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  • Youth:Our New Cultural Theorists
  • Awad Ibrahim (bio)

And what these young folk do with the language is nothing short of remarkable. They don’t simply replicate what they’ve been given—they stretch it out, break some of it off, reconstitute it, and prove that Derrida is right in saying that we “only ever have one language” that is really “not at one with itself,” which ultimately means that we have a plurality of voices and speech and rhetoric, and that there’s “no such thing as a language.” We should practice linguistic humility—and not rhetorical condescension—and be mindful of our children’s sheer verbal wizardry and inventiveness.

–Michael Eric Dyson in conversation with Meta DuEwa Jones

Indeed, there is no such thing as a language. Language, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has argued, has always been in the plural and has never been a simple instrument of communication. Language is and has always been about power, is and has always been both a producer and a product of power. Read within a cultural-studies framework, Stuart Hall pushes Bourdieu’s contention a bit further by arguing that not only is language a producer and a product of power, but also it is a producer and a product of culture (20). Semiotically articulated, language is a container in which culture is both formed and performed and in which people and objects are turned into “texts” to be read with infinite possibilities of meaning. The meaning of these “texts,” furthermore, does not lie within the text but within those who signify and make sense of it. [End Page 129] In this sense, objects become meaningful only within a semantic field (Hall 23), where power intervenes discursively to close its infinite possibilities of meaning, thus reducing the meaning of the object in people’s imagination and everyday language to only one meaning (Foucault 114). A rose is a rose is a rose.

Juxtaposing these contentions with Global Hip-Hop Nation Language (GHHNL), a category I have explained extensively elsewhere (Ibrahim, “Global”; Ibrahim, “Takin”; see also Alim), one may conclude that not only are youth mindful of these arguments but also they put them into practice. Youth, I argue, are no longer just consumers of culture. In fact, this is historically true: youth have never been just consumers of culture (see Danesi; Kellner; Talburt and Lesko; Tilleczek). They have always been originators, creators, and fully agentive. Recently, however, this has been taken to a whole nother level. Thanks to an intense moment of global cultural exchange and facilitation of musical, artistic, and cinematic representational exchange, new cultural theorists are emerging, ones who are not waiting for the so-called cultural critics (who are supposedly highbrow, academic, and intellectually superior) to make pronouncements about what counts as the cultural. New cultural theorists are putting semiotics into practice and grammaticalizing (in other words, creating, regularizing, and normalizing their own conventions and grammar) their own musical, cultural, and linguistic rules and styles (Alim). Indeed, the so-called cultural critics (academics) are playing catch-up. The new cultural theorists, namely youth, invent, express, and grammaticalize their own lives and, in turn, so-called cultural theorists (academics) come in some time later and attempt to theorize and to make sense of youth’s lives.

To suggest that the two processes (performing and doing versus researching youth culture) are parallel and separable and that they do not meet is to enter the unnecessarily ridiculous. My point is twofold. First, there is an intense moment of youth cultural production now that deserves a lot more attention than it is getting (Ibrahim and Steinberg). Second, it is not only the intensity of their production but also the uniqueness of that production that forms the basis for my argument that youth are our new cultural theorists.

Let me explain by taking Global Hip-Hop Nation Language as an example. Recently, youth have moved “language” from the reductive Saussurean division of langue and parole into the domain of semiotics. Here, the so-called non-verbal elements of clothes, hair, the body, dance, and other linguistic excesses are “speaking” so loudly that they become as important, if not more important, than verbal utterance...


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pp. 129-133
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