Politics of Language Documentation and Conservation

Sibansu Mukhopadhyay

Post-capitalist economy endeavors a ‘liberal view’ of ‘life’. Fast growing technologies make this view wider as a symptom of this age, called ‘anthropocene’, with a massive information database. Thus the view of life comes with a pseudo knowledge system in order to deal with both ‘vague’ and ‘authentic’ information package, working at the shallow level of different ideologies. One such ideology can be called ‘Save Earth’, which works in the interface between the ‘good lives’ and the ‘mother earth’. As a crucial move, I take here the term ‘liberty’ as by which an individual member of the democracy is “free to interpret” everything like Earth, apart from its Marxist historical value.    

The new wave of materialistic language documentation and conservation is undoubtedly considered as a vital task under the programme ‘Save Earth’ connected to ‘freedom of interpretation’, although the issue like ‘language extinction’ is not at all a new-born threat world of speech is facing. On the other hand, Linguistics as a universal science takes language as a system, which is naturally evolved as a ‘closed’ communicative structure that connects a community subject to a political boundary. But, language may be considered as a dynamic combination of signs and codes if the notion of language has been defined as an open communicative structure. We have observed in the evolutionary history of language, it spreads, changes and shifts over time competitively. Competitive situation is as a result of evolution of power and civilization.

Present scenario regarding human value of what is to be done for the good lives and mother earth is more complex than ever. Many crucial physical and natural states of affair as the results of ‘holy absolute’ view of life have come into the front of the task in order to place a subproject, namely ‘save nature’. For example, we have known that we are facing problems like species extinction, biological diversity disorder, language endangerment.

Language documentation and conservation is considered as a very crucial task under the urgent mission of ‘save nature’, the subproject of the ‘Save Earth’ programme. The absolute narrative of ‘nature’ has been reauthored by several post-capitalist agencies which explicitly serve for the global economy.  This new discourse built on the Earth’s natural health is nothing but almost a damaging endeavor for nature in-itself.

We may account here one interesting intervention into the natural theory lead by Zizek[1]: “nature does not exist.” It is known that referring Lacanian departure of saying “The big Other does not exist,” Zizek symbolizes NATURE as the big other ‘essentially’ projected as an absolute idea. Thus any change in nature always effects bad on the contrary to good human life. Zizek draws the line that therefore ecology as the structure of nature is one conservative ideological idea.  Any structural change in the ecology does harm to human life.

In this ideological state of natural affair, according to Zizek, human dominance on the pre-conceived idea of nature, may not be dominated by anything rather than nature. Any event of human activities is not allowed to intersect with the nature. Ecology in the Zizekian view is such an ideology what accepts nature’s asymmetrical and ecological problems as the result of the modern technology and Cartesian subjectivity. The plane of Cartesian subjectivity delimits our activity since we don’t believe that the being could manipulate the nature and that the being could exist out of the nature. According to Zizek, we should “rediscover” that nothing is called nature that could be manipulated by humans. Nature is our background and we are embedded in nature. Suddenly, one calls us to move out of it and feel it. We also need to find out the person who mad this call. Zizekian attempt makes us on the contrary to accept the ‘scientific reification,’ by which we are believed to be embedded in nature.

Ecology is considered in the contemporary politics as an object of strategy by which we became aware of the threat on ecology and feel the ‘necessity’ to recover it. I would like to call this post-capitalist era as an ‘age of necessity,’ where each consumer feels necessity of life.

Zizek[2] postulates that the ecology becomes ideological battlefield, which provides us: the true idea of nature and consequently the reality of ecological threat. We presume that the nature can care itself so that we don’t need to overinterpret it. Secondly economy will decide the solution. Our duty is to take care of the economic growth by the consumption of new products as well as new ideas. Thirdly, we have to believe science and technology that save us from natural disorder since the beginning of the civilization. The battlefield of ecology, according to Zizek also stresses upon the individual response to the threat concerning how does one should react by this threat. Lastly, the ideology of ‘Mother Nature’ forces us to live by the symbolic ‘green’ and as the respectful children.

One of the very optimum comments made by Zizek is: if we always blame science and technology for the problems we never fix these with the help of science and technology. Because according to Zizek only scientists can see the ozone hole with their specialized knowledge. He comments, “There is no way back to pre-scientific holistic wisdom, to the world of Earth, Wind, Air and Fire”[3] and also stated “While science can help us, it can’t do the whole job. Instead of looking to science to stop our world from ending, we need to look at ourselves and learn to imagine and create a new world.”

A respectful child always tries to preserve her mother’s memories, to archive all the moments that she spent with her mother. In the absence of the mother the Archive becomes Iconic Mother, since the remembrance of her mother is now nothing but the storage of old memories.    

An archive can be believed as a scholarly contribution to a democratic society.  It conceives absolute truth of lives adequately historical and politically correct. Thus a political organization needs the control over an archival presupposition to memorize its holy DEMOS. An archive differs from the memory[4] only in order to offer the citizens to participate in the freedom of interpretation. This freedom of interpretation may be one of crucial senses that address the social equalities.  But do we pay attention onto the psychoanalytical background of the ‘event’ of archiving, i.e. the motivation of collecting, organizing and preserving human record? What does an archive affirm?  One crucial point we may remember that the ‘documentation’ cannot drive the forces of lives it only records the death.  

Secondly, there are many other psychoanalytical points to be accounted. As an intervener, how ‘should’ one interpret other’s mind, especially when the social hierarchy of power playing both into the mind of one and other, collector and donor in this case.  One basic question seriously problematizes the model of conservation project: “Who are you to save them?” In the occasion of the conservation of the other there must be an effect, called ‘intervention effect’ what following Beck (1996)[5] I borrow from the generative linguistics. These effects are the results of restriction on wh movement to the C position. Likewise when the ‘one’ is considered as the powerful big other, both the assumptions (Lakanian and intervention effect) condemn the existence of the big other. The age of necessity does not work similarly for the collector’s and for the donor’s mind. Individual’s freedom of interpretation enabling technological power ensures everything possible. Zizek (2010)[6] uses the term tech-gnostic dream of immortality that works with our biology to compose a computer program for our identity. 

The fallacy of the ‘essential’ utterance, ‘nature does not exist’, is: if the nature does not exist then how have we been interacting with the empirical world that allows Zizek to conceive this Lacanian axiom with a coherent analysis of its essence. But, Zizek’s essentials also can be examined under ‘freedom of interpretation’.  What narrative where Zizek essentially assumes to interpret us to be embedded with nature is also essential.     

The above discussion may be ambiguous if for the present purpose we do not mark some empirical problems what lead to account linguistic and cultural ecology in real. Apart from the fallacy I mentioned, I admit the Zizekian point of view which makes us free to interpret the politicization of the idea of nature and the idea of ecology as the absolute structure of nature. Still I remember the life where existence is believed to be followed by essence. I remember the child victimized during Syrian civil war and thrown on the beach. I saw a picture that takes me beyond the Iconic essence of the event.  I still remember a photograph, in which a little girl with a chalk drew her imaginative mother who was lost in the war of Iraq.

I have an existential view of Zizek’s essential critique. I don’t let then an idea to be miscarriaged. I have both X and Xn.

Since we recognize we live we exist. Since we exist we think.

Nothing is nature, but something is culture. I react when something happens over nothing. A crucial argument can interfere into this doctrine of nothing, asking “how does one experience nothing without explaining something?” I suggest not to explain something to experience nothing, but consider a robust degree of nothing that accommodates everything.  I also argue for a ‘good’ life not as ‘good’ but as ‘nothing’. I consider this fallacy of argument to violet formal essentialism as the “essentialism overwritten” by the existence. Thus this pre-considered fallacy of argument helps us to retain our nature as nothing.     

I can experience language competition in a social dynamics, which is evidently caused by the discourse of power. I experience a language by its users who belong to a socio-economic class. Thus each and every affair around post-capitalist economy affects the users of language. This existential viewpoint is not considered in the present realm of the ‘save language’ initiatives, although it is quite an open reality that the ‘death’ of the last speaker of a language is marked as the extinction of that language. However the existential point of view can only explain the ‘absence’ of the users but not the ‘death’. The term ‘death’ is used for the multiple purposes without mentioning the purposes. For example, the users may shift (naturally or socially motivated) from their politically non-functional speech to a usable format recognized by the Government. There may be much more crucial effects of environment that does not suffice a small clan to survive biologically, so that the particular clan migrates and scatters over a big geographic domain. As a result the language users of the particular clan are no longer the users of the particular language, which is a default system of indigenous knowledge and nature.              

I propose to take the ‘reasons’ of language extinction as essential but the ‘crisis’ of the result of extinction as default existential. The crisis may be defined in terms of parallel existences of nature as nothing and the essential formulation of nature as something by single developmental parameter available in the global market. Now if we account an irony, where the sources of the problems worked out by the researchers with different interests and the sources that provide scope for the research are same, the orientation of the research becomes controversial. On the other hand, activism cannot be legitimized within the nexus of the state or by the state policies. Then, how do we as the saver of language settle the policies for our ‘save language’ project.          

This article also asks following utilitarian questions: (a) How have the researchers of linguistics felt sudden urgency to conserve a language? (b) How have they adopted documentation as procedure to revive life of a language? (c) What methodology do they follow in documentation? (d) How do the researchers manage conceptual frameworks like language endangerment, extinction, and even what we call a language in a given land or territory?

The ‘road’ to answer these supra-technical questions is important for this article. First of all there is a need of survey on what types of project are taken since last few years to ‘document’ different kinds of linguistic existence, especially ‘endangered languages’ by the Government of India. In the present Indian economy, more realistically in the advent of present governmental policies, what kind of motivation is working behind the entrepreneurship of language conservation initiatives? It is still very doubtful to ensure even the ‘democratic etiquette’ to protect a language under ‘save earth’ program to be as diplomatic as the typical global (American?) trend of marketing.

A simple survey on the recent adaptation of language museology (I prefer to use this term purposefully) shows a severe lack of methodological exposition. For example, the concept of ‘language’ needs to be exactly defined before one makes ‘one language’ documented.

Secondly, if the formula of ‘one language’ is considered as a monolithic entity as an aspirant biological body which has a robust ‘life’ with two ends, birth and death. Then why should we try to protect a language from death since death is natural criticism of any living being?

Thirdly these tries faces but do not address the empirical problem of crisis of data in order to establish ‘one language’ as valid as the other empirically defined phenomena.

If the third problem is solved, then fourthly, some contemporary rich biologically salient studies suggested that language is as a dynamic fact that is to be accounted by socio-biological competitiveness according to the theory of classical evolution and the discourse of power.

And finally, if the fourth problem has been addressed then I ask a further question although not the last…”what about the economic history of science and technology which has always served as technical manifestation of the global economic trend reflected also in the regional economy. 

There is now a question ‘what’ occurs in the audience. What can be done immediately for the existential ‘crisis’ I mentioned earlier? One utilitarian answer presently suffices our discussion.  Dasgupta (2015)[7] has suggested for those who are engaged with tribal affairs (e.g. tribal language documentation), to emphasize on “developing locally valid solutions”.  We need to put our concentration on the discourse of local/ indigenous knowledge which may be considered as a short storage area which are manageable rather than the archiving strategy for whole. Utilizing the contemporary technologies it is a great opportunity for us to encourage each tribal individual who already has a serious individual memory by the virtue of electronic coverage to share their personal portable archive to the other members of the society. This portable archive will be accessible by all the member of her group. 

I also mention in this course that there is a major lack of understanding the methodology of a given empirical science. I can point out one such problem that the overall trend of documentation of a dynamic existence like language adopted by the contemporary researchers violets Kuhn’s Cycle[8]. According to this cycle each science must take revolutionary attempt to conceive a new knowledge that must lead to the new ways to the knowledge. There must be a “pre-science” step.  Pre-science steps into normal science and normal science moves towards a model drift. Model crisis is the most crucial stage that attracts scientists to work on. This stage of crisis by the revolutionary thought either produces a new paradigm or it changes the previous one. Flaws observed in the available method of documentations as an application of fundamental empirical science neither are addressed nor are considered as a serious scientific issue.   

Lastly, I flag the agenda driven by the existential perspective: let the nature restore its own. Humans build a parallel world of nature in which she is able to use at ease a chunk of natural resources. Let us take the challenge to shift our viewpoint from the nature as something to the nature of nothing. This article may be considered as a reminder of the following issues: there are different non-canonical structures of nature subject to geographic specification, symbolization of nature mother is the issue of nature as something, we must know our omnipresence in the nature as something and the maximum possibilities of anthropocene that rediscovers world of nature as nothing.

2. Ibid
3. Zizek, S. 2015. “Ecology against Mother Nature: Slavoj Žižek on Molecular Red”, Versobooks Blogs 26 May 2015 <>
4. Foucault, M. 1984. “What is Enlightenment,” in Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon.
5. Beck, S. 1996. “Quantified structures as barriers for LF-movement.” Natural Language Semantics 4:1–56.
6. Zizek, S. 2010. The end of nature. The New York Times DEC. 2, 2010 <>
7. Dasgupta, P. 2015. “Changing Tigers Mid-Stream,” A seminar on The right to education and the future of our languages. Department of Linguistics, University of Mumbai, 9-11 March 2015.
8. Kunhn, T. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Nov 28, 2017

Sibansu Mukhopadhyay Sibansu Mukhopadhyay

Your Comment if any