On page 99 of my dissertation, the reader finds themself in the middle of an ethnographic description of a heated political debate held during the 101st Universal Congress of Esperanto, in Nitra (Slovakia) in 2016. In this debate, members of the World Non-National Esperanto Association were reflecting on the aims of their activism: should this association use Esperanto to create inclusive, internationalist conversation spaces where people from different national and linguistic backgrounds could gather and meet halfway by speaking a non-national, non-ethnic language? Or should they adopt a more combative stance and use Esperanto as an anti-nationalist tool to fight the exclusionary and xenophobic aspects of nationalism?
Entrance of the congress venue, the Slovak University of Agriculture, where the 101st Universal Congress of Esperanto took place. The Esperanto flag between the Slovakian and EU flags helps to convey the internationalist atmosphere at stake in the Esperanto gathering [Photo: Guilherme Fians].
While page 99 brings us to a brief diversion to Slovakia, my doctoral fieldwork – which placed my dissertation as the first extensive ethnographic study of Esperanto speakers and activists – was carried out mostly in France.
Constructed in the late nineteenth century as an attempt to promote mutual understanding between peoples through language comprehension, Esperanto has been historically associated with internationalism, gathering a community of speakers and activists that strategically connect this language with diverse global political platforms. If, in France, Esperanto used to be particularly prominent among anarchists, communists and pacifists, what is this language’s current political relevance? What impacts have new communication technologies such as social media had on the organization of this community and language movement? Through participant observation – in French and Esperanto – and archival research concentrated in Paris, I mapped out how Esperanto activists use this language in online and face-to-face debates to question the post-political consensus about the use of national languages (such as English and French) for international communication.
Approaching a moment of significant changes in the way people communicate and mobilize politically, I found that Esperanto frequently works as a gateway for people to engage with other political causes, such as movements for open-source software and against neoliberal globalization (like the Gilets jaunes in France). Within these frameworks, Esperanto activists depart from the fight against linguistic discrimination and a preference for participatory over mass communication to re-politicize acts of communication and contribute to radical politics.
Reaching back to Nitra, where both this blog post and my fieldwork began, the outcome of that debate was that any form of internationalist or anti-nationalist stance can prove productive, as long as it fosters more egalitarian and inclusive communicative exchanges through the international circulation and co-production of information, ideas and knowledge.
Fians, Guilherme. 2019. Of revolutionaries and geeks: Mediation, space and time among Esperanto speakers. University of Manchester, PhD dissertation.