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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Robert Bloch’s “Psycho”: The Crane Factor.

Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959) is popularized and better acknowledged as a “psychological thriller”. The story, as most of us may know, deals with Norman Bates, a provincial motel owner and his condition of “split personality”, which we arrive at at the end of the narrative. Norman, in spite of his introvert and diffident appearance is identified as the killer of two persons who happen to stop by his motel – the “crimes” are committed “as mother”: the immersed personality taking over. The book was later turned into a successful film venture by Alfred Hitchcock (1960) with an equally successful remake (1998) with other inspired productions, including parodies. Translations of Psycho are widely circulated, which includes a popular Sinhala translation by Senaratne Weerasinghe.

In spite of its thriller aspect and the consistent suspense generated, the novel is dense with irony, which is subtly woven into the text. The novel is moved by a theft by a company clerk, Marion Crane, who crosses states in hope of a “new start”. She is set to meet up with her boyfriend, but her plans go awry as heavy weather forces her to pull over to a wayside motel. Upon her arrival at the Bates Motel Marion discovers the largely diffident, introvert owner who is internally stirred by Marion. The narrative becomes ironically playful when Norman’s hobby is found out to be taxidermy. His specialized interest there, again, is the stuffing of birds: a subject with which his inner room is filled. Incidentally, Marion’s (Mary) surname, too, is Crane: a bird name and she ends up being hacked to death in the bath by Norman’s “mother”.

With the big cash gone missing with their missing clerk, Marion’s employers hire Private Detective Arbogast to look into the disappearances at hand. Arbogast is hot on Marion Crane’s trail and correctly arrives at the Bates Motel. Arbogast takes pride in his “scent” and decides to hunt down for clues at the motel. His investigations are spot on to the ironic extant that he, who is confident in his sleuth skills, scents out death and is sidelined to the same fate as of Marion: the object of his chase.

Norman Bates is exposed by Mary’s sister Lila Crane who, along with Mary’s lover Sam, arrives in search of the missing Arbogast. In a sequence that is memorably cinematographed Norman is finally trapped and apprehended in his own cellar. The motel runner taxidermist is thus caught in his own cellar where he stores his taxidermist paraphernalia; and by another Crane, too, at that. Irony is further underlined as the two cars in which Marion and Arbogast arrived at the motel are pulled out from the nearby bog. Finally, Arbogast had arrived at his destination; but, in a totally unexpected “un-lively” way.

Psycho is a study of personality and of tendencies in what is generally analyzed as “split personality”. It is ironic how Norman, who comes across as a shy, diffident man – a fellow “without personality” – has embedded in his profile not one, but two “persons”. The idea of the “double” is seen where he assumes the “roles” of both son and mother. However, a “double” can also be seen in the Crane sisters, Mary and Lila. While Mary is more frivolous in her interactions, vulnerable to danger and is deceptive in her dealings, Lila portrays her foil, with qualities of being morally solid and of being cautious. Marion is daring, but submits to her venturing spirit as she becomes an unassuming victim. Lila, on the contrary, is the “resolver” of the mystery: one which had already engulfed more deaths than can be desired.

The novel also foregrounds the idea of “journeying” – each character is seen to journey both literally and morally. Marion, for instance, makes off with the company deeds, journeying in search of potential happiness. Arbogast journeys in search of the truth behind Marion’s disappearance. While these characters seek happiness or enlightenment (truth) in their movements, neither of them succeed in arriving at their desired destinations. By contrast, the one character that is stagnant – both in time as well as in terms of space – is Norman. Norman is in an inescapable moral and psychological dilemma and occupies a tragic past, connecting it to / connecting to it his present. Ironic as it may be, all these characters, therefore, display signs of victimization both in social and moral capacities.

The most widely known passage / scene of Psycho, perhaps, is the “bathroom scene”. This constitutes of a voyeuristic sequence where Norman secretly watches Marion in her bathroom. She is later “found to be” killed in the bath, with the water running. This infiltration of “intimate spaces” and the deprival of comfort and security permeate the narrative. From the financial odds in Marion’s own life she shares with Sam, in the eerie appearance of the motel to Norman’s own emotionally unsettled life this strain of anxiety and insecurity can be traced. They all seek “comfort” in their own ways – morally acceptable and otherwise as they may be – but fail in the process. Norman’s comfort in his own quiet retreat with his “mother” there “by him” is a flimsy refuge in a world civilized by its own rigid and uncompromising regulations. Bloch’s text emphasizes on this last poignant note even as the two cars are pulled out from the lake, in the concluding passages.