Language vs. The Nation-State (yet again)

Aday and Livingston’s piece on “Taking the State out of the State” and Meng’s work, “From Steamed Bun to Grass Mud Horse” were excellent compliments to one another’s arguments. Aday and Livingston contend that the media is a distribution system for two entities: the government and Transnational Advocacy Networks. Embedded in their argument is the idea that media does not just distribute information, but it is a source for knowledge production, as well.

Meng’s research analysis of online spoofs on the heavily regulated, Chinese internet serves as an example as to how knowledge can be produced on the internet. The Grass Mud Horse is an example of an, “innovative strategy for articulating social critique and fostering societal dialogue in a heavily controlled speech environment”. When China launched a “clean up” campaign to limit “vulgar” content on the web (as defined by the government), a mystical, foul-named creature came to be the symbol of Chinese netizens’ discontent with such censorship. Through the creature’s ascribed meaning, crude Chinese translation and subsequently, the birth of a new language in Chinese characters to foster dialogue among internet users that share common concern of government censorship, the internet serves as a venue for knowledge production and an, “alternative imagined community that defies the official order”.

Though I am intuitively aware of the notion that the internet can create “imagined communities” and even new languages (as seen in the case of the Grass Mud Horse), I was still impressed by the power behind the idea that civil society can circumvent nation-state authority using an alternative language. Going back to our readings on Inclusion and Exclusion, the Chinese netizens, in the face of a repressive regime, were able to use the internet as a power-gaining tool. They utilized it as a space for gathering and a tool for developing an alternative language through the sharing of ascribed meaning to symbols and characters. As a result, once repressed Chinese internet users, were at that point able to attain power through their alternative language community, excluding those who remained unable to translate it’s symbols and enter into the dialogue around taboo topics of heated public debate.

This article got me thinking about other scenarios, both past and future, in which “alternative language” was created and used to leverage power among oppressed groups. Can you think of other examples in history when oppressed groups circumvented nation-state authority through the use of alternative language communities?


2 Comments to “Language vs. The Nation-State (yet again)”

  1. History makes us what we are today. Speaking of some historical examples, there are many poems, epic stories, literature, etc. that secretly talk about the royalty/government system back then. I have a BA in English and I studied many British/American literature. Frankly, most of them are boring. But, if you knew what the hidden message behind every story- it would be a bit more exciting. For example, Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” actually made fun of the political system during his time. This story was written during the Neoclassical era which means people were rising up to become more individualistic, expressed more opinions indirectly (through writing), the industrial revolution, and the belief was that all humanity is “out of order.” But, most people did not express through voice, but through writing stories with using symbols and hidden transcripts to avoid being arrested or prosecuted. I will put in an example from “Guilliver’s Travels” to make my point across. The main character, Gulliver, is the main character. He seems like an innocent guy embarking on a journey to explore life. But, he really is a secret symbol that represents what people should be doing aka seeking individualism. Another character is Lord Munodi who seems like a nice, cool guy that everyone likes but after analyzing the character, he really represents the community that is brainwashed by the government system during the neoclassical time. Swift is encouraging people to be more like Guilliver and less like Munodi. But of course, he used a story to get his message: rise up to be an individual through a story instead of speaking out. That is just a short example out of many examples there are about “alternative languages.”

  2. I think you draw an interesting and accurate parallel between language and the “imagined community.” Certainly, shared language is important to any community, but it does seem to be a separate (relatable) phenomenon to look at communities using new forms of communication or reinventing language to circumvent government suppression.

    I immediately thought of a few examples of how music has been a way to express political thoughts directly and indirectly. One I read about was Bambino (, a musician who fled Niger and later returned from Algeria when it was more peaceful to find that guitars were banned because of their role in political uprising. The tools of democracy are always fascinating because of course, not all communications tools have a significance about them until it’s applied. Guitars could be used for political speech or not, just as the Internet. What if the government just decided to ban the Internet to prevent political uprising? Thankfully, it usually doesn’t go this far for most countries, but there’s also a point that circumvention requires accessibility to the tool of expression in the first place.

    Alternative languages have also helped religious minorities to identify one another without making direct statements (a sort of fight club approach to identification). Speaking of, Fight Club might be a film example in some respects. 🙂 Code is also a language, arguably used by groups like Anonymous to hack government and other sites as virtual vigilantes. This is a fascinating topic, though and some great observations about the readings!

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