Sunday, April 28, 2013

Land, Language, and the Indigenous Center of a Decentered Early American Studies; Or, How To Mean Things By Doing Stuff

Yesterday afternoon, I went to this wonderful symposium at Columbia University entitled "Rethinking Land and Languages: Dialogues in Early American and Indigenous Studies" that featured scholars from diverse disciplinary perspectives. One of the agendas of the conference was to place indigenous peoples at the center of the academic field of early American studies, thus displacing the Pilgrims from that privileged position. Towards that goal, the organizers of the symposium raised questions about the relationship of cultural practices to land and language that encouraged the panelists to think beyond problematic binaries such as colonizer/colonized and orality/literacy. Several of the panelists urged us to think of American Indians internationally, noticing their historical presence in Europe as well as the surprising contiguities and connections among Indigenous and European intellectuals both then and now. Other panelists urged us to think of the many material practices other than print culture, such as sign language, wampum, and art that both Europeans and Native Americans used to communicate with each other. We were asked to consider how "language ideologies" functioned in sometimes politically binding, other times culturally exclusive, and yet almost always in socially indeterminate ways.

Before I begin explaining my own perspective, I want to first admit that it would be impossible for me to do justice here in this little blog to the many subtle, nuanced presentations by each scholar, and I was inspired to go read their recently published work. For the record, the panelists included (in alphabetical order) Celine Carayon (Salibury University), Christian Ayne Crouch (Bard College), John Gambler (Columbia Univrsity), Elizabeth Hutchinson (Columbia University), Karl Jacoby (Columbia University), J. Kehaulani Kauanui (Wesleyan University), Karen Kupperman (New York University), James Merrell (Vassar College), Andrew Newman (Stony Brook University), Birgit Brander Rasmussen (Yale University), Coll Thrush (University of British Columbia), and Caroline Wigginton (Rutgers University.) And much respect and gratitude was given by everyone to the organizers Zara Anishanslin (College of Staten Island/CUNY), Julie Chun Kim (Fordham University), and Cristobal Silva (Columbia University) as well as the graduate assistants from Columbia University, Vesna Kuiken and Melissa Morris.

Given all this brilliance, I will begin humbly by focusing on one specific question that seemed to startle both the panelists and the audience. During a conversation about language and the cultural contexts for various communicative practices and all the different ways we might value things other than print culture, someone asked provocatively, "well, what doesn't count as language?" The implication was that the panelists had suggested such wide-ranging congruity across different cultural practices that one might argue they had stretched the category of "language" a little thin. Coincidentally, earlier this week, in the entirely different context of my undergraduate class on literary theory, I had just taught a couple chapters from How To Do Things with Words by J. L. Austin and the response to Austin by Jacques Derrida in an oral presentation entitled "Signature, Event, Context" that was later published in the journal Glyph and republished in two other places, Limited Inc and Margins of Philosophy. Austin essentially focuses attention on what he calls "performatives" -- linguistic utterances that do not mean things that can be judged true or false but rather do things that might be contractually or socially binding. The example that Austin uses is when two people say "I do" and are then legally married.

A very different sort of example more relevant to the symposium might be when the Dutch supposedly "purchased" the island then known as "Manna-hata" -- and now called Manhattan -- from the Lenni Lenape Indians. Here, perhaps a cultural misunderstanding, the Dutch thinking that the exchange of goods signifies a purchase and transfer of dominion over land, and the Lenni Lenape thinking that the exchange signifies an agreement to share in the use of the land for mutual benefit. In lieu of a published, notarized treaty, or even a common vocabulary, the Dutch and the Lenni Lenape communicated (or miscommunicated, since the conditions that Austin sets out for a successful doing-of-things-with-words would not have been satisfied in this transaction). One noticeable point made by the symposium is that neither "words" nor "writing" (as we usually think of these things) would have been the primary means of communication, and this raises the important and difficult theoretical question of how we might consider language and writing traditionally conceived in light of these other signifying practices, objects, behaviors, and transactions. And this is what prompted the question that I mentioned above, "well what doesn't count as language?"

In response to that question, giggling childishly and quietly to myself as I am so often wont to do, I could not help imagining an essay that reverses the title of Austin's book like this: "How to Mean Things by Doing Stuff." But more seriously, I think the debate during the symposium actually illustrates many of the issues raised by Derrida in his deconstruction of How to Do Things with Words, and so my hope in this blog is that I can use the event of this symposium as a useful example to help explain Derrida's "Signature, Event, Context" to my students (since my students told me they found Derrida pretty dang impossible to understand.) At the same time, perhaps I might even say something interesting for my early Americanist colleagues.

Derrida begins by complicating and problematizing the notion of "context" for any communicative event by exploring Austin's main argument about what conditions guarantee the effectiveness of any performative utterance. To illustrate this problem, we might consider the example of the miscommunication between the Dutch and the Lenni Lenape, which would represent a failure for Austin because there were no established conventions, because the Dutch did not act in good faith, because the message could not be clearly received, etc. However, Derrida suggests that conditions are never perfectly guaranteed because any act of writing or perfromative utterance carries within it the expectation that it can be repeated again whether or not the speaker and hearer are still present -- that it is "identifiable as conforming with an iterable model" -- except that paradoxically the foundation for this iterable or repeatable model are speech acts themselves. In other words, the model as such is anticipated by the individual act.

OK, hold up, let me pause for a second. Summarizing one sentence of Derrida is hard enough, but summarizing an entire lecture in one paragraph... geez.

Perhaps I can explain better if I give Derrida's joke version of what language is. Imagine the following scenario where a boss has sent his employees a memo that explains how to interpret the memo he hasn't yet sent. This of course hardly ever happens, but what's humorous about it is that we all know that when the boss sends a memo, he or she assumes the employee is able to understand what it means and doesn't require a pre-memo. Also, most of us have enough experience to know that that is not always the case that the employee knows how to interpret the boss, so maybe such a pre-memo is required, except of course that such a pre-memo about how to interpret something could not possibly make sense without the actual memo that needs to be interpreted. The point here is that what makes language language is that any single utterance anticipates a generalizable interpretative framework. In such a framework, the relations between the writer and reader are maintained by the writer's mark or signature that opens up the conditions for further communication, i.e., another memo explaining the previous one.

The ironic upshot of all this is that Derrida completely reverses Austin's point that poetical and theatrical speech acts are secondary in contrast to the primary "real" speech acts that constitute our social relations. For Derrida (and for myself as well), if any act of language assumes and anticipates a larger code or set of conventions, it is precisely the imitative performance of poetry and theater that gives meaning to language, not the other way around. To illustrate, let me give an example from personal experience when I was teaching English in Japan. My 7th-grade students did not know any English, and I did not know any Japanese, so how could any effective communication happen. Gestures? Pictures on the chalk board? Exchange of commodities? Yes, all of this happened, but also play-acting, a sort of theater through which the very conventions of real speech acts were codified. Hence, it was wonderfully apropos of one panelist to begin her presentation on the challenging work of translating between Indian and European discourse with a brief discussion of Shakespeare's play The Tempest, a recent performance of which had inserted Indian vocabulary into the famous staging of the colonial encounter between Prospero and Caliban. Let us return to that foundational moment of encounter between the Dutch and the Lenni Lenape that has been painted, narrated, and performed ever since, and might we imagine a group of people standing on the shores of Manna-hata in 1626 doing improvisational theater in order to negotiate their interests? Furthermore, play-acting is serious business. In the case of the Dutch conquest of Manna-hata, as well as the relationship between Prospero and Caliban, we can see that the ideologies of language (i.e., the conventions of meaning anticipated and assumed) carry within them the threat of violence.

I've focused on this somewhat mythic story about the encounter between the Lenni Lenape and the Dutch colonists because it was invoked at the outset of the symposium by its organizers and panelists. Why it was invoked is because of the obvious irony of holding a symposium that aims to make Native Americans the center of a conversation when that conversation was happening on land on which they once lived. In fact, as the organizers observed at the outset, the Native American Council of Columbia University is at this very moment petitioning the University to acknowledge that it stands on Lenni Lenape land. You can read and sign the on-line petition, and in doing so you would be doing things with words -- a "performative" whose effects are not guaranteed precisely for the reasons enumerated above. Also invoked was Joanna Barker's Tequila Sovereign blog post on Occupy Wall Street that observed that all of Manhattan is already occupied Indian territory. In other words, as one panelist so adroitly explained, settler colonialism is not simply an event that happened in the past; rather, it is a structure that persists still today (and of course, this is Derrida's point about the eventfulness of any speech act and the signatories that underwrite its maintenance.) Consequently, this performative political gesture of the symposium in solidarity with the absent presence of Native Americans reflects precisely the issue of presence and absence that Derrida argues is immanent to the structure (or context) of all communicative acts.

It also draws attention to the exclusivity of the very conventions that make such a performance repeatable. In this case, the conventions of academic discourse and the question of whether academic discourse is appropriate for the performative political gesture in solidarity with the Native American Council of Columbia University who, so far as I could tell, were also not present at the symposium, just like the Lenni Lenape. Attending to that absent presence, and perhaps deconstructing the difference between academic discourse and public discourse as one member of the audience asked that we do, what might the conversation on Friday have been like if the academic conventions of the symposium had been violated and the Native American Council of Columbia University not only invoked in prefatory remarks but made participants in its planning?

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