Monday, March 30, 2009

Mind your Language

“If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.”

This selection from Homi Bhabha’s Location of Culture earned him the dubious runner-up position in the 1998 edition of a "Bad Writing Contest" organized by the journal Philosophy and Literature. (He lost me after the string of predicated nouns). Curiously enough, Bhabha is a professor of English at a not-so-mundane school. Language in its written form, in the hands of its so-called experts, seems to have taken a nosedive into inaccessible depths —or elitist heights for lesser minds as I.

To insert a personal angle, my unschooled and default mother-tongue has, of late, been shown wanting in many departments: vocabulary, precision, conformity to parameters shared by the larger community. My wife’s been unrelenting in pointing the many mistakes I had earlier reasoned away as my version of Mizo. To my credit, we have managed to restrict our communication to Mizo, a choice that comes with the proverbial “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Neither did I sound like Bhabha. However, in light of the many unintended verbal slights, I always wondered if we could mutually agree to meet halfway to defuse the verbal slips. Obviously, the subscript states that I refuse to comply and that she moderates her linguistic canon!!

In defense of Bhabha and their ilk, Rey Chow recently argued that their verbiage is warranted by their investments in language. A bulleted version of her argument would run something like this:
•Focus on language not as a tool of communication but on the modes of production and reception of meaning prior to the establishment of meaning itself.
•Hence, the establishment of meaning is problematic.
•Emphasis is on the ideological manipulations of meaning. Language—as much as we’d like it to be transparent—no longer functions unproblematically.
•The problem is with myth, and myth-making.
•Myths interface multiple domains of signification. Fluid and shifting easily, myths offer multiple possibilities for duplicity, ambiguity, and ideological manipulation. These manipulations over time project a factual system.
•Some of the modernist myths hinted, I assume, are fact, truth, the static self, etc.
•To fend off mythic corruptions of language, specialized languages such as E=MC² or that of modern poetry are deliberately obscure, exclusive, and impenetrable. At least they try to.
•Verbiage as that of Bhabha and Chow emerge from such resistant positions on language.

However, that E=MC² itself has taken the semblance of a fact belies the effectiveness of resistance to language. Who hasn’t rattled off the obscure formula, or name-dropped a towering figure in their field as if to cloak oneself as sophisticated and erudite- as if sophistication and erudition were self evident facts merely by reference. Besides my own complicity, I now also have to explain this to my wife in Mizo!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Against the grain

If Slumdog Millionaire deserved the global recognition it got, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas should be accorded no less. Unlike the graphic templates we are used to with films set in and around Nazi Germany, Striped Pyjamas provides us a vantage point unlike most in its genre. Its explorations of human vicissitudes amidst crises open us to possibilities of orientation to human situations without overt reference to violence –despite violence's palpable imprint.

Seen through the eyes of Bruno, the eight year old son of a German officer in-charge of a concentration camp, Striped Pyjamas is an exploration; in a profound sense of the term. Bruno’s love for adventure books inspires him to explore, a childlike instinct which leads him through questions that push him beyond his circumscribed limits. The answers do not seem critical to the screenplay. Rather, Bruno takes you along in his playful yet profound adventure: you skip along eagerly through the woods of discovery, playfully eavesdrop on an adults-only screening, long for atonement after slighting a friend, and even find out that a shower is never always just ‘another’ shower. Pushing one beyond the familiar modernist urge for a neat and structured end, Striped Pyjamas’s motions unsettle popular notions. The resulting ambivalences pry through the in-between spaces that, according to one cultural critic, bear the burden of how we grapple with notions of ourselves and/in culture.

While both movies were released around the same time –Slumdog in January 09 and Striped Pyjamas in November 08 (source: IMDb)– Striped Pyjamas went under the radar. Maybe the current economic climate helped Slumdog sell its rags-to-riches story better.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Chin Day Celebration

Chin-Mizo and other hyphenated people group expats in SoCal met to celebrate the 61st anniversary of the Chin Day.

I'm sure the organizers had their best intentions to line up a talk on "Chin Migrants in India." A very gracious Dr. Hrangkhuma tactfully deflected the title's problematic implications to suggest the underlying commonalities that should/could be better celebrated. All in all, a great evening of fun food and reconnecting with like folk in the area.