It is a signifier that resonates in the deepest echo-chamber of Europe’s self-understanding, bequeathed to us as it is – along with philosophy, rhetoric and democratic ideals – by the culture of the ancient Greeks. Already there, half a millennia before Christ, ‘barbarism’ was doing a great deal of symbolic work. Certainly it invoked the absence of civilization and culture, and thus a relative crudity, coarseness or want of refinement. But it also transmitted an implicit threat of violence in so far as many of the barbaroi within the Greek city-state would have been former enemies conquered in battle whose subjugation to slavery was by no means assured. In this sense, ‘barbarian’ was already a name for the alterity within, for a disturbing extimacy on which, nevertheless, the ideal of direct democracy depended in the most material way. The word’s root in barbaros (the foreigner, the stranger) is thus covertly entwined with its supposed antonym: the politēs or ‘citizen’, he who truly belongs in, and enjoys the rights bestowed by, the political community or the polis. Can we not sense the reactivation of all of these significations in the present moment, as Europe considers how to respond to the Paris attacks? As I write, I note that today’s Daily Mail – a newspaper with a long history of fearmongering about ‘barbarians at our gates’ – declares that over half the Britons they took it upon themselves to survey not only supported the increased bombing of Syria, but wanted the UK’s borders to be closed to all EU migrants and Syrian refugees in particular. Fortress Europe shrinks to a defensive island mentality.
But from our Lacanian point of view, what is particularly noteworthy in the etymological constellation around ‘barbarian’ is the link to speech, every bit as intrinsic to it as the notion of the foreigner within ‘our’ lands: the verb barbarízein referred to the putatively meaningless, animal-like noises uttered by foreigners who could not speak Greek (still today of course, linguistics retains the term ‘barbarism’ to indicate a grammatical error or mistake in pronunciation). In an inadvertent recognition of something like lalangue then, barbaros was understood as an onomatopoeic word that mimicked the ‘blah blah blah’ of inferior, inscrutable non-Greek cultures. Is this not a kind of imaginary spatialisation that attempts to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’, and the symbolic from the real? Does it not reduce speech essentially to communication or lack thereof?
Again, I note that another of today’s newspapers, the Daily Express, carries the following front-page headline: ‘Migrants Must Speak English – At last! Judges see sense over language rule’ (a reference to Home Office language competency tests for aspiring immigrants into the UK). The worry here is that the underlying assumption – that to be civilized one must learn to speak ‘properly’ – continues to imply that the barbarian is absolutely incapable of a speech of his own. It is a short step from such a view to the belief that rather than talking to him, still less listening to him or engaging with his discourse, it would be much better to drop bombs on him … because that has worked so well in the past, clearly.
In such circumstances, we would do well to remember Walter Benjamin’s dialectical inversion in his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’: ‘Every document of civilization is a document of barbarism’. But even beyond this critique, we analysts, who attend carefully to the speech of the Other and give ‘barbarisms’ their dignity, ought to be able to speak up ourselves, and listen, at a moment such as this …