Bilingual Aesthetics

A New Sentimental Education

Bilingual Aesthetics

Public Planet Books

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Book Pages: 280 Illustrations: Published: April 2004

Author: Doris Sommer

American Studies, Cultural Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

Knowing a second language entails some unease; it requires a willingness to make mistakes and work through misunderstandings. The renowned literary scholar Doris Sommer argues that feeling funny is good for you, and for society. In Bilingual Aesthetics Sommer invites readers to make mischief with meaning, to play games with language, and to allow errors to stimulate new ways of thinking. Today’s global world has outgrown any one-to-one correlation between a people and a language; liberal democracies can either encourage difference or stifle it through exclusionary policies. Bilingual Aesthetics is Sommer’s passionate call for citizens and officials to cultivate difference and to realize that the precarious points of contact resulting from mismatches between languages, codes, and cultures are the lifeblood of democracy, as well as the stimulus for aesthetics and philosophy.

Sommer encourages readers to entertain the creative possibilities inherent in multilingualism. With her characteristic wit and love of language, she focuses on humor—particularly bilingual jokes—as the place where tensions between and within cultures are played out. She draws on thinking about humor and language by a range of philosophers and others, including Sigmund Freud, Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hannah Arendt, and Mikhail Bakhtin. In declaring the merits of allowing for crossed signals, Sommer sends a clear message: Making room for more than one language is about value added, not about remediation. It is an expression of love for a contingent and changing world.


"[A] most satisfying book. . . . [T]his book's message is indisputably significant. . . . [A] fascinating blend of intellectual debate, scholarly tour de force, and common sense. Highly recommended." — E.H. Friedman , Choice

"[R]emarkable. . . . Sommer has constructed for us an elaborate sort of joke. In working through what initially appears to be a standard academic text, our senses are awakened and our taste for other languages renewed." — Jane Duran, Journal of Aesthetic Education

"Doris Sommer's Bilingual Aesthetics offers humor and insight into the advantages of participating in more than one language. . . . From Marilyn Monroe movies, to legal cases in France and the United States, to episodes of Saturday Night Live, Sommer finds the joy of bilingualism and the strength of bridging cultures everywhere. Her analysis of current events and pop culture enliven her discussion and contribute to the relevance of her work in contemporary society."

— Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar , Reconstruction

"Much of the originality of Sommer's argument lies in the way that she . . . trains her eye on a phonomenon that she feels has been unjustly neglected and overlooked." — Adriana Michele Campos Johnson , CR: The New Centennial Review

"Reading Doris Sommer's monograph, a provocative argument which forges a connection between bilingual aesthetics and democractic practices, provided an interpretative framework to understand the dynamics of this linguistic faux pas-along with any other inter-linguistic encounters. She teaches us to cultivate a taste for the ironic, a sense of humor, about the collisions endemic to linguistic plurality and further argues that these collisions, far from dividing our polities, maintain democracies fit and vibrant."

— Dan Vazquez , Revista

"Seldom will you have such a good time reading a book that teaches you as much as this one does, about life and language, politics and philosophy, aesthetics and personal identity. Harvard's hugely expensive tuition costs are fully justified if students get to sit at the feet of teachers as informed and inspiring as this one-and you can 'hear' her lectures for the price of a paperback." — Leonar R.N. Ashley , Geolinguistics

“Doris Sommer’s book is the most thorough exploration of the possibilities that bilingualism opens to public life in contemporary societies. Written in a rigorous way, it is also punctuated by witticisms, insightful historical and sociological comments, and a cultural richness which makes its reading both pleasurable and eye-opening. It is a major contribution to an insufficiently explored field in contemporary scholarship.” — Ernesto Laclau, State University of New York, Buffalo

“This is a tour de force—a brilliantly conceived and executed performance of scholarly seduction.” — Diana Taylor, author of The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas


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Price: $26.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Doris Sommer is Professor of Romance Languages and Literature and Director of Graduate Studies in Spanish at Harvard University. Among her books are Proceed with Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas; Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America; Bilingual Games: Some Literary Investigations; and The Places of History: Regionalism Revisited in Latin America, published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Thanks vii

Invitation xi

1 Choose and Lose

2 Aesthetics is a Joke 29

3 Irritate the State 71

4 The Common Sense Sublime 115

5 Let’s Play Games 157


Index of Proper Names 251
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3344-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3332-6
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