deconstruction, that is deconstruction of the duality of either/or (being or not-being) as well as the duality of both, to arrive at a neither/nor position. c. Any philosophical position that one may come up with should be able to criticize, deconstruct, and displace the given essentializing, metaphysical discourses infinitely. Since these discourses have their reality in language, deconstruction and Madhyamaka are predominantly critiques of language. d. The two philosophies take recourse in the final instance to what is intended to be a nonessentialiizing, non-metaphysical category which induces a permanent movement (ontological, epistemological, linguistic) of our relationship with the world. This is différence for Derrida and śūnyata for Nāgārjuna. Both the philosophies deny any positive existence for these categories. e. Both the philosophies propose constant deconstruction of what will appear to be their own positions. They take an alert stance to prevent any essentializing tendency within their own philosophical practice.


Ibid., p. 191.

f. Finally, an issue most important for us, both the philosophies are basically oriented in ethics, in an ethics that is devoid of any ontological claims. Both these ethically-based philosophical approaches are predicated upon the universal necessity of overcoming violence / suffering. 5. In this section we shall attempt an exposition of key terms and propositions in Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārika. While doing this these terms will be rendered in such a way as to bring them closer to Derrida’s philosophical terms. 5.1. Svabhāva or ‘self-presence’97: Stanza 24. 21: “How can there be suffering that is not dependently arisen? Suffering is described as impermanent. Suffering is not evident in terms of self-presence or ‘self-nature.’” If ‘good’ and ‘bad’ had self-nature, there would be goodness and badness in themselves. This statement is an ethical application of the principle of pratityasamutpāda (codependent emergence). We shall note that this principle is rather different from Derrida’s difference. The former is directly connected to a theory of causal chains, where each node is denied the possibility of independent emergence. Whereas difference takes us away from a belief in similarity between a thin and its supposed opposite on a common plane of contraries, and introduces the idea of difference in both space and time. Stanza 24.35: “If on the contrary, a result caused by good or bad is evident, one cannot hold that a result that has arisen from good or bad actions to be non-empty.” Both arising of suffering and cessation of suffering are not evident in terms of self-being or in the absence of an understanding of emptiness, the former implying the latter. If there is a connection between good and the cessation of suffering on the one hand, and between bad and the arising of


Svabhāva is translated by Kalupahana as ‘self-nature’. Etymologically it would be ‘self-being’. It may be characterized as ‘character’ or ‘property.’

suffering on the other, it means that none of the terms has an independent existence. There in neither good nor bad as self-present entities, nor is there the opposition between the two. Stanza 24. 24: “When self-nature exists, the coming to be (bhāvana) of the path is not possible. And if the path has to come to be, then no self-nature associated with it (i.e., the path) would be evident.” If there is self-being, it cannot become, cannot perform. Self-being can neither induce nor undergo change. On the contrary, if a being does induce or undergo change, then there is no selfbeing. Stanza 24. 33: “No one will, indeed do good or bad. What could the non-empty do? For self-nature does not perform.” In this context, we may describe two terms of central importance for Nāgārjuna:

Samvriti (jointly-created or conventional truth) is opposed to paramārtha (the ‘ultimate’ truth.)

We live in the day-to-day on the basis of jointly created or conventional truths. Here, things may seem to have a certain self-presence. But, the proper application of Mādhyamaka philosophy helps us to overcome the world of conventional truths, and approach the world of paramārtha, which is a truth that is potentially devoid of all conventional truths. Sūnyata, or emptiness is the name of this truth.

However, just as Derrida does with his difference, Nagarjuna cautions us that there is no Sūnyata as such. Even sūnyata does not have an independent reality, and it can be approached only on the basis of the principle of ‘codependent arising.’

Stanza 24. 36: “One will be required to contradict all worldly behaviour (vyavahāra) when one contradicts the emptiness associated with codependent meaning.” Stanza 24. 37: “For one who contradicts emptiness there would be nothing that must be done; action would be uninitiated and an agent would be non-acting.”

(This is because, then one would be admitting the self-presence and fullness of actions. Actions are possible only on a possible substratum of emptiness, and not on the basis of a fullness of presence or of actions.) Stanza 24. 39: “Whoever perceives co-dependent arising (pratitysamudpādam) also perceives suffering, its arising, its ceasing and the path (leading to its ceasing).” In this context, some more terms from Nāgārjuna are relevant for us:

Samsara: This may be translated as ‘conversation’ or ‘dialogue’ (i.e., co-production of meaning). Nāgārjuna suggests a continuity, rather than an opposition between samsāra and the Buddhist central category of Nirvana, freedom. Atma-samyamakam: Self-restraint of the Middle Way.


Stanza 17. 1: “Self-restraint (atma-samyamakam) (foundation of moral life, instead of self-mortification or self-immolation) as well as benefit for others (parānugrāhakam) – this is the friendly way (maitram dharmam), and it constitutes the seed that bears fruit here as well as in the next life.)98

Maitram Dharmam or the ‘ethics of friendship.’

Here we shall quote Maurice Blanchot – one of Derrida’s main intellectual influences – on friendship: Friendship, this relation without dependence, without episode, yet into which all of the simplicity of life enters, passes by ways of the recognition of the common strangeness that does not allow us to speak of our friends but only to speak to them, not to make of them a topic of conversations (or essays), but the movement of understanding in which, speaking to us they reserve, even on the most familiar terms, an infinite distance, the fundamental separation on the basis of which what separates becomes relation.99

Freedom or Nirvāna. (Etymologically, “non-grasping,” relative to samsāra.) Stanza 25. 3:


But excessive altruism is disfavoured. Buddha (Dhammapāda 166) : “One should not neglect one’s own welfare through excessive altruism; having understood one’s own welfare, one should be devoted to the true welfare.” 99 Maurice Blanchot, 1997 edn.: Friendship. Stanford : Stanford University Press, p. 291.

“Unrenounced, not unattained, undestroyed, non-eternal, unceasing and uncreated, this is what is appropriately called freedom, nirvāna.” Thus, freedom is something non-existent, non experienceable, non categorizable. This means that is created anew each time. Stanza 25. 4: “Freedom is not present, for if it were, it would also have the characteristics of life and death. There is no presence without life and death.” Freedom is not born, nor does it die. Thus it cannot be grasped. Graspability will destroy the possibility of freedom. Freedom is also not non-presence. Stanza 25. 19: “The life-process (samsāra) has no distinction from freedom (nirvāna), nor freedom has any distinction from the life-process.” Freedom arises in relation to one’s relation with others as part of our ‘infinite conversation.’ It can not be perceived before, after or outside of he latter. Stanza 25. 20: “Even between extreme freedom and extreme life-process there is not even the slightest difference.” Samsāra and Nirvāna themselves emerge codependently. ***

9. Derrida: Language and Philosophy*
Perhaps the main reason why it was decided to include a talk on Derrida in this third series on the Trajectory of French Thought was to pay our homage to this renowned philosopher who died on 9th October last year. Of course, it is always difficult to pay one’s tributes to a departed intellectual leader of one’s own times, but it’s all the more so when we commemorate a philosopher who had thought, spoken, and written extensively on the question of death and mourning. I am referring here particularly to Jacques Derrida’s book The Work of Mourning which contains 14 texts of mourning that the author had pronounced or written after the deaths of his friends and colleagues, from Roland Barthes to Jean-François Lyotard between 1980 and 1998. These are indeed touching farewells, and evocations in part of the special qualities of the deceased persons. Derrida writes that with the death of a person, a singular world associated with that person comes to an end, each time. That is to say, or it implies that there is no world in general as such. Here and there in these texts, Derrida attempts to analyze the speech act involved in mourning a near and dear dead person. To get a better picture of this genre of mourning, I quote from his speech, “Adieu” delivered at the funeral of Emmanuel Levinas: Whom is one addressing at such a moment? And in whose name would one allow oneself to do so? Often those who come forward to speak, to speak publicly, thereby interrupting the animated whispering, the secret or intimate exchange that always links one, deep inside, to a dead friend or master, those who make themselves heard in a cemetery, end up addressing directly, straight on, the one who, as we might say, is no longer living, no longer there, who will no longer respond. With tears in their voices, they sometimes speak familiarly to the other who keeps silent, calling upon him without detour or meditation, apostrophizing him, even greeting him or confiding in him. This is not necessarily out of respect for convention, not always simply part of the rhetoric of oration. It is rather to traverse speech at the very point where words fail us, since all language that would return

Text of a talk in the Third Series on Trajectory of French Thought at the French Information Resource Centre, New Delhi, on 27 August, 2005. This paper has previously appeared in Trajectory of French Thought, vol. 2. New Delhi: French Information Resource Centre, 2006 (47-57).

to the self, to us, would seem indecent, a reflexive discourse that would keep coming back to the stricken community, to its consolation or its mourning, to what is called, in a confused and terrible expression, “the work of mourning.” Concerned only with itself, such speech would, in this return, risk turning away from what is here our law – the law as straightforwardness or uprightness: to speak straight on, to address oneself directly to the other, and to speak for the other whom one loves and admires, before speaking of him. To say to him, adieu to him, Emmanuel, and not merely to recall what he first taught of a certain Adieu. 100 Adieu, as you would know, is the traditional French word for bidding farewell, goodbye, which literally means “to god.” When one makes a parting from a friend or an acquaintance, one wishes him or her, safety and security in that uncertain, unknowable and undecidable territory of death / god. One leaves him or her in the infinity of time, or shall we say, to the care of god, who in the words of Levinas is the absolute and completely other. Following the death of Derrida, in a text that was published the next day in the French newspaper Libération, Jean-Luc Nancy would say in a similar vein: “Salut, greetings / goodbye! How not to say salut, goodbye to you at this moment when you are going away? How not to respond to this salut, goodbye that you are bidding to us, a “salut without salvation, an unpresentable salut” as you had said?” … “You are leaving us,” Nancy says in this text, “you are leaving us to face the darkness into which you are disappearing. But: salut, greetings to the darkness! Greetings to this fading away of figures and schemas. Salut also to our becoming blind, which you had made one of your favourite themes: salut to the vision which does not regard forms or ideas, but which allows touching each other by forces. You worked hard to be blind so that you could better salute this clarity that only obscurity can possess: that which is outside of view and which envelops the secret. Not a hidden secret, but the open, manifest secret of being, of life /of death. Salut, goodbye then to the secret that you guard intact.”101


J. Derrida, The Work of Mourning, (eds.) Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naan, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2001. Pp. 200-201. 101 Libération, 11 October, 2004. Text translated by the present author.

Here, Nancy is wishing Derrida well in a territory without language, that is, without “figures and schemas,” a territory of blindness, of darkness and of a very open secret. In our own context here, perhaps we can use the eastern, or more precisely the Arabic equivalent of the Latino-French word Salut, which is Salaam, to wish peace to our departed philosopher. Salaam, Derrida. Strictly speaking, Derrida is no more with us today. He is no longer in our world. He does not speak to us any more for us to lend our ears to him nor does he write any more for us to direct a fresh glance upon the words he would have inscribed. However, his writings which run into more than 80 original publications and their translations into many languages will continue to attract our attention for a very long time. They will continue to murmur behind the discursive edifices that have been erected in the past, both in the classical and modern epochs, and those which will be erected in future. The stage of writing that Derrida had set up is enormous in its scope and is likely to remain a major source of reference and inspiration in philosophy and several other fields of humanities and social sciences, for times to come. Derrida’s writings will continue to appear before us traces that transformed much of our modern mode of thinking. However, it is doubtful whether he would have liked to characterize his writings as representing either the category of ‘French’ or of ‘thought.’ Derrida’s passion was always to set up linguistic signifiers that stood forth over and above any given discourse or category. His own writings were for him a mode of ‘survival (survie),’ ‘überleben’ or ‘living on,’ that is, a supplement upon his own life. Every instance of writing, from Derrida’s point of view is not a manifest equivalent of the writer’s thought, but an overcoming of what is given to one as thought. Every writer, thus, is a ‘survivor,’ a survivor of the worst forms of calamity or violence, such as the holocaust, which smother thought. We can say with conviction that the supplement that Derrida’s own writings are in relation to his thought are bound to survive him, and ‘live on’ in posterity. As a French-speaking Jewish immigrant from a small town in Algeria, Derrida always chose to position himself outside, or in the margins of the metropolitan French discourse.

Nevertheless, going by the enormous volume of his writings, we should reckon that he had a great passion for the French language, the only language he really loved. But this was not the love of a master-builder seeking some immaculate construction in his native or host language, but that of an outsider or a marginal, seeking to examine and deconstruct its core, its major discourses, often with the apparent innocence and charm of a novice, and yet with the aim of carrying this language forward into unknown, unchartered and undecidable territories. In an interview given to the Le Monde a few weeks before his death, Derrida had spoken of this curious passion of his: To leave some traces in the history of the French language, that is what interests me. I live with this passion, if not for France, at least for something that is embodied in the French language for centuries.102 Like a majority of philosophers of the 20th century who had chosen to work in the domain of philosophy of language, Derrida too had embarked on a doctoral thesis in the late 1950’s with the title, “The Ideality of the Literary Object.” It was his combined and almost equal passion for both philosophy and literature, which in fact represented the main current of French scholarship during his adolescence that set him along the path and around a project, which led him to much of his reflections on ‘writing.’ In the philosophical field, Derrida encountered and opposed two of the main established positions that prevailed in France during this period, namely phenomenology and structuralism. Taking a cue from Lacanian psychoanalysis, which accorded a privileged place for the ‘letter’ or the graphic signifier, Derrida went on to investigate how the idealisation of language, in Husserlian phenomenology and Saussurian structuralism – which themselves were symptoms of what was always the case in western philosophy – results in the nullification or effacing of the linguistic signifier, phonic or graphic. Through closely and incisively argued texts, Derrida demonstrated that the constant privileging of the spoken voice – as the equivalent of a thought it is supposed to represent – in Western metaphysics results from a concomitant privileging of ideal

J. Derrida, in interview with Jean Birnbaum, Le Monde, 19 August 2004. Text translated by the present author.

presence as a phenomenological reality. Though language makes use of phonic signifiers, it receives its signifying value only because of its repetitive use in an open-ended system of differential signifiers. A signifier exists not in terms of its assumed ‘natural’ relationship with a corresponding signified, but as the bearer of traces of other signifiers of the same system. Therefore it is impossible for a signified to exist as a self-present entity bearing a relationship in and for itself. Thus no such thing as a ‘sign’ really exits, but only traces of signifiers standing in relation to each other, all along. These traces are not marks that exist within a word or sign-like entity, but are always on the exterior, present only in their exposition to other traces, and to others, and so on infinitely. This is a very different way of understanding the nature of language. Discourses are no longer seen as possessing an interiority consisting of self-present signifieds originating from a speaking or writing source, but as events participating in an endless play of signifiers. Consequently, there isn’t either a transcendental or phenomenological intentionality that hinges permanently to the agent of a discourse. Any discourse, in Derrida’s view can be detached from its supposed original intentionality, and grafted on to other or to other’s discourses infinitely, so that in spite of one’s best intentions, “the letter can always go astray, or fail to arrive at its destination.” Just as Derrida substitutes a traditional term like ‘sign’ of semiology with terms like ‘trace,’ ‘gram,’ ‘difference’ and ‘supplement,’ he chooses to emphasize the unconditional iterability of the linguistic signifiers, in the place of the more widely accepted notion of intentionality. At the same time, Derrida is keen to point out the importance of ‘signature,’ something that is often claimed as characteristic of written language and which a speech-act theorist like J. L. Austin views as equivalent to the originating intentional-source of speech acts. Contrary to the speech-act perspective, Derrida insists on the “repeatable, iterable, imitable form” of ‘signature,’ and the fact that it “must be able to be detached from the present and singular intention of its production.” Signature is not what remains permanently attached to the intentionality of the speaker or writer, but that which makes a mark in the given language, alters it from within it in terms of his or her specific contribution to or invention in that language. In this context, Derrida refers to the work of the German-Jewish poet-translator Paul Celan, who according to him

“attempted a mark, a unique signature which was a counter-signature of the German language and at the same time something that happens to German language…”103 Nullifying the assumption regarding self-presence of meaning and the centrality of intentionality, foregrounds writing as a defining mode of language as such, and serves to diminish the classical opposition between the so-called factual and fictional discourses. The unhinged character of writing with respect to meaning and intentionality is ascribable in the same way and applicable to the same extent to spoken language. And moreover, if self-presence of meaning is clearly not a necessary aspect of the functioning of language, fictional and the socalled true discourses, are only differential ways of participating in the play of language. They are both equally susceptible to the play of both presence and absence, as far their semantics is concerned. They can both be erected one beside the other, mutually effecting and transforming each other, fact touching and displacing fiction, and contrarily, fiction having the same effect upon fact. Fiction brings into fact linguistic signifiers from the outside of the latter, and fact has to constantly redeem itself of fiction from within it. The position we have outlined above evidently has serious consequences for philosophy. It may sound banal, but yet useful to say that rather than work in the domain of a philosophy of language, Derrida is more concerned with the language of philosophy. As long as philosophy is expressed in propositions of language, the latter cannot be immune from the forces and effects of language. Philosophy, can after all, only be a product or the result of our use of language. In other words, philosophy, or for that matter science, cannot claim for itself an essential meaning, but can only be the result of a play of differences that language itself permits as part of its essential definition. In order to have any value for what is supposed to be within philosophy, the latter has to constantly bring in alternative discourses from the outside of itself. It has to allow itself to participate in alternative discursive play, having its provenance in other languages, literatures, disciplines, or in sources hitherto regarded as outside of philosophy. Philosophy, or the ‘love of wisdom’ that it etymologically is, has to constantly deconstruct itself in response to its other. It


In: “La langue n’appartient pas,” interview with J. Derrida by Evelyn Grossman in Europe 861-62 – Paul Celan, p. 83.

has to constantly give its ear to other tongues. The word ‘language’ has its etymology in the Latin word, lingua meaning ‘tongue’ and therefore refers to the articulation of the tongues. As regards the relationship between philosophy and its outside, Wittgenstein had expressed a similar sentiment, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophical published in 1923. Towards the end of this book, Wittgenstein notes that though philosophical propositions describe the world, and ‘are of equal value’: The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists—and it did exist, it would have not value. If there is any value that does have value, it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case. For all that happens and is the case is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie within the world, since it would itself be accidental. It must lie outside the world. And so it is impossible for there to be propositions of ethics. Propositions can express nothing that is higher. It is clear that ethics cannot be put into word. Ethics is transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.)104 We may say that this ethical and aesthetic overcoming of the given language, or sensemaking that comes from or takes place outside of the given world is Derrida’s main reference point even as far as literature is concerned. Literature, because it is an institutionless institution, or an institution that constantly overcomes itself, is clearly one of the discursive activities, where this really takes place. Literature is not something that can be submitted to any given law of literature, nor is it something that remains constrained within any given or known genres. What Derrida refers to as ‘literariness’ is characterised by the stretching of the boundaries of what is given as language, or crossing the limits of what is experienced as literature, as in the works of authors like, Joyce, Beckett, Kafka, Mallarmé, Blanchot, Jabbés, Ponge, Celan, etc. Through the

L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, (Tr.) D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuiness. London: RKP, 145-46. (Italics added)

ruptures or interruptions that literature introduces, it ceaselessly modifies what we understand as our literary experience. The activity of translation too, like the fields of language, literature and philosophy that we have already referred, is a limit-phenomenon. It involves, as Derrida sees it the “double bind” of the necessity as well as the impossibility of translation. This is because, in the process of understanding every language is translated. But every language finally reduces itself to the specificity of a proper name, or to the confusion of multiple languages within it. Despite the desire to translate or to be translated, we discover that there is an untranslatable core in every language, or if you like in every one of us, which is signified by our proper names, and at the same time there is a plurality of different sublanguages that each language contains. Derrida refers to Jorge Luis Borge’s story “Pierre Ménard, Author of the Quixote” and the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel to illustrate this condition. In both, it is the multiplicity of languages within a singularity that does not render itself to translation. Derrida, in fact, considers the story of the Tower of Babel as some sort of an allegory of deconstruction: god curses the proud people of Shem, a people who are called by the name of name, by uttering his own name, Babel, which also is a common noun meaning confusion. The Shems’ dream of reaching the God with their tower, and making a name for themselves, is shattered by the uttering of God’s name as a curse, whose translation can only result in confusion and endless dissemination. Therefore: “Translate me and what is more, don’t translate me.”105 The double bind of (that is) deconstruction! Derrida’s views on translation maintain close contact with those of Walter Benjamin, presented in the latter’s brilliant essay “The Task of the Translator.”106 Translation from this perspective involves neither a reproduction of one language in another nor a communication between two languages. Rather it involves the modification or the augmentation of both. Translation yields not so much the equivalent of one text with respect to another, or of one language in relation to another, but rather the ‘supplement’ or the ‘survival’ or the ‘overlife’ of both. According to Benjamin, though no translation succeeds completely, the event or the

Derrida, J., “Roundtable on Tanslation » in The Ear of the Other – Otobiography, Transference, Translation, Texts and Discussions with Jacques Derrida. (Tr.) Peggy Kamuf. New York: Schocken Books. P. 102. 106 Benjamin, W., “The Task of the Translator,” in Illuminations (edited and introduced) H. Arendt, (tr.) H. Zorn. London: Pimlico. 1999 edn. (Pp. 70-82)

performance of translation leads to the possible “reconciliation” of languages. Such reconciliation is what gives us the “presentiment” of a “pure language.” Pure language is not a language purified of all faults, but a language that is only promised and a language that stands outside of all given representational systems, and of the totalizing schemas of all given languages. Derrida introduces us to a similar kind of paradox and predicament, when he says in one his later works, “I only have one language; yet it is not mine.” 107 His Monolingualism of the Other is a very personal essay on the question of language identity, appropriation and belonging. Here, Derrida is, in part, responding to a work by an Algerian writer Abdelkebir Khatibi, entitled Du bilinguisme (On Bilingualism), where the author, among other things, is talking about the “irreparable suffering” that results from “effacing” and “broaching” of the local identity associated with one’s maternal dialect, when he or she is forced to express himself or herself in alienated languages, especially a colonial language like French. Derrida counterposes this account with an account of the linguistic dispossession resulting from the abolition of French citizenship that had been earlier granted to the Sephardic Jewish community in Algeria. After the Nazi-backed French Government of Marshall Petain deprived the Algerian Jews of their French citizenship, they experienced a state of being in a linguistic limbo, with no language to possess, no language to belong to, and no language to mark their identity. Not Hebrew, the language of Jewish religion, not Yiddish, the language of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, neither of which they spoke, and not Arabic, nor Berber, the two more native languages of Algeria, with which they were not socially and politically associated. A state of thus not having a ‘mother tongue’ or a ‘first language’ as a property or as a source of belonging, Derrida notes, is not really a special case applicable only to the Algerian Jews. It can be seen as a more general condition of all situations of relation between language and the self / community. A language cannot be a natural property of any one, just as language itself cannot be anything natural. Since language is never an individual property, and is something inevitably shared by a small or large group of individuals, it is always guided by implicit or explicit laws of interdiction and preservation: “You shall use only the language that is shared by

Derrida, J., Monolingualism of the Other OR Prosthesis of Origin, (Tr.) P. Mensah. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. p. 1.

all members of a community, and that in a manner acceptable by all. And correlatively, you shall not introduce as far as possible any foreign elements into your language, and you shall always protect your language from all foreign interference, as well as preserve it and promote its interests.” But, where do these laws of linguistic interdiction and preservation come from? They come as part of a hegemonic politics that informs the more or less collective use of every language. Now, the most crucial question that Derrida poses for a ‘cultural’ politics of language is this: how can we, in each act of language, promise a language that does not necessarily fall within the sphere of the language that is imposed as an object of identification and appropriation? How can we promise a language beyond the ‘uni-identity’ (unidentité) of the language imposed upon us from outside, and appears as always and already present for us? This can be done, according to Derrida, only by inventing in one’s own language, by “inventing a language different enough to disallow its own reappropriation within the norms, the body, and the law of the given language…”108, a language that is “prior-to-the-first language” which exists only in anticipation. This language would be a ‘promised language.’109 The other name for this ‘invention’ in one’s own language, of the language of the other, which would also be the ‘prior-to-the-first’ language, is translation. Derrida tends to equate this invention with translation, “the translation of a language that does not as yet exist, and that will never have existed, in any given target language.”110 This is a translation in which there can only be unknown and unforeseen target languages, or languages that only arrive at unknown places, without there ever being a source language, or a language of departure.

108 109

Ibid., p. 66. Ibid., p. 61. 110 Ibid., p. 65.

10. On the Indeterminacy of Context*
When talking about ‘context’ from the point of view of Pragmatics, it is useful to distinguish between three kinds of context. The first is the spatio-temporal context of the production of a text, or the context that ‘surrounds’ the speaking or writing subject (or for that matter, the listening or the reading subject) in ‘real’ space and time. This is more like the ‘physical’ context. The second is the ‘linguistic’ context that immediately precedes or follows a given text. (Anaphora, metonymy, etc., belong to this category.) This kind of context may also be called the co-text. The third type of context is the ‘discursive’ context, and this consists in all the presuppositions, conventions that are or can be associated with a given text. In the absence of a better term, we may also call it the ‘cultural’ context. These three types of context are certainly not unrelated. For instance, given the necessity of a spatially or temporally contiguous situation of linguistic articulation, whether spoken or written, the co-text cannot be dissociated from the spatio-temporal context. We can see that there are limits to how much the elements of a text can appear discontinuously in the temporal or spatial dimensions, i.e., in the case of a spoken text when it unfolds in time, or in the case of writing, when letters and words are spatially arranged. And similarly, cultural aspects may specify how co-texts are ordered in relation to a given text and how they are to be interpreted in their mutual interrelationship. In this context, taking an extreme view, which of course we will not be able to pursue here, it is possible to say that no syntactic ordering is entirely free from the effects of a cultural context. But more importantly, and taking a rather integrated perspective, we may say that the emergence of a text, whether in its formal or interpretative aspect, can be seen to be correlated with the unfolding of the cultural or the discursive context within a spatio-temporal context. Thus, though we have begun by speaking of three different types of context, and these as distinct from the text itself, it may be more appropriate to do away with the strict and the very

Presented as a paper at the National Seminar on “Text and Context” organized by the Department of Linguistics, University of Mumbai, Mumbai, in collaboration with the Indian Council for Social Science Research (New Delhi), Nov. 16-18, 2005. It has previously appeared in International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics, vol. 36, no. 1, January 2007 (179-186).

opposition between text and context, as Jacques Derrida has tended to do. It is not difficult to note that our contemporary academic perspective on language, which is also the dominant perspective in Linguistics, still hinges heavily on, to use an excessively hyphenated expression, a naturalist-historicist-formalist-positivist approach to language, as per which language consists of some naturally occurring and growing essential forms. According to this view, languages, or discourses that make up a language, are out there in the world, like plants and trees, and are surrounded by contexts which are also naturally present in the world, in all their innocence. We, as analysts in such a context (and do we not take ourselves to be the context, for all the naturally occurring texts and contexts which exist out there irrespective of us?) would be required to analyze and understand the clearly determinable correlation between the given texts and their (again given) contexts. Thus our main task here and now, in other words, in the context of this seminar on its second day, would be to produce a text that tries to relate to the endless circle or chain of texts and contexts that appear before us and are dispersed and disseminated in the act of delivering that text itself. That is to say, even while trying to grasp the notion of context, or come to grips with it, we shall be, in a decidedly determined way, coming to terms with the indeterminacy of a context which remains terminally ungraspable. From a deconstructive point of view then, no language, no text, no signification, no interpretation, and perhaps even no experience, exist in a purely natural state. Anything that is shared between two or more individuals such as consciousness (since consciousness can never be individual ─ it can exist only when there is a sharing of meaning or knowledge; if one person alone were conscious it will not recognized as consciousness), language, or meaning, or alternatively anything upon which a conscious individual has acted cannot remain in a state of nature. Thus, even the bare voice, when it is given for mutual repetition and recognition between two conscious human beings, becomes part of a differential system of signs. It is in the sharing of these differential signs that they become (part of) a cultural system. Similarly, we can say that any object towards which two individuals have similar or shared intentions acquires a cultural value. Texts are, of course, infinitely more complex manifestations of language than the sharing of bare voice. Commonly articulated linguistic elements are subjected to multiple levels of

differentiation, classification and hierarchization as part of the formation of a language that is more or less systematized. And moreover different individuals who relate themselves to the same objects or linguistic elements (let’s say, ‘words’) do not ‘share’ these objects and words in an equal and uniform way. Just as a so-called community does not consist of a natural unity of its supposedly ‘common’ members, individuals do not and perhaps are not able to relate to every object and every word that pertains to a ‘community’ in exactly the same way. Not only are the texts produced by different individuals are likely to be different, but the way in which individuals relate to the same text, that is, how they interpret them, would also be different. We can say that instead of words or texts maintaining a state of pure signification with respect to their referents in a context that is supposed to be natural and neutral, they (these words and texts) exist forever in a state of cultural instability, owing to the fact that the persons who produce them or understand them are differently related to them. Traditionally, at least in what is called the ‘western metaphysics,’ philosophers have treated the problem quite differently. Here, words are assumed to have their fixed significations, common for all users of a given language, and when a person speaks she is supposed to ‘communicate’ freely and in a relatively unhindered way, her emotions, thoughts or intentions to her interlocutor/s. Words, as per this view, shorn of all their historicity and materiality, are nothing but a transparent medium of communication. The difficulty with this view is that its proponents fail to see that words are not a biological extension of our body, that is, neither of our brain nor of our tongue. Since the words we use are the result of repetition and sharing by unequal interlocutors, or interlocutors become unequal, they carry traces of all the non-natural processes of differentiation, classification and hierarchisation that are constitutively present in any given language. In other words, words rather than being mere signs of things in the world can be seen as signs of how we have organized and are continuously organizing our cultural world. This is what makes it possible for Derrida to argue, even if he does not say it exactly in these words, that any and every use of language is a text that stands as a relief against a definite politico-cultural background. Every instance of language-use, thus, rather than vanishing into an abyss of obscurity can be said to have a visibility comparable to that of writing. This is what prompts Derrida to propose writing as the legitimate and ineliminable mode of all language,

rather than speech, which was traditionally taken to be the unquestionable heir of an imperious thought. Language, even before it can be a publicly available medium for the expression of ‘truth,’ has been privately (and culturally) worked upon by its users, and social and political relations have been formed and maintained on the basis of it. Social and cultural hegemonies have been forged in and through language. Rather than tell facts about the world, texts tell us what human beings are, in general or particular, the relations between them, and how they have set up their cultural, institutional and discursive lives. Texts that are in place in any given context as well as our understanding of the contexts in relation to any given texts, emerge as the result of a series of elaborate conventions, or shall we say, of codifications, which are indeed not evident when words or texts are seen as that which passes fleetingly between interlocutors, and as a medium of ‘communication.’ Derrida’s insistence on viewing all language as writing is based on the fact that all occurrence of language can be ‘displayed’ like writing and in that display, the ‘play of signifiers’ that characterize language as a signifying system, can be registered and observed. However, it would be wrong to construe this grammatological aspect as a mere ‘scientific’ fact. Every use of language, can also be the displacement or dissemination of the given texts or the reconfiguration of the signifiers of the language of a given community, identifiable as such or not. And, on the basis of the theoretical consideration that the process of conventionally constituting (and deconstituting) language, in both its formal and interpretative dimensions, begins from the very inception of human culture itself, and can be expected to go on infinitely, Derrida is able to assert that “there is no outside of the text.” The point can be better articulated as follows. A text or a fragment of it acquires relative stability by repetitive use within (the context of) a community. We can say that such a text has a conventional use and its meaning is relatively fixed. This ‘convention,’ of course, would mask all the hegemonic relations that exist within a community, and multiple ways in which different members of the community relate themselves to the text. The text may have a ‘constative’ or ‘performative’ function in the sense of speech-act theorists like Austin and Searle. That is to say, from the point of view of these theorists, texts are used either to describe a state of affairs in the world (‘It is raining’), or to perform certain actions that have a consequence in the social world

(‘I hereby declare Manmohan Singh the Prime Minister of India’). According to the speech-act theory, depending on the appropriate contexts (such as the ‘truth ‘or the ‘felicity’ conditions respectively for the constatives and the performatives), these texts will convey the intentions of the language-user to her interlocutors. Derrida’s argument in this context is twofold: 1. the texts themselves do not carry anything from their outside, for example, neither a corresponding fixed signification nor the intention of the language-user; 2. the chain of contexts that can be really or potentially associated with the texts can never be completely exhausted. In their endless repetitive movement, more or less guided by conventions – which are themselves never conclusive –, words and texts can have alternative significations varying from situation to situation, and from language-user to language-user. And moreover, the contexts in which the same text can be used in times to come can never be predicted. The important point to note in this context is that is that a language-user is neither the absolute source nor the final destination of a text that is produced in any given situation. My text comes to me mediated by an indefinite series of previous texts, and previous uses of the same language, or of other languages, and my interlocutor may relate the text I am producing to many other texts that are accessible to her indefinitely. My text and the text created by my interlocutor by interpreting my text are both intertexts, and they can be sources for further texts which are also intertexts, and so on and so forth. It can be expected that modifications and alterations take place all along the way, and at every node in the so called ‘communicative chain’ in such a way that that no signification or intention exists as original or is finalized in a ‘communication.’ The traditional picture of the words or texts conveying a certain corresponding reality and the individuals using them to communicate certain meanings, intentions and truths is clearly a static one. Words and texts in fact make the world, bring about our lived world, and if you want, also break it. They also simultaneously constitute us subjects on the one hand, and desubjectivize us on the other, in relation to a given world. Repetition of words and texts and their meaning as they are given to us maintains a given state of the world. The property of iterability of words is what accounts for the very possibility of language. In the absence of this iterability there can only be Babelian confusion in the world, where each individual speaks his or her own individual language. At the same time it is impossible for individuals to use the same words or texts in the same way all the time, or for a large number of individuals to use their words or texts in a

uniform way. This is where we can observe the dynamic aspect of language use in social contexts. Incessantly, the different users of a given language introduce within it alternative words, texts, interpretations, and even alternative syntaxes. These deconstructions or innovations may be regarded as purely internal transformation of a language, or as transgressive movements towards the outside of it. These alterations or modifications of language or texts in which they manifest involve, according to Derrida an ‘undecidable contamination.’ Texts do not remain in an eternal state of purity with regard to either the significations that they are said to contain, or the intentions or the ‘uptake’ of the language users. Artistic uses of language, as in literature or theatre, which the speech act theorists consider as instances of ‘parasitic’ use of language, are for Derrida, contrarily the registers where such a contamination are clearly evident. The iterability of the words and texts of language, rather than assuring their passage through channels dictated by convention, in fact makes it possible for them to be used in unpredictable ways, even beyond any predictable conventionality or institutionality of the particular artistic mode itself. Of course, it goes without saying that the literary / artistic mode of language is exempt from the necessity of producing ‘constative’ speech acts. That is, conventionally literary texts are not required to refer to the state of affairs in the world. Nor do they have a conventional ‘performative’ function that pertains to the ‘real’ world outside of literature. In literature and art, through non-conventional statements, which may or not be constative with respect to the artistic/literary linguistic acts are made, and these may have a performative value with respect to the texts and the language in which the those statements are articulated. Such constatives may perform the act of convening new texts and new contexts, i.e., new relationships between the language users and the given texts and languages. And if we take Derrida’s point of view that all language is writing or like the ‘trace’ of writing, the undpredictable and unconventional contamination of texts through intertextual innovations or deconstructions can always blur the distinction envisaged by the speech act theorists between the constatives and performatives, and can always be performative acts of reconfiguring and reinterpreting the texts of a given language, or the language itself. In other words, every act of language can be construed as resulting in a text or language other than the given, that is an alternative language.111

See for following the argument in detail, Derrida, J., “Signature Event Context” in Margins of Philosophy, (tr.) Alan Bass. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1982. (Pp. 307-29)

This singular use of language, evident in the work of poets and other creative writers, in other words this idiomaticity, is what Derrida calls ‘signature.’ The use of this term is clear in his reference to the German Jewish poet, Paul Celan: “What I have tried to think is an idiom (and idiom means clearly an individual property, what is one’s own) and a signature within the idiom of language, which is seen at the same time as the experience of the inappropriability of language. I believe that Celan has attempted a mark, a unique signature which was a countersignature of the German language and at the same time something that happens (arrive) to the German language…”112 In a domain that is essentially inappropriable, that is language, the poet has made a mark, has tendered his signature, indicating his rather tenuous ownership of a transition, a transformation, a transgression that he has effected in the language that he is writing. Signature, is writing at the extremity of one’s language, an extreme form of writing, a trace that a writer leaves in his own language, indicating nothing but the site of an inappropriable property, which is also the site where a language has become the other of itself. Derrida seems to have thought of a similar relationship between him and the French language in which he wrote almost all his life. In an interview with the Le Monde a few weeks before his death in October last year, Derrida had said: To leave some traces in the history of the French language, that is what interests me. I live with this passion, if not for France, at least for something that is embodied in the French language for centuries.113 (At this point, I would like to dedicate this paper to the memory of Jacques Derrida.) As a French-speaking Jewish immigrant from a small town in Algeria, Derrida always chose to position himself outside, or in the margins of metropolitan French discourse. Nevertheless, going by the enormous volume of his writings, we should reckon that he had a great passion for the French language, the only language he really loved. But this was not the love of a master-builder seeking some immaculate construction in his native or host language, but

Derrida, Jacques, 2001. “La langue n’appartient pas,” Interview with Jacques Derrida réalisde by Evelyne Grossman. Europe « Paul Celan », Jan.-Fev., 861-862, 2001, p. 83.

J. Derrida, in interview with Jean Birnbaum, Le Monde, 19 August 2004. Text translated by the present author.

that of an outsider, a marginal, seeking to examine and deconstruct its core, its major discourses, with the apparent innocence and charm of a novice, and yet with the aim of carrying this language forward into unknown, unchartered and undecidable territories. This nomadism of language, and in language, this tendency to transform texts and contexts simultaneously in sweeping discursive movements along the arid deserts of modern civilisations is the hallmark of those philosophers who are referred to as post-structuralist / postmodern. Deleuze, Focuault, Lyotard and Derrida are the well-known representatives of this trend. Let us try and see how we can perceive this movement from the perspective of philosophers who might look more traditional in comparison, for example Wittgenstein and Heidegger. While emphasizing the heterogeneity of language uses, in the early part of his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein had compared language to an ancient city. “Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new burroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.”114 Heidegger had argued in a similar vein, but in a completely different context and for entirely different purposes, that ‘language is the house of being.’ Later on elsewhere in the same work we just referred to Wittgenstein had also suggested that “language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.” (§ 203, p. 82) What the poststructuralists say about language, it seems to me, is closer to Wittgenstein’s metaphor of the labyrinth: in our creative engagement with language, in our writing, our discourses and our texts leave behind our towers, and our huts, our secure shelters and our fiercely guarded dwellings, our valued contexts, and undertake nomadic journeys along labyrinthine and never-ending paths, with no clear sense of having departed, and no sense of having to arrive, but always making sense of what is outside of us, of our alterities, and being otherwise than what they are, and infinitely so. This language, again from Derrida’s point of view, is a language that retreats from and overcome its own given contexts, and continuously creates its own contexts. This language is not

Wittgenstein, L., Philosophical Investigations, § 18, p. 85.

a given a language, it is a language forever to come. It is a language to come, the language of avenir, a promised language, a language that can only promised, a language that is promised to the other. In this sense, promise itself becomes the main act of language, an act of language which does nothing but promise the other of any and every given language.

11. Ethics, Events, Truths*
The theme of ethics has acquired unprecedented importance in, or in relation to philosophy in the modern western context. Perhaps the contemporary preoccupation with ethics is unprecedented in the entire history of western philosophy as it has come down to us from the ancient Greeks. Ethics, in some of these current modes of thinking is introduced in order to challenge and replace the domination of epistemology and ontology in modern western philosophy, and perhaps even in the whole of the Greek-based philosophy. Contemporary Lithuanian-French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas (died 1995), in particular, has suggested a return to ethics as the ‘first philosophy,’ or rather a depletion or ‘destitution’ of philosophy in favour of ethics. In fact, it is not very difficult to explain this explosion of ethical concerns in the second half of the 20th century. Europe, as we know, after being in the throes of continuous violence, both internal and external, for over a millennium, experienced in the first half of that century, two of the bloodiest wars known in the history of humanity. Of these, World War II, under the impact of Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany, was preceded and accompanied by some of the worst events of anti-semitism, genocide and mass extermination of ethnic minorities in Europe. More than anything else, these events have prompted critically-minded philosophers to inquire if anything is fundamentally wrong with the European culture and civilization. Understandably, many of them have sought answers to such questions in philosophical perspectives that are outside or other than what has been dominant in Europe. Philosophical and religious perspectives from non-European traditions, such as Buddhism and Judaism, have been referred to in this context. Alternatively, an overhauling of the modern European tradition founded upon the late 18th century philosophy of ‘Enlightenment’ has also been suggested. In the more and more globalizing world of today, philosophers have tended to forego the path of a narrow and linear development of European thought, whether it comes from the classical or modern systems, and to seek its ‘other’ in non- or pre-European

Presented as a paper at the International Seminar on Beyond the Linguistic Turn: Literature, Culture and Philosophy held at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, January, 2002. It has previously appeared in F. Manjali (ed.) Post-structuralism and Cultural Theory: The Linguistic Turn and Beyond. New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 2006 (160-69).

thoughts, and to constitute what could be a post-European, if not only a post-modern, philosophy of the future. But this, however, is certainly not a uniform tendency in all of European philosophy. There are attempts, sophisticated enough, to restore the classicism as well as the modernity of European thought. There is quest for new foundations, albeit by stretching the cultural, conceptual, geographic and demographic orientations of European thought. The German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas’ countering of post-modernism by extending the limits of modern science via ‘communicative action’ and a ‘universal pragmatics’ is one attempts of this kind. In this paper, we shall take up for critical discussion an alternative approach, a more direct critique of post-modernism, particularly its ethics, coming from a philosopher, who is strongly rooted in the tenets of Marxism. Alain Badiou’s Ethics: An Essay Understanding of Evil (1998) is intended to be a scathing and powerful critique of the ethics of postmodernism, or what he calls its ‘ethical ideology.’ We shall note at the outset that Badiou spares no words to denounce this ethics: “the theme of ethics [and its concomitant ‘ethical ideology’] and of human rights,” he says, “is compatible with the self-satisfied egoism of the affluent West.” (Ethics, p. 7) Badiou’s work is primarily an attack on the Levinasian priority for ethics, and the latter’s proposal for philosophy’s overcoming by way of ethics. He wants to restore, rather than deconstruct, European philosophy, in all its classical grandeur. Badiou says in his Manifesto for Philosophy, “the task [of philosophy] is to resume the thread of modern reason, to take one more step in the lineage of the ‘Cartesian meditation.’ (Manifesto, p. 79) This is clearly the expression of belief in classical reason, in Reason as the saviour of humanity. An ethics prior to and independent of considerations of truth, ethics as ethical ideology, from this perspective, ought to be viewed with suspicion. Badiou’s apprehension, as least as far as Levinas is concerned, is that it, i.e., this ethics, brings back the idea of the “ineffable God”, and thus it can only be “decomposed religion.” (Ethics, p. 22. 23.) Badiou is arguing that in place of an all-pervading ethics, an ethics to which philosophy would be subordinated, what is needed is an ethics based on rational truth, an ethic of truths, more or

less in line with the classical and modern philosophies of Europe. According to him, in the postmodern (and more specifically Levinasian) ethics “evil is that from which Good is derived.” (ibid., p. 9) And further, in the same vein, “human rights are rights to non-evil: rights not to be offended or mistreated with respect to one’s life.”(ibid., p. 9) The argument is that this ethics perceives, or has perceived evil in the world (for example, the fascisms), and Good is a way of eliminating the possibility of this evil. In other words, it is because of the existence of evil in the world that a philosophy of good or responsible action is being proposed by the ethical philosophers. A philosophy of ethics and human rights, thus can only be an ideology of self-protection from the effects and consequences of evil. Badiou characterizes as reductive the notion of the ‘other’ which is central for the ethical philosophy, in fact, since Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and particularly since Levinas. For the latter, this notion ultimately leads to that of the ‘altogether-other’ or the ineffable God. Here, Badiou smells a return of religion by the back door. Moreover, the idea of the ‘altogether-other’ nullifies the differentiability of the other/s. By relinquishing our ability to speak of different others, we end up integrating differences, he argues. An ethics that is oriented to the ‘absolute other’ or God, is doomed to invoke a return to the same. Badiou’s further complaint is that by being obsessed by evil, an ethical philosophy or ‘ideology’ blocks the ‘positive,’ “the way towards Good” (ibid, p. 31). In its constant attempt to ward off evil, this ethics does not move in the direction of Truth and the Good. Instead of welcoming truth, which “is for all” it remains at the level of opinions, which is valid only for some. Not being oriented in truth, which is “indifferent to differences,” and which is for all, the ethical philosophy is antipathetic to any coherent project based on any sustainable idea. Further, the concern for an abstract other, according Badiou, undermines our ability to explore the possibilities of our situation. In this sense, it is nihilist. And moreover, an explicit preoccupation with death (as in Levinas, Blanchot and Heidegger for whom ‘man is being for death’) underscores this nihilism. It is in the wake of all this that Badiou appeals for the ‘courage of truths’ as against the ‘nihilism’ of ethics.

Badiou’s own ‘positive’ proposal for an ethics is based on a central philosophical concept or principle that he refers to as the ‘event.’ A notion that is more explicitly developed in his work, Being and Event — a part of his critical response to Heidegger’s Being and Time — the ‘event’ appears as a ‘supplement’ to ‘what there is.’ The ‘event’ is different from multiple beings. As can be evident to this tradition, instead of Heidegger’s opposition between Being (the essential) and being (the existential), Badiou’s new opposition is between ‘being’ (in its multiplicity) and the ‘event’ (in its supplemental unity). In Ethics, he gives us a short inventory of what could be ‘events’ in this sense: the French revolution; the amorous encounter between the legendary medieval French monk, Pierre Abélard and his pupil and beloved Héloïse; Galileo’s creation of physics; Hayden’s classical musical style; Chinese cultural revolution (1965-67); the Topos theory; and the 12-tone music. (ibid., p. 41) In Badiou’s ‘ethic of truths,’ the situations imposed by these and such ‘events’ set up a ‘truth process’ that compel individuals to decide upon a new way of life. This decision is itself part of the truth process. Furthermore, individuals are now forced to see / perceive everything from the perspective of these events or the evental supplements. Thus, there is always a truth or truth process relative to the ‘events.’ Truth here, is thus not a truth of being, but is to be understood as ‘fidelity’ to the event. Truth is thus opposed to instituted knowledges. It ‘punctures a hole’ in knowledges. In other words, by way of fidelity to the truth process, truth progresses in relation to the evental supplement that comes to be amidst beings and instituted knowledges. Furthermore, truth of the situation stabilizes, permitting a ‘consistency’ to the participants in the truth process. Consistency of the individuals and their fidelity to the truth process, enable them to experience the ‘immortal’ values associated with a truth process: happiness in love, joy in science, enthusiasm in politics, and pleasure in art. Thus, according to Badiou, this ethics is both ‘undecidable’ (where no active role can be assigned to any purposeful renunciation) and ‘asocial’ (because, being rooted in truth, it stays beyond opinions and instituted knowledges). Good and evil, in Badiou’s formulation, are closely related to and derived from the truthprocess outlined above. Truth and its process give rise to good and evil. Good is that which attaches itself directly to the truth of a situation. Evil is a sort of by-product of truth, and not the condition for deriving Good, as it would be Levinas, according to Badiou. Evil appears only in

relation to particular truths, as some sort of a negative side-effect of the truth-process. There cannot be absolute (or, ‘radical’) evil or absolute good. “[E]very life… is beneath good and evil,” (ibid. p. 59) and not ‘beyond’ (as it would be for Nietzsche). Evil, makes it appearance in relation to truth in three distinct but related ways. Firstly, in its inability to accept that the previous situation which has been reduced to a ‘void.’ It persists in thinking of the fullness of the situation and attempts to simulate the process of the newly arrivedat truth. This is, in other words, the simulacrum of the truth process, and it results in ‘terror.’ Evil attempts to represent an originally true situation in a false way. Hitler’s Nazi party as a supposedly revolutionary organization is an example of this. Secondly, evil refuses to remain faithful to the truth process in the face of its uncertainty, and betrays what is immortal in the subject. Evil is unable to remain consistent beyond the totalizing and mortal nature of subjectivity. And thirdly, evil tries to name the unnameable in a truth process. This can be either by insisting on not changing the name of something in relation to truth, or by forcing a name or a closure upon a certain truth-process, which Badiou calls ‘disaster.’ There’s always something that remains outside the grasp of nameablity in all truths, e.g., sexual pleasure in love, noncontradiction in logic, community in the socio-political regime, etc. In other words, there are unnameable or unrepresentable truths. Attempting to name the unnameable, is according to Badiou, ‘the principle of disaster.’115 Badiou’s proposals, coming as they are from an influential philosopher of contemporary Europe, indeed merit our serious attention. Some of the main themes are inscribed either in the classical or in the modern tradition. For instance, the theme of an immutable truth belongs to the former, and conversely the theme of an ever-progressive movement of history (in terms of events) belongs to the modern (i.e., 19th century) valorisation of history since Hegel. We shall return to the related question of the problematization of the event in an instant. The theme of the ‘simulacrum’ seems to be more contemporary, introduced in the materialist semiotic works of Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard, for example. The

Cf. Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster.

simultaneous possibility of mass production and consumption on the one hand, and that of mass publicity on the other, seems to have made simulacrum a central part of contemporary societies. The simulacrum of the truth of political realities goes hand in glove with the possibility of the corresponding economic realities. Contemporary politics is rife with instances of the simulacrum associated with what may be construed as the (true) realities of socialism and nationalism. The theme of the simulacrum, we know, is closely related to the theme of the ‘empty signifier’ derived from Lacanian psychoanalysis, to which Badiou’s thought is fondly affiliated.116 There is simulacrum, whenever ‘evil’ forces faced with the void or the emptiness induced by a truth-process, try to fill up that void by signifiers that resemble the original true situation. These signifiers, be it of false revolution or of false nationalism, employ extremely narrow and often cruel ideological positions and propaganda.117 The theme of ‘unnameability’ may be related to that of the simulacrum. In the situation of the truth process, there is always something that cannot be represented or named in terms of the known categories or concepts. When faced with the unepresentability of a truth, the best option is not to resort to the simulacrum, nor to force a name on it. Truth always remains ‘below’ or ‘beyond’ representability. It can never be present, but only be presenced. One can only approach truth by means of an infinite approximation. Attempting the contrary, is ‘disaster.’118 Now, we notice that except for the issue of the supremacy of the Cartesian reason (especially in the creation an all-determining ‘truth,’) and on the point of a progressive and dialectical history, Badiou’s philosophical orientation is not very different from that of the poststructuralists and the post-modernists. In Manifesto, he cites Paul Celan’s poetry as an instance of

Jacques Lacan, according to Badiou, was (along with L. Althusser and M. Foucault) an ‘attentive and courageous militant of a cause.’ Lacan “demonstrated how it was essential to distinguish the Ego, a figure of only imaginary unity, from the Subject. He showed that the subject had no substance, no ‘nature,’ being a function both of the contingent laws of language and the always singular history of the objects of desire. It followed that any notion of analytic treatment as a means for the reinstatement of a ‘normal’ kind of desire was a fraud, and that more generally, there existed no norm that ground the idea of a ‘human subject,’ a norm whose rights and duties it would have been the taks of philosopy to articulate.”

See also, E. Laclau, “Why do Empty Signifiers Matter to Politics?” in Emancipations, Verso, 1996.

This is similar to the line taken by Maurice Blanchot in The Writing of the Disaster.

a poetic ‘event.’ (Celan, we know, is one of the poet- heroes of the deconstructionist philosophers, J. Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe.) So, where are the differences? Perhaps, we have to seek our answer in the differential problematisation (between Badiou and the deconstructionists) of being, truth and event. The deconstructionists, since Nietzsche and Heidegger, take it as their first priority to show the gap, or the difference that exist between a conceptualized or discursivized ‘truth’ of being (‘Being’) and the being’s current existent state (‘being’). It is this difference that legitimates the deconstructive move, wherever and whenever the former is identified, which is in fact, always. Thus there is need for perpetual deconstruction. The existent being is always caught in one or other (totalizing) structure or closure of discourse, and the task of deconstruction is to constantly carry being forward, beyond the closure of Being. In this sense, there is always a truthlessness within truth itself, within any and every truth as it is put into practice. And moreover, this closure, we know, can be characterized as ideological closure, in the broad sense of the term. In this context, the question of the ‘other’ is taken up by Heidegger, in terms of the recognition of death as the limit of one’s subjectivity. In the face of the possibility of death as the moment of impossibility of one’s own subjectivity, one is obliged to open up and to respond ethically to the other. In Levinas and in Blanchot, this question is formulated differently. Death is seen here not as the possibility of impossibility, but as that condition when / where one is ‘no longer able to be able.’ The imposed passivity of death calls for a general condition of passivity upon the subjectivity of our daily life. It is a passivity that opens up our subjectivity actively, and in a responsible movement towards the other. It is the passivization of our own subjectivity that guarantees our responsible action towards the other. We are speaking here of the passivity that our death can impose upon us, a passivity that is, at the same time, becomes active in the wake of our death, that informs us of the ‘other’ of being, or the ‘otherwise than being’ in Levinasian terms. His alternative term for this ‘otherwise than being’ is ‘il y a’ or ‘there is.’ And since this being is neither active nor passive, or rather both passive and active, Blanchot calls it the

‘neuter.’119 Seeing death as a figure of nihilism in these philosophical moves, as Badiou does, is the result of drawing a hasty conclusion. Let us now consider the two contrary ethical orientations: Badiou’s and that of the deconstructionists, with Levinas at the top of the list. For the latter, what is of critical importance is the deconstruction of the totalizing / closed discourses even if at some point they are or can be considered as true. They are wary of the idea that there can be any really ‘true’ discourse that escape deconstructive scrutiny. All historically attestable discourses, even if they are claimed to be true, can and must be submitted to the deconstructive grind, because each one of them tend to close of some ‘other’ and the ‘different’ in favour of the self and the same around which it tends to totalize. (Michel Foucault has shown, in Madness and Civilisation, even the discourse of reason behaves in this way, closing itself of from, and suppressing to silence, the discourse of madness.) From Levinas’ point of view, the individual is required to maintain a constant vigil over one’s self by constantly deconstructing the ‘said,’ i.e., the already current discourses, as well his or her own subjectivity, and open out by way of one’s ‘saying’ responsibly to the other. And moreover, the ‘epiphany’ of the face of the other, and the recognition of his her absolute difference from the self, prevents a complete closure of and a return to the self and the same. The historical movement is thus subordinated to subjects’ ethical openness and responsibility to the other. And instead, of seeking to introduce a historical development within the Greek-based western philosophy, Levinas prefers to move towards its exteriority, and to overcome it by means of ethics, which is at least in part derived from Jewish religious tenets. What is ethically good, for Levinas, rather than being derivable from evil (this is how, we saw, Badiou characterizes the former’s position) is centred around the deconstructibility of the

For Blanchot, literature is that which reigns, as a perpetually deconstructive instrument, in this territory of the ‘neuter.’ Infinite of movement of meaning in writing, and particularly in literature, is itself deconstructive, in the sense that it resists any attempts to impose a closure of interpretation. Literature, thus pervades an infinite space. For Blanchot again, literature represents the ‘infinite murmur of language.’ Also consider in this context, Derrida’s insistence on the simultaneous absence and presence of the signified, justifying his use of the term ‘trace’ in place of the ‘sign’ of semiotics. In classical and Saussurian use of term ‘sign’ there is a privileging of the signified (the ‘thing’ or ‘idea’) over the signifier.

subject. More precisely, it consists of the subject leaving its own totalized subjectivity and welcoming the person of the other. Evil consists in being centred in one’s own self, including one’s own discourse and one’s own reason. Badiou, on the other hand, has great faith in subjective reason of the Cartesian kind, and in an objective truth, albeit a truth that is established as an ‘event.’ Good that is derived from such an evental truth, is good for everyone. And evil is that which goes against grain and against the current of this good of the event. For the deconstructionists, evil, or the basis of evil is to deconstructively eliminated, thus paving the way for good and responsible action towards the other. While for Badiou, truth is arrived at the stroke of the event that is good, and evil proceeds as a reaction against the latter. And moreover, Badiou believes that there can be critical events, which may be mathematical, political, poetic, or amorous, in relation to which subjects can reorient themselves and remain faithful and good.120 Evil is an instance of absence of such a reorientation to the true event, or the betrayal of or a false orientation to such an event. Events are something special, or ‘supplements’ in relation to the ordinary state of being. It remains for us to examine the notion of ‘event’ in Badiou’s philosophy. Of course, the main difference between the Heideggerians on the one hand, and Badiou on the other, is the following. For the former, the existent being (i.e., ‘being’) has to be recovered from the essential being (‘Being’) through deconstructive activity; the (small) being is open to differences. For the latter, what matters is the ‘event’ that emerges as a truth-bearing supplement from amidst ordinary beings and common knowledges. Now, how do we characterize this ‘event’ philosophically? Is the ‘event’ an ontological or an epistemological entity? May be it is both, half and half. The fact that it emerges from beings makes us think that it is ontological. But, on the contrary, the fact that it contains a rational truth (at least some elements of it) makes us think that it is epistemological. Now we have seen that this ‘event’ is also that which takes on ethical attachments (of the good). And moreover, this ‘event’ is totalisable neither ontologically nor epistemologically and discursively. For: a.) the ‘event’ is only a ‘supplement’ of the beings, and b.) the truth of the event is ‘unnameable.’ Then what remains to be examined is the nature of the


In “Events,” Chapter 8 of Manifesto, Badiou mentions Cantor’s mathematical theorem, Lacan’s theory of love, French May ‘68 and the Polish Solidarity movements, and Paul Celan’s poetic as ‘events,’ in his sense of the term,

emergence of the event. Is it predetermined and teleological? Is it part of an a priori reason? What is the relation between cognition and event? Here, we shall refer to an engaging essay by Jean-Luc Nancy, which deals with Hegel’s perspective on our philosophical understanding of historical events.121 Nancy quotes the following lines from Hegel’s ‘The Concept in General,’ the introductory text of “The Doctrine of the Concept,” Volume II of The Science of Logic: Philosophy is not meant to be a narration of happenings but a cognition of what is true in them, and further, on the basis of this cognition, to comprehend that which, in the narrative, appears as a mere happening. Nancy invites us to see that in Hegel’s statement, in addition to the truth or the essence of the happening / event, there is an ‘eventfulness’ of the event. This eventfulness is a surprise. “What eventuates in the event is not only that which happens, but that which surprises — perhaps even that which surprises itself...” (Nancy, p. 91) It is this ‘surprise’ that constitutes or is the cause of the ‘gnawing anxiety about the event’ in the Hegelian context. Our thought can only distinguish between the essence of the event and the eventfulness of the event (or, the ‘mere event’), but cannot account for the essence of this eventfulness, because thought itself is surprised by the event. Surprise itself can now be seen as an essential component of thought. Nancy informs us ‘astonishment’ was already part of the enterprise of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies, where ‘philosophy’ is nothing but the ‘love of wisdom.’ (And love is full of surprises!) Now, the next question is, in what ways can surprise be regarded as an essential part of thinking? If we consider the nature of time as something a priori in the Kantian sense, and as that within which we distinguish events, we can see event as a being, but a being from which being surges forth. In this sense, ‘event’ is neither ‘presentable’ (because it is a being in transition) nor is it ‘unpresentable’ (because it is not a hidden presence). Therefore, Nancy argues that event

Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Surprise of the Event,” in Stuart Barnett (ed.) Hegel After Derrida, 1998.

should be understood as ‘the unpresentifiable of the present lodged in the present itself.’ (ibid., p. 99) Thus we see that the ‘event’ is thinkable, even if it is not presentable. And further, this is how the ‘surprise of the event’ merges with the ‘surprising’ or the ‘becoming-surprise’ of thought itself. Now, ‘surprise’ is not part of the event; it is ‘nothing,’ in the sense of lacking a being. It is something that happens to us. In contrast, Badiou’s evental supplement is something that is additional to the beings. It is not something that happens to us. The ‘event’ of Badiou admits a supplement, but not a surprise. Deconstructive activity, as we can see, is open to surprise. It is indeed open to surprising results. But the evental supplement governs over the being/s, as if from a height. Here, there can be no surprise. Further, Badiou’s notion of ‘fidelity’ to the truth of the supplemental event, reduces the element of surprise even more. An adherence to the essence of the event eliminates the possibility of surprise in ethics. Badiou’s undermining of the surprise of the event, makes his ethics an ethics without surprise. It is a colourless ethics. Interhuman relations, we know, whether in love or politics, are filled with surprises. And so are, we reckon, the domains of mathematics and poetry. The difficulty with Badiou’s ethics is that it is only concerned with the grand events of truth. These grand truth-events are either really or potentially devoid of surprises. They sediment as surpriselss truths. While, truths that emerge from and as a result of little deconstructive events, more readily accept surprises. Thus the moot question is not whether ethics are or are not prepared to admit truths, but whether they do or do not admit surprises.

Bibliography: Badiou, Alain, 2001. Ethics - An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. (tr.) P. Hallward. London: Verso. —— , 1999. Manifesto for Philosophy. (tr.) N. Madarasz. Albany: SUNY Press. Blanchot, Maurice, 1986. The Writing of the Disaster. (Tr.) A. Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Foucault, Michel, 1988. Madness and Civilization. A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. (tr.) R. Howard. New York: Vintage. Laclau, Ernesto, 1996. “Why do Empty Signifiers Matter to Politics?” in Emancipations, Verso. Levinas, Emmanuel, 1992. Ethique comme phlilosophie première. Paris: Payot. ——, The Levinas Reader. (ed.) S. Hand. Oxford: Blackwell. Nancy, Jean-Luc, 1998. “The Surprise of the Event,” in Hegel After Derrida. (ed.) S. Barnett. London: Routledge. (pp. 91-104) ……


Broadly speaking, research on language has progressed in the last fifty years or so, along two divergent directions.122 The first, the one that is better known both among the linguists and among other academics, is headed by Noam Chomsky in the United States. This line of research involves a properly structural/ formal analysis of language, with the goal, whether stated or not, of leading to explaining the cognitive/ neural functioning of language, and therefore to the computational ‘processing,’ or rather the digitalisation of linguistic knowledge. For our purposes here, we shall merely state that even before, and especially since Chomsky staved off an important challenge from the compatriot sociolinguist William Labov on the question of social variations in language, he has shown little or no interest in questions of culture and community in relation to language. From the beginning, and to this day, Chomsky’s interest as far as his linguistics is concerned has remained at the level of what he considered as the competence of an ‘ideal speaker-hearer,’ whatever that means. The other research direction has pursued, to use two more convenient terms, the question of ‘sense’ and ‘signification.’ We shall be concerned in this lecture neither with the details of the progress nor with the essential contents of this line of thinking since its inception in modern times by the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure is primarily known for his proposal for a Semiology, or a ‘science of signification’ and the dichotomisation of the language domain into a system (langue) and its use (parole). Beyond that I think it would suffice here to mention that in the 1950’s Saussurean structuralism and semiology, already radicalized by some sharper methods of analysis brought from eastern Europe through the agency of the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson among others, served to reactivate and reorient several fields of social and human sciences, especially in France. Important among these are: Merleau-Ponty’s adoption of the idea

Text of a talk given at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, on 30th June 2005. An earlier version of this chapter has previously appeared in Journal of the Interdisciplinary Crossroads, Vol. 2, No. 2, August 2005 (307-320)

In this paper I am concerned with linguistic studies which have a direct bearing on the question of meaning. I am ignoring here a vast field of research that deals with ‘reference’ or referential meaning, under the rubric of an analytical philosophy of language.

of ‘parole’ in his phenomenological research on language, Lacan’s linguisticisation of Freudian psychoanalysis via Saussure and Jakobson, Levi-Strauss’s structuralisation of anthropology and the concomitant assignment of a central role to structural linguistics in his vision of the ‘human sciences’, Althusser’s attempt to bring together structuralism and Marxist political theory 123 through the mediation of Lacanian psychoanalysis, and perhaps most importantly for the humanities students of the period, Roland Barthes’ well-articulated proposal for a structuralist / semiotic theory and practice of literary and cultural criticism. By mid 1960’s, structuralism and the various intellectual – and quite fashionable – cocktails derived from it, came into disrepute. This ‘ism’ and its derivatives were, at one level, too mechanistic to allow any possibility of cultural resistance, or cultural freedom. Sense and meaning, it was felt, did not permanently hinge to given forms as the structuralists seemed to assume, but varied for individuals and communities, in accordance with their use in specific historical situations or movements. And moreover Europe needed its own cultural revolution, albeit through the agency of its academia, and not outside of or at the cost of it as was the case, we know, in Mao’s China. The West was still in the grip of philosophical and disciplinary discourses inherited from the ‘classical’ period of Rationalism and the subsequent one of Enlightenment. The world was becoming post-colonial and post-European, and the average Westerner was still cloaked in ideals, values and significations of a bygone era. Humanism, a cherished product of that ‘classical’ age, clearly appeared to be a sham in the face of the history of repression of alternative modes of being, knowing and living with others, especially in the wake of the experience of the great wars, the holocaust and the decolonisation struggles. Even existentialism, the new intellectual idiom that was expected to relieve the individuals’ of their ‘angst’ in modern societies, could not be trusted given the explicit or implicit alignment of its founders, Heidegger and Sartre, with one or other forms of totalitarianism. This is the context in which the critical philosophy of the 19th century German Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche became relevant for the radical French philosophers of the 1960s, who sought to go beyond the then available matrix of structuralism, Marxism, existentialism and psychoanalysis. Prominent among these are Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault


With his inquiry into ideology and ‘ideological state apparatuses’, Althusserian Marxism was clearly in line with Gramsci’s emphasis on critique of cultural hegemony.

and Jacques Derrida, all of them deceased by the year 2004.124 A philologist by training and in early academic career, Nietzsche was a multifaceted philosopher who used his philological insights to provide critical interpretations of his world and its dominant discourses – especially the post-Socratic thought, Christian morality and modern science. The relevance of his philosophy has been acknowledged in a wide range of domains, and the philosophers we mentioned above, have made diverse uses of it. For instance, Nietzsche’s concept of ‘genealogy’ is important for Foucault, his ‘will to power’ is relevant for both Foucault and Deleuze, and Derrida gives utmost importance to Nietzsche’s emphasis on a mode of deconstruction that involves innovations of style and the practice of interpretation.125 We shall desist here from providing a long list of Nietzschean traits articulated by these so-called post-structuralist philosophers. However, we shall quickly refer to the following Nietzschean points of relevance to us: 1. At the bottom of language, there is a ‘tonality’ or a musical quality which is supervening upon any cognitive dimension of meaning; 2. Displacement of a notion of truth as correspondence by the idea of an endless chain of metaphors; 3 Language is to be seen not as a mode of representation, but as a site of social and political conflicts; and 4. The life of a language is marked not by its ability to express essential or established meanings or truths, but in rendering immediate human experience in the ‘style’ of its appearance. Nietzsche is rightly regarded as an anti-essentialist, but contrary to what the existentialists had claimed him to be, perhaps it is more appropriate to characterize Nietzsche as a philosopher of ‘appearance.’126 Nietzsche’s writings were not of an objective or subjective ontological purport, but were clearly interpretations, even interpretations of interpretations, and very often intended to be an insistence on the significance of interpretation. When Nietzsche says: “The ‘Experience’ of Interpretation: there are only interpretations…,” he is in fact pointing

Of these, Foucault was the earliest to die, in 1984, and Derrida the last, in October 2004. Deleuze took his own life in 1995. Jean-François Lyotard, one of the co-founders along with Derrida of College International de Philosophy in Paris, whose name is often associated with the above three, died in 1998. Lyotard made only scanty references to Nietzsche. 125 Nietzschean imprint was so strong in the French philosophical scene from the late sixties till the late eighties that some philosophers under the leadership of Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut chose to express their disapproval of Nietzsche, in the form of a book, Why we are not Nietzscheans (Tr. Robert de Loaiza, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1997; Original French version, 1991). Ferry, later became the minister for Higher Education in Jacques Chirac’s right-wing government in France. 126 We use the word ‘appearance’ to show a direct contrast with the word ‘essence.’ In doing so, we are also eliding a possible difference between ‘appearance’ and ‘performance.’ Nietzsche could be equally described as a ‘philosopher of performance,’ or even of ‘contesting performances.’

out that whenever one is using language, one is radically unable to go beyond its own realm and arrive at the heart of things. One can only keep displacing language infinitely and never get to a truth outside of it.127 Derrida and his close collaborators, Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe adopted from Nietzsche this line of thinking, of course with their own modifications on the theme. Some of Derrida’s initial philosophical disputes were with the ideas of the phenomenologist philosopher Edmund Husserl and those of Saussure. Through these disputes he brought to the fore the question of writing as a primary mode of language. For Derrida, the writing mode of language, condemned by the western tradition since Plato as an orphan or a bastard in opposition to what it considered as the worthy and legitimate son of ‘logos,’ i.e., speech, is the linguistic mode par excellence of the Nietzschean ‘appearance.’ Implied in this philosophical favouring of speech in that tradition – which Derrida demonstrates with the help of elaborate analysis of texts from Plato to Saussure, passing through Rousseau, Husserl and LéviStrauss – is the assumption that meaning and intention, in themselves present to the human mind, can only be properly and adequately represented by speech. Writing, as per this dominant view, can only be secondary, corrupt, impure and illegitimate. Derrida’s opposition to this view must be understood at two levels. Firstly, there is no natural thought-voice link which would permit one to claim that speech is a direct heir to thought. In any case, voice and speech are distinct categories, to the extent that the latter is a system of (instituted and) articulated vocables. Writing too, equally, is a system of (instituted and) articulated vocables. Hence, the priority accorded to speech for its higher ‘naturalness’ is to be rejected. Secondly, writing as a mode of language obviously detached from thought, is perhaps more characteristic of an essential property of language, that is, it displacement in relation to thought, and with regard to itself. Language is that which can appear in places other than that of a thought, an object or an event. And this is what writing can eminently do: to appear detached from all presence, to be displaced from all origins and at the same time without ever attaining an end, to appear ‘iterably’ (i.e., in a repeatable manner in different places or at different times)

On the centrality of interpretation in Niezsche’s philosophy, Deleuze says: “Nietzsche replaced the ideal of knowledge, the discovery of truth, with interpretation and evaluation. Interpretation establishes the “meaning” of a phenomenon, which is always fragmentary and incomplete; evaluation determines the hierarchical “value” of the meanings and totalises the fragments without diminishing or eliminating their plurality.” (G. Deleuze, Pure Immanence – Essays on a Life (Tr.) Anne Boyman, New York: Urzone, 2001 (p. 65).

without being necessarily linked to any thought or intention. And what can be said of writing, Derrida would insist, can be said of all language which is thus an absent-present entity, which cannot permanently hinge on anything, on any subject or on any object, and whose meaning is incessantly displaced, forever differing and deferring (Derrida’s neologism ‘différance refers to this bivalence of meaning), in an infinite and originless circulation between living beings from time immemorial and for all times to come. In this philosophical move, which forms the core of deconstruction, Derrida is doing away with the supposed inwardness and the equivalence of meaning in relation to linguistic form. Language is not to be seen as consisting of signs – whether written or spoken – possessing either a self-presence or an inner content, but as made up of traces, neither fully present nor absent, differing among themselves outwardly, and deferring their final meaning infinitely. The language that one uses, as speech or writing, can only be an ‘outward’ phenomenon, both in the sense of being ‘other-directed’ and realizable only in an infinitely ‘other’ time, and therefore never finalizable. It is not difficult for us, further, to see language as a phenomenon both of extremity and of exteriority with respect to its individual users. Speech, for example, emanates from partially enclosed superficial organs of the oro-nasal cavity and the vocal cords. Writing, in its turn, whatever be the actual symbolic product, depends on the activity of the extremity of the human body, namely the digits, as well as at the extremity of the writing instrument, be it the stylus or its later variants.128 Proceeding from and arriving at the extremities of one’s body, presenting itself at the exteriority of the self and that of the other, language cannot be something contained within one’s self, but that which always exceeds it. Nor can language shelter the being of our self. 129 The exteriority of our own selves is the ineluctable site of the occurrence of our language. It is in this sense that it can be said that we are not in control of our meaning and our intention in a movement which is an inevitable excess upon our own use of language. It is again in this sense that an overwhelming undecidability pervades our language, which therefore can never be our own language. We can never possess or appropriate a language. Language is not only an ‘in128

We can perhaps continue to speak in a similar vein of the receptor organs, the ear and the eye, but we shall not venture here that more technical discussion. 129 This statement is in contrast to Heidegger’s, “Language is the house of being.”

between phenomenon’ as Bakhtin would say, but also a passional phenomenon, that which ceaselessly passes form the self to the other, and over which active control is impossible. Language cannot be an ‘act’ in the strict sense of the term, because the former is destined to remain in its own passivity. But, even if we are never able to control or possess it, language in its passing, constantly touches us, we keep sensing it at our exteriorities. We ‘sense’ language, in the triple sense of the term ‘sense’, of experiencing, signifying and giving a direction. From the perspective of sense then, writing is not merely a graph or an inscription, in the sense of chiselling into a solid surface, but rather an ‘excription’ i.e., presenting a locus of sense outside of our given world, in order to be sensed by the other. Writing can also be described, according to Nancy, as an exposition, not only in the sense of posing something outside of oneself, but as an ex(peau)sition, suggesting a skin-to-skin contact or ‘touching.’ *** Up to now, we have tended to speak of writing in a rather literal sense. Though Derrida’s Of Grammatology is intended to be a ‘science of writing,’ where the word ‘writing’ has more of a literal meaning, he and his followers are primarily concerned with the question of literature. More precisely, they are engaged in the theory and practice of reading discourses, especially philosophical discourses as texts of literature. This is because, since these discourses are texts inscribed or ‘excribed’ in one manner or the other, they never cease to have the literary trait of being detached from their purported objectivity and their subjective intentions. In fact, the deconstructionists view literature and philosophy as an hyphenated common domain, literaturephilosophy, with an easy going back and forth between the two fields. The first thing that this shift in perspective yields is the dismantling of the idea of a unified ‘subjectivity.’ The subject (of discourse) is no longer the Cartesian cogito with a full consciousness that it is in direct control of. Nor is it the ‘decentred’ subject of Lacanian psychoanalysis, a subject driven by desire, and identifiable as the product of the network of a ‘science of the letter.’ 130 (We know that in opposition to the expressive language of the cogito, Lacan had said: ‘Language speaks the subject.’) The deconstructionists’ subject is a fractured and fragmented subject, forever


See The Title of the Letter – A Reading of Lacan (1973 / 1990) by Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, for further details on this trajectory, which we cannot pursue in this paper.

slipping into the in-between, or the ‘neutral’ space of writing,


forever exteriorising and

deconstituting itself through language. Lacoue-Labrthe’s term for this mode of ‘literary’ existence of the subject is desisting or ‘desistance.’ The subject in exposing itself to the other through writing, ceaselessly desists its own identity and fullness, often taken for granted in classical and modern philosophical discourses.

Jean-Luc Nancy’s analysis of the problematic of “Community” from a deconstructionist perspective appeared in the form of a journal article in 1983 under the title “La communauté désœuvré,”

the “Inoperative Community” or the “Unworking of

Community.” Maurice Blanchot responded to this article in the same year with a short book entitled La communauté inavouable, “the Unavowable Community.” Georgio Agamben’s

The Community to Come (original Italian publication, 1990), deconstruct the traditional notion of community.

though on a slightly different

trajectory, can also be considered as a part of the series of works that have attempted to

Nancy’s initial reflections on “The Inoperative Community,” bear upon the definition and delimitation of ‘community’ in the wake of discussions on ‘communism’ which Sartre had declared, was the ‘unsurpassable horizon of our time’ (date?) and which Georges Bataille, even earlier, saw as a betrayal of the Revolution in the wake of the emergence of totalitarian states. Going beyond the necessity or the purity sought with regard to communism by Sartre and Bataille, Nancy is basically searching for what lies between a communal fusion, which he considers as resulting from one or other forms of totalitarianism on the one hand and varieties individualism, including the liberal and the capitalist kinds, on the other. Both, communatarian totality and individualism are, according to Nancy

The expression ‘the neutral space of literature’ owes itself to Maurice Blanchot. See M. Blanchot, The Space of Literature. 132 See Lacoue-Labarthe, P., Typography – Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics, Stanford: Stanford University Press, I998, especially, the “Introduction” by J. Derrida. 133 See English Translation of this article in The Inoperative Community, (Tr. P. Connor et al.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1991. This book contains besides the title chapter, two more articles of our immediate interest: “Myth Interrupted” and “Literary Communism.” 134 Maurice Blanchot, La communauté inavouable, Paris : Minuit, 1983. 135 My reference is to the French translation, G. Agamben, La communauté qui vient – Théorie de la singularité quelconque (Tr.) Marilène Raiota. Paris : Seuil, 1990.










communitarianism and individualism are both ‘immanentisms,’ to the extent we retain the idea of a collectivity or an individual immanent to or complete in itself. Moreover, according to the logic of the absolute, implied in this immanence, it must be necessary for the absolute to be alone. And since to be absolute and to be alone at the same time is contradictory and impossible, any absolute must tear itself open to form a relation with its own exteriority, rejecting both its own impossible interiority as well as its state of being “without relation.” Similarly, in the very cognitive exigency of an individual’s wanting to know, there would be a rupture of the closure of a self, a rupture that amounts to what Bataille had called “the silence of ecstasy.” Eschewing a slightly romantic strain of thinking on ecstasy, Nancy defines it first in terms of what it is opposed to: “…[Ecstasy] defines the impossibility both ontological and cognitive, of absolute immanence (or of the absolute, and therefore of immanence) and consequently the impossibility either of an individuality, … or of a pure collective totality. The theme of the individual and that of communism are closely bound up with (and bound together in) the general problematic of immanence. They are bound together in their denial of ecstasy. … [T]he question of the community is henceforth inseparable from a question of ecstasy.”

The question of ecstasy thus posed, immediately introduces an important distinction between two versions of what a community can be: (a.) that which culminates through in a complete and ideal product; or (b.) that which is currently experienced as a work loss in

relation to a past ideal. Problematizing both these versions, Nancy argues: on the one hand, community is an inoperative or unprogrammable entity since it can never be finalized; and on the other hand, since community is properly experienced only in the loss or death of its individuals, it has its existence, not as an absolute, but as an ever-changing and ever renewing singularity. Death is a necessary concomitant of community, because “it is through death that the community reveals itself – and reciprocally.”

Community is constituted

neither as a fusion of its living subjects, nor as the creation of those who die in and for the community. It is the death of others, in one form or the other that defines the contours of
136 137

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community op. cit., p. 6. The Inoperative Community, p. 14.

one’s community. Paradoxically, since it is through death that community is revealed, and since death can never be fulfilling, a community can never be a complete product or work. (This is the sense in which the community is said to be inoperative.) Since community is experienced as the death of others, and revealed to others, it is continuously made up of others. Hence, its singularity and “the impossibility of its own immanence, the impossibility of a communitarian being in the form of a subject.”

What is argued here is that community comes only from the deconstruction of what is given as community. The community takes place only in the exteriority of its own members, or of itself in relation to the exteriority of others and of other communities. Spoken ontologically, and shall we say deconstructively, the community can only be ecstatic, in the sense of joyously reaching for the outside of itself. Community is viewed here as the exteriorising movement of finite entities, and not as the production of a work as a totality, nor as the restitution of a lost communion. It is rather, the infinite movement or differentiation of these finite entities, referred to as singularities. A singularity is the specific and given state of a thing, without accounting for its possible source or destination. What characterises a singularity, at least in our context, is its being in relation or exposed to other singularities. Singularities do not have an independent ontological status, they can not appear on their own. Thy can only co-appear or ‘compear,’ according to a neologism of Nancy. And consequently, “community means that there is no singular being without another singular being…” 139 Since these singular beings exist in an endless historical and spatial chain, there can be “no communion of singularities in a totality superior to them and immanent to their common being.”

This appearance of finite beings as ‘together’ and severally is what

Nancy refers to as ‘being-in-common’ as opposed to their assumed belonging to a ‘common being.’ Finite beings or singularities ‘compear,’ they do not disappear in a common being. Taking a cue again from Bataille, Nancy observes that the ‘compearing’ singularities, or the singularities which are ‘beings-in-common’ experience a common, ‘shared’ freedom. This sharing which does not involve any kind of ‘communion’ or an intersubjective fusion, is itself the basis of the constitution of the singular beings. Without ‘communing’ these
138 139

Ibid., p. 15. Ibid., p. 28. 140 Ibid., p. 28.

singular beings maintain the otherness each with respect to each other. Thus, what constitutes the beings-in-common / compearance and the sharing is indeed a ‘communication’ between singular beings which are fundamentally others. In this communication, without entering into a fusion these beings remain exposed to each other, and indeed pass from one to other, and this condition is experienced by them as an ecstatic sharing. In this exposition and this sharing that takes place between ‘others,’ and in the space exterior to each one, there is an inevitable retreat from any already constituted fullness of a text (here, a community) as work. ‘ Desœuvrement ’ or unworking is Blanchot’s term for this retreat or withdrawal from community’s given being towards an alternative and infinitely open space of uncertain and undecidable possibilities. ‘Unworking’ is the moment when, instead of seeking production and completion, the community “encounters interruption, fragmentation, suspension, [as] community is made of the interruption of singularities, or of the suspension that singular beings are.” ‘sacredness’ to the process.

This unworking of the community, Nancy tells

us, is not different from what Bataille called the “unleashing of passions,” attributing certain Bataille himself had associated this unleashing with a ‘contagion’ or effect by contact, than with a ‘communication.’ In the chapter entitled “The Myth Interrupted”

Nancy discusses the function and

the notion of literature in relation to myth and community. Though myth is rather remote for the modern and the post-modern man, we tend to see ourselves as the ‘fulfilment’ of myths. And yet, we are keen to distance ourselves from the mythic truth and mythic life. For, myth can normally be only in the past. For the community, the myth thus has both a negation of something at least as much as the affirmation of something.”

founding and We may say that

a fictional function. Nancy: “When we speak of ‘myth’ or of ‘mythology,’ we mean the the community is founded by a mythic thought that is admittedly fictional. In relation to the community (and this relation is anyway central to it), the myth has the basic feature of founding by fiction . Though myth appears to be the founding principle, there is myth only when there is no longer myth. Myth can therefore be regarded as the
141 142 143

founding fiction . That is

Ibid., p. 31. Ibid., pp. 4 3-70.
ibid., p. 52.

why one can say that ‘myth is a myth.’ Now, Nancy argues that, “the phrase ‘myth is a myth’ means in effect that myth, as imagination or as foundation, is a myth, in other words, a fiction, a simple invention.” itself.” This founding by fiction, as well as the fiction of founding can have a powerful effect on community. It can translate itself as the ‘mythic will’ which is totalitarian, and which seeks to impose a communion, or the principle of all communion, aiming for the goal of an ‘absolute community.’
145 144

The statement, ‘myth is a myth’ captures a profound semantic

disunion and a similarly profound union, “a secret and profound union at the heart of myth

Myth represents here a communal fusion, based on a unique

fiction, which is forcefully propagated within the community. Myth and a mythic community are therefore mutually necessary, and mutually implicated. And this we know is the source of all totalizing or totalitarian closures of a community. If this is indeed so, Nancy will argue, “[t]he interruption of myth is… also, necessarily, the interruption of the community.” 146 In contrast to the community that is mythically founded by fiction, community as being-in-common is the condition where the beings are said to ‘compear.’ In other words, “they are exposed, presented, or offered to one another.”

The ‘compearance’ is the middle

way that Nancy seeks between a hyper-solidified mythic community and its contrary, and an equally undesirable disappearance of the community. Community as compearance is the mode by which a community resists its ‘infinite immanence,’ and manages to keep open spaces, both within and without. The community in the sense of compearance comes, or becomes, not through a mythic process, which ends up in a community as communion, but through the literary (or equally, artistic) ‘interruption of myth’. The literary process, according to Nancy, is incessantly acting upon this fictional foundation of community. This is where it is possible to see the literary as that which interrupts the myth, and enables a
144 145 146

ibid., p. 52.

Cf. Nancy, J.-L. and P. Locoue-Labarthe’s work, Le mythe nazi,Paris: Aube, 1991.

The Inoperative Community, op. cit., 57. 147 ibid., p. 58.

community of compearance. However, Nancy suggests that there is a tension within the literary work itself: “[I]n the work, there is a share of myth and a share of literature or writing. The latter interrupts the former, it ‘reveals’ precisely through its interruption of the myth (through the incompletion of the story or the narrative) – and be – and it can no longer be – a “mythic invention.’”

what literature or writing

reveals is above all its interruption , and it is in this respect that it can be called, if it still can For a community, the mythic and the literary coexists in a work as an inseparable fusion. The community would approach the work either in terms of myth, or in terms of literature. It is the literary writing and reading that interrupts the mythic writing and reading. In Nancy’s words: “‘Literature” (or “writing”) is what, in literature – in the sharing of the communication of works – interrupts myth by giving voice to being-in-common, which has no myth and cannot have one.”

It is this ‘mythic meaning,’ that Nancy displace with his notion of ‘sense’. There is ‘sense’ in Nancy’s writing, everywhere, and at times in a disconcertingly multiple senses of term. 150 There is ‘sense’ as rupture, eruption, coming into presence of being, passage into presence. Sense in never given, it is constantly coming, there is sense upon sense and even against sense. Sense is Nancy’s own contribution parallel to and contiguous with Derrida’s difference whose aesthetic sense is rather underplayed. Along with Derrida, Nancy would say that ‘sense’ is that which breaches the origin, keeps presenting itself to the other in multiple ways and never concluding.

In the opening / passage to the other, one’s own

given sense is concealed, and altered sense is released in a process similar to undressing, which conceals one’s identity. Nancy: “Denuded, we are immediately concealed, since there is nothing that could render us visible, knowable, identifiable.”

The site of sense then

would be our denuded, bare selves, which are different from our given selves, where we give

ibid., p. 63; emphasis added.

149 150

ibid., Pp.. 63-64. Nancy’s use of the term ‘sense’ has an affinity with that of Merleau-Ponty as enunciated in the latter’s Phenomenology of Perception and Signs. 151 Nancy, Jean-Luc, “Elliptical sense” in A Finite Thinking, Stanford University Press, 2003. 152 Nancy, Jean-Luc, “Concealed Thinking” in A Finite Thinking.

our own selves to the other, through our exposition, and by means of the main ethical act of language available to us, namely, promise.


Derrida has developed the theme of ‘promise,’ in several of his works, particularly in The Monolingualism of the Other OR The Prosthesis of Origin, Stanford University Press, 1998.

13. Politics and Aesthetics of Being*
Each of the three terms that appear in the title of this paper has undergone a revision of meaning in recent times. We shall not remain strictly within the limits that the title assumes, though we shall be concerned with the relationship between politics and aesthetics and how both politics and aesthetics have been mutually affected by the recent philosophical discussions on the question of being. More pertinently, we shall be concerned with the traditional categories of being, speaking, staging and sense. Of these, sense or sensibility, we know, is the founding category of aesthetics. German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten in his work Aesthetica (written between 1750 and 1758) referred to as aistheta the facts of sensibility or sensation (aisthesis). They pertain to a form of sensible cognition, described earlier on by Leibniz as ‘confused,’ and of which a science was ‘yet to be established.’ Baumgarten defined Aesthetics (which includes for him “theory of liberal arts, doctrine of inferior cognition, art of the beautiful thought, art of the analogue of reason”) as “the science of sensible cognition.”154 It was to be a science that would account for “phenomena as diverse as sensation, sentiment, imagination, taste, enthusiasm, and secondarily, art.”155 It was first of all a theory of sensibility in general, in other words, a logic of the sensible. Its task was to think of the individual in all his/her richness and diversity, and to identify the “logico-aesthetic” truth. Modern aesthetics was thus born as the theory of a secondary mode of cognition. Later, in his Critique of Judgment (published in 1790), Kant addressed the fundamental and lasting aesthetic questions of “natural and artistic beauty, imitation, sublime, genius, aesthetic ideas, symbol, etc.”156 For Kant, it is not enough to say that beauty is a matter of sensible

Previously published as a paper in Yearbook of the Goethe Society of India 2006: ‘Schiller, Aesthetic Education and Globalization. New Delhi: Mosaic (26-40) 154 Quoted in, Elie During, “Première naissance de l’esthétique: Baumgarten” in Magazine Littéraire, no. 414, novembre, 2002, p. 19. Special focus of the issue: Philosophie et art – La fin de l’esthétique ? 155 It would be interested in the sublime of a sunset, as much as the elegance of an Horatian ode. It is meant to be a distinct (from logic, metaphysics and morals) and an autonomous discipline. (ibid.) 156 Elie During. “Seconde naissance de l’esthétique : Kant,” Magazine Littéraire, 414, p. 22.

cognition (rather than of the beautiful object), but we must say that the judgement of taste is not a cognitive judgement, and that “it is not logical, but aesthetic.” This is because, it cannot be dissociated from the subjective sentiment of pleasure and pain. Though the determining principle of the Aesthetic is ‘subjective’ it is neither relative nor irrational, for the experience of the beautiful is simultaneously singular and universal, since it can be shared and communicated with others: it is “disinterested pleasure”, “object of universal pleasure” but “without concept”. Further, against the idea of an “aesthetic common sense” suggested by English Romanticists like Shaftesbury, the German Romanticists inherited from Kant the idea of an unmasterable and unpredictable balance (“free play”) of imagination and understanding, a balance miraculously attained by the creative genius of the new artistic forms (aesthetic ideas), and (which can be) broken by the sublime where the imagination finds itself pushed to the limits of its representational capacities. If the beautiful is the emergence or the announcement of sense in the sensible, then the sublime is a sensible testimony (a “negative representation”) of the unrepresentable.157 Bringing forward not only sensibility, but the question of artistic objects, Friedrich Schlegel went on to assert that from now on, “all art should become science, and all science becomes art; poetry and philosophy must be reunited.”158 Aesthetics, for the German romantics becomes the artistic mode of thought as manifested in the works of art and reflected by philosophy. Its domain is that of a specific power of the sensible, which is neither that of the Kantian ‘idea’ nor something ‘confusedly intelligible.’ The ‘confused cognition’ for the Romantics is not a lesser cognition, as Jacques Rancière notes, but is thought itself: “thought present outside of itself, identical to the non-thought.”159 Into the twentieth century, this thought from the outside, or the unthought, will be more or less identified with what Freudian psychoanalysis calls the ‘unconscious.’ In the philosophy of Levinas, this ‘outside’ has a distinct ontological import, as that which unsettles a given totality of being, or as the ‘otherwise-than157 158

Ibid. Quoted in Elie During (ibid.) from Athenaeum (1800). 159 This Romantic idea, which is the sum and substance of what Rancière calls the ‘aesthetic unconscious,’ has been highlighted also by Walter Benjamin, in his “Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism” and more recently by Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue Labarthe in their Literary Absolute.

being.’ Later, with reference to Blanchot, another thinker of the outside, Foucault would speak of his ‘pensée du dehors.’ *** Friedrich Schiller (whose Letters on Aesthetic Education preceded the Athenaeum of the German Romantics by five years) speaks of two opposing forces in man, with their contrary directionalities.160 These are: the sensual (or physical) drive – that moves from the inner order to the outer chaos – and the rational (or formal) drive that moves from the outer chaos to the inner necessity.161 These two forces are combined in aesthetic activity, which yields “an increased awareness of or receptivity to the world” (aided by the sensual drive) and “an increased intensity in the determining activity of the intellect” (aided by the rational drive).162 More importantly for Schiller, the aesthetic impulse involves the “play drive,” which can combine the active and the passive forces, producing a unity of feeling and reason. The aesthetic ideal of beauty is defined by a unity of physical and formal reality. Schiller defines beauty as an aesthetic unity of several other pairs of opposites: those of contemplation and sensation, reason and intuition, activity and passivity, form and matter. Beauty in this sense is related to both truth and freedom. The latter involving aesthetic unity may lead to truth which is otherwise concerned with logical unity. Freedom, from this perspective, is the result of the integration of and the mediation between the sensual drive and the rational drive, when both these drives are fully active and without imposing any constraints of their own. The “play drive” which mediates between the “material drive” and the “formal drive” is the source of aesthetic freedom. It generates the fundamental “impulse that allows the individual to transcend inner and outer constraints, and which enables the individual to experience physical and spiritual freedom.”163 Among the contemporary theoreticians, Jacques Rancière has drawn inspiration and intellectual sustenance from Schiller’s philosophy of art, while insisting on the centrality of

Our reference is to the web version of Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Lecture XV, <> 161 Alex Scott, “Schiller’s Letters on Aesthetic Education.” <> 2002. 162 Ibid. 163 Ibid.

aesthetics to politics.164 A partition between those who are included in and those who are outside of aesthetic activity, is at the root of politics in general, according to Rancière. Taking us to the Letter 15 of Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Rancière invites us to consider the following formulations: The ‘self-containment’ of the Greek statue of the goddess Juno Ludovisi (for a spectator facing it in a museum) expresses: a. her ‘idleness and indifference’ which is in a state of ‘free appearance’; b. this ‘free appearance’ makes the spectator experience a state of ‘free play’ (suspension of the opposition of activity and passivity, form and matter, aims and means.) For Schiller, this ‘free play,’ and the corresponding ‘suspension of activity’ is the very ‘humanity’ of Man,165 and this statement about the paradoxical link between ‘humanity’ and ‘free play’ provides an apt description of “the whole edifice of the art of the beautiful and the still more difficult art of living.”166 Rancière notes in this context (i.e., with regard to the play drive) that aesthetic experience “is an experience of suspension, of withdrawal of power.” In so far as there is suspension of activity and free play due to the object of art, there is both the setting up of the edifice of art as its own autonomous and “self-contained” sphere, and its opposite, the identification of that power of “self-containment” with the framing of a new form of collective life. Rancière sees here a paradoxical relationship between identification of art and its ‘politics’: the specific aesthetic experience is an experience of suspension, that is of withdrawal of power. Rancière’s aesthetic argument is pitted against those who, like Jean-François Lyotard167 and Alain Badiou,168 have tended to announce the end of aesthetics. He however agrees with their view that there cannot be a ‘discipline’ of aesthetics in so far as there cannot be fixed properties of artistic practices nor a judgement of taste. Art cannot be spoken of, he insists, in terms of

Jacques Rancière, “Aesthetics and Politics: Rethinking the Link,” Berkeley, 2002.Unpublished manuscript, sequel to The Politics of Aesthetics – The Distribution of the Sensible, New York: Continuum. 2004. Since the former is a brief text, electronically made available by the author, the page numbers are ignored here. 165 Schiller says: “ …man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.” ( Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, 15; italics in the original) 166 Ibid. 167 The reference is to Lyotard’s The Inhuman and Postmodern Fables. 168 The reference is to Badiou’s Petit manuel inesthétique.

“powers of thought, modes of inscription in social practice, or as a political vocation.”169 On the contrary, art should be understood more as the “unconscious expression of a mode of life.”170 Rather than share the contemporary scepticism about aesthetics in general, Rancière sees its existence in specific regimes of identification. In this sense, there is art everywhere and at all times. Within a regime of identification of art, there are specific modes of production of artistic objects and practices associated with them, specific forms of visibility of these objects, and specific manners of conceptualising the artistic practices and their modes of visibility.171 Firstly, there is the ethical regime of images where questions concerning the divinity, the sanctity and the propriety of images, etc., are posed. Then there is the representational regime of the arts, which is concerned with the specific mimetic and narrative forms in which the images can appear. And finally, there is the aesthetic regime of the art which grants artistic identity to a piece of work insofar as it belongs to a ‘specific sensorium,’ or a specific realm of experience. The art object (the statue of Juno Ludovisi, in Schiller’s Letters) is no longer perceived within this regime as the product of a certain kind of action, but as a mode of being. The experience of the statue as an object of art establishes its distinctness with respect to other forms of experience. This experience undermines and overwhelms our usual oppositions between appearance and reality, form and matter, activity and passivity, thought and sensation.172 The framing of a new sensorium, or a new sensory realm is made possible by the features of ‘free play’ and ‘free appearance’ that the art object (here, the statue) introduces in a given social milieu. They, in fact, break through the existing ‘partition of the sensible’ that characterises the prevailing form of political domination. The possibility of ‘play’ breaks through the forced domain of work, and the mode of ‘free appearance’ contests the given understanding of reality. It is important to note that in the place of a distinction of classes based on a division of labour in the classical Marxist mould, the emphasis here is on the ‘partition of the sensible’ which is defined as “distribution and redistribution of times and spaces, places and identities, that way of framing and

169 170

Jacques Rancière, “Le ressentiment anti-esthétique” in: Magazine Littéraire, Septembre, 2004. Pp. 18-19. Ibid. 171 Rancière, (FN 11) 172 Ibid.

reframing the visible and the invisible, of telling speech from noise and so on…”173 What this means is that the politics of aesthetics cannot be of a confrontationist kind, involving a reversal of the power equation, but can only be a “destruction of the very partition of the sensible sustaining domination in general.”174 Rancière goes on to remind us that Schiller projected aesthetic movement as a sensory “revolution” in opposition to the political revolution in France that had taken place a few years earlier.175 It is the autonomous form of experience that art is, especially in the aesthetic regime, according to Rancière (following Schiller), and not its instrumentality that makes art political. Artistic autonomy is not a case of detachment of the transcendental kind, for example. Artistic experience, however involves an autonomy with respect to the given (say, the dominant) mode of experience; it is yet not a detachment of the individual from the ‘reality’ of the world as such. In this sense, which is also Schiller’s sense, there is a purity of art that is simultaneously political. This purity also implies the remoteness of the artistic object from the practicality or instrumentality of ordinary life. The values of strangeness and unavailability embodied in the art object bear the promise of a future, alternative humanity. Schiller’s vision of art in its role of political transformation can be understood thus: “The subject of aesthetic experience is promised the possession of a new world by that statue that he cannot possess in any way. And the ‘aesthetic education’ that must replace the political revolution is the education by that strangeness of the free appearance and by that experience of dispossession and passivity.”176 Furthermore, by framing a specific sphere of experience, what the artistic object introduces is an alternative mode of being in a common or neutral space. What aesthetic education does in such a context is to transform “free appearance … into lived reality, and the aesthetic free play into an agency of the

According to Aristotle, Politics begins with the possibility of speech in humans, by which they can indicate the distinction between useful and harmful and between just and unjust, as opposed to mere voice which animals also have, but which can be used to express pain or pleasure, and for communicating feeling. He says: “for the real difference between man and other animals is that humans alone have perception of good and evil, the just and the unjust, etc. It is sharing of a common view in these matters that makes a household and a state.” (quoted from Aristotle’s Politics, in Rancière, J., Disagreement -- Politics and Philosophy, (Tr.) J. Rose. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1999, p. 1. Similarly in Plato’s Republic, “…the impossibility of free appearance for the mimetician came along with the impossibility of play for the artisan…Appearance could no more go without a ‘reality’ than work could go along with the purposelessness of play.” (Rancière, Politics and Aesthetics…) 174 Ibid. 175 Ibid. 176 Ibid.

living community.”177 Here again, art reveals its paradoxical character: through its autonomy it seeks heteronomy. Art has to appear and disappear as non-art. Through the solitude of the artist as well as that of the artistic object, a future community is heralded. Notice that in Rancière’s account of the relationship between aesthetics and politics, the latter always and already has an aesthetic dimension. At the base of politics there is not only an economic dimension but also (parallelly) an aesthetic ‘partition of the sensible.’ Such an approach is different from alternative approaches identified and interpreted by Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht. In his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin senses an attempt at aestheticisation of politics in the context of European fascisms of the twentieth century. He notes that fascism essays a superficial aesthetic-cultural mode of organizing the proletarian masses, without providing them succour at the level of the economic base, that is, without trying to alter the property structure in any way. Ignoring the economic and political rights of the masses, fascism seeks to provide the masses an opportunity of selfexpression. Thanks to the technology of visual reproduction, such as the camera, the masses are represented as organised politically. “Mass reproduction is aided especially by the reproduction of masses… (T)he masses are brought face to face with themselves... Mass movements are discerned more clearly discerned with a camera than with the naked eye.”178 Still and movie photography, and other modes of mass reproduction have aided in seeing and reading about mobilisation of masses especially in wars, with a corresponding oblivion of the oppressive and exploitative economic relations. This is how aestheticisation of politics ends up in war and perhaps more war. “Fascism expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology.”179 Benjamin associates “art for art’s sake” with an irresponsibility that detaches itself from all social reality and that seeks to portray humanity’s own self-destruction as art and derive from it “aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” In such a context, and contrarily, Benjamin underscores politicisation of art as the imminent task of communism. Bertolt Brecht had indeed undertaken such a task in what he invented as the “Epic Theatre.” Favourably commenting on the epic theatre, Benjamin points out that it attempts to
177 178

Ibid. Benjamin, W., “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in: Illuminations, (Tr.) H. Zohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. 1968. Pp 219-54.. 179 Ibid.

produce is astonishment at the turns of events and not empathy for the characters nor ‘a sensation derived from the subject matter.’180 Rancière’s persistent effort has been to restore the rightful place of aesthetics in contemporary philosophy. His open and decisive endeavour is to resist the anti-aesthetic movement set in motion within the Left and elsewhere. Schiller’s aesthetic politics has been, in this regard his major point of orientation. His move is parallel to the resuscitation of ethics undertaken by Levinas in the second of twentieth century. But unlike Levinas who claimed ethics as the first philosophy, Rancière’s does not claim that aesthetics is fundamental. He insists rather on the specificity of aesthetics and especially, while sill remaining a Marxist, its intimate relationship with revolutionary politics. Aesthetics, for him is not just a matter of beauty, nor of the beautiful object, nor of judgement of taste. It is a whole ‘regime,’ “the sensible fabric, this network of new relations between ‘art’ and ‘life’ which constitutes both the milieu of artistic inventions and that of the mutations of perceptions and ordinary sensibilities.”181 He prefers to place aesthetics in its specific relation to other material practices. Aesthetic practices and their products, therefore cannot be attributed to external causes or sources. Aesthetics is also not philosophically determinable, and domains of art cannot be submitted to rules of representations. Art acquires its power through the effect of an immediate sensible presence displayed by its works. Part of this sensible presence in fact comes, ceaselessly by way of criticism, whose role is to continually modify and alter the trajectory of art itself. Aesthetic regime may ensure the immortality of museum piece of art on the one hand, but on the other hand, it may induce it to diverse kinds of metamorphosis as it happens when a literary text is realized as a film. It is essentially a dynamic field where art may abandon itself where one expects to find it, or it may be discovered where no art was hitherto perceived, such as happens when a laundry bill is aesthetically framed as a poetic text. In its autonomy, artistic practices do not exist necessarily delinked from other identities, such as “ceremonies, entertainment, apprenticeship, business, or utopias.”182 Art and other spheres of experience remain interconnected and therefore the term ‘Aesthetics’ has to accept its
180 181

Benjamin, W., “What is Epic Theatre?” in: Illuminations (FN 25), Pp 149-56. Rancière, J., “Le ressentiment anti-esthétique” in: Magazine Littéraire, 414, p. 19. 182 Ibid. p. 19.

own divided character. “Aesthetics,” Rancière affirms, “is a configuration of the sensible that one can only think by breaching the disciplinary frames which put each in its place.”183 *** The paradigm of Rancière’s aesthetic theory can be described as follows: a Marxisthumanist interpretation of the aesthetics of German Romanticism (particularly that of Schiller). His partage du sensible or the ‘distribution of the sensible’ and its transformation are suggested in relation to the binary opposition between the haves and the have-nots of aesthetic experience, that forms an essential political structure. This approach is in contrast to that of the poststructuralists, of the deconstructionists in particular. However, rather than speak of the aesthetic theory of Rancière and that of a deconstructionsist like Jean-Luc Nancy in terms of an opposition, it would be more appropriate of us at this juncture to note that the similarities and differences between the two. They share a common concern in sense (Nancy) or the sensible (Rancière). These are in fact the central categories for these two philosophers. However, Nancy’s category of ‘sense’ is more closely linked to the question of meaning in the linguistic sense, while Rancière’s ‘sensible’ has more to do with feeling and sensibility. Both are interested in the question of ‘community’ in the strictly political sense. But for Nancy, community and its attributes do not have an identifiable point of origin; it is always in process. For Rancière, the community begins with a fundamental ‘disagreement.’ For Nancy, the community has to be continuously transgressed, by means of its ‘unworking’ (désoeuvrement), while for Rancière, in aesthetic activity community finds its mode of transformation. For Ranciere’s there exists an identifiable ‘aesthetic regime,’ for Nancy there can only be a continuous overcoming of sense. Rancière seems to unconditionally favour the psychoanalytical notion of the ‘unconscious,’ whereas Nancy would stay shy of the realm of desire and the unconscious, in favour of the play implicit in ‘writing’ itself. The potential for the appearance of the ‘other’ of the given being is always and everywhere significant for Nancy, and it is not circumscribed within an ‘aesthetic regime’ as would be the case for

Ibid. p. 19.

Rancière. Both will, at any rate, agree that the boundary between art and non-art and that between aesthetics and non-aesthetics is not determinable. *** Art, according to the deconstructionists (and Nancy shares this view), is an act or event of ‘interruption’ within a community. Interruption occurs owing to the fact that the signifiers that constitute a community’s cultural discourses as well as its language, do not have any permanent basis, existence, or meaning. Since they are differential elements, differential signification will constantly be taking place within a given culture through ceaseless creative and interpretative activity upon its texts. In the process, not only the language, discourses, subjectivities, but also the community itself can undergo potentially infinite interruptions (or corresponding transformations). What writing or art does is to continuously rupture the ‘myth’ that holds the community together. Community reveals itself not as a permanent mass of fused ‘egos,’ but in the disappearance of its mythical discourses, just as it is reveals itself touchingly in the death of its individuals. Community, from this point of view, is not a communion of ‘Egos’ or ‘Selfs’fused into a higher ‘We’. Community can be understood only as the coappearing or ‘compearing’ of many ‘others.’ Community is something that “takes place always through others and for others.” In this sense, according to Nancy, it “occupies a singular place: it assumes the impossibility of its own immanence, the impossibility of communitarian being in the form of a subject.” 184 Community, from this point of view, is that which infinitely resists its own fusion – whether assumed to be given or to be achieved – into a common essence. In the place of a notion of community that is associated with an already given or potential ‘common’ or same being, what Nancy emphasizes is an always unfinalized and neverfinalizable ‘being-in-common.’


Nancy, Jean-Luc, The Inoperative Community. The University of Minnesota Press. 1991, p. 15. Nancy’s main point is that the community is not something programmable. So, instead of seeing it as an ‘operative’ entity, it is seen as something that is / has to be constantly ‘unworked.’ The French version of the essay, La communauté désoeuvré appeared in 1983.

What literature or art encounters and resists is the fictional character of the community, though it has no way of installing a ‘real’ community in its place. foundation of community there is a mythic thought that is admittedly At the fictional. In relation to

the community (and this relation is anyway central to it), the myth has the basic feature of founding by fiction . Though myth appears to be the founding principle, there is myth only when there is no longer myth. Myth can therefore be regarded as the founding fiction . It is in contrast to a community that is mythically founded by fiction, that Nancy proposes the idea of ‘being in common’. Being-in-common is the condition where the beings are said to ‘compear’ (i.e., to appear together). In other words, “they are exposed, presented, or offered to one another.”

This ‘compearance’ is the middle way that Nancy seeks

between an absolute and total mythic community and its contrary, an equally undesirable disappearance of the community. Community as compearance is the mode by which a community resists its ‘infinite immanence,’ and manages to keep open spaces for it, both within and without. The community in the sense of compearance comes to be, or becomes, not through a mythic process, which ends up in a community as communion, but through the literary (or artistic) ‘interruption of myth’. And moreover, literature or art has a reality, if at all, only as that which is revealed in the process of interrupting the myth of the community. *** For Nancy, it is important to make a distinction between ‘truth’ and ‘sense.’ Truth, he says, is “being- such,” while sense “is the movement of the presentation of beingbeing coming into presence or … as transitivity, as passage to presence.” Further, sense is inaugural in the sense that “it cuts itself from

toward , or

While truth

characterized by an ‘ecstasy,’ sense is in the nature of an ‘opening’ according to Nancy.

all conceptions of the world and

worldviews—from all signification of the world.”188 Employing the polyvalence of the French word sens (for sense) which can mean, meaning, feeling and direction, Nancy sees world itself in
185 186

Ibid. p. 58.

Nancy, Jean-Luc, The Sense of the World, (Tr.) J.S. Librett. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1997. p. 10. 187 Ibid., p. 15. 188 Ibid., p. 38.

terms of unpredictable birth, movement, and extension of sense: “… the world extends to the extremities of sense absolutely.”189 In the political project that Nancy envisages, sense is fundamental. Starting from the location of the individual sense keeps moving outwardly, and ceaselessly. As far as the question of writing as politics is concerned, this movement is also the clearing the path for the “essenceless of relation.” Writing or art is political even before there can be a politics of either. Rejecting a conscious literary politics as well as a ‘politicisation of aesthetics,’ Nancy views writing essentially in terms of its refusal to congeal into a politics. He avers that political writing as “the infinite resistance of sense in the configuration of the ‘together.’”190 Politically, writing is neither the reinforcing of a unitary (communitarian) order, nor the invention of a hybridity, but it can only be the “resistance to the closure of worlds within world as well as resistance to the closure of world-beyond-the-world.”191 Writing deconstructs the closure of both the deep, interior world, and the external, transcendental worlds, while at the same time being in touch with the world of here and now. Sense is thus basically a relay, an enchaining, or in the sense of Gilles Deleuze, an assemblage, a syntagmatic overcoming of all given identities, including the identity of a poetics or aesthetics. In this continuous exposition of identities, different languages meet and are linked up. These links become non-identifiable.192 Art, from Nancy’s point of view is the continuous release of the sense of sense. This is because there is an inevitable element of surprise in existence itself, which is not reducible to any further signification. Art is the fragmentary production of a plurality of senses. The impulse or the sensation involved here, “is necessarily local. A sensation without difference and without locality—a sensation without world—would not be a sensation… Not only is aesthesis the act of this intimate exteriority, but it is also immediately the plurality of the senses.”193 The meaning of the world is always to be discovered outside the world, as Wittgenstein wrote in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. For Nancy, this creation of sense, of the sense of the world, is also what amounts to the creation of the world, or the global or the worldwide (mondial) order. He sees an inevitable connection between the creation of the artistic sense which is itself the creation of the
189 190

Ibid., p. 78. Ibid., p. 119. 191 Ibid., p. 120. 192 Ibid., p. 122. 193 Ibid., p. 129.

sense of the world, and what would be the infinite human creation of the world, of mondialisation, signifying a worldwide aesthetic and ethical movement rather than a global control of the economic sphere. This essential connection, he notes, had been spoken of by Marx in his German Ideology: “… (T)he liberation of each individual will be realised only to the extent that history is transformed into world history. … (T)he true spiritual richness of the individual wholly depends on richness of his real relations. It is only thus that the individuals are liberated from diverse national and local barriers, put in practical contact with the production (including spiritual production) of the whole world, and can possess the ability to enjoy the multiform production of the whole world.”194


Quoted in Nancy, Jean-Luc, La création du monde ou la mondialisation. Paris: Galilée. 2002. Pp. 18-19.

14. Elsewhere English: Some Acute and Some Obtuse Remarks*
I am not certain if I am competent to speak on the several key terms of this seminar: ‘literary theory,’ ‘Indian,’ ‘English,’ ‘perspectives.’ However, I am interested in these words, how their meanings have been historically constituted, and how we understand them in our own contexts. What we can do is to displace their apparently natural / naturalized meanings, and to set these words in a movement of dissemination, which can possibly open up the closures of a national, cultural, linguistic, literary or conceptual kind that follow the delimitation and the definition of these words. Let us begin with the expression ‘literary theory,’ the theme of our panel discussion. The previous speaker, Rukmini Bhaya-Nair has already spoken of it. She asked whether ‘literary theory’ is a kind of very large box, which contains a lot of things, filling up so many different compartments. I would like to see it instead – still assuming that it is something like a substance – as something completely empty, something that is really devoid of any content. And, I would like to see the vacuity of the other terms as well, vacuity of the term ‘English’ as well as of the term ‘Indian.’ These are all terms that do not have any permanent or essential contents. These are all convenient constructions, which have emerged in relation to certain interests of power and which are maintained by those very interests and hence they don’t really have any stable meanings. Now, we can see that the field of literary theory was introduced in a work by René Wellek and Austin Warren, entitled Theory of Literature, first published in Great Britain in 1949.195 So, this idea of a theory of literature or literary theory is just about 55 years old. And these two authors were themselves influenced, at least in part, by the Polish writer, Roman Ingarden, a

This chapter is developed on the basis of an oral presentation at the Colloquium on “English Studies: Indian Perspectives” organized by Centre for Linguistics and English, Jawaharlal Nehru University, 25-27 March 2004. I am deeply grateful to Aniruddha Mukhopadhyaya for doing the transcription of the oral presentation.

See, René Wellek and Austin Warren, 1966 edn. London: Jonathan Cape. The Preface to the first Edition is datelined, New Haven, 1 May 1948.

phenomenological philosopher. They are said to have been influenced by Ingarden’s work of 1931 called The Literary Work of Art.196 They reject all kinds of positive understanding of what a text can be and go on to arrive at the conclusion that a text is only a matter of norms, which serve as a potential cause of our experiences. So, from this viewpoint, a literary text is finally connected to experience. I would like to go a bit further. Rukmini spoke of the difficulty of seeing literature in terms of theory. She said that literature cannot really have a theory in the same way as there can be scientific theories. That’s indeed true. A theory involves often an explanatory frame and literature certainly cannot have no explanatory basis and that’s not very difficult to understand. Besides, even the word ‘literature’ is highly problematic, though we often tend to take it for granted. At least I take it less for granted because I’m not a literary theorist, nor do I teach literature as a curricular subject. Now, if you consider the word literature, we see that it goes back to the Latin term ‘litteratura,’ meaning ‘writing.’ In fact, the earliest Greek grammar by Dionysius Thrax was called Technē Grammatikē, which meant the “art of writing.” Technē means ‘art’ and Grammata are the letters, and therefore technē grammatikē meant “the art of writing.” Then grammar itself originated as an account of the art of writing. Later, the Romans translated this Greek expression technē grammatike into Latin as the ars littérātūra, i.e., “the art of writing.” And that is the beginning of the word ‘literature’. In the modern day, of course, the word ‘literature’ refers less to the linguistic aspect of writing, but more specifically to its fictional and poetic aspects. So from the very beginning ‘literature’ is associated with the word ‘letter’. The word graphein or ‘writing’ itself had to do, as far as the Greeks were concerned, with making of marks on a kind of rough, rocky surface. This is why you have the gruff kind of sound associated with the Greek equivalent of ‘letter’. That’s nicely translated as ‘letter.’ And the letter always carried a pictorial dimension because it was derived from imitative drawing of objects on a stable surface.


Ingarden, Roman, 1931. Das literarische Kunstwerk. Halle.

‘Literature’ in the modern sense of the term is of relatively recent origin. It is about 200 years old and it comes along with or after the institution of the modern European languages.197 About the emergence of modern European languages one can say a lot of things. Just as one has a rather fixed understanding of the phenomenon or the term literature, one also tends to have a very fixed understanding of the term ‘language.’ Now, language itself is a very strange term because the original Latin word from which it comes is ‘lingua,’ and ‘lingua’ actually meant the tongue. So the word is based on the fact that when you speak, i.e., when you use a language there is an articulation of the tongue. In the Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic, on the other hand, the word for language is derived from the word for ‘lip.’ Now as far as the modern European languages are concerned, Benedict Anderson in his Imagined Communities198 tells us that they began as early administrative languages, which came into existence in opposition to Latin, the language of the Roman Church in Europe. The modern European languages, according to Benedict Anderson emerged as a result of an ‘explosive mixture’ of Capitalism, printing technology and the diversity of human languages. So, with the emergence of what Anderson calls the ‘print languages,’ i.e., languages used for printing, publishing, etc., there was also the emergence of national consciousnesses in the European societies. That’s the first main thing that is to be noted about the emergence of modern European languages. And secondly, with the emergence of these languages and the corresponding national(ist) ideologies, there was some sort of stability and that stability was maintained by Capitalism and

In this context, it is useful to understand the troubling relationship between literature on the one hand and law and politics on the other. Derrida provides a critical perspective on this relationship in a discussion addressed to Lyotard: “… whatever be the structure of the juridical and therefore political institution which happens to guarantee the work, the latter appears and always remains before the law. It has existence only under the conditions of law and becomes “literature” only in a certain époque of rights that govern the question of the ownership of the works, of identity of the corpus, of the value of signatures, of the difference between creating, producing and reproducing, etc. This law was established roughly between the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 19th centuries in Europe. However, the concept of literature that sustains this right of works is still very obscure.” (La faculté de juger, Paris: Minuit, 1983 ; quoted in Marc Goldshmit, Une langue à venir. Paris : Lignes, 2006. p. 86.)

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities – Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991 (First edition, 1983). Pp. 41-45.

that’s how these languages could be used for printing. So the second is the stability factor. Third factor is that of power, and these languages which became the national languages were also languages of power. They were languages of power below Latin and above the diversity of dialects. The dialects were eventually either subordinated or suppressed by or were made to merge with the dominant form of these national languages. So, in the process a whole lot of heterogeneous and minor languages disappeared from the European context. Along with the diversity of these languages, possibly the ‘consciousness’ associated with these dialects also disappeared. What emerged were the languages of the ideology and the power of the nations. Literature emerged in the aftermath of and in response to the emergence of what we can call the national consciousness associated with these languages. Early European literatures inevitably played out the tension between the emerging nationalist consciousnesses and a universality that that was thought to remain lurking beneath or beyond them. One can say a lot of things about this. For example, how national histories are connected to languages and how through languages the historicity of particular national consciousnesses was being asserted by philosophers like Herder in the German context. The German idealism and nationalism are very special in this respect, and they have been extensively studied. For that matter, and closer home, the term ‘Indian’ itself is so problematic. As we know, it comes from the traditional name of the river in the north-west of India, Sindhu, which flows mostly outside of India’s current political boundaries. Sindhu must have been the name of the river in early times, but later the people on the west and the north of the India-Pakistan region called the people of this region by a name derived from that of the river: ‘Hindu.’ The Greek and the Latin speaking people probably couldn’t pronounce the sound ‘h’ and so they made it ‘Indus,’ from which term was derived the name ‘India’ the more current term for the nation we live in today. Similarly, words like ‘Hindustan’ and ‘Hindi’ are much later derivations from ‘Sindhu’ and ‘Hindu.’ In any case, modern political state of India can neither claim itself to be a modified Hindustan in any sense of that term, nor can it consider Hindi as its sole official language. Not is the region of Sind within which falls a major part of the river Sindhu or Indus, is part of the modern India.

Let’s return to the word ‘English.’ The name comes from the name of a Germanic people called Angles (whom the Romans called Angli) who lived on the western cost of the Baltic, in Slesvig, between Slezvig and Flensburg. The inhabitants of the island called ‘Anglia’ were, apart from an original Celtic people, themselves related to the people of Brittany in the west of France, were also mixed with the people of Saxony in north-western Germany as well as with the Normans of Scandinavian Europe. The other name by which the nation of Englishmen is known today, ‘Britain’ comes directly from the name of the province of Brittany (Brétagne) in France. So, the people of Great Britain, were since long, and even before its imperial expansion, a very mixed and hybrid people, and their language, a marvellous créole made up of elements from AngloCeltic, Breton, Norman, French, Latin, Saxon, Greek, etc. That was roughly the state and the fate of English language, at the time when England became a nation, and of Britain, a rather complex, monarchic, maritime, imperial power of 19th century. Today, English has a very different status. It is unquestionably a ‘global language,’ that is, a language spoken – or, if not spoken, then at least heard – in every nook and corner of the earth. (Let’s not forget, English was ‘spoken’ even on the moon if we were to believe media reports, in order to proclaim ‘the giant leap for mankind’ when Neil Armstrong landed there. So far, English is the only language that was spoken on the moon.) Thereby, we should assume that this is a language spoken by people of almost all races, religions, nations and of other linguistic communities, almost everywhere. No language has ever attained the global reach and spread that English has. English, we can legitimately say, is not only the global language par excellence, but also the principal agent of globalization of our world. It can be seen to be a language emerging from a heterogeneous past and unfolding into an indeterminable future. English today, is the most important ‘referential’ language for the majority of the people of the world.199 In other words, it is the language in which encyclopedic information about a large

Referring to another contemporary French scholar Henri Gobard, Gilles Deleuze has proposed a ‘tetralinguistic’ typology of the world’s languages on the basis of their contextual functions. These are: the vernacular, a maternal or the territotial language of rural origin, the vehicular, a language of exchange, commerce, and circulation, urban language par excellence, the referential, a national or cultural language, based on a recollection or reconstruction of the past, and the mythic, a language that refers to a spiritual, religious or magical domain. (See, Deleuze, G., “Languages minor, Languages major,” in: C. V. Boundas (ed.) Deleuze Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993; also, Deleuze’s preface in Gobard, H. L’aliénation linguistique – analyse tétraglossique. Paris: Flammarion, 1976.

number of knowledge fields is globally available. It is also the language into which the largest number of literary and cinematic works have been translated / dubbed. English is also the language with the most vibrant and dynamic media activity. No TV channel has the global presence of a CNN or a BBC. English is the language of global documentation, both from a historical and a contemporary point of view. That should make us think, if we use the current idiom, that English is a ‘powerful’ language, a language that is capable of ‘living’ in its own right and on its own might. We may say again using the current idiom, that English appears like an ‘immortal’ language in comparison to many other minor and marginalized languages, which we fear might become ‘dead’ or ‘extinct’ in the near or not-too-distant future. Perhaps, this perspective of the assumed ‘immortality’ of a language like English on the one hand and the possible ‘death’ or ‘extinction’ of many other languages of the world should guide us in understanding the place of ‘English studies’ in today’s context. But we should note that the notion of ‘death’ or ‘extinction’ of languages is of recent origin. It implies the idea that language is a natural object, and more specifically an organic object. The idea that linguistic forms are some sort of plants having their ‘roots’ and ‘stems’ may be quite old – ‘language’ being the main component of ‘culture,’ a word related to agriculture, this is not at all surprising –, but its intensified use in the context of comparative and historical study of languages goes back to the period of Romanticist philology in early 19th century. It was during this period, that scholars invented the idea of a genealogical ‘family’ of languages, within which certain mother-languages were believed to have engendered their so-called daughter-languages. (Language families, curiously, consist only of female members, of mothers and daughters! Languages, inexplicably, are all feminine, in this sense. Perhaps, the idea goes back till Dante’s characterization of the ‘vulgar’ languages as that which feed and sustain humans like a mother, therefore the ‘mother-tongues.’) It was the supposed organic and anthropomorphic character of languages that made it possible for us to speak even of their ‘death’ and ‘extinction.’ In our more recent discussion on this matter, the disappearance of a language is not so much spoken of in terms of the death of an organic being, but as the vanishing or the extinction – in strictly

statistical terms – of an entire population of human beings. Language extinction is described in terms of the death or disappearance of the last living speaker of language. Thus, when we speak of the extinction of the languages in the Americas or in the south or south-east Asia, we have in mind the eventuality of there being no more speaker / user of those languages. Here, we must interrogate this whole conception language as a natural object, particularly as an organic object. To begin the argument, we can say that languages are not objects since they do not have the contours or boundaries that objects have. Languages are unbounded phenomena. Secondly, languages are not the property of any one person or of any community. This, in a way, follows from the first argument that languages are not objects. Languages cannot be appropriated – even if in ordinary language, we speak of our ‘having’ a language – and hence they cannot be appropriated by any one, nor can any one belong to a language, because languages are not geographical or political entities, which can provide their users with any spatial identity, shelter or membership. A language, we may say along with Bakhtin, can only belong to an interindividual territory, or an inter-communitarian space. The language I am using now does not belong to me, to the reader, nor to any one who might want to lay a claim on it, legal or political. On the other hand, no one can be totally deprived of the right to use a language, whether she knows it comprehensively or not, nor can any one ultimately be forced to use a language. Further, no one can determine the fixed and finalized properties of a language, formal or semantic, irrespective of whether that language has any prescribed rules of form or meaning. If the perspectives presented here are correct, then we can tentatively affirm the following: languages are flexible, unbounded, undying, inextinguishable, inter-subjective phenomena that are neither fully present as objective entities, nor fully absent. Nor is a language non-existent. Now, if we apply the above perspective on the English language, what results do we obtain? We know that ever since the nineteenth century, the century of large-scale European colonization, English has been spreading in its geographical reach. It was compulsorily taught by the colonial administrators and educators especially to the native elites in the British colonies. As a part of this process, the languages of the colonized elites, of which many of us are part, were Anglicized in varying degrees. It will not be an exaggeration to say that in India almost every aspect of our

linguistic and cultural existence has been Anglicized to one degree or the other, beginning with our names, or at least the manner in which we write our names, etc. Much of our lives, our learning and our knowledge have been anglicized, in certain ways beyond our own ability to recognize it. The fact of the spread of the Roman alphabet through the English language on the Indian linguistic landscape may seem to be irreversible. As one of the official languages of the Indian union and of almost all Indian states, English in one form or the other, is perhaps the most widely prevalent written language of India today. If we take into account the English-based Indian and foreign dailies and journals and T.V. channels, we can affirm that it is indeed the most widely accepted and used language of the mass media in India. It is, whether we like it or not, certainly the sole ‘referential’ language, i.e., the language of science, technology, higher education, and the media. If we use a certain economic vocabulary, it is on the whole the language of the largest per capita production and consumption in India. Both within India and elsewhere in the world, English is the most widely used language of written and spoken communication. It is the inevitable global lingua franca, used extensively in the mass media, tourism, education, administration, diplomacy, literature (both original and in translation) and technology. In short, no other language has had the global spread of English in the history of our world. Now, it is worth asking if the dominance of English in today’s world is of the same kind as that of the other classical languages in world history, such as Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Chinese, Arabic, Persian and more recently, perhaps French. Certainly, no other language has covered the whole space of the globe as English has since World War II. If the history of these languages is to be taken as a guide to understand the world contemporary linguistic scenario, then the future of this language gargantuan called English may not be so rosy. The above-mentioned languages, as we know, were all powerful, in one way or another. We also know that they have all declined in the course of time, with the decline of the way of life associated with them. It cannot be different in the case of English. What can be the fate of this king of all the languages of today?

We might say that many of the classical languages of earlier times declined mainly due to its restricted use within the community in which it developed. The use of Latin was restricted to those who were concerned with religion and scholarship in the Christian Roman empire and nearby regions of Europe. The rest of the populace depended on the vernaculars and the ‘vulgar’ Latin. Those who were in command of classical Latin never allowed this language to decline by protecting it from possible abuse by the subaltern people. But once the power of those people diminished, the language fell into disuse and decline. Latin today is nothing but a ‘mythic,’ nonproductive language, which had of course, functioned as a source of vocabulary for technical fields in modern European languages. We can presume that the case of Sanskrit was quite similar. The case of English is however not exactly the same. English, though we may consider it as a modern classical language, has itself been the recipient of technical vocabularies from languages like Greek, Latin, German and French. Besides, English was not a language that was sought to be protected from the general populace. Rather, it was language that was imposed on the hapless colonized peoples in the modern epoch by the English-speaking rulers. But wherever English spread, it has hybridized itself with the native tongues, often in ways that make it difficult to recognize the original. For example, the Indian English of today, on the threshold of being a mass language in India, has distanced itself considerably from its British English original. The Indian English that we read in translations of many a work of Indian language literature can be considered as nothing but an ‘Indian’ language. Most of the Indian language fiction – novels and short stories – are translated into another Indian language: Indian English. (Much of the constructions and idioms in the present essay are foreign to native English, if at all there is one.) This fact can be correlated and linked with the existence of a seemingly inexhaustible market that English reading material has in India. Many Indian language fictions in English translations can now hope to sell its entire first print order without exporting a single copy outside India! So, what is happening to English is perhaps the reverse of what happened to Latin. The new English is ‘declining’, not so much due to lack of use in its own region, but due its global overuse. Wherever English is traveling, it is being transformed into related, but other languages, those with a strong local accent and flavor. Thus, what we would have considered as modern

English in a rather pristine sense, let us say the English of 19th century England is facing a near ‘extinction.’ Being powerful or the appearance of being powerful is no guarantee for a language against becoming extinct. Perhaps it is correct to say that what English faces today, is the destiny of any and every powerful language. A language at any given historical stage is suffused with and dominated by the voice of those sections of the society which use that language, which command and control that language. But invariably, power erodes form, and this erosion of power is itself nothing extraneous to language, but it is a function of language itself. The voice of the other – subaltern or otherwise – that exists only as a peripheral murmur at first with respect to the ‘official’ language of the self of a community, gradually gains momentum in that language, and begins to displace the latter at the level of both its form and its meaning. The voice of the subaltern invariably displaces the prevailing hegemonic structure in a given language. And this is a ceaseless process, a process without beginning or end. Moreover that is how we are able to sense the unbounded character of language. Without being either subjective or objective, what we refer to as a language is continually transforming itself in an inter-subjective territory. It is with respect to this interminable and inter-subjective movement that we can stress the role of our own given subjectivities. We can only give our language infinitely to the other, as our ‘promise’ to the other, which may transform itself in unpredictable ways in a time other than our own given time. 200 In a time that is ‘to come,’ which is also a world that is ‘to come’ (à venir). The time-to-come of the world, the world between the self and the other, is a world of sense that would ‘come’ in spite of how we intend to ‘programme’ our language our society. And this is precisely what literature – poetry or fiction – does: to promise a world, a world other than the given, in the neutral space between the self and the other, a space neither subjective nor objective, a space which cannot be determined and which in no case can determine our lives.


We have very briefly summed up here some of the key ideas in Jacques Derrida’s Monolingualism of the Other OR The Prosthesis of Origin, (Tr.) P. Mensah. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1998 (Original French edition, 1996). Implicit references are also made to the writings of the literary and cultural critic, Maurice Blanchot.

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