TINA undressed 1: Identity politics as identity without politics

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Jan Blommaert 

On a hot day in July 2016, four policemen walked onto a beach in Nice, France, ordered a Muslim woman to take off part of her hijab dress, in full view of dozens of other tourists, and fined her for violations of the local decency regulations. The incident was captured by a photographer (which makes the public undressing even more disconcerting) and the images went viral. They triggered a fierce international debate on the why and how of such interventions, in which Muslim female dress is seen as a direct index of a deeper threat – that of jihadism.

How could these four policemen see their intervention as “normal”? After all, one can question, on grounds of common sense, quite a few aspects of a situation in which four armed men order a woman to publicly undress, and sanction her “over-dressedness” on a beach as an act of indecency. The answer can be found elsewhere, in a feature of public debate which has become pervasive whenever Islam and its (real or imagined) characteristics are the theme. There is a highly peculiar use of identity in such arguments, and I shall attempt to sketch it in what follows.

As I said, the incident triggered a massive debate in mass and social media, in which broadly two camps could be discerned. One camp saw the police action as normal and argued that hijab does not belong in our society, since it is an emblem of Islamic backwardness regarding male-female equality. The other camp saw it as a transgression of civil liberties – the freedom of religion – and as an illustration of the absurdities to which the War on Terror (read: the West versus Islam) had led. Both camps overlap to some extent (but certainly not in absolute terms, as we shall see) with the traditional Right-Left distinctions in the political field.

In Belgium, too, this debate raged, and the Belgian-Flemish Social-democrats took a position which largely sided with the first camp. For this, evidently, they were attacked by fractions of the Left. And on 15 August, a member of the Social Democratic party posted the following update on Facebook (Dutch original, my translation).

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There is, in se, nothing remarkable about the text, other than that it combines several arguments found in hundreds of other interventions in these discussion. I summarize them as follows:

  1. The text makes a neat distinction between “us and them”, and both parties are treated in a fundamentally different way.
  2. The “us” party is characterized by epistemic superiority: we know how wrong “they” are, and we know what “they” should do in response to that.
  3. The “they” party is described as a situated entity in the “here-and-now” chronotope. Their actual and concrete behavior is the focus of discussion.
  4. The “we” party, in contrast, is described as absolute and timeless, in a “here-always” chronotope, by invoking “our” history (Enlightenment) and “our” values.
  5. “Their” behavior is political: concrete forms of behavior are seen as an immediate and distinct threat to “democracy”. Our reaction to this, in contrast, is explicitly depoliticized and presented as a simple factual, rational, observation.

This neat (and recurrent) separation of different universes for “us” and “them” enables the author to conclude that the Social-Democratic emphasis on law and order has nothing to do with traditional political Left-Right distinctions. It is a matter of rational reasoning – a simple statement of “problems” – which refers not to specific really-existing political directions, but to our fundamental identity. Thus, it wasn’t President Hollande’s socialism that motivated the four policemen’s action, it was the values of Enlightenment.

We see here how identity is used as a very powerful argument, suggested to transcend everyday politics and to be played out at an existential and timeless level of essential identity. Small features of “their” behavior can now be seen as absolute challenges to who we are, and as in need of responses that protect that fundamental identity. Such responses can – or must – be given by political actors of all shades and colors: actual political positions (and traditions) do not matter here, for our very essence is at stake. And just like in economic matters, addressing the threat of Islam is captured in the TINA frame – there is only one way to respond to it, and that is to defend the absolute status of “our way” and accept no compromise, let alone an alternative strategy, in that battle. Since there is just one way, this way must be “rational”.

Decades ago, scholars such as Manuel Castells, Immanuel Wallerstein and Eric Hobsbawm warned us that identity would become the battlefield of the globalized political world. They were right, and we begin to see how this battlefield is organized: by a politics of identity which denies its political – contestable and debatable – nature, and instead offers itself as an absolute feature.

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Who owns my ideas?

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Jan Blommaert

I recently received an email from the academic sharing platform ResearchGate, where I maintain a profile.

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So here we are. I am the originator of knowledge, but I can only share it with others under conditions specified by a commercial enterprise, who holds the license to it. In the philosophical literature, this situation is know as heteronomy, the opposite of autonomy.

There is a long tradition in which knowledge was seen as an exceptional kind of commodity: as opposed to e.g. an apple or a bottle of Coke,  consumption of knowledge doesn’t deprive its producer of it. On the contrary, it is supposed to make everyone better, to contribute to the common good. We are now in a situation where (a) this principle of knowledge as a commons is entirely rejected; (b) the producer is deprived of the autonomy to communicate it.

The contribution of a publisher to an academic article is nothing more than a reference. To the title and author, it adds something such as “Journal of Applied Linguistics 34/3: 111-131”. That’s it.  This reference, of course, is the stuff of careers. The article can be insignificant or outright useless, but the reference turns it into an academic achievement, a really-existent result and product of labor that can be turned into a line in someone’s CV and thence into an argument for appointment, tenure or promotion. It’s alchemy: a stone has been turned into gold. Or at least, that’s what we believe has happened.

The price to be paid for this bit of alchemy is colossal. I can make ideas, convert them into knowledge and write them into texts; but I have to ask permission for communicating them to others, for I don’t have the right to do so myself. I can, thus, violate the copyrights to my own thoughts, words and phrases. I can be punished for doing so. So what is the next thing? Perhaps a close monitoring by publishers of conference contributions? – imagine that I would read a paper published by them to an audience who haven’t paid for it? Surely that would be a crime.

Forgive me if I find all of that quite weird.

Copyright Jan Blommaert, 2016

 

Academic publishing and money

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Jan Blommaert 

In what follows, I intend to place some footnotes to an earlier text, in which I addressed at length various highly contentious issues characterizing the field of academic publishing nowadays. That earlier text, roughly summarized, (a) described the present economic model of academic publishing as outspokenly exploitative; (b) included the current models of Open Access as equally absurd when viewed from the perspective of ownership, and (c) suggested that publishers become increasingly redundant as actors in the field of knowledge circulation. We can independently do almost everything currently done by publishers, and do it better.

The text became the topic of one of the first discussion sessions on Academia.edu and was widely picked up and redistributed (illustrating, thus, the exact point it was making). To the extent that the arguments in the text still require clarification and further elaboration, I wish to offer one point in what follows – about money.

As an element of background, it is good to recall that academic publishing is an extraordinarily lucrative business – in fact, one of the most lucrative businesses around. In 2013, Elsevier-Reed (one of the giants in the field) reported a net profit rate of 39% – a margin which for most other domains of industry belongs to the realms of dreams. Part of this is due to the escalation of subscription costs for academic journals, which has risen at a level three times higher than other average commodity costs since 1986. Academic publishing is, if one wishes, a robber economy. Open Access negotiations, especially those in which so-called “Gold Open Access” is the target, involve the payment of several thousands of Euro’s for a single article to be made Open Access. I refer the reader to the earlier text for details.

Grasping the nature of the transactions involved in all of this can be helped by the following illustration. Here is part of a copyright agreement I recently concluded with a prominent academic publisher.

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There is nothing special about the text of the agreement; in fact, it is quite common in our field. We notice that I transfer all copyrights to the publisher, and that I do not get a reward for it. In fact, what I get in return is a reference to an electronically published version of my text, and some heavily limited rights in using this published version myself. People who wish to read my article and have no access to an institutional subscription to the journal have to pay the price of a book – between 30€ and 50€ per article. And if I (or my university) want to turn the article into something that can be read at no cost by anyone, a couple of thousands of Euros must be paid to the publisher.

It’s all about money, surely, but only parts of the money involved in this are shown so far. An aspect never mentioned in these transactions is the production cost of the article. Articles don’t grow on trees, they are manufactured by someone, and this process involves material and immaterial resources, and labor costs.

Now let us do a little simulation here, and a merciful one. Imagine that the production cost of an average article involves 100 hours of academic labor (from getting the idea, over the research, to reading, writing, editing and so forth, and including the material costs). And imagine that such labor costs about 20€ per hour (as I said, I am being merciful here). The production cost of the article is 2000€, and by signing the copyright agreement this is donated to the publisher, who, in turn, charges everyone (including the author) for reading the article. It’s a form of “enclosure” – you spent a season working hard growing apples, but if you wish to eat one you need to buy it from a grocer who happens to have licensed the apples.

Imagine now that I write a book. The book has seven chapters, and to keep things simple I use the calculation above – each chapter being the equivalent of an article. We then get 7 times 2000€, or 14.000 Euros’ worth of labor donated to the publisher. It is because these production costs are eliminated in the transactions we (have to) enter into with publishers, that academic publishing is so extraordinarily lucrative a business. Publishers, simply put, do not bear any cost in the production of their primary material – the papers and books we submit to them for publication. When they speak about “costs”, consequently, they only address the end of the line production costs – some editing and lay outing, and marketing, sales and distribution of things that consumed tremendous amounts of labor to produce and represent, consequently, tremendous value – all of which is made invisible now. Note, in passing, that these end-of-the-line costs are usually pressented as prohibitive and are also rolled off onto the author, as in the following illustration, a fragment from another copyright agreement:

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Now, whose money is involved here? In my case, the money appropriated by publishers is that of my employer, a public university; through the system of subsidies in education, the money is ultimately put up by the taxpayer. Who, if s/he now wants to read the product they subsidized, need to pay 30€ for a single pdf download.

From the publishers’ viewpoint, this is an excellent business model (credentialed, I assume, by their profit margins). From the viewpoint of the producer, it’s a net, huge loss, and an economic  model that is profoundly unsustainable. I can therefore simply repeat the conclusion of the earlier text on this topic: let’s do the publishing ourselves. We can do it better, cheaper, more efficiently, and more democratically.

(Some of the arguments here are inspired by the essays in Charlotte Hess & Elinor Ostrom, Understanding Knowledge as a commons: From theory to practice; MIT Press 2011)

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“Us versus them” argumentation: a simple example

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Jan Blommaert 

What follows is a sketchy analysis – do try this at home – of a genre that has become extraordinarily widespread in social media debates: antagonistic argumentation revolving around a simple us-versus-them scheme. The example I shall use is that of a Facebook update posted on 15 August 2016. The update was part of a social media storm, erupted after an incident on the beach in Nice, France, where a Muslim woman wearing a so-called “burkini” (in fact, a hijab) was forced by four police men to take her tunic off, and fined 38€ for violation of decency regulations.

This incident triggered massive public and political debate in Belgium, and for days it was the topic on Facebook, both in the narrow sense (“away with the burkini!!”) and in the usual ripple-effect in which any theme related to Islam could lead to statements on every other Islam-related theme. Belgian politicians spoke out on the topic, and the Belgian-Flemish social democrats took a rather repressive position in the discussion. Evidently, this sent a (or better: one more) shock wave through Facebook, and social-democrats were quickly and generously showered by allegations of right-wing anti-immigrant politicking.

On 15 August, a sympathizer of the social-democratis posted this relatively long (and not always quite coherent) update. The original was in Dutch, I translated it.

Suddenly, some think that identifying radicalization is a right-wing thing. Hello! Moment please! Being social doesn’t mean being naïve. One can also naively walk into the lion’s den and believe the animal can be stroked like a pussycat. There is effectively a problem with some [Muslims] in Belgium and their interpretation of Islam. They not just put (soft or hard) pressure on their wives, family, friends; they effectively dictate rules that cannot be reconciled with our laws and human rights, such as fraternity, freedom and equality. Protecting these right is ALSO being social. No matter how sensitive the topic. And the discrimination that unfortunately occurs, the call for respect for Muslims, is no license to dictate the norms and values of Islam, or more precisely, their interpretation thereof. Let alone that non-Muslims would be prohibited from calling into question certain practices, like some in that same community that oppresses women and the social pressure not to just have contact or to marry a Muslim, to make her subordinate, to refuse her to seek a job or to force her to wear a veil. All of this cannot be reconciled with our society, which has known the Enlightenment, something the Middle East urgently needs to understand that a secular state isn’t such a bad idea given the diversity of views, also within one faith, and the negative consequences. It is not because exclamation marks and question marks are put around radicalization and the intolerant attitudes of a group of Muslims in Belgium, that this become a right-wing policy by definition. I have been able to experience myself over the past month how I was prevented by a second-generation Muslim of Belgian nationality, who clearly displayed radicalized traits, from having a conversation with a woman wearing a veil, while the latter had initiated the conversation with me! Such people do not respect our freedoms and democracy, and one must be able to say this and take action regarding this. This has nothing to do with left or right wing, but [a lot] with education and human rights. Being oversensitive now because one points to a problem, and claim that this would be a right-wing reaction, is too crazy for words. It’s not because one is socialist that one has to accept that our norms and values would suddenly be dictated from another corner, and that we once again experience religion like in the 1920, this time not from the Catholic church but by the few who have a very narrow view of Islam. The Muslim community has got a lot of work to do in the way of social control, and the Imam, in particular, should point towards the fact that Islam, too, teaches reconciliation, respect for the fellow human being. That there is no place in the real Islam for violence (including domestic violence), oppression and denying the respect for other people by a lack of respect for their human rights. And most certainly [there is no place for that] in the heart of God and his people.

The general direction of the text is apologetic, of course: the author’s main argument is that there is nothing “right-wing” to being critical of aspects of Islam which he deems in violation of fundamental “norms and values” regulating “our” societies. While developing his apology, however, a consistent us-them scheme is developed. We can, in fact, rewrite the entire text in two colums, one specifying characteristics and actions of “they”, the Muslims, another describing those of “we”, social-democratic Flemish Belgians. Consider the result:

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I have done this simple two-column excercise for many years with beginning discourse analysis students, and one can see how productive it is. In the “us” column, we can see

  • Expressions of epistemic authority: meta-qualifications expressing a superior, rational and delicate understanding of things (including, at the end, “true” Islam), and references to personal experience.
  • A reiteration of “our norms and values“, of which the reality in everyday and institutional life is presented as unquestionable: fraternity, freedom, equality, our laws, human rights, education, the secular state
  • A reference to “our” history, which has known “Enlightenment”, a thing badly needed and long overdue in the Middle East.
  • Depoliticizations: outspoken in this example but quite consistent, “stating problems” is not seen as a political-ideological action, it is mere realism and rationality.

The left-hand column, by contrast, contains

  • Generalizations: statements about a “minority” whose interpretation of Islam is wrong; the responsibility for this group, however, rests with the entire Muslim community – especially “the Imam” has some serious work to do.
  • Exaggerations: this minority of “radicalized” Muslims “effectively dictate rules” that clash with our laws, norms and values; they also prohibit “us” from pointing towards their shortcomings and from taking action in their regard. To whom such rules are effectively dictated, and who would effectively be prohibited from stating such problems is puzzling given the many thousands of posts in which such problems are stated with extreme clarity and without any shade of inhibition.
  • Scale jumps: anecdotal and exceptional incidents are lifted instantly to levels where absolute principles are at stake – rejections of “our freedoms and democracy”. Racist discrimination, in contrast, is usually presented as anecdotal (and not as a denial of these fundamental principles).
  • Absence of depoliticization: their behavior has extreme political significance; our resistance against it is, as we have seen, not political but a matter of common sense.

Note some terms around which I put scare quotes here: terms such as “our” (as in “our society”, “our norms and values” etc.) and “radicalized”. The first one is, technically speaking, a shifter, something the actual meaning of which shifts according to context; the second is a degree term expressing a particular level of intensity (compare: “my painting is innovative” – “my painting is very innovative” – “my painting is radically innovative”). None of the terms, thus, are neutral descriptors, if you wish – and thus they are begging the evident question what exactly do you mean by this? The broad lines of a more indepth analysis are now in place.

And so we see an argument which many (certainly its authors) would perceive as making sense, even “correct”, but which is in actual fact quite easy to dislodge. It is a kind of “rationality” that deserves to, and must, be critically addressed at all times. So do try this at home.

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What Pokémon Go teaches us about society

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Jan Blommaert 

The summer of 2016 was full of sports. There was the European football championship, almost instantly followed by an epic Tour de France and then spilling over into the Olympic Games. All of these were global competitive events. But the competition that wove itself through all of this, and was equally global, was entirely different. It consisted of millions of people all over the world going out in the streets with their smartphones ready, hunting for Pokémon cartoon creatures. Thé mega-event of the summer of 2016 was Pokémon Go.

Pokémon started as a game in 1995 and became very popular when it became a manga-style children’s TV series around the turn of the century. In my house, you will still find dozens of Pokémon merchandising items from that era, as my then-small children were greatly knowledgeable about nearly every aspect of the strange world of creatures, trainers and battles. Now in their early twenties, they took to the streets this summer to hunt and collect the same creatures. A comatose fantasy world had been brought back to life; Nintendo shares went crazy on the stock market.

The thing was considered weird by many. Flocks of people, staring at their smartphone screens, would walk and congregate, apparently aimlessly, in streets, parks, shopping malls, pubs, museums and private backyards; when overheard, they produced a cryptic jargon that could trigger smiles, jealous faces, and shrieks of amazement from others; at times they would stop, point their device in some direction – where I didn’t see a thing – and subsequently groaned “yessss!”. The news brought reports of traffic accidents caused by Pokémon enthusiasts, and YouTube showed clips (“epic fail” style) of people crashing into obstacles while concentrating on the events on their smartphone screens. Mayors and Police chiefs contacted Nintendo and called for restrictions on the placing of Pokémons in certain zones, and Brussels Airport politely requested the company to disable Pokémons on the airport tarmac and in the security screening area. The hype was seen by many as disruptive, silly, pointless and irritating. Like any hype, one supposes.

Pokémon go was disruptive. This new-generation, “enhanced” version of the two decades old video- and card game broke down the boundaries of the space within which so many contemporary forms of hi-tech popular culture are being practiced and within which they are contained. This space is that of the “virtual” world – more concretely, a screen. People engage with such forms of culture while sitting behind a screen in long uninterrupted bursts of activity, quietly and often invisible for all others who do not participate in it. Such forms of culture are, thus, spatiotemporally quite effectively niched. Parents would complain that their children spend long hours doing “something” behind that screen, while the nature of the practices their children are involved in is poorly understood, or indeed greatly unknown to them.

What the little smartphone app enabling Pokémon Go did, was to take such practices out of their usual spatiotemporal niches and bring them elsewhere, into the “real”, offline world, the public spaces where participants now mingle with nonparticipants – members of one culture encountering members of another culture, in a terrain now claimed by both. Going offline does not mean that the game is now shared by all; the boundary crossed is just that of the spatiotemporal seclusion typical of such forms of culture. But as I said, participants point their smartphones to something which remains invisible for nonparticipants, and get very excited by the presence of creatures that do not exist in the world of those who did not download the Pokémon Go app.

So here is the sociological and anthropological significance of Pokémon Go: it makes visible – a rare occasion – and offers a glimpse of a cultural world that coexists with other cultural worlds, and which usually remains out of the gaze of the unengaged bystander. This cultural world, I said it, is often called “virtual”. I consider that an epic misnomer, and Pokémon Go demonstrates it:  there is nothing “virtual” about millions of people all over the world performing cultural practices by means of a small hi-tech item, in public spaces not designed for such practices. It is a lesson in the complex cultural arrangements that characterize our world. Those who preferred to remain in denial – those who call it “virtual” – received an in-your-face warning that our society contains numerous communities, some small, some very large, of people engaging in practices not “normally” part of the cultural-canonical repertoire. We know these people, but we didn’t know the cultural registers they practiced. Or we believed they were not really, really real.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, Pikachu and Bulbasaur are really really, real. So if you meet them, have some courtesy.

 

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