1st Blog Entry – Prof. Rose Marie Beck: At the Boundaries of the Speakaboutable

In her blog entry (first published here) Prof. Beck negotiates her responsibility as a white academic and demonstrates the complex role of language within social science and linguistics with the example of the word “N-word”.

Speakaboutability and the Resistance of the Phenomena-that-can-be-Represented-with-the-Word-“Neger”

This semester I co-teach a course on Critical Humanitarianism, and because we have to teach digi­tally, I chose to read the new book by Joel Glasman (2020) on the processes of com­men­su­ration of human needs. It is quite a grim topic with categories saturated with racism. In one of the classes we discussed the development of the MUAC-band, a technology to compare mal­nutrition world-wide. In the ensuing debate I spoke the word “Neger” alongside other racist cate­gories (“Caucasian” and “Chinese”).[1]. Then one of the students wrote in the chat accompanying the video conference that she was personally hurt by our cynicism and – pouf – logged herself out from the digital teaching room. I saw it only a few moments later. I was shocked. Silent for minutes on end: I have never before been so powerfully punished for using the N-word. It is a complicated situation. To one-sidedly declare a discussion closed disregards one of the few undisputed strengths of the European originating university, namely the emancipatory potential that, inter alia, derives from the principles of falsification and justification and a culture of debate and discussion that is required for the functioning of these principles. On the other hand, the act of leaving the class was also an act of resistance or defiance against the hegemonial definition of how to speak about which phenomena of the world. This hegemony is intrinsic in teaching, and for historical reasons teaching at the university is particularly powerful in this regard. My authority as professor is questioned against a particular kind of hegemony, namely the one re/producive of racism and an “order of things … that … is hostile to us, it does not speak our language, it does not understand our feelings, it is indifferent to our suffering, it does not give a damn about what we think, hope and long for." (Macamo 2020: 10).

Indeed, the university is the place where the politico-scientific project of modernity as envi­sa­ged by Enlightenment materializes in the service of its stabilization and with it all kinds of social phenomena, including racism, sexism, and class divisions. The university is the place where the order of things is re/produced and defended. Yet it is also the place that decidedly fosters, enables, even requires the emancipatory potential inherent in the moral project of Enlightenment and with it the promises of equality, liberty and individual freedom. Human rights, women and feminist movements have demonstrated its capability for change. It is the very tension between the hegemonial and emancipatory trajectories that are indispensable for the success of the project of Enlightenment, including the projects of “second Enlightenment” cur­rently called for by post- and decolonial scholars in the field of African Studies. African Studies are particularly well suited to take note of, and render productive, this tension and to mobi­lize the intellectual resources available to render intelligible our one world that we inhabit.

I use the example of “N-word” and debates around it to demonstrate my place within this field of tension between hegemony and emancipation and thus also within struggles about the future of African Studies. My particular intellectual resources evolves from an interest in language as social fact, thus rendering language itself an object of critique. In the following I do so by examining the close and mutual relationship between the words “N-word” and “Neger”.[2] What exactly characterizes this relationship and what does it tell us about the hege­mo­nial order produced by particular assumptions about language and what language is thought to do in our world?


Surprisingly, there is no literature that reflects on the word “N-word”. There is literature that uses the N-word in order to avoid what is “perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English” (Rahman 2012: 137, citing the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary). In this case, “N-word” can be understood to mean “Neger”/“nigger”/”nigga”-without-racist-con­no­ta­tion. Therefore, the work of the word “N-word” is to render the phenomena that can be described or represented with the word “Neger” (etc.) speakaboutable: On the one hand as a mar­ker of critical, anti-racist and emancipatory stance that also aims at bringing about change through language use. On the other hand, for example in African Studies, the historical, post­colonial responsibility to remember colonial outrage and injustice, analyse and criticize its per­sis­ting structures requires a possibility to render speakaboutable, amongst others, the phe­no­me­na-that-can-be-described-or-represented-with-the-word-“Neger”.

Yet current debates amongst our students demonstrate that the word “N-word” does not suf­fi­cien­tly purify the slur from the avoidance term. This is the provocation of Achille Mbembe who con­sistently uses “nègre” in all his writings to which his translators very rarely found the courage to translate it as “Neger”. Mbembe’s Critique de la raison nègre (2013) has been trans­lated into German as Kritik der Schwarzen Vernunft (2014, critique of black reason). A few days ago, the TAZ, a rather leftist daily, has translated a facebook post of Mbembe in which he ans­wers to accusations from Germany of being antisemitic.[3] Here the translator carefully explains that he uses the word “Neger” instead of the usually defamiliarizing “N-word”, “in order to stay true to Mbembe’s language use”, since Mbembe uses the word “Nègre” in order to describe how he perceives being characterized by his German critics.[4] It is of great interest to take note of the wording “in order to stay true to”: to use the word “N.” or “N-word” instead would make a difference. It would rob the polemic and harshness of Mbembe’s criticism of what he per­cei­ves as racist slurs by German anti-antisemits: “Mais pour DEUTSCH, l’idée qu’un Nègre puisse réflé­chir tout seul et prendre des positions morales tout seul est insupportable. Un Nègre est un objet que l’on manipule.”[5]

The word „N-word“ enables the circulation and ongoing coming to terms with a traumatic order of things in society. It renders the phenomena that can be summarized or represented by the word “Neger” speakaboutable. Speakaboutability as one of the conditions for the social reality of phenomena, is made possible because the word “N-word” replaces the word “Neger”. However, if the word “N-word” would be completely separated from “Neger”, nobody would want to mobilize truth claims in translation, nor would there be unease in using the word “N-word”. How can we describe this mechanism? I suggest two approaches, one in the tradition of semi­otics and linguistics as representation, and the second in the tradition of posthumanism and Actor-Network-Theory as agentive relation.

Representation and disappearance

Thinking within the paradigm of representationalism comprises some assumptions that are deeply entrenched in linguistic ideologies that have been handed down to us from Enlighten­ment and later on through the discipline of linguistics that itself feeds on and is fed by nationalist and imperialist politics (Heller & Elhinny 2017, Beck 2018). To understand the word “N-word” as stepping in for all said phenomena is only possible if we believe in semiotics, a school of thought originating in European history of ideas, that elaborates the assumption of a funda­mental difference between the word and the world, and the ensuing assumption that words can re/pre­sent and re/produce phenomena of the world. Words can bring phenomena into being, and phe­nomena can be represented by words.

Representation is the name given to a particular relationship between word and world, a relationship in which the world (in the language of semiotics: the represented, the signifié) is tied to the word (the signifiant) and at the same time severed from it. Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce, two influential scholars, a linguist and a logician, refined this relationship: regularly it is arbitrary, and marginally based on similarity. ‘Arbitrary’ indicates that there are no patterns and no systematics that could be attributed to this relationship. (I wonder why the social sciences naively believed – and keep believing – linguistics.) To declare the relationship between word and world as analytically inaccessible is a very powerful move because representation becomes the black-box of the relationship between word and world and stabilizes the idea of re/presentation-through-language as hidden pivot of “Western” (or “European” or “Northern”) onto-epistemologies. Generations of philosophers, historians and linguists have labored away at this relationship called “representation”, inventing more terms as they went along, such as for example, “translation”, “différance”, “archaeology”, “discourse”, “construction”, “democracy”, and so forth. Yet, it seems, without phenomenal consequences on our treatment of word and world.

The relationship called “representation” has become one of the most prolific black boxes of our times. It keeps on tying together and cutting apart (Barad 2007) word and world. Representation allows words and phenomena to move independently from each other – while the glass on my table is phenomenally bound to this very locality, the word “glass” can and does cross into innu­merable contexts, crossing boundaries, producing borders, cutting together-apart the world. In fact, this particular characteristic of the relationship “representation” is the condition that I can speak about a phenomenon beyond its immediate presence (Berger & Luckmann 1966:54). At the same time, however, the represented (the phenomenon described/named) disappears and in most cases it is indispensable that it must do so: The word “N-word” can only render the phe­nomena-that-can-be-described-or-represented-with-the-word-“Neger” speakaboutable, if these phenomena can pretend to disappear from the meaning/usage of the word “N-word”.

However, as we have seen, neither is the slur fully removed, which means that the phenomenon lingers, nor is the word “N-word” able to compensate for the acute criticism of Mbembe’s, Fanon’s or Césaire’s writings. Nor does the word “N-word” have legitimacy to “truly” represent any of the foregoing two relationships.

The agency of words and the order of things

As I have pointed out, representation as a specific mechanism that offers the possibility to let dis­appear the presented behind its surface is highly functional for words to become mobile and able to be enrolled into all kinds of assemblages. It is this specific ability of language to trans­cend the moment that rests on its ability to represent. Yet it means that the re/presented is masked out in its agency. There is a “Saussurian passivity of the sign” (p.c. Enrique Martino, Polenz, May 2018) that draws attention to how within the classical linguistic/represen­ta­tio­nal para­digm words are routinely reduced to mediators, i.e. participants without agency, whose contri­bution to the actor-network is renounced. We can much better describe Mbembe’s provo­cation or our unease in using the word “N-word”, if we acknowledge the agency of the pheno­me­na-that-can-be-described-or-represented-with-the-word-“Neger”. We only believe that we can cleanse the phenomena-that-can-be-described-or-represented-with-the-word-“Neger” through the representational relationship to the word “N-word”. The “Neger” refuses to be deleted. They insist on remaining speakaboutable, and for that reason need the word “N-word”. Both words, “N-word” and “Neger”, although in different ways, are actors in the assemblage of decolonial memory politics where not only their presence, but also their absence or the defiant delegitimation of their usage by a professor situationally unfolds agency, producing the assemblage they become part of. Both words, “Neger” and “N-word” are agentive because current memory politics within the community of practice assembled around decoloniality have made it necessary to re-open the process of signification.

To describe words in this way displays how representation lives off the threat to make the repre­sented and thus the world disappear. This more adequate account of the social dynamics and poli­tical struggles about highly disputed words such as the word “N-word” and impossibly speakable words such as the word “Neger” render visible that both words are part of a network that comes into being precisely because they do not make each other disappear, but feed from and upon each other. Phenomena are speakaboutable, not because they can be given a name – a word that represents them; words or concepts that render invisible the complexities of the phenomenon; words in the tradition of hegemonial power – but because things, words and people assemble together to form phenomena. To look at language this way, however, requires to give up the foundational Western onto-epistemological boundary between the word and the world, and with it one of the most deeply engrained, foundational instruments of Western hegemony.


I would like to tell the student who left the class in protest against what to her was a hurtful hegemonial use of an impossible word, four things. First, don’t give up. Second, the order of things is stabilized in the hegemonial idea and practice of representation. Yes, linguistics has taken great pains to hide representation as stabilizing the hegemonial order of things away from the social sciences. But the social sciences are complicit with the ongoing structural violence perpetrated by this order reproduced by representation, by choosing not to take notice neither of its complicity nor of this work of representation. Yet the unblackboxing of representation can produce an adequate account for these post- or decolonial dynamics. The word “N-word” unsuccessfully represents the phenomena-that-can-be-described-or-represented-with-the-word-“Neger” minus racialized slur. Third, if we acknowledge that the word “N-word” has been invented in the powerful belief that it can mend the pain of historical experience as an avoidance word, and if we agree that it fails miserably, we can start anew to negotiate the moral prerogative of historical and contemporary interpretation and the order of knowledge and things. Fourth, I want to draw attention to the resilience of the word “Neger” and its companion, the word “N-word”. As long as they can be enlisted into assemblages, as long as they unfold agency, they remain speakaboutable. However painful, I – as White privileged professor – cannot afford to remove this historical and contemporary experience, its analysis and critique from its speakaboutability. I am obligated as a linguist to unblackbox language (as it has come to be conceptualized in the European history of ideas) and offer an alternative account of language. This is what I can offer as my contribution to the tension between hegemony and emancipation and thus the future of African Studies.


Barad, Karen 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfways. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Beck, Rose Marie 2018. Language as Apparatus: Entanglements of Language, Culture and Territory and the Invention of Nation and Ethnicity. Postcolonial Studies 21,2: 1-24.

Berger, Thomas & Thomas Luckmann 1966. The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Penguin.

Glasman, Joel 2020. Humanitarianism and the Quantification of Human Needs. Minimal Humanity. London, New York: Routledge.

Heller, Monica & Bonnie McElhinny 2017. Language, Capitalism, Colonialism. Toward a Critical History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Macamo, Elisio 2020. Decoloniality and Radical Silence in African Studies. Paper held at the first winterschool of “Recalibrating Afrikanistik”, University of Leipzig, January 2020.

Mbembe, Achille 2013. Critique de la Raison Nègre. Paris: Éditions La Découverte.

Mbembe, Achille 2014. Kritik der Schwarzen Vernunft. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Rahman, Jacquelyn 2012. The N Word: Its History and Use in the African American Community. Journal of English Linguistics 40,2: 137–171.

[1] Glasman (2020: 103) writes: “Physicians kept an eye out for dissimilarities [between children’s middle upper arm circumference] Doubting the reliability of a single standard, they felt the need to diaggregate their data along what they called ‘racial’ or ‘ethnic groups.’ One distinguished between the ‘Nilotic,’ ‘Nilo-Hamitic,’ and ‘Bantu’ groups in Uganda, another between the ‘Pomaki’ (sic) and ‘Moslems of Turkish origin’ in Greece, while yet another differentiated between ‘a Negroid race,’ ‘Caucasians,’ ‘Caribs,’ ‘East Indians,’ and ‘children with mixed blood’ on the Island of Dominica in the Caribbean.” I leave out here his references nr. 91 – 93.

[2] In German there are different variations of it: “N-Wort”, “N.-Wort”, “der N.” (the N.). In the following I will use the shorthand “N-word”.

[3] See for example http://vad-ev.de/vad-stellungnahme-zu-den-vorwuerfen-gegen-achille-mbemb/?fbclid=IwAR3DiqwsX43ZCC270AJKBt86bwCrBVX3jl2qarEPPwwN8ohiiEX4xn_rA2c, last visited 17 May 2020.

[4] https://taz.de/Mbembe-zum-Antisemitismusvorwurf/!5684094/, last visited 17 May 2020.

[5] “But for Deutsch, the idea that a Negro can reflect on his own and take moral position all on his own is unbearable. A Negro is an object that is manipulated.” Lorenz Deutsch, member of parliament of the federal state Northrhine-Westfalia from the Free Democratic Party (FDP), instigated this affair.