Untying the Mother Tongue On Language, Affect, and the Unconscious, deadline 15 September

full name / name of organization: 
Federico Dal Bo, Antonio Castore / ICI Berlin

The term we still use to designate someone's attachment to a particular language, her potentially flawless competence, or the very "place" for her thoughts to emerge in coherent form, is "mother tongue". We take it to be a natural condition of language acquisition, equally valid for every individual speaker, and thus forget that it is a mere metaphorical reference to the "first" language, spoken by what is referred to, with an even more misleading metaphor, a "native" speaker. Throughout history, the use and connotations of the expression "mother tongue" have undergone several changes. In the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, the Latin "lingua materna" referred to the vernaculars in opposition to the learned Latin. In the eighteenth century, "mother tongue" became an emotionally charged term: establishing a more intimate, allegedly natural and privileged relationship between the speaker and her primary language, it lent authority to the Romantic aesthetics of originality and authenticity. The new emphasis on the "maternal" element in the metaphor inscribed the speaker into broader networks of relationships, from kin to nation. Carrying gendered and political meanings, the term "mother tongue" thus links its fortune to a "monolingual paradigm" coeval with the historical constellation of the emerging nation-states.

The conference intends to re-think affective and cognitive attachments to language by deconstructing their metaphysical, capitalist, and colonialist presuppositions. If traditional conceptions of the monolingual, pure "mother tongue" reveal the ideology of the European nation-state, then today's celebration of multilingual competencies simply reflects the rise of global capitalism and its demand for transnational labor markets.

French poststructuralist thought has problematized the notion of a "mother tongue" by dividing it into two discrete elements—the "maternal" and the "linguistic"—and by exposing their metaphysical and colonialist presuppositions. Thus, Derrida has exposed the metaphysical implications of the dream of a "mother tongue": a desire for origin, purity, and identity. In his Monolingualism of the Other—permeated with reflections about his affective relation to French—, Derrida has maintained that "the language called maternal is never purely natural, nor proper, nor inhabitable". Julia Kristeva, on the other hand, has addressed the relationship between "maternal" and "language" in her elaborations on Plato's concept of chora—a sort of pre-ontological condition of reality. While the Platonic chora is a formless matrix of space, in Kristeva it becomes "a non-expressive totality": that is, paradoxically, both a generative principle through which meaning constitutes itself and a force subverting any established linguistic or epistemological system.

The conference asks what can be salvaged of the notion of a mother tongue: what are the remains, traces, or vestiges of a language no longer directly tied to the mother yet resounding with a maternal echo and at the same time manifesting itself as a primary idiom with respect to its affective and aesthetic dimensions. This "residual notion" of a mother tongue supposes that language is indeed a basic human need (like food, shelter, or clothing), since it provides an indispensible access to a symbolic dimension shaping affectivity and knowledge.

Keynotes by Daniel Boyarin and Hélène Cixous
11-12 May 2016
In English

Please send an abstract of no more than 250 words and a short bio to

Deadline for abstracts: 15 September 2015

For further details please see PDF

Organized by Federico Dal Bo and Antonio Castore