Reflections on “The Tower of Babel: Human Rights and the Paradox of Language |Global Language Justice Sawyer Seminar with Moria Paz”

There is a trope, in architecture history and theory, that relates the centralizing of state power to the technique of rendering an image in linear perspective. Lines of projection extend forward from a single dot placed somewhere at infinity, creating a grid upon which an object can be moved around at random: whatever warps must be introduced to convey dimension at each step, the changes in shape are precisely what identify, for the viewer of the picture, the object as being the same as the one from the start. Across this plane receding into the horizon lies the possibility for any figure to be predictable, coherent, legible, managed, tracked. Should the resonance with state power remain elusive, you can throw a panopticon into that line-lassoing infinite distance for good measure.

But the metaphor can risk becoming overdetermined, or rather, one-sided. After all, these formal maneuvers serve just as well to describe the approach of the body politic in a representative democracy, fighting to fix skewed lines and hackneyed fragments that fail to resolve towards the radiating vanishing point that is Justice. The stakes are high, because—as with gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and other legal strategies outlining a carceral state and the disenfranchisement of historically marginalized groups—the existing picture can be so ugly.

Thus, despite the radically distinct landscapes put forth between society and the state, the political imagination, structured by linear perspective, can sometimes turn out to be rather similar: a product of a shared commitment to a space, whose paradigmatic unity would only come naturally to a Cyclopes’ eye. Meanwhile, what can get lost in the struggle over the scenography of lines are the properties of the line in the first place—until the question emerges as to whether the ideal picture requires adding a new one.

On October 4-5, 2018, Sawyer Seminar guest speaker Prof. Moria Paz offered a crucial reframing of language rights—the contention that states should protect and contribute to the preservation of minority language groups—in terms of this aporia (which might be understood, in lieu of architecture’s metaphysics of the line, as legal ontology, to use Paz’s words). Her evocative and exceptionally well-researched arguments (drawing upon over 200 case studies) seemed to me to unfold in two parts. First, in spite of whatever statutes might exist, courts interpret and execute the law towards the interests of the state and as such, minority languages are “protected” only insofar as mediation is necessary en route to assimilation, for fair trial, or to maintain a particular political-structure tradition (such as in Belgium). Among Paz’s many fascinating provocations was that while the US, unlike the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), does not recognize any substantive language rights, the results of language disputes, in cases comparable to those brought to the explicitly language rights-espousing ECHR, have been largely the same.

Second, making it incumbent upon states to expand the public sector for reasons beyond their conceptualization of needs can have the perverse effect of seriously backfiring—in regards to dignifying minority languages, but also to universal human rights commitments writ large. Not only are certain rationales for language beyond the logic of the state, but there are real perils in the insistence on formally securing these guarantees in the technical letter of the law, absent of any corresponding political spirit. This, at least, is the powerful connection I perceived between Paz’s lecture and the workshop that followed, which centered upon her illuminating piece from 2017 published in The European Journal of International Law (vol.28, no. 2), “The Law of Walls”. In it, Paz draws urgent attention to the disturbing correlation between the expanding mandate of human rights law over territorial governance, and the parallel growth—or explosion, relative to the history of borders—of militant wall-building by states, who respond by seizing the initiative to define, vis-à-vis closure, the territory itself, rendering most of the former completely ineffectual.

Her central argument is that today’s unfettered craze for impenetrable border walls is the unintended but undeniable consequence of the “individualist access-based compromise”—her term that describes the strategy by which human rights law has, over the years, managed to grow the list of basic rights to the point of being quasi-citizenship protections, but has failed to secure their guarantee beyond the contingency of an individual’s success in establishing territorial presence in the first place. How would bolstering language rights imperatives play out in this current scene? The situation for charting a sphere of “global language justice” appears bleak.

And yet, what I most appreciated was that Paz’s own thesis—the culmination of sobering research and rigorous, empirical considerations—does not sacrifice any of the idealism and critical imagination required, in the end, to sustain the ultimately utopian enterprise of thinking “language”, “human”, and “rights”. Throughout the events, Paz posed a question, whose need for serious consideration is what I identify as her primary thesis: she asked, “How do we square the circle in the question of costs?” In other words, how do we understand the value of language beyond, or at least in distinction, from its price; will it be possible to fit these two areas into one and the same shape, one and the same politics of language.

By Amy Zhang, Graduate Research Fellow in Global Language Justice; Ph.D. Candidate in Architecture History and Theory at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University.

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