12 May 2010

Resistance to multilingual criticism

One reason it has taken a long time for literary critics to realize that more than one language is at work in any literary piece is the widespread bias against mixing languages in everyday speech.  Here is Katherine Hoi Ying Chen's amusing account of such a bias in Hong Kong:

"Code-mixing, in general, is socially stigmatized in Hong Kong, yet in practice it is a common norm for the young. People who oppose code-mixing often have an ideological reason to it. The ideology involved here is on language purity and the purity of Chinese language and culture. Extreme believers consider using English in Cantonese a ‘contamination’ and ‘betrayal’ of the rich heritage of Chinese culture that the Cantonese language embodied. This ideology, in an extreme case, is vividly expressed in the following metalinguistic comment given by a university professor of Chinese language and literature:

" 'This kind of Chinese-English mixing freak speech is total rubbish not only [when it is used] outside of Hong Kong. Even within Hong Kong, it is totally useless for communicating with grass roots offspring of the Emperor Huang [i.e. ethnic Chinese people], or with the ethnic white leaders at the tip of the pyramid. Some people said, this kind of speech is like a special dermatological disease, [with a symptom of having] a piece of yellow [skin] and a piece of white [skin here and there].'

"This comment is probably a bit extreme, but it is in no way an uncommon attitude shared in Hong Kong about code-mixing. ... Despite the prevailing negative attitude, however, code-mixing is the norm of speech among the younger generation."

Perhaps, with younger generations in every country today (including previously monolingual countries like the United States) routinely mixing languages in their speech, younger literary critics will start seriously considering rereading all literary texts as multilingual texts, not just with Bakhtin's multiple voices but with multiple real-life languages interacting in ways older critics previously never dreamed of.  Perhaps what we have with multilingual literary criticism is something that can fill the gap that the death of theory has left in critical circles.

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