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The Monolingualism of the Human

From: SubStance
Volume 43, Number 2, 2014 (Issue 134)
pp. 83-99 | 10.1353/sub.2014.0024

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The Monolingualism of the Human

In The Beast and The Sovereign Volume 2, a collection of ten lectures focused on the “odd couple” of Heidegger and Robinson Crusoe, Jacques Derrida devotes a substantial portion of his second lecture to one of the most well-known scenes in Defoe’s novel: Robinson’s discovery of “the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore” (Derrida 31, Defoe 162). Having lived alone on his island for fifteen years, Robinson is “thunder-struck,” as if having “seen an apparition” (162). After running up and down the shore in a failed effort to find additional prints, Robinson flees in terror to his “castle,” observing that “never frighted hare fled to cover, or fox to earth, with more terror of mine than I to this retreat” (162). To whom does this print belong? Is it proof that his greatest fear is soon to materialize—namely, that he will be savagely devoured by a group of cannibals whose habitation of the island he has long suspected? Or does the trace belong rather to another castaway like himself?

Given his professed loneliness and alienation, Robinson could welcome rather than flee from this discovery of another human presence. Pondering his ironic reaction to the footprint, however, he notes that

to day we desire what to morrow we fear. . . . For I whose only affliction was, that I seemed banished from human society . . . cut off from mankind, and condemned to what I called silent life . . . that to have seen one of my own species would have seemed to me a raising from death to life . . . I say, that I should now tremble at the very apprehensions of seeing a man, and was ready to sink into the ground at but the shadow or silent appearance of a man’s having set his foot in the island.


Robinson never determines to whom the print belongs. Indeed, he comforts himself by pondering the possibility that this trace of the other might actually be the “meer chimera” of his own when he came on shore from his boat, yet later he measures the size of the print against his own foot and finds the latter to be much smaller (165).

Discussing the anxiety provoked by the discovery of the footprint, Derrida suggests that its uncertain origin produces an uncanniness similar to that emitted by Poll, Robinson’s parrot, whom Robinson had earlier in the novel taught to speak. Poll’s name “was the first word I ever heard [End Page 83] spoken on the island by any mouth other than my own” (131). While the echo of his voice in the parrot ameliorates his sense of loneliness, the apparitional trace of the human, whether of himself or another, inspires fear. Derrida remarks that Robinson feels that he is being “followed by a trace, basically, hunted or tracked by a trace. Or even by his own trace. Perhaps persecuted by himself and by his own revenance. . . . He believes he is shortly going to die, that he is running after his death or that death is running after him” (B&S II 50). Although Derrida draws an important connection between the footprint and the parrot’s speech, he does not pursue this path very far. I thus propose to continue down the track where he left off in order to ask how his analysis of the trace challenges Robinson’s Cartesian reduction of nonhuman speech to mere mimicry. Whereas the origin of the footprint remains unknown, Robinson believes that he can trace the source of the parrot’s speech back to himself; the “beast” can only mimic the sounds uttered by a human subject. This assertion of linguistic sovereignty, however, functions to protect him from something far more unheimlich—namely, a linguistic dispossession whereby the origin of all language is put into question. As soon as we open our mouths to speak, our words become available to iterability and thus to the possibility of their detachment from us by force of their repetition in future contexts. Yet this asynchrony and aproximity does not befall an original linguistic ownership; rather, every speech act cites a language that precedes us and...