Rey Chow on Derrida and the French Language

Rey Chow, Not Like a Native SpeakerIn her new book Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience, Rey Chow examines misgivings about the inequality of the encounters between European and non-European languages in the postcolonial world.

In the following passage, Chow considers Jacques Derrida’s complicated with the French language as a result of his upbringing in colonial Algeria:

Among the details Derrida narrates, those about his intimate relations to things French—French history, French literature, the French language, and other French speakers’ accents—are the most captivating, in large part be­cause of his mildly exhibitionistic and often self-flagellating sense of candor. The study of French literature, for instance, is an injunction of segregation as much as it is an experience of cultural assimilation. Not only does such study reinforce the haughtiness of the literary mode of reference and mean­ing making from nonliterary culture, but it also effectuates, he writes, “a brutal severance . . . fostering a more acute partition: the one that separates French literature—its history, its works, its models, its cult of the dead, its modes of transmission and celebration, its ‘posh districts,’ its names of au­thors and editors—from the culture ‘proper’ to ‘French Algerians’ ” Derrida’s description here is resolutely unsentimental, conveying a fi rm sense of the traumatizing cuts and cut-offs that constitute colonialism’s gov­erning routines.

To the important analyses of literature as an ideological form—such as those advanced in the 1970s by Renée Balibar, Étienne Balibar, Pierre Ma­cherey, and others in their studies of language practices within the French national education system—Derrida has articulated the crucial dimension of colonialist racialization. His account, it may be said, supplements the so­cialist logic pursued by these other thinkers by illuminating how the “reality effects,” so to speak, of the elite forms of the French language (français lit­téraire or français fictif ) are outcomes of carefully implemented racial as well as class segregation. Indeed, from the perspective of the colonized, as Der­rida suggests, it is impossible to experience the one without experiencing the other.

Accordingly, although Derrida’s French is undoubtedly fluent, he con­siders it imperfect because he has not quite lost his “French Algerian” ac­cent, adding, in a derisively self-revelatory tone, that “I would like to hope, I would very much prefer, that no publication permit my ‘French Algerian’ to appear,” believing in the meantime that no one “can detect by reading” that he is “French Algerian” (Derrida’s emphasis). He can pass for “au­thentic” as long as he can hide his speech, as long as his “speech” is simply seen and not heard. This pursuit of linguistic purity, gauged at the level of speech despite Derrida’s famous critique of phonocentrism, leads readily to an intolerance, in ways that border on discrimination, of those who do not measure up. Again, it is through Derrida’s unyielding honesty that we be­gin to grasp the depth of his anguish over this issue. Impure French accents tend to make him squirm, he says, yet he also cannot forgive himself for such visceral reactions. These obsessive introspective judgments, displayed in public with an insistent frankness, imbue the following series of confes­sions with noticeable intensities:

I am not proud of it, I make no doctrine of it, but so it is: an accent—any French accent, but above all a strong southern accent—seems incompat­ible to me with the intellectual dignity of public speech. ( Inadmissible, isn’t it? Well, I admit it.) Incompatible, a fortiori, with the vocation of a poetic speech. . . . Throughout the story I am relating, despite everything I sometimes appear to profess, I concede that I have contracted a shameful but intractable intolerance: at least in French, insofar as the language is concerned, I cannot bear or admire anything other than pure French. . . . I still do not dare admit this compulsive demand for a purity of language except within boundaries of which I can be sure. . . . It simply exposes me to suff ering when someone, who can be myself, happens to fall short of it. I suffer even further when I catch myself or am caught “red-handed” in the act. (my emphasis)

Of course, the psychic burden exacted by the French language in Der­rida’s case can be understood simply as a typical consequence of colonial­ism, with something of the psychic burden exacted by whiteness that au­thors such as Memmi, Frantz Fanon, and W. E. B. Du Bois, among others, have described. The obsession with pure French—together with the sense of discomfort at detecting any improper accent, including one’s own, and the concomitant sense of shame/guilt about such discomfort—is, in this respect, not unlike the black man’s obsession with whiteness, replete with the tormenting feelings of hyper self-consciousness, self-revulsion, self-pity, and self-hatred that accompany such obsession, in what amounts to a vicious circle of ressentiment derived from skin color. More conspicuously than these other writers, perhaps, Derrida takes it upon himself to perform the agonies of what I have, in the introduction to this book, called “skin tones.” “So goes the drama of the man who is a product and victim of colonization,” writes Memmi of this situation. “He almost never succeeds in correspond­ing with himself.” To this extent, the entangled feelings of submission, self-surveillance, and shame/guilt that Derrida admits regarding what he refers to as the “interdict” (“l’interdite”) instigated by French are one way of explaining his phrase “monolingualism of the other”—which means, first and foremost, a monolingualism imposed and coerced by the other.

“The other” in this instance is, quite straightforwardly, the colonizer, who, operating on the foundation of a repressive sovereignty, demands that the colonized adhere to a single language, against which the colonized is always found to be inferior. Hence Derrida’s uneasy awareness that he prob­ably does not sound completely authentic: “Not everything in my ‘French Algerian’ accent is lost. Its intonation is more apparent in certain ‘pragmatic’ situations (anger or exclamation in familial or familiar surroundings, more often in private than in public, which is a quite reliable criterion for the experience of this strange and precarious distinction)” In addition to inducing in the colonized an unfulfillable yearning for linguistic purity and thus a general sense of incompetence and disability, this monolingualism of the other legitimates itself by getting rid of likely competitors, by mak­ing sure that native languages such as Arabic and Berber become increas­ingly marginal and useless. During Derrida’s youth, the study of Arabic, for instance, was restricted to the school, where it was presented as an alien (foreign) language, an option like English, Spanish, or German, and Berber was never included. As a result, fewer and fewer students who gained ac­cess to the lycée, including those of Algerian descent, selected Arabic as a discipline, except when the language was deemed a convenience for meet­ing technical and professional purposes and for commanding the obedience of lower-class helpers such as “agricultural workers”. The monolin­gualism of the colonizer means that the development and refi nement of the mind that come with literary, philosophical, and humanistic learning (in what may be called, in North American terms, a liberal arts education) were in Algeria’s case allowed to take place only in French. As Abdel-Jaouad writes, this monolingualism is for Derrida “a living paradox, an aporia incar­nated . . . since whatever he rejects about French he must declare in French, the only language he has, but which he, nevertheless, cannot call his own.”

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