McKenzie Wark on Mon, 23 Dec 96 06:07 MET

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nettime: englishes (fwd)

Just back from the Data Conflicts conference in Potsdam, where I
met Pit Schultz for the first time, and picked up a copy of the
3rd Nettime reader. I read some of it on the plane on the way back.
It got me thinking about language, in particular about the English
language, and what might be happening to it now that it circulates
in such a viral way on the net.

Of course, its important that people get to write in their own
languages and alphabets. The net can be a space for the recovery 
of dialogue within languages other than English, but only to the
extent that the technology allows. We can all guess at the political
economy vuia which languages other than english, and alphabets
other than roman, find appropriate technological forms on the net.

But if you will permit me to set that aside for a moment, I want to
talk about English. Flipping through the Nettime reader, I noticed
again and a gain, kinds of 'Euro-english', at once charming and
strange. Its a temptation, as a native speaker, to think these usages
are 'wrong'. But I think there's a better way of seeing it. What I
think the net makes possible is the circulation of the very wide
range of forms of English as a second language that have existed for 
some time, and which are, via the net, coming more and more in
contact with each other.

When non-English language speakers start writing in English, elements
of their native grammar and style come into English. This enriches
English immeasurably, I think, so long as the way in which English
is being used in a given non-native context is reasonably coherent.
Like a lot of people who work on international journals and 
publications, I have come across the notorious 'Japlish'. Japanese
usage looks, at first sight, extremely strange. But after a while,
it makes sense. And you can start to see a distinctive kind of
writing in there. A fantastic hybrid of ways of becoming in language.
A wacky sidebar to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

This was the idea that each langauge makes possible certain conceptual
structures, and prevents certain others. For example, ancient Greek
was a language extremely rich in articles, so it lent itself to the
formation of the discourse of philosophy. What *is* being? Its a
thought that Greek -- and English -- can express easily, but that
can't occur in certain other languages. Those other languages,
needless to say, are no doubt rich in other kinds of thought.

So what sometimes seems ot happen when non native speakers/writers
use English is that one can sometimes see the shadow of another
way of thinking, as it meets the ways of thinking that English
shapes. One sees a shape, and beyond it, the shadow of another
shape. Even better, one sees a third shape, not belonging to either
language, emerging at the point of contact of the two.

All of this is more obvious in netwriting than in printed matter.
On the net, nobody pays too much attention to grammar and style.
I've just watched a couple of typos go by inthis text, and I don't
particularly care. I'm typing this live into a mail message. If I
was writing for my newspaper, I'd polish it a lot more. And in the
process, the raw jazz of writing would disappear. On the net, one
sees the shape of language through the little mistakes and fissures
that in printed texts gets edited out.

Which leads me to the question of how something like 'Euro-English'
(of which there are several) or 'Japlish' should be edited, 
particularly when net texts are published in book form. Perhaps 
editing in such contexts has to be looked at from two sides. On
the one hand, it helps to think about it from the point of view of
kinds of native English use (of which there are several). Like all
languages, English has a rich history of conventions and arguments
about conventions, all of which are designed to clarify usage and
expression. As someone who loves this language dearly, it matters
to me that it have conventions, that it be clear to readers what
a writer intends. 

But that doesn't mean there has to be *one* convention of usage --
be it Oxford or Webster. As a speaker and writer of a minority
English, I'm all in favour of the proliferation of modes of 
convention. Australian-English is different. We have our own
dictionary, our own style guides. So too does Indian English -- and
there are more people speaking English as a *first* language in
India than in the whole of the British isles. 

I think this principle can be extended to non-native Englishes. 
To the formation of conventions for French-English, German-English
and so on. Those conventions would reflect the gramatical structures
of the first language, and the social conventions of usage. 

The problem this raises for the net-to-book production process is one
of arriving at a minimal codification of the forms of non-native
English in question that ought to be left to stand. This is not as
easy as it looks. I've struck this problem with Aboriginal English
in Australia. You can translate it into standard Australian usage,
but then you loose sight of the otherness of the shape of thought
behind it. Just as you do in modern translations of Homer, in which
the Greek heroes seem to have modern western subjectivity. You lose
sight of the classical, decentred subject Julian Jaines wrote about,
who can be seized via the lungs by passion or desire. 

There is also the issue of shaping a printed matter version of the
kind of conventions of writing on the net. I think books will be
with us for a long time, but their place in the discourse network
(to borrow an English language version of an idea of Friedrich
Kittler) will change. The mass book is on the way out. But the book
as rarified, distilled object is I think going to return. A book
ought to have a different *speed* to a net communication. Books
participate in the infinitely slow in a way that net writing doesn't.

So editing of net writing for books has to refine the writing a little,
connect it with the historic tradition of book textuality, slow 
down the flux along one axis at least, so the book can speak to readers,
long into the future. 

A book is like a snapshot, or perhaps a movie still. We're living in
the movie, immersed in net text. But the snap shot has to be a little
more composed. The book is the place to codify things like language
usage, so the book can become a little abstract machine for propagating,
not just its content, but its forms. Including its forms of English
usage. Including forms of non-native English usage. 

English has twice been an imperial language. Now it is an international
corporate language. But it is something else as well. In its spoken
forms, Jamaican toasting and hip hop have now become internationally
known versions, variations, codifications all of their own. 

A funny thing happens when I'm in Europe. I have to try not to talk
in Australian idiom. If I do, people think its funny or they don't
understand. So I look for shared idioms. One that comes to me sometimes
is African-American English. I find myself borrowing from this other,
better known, minority English. Perhaps its a way of remaining
understood while remaining minor, at least to myself. Its very

I'm reminded of Caliban and Prospero. Prospero, the western man of the
book teaches Caliban, the colonial other, how to speak his language.
And Caliban says, "you give me words, that I might curse you with
them." Which is what happens to imperial languages. The imperial 
others learn it all too well. Make it something else. Make it
proliferate, differentiate. Like Ramelzee, and his project for
a Black English that nobody else could understand. Hiding in the 
master tongue. Waiting. Biting the master tongue. 

There's a big difference between African-American uses of English,
and those one strikes in Europe or Japan. In those places, people
have their own language to go hide in. But for African Americans,
there is no other language in which to hide. Hence the close
attention to making the other's language one's own. Making it a
set of conventions and usages that can talk to the other or hide 
from the other. I think there's a lot to learn from such examples.

English was always a bastard language. Its a bastard to learn -- for
every rule there seems to be a swarm of exceptions. All those
tenses and verb-forms. All those synonyms. But there's a reason
why it is so: its a creole language, with mixing from everything,
from Pict to Pakistani. Its prehistory in the British isles is a
small scale model of what's happening to it now on a global scale.
The Romans, the Saxons, the Normans -- everybody came and brought
something to the mix. "We will fight them on the beaches" -- pure
saxon. But the abstract nouns came from the Normans. Different
shapes of thought, superimposed on top of each other, making
something else. A double becoming -- like all becomings. As
Saxon becomes Norman, Norman becomes soemthing else -- English.

Language is a machine that produces, as one of this effects,
subjectivity. As Deleuze said, "what is the self but this habit
of saying 'I'?" And so, this proliferating machine, English, 
making subjectivities previously made otherwise, come in contact,
become something else, making English also become something else,
as it proliferates across the net. And so, in transforming net
English into book English, the importance of thinking of it, as
Boulez says, as a "trapped bang" (explosant fixe). A becoming at
a different speed.

McKenzie Wark

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