A mute bundle of muscles: Constructions of language in social psychology

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Invisible Republics: Historicising Language in South Africa

The development and management of linguistic knowledge was imbricated in the maintenance of European colonial power.
(Rachael Gilmour, 2006, p. 2)
For the first time, an Afrikaans speaker can speak in a language that is not the language of domination and a Tsonga speaker can speak in a language that is not the language of the dominated. (Thabo Mbeki, 1999, p. 26)
hortly after South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Rajend Mesthrie S(1996, p. viii) remarked: ‘Language in control and resistance is not an unfamiliar theme in South African history. In one way or another every variety spoken within the territory has been pitted against one or other language and come up as loser or winner.’ This assertion is made vividly clear when Mesthrie, in support of his statement, lists a number of successive struggles over language in the region – a series of examples that unquestionably takes us beyond mere issues of language and invokes the myriad migrations, colonialisms, ethnic nationalism and racisms, the patchwork of oppressions and resistances, which have characterised the South African experience for the last three and a half centuries:
Khoi and San languages against Dutch/Afrikaans; Huguenot French against Dutch/Afrikaans; Malay against Afrikaans; Afrikaans against Dutch; Afrikaans against English, and so on. Events like the Soweto uprising of 1976 are a byword for the centrality of language in struggle. (p. vii)
Mesthrie (1996) is certainly not exaggerating if he insists on the centrality of language in South African history. Language, undeniably, was politically instrumental during the colonial and apartheid periods. This means, in short, that the language situation of the region was not simply impacted upon by colonialism and apartheid, causing such things as language shift, inequality and extinction, but that language functioned as a component or factor of colonial and apartheid rule. During the apartheid era, for instance, ‘Afrikaans and English were used as gate-keepers for political power and dominance, as instruments for preserving certain privileges for whites, and ultimately as tools for unfair and unequal distribution of the country’s economic resources’ (Phaswana, 2003, pp. 117-118). This analysis of the political expediency of language, of its productivity in the manufacturing and maintenance of not just difference but racialised inequality, is echoed by Alexander (2004):
As in the rest of the body politic, apartheid language policy and planning for black people was no less than a carefully designed obstacle race at the same time as it was a wonderfully crafted affirmative action programme for white, especially Afrikaans-speaking people. (p. 117)
Kamwangamalu (2001) likewise comments on the historical and ideological relation between language, ethno-racism and apartheid in South Africa: ‘As a result of the legacy of apartheid’, he writes, ‘the South African society has been divided rigidly along ethnic lines, with language and ethnicity being the main pillars of the apartheid divide-and-rule ideology’ (p. 75). Elsewhere he writes: ‘The population of South Africa is not only multiracial but it is also multilingual’ (Kamwangamalu, 2004b, pp. 198-199); and that the country’s linguistic diversity had been exploited by previous governments (and governmental rationalities) ‘to justify and legitimise their divide-and-rule policies such as the creation of ethnic homelands for the Blacks’ (p. 198). What comments like these make clear is that language played an active, perhaps even constitutive role in the logic and logistics of racialised rule and oppression in South Africa. In other words, language and ethnicity, language and race, and therefore the ‘multiracial’ and ‘multilingual’ dimensions of South African society, are historically interlinked. They have been shaped and continue to exist in mutually constitutive relationships, and not just as independent dimensions of a politicised South African diversity. The history of constructions and ideologies of ethnicity and race in South Africa is required to understand its language history; and, equally importantly, its language history is essential for an appreciation of how the South African population has historically been imagined and still finds itself reproduced in ethnic and racial terms. Language, in a nutshell, did not simply function alongside ethnicity as a pillar of apartheid ideology, as Kamwangamalu (2001) seems to suggest, but in fact played an essential role in giving ethnicity and race its specific local meanings and deploying these in successive rationalities of rule.
What all three of these authors underscore, however, is the decidedly active role language has played in South African politics, particularly in the execution of colonial and later apartheid social engineering. It is this active, or more strongly stated, constitutive dimension of ideologies and regimes of language in South Africa – the way language underpinned and contributed to the reproduction of political paradigms and their principles of vision and division (especially ethnic and racial) – which forms the focus of this chapter. My concern here, more specifically, is with how language achieved its social and political significance in South Africa, and how it contributed and added impetus to the development of historically shifting forms of subjectivity and power. Taking such a historical approach to language in South Africa is vital for the development of a social psychology that will be responsive to the specific intersections between language, politics and subjectivity in this context.
Experimental psychology, and social psychology included, has historically tended to eschew the historical dimension of psychological processes and phenomena. History may be acknowledged as a relevant context within which psychological processes and phenomena occur, but it is very seldom that the psychological is theorised as intrinsically historical. This ahistorical approach to social psychology has been thoroughly debunked by critical and social constructionist scholars (Danziger, 1996; Graumann & Gergen, 1996; Vygotsky, 1978). Gergen (1973) has gone as far as referring to social psychology as history, whilst Rose (1996a) insists that the human being ‘is not the eternal basis of human history and human culture but a cultural and historical artefact’ (p. 103). The historicising of psychological research has of course, more recently, also been influenced by the Foucaultian notions of ‘genealogy’ and ‘effective histories’ (e.g., Carabine, 2001; Hook, 2005a; 2007). This chapter does not formally employ a genealogical method, but also does not restrict its historical overview to mere sketching of context for a social psychological study of language. It seeks to historicise language, politics and subjectivity and considers this in itself a social psychological intervention.
To map the various historical and ideological points of intersection between language, politics and subjectivity in South Africa, especially in relation to a history of race and racism, is not simply a matter of narrating the deleterious effects of colonial contact on indigenous language ecologies – to lament, for example, the denigration, domination and at times wholesale destruction of indigenous languages. There is no doubt that the cultural politics of colonialism had these consequences, and it continues to bewitch postcolonial politics and societies. But the relationship between indigenous languages and colonial government was also more complex than this. Knowledge of, and control over indigenous languages, in fact, functioned ‘as an arm of colonial governance’ (Pennycook, 2002a, p. 15), as an important component of what could be referred to, in Foucaultian terminology, as colonial governmentality (Foucault, 1979; Scott, 2005). One of the central tasks of colonial governmentality was to define, target and manage subjects and whole subject populations. In this regard language stood in a productive relationship with the very domain to be dominated, managed and ruled over, namely the indigenous – especially as the indigenous became imagined as a differentiated and stratified domain of subject populations that had to be internalised into the functioning of emerging systems of political, cultural and economic rule.
The story of language in South Africa told in this chapter is therefore partly an account of the imposition of biopolitical rationalities, of an ‘ethno-logic’, onto a multiplicity of language forms and practices.1 This ‘ethno-logic’ eventually crystallised in (and come to rely on) an increasingly fixed grid of colonial and racial subjectivities, and was therefore simultaneously destructive and productive of identity and difference in indigenous language ecologies. Rather than approaching the linguistic environment as a flat landscape upon which ready-made languages or ethnolinguistic groups are locked in struggle, the aim in this chapter is to understand how particular struggles over language, and particular regimentations of language, gave rise to different constellations of language, power and subjectivity in South Africa; to different ways, that is, of imagining and governing the South African population as cultural and political communities in relation to language. In short, languages have functioned (and continue to function) as emblems, principles and means of cultural and national belonging, racialised differences and patterns of social proximity and distance for more than three centuries, whenever ‘South Africa’ has been imagined and contested as a cultural and political category. The social psychologist concerned with language, politics and subjectivity has to probe these relations at a deeper level than merely seeking an understanding of language in the ‘context’ of South African history. The aim should in fact be the opposite, namely to understand the ideological making and contestation of ‘South Africa’ in relation to different ideologies and regimes of language. Rather than just a history of language in South Africa, what may in fact be required is a language history of South Africa; of how this country – as a territory, a population and various rationalities and technologies of rule – came to be and exist in relation to language.
Against these background comments I can now outline more directly the aims and objectives of this chapter. On the one hand it simply outlines, for South Africa, the historical dimensions of what sociolinguists often term the ‘language situation’ of a country or a region, and in that sense deepens the discussion of language and politics in South Africa begun in Chapter 2. According to Alexander and Heugh (2001):
The language situation includes features such as the number of mutually intelligible and mutually unintelligible languages in the political entity, the number of varieties of the different acknowledged ‘languages’, the degree of standardisation, whether or not the different languages and varieties have been reduced to writing, the degree of literacy in each of the relevant varieties, the prevalence of a reading culture in the different languages or varieties of languages, the existence or not of a language infrastructure comprising language planning and development agencies, publishing and printing enterprises, translation and interpreting facilities, lexicographic projects and many other essential language services. (p. 15)
The first and fairly superficial aim of the chapter is thus to provide a historical account of the seemingly ‘objective’ features of language in South Africa: those aspects that, in what is seemingly merely indexical, characterise South Africa in terms of ‘its languages’. But it should be clear almost immediately that the breadth of dimensions touched upon by Alexander and Heugh (2001), as well well as my comments earlier in this chapter, defies a purely descriptive approach. Processes of standardisation, the reduction of speech to writing, and language planning and development not only establish that the state is a major agent in the domain of language, but also raise more substantive questions about the nature and political expediency of the relationship between language and the state, or between language and the broader category of government, ‘a series of anonymous mechanisms of power operating on a broader social level’ (Hook, 2007, p. 224; see also Foucault, 2002). This chapter is therefore also concerned with the biopolitical question of how a country produces and reproduces itself, as a territorialised population, in relation to language. Stated somewhat differently, if on the one hand I am providing some kind of descriptive overview of language in South Africa, I am on the other hand asking what exactly is entailed by the ‘in South Africa’ in the phrase ‘language in South Africa’. There can be no self-evident relationship between a country as a political entity and a given number of languages, over which that country then procures ownership, granting some with official or national status and others not. Rather than simply a container for language and linguistic processes, countries are constituted and contested as countries in relation to language. Precisely how such constructions and patterns of contestation have been sedimented historically and currently still inform, shape and constrain subjectivities, identities and social practices, especially in relation to language, is highly relevant to social psychology. Commenting on these aspects of the politics of language in the region is therefore the second, more significant objective of this chapter.
The chapter outlines, in rather broad strokes, a language history of South Africa, starting with the earliest European settlement at the Cape of Good Hope and ending with the current language characteristics and contradictions of the post-apartheid state. Interestingly, language has received scant attention in South African historiography, where it is generally either subsumed under generic discussions of ‘culture’ and ‘ethnicity’ or neglected altogether in favour of an analytics that foregrounds class and capitalist modes of production (Lipton, 2007; see also Heuman, 2003). This is even the case, as Giliomee (2003) demonstrates, in the study of local ethnic nationalisms, such as Afrikaner nationalism, English colonial nationalism, Zulu nationalism and various articulations of African nationalism. There is no existing, authoritative history of the Southern African region that is approached from the vantage point of language and language struggles, or that even just privileges language in accounts of such things as migration, cultural contact and dispossession, the development of (especially religious) print cultures and formal education, and the social changes brought about by capitalism and nationalism. My account is therefore a tentative, merely historically suggestive account of how ‘South Africa’ emerges as an ideological complex in relation to ideologies, regimes and practices of language in the region. The aim is not to be historically exhaustive: a methodical account of the language history of South Africa would take me far beyond the scope of the present study. Instead, the historical dimension of language in the region is elaborated on here for the social psychological insights – and the insights into the social psychology of language – it yields. I will pay less attention to formal language policies than to the broader discursive and material structures and processes, the representational grids, political regimentations and everyday practices, through which ‘South Africa’ has been and continues to be constituted, reproduced and contested – as a geographically fixed, politically sovereign region and, more importantly still, as ‘a people’ – in relation to language.

1. Introduction: Aims, objectives and outline of the study
2. Subjects devoid of accent: Approaching language, politics and subjectivity
3. Invisible republics: Historicising language in South Africa
4. Mirror of the nation: The political ontology of language
5. A mute bundle of muscles: Constructions of language in social psychology
6. Ordinary liberals: Language ideologies in action
7. Conclusion: Towards a psycholinguistics of the postcolonial

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