TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. April 2010

Sektion 5.3. Sharing in / out Culture(s)
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Vladimir Biti (Faculty of Philosophy, University of Zagreb)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Culture against itself

Tomislav Brlek (University of Zagreb)



Kultur ist eine Ordensregel.
Oder setzt doch eine Ordensregel voraus.

 – Wittgenstein



Since culture informs all our thinking, it is only logical that all assessments of it are fraught with contradiction. And it most certainly does not bode well for any conclusion to be drawn about it that to describe the intellectual climate in which the question of culture is presently being so avidly debated the account Adorno provided half a century ago can still be of use:

Today, theory hardly exists any longer and the ideology drones, as it were, from the gears of an irresistible praxis. No notion dares to be conceived any more which does not cheerfully include, in all camps, explicit instructions as to who its beneficiaries are – exactly what the polemics once sought to expose. (Prisms, 29)

In stark contrast to the current trends in thinking that like to style themselves as critical – which trends are, of course, not in any way recent, as the aptness of the above depiction readily proves – what the thought that would not be ideological ought to invest its critical efforts in, is precisely resistance to being reduced to “operational terms” or to being employed by instrumentalist modes of thought. In other words, critical thought, if it is to be critical, cannot be recruited for any specific political end. And, as we know, that is one of the ambitions that most contemporary thinkers are simply too content to own up to.

The dominant movements in the humanities today are by and large intent on emphasising the politically sinister underside of cultural enterprise, spotlighting the exclusionary mechanisms that enable it, and insisting on the toll its achievements demand. Small wonder, to anticipate somewhat, that such thinking tends to run on the spot, petrified as it is by the enticing glare of Adorno’s praxis. Perhaps the most influential and positively the most developed analytical model of this theoretical (yes, yes, the incongruity is of great interest) tendency is to be found in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, specifically in its strong aversion to Kant’s aesthetic judgement:

In contrast to the detachment and disinterestedness which aesthetic theory regards as the only way of recognizing the work of art for what it is, i.e. autonomous, selbständig, the ‘popular aesthetic’ ignores or refuses the refusal of ‘facile’ involvement and ‘vulgar’ enjoyment, a refusal which is the basis of taste for normal experiment. And popular judgements of paintings or photographs spring from an ‘aesthetic’ (in fact it is an ethos) which is the exact opposite of the Kantian aesthetic. Whereas, in order to grasp the specificity of aesthetic judgement, Kant strove to distinguish that which pleases from that which gratifies and, more generally, to distinguish disinterestedness, the sole guarantor of the specifically aesthetic quality of contemplation, from the interests of reason which defines the Good, working-class people expect every image to explicitly perform a function, if only that of a sign, and their judgement makes reference, often explicitly, to the norms of morality or agreeableness.  (Distinction, 4-5)

The theoretical legerdemain involved in this delineation of the two positions is the entirely unsupported allegation that Kantian aesthetic, unlike Bourdieu’s “popular” one (to say nothing of the none too subtle suggestion of equally uncorroborated class prejudice), is not an ethos. And the ethos of Kant’s position of disinterestedness or non-partiality is exactly that which Adorno defines as critical or non-ideological.

It is Bourdieu’s position that is being endorsed by all those who believe that criticism of culture can be carried out from without the culture being criticised. However, as Adorno also pointed out, the conditions of possibility of every critique of culture are inevitably premised upon the very cultural situation that it is being condemned. What the critic voicing his discontent with culture is wont to forget is that he is “necessarily of the same essence as that to which he fancies himself superior,” since both the nature untainted by culture or some vantage point of historical progress from whence he would fain speak have nothing more substantial to sustain them than the culture they decry, and that therefore the “cultural critic can hardly avoid the imputation that he has the culture which culture lacks” (Prisms, 19). What used to be called cultural criticism and is now widely practiced under the rather more innocuous-seeming rubric of cultural studies actually “shifts the guilt” inasmuch as it is “ideology as long as it remains mere criticism of ideology” (26). Whatever the ideological charge of their righteousness, the zeal of those who never tire of arraigning culture for exploitation of the disenfranchised, while not only retaining but living off their share of its profits (by no means only symbolic), must in the end work to the advantage of “naked terror.” For, what is needed to change the present situation is not practice, but theory: “Only the mind [Geist] which, in the delusion of being absolute, removes itself entirely from the merely existent, truly defies the existent in its negativity” (ibid.).

In this regard, we should not forget that the badmouthing of intellectuals is an almost exclusive concern of intellectuals (not to say the privileged pastime), always in the name of the people, of course. But, as Adorno warns, the “glorification of splendid underdogs is nothing other than glorification of the system that makes them so” (Minima Moralia, 28). The denunciation of culture by those benefiting from it in the name of those deprived of it is a mainstay of a society founded upon a lie. The lie in question is the perennial carrot dangling before the proverbial donkey: the illusion of a society worthy of man. Concealing the very material conditions under the aegis of which it invariably pontificates, cultural criticism denounces the only means of starting a revolution and forecloses the only sphere where a revolution might start. In its present practice-dogged form, cultural criticism is “comforting and lulling” serving “to keep alive the bad economic determination of existence” (43) because total identification of culture with lies is directed only against culture, as it most certainly does not threaten the existing order, which in actual fact “eagerly invites such identification in order to compromise every opposing thought” (44). That culture is a lie is a truth in a society of lies, and intellectuals, “who alone write about intellectuals and give them their bad name in that of honesty, reinforce the lie” (28).

A plausible reason for evading the theoretical removal from practical concerns that Adorno advocated (and, let us not forget, practiced) is that it might reveal the theoretical groundwork informing practice, which might prove embarrassing. The current censure of universalism understood to be underpinning every concept of culture, for example, can easily be shown to be but a universalising of a particular perspective, which, being American, can hardly deny its Enlightenment lineage. Instead of the stridently one-sided scolding of Enlightenment engaged in by the acknowledged and unacknowledged legislators of the people, a more complex approach to the tortuous issue of the availability and the uses of culture could be found in various forms in the work of, for example, Derrida, Kristeva, Agamben, Lyotard, and Rancière, all of whom are to a considerable degree indebted to Kant’s notion of aesthetic judgement. Focusing on the examination of the auto-heteronomy of language as the “originary alienation” constitutive of all identity, that Derrida undertakes in his fundamental and (given the current academic climate not surprisingly) rather neglected Monolingualism of the Other, originally published in 1996, this contribution intends to suggest that discussion should take place on different grounds.


Language of identity

As everyone knows, Jacques Derrida is French. For some, he is even exemplarily so. Or is he? To be sure, the language he uses, the language he wrote in, is French. Yet, very much as Adorno’s dexterity in taking advantage of the syntactic and lexical resources of the German language to elude the grasp of prefabricated discourse was confirmed by the backhanded compliment of calling the language he wrote in Adorno Deutsch, so Derrida’s adroitness in exploring the manifold byways of French vocabulary and syntax remains not only highly controversial but even inadmissible in some quarters. This paradoxical situation, as we shall see, discloses by example the paradox in which we are all situated with respect to language we speak and write, for it is the situation of non-identical identity of language and of belonging by not belonging to a culture. Before the question:  How does one belong to a culture, the question that needs to be addressed is: What does it mean to belong to oneself? And then: How exactly can a culture belong to itself?

In Monolingualism of the Other, his intellectual or spiritual autobiography in certain important respects, Derrida describes himself as “a French Jewish child from Algeria,” confessing that he feels himself to be, “down to the root of the root, before the root, and in ultra-radicality, more and less French but also more and less Jewish than all the French, all the Jews, and all the Jews of France” (49; emphasis in the original). As far as his language is concerned, we find Derrida at his most resolutely Wittgensteinian: “I am monolingual,” he avers at the very first page of his book. “My monolingualism dwells, and I call it my dwelling; it feels like one to me, and I remain in it and inhabit it. It inhabits me.” As for any speaker, the language in which he writes, from within which he speaks, in which he is situated, is “impassable, indisputable,” for insofar as he has to recognise “I would not be myself outside it,” it is his “absolute habitat” (1; emphasis in the original). Because of this, “one shall never inhabit the language of the other,” and one therefore must mount “jealous guard” in proximity to one’s language (there is no other, there can never be any other), even as one is “denouncing the nationalist politics of language” (57). What is at stake here is nothing less than the possibility of individuality, resistance to hegemony, and freedom itself, but precisely not in the forms and contexts and not through the relations one is grown accustomed to think about them through so many texts on these problems, since it is these very forms that are the royal way of begging the issue. In the context of “all these problems of identity, as we so foolishly say nowadays” (10; emphasis in the original), the question of how exactly one belongs to whatever one belongs to tends to be sidestepped, that is, not identified. Not many of those saying “I” have stopped to consider what identity this shifting pronoun identifying them might be referring to, and fewer still have reflected on what makes this identifying reference possible. In other words, what of the identity of identity? Identity itself remains the unasked question in all discussions of identity. The concept of identity itself, “this concept of which the transparent identity to itself is always dogmatically presupposed by so many debates on monoculturalism and multiculturalism” (14), tends to obscure the very problem it is supposed to be debating.

It is, however, absolutely “necessary to know already in what language I is expressed, and I am expressed” (28). While we usually take it as given that it is by birth we belong to a language, nation, and – the word is suggestive – native culture, it would surely be possible, as Derrida proposes, to think about the bonds to “language, nationality, and cultural belonging, by death” (13; emphasis in the original). It might even become necessary to do so when “the relationships between birth, language, culture, nationality, and citizenship” are inextricably complicated by the fact that one does not – as Derrida, a Maghrebian and a French citizen, does not – belong to any of the neatly defined national, ethnic, and cultural groups. “Where would I categorize myself then? What taxonomy should I invent?” (ibid.) Where can he belong? But where does anyone belong? The problems Derrida encounters when thinking through his identity and belonging are not, as one might reasonably hasten to conclude, dependent upon the contingencies of the specific political and social moment of history in which he was born, that of European colonialism, for they are not historical but logical. It is this that makes his case exemplary in its very non-exemplarity. A brief digression about the non-exemplary exemplarity of the situation of French culture, of the exemplary non-exemplarity of those situated within French culture, might perhaps not be amiss. Herself by birth a foreigner in France, and one who is often considered to be the embodiment of certain things quintessentially French, Julia Kristeva has described the peculiar double bind that French culture catches foreigners in. “Nowhere is one more a foreigner than in France,” for the French have set up barriers of a “compact social texture” and of “an unbeatable national pride” against foreigners (Strangers, 38; emphasis in the original). It is the foreigners’ “awkward use of the French language” in particular that “discredits them utterly” (39). Faced with this situation, the foreigner can react in two ways: to choose to become assimilated into the homogenous texture of French culture, or to withdraw into the not so splendid humiliated isolation of the original culture. And yet, “one is nowhere better as a foreigner than in France,” because a foreigner in France is never a nobody, a negligible presence, but always remains “a problem, a desire – positive or negative, never neutral” (ibid; emphasis in the original). Moreover, if as a foreigner, you achieve some sort of distinction, a certain degree of cultural visibility, then “the entire nation will appropriate your performance,” as witness the cases of Ionesco, Cioran, Beckett, and especially Picasso, who is honoured with a museum of his own in Paris, “while the very French Matisse is not” (40).

As he has done many times before, Derrida starts with a point so obvious as to be indiscernible. “All culture is originally colonial” (Monolingualism, 39). And not only etymologically, for every culture establishes itself by means of some unilateral politics of language use. The harrowing experience of modern colonial war “in the strictest definition” without doubt “reveals the colonial structure of any culture in an exemplary way,” precisely because its “sovereign establishment [mise en demeure souveraine]” – which to be sure “may be open, legal, armed, or cunning, disguised under alibis of ‘universal’ humanism, and sometimes of the most generous hospitality” – rests, like any sovereignty, upon a foundation that is always necessarily somewhere else. Hence, regardless of its actual practices, any culture is always essentially colonial in the nature and logic of its functioning, which is premised upon regulating language. “Mastery begins, as we know, through the power of naming, of imposing and legitimating appellations” (ibid.). What Derrida calls the “monolingualism of the other” is the logic underpinning the legitimating procedure that makes culture possible: the law and the language of that law upon which sovereignty is predicated and in which it is expressed always originate elsewhere.

Thus, culture, any culture, is autonomous, originating from itself, as it must be to be understood by those who partake of it as their culture, yet in the very act of establishing its own identity, reveals itself to be constitutively heteronomous. The law of culture is auto-heteronomy. The situation that enables Derrida to write here that “monolingualism is not at one with itself” (65) is the same that had enabled him to write elsewhere that “what is proper to culture is to not be identical to itself” (The Other Heading, 9; emphasis in the original). Derrida formulates this aporetic situation by means of proposing two complementary and contradictory propositions:

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

(Monolingualism, 7; emphasis in the original)

Because both of these propositions must be accepted as valid and true, no “absolute appropriation or reappropriation” (24) of language is conceivable. No one speaks his or her language, because it always already comes as established elsewhere; no one ever speaks anything but a single language, as otherwise there would be no communication. Hence the ensuing question can only ever be rhetorical: “Is language in possession, ever a possessing or possessed possession?” (17) In the light of the foregoing, it is obvious that “there is no natural property of language” (24), and because this “holds for what would be called the language of the master, or the colonist,” contrary to what one might have been lead to believe, “the master is nothing” (23). Again, this is not to deny the intolerable cruelty of mastery, especially colonial mastery, but to identify the logic that makes it possible, and at the same time, through this disclosure, to help towards undoing it, which can only be effected by means of that same logic. His master’s voice likewise of necessity comes from elsewhere, from the unlocatable seat of the law, of any law, including that of language. Therefore, no master can be absolute, the master of language least of all.

Derrida’s contention that all culture is colonial is closely related to Agamben’s equally startling claim: “all peoples are gangs and coquilles, all languages are jargons and argots” (Means Without End, 67). The link is provided by the argumentative logic employed, for Agamben also proceeds by undoing any attempt at a hierarchic ordering of languages and peoples on the basis of some ostensible essential quality or other. If “a people is nothing other than the empty support of the state identity” (ibid.), in other words a purely contingent formation, just like the grammatical and lexical forms of a given language currently accepted as the norm, then it can be changed. Received opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, such has been the state of affairs if not always, than certainly for a rather long time, for Agamben traces this view to no less an illustrious precursor than Dante. The author of De vulgari eloquentia, to whom all the languages of the Earth were jargons, did not suggest in that tract “the remedy of a national language and grammar” but “a transformation of the very way of experiencing words, which he called volgare illustre” (69). Drawing on Wittgenstein’s notion that ethics coincides with the experience of the pure existence of language, Agamben sees the consequences of this “merely” linguistic enterprise as social and, indeed, political.

Such a transformation was to be something like a deliverance of the jargons themselves that would direct them toward the factum loquendi – and hence not a grammatical deliverance, but a poetical and a political one. (ibid.)

It is in this context that one should read Derrida on “the poetic economy of the idiom” (Monolingualism, 56) and its concomitant and astounding claim: “Nothing is untranslatable” (ibid.). Nothing is untranslatable if it is not ourselves, the speakers of a language, who rule the language that we speak, and hence can decide about the translatability of whatever needs to be translated. In point of fact, in the hard facts of language and in the act of speaking, everything must be translated. Since every one of us always speaks only one single language, and since this language is not, properly speaking, our own, and since this applies to all speakers of all languages everywhere, we should indeed heed Derrida’s ordinance regarding the possibility of understanding his manner of speaking: “invent in your language if you can or want to hear in mine” (57). For all its habitual irony, Derrida’s battle-cry: “Compatriots of every country, translator-poets, rebel against patriotism!” (ibid.) is utterly serious. It is linguistic patriotism, understood as a slavish adherence to established patterns of language use, typically safeguarding the imagined purity of diction and the untainted lineage of vocabulary, which enslaves a language and makes one culture subjugated to another. The purity of language is only to be found in its freedom, which is, however, nowise to be identified with lawlessness and doing as one pleases.

On the contrary, and only logically when one considers Derrida’s writing and its difference, which never avails itself of cheap thrills and superficial novelty, but also most unexpectedly with respect to the received notions of what constitutes difference in writing, Derrida states: “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” (46). Pure French? What purity can be expected from someone who has never tired of demonstrating that all purity is pure illusion? Pure French for Derrida means a language purely, that is to say ideally, French, which is to say a French language not possessed by anyone, a French not predicated upon purity of any sort, pure from all purity, for example that of a local colour of a region, contained essentially in an accent. An accent “seems incompatible,” for Derrida, “with the intellectual dignity of public speech.” The sheer provocation of this inadmissible admission in the current context identity politics of it is not lost on Derrida, who adds immediately, in parenthesis: “(Inadmissible, isn’t it? Well, I admit it.)” (ibid.). More inadmissibly still, if that is possible and permissible to say, Derrida confesses that he feels himself writing French as if he were “its last heir, the last defender and illustrator of the French language,” and retorts in advance to protesting voices: “yes, yes, laugh away” (47). On a more sober reflection, it is obvious that these aggravatingly jocular remarks strike a most serious note, for the fetishism of the local accent, a regional inflexion, or an identity-declaring (or shibboleth) vocabulary, are all but a small scale version of the hegemony writ large in the ruling systems here, there, and everywhere. As we have seen above, there is a specific logic that links language to politics, and the site where that logic makes itself present most vividly is for want of a better word habitually called literature.


Politics by literature

All things considered, it is not surprising to find Derrida writing that his “attachment to the French language takes forms” that he sometimes considers “neurotic” (56). On Derrida’s own word, his aim is not “that of harming the language” (he immediately adds parenthetically that “there is nothing I respect and love as much”) he writes in; the point of his grammatical, lexical, and syntactic explorations is most certainly “not that of maltreating this language, in its grammar, its syntax, its lexicon,” these operations are undertaken rather to “make something happen to this language” (51). What “makes things happen” in a language is the event of the “untranslatable translation,” the creation of a “new idiom,” a “signature brought forth [fait arrivée],” not, however, by means of that “most authoritarian” of cultural clichés, the “mechanisms of avant-gardist reproducibility” (66; emphasis in the original), but only through the painstaking effort of learning the language, the patient labour of listening to language that is never one’s own, and of giving oneself over to that language, which is the only one you have. The avowed politics of Derrida’s writing (as opposed, that is, to its generic, disciplinary and categorical identity and belonging) is the construction of “a language different enough to disallow reappropriation within the norms, the body, and the law of the given language” (ibid.; emphasis in the original), which can only also be a deconstruction. In other words, its politics is literary. It is to the point to recall here that Jacques Rancière has recently called attention to the fact that the upshot of the widespread attempts of philosophical thought to separate itself from “all ‘literary’ vacuity” is to unite such thought with “the most radical forms by which literature mimics the incarnation of the word” (The Flesh of Words, 5). In spite of, or rather due to, all smart clamour of identity politics, the identity and politics of philosophical, political, and literary uses of language remains, as always, in question.

What we find in any identity is after all, but before anything else, “a disorder of identity [trouble d’identité]”(Monolingualism, 14; emphasis in the original). The identity of the subject, any subject, obviously depends on its ipseity. And the ipseity signifies “perhaps” first of all the power of an “I can,” which is “more originary”

than the “I” in a chain where the “pse” of ipse no longer allows itself to be dissociated from power, from the mastery and sovereignty of the hospes (here, I am referring to the semantic chain that works on the body of hospitality as well as hostility – hostis, hospes, hosti-pet, posis, despotes, potere, potis sum, possum, pote est, potest, pot sedere, possidere, compos, etc.—) (ibid.)

As Lyotard, among others, can remind us, it is only through “an empty link” that “I at instant t and I at instant t+1 can be linked to each other” (The Differend, 46). There are some non negligible political consequences of this philosophical insight brought about by the exploration of language use, for the empty location of the subject is precisely the site of emancipation of the individual. This can be seen in the formulation of the impersonal (that is, freed from any practical constraints) Kantian imperative of critical freedom proposed by Lyotard: “The power of the I am able to is not merely the power not to be determined by the series that form the world of experience, it is also in a positive way the power to obligate, it is in an immediate way the power of the law” (The Differend, 122). The I of the imperative phrase is not the empirical I of its speaker, with empirical motives and assorted vested interests, but of the negatively deduced law of freedom, which leaves unsaid for whom is freedom, well, freedom. “To the You ought to then there corresponds, on the order only of an Idea, an I am able to and not a You are able to” (ibid.). I and you are the same here, unspecified and unrestrained, and only then is freedom possible. This, again, does not abolish the specific situatedness of any given subject, of any particular “I” or “you,” but merely discloses the logic underwriting their functioning. The theoretical fact that reality does not result from an experience “does not at all prevent it from being described from the standpoint of experience” (46).

In the experience of young Jacques Derrida, Paris was not only the political capital of his colonial homeland of Algiers, but “also the capital of literature” (Monolingualism, 42), and one “entered French literature by losing an accent” (45). The two notions of capital, economico-political and cultural, thus remain intimately related in all his writing, but, as we have seen, not in any predictable mechanism of simple determination. What we find here is the much maligned notion of the autonomy of art, which has certainly never meant to say that works of art in general or of literature in particular are not related in any way to the societies which have produced them and to those which receive them. For, as Adorno has written, “no authentic work of art and no true philosophy, according to their very meaning, has ever exhausted itself in itself alone, in its being-for-itself,” they have always “stood in relation to the actual life-processes of society from which they distinguished themselves” (Prisms, 23). But it is precisely the process of distinguishing that makes them works of art or literature and which incessantly calls into question the way in which the artistic texts are related to their contexts. Very much like theory in Adorno, for Rancière literature “lives only by the separation of words in relation to any body that might incarnate their power, [it] lives only by evading the incarnation that it incessantly puts into play” (The Flesh of Words, 5).  That this “final struggle” in which fiction perpetually discloses its truth “must always be begun anew” (6), goes, one should think, without saying.

Nowhere has the relevance of these insights for discussions of culture been put forth more succinctly and with more cogency than in the work of Adorno: “Culture is only true when implicitly critical, and the mind [Geist] which forgets this revenges itself on the critic it breeds” (Prisms, 22). What Rancière proposes to call “literarity” is a faculty of thought as it is embodied in writing that refuses incarnation:

The disordering [dérèglement] peculiar to writing confuses this hierarchy, introduces dissonance into the communal symphony, which Plato thinks of as the harmony of three things: the occupations of citizens, their ways of doing; their mode of being or ethos; and finally the communal nomos that is not just the “law” of the community, but also its “melody” or tone. (The Flesh of Words, 103)

The close resemblance this formulation bears to the specific way in which Kant’s aesthetic judgement is linked to culture as expostulated by Lyotard is perhaps more than a coincidence. The consequences of this conception of the difference of, and in, writing for the political sphere, as the two authors describe them are strikingly similar: “The only insurmountable obstacle that the hegemony of the economic genre comes up against is the heterogeneity of phrase regimens and of genres of discourse” (The Differend, 181). This conclusion follows from the way Lyotard reads – appropriates or reappropriates – Kant’s much contested notion of the sensus communis as “the universality in abeyance or in suspense” (168). The much rehearsed antinomy of a judgement not based on concepts in order not to be determined and yet necessarily based on concepts in order to be discussed, is for Lyotard resolved (if that is the right word, since the judgement in question is permanently in the process of passing judgement) through a concept that is undetermined and undeterminable. And the sphere where this faculty comes into its own is given the name of culture: “Culture is the ultimate end pursued by nature in human race because culture is what makes men more ‘susceptible to ideas’, it is the condition that opens onto the thought of the unconditioned” (169). It is obvious, on this view, that culture is an open possibility that is being constantly created anew by the subject and not a prefabricated closed space to which a subject is confined. While the resistance of specific cultures to the hegemony of global capital is supposed to take form first of all as “banded around their names and their narratives,” such resistance actually “fosters this hegemony” as much as it counters it; and in doing so it also rejects the idea of any universality and cosmopolitan history, for fear of “falling back onto legitimation through tradition,” even if such legitimation is of necessity the shape of any resistance. It is by the same infallible logic that we have seen at work in the denouncing of culture by intellectuals that the “proud struggles of independence end in young reactionary states” (181).

If the language we speak is never our own, while at the same time being the only language we have, and if all that we conceive in and by language – and this might as well be called culture – is what Derrida calls our “absolute habitat” (Monolingualism, 1), impassable and indisputable, the one condition we can never grow out of, then the hope of transforming it can only lie in that very language. One can never not speak a language. And if we only ever have one, which is never our own, then it is from the jaws of oppression that the possibility of freedom must be snatched. In point of fact, the appeal of the various discourses of identity, whether repressive or liberating, invariably derives, as indeed does their authority, from the power to ascertain, to establish proper and proscriptive usage. It is by founding the regime the speaking and writing, in short, regulating all thought, that the establishing of any system logically begins, and it is through this regime that the system ensures its sovereignty in every sphere of human activity. The inventive use of language, the idiom that would resist being regulated and appropriated, is, by contrast, never established, impossible to warrant beforehand, but remains forever deferred, always only a promise. “But,” as Derrida writes, “the promise is not nothing; it is not a non-event” (66).

It is fitting in lieu of conclusion to these reflections to quote the following remarks by a writer of a “small” language who is internationally (that is to say in Europe and America, of course) recognised precisely for having engaged in his literary work the most intractable ethical issues of our times, and see if perhaps the foregoing discussion might find an unexpected resonance and poignant relevance in them:

Have we deserved our fate? We have. We are guilty and must bear the consequences in silence. For we have failed to resist the temptation of exploring our minor (or major – what’s the difference?) problems of nationalism and chauvinism and shouting from the rooftops that we are primarily not Yugoslavs, no, we are Serbs or Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians or whatever, listen carefully, it’s very important, ladies and gentlemen, you mustn’t get us mixed up, some of us are Catholics, others Orthodox, we’ve got Muslims and of course a few Jews (mustn’t forget the Jews!). (“Homo Poeticus, Regardless,” 76)

Thus wrote Danilo Kiš – who, being a writer of Jewish and Montenegrin extraction, formed by Hungarian, Croatian, French, Serbian, American, Russian, German, English, and a few other cultures the literatures of which he read in their original languages, and whose poetics was decisively informed by the famously misnamed “formalist school” and the elusive figure of Borges, was another “example” of not belonging anywhere “properly” – in an essay first published in French in early 1980 in Le nouvel observateur. And he concluded:

I am well aware that poetry (=literature) is – and is becoming more and more – the description and impassioned condemnation of social injustice (much as it was in Dickens’s day), the description and condemnation of labor camps, punitive psychiatric clinics, and every variety of oppression aimed at reducing human beings to a single dimension, the dimension of a zoon politikon, a political animal. Yet, by so doing, it robs them of their wealth, metaphysical thought, and poetic sensibility; it destroys their non-animal substance, their neocortex, and turns them into militant beasts, naked, blind engagés enragés, raving ideologues. The triumph of engagement, of commitment – to which, we must admit, we adhere only too often and which stipulates that literature which is not committed is not literature – shows to what extent politics has penetrated the very pores of our beings, flooded life like a swamp, made man unidimensional and poor in spirit, to what extent poetry has been defeated, to what extent it has become the privilege of the rich and “decadent” who can afford the luxury of literature, while the rest of us... (78)

We have, all of us, deserved our culture to the degree we accept it.


Works cited

5.3. Sharing in / out Culture(s)

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