Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Study in Dictionary

I used to own a dictionary.  As a child I had a big green and white one, with colored pictures on creamy white pages.  It was the kind of book that just felt good to flip through.  There was a huge purple speckled paged dictionary at my grandmother’s house.  We had pocket dictionaries and pre-smartphone, hand held techno-dictionaries.   In the library at my high school and in the public library too a dictionary that would be too big to fit on a shelf, sat like an idol on a pedestal waiting for the faithful.  

Now I don’t think there is a dictionary in this house.  Not a paper one.  We do still have books.  At every corner, spilling off every shelf, nightstand, corner of flat space, but not a dictionary.   We have Google instead, and Wikipedia, and the red squiggle line in Word.  

The dictionaries as symbols of languages in my life come with contexts and histories that shape some of who I am.  As much as any words themselves it’s the context surrounding them that create meanings.  In my read of another chapter of Baker’s Sexed Texts this week she wrote about how more contemporary researchers in gender and language studies have moved to see  these social constructs of gender through, especially the importance of context and ways that gender is taken on, particularly through language.

In a chapter of her book, Feminist Practice & Poststructuralist Theory, Chris Weedon, creates very particular constructions of poststructuralist feminism and other feminisms (radical, Marxists, etc).  She builds a history of understanding the way women have been positioning through either negation, essentialized or fixed particularly through the projects of rationalism and humanism.  For Weedon poststructural lenses offer a more complicated, multiplicitious, power conscious and context-based understanding of gender.   As I spent time yesterday in Atkins Library interacting with three feminist dictionaries, I was thinking of the work similar to reading Weedon that this genre study into feminist dictionaries does for me as a student of feminism.  As Weedon tours feminisms and names the theories at work for constructing gender and difference, the dictionaries, work as part of a metagenre, which shows the thinking behind language in particular conversations.  In looking at dictionaries of Maggio, Kramarae and Treichler and Daly, I construct for myself understandings of how language works for these three feminists, as representative of larger movements in the field.

MJ Hardman writes about the material power of language in her work with speakers of the Jaqi language.  She explores the ways the non-sexist language constructs the everyday lives and power structures for and of women, and the contradictory structures created when outside languages (of conquerors) moves into the context.  She explores the particular contexts of words, including the people and location and history surrounding the social work they are associated with.  In looking next at selections from feminist dictionaries, I am wondering about the ways context is constructed or hidden by dictionaries. 

The Nonsexist Word Finder: A Dictionary of Gender-Free Usage (Maggio, 1989)
Maggio’s describes her goal to change words that are no longer useful, while for Maggio this may or may not change social issues, the language itself can become more socially useful.

A Feminist Dictionary (Kramarae & Treichler, 1996)
The excerpts below exemplify the goals of Kramarae and Treichler to counter traditional dictionaries by making visible women’s words, critique of languages of privilege, make visible multiple ways of knowing, to counter traditional processes of authorization and to inspire research and further thinking.

 Webster’s First new Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Langauge (Daly, 1987)
Below are examples of Daly’s work in this dictionary to connect words to women, through unbinding their definitions and disrupting the contexts and histories attached to them, making them undone.

Commonly these dictionaries  displace for the most part language from everyday life, partly fixing it in the traditional format of dictionary.  Each counters the dominant dictionary form, though: Maggio by demanding word replacement and change.  Kramarae and Treichler by exploding each “definition” with multiple forms and authors.  And Daly by critiquing and revisioning dominant forms for new and subversive purposes.  

In a  critique of Mary Daly’s work by Jane Hedley notes the parallels and differences in theory and political work between Daly and Andrienne Rich.  Hedley sees Daly’s binary-flipping work in revisioning language as useful only to a point, while Rich’s revisioning of language use as connected to everyday life as having more impact on the situations of women.  I think Hedley’s critique works to some extent for all three feminist dictionaries, possibly as they are contained by the form of dictionary in itself, even as they undo the form.  I wonder to what extend Elgin’s working of theory through novel puts power back into the everyday experiences (even if they are not completely common to my world everydays) of women.  Does this drawing on the day to day do similar political work to Adrienne Rich, or being fantastical are there still limits?  In some way the fantasy element may do greater work than ethnography or dictionary building or research article, since Elgin lays precise claim to the fact that her story, her theories the lives of these women are completely fiction.  The rest, I think Weedon would say (and sometimes me), is fiction too- it just pretends to be non.

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