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July 29, 2006

Multilingual Cosmopoliticians (Crossroads Day 3)

This panel was great – the closest of all I’ve attended to my own area of current investigation. Marie Gillespie introduced the panelists’ collaborative work as an outgrowth of two puzzles. One puzzle being “the limits of cosmopolitanism and the huge variations in how this term is used” (she listed multiculturalism and internationalism, among other contexts) and the second an imbalance within studies of transnationalism privileging “connectivity [as a] shared topic, interest, [and/or] emphasis,” with “less attention to disconnections, especially with language… [which is] not explored with enough depth.”

The overviews shared here grow out of work on two different research projects:

1) How different language communities interpreted news of 9/11 over the first three months. www.afterseptember11.tv It seems that people with multilingual competencies were mixing, matching, and comparing a variety of different sources of information and news with CNN, Al-Jazeera etc. Multilinguals seem to share a couple of distinct characteristics, such as a profound dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and politicians and a deep distrust of media, leading them to search – actively – for alternative sources.

2) www.mediatingsecurity.com is a collaborative ethnography between Marie and Ben, a 3-year study of transnational media discourses about security. (Which might be relevant to the polycentricity team from Dexus 3.0)

What the panelists have found are three types of cosmpolitanism, which generally “don’t talk to each other”:

1. demotic/elite cosmopolitanism (Marie)
2. normative cosmopolitanism (Ben)
3. aesthetic/literary cosmopolitanism (Tom)

What these three scholars are most interested in are the functions of these various cosmopolitanisms, particularly the ways in which they turn out to have compatibility with fascisistic discourses.

I probably have not got all these details quite right, I’m reconstructing from notes a week after the fact…as always I beg corrections if anyone feels inclined. I’ve inserted (?) question marks inside parentheses (as modeled) where my notes are sketchy and I’m providing an inference. In general, when I comment I’ll use [brackets] and italicize.

This particular three-person panel doesn’t actually detail the info from either of the aforementioned studies. It’s an amalgamation of the types of cosmopolitanisms listed above. First up is Marie and what she called demotic or elite cosmopolitanism. [I received a sophisticated definition from someone later about this term, demotic. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in note-taking mode at that time. It has something to do, roughly, with a language of the people, the language that the people use.]

Marie Gillespie: “At Home with the World Service? The Politics of Translation and Translating Politics”

The BBC World Service (radio) has a peculiar status because of its funding source (Britain’s Foreign Office), many – if not most – of its employees are diasporic, its audience is global, it broadcasts in approximately 33 different languages, hires locals and English speaking employees who go out to work with the locals, and those who make programming (the center of media production) are also (?) drawn from these constituencies (?).

Because of this scope, the BBC World Service has been a vital lifeline for folks to get info in the wake of disasters, a kind of civil service….many of its stories (?) concern refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, and it is trying to be independent from the British foreign office, which has as one of its main agendas the promotion of British policies.

Now they (The Foreign Office or the BBC World Service?) want to challenge Al-Jazeera. The BBCWS has (?) cut ten language programs to make space for Arabic expansion. What they are constantly faced with is negotiating issues of fit between ____ and diasporic values. Which brings them right up against the politics of translation, particularly when they are translating politics.

There are daily debates at the foreign language desks around terms that are culturally sensitive – not only in terms of language but also cultural format. For instance, terminology: how to refer to Camilla Bowles-Parker before Prince Charles married her (while they were traveling together in Saudi Arabia). What about the term “democracy”? The term is problematic and some won’t even use it because it is associated with the attempt to impose pro-american, pro-israel policies. [Talk about a dilemma of language! The vast scope of what can be meant by “democracy” has been limited to one narrow sectarian version; we have no alternative terms for the rest of the range.]

Another example (also in an Middle Eastern language): “President” has three different terms (choices!). 1) popular “the head” or 2) populist/propagandist “the leader” or 3) an indigenous term which implies illegitimacy. Again, the closest term for “public”in Arabic is something akin to “town square” – which makes no distinction between top-down, bottom-up or apolitical/political inclinations. The Koranic term for “audience” could include a repressive ruler granting a meeting as well as the appointment of a commission via a group’s public process.

The decision as to which term is negotiated on a daily basis. [emphasis added. Meaning is never fixed! It is always contingent.]

Why is the BBCWS pursuing Arabic? Because of the hopeless and utter failure of American media to establish a public space for public affairs in the middle east. Representations greatly distorted (a reference is cited).

Drama is being increasingly used to support social and cultural change as part of development strategies. Dramas are used as vehicles for humanitarian and health education and have been very successful. For instance, a radio program during the time of the Taliban was too popular to be banned. These have become known as “Dramas for development.”

Open questions: How does translation across different genres work? How do the producers work together and what are the implications?

There are serious risks and dangers for/of the BBC. Propaganda establishes credibility through the telling of small stories that seem to be against the larger state. These small stories make it possible to avoid telling the larger stories. (For instance, a story was told ~ recalled from memory! ~ about an early (the first?) BBCWS broadcast in _____ that reported an atrocity by British soldiers. The BBCWS was chastised by the Foreign Office for making the broadcast, but by doing so they impressed upon their intended audience that they had a degree of freedom from their government. At some point Marie explicitly stated that such small “betrayals” (I’m not sure she used this term) make it possible to hide the larger, even more serious systematic abuses.)

The point?

Language competence is absolutely vital.

Ben O’Loughlin: “How CNN and BBC Use ‘Other Media’: The Re-Mediation of Arab Television and Citizen Journalists”

Ben presented a slightly different paper than was advertised. :-) You go, guy! “Sympathies to other’s ….”

After 9/11, Al-Jazeera had an emancipatory potential. They were a corrective to the misinformation or lacking information in the American/western media. Such was the hope! Muslim viewers hoped Al-Jazeera would make possible the construction of a broader shared world. Instead, Islam has now become a universal spectacle. [In the presentation how this occurred was detailed; now I ponder it as a sophisticated form of orientalism?] A religious inversality…. Quotes someone (citing a previous finding), also discovered in this data. There are two trends in responses (of whom I’m not sure): the media either privileges “our side” or it illustrates “the true reality.” In revealing a given reality – what’s at stake? Does one put together different realities or present the whole reality and let the viewer decide? The question of justice can sneak in….and there is no guarantee that sympathy brings about an alignment of values, political goals … [My notes are sketchy – I believe that the point was that a sympathetic production of news was received as fodder for more vicious uses. The dilemma remains: how ideologically does one focus news production to elicit desired effects and to what extent does one trust audience members to make informed decisions based on a wide array of sources?] [Maybe it’s not an issue of trust as much as it is access? If viewers/listeners can – and do – glean their news from a variety of sources then they have a basis for an informed decision. If, however, they rely on only one or two sources they are unable to generate a perspective on whatever bias is present.]

Tom Cheesman: “Community Arts and Cultural Diversity: (A) Changing Wales”

There are half-a-million people in Wales, which is grouped with Ireland & Scotland as part of Britain. 15-20 % of the population speaks Welsh, the rest speak English.

The term “cosmopolitan” was first used by Diogenes, founder of the school of skepticism. When he was asked where he was from, he replied that he was a citizen of the world. His point at the time was simply to deny any sense of alliance, allegiance, or obligation to his town of origin. He was not making a claim as an advocate of a one-world government. Thru 20th century, the term became somewhat more inflammatory (?). Now: a kind of rootless cosmopolitanism, as if we’re trying to make something out of the negative, the term/concept doesn’t have a positive ground.

Language policies in Wales are much more friendly than in England. Some reasons are because there is an amazing prestige and status attached to the Welsh language: it survived attempts at suppression, is now required as part of children’s education, and is valued by everyone – even non-Welsh speakers. This cosmo-polite attitude comes out of a bilingual cultural awareness of language difference, of the power relations between languages as laden with history. The actual [written, legislated?] policies aren’t necessarily better than elsewhere but the culture supports, even valorizes Welsh and therefore the needs to accommodate it, such as through interpretation.

Question and Answer session:

Greg Noble notices a strand of commonality across the panelists’ presentations regarding the thing that cosmopolitanness is attached to?
1) people and their attitudes
2) groups of people, e.g., a town or society
3) an institution, e.g., the BBC
He speculates about the uses of cosmopolitanism, how it is taken up, by who, among which different types of objects.

I’m not sure who responded, perhaps Marie (?), noting the international relations scholar George Nye, who talked about “soft power.” She says the BBC is “bringing people into the British way,” reminding us that everyone at Al-Jazeera used to work for the BBC.

Ien Ang also attended (both she and Greg from the cosmopolitan multiculturalism panel on Day 1), and Anthy from my workshop (Day 2, not yet posted).

It didn’t make it into the notes, but what Marie kept emphasizing was the way in which multilinguals draw their information from many media sources, not just one. I asked the panelists if they felt this was more than a difference from monolinguals who prefer their one language (and therefore the one logic implicated by that language) because it reflects the awareness of multiple logics, a knowledge that usually only becomes real to individuals in their own consciousness when they themselves have learned another language? I’ve expanded a bit here (!), I asked there if the search for information from more than one media outlet was a search for multiple logics moreso than the representations in different languages? Marie agreed, “people simply don’t have the interpretive frameworks, the media literacy, or the multingualism.”

Marie did respond by talking about codeswitching in multilingual households, the ways in which multilinguals move among and between various cultural and linguistic spaces, and how distrustful they are of the mainstream media. Tom also responded, although I’m not sure this statement is his, that views and political cultures are very interconnected. Perhaps this was to the aspect of my question regarding whether or not there is something done in Wales in the on-the-ground, face-to-face interpreted interactions. Interestingly, Tom clarified that this situation is relatively new, only since 2000 (2002?), leading us both to wonder if the novelty will wear off soon.

Another point Marie emphasized repeatedly was the failure of cultural studies to pay much heed to the points of disconnection. She argued that we privilege the connections but there is information in the disconnects too, for instance, “when you don’t speak Turkish, you know where the limits are.”

Greg raised another point about the translation politics, those daily struggles at the foreign desk about which term (when and why), that one has to balance between “sensitivity and censorship.” Absolutely! The eternal dilemma, do I use the more literal even though in the source language it’s relatively neutral while in the target language it’s explosive or do I find some sort of synonym that might somewhat alter (!) the context yet privileges the relationship?

Posted by Steph at July 29, 2006 12:51 PM


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