Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Push of Chang, Pull of Cronen

March 29th, 2008

A vigorous debate between two faculty members dominated conversation about Marc Crépon‘s “What We Demand of Languages,” an extended footnote to Derrida’s Monolingualism of the Other.

I had been worried about arriving late to the Center for Communication Studies event, however Briankle Chang and Vernon Cronen were deep in discourse, ranging from the mistake of theology (not a feature of all religions), the influence of the Platonic opening, Aquinas’ linkage of physics with the New Testament, to structuralism as the antidote to transcendentalism, and whether “topos” is a place that contains all topoi and all vocabularies or a place that can be talked about in infinitely many ways.
I always learn more from faculty interactions with each other than from monologistic pedagogy!
A colleague translated Crépon’s article from French. Srinivas Lankala explains:

“Crépon summarizes Derrida’s argument, provides references to the argument that Derrida did not provide, and extends the argument to new areas:

  • the question between what language is and what language means in terms of politics of nationalism or politics of identity
  • the definition of identity
  • the definition of the self

“One important thing called into question is the notion of a singular cultural identity: identity is formed in advance by language &emdash; the whole question of identity which cultural studies depends on, what post-colonial studies depends on, is nonexistent in that sense, it does not exist before language. Crépon extends Derrida’s proposition that the monolingualism of the other is not just his unique case of (to put it too simply) a French-speaking Jew in Algeria who is speaking French as the language of colonizer, this is one kind. Derrida goes beyond the particular to show that the idea of monolingualism is not simplistic. Crépon builds on the understanding that the colonized has no other language than that of the colonizer, but that all cultures are always colonized, because a culture comes into being through the question of naming, giving names, which is a function of language and calls language into being.”

Naming sets Chang and Cronen off again (providing me descriptive data for “saying something,” according to Chang). [Note: the provided link is not particular to the discussion, it merely invokes the complexity.]
It was suggested that “The point behind this extension of monolingualism is so that it is not understood as the empirical problem cultural studies tries to make it but rather a broader problem that applies to all of us: we all only ever speak one language and we never speak only that language.” I am not familiar enough with cultural studies to know the (attempted?) formulation of this “empirical problem” – and I certainly won’t speculate (although I am curious!)
Meanwhile, Lankala continues:

“What Crépon is doing to extend Derrida’s notion is to explore: how do we go beyond this situation, what do we do to go beyond this restrictive monolinuguaism that we all share? Derrida suggests the way beyond is to invent one’s language as one is speaking it. This is something Derrida associates with translation as a radical way to call language into question, to call identitiy into question. Not in the simple sense of from one source language to another, but a translation without sources, which only has a target language, which only has arrival; in its arrival it creates its own sources. This radical idea is what Crépon extends. How to invent new language to go beyond the monolingualism of the other that is a common situation for all.”

The subsequent exchange between Cronen and Chang was much too quick to transcribe adequately, here are the main points that I think I can parse from the words I managed to capture.
Cronen questions the privileging of the speaker, the one who speaks, i.e., the one who names over “the responsiveness of the other.” His argument is that there is no stability of language – any language – without a correspondence of action/response between the speech of one and the responsiveness of another. Cronen goes so far as to say that “the emphasis on naming is fundamentally misplaced” and poses “joint action” instead.
“Where,” Chang asks, “does that joint come from” Joint, you already presuppose jointed, being joined. That is la langue, the package.” Cronen illustrates by describing how a child learns language only through interaction. Chang concedes “two facts: we all have a father and a mother, and we speak,” agree also with Cronen’s emphasis on vision. Later, Cronen will characterize this vigorous exchange between them as a horror to those with a strict or narrow conception of dialogue, and Chang will call it “quotidian. We do this every day.”
Hmmm. Yes. I am getting ready to “say something” (but certainly not everything! and guaranteed not yet well enough) by building on the use I made of their exchange to illustrate a distinction between representation and symbolism. After some more discussion on Derrida’s emphasis on language, Lankala asserts, “The whole question of naming comes up because he’s talking of language as the force which calls culture into being, and culture is nothing but this whole process of naming.”

  • Lankala: Leaving Derrida’s book aside, how can one disagree that culture is nothing but naming? Culture means singular. The point exists because someone is naming someone else…. It exists because it is named as a culture….. [this is] “naming” properly understood; it is not making things ostensive.
  • Cronen: Then what is [language]?
  • Chang: [Language] allows us to call things out from their natural state, again. Not fixing a lexicon, it is about establishing presence.
  • Cronen: [The] complexitiy [is] in the interactive process.
  • Chang: No. Naming &emdash; we found the point of disagreement. Interaction makes no sense without naming having already taken place.

It is this “point of disagreement” that I will take up, eventually. First, here is the rest of my re-construction of the conversation. Lankala moves to another interesting question:

“the relationship that Crépon makes between language and how language is appropriated in movements seeking nationalism or defining identity. [Crépon uses a] completely opposite definition of what language should mean from the way language is generally used in more mainstream cultural studies tradition, [which is] as the language of the colonizer or language of the oppressed without calling into question or breaking apart what language actually is, what its function is in defining that movement or culture, where is it from. [Derrida and Crépon’s] move goes one step beyond the relationship between language-culture to discuss the functional role of language in creating a culture…..”

What ensues is a discussion of how forced multilingualism can lead to monolingualism (e.g., the case of India), and problems of language being misconceived as a possession – the “mother tongue,” as if language exists outside of/beyond the “me,” which returns us to the beginning assumptions of appropriation (for identity construction: of “self”, “culture,” “nation,” etc.)

says Chang, building on 35-40 years of Derrida reading Nietzsche,
is always a promised language.

  • Cronen adds that promise is “linked to the notion that meaning is not just a presence but a pointing-into the future” (drawing on William James).
  • Chang: A promise never promises anything, nothing but another promise. This is why it is linked to time, the future; that’s why they smuggle in Kant (law) and Kafka, how can they assemble these ideas together?!
  • Cronen: Dewey [also, with his notion of] ends in view, not fixed. Using my vocabulary, [there is] always a punctuality, not a destination, [there is] always opening up, even when we think we’ve fulfilled … still [there] opens up a new horizon of possibility
  • Chang: If fulfilled, [a promise] is not a promise any more, it is not promising.

Finally the giants (!) relented enough (!) to let us peons into the fray. 🙂
I mentioned the ideas I’m working on regarding interpretation as a way to keep promising, to keep language and meaning in motion. George asked about the use of the term, “political.” Ellen brought in the notion of “power.”
The entire 90 minutes rocked!

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