Friday, January 22, 2010

Speaking Chinese...

"You're speaking Chinese again", a friend told me the other day. I wasn't actually speaking Chinese, but in the language she was using, 'to speak Chinese' stands for saying something that cannot be understood. It's an idiom, but a revealing one. The way we speak, even if we do not mean it, often indicates a variety of things:
  • how certain groups or certain differences have been constructed in that language and the ethics surrounding this construction;
  • how we, as individuals, may consciously or not buy into these constructs, often perpetuating a problematic construction of difference as something to be feared, as something that cannot be surmounted, as something that has to be avoided at all costs.
When 'speaking Chinese' comes to stand for 'saying something that cannot be understood', the underlying implication is that Chinese is an exotic language that cannot be understood. Something that is so different that it becomes incomprehensible.

This is an interesting construction of difference - and I'd be curious to hear if this idiom has any sense at all in English or if readers can relate to it in any way. Here, difference comes to stand for something so apart from our ways of understanding the world, that it can no longer be made sense of.

As we learn our languages, with their biases and suggested views of the world, we also learn how to categorize the world. With this problematic idiom, Chinese comes to constructed as something incomprehensible. It is an exotic Other with whom we can have little if any rapport.

Such a viewpoint may often frame the way we come to relate to individuals we identify as belonging to the group. Often times, the incomprehensibility becomes a source of patronizing irony: "It's in Chinese, so you won't understand a thing, but it sounds so funny!". If you've ever seen someone of Asian background for whom English is not the first language trying to explain something, while other English speakers keep laughing at every word, then you know what I'm talking about. It is interesting though to think about how our perception of difference is informed by such an intricate web of cognitive, linguistic and social dynamics.

Photo credits: Steve Snodgrass

Thursday, January 21, 2010

When the French need to prove they're French...

Who decides on your race, ethnicity or nationality? What are the features you need to have in order to be placed in one of these categories? While I am usually more concerned with deconstructing such categories and with showing how unsustainable they are, this post will be slightly different.

A few days ago, TIME published an interesting story on how the French must prove they are French. The idea was that children born abroad to parents that were French nationals are having a hard time getting their nationality recognized by France. If this nationality is not recognized, then you cannot be a French citizen. However, to be recognized as such, you need to be either born out of French parents, or to be born and to have lived in France until you reach adulthood. The TIME story traced the saga of one of the children born outside of France from French parents who were working abroad at the time.

Without getting into the intricacies of the law here, it is interesting to observe the struggle around defining what nationality is, who has the authority to recognize it and by what means it can actually be attained.

Nationality is a notoriously hard to define concept. Back in the 1950s, Karl Deutsch defined it as "a term which may be applied to a people among whom there exists a significant movement toward political, economic, or cultural autonomy” (1953, p. 3). There were obvious problems with this definition, and Deutsch was the first to notice that: just how do you measure that? It is fine to say "a people with a common will to being autonomous", but just what does the 'common will' mean here? Do you count those who are not in favor of that autonomy? Do you count those who do not recognize themselves as belonging to the group in question, but still live with the group?

And even if you come up with seemingly more 'objective' features to define nationality, such as language or common history, you're in trouble again. For instance, language is not as uniform as we want to believe it. In fact, language is better understood as 'languages', where the plural emphasizes the lived diversity of spoken dialects.

However, trying to understand 'what nationality is' is by far less interesting than trying to understand 'how nationality becomes the main principle of categorization' within modern world. Since most people are social beings, they have always lived in groups. What's different in modernity is the nature of the group boundary as well as the importance of the group as an essentializing force acting upon the individual. To the extent that nationality becomes the political principle justifying the organization of the state, nationality also becomes the most important category defining who is in and who is out, who has access to resources, and who has rights or not.

The overlap between nationality and the monopoly of authorized violence (the state) is the most intriguing and the most problematic one. With this overlap, the main authority in placing you within groups resides with the state. The state takes over the possibility of negotiating this placement in everyday life and rigidifies it into a set of rules that establish your location within a system of rights and exchanges.

Photo credits: fdecomite
References: Deutsch, K. (1953) Nationalism and Social Communication. An Inquiry into the Foundations of Nationality. NY: The Technology Press of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology & John Wiley & Sons, I nc.; London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Gender and Sexuality in Advertising

The commercial says: "Be smart. Be attractive to the opposite sex!"
What is this commercial about? You have three guesses:
  • Excel, the gum that whitens your teeth.
  • Toyota, the car that makes you socially desirable.
  • London School of Economics, the higher education institution that makes you very employable.

If you guessed "Toyota", then you've got it! Not because there's something intrinsic to Toyota (the car or the brand) that makes you both smart and sexually attractive. But because the advertising/ marketing team has decided that wits and sex cannot possibly go wrong. Who doesn't want to have them both? And if all you need is a car, then hey, I'm in! The political correctness of this commercial - as well as its stupidity, unfortunately the two go hand in hand here - was compelling. It's a little treasure, revealing how intellectual concerns and criticisms about economic issues make their way back into the world of economics and get reincorporated in the economic logic of profit making.

This commercial may be a nice example of what sociologist Anthony Giddens has once called the reflexivity of the modern world:

The reflexivity of modern social life consists in the fact that social practices are constantly examined and reformed in the light of incoming informatoin about those very practices, thus constitutively altering their character.” (Giddens, 1990, p. 38)

When some consumers get upset or feel left out, the good advertiser knows that all you need is a re-branding, the miracle touch that transforms the gender-oppressive product i
nto a gender-bender, gender-celebratory one.

  • Buying the product gives you the two things feminists have nagged us about: sexual attractiveness and intelligence. Because we all know how hard it is to be both smart and attractive. Yet, with this product, the two become seamless.
  • The product is not designed exclusively for men or women. And while it is unfortunately still designed for the heterosexual group (I guess the creative team could not come up with a word that would please everyone... And you have to agree that 'Be attractive to whomever or whatever you are attracted to' does not really sound very neat...), both men and women can benefit from its magical, sexual effects. No more "Mini-Cooper is a car for gays" or "VW Beattle is car for women"... No, sir/mam, this car's magic bestows sexual attractiveness in a (almost) politically correct manner.
Photo credits: DavidHT
References: Giddens, A. (1990)
The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990

Friday, January 15, 2010


When asked what she is doing, an acquaintance answered she is a mother. And added: "The best thing a woman could be". I had to disagree. As a child, I always wanted to hear my mom say that I am the best thing in her life. But growing up, I started to think that my mom was so much more than just my mom: she was a professional, she was an intellectual, she was a human being whose life extended beyond her role as a mother. My mom took pride in who she was, as a human being. And I am thankful for this, because it taught me that I am first and foremost a person. That biological sex is one of the many aspects of my life, and it needs not be the one that totally defines me.

It's true that being a mother is not easy. Nor does it come naturally. Like all other things humans do, it requires learning. To master it, you need to practice and to be patient. You rely on the existing knowledge, you seek information and you adjust what you find out to fit your view of the world. If anything, one can say that being a mother - better, being a parent - is one of the toughest jobs ever, because there's so much at stake. Not to mention that it is a round the clock, year round job. And that it never really ends...

But being a mother is not "the best thing a woman could be". It may be your personal calling, but that's not a consequence of you being a woman. It is the consequence of a choice you made, a choice stemming from your worldview. Women are not one and the same, defined by their capacity to procreate. Not all women are able or want to have children. Does that mean they will never reach their potential as human beings?

We all try to make our own choices about our lives. But to say that motherhood is the best a woman could be is highly problematic. You may say that motherhood is the best thing you chose to be, because it fulfills you. In such cases, you want to convey to others that you are happy and satisfied with what you have in your life. But one size does not fit all!

Photo credits: seanmcgrath
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