02/15/14

From Folk to Folk

…When and how did ‘oral literature’ become an object of discourse? To that question I have an answer—the curious history I promised you.

Presumably oral literature itself goes back as far as language. Oral literature becomes something that people write about at moments when their written culture bumps up against a non-written culture that for some reason impresses or frustrates it. You wouldn’t find a lot of attention given, in ancient Greek and Roman texts, to the fact that the villagers of Boeotia don’t spend their evenings curled up with a good book. The illiteracy of the peasantry is absolutely taken for granted. The relative literacy of urban dwellers in the ancient world does get some attention—usually when someone has a complaint about it. The following text from Julius Caesar’s narration of the Gallic Wars is exceptional and I will linger over it for a while:

The lore [disciplina] of the Druids is thought to have been transmitted to Gaul from Britain, where it originated. Those who most eagerly wish to acquire it go there for the sake of study…. There, they are said to learn by heart a great number of verses, and not a few of them spend up to twenty years in study. Nor is it considered in keeping with divine law to commit these verses to writing, though [the Gauls] use Greek letters for almost all other kinds of public or private business. It seems to me that this rule was established for two reasons: one, that they did not wish this lore to be acquired by the common people, and two, that they did not wish the learners to rely on letters and therefore apply themselves less strenuously to memorization, as generally happens to those who, through the help of writing, lose their facility of learning and their memory.

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05/13/13

Repurposing “Yujing”

If you pay attention to all the publications of contemporary Chinese cinema and media from the People’s Republic of China in the last ten years or so, or if you have the experience of advising graduate students who studied in mainland China, you may notice a buzzword: yujing (语境; linguistic context). The term yujing is actually composed of two words, yu (语; language) and jing (境; terrain or border). The word jing also carries a quasi-religious connotation of the term jingjie (境界; level of self-cultivation). Hence, when I first heard of the term yujing, I was struck by a certain aura around it, as though it were some state of being that one can achieve only through hours of yoga and daily exercises of Tai chi.

But then, if you were familiar with how the term yujing has been used in media researches, you would find the term incredibly dull and earthly. In all honesty, the term is often employed quite unimaginatively. For example, when some says “Hou xiandai wenhua yujing nei de Zhongguo dianying” (后现代文化语境内的中国电影; Chinese cinema in the postmodern yujing), the term yujing can be roughly understood as the linguistic (cultural, social, political, or literally, linguistic) environment or context within which postmodern Chinese cinema has been produced. The effect of hearing the term yujing is therefore not quite different from our hearing a term such as “discourse.” Very much like the case with discourse, after having read the term yujing in over several hundred book and article titles, you begin to feel indifferent towards what the term can potentially do.

So what is yujing? None of the books that use this term would give me an answer. Likewise, none of my advisees could tell me exactly what they mean by inserting this term conveniently in their sentences––albeit very convincingly. If the term yujing were to be understood interchangeably with the term discourse, it falls short of questioning the dispositif that is crucial in making the term discourse not only a descriptive one, but also a critical one.

Therefore, one day, I decided to ask H. Saussy.

Thanks to him, I now realize that the term “linguistic context” came from the anthropological studies of Bronisław Malinowski of the Kula ring—an institution of trading and gift-exchanges in the French-colonial Trobriand (now the Kiriwina) islands––when he, being a subject of Polish descent, was stranded during the First World War (1914-1918) as an “enemy.” The term “linguistic context” was initially conceived when Malinowski was asked to write his seminal article “Kula; the Circulating Exchange of Valuables in the Archipelagoes of Eastern New Guinea” by the editors of the magazine Man in 1920 (not the gay pornographic magazine under the same name). The question at stake was: How could Malinowski, as a European man, communicate with the “natives” when no linguistic commonality could be found among them? Malinowski’s answer is: via linguistic context. On the surface, the idea of the linguistic context can be interpreted simply as the syntactical context that precedes and succeeds an utterance (often translated into Chinese as shangxia wen). It can also be extended to the use of facial and bodily gestures that help the addressee understand what she or he has failed to comprehend verbally.

In this sense, the term yujing is not as empty-headed as I almost thought it would be. In fact, I believe that we should treat it quite seriously as a different way of thinking about what we mean by a discourse, especially in media studies.

Notice that yujing presupposes a semantic gap or absence that a human or technological medium can help contextualize. In the Chinese context, this could be an interesting form of intervention. The Chinese term of “media” are meti (媒体) or meijie (媒介). The word meiti was most likely borrowed from the Japanese term baitai, which—at least in Chinese—places the emphasis on a ti (tai; body) that conveys something or negotiates the relationship between two beings, objects or events. The word meijie can be traced back to the “Zhang Xingcheng zhuan” (“Biography of Zhang Xingcheng [587-653]”) in the Jiu Tang shu (Old Books of Tang, Liu Xu, 941-945). It literally means “through the intervention of a go-between.” The term puts the emphasis on the act of intervention, which produces a synergy that would otherwise be missing if two persons or objects were to act alone. The term yujing therefore indicates either a go-between body that sutures discrete linguistic modes or understandings by conveying certain meanings or values between two agents of communication, or a synergy that sparkles between two bodies as a go-between intervenes into a conversation.

Not only that, Malinowski considers the process of mediation as a process of gift-exchanges. For Malinowski, in this process of gift-exchanges, what being transacted are neither “utilities” nor “ornaments”; rather, they are “valuables” that carry no “surreptitious” value other than a certain reconfirmation of a bond between members of a community who are of the same social status. It also has the effect of distinguishing the inside and outside of a community by negotiating the boundary between those who can partake of the process of gift-exchanges and those who are excluded from it (99-100).

A very interesting part of the Kula trade is that the vaygu’a (valuables) are indeed traded for the purpose of stimulating “a desire for wealth, for ownership.” Yet, for Malinowski, the “conception of value and the form of ownership … are different from those current among us.” Malinowski observed that many of these vaygu’a are traded not for the purpose of accumulating them as “capital”; rather, they often circulate the trading ring as tokens for expressing the communal needs, sexual desires, friendship and social recognition (103-105). In other words, the term yujing in fact refers to an economy of social exchanges that are conducted for the purpose of maintaining a certain circulation of desire.

When media scholars use the word yujing to talk about a mediascape, what they have in mind is probably a geopolitical or cultural territory that is being mediated by the various mechanical and electronic media. But what the term implies—perhaps subconsciously—is a set of hierarchical limitations or socio-legal prescriptions that intervene our media space. For example, what our social media (e.g. Facebook, Youtube, Tudou and Weibo) do today is not necessarily open up a fully democratized and free-for-all process of mediation. Rather, they reinforce a process of gift-exchanges or information-exchanges that would consolidate our individual and collective social spaces and in-group affiliations. It also maintains certain distances between media communities that are separated physically by means of their verbal languages, cultural values and political conditions—and more importantly, the semantic gap that is often presumed to be unbridgeable or un-mediable in verbal understanding

Hence, in some ways, this idea can be seen both positively and negatively. On the positive side, the term yujing communicates a hope that contemporary media, through both verbal and non-verbal interventions, can somehow circumvent the linguistic differences between various geopolitical communities and achieve a certain form of mutual understanding. On the negative side, it simply indicates that these differences need to be acknowledged––and to some extent, maintained––in order to corroborate our existing international order and hierarchy of political power. In fact, mutual understanding, in this “negative” interpretation, can be understood as a social consensus that is achieved through the intervention of the state or corporate power.

So, next time when we use the term yujing, it would be interesting to explore further what implications such term might have on the way we understand how our private opinions, sensations, affects and emotions are in fact mediated—or in some cases, failed to be mediated. And more important, out of the very semantic gap between the term yujing and discourse, we may be able to come up with a different kind of critical intervention––a new linguistic context or terrain that can open up new potentialities.

For your interests:

Malinowski,Bronisław. “Kula; the Circulating Exchange of Valuables in the Archipelagoes of Eastern New Guinea.” In Man, vol. 20 (1920): 97-105.

03/6/13

Debatable Propositions in a Book I Otherwise Thought Important

If Bildung comprises a reactionary alternative to revolution, it shares this pacific spirit with modern human rights law. The French declaration of rights similarly articulated, after the event, how the revolution could have been avoided, and how future revolutions might be avoided through the reproductive mechanics of popular sovereignty. Although they emerged from the context of revolution, both human rights law and the Bildungsroman are reformist, rather than revolutionary… both human rights law and the Bildungsroman project individualized narratives of self-determination as cultural alternatives to the eruptive political act of mass revolt…

Both human rights and the Bildungsroman are tendentially conservative of prevailing social formations. Plotting novelistic and social evolution as an alternative to civil and political revolution, the idealist Bildungsroman narrates the normative constitution of the modern rights subject…. What emerges from the process is a socially contingent personality imagined to prevent certain antiestablishment collective and collectivizing revolutionary actions.

(Joseph R. Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc., pp. 115, 135, 136)

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02/12/13

When Beautiful Dreams are Bad Dreams

Working my way through Conor Friedersdorf’s collection of 2012’s best nonfiction, I have come across a piece by Joshua Foer on a man named John Quijada, who has invented a language, Ithkuil, that attempts to fulfill the age-old dream of a perfect language.

At one point Foer describes what happened after Quijada read Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By:

For Quijada, this was a revelation. He imagined that Ithkuil might be able to do what Lakoff and Johnson said natural languages could not: force its speakers to precisely identify what they mean to say. No hemming, no hawing, no hiding true meaning behind jargon and metaphor. By requiring speakers to carefully consider the meaning of their words, he hoped that his analytical language would force many of the subterranean quirks of human cognition to the surface, and free people from the bugs that infect their thinking.

“As time went on, my goal began changing,” he told me. “It was no longer about creating a mishmash of cool linguistic features. I started getting all these ideas to make language work more efficiently. I thought, Why don’t I just create a means of finishing what all natural languages were unable to finish?

The piece is fascinating (though Foer’s prose is only really average, if by “average” you’ll allow me to refer to the general high quality of New Yorker prose). But it does go to show that dreaming big almost always means dreaming crazy. Quijada’s story is wonderful, and Foer includes just enough of the history of invented languages (you can get more, and have more fun, reading Arika Okrent’s book) to give the whole thing context.

Some flavor of both the lovely, bold, joyful craziness of it all and the desperate grasping for control that accompanies it can be gathered from these two paragraphs, which succeed one another immediately and appear three-quarters of the way through the piece:

He opened a closet and pulled out a plastic tub filled with reams of graph paper documenting early versions of the Ithkuil script and twenty-year-old sentence conjugations handwritten in marker on a mishmash of folded notepads. “I worked on this in fits and starts,” he said, looking at the mass of documents. “It was very much dependent on whether I was dating anyone at the time. This isn’t exactly something you discuss on a first or second date.”

Human interactions are governed by a set of implicit codes that can sometimes seem frustratingly opaque, and whose misreading can quickly put you on the outside looking in. Irony, metaphor, ambiguity: these are the ingenious instruments that allow us to mean more than we say. But in Ithkuil ambiguity is quashed in the interest of making all that is implicit explicit. An ironic statement is tagged with the verbal affix ’kçç. Hyperbolic statements are inflected by the letter ’m.