The Internet, Monolingualism, and This Gorgeous French Movie

The internet did not fall from heaven. Our minds and the social organization that connects them started needing the internet, craving it. And some smart people (lots of them funded by the government) began developing the information systems that filled that need. Of course it didn’t take them long to turn it into a commercial zone, but that’s our fault too. Getting online nowadays is like driving into a valley in Vermont, and telling your friends how much they’re going to love your favorite hamlet, only to discover it’s surrounded by strip malls. What can you do? Kick yourself for not buying enough locally-sourced wool to keep the natives in the 19th Century? Just by driving there, you are turning that hamlet’s hamlet-ness into a commodity and changing that place, and whatever position you stake out in the politics of development, you have to be honest about that.

It reminds me of something I read one time about English as the global language, by a French person no less: “The use of ‘basic English’ by communications and marketing technologies is revealing in this respect: it is less a question of the triumph of one language over the others than of the invasion of all languages by a universal vocabulary. What is significant is the need for this generalized vocabulary, not the fact that it uses English words.” (Marc Augé, Non-Places)

Last century, there was suddenly an urgent demand for a global language. There were fewer Dutchmen on the high seas planning only two stops, Cape Town and Jakarta, and reasonably expecting to get through it all knowing Dutch and one other European language. Global trade and tourism made people hop across colonial empire lines like never before, and English was the last language standing among the European ones.

And so we who grew up more or less Monolingual-English wield our language like a credit card, corrupting everything we touch. We figure, if it’s going to supersede local idioms around the world then we might as well get on board and celebrate what English can do: its greatest hits as we understand them. Whitman, Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, Seamus Heaney, Joni Mitchell, Woody Allen, and the God-damned Coen Brothers for that matter.



The “Ordem e Progresso” motto on the Brazilian flag is inspired by August Comte, the French grandfather of sociology. The founders of Brazil apparently thought he was a guiding light the way Jefferson and Adams were woozy over the Enlightenment. Who would have thought, back in the 1700s when the Portuguese were already has-been imperialists, that the Portuguese language, via Brazil, would still be pulling respectable numbers well into the 2000s, while the English-French dogfight would already be decided.

Why did I start this post with a trailer to Olivier Assayas’ film, Something In the Air/Apres mai? Because it’s fantastic. His love of cinema is infectious. His politicized high school seniors in post-May ’68 Paris remind me of the student activists I went to Rutgers University with – if you traced time in a line from ’68 to now, then that was around the midpoint. “The revolution” was as old then as my Rutgers memories are now, but they seem to me like all a part of the same past: the same righteousness, the same judgment, the same chafing at the dull guidance of Trotskyist would-be mentors, the same icy glow in the red-headed woman’s eyes when she talks about the cause, the same narcissism, and the same fleeting moments of kindness.

What makes them one past, in part, is admittedly my affinity for Assayas. Irma Vep made me want to make films, and I’d rather see a just-alright one of his films than a good one by most people. Personal gratitude is a more than legitimate reason to love a pice of art.

Partly, though, both of our stories were of the pre-Internet Eden: the time before someone figured out that the public would love to put their address books into their Texas Instruments calculators and make them interface. I don’t just mean the gorgeous image of a woman smoking while working a Mimeograph machine. One’s social life got torn apart every two to four years, and hence life, which always feels epic to young people, was even more so because it was full of finalities. Letters got missed when you switched apartments. Someone might call your mother to get your current phone number: She’d take a message unless she remembered meeting them. If you visited friends in another town, you might meet them at the fountain in Grant Park or the news stand in Harvard Square, and calmly wasted time with a paperback while you waited for them. When I left college and moved to Minneapolis, good-bye meant au revoir.

It’s too bad it’s so expensive to shoot period films, because writing a screenplay set in that Eden is so much easier. You don’t say to yourself, “Wait a sec. She would just text. He would just google. Where’s her phone? She would have gone back and gotten it.” There are still dramatic, and even epic, stories to tell, we just don’t live them with the same effortlessness any more. Our default settings are so much cooler.