The Body Proper in Derrida’s Monolingualism of the Other

I recently had occasion to review my notes on Derrida’s Monoligualism of the Other, a book I first read in grad school. I was developing my dissertation at the time, and I’ve realized now how much Derrida’s discussion in this book has influenced many of the questions I ask about the body and embodiment in literature.

Derrida asks:

“How do we interpret the history of an example that allows the re-inscription of the structure of a universal law upon the body of an irreplaceable singularity in order to render it thus remarkable…Terror is practiced at the expense of wounds inscribed on the body…And when we mention the body, we are naming the body of language and writing, as well as what makes them a thing of the body. We therefore appeal to what is, so hastily, named the body proper, which happens to be affected by the same ex-appropriation, the same ‘alienation’ without alienation, without any property that is forever lost or to be ever reappropriated.” (26-7)

Thus, there is from the start an entanglement between the body proper and the question of one’s own language which I am curious to explore. In particular, I was struck by the discourse of the phantom and the phantasm that permeates Derrida’s text and the way this is linked to the body; he suggests that from the otherness of language springs

“a desire to reconstruct, to restore, but it is really a desire to invent a first language that would be, rather, a prior-to-the-first language destined to translate that memory. But to translate the memory of what, precisely, did not take place, of what, having been (the) forbidden, ought, nevertheless, to have left a trace, a specter, the phantomatic body, the phantom-member—palpable, painful, but hardly legible—of traces, marks, and scars.” (61)

Evoking the Lacanian association of the phallus with the entry into the symbolic, Derrida suggests a narrative of castration at work here—the attempt to recuperate the lost phallus (which was never actually there, lost to a castration that never really happened) in order to restore an integrity and a wholeness, almost prelapsarian, that was there before the intrusion of alterity into the body or language.

But Derrida repeatedly leads us to be mindful not only of these phantom wounds–not to think of only The Body, or The Phallus–but of the real bodies implicated in the practice of terror. In discussing the appellation Franco-Maghrebian, he reminds us:

“The silence of that hyphen does not pacify or appease anything, not a single torment, not a single torture. It will never silence their memory. It could even worsen the terror, the lesions, and the wounds. A hyphen is never enough to conceal protests, cries of anger or suffering, the noise of weapons, airplanes, and bombs.” (11)

In short, violence gets elided by, but also inscribed into language, such that the very act of elision, of covering-over, is at the same time a memorial and an invocation of that suffering which can never be put into words.

It seems then, that there is an analogy between the phantasmatic violence of that originary wound to The Body and the real violence inflicted on bodies, both of which are embedded in language and yet both of which language seeks to repress. And yet, isn’t this analogical move precisely the kind of abstraction that effaces the “irreplaceable singularity” of these suffering bodies.

I’m interested in further exploring the figure (or anti-figure) of the body in Derrida, but also in thinking more critically about how to encounter the body in critique. That is, how do we engage in critique, without incorporating the body as figure in such a way that abstracts it from the reality of suffering? We cannot ignore the extent to which the body is implicated in language, and vice versa, but if we turn the body into language, are we not simply reprising the same violent gesture Derrida invokes? Furthermore, how does this relate to Derrida’s larger agenda in the book, where the situation of a colonized people ends up becoming a figure for examining the functioning of signification?

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


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