Professor Andy Byford

Professor Andy Byford

Durham University

Modern Languages (ML) are said to belong to the humanities, yet it is never made entirely clear what space precisely they occupy within them. In the phrase ‘Modern Languages’, the term ‘language’ is largely a metaphor. There are literal referents, specific modern languages, but as a domain of knowledge ML are hardly reducible to studying these. So, what then lies behind the metaphor of ‘language’ in what we call ‘Modern Languages’?

What follows in an attempt to answer this question by returning to what I shall provisionally posit as one of the points of origin of the imaginary underpinning the epistemic architecture of ML – Johan Gottfried Herder’s Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772). I shall use the four ‘laws’ that Herder articulates in his Treatise as a heuristic framework for unpacking the metaphor of ‘language’ in ML.

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  1. ‘Language’ in the singular and the general is readily identified with ‘Humanity’ itself. As the First Law of Herder’s Treatise declares – ‘the human being’ is ‘the creature of language’.

‘Humanity’, though, is not equivalent to the humans themselves; it equates rather to what makes humans Human; and that is – meaning. As an extended metaphor, ‘language’ in ML stands for a whole bundle of diverse codes, encodings and encoded meanings, of processes, means and contexts of encoding and decoding meaning. And that is broadly what ML study: this bundle includes literal languages, but also an expandable set of other kinds of codes, systems and infrastructures of meaning-creation that are usually brought together under the loose term ‘culture’.

  1. Indeed, in ML, ‘language’ also stands – this time metonymically, rather than metaphorically – for ‘culture’ as object of study. The metonymical nature of the relationship between ‘language’ and ‘culture’ in ML is not unimportant.

On the one hand, the cultural codes, encodings and processes of encoding prioritised by ML are those most closely associated with literal language. Hence the long-standing emphasis in ML on text and discourse and their traditional privileging of writing and literature; hence the disciplinary roots of ML in poetics and rhetoric, philology and textual criticism; hence their innate logocentrism, which seems difficult to shed even as ML move to the study of non-linguistic – audio, visual, performative or syncretic – cultural forms.

On the other hand, the term ‘culture’ is used precisely to signal the extension of the remit of ML beyond forms of meaning-creation that are inherently tied to literal language. Indeed, what is most commonly understood by ‘culture’ in ML is the ‘addition’ to its repertoire of theatre, cinema, visual culture and the media, as well as of still broader conceptualisations of ‘culture’ as understood by, say, cultural studies or anthropology.

‘Culture’, however, also designates something else. To say that the different codes, encodings and meanings that ML study are ‘cultural’, signals that they are inherently collective. Indeed, ‘culture’ exists, by definition, only in a human community. Referring to Herder again, this time the Second Law of his Treatise – ‘language’ belongs to the human being as a ‘creature of the herd’.

  1. However, as Herder further points out, in his Treatise’s Third Law: Just as the whole human species could not possibly remain a single herd, likewise it could not retain a single language either. So there arises a formation of different national languages.’

Arguably the most influential consequence of this deduction for ML has been the metaphorical hardwiring of a specific language to a specific community of ‘speakers’, whether the latter is conceptualised as a premodern ethnos, a modern nation, or some transnational or transethnic language community. The fact that a given ‘language’ stands for a given ‘community’ has meant that ML have always entailed more than the study of languages and cultures per se. Whether explicitly or implicitly, ML have also studied those who lay claim to a particular language and culture as ‘theirs’.

However, what Herder’s Third Law stipulates is not simply the identification of ‘language’ with a ‘community’, but the division of the single human ‘herd’ into a multiplicity of ‘herds’, with ‘language’ serving, in fact, as humanity’s key ‘divider’. In ML, the plural – ‘languages’ – is critical. However, the principle that this plural embodies is not that humanity is simply multiple (made up of many language communities), but that humanity as a single whole is divisible by ‘language’.

Significantly, this division of humanity by ‘language’ is never literally linguistic, but invariably political: in ML ‘language’ is also a metaphor for the demarcation of political communities – specific populations (let us call them ‘tribes’) occupying certain spaces (let us call them ‘territories’). Hence the intimate relationship between ML, on the one hand, and nation and area studies, on the other.

Of course, actual languages transcend both populations and spaces, and the encoders and decoders of cultural meanings are hardly restricted to a single community that claims a given language and culture as their own. However, ‘language’ in ML is difficult to dissociate from the dynamic intertwining of ‘tribes’ and ‘territories’ in different constellations: ethnic (‘tribe’ before ‘territory’); national (‘territory’ before ‘tribe’); imperial/post-imperial (a complex and shifting hierarchical interlocking of a number of ‘tribes’ and ‘territories’); diasporic (one ‘tribe’ dispersed across a multiplicity of ‘territories’ – in extremis the globe); and multicultural (a multiplicity of ‘tribes’ intermixed on a single ‘territory’ – in extremis a locality).

There is considerable anxiety these days that, given their ontological rooting in the divisibility of humanity by ‘language’, ML have become epistemologically beholden to certain quite specific, historically contingent, patterns of humanity’s division (especially those that derive from long-held ethno-cultural imaginaries, historically entrenched nation-state boundaries, and persistent neo-colonial power-relations). Consequently, there are frequent calls for ML to try and overcome their epistemological dependence on this contingent structuring of their domain of knowledge, which, if reproduced blindly, is rightly lambasted as methodologically constraining and politically suspect.

  1. Indeed, the above ontology poses a serious epistemological quandary for ML. The question laid before ML is whether, and how precisely, they can produce knowledge, the endpoint of which will not by default revolve around specificity – namely, the specificities that appear to arise from humanity’s historic divisions. The question, in other words, is whether ML are epistemologically equipped to produce knowledge that is general in kind and applies to humanity beyond its historically contingent divisions (linguistic, cultural and political).

According to the Fourth (and final) Law of Herder’s Treatise, the human species, despite its divisions by ‘language’, still constitutes ‘a single progressive whole’ with ‘all languages’ contributing to and making up ‘the whole chain of civilization’. So how exactly do ML construe and then study this ‘single whole’?

ML most commonly see themselves as inseparable from general humanities disciplines, such as linguistics, literary studies, film studies, theatre studies, media studies, cultural history, gender studies, etc., the underlying premise of which is that the phenomena they study belong, as a matter of principle, to humanity in general, and which are, as a result, epistemologically oriented towards formulating generalisations that are independent of, and cut across, humanity’s historic divisions. (ML are, in fact, often presented as a unique assemblage and productive interconnector of these disciplines.) In these general disciplines too, humanity’s various linguistic, cultural or political divisions emerge inevitably at the empirical level. However, for these general disciplines, such divisions are merely empirical, contextual and contingent, not ontological. They are understood to reflect the variability or differentiation of a given cultural form across humanity, not humanity’s ‘divisibility’.

But what of ML themselves? In what way precisely are ML contributing to an understanding of the general history and theory of language, literature, film, theatre etc., as opposed to simply accounting for the specificity of these cultural forms within certain quite particular, contingent, at times even arbitrarily delimited, divisions of humanity by ‘language’?

Taking literary studies as one example, it is often argued that there is no study of literature in general without the study of particular literatures; and, conversely, that the study of particular literatures is always fully integrated into the theoretical and methodological resources and overarching findings and conclusions of literary studies in general. However, the claim that this then allows ML to formulate generalisations about some particular cultural form, like literature, as part of humanity’s ‘single progressive whole’ (as if ML themselves were a general humanities discipline) ignores the ontological rootedness of the ML paradigm in the divisibility of humanity by ‘language’. More specifically, such an assumption conflates the particular and the specific. It amounts to conceptualising the study of, for instance, ‘Russian literature’ not as literature that happens to assume particular forms in particular cultural-historical contexts, but as the study of a culturally-specific (demarcated by ‘language’) incarnation of literature as such.

Yet equating ‘the specific’ with ‘the particular’ is logically erroneous (the opposite of ‘the general’ is ‘the particular’, not ‘the specific’), and it is also something that can hardly be sustained in practice. In practice, ‘Russian literature’ (for example) tends to be studied within ML both as literature specific to Russia and as a culturally-specific domain of the literary phenomenon in general. Yet the latter cannot be pursued consistently without comparisons between the various culturally-specific literary domains that are assumed to make up the literary phenomenon as a whole. This is largely the role that comparative literature, which is rooted in the same ontology, has been expected to perform.

Contemporary reformists of ML are particularly concerned, however, about the traditional focus of ML on ‘specificity’. What is perceived as the main problem with ML today is that they appear to exist only as a cluster of cognate and homologous, but otherwise largely separate, essentially parallel, domains of knowledge and expertise (the so-called ‘silos’ of Russian studies, French studies, German studies etc.), each built around a language and culture studied for its specificities. But while ML reformists are right to question the legitimacy of such a framework, they are not always clear about the alternative. Yet any reform of ML is doomed to ineffectuality if it focuses purely on institutional reorganisation (the sheer demolition of the walls of said ‘silos’) without articulating a viable ontology and epistemology to match.

The key problem seems to lie in how exactly one should construe what Herder has in his Fourth Law dubbed ‘the whole chain of civilization’. Some reformists of ML are essentially proposing that we imagine this ‘chain’ as one of interconnected multiplicities, which, as a matter of principle, lacks fixed, hegemonic, centres and peripheries. In this model, both ‘the specific’ and ‘the general’ seem to vanish; or, more precisely, they both now exist only within and across ‘multiplicity’ and ‘interconnectedness’. The imperative of ‘interconnectedness’ prevents one from ever becoming imprisoned by the charms of ‘the specific’; the imperative of ‘multiplicity’ ensures that one is no longer infatuated by the dream of ‘the general’. And what replaces ‘comparison’ in this model (i.e. the idea that by systematically comparing specificities one arrives at the general) is the notion of (inter-linguistic and intercultural) mediation (in the sense of link-formation) along the ‘chain’ of interconnected multiplicities.

A partial model for this new ontology would perhaps be the field dubbed ‘world literatures’ (with ‘literature’, crucially, in the plural, in conscious avoidance of the problematic conception of ‘the world’ as a single, neo-imperialist, English-language-dominated, civilization, in which general literary studies are reduced to the study of all/any literature in translation). The idea seems to be that ‘the new ML’ could become something like ‘world literatures’, but amplified and expanded across the many different cultural forms and (broader) understandings of ‘culture’ that ML study. And if ‘language’ in ML is indeed very much a metaphor, then the proposed model can be seen as rooted in the metaphor of ‘multilingualism’, which itself stands for the framework of ‘interconnected multiplicities’, within which ‘the new ML’ would be studying the aforementioned bundle of codes, encodings and encoded meanings, means and contexts of encoding and decoding meaning.

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The question that remains to be answered, however, is what such a reform would amount to in practice. There is a danger, for example, that the ‘silos’ model would simply be replaced by a politically equally suspect ‘globalist’ imaginary that makes the mobility, hybridity, deterritorialisation, creolisation and translatability of cultural codes, forms and meanings override all other concerns and considerations.

Furthermore, one can also ask whether such a reform might simply be wishing away the ontological foundations of ML in the divisibility of humanity (the effect of which could be an unfortunate perpetuation of one’s blindness to it). Indeed, simply ‘abolishing’ Herder’s ‘law’ of humanity’s divisibility by ‘language’ as the ontology underpinning ML is unlikely to be effective, and might even seem disingenuous.

Acknowledging and accepting the divisibility of humanity by ‘language’ as lying at the ontological core of ML certainly does not in itself entail celebrating, reinforcing and perpetuating humanity’s historically contingent divisions themselves. Moreover, this ontology does not, in fact, in itself preclude the modelling of ‘the whole chain of civilization’ as essentially one of ‘interconnected multiplicities’. Indeed, it is important for ML to reorient themselves towards exploring previously ignored multiplicities within and connections across long-established historic divisions by ‘language’, thereby achieving a potentially radical transformation of our traditional understandings of these divisions.

At the same time, though, it is quite clear that for ML to thrive and survive, it is indispensable that they continue to build, maintain and strengthen expertise in specific languages, cultures, communities and geopolitical areas. Studying ‘specificities’ associated with a particular part of humanity is hardly problematic in itself. What is important, however, is that this incorporates the study of the historical, political and other dynamics that have shaped and are continuing to shape humanity’s divisions by ‘language’. And this must also include ongoing reflection on how we ourselves, as scholars, are contributing to these dynamics with our own (socially, historically, culturally and politically situated and hence inevitably biased) methodologies, ideologies and imaginaries.

What this means is that we should build research programmes and university curricula that are fully conscious of the ontological and epistemological quandaries outlined above and that are capable of working with the tensions inherent in them. This is something that our CrossLangDyn OWRI consortium is aiming to do, not least by placing what we study simultaneously across three interlocked and mutually complementary axes – ‘the multilingual’, ‘the translingual’, and ‘the transnational’.