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Why Feelings Matter in Global Politics: Aesthetics, Vulnerability and Playing with Language by Aoileann Ní Mhurchú

What happens when we foreground the aesthetics of language -– that is the feelings, perceptions and imaginations it invokes – when thinking about resistance in voice?  Aoileann Ní Mhurchú argues that we can begin to think about the importance of vulnerability in language rather than just mastery of language. Looking in particular at shame and failure as feelings in language she considers playfulness as an imaginative response to these. 

Postcolonial resistance has often been linked to the act of mastering indigenous non-European languages, rather than just European languages for people to voice their concerns, alternative ideas and challenges against dominant structures of power (example: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o). However, such arguments also stress the importance of the aesthetics of language – understood as the invoked feelings, perceptions and imaginations. For example, Thiong’o (1983: 385) discusses ‘use of words, images, inflexion of voices to effect different tones’, and the significance of this to ‘human experience, culture and, perception of reality’.

What happens, therefore, when we go so far as to foreground an aesthetics approach to language when thinking about voice? I argue that we begin to think about vulnerability rather than just mastery in the possibilities of ‘voice’ against dominant structures of power.

For example, in postcolonial Ireland the revitalization of the indigenous Gaelic language was a key element in the reconstruction of a national identity in the early 1900s after 800 years of British colonial rule. In 1901 however only 16.5% of the population spoke Gaelic; and today, despite several revival attempts, less than 2% speak it on a daily basis outside of education. As someone who did grow up speaking Gaelic (alongside English) at home, I came to realise that there is a great shame which descends on people that rise up against their oppressors to claim an identity and self-determination only to wake up every day and fail to perform that identity ‘properly’.

Rather than mastery at play here, what is felt is a general sense of shame and thus vulnerability: both by those who do not speak Gaelic sufficiently or properly, which undermines their sense of Irishness, and by those of us who did command it somewhat for being ‘too Irish’, and thus too different from the majority. Indeed, Franz Fanon and Jacques Derrida explore the illusion, in their opinion, of the ability to escape colonial corporal and psychological otherness through mastery of a European language or through mastery of some pre-existing indigenous language. They emphasize how the psychic shame of Otherness undermines the ability of the colonized to truly inhabit either the European language – given the accompanying fear of performing it improperly without the correct accent or heritage – as well as indigenous/heritage languages which have been devalued for so long.

Decolonial literature accentuates an aesthetic approach that enables different ways of knowing reality rather than adding to what we already know as reality (Anzaldúa 2000; hooks 1989; Mignolo 2000; Mignolo and Vázquez 2013). Therefore, I want to move beyond simply equating vulnerability with shame and failure to exploring new social relations (Butler 2006) which such vulnerability enables – and specifically, the play with language which is enacted as a response.

In the Irish case, play with language can be seen in the haphazard mixing of broken Gaelic with English – summed up nicely by one rap song (and the controversial proverb) Is Fearr Gaeilge Briste Na Bearla Cliste, (‘Broken Irish is better than Clever English’). In many European countries we see today furthermore the adoption of playful vernacular language through the children and grandchildren of those who have migrated from former colonies. While such people of colonial heritage in these European countries may have multiple linguistic and cultural identifications; interestingly not all of these are places they visit or spend much time in, nor languages which they speak very well, nor cultures they are necessarily overly familiar with. What happens then is, that they use aspects of available heritage languages – words from here and there that they come to learn – and mix these together with the European language which they have grown up with (See Ní Mhurchú 2014 for examples and further discussion).

For bell hooks (1989: 17), vernacular language resembles the colonizer’s tongue but has undergone a transformation: ‘it includes recollections of broken tongues, given us ways to speak that decolonise our very minds, our very beings’. Officially termed a multi-ethnolect or ‘contact language’, a populist view is that these vernaculars are simply a random accumulation of errors; or examples of youth-speech which people grow out of (Radhhani 2016; Wiese 2014).

Refusing this, critical socio-linguists argue that multi-ethnolects are a form of creative expression of the self. Here creativity is understood beyond mastery of a single language to the creation of variety in language use (Wiese 2013). Multi-ethnolects are understood to have been developed in situations of vulnerability where the existing ‘repertoires of languages available to the people in contact did not provide a sufficiently effective tool for communication’ (Bakker and Matras 2013: 1)

The importance of vulnerability here as creativity is something that I am currently exploring in my research to open up understandings of hybrid/ambiguous experiences of identity and belonging.

This is a version of a presentation Aoileann Ní Mhurchú gave as part of the 2019 ISS Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) roundtable series in February this year.

About the authors:

Aioleann Ni MuruchuAoileann Ní Mhurchú is a lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester. Her research interests lie in the areas of critical citizenship studies, international migration, sovereignty and subjectivity, and theories of time and space. She recognises the limits of existing frameworks for understanding experiences of political resistance and participation from positions of marginality or ambiguity. And therefore engages with aesthetic forms of meaning and representation in literature and vernacular music and language.