The hauntology of language and identity

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Abstract

Yasir Suleiman’s work (e.g.The Arabic Language and National Identity of 2003, Arabic, Self and Identity of 2011, Arabic in the Fray of 2013) has directly inspired the next generation of scholars working on how identity shapes and is shaped by language and politics in the Middle East and in the Arabic-speaking diaspora. Suleiman nurtured the early production of such work with conferences on Language and Society in the Middle East and North Africa at Edinburgh in the second half of the 1990s, and it is one of the papers from the resulting volumes, Wernberg-Møller (1999), that I re-examine here, offering three ways of reading the data it reports.The embodied approach locates identity in the mind as extended through the nervous system to the organs of sense and perception and the muscles involved in language production – and beyond, to include the blind person’s white walking stick and the Alzheimer’s patient’s notebook; and looks at the body and its raiment as a text of indices of ethnicity and religion. The distributed approach takes identity, and cognition generally, as a facet not of the individual, but having its existence trans-individually, in situated interaction. The historical background of these two approaches, which have been reshaping understanding of mind and language in the English-language philosophical tradition, is traced in Joseph (2017). My third re-reading of Wernberg-Møller – and, by extension, of Suleiman’s own work – invokes the French-language tradition of Derrida’s (1993) ‘hauntology’. It is particularly apposite because the key ‘identity moment’ reported by Wernberg-Møller is centred on the discursive use made by a Moroccan mother and daughter, living in Scotland, of a story involving possession by a jinn, in constructing the mother’s and daughter’s own identities as a traditional speaker of Arabic and a modern bilingual, with all that this entails for their personal dynamic, but also for a reading of wider societal trends.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLanguage, Politics and Society in the Middle East
Subtitle of host publicationEssays in Honour of Yasir Suleiman
EditorsYonatan Mendel, Abeer AlNajjar
Place of PublicationEdinburgh
PublisherEdinburgh University Press
Chapter1
Pages14-29
ISBN (Electronic)9781474444781
ISBN (Print)9781474421539
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jan 2018

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