language

My post the other day on the recent Mozilla Drumbeat festival seem to have resonated with others… more what I had to say about language than about the political ambivalence of the open-source and open-education movement, but there we go.

I thought I’d expand further on the language issue. (I’ll have more to say on the political ambivalence later.)

In her comments on my previous post, Nicole Harris says:

I don’t think it is unusual for a European conference to be hosted entirely in English. English is … often an expected outcome when you are bringing people together who don’t share a common language.

Yes, but. The conference’s unthinking monolingualism was especially pronounced in this case:

  • Catalonia is a place where the politics of language are everywhere evident and on the surface. It is impossible to go anywhere in Barcelona without being aware of the consequences of speaking one language rather than another.
  • It may be true, as César notes in response to Brian Lamb’s write-up of the conference, that Barcelonans are “so used to it that we don’t realize anymore”; the same point was made by my friend Jaume Subirana. But wasn’t Drumbeat supposed to be different?
  • Indeed, the whole point of the Drumbeat festival was openness and participation. Having the conference partly in a public space was therefore, I took it, a political and strategic decision. Cathy Davidson, for instance, made a big deal of it in a pre-conference post in which she said that “since we will be located in an actual tent out in Placa dels Angels, the gorgeous plaza in Raval, between the Museum of Modern Art and the FAD, we will involve random participants traversing the square in our learning activities too.”
  • But how is such openness advanced if everything is in English? How many “random participants” took part in the HASTAC activities, especially when, as another HASTAC representative admitted, she “only noticed @HASTAC flyers were all Eng after arriving”?
  • Surely any organization that declares it’s devoted to openness, participation, breaking down borders, and so on, should be aware of the politics of language.
  • Yes, there are plenty of conferences held in Europe that presume to transcend or ignore their local contexts. (The annual gathering of the good and the great and the wealthy at Davos is surely the premier example.) But Drumbeat tried to do something else, however confusedly: it occupied public space in the square, and yet had surprisingly rigid security to prevent outsiders from entering the building itself. It talked the talk, but only in English.

The broader political issues about the relationship between open-source, open-education, and neoliberalism are more important. But, when it comes to language, I don’t want to adopt the cynical whining adopted by Fred’s comment to my previous post, which said that my observations were “largely true, but not very interesting.” How did the enthusiastic desire for insurgency at Drumbeat so soon become bored acceptance of the way things are always done? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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