Multilingual Subjects and the “Global Future of English Studies”

15668Today we have a guest post from Daniel DeWispelare, author of Mutilingual Subjects and Assistant Professor of English at George Washington University. Multilingual Subjects at once documents how different varieties of English became sidelined as "dialects" and asserts the importance of both multilingualism and dialect writing to eighteenth-century anglophone culture. DeWispelare suggests that these language practices were tremendously valuable to the development of anglophone literary aesthetics even as Standard English became dominant throughout the ever-expanding English-speaking world. Here, DeWispelare summarizes his research and his book's insights while analyzing the persistence of its key themes in elements of our contemporary culture. 

In 2013, while I was researching what has become Multilingual Subjects: On Standard English, Its Speakers, and Others in the Long Eighteenth Century, I saw an advertisement for HSBC Bank at London’s Heathrow airport.  It is not strange to find an advertisement for one of the world’s most “global” financial institutions inside one of the world’s most connected airports. But the ad still caught my attention.  I subsequently saw it discussed, defended, mocked, and critiqued in social media, and rightly so.  Questions surrounding globalization and its linguistic dimensions justly provoke strong reactions because these mean such vastly different things to different people.

The most striking feature of the ad is that it figures a multilingual Chinese population as both threat—“Five times more people are learning English in China, than there are people in England”—and as investment opportunity—“Do you see a world of potential? We do.”  In Multilingual Subjects, I try to describe the ramified ways in which these sorts of simultaneously xenophobic but also exoticizing and at times xenophilic representations of anglophone multilingualism have long histories and important consequences for aesthetics and politics.  The center panel of the triptych is a photograph in which two men sit, drink tea, and play anglophone Scrabble.  The surroundings are a Chinese pastiche, and as such, the room could be in any number of cities—in China, perhaps, or Singapore, or maybe London, Sydney, or New York, and the list goes on.  It doesn’t matter where we posit the nonexistent space of this advertisement.  Its space is the space of globalization in the same way that the space of Heathrow airport more closely resembles the space of Hong Kong International airport than either resemble their immediate hinterlands.


I introduce my book via this ad because, as a heuristic, its strange collocation of panic and possibility leads directly back to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century imperial practice, a moment when the institutions of normative English were coming into being.  Artifacts of the contemporary moment, like this ad, were exactly what I was trying to situate when I wrote Multilingual Subjects, which at heart is an attempt to cinch together eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theories of multilingualism, language standardization, and translation theory under the umbrella of the cultural politics of language more generally.  How does a genealogy of the institutions surrounding the English language help us understand our own moment?  Moreover, who is the multilingual subject?  What can we say about the multilingual subject as historical and aesthetic actor?  Framed in the terms of the ad, what does it mean—politically, aesthetically, and economically—for the multilingual subject to learn a deterritorialized and ambient “global” English?

Multilingual Subjects begins by putting the eighteenth-century English-language standardization movement into conversation with that same period’s fervor for nonnormative and provincial British “dialect” writing.  In addition to compiling two appendices that gather together a wide swath of nonnormative eighteenth- and nineteenth-century imaginative writing, this book offers several important interventions into literary and cultural studies of the long eighteenth century.  For one, I use critical theory to articulate a theory of “anglophony,” an umbrella term under which I group diverse and multilingual forms of the English language, forms that can only come into being once the institution of “proper” linguistic normativity has become a defining criteria of inclusion in both the aesthetic and political realms.  After setting out parameters for how one might conceive of “anglophony” outside of geography and instead in terms of sonic interaction, the book presses forward by arguing that there is a mutually informing relationship between late-eighteenth anglophone standardization and translation theories, both of which attempted to regulate public deployments of the English language as a reaction against the fear of linguistic intermixture brought about by global contact and trade.  What does it mean for late-eighteenth century writers to “translate” nonnormative writing into normative English, for example, and what does it mean for colonial figures to translate the local languages encountered in imperial space?  To me, these two questions are closely intertwined. 

In short, the first third of the book puts forth a theory of anglophony, the second investigates both canonical and noncanonical examples of the standardization movement as a type of translation, and the final third focuses on the labor and value of translation in the late-eighteenth-century anglophone book trade.  One unique methodological aspect of the book is that each of the six major chapters are intercalated with short biographies of multilingual eighteenth-century subjects, each of whom lived a life that complicates the lines of argumentation put forth in the main chapters themselves.  So the reader meets a variety of unique and differently constituted multilingual individuals, all of whom are tied into the politics and aesthetics of the period in complex ways.  In my account, this historical moment works to sideline, delimit, and stigmatize many different forms of linguistic identity and linguistic creativity by grounding the conditions of national culture in a normative form of English.  As I thought through the 250 or so years of linguistic history since, I became specifically curious about what it would take to ground ideas of community and culture in multilingualism instead of monolingualism—the world provides many models of this if we look.  What would such a history look like? What new visions of culture can this strategic presentism produce?  How would our languages respond?

I write this blog posting from a National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar on in Kent State Ohio.  One thing that has become clear over the course of our discussions on translation studies is that anglophone multilingualism signifies in diverse ways, then as now.  It exists in cosmopolitan spaces like academia, intergovernmental bodies, and global business.  But contrastingly, anglophone multilingualism is also one of the basic occupational characteristics of the “picaresque proletariat,” those people who are compelled by poverty, war, and environmental catastrophe into migration, exile, and the other forms of displacement that economic globalization seems to spawn in its wake.  There are certainly multilingual middle grounds between these poles, but both political and aesthetic agency vanish in them.  The strangeness of the HSBC advertisement: the people of China are doing the labor of learning English, but yet it is the ad’s anglophone addressee who is promised the profit.  In the ad we see congealed a fact of anglophone globalization: language skills are remunerated differentially if at all.  Scholars may learn a language for cultural or career capital, while migrants may learn English so as to play a part in the global economy.  It is true in my life that some of the most linguistically robust people I’ve ever met have been on the fringes of the economic system, while some of them have also been among the global elite.

After tracking eighteenth-century English standardization, nonnormative writing, and translation practices against imperial history, Multilingual Subjects ends with an epilogue that puts celebrations of the future of “global English” into conversation with narratives surrounding the so-called “crisis of humanities.”  There is something curious to me about the simultaneity of one discourse trumpeting the future fantasy of how “global” English is and how it will remain central to the economic order of globalization while a separate, dystopic discourse holds forth an ideation of the total extinction of humanities education, to be replaced by who knows what kind of management training.  How can these two visions coexist?  In asking this question I follow the work of James F. English, whose recent book The Global Future of English Studies, asks a similar set of questions about the future of English literature as a discipline, but in a different way.   I won’t spoil the book’s epilogue here, but I’ll show my hand by saying that I agree with Simon Gikandi’s charge that we provincialize English.  Again the HSBC ad: it is uniquely the people who are doing the linguistic labor who should profit from the labor, and if not, then the conditions of possibility for others to profit should be eliminated.  To reformulate Gayatri Spivak’s assertion that “Linguistic diversity can only curb the global,” it might be worth recognizing additionally that only linguistic diversity can curb the global. 

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