NYAS Lecture October 24th: Things Don’t Mean What They Used To: Crisis on the Terrain of Language
Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College
47-49 E 65th St, New York, NY 10065.
The Roosevelt House is wheelchair accessible and is equipped with an Induction Loop System.
You can also attend this lecture via Zoom.
In the 1920s, Victor Klemperer, a professor of Romance philology at the Technische Universität Dresden, began keeping a diary. This diary included numerous entries regarding the ways in which he heard and read German being used in new, unfamiliar, and – given the times – unsettling ways. As Klemperer was recording such things as shifts in the valence of the word ‘fanatic’, the increase in the use of the word ‘Volk’ to modify just about anything, or the rise in frequency of acronyms, elsewhere other people were also struggling in other ways on the terrain of language against the increase in social and economic inequality of the period. Notably, pacificists, and, for a while, Communists, embraced International Auxiliary Languages like Esperanto in the hope of achieving mutual understanding, world peace, and for some, radical redistribution of wealth (indeed the Nazis sought to violently suppress Esperanto, they found it so threatening). Other examples of the importance of language in struggles at moments of crisis abound, from French revolutionaries’ rejection of the flowery, decadent, “feminine” language of the aristocracy, to today’s American concerns about how to distinguish fact from fake, or indeed, to contemporary fascinations across the globe with constructed languages like Klingon. In this talk I will explore some of these examples to show why and how language plays such an important role as a terrain of struggle, used to foment crisis as often as it is used to construct means of navigating and resolving it. What is at stake is nothing less than our understanding of how the world works, or should work, and therefore of who belongs and who doesn’t, of what you have to do in order to belong, and of who merits life and who does not.