Prison Radio
Mumia Abu-Jamal

“At The Axis of Language and Philosophy.”

Saussure examines the field of linguistics by separating two controlling facets they’re in: speech and language. Speech, he argues, is at every moment an existing institution which is a product of the past (Saussure 8); language, in which speech has its home, from its very inception created by a collectivity (Saussure 11). That is, it cannot subsist in a solitary soul. It must be shared or it simply cannot exist, Saussure writes, for language is not complete in any speaker. It must be perfectly only within a collective.

But what were the elements that gave rise to speech and language? Saussure teaches that the core concept of these communicative institutions is the coherence between the signifier and the signified, or the utilization of signs to project meanings to others.

Levi-Strauss, an acclaimed anthropologist, suggests the deconstruction of words into base phonemes opens doors to meaning. He writes, “Linguistics teaches us precisely that structured analysis cannot be applied to words directly but only to words previously broken down into phonemes (Levi Strauss 36).

Saussure doesn’t agree, for he determines that language bids into a written form, words, equal signs, called phonemes are actually arbitrary, having no intrinsic meanings (Swaseur 67, 68). Words mean, it seems, whatever we collectively agree what they mean.

But all languages are not created equal as Fanon illustrated in his classic Black Skin, White Masks. By training a psychiatrist, Fanon plunges into the psyches of the colonizer and the colonized and shows us how language, especially French, acts to de-niggerize oppressed communities, assigning ascension in racial states from savage to civilized based on one’s facility and mastery of the language of a colonizing power.

Africanity, then, is the dark abode of savagery, and in Afro-Caribbean communities, this station is marked by what Fanon calls, “pidgin nigger dialect,” Creole (Fanon 23). In French and European consciousness, their languages are true languages and models of sophistication. Blacks, however, spoke in dialects. Why? Because as Fanon, observed, to speak a language is to take on a world (Fanon 25).

Adversely, if this is so, so too maybe opposing principle, to be assumed, to lose an ancestral language is to lose a world. Fanon, an astute political actor knew that it was power that determines place. This may be seen in two historical political examples. Fanon cites without attribution the observation, “What matters is not to know the world but to change it.”

The Caribbean island of Haiti, which waged a successful revolution against their French enslavers, upon independence adopted Creole as its official language. And while French isused by its elites, Creole is the tongue of the masses. Thus, we see that language is more than a phonemic phenomena. It is a political vehicle as well which serves political and economic purposes.

Derrida’s two articles provide insight into dual dimensions of communication, the written word and the sign. While one has a fixed character, which may experience drift over the passage of time, the other, because it allows multiple readings, is of a more amorphous character, for though it has structure, that structure is not fixed.

Derrida’s article on structure begins with the essence of philosophy which, because of its contradictory nature, both seeks structural forms and rejects them in search of new forms, for philosophy, Derrida notes, is congenitally oppositional (Derrida 3). That’s because philosophers question old verities and seek to destabilize vaunted philosophical positions and theories. Philosophy, then, is an eruption of new theories colliding with previous ones. That is the nature of questioning, for the mind is never truly at rest. Upon Derrida’s observation, philosophy seems a science of eccentricity.

For approaches to comparative cultural studies too, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.