Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Barbara Jensen, Class and Language

I read one of Barb Jensen's essays online, after posting at Crooked Timber. Barb is a psychologist who writes about the different ways working class people and professional middle class people use language. This is from here essay, talking about the "condensed" way working people talk:
I think of the restricted code as an essential, condensed kind of communication, the kind that happens between intimates. It is the kind of speech where explaining things in a general and formal way would seem strange. A differentiated kind of speech creates a certain amount of distance between people. It is not that working class people do not like to talk, it is that when they do they produce narratives, they tell stories, rather than "download" information or produce abstract encapsulations of concepts. Again, the stories they tell are filled with implicit references to people and places in their lives ("localized meanings")

Elsewhere in the essay (I can't find the passage now) she describes middle class language as bricks, making a road or wall: everything is connected, an entire argument is built. Working people use words as buoys (a wonderful image) floating in a region of information that is shared, implicit, often conveyed non-verbally. I like "buoys" because they are tethered in important places. The buoys in the Mississippi tell you where the channel is. They are giving you information about what's going on below the surface of the water.

I also like the freedom in the image of buoys. Yes, they are tethered, but they have more motion than a brick in a wall. They are related to the other buoys, outlining the channel in the Mississippi, but they are not locked to the buoys, as bricks are locked to the other bricks (or words or ideas) around them.

The condensed remarks and the story telling seem right to me.

When I worked in the hat factory, and people were getting laid off, one guy said, "Even a horseshit union is better than no union at all." There was no further discussion. He had said it all; and his remark has stayed with me for 30 years.

Whenever I get pissed at unions, I remember Leo's line. It's like a buoy, showing where the channel is.

As for storytelling, if you hear something you don't agree with, you don't argue, you either remain silent or switch the topic or say, "Well, maybe, but let me tell you what happened to my brother Irv..."

A person who doesn't pick up on nonverbal messages can get in real trouble in a warehouse or many offices. (Like me in the office in my dream a few days ago. Part of the meaning of the dream was -- I wasn't picking up on nonverbal information.)

Finally, I'm going to quote myself. This is from A Woman of the Iron People, a member of my starship describing what messages from Earth are like after 200 years:

As far as I can tell, these people (on Earth) have no interest in any kind of system: political or economic or intellectual...Some of the factual material is okay. Such and such a star has gone nova. We have discovered a new kind of life on Titan.

But the theories! I told you these people have no interest in any kind of framework. That is problem number one. Number two is -- they don't seem to distinguish between fact and fiction -- or between material that is relevant and everything else. Some of the messages sound like poetry. Others are stories with no point that I can find. Others sound like gossip or a group a proverbs...

I hadn't read Barb when I wrote this, and I wasn't thinking about the people I'd met in Detroit and Minneapolis offices and Minneapolis warehouses. But in some ways I am describing condensed or restricted speech, from the point of view of someone who doesn't understand it.


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