I’ve been thinking a lot about context collapse—the phenomenon Mike Wesch describes in his ethnography of YouTube. Do you remember Anais Nin’s house in the film Henry and June? Each room was painted in a bold color and had its own feeling, history, and boundaries? In fact, if I remember correctly, her character mentions that each room was painted to evoke a specific feeling…Yesterday I was imagining memory stored in a house, each room designated to hold a specific period, each period holding its own zeitgeist. In order to shake off that feeling one need only leave the room, close the door, and move on to the next milieu. Of course this underscores just how much one comes to rely on set-dressing to conjure and maintain the mood…but what happens when all those periods, all those contexts, and props converge? When the walls fall down, the thoughts, people, experiences that inhabit our personal histories move freely into the present and out again. How does this change us? Could this be called a sort of context collapse?
A few weeks ago I sat down with an acquaintance of mine to talk about language and identity. Maurice was born and raised in Haiti, immigrated to the United States where he attended university and earned a master’s degree in international relations. While at university he met his wife, who is Japanese, and eventually moved with her to Japan. Room number one: Haiti. Language of the room: Creole (at home) and French at school. “But whenever we asked a girl out on a date, we would use French.” (! That’s fascinating!) Room number two: The United States. Language of that room: English, perhaps Creole and French with Haitian family and friends in the community and bits and pieces of Japanese. Room number three: Japan. Language of that room: English at work and home but also loads of Japanese…surrounded by Japanese but not yet willing to inhabit the language. “If I speak Japanese I will become Japanese…the gestures, the movements, and I am not ready for that.” Maurice talked about language as something that one inhabits and lives through. “There is no self in a new language…when you are learning a new language you have no self.” He said.
Perhaps language and context are lenses through which the self is expressed. Obviously the Self is not completely annihilated when one loses language—that is, the ability to communicate. But that seizure or frustration of expression does change a person…what is the nature of that changing? Last week my colleagues and I were reading about language policies in various states: The US, Canada, Australia, and China. Over and over the theme of silencing the other by outlawing his or her native language emerged. Not just integration into the dominant language or culture but a complete eradication of one’s native culture and language. Clearly the Self continues and can eventually be expressed in a new language and context but what is lost? And what is gained? Are we able to walk into each other’s rooms without losing our tongues…does migration necessarily have to carry on in silence? Again, I am reminded of Dakic’s questions, “Can being uprooted been seen as an opportunity and not merely estrangement? What does it mean to lose one’s language and the ability to express oneself in new surroundings?” In my experience, walking into a foreign room has made it possible to try on different perspectives…it has been uncomfortable, at times deeply isolating, but broadening and thrilling. Somehow, the walls seem to be collapsing with greater momentum, which demands integration. Moving from one room to the next is no longer a means of escape but a means of confrontation with Self.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that coercive policies to eradicate the other might in the end strengthen the other? While all the English Only folks are busy fencing in their mentality, millions of others are learning multiple languages, multiple cultures, and through this their hearts and minds are blooming. Maybe I’m too romantic and idealistic…but the context collapse brought about by greater connectivity might make it a little more (if not much more) difficult for us to “delete our histories.”
If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe to Minute Particulars by clicking on the Subscribe link on the left column.