Beyond Language: A Derridean Analysis of Linguistic Dispossession

    • Europe Inside-Out Nice 2016
    • Presentation speakers
      • Sabeen Ahmed, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, USA
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    Postmodernism, Seyla Benhabib writes, “announced the end of man and reduced the anthropological subject to a vanishing face in the sand, a disappearing signifier, a fractured, centerless feature.” This subject, that which vanishes and fractures, may be understood as the “Other,” taken up with great frequency by such writers as Jacques Lacan, Emmanuel Levinas, and Julia Kristeva. However, it is Jacques Derrida who has reconceptualized the notion of the Other as a figure who is both ethical and political, and simultaneously neither; she is the unavoidable antinomy, and it is in Derrida’s writings on hospitality that she is most clearly illuminated. However, in the context of the political – that which increasingly erases the ethical of Derrida’s imaginings – the Other cannot exist as such, and has, indeed, become an almost obsolete concept in the post-September 11 world. “After 9/11,” narrates Vivian Gornick, “an atmosphere difficult to describe enveloped the city and refused to abate. For weeks on end the town felt vacant, confused, uprooted. People walked around looking spaced-out, as though permanently puzzled by something they couldn’t put a name to.” Derrida himself described, more than one decade earlier, 9/11 as an “unprecedented event,” a moment in Anglo-American history that, in its immediate aftermath, was indefinable. Indeed, this indefinability was made evident in the repetition of the date of the event as a means of talking thereof: “we repeat [September 11], we must repeat it, and it is all the more necessary to repeat it insofar as we do not really know what is being named in this way.” By failing to identify the “why” or “how” of 9/11, it became internalized by the Anglo-America people as a trauma, one not only of the past event but of the future to come, an inarticulatable wound that shatters the subconscious dependence and reliance on state security as a means of self-protection. Today, Derrida’s analysis of thirteen years ago has transformed from the fear of the “to come” into the discursive legitimization of a tangible enemy, that of “Islam” (now the “Islamic State”) and, subsequently, of “terrorism” carried out by those presumed to be “Muslim.” By demarcating, through naming, the events that we internalize as “major” or “unprecedented” – and consequently, those regions and peoples of the world who are worthy of recognition – the state also has in its power the capacity to demonize and discount those it deems unworthy of ethico-political consideration. It is by means of language – language as that which names – that the Other is dispossessed of her Otherness; in the face of the political, she must take the form of either “enemy” or “friend.” In her loss of Otherness, she becomes, ultimately, a figure not only who is incapable of demanding hospitality, but whose claim to the ethical is altogether absent. And nowhere is this more apparent – and more dire – than in the handling of the Syrian Refugee today “interrupting” the Levant and Europe. The task now is to understand the mechanisms of linguistic dispossession, and analyze how language is used to manufacture the ethical erasure of the Other. Ultimately, the hope is to provide a new platform from which to allow for critical analyses of the contemporary Refugee, and reclaim the ethical within her.