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Exile and social media

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NORA SENI’s talk in Academy in Exile International Conference, 18-19 October 2018 :Exile and Academic Freedom today, Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen (KWI).

Exile and Social Media


Paper presented on

Academy in Exile International Conference, 18-19 October 2018 :

Exile and Academic Freedom today

Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen (KWI)

In an interview in 1964 with the journalist Gunther Gauss who asks her if

she feels nostalgic about pre WW2-Europe, Hannah Arendt answers: “Prehitlerien

Germany? I cannot say that I have no nostalgia for it. What is left?

Language is what is left” She adds:” You know, I had to leave Germany for

more than thirtyfour years; mother tongue is the only thing you can bring

with you from your old country. I always tried to keep intact and alive this

irreplaceable thing”.

One can ask why keeping mother tongue alive is so essential…. for not only

Arendt kept German alive but this effort drove her, as she confesses, to put

a distance with the other languages that she had to adopt in her exiled life.

“I always consciously refused to loose my mother tongue. I always kept a

certain distance both vis à vis French which I used to speak fluently in

previous time and vis à vis English in which I write now”.

Exile and language is not a new theme and I am not the best qualified to

initiate a debate on this matter, for literary critic and comparative literature

are not my fields. I speak as someone who spent more than half of her life

outside her homeland. Although I have been brought up within a French

and Turkish, bilingual family, it has been difficult for me to endure the

absence of Turkish language in my life in France. These difficulties doubled

these recent years because of the perspective to go to Turkey drifts away,

and as one can become estranged to the new everyday Turkish language

transformed by AKP’s rhetoric and religious idioms.

I will try here to draw a rapid paradigm for exile/language relations based

on the discourses of German Jewish refugees from Nazism during WW2.

Although living in a politically and historically very different period, and all

things being equal, I will use this “model” to try to think about these

relations in the context of language mutations coming from the irrevocable

spread of social media.

To come back to German exiled one can argue that Hannah Arendt’s

motivations for fiercely keeping her mother tongue alive can be approached

through mainly two different angles:

*First, the archaism of mother tongue as the primary language inside which

one is made, one is structured. It is to be approached as a

cognitive/psychological reality. Besides this is exactly what the idiom

“mother tongue” suggests. “There is an incredible difference” Arendt says

“between mother tongue and any other language. For me this distance is

summarized very simply in these terms: I know by heart many poems in

German: they are present within the most profound level of my memory, in

the back of my mind and this is impossible to reproduce”1 Being the

essential element in which one’s fundamental consciousness and memory is

structured mother tongue has also the capacity, for the exiled Hannah

Arendt, to prevent from enunciating senseless commonplaces. “Words of

mother tongue” she says “have a specific weight which preserve us from the

vacuity of commonplaces by the number of mental associations that arise

automatically and secretly from the treasury of poetic tradition, the grace of

which has fertilised the language”2 Saying so she is was obviously speaking

about the specific cultural sedimentations, mental univers which are

carried by a specific language and that are not universal, can not be found in

other languages.

The second impulse for keeping German alive in Arendt’s life is a kind of

loyalty to mother tongue as the guarantor (guardian) of her identity, a kind

of fidelity to herself. To analyse this, conceptual tools of political thought

about nation/territory/belonging must be used. With her kind of moral

posture Arendt feels she puts herself in a different, in a more radical

position than other exiled intellectuals. Her radical position echoes with

what the German Jewish philosopher, journalist and poet Günther Anders,

(who happened to be Arendt’s first husband) wrote about those who

“throw themselves into the arms of the unknown and within two weeks

began to play the old Parisian or the native New Yorker, in fact much more

quickly than us, Berliners or the Viennese.”3 In both Arendt’s and Anders’s

discourses, one can sense the slight blaming tone for forgetting German

language too quickly. This corresponds to their specific kind of nationalism,

nation being German language. (Besides both of them consider their mother

tongue somehow superior to French or English). Both of them claim no

other national identity than the German language. Which of course doesn’t

1 in « Seule demeure la langue » traduit par S. Courtine Denamy, Esprit no. 6 juin 1985

2 H. Arendt’s discours when receiving the Sonning price, in 1975, cited by Elisabeth

Young Breuhl

3 Günther Anders, Journaux de l’exil et du retour, Fage, 2012, Paris, p.86

mean that they consider themselves as citizens of Germany as a country but

as “citizens” of the German language. Even after years of living outside

Germany, German as language and mother tongue remains the very nongeographical

territory of their identity. We face here a radical

dissociation between territory/nation and language. Neither of them

considers himself, herself German or Austrian. As far as Arendt is

concerned she neither considers herself as being part of German people nor

Jewish people. In a letter she writes to Gershom Scholem accusing her of

lack of love towards the Jewish people she answers that being Jewish or

being a Woman are part of what she considers unquestionable facts of her

life… “what was given and not what has been made”. But she says “You are

right, I never “loved” from all my life a “people” or a collectivity

(community?), neither the German people, nor the French people, nor the

American people, nor the working class”4.

Whilst for Arendt language is homeland, the place where her roots dive

deep, the essence of her identity, For other exiled authors the use of mother

tongue is more clearly instrumental to a feeling of being at home when

everything else (the town, the streets, the culture and habits of people, their

ways of being, of moving) ceased to create a sense of familiarity. But these

elements that make you feel at home, that are familiar to you, you can only

sense them, enumerate them when they are absent, when the absence of

familiarity makes you doubt about your own existence. “There is not one of

us“, says Anders “that didn’t live the experience, one day, of stepping into a

town, at a corner of a street and noticed that the voices and shouts and the

noise of the world were addressing only others; Not one of us that did not

make the experience of not being there any more.”5 Using mother tongue is

the very remedy to this morbid feeling.

For Theodor Adorno, philosopher and German critic, writing is, although

fragile and vulnerable, the only accessible way of feeling at home. In his

Minima Moralia: Reflexions from Damaged Life he writes: “The time of

houses (maisons) has passed. The destruction inflicted to European cities,

like the labour camps and the concentration camps, is executing what the

immanent evolution of technology decided long time ago about the future of

houses. These houses can be thrown out like old tin cans. And he adds

ironically: It is part of moral duty not to live at home anymore “6

4 Letter to Scholem of the 20th of, July 1963, New York, cited by Barbara Cassin . La

Nostalgie, Quand est-ce qu’on est chez soi, Autrement, Paris, 2013, p.89

5 idem, p. 86

6 Edward Said Réflexions sur l’exil et autres essais, Actes Sud, 2008, p.254-255, translated

by NS

The last element of this paradigm I am using would be another definition of

what home can be. A definition which linked to the perspective of “coming

back”. Did German Jewish refugees had the project, the dream to go back to

live in post WW2 Germany?

The answer is undoubtedly NO as far as Arendt is concerned.

It is much more complicated for Anders who’s first assumption was, and I

quote “Home is the place where you come back, Ibi Patria in Latin”7 as he

puts it.

But where can you come back after WW2? Anders was quite obsessed with

this question as his book Tagebücher und Gedichte (Verlag, C.H. Beck oHG,

Munich 1985) shows and which was translated in French with the title

Journal de l’exil et du retour”).

Europe not Germany, will be the place for which Anders had the desire to

come back home. In 1950 from Southampton he writes: “So this is what it is

to come back home: leave behind the dead bodies of the parents, stumble

among the ruins of a city I have never seen before, to come to a (…) country

I have never knew before, to salute the remains of a past which is not ours.

And yet you are at home. Not only because for the ones coming from

America England is already Europe. But because you are at home wherever

innocent victims had succumbed”8. Saying this Anders gives the definition

of what it is to be European after WW2: “A European is someone nostalgic

for Europe”9. I would add that Europeans are the ones who, decades after

WW2, are still feeling deeply injured by the insult, the scandal to humanity

that were the Nazi extermination camps. Europeans are those who inquire

about what it is to be a writer, an artist after WW2, how to make theatre or

poetry, or philosophy, or to teach at the university after the episode of the

industrial destruction of European Jews.

But let me come back to my initial question: What does social media to

exile/language relation?

The rather speculative questions I intend to raise here would be :

*Can communicating on social media produce the kind of “feeling at home”

that mother tongue offers? Is mother tongue keeping its capacity to make

feel at home after all the changes induced into language by new ways to

communicate, first by social media and second –as far as Turkey is

concerned- by the contamination of Turkish language by AKP’s religious

based vocabulary and semantic fields about, “modesty of women and the

limitation of her place in public sphere”, “the sacrality of family and of

7 G. Anders Journaux…op. cit, p.27

8 idem, p. 112

9 Barbara Cassin. La Nostalgie Quand donc est-on chez soi ? Autrement, 2013, p.127

religious belief”, “Turkey’s regional and worldwide missions”, “plots against

Turkey”, “victimization of Turkey”, “responsibility and brotherhood toward

Muslims all over the world”.

* How this reconfiguration of language will affect the exiled?

Now, coming to the effects of social media on language, they can

be traced on different levels. They extend from the –

*introduction of new words (a troll for example is no longer just a character

from Nordic folklore, but someone who makes offensive or provocative

comments online; a sock puppet is no longer solely a puppet made from an

old sock, but a self-serving fake online persona;

*to new meanings for old words (common words like

friend, status, like, wall, page, profile have new meanings on platforms like


Brevity, Increasing speed and economising time are the main driving

forces of the transformations induced by social media into language.

*The acronyms for example, they help speed up a real-time typed

conversation. On mobile phones they minimize the inconvenience of typing

with tiny keys. And on Twitter they help making the most with 140

characters. Oxford Dictionary complains:

“An alphabet soup of acronyms, abbreviations, and neologisms has grown

up around technologically mediated communication”

An important element Twitter introduced to quasi-daily syntax is the

hashtag – a keyword that you can click on, used to categorize tweets.

Hashtags have also spread to other than Twitter social media platforms –

and they’ve even reached everyday speech. They are all over popular

culture, from greetings cards and t-shirts to the dialogue of sitcom


Immediacy and spontaneity that characterise the style of communication

in social media has induced a subtle revolution in our communication,

which became more informal, maybe more open. We are also trained to be

more succinct, to get to the point quicker.

Multiplication of nonverbal elements is another important aspect of

these changes. I am not mentioning only videos and photos that

accompany communication in social media, but also the smileys and

emoticons describing physical actions or facial expressions. An acronym

such as LOL (‘laughing out loud’) is also an element of non-verbal

communication. No need to search for the right word any more to express

the best way your very specific feeling, its tonality, its intensity, all the

constellation of evocations you want to raise on your interlocutor’s mind.

Now you just have to choose an emoticon amongst its large variety of small

smiling, sulking, and laughing faces.

Günther Anders tells about his meeting with a transformed German

language when coming back from America to Wienna after fifteen years of

exile. He narrates a day of effort to write a text when at the end of the day

he confesses his text looked like a Gobelin tapestries compared to the newly

spoken German in Vienna where he began to live.

Thus the question is not illegitimate to inquire about what this subversion,

this impoverishment of language does to exiled persons who search for

“being at home feeling” into language. Motivated by the urge of speeding up,

of simplification, language might become a rather disappointing instrument

for finding familiarity within lost mother tongue. Because you need time to

stroll among old words, to wander among expressions you think you forgot,

you need duration to permit the words to emerge and radiate evocations, to

convene other idioms and expressions, to enrich the communication and to

create the fluid, familiar context you have been looking for.

Does not new habits brought into language by the mandatory nature of

brevity converge with the impoverishment that the generalisation of

Globish (a word coming from the contraction of globalisation and Enghlish)

induced into language? We write in Globish our research projects addressed

to Brussels when searching for funds. We use a dried up language, over

simplified and reduced to solely its communication role. In France it is the

philosopher Barbara Cassin who combats Globish with her brilliant

Dictionary of Untranslatables. She looks for the specificities of cultures and

languages through their philosophical idioms that resist to be translated.

As far as Turkish is concerned there is another sort of subversion which

does not come from social media but from the President of the Turkish

state himself and from the years 2010 on. An analysis inspired from Victor

Klemperer’s method, developed to analyse what he called LTI, Lingua Tertii

Imperii , the language of the Third Reich, would be necessary here to study

the corruption of contemporary Turkish driven by the will to erase early

Turkish Republican reforms. One can trace into Turkish the obsessive claim

of AKP to exhibit continuity with ottoman magnificence. But the so-called

old Turkish (eski Türk.e) AKP partisans promote has very little to do with

the Ottoman-Turkish which was spread from the Palace and from its court,

a Turkish mingled with Persian and Arab words, the use of which was a

marker of social status. The Turkish language the President is

implementing is stuffed with religious references that are not yet familiar to

people’s everyday conversation and articulated within a moralizing rhetoric

Examples: for “cafés” President Erdogan proposes to use the word

kiraathane, (coming from an Arabic root meaning “to read”) and he wants

the withdrawal of all banners bearing words like café, club etc..10 He

enhances paranoia and victimization to assert his will to “purify” Turkish.

But not from Persian or Arabic as the republican reforms implemented, and

that he uses widely, generously. He wants to get rid of occidental words

coming from English, from French and coming and vanishing alongside

fashions. A sketch (fragment) from the President’s discourse: “Kültürlere ve

medeniyetlere saldırılar önce dilden başlıyor. (=Attacks to cultures and

civilizations began by their language) Dilini aldığı anda o milleti çökertiyor

(the minute its language is taken from them these people collapse.) Biz işte

böyle bir suikasta maruz kalmış bir milletiz (=We are exactly this kind of

people targeted by, victim of this kind of attempt. Saying so Erdogan

chooses words in Arabic for “attempt”, for “being victim”) . Bu saldırı

dilimizle birlikte onun mütemmim cüzü olan şahsiyetimizi de hedef

almıştır ». I can not understand this third phrase without looking to

dictionary but I can say that with the prolongation in time of these trends

neither Turkish language nor Turkish society will be recognizable in less

than ten years

10 « Clup’ bu benim değil ki, bütün bu tabelaları s.kün, bu senin hakkın, en doğal

hakkın. Neyi müsaade edersen onu asmak zorunda. . « Discours of the President at

the General Assembly of Turkish Language » in Aksam 23 May 2017.Exile and Social mediaDownload

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