In the 1960s, artist Robert Indiana found fame through his four square LOVE paintings and sculptures that have since become emblematic of the counterculture at the time. In 2008, Indiana contributed a stylistically analogous design HOPE to the first Obama presidential campaign. After a brief spirited period of Obama's two terms in office, we seem again to be running low on love. In her preface to Gregory Sholette's (2017) book Delirium and resistance: Activist art and the crisis of capitalism, the art critic and activist Lucy Lippard observes: ‘It's hard to be optimistic after the 2016 elections. [And many other political events around the world, we might add.] But it is crucial to be hopeful’. The book under review starts and ends with the same sentiment, covering a lot of other ground in between.
Heller & McElhinny's Language, capitalism, colonialism is a challenging and ambitious work. It aims to synthesize a set of complex historical processes, placing language itself and ideologies that rely centrally on language at the centre. The narrative seeks to advance a progressive political agenda: ‘our work is constructed around the question of what language has to do with social difference and social inequality’, arguing that the present is a time when once again ‘language is coming to the fore in struggles for power’ (xv). Part intellectual history, part political narrative, part critique of the discipline of linguistics and its subfield sociolinguistics, the authors speak of ‘hope’ for a better future, and the need to include new stories and narratives, evoking Raymond William's (1985) trope of ‘walking backwards into the future’. They see language as tied to ‘all kinds of resources’ that are ‘produced, circulated, and consumed’, and approach their analysis by focussing on particular keywords, ideologies, hegemonies, and genealogies (4). Colonialism and capitalism are presented as two sides of the same globalizing coin. They date the beginning of the world system to 1492 with Columbus’ landing in the present-day Bahamas and the fall of the last Muslim state on the Iberian peninsula: ‘The Spanish consolidation of power on the Iberian peninsula and its global expansion were simultaneous’ (35). In addition to Raymond Williams, their guides include Edward Said, Richard Bauman, & Charles Briggs’ (2009) Voices of modernity, Hannah Arendt, and the Caribbean intellectual and activist Sylvia Wynter.
Sharing a Canadian vantage point, the authors offer first-person accounts of their backgrounds and intellectual formations. They also acknowledge differences of emphasis and approach between them. One can discern perhaps a more pessimistic strand of sociocultural Marxism alongside a hopeful evocation of indigeneity and holistic, ecological thinking. The former suggests the ubiquity of processes that fuse colonial exploitation and the dynamic materialism of capitalism to generate inequality, the latter the possibility of an alliance involving indigenous voices and ‘decolonial love’ symbolized by a vision of the Great Lakes (260).
The book covers a huge amount of ground. Inevitably this creates an uneven narrative, as it is not possible to maintain the same level of focus across such disparate historical and geopolitical terrain, and to sustain consistently the different levels on which the book operates. Given that language politics are always to a degree local, one might argue that no overarching analytic schema is possible or even desirable. One level is the direct critique of language, as in the discussion of the term alt-right (5–6). A second is a critical history of linguistic descriptive practice, as in the account of missionary linguistics in South America (35–42). A third is ‘externalist’ readings of linguistic paradigms, that is as reflecting or occluding sociopolitical and ideological forces operating within the society. This form of analysis applies in different ways, for example, to comparative-historical linguistics in colonial India and to the Chomskyan paradigm in postwar USA. In the one case, the epistemic break created by Western linguistic thought is evident, and the power structure that enabled it is highly visible historically. Its politics are, for us with hindsight, largely transparent. In the other, the relationships between a universalist theory of language, the progressive politics of the 1960s, US military funding, and the Cold War are a much more tangled affair. Yet another layer analyzes schemes for ameliorating what are perceived to be the pathologies of language, notably the Esperanto movement and its rival auxiliary languages (126–35).
One tactic the authors adopt is to offer biographical treatment of key figures. The most extended of these is their account of the career of Franz Boas (76–87), a pivotal figure in the development of the discipline of anthropology in North America. While an opponent of ‘eugenics, Nazi science, anti-Semitism, miscegenation statutes, and notions of nationalism’ (80), Boas was relatively blind to the actual conditions facing Native Americans. His focus on endangered cultures and languages and neglect of economic explanations ‘meant that he had impoverished tools for talking about colonialism and capitalism’ (82). His anthropometric approach to race left him with one foot in scientific racism (83). A second figure treated at some length is Roman Jakobson (168–74), whose FBI file was obtained by David Price. The theme in the wider section is the mistrust and surveillance of linguists in the US of the Cold War, with accounts of the persecution of Melville Jacobs and Morris Swadesh. There is also a brief account of George Orwell's career, with Nineteen Eighty Four (1949) presented as a ‘weapon of the Cold War’ (188–91). The ambivalences and complexities of Orwell's personal and political personae are emblematic of the difficulties confronting a political history of language ideologies.
The book's trajectory takes us to the present day, or the period that has been known for over three decades as ‘late capitalism’ dominated by neoliberal ideology. During this time, language has come to be valued in new multiple ways due to its significance in the post-Fordist era of service- and information-based economies, making labour and economic consumption objects of intense sociolinguistic scrutiny. With language as a resource creating symbolic added value for standardized goods and services, ‘language workers’ emerge as flexible ‘bundles of skills’ and consumers as connoisseurs of linguist authenticity or interactional affect. By contrast, the social, economic, and linguistic inequalities triggered by neoliberalism have spawned a rich body of work on language ideologies and political economy of language, including studies of language testing for migrants as a gatekeeping exercise in response to the ever growing nationalism and xenophobia.
Language, capitalism, colonialism is not strictly a textbook, though it has some of the features of the genre, including the highlighting of key words and summaries of influential frameworks. It does not address questions of methodology directly. It could be read with profit by anyone who is concerned to go beyond the conventional self-presentations of linguistics as a discipline, and who wishes to confront the complex and often contradictory ways in which history and politics intersect with questions of language. The dilemma that this creates is that the discipline itself begins to blur, in that its outlines and central questions are contingent on the particular economic, cultural, and political context. In a sense, the object of study—language itself—also becomes indistinct, as it is perceptible only through ideological processes such as racialization or commodification, rather than existing as an autonomously given entity available for study.