I Have Only One Language:
It's Derrida's


ross glover

Boston College

Copyright © 2000 by Ross Glover, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other: Or, The Prosthesis of Origin . Trans. Patrick Mensah. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.

  1. With the rise of post-colonial theory, the other's position has garnered a tremendous level of interest and concern. Hybridity, positionality, and various conceptions regarding the place occupied by the colonized give great importance to those placed on the global underside. Voices previously unheard now vocally resonate. Paradoxically, these resonate voices must speak the language of the colonizer in order to be heard. Mastering the master's language does not equal speaking in one's mother tongue, but can any other language be spoken? For those suffering the realities of being or having been colonized, what does speaking in the master's tongue offer for understanding the structures of Western language/culture or language in general? Derrida takes up these questions in Monolingualism of the Other. His answer is that the voice of the other offers much precisely because "language is for the other, coming from the other, the coming of the other" (68).
  2. Monolingualism of the Other, or, the Prosthetics of Origin makes a timely contribution to understanding how the particular may not, or rather cannot be dissected from the universal. The text's thesis makes this utterance, "I only have one language; it is not mine." A singular phrase which contorts, slips, slides, resides at the heart of the autobiographical dialogue generated by Derrida to elucidate a methodological inquiry into the construction of subjectivity, language and the body. Beginning from a particular pole, Derrida swings quickly from his personal experience with French citizenship/language to a generalized pole regarding the universal impact the idiom has on our ability to communicate or to know or to have an ontology in the first place. Utilizing an imaginary interlocutor, Derrida begins the text in dialogue with those who criticize deconstruction on the grounds that it undercuts truth. "Ah! So you ask yourself about truth. Well, to that very extent, you do not as yet believe in truth; you are contesting the possibility of truth" (4). Simultaneously speaking to himself and his critics, the speech bespeaks the contradiction within language itself, or the "performative contradiction" of the statement, "I only have one language, yet it is not mine." The contradiction resides not only in the statement, but in the universal reality of language. That we speak, that we may only speak one language, that one language seems like home to us does not mean that we have any possessive control over that language; it does not mean we own it. Something always remains outside our experience of using language. Or more specifically, says Derrida, "Each time I open my mouth, each time I speak or write, I promise" (67). The promise dwells in language as its call to a language which it can never be, which we can never have, and the promise always threatens; it terrorizes. The promise and the terror exist as components in language and for language but not metalinguistically.
  3. Derrida's poetic, interpretive autobiography exposes much about his experience as a Franco-Maghrebian Jew. He writes about having his French citizenship revoked during the Second World War and how no citizenship took its place. Through this, citizenship is shown to be tenuous at best and by demonstrating that citizenship itself relies on an intimate connection with language, Derrida also reminds us that neither language nor citizenship can exist without the threat of their removal (or the terror of their failure). This personalized account describes his experience with (the) French, and uses the personal, the particular, methodologically. The method demonstrates how being othered by colonial practices is being othered by language, is language. From his personal experience, he divines two tenets universally applicable to language:
  4. 1. We only ever speak one language -- or rather one idiom only.
    2. We never speak only one language -- or rather there is no pure idiom.

    These two statements connect with what Derrida later calls the two tricks of the master (the process of colonization). The first trick is the master's (colonizer's) tendency to apply his language/culture onto others. This occurs due to the fantasy the master must uphold that he possesses language. The impossibility for language to be possessed creates a situation in which the master must violently impose language/culture to manage the ontological gap generated by speaking only one language. In this sense, all "culture is originally colonial...Mastery begins, as we know, through the power of naming, of imposing and legitimating appellations" (39). However, what differentiates Western colonialism from this originary coloniality rests on the Master's second trick. This trick is revolution, liberation, emancipation. It is creating in the colonized a discourse of freedom. Freedom from what? The second trick generates a sense that language can be reappropriated, but as Derrida's thesis suggests, language can never be appropriated, only fantasized as such. Thus the master forces the colonized into the very ontological crux which he is attempting to avoid.

  5. Language tends toward becoming One, toward reducing the heterogeneous nature of reality, toward what Derrida calls a "homo-hegemony." Homo-hegemony, he suggests, makes all language a colonial practice at heart. Or more precisely, it is giving up the relation to the other, forgetting that language tends universally to exist for and of the other that makes it colonial, an amnesia which can cause aphasia. Derrida is an aphasiac. His aphasia resides in the culminating impossibility of translation. That the other exists as language's object(ive) makes translation a perpetual deferral and an impossibility; homo-hegemony (or its phantasmatic structure) attempts to hide the impossibility of both language and its translation.
  6. Through his personal struggles with language, with comprehending language, Derrida opens up a politics based on his 'universal' language theory. He begins a process which always already acts politically, yet fails to completely act. This process lives as a search, a seeking for language not One, not colonial, not homo-hegemonic, and this search is the search for the impossible, a quest for justice, the phantom, and the Messianic. At times it almost sounds like a cry for the author's youth, or a plea for the ecstatic freeing from language itself, or a desire for origins. Yet the origin can only be touched prosthetically through a language overdetermined by its own fantasized appropriation. Still, Derrida continues the journey and the hope:
  7. Beyond memory and time lost. I am not even speaking of an ultimate unveiling, but of what will have remained alien, for all time, to the veiled figure, to the very figure of the veil.
    This desire and promise let all my specters loose. A desire without horizon, for that is its luck or its condition. And a promise that no longer expects what it waits for: there where, striving for what is given to come, I finally know how not to have to distinguish any longer between promise and terror. (73)

  8. As usual, Derrida's writing walks the fine line between incomprehensibility, brilliance, and exquisite beauty. His mixture of autobiography and theory glide together in unexpectedly intimate ways that provoke while confusing. Regardless of its difficulty, Monolingualism of the Other, or, the Prosthetics of Origin is a joy to read, and it adds an important element to post-colonial interpretations of language as well as to Derrida's oeuvre. On the other hand, something remains lacking from the analysis.
  9. While speaking about the double bind implicit in being an Algerian-Jew, he lets slide questions of gender and class. Not that these questions must exist within the analysis, but their blatant absence throws into question how well the universality of his personal experience actually speaks universally. I question whether or not women are marked by language as One, or if they might be underdetermined by the very heteronomy language supposedly forgets. I also wonder if capitalism functions through the same homo-hegemony across languages that language does in relation to itself. My sense is that it does, but why does Derrida not speak to this issue?
  10. Even with these absences, Derrida's complex reading leaves open the capacity for others to make connections for themselves, from their personal experiences, from their positions as the other for and of language. It may not be that the text fails to ask the question of gender or class, but that it creates a space from which these questions can be addressed differantly. Should we understand Derrida's universalism as absolute? No. Should we read Monolingualism of the Other as a politico-linguistic project worth pursuing in an attempt to find the impossible origins of violent-colonial practices and touch upon the "miracle of translation"? Yes. And it is for this reason that I only have one language, yet it is Derrida's.

Back to Table of Contents, Vol. 4 Issue 2
Back to Jouvert Main Page