The Whens and Wheres — As Well As Hows — of Ethnolinguistic Recognition
How can they be real Americans if they don’t/won’t/can’t speak English?” We’ve all heard such questions, and we’ve read similar sentiments in angry letters to newspapers. At least, the feeling must be, that people within a certain political boundary—there’s a “where”—and in public ear- or eye-shot—there’s a “when”—ought to signal their recognition of now being included within the social whole by using the dominant language—there’s a “how”—(and by not using others). Here is language use conceptualized as unavoidably wearing an emblem of identity (or at least of self-identification). And it can go even further in its rationale for the insistence. Evidencing a language-shapes-thought Whorfianism, certain people also reason that those using languages other than ours could not possibly think about the world the way we speakers of English do. (Here, one can substitute any two languages.) With this rationale, editorialists and writers of letters to the editor feel ever more justified in linking the emblematic value of language use to some deep intuition about why ethnolinguistic difference should not be tolerated “here” and “now.” Plurilingualism in civil society—taken thus as an index of difference of thought—offends the sense that there can be a social whole transparently instantiating a longed-for common public opinion. Implicit anxieties of subjectivity underlie explicit anxieties of ethnolinguistic identity.
Anxieties of identity. Identity on people’s minds. We hear constantly of crises of identity, of the workings of identity politics, of identity work that needs to be done, and so forth. So let us start at the beginning. By identity we can understand a subjective intuition that one belongs to a particular social category of people, with certain potentials and consequences of this belonging. Frequently the intuition suggests participation in ritual occasions and socializing in certain ways in variously institutionalized forms to make our identity clear to ourselves and to others on a continuing basis. This already suggests a kind of temporality to the way identity is, as it were, practiced.
Like all social psychological facts, people’s subjective intuitions of identity can be strong or weak, focused or diffuse, persistent or intermittent over various intervals. I am only indirectly concerned here with these intensely individual experiences of identity intuitions, important as they are for literary expression and for each individual biography.1 I am rather concerned with the social conditions in which they come into being as normative orientations among whole populations of individuals, are sustained or discouraged among them, or disappear (in the psychosocial phenomenon called the “loss” of identity in “assimilation”).
And in particular, I am concerned with what we term ethnolinguistic identity, that is, people’s intuitions of social categoriality emerging from certain cultural assumptions about language. These construe language as constituting a basis for the divisions among types or kinds of people, especially as people conceive languages to be the central and enabling vehicle or channel of thought and culture.
So ethnolinguistic identity is not a mechanical institutional fact; it is a fact of a psychosocial sort that has emerged where people ascribe a certain primordiality to language and a certain consequentiality to language difference. They consider it for one or another cultural reason to be a guide to socially meaningful differences among people and to people’s socially effective membership in groups. Ethnolinguistic identity intuits that there are differential claims to social participation based on differences of membership in what we can term a language community.
Thus we can understand its importance in the contemporary era of heightened ethnic and especially ethnonational identity: the modern era, it seems. Various interested ethnic and ethnonationalist projects use the institutional paraphernalia of ethnolinguistic identity as an instrument of mobilizing sentiment. Such projects constitute a strong force motivating people to linguistic consciousness and concern—at the same time giving experiential concreteness to nationalist sentiment. But even a purported analyst of the cultural phenomenology of nationalism, Benedict Anderson (1983,1991), seems willy-nilly to conflate the two planes, so that each genuine nationalism, for him, has its naturally associable emblematic language in which to inscribe its own trajectory of destiny, its own transcendent diachrony, the writers and readers of the texts of which participating in a primordial mystical union. Given the way modern state regimes have actually strained and labored, over long periods, to shape languages each as an institutional force of group homogenization, to forge a sense of a nation-state, it is not hard to see why Anderson would make this conflation, writing, as he does, from deep within the cultural and political order of always already standardized language communities.
I want to call to attention some of what I see as the prime institutional forces that are right now shaping the way people’s ethnolinguistic identities are being asserted and contested in the politics and economics of recognition in state and wider orders.
A good way to think about these matters is to imagine both local and global social space-time—a metaphor of Newtonian or Einsteinian space-time—and how what is at issue are points and intervals in social space-time, the complex, multidimensional framework in which mutual locating can be accomplished. What is the shape of such social space-time, being, as a matter of course, a kind of pulsating, changing intersection of many competing principles of structuring? Groups of people arrogate to themselves such points and intervals as “inside” identity, from which and in terms of which they wish radially to project an “outside.” Others may imagine a distinct social space-time in which points and intervals are claimed only when allocated to groups of people for licensed sites and subspaces of ethnonational and ethnolinguistic self-fashioning and self-imagining. A politics of recognition in effect works through these kinds of emergently structured, changing flows of power that summon people to such sites and spaces where, in social time, they are licensed, yielded the power to inhabit identities and to recruit others to share them. They might, for example, be “recognized” through the workings of a court, in effect licensed to have a certain identity there and in the broader space-time of the court’s jurisdiction. (In the United States, the class action lawsuit epitomizes such recognition under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.) They might be recognized by the workings of advanced commodity capitalism, an identity coming to be linked, positively or negatively, partially or completely, to the emergent organization of production, circulation, consumption, and use. Such identity issues are central to what is termed culture especially in contemporary nonanthropological terms.
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An earlier version, entitled “Ethnolinguistic Identity 24/7: The Political Economy of Recognition in the Age of Global Communication,” was prepared for the Yale University Ford seminar, “Translating the World,” held in New Haven, Connecticut, 28 February–1 March 2002, under the auspices of the Yale Center for International and Area Studies and the Department of Comparative Literature. I am grateful to Janet Morford, Michael Holquist, Vilashini Cooppan, J. Bernard Bate, and James Tweedie for the invitation and for gracious engagement on the occasion. Jan Blommaert, Susan Gal, and Elizabeth Povinelli have reacted with stimulating and useful responses to that earlier form.
- Note, for example, how such matters constitute one horizon of consciousness in the deeply Symbolist and psychoanalytically informed Bildungsroman Call It Sleep of Henry Roth (1934), or in the autobiography Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982).