Can a ‘straight, white, able-bodied man’ ever be marginalised? Well, the answer is yes, of course he can. But if you’ve come here looking for an apologia for the Men’s Rights Movement or for support for the idea that people with brown faces are somehow oppressing everybody with a pink one, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong shop. That’s not what this is about, but do feel free to read on anyway.
In the preface to The Order of Things, Michel Foucault describes his merriment at discovering a passage in an essay by Jorge Luis Borges that referred to the ‘Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’:
[…]as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography – breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.
Of course we, along with Foucault, know that Borges imagined this encyclopaedia, but that isn’t the point Foucault is making. We imagine we stand on a rock of knowledge, certain that how we see the world is how it is. We confidently discriminate between vertebrates and invertebrates, mammals and non-mammals, dogs and cats, and so on, based on differences we have highlighted as important. Some of us go further in our classification of, say, dogs by pointing at one and saying “This breed is a Labradoodle,” and deciding that it may breed with others of its kind and be shown in Dog Shows as the epitome of its kind. If, at some time in the past, one of its great-grand-sires or great-grand-dams was not a Labradoodle but a… well… a Poobrador, that distinction does not seem relevant to the breeders’ association or the panel of judges.
In my previous post I speculated how it might have felt to walk down an avenue of sculpted or painted representations of Hathor, Khnum, and Thoth when one does not have a word for ‘art’. I suppose that the nearest we can come to imagining it is if we consider a Catholic devot, deep in reverent prayer, kneeling before a statue of the Virgin Mary; for that person the biblical terms ‘idol’ and ‘graven image’ have long since fallen away, and the plea of their soul is heard by the one who intercedes with God. In vain our argument – “It is not so because it is demonstrably not so!” – circulates, tries to prove itself by itself, eats its own tail. It may be that we, by virtue of the turns that human thought has taken since a point in the past, no longer classify things by a supposed virtue they share – a brave man and a lion, for example – but that does not stop us from naming our sports teams The Dallas Cowboys, The Wigan Warriors, The British Lions, and so on as though that taxonomy still existed. It does – we can’t get away from its power, even though we tell ourselves it’s metaphorical.
Taxonomy is a process of exclusion. It is not a process of grouping together but one of putting apart. There is a difference between a vertebrate and an invertebrate because we choose to exclude one from the other – the very fact that we classify one by a word that depends on the other and, by the small addition of a prefix, negates it is an indication of that. The fact that the difference between the two seems so natural to us now is because of the legacy of a pre-existing idea which conditions our thinking, a pre-existing word that expresses that exclusion. We have become so used to a particular taxonomy that our culture has now sanctified it, we are so conditioned by our language that to think otherwise is virtually impossible. We are fluent in Newspeak.
Marginalisation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the process or result of becoming or making marginal, especially the process of making an individual or minority group marginal in relation to a dominant social group (“marginalization”, OED). The taxonomy of marginalisation is, like any other taxonomy, a matter of cutting off what is considered not to be a certain thing. But the only clear criterion for being marginalised is the fact of marginalisation. To add any other factor is to make a different taxonomy altogether.
In a society or system where, in general, heterosexual people are privileged, or white, or able-bodied, or male, or any combination of these are privileged, that general privilege can be seen to preclude marginalisation of the whole group. In the world that we know today, especially here in the Northern Hemisphere, we have a legacy of general privilege pertaining to ‘straight, white, able-bodied men’. This fact casts no blame, denigrates no one, pours guilt on no one, implies no lack of virtue in anyone straight, white, able-bodied, or male; it is nothing more than a situation we have inherited. An attempt not to dim the light they enjoy but to bring others equally into it, so that the idea of ‘privilege’ no longer seems relevant, is an entirely laudable one. But to assume that a general privilege implies that no individual or sub-group within that generality can ever be marginalised is dangerously myopic and, furthermore, false. It is the assumption of someone who has never considered age, social class, ‘invisible disability’, etc. as marginalising factors. It is evidence of incomplete and flawed vision.
Recently I submitted an article to a web site that exists to promote the study of literature, art, film, etc. and their creators that are somehow marginalised. I chose to promote the novel Sez Ner by Arno Camenisch. Camenisch writes in a dialect of Romansh, a minority language of Switzerland. Neither Sez Ner nor its English translation The Alp is found in our university library; a quick search of our university web site does not reveal any course available that includes Romansh language or literature. My reason for promoting this novel was the marginalisation of minority languages. My article was rejected. The editors gave as their reason that Arno Camenisch is a ‘straight, white, able-bodied man’. I should say right away that I supported and still support the aims of the web site. But I am convinced that their decision was fundamentally wrong. They added an extra criterion for being marginalised other than the fact of marginalisation; they assumed that a general privilege excluded a particular marginalisation. Wrong on both counts.
A quick excursus here. Some readers may consider that I am writing this present post because my ego was dented by their rejection. I’m human, so let me therefore concede that there’s probably an element of personal pique involved somewhere. There, I’ve admitted it, move on, nothing to see here…
I regularly chat with a straight, white, able-bodied man. If he wrote poetry or painted pictures, they would be excluded from consideration by the web site. The fact that he is homeless and begs on the street notwithstanding – the fact of his actual marginalisation. In 1969, when I lived in South East London, I belonged to a youth group known as the skinheads. By and large we were straight, white, able-bodied, and male. We didn’t pay much attention to how the rest of society saw us – perhaps we should have done, but there wouldn’t have been much we could have done about it – and as a result what people ‘know’ about us was largely constructed by the media of the time. We weren’t a right-wing racist bloc – that description may be pertinent to certain ‘revivals’ of ‘skinhead’ movements that happened during the decades since 1969 – there were plenty of racial prejudices amongst our generality, as one would have expected amongst mainly working-class youngsters of that era, and there were plenty of aspects of our general culture that were unattractive to society as a whole, but most of us would have grown up and, for example, voted Labour in general elections rather than for any right-wing party. Plenty of us got involved in fights, many did not. Plenty of us were racists, some were anti-racist, myself for one. We did not wear a ‘uniform’ but had a gradually evolving fashion, which had faded out (certainly in London) by the end of 1970. But it didn’t really occur to us until later that by virtue of having been hidden behind a media-created image we had in effect been marginalised, become a by-word for everything ignorant and unpleasant in society’s youth. This actually raises a vital point, which is that being marginalised does not depend on immaculacy – we had plenty of warts – but solely on the fact of marginalisation. There are plenty more examples of individuals and sub-groups within the generality of ‘straight, white, able-bodied men’ that find themselves marginalised. To fail to recognise that is a mistake, and to make that mistake in a campaign to end marginalisation is a fatal flaw. It will perpetuate marginalisation, not end it.
That brings me to the end of my apologia, I will now append the article in support of the study of Sez Ner by Arno Camenisch. [NB. It has been slightly edited for the purposes of this post.]
Aotearoan writer Glenn Colquhoun said “The most difficult thing about majorities is not that they cannot see minorities, but that they cannot see themselves. There is no contrast, no dissonance, everything is white on white” (Colquhoun 38). Majorities hold the default position, whilst minorities are somehow subversive of that default; sitting in the majority, however, we’re blissfully ignorant about what exactly is being subverted. We can only see ‘them’ in relation to ‘us’, not the other way round. When it comes to speakers of different languages, as David Crystal says, there is the closest of links between language dominance and cultural power (5). Many years after I left high school in England, it struck me that I had learned French and German, and one year’s optional Russian, but I only knew a couple of words in Welsh, and absolutely no Gaelic. The culture I grew up in privileged the languages of our nearest overseas neighbours above our own linguistic minorities. I’m not much more knowledgeable now, and I think it’s because I still can’t see myself.
I may still be just as ignorant, but I now – forgive my patronisation – like to support those who keep languages alive not as a political statement but as a creative one. Yes, creativity is political, I get that, and the more I dig the deeper this hole gets. Having pronounced on cultural power, David Crystal goes on to cite Switzerland as a successful example of peaceful multilingual coexistence within a single nation (13), but how easy is it, from a foreign or from an internal majority position, to gauge what pressure there is on a minority language and its living community? Swiss author Arno Camenisch says of his home languages, “If it is raining I write in Rhaeto-Romanic. If it is windy or sunny, German… I grew up in a polyphonous village. There were many languages… but television was king. We believed in TV more than God!” (Camenisch, MacIntyre, and Hahn). To Camenisch “the sound is the soul of the text” (ibid.), but when I heard him read from The Alp in its original Romansh version, I reflected that the sound was all I could access, and that what I was listening to was the equivalent of a musical recital, not an expression of meaning and culture by the medium of language.
Camenisch translates his own work from Romansh to German. In 2014 an English-Language version was brought out, translated by Donal McLaughlin. Each time a translation of any work is made a problem is created. There is a tension between one language and the other(s), and a complex relationship is formed. You could say, for example, that when a German version of The Alp is read in Switzerland, it reaches another of Camenisch’s neighbours; equally, however, it becomes a reason why that same neighbour might not bother to learn Romansh, any more than I learned Welsh. When I read my own English version, I am conscious that the novel is now available much more widely, internationally; on the other hand, that availability depends on a major hegemonic language, and my reading in that language means that I may not bother to reacquaint myself with German or ever consider learning Romansh. And as I make that pronouncement from a position of privilege, what else am I not seeing?
The Alp, or Sez Ner in the original, is a very short novel. Its subject is rural life. It is written in a series of paragraphs, sometimes no more than a line long, none longer than half a page, and each separated from the next by a line-break. Dialogue is terse and without quotation marks. Each paragraph describes a scene, or a short piece of seemingly banal action. Having read to the end, and having wondered when something is going to happen, you suddenly realise that life in the Swiss Alps has done just that, and has borne you along like a blade of grass in a stream after a rainstorm.
The dirt gets under your nails. The dirt stains your hands. The swineherd uses the boot-brush to try and get his hands clean. The dirt sticks in the folds, like it was etched there. The dirt only goes once the skin begins to peel. The skin begins to peel when the summer’s over, as if your body was shedding its skin like a snake.
When it rains, the cows shit better, says Giosch. Clemens laughs.
Looking at these lines, I am acutely aware of their translated nature, for the simple reason that I know that the title of the novel itself has lost something. ‘Sez Ner’ is a specific location, whereas ‘Alp’ is a generalisation. What other nuances may be missing? Nevertheless I would like to see the novel studied in English first of all, but if it is, then I beg colleagues to have an original work to hand, to be able to get some idea of the creativity that went into the translation process, and to appreciate the freshness and directness of the original. Encountering The Alp/Sez Ner on any basis, even monolingually, is worthwhile. Studying it where the original can stand as a positive asset, is a marvelous opportunity to promote and to relate to minority languages both remote and close.
‘Relate’ is the operative word there. I would like to see the study of The Alp and other similar books become an exercise in learning to see myself/ourselves better, in colouring Glenn Colquhoun’s “white on white,” as much as one of raising the profile of, in this instance, the Romansh-speaking communities. Whether I have the right to make that request in those terms is, of course, wide open to debate.
 I apologise for using this term which, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. reminds us, is a pseudoscientific misnomer (4).
Camenisch, Arno. The Alp. Translated by Donal McLaughlin, Dalkey Archive
—. Sez Ner. Urs Engeler, 2010.
Camenisch, Arno, Martin MacIntyre, and Daniel Hahn. “Major-Minor:
Languages and Nations.” Unpublished discussion 16th August 2014,
Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Colquhoun, Glen. Jumping ship, and other essays. Steele Roberts, 2012
Crystal, David. English as a global language. Cambridge University Press,
Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “Editor’s Introduction: Writing “Race” and
the Difference it makes.” Critical Enquiry, vol.12 No.1, 1985, pp.1-20.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. Translator unnamed. Vintage, 1994.
“marginalization.” The Oxford English Dictionary, 2017.
Notes on images used: The images have been used on multiple internet sites without attribution. What little information I have been able to garner follows.
1] The photograph of Borges was taken by Annemarie Heinrich in 1967 and can be found on Wikipedia.
2] The photo of Michel Foucault is ©Alexis Duclos/Shutterstock and was sourced at britannica.com.
3] The picture of myself at Hyde Park in 1969 is unattributed and comes from my private collection.
4] The photo of Arno Camenisch was cropped from an unattributed photo and can be found at tinyurl.com/ArnoSezNer.
5] The cover design for The Alp was by Mikhail Iliatov.