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Caroline Bergvall

A Cat in the Throat

On bilingual occupants



There’s a very nice variation on the ‘you must begin where you are’ word of wisdom. It comes from the postcolonial critic Gayatri Spivak. In an early interview with the Chicano poet and bicultural thinker Alfred Arteaga, Spivak talking about Samuel Beckett says about the bilingual writer: ‘One must clear one’s throat, clear a space, step away, spit out the mother tongue, write in French’[1]. This is a surprising physiological analogy through which to question connections between body and language. A lingual event is taking place, not in the voice but rather in its absenting, in the clearing of the throat.


It certainly throws another relief on the nativist myth often given to language belonging, that one’s body is unalterably the shape of one’s first language. She further sees in bilingual identity the potential for a ‘self-conscious, self-separating project… a clearing of space’. Her embodied yet detached understanding provides a clue to a self-aware and contextual cohabitation of languages and provides one way out, as it were, of the cultural displacements frequently experienced by bilingual and bicultural speakers. Spitting out the most intimate and most irretrievable, the most naturalised source language, or so-called mother tongue (this gendering always strikes me as deeply problematic), is a dare, it is dangerous, but it also starts a whole process of re-embodying and re-appraisal of language’s spaces. To be in language is not only to be caressed, held, nurtured by ‘intuitive’ or tonal waves of recognition and belonging.


In the bilingual context here described one learns to move from one language to the next while being released from this kind of unquestioned psychosomatic attachment. It is not about having a ‘voice’ (another difficult naturalising concept), it is about siting ‘voice’, locating the spaces and actions through which it becomes possible to be in one’s languages, to stay with languages, to effect one’s speech and work at a point of traffic between them, like a constant transport that takes place in the exchange between one’s body, the air, and the world. Language circulates in this conduit of air and shapes its articulated vibrations into both verbal and non-verbal sounds, semantic and somatic events, that can all be made manifest as language. The act of writing becomes less permanent, more acutely in flux. It manifests transit and spitting out. The spittle can be resistant, unpleasant, potentially as well-aimed as a thrown shoe. Beckett’s traffic from English to French, and back into English by way of a translated French is an expectoration of the English language’s occupation on the colonised Irish body. His leitmotifs of speech loss, language stutter, assisted memory, gestural language all point to the dislocation experienced in the move, and to the feeling of liberation it also opened up. Fighting off one language with another language, transforming in the process both the spat-out source language and the adoptive language.


In French, one doesn’t just clear one’s throat, one has a cat in the throat. One would need to spit the cat (‘le chat’) out to clear one’s throat. Literally, ‘un crachat’ is a spittle. One could also clear one’s throat and realise that one has spat out a chatte (French slang, pussy). This adds and maintains a crucial libidinal and erotic bond with one’s pussycat. At a profound level, one could certainly argue that this phrase is a reminder that what separates humans from animals, at least since the 18th Century, is articulated language. It is articulated language that keeps the cat from turning into a human. Articulated language that separates the human from the asocial groaning of the ‘noble savage’. Articulated language is all that which becomes possible once the cat, the animal, the pure physiology of sound, has been successfully removed from my throat.


Conversely, it is all that which is threatened with inarticulacy if the throat is not cleared, if the cat still meows. As I become aware that I am trying to speak, my body morphs, my cat appears. Cat is the tone in my speech, its accentedness, its autography. Cat is my hesitations, my speech’s subjective accent, the tone in my speech, the stutter of my silencings, the explicit accentedness of its functionality. So what if I were to decide to talk with a cat in the throat? The question is highly charged. While it leads to libidinal fantasies, it also addresses questions of cultural and linguistic dominance, and attending issues of language policy and language erasure within the culture.


I am reminded that English-speakers do not so much struggle with cats as with frogs. It is a croaking frog that the English will wish to clear. Given the dubious and long-standing historical traffic of culinary jokes and insults between the French (‘frogs’) and the English (‘rosbif’) and bearing in mind the old wars of invasion and occupation between the two countries, one could here speculate that ‘having a frog in the throat’ resonates more with military and political history, and the known influence of French on the development of English vocabulary, than with strictly contemporary matters. However, John Tranter brings contemporaneity to it when he signals to me in a correspondence the wonderful John Ashbery line: ‘I hear the toad crooning’.


As people are finding themselves with much increased frequency living in countries in which they were not born, or where they are first or second generation citizens, they have an interrupted sense of the past, whether they do or don’t experience themselves as diasporic. My practice is part of this growing number of writers and artists that are using a mixed language or mixed cultural experience to inform their writing politics; writers and artists who question what linguistic belonging means to them, and who might not be monolingual themselves and need to create their allegiance to their own mixed culture across different markers and biographical circumstances, or who are forced to justify their cultural development as bicultural citizens. These could be seen as instances of cultural practice that speak or work with a cat in the throat. Practices that are of here, and of there. Practices that are hairy.


The German playwright Heiner Müller, a monoglossic writer working with profoundly intertextual, in a sense intralingual methods, viewed dialogue as necessarily based on conflict. Bilingualism, a form of internalised dialogue, highlights rather than smoothes over conflicts and contradictory feelings of both belonging and dislocation in the throat of the speaker. The complexities of bilingual identity are especially present in countries with a strong history of monolingual dominance and where bilingualism, and its demands on schooling for instance, is still considered a threat to cohesion and stability rather than an asset to our increasingly post-national and translocal contexts. This is the case for the violently coercive monolingual and nationalist histories behind the creation of most European territories, and their American extension.


In her now already classic visual-essay Sista Tongue (Tinfish Press, 2002) the Asian-American Lisa Linn Kana'e reflects on the conditions of her native Pidgin, Hawai’i Creole English, and its profound stigmatisation on the island as the shadow side of Standard American English. Right from the start the tone is given. Pidgin is considered a form of speech impediment, ‘a speech disorder occurs when all the basic functions of speech are affected to some degree’.


Many bilingual writers in officially and ideologically monolingual and xenophonic countries confront their situation by mixing up their languages, by code-switching and creating temporary patois, by inventing new forms of spelling, and generally infiltrating the dominant cultural landscape by infiltrating contemporary vernaculars onto it. Caribbean poetics with their long-standing and explicitly bicultural process of creolisation of written language have been uniquely influential on these contemporary mixed-form and mixed-language poetics. See for instance the work of Kamau Brathwaite or Edouard Glissant’s essays on relationality. While Hip Hop speak is undeniably a strong linguistic marker for many urban and bicultural singers.


In a country such as England where policies also veer openly towards monolingualism, the likelihood is that bicultural writers, such as Hanif Kureishi or Monica Ali among others, are in fact largely monolingual, and will represent narratively, rather than linguistically and performatively, some of the tensions and ironies at play in being of mixed cultural origins. Hanif Kureishi’s hilarious and sexually charged novels all trace up growing up British as a child of mixed Asian-English parentage. As he writes at the opening of his first novel Buddha in Suburbia: ‘My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost’. In interviews he is fierce that the ‘almost’ of this new cultural specificity in being English finds its adequate representation not as a minoritarian but rather as a developing part of the country’s overall changing cultural stage.


As Spivak points out in that same interview, the situation is very different in officially multilingual nations such as India, where the controversies and cultural prescience lie not so much in hybridisms and mixed language inventions within a dominant lingual culture, since these readily take place on a daily basis across class, regions, various vernaculars, but instead in representing the vast political and cultural discrepancies that is at work in the diglossic power dominance between India’s spoken and written languages. ‘The writer who would be a serious user of hybrid English would probably write in the local language’.



So there is this friction inside the speaker’s mouth. This friction on the throat. The intake of breath, the raspy sound as one clears one’s throat, the spit that forms and wells up, the sounds that follow, the words that form: all of this is linguistically where you are, and how you must begin to understand who you are in language. Friction brings awareness of connection and of obstruction, of physicality and of language twitches. Preparing oneself to speak is part of speaking. Breathing, coughing, spitting become part and parcel of the linguistic situation. It shows the sounds of language as explicitly composed of the body’s mechanics. It is at the root of Sound Poetry’s revolutionary and internationalist poetics, its profound revolt against semantic dominance, and it is also present in the crucial body explorations (this often includes buccal investigations) by performance artists from the 1970s on such as Carolee Schneeman, Adrian Piper, Ann Hamilton, Gary Hill, Lygia Clark, who remind us that the body speaks in mysterious ways and from unexpected orifices.


A semiotician as subtle as Roland Barthes was disappointed in later years that his interviews needed to be cleaned up of hesitations, raspings, small coughs. These sub-verbal or intra-verbal materials claim a locality connected not just to breathing, but rather to the breathing within speaking. This awareness of the pauses in language can be apprehended as the key to new forms of knowledge and new forms of revolt. One uses the openings of one’s actual and allegorised body to localise and energise the political significance of sound utterance.


Just start by breathing. The sharp intake of breath at the beginning and in the punctuating pauses of many of William Burroughs’ audio recordings is by now as much part of the legend of his audio pieces as the verbal material itself.


Start by noticing the rasps and spits in language. The artist and critic Christof Migone, long-time advocate of the meaningfulness of spit and sub-particles for radical language production[2] extracts breathing sounds from buildings, from asphalt, from walls, as much as from human mouths, miking these up, following buildings like bodies at their cracks and throats.


Start by noticing the breath in language. Hélène Cixous built the pulse of écriture feminine on the opening to the breath. It starts in here, at the source of one’s own breathing, through the life pulse rising in the throat, carried through it in a transport of air. Fighting language from within language. The writer Kathy Acker’s critical stance was similarly always as a turning towards an awareness of the body’s own work, in her case through the building and breaking down of muscular tissue.



When I was a child, we would drive home from spending the Summer in the South West of France and my parents would stop in a small village famed for its foie gras. From the window of the back seat, I would glimpse rows of large wooden boxes with one hole to the side, sticking out of which were rows of necks, duck-necks, geese-necks, the rest of the body encased, invisible, force-fed twice a day, stuffed manually until the liver becomes disproportionately engorged. Organs sometimes rupture from this inconceivably cruel and constant amount of pressure. I remembered this when the news broke recently of the American use of water torture, waterboarding, on some of its recent and current political prisoners. This excruciating invasion by systematic asphyxiation. Forcing up speech by drowning it. What kind of language emerges and for what kind of madness?

[1] ‘Bonding in Difference: interview with Alfred Arteaga’ in The Spivak Reader: Selected Works of Gayatri Spivak, eds. N.Landy & G. Maclean (Routledge: London, 1996)

[2] see notably his fabulous anthology Writing Aloud: the sonics of Language accompanied by CD and co-edited w/ Brandon Labelle (Errant Bodies Press/Ground Fault Recordings: Los Angeles, 2001)

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