Language and identity

The other day, I read Derrida’s last interview. I realised how much I share with Derrida, in the sense of being stuck between identities — he was of Arabic origin, and a Jew, but spoke French, his only language, but a language that was not his own.

I am of Korean origin, but was born to third-generation immigrants in Japan, then at the age of eight, I started studying in England. I left Japan because I didn’t like being treated as a foreigner, which meant being bullied at school, on account of me having a Korean name, despite having been born in the same country as them, brought up in the same environment, speaking the same language, etc.

But that was not enough.

This name, something which was given to me without choice, was what defined me, who I was, and to which I was reduced. Like a curse, it was something that was imposed from outside and which I could not rid or distance myself from, at least not on my own. I have a Korean passport, despite having never lived there and having only visited Korea a few times. I don’t identify at all with Korean culture — what I wanted then was to be identified with the Japanese, to belong to them.

But they would not have me.

All because of a name.

But now that I have spent more than half of my life in England, I want to be identified with the English. My Japanese, having remained at the level of an eight-year-old, and now tainted with an English accent, results in me being excluded from the Japanese even more, as now I am not only a foreigner by name, but also a foreigner by voice.

But in England, I am treated as a foreigner, on account of my name, my voice, and my skin. The alienation, it seems, has only increased.

But it all started with a name.

All I wanted was to belong to a people, to have a homeland — but all I belong to is a name.

True, I went — or escaped — to England from Japan because I knew that there, it would be normal for me to be a foreigner, whereas in Japan it was an aberration. In Japan, the tension was between the fact that I felt so close, so at home with the people, but there was nevertheless a separation, a separation by blood and name. So, I guess, in an attempt, not to disavow the separation and live in constant tension, but rather to affirm the separation even more, I went to England so that my distance from the people was an established fact, not something I had to fight against. In Japan, I was a Korean — in England, I’m an Asian. At least it was an identity I could affirm — of course, I’m Asian! — as opposed to the fact of me being Korean, which was something I always tried to refuse, in favour of being Japanese, whatever that meant.

But is it even possible for me to become English? What does English mean anyway? Is it a name, a language, a colour, or something else?

Anyway, back to Derrida. So, in the interview, he says:

[The French language] does not belong to me, much as it is the only one I have, to use.

I have only one language, and at the same time this language does not belong to me.

But, as a stranger to the language, this makes him appreciate the language all the more. As an outsider, a l’étranger — an excess — to the language, there is, for him, a passion for the language that is greater — again, in excess — than the natives:

I suppose that if I love this tongue as I love life itself, and sometimes more than I love such-and-such a French person of French origin, it is because I love it, like a stranger who was received and who appropriated this language as the only one possible for him.

Language is not merely something I possess, as if there still remains an I when language is taken away from me — no, language is vital, in the sense of something that concerns my vita, my life, my being itself. Is there a life without language? Could the one without language be considered alive, or is he dead? Perhaps, it could even be said: I speak, therefore I am?

It seems that Language holds my fate in her hands. The passion, the excess, that the l’étranger enjoys comes at a cost — transgression in the realm of enjoyment can never be separated from death, as the Romantics taught us. Where there is passion, behind it lurks death:

The experience of language is of course vital; and therefore mortal at the same time, nothing new about that.

That line is so beautiful.

Also, my analysis has definitely made me realise the extent to which my being suspended between between languages has affected who I am — my personality, my obsessions, my problems . . . Many people have the view that language is merely a tool, that we’re apes with a sophisticated tool called language — but that seems wrong. If you take away language from a man, you don’t get an ape. There is no man without language. There is no life without language.

But language also brings death, or at least a significant threat to our life.

What I mean is this: I am who I am because of language — or, in my case, should it be lack of language, of a voice? — but language is also the source of all my problems. I can’t live without it, but it’s impossible to live with, just like that joke made by men about women: can’t live with them, but can’t live without them!

Language puts into question our existence. It is a matter of life and death. But should I falter, resign before facticity? Or should I affirm life, in its futurity, its infinite possibility?

I would not endorse the view according to which survival is defined more by death, the past, than by life and the future. No: deconstruction is always on the side of the affirmative, the affirmation of life.

Maybe this affirmation is something that I’ve already begun, with the act of giving myself a name, an English name — Simon. A choice centred not upon what I am, or was, but what I will be.

But that remains a question.


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