Thursday, December 27, 2007


Last night I talked to a scholar who's working to save Sanskrit as a written language. He told me that the conversation in academia is still weather or not Western people can understand any other culture -- the theory of "Orientalism," if I understand correctly, implies that by trying to understand we further subjugate. It's an argument, he said, he finds insulting. "We are spending our lives studying it," he said -- so to say it is impossible... Furthermore, it is simply a distraction from the real linguistic research. The two most renowned journals in the world in this field of research don't publish in Sanskrit, and this man, a Lecturer at Brown, is working with a software company and with the Indian government to put the language into HTML form now. This language, which is the link to a vast culture and literature, is moving toward extinction like the albatross.

But I'm not sure we can -- understand anyone else. We can study, we can read, we can even live with and like and for another, but understanding -- Where does understanding lie? In the head? In memory? In muscle memory?

What caught my eye this morning was a Times story about motorcycles in Laos -- cheap ones, from China:
In Laos, Chinese Motorcycles Change Lives.

For years, getting this prized produce to market meant that someone had to carry a giant basket on a back-breaking, daylong trek down narrow mountain trails cutting through the jungle.

That is changing, thanks in large part to China.

Villagers ride their cheap Chinese motorcycles, which sell for as little as $440, down a dirt road to the markets of Luang Prabang, a charming city of Buddhist temples along the Mekong that draws flocks of foreign tourists. The trip takes one and a half hours.

Motorized transportation is New to them. Imagine.

I've talked some here about what it would mean to roll back transportation -- transportation for travel and connection and time efficiency -- but today I'm trying to imagine what life would look like if I really could not go anywhere farther than I can walk.

Somehow I'm also reminded of a story from a beautiful book by Leah Hager Cohen, "Train Go Sorry." The story is about a deaf child who learns sign language -- I read it a long time ago -- maybe 20 years, actually, but my recollection is that the child was older -- maybe 5 or 8 by the time she/he learned the language. I don't remember if the family resisted or if the language simply wasn't taught where they were -- but at any rate there is a beautiful moment where the child tells a joke. The first joke, and the parents laugh. In this moment there is joy at the future, and also a complete understanding of all that was missing for those people without language -- communication that we take for granted.

Language and transportation -- the connection is easy. What moves, what travels, what connects. These are our only tools for moving through this world connected.

I am constantly reminded of the luxury of the contemplation.

Because I can speak, because I can read, because I can get in a car and drive 20 minutes to dinner. Because I live in this country... I can decide to stop e-mailing for a day or driving -- dabble in restriction. Because it is a game for me -- I have everything I need and, I think it's true, I cannot understand a life where that safety is not present. Innocence, I think -- I can imagine but I cannot understand.

Connection and disconnection seem, again, to be central. Isn't it amazing that we are living in a world where language is being lost and transportation is being discovered... Who would give up transportation? Who would give up communication? Would we really talk about it if we understood what that meant?


Crafty Green Poet said...

interesting post, I think understanding can be so difficult to find even between people who speak the same language. Foreign languages throw up all sorts of other issues too, I speak three foreign languages yet often though I know what the words mean I may not understand the cultural implications of some of the words. Each language comes with its own way of looking at the world, which is a major reason i think for trying to preserve languages.

Jennifer S. Flescher said...

I just read your entry for 27 December, the morning after we met for dinner, now since you prompted me. A few technical points come to mind: It's not the Sanskrit language that the two most renowned indological journals don't include but the scripts of that language. They include articles about Sanskrit but print the Sanskrit in Roman script. I just spent the morning in a meeting with a group of Sanskrit scholars and technical people in Bombay. No, I wasn't in Bombay; I was in my bathrobe at my computer here in Providence at 6:30 this morning. They were in Bombay at 5:00pm this afternoon. Yet we were in a meeting together despite being at different times and places because it was too much trouble for me to get, I couldn't walk...yes, I avoided contributing to global warming by not traveling. Actually, I think the plane must have flown anyway so I'm not sure about that. Maybe I avoided encouraging the airlines from adding an additional future flight. In any case, I spoke with them by telephone (Skype over the internet, actually) and we made some more progress towards coming to agreement on what characters to propose be adopted into the Unicode Standard. In two weeks we'll meet with the Unicode Technical Committee in San Jose and try to get our joint proposal adopted.
About Orientalism: Scholars who wittingly or unwittingly subjugated the peoples and cultures of the orient in the course of their research, teaching, and publication were called orientalists by certain supposedly more aware cultural relativists. The latter, however, have created a mode of discourse that priveleges themselves and subjugates those not a party to it, including the cultures and peoples of the orient. The cultural relativists are therefore preeminent orientalists! They didn't manage to achieve or promote cross-cultural understanding. Instead they succeeded in undermining whatever genuine attempts to understand other cultures the scholars they labeled orientalists were engaged in. On top of it, they even question the ability to understand people in other cultures. I think as long as people try only as hard to understand others as the supposedly more aware cultural relativists do no one is going to be able to understand anyone and all language will become useless.