6/01/2010

Asymmetry of Language Relations

I'm going to take the time here to discuss an idea that has come as a tangent off the current research that I'm doing into soft power and public diplomacy in China. One of the core assumptions at the heart of the American political theorist Joseph Nye's concept of soft power is that Italian socialist philosopher Antonio Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony must be able to hold true, not only within national borders, but across them as well. While I think we can all see how certain cultural objects, especially ideational things like "democracy" or "market capitalism" can become quickly dominant because of American cultural hegemony, Nye argues that the spread of English around the world is an advantage for America's hegemony (though how England, Canada and other native English speaking countries benefit is unclear). "If they can think in American English, they can think like an American", is one of the ideas that Nye promotes in various writings promoting the idea of soft power.

But another American political theorist, Richard Rose, has convincingly argued against this idea in a paper entitled, "Language, Soft Power and Asymmetrical Internet Communication". The argument is basically that power relations between linguistic groups are often best explained by the question: who understands the other better? The spread of English around the world reduces incentives for Americans to learn other languages, while foreigners are able to better understand America through their learning of English. In the book Charm Offensive, Joshua Kurlantzic notes how while most American diplomats to China arrive relatively unaware of even simple Chinese customs, more than a few Chinese diplomats could give complicated accounts of the internal politics of American political parties. If that's the case, then the spread of English around the world actually is the result of attempts to challenge American hegemony, by understanding American culture better.

A criticism of Rose's idea from within Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony might be that when two groups are operating within the discursive frameworks of a "hegemon" language like English, native speakers will possess an advantage from the greater flexibility their advanced knowledge gives them. But I think ultimately, Rose presents a new way that we should look at attempts to promote a nation's soft power through language. Do Confucius Institutes, Goethe Institutes, Alliance Francaise and the multi-various efforts of the English speaking world actually gain a "power" advantage over those who they train in the language, or do they allow language learners to subvert the power structures within that language?

Empower yourself. Learn a language.

3 comments:

轉寫主義者 said...

1. ""If they can think in American English, they can think like an America"

Dumbest thing I've ever heard.

2. who understands the other better?

This is independent of language. If Americans (or any group) wanted to understand a group, they could, even without learning the language. Period. Learning the language, might (or perhaps certainly) make things easier, but we're talking about levels here.

3. "while most American diplomats to China arrive relatively unaware of even simple Chinese customs, more than a few Chinese diplomats could give complicated accounts of the internal politics of American political parties."

Fantastic example. The chinese diplomats could write me a book about american customs too, and find themselves totally unacapable of utilizing that knowledge. Cultural knowledege vs. cultural ability. (Somewhat similar to readiness-to-hand, but why take such basic concepts all the way to the Rectorate?) Furthermore,!, the american diplomats can't tell you about customs because they are either 1, irrelevant in reality, or deemed to be irrelevant, or 2, completely opaque and unobservable to anyone except the inner circle of the chinese establishment. I would expect the low-level diplomats (state dept, people educating hillary clinton and pelosi on all matters China, to be largely igrnorant, spending most of their time coming through ESWN or NFZM or RMRB, etc, while the serious spooks (true, spies areen't diplomats) actually know the real deal about internal politics and only let that shit slip through a little bit to POTUS, NID, DOD, etc.

But in general, american diplomats are intentionally uninformed about the countries they are serving. It's part of america unique brand of weirdness.

The power advantage language knowledge allows over different groups or nations is very soft in many cases and sometimes nothing more than a mild level of sympathy. It's simply less easy to demonize your enemy if they aren't a complete alien to you. If you know their language, or what they think in their terms, or see them explaining themselves in your language and your terms, your sympathy is increased. Period.

The hegemony that exists is the result of percieved and actual differences in power owned and power exterted militarily, economically, (and culturally). This leads some to develop inferiority complexes. Language is simply a vehicle for some of this expression, but ultimately of zero importance itself. Actual expression of power, wealth, or even skin color, religion, or nationality, are in my opinion far more meaningful than language. No on cares about english until Britian and America start doing shit. Then it's all about English. English is a stand-in. If the US and UK (and Canada) switched to French of Chinese now (or 40 years ago) those would be the langauges people would study.

I think it's a false choice to say you have to learn a language to understand a place. (It's not a choice, I just love that phrase.) The choice to empower yourself involves getting yourself educated, learning to understand, etc, etc. Language is an element of that, nothing more.
Just look at the billions of english learners in China. They are lost. They can communicate on a transactional level (at the level of basic business culture: how much, when, to where). That's not really much of culture, or a national culture. At least not how we think of a culture of Grammy did. that's enough for now.

Dylan Sherlock said...

Your point about sympathy is very interesting, and well taken. Joseph Ney would call it "attraction", but I think sympathy might actually be more accurate.

I'd argue that Chinese diplomats can be very saavy at using their intimate knowledge of the countries they work in to their advantage. Of course, I used America as an example, but China's best diplomatic efforts are in developing countries like Thailand (where some folks claim that American influence has been completely "replaced" by the Chinese). But you're quite right in saying (if I've got it right) that language is meaningless and just a vehicle for power.

I'd say too, that I don't think the theory itself is entirely in the wrong direction, but it does need to be cleaned up quite a bit. Ney is a political scientist wading into a theoretical landscape he seems to be not very familiar with, and making a lot of problematic assumptions about what exactly constitutes culture and power. Ultimately though, it is worth paying attention to him, if only because so many countries have latched onto his ideas and attempted to integrate them into their foreign policy doctrines.

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