Articles

Assertion of Power through Language

In Political Essays on May 16, 2011 by azybazy

The aim of this post is to highlight the role language plays in representing the dynamics of power in Pinter’s Mountain Language (1988). This research paper shall explore the following aspects in order to stress the use of language by military personnel and those who do not belong to the hegemonic power structure. Firstly, this post shall discuss the way in which the military institution assumes a position of power by forbidding the use of the ‘mountain language’. Secondly, the assertion of power shall be brought out through the form and repetition of language. Thirdly, this post shall also show the role obscene language and terms of address play in representing the power dynamics within the play. Finally, absurd and nonsensical language shall also be explored in order to present the vestige of power within this form of language used in Pinter’s Mountain Language.

Thiong’o (1986) mentions that economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. This proves to be appropriate in the case of Mountain Language as it is evident that the military is not satisfied with the act of capturing those who do not belong to the hegemonic power alone. They strive to oppress the ‘mountain people’ psychologically and culturally by continuously stating ‘you are not allowed to speak your language here’. The officer’s lines such as ‘You hear me? Your language is dead’, ‘You cannot speak your language to your men’, ‘No one is allowed to speak your language’ and ‘Your language no longer exists’ is continuously repeated with fury and anger. This clearly denotes the amount of effort the military is asserting in order to mentally destroy the social identity and distinctive characteristics of the ‘mountain people’ through repetition. As Thiong’o correctly points out, ‘to control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others. For colonialism this involved two aspects of the same process: the destruction or the deliberate undervaluing of a people’s culture, […] and the conscious elevation of the language of the colonizer.

Furthermore, as Fannon (1952) points out “To speak . . . means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization”. It is evident that Pinter does believe in the above ideologies through the portrayal of the character of the Elderly Woman and the Prisoner at the end of the play as a result of repetition. A model of cultural erasure and identity is highlighted when the Elderly Woman does not respond to the son even in her own language when the he states ‘Mother, I’m speaking to you. You see? We can speak. You can speak to me in our own language’. The fact that she remains silent even after the perusal of her son shows the way in which repetitious language mentally disheartens and destroys her sense of self. Significantly, the fact that the military personnel’s language involved the proclamation of the death of her language would have resulted in her breakdown. Furthermore, the breakdown of the Elderly Woman resulted in the weakening of the Prisoner as he could not bear to see his mother, a member of his community, lose her social significance within the premises of this institution. The stage directions ‘The Prisoner’s trembling grows. He falls from the chair on to his knees, begins to gasp and shake violently’ clearly shows the dramatic result of a silenced language on an individual. It can be argued that the reason for the breakdown of the Prisoner is also due to his silenced language because he falls apart after witnessing his mother’s sense of loss due the the absence of her language within this context. Therefore, it is evident that Pinter dramatically shows the role language plays in highlighting the assertion of power of the military to those who do not belong to the hegemonic power structure through the elimination of their language and repetitious language that denote death and decay.

Interestingly, the language used by the military personnel also highlights the way in which the military personnel themselves have lost their individual and cultural identity to a certain extent. This is because the form of language used by the personnel conforms to their professional field. The most frequently used words by these personnel include ‘Name’, ‘Any complaints’. ‘Your language is forbidden’ and ‘until further notice’. These words suggest that these personnel are mere puppets of the military institution. Consequently, this highlights the way in which the military institution assumes power over the cultural and social identity of their personnel through language that reflects their attitudes and social significance. Therefore, it is evident that Pinter subscribes to the concept of ‘mouthpiece’ put forward by Derrida (1974) in which he explains that the alphabetic signifier, like the letter, is the mouthpiece and that it is not inspired or animated by any particular language. He mentions that ‘It signifies nothing. It hardly lives’ and that it only ‘lends another’s voice.’ Hence it is apparent that Pinter merely lends the voice of the military institution to its personnel and eliminates the language that promotes the individual’s identity and characteristics. This clearly shows the way in which language plays a key role in the play not only to assert power to those who do not belong to the hegemonic power, but also to those who belong to it.

 

Another interesting phenomenon about the language used by the military personnel is their form. The form of speech they use to denote the subjugation of the cultural heritage and distinct characteristics of the ‘mountain people’ are proclaimed in the passive voice. Lines such as ‘It is not permitted to speak your mountain language, it is out lawed’, ‘your language is forbidden’ clearly represents the fact that the military institution does not want to take responsibility for the actions that they implement. This is rather significant as it implicitly highlights the fact that the military institution is powerful enough to say what they please in any manner they wish. Moreover, the Officer’s lines ‘He doesn’t come from the mountains. He’s in the wrong batch’ clearly show that they do posses the power to ignore inefficiencies made on their part although they do not tolerate the mistakes of the oppressed. These instances clearly show that language is a medium through which power can be transplanted. Consequently, this feature within language makes it able to vestige power within words which create an aura of authority to those who use it along with his/her actions and body language. Thus language plays a significant role in not only asserting power, but also in building up an atmosphere of fear in order to intimidate the oppressed.

Language used by the military personnel also plays the role of inflicting torture within the oppressed in the play along with physical torture. This is clearly highlighted when the officer uses words that denote bloodshed, violence and horror. For instance when he says ‘You hear, your language is dead’ it clearly shows the way in which he brutalizes the language of the oppressed. Furthermore, the fact that he says ‘You will be badly punished if you attempt to speak your mountain language in this place’ clearly inflicts mental torture as the words posses the ability to disorient the self definition of the person. Additionally, the utterance of the Officer ‘This is a military decree. It is the law’ highlights the inseparability of this linguistic force from the suppressive brutality it can command. This instance furthermore, shows that torture can be committed not only through physical means but also mentally through the means of language.

Military manipulation erodes the language and the dignity of these people who do not belong to the hegemonic power structure. The fact that the Officer and the Sergeant talk with the voice of the military establishment clearly states the fact that their words establish definitions and authority. Therefore, they attempt to terrify the women and make them feel insecure through a language that they are not comfortable with. Interestingly, Ford (1988) mentions that ‘the Sergeant has a stick which he does not have to use because he uses the words instead’. Hence it is evident that language is a very credible means to assert power as it not only affect the psyche of the individual it is being inflicted upon, but it also serves the function of creating an atmosphere of fear and authority which oppresses the individuals outside the hegemonic power structure.

Use of obscene language plays a significant role in highlighting the assertion of power in Pinter’s Mountain Language. This research paper shall discuss the use of obscene language in relation to four different instances and how each instance highlights the assertion of power or authority of the speaker.

Firstly, this paper shall highlight the way in which the sergeant uses obscene language in order to assert power through language. His lines in scene one ‘your husbands, your sons, your fathers, these men you have been waiting to see, are shithouses…they are shit houses’ are significant. This is because the use of these obscene words in this particular statement highlights two different factors about the military personnel. Firstly, it shows the power the military personnel in this play poses to be comfortable enough to use such offensive language in a formal and professional context. Secondly, it highlights the way the military institution assaults a society. The fact that the sergeant not only uses obscene words to a particular individual but to a family and a community denotes his motive of destroying a whole group of people through obscene language. Using an obscene word to dehumanize and destroy the importance of a community is an effective strategy on the part of Pinter as he produces another distinct way in which he shows the different ways language can assert power.

Secondly, the lines ‘She looks like a fucking intellectual to me’ and ‘intellectual arses wobble the best’ clearly show that obscene words are used to marginalize and oppress an agentive woman. She is claimed to be agentive and courageous due to the fact that she does not get intimidated by the statements of the military personnel but urges them to let her see her husband as it is her ‘right’. Therefore, it is evident that Pinter highlights the use of obscene words by chauvinistic males to suppress the determination of females who are forward. Consequently, this shows that obscene words contributes to the affirmation of power within language to males in this particular instance to repress an individual who is a female and assertive.

Thirdly, the lines ‘who’s that fucking woman? What’s that fucking woman doing here? Who let that fucking woman through that door?’ furthermore highlights the Sergeant’s level of comfort in using obscene language due to his social position in the military institution. However, the significant aspect of the use of obscene words in this particular context is that they are used as adjectives. Interestingly, Sara Johnson uses the obscene word ‘fucking’ as a verb. Her lines ‘Can I fuck him? If I fuck him will everything be alright?’ denotes two distinct characteristics. Firstly, it highlights the fact that Sara is not agitated or depressed as a result of the illegitimate conduct of the military personnel. On the contrary, she is adapting to the requirements of the military personnel so much so that she uses the obscene word ‘fucking’ as a verb unlike the sergeant to assert her power (in the form of courage) through obscene language. This is an interesting technique used by Pinter as he not only uses obscene words to highlight the sexual exploitation of women verbally but also to highlight their sense of will and courage through their use of obscene language. This is a rather significant point as it shows that language has the potential of asserting power not only to those who belong to the hegemonic power structure, but also to those who are oppressed by that very same power structure. In that sense, language plays a crucial role in this play in distributing power not only to those who belong to the military institution but to those who are outside this power structure as mentioned before. Therefore, as Silverstein (1993) states there is a certain level of abstraction in the way Pinter’s plays conceptualize power, a level at which power no longer remains bound within particular institutions or apparatuses, but is hypostatized as a kind of anonymous, transcendent force.

The use of particular terms of address is also fascinating as they highlight the assertion of power of certain individuals who hold significant social positions over those who do not have the privilege of holding those very positions. The use of the term ‘Lady Duck Muck’ with reference to Sara and ‘joker’ by the guard with reference to the Prisoner in scene two is rather remarkable. The use of these terms clearly shows that the guard and the Sergeant are able to use this derogative term on the Prisoner due to their attachment to the military institution. However, the interesting aspect about the term ‘joker’ is due to the event that precede this act of name calling. It could be argued that the guard was motivated to call the Prisoner a ‘joker’ due to his attempt to share a common aspect about the members in their families. The fact that the Prisoner says ‘I’ve got a wife and three kids’ right after the Guard says ‘…I’l tell you another thing, I’ve got a wife and three kids. And you’re all a piece of shit’ rages the Guard as he does not want to share any characteristic with those who belong to the powerless structures in society.

Silverstein(1993) mentions that through this instance Pinter raises the possibility that ‘those who are allowed to identify with the subject positions through which power articulates itself can never completely escape a certain instability, the threatening suggestion that when the despotic gaze of power’s ‘ mouthpiece’ looks into the eyes of the other it sees reflected version of itself’. This clearly suggests that those who assume positions of power posses the need to differentiate themselves from the powerless in order to dismantle their shared identity. Therefore, the Guard calls the Prisoner a ‘joker’ in order to preserve asymmetries of power and privilege which comes merely with the language he is allowed to use as a result of his attachment to the military institution. Hence this instance highlights the role of language in two distinct ways. Firstly, it highlights the role language plays in attempting to assume a position of power through a shared identity. Secondly, it highlights the way in which language alone provides a sense of social significance and power to certain individuals.

Finally, this paper shall discuss the way in language that makes no sense play a role in highlighting the insertion of power within language. This point shall be made in relation to the following excerpt that is stated by the Officer to the women in the play in scene one. The lines are ‘Every dog has a name! They answer to their name…Before they bite they state their name. It is a formal procedure…if you tell me one of our dogs bit this woman without giving his name I will have that dog shot’. This excerpt highlights two distinct ways that highlight the assertion of power through language. Firstly, the use of nonsensical language clearly shows the way in which the officer dehumanizes and humiliates the women in a ridiculous manner. Secondly, it highlights the Officer’s audacity to privilege the dog with a name but not the women. Consequently, this highlights the way in which the Officer is indirectly placing the dog on a higher social hierarchy than the women who do not belong to the hegemonic power structure. Therefore, it is evident that language plays a significant role in this excerpt as it attempts to not only dehumanize the women, but also to humiliate and ridicule them in a crude manner.

In conclusion, it is apparent that Pinter’s Mountain Language is a significant play in terms of its ability in highlighting the use of language to assert power. This research paper extensively discusses the way in which language asserts power in numerous ways. Firstly, it discusses the way in which language provides a platform to societies to create an identity and culture of there own. Thereby, the elimination of a language has the potential to destroy the very same community it built. Therefore, individual or social institutions have the potential to assert their power over another community through the elimination of the language of that particular community. Secondly, the role language plays in inflicting torture is discussed clearly. Thirdly, the use of the passive voice for certain statements and the impact of repetitious words have on the Elderly Woman is discussed. Moreover, this paper discusses the way in which obscene words contribute to the affirmation of power within language to males in order to repress an individual who is female and assertive. Additionally, the use of obscene language by a female can also be interpreted as her way of asserting authority / power in a context. Hence this paper plays a significant role in highlighting the way in which language plays a crucial role in distributing power not only to those who belong to the military institution but to those are outside this power structure as well. Moreover, this paper shows the role language plays in attempting to assume a position of power through a shared identity. Therefore, it is evident that to certain individuals language alone provides a sense of social significance and power. Finally, language plays a significant role in attempting to dehumanize women through nonsensical language, which is rather interesting. Therefore, the analysis of this research paper suggests that language in Pinter’s Mountain Language needs to be looked at in a critical manner in order to understand the ways in which the hegemonic power structure and the individuals who are marginalized assert power in their own way.

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