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.