vor 4 years

Author Kübra Gümüşay has written a book about the power of language and wonders how we can once again achieve spaces for utopian thinking.



"Our pain alone does not change the world. It also requires joy of life. Only then can we urn to the future, shape it, and come closer to our ideals."

Let me quote a sentence from your book Sprache und Sein (Language and Being): “We have made the AfD great, as it is today. By legitimizing its provocations through our discourses. By turning their hatred into opinion.” Why did this happen, how could we have been so stupid?

Several factors play a role here. On the one hand, the majority outrage of the digital age in response to the provocations of individuals against norms and principles does not lead to their sanctioning, but, on the contrary, they are further strengthened and legitimized by attention. Also, attention is increasingly being confused with relevance.

Is social media, often described as an echo chamber, to blame for this phenomenon, or has something fundamentally changed in the way discourses function?

Digital architecture plays a significant role: the algorithms, but also the construction and function of social platforms. Profiles act as digital business cards for our personalities and beliefs. Your name and picture are next to every expression of opinion. Thus, an over-identification with political positions takes place. This means the focus is no longer on the topics themselves, but on people. And the currency in these debates is one’s moral superiority and the attention one pays to oneself.

Is this the only way I can receive feedback and resonance?

Correct. You must not forget that the algorithm favors precisely those contributions that trigger strong reactions. These, in turn, are contributions that strongly emotionalize, not ones that are thought-provoking and present objective arguments. The strongest emotion is anger. Added to this is the lack of public spaces, which could have a corrective function. Those in which we think together, in which no one thinks they have ownership of the absolute truth. Instead, we have to constantly vie for public favor. This is how the question of “Should we help people in the Mediterranean?” ends up being discussed in pros and cons.

Does the discourse lack safe spaces, protected spaces in which we can speak freely?

I would rather call them spaces for collective thinking and dialogue. But there is more happening. Our outrage against the constant provocations of the right has become reflexive. One may feel as if one is on the proper side. But the constant state of reaction leads to social stagnation. Outrage is selectively good, and important as a political tool, but not as a permanent state. Because then we are only engaged in preventing things from getting even worse. Instead of being the ones who progressively shape the future.

Outrage can have an emancipatory effect, but it can also result in the loss of every nuance in the discussion. How do we find a balance?

We should start by not talking to the right, but more to each other. I am not saying this to engage with the question, “Talk to the right-wing or not?” I think that question is misleading. It is much more important to consciously choose the topics we discuss and to reward them with our attention. People are formed by what is considered worthy of discussion in society. We have to very carefully check whether some issues are genuinely worthwhile, whether we are wiser afterward. Instead of a detailed discussion of how we want to live in the future, how justice, how an anti-racist and anti-sexist society should be shaped, we are busy rejecting increasingly crude thesis. Instead of discussing how the anti-discrimination law, Article 3 of Basic Law, should be implemented, we ask ourselves: Can black people be good neighbors? It’s absurd.

Do we have to reclaim these spaces for thinking?

Yes, spaces in which, by the way, there is also the possibility for mistakes. Because new insights are only possible through mistakes. American quantum physicist and philosopher David Bohm said: Mistakes are a gain for everyone. Because through them, we understand what doesn’t work, what leads to dead ends. Nobody has learned to write, to speak, or to move through this world without making mistakes. They are essential to the process of becoming human.

There were incredibly diverse films at this year’s Berlinale. But it usually wasn’t enough for audience members or on social media. Instead of being happy about progress or at least supporting it, new boundaries were drawn. That’s a problem for a living culture; there is a threat that it will freeze.

I see this conflict too. We have to realize that there are ideals and visions – and a deep chasm separates these from reality. Any action based on these ideals always means making a compromise. We do not live in an anti-racist, feminist, equal society, free of discrimination of any kind. We don’t even have a concrete idea of what this world would look like. Because it doesn’t exist anywhere. That makes it all the more critical that we try things and make mistakes, from which we then learn. Otherwise, we will become lethargic and unable to act. There is a sentence by author Anand Giridharadas, which I quote in the book: “Is there space among the woke for the still-waking?” Even in a vigilant society that is aware of and works against forms of discrimination, there must be a constant awakening and progress. If we do not see this issue as development, rather as status, and look down on people who are not yet as far along as we are, the effect is destructive. Moral superiority is not my goal. At the end of my life, I don’t want to say: But I was right! while everything else is going to the dogs.

Another idea in your book goes like this: “There are gaps. Between language and the world. Not everything that is, is spoken. Not everything that happens finds its expression. Not everyone can be present in the language they speak.” What does this mean to you on a personal level?

My book was born out of speechlessness. I’ve found language through the book. I started with a feeling of longing and went on a journey.

Where did this speechlessness come from?

At first, I couldn’t explain it to myself. But during my research, I encountered many people, some of whom had expressed exactly this feeling long before I did in different countries, languages, and times. It was very moving. African-American author James Baldwin said that it might naturally be the fault of language, that there is no expression for his experiences – but that it could be his task to carry the burden of his experience into language. For me, this was both the definition of the problem and the answer. Every language has an architecture that is only ever capable of capturing specific perspectives and forms. No language in the world captures the whole world. It only covers what those people who possess power and dominance in this language want and can see and experience. This becomes clear whenever we notice a gap in a language.

As an example, you use the term “sexual harassment.”

Philosopher Miranda Fricker explains that this term was hardly known in the USA in the 1960s. A woman who experienced sexual harassment in the workplace found it difficult to put it into words. Either it was flirting and therefore “okay,” or rape must have occurred for a problem to be recognized. This made it difficult for the woman to protect herself against future assaults. And the perpetrator? He was not aware of his own guilt.

In the book, you call this phenomenon the “powerlessness of the linguistic gap.”

You could say that you view the world through certain eyes by means of a word. This is why the reactions are so violent when there are suddenly discussions about mansplaining, manspreading, or old white men.

Because the person being talked about becomes aware of their position of power and now shoots back in a way?

I mean more that we look at the world differently with these words. This is a powerful moment: You choose a word that forces you to look at the world through the eyes of another person. There are so many films in the film industry that are produced by women, but still look at the world through a male gaze. Emancipation also means learning to look at the world through your own eyes – not those that are given to you.   

There is a chapter in the book called “The Museum of Language.” In the beginning, there is a sentence: “Being white and male is the standard, which does not have to explain itself.” Or did not have to for a long time. This is a framing that linguistically means that – following an example from Luise Pusch – in German, if you have 99 female singers (Sängerinnen) and one male singer (Sänger), you have 100 male singers (Sänger).


Furthermore, you write: “Let us think of language as a place. As a vast museum, where the world outside is explained to us [..6..” And in this museum, there are two categories of people: The named and the unnamed. Who is meant by these two categories?

The unnamed are so much in line with the norm that they don’t need their own name. The others deviate from this norm for some reason, so they “must” be named. A museum should explain the world through categories and definitions. What is decisive is who curates it and determines what comes into the museum, what does not, and why something is named and how. The unnamed can walk freely through the museum. They do not feel the walls of this language because the curators of the museum are so similar to them. But the named ones who deviate from the norm live there in glass cages. Their naming is their cage, the definition of the glass cage determines the spaciousness of these rooms. Some cages are indeed very spacious, like the term power woman. But there are also narrow cages, like refugee, East German, trans woman, or guest worker.

An example in your book goes like this: “If I, a conspicuous Muslim woman, cross the street when the light is red, 1.9 billion Muslims cross the street with me when the light is red.” People disappear behind the categories ascribed to them.

Right, because you are denied individuality and, ultimately, also humanity and equality. Consequently, you are evaluated in relation to this category and start to act according to it. You are the power woman who is fighting for the right to be vulnerable. Or the East German who does not want to conform to the cliché of East Germans.

You mentioned the concept of the old white man. What is his function?

If we name a previously unnamed person as an old white man, he becomes aware: I am being denied my complexity and individuality. Now he has to act according to the clichés of this categorization. For example, proactively attempting to refute that he is sexist or racist. And he must take responsibility for the behavior of other people in the same category. Things that may have nothing to do with him as an individual. Suddenly, he feels the burden of absolute categories. Now, this is the burden that many people have to carry around their whole lives.

As Muslims, guest workers, unemployed, single mothers?

Exactly. But the goal is not to put more people in cages, rather to raise awareness of what the consequences are for those affected. We need a new way of talking to each other. Because naturally we can’t live without categories, they are fundamental to understanding the world. But they become cages when they are absolute, or if you believe that a person has been fully understood when he or she has been assigned to a category. Muslim, East German? All right, I know who you are.

When you presented your book in Berlin, you said: “We reward people who think they already know everything.”

I admire people who manage to maintain a childlike curiosity until they reach old age. The been there, done that mentality, on the other hand, reveals a blatant lack of humility. It takes other people’s breathing space, the space of being.

In English, there is the idea of code-switching. Terms such as the N-word have been appropriated and reinterpreted by the POC community. What you propose is also similar to switching in semantics. The meaning of the terms is flipped, changed, you literally break them up to gain freedom.

It is also a question of attitude. The lack of humility, the lack of awareness of one’s limitations, pervades all of society. Oppression occurs whenever a perspective is made absolute. Lack of humility is the source of so many problems.

The young son of an acquaintance in Berlin came home from school crying a few days ago. When she asked him what was wrong, he said: “They can all speak Arabic, but not me!” In this youth culture, it is essential and cool to be able to switch languages and integrate a new habitus. Does that give you hope?

Of course, it’s not representative of the entire population. But there are progressive groups within society where change is taking place. Places where the future is tested long before it is ready for larger parts of society.

Like a social laboratory?

Yes, very different approaches are being tried out there simultaneously, a multitude of utopias – Foucault talks about heterotopias. Places where the future can be tried out, experiments that the whole society doesn’t have to do right away. This can also take place in organizations or institutions like your magazine or a start-up – the attempt to do things differently, for example, not to continually expose oneself to capitalist competition and follow textbook examples.

Your book is also linguo-philosophical. At the beginning of the so-called linguistic turn, the turn in the philosophy of language at the beginning of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote the famous sentence: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Today one could say: What you cannot talk about, you have to learn to talk about.

That was a great challenge for me. When we see that we can add new spaces to the museum of language, when we give ourselves the legitimacy to do so without first asking or begging for it, only then can we, the ones who were named before, also be a part of that language.

At the book premiere in Berlin, you were asked why you wrote the book. And this sentence also came up: “Personal happiness does not require a lack of solidarity with the world.” What did you mean by that?

If you have made it your business to make the world a better and fairer place, then you train yourself to recognize problems. For me, it was a challenge to be able to feel happiness and inner peace. I didn’t mention this at the Gorki Theater in Berlin, but there is a poem by Jack Gilbert in which he says: “To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” This really moved me. One’s happiness in the face of an unjust world does not mean losing solidarity with it. Because our pain alone does not change the world. It also requires the joy of life. Only then can we turn to the future, shape it, and come closer to our ideals.


Journalist and activist Kübra Gümüşay was born in Hamburg in 1988. She studied in Hamburg and at the London School of Oriental and African Studies. Her blog Ein Fremdwörterbuch (A Dictionary of Foreign Words) was nominated for the Grimme Online Award 2011. Gümüşay was a columnist for the taz. She co-founded the #ausnahmslos (#withoutexception) movement, which was awarded the Clara Zetkin Medal in 2016. Her book, Sprache und Sein (Language and Being), in which she shows, among other things, how language, thought, action, and political processes shape our lives, was published by Hanser Berlin.



Interview by Ruben Donsbach
Photos by Paula Winkler 

This article was first published in the Fräulein Spring/Summer print issue. 

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