Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Language as Culture as Power

I have discovered facebook. This does not make me feel like Columbus or, more legendarily, St. Brendan the Navigator; alas, more like Johnny-come-lately. Every now and then one of my correspondents will make clear that my approach to the language of the medium suggests my failure to understand how it's done these days. Split infinitives, for instance. Yes, the Oxford English Dictionary now accepts them as proper English, but I don't have to split them myself. And if I prefer to use grammatically correct if somewhat old-fashioned word order, nothing prevents me from doing so, not even the squawking of a friend who worries himself about such things.

This sort of rhetorical dissonance pales, however, compared to some of the more serious aspects of language that arise on facebook. An episode that occurred this afternoon on a thread that includes a multi-national group of participants interested in Iran, the treatment of women, Obama's health care proposal--whatever pops off youtube or CNN that generates a discussion--offers a case in point. The Onion ran a piece today that hilariously satirized the "death panels" attack of the right wing on President Obama's health care proposal--hilariously if, and only if, one understood it as satire, in the first place, and recognized the references to the recent remarks of Sarah Palin and others. If not, "I don't get it," very understandably (but not understandingly) wrote an Iranian expatriate who for security purposes prefers to reveal where she lives only to her facebook friends, not to people who pop up randomly in threads.

This may not seem serious. I wrote a post to explain the piece, and all seems well. I find another phenomenon more disturbing. facebook has proved a tremendous source of both information--sometimes--and useful opinion on events in Iran. Mousavi's organization, and his wife's, have gotten fairly good about translating their posts. Others have not always had the resources to do so. And once a thread develops off a given post, anyone who doesn't read Farsi, transliterated or no, runs into a brick wall. Automated translation exists, of course, and has more or less success navigating the quicksands of idiomatic usage, depending on whose account one reads. Not everyone has access to it, and certainly not for the real-time fluency of a facebook thread.

The very fact that facebook--twitter appeals far less to me-- has shrunk the world to the degree it has, of course, counts for a great deal in itself. One could accuse those of us who want to understand everyone they encounter in cyberspace of pickiness in the extreme. And yet, when a thread consists of bilingual Iranians and those who speak English but not Farsi, the possibility exists of a learning experience. As soon as the Iranians turn inward among themselves to Farsi, even if for good reasons, they've separated themselves from us and us from them. At times it feels like a power move. Of course, one could argue from their perspective that we assert our power in our ability to expect that as many people speak English as a second or third language as do, allowing us to get away with not speaking other languages. I am not monolinguistic, but the conversations that interest me on the web right now are in Persian, not Italian; at some point soon I'll start trying to find threads on Afghanistan, where the problem will show up all over again in Dari (the Afghan dialect of Farsi), Pashto and Urdu.

Some problems have reasonably easy solutions. This one doesn't, for the time being. But I hope discussing it as something more than a commonplace annoyance highlights the importance of breaking through the ways in which we rely on culture, language among them, to assert power, whether of the present or of a distant but psychologically present past. I have learned so much from my Iranian and Persophile friends on facebook--that the memory of the Mongol invasion informs Ahmadinejad's approach to Obama, for starters--that I want to eliminate anything that prevents me from learning and communicating more--for instance, that their paranoia about Obama misses the fact that we tend to see Ahmadinejad as a Hitler figure. I'm getting a Koran and a Persian textbook, but don't want to miss anything while I master them.


  1. I am glad you brought up Facebook. Recently, I had my first experience of receiving a post that made me feel uncomfortable and there it was posted on my wall. Since then, I communicated with my friend, via the more discrete email function, that I was not exactly happy with her memories of our high school days. Your interactions with Facebook are far more intense and interesting than my own. How amazing that you can know another reality so well through individual relationships on Facebook.

    We humans are like hydrogen. We combine and connect rapidly but not always for the good. I do not worry so much about what people "think" about me but I do wonder sometimes why I invite this chaos into my life.

  2. Peter,

    There is nothing correct or incorrect about splitting infinitives. As an editor I not only allow the splitting of infinitives, I often suggest them. The grammarians who insisted that one way was correct were making a power play with language: by having a prescriptive rule they could tell the educated from the uneducated, the degenerate young from the rueful yet civilized old. The rules of grammar we were taught in grade school had much less to do with good writing than with the cultivation of cultural capital and the ability to make social distinctions. So perhaps this was not the best observation to start off with for a post worrying about the exclusionary capacities of language.

    This is only a point about consistency, but I also think your expectation that Facebook should enable unfettered communication is based in what I can only think of as a particularly Christian linguistic ideology. What could be more universalistic than the expectation that we should finally be able to do away with translation. Its the notion that there was actually a pre-Babel condition that we are working our way back towards with the aid of technology, the global public sphere, etc. There have been some global cultural convergences in the last decades (late-capitalism and all), for instance, that you can expect to share some of the educational background of your Iranian interlocators. But culture (and cultures) and language (and languages) still exist. In their innumerable ways they are tied to scale, place, and memory in ways that should make the idea of frictionless communication (language without power) nonsensical.

    As an anthropologist I can only suggest that if you really want to learn about a part of the world / a culture / a people / etc., beyond what you can get in English language sources, there is no short cut: learn the language. When you can tell me whether speakers of farsi worry about split infinitives, and why, you will then finally know something worth the effort.