Ahistorical? Yes, right…


Jan Blommaert

Nelson Flores, in a recent article, adds to the cottage industry of uninformed and shallow criticism of sociolinguistic superdiversity. my colleagues and I are (once more) accused of:

three limitations of the super-diversity literature: (a) its ahistorical outlook; (b) its lack of attention to neoliberalism; and (c) its inadvertent reification of normative assumptions about language

Most of the arguments developed in some earlier texts are entirely applicable here, so no new elaborate argument is required. Just speaking for myself, I invite the reader to apply Flores’ critique to the following works.

  • Discourse: A Critical Introduction (2005) revolves around a theory of inequality based on mobile, historically loaded and configured communicative resources I call voice (following Hymes);
  • Grassroots Literacy (2008) describes in great detail how and why two recent handwritten texts from Central Africa remained entirely unnoticed and unappreciated by their Western addressees. Literacy inequalities in a globalized world, thus, for reasons that have their roots in different histories of literacy in different places.
  • The Sociolinguistics of Globalization (2010) addresses exactly the same phenomena: globalization expanding old inequalities while creating new ones due to a reshuffling of historically emergent linguistic markets, combined with a renewed emphasis on reified normativity by nation-state and other authorities.

In each of these books, the practical question guiding the theoretical effort, and significant amounts of data, deal with the systematic discrimination of large immigrant and refugee populations in Western countries such as mine, on grounds of sociolinguistic inequalities. Ahistorical? Neoliberal? Reified normative assumptions about language?

This is n’importe quoi criticism in which the actual writings of the targets of criticism, strangely, appear to be of no material importance. And in which critics, consequently, repeat exactly what I said in my work, and then claim that I said the opposite. Or come up, finger in the air, with insights others and I developed, published and defended in the 1990s.

One word about the “ahistorical” point in Flores’ criticism (and that of others). He equates “historical” with “diachronic”, a very widespread fallacy often seen as – yes, indeed – the core of an ahistorical perspective. “Historical” has to be “old”, in short, and whoever works on old stuff does historical work, while those who work on contemporary stuff are not historical in their approach. Since I work on issues in the here-and-now, I am “ahistorical”. Please read some Bloch, Ginzburg, Foucault or Braudel, ladies and gentlemen. Or some Bourdieu and Hymes, and even Gumperz and Silverstein: “historical” means that every human action, past and present, is seen and analyzed as an outcome of historical – social, cultural and political – paths of development, and derives much of its function and effect from that historical trajectory. Which is what I emphasize systematically while working in the present. And find a lot of work on old stuff entirely ahistorical.

Further commentary in defense of viewpoints I myself categorically reject is a waste of time. Discussion of profoundly uninformed opinions is also something for which I have very little patience.



Commentary: Mobility, contexts, and the chronotope


Jan Blommaert

(Commentary to a special issue of Language in Society on “Metapragmatics of Mobility”, eds. Adrienne Lo & Joseph Park)

I must emphatically thank Adrienne Lo and Joseph Park for inviting me to comment on the exceptionally insightful collection of essays presented in this volume. The essays, I believe, mark and instantiate the increasing maturity of what has become a sociolinguistics of globalization in which the various, highly complex challenges caused by mobility are being productively addressed.

Of these challenges, perhaps that to our established notions of “context” might be one of the most pressing ones. Rigorous and disciplined attention to context is what separates social and cultural approaches to language from formal linguistics; it is the thing that defines disciplines such as sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, pragmatics and discourse analysis. And an increasing awareness of mobility as a crucial ontological feature of “language” – or more broadly, meaning making – in today’s world goes hand in hand with an awareness that something is wrong with our well-weathered mainstream conceptualizations of “context”: they are too simple and fail to do justice to the complexities we observe. All papers in this volume can be read as illustrations and expressions of that unease. I propose to explore Bakhtin’s concept of “chronotope” as a possibly fertile and certainly more precise tool for addressing these challenges (cf. Blommaert 2015a).

Let me first define the scope of the issue; two preliminary remarks may be useful for what follows.

  • One: in a sociolinguistic approach to meaning making, context cannot ontologically be separated from language (or other semiotic modalities), for it is a fundamental part of the meanings constructed in language; context is what turns language in a “social fact” (to quote Durkheim).
  • Two: notions of context are built on, and invoke, imaginations of the social world and of the place of social actors and activities therein. So context is always more than just an operational-analytical category: it involves an ideological a priori (which, as we shall see, is always a moral a priori).

From that perspective, two things can be observed – and I regret that space restrictions prevent me from entering into detail here. One, context remains quite poorly integrated in several branches of the social and cultural study of language (Silverstein 1992; see for a review Blommaert 2005, chapter 3). And two, the social imagination underlying many forms of usage of context appears to be “sedentary”: context is local, stable, static and given. Obviously, a notion of context adjusted to mobility needs to transcend this and stress its continuously evolving, multiscalar and dynamic aspects, as well as the intrinsic unity of context and action.

There are several available building blocks. John Gumperz (1982) never stopped reminding us that context is always contextualization, and Aaron Cicourel (1967; 1992) insisted that context was always multifiliar, overlapping and scaled. In addition, the union between context and action,we now realize, is metapragmatics: language-ideologically ordered indexicals are at the core of the dialectics of contextualized meaning making (Silverstein 2003; Agha 2007; also Blommaert 2005). The papers in this volume have all drawn extensively on these sources. The complication offered by mobility as a given has been well phrased by Lo and Park in their introduction (this volume): in an era of physical and technological mobility, people need to navigate multiple worlds. They cannot any longer be viewed as sedentary members of a (single) closed, integrated and stable Parsonian community and are subject to the normative judgments in vigor in very different places among very different people – simultaneously.

This is where the chronotope might come in handy. Recall that Bakhtin (1981) defined the chronotope as a timespace configuration – an “objective” bit of context, one could say – which was characterized, and joined, by ideological, “subjective” features. Specific times and places placed conditions on who could act, how such actions would be normatively structured, and how they would be normatively perceived by others. A knight in a medieval legend, for example, is expected to be chivalric and inspired by the noblest of motives, and his concrete actions would be expected to emanate such characteristics; if not, he’s not a “real” knight. Bakhtin, thus, offered us a heuristic unit in which timespace configurations are simultaneously orders of indexicalities, and in which the multiplicity of such units is a given of the dialogical and heteroglossic reality of social life. Chronotope, thus, is a “mobile” context enabling not just precise ethnographic description but explanatory potential as well.

We begin to see, for instance, how physical and social mobility operate synergetically – moving across timespace configurations involves a reshuffling of the social and cultural capital required for identity construction, prestige and power, through what Hymes called “functional relativity” (1996: 44-45). It explains, thus, why forms of speech indexically anchored in one timespace configuration – that of the colonial past, for instance – can be re-entextualized into another, in ways that involve entirely different indexical valuations. We can observe this in the essays by Vigouroux and Collins, where the indexical valuations of the speech forms deemed emblematic of the colonial (racialized) past dance up and down once they are moved into different timespace configurations. A descriptive stance – observing a particular accent in students’ speech (Collins), or a grammatical pattern perceived as “substandard” (Vigouroux) – is turned into a racialized-historical stereotype in ways described by Agha (2007) whenever such an accent is produced “elsewhere”. Mobility, we can see, involves indexical re-ordering, or to be more precise, indexical restratification.

Observe that such restratifications have an outspokenly moral character. The ideological load attributed to specific forms of social action turns them into moralized behavioral scripts normatively attached to specific timespace configurations. The essays in this volume are replete with examples in which judgments of speech are formulated in terms of locally articulated claims to legitimacy, i.e. in terms of a projection of behavioral features onto “the right to do X, Y or Z here and now”. Chun’s analysis of perceived mispronunciations of Korean names by “foreign” fans illustrates this: such fans are “not from here”, and their actions are therefore subject to normative judgments “from here”. Being “(not) from here” becomes an absolute normative benchmark: a non-negotiable one that offers no bail. Ideologies of correctness and standardization, we can see, are chronotopically organized (cf. Silverstein 1996). They require a distinction between “from here” and “not from here” that can be activated as a chronotope of normalcy: here-and-now, “normal” behavior is X, Y and Z, and this is an absolute, “ideal” benchmark. And Park’s excellent essay shows how people who are by definition “not from here” – expatriate executives – negotiate and renegotiate the issues caused by mobility itself, shaping a separate chronotope of normalcy among themselves (transnational business, after all, is a distinct “world” in Lo and Park’s terms).

Obviously, such distinctions are identity distinctions – indexical order is always a template for identity, and identities are chronotopically grounded, by extension (Blommaert & De Fina 2016). Park’s managers construct themselves in their elaborate metapragmatic discourses of mobility; Chun’s Korean fans ascribe identities to the mispronouncing transnational ones; Collins’ teachers construct their pupils in similar ways, and the discursive pathways analyzed by Vigouroux lead to a projected stereotypical identity of Sub-Saharan Africans drawn across timespace from the colonial imagination. Note that in each of these cases, moral judgments constitute the moment of identity-shaping. The “corrections” offered by Chun’s Korean fans come, as said earlier, with judgments of legitimacy, and legitimacy extends from minute features of language into categorical identity diacritics. Moralized behavioral scripts are the on-the-ground realities of indexicality, and thus of identity-making. Typically, those who are “not from here”can achieve “approximations” of the normative “standard” order (Vigouroux); they can therefore also only approximate the “standard”identities. “Standard” and “correctness” are inevitably evaluative judgments, and they fit into a package of profoundly moral-evaluative notions such as “true”, “authentic”, “real” and so forth. Language-ideological literature is replete with such terms, and in public debates on such topics one continually trips over collocations between terms such as “correct” and “true”, and “(not) from here”. Collins’ delicate analysis of racialized enregisterment in South-African schools can serve as a textbook example of this.

Lo and Choi’s case study of an internet debate on the “truth” in the story of the Korean rapper Tablo brings together several of the points mentioned here, and lends profile to another one. The critics who doubt rapper Tablo’s educational credentials (using, unsurprisingly, details of his English “accent” as evidence) draw on a chronotope of normalcy: normally, one can’t finish degree work at a US institution at the rhythm claimed by Tablo; normally, his English should be immaculate of he’s taken a degree in the US, normally he shouldn’t sound like “us” after his US-based education, and so forth. They base themselves on a “normal” behavioral script, adherence and deviance of which are profoundly moralized. The data are bursting with moral-evaluative statements that are simultaneously statements of identity ascription, and driven by the “from here-not from here” diacritic that defines globalized mobility.

But there is more, and Lo & Choi’s paper shows it in full glory. The general chronotope of normalcy, we observe, can be broken down into an infinite number of micro-chronotopes specifying the indexical order of specific bits of behavior (Tablo’s performance in a talkshow, his translation of a poetry book, and so forth). So we see a fractal connection across differently scaled chronotopes, in which the order of indexicality from the highest scale (the chronotope of normalcy) is carried over into microscopic and infinitely detailed lower-scale ones. We see, if you wish, chronotopes nested within chronotopes, with specific points and general ones interacting nonstop. Goffman’s “frames within frames” (1974) are never far away here, of course, but it is good to remind ourselves that “frames” are, in themselves, chronotopically organized.

All the essays in this volume thematize such cross-scalar connections, and call them, for instance, “discursive pathways” (Vigouroux), “re-entextualizations” (Lo & Choi), or “interdiscursivity” (Park). Such terms remain useful, and understanding them as descriptors of cross-chronotope processes of uneven (scaled) quality can deepen their analytical force and make them far more precise than the “cross-contextual” label we now stick onto them. Such connections – the “polycentricity” of communicative environments, in short (Blommaert, Collins & Slembrouck 2005) – are inevitable in the sociolinguistics of mobility, and we have to be able to get a more precise grasp of them. This leads me to a final, brief, remark.

In the essays by Chun and by Lo & Choi, the internet, or (to use an epic misnomer) the “virtual world” is the context of the data offered. The analyses are outstanding; but we should not overlook the fact that the online context is the least well understood one in our fields of study, and that a careful investigation of how this context shapes and determines online social action remains to be undertaken. We know that it has exceptional scalar qualities (think of virality), and that, as a chronotope, it stands in complex polycentric relationships to “offline” ones (see Blommaert 2015b; Varis & Blommaert 2015). But the exact characteristics of these phenomena await profound focused study. Note that all the subjects discussed in the essays in this volume live in the internet age, and that, consequently, we can assume that all have been influenced by the circulation of cultural material enabled by such technologies. Precise how this influence plays out in their actual day-to-day discourses, how it modifies them and grants them yet another dimension of metapragmatic mobility, raising new issues of polycentric normativity, looks like a worthwhile topic for a follow-up volume. It is to the credit of the present volume that such fundamental questions emerge, and I repeat my sincere thanks to the editors for affording me the chance to engage with them.


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Blommaert, Jan (2005) Discourse: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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