I was wrong

I thought it would work to just re-initiate blogging here, and that because it wouldn’t require the effort of trying to build a new virtual house, and refine my virtual voice, that it would be easier. That, it turns out, was incorrect, and I find myself casting about madly for ways of writing and settling on absolutely nothing.

So finally, I am willing to consider this blog officially defunct, and I will be setting up a new home just around the corner. Stumblers-upon can now find me at Fray Adjacent.

This article from a few days ago previews the upcoming (Oct 24) release of census data describing Canadian’s linguistic abilities. It deals in particular with the relationship between the data that is reported and our national identity:

“It’s a portrait of who we are, linguistically, as a nation,” says Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies. “There’s a lot of symbolic dimension to this. It’s not just about the numbers.”

Which is true, with a caveat. The symbolic dimension doesn’t just emerge from the numbers – it emerges from what we make of them, in our everyday conversations and in the media. And one thing that I continue to find striking about the discourse about language and bilingualism in Canada is the tendency to conflate the concept of a “bilingual country” with rates of individual bilingualism. Here in Canada, they are being constructed as the same thing – the relatively low rates of English-French bilinguals in the country, especially among English speakers, is referenced as a sign of the declining importance of English-French bilingualism for our national identity.

Although most Canadians perceive the country as bilingual – the result of government policies mandating services and labels in both official languages – the legitimacy of that image is under growing scrutiny.

My shallow analytical counterpoint would be that regardless of how many English-French bilinguals exist in this country, the country remains bilingual by virtue of those very government policies. But this scrutiny exists no matter what I think, and these contributions are, I think, going to change the conversation about our official language policy, and may bring it up for questioning in ways it hasn’t been for quite some time. Maybe they’re one off points, but with a separatist government in Quebec and an unsympathetic Conservative administration in Ottawa, the linguistic gloves might come off.

One thing I would like to see is how our political vs personal bilingualism discourse compares to what happens in other countries with multiple official languages. I’m fairly confident, for example, that South Africans don’t spend a great deal of time worrying about the fact that very few individuals speak all of the 11 official languages of that country. I’m also curious about how Canadians conceptualize the role of English overseas and things like the high rates of fluent L2 English speakers in countries like Sweden or the Netherlands, in contexts where it is not a part of national identity. I wonder whether thinking and talking about that makes a difference to the assumption that our identity as a bilingual nation must or should map on to a greater number of individuals manifesting that particular form of bilingualism.

Bilingualism and Canadian Identity

I feel a little guilty saying so, but nothing makes me so glad to be something other than USian than election season. I’m certainly not saying that Canadian elections are spectacular displays of democracy in action, but as with most things we do, the volume on the bullshit is not turned up quite so high.

From a sociolinguistic perspective, however, those debate things cannot be anything but interesting. The chance that somehow, a discussion, a dialogue, a debate might accidentally emerge underneath all of the performing, and the inevitable ways that what one politician hopes is a throwaway comment will generate thousands of words of analysis and hundreds of barbed pictures (in this case “women in binders”). Before the second debate, Charles Pierce said:

It is the last stand for spontaneity, the last possibility of a human moment before both candidates climb back into their bubbles and bounce across the landscape the way that white blob on The Prisoner used to do it. It will be the last chance for flesh and blood before the election roars to its inevitable conclusion as a bloodbath of decimal points.

What is even more interesting to me is the dynamic of interaction, which Deborah Tannen discussed this week in the NYT. Because no matter what, that is almost inevitably revealing. Who is allowed to interrupt whom, when, and how? What is seen as a transgression when it is performed by the female moderator vs. by Mr. Romney vs. by Mr. Obama? How do their reactions become themselves part of the performance? Obama saying “I’m used to being interrupted” reads, to me, like a scathing commentary on disrespect from his political opponents. And I’d be gasping right along with the audience when Romney said “You’ll get your chance in a minute. I’m still speaking”, and making a whole pile of links to broader processes of Romney’s infantalization of Obama.
Which is really just the tip of the iceberg of what there is to talk about in the debates. There is always flesh and blood in these conversations if you’re looking for it.

Debates and Political Performance

Revisited, Again.

Again I hit a point where life made blogging essentially untenable. Again I have come to find that I miss it and want to try to make it work between me and the internet. Again I am likely to fail – whatever that means – though this time I hope to force myself into some kind of a scheduled structure that will motivate production.

My main motivation for this is actually to help siphon some thoughts out of my head and create some space and order for dissertation writing. A lot of my posts are likely to revolve around themes related to said dissertation and language/linguistic anthropology more generally.

I will be posting an updated description of who I am and what this blog is about, because that information has seen some major changes. I thought about starting over with a new blog and a shiny new internet identity, but as I struggled to come up with something, I started skimming these old posts and just felt…at home. So I decided to run with that, and see what happens.

And here we are.

Rethinking protest

Okay, so now that the situation in Toronto has gotten really serious, all of a sudden we’re having an entirely different conversation about protest. Well, an entirely different conversation from the one most people were having last week, anyway. Now we’re in the territory of repeatedly using the word “anarchist” in fear-mongering constructions, suggesting that the overwhelming police presence was not only justified but possibly insufficient and CBC online commenters using such expressions as “barbarians”, “animals” and following brilliant lines of reasoning to connect acts of vandalism with any kind of left wing politics.

Now, the conversation is about “legitimate protest” vs. violence. These people are destroying whatever legitimacy could have been found in peaceful demonstration. Because it’s in the hands of the general public to legitimize objections, and if Joe and Jane Q Public decide that they find your tactics unsavoury, the content of what you say is absolutely irrelevant. You didn’t put your hand up, you chose to shout the right answer out, so the teacher will ignore you and likely penalize you on your report card. And the person sitting next to you, who is clearly your friend and who put his or her hand up before you shouted out the answer, but was being ignored in favour of the students the teacher liked better, well, that person will just continue to be ignored because they shouldn’t be friends with you and give answers that are the same as shouter-outers. Because yes, we are actually all in grade school, and order is more important than learning, discussion and truth.

In this discussion that has primarily become about violence vs. legitimate, peaceful protest, I can’t help but note one thing that I’m not seeing mentioned all that much. We’re not actually talking about violence. We’re talking about vandalism and property destruction. I have not seen a single report of anyone being injured (if anyone is actually reading this, please correct me if I’m wrong, but a quick search of major Canadian news outlets don’t disprove this, and I have to suspect that they would be the first to jump on any story that existed). Private and public property costs money, and burning police cars are powerful images. But they are not necessarily violence. Is it tenable to suggestion that in some cases, possibly this one, these acts are violent? Probably. Should it be stated as truth without question or dispute? Absolutely not.  The standard expected by the family Public is that protest does not actually disturb anyone or anything. The less it is noticeable, the better.

I can’t say I really support property destruction and burning things as acts of protest…I have a deep feeling that some sort of shift in tactics needs to take place in order to create any kind of effective protest…but damned if I can’t say that at least we’re talking about something, even if all most people are doing is erasing the line between vandalism and violence and delegitimizing anything not resemebling the status quo.

Sports Nationalism

The commentary portion of the World Cup broadcast just brought up a somewhat intriguing point in reference to the spectacular failure of the French. Apparently, the French government has requested an “inquiry” into what happened to cause this meltdown. FIFA and the French Football Federation are against this course of action, because, as the commentator put it, they believe it’s important to keep the football-governance structure separate from the running of the country.

And yeah, okay, in some ways it’s actually really easy to mock something like this as far too trivial and trite, and to be sure, an inquiry would be a pretty unjustifiable use of funds. But at the same time, FIFA’s suggestion that it’s absolutely ridiculous to consider this anything but a pure football issue seems a little bit disingenuous. World-stage sports – especially such massively popular events like this one or the Olympics or whatever – obviously have a nationalistic component to them, but it’s always been somehow sanctioned as separate from the problematic kind, the actual work of nation-building and identity formation…even though it’s not, not really. This is a non-governmental channel for unification, a positive source of group pride and energy and whatnot.

It’s a brief point, and a minor one, to be sure, but it just seems to point further towards this sense that “well yes, we’re representing France as a nation, and whatever we do on the field is pretty strongly suggested to be connected to our identity and to our national cultural features, but this isn’t an issue that should concern France as a state government”. International sports fascinate me as a site of discourse-construction, and this little moment of contestation raising the question of whether the jersey-nation can or should really fall into the governance structure of the flag-nation brings some of the reasons why to the surface.

Protest, cynicism, and fake lakes

With the G8/G20 Summits happening nearby in Toronto/Muskoka, I know a few people who have gone to the protests, and I’m obviously seeing quite a bit of coverage in the news. And I feel, in some ways, like the 30-year-old I never thought I would be as I look at the whole thing with deep cynicism. It’s not that I was ever under the illusion that any of these protests represented a chance for revolutionary change or widespread rethinking of our ways of life. But I thought there was something to be said for the act of being there, of standing present to say that the way things are is unacceptable. It’s primarily been watching media coverage over the past few years that has pushed me further and further towards skepticism.

First of all, summit meetings of global leaders have stood in as standard opportunity protest fare for the past decade or so. The premise is that the leaders are there, the media is there, the counterpoint has to be there as well. But it’s become so much a part of the assumed backdrop of such events that they’re barely worth reporting on. I’ve actually seen very little coverage of protesters, and far more of the police presence that has been brought in to deal with the increased traffic volume in Toronto this week. Casual morning shows express gratitude for the police, who the hosts say are there to keep them safe. Shots of protesters themselves may be used almost as stock footage before cutting to commercial.

What people are saying has absolutely no presence here. There is no actual voice to this counterpoint. There is only one specific thing I’ve heard about that is upsetting people – the “fake lake” set up and paid for by the Canadian government to provide foreign media representatives with a taste of Northern Ontario natural beauty. The objection, of course, is to the taxpayer expense, originally rumoured to be a couple of million and now reported at $57,000. That change in price tag has not changed the attention paid to the story – “person on the street” interviews on more than one station this morning asked about reactions to and perceptions of the ‘fake lake’. The voices we hear say it’s cheesy or artificial-feeling, or that they wonder how that money could have been spent better, some taking the opportunity to object to the upcoming implementation of the harmonized sales tax, others making social justice points about poverty relief or government services.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less about the fake lake. Maybe I have some other thoughts somewhere about the general discourses on wasteful government spending and the ways in which somehow highly conservative attitudes about taxation and individualism can become so ubiquitous as to erase any actual discussion of what things do and what they cost, but the fake lake is not a particularly spectacular counterpoint, so I’ll  leave them steep a bit longer. But what I do care about is that this is the point of objection that we hear. This is the G8/G20 issue that I could mention to anyone on the street, and people would have something (probably negative) to say about it. The fake lake is casual, facile, overwhelmingly banal piece of small talk that is standing in as a distraction for actual politics, actual decision-making, actual protest, actual discussion. Increased securitization is expected, both by those who appreciate it and those who are terrified of it. Protests are expected, even though no protesting voices and positions are actually heard, as protesters essentially get labeled as little more than protester-brand 21st century consumers of ideas, opinions, concepts. The summits themselves will happen, leaders will discuss things, decisions – none of them particularly shocking or unexpected, all of them probably horrifying if you really think about the whole system of it – will be made (or rather, formalized through the spectacle, since most of the discussion has taken place behind the scenes among aides, assistants, and advisors). But the fake lake, that’s something we can talk about.

It’s really hard not to be cynical when you’re talking about a $57,000 fake fucking lake.

Is Evo-psych worth saving?

…in which I assert an extraordinary amount of arrogance in order to make sweeping judgments about an entire discipline of study.

The context, of course, is the blog-publication of yet another example of poorly constructed, poorly executed studies from which some rather impressively unimpressive conclusions (which, in turn, are held to disprove the theoretical and empirical claims of feminism while simultaneously misrepresenting and misunderstanding those claims) have been drawn. Elysia, guest blogging at Shapely Prose, and Amanda Hess cover the specifics on this one.

I confess that my knowledge of the academic discipline of evolutionary psychology is pretty much limited to the studies that are popularized, then linked and dismantled on feminist blogs, usually by feminists with extensive backgrounds in science, using explicitly scientific and often even evolutionary terminology and methodology (I have occasionally tried to find the studies themselves and read a bit from the academic journals in which they’re published). Elysia’s post is a particularly good example of this technique, since she is an evolutionary biologist. Throughout her article, she continually acknowledges the limitations of what she knows on this topic, as she is in a different discipline and has a rather different area of interest and expertise. Like most of the other examples I’ve seen of this kind of post, she emphasizes her openness to examples of high-quality scholarship in evolutionary psychology, even though she’s never actually seen any that, as she puts it, get the ‘evolutionary’ part right.

I’m not going to do that here. I will acknowledge that I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an expert in evolution or even a scientist. I make no claim to understanding all – or really, any – of the nuanced mechanisms of natural selection or finer points of evolutionary theory. I know, understand, and appreciate it entirely in broad strokes. My little corner of academic expertise is language and the diverse socially constituted understandings thereof, and I would be ill-equipped to really address these kinds of studies on their own terms.

But really, I’m coming to believe that those terms are, in fact, the problem. The axiomatic premises from which the entire discipline operates are fundamentally and possibly irredeemably flawed. Those premises, as I understand them, are that human psychology, individual motivations and social actions can be best understood as arising out of evolutionary concerns. At some level, everything that I do – everything that all of us does – is based in our deep-seated desire to reproduce and to do so with the ‘best’ mate possible. And that’s hooey.

Critiques of specific studies often point towards the ways in which certain notions of desirability (which it doesn’t even take Anthropology 101 to recognize as highly culturally specific) are projected onto these analyses and the strange way they seem to take desire/expressions of desire to stand in for actual reproductive results. The frequent pattern of applying macro-chronic concepts to micro-chronic scales is often mentioned, and among other things that happens when you do that, this ultimately requires evolutionary psychologists to apply biological metaphors to social processes. There’s an unquestioned idea that not only do species evolve, so too do cultures.

The layers upon layers of problems with that assumption, from eugenics to the civilizing mission to modernization to uniform teleological trajectories of progress, are well-documented. Which is why it makes me deeply, sincerely sad that evolutionary psychology manages to situate itself within the academy. It seems to me like a way of wrapping up some extremely archaic, easily disproven, old school ideas from physical anthropology in a shiny, ultra-scientific package.

When I say the axioms of the discipline are hooey, mostly what I mean is that they set out to prove themselves. There’s no genuine intellectual curiosity here – there’s an assumption about the underlying motivation for everything (which comes down, basically, to sex), and all behavioural data absolutely must be interpreted so as to support the conclusion that this behaviour exists to make us have more sex/more babies/more viable babies, with no other variables or, really, variation possible. It’s circular reasoning, and it’s hooey.

It’s like the disciplines that studied some of these kinds of questions before – including, why yes, anthropology, among other things – started going in a direction that a certain subset of people didn’t like, so they set up their own club where they could keep talking in terms of ideas, theories, projections and maps that don’t translate all that well into the real world of diversity and complexity and variability. And our knowledge production system, with its rigid compartmentalization and authorization of specific ways of knowing about/talking about/thinking about certain things, lets this happen. Makes this happen.

Hooey, I say. But what do I know? I’m not an evolutionary psychologist.

And I wonder why people think of Africa as one country…

Okay, so the World Cup, which I’ve been watching – and enjoying on a new and deeply emotional level, much to my own surprise, actually – pretty constantly this week, is, of course, in South Africa. It’s the first time it’s ever been in Africa, and this is a big deal, and something to be celebrated.

But damn, it’s also an opportunity for reinscribing the discourses of ‘Africa’. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve recalled this passage from the wonderful “How to write about Africa” post:

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

The musical chant “It’s time for Africa”. The CBC halftime information segments “Revealing Africa” (which also invokes the sense of Africa as dark, hidden, incomprehensible, needing to be brought to the surface). The commentators’ attribution of the term ‘home soil’ to each of the participating African nations, despite the geographic, cultural, linguistic, social, and political distances among the six of them.

At one point, the commentator of one of the games actually said that South Africa has put more effort into their self-presentation during this World Cup than any other country he can remember, and explained this as relating to the host country’s knowledge that it was representing an entire continent. It’s that pattern of personal privilege – where only the Other is expected to represent her entire group, and a heterosexual white TAB North American middle/upper class male is presumed to be an individual representing only himself – writ on a national/continental scale.

When I was a TA for first year cultural anthropology last year, and students were assigned to write a research paper on some topic relating to a book dealing with themes of global poverty (primarily on whether this was really a universalizable concept in the first place), I got to the point of keeping a tally on a separate sheet of paper counting how many of my students somehow conceptualized Africa as a single country. One even referred, in a phrase riddled with ambiguities and non-sensicalities, to “the government of Africa”.

Dear CBC and World Cup commentators: You are not helping with the education of Canadian youth. You are making a substantial contribution to their ignorance, and not just because they’re watching soccer while they should be studying. Thank you.