Why Culture Matters

Tomb of Ahmad al-Mansur

Image by Sheriff of Nothing via Flickr


Why Culture Matters


In September of 2006, in Lewisburg, Tennessee, a neighborhood group protested because the public library was investing resources in the purchase of books in Spanish.  Of the sixty thousand volumes, only one thousand were published in a language other than English.  The annual budget, totalling thirteen thousand dollars, dedicates the sum of one hundred and thirty dollars to the purchase of books in Spanish. The buying spree representing one percent of the budget enraged some of the citizens of Tennessee, causing them to take the issue to the authorities, arguing that a public service, sustained through taxes charged to the U.S. populace, should not promote something that might benefit illegal workers.


Thus, the new conception of culture surpasses that distant precept of the ancient library of Alexandria.  That now almost completely forgotten library achieved the height of its development in second century Egypt.  Its backward administrators had the custom of periodically sending investigators throughout the world in order to acquire copies of texts from the most distant cultures.  Among its volumes there were copies of Greek, Persian, Indian, Hebrew and African texts.  Almost all of those decades-long efforts were abruptly brought to an end, thanks to a fire caused by the enlightene ships of the emperor Julius Caesar.  Nearly a thousand years later, another deliberately-set fire destroyed the similarly celebrated library of Córdoba, founded by the caliph Al-Hakam (creator of the University and of free education), where the passion for knowledge brought together Jews, Christians and Arabs with texts from the most diverse cultures known in the period.  Also in this period, the Spanish caliphs were in the habit of dispatching seekers throughout the world in order to expand the library’s collection of foreign books.  This library was also destroyed by a fanatic, al-Mansur, in the name of Islam, according to his own interpretation of the common good and superior morality.


The Tennessee anecdote represents a minority in a vast and heterogeneous country.  But it remains significant and concerning, like a sneeze on a passenger train.  Also significant is the idea, assumed there, that the Spanish language is a foreign language, when any half-way educated person knows that before English it was Spanish that was spoken in what today is the United States; that Spanish has been there, in many states of the Union for more than four hundred years; that Spanish and Latino culture are neither foreign nor an insignificant minority: more than forty million “Hispanics” live in the United States and the number of Spanish-speakers in the country is roughly equivalent to the number of Spanish speakers living in Spain.  If those who become nervous because of the presence of that “new culture” had the slightest historical awareness, they would neither be nervous nor consider their neighbors to be dangerous foreigners.  The only thing that historically has always been dangerous is ignorance, which is why the promotion of ignorance can hardly be considered synonymous with security and progress – even by association, as with the reigning method of propaganda, which consists of associating cars with women, tomatoes with civil rights, the victory of force with proof of the Truth or a million dollars with Paradise.


Translated by Bruce Campbell


Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia, October 2006.



Estudiar idiomas rejuvenece el cerebro (entre otras cosas)

Old stories

Image by Celeste via Flickr

2 languages make your brain buff

If you had any doubts about exposing your child – or yourself – to a foreign language, there’s more evidence than ever that being bilingual has enormous benefits for your brain.

Scientists presented their research supporting this idea Friday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

As the human body begins its natural decline in old age, bilinguals seem to maintain better cognitive function, said Ellen Bialystok of York University in Toronto, Ontario. This is the case even for people with dementia. Bialystok and colleagues have studied many Alzheimer’s patients, both monolinguals and bilinguals. They found that bilinguals were on average four to five years older than monolinguals at comparable points of neurological impairment.

Once Alzheimer’s disease begins to compromise the brain, it appears that bilinguals can continue to function even though there’s damaged tissue, she said.

So what’s going on? One theory is that language learning is an example of “cognitive reserve.” It something that keeps the mind active in the same way as puzzles and games do, and works toward compensating for the build-up of dementia-causing pathology in the brain, Bialystok said.

In terms of starting language learning in middle or old age, the likelihood of becoming truly fluent in a new tongue is low, but it seems that every little bit helps in preventing cognitive decline, she said. And proficiency may be more important than age of acquisition, said Judith Kroll, researcher at Pennsylvania State University, before the conference.

Bilinguals are also better than monolinguals at multitasking, Kroll said. Juggling their languages helps bilinguals ignore irrelevant information and prioritize tasks better than those who only can only speak on tongue, she has found in her research. That makes sense considering that when a bilingual person speaks one language, the other language is still potentially active. That means that speakers of two languages are constantly inhibiting one language in favor of another, which perhaps enhances their overall attentional skills.

Why is it so hard for adults to learn a new language, compared with kids? The answer might not lie entirely in the brain. The social, educational, and other circumstantial conditions are different when an adult gets exposure to language, Bialystok said. As a child, learning a language is pretty much all you do. Adults can’t devote as much time or attention to the experience of picking up a new tongue.

“It’s a change we can deal with as adults if there’s sufficient time and opportunity,” she said.

Are there any downsides to being bilingual? Babies exposed to two languages throughout pregnancy, or who hear two languages in their first days of life, don’t confuse their languages, said Janet Weker of the University of California, Santa Barbara. The scientific evidence suggests bilingual and monolingual kids have similar language development milestones; it appears that children learning two languages do not experience delays in this regard generally.

There is, however, some research suggesting that the competition that’s produced by this mental juggling may introduce a delay in processing. But it’s so small that it’s not something that would be noticeable consciously, Kroll said. It appears that the benefits of being bilingual outweigh the costs.

What are you waiting for? Check out these resources for learning a new language online.

CNN.com (Feb. 22, 2011)

What Is an Ideolexicon?

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Image via Wikipedia

¿Qué es un ideoléxico? (Spanish)

What Is an Ideolexicon?

Jorge Majfud

I have been asked several times to define what I mean by ideolexicon. I have never given the same response, but that is not due to the idea being ambiguous or undefined but quite the contrary.

Although this term is a neologism, I do not believe that at root the idea is original: everything that occurs to us others have already intuited before. It is sufficient to read those ancient Greeks in order to discover there the first indications of Darwin’s theory of evolution (Empedocles), Dalton or Bohr’s atoms (Leucippius or Democritus), Einstein’s mass-energy equivalency (Heraclitus), modern epistemology (idem), Freud’s bicephalic psyche (Plato), Derrida or Lyotard’s poststructuralism (the Sophists), etc.

I suspect that the Italian Antonio Gramsci could have broadened the ideolexicon concept in the 1930s (perhaps he had already done so in his Quaderni del carcere, although I have not been able to find that precise moment among the more than two thousand pages of this disarticulated work). One of Gramsci’s observations with regard to Marxism was the warning of a certain autonomy of the superstructure. That is, if previously it was understood that the infrastructure (the productive, economic order) determined superstructural reality (culture in general), later it was seen that the process could not only be the inverse (Max Weber) but simultaneous or dialectical (Althusser). For me, examples of the first are slavery, modern education, feminism, etc. Humanist ideals that condemned slavery existed centuries before they would be transformed into a social precept. A Marxist explanation is immediate: only when the industry of the developed countries (England and the northern United States) found an economic problem with the slavery system was the new morality (and practice) imposed. The same with universal education: the uniformity of the children’s tunics, the rigorous compliance with schedules do nothing more than to adapt the future worker to the discipline of industry (or the army), the culture of standardization. For which reason today the universities and education in general have begun a reverse process of de-uniformization. Feminist demands are also ancient (and part of humanism), but they do not become a moral exigency until capitalist society and the industrialized communist societies needed new workers and, above all, new female wage workers.

Anyway, we can understand that, although these advances have not been obtained by an ethical conscience but by initial interests of the oppressors (like the universal vote for a people easily manipulable by the caudillo and propaganda), at any rate the road travelled “forward” is not walked backward so easily, even if those interests that made it possible were to change. Power is never absolute; it always must make concessions in order to maintain itself.

In our time, even though the use of brute force like in the times of Attila is not entirely looked down upon, it is no longer possible to lay waste to peoples and oppress other men and women without a legitimation. Much less in a global society that, though still submersed in the traditional networks of information, progressively tends to snatch from sectarian powers the narration of its own history. These legitimations of power may be farcical (they still trust in the fragile memory of obedient nations, or nations terrified by physical and moral violence), but their strength is the power of semantic manipulation to produce a determined reality: when a bomb is dropped from a plane and tens of innocents die, terms are used like “defense,” “liberation,” “collateral effects,” etc. If the same bomb is placed by an individual in a market and it kills the same quantity of innocents, that act is defined as “terrorist,” “barbaric,” “murderous,” etc. From the other side, the ideolexicons will be different: some are imperialists, other rebels or patriots.

In the 19th century, the Argentine D.F. Sarmiento defined José Artigas as “terrorist” (for others he was liberator, rebel), while the general Julio Argentino Roca became a military hero, in multiple bronze statues, because of the ethnic cleansing that his army carried out against the original owners of Patagonia (“There was no battle, it was a parade beneath the Patagonian sun and we achieved 1600 dead and another 10,000 of the rabble. It was the fate of a savage race that was already defeated,” informed the venerated general Roca).

Which is to say, an ideolexicon is a word or a combination of terms (extremist, radical, patriot, normal, democrat, good manners) that has been colonized in its semantics with a politico-ideological purpose. This colonization generally is carried out by a hegemonic culture, but its greatest particularity is rooted in the discursive manipulation of a hegemonic political power that is disputed by resistant ideologies. The qualification of “radical” or “extremist,” by possessing a negative valorization, will be an instrument of struggle: each adversary – the dominant and the marginal – will seek to associate this ideolexicon (whose valorization is not found to be in dispute) with those other ideolexicons whose valorization is unstable, like progressive, feminist, homosexual, liberal, globalization, civilization, etc.

In summary, an ideolexicon is a semantic weapon with a political (or socio-political) usage and at the same time it is the object of dispute of different groups in a society. When one of them is consolidated as a negative or positive value (ex., communism), it comes to be an instrument of colonization of other ideolexicons that are in social and historical dispute.

In its turn, each ideolexicon is composed of a positive semantic field and a negative one whose limits are defined according to the advance and retreat of the social groups in dispute (for example, justice, freedom, equality, etc.). That is, each group will seek to define what is meant and what is not meant by “justice,” “freedom,” at times using classical instruments like deduction and induction, but generally operating a kind of ontological declaration (A is B, B is not C) by way of association or interception of the semantic fields of two or more ideolexicons (racial integration=communism; equality+freedom=justice, etc.). When in the 1950s in the United States racial integration was in dispute, those who opposed this change demonstrated in the streets with placards: “race mixing is communism.” The word “communism” – like “Marxism” in Latin America – had been consolidated in its negative, demonized, values. Its meaning and valorization were not in dispute. When the soldiers of the Latin American oligarchies would murder a priest or a journalist or a unionist, whatever the case they justified themselves by adducing that the victims were Marxists, without having ever read a book by Marx and without having any more idea of what Marxism was than what they had received through strategic daily repetition.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

El identificador de textos

Cambio/16 (España)

Milenio (Mexico)

La Republica (Uruguay)

El identificador de textos

En la academia todavía tenemos la manía de andar pensando cosas raras sin un propósito definido de antemano. Es una vieja tradición, con algunos casos célebres. Hay gente que se pasa la vida tratando de descubrir por qué las polillas se posan en un ángulo alfa en los meses de setiembre y marzo; o por qué decimos “aquí” en lugar de “acá”, and so on.  Muchos fracasan, pero por cada uno que logra responder ese tipo de preguntas bizarras luego resulta que medio pueblo se salva de una catástrofe o termina masacrado por algún hombre práctico que no pierde su tiempo en descubrir “por qué” pero está seguro en “cómo” aplicarlo a la realidad. ¿Qué se imaginaba Einstein que sus especulaciones de 1905 sobre la relatividad del tiempo terminarían en la bomba atómica?

Tiempo atrás estuvimos trabajando en un interesante programa que llamamos IT (Identificador de Texto). La idea se me había ocurrido hace varios años y es muy simple: toda existencia deja trazas. En el caso de la expresión de la escritura, la historia es conocida. La caligrafía tradicional se centra principalmente en el trazo del autor. Cada persona dibuja o da un énfasis particular a cada letra, a cada palabra. De hecho cualquiera puede distinguir, más o menos, el manuscrito de un hombre del de una mujer (y sus variaciones) o el manuscrito de un tímido del de un extrovertido, con sólo echar una mirada a la caligrafía. Algo parecido ocurría también en la era de las maquinas de escribir. Cada máquina tenía un golpe de letra particular, por lo cual no resultaba difícil identificar al autor de un texto anónimo si se localizaba la maquina. Para evitar esta identificación del anónimo, se inventó luego la misiva hecha de letras y palabras recortadas de los diarios.

En el mundo electrónico el anonimato pareció triunfar finalmente. Muchos lectores de diarios aprovechan esta creencia del anonimato inventándose seudónimos y descargando sus frustraciones ocultas en el travestismo de su identidad propia. Obviamente que cada vez que alguien pone un comentario anónimo en cualquier sitio graba su IP, el cual es expuesto al administrador de dicha página digital. Ni que hablar de un correo electrónico.

Pero aún así queda la posibilidad de que el anónimo use una computadora pública o se conecte en el wireless del parque más cercano o de la librería donde toma café. En países como Estados Unidos, resulta bastante difícil no encontrar un servicio gratuito de Internet o una computadora libre en algún restaurante o en alguna universidad. En Asia, África y en América Latina son más comunes los cyber cafes. A los efectos es lo mismo: el receptor muchas veces puede saber de dónde procede un mensaje X o el comentario de un lector registrado o sin registrar en un diario, por ejemplo, pero muchas veces no puede detectar directamente quién es el autor.

En el mundo digital no tenemos la caligrafía del escritor ni el golpe de tecla de la máquina de escribir, pero tenemos un rastro inequívoco, si se lo analiza a gran escala: la sintaxis y la gramática que, desde un punto de vista radical, es como las huellas dactilares de cada persona.

Como el tono de voz y como cualquier expresión humana, la gramática profunda de cada individuo es casi tan particular como su ADN. No hay en el mundo dos personas que escriban exactamente igual. Por supuesto que en el proceso de investigación y prueba, también consideramos y valoramos la autodeformación deliberada: faltas ortográficas realizadas a posteriori o intencionalmente, desplazamientos forzados de adjetivos o de sustantivos, una duplicación pronominal donde no la había, una variación en el dativo, un complemento indirecto redundante, una voz pasiva en lugar de la activa, eliminación de artículos o abuso de gerundios, de leísmos o de tiempos verbales como el pasado perfecto (más propio de España que de Chile, por ejemplo), adopción de estilos de clases sociales que le son ajenas al autor, etc.

No obstante, al igual que aquellos que escribían a mano intentaban deformar su propia letra para crear el anonimato, esta deformación es prácticamente imposible ante los ojos de un experto calígrafo. En el mundo digital no tenemos la ventaja del trazo de la mano en el papel pero, en cambio, poseemos un número de ocurrencias que multiplican varias veces las cartas a mano. Por otro lado, con el uso de una computadora especializada de poder mediano, es posible realizar millones de combinaciones sintácticas y gramaticales. Es aquí que, a partir de un determinado número de textos, la identidad se reconoce con una precisión que no deja dudas. Esta idea puede resultar extraña o compleja, pero es fácil de comprender si recurrimos a una metáfora: si una persona se saca una cantidad X de fotografías y en cada una cubre una parte diferente de su rostro haciendo irreconocible su identidad en cada una de las fotografías, evidentemente basta un numero específico de fotos “enmascaradas” para tener el retrato exacto, desenmascarado, del hombre de las múltiples caras. Un experimento semejante se podría hacer con los diferentes personajes representados por un mismo actor. La combinación no arrojaría ninguno de sus personajes particulares sino el retrato del actor.

Este proyecto lingüístico tenía virtudes y defectos. La contra era que en cierta medida hubiese podido incrementar una práctica de “gran hermano”, de la cual somos todos victimas hasta cierto punto. La ventaja era que ayudaba a desenmascarar desde criminales hasta pequeños insultantes. Hubo un caso, por ejemplo, el de un texto firmado por un seudónimo que luego de testeado arrojó la identidad de un político algo conocido, sin mucha trascendencia.

Finalmente abandonamos el proyecto. Había más dudas que certezas sobre sus posibles aplicaciones. No obstante sabemos que no pasará mucho tiempo antes que alguien más se le ocurra la misma idea y, por supuesto, haga mucho dinero en el proceso. Porque uno de los fenómenos más interesantes de nuestro tiempo es ver cómo alguien o un pequeño grupo, en uso y abuso de su propio ingenio, logra que millones de personas trabajen gratuitamente para ellos. En casos, además, quienes trabajan gratuitamente lo hacen con pasión y alegría, ya que se sienten protagonistas y participes de alguna forma de poder o de liberación prefabricada.

Jorge Majfud


Enero 2011.

El identificador de textos (Milenio)