Sunday, April 03, 2016

Ignorance, appropriation, and exoticization

... all wrapped up in one nice package in this morning's New York Times!

It's a little hard to know where to start. Well, let's start with ignorance. The media never gets stuff about language right, so that's no surprise. And in some places it's hard to tell whether it's the journalist or the musician who's saying something stupid (it'd be nice to live in a world where journalists were smart about language but alas). Here's a nice quote:
The last vestiges of some minority languages are preserved as song, and a musical ear can be an advantage in studying the kind of tonal languages prevalent in parts of Asia.
Non sequitur much?

Appropriation just runs through everything these musicians say. The most explicit is a quote from Vivian Fung (who the journalist helpfully tells us is a Canadian):
"It's about finding the parts of the research [on minority languages in China] that speak to me ... and filtering it so that it becomes mine."
Oh Ms. Fung, please take Anthropology 101.

And taking a recording of Ishi and setting it to piano?  Maybe read up on Ishi's story. Maybe read up on what happened to his brain. When I teach about Ishi, all the students are horrified at how he was made into a living museum exhibit. Now, about a century later, he continues to be exploited.

I'm also just so tired of reading things like "these enigmatic utterances" - enigmatic? Oooh, enigmatic and mysterious and inscrutable.
"A work like Mr. James's 'Counting in Quileute' ... is like a time capsule shot into space - except the meaning was already opaque at the time of its sealing." 
I wonder what the Quileutes would have to say about that?

They do give about a paragraph and a half to Greg Anderson's concerns about the ethics of all this, but the composers' responses are supposed to put our minds at ease.

Maybe this is all sour grapes because of the opening paragraph that says:
For the most part, ethnographers and linguists are helpless in the face of the gradual erasure of collective memory that goes along with this loss of linguistic diversity.
That actually raises some complex issues. Calling us helpless implies that we think (or someone thinks) we should have some control but we don't. The reality is that many of us have learned the humbling lesson that language loss or language retention is not up to us; it's up to the people who really do have a claim to these languages - the communities where they're spoken. And I'm not saying we're perfect. I know I've made my share of blunders along these lines. But at least I'm trying to learn to be respectful.

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