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Imagined communities


These two layers of culture combined, the social (synchronic) and the historical (diachronic), have often been called the sociocultural context of language study. There is, in addition, a third essential layer to culture, namely, the imagination. Discourse communities are characterized not only by facts and artifacts, but by common dreams, fulfilled and unfulfilled imaginings. These imaginings are mediated through the language, that over the life of the community reflects, shapes, and is a metaphor for its cultural reality. Thus, the city of London is inseparable, in the cultural imagination of its citizens, from Shakespeare and Dickens. The Lincoln Memorial Building in Washington has been given extra meaning through the words 'I have a dream...' that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there in 1963. Rose gardens have been immortalized in the French imagination by Ronsard's poetry. Language is intimately linked not only to the culture that is and the culture that was, but also to the culture of the imagination that governs people's decisions and actions far more than we may think.




To identify themselves as members of a community, people have to define themselves jointly as insiders against others, whom they thereby define as outsiders. Culture, as a process that both includes and excludes, always entails the exercise of power and control. The rose press in the Dickinson poem, one could argue, yields exquisite perfume, but at a high price. Not only must the stem and the petals be ultimately discarded, but only the rich and powerful can afford to buy the perfume. Similarly, only the powerful decide whose values and beliefs will be deemed worth adopting by the group, which historical events are worth commemorating, which future is worth imagining. Cultures, and especially national cultures, resonate with the voices of the powerful, and are filled with the silences of the powerless. Both words and their silences contribute to shaping one's own and others' culture. For example, Edward Said describes how the French constructed for themselves a view of the culture of 'the Orient' that came directly from such writers as Chateaubriand, Nerval, and Flaubert, and that only served, he says, to reinforce the sense of superiority of the European culture. The Orient itself was not given a voice. Such orientalism, Said argues, has had a wide-ranging effect on the way Europeans and Americans have viewed the Middle East, and imposed that view on Middle Easterners themselves, who implicitly acquiesce to it when they see themselves the way the West sees them. Similarly, scholars in Gender Studies, Ethnic Studies, Gay Studies, have shown the hegemonic effects of dominant cultures and the authority they have in representing and in speaking for the Other. Ultimately, taking culture seriously means questioning the very base of one's own intellectual inquiry, and accepting the fact that knowledge itself is colored by the social and historical context in which it is acquired and disseminated. In this respect, language study is an eminently cultural activity.

As the considerations above suggest, the study of language has always had to deal with the difficult issue of representation and representativity when talking about another culture. Who is entitled to speak for whom, to represent whom through spoken and written language? Who has the authority to select what is representative of a given culture: the outsider who observes and studies that culture, or the insider who lives and experiences it? According to what and whose criteria can a cultural feature be called representative of that culture?

In the social, the historic, and the imagined dimension, culture is heterogeneous. Members of the same discourse community all have different biographies and life experiences, they may differ in age, gender, or ethnicity, they may have different political opinions. Moreover, cultures change over time as we can see from the difficulty many contemporary readers might have with the Dickinson poem. And certainly Ladies in the nineteenth century imagined the world differently from readers at the end of the twentieth. Cultures are not only heterogeneous and constantly changing, but they are the sites of struggle for power and recognition, as we shall see in Chapter 7.

In summary, culture can be defined as membership in a discourse community that shares a common social space and history, and common imaginings. Even when they have left that community, its members may retain, wherever they are, a common system of standards for perceiving, believing, evaluating, and acting. These standards are what is generally called their 'culture'.

The Emily Dickinson poem has served to illuminate several aspects of culture:


1. Culture is always the result of human intervention in the biological processes of nature.

2. Culture both liberates and constrains. It liberates by investing the randomness of nature with meaning, order, and rationality and by providing safeguards against chaos; it constrains by imposing a structure on nature and by limiting the range of possible meanings created by the individual.

3. Culture is the product of socially and historically situated discourse communities, that are to a large extent imagined communities, created and shaped by language.

4. A community's language and its material achievements represent a social patrimony and a symbolic capital that serve to perpetuate relationships of power and domination; they distinguish insiders from outsiders.

5. But because cultures are fundamentally heterogeneous and changing, they are a constant site of struggle for recognition and legitimation.


The different ways of looking at culture and its relationship to language raise a fundamental question: to what extent are the world views and mental activities of members of a social group shaped by, or dependent on, the language they use? The theory that languages do affect the thought processes of their users has been called the theory of linguistic relativity.


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