In Other Words…

A little while back, Russell McCutcheon prompted Monica Miller and me to think about the notion of code switching. People use the phrase to refer to everyday modes of discourse that come to be seen or understood as exceptional—specifically the phenomenon of talking or acting in particular ways depending on the group or context that surrounds someone.  He gave us a clip from My Fair Lady as an example.  The story is all about Eliza Doolittle’s (successful, by the accounts of those around her) attempt to become a “lady” rather than—to quote Prof. Higgins’s early assessment—someone “so deliciously low.”  In order to trade her harsh cockney accent for that of a person in high British society, she goes through endless lessons attempting to change her speech, manner of dress, and behavior.  For example, who can forget the famous “rain in Spain” breakthrough? It’s practically on par cinematically with Patty Duke’s spelling out w-a-t-e-r into miracle worker Anne Bancroft’s hand:

Eliza successfully code switches.  But why do we understand her to be the only one doing so?  After all, Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering certainly speak differently to Eliza than they do to each other, even if their accents remain steady.  And come on—what about the dancing?

There was a similar question being asked in the recent post about costumes and ideology.  The dominant group (those with neckties) are thought to be untethered to ideology, leaving the presumption that “those in costume” must be anyone other than the men wearing neckties.

In various discourses of identity studies, scholars have talked about the privilege imbedded in what they identify as an “invisible norm.”  Masculinity studies emerged in part as a response to the assumption that, if we’re talking about “gender,” we must be talking about women (as they are marked by their otherness).  Whiteness studies has a similar story.  In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison draws our attention to whiteness as an invisible norm, describing her attempt to get us to look critically at whiteness as itself constructed by and contingent upon certain actions, certain scripts that people identifying as “white” follow: “My project is an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served” (p. 90).

In this move, the line between subject and object gets blurry pretty quickly.  We can start looking at men wearing neckties in a new way, taking notice of their own codes and social scripts instead of taking for granted their seemingly obvious or neutral role/place.

What does this have to do with code switching?  Well, the norm, or dominant set of behaviors or patterns—basically, what we’re thought to be shifting from (or are trying to switch towards)is thought somehow to be uncoded.  That is, we don’t see ourselves as performing a role or series of codes when in our “normal” or dominant context.  Thus, moments of code switching refer typically to performances within non-dominant spaces. This is where the problem comes in.  If we start looking at that dominant context as its own manufactured space, though (as approaches like whiteness studies and masculinity studies have begun to do), “code switching” only perpetuates the faulty idea that the dominant space is neutral and without a code of its own.  It suggests we look at some variant outside the norm…when the norm is all variance in the first place.

We’ve talked amongst our Culture on the Edge group about the word “creole”—specifically, how the term normalizes dominant linguistic and cultural codes by suggesting that only some languages or cultures are in fact “creole.”  We don’t talk about English being a creole language after all…but isn’t it?  Aren’t they all? In that sense, there is no culture not creolized, not heterogeneous or hybrid in some way.

So, to pose the question that Russell put to Monica and me, “Whose variation gets to count as variation?”  A different emphasis with the same punch line might be phrased, “Whose variation must count as variation?”  No matter what qualitative value or lack thereof might be given to the supposed code switcher, there seems still to be a problem of how we maintain the very hegemonies that seemingly progressive scholars studying identity like to think they’re disrupting.

What’s more, even though the dominant seems without or beyond codification, it also provides the irreducible language/system to which other codes translate back. So, while the dominant enjoys invisible norm status, it nonetheless dictates a very specific and managed set of rules to aid in the translation or conversion of non-dominant codes. For example, when I taught writing/composition courses a few years back in an English department, I talked with my students about the rules that governed the system of Standard Written English.  This system was taken as a given and basically obvious format to which their writing had to conform, and students consistently acquiesced to the MLA rules I taught them.  Of course, the debates over whether or not sentences really can end in prepositions have been heated ones among grammarians.  The rules are not at all thought to be stable or ends-in-themselves.  Further, scholars of rhetoric and composition (not to mention politicians at times) continue to disagree over whether and how to incorporate other codes (Ebonics, Spanglish, web lingo, etc.) into the course content. Do we allow other modes of discourse to “count” in such settings? Should a student be able to write in her own dialect or linguistic system? By way of pacifying students, teachers often use the adage, “You’ve got to know the rules before you can break them.” But that’s just it—right there, we admit that there are rules (and again, very specific and hotly contested ones if we’re talking rules of grammar) to the dominant system but nonetheless treat it as the obvious and neutral norm.

Depending on the brand of scholarship, code switchers are often cast as making progressively subversive moves, strategically outmaneuvering the master narrative.  I start thinking, for example, of Audre Lorde’s famously saying, The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”  But actually, demonstration of proficient use of the proverbial master’s tools has tended to be a prerequisite for any sort of social mobility (Frederick Douglass‘s pivotal reading instruction, or Toussaint L’Ouverture‘s literacy and use of ideological claims from French Revolution, just to name a couple examples).  So, scholars tend to see the non-dominant as crafty in the undoing or reappropriation of dominant codes, but such acts are invariably (perhaps necessarily?) cast in light of that dominant structure, thus reifying its seeming neutral and obvious privilege.

When we think that we’re using “code switching” as an innocuous or objective term used to describe certain actions, we forget that all descriptions are situated and decidedly not neutral.  In this manner, code switching as a category might be thought of as normative, even imperial.  After all, what is interesting is not the thing itself but the describer’s relation to the thing (or category or what have you).

Or, as Eliza Doolittle suggests after she learns the lessons of having run the gauntlet, “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *