A REVIEW BY DAN VASQUEZ
Bilingual Aesthetics: A New Sentimental Education
By Doris Sommer
Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2004, 250 pages
After an exhausting game of soccer with a crew of Mexico City street children, Vicente, a young teenager of 13 said, “Vamonos a la verga.” It was my third day with Casa Alianza, the international nonprofit organization where I worked with street youth for 10 months, and my Mexican slang, despite an effort to learn as much as possible, was not up to speed. I asked innocently, “?Que es una verga?” Vicente let out an unexplicable, long laugh. Finally, he rephrased, “Vamonos a Casa Alianza.”
Taking “verga” to mean Casa Alianza or institution, I decided to extend an invitation to Miguel, another member of the crew who expressed interest in seeing a doctor to treat a nasty infection on his arm and also a psychologist to address issues of parental physical abuse. Miguel did not accept my invitation; he simply looked at me strangely. I repeated, “Vamonos, pues. Vamonos a mi verga.” My words repelled Miguel. Vicente, witness to this interaction, laughed heartily. I stood confused. Miguel turned around and walked off. It was only later when I told a colleague about this exchange that he told meverga literally meant the tallest mast on the ship of a boat and that it doubled for “phallus” or “cock” in Mexican slang. He pointed out that Miguel would not have taken offense so easily if I had known him better because that kind of talk is usually reserved for members of the crew.
Reading Doris Sommer’s monograph, a provocative argument which forges a connection between bilingual aesthetics and democractic practices, provided an interpretative framework to understand the dynamics of this linguistic faux pas—along with any other inter-linguistic encounters. She teaches us to cultivate a taste for the ironic, a sense of humor, about the collisions endemic to linguistic plurality and further argues that these collisions, far from dividing our polities, maintain democracies fit and vibrant.
Sommer’s argument has appeal in a time when many perceive migrants and resultant multilingualism as threats to the cohesion of societies. However, I wonder how Miguel fits into Sommer’s vision.
Sommer would tell Miguel that “language is precarious” and that “communication [between people] teeters, unsure if contact was made or even how to make it when codes intersect out of one’s control” i.e., linguistic misshaps are simply part of living in linguisticly plural societies (20, 142).
She would further concede that “this common sense doesn’t blunt the boldness of disconnect effects. Is it irritating or even frightening? Perhaps. The interesting question is what to do next” (142). According to the logic of Bilingual Aesthetics, the next step for Miguel would be to “cultivate a taste for imperfection and for irritation as features of democratic life,” for “irritation exercises the faculties of knowing and feeling,” which are crucial both to the growth of individuals and societies (55, 142).
Somehow, I imagine that Miguel would not be comforted by this line of reasoning. He would not take solace in such statements as, “The poor can play as well as the rich, because bilingual games often level the ground with moves on inclusion and exclusion that don’t depend on power” (xiv).
Participants within bilingual games occupy positions which structure relations of power. Because of my identity as a relatively rich volunteer, my bumbling through street slang was taken as an offense. Miguel’s response, silence, asks Sommer to undertake a more sociologically sophisticated approach to the interconnections between power and language.
The lack of this approach comes through when Sommer reifies all bilinguals into a metaconcept of “the bilingual” as in the following phrase, “The bilingual’s unsettling sense of human arrangements as constructed and precarious” (110). I would venture that Miguel, a bilingual versed in Spanish, Mexican slang, and even a little English, would not see human arrangements and the position he occupies within them as “precarious.” “I grew up on the streets and I’ll die on the streets,” he told me after knowing him for six months.
Yet, what Sommer’s book wants on the level of sociology, it provides on the level of theory. Her discussion connecting the bilingual aesthetic of irony, precariousness, and tolerance to the vibrancy of pluralistic democracy opens the pores of the imagination and forces the reader to walk new lines of thought. Sommer would argue that encounters such as the one I had with Miguel make democracy relevant and necessary: “But if we managed...to be rid of the ‘negative’ moments of disagreement and doubt, there would be little democracy to defend... Risk and doubt remind us not to second-guess other people and pre-empt what they have to say” (72-73).
She is right. Because of my initial encounter with Miguel, I am careful not to presume and try to listen to others better. Moreover, I am more aware of the otherness within me—the “other” that Miguel sees, the other who is not from his world.
This predisposition to listen coupled with the self awareness of otherness within—of “double consciousness” as Sommer, who borrows from WEB Dubois, would call it—this is the lifeblood of a pluralistic democracy that breathes in that space between languages. Hopefully, with a democracy built along these lines, we will move in the direction of making our linguistic misunderstandings less painful for the Miguels in the world.
Dan Vazquez ‘02, recently lived in Mexico City, where he worked for Casa Alianza and the Los Angeles Times. He continues explorations into the life of the mind in India, where he is currently working for an NGO on a fellowship.