Speaking in Tongues
February 26, 2009 7:09 AM   Subscribe

Speaking in Tongues is a terrific piece of writing by Zadie Smith. It's a little bit about Barack Obama. Mostly, though, it's about "world"-traveling and polyvocality. (pdf)
The first stage in the evolution is contingent and cannot be contrived. In this first stage, the voice, by no fault of its own, finds itself trapped between two poles, two competing belief systems. And so this first stage necessitates the second: the voice learns to be flexible between these two fixed points, even to the point of equivocation. Then the third stage: this native flexibility leads to a sense of being able to "see a thing from both sides." And then the final stage, which I think of as the mark of a certain kind of genius: the voice relinquishes ownership of itself, develops a creative sense of disassociation in which the claims that are particular to it seem no stronger than anyone else's. There it is, my little theory—I'd rather call it a story. It is a story about a wonderful voice, occasionally used by citizens, rarely by men of power.
posted by anotherpanacea (16 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
You can also follow Hendrik Hertzberg's advice and listen to the lecture in Smith's own voice(s). She's very easy on the ears. Direct link to mp3.
posted by thebergfather at 7:41 AM on February 26, 2009

A horrible thought: so if I'd got a better grade in A-level Chemistry and got into Cambridge, I'd probably have a strangulated accent now too.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:23 AM on February 26, 2009

TheophileEscargot- to non-english ears zadie just sounds like an educated Londoner. i'm guessing the "strangulated" sound you hear is your struggle to assign a class to people whose accents have shifted. anyway listen to her talk it's really good and deals with issues like this.
posted by bhnyc at 9:01 AM on February 26, 2009

i saw this quote at the end pulled by andrew sullivan:
It's my audacious hope that a man born and raised between opposing dogmas, between cultures, between voices, could not help but be aware of the extreme contingency of culture. I further audaciously hope that such a man will not mistake the happy accident of his own cultural sensibilities for a set of natural laws, suitable for general application. I even hope that he will find himself in agreement with George Bernard Shaw when he declared, "Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it." But that may be an audacious hope too far. We'll see if Obama's lifelong vocal flexibility will enable him to say proudly with one voice "I love my country" while saying with another voice "It is a country, like other countries." I hope so. He seems just the man to demonstrate that between those two voices there exists no contradiction and no equivocation but rather a proper and decent human harmony.
and have sorta since noticed him kinda trying to catalogue obama's attempts to navigate (or pivot) away from 'country first' patriotism to a particular non/post-partisan variety along the lines of 'practical wisdom' that barry schwartz has talked about, which i thought was pretty interesting, e.g. re jindal:
The point of the American founding was not that Americans are somehow better than any other people on earth, but that they had figured out a way to make government more amenable to freedom, stability and prosperity.
also btw, speaking of alternate realities/timelines, ... wait, i actually had a point, we could be witnessing a zeitgeist in collective subjunctive consciousness, cf.
posted by kliuless at 9:02 AM on February 26, 2009

Going to read the article now, I was immediately reminded of Linguistics proffessor Lakoff on The Obama Code, how Obama is using political language to reframe the moral vision of America.
posted by daHIFI at 9:06 AM on February 26, 2009

An excellent article; thanks for postiing it.
posted by languagehat at 9:20 AM on February 26, 2009

The guy who introduces the talk has a voice that I want to see attached to a body.
posted by doobiedoo at 9:23 AM on February 26, 2009

Great read.

Also: Cary Grant was British? And called Archibald Leach?
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:45 AM on February 26, 2009

...and gay for Randolph Scott!
posted by jouke at 10:31 AM on February 26, 2009

Mod note: "You'd do it for Randolph Scott."
"Randolph Scott! [Singing as a chorus:] Randolph Scott!"

posted by kirkaracha (staff) at 12:42 PM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

This was a brilliant piece of writing. One of the best things the NYRB's printed in a very long time.
posted by felix betachat at 12:58 PM on February 26, 2009

Friends don't let friends use the word "polyvocality."
posted by MarshallPoe at 2:31 PM on February 26, 2009

Friends don't let friends use the word "polyvocality."

That's not very creatively disassociative of you.
posted by doobiedoo at 2:58 PM on February 26, 2009

Really cogent and compelling. It's hard to respond with anything more than a smile and a little boost of optimism. Dream City here we come!
posted by kaspen at 4:39 PM on February 26, 2009

Good grief. Am I the only who thought the extract in the post was absolutely turgid prose? There's nothing more I hate than rampant, self-aggrandizing anthropomorphism.

"[T]he voice, by no fault of its own, finds itself trapped between two poles..."

Really? Give me a break.
posted by Mephisto at 8:56 PM on February 26, 2009

Much to my surprise, I opened my latest edition of the New York Review of Books this afternoon to find this actual piece. I'll have a read over the weekend and see if its as bad as my cursory glance implied. Perhaps I "spoke" too soon; or perhaps not. Time will tell. :)
posted by Mephisto at 11:48 PM on February 26, 2009

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