Internationale Kulturwissenschaften
International Cultural Studies
Etudes culturelles internationales


Herbert Eisele (Paris) [BIO]
How to mediate between aliens


I had submitted three versions of my web-published contribution, one in each language, which do not compare, so this one is the fourth, picking some points of relevance to our meeting (INST-UNESCO Conference 15-18 September in Paris)


Cultural science belongs to the humanities, not the old scholastic envelope but the updated model enlightened by a newer age.

The concept of alien

is central to a dynamic understanding of mediation between cultures, which presupposes a better understanding of oneself (the ancient wisdom formula), of myself via my surroundings, vs. the other, whether near or far (Ortega y Gasset: yo soy yo y mis circunstancias), for I have to define myself in contrast to, in relation with my opposite, which is object, (subject-object relation) the German Gegenstand, but also my Gegenüber, vis-à-vis, which could be a Gegenteil, counterpart, Teil which is part of a whole. What is this whole? A Query to cultural science !

The expression of alien

in language ( only spuriously otherwise) is partly shown in Ugur Güven's contribution for the French language; in English the concept stands manifold as expressed by the synonymous series of (from near to far) brother, neighbour, guy, stranger, foreigner, alien, outsider, enemy. The list is not exhaustive, omitting e.g. immigrant, intruder (into the dust), interloper, tourist (an alien obtrusive but exploitable) etc.

It may seem strange that it starts with brother. However this natural relation is rife with strife as exemplified by the biblical first descendants of Adam, Cain & Abel, the founding brothers, (the murderer and outsider Cain being the mainspring of humanity), or the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, the concurrence and elimination of the less brutal showing up in many other myths, including the evolution dogma of modern science.

The inimical brothers illustrate the fatal curse of duality inherent in matter, the material world being governed by the law of opposite poles with a field of action in-between. And the alien is just the negative, reversed part of this whole, like a reflection in a mirror.

I am the centre of the world; with my death the world ends, such is the prevalent credo. In the meantime the world is open to exploration inasmuch as I open myself to it, to the other.

I myself am an alien to the queen's English, and seek your indulgence for not keeping within the concomitant understatement.

Our global society will breed aliens, outsiders. Literature has developed this favourite theme in many variations across time. All the ancient heroes were outsiders, the whole chosen people, by reason of its election was, and this is so down to the present crux of minorities all over the world. Outsiders feel themselves as such like the islander Robinson Crusoe or in a Kafkaian manner, played back by l'Etranger by Camus or The Outsider by Angus Wilson, whereas the outcast, not on the list, has not chosen his status but could make the best of it like Robin Hood. We actually do not know who those aliens were. All we know is that they have marked culture while being themselves a product of culture, their culture. Is it still ours? Do we not also have to mediate between their strangeness and our Unkultur ? Are they more than names from a lost continent, shadows crossed from our list of reference for lack of relevance to our life? Meaningless ?


is crucial to understanding, to filling our mind with stuff that matters. Meaning is the field of action between the two poles, because it evolves in context. Context is situation, location, nailing down to one precise predication. Le patron du restaurant jumps over the counter when it crosses the Channel. This change in location foxes the searcher of meaning.

I want to take the point of the trilogy mentioned in my and others' internet talk of word, phrase, text and expand a bit on "word", the word alien is, as we just have seen, a world of its own. What actually is

a word's meaning ?

There are of course schools which say that a word has no meaning, since it has so many; others say that this manifold deploys signification, not meaning, the latter being reserved to text or words in context. I am not going to dip into this sea of troubles between linguists, semanticists, semioticians, translationists and whatever. All that matters for mediation between aliens is what is behind an attitude as transpires from an utterance. Why does one say what, how and to what end? I know that again I am conjuring up a formula ( ascribed to Lasswell) and not even completely, because itself covers the mediation issue only incompletely. But I mean what I say: the utterance is spiced with words, which are carriers of meaning

Which meaning?

The paradox is that most of the time we don't quite know ourselves what we mean by what we say. We approximate. We use a word or two for another, stuff it with an unsuspected signification or use a filler and expect the addressee to guess what we want. Or we proceed by ellipse or allusion, taking for granted that our opposite can fill in the rest or else we fear to annoy him with conundrums or flummery. Allusion risks to entertain the illusion that you share values and knowledge. It is a dangerous economy of words for you can never be sure of anything.

This sort of approximation and raging jealousy wrought the first murder in history. Abel shrouded himself in silence when Cain came gruff challenging his outsidership, and wanting desperately to bring him to reason, his, Cain's, reason. He certainly did not find the right words and became so much upset by his incapacity that he flipped out. There was no mediator between these aliens.

Speech approximation is worsened by that of words. As Anthony Burgess and Gerhard Budin said: "Ambiguity is a vice of words. A scientific age like ours tends to worry about this … Meaning should be mathematical, unambiguous. But this plurality of reference is in the very nature of language & its management & exploitation is one of the joys of writing"(Language made plain, p.105), and I may add: of reading and speaking.

The vexing ambiguity inherent in words is worsened in discourse on the one hand by metonymy (pars pro toto & metaphor) and punning (e.g. the aim of eugenics is to make the population less dense) and on the other by untruthfulness, double-talk, and shrewd circumvention of taboos ( a herbicide publicity: do you feel weeds to be a pain in your grass?).

Thus in order to get things straightened out, words need to be looked through by scanning their contents: We shall see whether defining can help.


is classification of concepts and thereby clarification of words with a tendency to standardisation, i.e. taking as a norm what usage has fixed. Clarification results from ascribing significance to a word while defining. This is done by assessing the limits of what a word refers to, following along these limits and by spelling out the difference to neighbouring words/terms or even opposites (black # white). For instance, an alien is a flea-bitten under-dog refused admittance to the tent, or more seriously: A flea is a small wingless jumping insect (higher category) feeding on human & other blood (characteristic difference to other insects feeding, let's say, on hamburgers and cola).

This type of definition is typically insufficient, in particular for conveying the knowledge about fleas to clean people. In addition, fleas can serve in a circus or convey viruses. Therefore, the complexity of fleas in reality does not show up in the assessment of what the word "flea" is likely to mean in most cases.

This example clearly shows that we even don't know what we have been defining: a reality of things or a word. If we look for meaning, the definition can only deal with the word, for things do not mean anything, notwithstanding what certain dictionaries claim. Since words are only virtual, their function remains to be watched as they are used. Definition is no panacea for the malaise in communication: Philosophy has not succeeded in settling disputes about ideas despite permanent defining, and law keeps entertaining disputes while defining in parliament and legal courts.

Words in communication

Thus the fact that we talk with words does not automatically confer meaning to them. Words are known by the company they keep; true. However context, which is meant thereby, is but part of that company. There is also the way of saying words (shouting, whispering, entreating, threatening), the accompanying gestures & mimicry, a significant silence, in short the staging of discourse, all extra-linguistic, like the smell of a ripe camembert (Bertrand Russell). A significant look can say more than words, can underline or contradict them.

Message problems

Up to here, we have seen only one side of the story: the intent and performance of the sender of the message, which takes shape (prend corps) as it is formulated by words in action. Yet these are also tinged by the relation envisaged with the partner of the message. This partner really is an unknown entity in its alienship. The sender does not really know how his utterance is going to be perceived. It does not matter at this stage whether we talk of an intra-lingual or extra-lingual relation. The psychological situation is the same.

Clearly, if, in addition, language barriers have to be overcome, understanding and misunderstanding have only an equal chance if the mediator is good-tempered, well disposed and knowledgeable, otherwise he will officiate to nobody's satisfaction.

Often in discussion, the speaker just wants to make his point without regard for the other. The alien remains wherever he may be; who cares? Such is regrettably the prevalent attitude. The improved and more effective version is more charitable, giving more room and consideration to the other, giving him the floor and listening to what he might say or imply. The chieftain of an African village said: We have understood all you did not say.

Now the mediator between aliens is worse off because he cannot be conspicuous by his silence. He has to reconcile with words two worlds apart and do his best to combine understanding with tolerance, yea with affection for the love of his art and his patrons.

He can resort to tools like definition to clear the way, yet safer for him is to remain attentive to what is at stake and expected of him to conclude. He must figure out the true intent of both parties but cannot serve two masters. He advocates his principal in his own interest and gains his cause when trying to compensate his deficit in knowledge about the other party by sympathy rather than preconceived ideas.

An open eye to other cultures will enable him to progress in his life-long apprenticeship.

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Internationale Kulturwissenschaften
International Cultural Studies
Etudes culturelles internationales


© INST 1999

Institut zur Erforschung und Förderung österreichischer und internationaler Literaturprozesse

 Research Institute for Austrian and International Literature and Cultural Studies

 Institut de recherche de littérature et civilisation autrichiennes et internationales