Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sign! Structure! Play!

One of the most frustrating and fascinating parts of my new job is following - and, grudgingly, policing - my students' use of language. This doesn't merely entail checking vulgarity or your standard, run-of-the-mill verbal abuse, but also, maddeningly, remaining abreast of all the new slang and code words that they use to harass, tease, humiliate, and otherwise bug one another.

For example, this week we teachers have had to ban the use of the word "sausage" in every single one of our classes. "Sausage" has become a way for the students to "get" to each other; everyone will be working quietly at their desks when, suddenly, someone will blurt out or mutter "Sausage!" and then suddenly everyone in the room is all in a tizzy and it takes us a good twenty minutes to calm them back down. Therefore, now each and every time someone says the word, "sausage," he or she is immediately given a detention and threatened with further disciplinary action.

Now, "sausage" is a little unique because it carries with it certain phallic and, in our case, homophobic connotations. (i.e., "Jones likes sausage!") But the real absurdity of the situation begins after the initial banned word has been marked as forbidden or taboo by the faculty. A new word - or, in fact, an entire chain of signifiers - comes to stand for the original marked word ("sausage") which itself was standing as shorthand for a more vulgar insult. So we'll have entire dialogues of supposed asides between two students, orally jabbing back and forth, "Biscuits!" "Waffles!" "D- likes maple syrup!" "Ssssss- Bacon!" Playing a sort of linguistic chicken with each other, daring the other guy to risk uttering the marked locution. The upshot of this, of course, is that we're not allowed to talk about breakfast in math class.

The craziest part of the whole thing is that it doesn't, in the end, matter what actual word is being used by the students to "get" at one another. (Because it isn't simply insults that are being thrown about the room. The kids call it "roasting" or "frying". I don't know what's up with the culinary metaphors.) Sure, "sausage" has a certain phallic logic to it, but over the course of the school year we've also had to banish at one point or another, "bunny," "cheese," "grandma," and "meow." Generally these words retain their mysterious power over the kids for a month or two, and then they're over, and they're replaced by the newest bon mot.

I find this all fascinating - as maddening as it can be trying to police this behavior - because I see it as a kind of microcosm for how words become endowed with such massive power over us and over our lives. Our student D-, who is very smart and has a keen sense of self-awareness, if only he could learn to keep his mouth closed, asked me once (while serving a detention), "Why can't I say sausage? Why can't I say, 'Oh, wow. I like sausage'?" And he has a point. Sausage is delicious. I would love to share my love of sausage with the world. But D- is a part of a community that has endowed "sausage" with the power to harm people - could I call this a kind of political power? - and the word "sausage" has now become a sign, a stand-in or substitute for everything that they are not allowed to say while in school. And so I, the Man, which is a role I hate to play, have to treat the stand-in as whatever it is that it's standing in for. By giving D- detentions.

What is spoken derives in manifold ways from the unspoken, whether in the form of the not yet spoken or of what has to remain unspoken - in the sense that it is denied speech. Thus the bizarre impression arises that what in manifold ways is spoken is cut off from speech and from speakers, and does not belong to them; whereas it alone holds up to speech and to the speakers those things to which they attend, no matter how they reside in the spoken elements of the unspoken.

- Martin Heidegger, The Way to Language

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