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Language in late capitalism: local and global in post-national processes

Monica Heller

(University of Toronto)

This talk will outline some conditions of late capitalism which might be useful for thinking about the role of language in the organization of cities like Berlin, which are at once home to (relatively) fixed populations, capitals of nation-states (or quasi-nation-states) and cosmopolitan nexuses of global circulation of people, ideas and things. The most salient feature for the purposes of this exploration is the tertiarization of the economy, with its concomitant commodification of language as skill and as emblem of authenticity, and general increased salience of linguistic form and communicative practice, in the service of building niche markets and niche products linked to bolstering the economies of deindustrialized zones, and managing extended and intensified webs of production, circulation and consumption. However, its effects need to be understood in the context of the simultaneous workings of local, regional national and supranational markets, whose articulations are still not well understood – though sites like Berlin offer excellent sites for investigating exactly that question. Certainly, their overlap presents paradoxes, notably in the mobilization of the semiotic resources of nationalism and of modern nation-states in the service of transnational exchange, and in tensions between valuing language as embodied and naturalized talent versus valuing language as disembodied technical skill. They also call into question the modernist nation-state understanding of the opposition between the city (site of decadent modernity) and the country (site of traditional, if backward, purity). These tensions emerge in debates over municipal language policies, the spatialization of diversity, and the language of education, just to give some examples. I will illustrate these tensions with examples from francophone Canada, notably Montréal (the putative capital of a francophone Québec and global nexus for the culture industry) and the small, regional capital of Rimouski (both a beacon of traditional Québécois identity and a centre for regional and international migration).