Biittner’s Book Reviews: Here by Richard McGuire

Sit back in your chair a second, I’d like to try something with you.

Take a look around the space you are in. Really observe it closely. Mark what occupies, what shares the same space as you. Feel the movement of air or lack thereof. Are you warm? Are you cold? Once you feel like you know and have experienced your space I want you to close your eyes for one minute (don’t cheat) then resume reading.

So one minute passed while your eyes were closed and the seconds continue to mark the passage of time as you read these words. Look around the space again and see if you can identify if and how it changed in those sixty seconds.

Now get ready to close your eyes again; when you do I want you now to try to picture that same space but imagine that someone hit the rewind button. What did that space look like one, ten, one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand years ago?

Can you do it? Can you see in your mind’s eye time reversing? Can you visualize the transformation of place over time?

HereHere, a graphic novel by Richard McGuire, represents a similar thought exercise in that it presents on each and every two page layout a single, specific place with a date; every two page panel represents the same place, “here”. Through reading Here we see the transformation of a single space into place over time. On some pages this main panel has one or more smaller inset panels, which also have a date. The panels are not arranged chronologically – one larger two page spread may represent a loud house party in the living room of a house in 2008 with smaller inset panels of a single child with a balloon from 1958 and a deer frolicking in the woods in 1858, then on the next page the full panel takes us back thousands of years when the same space was just forest but the panel of the child from 1958 remains having moved forward just a few seconds to when the child has lost their grasp on the balloon and it slowly floats away. As time is not linear in the novel, you’ll find yourself flipping back and forth through the novel – is the child who loses the balloon in 1958 the elderly couch sitter of 2008? It is!? So the child chasing the cat must be their…and so on – we read ahead then flip back tracing and reconstructing the lives of the people who lived in and constructed that place.

It is a lovely story of a place told through snapshots, through fragments of its existence. And that’s why I loved it so much as an archaeologist – through excavation and analyses we strive to reconstruct those places from fragments. We can reconstruct the environment through plant and animal remains; we may get glimpses of individuals through the stuff they created then discarded or simply lost or left behind. From those facts we can make interpretations and we can attempt in our mind’s eye to “see” what the site would have looked like in the past and how it changed over time. I tell my students this is one of the hardest tasks – to stand in a space and visualize what it looked like then versus how it looks today. Here captures this spirit of looking back (and of looking ahead).

Here also captures how people transform spaces into places. Spaces are not culturally meaningful; they are the environment, the landscape, the plants, the animals in a particular location at a particular point in time. Places are meaningful; many archaeologists, like myself, are very interested in how we enculture the landscape, how we give the landscape meaning, how we transform space into place. This process of enculturation includes naming places, leaving objects behind, removing objects from them, or transforming the landscape through building etc. There are representations in Here of space, a landscape not yet marked by humans, but everything else in the novel represents the creation and evolution of place. Here serves as a reminder of the history of our places, one that includes us and one that existed before we did. You too may remember the exact location of your first kiss or can visualize the layout and objects in your childhood bedroom but are you aware of what was there before? Do you know what came after? Here captures this phenomenon of place-making, one that is not simply nostalgia or memory. There is something very human about creating places.

Finally Here subtlety highlights the importance of context, the most important concept in all of archaeology. Place represents part of the context of our finds and our sites. We cannot interpret an artifact without considering place any more than we would attempt to do so without understanding its provenance or its provenience. The elderly person weeping on the couch becomes a more powerful image when you realize that they once were that child weeping over the loss of a balloon in the very same place. Time passes, people come and go, and places are made and remade as we move through them.

I would highly recommend Here. It is simply lovely to look at but the narrative of place is powerful. It will inspire you to consider your “here” more closely too.

3D Printing and Scanning in the Lab: Some Points on Practice & on Ethics

Recently our anthropology lab purchased a 3D printer and a 3D scanner. This acquisition was motivated by the increasing use of these technologies in archaeology, museums, classrooms, libraries, and every other place where learning is seen as something that is a) super fun and b) hands on. As a small department with a limited budget, 3D printing also seemed like an affordable way to supplement our existing teaching collections. One of my roles as lab instructor is to make sure we have sufficient resources for our students to engage with in the lab; this can mean having enough copies for each student or small group of students to examine (e.g., twenty human skeletons) and/or to have enough different versions of something to represent variation (e.g., a left humerus for a human, a chimpanzee, a bushbaby, a baboon, etc.).  As lab instructor I’ve also been brainstorming (but have yet to implement) ways to include these tools in lab activities and assignments. For example, if I produce a high quality 3D scan for one of our os coxae to create an open access 3D model of it, all of our students can access it on their personal electronic devices; in Anthropology 209 (Introduction to Biological Anthropology) this model would likely just be used for learning the bones of the body, while in Anthropology 390 (Human Osteology) it could be used for learning methods of sex and/or age estimation and for assessing the use of 3D models versus real or physical copies with these techniques.

So while I have many ideas but not enough time play with these new toys as much as I would like, nor integrate them into classroom learning beyond show-and-tell, I have been able to do some printing.

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Femur of H. naledi.

One of the first successful prints I had was the femur of Homo naledi (pictured above with the rafts and supports still in place). It seemed like the only fitting selection as the open access publication of the 3D files of H. naledi was what motivated us to look into getting 3D printing equipment in the first place.  I’ve also printed off a talus, vertebrae, metatarsals, and an articulated hand (pictured below) for this species. We’ve been using them in our Anthropology 209 (Introduction to Biological Anthropology) labs where we set up stations focused on comparative primate and hominin anatomy. Students examine specimens (say a bunch of femora) and then make interpretations and inferences as to why the variations are present (e.g., locomotion, dietary adaptation, reliance on vision versus olfaction, etc.).  We introduced the printed H. naledi specimens to our station regarding locomotion this term. Our students compared these prints with casts of limbs representing quadrupeds, knuckle walkers, brachiators, and bipeds, and asked to interpret the pattern of locomotion used by the unknown hominin. Students were not only excited by having these recent finds to examine (once we revealed which hominin they represented), they loved that the specimens were printed in our own lab; as such this has proven an excellent means to discuss not just the printed specimens but classroom technologies and pedagogy with them.

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Articulated hand of H. naledi. Watching this hand emerge from the print deck was awesome.

We’ve also used our printer and scanner for outreach. I try to post the print process (and fails) on my social media feeds; I rely heavily on the open access models my peers around the world share on their sites, which brings specimens from around the world into our lab. For our annual Open House I worked with our Social Media guru to do a time lapse capture of a scaled-down model of a human skill (seen below in its cleaned and finished form), which was used in a video during our annual Open House. We held lab tours throughout the day allowing visitors to see and handle the skull after watching it print in the video; many were both surprised to learn that what they saw happen in 30 seconds took closer to three hours, and that we are striving to integrate these kinds of tools and technologies into our lab courses.

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Star of MacEwan’s Open House video.

While we do also have a scanner, I haven’t been as successful using it to create models for our existing materials. I had the opportunity to scan a Folsom point recovered from a site in Alberta but failed in my attempt; at least it represents a promise of this technology – to connect with archaeologists around our province to scan and print materials (including distributing the models for wider use). While I could blame the material and the quality of our scanner for my fail on this attempt, it is honestly because I still have a lot to learn in terms of using not just the scanner and printer but the excellent free software that’s out there for editing files. I do think my students appreciate my transparency in discussing these print and scan fails, an example of a print fail is pictured below, as they see that I am, and will always be, a learner in the lab. I guess this means I’m using the scanner and printer to model behaviour in addition to objects.

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An example of a print fail. The raft, a stable base for the printed object that is removed after printing during the finishing process, detached from the print deck creating a mess. Luckily I monitor any prints closely so stopped it before a) I wasted too much filament and/or b) the printer broke.

Overall I’m very satisfied with the printer and scanner. I do not think this was a “trendy technology” purchase; I do believe that the applicability of this technology to our courses and in our lab will remain high for years to come. However, there are ethical considerations whenever any new technology is introduced into the classroom.

Recently I became involved in a discussion on Twitter regarding the sale of replicas of the Ancient One that led to the question of what our response to reproductions should be in light of the rise of 3D printing and modelling technologies in the classroom. These two topics are not unrelated. In light of replicas of the Ancient One being sold, we must carefully consider WHAT we reproduce. Should the Ancient One be replicated? I say absolutely not. The case of the Ancient One is easily one the most controversial and contentious cases in North American archaeology and anthropology for so many reasons and that alone should make anyone take pause before disseminating reproductions of him. Some objects should not be replicated nor printed but what those are must be established on an ongoing and object-by-object basis.  In some cases the reproduction of human remains can be perfectly acceptable when done with approvals and informed consent. This means we ask before we reproduce. We make explicit what the purpose, use, and audience(s) of the models and prints will be. We agree to make models open access or shared or closed on a scan by scan basis. We make plans for the curation of prints and of models – both short and long term – including what to do if the original is repatriated. Finally we cannot profit from these models nor the prints, especially if the item should a) not have been replicated in the first place and b) has been repatriated. April Beisaw aptly tweeted it is “inappropriate to profit from sales of something that was given back. Is the repatriation incomplete if reproducing info retained?”. The Ancient One was repatriated and reburied back in February of this year; can we consider the repatriation complete if so much information (including replicas) of this individual are still in wide circulation. Beisaw argues “unless the tribe an item was repatriated asked for or consented to a replica, making one and using it is counter to repatriation’s ideal”; I absolutely agree.

Clearly this discussion demonstrates that replication (and research) in the context of repatriation is much more complex than what I’ve briefly addressed here but I’m simply arguing that we must be proactive in considering the ethics of 3D scanning and printing technologies in our labs and in our classrooms rather than being reactive. This is part of my hesitation in just rushing forward with using these technologies in my lab – I want to do it right. I want to be deliberate, intentional, and ethical. If nothing else these are the behaviours I want to model for my students and see them replicate as they move forward in their studies and careers.

Kanien’kéha in the House

Last week, a Liberal MP from Quebec named Marc Miller made headlines around the world by delivering an address to Canada’s House of Commons entirely in the Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) language. Miller described his speech, and his year-old journey into learning the language of the territory he represents, as an act intended to honour the people and to support the revitalization of this, and other Indigenous languages. His language teacher, Zoe Hopkins, said that hearing her language in that context was a matter of great pride – it was “Like being inside a Heritage Moment“, which is likely the most Canadian way possible to express said pride.

The speech (included in its entirety on that CBC link) is about a minute long, and ends with Miller receiving an enthusiastic round of applause and congratulations. That short minute, though, is a pretty big deal for Indigenous languages in Canada.

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Kanien’kéha Stop Sign, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory (Photo by Moxy (Own work) (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not, to be clear, the first time an MP has addressed parliament in an Indigenous language. In fact, it happened just last month, when Winnipeg Centre MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette, also a Liberal, used Cree. The story then, however, was less about the symbolic significance of using the language and more about the pragmatic failure to support Indigenous languages through the provision of translations, as we do for English and French. And yes, the difference between these stories is that Ouellete is Indigenous, and Miller is not.

Into that minute of hesitant Kanien’kéha language use, and into the media’s responses, are packed a whole host of symbolic and practical implications. Indigenous people that I know or follow on social media have had varied reactions to this, and it’s fair to say that, at the very least, it’s complicated. All I want to do here is offer an overview of the many angles at work in this story.

  1. Miller’s own claim, and the perspective of his teacher and other language advocates I’ve heard, are that hearing Kanien’kéha in the place of decision making for Canada is a powerful statement of respect and outreach. If we are meeting, as we purport to, on a nation-to-nation basis, requiring only one nation to accommodate the use of the other’s language is a manifestation of a deep power imbalance that Miller seeks to mitigate, at least somewhat.
  2. The most obvious and significant counterpoint to this is that the language is still being used in a colonial house of government. The very existence of this institution and its role in shaping, circumscribing, and yes, limiting, the lives and languages of Indigenous peoples is the reason that Kanien’kéha, and many other languages, face the possibility of disappearing. It smacks, then, of the kind of purely symbolic, performative acts of “decolonization” and “reconciliation” that has characterized Justin Trudeau’s time in office thus far.
  3. That said, symbols matter. Canada’s parliament is a site of power, and Miller is not wrong in his observation that bringing Indigenous languages into places of power can be important ways of, essentially, given them more power (in the form of stronger motivation to learn them). The devaluation of Indigenous ways of being throughout colonialism has included various ways of devaluing Indigenous languages (and those who speak them) as “inferior” to European ones. Reversing that deeply embedded ideological relationship involves a lot of different types of actions, including symbolic valorization.
  4. There’s a lot to be said about what it means that a non-Indigenous person is the one using the Kanien’kéha language, but to my mind, the most important is to observe that it does, in fact, reveal the displacement of actual Indigenous people from positions of authority as well as from the levels of privilege that would enable them to actually learn their own languages. Classes are not publicly funded, as noted in more than one of the articles on this, and teachers work precariously. Miller is conscious of this element and has used the press coverage of his speech to emphasize the need to change this. At the same time, the structural barriers don’t stop there – Miller notes the challenge of learning the language, which is structured in fundamentally different ways from the English and French languages that he already knows. Some of the reason he is able to make progress, however, is that he has an academic background that facilitates classroom-based learning. The structural inequalities that produce disparities in education levels, income, health, incarceration rates, and any number of other measures, all combine to make it a lot harder for Indigenous learners to have the time, energy, resources, and skills to work on their language in this way. Programs do exist that address these realities, but they are often overlooked in favour of the more familiar, comfortable (to Euro-American minds), and measurable classroom methods.
  5. It remains to be seen what form of continuity will or will not emerge from this. A one-minute speech that did not lead directly to conversation, commentary, or debate in the House is not anywhere near the same thing as a robust use of an Indigenous language in a decision-making capacity in this country. The lack of translation is still an issue, as any MP who wants to make a substantive (rather than symbolic) contribution to the discussion would have to provide their own translations, making it a time-consuming process that others would likely find frustrating. The question of whether non-Indigenous people should try to learn Indigenous languages remains at a very surface level, and we are in no way trying to seriously engage with the idea of having to put in the effort that it would require for English speakers to accommodate them, rather than always expecting the opposite (this applies in a broad way to English globally, but I’ll leave that overall idea for another post). It’s a pipe-dream level conversation at this point, though it would really demonstrate a significant strengthening of Indigenous languages.
  6. Any commentary about this by Kanien’kéha speakers and Kanien’keha:ka people has been clearly focused on how they feel about this act for their own language, and that’s important. While I have tried to contextualize this in terms of Canada and Indigenous language revitalization more generally, it’s worth noting that the implications of non-group members using a particular Indigenous language are subject to the ideologies and context-based meanings associated with ethnolinguistic identity for those people and their own languages. In other words, there isn’t a blanket meaning to be attached to non-Indigenous people using any Indigenous language that would hold true for all languages, all people, or all contexts. The political context of “Canada” means that there may be some shared continuity among peoples within that geographical expanse, but even there, how much and in what form is not obvious.

In the end, I applaud the effort that Miller put in, I think he has a pretty good handle on the symbolic potential and limitations of his actions, and I do think he is doing something better than many politicians. I am frustrated by many things about the media portrayal of the story, including how it exemplifies the way white people are given undue praise & credit for their involvement with Indigenous languages, but I’m glad they’re telling a story about concrete steps needed to support these languages. Yes, it’s complicated, but that doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and give up on it all.

Biittner’s Book Reviews Resurrected: Ruins by Peter Kuper

I used to post book reviews on my personal blog about what I was reading and quite enjoyed doing so but have sadly let both my reviews, that blog, and my blogging here lapse. Starting with this post  I am going to resurrect “Biittner’s Book Reviews” but rather than just talking about what I liked and why, I’ll frame my discussion explicitly as anthropological.  As in the last few years the kinds of things I’ve reading has shifted to include more comics, graphic novels, and non-fiction (including ethnographies), what I select to review will be “books” very broadly defined. The only thread that will link those books I review will be that they triggered something in my anthropologist’s brain. Note that I’m not being compensated for these reviews unless otherwise stated.

Ruins

The first book I’ve selected to review is Ruins by Peter Kuper. This graphic novel was suggested by A.M. Christensen on Twitter, who recommended it and Richard McGuire’s Here (next review I promise!) in a Public Archaeology Twitter Conference (PATC) presentation on comics and archaeology. Christensen argues that Ruins, and Here, are excellent examples of the “temporality of the landscape”. So let’s explore Ruins, and I’ll attempt to explain what Christensen means because I absolutely agree with their statement.

First the title is perfect. It refers not just to the archaeological sites (the ruins) the main characters visit, but also the state of their marriage (it is clearly in ruins) and to the rapidly crumbling state of local politics and the local economy. The title is also perfect because much like archaeological ruins, this book has many layers of meaning, of story, of time, and of place embedded in it. On its surface, Ruins is a story of a couple who take advantage of the wife’s sabbatical and the husband’s recent loss of his job to attempt to save their marriage via temporarily moving to Oaxaca. Oaxaca, modeled very closely on the actual city and its history, is situated in the book as the former field research site of the wife. The wife plans to use her time to write her book about the research she previously conducted in Oaxaca, while the husband, a now unemployed entomologist, is to use his time to reconnect with his past as an artist. Through writing the book, the wife is forced to reconnect with her past while considering her future. So in Oaxaca, the present of our characters quickly converges, intermixes, and colludes with the past and their pasts. This is what I think Christensen was getting at, that the past, present, and even future events of the book  are connected to and interconnected by a place, a landscape. In this book memory and history are often one and the same, experiences of the present are influenced by past events, and the future is slowly being shaped not just be experiences but also by the transformation of the place. Importantly the story of the couple is paralleled by the journey of a monarch butterfly. This is a powerful mechanism for revealing the dialectic of the past and present, and the connection to place all living organisms have.

And yes archaeology is very much present in the book.  As I want to avoid spoilers because there is something so lovely and haunting about how Kuper integrates the archaeological past with the personal past in this book I do not want to say too much but solid research went into information presented about the Zapotecs specifically and Mesoamerica more broadly.

Media is another important theme throughout; books, painting, photography, and graffiti all play key roles either in the background of panels or as explicitly undertaken and discussed by characters (most of the main characters are artists or photographers). What media appears and how it is used in the book and by the characters is very deliberate, and parallels another layer of the narrative the representation and communication of struggle. Protest is an important theme and plot point so signs, slogans, and shrines all are illustrated. Connected to media, is the use of colour (or lack thereof) on the pages. I love the shifts from black and white to colour panels to emphasize time and temporality.

Language is also important. The husband does not speak Spanish so struggles to communicate with the housekeeper that “came with” their rental property and most other residents of Oaxaca; this linguistic barrier between outsider and resident parallels the communication barrier between husband and wife. As his ability to communicate with the residents increases, a shift also occurs in his ability to communicate with his wife. This is yet another layer in this book.

Overall Ruins is an excellent read. It can easily be appreciated by a non-anthropologist but the examination of how place and time are interconnected really impressed me and what makes this stand out as an anthropological read.

No Props for ‘Bones’ Because #notanactuallivingscientist

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No lie, I totally bought this t-shirt.

Bah it’s the end of the term so I’m grumpy. I’m surviving on chocolate, popcorn twists, Dr. Pepper, tylenol, and coffee. Most of the archaeologists I know or want to know are at the Society for American Archaeology meetings in Vancouver and I’m dealing with end of term insanity. I’m also bombarded by students in my office (which gives me joy and life) who have questions about what classes to take next year, what a career in archaeology or anthropology looks like, and what they need to do if they want to be a forensic anthropologist (!!!) when they grow up. I mention all of this not to solicit your pity nor to brag about how overworked or tired I am because I hate that ideology too but just to provide context for the rant that follows.

Fuck ‘Bones’. Yes some anthropologists love that damn show and there is even an excellent blog by an actual anthropologist (this will become important shortly) that posts on each and every episode breaking down the good and the bad of the forensic anthropology depicted, but I’m not one of those anthropologists. The American Anthropological Association (AAA) recently shared a story by CNN commemorating the vital role that ‘Bones’ (and other shows) have played in encouraging females to become scientists, referred to as the “Scully Effect“. Before you get all ragey with me know I am not angry about female scientists (nor about X-Files because no, I love the X-Files) but I’ve decided in my current ragey state to take a stand against encouraging and promoting stereotypical representations of who a female scientist is and what scientists do as if the ends (people becoming a scientist) justifies the means (misrepresentation to the extreme of depicting really bad, unethical science).

Hell I admit that Indiana Jones sparked my interest in archaeology BUT so did the Nova specials I used to watch with my poppa as did the stories of anthropologists I read about in National Geographic. See I’m getting old and I’m starting to become concerned, even as a huge popular culture consumer, about representations of my discipline and of science more broadly.  Why do we need to make science palatable in the form of popular culture? Why are there not enough real science shows with real scientists? Do NOT tell me that it is because people won’t watch them, that they have to be dumbed down or sensationalized for people to watch because where have we heard that before? Oh yeah – people won’t watch films with female leads or with people of colour leads or with LGBQTA* people in them… but are you kidding me WE DO! *cough* Rogue One, Hidden Figures *cough* We are begging for diversity on our screens! I bet if you gave us shows with actual living scientists we would consume them greedily too and beg for more.

This concern around actual living scientists is a thing; I know it’s a thing because it has its own hashtag #actuallivingscientist. It became a thing on social media in response to the growing anti-science/science-as-elitist position of the populist movements in the United States, Canada, and Britain (among others), which were inflamed by the re-circulation of the results of a 2013 survey that found most Americans could not name a living scientist. So scientists on social media began using the hashtag to introduce themselves and their work, to challenge stereotypes, to humanize science, and to connect with the public. This response and associated hashtag is widely accepted because of how it integrates with intersectionality – a clear demonstration of who a scientist is in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, etc but not only or simply one of those things. Teachers picked up on this creating #actuallivingscientists boards in their classrooms to show their students they too could do exciting, interesting work in science – that science is not what they see on their screens, it is not just what they learn in their classrooms, and it is certainly NOT only done exclusively by the “old, white dudes” textbooks celebrate.

I know that there is a whole organization devoted to ensuring the use of accurate science in the entertainment industry, which is great in combating pseudoscience. This is great but my concerns around representation remain – pat on the back for consulting an #actuallivingscientist but have you actually written a role or cast an actor who represents what a scientist is or are you just doing it because you’ve realized that people get more out of their experience when it is real (a huge motivating factor driving the use of conlangs. Ed: another post!?)?

Why then am I so angry about ‘Bones’? Because I’m told by CNN and the AAA that I should celebrate (mis)representations of people in my field (broadly) because it gets people interested in the field. Sure, I love that people think anthropology or archaeology is cool because they saw something about it somewhere. I love that students take anthropology courses because they saw something they connect with. But I struggle with the let down, the reality check that being a forensic anthropologist isn’t what ‘Bones’ promised it would be (i.e., more bones, poor access to cool tools, and very few explicit “forensic anthropologist inquire within” job opportunities). And listen I’m not saying we can’t have our wonderful shows or movies or books, I will not give up my Dr. Dana Scully. I guess I just want my students to be inspired by #actuallivingscientists like Dr. Kristina Killgrove (who won an award for her public outreach) as just ONE example instead of the fictional Dr. Temperance Brennan even if she’s “based on” Kathy Reichs.  This means we need to not only make sure that we have real science in our shows or celebrate portrayals like the token representations they are but argue for actual scientists doing actual science too. And don’t tell me no one wants it – Bill Nye is coming back!

Thanks, Mayim Bialik!

So Mayim Bialik, whose Blossom nerdery inspired wardrobe choices for me in early teenhood and whose role on some other show I choose to mostly ignore, is pretty smart IRL. She actually has a PhD in neuroscience, which shows somewhat in her recent video that’s being shared by everybody and their dog, on why you shouldn’t call grown adult women “girls”.

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This image is one of many of adult women that came up on pexels.com when I searched for “girls”. WAY TO PROVE MY POINT STOCK PHOTO PPL. 

Bialik bases her argument on the claim that the language we use influences the way we think, briefly name-dropping Sapir-Whorf and encouraging readers to Google that to get an explanation for it. I would advocate against googling those names and that term, though, as you’re likely to land in a morass of pseudoscience, possibly getting lost in the blizzard of “words for snow” debates. It can, or should, be taken as nearly axiomiatic that, as Bialik says, language matters. It neither comes from nowhere nor does nothing, and if you continue to see language as a neutral descriptor of an objectively existing world, well, I’m not sure this blog is for you.

And in this specific example, Bialik hits on a major issue: women are construed as inferior to men through the not-so-subtle use of language. This language is not the cause of women’s inferiority, nor is a shift in word choice the be-all-and-end-all of feminism, but it is meaningful. Using a term whose primary reference point is small children and applying it to unambiguously adult women, whether they are in a bar (as in the initial example Bialik gives) or acting in power positions (as in the CEO she mentions, or in a recent example I heard, university professors [Ed: Ouch]) is an act of infantalization. The semantics of the word “girl” continue to include not only female, but female + child, and using it repeatedly reinforces the notion that women are not as capable, not as intellectually advanced, and not to be taken as seriously as men. It’s a solid four minutes of feminist linguistics in pop culture action, to be honest.

But as the maxim goes, don’t read the comments. As I’ve seen this video shared several times on my social media feeds, I’m coming across some repeated arguments used to counter Bialik’s ideas, and they are hitting all my feminist linguist buttons all at once, leaving me to need to put the giant grading pile aside and get some thoughts about them out.

  • We call men “boys” too. Isn’t that the same thing?  It’s true, there are times when grown adult men are called “boys”, but there are definite contrasts between these uses and the ubiquity of calling adult women “girls”. A key aspect is that “boys” is used in contexts where adding the connotation of youthful play or even childishness isn’t seen as an inherent negative – they’re the “boys” on one’s sports team, for example. Bad behaviour among adult males may even be excused using the colloquial phrase “boys will be boys”, where yes, being a “boy” is a bad thing, but paradoxically, that “boyness” is something that we just have to tolerate and doesn’t preclude the male in question from a position of authority or responsibility. It’s also clearly used in a way that distinguishes adulthood from childhood, as in “separating the men from the boys”, which just doesn’t work when you try to feminize the expression into “separating the women from the girls”. That in itself is kind of telling, because Bialik’s whole point is that we erase the separation between women and girls. “Boy” is not generally used to refer to adult men in their regular, everyday lives (except: see the last point in this section), and you don’t hear someone asking to speak to the “boy in charge of this office” in the same way that you would often hear them refer to “the girl at the desk”. The diminishing of women’s authority and capability is generalized, not based on behaviour, and it’s pervasive. Yes, Bialik says it “never” happens. Yes, she’s wrong about that. But no, that doesn’t erase her point or make it okay for you to dismiss everything else she says, and taking her error that way is simply making an excuse not to listen to women.
  • Well, what about “guys”? We use the phrase “guys and girls” for everybody, so isn’t that the same? Not so much, no. It’s true that this has become a paired set (which reinforces both a binary notion of gender, erasing the many forms of “neither”, and also places identity focus on gender as a relevant enough category to use as a standard, necessary differentiator [Ed: Wow, that’s a lot happening in a couple of words]), but the connotations of the terms are fundamentally different. Only one of them includes the sense of “small child”. When applied to young kids at a school, you don’t actually hear “guys and girls” – you hear “boys and girls”. Washrooms for male identified kids aren’t labeled “guys”, they’re labeled “boys”. And so on. So we give a substitution for adult (or even teenage) men, but the women’s term stays the same. Boys get to grow up and change, while girls don’t. See how that’s not equal?
  • I’m a woman and I refer to my friends as “girls”. Yep. Stop doing that. This isn’t a matter of “only men treat women like children”. It’s a matter of “women are socially constructed as lesser than and our interests are dismissed and diminished”. It’s pervasive, societal, and structural.
  • There isn’t a better word. Sure there is – “women”. We find some of these terms awkward to use in everyday conversation because we’re not used to using them in everyday conversation. The only way that changes is by habit.
  • Wait a minute, are there really no times when using “boy” to refer to adult men is offensive? I’m glad you asked that, fictional comment writer who I haven’t actually seen, because there is one damn important point that Bialik misses and that I wanted to detach from the earlier points because it deserves to be more than a side note. “Boy” is regularly attached to adult men…if they’re black. And in this way, it is clearly infantalizing, diminishing, and reinforcing white supremacy. A quick google search turns up several discussions of why (see here, here, and here – that last one has a whole bunch of legal discussion and analysis of racism that deserves its own post, but still highlights the basic point). That first linked article reacts to an incident where then-Senator Barack Obama was referred to as a “boy” by a white Republican Congressman, and includes this passionate articulation of the problem with that label

    it’s the ultimate sign of disrespect, and is often more offensive than calling them the N-word. For years black men were summarily dismissed and treated with disregard. It was as if their stature was diminished when someone white called them a boy. I’ve heard black men describe the hurt and pain of growing up and having someone white call them a boy in front of their own child.

    In this context, “boy” is a means of diminishing, dismissing, and infantalizing specific types of men, of deeming them less than, and of establishing a racial power hierarchy. The semantic and pragmatic properties of “girl” have a lot in common with this dynamic in terms of power (and we should absolutely add discussion of differential usage patterns that emerge based on other lines of privilege and power, including especially race and disability).

  • Why should we care what a TV star thinks? Here’s an interesting angle on this discussion, to my mind. Bialik is famous because she’s an actress on TV, yes. But she also has a PhD in neuroscience. She’s not a specialist on the relationship between language and cognition, but it’s close enough to her general area of expertise that she’s able to bring that background to bear on her interpretations, in much the same ways as I’m doing here. I’m honestly tired of seeing popular posts by, say, Neil deGrasse Tyson where he comments on language or culture in ways that are totally ignorant because that’s not even remotely close to his area of expertise (Ed: Seriously, stay in your lane, NdGT. You’re so good in your lane), but that are attached to his authority as a scholar and serious thinker, while women’s expertise is ignored. So maybe this should be linked as “Dr. Mayim Bialik, neuroscientist, discusses the relationship between language and thought”, and I would still critique some of her points, but also – Respect to scholarly women saying scholarly things.

To close this now long and ranty post off, if language, gender, and power are your jam, you can find much better and more authoritative commentary on this and other related issues at debuk.wordpress.com.

Translating “Mansplaining”

This article on The Establishment has been thoroughly linked in the rounds of linguist Twitter (sidenote: my favourite Twitter [ed: wow, you really are a nerd]), and for good reason. It contains several fun and informative things – an account of how useful new terms work, crowdsourcing, and creative multilingual language play. On the one hand, it speaks for itself, but I want to add to a few of its points, and then be a killjoy just for a minute.

  1. The ‘splain morpheme as a wondrous piece of semantic change. While the article covers the origins, meaning, and spread of the term “mansplaining” quite well, it only briefly touches on how productive the “splain” morpheme has become. There are widespread examples of it with any form of dominant identity as the prefix –
    mansplainer1
    Grateful acknowledgment for this meme goes to Femina Invicta 

     

    whitesplaining, cis-splaining, profsplaining, etc etc etc. It can even be used on its own, as simple “splaining”. Although this Merriam Webster [ed: the go-to dictionary of the resistance…because who knew that would be a thing?] post argues that ‘splain’ predates mansplaining, in the sense of a reduction of the original term “explain” (as in the famous “Lucy, you got some splaining to do” formation), its current use does shift that meaning. “Splaining” is not just “explaining” – it’s a condescending, unnecessary explanation based on the presumption that the splainer knows things and the splainee doesn’t. It’s such a great word that captures such a clear meaning, it’s almost hard to believe it’s not even a decade old.

  2. Semantic traveling. ‘Splaining’, and mansplaining in specific, is also a concept with legs, and as it was likely born on the internet in an age of internet communication, it’s only natural that it should strike some of those who encounter it in English that it may be useful in their native languages as well. Two different types of such applications were documented naturally, as Swedes comfortably borrowed the English term, while Icelandic speakers created a translation with relevant nativized terms and metaphors. Both excellent strategies for different contexts. The later “crowdsourced” list also includes a few examples that have developed on their own (as in they weren’t made up just for the sake of making the suggestion), like the French “mecspliquer”. As a reasonably decent French speaker, I particularly like this one, because it captures the “guy + explain” basic structure, but has the added bonus of punning on the reflexive “m’expliquer” (explain to me).
  3. THAT CROWDSOURCED LIST, OMG. It makes me happy for so many reasons. First, it reveals the varied strategies and selections from homophones to make the words fun and flowing. The Chinese correspondent used discourse-level markers (the wind character) to reinforce the perception of a haughty attitude. Some of the correspondents hesitated because their language lacks some key features – like say, gender marking in Swahili – that are necessary to capturing the translation. It wasn’t impossible to convey the term, you’ll note (the trope of ‘untranslatable terms’ is one for another day), but the structures of the language really do create different ways of expressing ideas.
  4. Inclusion of unusual languages. This deserves its own marker – there are even some endangered and marginalized languages on that list of only 34, which is something distinctly rare. The Mohegan example is particularly striking – the language had its own term for a concept like this, and in response to the inquiry about ‘mansplaining’, a correspondent brought it forward to illustrate a similar concept with different cultural roots. Irish and Welsh are also nice inclusions. Language endangerment contexts often involve a lot of opportunity to think creatively about the languages, developing new forms that sound and feel natural on the languages’ own terms, so it’s nice to see that represented here as well.
  5. We are all verbal artists. One more highlight – it’s worth noting the extensive engagement with the way the words sound. It might be easy to think of new word creation as a somewhat utilitarian enterprise, but as these show, it’s also fun because of semantic play, and it’s poetic. The words take hold because they capture something not just in their meaning, but in the way they sound/feel as we say them. We don’t always pay much attention to this fun point of language, treating it as something that professional wordsmiths get, but normal people don’t. In fact normal people are pretty linguistically fun, which is why I like paying attention to them.
  6. It’s all fun and games, except…Finally, my killjoy moment – yes, it’s presumably intended to be cheeky, but I hate when “cultural universal” is demonstrated by a few dozen examples, the vast majority of which come from Indo-European cultures or a couple of large major non-European ones like Chinese or Arabic. This one admittedly goes farther than most, with the inclusion of Swahili, Mohegan, Tagalog, and Indonesian…but please stop with the use of “universal”. Please?