Tom Hibbard

When Poetry Becomes Visual: Derrida’s Monolingualism Of The Other

"I think it's a form of desire for inertia, desire for
ubiquity, instantaneousness--a will to reduce the world
to a single place, a single identity." --Paul Virilio


I had the opportunity to enjoy several excellent poetry readings last winter. One extremely cold, dark weekend night, in an unshaded, brightly-lit restored historic southside arts-center building, with thick creaking hard-wood floors, a scattered exhibit of neighborhood paintings and not a plum line in the brick structure, a friendly group which included me along with several other writers, listened as poets Jennifer Scappetone and Judith Goldman read in the Enemy Rumor series, sponsored by Roberto Harrison, from their works.

The reading's backdrop was a Rembrantian red velvet curtain, and the reading podium was dazzling white. Several weeks later, in Woodland Pattern Book Center’s cave-like but no less dazzling performance and exhibition room, at a “small press” reading in which I participated, I listened as featured reader Patrick Durgin from Chicago read from what seemed to be recent poems, one of which ostentatiously repeated the word "ostensible."

I sensed in these readings, like a path through the snow in the drifting early twilight, a thematic strand, not in these poems only; in others that I had been reading and encountering in several ways, some perhaps in a group of Chicago writers, but, upon reflection, in the writings of distant, warmer climes also.

In Judith Goldman's poems or long-poem the theme was graphically demonstrated. What she had done in her many-sectioned, cinematic, loosely joined modern psychic-saga of that winter night was (as I recollect) she had taken a poem from standard undergraduate curriculum, Wordsworth’s "The Daffodils," and she had made it an introduction and contrast to her own personal deep-raging sentiments, through which, in extensive detail and boldly, she made it seem that the academic landmark was utterly irrelevant to the warehouses and dingy basements of her own discarded time and place. One section, as I recall, reflected on the unendurable drudgery of filling out job applications. Another section referenced menacing body problems.

I haven’t seen Goldman’s writing from that night in print, but I can’t be far wrong because in the publication "War and Peace" which she co-edits with Leslie Scalapino is a poem of hers (Goldman's) that expresses much the same idea. The lengthy poem is titled “Notes Against the Form of Appearance,” and it begins

In my screen life,
They do not degrade us
under a hail of Figures, nor do
These Vowels with their dukes up
Hail me, in my screen life

even in this Foreign country
shaped to our minds they
turn, recoil ever, blood

This is not particularly a new theme. Collage artists have for a long time been cutting up emblematic pictures of fashion-model realism and rearranging the pieces to allow a more forthright representation. The battle against formal constraints making off-limits everything that is important for a fulfilling life is what the 20th Century, with 19th Century Victorianism in its wake, is all about. The theme goes back to Dostoyevsky, Freud, the rise of psychology, the beginnings of Modernism, improvised music. But this same theme seems to be welling up in the present hour, crashing on the breakwaters of hope and politics with all its force, like despairing floods that have washed away petty, money-crazed franchise-economy-sized excuses for levees.

Appearance as form is part of many current discussions. It has to do with religious authority. It has to do with running a national economy. It has to do with destruction of the environment. It has to do with language. One piece of writing in particular that takes up directly the notion of form versus the new-world abyss of simultaneous sensory input in a credible, profound way is Jacques Derrida's book, Monolingualism of the Other or The Prosthesis of Origin.

Though it is for many controversially, forbiddingly abstract in its title, this 93-page tract--which shows Derrida precariously aloft, a not-quite fully recognized philosopher but still an “ivory tower” middle-of-the-roader, no laying-it-on-the-line radical or world-weary novelist--has an aura of summation and momentousness, is truly poetic, truly globally engaged. Brief as it is, it is still complex and fundamental in the ideas that it brings out, incompletely, impressionistically, with room for others to glide along.

The book is not dryly logical but, like Foucault and others, is grounded in factuality. It begins with Derrida's own experience with his "mother tongue." Derrida identifies himself: Jewish, Algerian, with Islamic Maghrebian influences, brought up in a particular educational system, somewhat pointed, complicated by religious training, further complicated by Derrida's not being particularly religious. With a brief mention of General Petain's pseudo-France, Derrida asserts that he considers himself French, a French citizen, a “subject” of French culture. He asks what is the significance of these origins in terms of the fact that the language that he speaks is French (accented later by the confession of his "compulsion" that this French language remain “pure.”)

On the text's opening page Derrida makes the statement: “I have only one language; it is not mine.”

This poses well the question of the book. It contrasts the idea of one language, a one-ness in the language (I think it's correct to assume that Derrida is discussing anyone's relation to the language that he or she uses), a “monolingualism," like a mono- lith that in its dogmatic singleness gives rise to the likelihood of alienation, of becoming estranged from that language, one's one-and-only rather than one's own language. Derrida puts it in the manner of a work of art and in a round-about way, but what he seems to be saying is that the “mono-,“ the one-ness that we associate with the hierarchical position that our language appears to hold and the "hegemony" that seems to be its function disarms and daunts us, the language users, because full and “natural” expression, "our" language is contrary to the notion of one and is, rather, in keeping with the notion of diversity and individuality, of "singularity." Expression, we well know, has nothing to do with uniformity but is accomplished in many ways.

We only ever speak one language.
We never speak only one language.

The problem is not whether we speak one language or more than one language. The problem is that the nature of language itself and language expression has nothing to do with any monadic absolute ("absolute metalanguage"), any one way of expressing or one acceptable "right" set of words used to express; a writing set in stone. Language and human interaction with language are two different things. Thus Kerouac's use of the French-Canadian that he spoke as a child in the early pages of Visions of Gerard or Hemingway's Parisian or Spanish expatriate phrases and terms only hint at what we are talking about. The point is not especially the mixing of languages but what this type of mixing shows about the nature of language. Science's study of atomic structure enters in. Derrida, himself, has discussed this exceptionally and beautifully in probably his most important book, Writing and Difference . What's important is that the many is acknowledged as an essential part of the One.

Though it takes a while before this impacts the discussion, I want to point out that Derrida's use of the word "other" in his title is somewhat unconventional. Monolingualism of the Other implies an absolute correctness that lies somewhere beyond, beyond our bodies, beyond the “scene of writing.” It is true that the word "other" generally refers to a presence beyond ourselves, but it is a presence that is vast and indefinite. We encounter it; we rub against it. But we are hard pressed to give it specific attributes, much less exact linguistic scripts.

The monolingualism Derrida describes is a sovereign language. I think it should be said that fascism and totalitarianism are probably in the back of Derrida's mind, the specter of censorship, of the emasculation of language and restriction of its free use. So that it might be just as accurate to speak of a "monolingualism of the self," showing that it is no one but ourselves that induces this powerlessness. We are afflicted not by the Other (which is valid) but by ourselves ("fear itself"). Moreover, I wanted to point out that, with a more conventional meaning of an indefinite other, in my view, it would be just as well to have written a book titled Multi-lingualism of the Other . Indeed, in this book, Derrida defines the Other (the "absolute other") as something "where a knowledge or recognition does not suffice for it."

Nevertheless! The points that Derrida makes as he continues are upliftingly illuminating, gently coaxing, as we read and as he encourages us to understand for ourselves.

For example, in this passage, Derrida carelessly confuses the idea of one language with the idea of oneness in language but with the point still well made.

What I meant to suggest is that it is impossible to count languages. There is no calculability, since the One of a language, which escapes all arithmetic (ac)countability, is never determined. The One of the monolanguage of which I speak, and the one I speak, will hence not be an arithmetical identity or, in short, any identity at all. Monolanguage remains incalculable, at least in that characteristic.

In contrast to this arithmetical monolingualism is, in a word (and it is a word that seems to slip out into the book in spite of its author), the “alien.”

The metropole, the Capital-City-Mother-Fatherland, the city of the mother tongue: that was a place which represented, without being it, a faraway country, near but far away, not alien, for that would be too simple, but strange, fantastic, and phantomlike.

The word “alien,” and with it the word "alienation" is, perhaps as Derrida says, too easily taken as the message here, although it leaps out again toward the book's end. But alien is pretty much what Derrida means. On the one hand we have monolingualism, an apprehension, a statue, an unquestioned/ unquestionable recognizability, a colonialism. On the other hand, in opposition, we have ourselves as explorers, strangers, without guides or guidelines, without support, without means, needing to do everything from scratch, outsiders, using language only to fit needs, emotions, actions, ambitions and ideas. The alien uses language ineptly, inexpertly, as though on a journey of wonder about which it has no or only a little prefatory knowledge. ("It never precedes them.")

Between the model called academic, grammatical, or literary, on the one hand, and spoken language, on the other, the sea was there: symbolically an infinite space for all the students of the French school in Algeria, a chasm, an abyss. I did not cross it, body and soul, or body without soul (but will I ever have crossed it, crossed it otherwise?), until, for the first time, sailing across on a boat, on the Ville d'Alger , at the age of nineteen. First journey, first crossing of my life, twenty hours of sea-sickness and vomiting....

The ideas in this book were first presented in a talk at Louisiana State University in 1992. It seems interesting to take a moment to examine what writers and artists these ideas have influenced or have been influenced by. Briefly, it seems to me Kerouac's poetry expresses its alien quality in the determined outline of its obscurity. Others more recently have dealt with the problem in their diction. Paul Virilio and many others, including Derrida, attempt to devise languages that are both alien and authoritative. Clark Coolidge, in his 2000 poetry collection, Alien Tatters , treats the reader as an alien from a concealed "secret" author's vantage inside language. Being alien has brought in rigor and scholarship. The grand dame of all language aliens, through word games, stuttering, extreme playfulness and unconventional role shuffling, seems to be Gertrude Stein. Recently, in a variation that fits with some of his contemporaries (along with abstract painting) Washington D.C. poet Buck Downs experimented with the alien and foreign in one of his post card poems written entirely in Spanish (for a mostly non-Spanish-speaking audience).

But for Derrida there is more than being alien; there is a creative mystery. There is the neo-Cartesian moment where the space in which we dwell is much cleaner while the reference points surrounding us are much more arbitrary and pathetic. Asks Derrida, “Where, then, are we?” Nowhere? On the contrary. There is less hidden. We inhabit language in a much more knowledgeable and self-controlled way.

One thing that makes me take note of Derrida's unconventional use of the word "other" in his title is that it leads eventually to the statement that "one shall never inhabit the language of the other." This is too vague. It is misleading. It's the non-plural, arithmetical monolingualism that cannot be inhabited. Though we feel alien from the Other, it is not the disparaging, demoralized alienation that we feel from the thwarting of differences, diversity and possibilities, from the attempt to deny reality. Just the opposite. As Derrida writes, "There is no possible habitat without the difference of this exile and this nostalgia." A word that is commonly used lately is “intimate“ and intimacy. Derrida goes so far as to call this habitat and this inhabiting "uninhabitable." Other words he uses, some of which are familiar from his other writings, are "discontinuity," "miracle," "plural," "intolerance," "distant," "nonlocatable," "heterogeneous" and "deserted."

It is true that, in speaking of the “gift of language” (which appears to be literally “the gift of speech”), Derrida writes: “…there is not a language. Not a given one. It does not exist.”

But, in my opinion, Derrida doesn't mean by this that language does not exist in the same way monolingualism does not exist, as a lifeless idol that is only perverting in oppressing both nature and human nature. To be sure, language exists. But it does not exist as monolingualism, as an "ashes" of domination. It does not exist for those whose expectations and wants separate themselves from what is irreplaceable.

Language exists for those that accept the “muted” limits of existence. Monolingualism, as we are talking about it here, is the nihilation of the Other. It is the suppression of Being in favor of Nothingness. It represents the chronic urge to extinguish or surpass not merely "diversity" but substance, the very nature and essence of reality. Language exists and appears as language in our use of it only if we perceive in our existence these clear mysteries, these non-ideal elements (which includes "the truth itself") that it is perhaps too easy to call but that we might simply call alien.

Beyond memory and time lost. I am not even speaking of the ultimate unveiling, but of what will have remained alien, for all time, to the veiled figure, to the very figure of the veil.

* * *

Not to attempt to cover too much ground in this review, but I would like to note that the ideas and problems discussed here have something to do with the art form called “visual writing.” Visual writing is the use of various aspects of language to make artworks—rather than "communicate" with human words.

That definition is somewhat awkward. Recently I have been troubled by the the fact that I find it difficult to escape visual writing and to even begin to define "textual" writing. This has to do with the way that stylistic decorativeness, any and all sorts of artistic and literary movements tend toward the category of visual writing. But it also has to do with the large problem of the self: In what way does language speak as an individual to other individuals and not simply as a reassuring example or sample of humanity as a whole.

What Judith Goldman's work might imply, Scappetone and others also, is that textual writing is dependent on accepting an alien and one might say a flawed role, a role as a "stranger in a strange land" in regard to the language that we speak and use for writing. (In fairness, if you read Wordsworth's “The Daffodils,” the idea of the poem is related, the idea of loneliness being remedied by the unexpected beauty of nature. And, brushing up on Wordsworth, I ran across “Intimations of Immortality,” perhaps one of the finest poems in the English language.) If we attempt to exact from our language an absolute perfection, subjectivity becomes monolingualism, a visual writing and merely the language itself, an artifact, though in some cases a valuable artifact. What is subjectivity? There seems to be a threshold in our efforts, past which words become letters, diversity becomes sameness, intelligence becomes foolish adamance and meaning become inconsequential. To supress the Other is to supress the self. If we write as aliens, singularities, with respect and humility, the language will permit us as its citizens to inhabit it and to uncover its innate qualities.