By Quintin Sproull
The ways by and through which we communicate with one another are complex in their multiplicities. The various languages and accents w woulde use, body language we express, our cadences, speech patterns, tones, vocabulary, as well as which topics or angles are allowed and encouraged. All of these things affect and are affected not only by the groups we are a part of, but also by the topics of discussion, who’s listening, as well as who’s speaking and responding to whom. In this paper, I posit that language, along with the host of variables that inextricably come with it, is a complex, situationally affected, and important part of a deeper understanding of the assemblage we created during our time as a class in Humans and Non-Humans.
In one of the very first classes together, Dr. Garriga-López used the word ‘fuck’ to express emotion in class. I remember this with some distinction because it is fairly uncommon in a typical classroom atmosphere. Not until recently did I begin to wonder about the relevance that language has to the creation of our assemblage. It may be that this was, intentionally or unintentionally but likely the former, a way of bringing to the metaphorical table our assemblage convenes around the idea that we can use the language we are comfortable with, the language we use with our friends and with ourselves when we feel safe and able to express ourselves openly and honestly. I believe this use of profanity is a way of bringing the honesty and rawness that can exist in how we communicate with ourselves and our closest friends into the classroom and into the discussion, affectively marking the space in which the assemblage exists more open and honest and therefore more conducive to meaningful communication between all affecting bodies.
More than just using ‘curse words’, the classroom was opened up, intentionally to my eyes, to sharing personally relevant and impactful stories, experiences, and understandings of the course’s materials and topics of discussion. Members of the assemblage, both student and professor, regularly shared experiences that were happy, sad, stressful, painful, joyous, nostalgic, endearing, and much more while remaining relevant to the course and relating to books, articles, theories, and the experiences of other affective bodies in the assemblage. I believe that this openness and willingness to make the classroom space one that allows for and even encourages the radically honest infusion and inclusion of personal experiences and understandings of any and all aspects of the course, creates a unique space. Through the radical honesty of experience, I believe that a space is created in which all human members of the assemblage are invited to include those parts of themselves that are less strictly human and simultaneously those things that make us ‘human’; our experiences, emotions, personalized understandings of our lives and experiences, course materials and discussions, as well as how these things affect and are affected and informed by one another.
The process of connecting course material, ideas, and theories to personal experiences was delved into in more ways than one. Another of these ways of connecting to the material was constructed though this course’s involvement of students presenting on various portions of reading material and using theory from previous sections of the course to analyze and think through it all. I think these presentations were yet another way of taking big ideas and theory and understanding them in new ways through our own experiences, as well as the experiences of others. I think that an opportunity to use language and use ideas and theories from various books and translate them into presentations with thought experiments and questions about things not necessarily strictly ‘by the book’ allows us to experience the theory in a radically personalized way, as well as observe members of the assemblage expressing the ways in which they are re-understanding and re-experiencing parts of their own lives and experiences, through or with the help of both the theory and ideas from books and essays, as well as with the ideas, experiences, and understandings that their fellow affective bodies have shared with them. This web of experiences and its corresponding web of different forms of communication is complex in its importance to the assemblage, and all the more important for it. This is to say that it affects and is affected constantly by all bodies in the assemblage.
Beyond using comfortable language, sharing personally impactful stories, and weaving course material into personalized understandings to be shared with the rest of the assemblage, the languages that were used, when they were used, and with whom, all had an effect on our assemblage in more ways than one. In the Humans and Non-Humans class, as far as I know, there were people who spoke or at least understood to an extent, Spanish, German, and English, among other languages. However, in making my point I will focus on Spanish and English. For some people in the assemblage, Spanish was a first language, for some it was a second or third language understood with varying degrees of confidence, and for some it was a language familiar enough to recognize but foreign enough to not understand fully, partially, or at all. Personally, I understand Spanish as a second language; one that I can understand confidently the majority of the time and speak conversationally. My first language being English, this put me in an interesting position along with the other members of the assemblage that had some understanding of both Spanish and English.
Most commonly, Spanish was used in the course in quick exchanges between the professor and a Spanish-speaking student. Whether these exchanges simply came about as the most natural way to communicate in a given moment between to people to whom Spanish was more comfortable, whether it was an effort to make Spanish-speaking individuals more comfortable in an academic environment that revolves almost exclusively around English, does not really matter for the question I am asking. The point I’m trying to make is that whatever the intent, the impacts of a multi-lingual learning environment are interesting and, more poignantly, relevant to the assemblage and it’s construction.
In an English-dominated learning environment, perhaps English-speakers who do not understand Spanish are exposed to a bit of perspective when there are exchanges between professor and student that they do not understand fully, if at all. Furthermore, for individuals like myself who do understand Spanish but are not necessarily the intended recipients of said exchanges, perhaps it can be seen as an interesting exercise in humility; not everything is for you, and it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it shouldn’t be. This sort of realization that I hope was experienced beyond the flesh-and-bone confines of my own mind is, I think, an important one. Especially in the endeavor of crating an assemblage where all parts of the larger whole have fairly equal sway, even if there are hierarchical implications behind professor-student relationships. It’s an argument against perfect communication, and an argument for precarious living. Perhaps in order to construct together a world in which people who speak, look, or act any given way have equal respect and belonging, there must first be a world where all living within it are on equally precarious ground. That, at it’s core, is why I think this specific instance of a multi-lingual learning environment was so interesting to me.
In terms of an assemblage, a larger whole made up of individual mutually-affective bodies, we are hard-pressed to be cohesive in the sense of being beneficial, welcoming, and supportive in such a way that provides all parts of the larger whole, at least the human parts, with a space in which they can thrive. All of the ways in which language and it’s component parts affect those using, hearing, and experiencing it may have agency of its own. Is it a question of vibrant materiality, asking if any and all of the aspects of language we use and are exposed to affect us, independently or alongside their human catalysts? I do not think we can fully understand ourselves as both separate from, as well as responsible for, the language we use and its effect on those around us, if we do not also see the other side of this idea; that any language, whether or not we understand it, has an effect on the speaker, the intended listener, as well as all within earshot.
Personally, as someone who speaks both English and Spanish to an extent, learning in a space that includes some of both has been beneficial. While studying abroad in Ecuador, most of the professors used both Spanish and English in their classrooms. For me, the combination of the two languages, using both to think about and express ideas, experiences, as well as theory, opened up the opportunity to see topics and ideas through two differing perspectives. That is to say that thinking with and through English and thinking with and through Spanish have yielded for me two perspectives on whatever the topic is, two perspectives that often have subtle yet meaningful differences. While the use of Spanish in Humans and Non-Humans was less extensive than its use in Ecuadorian classes, I believe that it still gave me the opportunity to expand the ways in which I was conceptualizing the course material. The most obvious and common occurrence of this was thinking about the impersonal use of se–as in, for example, . The idea of things acting of their own agency is, I think inherent to that use of se and therefore was an interesting exercise in absorbing the idea of inanimate and non-human agency. By this logic, perhaps the imperial use of se would be well suited to describe how language affects those who use, hear, and observe it.