the password between languages


Extending hospitality means putting prejudices and expectations to one side to welcome the Other. This article describes the outcome of a gamble — inviting young people studying languages or excluded from the school system to take part in “conversations”. Switching from one language to another means first of all looking for things that can engage the Other in discourse, transform meanings and make them transferable, from which point commonality can come into being. Some key moments from a practical experiment.

“The longer one hesitates before the door, the more estranged one becomes. What would happen if someone opened the door now and asked me a question? Would I not be like someone who wants to keep his secret?” Kafka, The Homecoming, 1916

For the last three years, I have been offering groups of young people the opportunity to take part in conversation sessions in a youth support centre. These centres, financed by the regional authorities, offer young school dropouts from 16 to 25, sent by local back-to-work organisations, the chance develop a career plan, and also work with young foreigners studying languages. The young people stay at the centre for between six and nine months, taking remedial classes, learning French, writing their CVs and doing work experience with a view to choosing a suitable training course or finding a job. The conversations I offer are based on a simple model developed by the CIEN [1]. Each session lasts one or two hours per group per month and is intended to be a space for dialogue, with none of the constraints of a learning environment, where each participant is invited to give voice to his thoughts with other people as he likes, in his own way. The sessions are something of a mystery to the trainers who accompany the groups (what are they for?) and they introduce me as a psychologist. As soon as I enter the room, then, I must make sure I dispel the notion that I am there to push anyone into opening up to me. I have to dismiss the “ problem that the psychologist, as a result of maintaining his sector only through theology, wants the psychic to be normal, in return for which he sets out what would suppress it” [2]. My intention is very different. There is no norm to refer to, no horizon of conformity or adaptability, no obligation to produce discourse about oneself, no being forced to reveal secrets, and above all no brutal interpretations. My gamble is very different. At a time when circulars, draft laws, and measures designed to curb anti-social behaviour [3] together make young people and foreigners into scapegoats who must be forced to stand up straight and their language sanitised, these conversations aim to try and awaken an unexpected taste for talking and listening to others, and maybe create small shifts in attitude. I hope to push ajar a door through which living words can pass from one language to another.

That day, I had a group of fifteen boys and girls. Their bodies conquered by fatigue and snacking, their eyes dull, their mobiles switched to vibrate and MP3 headphones dangling round their neck or over their ears, now and then sighing or calling out, hoods hiding their faces, their heads sometimes in their arms, they greet me with “Hello, Miss”, then a few questions — “What will we be doing with you?” “Hey, they said you’re a sssssssychologist?” “We’re not mad!” “We’re here to look for work, we’re not learning anything, they’re wasting our time!” “Miss, I can’t be arsed”. Their discouragement climbs even higher when I suggest that we share a moment of conversation. I hear them sigh and moan, “But what’s the point?” “What are we supposed to talk about?” “I’ve got nothing to say!” All they see at that point is that I am not going to let myself be beaten down, that when it comes down to it I’ve got nothing to lose, and that their discouragement is not going to discourage me.

I must learn to leave behind my presuppositions and listen to be able to talk to young people who have left school, who mistrust it and who have run away or dropped out for reasons that combine a deep-rooted, usually unspoken choice and family, social, and economic difficulties, faced by almost all of them. I must listen to their warnings — “But Miss, how are we supposed to talk to each other, we don’t even speak the same language” — the subtlety of these warnings — “The language we use in the ’hood is like backslang for prisoners in the past. It’s not meant to be understood” — and the pain masked by the words — “It’s a trap. It’s too late for us. I don’t want my son to speak the same language as me”. They initially welcome me with discomfort, throwing me hospitality like a bone to a dog. I must use what I don’t know as a springboard to get the ball rolling.

There is talk, an indistinct buzz, and that is the hardest part (the only rule I set is that only one person should be talking at a time so that the others can listen). Everyone talks or stops talking at the same time and you have to wait for the whispering to die down. As the whispers die away, words are shot out, thrown like balls from one to another, very fast, like they do when they are outside, not in these rooms, standing around the entrance, when they are outside their homes, when there are no outsiders present. That is where I come in. I intercept the ball. It took me a while to learn, to adjust to the tempo; their skill and speed is amazing. I’ve been doing this for a short while now. When I intercept a word, it immediately enters a new, modified space — you can hear it. That day, someone called out “Hey, you bastard!” in response to something lost in the hubbub. “Bastard” stood out, teetering on the edge of being an insult, with a questioning look quickly thrown in my direction. Yes, I had heard, and I caught it: “OK! Bastard! Let’s start with that”. They laughed, their eyes lighting up. What is this, a joke?

Afterwards, it seemed to me that this was an example of what Freud called “jokes”. Only a word borne by a joke could open the threshold to a shared language. In Jokes and their relation to the unconscious, Freud uses the metaphors of the full signifier and the empty signifier as well as the watered-down syllable to refer to that which can be revitalised by a joke. At this instant, a first shift takes place; the word is thrown into a new combination and takes on its full meaning, however opaque. It spins on its axis and I am responsible for how the ball returns to the court.

Actually, it’s as if I grabbed an invitation to join their game — one that they offered unawares by awakening my desire to join their group.

That is how it began, by intercepting a pass, a word thrown across the tables, not towards me — never towards me — but still, in my presence. That’s how I came to intercept the term as if it were addressed to me.

I throw it straight back, asking the lad who spoke, “What do you mean by bastard?” He laughed and initially refused to answer. Then I explained my question and opened it up to the others. “Tell us, what does it mean? Who can tell us what it means for him? Come on, tell me, whatever comes to mind.” They begin to open up. “Well, it’s someone who lives outside”. “Yeah, a guy in the street, who lives on the streets, who has nothing”.

I stand up and write the definitions they suggest on the board, along with various snippets of history and general knowledge. Questions weave together, the conversation gets going, circulating between us. The board on the wall opens up like a window, creating an unexpected springboard. Their bodies and eyes turn towards it. A desire to talk flashes through it. I and they feel the mental function that Freud calls Witz. They are cheerful, laughing, surprised, a speed that takes all of us by surprise, me perhaps most of all. Language is alive, moving between us, as we all bring our own associations, our gaps, our pronouncements, and we agree to let the others undermine our certainties. Without spending time on it or underlining it, we all hear the astonishing power of meeting the Other in language. We all feel a sense of relief, and this sense of relief destabilises us, undermining our certainties, our laziness, our reluctance, our tiredness. The conversation becomes the ferment for an process engendering meaning, beginning with a proof of reception materialised in the board. This process leads to the absence-of-meaning defined by Lacan as a step forward from meaning [4]. My responsibility now takes the form of a kind of reassurance. My role is to reassure, like in gymnastics when someone is practising a risky exercise and needs someone nearby. I never ask questions directly, but rather obliquely. I reassure the speaker, whatever he says. I take on the risk of his utterance to cast a veil over anything that might expose him too much, so that everyone feels they have a place in the hour of conversation. Sometimes I fail. And I learn from failure.

I quickly write some of their words up on the board: “Bastard / Someone who lives in the street, who has been thrown out, who has nothing, homeless, poor, someone that no-one respects, someone who is thrown away, worthless, who has no money, no name, not his father’s name, a piece of junk, a dog, it’s not all bad, it depends how it’s said. Bastard / There are pure-breed dogs and then there are the others, people often say they aren’t as nice-looking but they are smarter. Bastard / how do you make a race? Bastard / born illegitimate in the days when France was ruled by kings, are there such things as races? Not everyone has the same blood, you can tell! Bastard / What is the human race, racial ideology, Hitler, Nazism, a pure race, exterminating human beings. Bastard / It’s not his fault, why is it an insult? It’s like poof, it’s private, like there’s a secret, something sexual. Bastard / It’s like a brand, a difference, a fault, an insult, it sounds like someone’s name”.

At the heart of the process of unfolding, the treasure of the Witz shines like a password. Might it be the precondition to creating cracks in the walls between languages? To loosening identifications? Words pass. “Bastard” diffracts, dissipates, even renews language, thanks to its status on the outlying edges of several uses in discourse. There is no Witz without proof of reception by the Other, “no Witz without an Other to welcome the New that has arisen in the language. No Witz without the Other to authenticate it” [5]. To keep the Witz alive, beneath the arrogance of their utterances, I have to uncover the trap of their shutting out outsiders, using repartee and provocation as a challenge, the spectacularity that tries to surprise and imitates jokes only to transform the conversation into a staged tableau. They must at all costs avoid the impression of giving a performance, their wit must not be seen to be successful. Although they play with jokes, they are aware that the ultimate trap they could fall into is that of the media who desperately want to kill this living language while hiding behind the mask of laughter. The other side of Witz is very different, where the pleasure of a lively mind opens a space in which large and small strangenesses come together, and for a time invite each other out, become engaged, or marry — Freiung [6].

A large space where they can dream, fail, and laugh. Lacan writes,“that is how the subject lasts. If something gives us back the feeling that there is a place where we grasp it, where we deal with it, it is on the level of what we call the subconscious. Because all that is failure, laughter, dreams” [7]. The etymologies of “bastard” suggested by the group are dreamlike. They lead to a field of latent thoughts to be unfolded, taking care not to wrinkle them — fleeting analogies and associations. I reassure them. It is not a question of seeking the absolute truth or an unassailable definition.

The board is covered in branches. A form of unexpected passion appears. Two questions in particular take our desire to talk further — is blood the same when the colour of skin is different? What about transfusions? Why is one insult more dangerous than another? What insults are aimed at our most private being? That day, we talked about the Second World War, about which they know practically nothing, about Hitler, and about Robert Antelme’s book. We talk about “things we can’t bear to hear”, what is stripped bare when we are insulted, about sexuality and deafness. Curiosity overcomes their reticence, their embarrassment, their shame. Their voices grow calmer, their eyes light up. On the horizon remains that which cannot be said [8].

I think again about what Lacan said about the password: “There is no denying that the password has the most precious virtues, because it simply avoids you getting killed. ... The password is not that by which men acknowledge each other as members of the group, but that which constitutes the group itself” [9]. Far from coercing them or demanding they produce a word whose sole aim is to silence the subject, I would like these conversations to shine like passwords, to revitalise the pact of words for these young people, to avoid killing the link to the language of the Other, so that in the simple hospitality of the small fictions that can be half-expressed there, exclusion is draped in a cloak of exception.

Afterwards, there was also something I forgot that day. At the end of the hour, when everyone got up to leave, I was unsettled by the way they said goodbye to me, asking when we would have another conversation, and I forgot to wipe the board clean. The trainer, who came to join the group for the rest of the day, told me a few days later of her astonishment on entering the room: “When I saw those words on the board, I said to myself that something powerful had happened here”. She talked to them about it, and another conversation began.

Since then, I never wipe the board clean. It is not a sure-fire recipe, and it doesn’t lead to something every time. It’s more like a trace, the trace of what “happened” here.


[1The Centre Interdisciplinaire sur l’Enfant is a member association of the Champ Freudien. See Philippe Lacadée, “Le pari de la conversation du CIEN”, in Vacarme 22.

[2Jacques Lacan, “L’Etourdit”, in Autres Ecrits, Le Seuil, Paris, 2001, p. 455.

[4Jacques Lacan, Séminaire V, Les formations de l’inconscient, Le Seuil, 1998, p. 51.

[5Jacques-Alain Miller, Du nouveau! Introduction au Séminaire V de Lacan, ed. Rue Huysmans, 2000, p. 24.

[6Freud mentions the two meanings of the word Freiung — place of asylum and proposal of marriage — with regard to a witticism by a Viennese man.

[7Jacques Lacan, Mon Enseignement, Le Seuil 2005, Comment faire pour enseigner ce qui ne s’enseigne pas?” p. 103.

[8Jacques-Alain Miller, op. cit. “That which cannot be said is the horizon of everything that is said. This is a function that, for Lacan, depends on the reality of language”.

[9Jacques Lacan, Des Noms-du-père, Le Seuil 2000, “Comment faire pour enseigner ce qui ne s’enseigne pas?” p. 28.