Over the recent holiday, I spent some time sorting through many boxes of family memorabilia. Some of you have probably done this with your families. It is fascinating, sentimental and mind-boggling. Highlights include both the things that strike a chord and things that can be thrown away. It’s a balance of efficiency and sap.
I’m always amazed by the way family memorabilia tells both private, personal histories and larger public ones. The boxes I dealt with last week were my mom’s, and her passion was politics. Even the Christmas cards she saved give pieces of political histories. Old thank you cards provide unknown nuggets of political strategy. She had even saved stirrers and plastic cups from an inauguration!
My mom continued to work in politics throughout her life, but the work that she did more recently is understandably fresher and more tangible for me. I remember looking through printed Christmas cards from politicians and wondering why she held on to them. In her later years I worried about her tendency to hold on to mail merged political letters. I wondered if her tendency to personalize impersonal documents made her vulnerable to fraud. To me, her belief in these documents made no sense.
Flash forward one year to me sorting through boxes of handwritten letters from politicians that mirror the spam she held on to. For many years she received handwritten letters from elected politicians in Washington. At some point, the handwritten letters evolved into typed letters that were hand-corrected and included handwritten sections. These evolved into typed letters on which the only handwriting was the signature. Eventually, even the signatures became printed. But the intention and function of these letters remained the same, even as their typography evolved. She believed in these letters because she had been receiving them for many decades. She believed they were personal because she had seen more of them that were personal than not. The phrases that I believe to be formulaic and spammy were once handwritten, intentional, personal and probably even heartfelt.
There are a few directions I could go from here:
– I better understand why older people complain about the impersonalization of modern society and wax poetic about the old letter writing tradition. I could include a few anecdotes about older family members.
– I’m amazed that people would take the time to write long letters using handwriting that may never have been deciphered
– I could wax poetic about some of the cool things I found in the storage facility
But I won’t. Not in this blog. Instead, I’ll talk about competencies.
Spam is a manifest of language competencies, although we often dismiss it as a total lack of language competence. In my Linguistics study, we were quickly taught the mantra “difference, not deficiency.” In fact it takes quite a bit of skill to develop spam letters. In survey research, the survey invitation letters that people so often dismiss have been heavily researched and optimized to yield a maximum response rate. In his book The Sociolinguistics of Globalization, Jan Blommaert details the many competencies necessary to create the Nigerian bank scam letters that were so heavily circulated a few years ago. And now I’ve learned that the political letters that I’m so quick to dismiss as thoughtless mail merges are actually part of a deep tradition of political action. Will that be enough for me to hold on to them? No. But I am saving the handwritten stuff. Boxes and boxes of it!
One day last week, as I drove to the storage facility I heard an interview with Michael Pollan about Food Literacy. Pollan’s point was that the food draughts in some urban areas are not just a function of access (Food draughts are areas where fresh food is difficult to obtain and grocery stores are few and far between, if they’re available at all). Pollan believes that even if there were grocery stores available, the people in these neighborhoods lack the basic cooking skills to prepare the food. He cited a few basic cooking skills which are not basic to me (partly because I’m a vegetarian, and partly because of the cooking traditions I learned from) as a part of his argument.
As a linguist, it is very interesting to hear the baggage that people attach to language metaphorically carried over to food (“food illiteracy”). I wonder what value the “difference, not deficiency” mantra holds here. I’m not ready to believe that people in areas subject to food draught are indeed kitchen illiterate. But I wouldn’t hesitate to agree that their food cultures probably differ significantly from Pollan’s. The basic staples and cooking methods probably differ significantly. Pollan could probably make a lot more headway with his cause if, instead of assuming that the people he is trying to help lack any basic cooking skills, he advocated toward a culture change that included access, attainability, and the potential to learn different practical cooking skills. It’s a subtle shift, but an important one.
As a proud uncook, I’m a huge fan of any kind of food preparation that is two steps or less, cheap, easy and fresh. Fast food for me involves putting a sweet potato in the microwave and pressing “potato,” grabbing for an apple or carrots and peanut butter, or tossing chickpeas into a dressing. Slow food involves the basic sautéing, roasting, etc. that Pollan advocates. I imagine that the skills he advocates are more practical and enjoyable for him than they are for people like me, whose mealtimes are usually limited and chaotic. What he calls basic is impractical for many of us. And the differences in time and money involved in uncooking and “basics” add up quickly.
So I’ve taken this post in quite a few directions, but it all comes together under one important point. Different language skills are not a lack of language skills altogether. Similarly, different survival skills are not a total lack of survival skills. We all carry unique skillsets that reflect our personal histories with those skills as well as the larger public histories that our personal histories help to compose. We, as people, are part of a larger public. The political spam I see doesn’t meet my expectations of valuable, personal communication, but it is in fact part of a rich political history. The people who Michael Pollan encounters have ways of feeding themselves that differ from Pollan’s expectations, but they are not without important survival skills. Cultural differences are not an indication of an underlying lack of culture.