Steganographic Cover art


My book The Invention of Monolingualism has been out for a few months now, and I’ve enjoyed seeing it in the hands of friends, strangers, colleagues, teachers, and researchers. One particular aspect of the process I’ve been pleased about is the cover photo by Matt Thorsen. I’ve met Matt a few times through friends in Burlington, Vermont, and I’ve enjoyed my conversations with him immensely. The night we first met, back around 2001, Matt was projecting his photographs from the second-floor window of a house on Saint Louis Street in Burlington’s Old North End. His artwork  was landing on the clapboard side of the house across the street; the materials of the house and of the images were scraping curiously at each other.

The image on the cover of The Invention of Monolingualism is Matt’s photo “The Family Organ.” It was given to me as a gift by a mutual friend, Don Eggert, Associate Publisher of the Vermont alternative news-weekly Seven Days. The photo came to me in 5×7 format, glued onto a stiff brown tackboard, with some cut-out print letters glued to it below in yellow. I don’t remember what the letters spelled out, and I’ve never quite felt entitled to ask Matt or Don to tell me what they think about the photo themselves.

The photo itself has always warmed me with its quizzical, cozy, haunting haphazardness—something along the lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Filling Station.” The focus is a bit off, which is something I hardly notice when looking at it, because of my congenital ocular albinism. (Images that appear passably clear to me are often jarring to others.) I was surprised and delighted to learn that Bloomsbury were allowing me to use it as is—without sharpening or otherwise adulterating the blur, and even without a negative available.

Generally, the delivery of a “family organ” in mid-2oth century America signaled a household’s arrival into affluence and leisure. Like monolingualism, the household organ was a hard-won prize, after centuries of industrialization. Also, like monolingualism, the technology of the electronic organ itself relied on the hyperrationalization of meaning-making materials and their division into manageable, transposable parts. The organ was a particular oddity of political economy—evocative and performative at once.

In Matt Thorsen’s image, the organ is unplugged and is covered up. Perhaps it is about to be moved somewhere else, having ceded its once celebrated functionality and social prestige to more advanced technologies? Maybe, though, the placement of the cord (for easy reach) and the inviting distance between bench and organ signal that it is actually in quite frequent use, despite appearances. What kind of room is this anyway—with so little else on the walls, and no particular floor covering? Maybe the glowing throw-blanket atop it is more talismanic than disattentive? Maybe the family loves this organ more than it thinks it does—more than its other, more conspicuous possessions?

One strong personal motivation for sharing Matt’s photo on the cover of the book was the simple likelihood that, if copies of The Invention of Monolingualism were to be floating around bookstores, offices, and libraries, I’d never face the prospect of losing—in a fire, a move, or an overeager decluttering—this beautiful gift that was given to me decades ago. So I suppose I’ve just hidden one of my most treasured images in plain sight.

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Fisch out of Water — à la carte!

The German Studies Department and the Deutscher Studenten Club celebrated the sixth year of Fisch out of Water on October 27, at Cafe Passé. With performances and readings in Spanish, Turkish, German, Hebrew, and French, around fifty members of the Tucson community took part in the experience of multilingual being and accented language. In this installment of Fisch, performers circulated to the various tables at the Cafe, performing the piece that the table had ordered. Appetizers and deserts came in the form of original music in Spanish from the stage, and cover performances in German. Please join us for the next Fisch on December 8!dsc09121

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New essay on Pina Bausch


A new essay, entitled “Seven Types of Multilingualism, or Wim Wenders Enfilms Pina Bausch” appeared in Lisa Patti and Tijana Mamula’s wonderful new collection The Multilingual Screen, published by Bloomsbury. Dance is a notoriously difficult topic to write about because, even more than language, it is a form of expression and competence that does not succumb to singular meanings and interpretations. I welcome feedback on the essay and look forward to discussing it with you, especially if you’ve watched, enjoyed, or disliked Wenders’ Pina film. You can find the essay here.

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Keynote Lecture: Disinventing Monolingualism in Modern Languages Research


The Italian Cultural Institute, 39 Belgrave Square, London, SW1X 8NX
Friday 2 and Saturday 3 December 2016

Teaching and research in Modern Languages are conventionally structured in ways which appear to insist on national or linguistic specificity. Work on the transnational inevitably poses questions on the nature of the underlying framework of Modern Languages: whether the discipline should be construed and practised as the inquiry into separate national traditions or as the study of cultures and their interactions. These structures seem inadequate at a time when the study of cultures delimited by the concept of the nation/national identities is becoming more difficult to justify in a world increasingly defined by the transnational and translingual, and by the material and non-material pressures of globalization. Challenging the assumption that cultures are self-contained units that correspond to sharply defined national boundaries must become an essential part of all disciplinary fields and sub-fields that make up Modern Languages, as they seek to avoid the risk of methodological nationalism and of participating in the very structures that it is their purpose to critique. At the same time, how might the transnational acknowledge the residual pull of the nation as a potent, albeit porous, container of cultural identity, and broker of citizenship?

A great deal of research within Modern Languages is already, albeit often implicitly, concerned with the transnational dimension of culture. In so doing, it poses questions about language, translation and multi-lingualism; about the set of practices that make up a sense of location and of belonging to a geographically determined site; about the notions of temporality that obtain within cultures; about modes of understanding subjectivity and alterity. All these questions are of fundamental importance for the study not only of the contemporary world, and its likely future, but for the study of the past.

The aim of the conference is to explore how the ‘cultural’ and the ‘transcultural’ cannot be studied in isolation but rather need to be seen as part of a complex system of circulation which goes beyond national boundaries, canons or linguistic discreteness. The conference aims to bring together researchers who are working on the transnational across Modern Languages and whose work poses questions both on how we study culture and how we produce a version of Modern Languages that is fully respondent to practices of human mobility and cultural exchange.


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New book on multilingual cinema

multilingualscreenFrom Bloomsbury’s publicity blurb: “The Multilingual Screen is the first edited volume to offer a wide-ranging exploration of the place of multilingualism in cinema, investigating the ways in which linguistic difference and exchange have shaped, and continue to shape, the medium’s history. Moving across a vast array of geographical, historical, and theoretical contexts-from Japanese colonial filmmaking to the French New Wave to contemporary artists’ moving image-the essays collected here address the aesthetic, political, and industrial significance of multilingualism in film production and reception. In grouping these works together, The Multilingual Screen discerns and emphasizes the areas of study most crucial to forging a renewed understanding of the relationship between cinema and language diversity. In particular, it reassesses the methodologies and frameworks that have influenced the study of filmic multilingualism to propose that its force is also, and perhaps counterintuitively, a silent one. While most studies of the subject have explored linguistic difference as a largely audible phenomenon-manifested through polyglot dialogues, or through the translation of monolingual dialogues for international audiences-The Multilingual Screen traces some of its unheard histories, contributing to a new field of inquiry based on an attentiveness to multilingualism’s work beyond the soundtrack.”

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New book on interpreting in the KZs

interpretingFrom Bloomsbury’s publicity description: “This significant new study is concerned with the role of interpreting in Nazi concentration camps, where prisoners were of 30 to 40 different nationalities. With German as the only official language in the lager, communication was vital to the prisoners’ survival. While in the last few decades there has been extensive research on the language used by the camp inmates, investigation into the mediating role of interpreters between SS guards and prisoners on the one hand, and among inmates on the other, has been almost nonexistent.

On the basis of Primo Levi’s considerations on communication in the Nazi concentrationary system, this book investigates the ambivalent role of interpreting in the camps. One of the central questions is what the role of interpreting was in the wider context of shaping life in concentration camps. And in what way did the knowledge of languages, and accordingly, certain communication skills, contribute to the survival of concentration camp inmates and of the interpreting person? The main sources under investigation are both archive materials and survivors’ memoirs and testimonials in various languages.

On a different level, Interpreting in Nazi Concentration Camps also asks in what way the study of communication in concentration camps enhances our understanding of the ambiguous role of interpreting in more general terms. And in what way does the study of interpreting in concentration camps shape an interpreting concept which can help us to better understand the violent nature of interpreting in contexts other than the Holocaust?”

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Translation in the Digital Age

A lecture for Humanities Week, October 2015. Responses welcome. Video thanks to College of Humanities External Relations and Nate Mehr.


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