Daniel Heller-Roazen’s Echoloalias is an immensely erudite study in the ontology of language.
There are, for him, two realms to be distinguished. First, the realm of language, which includes all the human languages. It is radically continuous. Because there is no principled way in which we can draw the distinction between two languages, or tell how much of a language is foreign and how much is native, or when a language stopped being one and became another, all boundaries between all human languages are immaterial.
Heller-Roazen insightfully deconstructs all attempts on the part of philologists and linguists to draw such boundaries, and argues for his ontology from the failure of their epistemologies, the imprecisions and overgeneralizations they give rise to (ch. 7-12). To speak of boundaries of languages or of their beginning or end („living“ and „dead“ languages) is, for him, to deal in metaphors or fictions. Languages are not thoroughly structured. Grammars and phonetics will always find anomalies. The histories of languages know neither events nor periods or layers, only gradual and invisible but also incessant change. The key image is this: „think of the sand that desert winds continuously set in motion and that inevitably slips through the hands of the one who grasps hold of it” (73).
The other realm, is the Great Outer (not his term), the Other of language. Not much is said about it – perhaps one cannot say much about it, as it is beyond speech – but the idea seems to be something of a fertile, primordial, and divine chaos in which the infant still swims before entering language: in Roman Jakobson’s words, the apex of babble (die Blüte des Lallens, ch. 1). Here Heller-Roazen argues for his ontology from the psychology of language learning and forgetting. To learn a language is to forget the richness of the primordial chaos. Yet no forgetting is perfect (ch. 16-7). Every human language is constantly haunted by traces and fragments of other human languages (to the point where we have to say that in some sense all languages are one), and the realm of language as such is haunted by traces and fragments of the primordial chaos, the Other realm beyond and before language (ch. 2-6).
There is a theological dimension to this picture. In phonetic and grammatical anomalies, in traces of the Other realm, such as the unpronounceable letter aleph, God is said to have revealed himself (ch. 4). In paradise, we learn from Al-Ma’arri, there is a forgetting of all writing and poetry and blissful ignorance again (ch. 20). Hell is to remember, as witnessed also by Freud’s analysis of trauma and aphasia, which turn out to be cases of an incapacity to forget, of paralyzingly present memories (ch. 14). Luckily then, all things human, everything that happens in the realm of language, are transient and ephemeral – with the possible exception of some „unforgettables“ (Benjamin’s term) which are not unforgettable in any human sense, and might indeed be very much forgotten, but by their essence are such that God remembers them (ch. 21). Perhaps we can read them as, inversely, leaving traces of language in the Other realm beyond language.
The question of such unforgettable lives raises the question of human agency with regards to language. Heller-Roazen insists that humans have no power to act deliberately on language, to shape it or change it, control it or stabilize it. Even the poets are dethroned from their position as the unacknowledged legislators to the status of mere witnesses to unstoppable change. The sand in the desert wind is the sand in everyone’s hourglass. On this point, he goes even further than Heidegger, from whom at least the poets could respond to what language itself speaks and for whom the gods need us as much as we need them. In Heller-Roazen all that remains is impotent spectatorship. This seems cruel when he writes about those who fight language death (which he thinks is a fiction anyway). The suffering of those whose traditional worlds are collapsing under the impact of colonialism, capitalism, and industrialization is real and Heller-Roazen seems to have no better advice for them than to lean back and watch their language and culture die out – it’s inevitable anyway and also some traces of it will survive, just as the new conqueror’s language is only made up of the scraps and traces of the old. His continuism blends out the fact that language loss is often a consequence of human violence and that such violence is by no means without an alternative.
The first of these points – the violent nature of changes in language – is well accepted by a long tradition of continental thought on language that would include Nietzsche and Heidegger, Benjamin and Derrida. And aside from the possibility of violence, which Heller-Roazen seems to downplay in his ontology when he minimizes the possibility of (deliberate) human agency on language, he remains very close in his ontology to Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s historicism, and the theological underpinnings of his project, as well as the ideas of traces, of course, owe a lot to Benjamin and Derrida.
The situation is different with regards to the second point. Violence might have well seemed inevitable on the ontology of language of this tradition of thought. Perhaps this is even the motivation behind Heller-Roazen’s ontology: to eliminate human agency so as to eliminate the possibility of violence. Yet the violence will not disappear if the ontology rules it out; the ontology needs to go because the violence is without a doubt real.
There is another, better way of breaking with those continental thinkers. We would need to think about modes of language change that acknowledge rupture and discontinuity, thus giving us the ontological framework to make violence visible, but also allow for the possibility of non-violent, ethical bridging of discontinuities. Such a mode has to be thought under the concept of translation. Translation is a phenomenologically distinct hermeneutic process, different from poetic appropriation or violent colonization, with conceptually inbuilt ethical norms.
Developing a phenomenological ontology of language starting from the experience of translation would permit again a certain level of discontinuity between languages. Translation is always between two languages or language-contexts (idioms, dialects, jargons, etc.). Yet this need not imply any essentialism about language. As Richard Rorty writes in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity: „I have no criterion of individuation for distinct languages or vocabularies to offers. … Roughly, a break of this sort occurs when we start using ‚translation‘ rather than ‚explanation‘ in talking about geographical or chronological differences. This will happen whenever we find it handy to start mentioning words rather than using them …“ (7). The concept of translation seems to me to be a good starting point for thinking about a third way between linguistic essentialism that fetishizes national purity and the kind of messianic universalism that eliminates the potential for human agency thus effacing also the possibility of violent human agency.
Only when we start thinking about how human agency affects not just the individuals who speak certain languages and inhabit certain cultures, but how it effects those language and cultures itself, can we think about responsible and ethical human agency towards both the former and the latter.
It remains, among other things, to think what ethical norms exactly inhere to the concept of translation (or concepts). How we are to think justice and equality under its sign? How does translation allows us to think discontinuity without making violence seem inevitable? I have a partly developed answer to this question and until it’s more fully developed, let me leave you with George Steiner concluding his seminal study on translation, where many resources for such a project can be found:
„The Kabbalah, in which the problem of Babel and of the nature of language is so insistently examined, knows of a day of redemption on which translation will no longer be necessary. All human tongues will have re-entered the translucent immediacy of that primal, lost speech shared by God and Adam. We have seen the continuation of this vision in theories of linguistic monogenesis and universal grammar. But the Kabbalah also knows of a more esoteric possibility. It records the conjecture, no doubt heretical, that there shall come a day when translation is not only unnecessary but inconceivable. Words will rebel against man. They will shake off the servitude of meaning. They will ‘become only themselves, and as dead stones in our mouths.’ In either case, men and women will have been freed forever from the burden and the splendour of the ruin at Babel. But which, one wonders, will be the greater silence?“