Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Duped by Saussure

Well...perhaps 20 would have been a better goal than 100? Now back in Berkeley for several days, I can feel the visceral sense of difference, the energy of being a displaced body, continuing to evaporate. Of course, it'd be just as possible to keep writing about little things I notice about life in the U.S., life in Berkeley, life on my street. Writing such a list might count as much for writing about life outside the U.S. as when I was in Lyon, since there is a period of time even after returning 'home' when familiar sights look strange, everyday behaviors look out of place. But this heightened awareness is lost all too quickly.

Why is it that even in Berkeley "diversity" seems to be more of a salad dressing than a salad bowl?

18. Langue - Parole - Langage...so what's "French"?
Saussure's distinction between three interrelated aspects of language was foundational in my language studies at Berkeley, as it is undoubtedly in programs across the country and around the world. Yet now, after having spent 6 months off and and on (more off than on unfortunately) studying French, I wonder how much of my fascination with this three-way distinction came at first from the fact that they are in another language, and that learning them--though off-putting at first, I thought, another example of the snooty barriers of academic discourse--was a tiny step in a new direction, an eye-opening language learning experience and, thus ... pretty darn cool.

"Langue", Bill Hanks reminds us in his Language and Communicative Practices (p.25 though I've extrapolated from his glosses here) is the formal system of grammar that forms the collective knowledge of a group of people at a particular instant in time; "parole" is the realization of langue in actual talk--what real individuals produce as they talk to each other with all their individual style, their stutters, stops and starts; meanwhile "langage" is the larger human phenomenon of language that encompasses both langue and parole (or, as many of our professors here say, "language with a capital 'L'").

It's not often that English speakers in the U.S. are told that the words we have to describe our own reality don't cut that reality up into as many pieces as they could--in a sense, that English isn't as fine-grained or precise as it could be, when you look at the world in a certain way. Sure, we (especially those of us living in low altitudes in the sunny state of California) are willing to cede the fact that we don't have as many words for snow as do the Inuit people are reputed to (a misunderstanding of what a word is?), an often-cited example when talking about linguistic relativity. But "language"? Wouldn't it just make sense in English to have a different word for the human faculty of language when English, Moldovan, and Nuahatl are languages too?

And why stop there? When one says in English, "The language of this document seems to indicate that...", isn't the speaker actually talking not about langage or even langue, but parole, a particular, unique instantiation of a larger system replete with idiosyncrasies, even errors?

That would seem to make sense. Or so I thought, smugly, as I left for France recently, armed with foundational theoretical insights that not only allowed me to slice up linguistic reality in my mind, but would also undoubtedly speed my acquisition of spoken French.

Wrong again. In four weeks of strained listening I don't think I heard the word "parole" once. (Maybe that's because people don't talk about it, they just do it?). When I tried using the word in conversation with a fellow grad student at the university, she looked at me a bit askance. Then I tried mentioning the name "Saussure" but it didn't help. Was I supposed to have said "de Saussure"? Was I mispronouncing everything horribly?

Determined, I dropped my efforts at "parole" and refocused on "langue" and "langage". After all, I was there to work with people who were experts in FLE, or Le français langue étrangère, teaching French as a foreign language. And there it was in the title--French as a foreign "langue", just like the theory said.

So why was it that I kept hearing the word "langage" when I thought everyone was talking about the French language or the English language in particular? I wish I had a tape recorder to show you, to prove to myself. Ha! Why did I keep feeling like I was having my utterances corrected, that every time I tried using "langue" it was upgraded to "langage"? Can French be a langage? What would that mean? French is universal? Or wait, did I only hear that word because it sounds more like the English word and all the 'langues' of conversation were getting lost in an incoherent stream of sound? What am I supposed to call the language I'm learning, the language I'm writing?

And why can't they just have one word for it? That'd be so much easier. :)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Touching the interface

Written in the St. Exupery airport, outside Lyon
Dawn, Wednesday July 16.

It’s hard to write when you’re bleeding. I think this is what I meant when I was trying to explain to Nicolas what I meant by “disembodied” interaction online. Our bodies are not implicated in very important ways when we’re online. Sure, you have avatars. Cutting edge webcam technology may even be able to track your movements, gestures, expressions (some might even say emotions these days—you should be able to see it all, right?) and reflect these forms of corporeal communication in real time with an avatar or approximation of the self on someone else’s screen.

But something is missing when the inevitability of your contact with the interface is not then an artifact of the communicative process. When that engagement with the medium itself is in a separate perceptual domain than that which is apprehensible to both or all parties to an interaction. Put another way, if you’re bleeding onto the keyboard when you type, who knows? How does that get digitized, encoded, sent through some server?

Maybe that’s what it means to have a body anyway. Sure there’s an interiority inherent in consciousness itself. An (at least minimal) awareness of one’s own body as a type of medium in the world, one that is private, limber, stiff, joyful or sad, in pain or in pleasure, etc. etc. etc. But perhaps the experience of physical pain more than any other can bring into relief the hereness of the engagement with the medium of communication. People are fastidious about cleaning fingerprints off their cell phone and ipod screens—how about other less seemly traces of the fact that we have, we use, we inhabit, or rather we are bodies even more than we are avatars in Second Life or profiles on MySpace.

You can probably tell a few things about people by looking at their keyboards. Mine, on this PowerBook G4 (the label stares at me right below the screen), has repeated wear on a lot of keys...and, thankfully, now, no drops of anything else.

Wait, time to board the plane soon. What is this taste in my mouth, in my nose? Perhaps, like they say in that commercial back in the U.S., “It’s the cheese...” I’ve had it since I was up in the Alps. Will I carry it with me all the way? Will it last even after getting off the plane? We'll see...

Friday, July 11, 2008

lEft anD rIgHt

I've been in Nice the last few days with a friend from the GSE in Berkeley. Hoping to get out and take some pictures before going back up to Lyon tonight...

14. Left and right. There are a million ways left and right can be organized in any place you go, I guess. Lately I've been marveling at how cars drive on the right-hand side of the road, but trains, metros, etc. go on the left. Unless, of course you're talking about a tramway, which I assume has to go with car traffic and run on the right. Wouldn't it be interesting if it were the other way around? Walking is another story--like in Korea, where cars drive on the right but people tend to walk on the left. Here I think the general protocol is for people to walk on the right but I've been running into people on both sides...any insight out there? :)

15. Door handles. From the sort of mundane to the really mundane. I just can't figure out why door handles on apartment doors, when there are door handles at all, are positioned in the middle of the door instead of near where the key goes in. This means of course that you have to pull harder on heavier doors and you - or I at least - end up slamming doors a lot of the time when I'm closing them. What up?

16. Eyes, the gaze. This deserves more space and I'll write about it more later, but just wanted to get it down while I'm thinking about it. Students at Berkeley mentioned it in the context of videoconference interactions - the experience of looking at and being looked at in another language. Eyes have appeared in photographic and comic-style representation in several magazines, newspaper ads, etc. that I've seen while I'm here (hopefully will post some later). And eyes in French -- why does that have to be the hardest word for me to pronounce?

17. cApiTalIzatiOn. This is something that I've been wondering since last time I was here, in March. A lot of the time in the casual emails I've seen, people have capitalized at odd places in the word, and I've been wondering: what's going on? Are there times to do this, people who do it, is it just having fun, does the CAPS LOCK key get stuck on a lot of French computers (ok bad joke), is it just vowels that get capitalized, are you supposed to spell out separate words by looking at the caps, etc. etc. etc. Separately, I have noticed that a lot of people do capitalize their last names when writing them - this seems to be a convention for distinguishing between the nom and prenom. Do they get confused sometimes or is this just for ease of identification overall?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

J’ai cassé la chaîne

Note: due to issues of practical necessity (i.e. how the hell am I gonna get 100 insightful, well-developed thoughts and stimulating impressions written on this blog?) this list is now about my experiences in France and learning French.

11. Sitting, talking, drinking. Maybe, just maybe, life doesn’t have to be a rush of over-caffeinated warmongering accusational testosterone-fueled stress cookies. People here seem to spend a fair amount of time just chilling out, sitting down, having a drink, checking out the scene. And that’s OK.

12. Life on the street. Speaking of the scene...why would you want to sit on the street in a Starbucks or Jamba Juice looking out upon a strip mall parking lot, an expanse of concrete with the sun glinting off the rims and mirrors of an army of SUVs? Or sitting overlooking the vastly underpopulated sidewalks of many American cities? I may be comparing apples and oranges—a critical take on suburban scenes from the U.S. after years of experience, vs. a number of days in some major metropolitan centers in France—but I have spent dozens upon dozens of hours walking, and there are cafes everywhere with tables, chairs outside.

Sure, this is something I knew from before and even have experience with to a limited degree—not totally new. But I think it bears mentioning because of just how everything’s arranged. Namely, everyone seems to be looking out. To the street. Whereas I had expected if a couple were going to sit down, or a couple of friends for that matter, they might sit across from each other with the table between them. Don’t you go out somewhere to look at each other in a different context?

That is how seats are arranged in a lot of the cases here to be sure, but what I was struck with (in Paris especially) was the number of places where chairs are arranged side-by-side, friends, couples, or people sitting by themselves looking out at the life in the street.

What, then, is the life in the street? Or is that it at all? What is everyone looking at? Surely, more than the curious tourist wondering what everyone’s looking at...

13. Verb of the day: Casser. To break. I wonder if there’s anything to the idea that it takes a contextualizing experience, or a counterpoint experience, a metaphorical projection, or some other way of getting distance on a word or expression before you can really learn it. Romain had just explained to me what you should say if a couple breaks up. Of course there are other expressions but if you want to be colloquial and leave no doubts about the state of the relationship you could say, “Ils ont cassé.” (they broke up). I think he made a rough and sudden pulling apart gesture with his two hands, indicating the rupture.

Good enough for the time being, but the word was cemented the next morning when I was riding my VeloV from home to ENS. I knew I had a clunker—the chain was skipping and grinding a little bit as I rode but it was holding up. I took it down the walking path along the quai of the Rhône. Beautiful morning, some clouds in the sky and a vibrant blue. Everything was fine until the little uphill segment which, given the gearing on the bike, I really had to grind up.

Push. Push. Push. Push again, and then >BOOM<.

My legs go flying and the pedals are spinning around, suddenly free from their lifelong connection to the crank to the chain to the gears to the wheel to the ground. And with no purpose.

I had about 15 minutes left on the bike and was wondering how I was going to get to Debourg just walking or pushing the bike. Got up to the street level, thought I’d try to use the bike like a scooter but after a few scoots the damn chain got stuck inside the plastic housing around the rear wheel. I stopped and struggled to get it out, pulling the chain while tryhing to stabilize the bike, the whole assemblage moving around in circles. I must have looked pretty helpless because a guy about my age came up to me and asked what happened.

Of course, I didn’t have the words but he figured it out soon enough when he saw my greasy hands.

“Ah! Tu as cassé la chaîne.”
“Cassé, tu as cassé la chaîne.”

You broke the chain.

He probably didn’t realize why I was asking him to repeat himself, but at that minute there was a bond forming in my mind between the broken chain on the bike and the separated couple that Romain was telling me about the night before. Ils ont cassé. Et j’ai cassé la chaîne.

He kindly explained where a closer VeloV station was, which of course I didn’t understand, and I thanked him and was on my way. Oh well. One verb at a time.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Rainy day sur le quai

Spent most of the day commuting from campus to campus and then working at Lyon-2...all because of a rainy day that started off decorating my window this morning:

And now back to the list!

9. The Smart Car. Who can come from a country populated by gas-guzzlin' SUVs and fat-tire monster trucks without marveling at a car that you can park perpendicular to the road? In Lyon there seems to be a contest among businesses for most outrageous design too...

10. Sides. One of the first words I learned when I came to Lyon was the "quai" as in "j'aime faire du velo sur le quai," I like biking along the riverside. The translations listed on my favorite online dictionary (sorry, internet, paper's better) for this word are "dockside", "bank", "wharf", "embankment" etc. I'm not sure if any of them cover it. Given that two rivers, the Saone and the Rhône, pass through Lyon (or rather, the city was built around them), the quai and the bridges that traverse them form a defining aspect of the human geography here. You can follow the quai, run into the quai, have a nice apartment by the quai, and, yes, as of a few years ago, even rollerblade several miles up and down the quai.

This might be deserving of its own entry but I started out talking about "sides" because I was also thinking about the phrase "à côte de" (to the side of). This expression has popped up again and again recently, probably because it’s short and I’ve started to recognize it, but I’ve been wondering if the expression “on the side of” might occupy some semantic space that’s taken up in a different way in English (ode to Saussure and the concept of “value” here). In the project I’m working on, with Berkeley students videoconferencing with tutors in Lyon, it’s probably typical in both languages to specify which group you’re talking about with expressions like, “on the Berkeley side” and “on the Lyon side”, or “à côte Berkeley” and “à côte Lyon”. So far so good. But today in the office a student who I met for the first time, and who knows about the project, was asking me if I do research about the students or the tutors, and he asked if my focus was “à côte apprenant ou à côte tuteur” (on the learners’ or tutors’ side). I guess this expression would be possible in English but it struck me that I’d probably try to express this two-way choice by saying something like “à propos des tuteurs ou des apprenants” (about the tutors or the learners) in my infant interlanguage....

Are “sides” used more commonly in French?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

100 things about France...

One time when I was in Thailand I tried this out--writing a random list of things that I noticed from my 'American' discursive self. I was thinking that while I was still very much a stranger, and before I got used to even the things you get used to in a few weeks' stay, I should write things down as they come to me. So...voilà. Here we go. I've got my little notebook and hopefully over the next 2 weeks before I head back to the U.S. I'll have 100 little things about France that I've noticed...feel free to comment...

1. Water
. You have to pay 2euro for a little bottle at a cafe when all I want to do is drink glass upon glass upon glass (noted when I was standing sweating in the metro & related to #5.

2. Coffee. Am I missing something here? Almost everything I've had so far is all pre-measured espresso in colored instant packages (depending on flavor or strength, I've heard), loaded into espresso machines. I think I've become too used to the kick-ass fusion power of Peet's regular blend.

3. Boobs. Yep. That's right.

4. Being late. I usually am though I've been trying to make up for this, leave earlier. It always takes longer than I expect to get somewhere. And I can't figure out what I should say to the people who are there when I show up late. Pragmatics as a whole is something that's beyond me--I just need more time to observe, participate. But in the meantime I guess I should just be on time.

5. No AC. Anywhere, it seems. I don't object to this necessarily, but it's a change. Especially thinking of my experience of being 'abroad' in Japan, in department stores, on buses and trains....remember the "weak air conditioning cars" and "strong air conditioning cars" on trains?

6. Africa has never felt so close. Of course this sounds like a trivial comment in a list like this one. It deserves its own essay, or blog entry at least. I just got a sense as I moved around and talked to people today that I really don't have a sense of what the "Africa" in "African American means when I'm living in America. Being here where other facets of life and peoples from many places come to the fore might help to learn...

7. Driverless metros. OK, a trivial comment after the last one. But I'm not trying to impose an order on this list. Actually I'm just writing things down in a little notebook I carry around with me as I go around (will I get to 100? Will it matter?) and i think I wrote this one on the metro. So anyway, OK, the metro is underground and it's not going to hit anyone anyway but somehow it strikes me as odd that there's no driver in a metro, the green line in Lyon in this case. I mean, you can just sit in the front car of the train with a big plexiglass window in front of you and watch the track roll under your feet. It's an eerie feeling. Makes me think about the BART operators, I think they're called (not "drivers" for sure), and how their only job is to poke their heads out of the window and make sure it's safe to close the doors. Is this ia function that can't be entrusted to motion detectors and sensors in the U.S.? Some legal requirement or cultural practice that the BART directors and broader U.S. society have agreed on? Airport shuttles don't have drivers...why should BART?

8. Street signs. This one I'm writing several hours later as I'm lost on the way home from Nicolas' house after dinner up in a part of the city I'm not familiar with. Which is basically the whole city. And as I strain to make out the street signs on the corners of buildings I'm struck again by this point: the street signs aren't visible before you get to the intersection. Because they're on buildings near the corner and they face the street that they name, you either have to already be on the street to read the name, or you have to be in or passing the intersection to see the name of the cross-street. So how are you supposed to know where to turn?

Well that's it for now. #9 coming soon...