The limits of my language are not the limits of my world

Viewed from space, political borders are totally arbitrary. Why draw borders around a nation state, as opposed to a city state? Is someone who moves from Leeds to London to find a job not an economic migrant?

On Earth, of course, there are reasons, explanations. The historical passage from the city state to the nation state, for all its entrenchment in the domineering ideals of conquering elites, also depends on the construction of a common identity, the overcoming of the narcissism of small differences. One can envisage a community independent of an exploitative elite, history notwithstanding.

European history is a bloody mess. Yet European culture is an intricate web of exchange.

Is the identity of the nation not shallow compared to the identity of the continent? Is the insistence on drawing political borders at the national, rather than the supranational level, not a decision based on a contingent sense of identity? And how do we know that this sense isn’t flimsy and artificial, forcing separations where one could find unity in diversity? How do we know when it isn’t basically racism?

Some say that language is fundamental.

Yet there are languages without nation states, nation states without single languages. And languages can be learned.

Learning foreign languages, more than anything else I’ve done, shows the contingency of my mother tongue. When faced with idiomatic difficulties of German or Russian or Italian, I realize how far I am from really existing in any of these languages like I exist in English. I see that they have a world just as rich and strange as English, and that English, to a non-native, appears just so to them.

Yet I still read and understand and translate. And in doing so, I don’t feel separate and isolated within English, as if English should be cut off and given a realm of its own. No. I feel that both English and German are absurd – that the absurdity of being born within a particular language, cast within a particular set of conventions, is the same absurdity as being born. A contingency of existence. And to build anything on such a contingency would be absurd.

When, as an undergraduate, I spent a summer in Montpellier to improve my French, I went to a language school that gave out binders emblazoned with a Camus quotation: “Ma patrie, c’est la langue française.” I doubt the binder did justice to the conundrum of Camus’s Franco-Algerian identity, but what he meant by this was quite profound: that the nation state isn’t defined by language; rather, language precedes it totally, on an existential level. Belonging to a nation state is an absurdity.

In the light of what has just happened, all I can say is this:

My country is the English language. An isolationist UK is not a country to which I can belong.


This entry was posted in Brexit, EU, language, languages, sad. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The limits of my language are not the limits of my world

  1. GSD says:

    What a childish and pithy response. If I were you, I’d look up the word culture in the OED and maybe in the dictionaries of the other languages you speak.

    • lexipenia says:

      A culture does not need to be a state and doesn’t need to police its boarders. I don’t believe in a post-cultural world, but I do believe the world will be more peaceful if we move beyond the nation state.

  2. GSD says:

    ‘European history is a bloody mess. Yet European culture is an intricate web of exchange’. You shoot yourself in the foot with the aforementioned quote as religion would be considered an integral part of ‘culture’ and even the most cursory look at European history would confirm that ‘culture’ has resulted in an unending procession of bloodthirsty wars and genocides- a case in point being the Balkan wars within our own lifetime. Culture is not all about classical musical and obscure literature, essentially it can be defined as an amalgamation of language, religion, shared history, ethnicity, traditions and social behaviour. On another point, what makes Europeans so special? This decision will result in all citizens of the world being placed on an equal footing. A woman from Argentina will have the same chance of living and working in the UK as a man from Bulgaria. This decision only takes away European privilege and democratises immigration.

    • lexipenia says:

      I’m not sure what you take me to be claiming there. I admit I’m being elliptic. But my point is that there is sufficient commonality between European cultures to allow us to think of a European identity beyond simple national identities, and that by doing so we reduce the possibility of cultures going to war with each other. My problem is with the divisive politicisation of cultures, with taking cultures as the basis of states that then fight for supremacy. I don’t see why people can’t have a sense of cultural belonging without having to belong to a nation state, to strive to dominate other cultures politically, etc. This seems to have been the norm so far, but the EU as a political project attempts to break from that bloody legacy by fostering advantageous trade relations. It has clearly failed, though, to communicate the idea of European citizenship and belonging, and we increasingly see a resurgence of nationalism, which has overtaken the more rational arguments about our economic interest.

      As for your second point: yes, drawing borders around the EU is still drawing borders. But I think the EU project is a positive step towards a world where borders gradually disappear globally, albeit not be for many years. I don’t view the EU as the end goal here.

  3. GSD says:

    Good fences make good neighbours. Borders are essential and there is nothing wrong in having a healthy suspicion of other states. There have been many instances in the history of Europe in dictators trying to form centralised superstates, the Roman Empire was an example as was the Soviet Union. I suppose the most contemporaneous case would be the Habsburg Empire in central Europe occupying a contiguous geographical area, having numerous languages and dialects. In the end, people wanted to live in nation states that were defined by commonalities in ethnicity, language or religion. How do you think people of the Habsburg Empire defined themselves- as Habsburgians or as Slovenes, Austrians and Hungarians? Another example of a type of Union would be India (which should really be viewed as a continent rather than a country), where every state is defined linguistically. There have been insurgencies in states that have wanted to leave the Union of India but have been militarily bullied into towing the line. Being an Indian, just like a European, means next to nothing, they are merely hollow demonyms and only have geographical significance. Most Indians define themselves by their mother or ancestral tongue, just as most Europeans define themselves by the country in which they grew up.

    Furthermore, don’t think that this is an anomalous result. If other member countries of the EU were as democratic as the UK and were allowed to go to the polls in order to have a say in their nation destinies, polling shows that France, Italy, the Netherlands and even Germany would exit too. However, just like Merkel et al, you are not a genuine democrat and have a paternalistic attitude in thinking that you know best. Sovereignty means everything and without being able to control your own borders and making your own laws, the concept democracy is but a sham, just like in the remaining 27 EU satrapies.

    • lexipenia says:

      “In the end…” – nation states are the exception, not the rule, historically. And in the globalising world it seems they’re increasingly losing their relevance. People identify as belonging to all sorts of cultural groups, and these need not be enshrined in nation states. Indeed, the foundation of such states is accompanied by tremendous violence. So I don’t see why nation states are some kind of natural historical telos, but I do see plenty of reason to want to avoid them.

      I’m happy with not being a “real democrat” in your eyes because I believe in representative democracy, rather than putting every issue to plebiscite. Populist campaigns of misinformation and scapegoating are the order of the day. Not to mention the possibility that the electorate simply aren’t informed about the issue:
      The way this referendum was organised, I also think there’s a good case that it represents a failure of democracy:

      fwiw, the EU Parliament uses PR, which is more democratic than FPTP.

  4. GSD says:

    How more democratic can you get than the populace voting for a particular issue? it is the very definition of democracy. You favour elites dictating to a passive electorate or only giving them a choice akin to selecting between Coke and Pepsi. Furthermore, you are wrong in your historical analysis. Nation states have been the norm since time immemorial. Ethnicity, language and religion are the biggest driving factors. Do you remember the ‘velvet divorce’ in 1993 when Slovakia and the Czech Republic became separate entities after democratically deciding to dissolve Czechoslavakia- I don’t remember any violence or a Molotov-cocktail being thrown in anger. Yugoslavia balkanised to become etho-religious states. The partition of Sudan in 2011 resulted in a Christian, black South and an Arab Muslim North. Even the reintegration of the Crimea into Russia was due to ethno-linguistic forces. The religious motivations of IS are plain from its very name- Islamic State. The Ottoman Empire at one time was a diverse multi-ethnic, multilingual, multi-religious empire. It eventually fragmented into the monolingual, religiously homogeneous states we see in Europe and the Middle East today.

    • lexipenia says:

      I’ve got some sleep and feel rather more clear-headed today. I feel sorry for telling the United Kingdom to fuck off, since I believe it could be misinterpreted as a sign of dislike for British culture, much of which I love. That’s why it is so painful to see Britain taking a political course from which I am now alienated. I will lose my passport if I’m to continue living in Germany. There’s a sense in which I feel my identity – of being both British and European – undermined. I am still angry and frustrated by the result, but today I regret saying that. What I want to fuck off is the resurgent notion of Britishness as being bound up with isolationism – and the idea of the nation state as such.

      To our argument: Do you believe that every issue should be put to referendum? If not, which ones? Once a state reaches a certain size and complexity, representative democracy is necessary, as you cannot hold referenda and campaigns on every bill. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong in supporting a political elite as a matter of pragmatism in this regard. Furthermore, I think expertise is necessary. I don’t believe the electorate is sufficiently well educated to make decisions of this magnitude. You see them googling the facts NOW, not before 23rd, when the Leave campaign told us that the country was “tired of experts.”

      I also don’t think that this referendum was free of elites. Control is still exerted over the masses by demagoguery, the media, propagandistic campaigning… The standard of debate crashes from what we see in the Commons to mud slinging, scaremongering and outright lies. (Not that the Commons debates can’t also be disingenuous.) You still have an elite swaying public opinion via its powers of rhetoric. Unless we do away with politicians and public figures entirely, democracy will always have elites.

      Also, 52-48 is a very tight result. This could easily have gone either way, and some Brexiteers are already regretting their choice. Remember what your man Farage said back in May?

      Finally, an aside: there is some evidence that Brexit voters, like Trump voters, have the most authoritarian personalities. I’m not convinced their main concern really is the expansion of social freedom.

      To return to the issue of the nation state: I think this, and perceptions of British identity, are quite crucial to the referendum. The Brexit vote correlates with the most deprived areas of the country (areas that, ironically enough, receive the most EU funding, Wales being one of the highest net beneficiaries). These areas haven’t been failed by the EU, but by the UK government, and the EU and immigrants are a scapegoat. I think we have to ask how so many people have been persuaded to vote against what appears to be their economic self interest. Why dismiss “experts”, etc? Why dismiss evidence that both the EU and immigration benefit the UK economy? I think, having been failed by the UK government, the Brexit vote is a largely a protest – it finally counts, unlike under FPTP, and the people have a chance to tell Westminster to fuck off. The desire to protest, however, exists independently of the actual issue. Secondly, nationalism is a powerful force and resurges in times of crisis – but it offers only psychological comfort. If you’re prepared to say “I don’t care about the economic arguments or the UK’s prosperity, what is most important to me is sovereignty” – then I think that is coherent position, if misguided and deeply ideological. I’m obviously coming at this from an opposing ideological angle, believing in EU federalism and a move towards global governance, but I think on my side there is a stronger economic case, as well as an ideological one.

      I’m not sure what you understand by “nation state” here, but I (along with the standard historical analysis) see it as an initially European phenomenon, emerging at first after Westphalia and becoming especially prominent in the C19th. The historical “norm” would be multi-ethnic dynastic empires, of which you give examples. See for example:

      Of course, as nation states go, the UK is somewhat exceptional. But the discourse surrounding Brexit and sovereignty at the moment is the standard nationalist fare.

      As for the violence associated with the foundation of nation states: Yugoslavia didn’t balkanise peacefully, but brought with it tribal conflict and ethnic cleansing. The same is happening now in Africa; the partitioning of Sudan followed nearly a century of civil war. China is being unified via the suppression of Tibetan and Muslim minorities. And if you consider the two largest European nation states constituted during the C19th – Germany and Italy – this went hand in hand with nationalist sentiments that boiled over into fascism.

  5. Witty Ludwig says:

    “I don’t care about the economic arguments… is a coherent position, if misguided and deeply ideological.”

    Why misguided, out of interest?

    In the interest of disclosure, I’m actually someone who voted ‘in’ but regrets it (concerned only with London’s well being and thereby my pocket’s); though, I don’t think we’re reported much.

    As further disclosure, I’m someone who does find the idea of EU federalism / global governance completely odious, wrongly or rightly, but I am genuinely interested in your thoughts here; especially since the ideological case for federalism is stronger in your view. I’m unsure whether your foundation is ethical, logical, or you somehow conflate the two? If ethical, it would be slightly more interesting but, in my view, misguided.

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