Language in Late Capitalism

Last month, Monica Heller, a professor of linguistics and anthropology at the University of Toronto, came to Princeton to speak on “Language in Late Capitalism: Commodification and the Commons.” The lecture was organized by the Department of French and Italian and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and co-sponsored by the Humanities Council and the Canadian Studies Program.

In the lecture, Heller discussed how political mobilization has affected minority languages in North America and other parts of the world, including Catalonia, the Basque Country, Corsica, Britany, Wales and Scotland. She noted that this mobilization often transpires as a result of the intensification and expansion of capitalism.

Heller’s talk focused on a case study of this phenomenon in Canada, which began in the 1960s when Francophone Canadians contested that Canada as a nation-state did not effectively represent them and left them marginalized politically and economically. As a result, the groups self-organized in each of Canada’s provinces to receive resources from the federal government.

According to Heller, the Canadian government soon realized that “bilingualism” was not just a way to bolster national pride or the political consciousness of the next generation, but it was also — and perhaps more importantly — economically beneficial to the country.

Heller pointed to the subsequent development of many tourist sites, such as living museums, and “souvenirs” that drew on the country’s ties to the Old World, which fueled an increase in tourism. In order to continue receiving funding from the Canadian government, the Francophone entities in each province had to participate in this new capitalism by coming up with business plans and writing grants to support these newfound industries.

To explain why the Canadian government was less interested in the vitality and flourishing of its Francophone people and more concerned by how they could use the language to cultivate the country’s economic development, Heller referenced the tension between pride — or authenticity of the language — and profit — or the commodification of language, noting that they continue to co-exist and feed off each other as a result of saturation of markets, tertiarization and flexibilization.

The lecture was a part of a larger event on “Critical Approaches to Language,” which included a separate lecture and workshop on “Plurilinguisme et créativité au Canada francophone” given in French by Patricia Lamarre (University of Montreal) and Nathalie Thamin (University of Franche-Comté). “Critical Approaches to Language” was co-sponsored by the Humanities Council and the Canadian Studies Program.