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  • The Beast, the Sovereign, and the LetterVernacular Posthumanism
  • Katie Chenoweth (bio)

Bonae litterae reddunt homines.

—Erasmus (1985, Querela pacis, Opera IV, 628D)

What if a king shared his name with a language—the only language he spoke? They would be sealed together by their common letters; poets and translators in the king’s entourage would herald the language as his tongue. What if this same king issued an edict making his tongue the only one recognized by law in his kingdom? That language would become a new kind of sovereign idiom: the very name and tongue of the king, reproduced in the mouths, quills, and printing machines of his subjects. And what if this sovereign language were somehow less—or somehow more—than what the king’s own scholars called “human”? This would be a new species of language, fashioned for a not-quite-human tongue. The king’s language would nip at the heels of the scholar’s humanism as its supplement, its crisis or translation.

H is for Homonym, Hercules, Humanism

Elle nest ne vocale, ne Consone, ne Mute, ne Liquide, & par consequens lettre aulcune. Parquoy doncques veult estre pronu[n] cee sans auoir propre son, mais seullement ensuyure la vocale auec qui elle est adiouxtee.1

This scene, which I have floated as a hyperbolic fable of linguistic sovereignty, in fact very much resembles the symbolic terrain of France in the 1530s: when the French language was still called le François, and François was the French king. Between 1515 and 1547, language and king shared eight letters [End Page 41] and, as of 1533, a brand new accent—the cedilla—devised by the king’s own printer. Amidst the flourishing of Renaissance humanism and the development of print culture in France, a project of vernacular-language sovereignty arose around this unprecedented coincidence of proper names. I would go so far as to say that this double-name François mobilized the so-called “rise” of the French vernacular in the sixteenth century. Homonymy, that “radical evil”2 of language since Aristotle, places François outside the law, as the law’s origin. Writers in the king’s circle exploited this homonymy to mythologize both the king and the birth of “his” language. For the poet Bonaventure des Périers writing in 1537, François was the “noble teacher/of Poetry in your Francoyse tongue” (noble enseigneur/De Poesie en ta Francoyse langue); François marks the sovereign origin of a French language and people still to come: “for you, O noble King Francoys/Will be named the Francoys language,/And even the people in immortal renown,/Since you are the First of this name” (de toy, O noble Roy Francoys/Nommé sera le langage Francoys,/Voire le peuple en immortel renom,/Veu que tu es le premier de ce nom) (Des Périers, n.p.). In this political ontology of language, each vernacular text marks a prosthetic extension and “enrichment” of the François tongue. Images of the Gallic Hercules—a god of eloquence whose tongue is pierced by a golden chain linked to the ears of his subjects—circulated in the 1530s, allegorizing François and his royal prosthetic organ. This Herculean tongue vividly figures what Derrida, in his final seminar, termed prosthstatic sovereignty (Derrida 2009, 26). Whereas Thomas Hobbes will, a century later, offer as his sovereign the dragon-like Leviathan, here it is the François tongue—operating as that always double-proper-name François, king-plus-his-language—that becomes a figure of the state as technics and machinery.

This woodcut image of the Gallic Hercules first appeared in a 1529 treatise on vernacular typography and orthography called Champ fleury. Within a year, François I had tapped its author and printer, Geoffroy Tory, to be the kingdom’s first imprimeur du roi (royal printer). With this appointment, Tory, the popularizer of the Gallic Hercules iconography, himself becomes a piece of the royal prosthstatic apparatus named François. In the same stroke, the new technological medium of print is formally attached to king and state. In his Champ fleury, Tory had applied humanist principles to the graphic and grammatical...


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