The poem Discourse on the Logic of Language by Marlene Nourbese Phillip critiques colonialism, racism, and sexism in order to express a marginalized subjectivity. Through the unconventional structure, the integration of multiple texts into the poem, and the spatial arrangement of these texts onto the page, Phillip exposes the ways in which language, through the enforcement of English as the father tongue, oppresses and displaces the colonized. The poem also articulates the pain and anguish of a subject who, through a colonial legacy of linguistic subjugation and silencing, has no mother tongue with which to speak with.
The paternal is pitted against the maternal, which becomes a subversive force against European patriarchal power. The poem is unusual in the sense that it incorporates multiple texts that compete for the reader’s attention. The poem consists of a stuttering verse at the center of the page, flanked by a narrative about a mother and her baby and edicts, the italicized passages that make proclamations about the treatment of salves. Occupying the entire facing page is passage containing physiological descriptions of the brain and the production of speech, and an account about scientific racism.Order now
This passage connects logic to the paternal and is expressed through the paternalistic language of science, a detached and understated voice that is reminiscent of the kind of writing found in laboratory reports and clinical descriptions. By engaging in the language of science to expose the racism and sexism embedded in Dr. Broca’s work, Phillip is calling into question the legitimacy of the scientific institution’s role in objectively observing and describing the world. It also shows how dangerous this detached voice is, since it can justify oppression and brutality against entire groups of people under the guise of logic and objectivity.
Unlike the other texts in the poem, this passage occupies an entire page by itself and does not have to compete with other voices and points of view for the reader’s attention. The spatial arrangement of the text depicts the privileged position of men and science. In patriarchal society, men are entitled to space. As well, the voices of white males have been, for a long time, considered by Western literary tradition to be a universal voice that expresses profound and fundamental truths about all of humanity. The institution of science is similarly privileged.
The voice of science is generally perceived to be value-neutral and objective, rather than complicit with racism and sexism and a part of discursive practices that construct the superiority of the white male. There are two edicts in the poem, which are italicized passages located on the right side of each page. Each edict is a passage concerning language and slavery. Edict I recommends that slave owners should separate their slaves into “as many ethnolinguistic groups as possible” (354) so that they will not come together to rebel.
Edict II declares that any slave speaking his native tongue cut out, linking the paternal to brutality and coercion. The significance of the edicts is that they show the violence and oppression involved in the enforcement of English as the father tongue and the eradication of the mother tongue. The understated tone of the edicts contrasts with the brutal subject matter. Like the passage about the physiology of the brain, the edicts are expressed with a detached voice that depict the inhumanity and horror of the atrocities committed.
Also, the incorporation of the edicts and scientific passages into the poem draws attention to the sociopolitical forces and institutions that conspired together to stamp out the language, culture, and identity of the colonized. The first-person narrative is written in free verse and centered on the page, foregrounding a voice that has historically been marginalized and silenced by cutting out the tongue. The woman of colour, who is traditionally depicted as an object in White patriarchal discourse, becomes a subject in the poem who the audience can identify with.
Line breaks, abrupt and irregular rhythm, wordplay, and the repetition of syllables are utilized to create a sense that the speaker is struggling to express herself. One gets the sense that the speaker is a non-fluent aphasiac who knows what she wants to say, but is fumbling for words with which to tell her story. The motif of aphasia is reinforced by the poem’s reference to the Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas – damage to these parts of the brain causes aphasia. Damage to Wernicke’s area results in fluent aphasia, where the individual’s verbal comprehension is impaired, and effortless but nonsensical speech is produced as a result (Kalat 435).
Damage to Broca’s area results in nonfluent aphasia, where the individual’s ability to articulate oneself is impaired (Kalat 435). Verbal comprehension is normal, but it results in difficulties in producing speech. Aphasia can be read as a symbol for an identity crisis brought on by the imposition of the father tongue (and by extension, Western culture and norms). The speaker has no mother tongue and is forced to express herself with a foreign father tongue, which leaves her “tongue/dumb/dumb-tongued/dub-tongued” (lines 31-34) and, to an extent, silenced.
Expressing herself in English is painful for the speaker because of its foreignness and because of the violence with which it was forced into her culture. Her efforts to speak causes her pain, anguish, and frustration because she has great difficulty in expressing herself and telling her story in her own terms using the father tongue. English is not her own language, but one violently imposed upon her culture by their colonial masters. Language is not a neutral medium, but one that reproduces the norms, values, and ideologies of a culture.
In the case of English, it reproduces the racist and sexist assumptions of a Western patriarchal hegemony. It is through language that one learns about and expresses one’s own identity. Because of colonialism, the speaker has no mother tongue and only knows English, the same language spoken by the colonial masters who cut out the tongues of the slaves, and the same language that marginalizes the speaker as a woman of colour and relegates her to the role of the inferior Other.
Thus, the speaker has great difficulty representing her own subjectivity since English is “a foreign anguish” (line 9), an oppressive and disempowering language. The speaker’s search for her mother tongue and words with which to express herself with also represents her culture’s search for their own cultural identity and history, which has become distorted and fragmented by colonial rule.