Jane Mansbridge defines oppositional consciousness as “an empowering mental state that prepares the member of an oppressed group to act, to undermine, reform, or overthrow a system of human domination (4-5).
The notion of oppositional consciousness relies on a group’s adherence to a particular form of world view which allows the differentiation of the dominant perspective from the emergent perspective in society. In marginal societies, for example, the concept of oppositional consciousness is apparent as individuals or groups no longer become passive recipients of readymade images and structures but also become mediators of these images and structures.
This process allows the recreation of local meanings which paves the way for the formation of hybrid cultural relics and subjects while at the same time leading to the creation of displaced identities. Such meanings develop as a result of the combination of different cultures.
This displacement of identities, persons, and meanings that is endemic to the postmodern world system is called deterritorialization. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari use the term to locate the moment of alienation and exile in language and literature. In process of deterritorialization, one is able to achieve the effects of the radical distanciation of the signifier and the signified resulting to the estrangement of meanings and utterances. “This defamiliarization enables imagination, even if it produces alienation “to express another community, to force the means for another consciousness and another sensibility’” (Kaplan 358).
The seeming paradoxical characteristic of this movement can best be realized in language or in literature. In the process, we no longer delineate ourselves to specific literatures, which we consider as the works of masters, but we designate the “revolutionary condition” for the formation of a new form of literature which “travels and moves between centers and margins” (Kaplan, 358).
Within this context the development of personal and political identity are established or pushed through by citing the differences of margin and center. Hence, one can develop one’s identity by considering that which entraps an individual as something that frees an individual. Displaced individuals, who include immigrants, subjects of colonialism, racism, gender, and sexual discrimination, recognize the effects of this situation. In lieu of this, this paper seeks to explore the effects of language in the development of a personal and political identity within the context of familial relationships.
I will argue that the importance of language lies in its ability to mould an individual’s world view and as such the imposition of a particular language to an individual will lead to that individual’s adherence to the world view imposed by that language. In such cases wherein the world view fails to cohere with the individual’s consciousness, the language itself may be molded in order to create a new form of consciousness and hence a new form of worldview. This process is especially evident in how families make contact with each other when language, culture, or personality traits get in the way.
Language stands as an effective tool of domination and liberation since language enables the development of an individual’s rationality or consciousness. The effectiveness of language as a tool for domination can be seen in Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue”. In the aforementioned work, Tan notes that the views that she will present do not come from the center as she is neither “a scholar of English or literature” (332). The authority of her views may be traced from her role as a writer. She notes,
By that definition, I am someone who has always loved language…I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power of language — the way it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth. Language is the tool of my trade. And I use them all — all the Englishes I grew up with. (Tan 332)
Tan’s discussion of the role of language in the development of her personal and political identity also stems from her own views of the English language’s effects on her development. Tan stands as an individual who was entrapped by the constraints of “all the Englishes she grew up with” (Tan 332).
As an Asian-American writer, Tan is placed within a margin due to the conflicts arising between the ideas transmitted in her Asian as well as American heritage. With the imposition of English as the main vehicle of thought, there was a subtle implication that her mother’s native language was inferior. She herself notes, “I think my mother’s English almost had an effect on limiting my possibilities in life as well. Sociologists and linguists probably will tell you that a person’s developing language skills are more influenced by peers” (Tan 334). The reason for this stems from the effects of the assimilation of a foreign tongue to the native tongue.
The structure of thought of someone who has grown using an indigenous language remains indigenous, despite the fact that they assimilated the foreign tongue, the ability to fully comprehend this tongue as well as reverberate their indigenous thoughts into this tongue becomes a setback for them. In the case of Tan’s mother, this was equivalent to her inability to fully express her thoughts in the English language. Deleuze and Guattari in their discussion of power relations and its connection to the process of deterritorialization investigate the potential of language for the development of a personal and political identity, they ask- “How many people live today in a language that is not their own?” (19).
Marginalized people recognize the implications of such a spectrum since this leads them to lead double lives. In the case of Tan herself, she notes that she uses a different form of English with her family and with her peers. What is generally referred to as “broken” or “limited” English has turned into their “language of intimacy” (Tan 333). Tan notes,
The English I spoke to my mother, which for lack of a better term might be described as “simple”; the English she used with me, which for lack of a better term might be described as “broken”; my translation of her Chinese, which could certainly be described as “watered down”; and what I imagined to be her translation of her Chinese if she could speak in perfect English, her internal language, and for that I sought to preserve the essence, but neither an English nor a Chinese structure. I wanted to capture what language ability tests can never reveal: her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts. (336)
In this context, the limitations of the failure to recognize the meaningfulness of the “limited” English lead to the failure to recognize the thoughts and ideas which stem from the conjunction of two languages. The aspect in which language is used as a tool for domination here is evident in the manner in which standardized English becomes the measuring tool for meaningfulness of an individual’s statement. In this sense, failure to relay one’s thoughts in a manner which does not follow the syntactical and semantical rules of the English language is equivalent to stating something nonsensical.
The domineering aspect thereby lies in the imposition of meaningful statements and meaningful narratives. However, this was subverted by Tan as she showed the political aspect behind the conjunction of two languages. She notes, “To me, my mother’s English is perfectly clear, perfectly natural. It’s my mother tongue…vivid, direct, full of observation and imagery. That was the language that helped shape the way I saw things, expressed things, made sense of the world” (Tan 333). The political aspect here is apparent in ascription of truth to statements which are considered as meaningless in standardized English. In one way, one might understand this as the overlapping of two language games which use the same form of language but have different meanings.
Another example in which an overlapping of cultures leads to the creation of a new language game and hence a new relation between the signified and the signifier is apparent is Leslie Silko’s “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian’s Perspective”. In the aforementioned text, Silko notes the imposition of standardized English on the Pueblo Indian’s leads to the failure to understand one’s culture. She notes, “Where I come from, the words that are most highly valued are those which are spoken from the heart, unpremeditated and unrehearsed” (Silko 54). In this sense, to merely attribute truth to statements which follow standardized English leads to the failure to understand the meaningfulness of Pueblo Indians’ statements and narratives. Silko states,
I think again, getting back to one of the original statements, that if you begin to look at the core of the importance of the language and how it fits in with the culture, it is the story and the feeling of the story which matters more than what language it’s told in. (73)
In this sense, one might state that the adoption of standardized English leads to the failure to completely relay the thoughts and ideas from another language. This can be explained by the existence of concepts and ideas which do not have an appropriate equivalent in standardized English.
The process of subversion in the aforementioned texts may thereby be trace in their creation of a new space which enabled the intermingling of two different languages which are bound together by individuals who exist within the two cultures the communication of which necessitates the use of both languages.
The failure of the imposition of standardized English may thereby be traced in its imposition of a worldview which fails to account for the existence of other worldviews as can be seen in Tan and Silko’s work. By imposing a worldview, it further fails to actualize the main purpose of language which is to enable discourse and communication within the social sphere.
This adaptation of a language game as a means of ensuring the continuation of a specific family history and can also be seen David Sedaris’ “You Can’t Kill the Rooster”. In the text, Sedaris describes the effects of his family life’s shift “from western New York State to Raleigh, North Carolina” (1). Initially, he describes his parents of being wary of their acquisition of the Raleigh accent along with the traits of the individuals who lived in that region. He notes,
Our parents coached us never to use the titles ma’am or sir when speaking to a teacher or shopkeeper. Tobacco was acceptable in the form of a cigarette, but should any of us experiment with plug or snuff, we would be automatically disinherited. Mountain Dew was forbidden, and our speech was monitored for the slightest hint of a Raleigh accent. (Sedaris 1)
This can be traced from the necessity that his parents felt to ensure the maintenance of a particular way of life within their family. This, however, was changed with the birth of the author’s brother Paul as his brother adapted the traits of the people who lived in Raleigh. Sedaris describes his brother as possessing “the soft and beautiful cadence” of the Raleigh accent (1). In addition to this, he describes his brother as “a more complex hybrid” (Sedaris 1). He states,
My brother’s is a more complex hybrid, informed by his professional relationships with marble-mouthed, deep-country laborers and his abiding love of hardcore rap music. He talks so fast, ‘you find yourself concentrating on the gist of his message rather than trying to decipher the actual words. It’s like speaking to a foreigner… (Sedaris 1)
Despite the differences of the language games that the author and his brother [or for that matter the author’s family and his brother] used, this did not prevent the family from developing close family ties which shows that familial relationships can transcend the differences of the socialization processes which were experienced by each member of the family.
This aspect is also evident in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”. In the text, Walker narrates the story of an African-American family whose lives were separated by their differences. Initially, one is introduced to the characters of Ms. Johnson, Maggie, and their sister Dee. From the very beginning of the text, the narrator informs us of the differences between the three characters.
Bound by their poverty and the way of life that they chose to lead, both Ms. Johnson and Maggie, are separated from Dee. Ms. Johson, recognizes this difference between herself and her daughter. She notes, “You’ve no doubt seen those TV shows where the child who has ‘made it’ is confronted, as a surprise, by her own mother and father, tottering in weakly from backstage” (Walker 23).Ms Johnson, however, perceives this surprise as a person’s reaction when he is forced to deal with a past that he continually strives to leave behind. It is in this part that she describes her relationship with her daughter Dee. She states,
She (Dee) used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice. She washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed to understand. (Walker 26)
The differences within Ms. Johnson’s family may thereby be traced in her as well as Maggie’s lack of education. As opposed to Dee, Ms. Johnson and Maggie chose to stay rooted in their lives. Within the family, ties however were ensured as a result of their common history.
Within the text, the lives of the members within the family are connected by their heritage which was symbolized by the quilt that Maggie made for Dee. Although, initially Ms. Johnson notes that Dee will “put it to everyday use”, it is precisely this manner which allows their family ties to continue (Walker 33). The quilt which symbolically stands for their family as well as the African Americans’ shared history enabled the family to be united.
As can be seen in the texts mentioned above [Tan’s “Mother Tongue”, Silko’s “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective”, Sedaris’ “You Can’t Kill a Rooster”, and Walker’s “Everyday Use”], families make contact with each other despite the differences of their language, culture, or personality traits by appealing to their shared history as well as cultural background.
In the case of Tan, this was done by appealing to her knowledge of her mother’s culture and language which is also similar to what Silko did. As opposed to this both Sedaris and Walker’s characters chose to adapt to the changes within their surroundings to enable the union within the family. This merely goes to show that in most instances “blood is thicker than water” and “unconditional love gets us by” since family ties are bound by a history and background that cannot be separated through time and adverse conditions alone.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. “What is a Minor Literature?” Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1986.
Kaplan, Caren. “Deterritorializations: The Rewriting of Home and Exile in Western Feminist
Sedaris, David. “You Can’t Kill a Rooster.” 1 Jun 1998. You Can’t Kill A Rooster. 30 Nov. 2008 <http://www.youcantkilltherooster.com/stories.php>.
Silko, Leslie. “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective.” English Literature: Opening Up the Canon. Eds. Leslie Fiedler and Houston Baker Jr. Baltimore: John Hopkins U.P., 1981.
Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality: The Big Question. Eds. Naomi Zack et al. London: Blackwell Publishing, 1999.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Everyday Use. California: U of California P., 1994.