For as long as our communities have operated in such capacities as to enable hierarchies of social relations, our use of language has been in conversation with the dynamics of power which informs our lived experience. Indeed, in as much as our forms of enunciation encode within them indelible marks of the cultural meanings in which they exist, it seems naive to posit communication without power relations. In his study of what he calls ‘Keywords’, Raymond Williams examines the ‘problems of meaning’ we unconsciously confront in our everyday use of abstract concepts: ‘alienation’, ‘culture’, ‘democracy’. Through his study – ‘not a dictionary’, he writes, ‘but a vocabulary’ – Williams highlights the silenced assumptions, the communicative elisions in the quotidian words which shape our social interactions. One need only look to the rhetoric of ‘work’ and ‘fairness’ produced by the two successive Tory-led governments following the 2010 general election to understand the power of socially and historically contingent meanings in the complicit furthering of neoliberal agendas.
Jacques Derrida argues that ‘a text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game’. Language, in the post-structuralist model, operates its own ideology of the deferral of meaning. The work of the social progressive, then, is clear. Approaching the ‘social text’ of our communities and cultures, we must follow Pierre Macherey’s image of the critic, ‘refusing to accept the given work as definitive, and emphasising rather its modifications’, pushing the inconsistencies and discontinuities of meaning that may be at once the key to understanding our oppressions and creating the prospectus for our eventual liberation.
It is with this complex interplay in mind that the Oxford Left Review bases its fifteenth issue on the theme of ‘language and power’, hoping to further the progressive interrogation of the meanings with which we live. The analysis is interdisciplinary, and it is through the wide variety of approaches contained in this issue that a more complete image of our social power structures may be realised.
Ken Hirschkop offers an analysis and review of the historical Left’s relationship with language, with a view to imagining the kind of language we want as Leftists, and suggests a re-examination of the ways power structures might influence the language we use. Pursuing a similar concern for the status of standard language, Ankhi Mukherjee explores the interrelations of power, literary value and correct enunciation in the (post)colonial periphery. Jon Greenaway examines the cultural and semantic category of the monster as it plays out in our literature and our lives, drawing from this study a concern for the Left’s seeming lack of willingness to engage in a moral or ethical analysis, which he ascribes to a rejection of the ‘monstrous’ Other. Alana Ryan explores the capacity of language to shape and control access to social citizenship. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s theories of the subaltern have remained some of the most important interventions in the study of the mediation of access to language and self-signification by power structures. Mirela Ivanova revisits Spivak’s ideas, considering their applicability to the growth of Bulgarian literacy in the early medieval period. Extending the interrogation of language’s relationship with social status, Henrx Holmes provides a restating of Monique Wittig’s conception of the straight mind and applies her theories to modern neoliberal queer discourse. Merlin Gable revisits the writings of Welsh cultural theorist Raymond Williams, applying his theories of community and cultural production to the modern Welsh experience in an effort to establish the necessary directions for a progressive nationalism.
Max Leak examines the economic models of the socialist governments of South America, arguing for the necessity of a commitment to environmental protection in any ‘true’ socialism. Further building on the discussion of incumbent left-wing powers, Will Horner applies Ernesto Laclau’s theories of hegemony to the extraordinary rise of Syriza in Greece from marginal political party to the majority coalition partner of the current government. Ioana Cerasella Chis posits the emergence of ‘big data’ in the neoliberal economy as a move towards a totalising investigation of our everyday lives, noting the anxieties that this engenders. Peter Hill’s review of a history of the involvement of Oxford University leftists in the Spanish Civil War traces the history of left-wing movements in the city, noting the continuities between historic and contemporary struggles. Finally, Dominic Davies’s review of the graphic novel Mike’s Place interrogates the posture of objectivity which the novel assumes, finding an implicit pro-Israeli agenda in its rejection of politics and conflict.