Joe Cornish, Attack the Block (2011)
by Amanda Gerke
Introduction: Language and Hospitality
The role of language interaction in hospitable or hostile encounters is crucial, and may sometimes constitute the first point of departure in the negotiation of the host/guest relationship. The process of welcoming a guest by a host is paralleled with the process of the host language dominating the guest language, forcing it, thus, into an unstable and subordinate state. For this reason, language as interaction, in many ways, forms a greater part of the terms of hospitality than any other aspect. It is in this response to the Other that Paul Ricoeur’s concept of “linguistic hospitality” (6) breaks down the power of the dominant host and gives agency to the guest—highlighting the fickle nature of hospitality, experience, and language itself. In his work on translation, Ricoeur seeks to “chart a middle way which combine[s] both the empathy and conviction” of Critical Theory and the hermeneutics of deconstruction, giving way to a third path in translation studies (Kearney 2007: vii). This third path opens a gate that provides a concept of translating experience (Ricoeur 2006: 6), in which it is understood that the act of translation allows an encounter between what is one’s own and what is foreign. Linguistic hospitality, according to Ricoeur is “where the pleasure of dwelling in the other’s language is balanced by the pleasure of receiving the foreign word at home, in one’s own welcoming house” (2006: 10). Ricoeur’s theories strive to breakdown power relations at the language level. The goal is to disappropriate the reader from the host language and culture by taking the reader to the language and culture of the guest, and, to a sympathetic understanding of the Other. Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block (2011) is a British Sci-Fi comedy which seems to follow suit in an endeavor to translate the experience of a perceived Other. The film grafts into the model of linguistic hospitality by forcing the audience to change their role as passive recipients of language and narrative and, instead, welcome the language and experience of the Other as their own. The film follows a group of boys, and their hero Moses, through an alien invasion (and final defeat) and their transition from violent criminals to heroes. The film attempts to step away from cinematic tendencies that place the audience members in a comfortable place of complacent superiority over the characters and sub-content, and instead, forces them into the incommodious act of moving towards an understanding of the Other.
Cornish’s film traces the journey of a group of South London teenagers who are mugging a nurse on Guy Fawkes’ night when their apartment complex is invaded by aliens that fall from the sky. The film mounts both fantasy and realism and combines elements from both comedy and horror. This oscillation between generic tendencies highlights the erroneous nature of stereotypes and the struggle between perception versus reality. Just as the classic zombie trope is suggestive of alleged immigrant invasions in which host groups defend themselves against a perceived Other, Attack the Block sets up a scenario of (literal) alien invasion in which the hosts fight against impending intrusion and aggression. This film shares themes of the fear of the Other and the subsequent loss of control of the self, or the fear that the Other will somehow overpower the will of the host, that are at the core of the zombie genre (Stratton 2011, 269-271). However, Cornish’s take is unique in that the heroes, a group pertaining to the ethnic minority and possible descendants of migrants, are Others themselves—they are those that threaten the perceived cultural and moral superiority that the hosts enjoy. Instead of the in-group citizens protecting their space and borders, it is in this film in which we see an already established Other defending not only themselves, but their hosts as well, finally gaining some sort of belonging. Ramanathan, in Language Policies and (Dis)Citizenship (2013) urges that at the border, “there opens up a cultural and temporal space in which all of us are modified and ‘translated’”, and that border crossings give agency to the vulnerable, who become capable of changing the host (6). Citizenship, Ramanathan contends, is processual and about becoming (ibid). This gradual ‘becoming’ of one’s membership is seen through the character Moses who is increasingly seen less as an Other, and gains his place as ‘neighbor’ at the end of the film. This character evolution reveals the ever-changing constructs of hospitality and demonstrates the inevitability of the fluctuating roles of hosts and guests that linguistic hospitality asserts.
Moses and his crew speak a particularly marked South London dialect. As a polycultural and polylingual community, London finds itself dealing with a system of linguistic structures influenced by a myriad of contact-zones, resulting in a dynamic structure of social meaning construction and group identity-building. Sociolinguists assert that negotiation of group identity attaches to signs, settings, social schemata, and cannot be singular by nature (Blom and Gumperz 2000: 120). Established hosts and guests in this film are immediately marked by their respective dialects, and the effort to translate the experience of the encounter, as well as the evolution of the relational negotiation process is rooted in interaction, non-translation, and of the blurring of linguistic and physical delineations.
The language in Attack the Block utilizes the marked features of the South London dialect to highlight in-group identity that coincides with characters’ race, gender, age and economic status. The boys speak in the Multicultural London English dialect that places them in a particular demographic and also implies a particular cultural baggage. MLE is sometimes called Jafaican, alluding to the idea of ‘fake Jamaican’ as certain aspects of the dialect are believed to stem from the speech of immigrants of Jamaican and Caribbean descent. Coupled with the idea that the speakers of the dialect in the film may be descendants of immigrants, along with the disorienting language used by the characters, the film presents these as Others within their own country, and even further, within their own city. Suspending untranslated dialect within a standard English dialogue achieves a similar reverse-assimilation affect that Ana María Manzanas Calvo discusses; that non-translation by an author alludes to the uncomfortable confine of characters in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual space, and confronts the realities of displacement with characters that are in conflict with traditional identities (109). This non-translation can also be understood in congruence with the Ricoeurean translation notion that forces the reader (or audience) to encounter the other’s language and, therefore, experience. Cornish intentionally places the audience in an uncomfortable linguistic situation in which they are forced to figure out meaning through context. In the beginning of the film, the boys are masked and have no identity, their language confuses the larger audience resulting in an alienation of sorts. Here, language speaks to the subtext of the film and any translation or subtitle would diminish that. However, by the end of the film, the audience has assimilated to the context and has acquired the intended meaning through a calculated repetition of a small set of lexical items and have successfully encountered the other’s experience in their ‘own home’.
Language and space
In Attack the Block, the crossing-over of the spatial and the verbal serves as a centering point for themes of migration and language interaction on a broader scale. Inside the Block there is an exchange between Samantha and the gang of boys in which we see a juxtaposition of social statuses that is manifested in the autonomous outside world but at the moment they find each other residing within the same complex, a shared space, their individual identities blend into a newly founded group—Samantha heals their wounds and Moses returns the stolen ring to Samantha as a peace-offering. Hostility and violence morph into a comfortable and reciprocal relationship. The blending of spatial concepts that mirror hospitality is embodied in the physical space of the setting itself—the cold gray and white of the complex’s stairways and hallways nestle warm and homey individual apartments of the residents. This uneasy equalizing and blending of spaces is akin to another Ricoeurian notion of hospitality in that the narrative—a synthesis of language and action—force a recognition that the Other comes with a story and is necessarily the locus of sympathetic affiliation with the Other (1996, 7). Moses’ harsh street dialect coupled with the discovery of his childish bed sheets—a point of vulnerability in which Moses reveals his age—force Samantha, as well as the audience, into a responsibility of concern. In congruence with Ricoeur’s “narrative/linguistic hospitality”, the unfamiliar and alienating walls of the complex parallel the obscure and estranged language that opens up to a welcoming space allowing the audience to sympathize with the Other. In this way, the host is reminded of the guests’ humanity.
The heroic Other
Themes of race, space, and group identity are at the core of the film, sometimes manifested through context and other times overtly addressed in dialogue. The young black boys begin the film fulfilling their violent stereotype but quickly lose their masks and emerge as sensitive and sympathetic individuals who discover their power against the invaders. The leader of the group, Moses, takes on the hero role as his knowledge of the block and its residents give him the advantage. Samantha also changes positions in that she steps away from the victim role often assigned to her age, gender and race, and becomes a valuable member of the defense team—not seeing them as having integrated into her group, but rather becomes one of them. The aliens themselves also represent a feared Other as they are savage, silent and cumbersome creatures but that sneak in undetected, taking advantage of a national holiday to invade the unsuspecting citizens. The characters break-down stereotypes as a deep pride for their home arises and instills in them a duty to protect it and their neighbors from the alien invasion.
Subversion of roles
The concept of giving spaces to the guest is impregnated with the idea that the host always is the master of the space. He is the gatekeeper and the master at and past the threshold. The notion of giving or allowing access extends into a negotiation of space and a mutual understanding of each party’s vulnerabilities (Dikeç 2002, 229). It is impossible for the host/guest relationship to remain stagnant because, just as in language interaction, there is constant movement, negotiation, and fluctuation. Understanding hospitality as a “refusal to conceive the host and guest as pre-constructed identities” and that it is “about a recognition that they are mutually constitutive of each other and thus relational” (Dikeç 2002, 239), conceptualizes the planes of hospitality, then, as deconstructed through actions and interactions and divided into sub-levels of hospitable identities. If the host-guest relationship relates to who is able to conquer or be conquered, the guest attempting to maintain some sort of hierarchical control may assume a hosted-host identity and therefore create a sub-division of roles. The conceptual hosted-host also finds congruency in notions of power-plays in discourse directly rooted in the construction of social knowledge. Teun van Dijk, in Discourse and Knowledge: A Sociocognitive Approach (2014), states that since knowledge is socially shared and distributed among members of communities, it is through actions and interactions that the society-cognition interface manifests (142-143). Knowledge is often represented in episodic memory and represents the everyday experiences of social actors, including their own perceptions of their situational environment. Moses is not only able to acquire the role of the hosted-host and become the gatekeeper of the complex, as it is he who allows the aliens access to the homes in the first place, he also is able to defeat the aliens while gaining status as ‘neighbor’ because of his knowledge of the block’s residence, and his ability to bring them together. The space which the hosted-host constructs and controls, takes form in the concept of community. This point is crucial in understanding that the primary host, essentially, does not have as much power over the primary guest as one may assume—communities are defined by shared beliefs, knowledge and language and by their characteristic practices (Van Dijk 2014, 180). Moses and his crew utilize their knowledge of their community, and their designated space as a way to both assert dominance over the ‘new’ Other, but also to breakdown and blur delineations that have been assigned to them by the primary hosts.
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