The Materiality of Language: Gender, Politics, and the University

The Materiality of Language: Gender, Politics, and the University

The Materiality of Language: Gender, Politics, and the University

The Materiality of Language: Gender, Politics, and the University


David Bleich sees the human body, its affective life, social life, and political functions as belonging to the study of language. In The Materiality of Language, Bleich addresses the need to end centuries of limiting access to language and its many contexts of use. To recognize language as material and treat it as such, argues Bleich, is to remove restrictions to language access due to historic patterns of academic censorship and unfair gender practices. Language is understood as a key path in the formation of all social and political relations, and becomes available for study by all speakers, who may regulate it, change it, and make it flexible like other material things.


Language has been our principal means of collective survival, our principal source of interpersonal stability, and the foundation for the growth of all cultures. the use of language is part of every person’s daily experience, and has been since birth.

The formal study of language has rarely recognized these facts, partly because the subject is so broad, and partly because there have been political reasons not to ask too many questions about the ubiquity of language use. the university as an institution, in its eight-century history, has been the principal site for the study of language in the West. Although this history is fascinating and instructive, it is also a history of how the subject of language has been avoided, obfuscated, submerged, and repressed during the recorded history of Western societies. in universities, language has been a contested subject matter. Different parts of society, some of them represented in different parts of universities, have had different stakes in which languages are used, how they are used, and, especially, who uses which languages. in spite of the fundamental role of language in all people’s lives, most people have not had, and do not now have, access to the full capability of their native languages or other languages they may have learned.

We may view language use as the human way of life, comparable, perhaps, to nest building and calling in birds, dam building for beavers, and the collective cooperation of insects. Researchers have marveled at the swiftness of infantile language acquisition just as they have marveled at the achievements of presumably nonlinguistic creatures. Most of the time, in academic life and in popular culture, people identify such seemingly miraculous behaviors as instinctive or genetic, thus, effectively assigning our understanding of these behaviors to automatic, mechanical, or inevitable factors. These collective behaviors have taken place in elaborate detail in plain sight, and they have been readily available for study.

I undertook this study because I wanted to understand why the issue of language has been the site of so much dispute, so much acrimony, and so much . . .

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