restricted access "Our Wounded Tongue": Language And Subjectivity In The Flu Season
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"Our Wounded Tongue":
Language And Subjectivity In The Flu Season

In The Flu Season (2003), Will Eno offers a twist on the conventional "seduced and abandoned" scenario. A man has an affair with a woman; when she informs him she has become pregnant, he leaves her for another woman. She then aborts the baby and, in a state of despair, commits suicide. The twist I mentioned concerns the setting—or, to be more precise, the simultaneous settings—of the play. Both characters are patients in what Eno designates as "a mental health institution of a not very specific type."1 The play includes two characters—designated "Prologue" and "Epilogue"—who both narrate and comment upon the plot, reminding us that what we are watching is only a play that, as Eno writes, "takes place in a theatre" at the same time that it takes place in the institution.2 (I will discuss the symbolic resonance of each setting further in the essay.) Despite the main events of the play—the "seduced and abandoned" scenario—plot is minimal here, as in all of the playwright's work. The plot of The Flu Season affords Eno the opportunity to engage in a philosophical meditation on the ontological status of the speaking subject as an exile, dispossessed of its singularity by the very language we depend upon to achieve subjectivity. The investigation of this state of exile, of the necessity of having to express ourselves through a language that is the very opposite of Heidegger's "house of Being," has become the central focus of Eno's work, receiving its first articulation in this early play.

This focus announces itself at the beginning of the play when the chief doctor of the institution enters the stage to find his new male patient (throughout the play designated only by the label "Man") waiting for him, and asks if the Man is "sitting . . . licking our wounds with our wounded tongue."3 At the end of the play, the Doctor will himself suffer a "wounded tongue," the result of thirty-five bee stings that have swollen his tongue to such an extent that we can barely understand his words. The "wounds" upon which Eno focuses, however, are more psychic than physical—the ontological wounding, experienced as a lack in/of being, that accompanies and becomes the price of our accession to subjectivity. The image of [End Page 71] the "wounded tongue" suggests the role language plays in the experience of lack, since the tongue functions as both the recipient and the agent of this wounding. As Derrida observes, there exists an "unthinkable truth of living experience . . . [that] cannot possibly be encompassed by . . . speech without immediately revealing . . . [a] wounding of language."4 In an interview with Elizabeth Weber, Derrida chooses the metaphor of a specific wounding, circumcision, to discuss the subject's relation to language. Like language, circumcision confers upon the subject both a "cutting and belonging, originary entrance into the space of law, non-symmetrical alliance between the finite and the infinite"—"non-symmetrical" because the subject, in all its finitude, can only "belong," can only emerge as a subject, by submitting to the infinity of "language's already-being-there, to the fact that language precedes us, governs our thoughts, gives us the names of things."5

Derrida's choice of the verb "gives" is extremely important here since he offers these comments in the larger context of his ongoing concern with the phenomenology of the act of giving. If, like circumcision, language wounds the subject, it also unequivocally recuperates such wounding by its status as a gift, and this emphasis on the gift, as he acknowledges, distances his account of the relationship between language and subjectivity from that found in Lacan, who provides a more "tragic" vision of subjectivity. For Lacan, the subject's entry into the symbolic order of language—its acceptance of the "wounded tongue"—provides the culminating wound in a psychic history marked by lack, rupture, fragmentation, and alienation. When the Man (who has never married) in Eno's play declares, "I'm separated," he reminds us that, rather than a gift that sutures the gaps in being...