Thursday, October 30, 2008

Where cats undermine the tyranny of nationalist grammar...

Ever thought about why some of us get so annal when it comes to grammar, accents and 'speaking correctly'? After all, who decides what the correct way of spelling or saying something is? And according to what criteria?

There's a nationalist (and sometimes racist) history to this, and it has to do with classifying the 'correct' version against all other versions labeled as 'deviation' or, in this case, 'mistakes' (for instance, making the distinction between language and dialects; or between speaking without/ with an accent). I'll give you a few examples of what I mean by that:

1. The notorious legal attempts in France to prohibit the use of non-french words in public arenas. While it is certainly a form of protest against the hegemony of English language, it is equally a nationalist form of linking who you are, what you can think/say to a language. Au revoir 'email', bien venue 'courrier electronique'.

2. Purging a Romance language of its Slavic elements as part of a state project: take Romania, an Eastern European country priding itself with being 'an oasis of Latin in a Slavic sea'. While Romanian is a Latin language, the influence of the multicultural composition of the region has certainly shaped the language too. After some 50 years of being under the influence of Soviet Russia, which also shaped language too, nationalist intellectuals decided to purge the language of (at least some) Slavic influence by changing the spelling of certain words. And, from one day to another, students in Romania found themselves policed by an army of professors, teachers and intellectuals ready to penalize them if they misspelled a word... So, who decides on the right spelling?

3. Closer to the North American context, a particular type of English predominantly associated with African American or Latino groups has become more and more popular, primarily through music (think rap) and other forms of popular culture. Try writing like this in school...

Well, the only point of this long post was to introduce a short movie about Cats undermining the norms of grammar, spelling, and 'proper speech'. This may well be a literacy project, but in my mind it is a very good example of how everyday life people challenge the dominance of nationally defined languages. An interesting art project which, for me, opens up the space of thinking about language as an organic, everyday life process which disregards national or racial boundaries:

Monday, October 27, 2008

Autism and Difference: Thinking about Another Way of Thinking

I have just followed CBC's documentary "Positively Autistic". I'm posting here a video made by a person living with autism about her way of thinking, communicating and interacting with the world. I have to say it is hard to understand and think about what the author has to say, and most probably the difficulty does come from being educated and thus shaped by a particular idea of what reason, thinking and social interaction is supposed to be. The author wonderfully explains this in the second part of the video, where she translates things for us.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Othering techniques

I have recently asked an audience about the 'ethnic' core of the Canadian nation. Someone whispered: Aboriginals? Right - and wrong! It is certainly an acceptable, politically correct answer - if one does not look at the (not so distant) history of Canada. Then, along with various historians, one realizes the white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian core of the Canadian nation - a vision of an 'imagined community' which has lasted (is still there?) in policy as well as in everyday life stereotypes for a long time (think for instance of the Chinese head-tax).

As I browsed the newspaper, I was reminded not only of this conversation, but also of Billig's argument that the nation is flagged (and thus re-constructed) on a daily basis, in the little things the audience is supposed to share in common. The front page article entitled "Resignation paralyzes residential schools commission" is interestingly placed under the banner "Native Issues" (paper-based version). The long-standing and thorny issue of the residential schools - and the ensuing Apology offered by the Canadian prime minister to Canadian Aboriginals - has a thick context, involving not only institutionalized oppression but more importantly, a longstanding Canadian social imaginary in which the Aboriginal is an internal Other, to which the nation is intrinsically connected. Partly guilt, partly desire to assimilate the Other (the present reminder that this is not 'our' country, but that 'we' have only recently made this territory our own, drawn our national boundaries and took posession of it).

The article presents the problems within the Indian (?!?) Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which culminated yesterday with the demision of the chair. Apparently, the issue at stake is the positioning of the commission as merely truth-seeker (institutionalizing a particular 'official' memory) or as also reconciliatory (which, in my understanding, brings along a new set of responsibilities on both parties for the healing process). Regardless of what is truly at stake, the way in which the story is framed says a lot about who is the intended audience of this article, what is the relation between Canada and Aboriginals. It is definitely not about people's experience (and indeed a previous analysis of Canadian media coverage of the Apology that I undertook together with a colleague of mine shows that Aboriginals are positioned primarily as political subjects, with the result of re-colonizing the group as a national subject and re-assessing its demands, needs and contexts within the frame of the nation-state). It is definitely not about 'our' experience - but about 'theirs', the "Native issues". Most importantly, the article is not about the implications of truth vs. reconciliation, but about decision-making and authority lines.

A good literature review on globalization and culture

If you're looking for a good lit review on globalization and culture, clarifying some of the major trends in looking at the relation between globalization and nations/ nation-states/ national cultures, then you may try Kevin Archer, M. Martin Bosman, M. Mark Amen and Ella Schimdt (Eds.) (2008) Cultures of Globalization. Coherence, Hybridity, Contestation London & New York: Routledge.

In the introduction, the editors lay out the contemporary debates on globalization and culture, which they divide into two major lines of argument:

- culture-of-globalization (also called 'cultural turn'), focusing primarily on how culture is being co-opted and deployed by capitalism.

- globalization-of-culture (also called 'global turn'), focusing on the flow of cultural products (images, symbols, lifestyles etc.) via mass media.

The final recommendation - which I find quite pertinent for anyone interested in the alleged dissolution of the nation-state under global pressures - is to move away from simply looking at the economic and cultural dynamics on macro scale, and to rather focus on "the response - or impact - side of globalization; that is to say, how it is actually understood, interpreted, employed, reshaped, resisted, or even rejected by the targeted consumers of its material and symbolic content" (pp. 9-10).

Monday, October 20, 2008

Michel Maffesoli on the postmodern society

In french, but worth listening to. I've discovered Maffesoli via Mike Featherstone's work, which makes me wonder about some of the academic lines of conceptualizing a subject like globalization.

The difficulty of talking about nationalism

I'm having a hard time talking to an audience about nationalism. I've tried to understand what's the source of my problems: is it that I don't explain what nationalism is? Is it that my explanation and the audience's understanding of nationalism differ? Is it because my expectations on what 'understanding' should be like are misplaced?

Truth be said, defining nationalism is a problem in itself. Worldview, discourse, ideology - exactly what are these terms supposed to refer to? A way of thinking about the world. Seems rather weak, I agree. Bourdieu offers a nice - though still problematic - way of talking about 'isms': a web of statements defining the core term (in this case, 'nation'). So, nationalism could be understood as the words, phrases, ideas, meanings etc. which explain what the nation is.

The problem with this definition is that it doesn't provide any further qualification to the core concept - the nation. In other words, what is it about the nation that makes it so important. We don't talk about house-ism or table-ism; we do talk about national-ism and liberal-ism and race-ism. So what sets these core concepts of nation, liberal, race etc. apart? What is it about them that puts them at the center of a web of statements dealing with their nature, features, implications etc.

The pair nation-nationalism refers to a particular type of community, which has political and moral implications. To put it differently, they talk about groups of people, providing an explanation for a particular form of political organization, which subsequently has moral implications. We still miss here the territorial aspect: this political form of organization predicates a 'natural' link between people, territory and political organization.

I'm not sure how one can easily talk to an audience about these things... Part of the problem seems to stem from their abstraction. To talk about discourses, worldviews, ideologies requires you to talk about the relation between language and reality, a relation which we take for granted in social constructivist oriented environments, but which is far from being a common-sensical view. Trying to define nationalism - or to explain the idea of the nation - requires a discussion of how concepts referring to the social world are necessarily constructed through language, as well as through a material infrastructure which derives from the way in which we come to talk and think about the social world. Grrrr, things are getting complicated again...

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Race and Biology

The last issue (vol.5 issue 38) of Social Studies of Science deals with the complex and disturbing question of race, genetics and disease. I've only went through the introduction to this issue, as I've been ambivalent on this topic and I found others shared my ambivalence. I do understand that, on a macro scale, populations are shaped by their environment: we've seen this from the time white colonists brought the flu to North-American indigenous populations. We can still say today that African Americans, on the whole (and whatever that means), are more affected by certain conditions and diseases. There's also the possibility of tracing down where your genome 'comes from' spatially - like Whoopi Goldberg did.

I'm trying to say that there are certain benefits from thinking of race in terms of genetics. But I'm a scholar (and from the vantage point of not being directly affected by any of those alleged benefits) and I feel deeply disturbed by the whole context of this linkage: genetics is intrinsically linked to racism. Let me put it differently: genetics, searching for the biological proof of races, was developed for - and cannot be easily divorced from - racist purposes. You might say we no longer believe in the hierarchy of races and that our purposes driving our genetics research have nothing to do with eugenics, with creating the 'pure' breed. Maybe. The point is we might no longer believe in the hierarchy of races, but when we believe in - and look for - the biological proof of racial difference, we classify people into races in a way that cannot be contested (not to mention that this way of looking at things already frames the reality that we subsequently investigate). We start from saying each race has particular health problems - and mind you, what the hell does it mean a 'race' in the first place, how does it homogenize us etc. From different races-different health, we come to different diets, different education, different medication... and before you know it, we have DIFFERENCE written all over the place. Now, I'm not sure this is different from racism...

Photo credits: MASH DNArt

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Stuart Hall: Why does 'difference' matter?

As I was re-reading Stuart Hall's work on representation and identity, I came across this discussion about why does 'difference' matter*. It is a rather theoretical discussion, tracing some of the academic reflections on the role of difference in the ways we make sense of things.

Hall outlines four arguments about difference which have something to say about how we perceive and relate to difference.

1. The linguistic argument (made by Ferdinand de Saussure) that difference is central to making sense of things. We make sense of 'white' by comparing it to 'black', of 'male' by comparing it with 'female' and so on. Yet, this way of thinking emphasizes the opposites - there is a range of grays in between black and white. One may choose to see how black turns gradually into white; or one may choose to see black versus white. I'm talking about colors; but one can easily talk about race, ethnicity, gender in the same way.

2. The dialogic argument (made by Mikhail Bakhtin) that difference is central to understanding and communication, because we communicate and make sense of things in a dialogue with another person. It is by participating in this dialogue and by confronting the different ideas we have that we make sense of things. So, difference is seen here as central to understanding.

3. The anthropological argument (made by DuGay and Hall; Mary Douglas) that each culture gives meaning by classifying things. Classification means emphasizing the difference; better said: when you classify something, there is a principle according to which you decide it is different or similar - so it has to go into this class of things (e.g. chairs) or the other (e.g. dogs). The idea here is that difference is created by those principles of classifications (those things which you highlight as central to defining a chair versus a dog). Though it make look like those principles are 'natural', 'logical' and 'immutable', they are in fact social conventions (heavy to swallow, but i won't go into details here).

4. The psychoanalytical argument (made by Sigmund Freud) that the "Other" - different from Self - is central to how we form our identities. Psychologists and psychoanalysts like to point out how, as children, we come to understand ourselves as different from the others in a painful way (e.g. we throw things on the floor and they don't come up to us and thus we form a sense of the Self as different from the world). Furthermore, for Freud, this process of defining the Self from the Other has - yeah, i know, big surprise - a sexual dimension. The drill is well-known: Oedipian complexes for men and identification with mothers for women etc. etc.

I found these insights really interesting: they do influence the general framework through which we come to think of difference - whether racial, gendered or simply the difference between a chair and a dog...

* Stuart Hall (1997) "The Spectacle of the 'Other'," in Stuart Hall (Ed.) Representations. Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage and The Open University, pp. 223-279

Photo credits: KaCey97007
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