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The Introduction sets the scene by reflecting back on an essay from 2003 in which Mary Louise Pratt, during her Presidency of the Modern Language Association, called for a “New Public Idea about Language.” Though an occasional essay, prompted by “today’s dramatic circumstances” (p. 112), the wisdom of Pratt’s simple proposals has held up sturdily over the ensuing two decades. Little about her depiction of a “linguistically unequipped” country has been revealed inaccurate. The endless War on Terror years, complicated by Trump and Brexit, have only deepened the importance of her, and kindred, interventions since the turn of the millennium. But, like the 2007 MLA Report “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World,” Pratt’s 2003 essay was an intervention in a particular, now historical, moment. Twenty years is ample time to warrant new clarity and purpose around such a “new public idea” about multilingualism.
In Chapter 2, I argue that our ability to distill and evaluate what “multilingualism” is has been jarred, since the 1970s and even before, by profound transformations in political economy and its systems of value. An idealized economistic version of “multilingualism” has been engineered, for various mono- and multilingual subjects to embody or resist. I describe this production of an economistic model of “ordolingualism” as a mimesis of a mimesis, or what Michael Taussig has called a “mimetic excess” (1993, p. 252). Since the 1990s, this economistic dispositive of “ordolingualism” has functioned, with increasing allure, as an authoritative global infrastructure I call supralingualism, which is designed to suppress, manage, and alleviate the complex subjective and interactional experience of lived multilingualism.
Based on the temporal schema of “hospicing late mono/lingualism” explored in Chapter 4, the Epilogue takes up the question of accountability to other generations of multilingual subjects, past and future, and considers how we may set out to assess that accountability. The epilogue ends in the form of an “Undercommon Framework of Reference for Languages,” based on the European Framework, as reinterpreted through the lens of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s Black Studies-based conception of the Undercommons (2013). The book closes with a conceptual glossary of terms, used throughout these chapters and the Introduction, that aid the purposeful work of reinvigorating multilingualism for the coming century.
Chapter 3 addresses, agnostically at first, whether multilingualism is itself necessarily just, turning to key examples in which multilingualism is put to use in capacitating and promoting justice. Examples from European Union law, UK asylum law, and US American criminal and civil case law offer concrete and contradictory evidence. This chapter further engages with the question of decolonial justice as distinct from poststructuralism, queering, disinvention, deconstruction, and various other frameworks frequently applied in thinking about the relations between justice and language. What does the decolonial option reveal about ongoing and emerging debates about multilingualism, and what can those debates, in turn, reveal about the variously divergent discourses of decolonial thought?
Chapter 4 acknowledges that even when we are successful at re-enchanting multilingualism, dis-alienating ourselves from “linguanomics” (Hogan-Brun 2017), and delinking from lingualism, monolingualism will nonetheless remain powerful in various forms and intensities, and many of us will remain responsible for its sedimented historical effects on people in our midst. The chapter wagers that the period from now until 2040 constitutes the remainder of what I consider to be an era of late mono/lingualism, a period we might date to the 1948 ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the Palais de Chaillot in Paris (Kellman 2016). With more than 600 legally equivalent linguistic versions, the UDHR was an unprecedentedly “omnilingual aspiration” (ibid), which garnered criticism for overreach from Saudi and Iranian spokespeople at the time, as well as from the American Anthropological Association. Such omnilingual ambitions intensified in the 1970s and 1980s with customs deregulation and the implementational phase of neoliberal economic policy, and saw a chaotic, asymptotal boom in the 1990s with algorithmic corpus-driven Machine Translation.
In Chapter 1, I argue that “multilingualism” today can be neither just the public and commercial discourse about language diversity in society, nor just the web of diverse and contradictory local practices of multi–, pluri–, or translingual/translanguaging experience around the world. Uplifting the one domain, while downplaying the other, will result in a research landscape unduly skewed in its analyses either toward features of agency and empowerment, or toward features of structure and order. Multilingualism is both of these domains at once. It is, inevitably, a lived and lively tension among local practices, enunciative desires, political economy, and industrial capacity. I thus view “multilingualism” as a praxis under pressure, one that could quite benefit from Applied Linguists’ re-investment and safeguarding at the moment, not its abandonment for an apparently less compromised concept.
Multilingualism is a meaningful and capacious idea about human meaning-making practice, one with a promising, tumultuous, and flawed present - and a future worth caring for in research and public life. In this book, David Gramling presents original new insights into the topical subject of multilingualism, describing its powerful social, economic and political discourses. On one hand, it is under acute pressure to bear the demands of new global supply-chains, profit margins, and supranational unions, and on the other it is under pressure to make way for what some consider to be better descriptors of linguistic practice, such as translanguaging. The book shows how multilingualism is usefully able to encompass complex, divergent, and sometimes opposing experiences and ideas, in a wide array of planetary contexts - fictitious and real, political and social, North and South, colonial and decolonial, individual and collective, oppressive and liberatory, embodied and prosthetic, present and past.
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