Utopia for Modern Languages and How We Can Get There

Michael Cronin

From The MHRA Centenary Lectures (2020), doi:10.59860/cl.c8d44a3

Part of the book: The MHRA Centenary Lectures

Edited by Graham Nelson


Modern Humanities Research Association

Full text.  This contribution is published as Open Access, and its full text is given below.

Utopia for Modern Languages and How We Can Get There

Professor Michael Cronin

Trinity College Dublin

Utopias are often not only situated on islands. They are frequently the sole preoccupation of islanders. As we celebrate the centenary of the Modern Humanities Research Association that brings together modern language scholars working on two islands, we might pause for a moment to dwell on this fact. Thomas More, an Englishman, will imagine his 16th century utopia as an island society.

Fig. 1. Thomas More's map of Utopia as an Atlantic island, 1516

When the Gaelic chieftain and writer Maghnus Ó Domhnaill (1490-1564) in the same period wants to conjure up a vision of beauty and plenty in his prose piece Turas go O’Brazeel he seeks out the island of Hy-Brazil, reputed to be off the west coast of Ireland.

Fig. 2. The island of Hy-Brasil, as placed on the map by Abraham Ortelius, 1572

One of the most influential accounts of utopia in the medieval period is attributed to the Irish monk, St. Brendan and his Navigatio Sancti Brendani seeks out the Isle of the Blessed as the utopian end stop for his tired comrades. Brendan has a guide in the form of the Procurator who ultimately leads the Munster saint to the promised island:

At the end of forty days, towards evening, a dense cloud overshadowed them, so dark that they could scarce see one another. Then the procurator said to St Brendan: ‘Do you know, father, what darkness is this?’ And the saint replied that he knew not. ‘This darkness,’ said he, ‘surrounds the island you have sought for seven years; you will soon see that it is the entrance to it;’ and after an hour had elapsed a great light shone around them, and the boat stood by the shore. (Moran 1893)

Fig. 3. Saint Brendan's island, which also does not exist, on the globe of Martin Behaim, c. 1490

I do not pretend to the saintly eminence of the Procurator and I am not sure that the Long Room Hub in Trinity College Dublin is a late modern version of the Isle of the Blessed. However, I would like to suggest that in much of our thinking about the fate of modern languages in our modern educational systems we may be neglecting important utopian dimensions to their practice. In doing this I am bearing in mind what Theodor Adorno says at the end of his Negative Dialectics, namely, that nothing can be saved by leaping to its defence (Adorno 2004: 391). Only that which can be changed can be saved. In other words, defending modern languages by saying that it is good for business, good for tourism and good for tolerance (it is good for all of these things) may not be enough. It may be time to transform how we think about saving modern languages and a core element of that transformation is indeed the question of time itself. In examining time and modern languages, I want to consider two regimes, the regime of time proper and the allied regime of attention.

Regime of Time

The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa in his most recent work Resonanz: Eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehung (2016) speaks of the fundamental social formation of modernity which is oriented towards an ever-accelerating culture of infinite growth. The increasingly rapid accumulation of resources is based on a basic reorientation in modernity away from a society where there were fixed or pre-ordained positions or ranks in life towards a society where there is basically a privatisation of what constitutes the good life. What Rosa means by this that each individual must determine what the good life is and organise access to the resources — health, wealth, human connections — that will ensure that this life becomes a possibility. The difficulty for the modern self, however, is twofold.

Firstly, getting access to resources gets more and more fraught as the basic principle of competition in contemporary societies means that the individuals are constantly asked to reinvent themselves — to become smarter, fitter, healthier, more performative — in an increasingly accelerated cycle of entrepreneurial self-invention. It is no accident in this respect that three of the nominees for the Irish Presidential elections, the highest office in the land, were veterans of The Dragon’s Den the Irish television programme modelled on The Apprentice.

Fig. 4. Dragons for President: Gavin Duffy (who placed 6th), Sean Gallagher (3rd), Peter Casey (2nd). But a professional politician, Michael D. Higgins, prevailed

The programme was throughout the quintessential expression of an unbridled social Darwinism and of a culture of accelerated performativity. Secondly, the fixation on resources becomes an end in itself so that what these resources might be for is lost sight of and the increasingly desperate effort to procure the resources means that the ends they serve — physical, mental and social wellbeing — are increasingly remote. The faster you go, in effect, the more instrumental your relationship to self and your environment. You have less time to attend to your inner self and to your external world. The social consequences are a triple form of dissonance, ecological, social and psychological. Ecological because the kinetic inferno of material growth ignores the limits to the natural sustainability of the planet. Social because the dehumanisation of technological and market instrumentalism mean that more and more citizens feel left behind in the backwaters of political exclusion. Psychological because the explosion of mental health issues in contemporary societies and the anti-depressants epidemic in the developed world detailed by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism point to the heavy toll on individual wellbeing of the pumping iron productivism of the modern corporatised workplace (Fisher 2009). The question that might asked then is where do we situate modern languages? Should modern languages be considered a resource in a logic of accelerated accumulation that we will you make you richer, smarter, faster? Should it be subsumed to the extractivist logic of a pragmatic instrument used to capture or exploit foreign resources?

There is, of course, an immediate difficulty with this quick-fix, instrumentalist approach. The basic problem with language learning is that it requires time. Lots of it. As many unthumbed later chapters of language manuals attest, language acquisition is not for the faint-hearted. Students of modern languages are constantly ambushed by the old dictum that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. As the applied linguist David Little pointed out in a lecture on the 5 October 2018 in University College Dublin on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) as you move from level A1 to A2 and from level A2 to B1 each step requires not an arithmetical but a geometrical progression in the amount of time necessary to master the different skills. There is then, I would argue, a fundamental tension between what I have called elsewhere the instantaneous time of digital modernity and durational time of second language acquisition (Cronin 2013: 494). Indeed, arguably one of the major problems we have as advocates of modern languages is that what we are proposing is seriously out of synch with the temporal regime of late modernity. However, what would happen if this problem was to become part of the solution? If, instead of trying to pass off language learning as something it is not — a quick fix — we were to make a virtue of its irreducible difference. That is, if we accept as we must, that acquiring an effective degree of proficiency in a foreign language requires an inescapable commitment to the long term what are the consequences?

Fig. 5. The Irish government's web portal for Languages Connect (accessed 12 July 2020)

The first consequence is for the language policy itself. Languages Connect, the official Irish government policy document on modern languages, published in 2017 contains much of value (Department of Education and Skills 2017). From a durational perspective, however, we need to make Languages Connect reconnect. Language learning at second level needs to be linked to language learning at primary and tertiary level. There needs to be an immediate restoration and expansion of the Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative. At tertiary level there needs to be the development of modern language policies that are similar to the institutional requirement for Irish language policies under the 2003 Official Languages Act. There need to be third level second language acquisition experts on the monitoring and evaluation committees of the Languages Connect policy. Why? Because it is only by recognising that language learning is a long-term, lifelong commitment are we likely to achieve real proficiency in a language as opposed to a delusional short-termism that promise learners, citizens and employers a competence that cannot be delivered.

The second consequence is how thinking in what Stewart Brand calls 'the Long Now' (considering the present from a long-range perspective) means asking why policies on modern languages exclude modern languages (Brand 2000)? Why are Irish and English ignored in Languages Connect? One of the major insights to have emerged in sociolinguistic debates around translanguaging or what Alistair Pennycook and Emma Otsuji have dubbed ‘metrolingualism’ is that language users tend not to have rigidly compartmentalised areas of language practice (Pennycook and Otsuji 2015). In effect, speakers have language repertoires that encompass all the languages they possess and depending on situations they will pick and mix elements on this language continuum. As societies and cities become increasingly the site of what Jan Blommaert and others have called ‘linguistic superdiversity’ (Blommaert 2013), translanguaging practices are more in evidence, a fact acknowledged in the CEFR aspiration to the formation of the ‘plurilingual social agent’. It can be argued considering language as a lifelong practice means that second language acquisition must be considered holistically from a translanguaging perspective — integrating the teaching of the language with all the other languages the user speaks or acquires — rather than serially as a kind of additional multilingualism which layers discrete competences. The third consequence of a durational stance on language is to undo some cherished binaries. One, in particular, is the notion of the ‘specialist’ and the ‘non-specialist’. There is frequently a notion that doing ‘just’ language is an inherently risky enterprise. That learning a foreign language requires the necessary alibi of business or law or politics to be taken seriously as a credible vocational undertaking. The language specialist needs an instrumental specialism to make his or her way in life. But learning a modern language is not primarily horizontal travelling as it is often taken to be — a brief trip to an exotic locale — but a form of vertical travelling — a prolonged dwelling in a language and a culture. The longer the dwelling, the more extensive the journey into the history, the music, the politics, the geography, the sports, the literature, the media of a particular place. The specialist over time turns into the multi-specialist. The language specialism becomes a perpetual opening up not an unavoidable closing down. This opening up brings me conveniently from the regime of time in modern languages to the regime of attention.

Regime of Attention

Relating to others, whether human or non-human, implies, first and foremost, paying attention to them. Are you all sitting still and paying attention? The familiar injunction of the school teacher has become the watchword of the new economy. If the notion of economy is based on the management of scarce resources, attention in a media-saturated world has become the most precious resource of all. Already by the mid-1990s Michael Goldhaber was arguing that with the emergence of digital technologies, traditional factors of production would decline in importance relative to that of attention (Goldhaber 1996; 1997). Thomas Davenport and John Beck in the The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Economy of Business (2001) predicted the monetization of attention where the attention of consumers would be so sought after that they would be supplied with services free of charge in exchange for a few moments of their attention (213). We would be paid to pay attention. Google is the result. Users can now use extremely powerful search engines and all (apparently) free of charge.

Fig. 6. Liquid-cooled TPU servers at a Google data centre: serving whom?

From the point of view of an economics of attention, two challenges immediately present themselves. The first is how to protect attention from information overload to ensure an optimal allocation of this scarce resource (the vogue for time management courses) and the second is how to extract the maximum amount of profit from the capture of this scarce resource (Kessous, Mellet and Zouinar 2010: 366). It is in the second sense, of course, that search engines come at a price. For Google, the user is the product and her attention span has a lucrative exchange value. The more she pays attention, the more Google gets paid for her to pay attention. What these developments highlight is a fundamental shift in economic emphasis from production to promotion. In information-rich environments, a series of media gates exist to filter information to potential users or consumers. Not all of these media gates have the same power co-efficient. An ad in a local college newspaper will not reach the same audience as an ad on prime time television. If the absolute cost of diffusing information has fallen dramatically over the centuries — it is substantially cheaper to post a blog in the 21st century than to print a book in the 16th — the cost of getting past the filters of preselection has risen exponentially (Falkinger 2007: 267). In other words, as societies are more and more heavily invested in various forms of mediation, from the rise of the audiovisual industries to the emergence of digital technologies, it is less the production of goods and services than the production of demand through the capture of attention that absorbs increasing amounts of resources. Getting people to take notice is the main income generator for what McKenzie Wark has famously dubbed the ‘vectorialist class’ (McKenzie Wark: 2004).

There is a sense, of course, in which gaining people’s attention may be a central feature of the new economy but is not necessarily novel in human experience. People have been trying to get others to sit up and take notice for millennia. As Richard Lanham points out in The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information (2006), the central thrust of the art and science of rhetoric for more than two millennia has been to find ways of soliciting the attention of audiences. Lanham argues that much of what has been debated under the heading of ‘style’ in literary criticism, art history, aesthetics has largely been a matter of how writers and artists have sought to corner the attention of their readers or viewers in a field of competing media or stimuli.

Focusing on the economics of attention inevitably implies a certain set of assumptions, notably the maximisation of profits through the minimisation of costs in the context (real or imagined) of market competition. In the standard neo-classical paradigm, the economy is primarily concerned with the optimal management of scarce resources. The ends to which these resources are employed are normally outside its area of competence. However, a notion of attention which is solely concerned with means and not ends is scarcely viable as a theory of attention because attention is invariably bound up with value.

William James in his Principles of Psychology (1890) pointed out how a notion of attention that was purely passive was unable to account for the ways humans pay attention. James is critical of the British school of Empiricism (Locke, Hume, Hartley, the Mills, and Spencer) for not treating of the notion of ‘selective attention’. He argues that because their main concern is showing that ‘the higher faculties of the mind are pure products of “experience”’, experience itself must be thought of as ‘something simply given’ (his emphasis). James goes on to claim:

the moment one thinks of the matter, one sees how false a notion of experience is which would make it tantamount to the mere presence to the senses of an outward order. Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind — without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground — intelligible perspective, in a word. It varies in every creature, but without it the consciousness of every creature would be a gray chaotic indiscriminateness, impossible for us even to conceive. (James 1890: 402-403)

Out of the ‘[m]illions of items of the outward order’ we choose to pay attention to certain items and not to others. Attention inescapably involves value as attention itself implies a choice determined by particular ends (safety, sanity, satisfaction) that are believed to be important. In the circular relationship of attention and value, subjects value that to which they pay attention and pay attention to that which they value. Ends cannot, therefore, be discounted in any credible attentionscape. The purely economistic representation of attention prevents us from asking the most basic question, to what ends are directed the attention that will decide our future or put another way, if our future is strongly determined by those things to which we might pay attention to in the present (for example, public transportation in our cities), then must not the underlying value systems of our ‘selective attention’ be a matter of explicit and sustained public debate?

One of the immediate effects of engaging with another language is that you begin to pay attention to things that you previously ignored — news reports on the country where the language is spoken, songs on YouTube in that language, speakers of the language that you overhear on the Luas or the Dart or the bus. In 2013 Ethan Zuckerman, the Director of MIT’s Media Lab, announced to the world an unsettling paradox (Zuckerman 2013). The Internet Age which had promised a boundless utopia of global connectivity was delivering not openness but closure. His extensive research on web and social media usage showed that users overwhelmingly accessed content in their own language, about their own culture and in their own geographical area. The electronic frontier was fast turning into the digital backyard. The political consequences of this cyber narcissism soon became all too evident in the silo hatreds of the alt-right social media, rejecting the foreign, the migrant, the impure. Not learning foreign languages meant not paying attention. Or rather it meant only paying attention to what reinforced monocultural and monolingual supremacism.

Learning a modern language fundamentally alters an individual’s regime of attention but could equally argue that this utopian promise extends to a whole society. Let us take one issue which has become the single most pressing social concern in Ireland today, the housing crisis. Why have we read no article on the Fondation Abbé Pierre publication 15 idées centre la crise du logement (2017)? Why has there been no opinion piece on Marianne Leblanc Laugier’s La crise du logement: un jeu de dupes? (2017). Both of these publications offer perspectives and solutions to the housing crisis that go beyond French borders. The most obvious answer to my question lies in my failure to translate the titles. They are in French. There are those you here in the audience tonight that could give German, Italian, Korean examples to make a similar point. Our regimes of attention are hopelessly compromised by our failure to engage more fully with modern languages. The solutions, the perspectives, the insights to contend with major social problems available in other languages are simply ignored. This is why learning modern languages is not some decorative afterthought of the finishing school but is at the heart of contemporary debates on political democracy. A healthy pluralism in the public sphere is vitally dependent on expanding the range of policy and societal options on offer. And for this, more than ever, we need modern languages.

The Great Derangement

In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), the Indian author and essayist Amitav Ghosh wonders why the subject of climate change has been largely absent from mainstream narrative fiction. His basic contention is that the forms of bourgeois realism with their emphasis on the regular, the everyday and the predictable leave it poorly equipped with to deal with improbability. The improbable having been banished from realist narrative languishes in the critical backwaters of fantasy, horror and science fiction.

Fig. 7. The writing on the wall

Of course, as we now know in ever more detail with the publication of the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released on October 8 the improbable will become even more probable. Michael, Calum, Sandy and Ophelia, the guests from climate hell are there to remind us that change is already with us. Ghosh asks the metaphorical question,

Are the currents of global warming too wild to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration? But the truth, as is now widely acknowledged, is that we have entered a time when the wild has become the norm. (Ghosh 2016: 10)

This brings us back in the short term to the long term. The core logic of language acquisition involves, as we have argued, a critical investment in the long term. Only a commitment over an extended period of time yields appreciable results. Modern language learning runs directly counter to the short term logic of extractivism that for Hartmut Rosa has produced chronic ecological dissonance. In celebrating the durational eco-logic of second language acquisition it might be objected that what is the achievement of the happy few should not be the concern of the indifferent many. The engagement in the long term is a utopian aspiration that falls foul of the harsh economic realities of just-in-time, 24/7 cycles of production and consumption. Dietmar Sternad is Professor of International Management in Carnithia University (Austria), James Kennelly is Professor of International Business at Skidmore College, New York and Dr Finbarr Bradley teaches at the Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, UCD. Together they authored, Digging Deeper: How Purpose-Driven Enterprises Create Real Value (2016) where they argue that the most realistic and practical way to economic resilience lay in putting down what they dub ‘roots’ or the 6Ls: ‘long-term orientation, building and maintaining lasting relationships, limits recognition, having local roots, developing learning communities and having leadership responsibility to create real value’ (Sternad, Kennelly and Bradley 2016: 21). These roots all clearly resonate with the experience and outcomes of modern language learning. The utopians in the short term turn out to be the realists in the long term. In sum, we need not so much to dig as to delve deeper into what we do in modern languages to show the democratic, ecological and participative promise of language acquisition.

Fig. 8. Peter von Brachel, map of Venice, circa 1623

In the 14th century the Venetians decided they wanted a translation of the Brendan Voyage. La Navigazione di Sancta Brendani, the translation into Venetian dialect, contained two important changes. Instead of sailing west the Venetians had Brendan sailing east. For the Most Serene Republic the promised land of silks and spices lay to the east not to the west. They were also disappointed in the Irish utopia which they found far too lacklustre (‘When they had disembarked, they saw a land, extensive and thickly set with trees, laden with fruits, as in the autumn season’), a poor recompense for all that hard travelling. So they upped the ante:

Then we came closer to the wood, and there we found trees laden with precious stones, with leaves of silver and gold, and with gemstones on their branches. The other side of the trees seemed to be burning, and there came to our nostrils a fragrance so sweet we almost fainted; it was like incense, aloes, musk, balsam, rosemary, savin and roses, and like the scent of jasmine. But for all the fires we could not see any smoke (Davie 2005: 223).

We may content ourselves with the austere grace of the Irish utopia or the lush plenty of the Venetian rewriting but it is our voyaging through languages that will bring us to the only utopia worthwhile — the utopia of human possibility.

Given at the Neill Lecture Theatre, Dublin, 16 October 2018; © Michael Cronin 2018


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