To Fill In the Gaps of Language Studies

Suresh canagarajah

Suresh canagarajah

The recently concluded 7th Session of the Sri Lanka Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (SLACLALS), held with a trans-national participation at the Sri Lanka Foundation, was a forum for several research papers on linguistics carried out by Sri Lankan academics / researchers probing into several aspects of English in Sri Lanka. Among the case studies presented, there was a paper which – among other things – probed into aspects of “Sri Lankan English”; where the presenter, referring to that problematic category, argued that “Sri Lankan English” has arrived at a stage where the recognition of “Sri Lankan Englishes” (as opposed to a monolith) was timely. Using the Schneider Dynamic Model (a propound which is often used to gauge the “development stage” of postcolonial New Englishes), it was argued that “Sri Lankan English” was in a position now to be identified as having its own varieties: hence, that it, like a cancer, has passed on to Stage 5 in Schneider’s chart. A claim alright – but, isn’t this Colombus all over again? The productive edge, I felt, would have been in radically questioning the postcolonial applicability of the category “Sri Lankan English”: the misleading location of a language “variety” within the straitjacket of an all encompassing notion of a homogenous the nation state.

Another ambitious paper probed into the location of the /z/ sound in the speech of Sri Lankan speakers of English. This was once again a well “searched” paper, with a detailed breakdown of the empirical and positivist routes followed in arriving at “conclusions” of sorts. At one point, the presenter submitted what some of us in the audience found to be (at its best)the kind of “empirical” generalization which one should be suspicious of: that the pronunciation of the /z/ by Sri Lankan speakers of English is determined by one’s sex (being male /female). The back benches of the audience acknowledged this with a murmur and a ‘ssss’ (or was it a /z/?), but none really followed up in the subsequent Q and A session.

My purpose will be defeated if I launch on a detailed response of the presenters’ research findings (which, as the reader may argue back, I should have done on premise). But, the sheer application of empirical research and positivist meticulousness was seen to be barrened by gaping ideological cavities, which on a better day would leave the studies in question undermined and vandalized. The very fact that “Language” – the complex and ever dynamic discourse it is, always already entangled with multiple underpinnings of power, politics and issues in representation etc – cannot be “studied” without subjecting it to gross reduction itself has a large implication for a student geared to make “statements” regarding a “variety” or two of a language.

Operating on language: the empirical mission

Operating on language: the empirical mission

Other than the will to “categorize” and identify “language” as a linear object (with stages of development, status shifts etc), the papers reflected another cardinal ideological sin which is often committed in the reliance placed on unsatisfactory models, even at the expense of their being insufficient and anomalous. An imperfect model, even with the slightest anomaly should not be used – specifically, if you are to make broad statements upon that incorporation. The empiricist’s approach to a linguistic survey would only be farcical as there can never be “empirical data” in language. It was in my first year as an undergraduate that I was first fine-tuned to the possibility that language is a context-bound transaction; and that that “contextuality” is a ever-refreshing flux. I would only laugh at a linguist whose solemn project is to record the way I may pronounce the four lettered swear word, as chance are that I will deliberately flout my response in order to make the linguist believe she has me on tape, swearing. What if I, within my “linguistic range”, pronounce the word in three different ways than one? What if my tonality changes, depending on my fatigue level? Maybe, I would voice my /z/ sound differently on Sundays, when I fantasize I am Zorro: the linguist wouldn’t know.

The Chairman of the SLACLALS organization, Professor Walter Perera, observed in his “welcome speech” how the forum – for the first time in its run – is without the presence of “yeomen” academics in the caliber of Thiru Kandiah and Ashley Halpe, who (as it was implied) have been regular participants of this programme. This, perhaps, is not relevant to the seminar alone, but also to the field of Linguistics and Language Studies as a whole. The Sri Lankan Academy, at present, is without the presence of academics in the caliber of Arjuna Parakrama, whose views in these subject areas make more sense to us today, than upon our first encounter with the man during our undergraduate days. For someone who saw Linguistics and Language Studies (as practiced in Sri Lanka) as a “fruit that cuts all ways”,  the kind of ideological issues raised by a Professor Parakrama remains the most crucial internalization of an age.

Where language is not on holiday

Where language is not on holiday

Since the English studies of our universities have a dense Linguistics/Language concentration, a critical approach to issues in Language Studies is of paramount significance. This approach should essentially be after-structuralist, with a firm re-reading of the post-colonial ground the “nation” treads. The kind of petty, putrid definitions given to that rich, irreducible transaction which we collect by the word “language” has to be freed from the clutches of ambitious theory-mongers and reactionary models. As Professor Suresh Canagarajah, at the same programme observed, if two people can communicate in one-to-one terms then “language” has already been formed, for its is a contract which cannot be justified by grammar or queer models and formulas. The politics of language should cut short its holiday and return to the university classroom.

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The Clutches of Totalitarianism in Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot”

George Orwell’s occupation in his critique of totalitarian authority in 1984 is equally shared by Samuel Beckett, in Waiting for Godot. Written within the space of two years, both works engage with the escalation of tight control by exclusive central authorities, as they infiltrate the multiple strata of civil society; where matters climax with the obliteration of the “individual space” and “personal consciousness”.

Orwell’s mystified overarching central author – “Big Brother” – finds in Beckett’s “Godot” a complementary echo; even as Beckett’s representation of this binding authority is more enigmatic: for Godot is “not seen” and is obscure as he is shapeless, unlike Big Brother, who makes ritualistic appearances on the mass network of telescreens. Though Winston Smith – the skeptical subject citizen – is in doubt as to whether there is a “real” person called Big Brother, the body / form which corresponds to that appellation is ritualistically present. Not so in Beckett’s play, though: for Vladmir and Estragon are merely “aware” of an obscure Godot, whose bidding they eagerly await.

Vladmir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky

Vladmir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky

In their pseudo-clownish play and tramp-like attire, Vladmir and Estragon are both hopeful and fretting of Godot’s arrival. This binary response, at one level, is a recurrent motif which adds to the surface “absurdity” of the play. However, the play is not without a valid intervention with the power and overarching influence of a totalitarian grip. While the hopeful and wishful wait for Godot continues, every entrance is viewed with awe-infused distrust and fear, lest that it is Godot that has finally arrived. The “salvation” of which the subject is inculcated with a hope and the dual responses instilled in the subject defines the author’s hegemonic role. Godot demands and has earned both the “consent” and the “fear” of the subject. He is both an “approval” as well as a force “bewared”. In 1984, Orwell presents the concept of “double-think” – where one’s thought or conceptualization is arrested and inverted, to form a variable which is antithetical to what it, on the surface, is claimed to be. The “Ministry of Love”, therefore, becomes the state organ of imposing surveillance, monitoring civilian movement and in punishing the offenders of the state agenda. The “Ministry of Peace”, likewise, propagates war.

While Winston Smith of 1984 is a silent dissenter of the system who braves a futile resistence against it, Vladmir and Estragon of Beckett’s play are in lumpen servitude, being policed of their thoughts and being in no position to either conceptualize or rationalize. Their existence, therefore, is in a fossilized space, where they fail to form “concrete ideas” of time, space and action. In the repetitive cycle of almost banal and futile rituals, Vladmir and Estragon cannot think “new thoughts” and cannot reason or think beyond the frozen space and their imploded expectations, as they await the arrival of a never-arriving Godot. The repetitive cycle of sniffing a boot, or of smelling a hat, of repeated tiffs and make ups are all carried out with mechanical effect in a space allocated for their “stay” by Godot.

Regimentation ahoy.

Regimentation ahoy.

The fable of totalitarian control, as presented by Orwell, is accentuated as a more vibrant, ritualistic representation in Beckett’s play. The “unconscious” subject status, as projected by the combo under study, is a more compelling and relevant study for peoples whose “ability to think” is policed by state arms and maneuvers. The desired effect of subjecting the “dissenter” to the iron grid of “Room 101” – where O’Brien, the state agent, “appropriates” you from your state of being a dissenter – is already reflected in Vladmir and Estragon. As much as the empire-building totalitarian overlord is “benevolent”, so has he to be “feared” and “respected”. One must not waver from the space this all mighty, over-imposing hand designates you, even as the fulfillment of that promise of “deliverance” is delayed and deferred. One has to subdue the growing sense of isolation and discomfort, in keeping ignited your faith in the “word of Godot”. These are among the crucial injections which Vladmir and Estragon – in an unconscious drive – have already internalized. The policed state of their thoughts are resonant in how they express an urge to move, but stay immobile; and in other instances where they contradict by action the impulse of their need.

The politico-philosophical bent in both Orwell and Beckett can be effectively juxtaposed with the likes of Franz Kafka, and has arguably influenced a host of artistes of the post-1950s, of whom Pink Floyd is one. In their 1980 album “The Wall”, there are elements which strongly resonate Orwellian and Kafkesque influences. The act’s preoccupation with the dissemination of dominant ideology is seen in the way the “regime” is diagonally placed with the interests of the individual – and in how “justice”, as well as “education”, is portrayed as regimental proxies. For Beckett, the ultimate status of state subjection – in the state where the individual has no clue about who, what or where s/he is – is manifested in the fable of the pseudo-tramps. For he who knows irony, Waiting for Godot is more relevant a gift, if the copies of 1984 suddenly run out in your local bookstore.