Robin Hillenbrink — Exclusion through Language

In my research I draw a parallel between the work of the Dutch modernist writer and language philosopher Carry van Bruggen (1881-1932) and that of the famous philosopher Luce Irigaray. Through analyzing the similarities and differences in their approaches to language, I examine the different ways in which language can function to distinguish certain groups in society. In this research I focus mainly on the form of language and how a preferred form can exclude a group or another from a valid discourse. This need for a means of exclusion and distinction leads to the acceptance of an illogical make-up of, among others, the French and Dutch language. 

In her 1925 work Contemporary Fetishism, van Bruggen focuses on the exclusion of other nationalities from the own nation. The national character is grounded in the national language, and therefore this language must be protected. This entails actively excluding other national languages from the valid discourse and even from the general logos. The reason for the need to exclude other nationalities from the national language arises from language fetishism. I claim that this theory shows parallels with Luce Irigaray’s theory and ideas about the exclusion of the feminine, and therefore women, from a valid discourse. The language which is used by women or to speak about women is perceived as less valid, which forces them to submit to a “phallic male world” and discourse, as Irigaray describes it in To Speak is Never Neutral. Consequently, the phallocentric bias is taken for the universal truth. The language of women must conform to the masculine logos to be acknowledged a valid. The masculine is the standard. Language functions as a means to exclude women and subject them to the standard masculine logos and the usage of its form(s), so maintaining one perspective, one point of view, and one economy, that of men. 

While for van Bruggen the exclusion of a group takes place on an arbitrary basis – associations with language incidentally find themselves together – Irigaray claims that these associations and this exclusion merely appear to be arbitrary. The exclusion through language is a subconscious process which results from the inequality between men and women, and the claim of men to dominate and organize the world. In order to be able to do so, a passage from the maternal cosmos to the patriarchal world is necessary. And in this patriarchal world, the masculine automatically dominates the other subjectivity; the feminine. 

These observations led me to the outcome that language can be a means of  illogical distnctions. For van Bruggen, the illogical nature of language becomes obvious in the protection of the “Motherlanguage”. For fear that other languages could impoverish the own pure national language, words from other languages that would express a meaning in a better way are ignored. If it is assumed that language is a means to describe reality, then there is not logical to neglect the words that are more able to do that. For van Bruggen, this sufficiently shows the irrational and opportunistic character of the modern nationalistic purism. We accept illogicality to maintain what we find most important: the nation and its national “language treasure”. 

For Irigaray, disparity in language is expressed, among other things, in the attribution of gender to words, notably, but not only, in the French language. Grammatical gender is not independent of sexual denotations and connotations. It is rather based on what is valid and valuable, thus masculine. The masculine always has primacy in a linguistic context. Again, language ought to be an objective means of mediation, but it is not. Instead, it is used to maintain the  exercise of a power between the masculine and the feminine, and to exclude women from the general logos. This shows that, in a different linguistic area, the illogical character of our discourse exists, as Irigaray proves. The consequences of these specific distinguishing discourses are similar. Language fetishism of the national language complicates the relationships between people from different nations because it increases a potential hostile opposition, while it strengthens nationalism. For Irigaray, the consequence of the illogical and unequal sharing out of language between men and women is that this contributes to attributing different roles to the two genders. This makes it harder people to free from prejudices and associations connected to certain words. 

By making these two philosophers engage in a dialogue about the distinguishing nature of language I attempt to achieve several things. First, I hope to introduce the early twentieth-century philosopher van Bruggen into a contemporary  philosophical context in which her work can be re-evaluated and it can be examined what her work can tell us about different functions of our language in the present. Second, I try to explore the need to use language as a means of exclusion and distinction, and the absurd outcome that follows from this need. Third, I wish to examine rigorously how some forms of language can exclude different groups of people from a valid and valuable discourse. So I hope to uncover in what way any discourse could be challenged and modified to preclude  language continuing to be a means of discrimination and exclusion.