Speaking In Tongues

English isn’t my first language.  It also wasn’t my last.
Is it yours?

When I get questions that are vague, and I ask for clarification, people often think I’m mocking them.  It’s understood as a gesture of mastery, of an appeal to authority.  What people think I’m saying is this:  “I know what this word means, but I want to see if you know so I can catch you out.”  This is what Sedgwick (and I) call “paranoid reading.”

Here’s what I’m actually saying to you:  “English isn’t my first language, and I don’t know if it’s yours, and I don’t know what books you read and what language you read them in, so let’s make sure we’re saying the same thing before we both waste our time and energy arguing about it.”  Doesn’t that make sense? 

Let me be perfectly honest - the single greatest weakness of the American educational system isn’t economic, political, racial, or geographic:  it’s linguistic.  Americans only speak one language:  money.  Let me explain.

If you’re even remotely slightly vaguely Marxist, you understand that “language,” like “culture,” is an ideological expression of the economic superstructure.  What that means - durr - is that any such elaboration, including language, is marked by the economic conditions of that language.  So if all you speak is American English all you speak is one language - the language offered you by a hyperpluralist, hyperdeterritorialized, neuroticized, capitalist culture.  So if you’re even remotely slightly vaguely Marxist and you don’t understand that language education is the first step of revolution, then, you know.  Kill yourself. 

Because here’s the thing.  My post about the “trans* debate” recently illustrates the same problem.  If language is imbricated in ideology, and ideology limits language, aren’t you running around in circles trying to defeat ANY given logic on its own terms?  Derrida calls that attempt “deconstruction.”  I call it “bullshit.”  You’re wasting my time, you’re wasting your time.  You’re wasting everybody’s time.  Find another way.  Find another logic.  Find another language.  Build your own conceptual plane of immanence.  That’s why language training is important - because limiting your access to other cultures is the single greatest crime your government has committed against you.  Just ask the Native Americans, if you can find any.

What Americans don’t seem to understand is that this inability to communicate across languages limits their intellectual activity no less than it renders them the pathetic butt of every tourist joke in every country on the planet (just FYI).  It also limits their ability to converse across disciplines, across races, and across political boundaries.  Because as I noted in my recent post, it doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong if nobody even fucking understands each other to begin with.  “Words” are words, and you can’t argue with someone using unfamiliar jargon anymore than you can argue with someone using an unfamiliar language.  So if you want to be understood, learn to explain yourself, to define your concepts, and to make your ideas accessible.  Build a conceptual plane of immanence.  Otherwise, STFU.  And if you want to understand, learn to explain your questions, learn to locate concepts when they’re offered to you, and learn to hear what someone is saying before you fucking respond.  Jesus. Learn to see the other person’s conceptual plane of immanence. 

Let there be absolutely no mistake.  EVERY major development in the history of human thought has been accompanied by one of two historical conditions:  either a massive project of cross-cultural, cross-linguistic translation, or an economic condition in which different ethnic and cultural intellectual traditions interacted thanks to the availability of an intellectual lingua franca.  Examples of the latter include Rome in the late Republic, Latin in Christian Europe, and French and German during the 19th centuries.  Examples of the former include late Hellenic Alexandria, early medieval Baghdad, later medieval Toledo, and Italy during the Renaissance. 

The first and most important requirement in my new school will be that every participant in our experiment must either speak at least 2 languages or begin studying a second one immediately on entering the school.  Because that’s how they separate us, that’s how they keep us from understanding each other, and that’s how we can access new modes of thought an action.  And that’s why I’m learning Arabic right now.  Because until I can read Arabic, I’m not going to weigh in on crap like “Islamophobia.”  See how that works?  First learn.  Then talk.  Preferably in a new language, using words you can explain, on your own conceptual plane of immanence. 

The Perils of Zombie Education

Wednesday, 26 June 2013 09:30By William J AstoreTruthout | Op-Ed


As a history professor with a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering teaching at a technical college after 20 years’ service in the US Air Force, I’m sympathetic to education that connects to the world of doing, of making, of providing goods and services to consumers. Yet we must not allow education itself to become a consumable. When education becomes a commodity and students become consumers, the result is zombie education. Often characterized in practice by the mindless munching of digestible bits of disconnected PowerPoint factoids, zombie education leads to more mindless consumption of commodities after graduation, a result consistent with greed-driven capitalism, but not with ideal-driven democracy.

Mindless consumption is bad enough. But zombies are also mindless in political contexts, which is why totalitarian systems work so hard to create them as a preliminary to taking power. Think here of Hannah Arendt’s critique of Adolf Eichmann as a man devoured by the demands of his job (the extermination of the Jews in Europe), a cliché-ridden careerist who was unable to think outside the constraints of Nazi party ideology.

But let’s return to the economic bottom line. In his signature role as Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) describes the latest generation of college graduates as NINJAs (no income, no jobs, no assets). Basically, they’re screwed, he says. This may even be true if you view a college diploma strictly as a passport to a vocation that pays well.

But true education is much more than that. True education is transformative. It’s soul-enriching and soul-engaging. It opens alternative paths to living that don’t begin and end at the workplace. It measures personal fulfillment in ways that aren’t restricted to take-home pay.

Higher education is (or should be) about enriching your life in terms that are not exclusively financial. It’s about the betterment of character and the development of taste. It’s about becoming a savvier citizen whose appreciation of, and dedication to, democracy is keener and more heartfelt.

And that’s precisely why it’s worthy of greater public funding. State and federal funding of higher education must be restored to previous levels precisely because an informed and empowered citizenry is the best guarantor of individual freedoms as well as communal well-being.

Education, in short, is not a commodity - it’s the commonwealth.

But today’s view of education is often narrowly focused on individual profit or vocational training or STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), a bias that carries with it class-based strictures. Students are told it’s OK to be selfish but also that their role is to be consumers, not creators; conformists, not dreamers.

Powerful institutions at local, state, and federal levels share this bias. Educators currying favors from business and industry spout bromides about “competitiveness.” Business leaders address graduates and tell them the secrets to success in life are a positive attitude, punctuality and smart clothes.

If we view education as an ephemeral commodity in a world of goods, so too will our students. They’ll lump it together with all the other trivial, product-based, corporate-funded information with which they’re constantly bombarded. Critical thinking? Informed citizenship? Boring. And could you shut up a minute? I need to take this call/send this tweet/update my Facebook.

Staring vacantly into electronic gizmos as they shuffle to and from class, students are already halfway to joining the zombie ranks. Let’s not infect them further with commodity-based zombie education.

What is to be done? History is a guide. Consider the words of John Tyndall, eminent rationalist and promoter of science. In “An Address to Students” in 1868, or 145 years ago, Tyndall opined that:

"The object of [a student’s] education is, or ought to be, to provide wise exercise for his capacities, wise direction for his tendencies, and through this exercise and this direction to furnish his mind with such knowledge as may contribute to the usefulness, the beauty, and the nobleness of his life."

Of course, back then such an education was reserved for young men. We congratulate ourselves today for including the “her” with the “his,” of promoting “diversity,” usually defined in racial or gender or ethnic terms.

But what about the diversity of a college education that embraces, not just hardheaded utility or the politics of identity, but ideals about the beauty and nobility of life? What about the fostering of judgment, the ability to go beyond prefabricated, binary thought processes of ideology to a form of thinking that can assess the value and significance of events, situations, and choices on their own terms?

But zombies don’t care about beauty or nobility. They’re not worried about making judgments, especially moral ones. All they want is to consume. Defined by their appetite, they are hollow people, easily led - and easily misled.

As long as we market education as a consumable, the zombies will come. They may even find ways to pay their tuition. Just don’t expect them to de-zombify upon graduation. Just don’t expect them to become noble citizens inspired by, and willing to stand up for, the beauty of true democracy. 

Also see the following by Henry A Giroux: 

Zombie Politics, Democracy, and the Threat of Authoritarianism - Part I

Zombie Politics: Dangerous Authoritarianism or Shrinking Democracy - Part II


Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.


Professor Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (United States Air Force), writes regularly forTomDispatch and can be reached at