Language and Power…to what end?
Now, looking back and looking forward at the end of my third semester in Language and Power, I’m struck by how much the syllabus feels like it tells the story of a journey of survival. But, I have to admit, it’s a funny kind of journey, and one I wouldn’t have ever hoped for, since I didn’t know this kind of path could exist. What kind of journey, with what kind of path, and to what end?
When I started thinking about this, I first thought that, of course, every class must do the same in some way: the very fact of engaging with a body of readings; juxtaposing ideas and texts and my own notes and journals; establishing a ritual of sorts in walking to and from the same room in cycles of weeks that deepen as the seasons change on the same university campus; seeing first faces and then people in the faces and then even friends in the people; feeling the fabric of the curriculum become interwoven through thought and experience with the memories and events and smells and sights of life outside the classroom—I’ve felt these things before, traveled this path before, maybe even too many times.
I have to admit, though, I had high expectations for the treasure that would lie at the end of this path. I mean, this course is called “Language and Power”—how many other courses do you know that include the word “power” unadorned by adjectives or prepositional phrases, just there, bare, raw, unmasked….power. I thought this class almost had to reveal, once and for all, that thing that I’ve grown up and lived my life knowing through experience but not comprehending in my mind: why the adage in the course description that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is so patently false: how, in 2nd grade in the Montessori parking lot, when the other kids heard my mom wish me well as she dropped me off for the day with the words “Bye-bye, Tiger”, they could take that tiger away from me and so easily, so cruelly, put me at its mercy.
When I was growing up in high school, and then growing up (the first time) at Berkeley I began to be interested in Spanish, then Japanese, then Korean—less in “Language” with the capital “L” than in languages in all their myriad complexity—I thought that knowing more languageS (with a capital “S”) might, finally, reveal to me the power of language, and empower me in language. Like, learning to en-gender nouns in Spanish taught me that mountains can be feminine, and countrysides masculine. Learning to split the first-person pronoun, the unitary, centered and single-lettered English “I”, into the Japanese watashi for the classroom and in general public life, into watakushi for even more formal settings, then into boku when I was to be familiar yet not too assertive, and into the liberating ore who doesn’t need to flex his muscles or strut his stuff since he’s already so self-assured, a bit of the comic hero that lives in all of us … these realizations were among those new ways of knowing self and world, that seemed to promise me, through languages, to reveal Saussure’s secret—to lift the ‘mask’ of language and reveal the underlying things, objects, structures of the world. To know these things and to know what to call them…is that not to understand Language and Power?
So, to come to the end of this course, to finally enter the ‘home stretch’ of the journey that started out showing how fixed our lives are in language, discourse, and institutions, I was startled to open Judith Butler and hear that we are still vulnerable, to read Michel de Certeau say that, in effect, the best we can do is ‘poach’ on the territory of others, to hear Toni Morrison tell us that what makes us human is to be always at the mercy of birds and tigers in the hands of others. “The address that inaugurates the possibility of agency,” Butler told me as my hopes to finally know myself in the world faded, “forecloses the possibility of radical autonomy”.
I’ve come this far, we’ve come this far…we’ve woken up at 8am every Tuesday and Thursday, and sat on Monday afternoons in what have to be the most stuffy and dark rooms on campus, and read and written hundreds of pages, sat pondering obtuse language, pulled all-nighters, and had a few too many espresso brownies to have the possibility of autonomy foreclosed upon us. So where have we come?
There’s not time to tell the whole story; finals are coming, class is ending, and the word count’s rising. There’s not time to wrap up a story of a journey when the journey’s about survival, a journey that, for better or worse, follows a path that doesn’t lead to a magical truth-revealing destination at all. No, this path keeps unwinding: un-framing itself, re-drawing the very lines that make it up. Who gets to say that mountains are feminine, and countrysides masculine anyway? Am I the same person I am in Japanese that I am in English? How can we be mythical and real, performing and sincere, empowered and dependent, all at the same time?
At the same time I’m reading these words out loud to you, I’m writing my 100th post on this blog, Found in Translation. And yet what looks on the surface like a milestone is more than anything a reminder that I have finished very little: the half-complete story of my name from way back when, the beginning of a series on signs in the linguistic landscape, the first half of a reflection on the “swine flu” and international bordering. And, more significant than these, the story of the conditions of possibility of even telling stories in the first place, of who it’s possible to be in English, and in my rusty Japanese, in my infantile French. I hope I get back to these.
But, then again, maybe that’s not the point.