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New Literary History 32.3 (2001) 537-562

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Eruptive Voices:
Coprolalia, Malediction, and the Poetics of Cursing

Kate E. Brown and Howard I. Kushner

Merde et foutu cochon.

Marquise de Dampierre (1824) 1

Miranda:      I pitied thee,
     Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
     One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,
     Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
     A thing most brutish, I endow'd thy purposes
     With words that made them known . . .

Caliban:       You taught me language; and my profit on't
      Is, I know how to curse.

Shakespeare, The Tempest (1611) 2

That shit will fuck up your whole shit.

Skateboarder, commenting on a fall
during a competition (1990s) 3

Cursing is a fundamental linguistic accomplishment, evidence of a speaker's origin that can defy more recent and willful self-inventions by way of language. Even speakers articulate in a second language will tend to curse in their native tongue. Hence the many foreign-language dictionaries devoted entirely to cursing as "insider" knowledge likely to elude the foreigner, the very key to linguistic authenticity. "Even if you've diligently learned all your verb conjugations, memorized French vocabulary, and successfully navigated the subjective tense, you still won't speak French like the natives," warns an advertisement for the Street French Slang Dictionary and Thesaurus. 4 If cursing signals linguistic fluency, however, it is clearly also a breach of communicative propriety. In an illogic whose political usefulness Miranda [End Page 537] begins to suggest, cursing is often characterized as both a failure of linguistic fluency and a deliberate injury. On the one hand, then, to know how to curse is to claim (or to be ascribed) cultural authenticity; on the other, however, to curse is to demonstrate an incapacity for--or a criminal departure from--proper, purposive speech. 5

The dual and contradictory nature of cursing is illustrated most dramatically in coprolalia, the convulsive cursing that often accompanies the disorder known as Tourette Syndrome (TS). The term "coprolalia" (from the Greek, kopros= "dung," lalia= "to chatter") was coined by Georges Gilles de la Tourette in 1885, after whom the syndrome is named. Although coprolalia entails the utterance of ordinary curse words, these utterances disrupt the patterns of normal speech. Indeed, they appear to issue from a different part of the brain: the timbre of voice is entirely different from usual speaking tones, and the eruption occurs at grammatical pauses or interstices. 6 Coprolalics can often anticipate this eruption and even deflect or forestall it for a brief period. But the utterance represents a physical imperative that strains against and eventually overrides efforts to suppress it. The phenomenon of coprolalia is thus better described as vocalization than as speech or voice; that is, as a purely physiological impulse rather than volitional and meaningful communication. Nonetheless, coprolalia responds to linguistic convention to the extent that the vocalization contains recognizable (and recognizably offensive) words. This is what has made coprolalia so perplexing a feature of TS: not only does the coprolalic utterance possess the phenomenal attributes of interpretable speech; still more puzzling, such utterances invariably display cultural affiliation and even specific situational awareness.

In coprolalia, to put the case strongly, the body becomes a set of physiological impulses that are at once aberrant and self-seeking, expressive of the speaker's circumstances while escaping his intentions. 7 Coprolalia is thus an instance of speech that raises the question of who or what is speaking; as such, it cannot be contained within the traditional concept of voice. More specifically, coprolalia disrupts the opposition between absence and presence asserted by "voice"--a concept supposed to suture the bodily, psychological, cultural, and historical attributes of selfhood. In this lies (as we hope to show here) the theoretical interest not only of coprolalia, but also of cursing more generally.

The centrality of voice to the metaphysical tradition has been most powerfully delineated by Jacques Derrida. 8 Our purpose is not to reiterate that discussion, but to bring into focus the spatial and temporal congruence...


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