Monday, February 13, 2012

Watch Your Language

“Vietnamese or even Chinese written language systems are reduced to mysterious aesthetics, without power to signify anything beyond the graphically representational to non-Vietnamese-reading audiences.” (35)

Language is a powerful tool for constructing meaning in our world, so when we rob language of its denotative and connotative meaning, we deconstruct – or possibly destroy – the world it has built.  The quote above is specifically referencing the Miss Saigon poster which appropriates the style of Asian calligraphy in representing a helicopter – the big effect with which the show is almost synonymous, but it has much farther reaching implications in a postcolonial sense. By turning the language of the other into mere aesthetic scribbling, there is a denial of the power of the Asian language to create its own meaning, to construct its own world.  The west sits in its position of privilege, assuming the white, middle-class, English speaking, Euro-American male as the basis against which the rest of the world should be reflected and ultimately judged.  The other or subaltern or subjugated is undervalued and robbed of agency.  Of course, it is not only in the overly commercialized Miss Saigons of the world that paint an unflattering and overly Anglo-centric version of interaction with an Eastern culture.  Even the most noble enterprises, however, when approaching a culture from the outside, have an added responsibility to examine the cultural assumptions that are being tossed around.  Shimakawa points out Miss Saigon’s stereotypical conflation of all things Asian into a non-American, non-masculine, non-subject soup of yellow skin and sexual submission.  But problems arise in these sorts of criticisms.  Is the negative portrayal of the other intentional?  Does intent matter?  Does the oversimplification of the culture of the other mask or illuminate root causes of oppression, subjugation or hardship?  When we appropriate language and culture into our own context, what does it lose?  What does ours lose?  What does either gain?  How can we even tell?  We like to believe that there are absolutes governing our little planet and the ways in which we interact, but the truth is (and this is no great shock to those coming off a few weeks of semiotics and post-structuralism), language ends up being the most effective way of shaping those delicate networks, and when we dismiss or ignore its power to create, this might be the moment when it has the most potential to pervert and destroy. 

An odd little sidebar from my marketing days: we were trying to come up with a name and logo for a beer made by one of our clients.  It was a 15th anniversary bock, so we circled around the German Funfzehn Bock as a possibility.  This, at some point, morphed into Fun Zen Bock, which ended up being what the client chose, and the logo became a fat, happy little Buddha.  Along the way, one of the designers raised a question: is it offensive to use someone’s religious icon as a logo for a beer?  The other designer shrugged and replied, “but it’s a false idol.”  Designer one tried again: “yes, to you it’s a false idol, but to someone else it’s a central figure of their religion.”  Designer two stared blankly, “But it’s not a true religion.”  This was clearly a losing battle, and Fun Zen Bock was launched upon a fairly clueless 3-Southern-state audience.  Since there aren’t really a lot of Buddhists in South Carolina, and probably even fewer who would be eating at a steak house, no objections arose.  But the questions that arose during the process (of which I was not a direct part, by the way) bubbled up as I read this section.  Just because I don’t understand the importance of the cultural artifact being appropriated, that doesn’t mean that it has no importance.

To take a little theory jump, it would seem fair to say that the abject is generally without a language of its own.  Indeed the object would never allow the abject the kind of agency it takes to be master of its own language.  But “The abject, it is important to note, does not achieve a (stable) status of object – the term often used to describe the position of (racially or sexually) disenfranchised groups in analyses of the politics of representation.” (3)  Even the exclusion experienced by the abjected at the hands of the deject (I think I got that jargon right… maybe) is structured and described by the hegemony, and as the abject evolves, so too do the methods of abjection.  There is often investment – conscious or not – in maintaining that good ol’ status quo.  So the Asian body becomes something that can be removed from polite society (Kristeva discusses the abject in terms of the female body… so it would be necessary to remember that the abjection of the Asian female body would be an entirely different breed of expulsion – and that intersectionality demands a whole other level of sensitivity in treatment of the other by the privileged artist or viewer or critic), leaving behind only the tidy and evolved Western world. 

Of course, perhaps Shimakawa is overreacting.  Perhaps it is too easy to read too much into a lovely marketing image.  After all, aestheticizing language is not an essentially bad practice.  Certainly playwrights do it every day.  And even removing meaning from that language, if done with thought and intention, is something that we can find useful and meaningful.  Talk to Samuel Beckett for a few thoughts on that practice.  But when the language of the other is made into something that is merely aesthetic for the purpose not only of serving the subject, but of serving the subject in an unfavorable portrayal of the other, there is something to look at.  We abject the other by robbing them of the power of language, substituting the language of the colonizer or the hegemony or the west – whatever you want to call it – as a universal expression of humanity.  But the universal is difficult to achieve even in seemingly monolithic cultures… even when we’re genuinely seeking it.  As I said, language is a powerful tool for constructing meaning… 

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