Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies
The University of British Columbia
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A Review of Doris Sommer (ed.), Bilingual Games: Some Literary Investigations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pp. viii + 308


As is well known, the rise of nationalism, and of modern nation states, was usually accompanied by the attempt to construct, define, and then impose a single national language. In Europe, for instance, the medieval and early modern coexistence of various languages employed for diverse social functions was replaced by an eighteenth and nineteenth-century emphasis on standardization of a common language for almost all purposes, and the ostracism or even repression of other tongues (Welsh, Breton, Basque, or whatever). As Ernest Gellner has argued, the education system then became the central pillar of a secular state religion that instilled linguistic uniformity and stigmatized the deviations of non-standard dialect and accent. The foremost instantiations of national languages were to be found in canonized national literatures, whose virtues were celebrated and whose boundaries policed by the literary critical establishments who took these monolingual literary traditions to be their justification.

The past fifty years or so have seen a partial reversal of this national monolingualism. Minority languages have gained some official respect in many countries, and a few have enjoyed quite significant revivals. Though the study of literature and culture remains organized quite stubbornly according to national languages, within that outdated disciplinary arrangement postcolonial studies, first and foremost Latin Americanism, have undermined the assumption that any one nation or any one language has possession of a single, hierarchical cultural tradition, while subnational or transnational languages such as Catalan or Quiché enjoy more academic legitimacy than ever.   Meanwhile, bilingual education projects have been initiated in contexts as diverse as rural Ayacucho and urban Los Angeles, reflecting and catering to the reality that, whether for reasons of historical colonialism or more recent mass migration (or more usually, the combined effects of both), the myth of national monolingualism is increasingly unsustainable.

Yet monolingualism's reversal is only partial in that precisely such developments as postcolonialism and bilingual education policies have faced fierce resistance. The current British Home Secretary's desire is to impose English on immigrants as part of a broader nationality "test" before citizenship is granted. And as Latinos have become the most numerous minority group in the United States, a conservative backlash has led to new modes of linguistic regulation and the rise of an "English Only" movement that belatedly asserts English to be the sole official language of 23 US states. It is in the shadow of such a backlash that Bilingual Games sets out, as Doris Sommer puts it in her introduction to the collection, to upset "the desired coherence of romantic nationalism and ethnic essentialism" and to "interrupt the dangerous dreams of single-minded loyalty" (p. 11). The book's various contributors examine a range of national, regional, or local contexts and case studies--from Peru to the Maghreb, New York to Montreal, La Malinche to Kafka, Anglo-Cubans to Chinese-Americans--and in each instance uncover bilingualism where it is denied and encourage multilingualisms to proliferate. Sherry Simon, for instance, celebrates "the Babelian confusion of postwar Montreal" for the way in which the language consciousness it promotes can be "a source of linguistic energy and experimentation--a kind of mental vigilance kept sharp through the continual shock of hybridity" (pp. 84-85).

The connection that Simon makes between bilingualism and consciousness is not casual: as Michael Holquist argues in his more theoretical piece, and Sylvia Molloy in her more autobiographical one, bilingualism produces effects at the level of subjectivity, and thus decentres not only the nation state's claim to unity and homogeneity, but also the dream that any individual or group might attain authority and mastery. It is worth quoting Molloy at some length:

To be bilingual is to speak knowing fully that what is being said is always being said in another place, in many other places. This awareness of the inherent strangeness of all communication, this knowing that what is being said is always alien, that speaking always implies insufficiency and, above all, doubleness (there is always an other way of saying it) is applicable to any language, but in our need for transparency and contact, we forget it. (p. 293; emphasis in original)

We might underline how often the need for transparency can make us forget that the doubleness of language is also its insufficiency. For if the ethnocentric backlash against multilingualism is one danger, another equally (and perhaps more) worrying development is the way in which contemporary globalization in fact prizes multilingualism, encouraging the teaching of language for the sake of global competitiveness and efficiency. This other danger is only ever glimpsed in what is otherwise a generally excellent set of essays. The point of the (literary, punning, self-reflexive) games that Sommer encourages us to play with and in many languages is that such an emphasis on the ludic may derail the way in which, as the case of Cortés shows, multilingual translation can also be caught up in gamesmanship and be put to use in imperial and neo-imperial projects alike.

Moreover, too many of the essays here focus on the achievements of individual bilingual authors (Rosario Ferré, Calvert Casey, Igor Gruberman). If bilingualism decentres the individual, then we are all, increasingly, bilingual now. But does our dexterity in managing the various dialects and languages that we encounter in popular as well as high culture, from the proliferation of national cuisines on our high streets to the global beat infecting the music that saturates our lives, lead simply to more "consumer ethnicities" (in Juan Flores's words, p. 75) or to what Réda Bensmaïa discerns as "a new 'collective subject' [. . .] a certain identity in the diversity of languages and local cultures, a certain unity in the multiplicity of ethnicities and mores, and last but not least, an active solidarity " (pp. 88-89, emphasis in original). Against both the petty nationalism of state monolingualists, and the dreams of transparency and smooth continuity promoted by neoliberal multilingualists, perhaps such a collective subject will only be constituted at the point at which languages in contact break down to reveal an immanent organization of affect that subtends all language.



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last updated October 22, 2004