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The Prosthetic Tongue

In The Prosthetic Tongue, Katie Chenoweth explores the relationship between printing and vernacular language as it took shape in sixteenth-century France and charts the technological reinvention of French across a range of domains, from typography, orthography, and grammar to politics, pedagogy, and poetics.

The Prosthetic Tongue
Printing Technology and the Rise of the French Language

Katie Chenoweth

2019 | 360 pages | Cloth $69.95
Literature / History / Library Science and Publishing
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Table of Contents

Prologue. Originary Prints
Chapter 1. The Artificial Tongue: Beginnings
Chapter 2. Hand of Brass: From Manuscript to Print
Chapter 3. Teleprinting: Geoffroy Tory and the Gallic Hercules
Chapter 4. Phonography: Accents, Orthography, Typography
Chapter 5. Grammatization: Pedagogies of the Mother Tongue
Chapter 6. Prosthetic Sovereignty: François I and the Ear of the People
Chapter 7. Survival: Du Bellay and the Life of Language

Appendix. Technical Treatises on the French Language, 15001600

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Originary Prints

Originary prints. Everything begins with reproduction.
—Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference

Of all the cultural "revolutions" brought about by the development of printing technology during the sixteenth century, perhaps the most remarkable but least understood is the "rise" of European vernacular languages. Walter Benjamin opens his essay on the technological reproducibility of the artwork by noting that "the enormous changes brought about in literature by movable type, the technological reproduction of writing" were, already in 1936, "well known." Historians today typically agree that movable type played "an essential role in the formation and fixation" of vernaculars like English, French, and Spanish, standardizing and codifying these languages according to new grammatical and orthographic norms. They recognize that printing gave rise to what Benedict Anderson calls print-languages, that is, mechanically reproducible idioms "below" Latin and "above" spoken vernaculars, which rose to power and allowed new proto-national communities to be imagined. It is generally accepted that the invention of printing constitutes an event in the history of language that profoundly shaped modernity. And yet the exact nature of this transformation—the mechanics of the event—has remained curiously unexamined. This book sets out to better understand the relationship between printing and vernacular language that takes shape in the sixteenth century by looking closely at the history of one language—French—over the course of two remarkable decades, roughly 1529 to 1550. What happens to the French language in the print shop? How is the langue maternelle redefined or reinvented typographically? How does printing technology come to imprint itself on the national tongue, at its very root? What are the cultural and political stakes of fashioning a mechanically reproducible vernacular? And what other mutations—in the relation between technics and language, in the definition of the human, in the history of life itself—does this vernacular "rise" announce?

The Prosthetic Tongue charts the technological reinvention of French across a range of domains—from typography, orthography, and grammar, to politics, pedagogy, and poetics—over the course of two transformative decades in the sixteenth century. A veritable "new media" moment, the period between 1529 and 1550 witnesses a proliferation of technological effects within the body of the French language: the introduction of accents and new characters, the development of phonetic spelling reforms and royal language policies, the publication of the first French grammars and dictionaries that make the "mother tongue" a textual and pedagogical object, among others. The key initiators of this movement are humanist printers (Geoffroy Tory, Robert Estienne, and Étienne Dolet, to name a few) who set out to modernize the vernacular by deploying the materials, techniques, and underlying technological framework of the print shop. During this period, the French language comes to be increasingly mediated: mechanized, regulated, codified, and instrumentalized in unprecedented ways. And yet, as it is reinvented for the age of mechanical reproduction, the vernacular tongue will also come to appear more "natural" and "alive," more "native" and "maternal" than ever. I will argue that this, too, is a technological effect: by extending the reach of the voice typographically, printing endows the vernacular with a new spectral presence and an augmented form of "life." In this way, printing will at once intensify the technicity of the tongue and conceal that same technicity by producing new cultural fantasies of naturalness, nativeness, appropriation, and presence. Printing will introduce new effects of technological mediation while also instituting vernacular language as a privileged medium of self-presence, the idiom in which one hears oneself speak. In short, printing will operate as a prosthesis for the tongue that conceals its own prosthetic nature. Blindness to the prosthesis is the law.

This book thus seeks to allow what is technological at the "beginning" of the modern French language to come into view. My privileged theoretical interlocutor in this project is Jacques Derrida, whose work—best known under the name "deconstruction"—ceaselessly interrogates that which presents itself as "natural" or "living," as well as the originality of any "origin." When asked in the 2002 documentary film Derrida to describe the origin of deconstruction, Derrida appears at first to evade the question by pausing to note the mediated and artificial character of the situation in which he and his interviewer find themselves—before observing that he has, in fact, already begun to answer the question by performing one of deconstruction's quintessential gestures.

Before responding to this question [on the origin of deconstruction], I would like to make a preliminary remark on the utterly artificial character of this situation. I don't know who will watch what we are in the process of filming or recording. But I would like to underscore rather than efface the technical conditions and not feign "naturality" where it does not exist. I've already in a way started to respond to your question about deconstruction, because one of the gestures of deconstruction consists in particular in not naturalizing, in not acting as if what isn't natural were natural, as if what is conditioned by history, technics, the institution, society were given as natural.

Deconstruction entails, among other things, showing what is historical, technical, or institutional in that which might otherwise pass itself off as natural. "There is no deconstruction," Derrida will write elsewhere, "which . . . does not begin . . . by calling into question the dissociation between thought and technology . . . however secret, subtle, sublime or denied it may be." Deconstruction, as Arthur Bradley remarks, "remains the most self-conscious philosophy of originary technicity" inasmuch as it "destroys any concept of a pure, natural, or non-technical point of origin." Technics emerges in Derrida's thought as the originary and irreducible condition of "the entire sphere of the living." The central deconstructive gesture of this book will be to de-naturalize the modern French language—and, with it, the general category of the "vernacular," the "mother tongue," or the "living" language—by revealing how it has been historically constituted and conditioned by printing technology.

So-called vernacular language (the term comes from the Latin vernaculus, meaning "native," "domestic," "indigenous") is particularly susceptible to fantasies and ideologies of naturality. The "vernacular" or the "mother tongue" has always seemed to produce itself, as a figure of pure physis, or nature,unaffected by the externality or technicity of grammar or writing, for example. During the late medieval period and throughout the sixteenth century, vernacular language was regularly regarded as "natural" as opposed to Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, the ancient textual languages characterized as "artificial." The most influential articulation of this natural/artificial distinction is that of Dante in the early fourteenth century. In his De Vulgari Eloquentia (13021305; editio princeps 1529), Dante affirms the superior "nobility" of vernacular language, which all infants "acquire from those around them when they first start to distinguish sounds," over the secondary technical artifact he calls gramatica, or grammatical language. While the vernacular is intimate and immediate, acquired from the breast with the nurse's milk, gramatica with its "rules and theory" always remains "at one remove from us," requiring lengthy study and resisting total appropriation. The vernacular lives in the mouth and the body, gramatica on the page and in school; the vernacular is essentially oral/aural, while gramatica is written and textual. The "natural" character of vernacular language is thus conceived within a (phonocentric, logocentric) hierarchy of speech over writing that valorizes speech as native, present, and living while repressing writing as secondary and distant, technological and dead. While vernaculars are subject to temporal and spatial flux, gramatica is possessed of the uncanny stillness of the dead letter, "a certain immutable identity . . . in different times and places" that allows it to survive across epochs.

Even as Dante seeks out a more "illustrious" literary Italian vernacular, the nobility of this idiom is rooted in its status as naturalis over and against the artificialis, its "originality" and universality as speech, its proximity to the human: "Of these two kinds of language, the more noble is the vernacular: first, because it was the language originally used by the human race [tum quia prima fuit humano generi usitata]; second, because the whole world employs it, though with different pronunciations and using different words; and third because it is natural to us, while the other is, in contrast, artificial." As Simone Marchesi suggests, for Dante "artificial languages have been devised to supplement natural idioms, and not in any way to replace them. They are artificial tools, prosthetic limbs designed to carry out a function that natural languages can no longer perform." Dante notes that not every language has acquired the supplement of gramatica as Greek, Latin, and Hebrew have: not every mother tongue has grafted onto itself this "prosthetic limb." One of the primary developments of the sixteenth century that will concern us here is what historian Sylvain Auroux calls the "technological revolution of grammatization"; that is, the widespread introduction of vernacular grammars and dictionaries that would amount to supplementing every mother tongue with the prosthesis of gramatica. For Auroux, this phenomenon constitutes the second major "techno-linguistic" revolution after the invention of writing. I suggest that the production of these linguistic instruments in the sixteenth century would be symptomatic of a more fundamental development or "revolution," namely, a technological turn in vernacular language occasioned by printing, in which printing technology itself comes to act as a supplement for the mother tongue. As we will see further on, drawing on Derrida's reading in Of Grammatology, this supplement never merely adds itself on to the plenitude of a fully natural or fully present language but rather always risks substituting for it and thereby reveals an originary défaut, a fault or defect in the presumed naturalness of the tongue it comes to supplement. Through the frame of print—a frame at once material and imaginary, technological and conceptual—the vernacular is reconceived as artificial and reinvented in the image of the "dead" or foreign languages to which it nevertheless continues to be opposed (as "native," "living," and so on). In print, the mother tongue becomes an object of techne in an unprecedented way, even as this technicity is disavowed or relegated to the status of "mere" supplement.

This book sets out to investigate the shape and the stakes of this technological turn, which will disrupt and reconfigure the partition between nature and artifice in a fundamental way. Like the telephone and other modern technologies after it, the reproductive machinery of the printing press will be conceived, in Elissa Marder's words, "as a fetishistic extension of the body of the mother." Printed vernacular text technologically (re)produces the mother tongue as a "fantasy of full presence, life, and unending connection." In this sense, printing and the "rise" of the vernacular anticipate what Avital Ronell describes as the "time bomb" of the invention of condensed milk at the "beginning of the modern concept of technology." "Something like the history of positive technology is unthinkable," writes Ronell, "without the extension of this maternal substance into its technological other: in other words, its precise mode of preservation and survival." My suggestion here is that printing already enacts a radical extension of the maternal linguistic substance, mechanizing it and rendering it reproducible, canning it like condensed milk in the preservable form of typography. Printing, as I will argue, has everything to do with survival.

Of course, nature and artifice, or the mother and its other, were never opposed in any stable or legitimate way to begin with. Each already touched the other—otherwise, they would not be subject to disruption and reconfiguration with the arrival of print. Printing restructures and discloses, augments and accelerates a contamination of the natural by the artificial that was already at work. Likewise, a technological approach to vernacular language would necessarily predate printing: we need only think of medieval wordbooks or Occitan grammars to see that the production of vernacular language was actively "technologized" in all kinds of ways during the centuries before Gutenberg. What's more, at the beginning of the sixteenth century the language called Francois, that is, the "French" language, was already an "artificial" tongue of sorts. As Jean-François Courouau suggests, French was "developed empirically and progressively, from the twelfth century, by scribes, royal notaries, officers of the royal chancellery, clerks and authors of works of all kinds." The French language of the medieval period was already "a complex artifact composed of traits originally belonging to various oïl dialects and augmented by forms copied from ancient languages, primarily Latin." Before printing, the French language was already an "artifact" of writing practices and technologies. The technological approach to vernacular language that emerges around 1530 would not, therefore, be something radically new; rather, the technicity of the vernacular will be reimagined, transformed, and intensified in a new medium.

Looking further back still, the invention of writing itself would, four millennia before it gets mechanized in Mainz, "technologize" language in fundamental ways by making it durable, repeatable, and so on. And yet even this seemingly inaugural event of technologization would, from a Derridean perspective, follow from a more originary technicity of language without which all subsequent moments of "technologization" would never have been possible in the first place. Under the heading arche-writing, Derrida encourages us to think of language and technics as indissociable. There would therefore be no historical moment at which suddenly language "becomes" technological: there is no language without technics. Nevertheless, I want to ask how a certain technicity of language is indeed opened—externalized, exposed, and extended, made possible in a different mode and within another horizon—by the development of movable type. This opening would mark a "turn" of technology that produces in the body of the French language an unparalleled proliferation of diacritics and orthographies, grammars and dictionaries, linguistic laws and institutions, technical treatises and theoretical innovations. Printing liberates a grammatological movement in the French language. And yet this "turn" would be no swerve, no arrival of technics or writing from the outside, but rather a cut in a prior cut, a re-marking of the mark, an overprinting of an originary imprint. Print is a prosthesis for a tongue that is always already prosthetic.

Any historical claim this book stakes out would necessarily be conditioned or contaminated by the "always-already" and by a certain noneventfulness of the event of printing. Indeed, it would be conditioned or contaminated by the very repetition that printing technology itself mechanizes and mobilizes. I will argue here that movable type does produce in language a specific series of technological effects (of regulation, externalization, estrangement, spectrality, and presence, among others), that are transformative for French culture and the French language during the early modern period. And yet the "mechanical reproducibility" that one so readily attributes to the printing press is not simply an alien force that suddenly happens upon language one fine day in the middle of the fifteenth century. If printing makes something happen to language and in language (and I contend that it does) this something was always already possible, always already at work in some form that printing puts to work and allows us to see differently. What happens in print was already happening, only according to a different structure and in a different form. The turn of printing would thus always repeat or reproduce a prior "turn" of techne. David Wills insists in his Prosthesis (an essential work for what I am attempting to think here, and for any deconstructive thinking of technics) on precisely such a repetition when he evokes the advent of printing. Even as it presents itself as an inaugural "moment" of technological modernity, printing would participate in a general logic and movement of techne that has always already begun. "In what might be called this first cybernetic moment," writes Wills, "the human hand is superseded by the machine"; and yet this moment would be "no different of course from the first 'moment' of the techne in general—memory, the wheel, the pen, what you will." This and yet must be our refrain: with Wills and Derrida, we must see the "revolution" of printing as the repetition of a more general turning of techne. I propose to replace the conventional narrative of the "rise" of the vernacular—with its teleological, nationalist, and metaphysical implications of a national language coming into its own, and which I have retained in the title of this book if only to strike it through or overturn it—with this turn of the always already, which, like the turning of the wooden screw at the center of the press or the pull of the bar in the printer's workshop, is an essentially repeatable gesture caught up in the dynamics of mechanical reproducibility and unable to rise above them.

How are we, then, to think of the specificity of printing technology or the print medium—and to what extent can we think of such a specificity at all? This is one of the driving questions, both methodological and philosophical, of this book. Derrida himself will pose a version of this question in a televised interview with the philosopher Bernard Stiegler from the early 1990s, published as Echographies of Television. Referring to the television cameras that surround him and the general technological apparatus that makes the televised interview possible, Derrida asks: "What, in terms of the general history of teletechnology or of teletechnological writing, is the specificity of our moment, with devices like those that surround us here? This is an enormous and difficult question." Derrida affirms that there does indeed seem to be something especially "vivid" about what is happening or "asserting itself" technologically "today" (meaning, in the late twentieth century). Yet whatever this specificity may be, it "does not all of a sudden substitute the prosthesis, teletechnology, etc. for immediate or natural speech." Indeed, what Derrida encourages us to think, as a counter-gesture to the dominant tendency to perceive new technologies as arriving from the outside, befalling an otherwise natural state—the tendency, in short, to perceive them as somehow radically "new"—is the fact that such machines "have always been there, they are always there, even when we wrote by hand, even during so-called live conversation." Here and elsewhere, Derrida evokes the possibility of a certain media technological specificity while simultaneously insisting on the always-already that undercuts any linear narrative of technological or media historical development, and always underscoring (sometimes rather elliptically) the "enormity" or "difficulty" of this very question. What we are able to say is "new" about "new media" thus remains something of an open question within Derridean deconstruction, a question always interrupted by what Derrida will describe in a late essay as a "certain impossible possibility of saying the event." Without pretending to overcome such difficulties—without pretending, that is, to overcome the impossibility of saying such an event—this book attempts to pick up where Derrida left us, as it were, in writing a deconstructive history of printing as a "new" medium that would take account of both the always-already of writing or technics and the novelty of printing. In short, I attempt here to think printing as both repetition and event, following Derrida in understanding these not as mutually exclusive but as in fact mutually constitutive. In this respect, I also share certain methodological sympathies with the still emerging field of media archaeology, which seeks traces of "old" media within the "new," and which, according to Jussi Parikka, "sees media cultures as sedimented and layered, a fold of time and materiality where the past might be suddenly discovered anew." The Prosthetic Tongue would perhaps then be a "media archaeology" of the modern French language but one which, following Derrida, questions the value of the arche as origin, and which locates at the beginning of this language—as its opening—an arche-prosthesis.

The prosthetic tongue of my title is the conceptual figure I offer, borrowed and grafted onto this book from Derrida and Wills, for navigating this both/and of the printing "revolution" and the vernacular "rise." This prosthetic tongue necessarily escapes more proper modes of historicization or periodization. "Where would such a thing, a prosthesis, have to start in order to have started? How would it begin?" asks Wills. As with Derrida's generalized concept of "writing"—which confounds the classical conception of writing as secondary and external, as artificial technique—the prosthesis of this prosthetic tongue must no longer be thought of as something that is merely added on from the outside to a preexisting langue (as intact language or integral body). Instead, the prosthetic tongue affirms the originariness of technics within la langue and recognizes the structural necessity of prosthetic supplementarity to any "natural" language. My titular "prosthetic tongue"names, then, at least three things. To start, it is my name for printing technology as it comes into contact with vernacular language. Printing engages the French languagein an intensified movement of technological supplementarity; it mobilizes effects of technicity and mechanical reproducibility in the vernacular, giving rise to a proliferation of "new" technological effects: diacritical marks, grammars, dictionaries, technical treatises, and so on, but also more pronounced phonocentric fantasies of immediacy and presence, nativeness and naturalness, voice and life. "Prosthetic tongue" thus also names the French langue itself as it comes to be touched and technologized by printing. As we shall see, the French language becomes more discernibly prosthetic in print: it gets repeated, reproduced, regulated, and ordered; extended in time and space; externalized and estranged; pasted and cut; spectralized and reanimated. Yet what my "prosthetic tongue" ultimately names is the originary technicity of the tongue that printing uncannily discloses. The tongue, as we are coming to see, has always been technological and mechanical, external and estranged: this is what printing allows us to perceive in an unprecedented way. The prosthetic, as Wills argues, does not simply introduce artifice where there was none but rather allows "the unnatural within the natural" to become perceptible. Printing reveals that "the language called maternal is never purely natural," as Derrida suggests in his Monolingualism of the Other (a book the often-neglected subtitle of which is "TheProsthesis of Origin"). The period explored in this book, 15291550, thus operates as a heuristic opening onto both the technological formation of the modern French language and an underlying technicity of language, both of which have tended to be obscured as they become naturalized or nationalized, humanized, and ideologically effaced. In this opening, something of the artifice at work in the mother tongue is rendered palpable; the sutures of a national language are laid bare. Caught up in the mechanism of a new writing technology, the tongue will—if only for a moment—allow its prosthetic nature to be glimpsed. This prosthetic points to an articulation of speech and writing, body and trace, biology and technology, living and nonliving—their suturing, their mutual imprinting—that would be not generated by printing but rather mutated by it. This is also to say that printing (re)produces a new species of tongue.

In Chapter 1 ("The Artificial Tongue: Beginnings"), I explore these methodological questions further while fleshing out the titular figure of the "prosthetic tongue" as both theoretical trope and historical artifact. The subsequent chapters of this book are each similarly organized around a central term or figure (e.g., "phonography," "monolingualism," "survival") that articulates history with theory, language with technology, media with philosophy, past with present. Although these chapters proceed in a roughly chronological order—from the European invention of printing in Chapter 2 through Joachim Du Bellay's 1549 manifesto "defending and illustrating" the vernacular in Chapter 7—such articulations will necessarily destabilize any straightforward sense of chronology or linear historicity. Before turning to the vernacular language revolution in France, I look back in Chapter 2 ("Hand of Brass: From Manuscript to Print") to the moment when printing was first introduced in Europe, the "incunabular" period, to reveal how the first generation of printers imagined their new writing machines as metallic prostheses for the scribal hand—a hand conceived, at least since Aristotle, as an originary prosthesis for the human turned toward techne. Chapter 3 ("Teleprinting: Geoffroy Tory and the Gallic Hercules") launches the book's investigation of the French vernacular movement by turning to that movement's seminal text—Geoffroy Tory's 1529 typographical treatise Champ fleury—in order to understand how print typography comes to be imagined as a powerful amplifier for what Derrida refers to as the "teletechnological" effects of language. In Chapter 4 ("Phonography: Accents, Orthography, Typography"), I examine the ways in which printing technology radically extends but also disrupts phonography—the writing of sound or the voice—through the introduction of new accents, characters, typefaces, and orthographic systems in French writing. Chapter 5 ("Grammatization: Pedagogies of the Mother Tongue") explores the cultural stakes of the project—one first undertaken by humanist printers—to make the French langue maternelle an object of grammar and pedagogy, as well as what this project owes to the materials and the technological approach of the printer's workshop. Chapter 6 ("Prosthetic Sovereignty: François I and the Ear of the People") turns to the legal and political scene, asking how the 1539 Edict of Villers-Cotterêts—a landmark act codifying the French vernacular as the official idiom of French administration and justice—and even the very name of the king, François, participate in the prosthetic logic of printing. In Chapter 7 ("Survival: Du Bellay and the Life of Language"), I conclude by looking to the most enduring text of the French vernacular movement, La Deffence, et Illustration de la Langue Francoyse, asking how it mobilizes the horticultural figure to the graft—a figure echoed in a printer's vine-leaf ornament that spreads across the first edition of the book—to engineer the technological survival of the French tongue in a way that redefines the "life" of language.

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