See also the text.
(Also published on Diggit Magazine)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to the US House of Representatives during the tumultuous midterm elections of late 2018. Running for the Democrats in the 14th District of New York – including the Bronx and part of Queens – she won a landslide, crushing her Republican opponent with 78% of the vote. Born in 1989, Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest female Congresswoman ever. And not only that: she became a digital media phenomenon of global scope.
From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to AOC
The point of departure for what follows is that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a highly unlikely candidate for such instant political stardom. Born in the Bronx as the daughter of lower middle-class Puertorican parents, submitting a CV in which academic brilliance is blended with activism and with menial jobs as bartender and waitress, and – more than anything else – proudly proclaiming unambiguously socialist principles: this is not the stuff that dreams are made of in the contemporary world of high office in the US. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is clearly an outsider.
But here is the thing: during her campaign and even more after her election, the image of the outsider was and is consistently, and quite brilliantly, used in her favor. This image became the umami ingredient in terrifically designed and effective social media campaigns creating waves of viral popularity for which only Mr Trump himself provided a precedent. But with a difference: whereas the social media campaigns of Trump and others were overwhelmingly financed by corporate donors, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign funding was drawn from civil society and individual sources – her top donor is Columbia University and in the list of industrial sectors providing funding, the category of “others” (read: people who cannot be associated with an industrial sector) largely leads the pack. Crowdsourcing and volunteers provided the basis for Ocasio-Cortez’s enormous exposure and visibility during and after the campaign.
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign used all social media platforms – there is nothing exceptional to that. However, there is again a difference worth noting. Her campaign YouTube channel looks dismal with its 7.800 subscribers; the one million friends and followers of her Facebook page are a crowd commanding some more respect. But things get more impressive. Her main Twitter account (user name @AOC) is followed by about 2,5 million people, and – most remarkable of all figures – the official Ocasio-Cortez Instagram account counts 1,9 million followers, which places her nicely into the league of global entertainment and sports stars (many of whom follow her account). Posts there get hundreds of thousands of likes and tons of comments.
In fact, it is through her intense usage of Instagram as a strategic mass-communicative device that Ocasio-Cortez stands out and innovates political digital culture. While the Twitter account is dominated by largely political updates, it is on Instagram that Ocasio-Cortez merges the roles of politician and popcult influencer. And it is there that we see the smart and carefully curated visual display of someone at once glamorous and plebeian, wearing designer fashion and Walmart, young and mature, sophisticated and plain, model and politician, frivolous and professional. All of these dimensions are picked up by followers and eagerly commented on, as we can see below. While the Twitter account is the brain, the Instagram account is the heart of Ocasio-Cortez’s communication strategy. And it’s a massive success.
The effectiveness of the strategy becomes clear when we look at a detail: the fact that her name has become a media and public opinion acronym. AOC rapidly became, like FDR and JFK before her, the shorthand name used by supporters and opponents alike to talk about the unlikely candidate from New York’s District 14. Its effectiveness also becomes clear when we look at another phenomenon: the amount and intensity of media aggression directed at AOC. Ocasio-Cortez has become the target of daily avalanches of media criticism from her opponents. And in the same way as with Donald Trump in 2016, this negative exposure turns her into an even greater icon and creates a veritable brand, called AOC.
This brand label, incidentally, can be read on any bottle of French wine or on French cheese, where it stands for Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée and flags the authenticity of the origin of the product, along with its exclusive qualities and flavors. There is no end to the creative associative wordplay and innuendo that can be performed through the use of “AOC”, and the main indexical vector of “AOC” – let’s not forget – is positive.
AOC is on message
AOC is the outsider in Washington DC: this was the central theme in her campaign, it was the message. The message was constructed in two ways. One, by emphasizing her humble origins and her very modest material circumstances in self-presentations such as the central YouTube campaign clip. And two, by responses to opponents attacking her for being “out of place” in the world of high politics.
To start with the first, the campaign clip (viewed about 800.000 times) opens with a shot of AOC in a plain bathroom getting ready for a public appearance, accompanied by the statement “I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family”. The frame is clear: the “normal” profiles of people running for high office in the US include such wealthy and powerful family backgrounds. AOC pictures herself, right from the start, as an outsider. But the title of the clip is The Courage to Change, and here is the full message: by running for office, AOC displays the courage to change the political system. It is exactly by being an outsider that she will be an agent of change – it is because I don’t belong here that I must be here. We hear an echo here again – be it an echo from within an entirely different socio-economic corner of society – of Mr. Trump’s central campaign message. Only outsiders can “drain the swamp” on The Hill.
The message, evidently, is powerful. And Ocasio-Cortez hammers it home relentlessly, by posting pictures on Instagram featuring other outsiders – her newly elected female peers in Congress (especially the Muslima Ilhan Omar, as in the Intagram post above), members of ethnic and Native American minorities, ordinary folk, suffering people.
And it is played out in virtuoso ways whenever Ocasio-Cortez comes under fire from opponents claiming that she is the wrong person for Congress. When in early January 2019 critics “unearthed” a ten-year old video of AOC, a student then, dancing on the roof of Boston University, a barrage of moral accusations was launched at Ocasio-Cortez. Mainstream as well as social media cried wolf about this “clueless nitwit” who obviously lacked the gravitas required for service as a member of Congress. AOC responded instantly with another video on Twitter and Instagram. The 11-seconds clip was a masterpiece: it shows the outsider in front of her office door in the House, dancing to Edwin Starr’s classic “War (what is it good for?)” and stating, with a wink, “Wait till they find out Congresswomen dance too!” The clip got more than 20 million views in three weeks’ time.
The point made here is: “I won’t be changed by Congress, Congress will be changed by me” – I will continue to do the things others consider transgressive and out-of-place, because that is what change is all about. And in that sense, transgression becomes the very thing she broadcasts: the suggestion that people must get used to someone who doesn’t fit the standard formats. She posted updates saying that House staff keep mistaking her for a spouse or an intern, and when a photoshoot in which she wore a very expensive set of designer clothes was being used by critics to doubt her humble origins and socialist orientation, she simply had to state that the clothes were of course not hers but borrowed from a designer for the photoshoot, and that they were inspired by the vintage look of left-wing radical activist Angela Davis – and the topic was entirely hers. Again, Twitter and Instagram were the main fora for such media-counterterror actions. With stunning visual self-presentations accompanied by concise razor-sharp statements, she dominates debates on these fora.
People are “on message” when the features they display adequately point towards the image they try to convey of themselves. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has understood the tremendous affordances of social media for “messaging” and takes political digital culture to yet another level. For rarely has anyone been so spectacularly “on message”. And while she’s in actual fact merely a (very) junior Congresswoman with a lot to prove, she’s risen to be one of the biggest things in the contemporary global political and celebrity worlds – in no time at all. Her maiden speech in the House is the most frequently viewed video ever produced by CSPAN.
Is she punching above her weight? Well, her first real policy proposal – to raise the top tax rate for the very wealthy to 70% – morphed from unspeakable and too-silly-for-words to a prime time national debating topic and opinion poll winner in a matter of weeks. It looks as if the weight categories have been redrawn lately…
[Foreword to Shahzaman Haque & Françoise Le Lièvre (eds. 2019) Politique Linguistique familiale / Family language policy: Enjeux dynamiques de la transmission linguistique dans un contexte migratoire / Dynamics in language transmission under a migratory context.]
Language policy and planning research used to be, in the sociolinguistic tradition, an outspoken macro-affair focused on examining the rationality of (usually) state-based governance in the field of language (e.g. Eastman 1983). This form of state-based linguistic governance was in turn often seen as an element of nation-building, for the languages in need of policy and planning were usually the languages that defined, or could and should define, the nation. The particular rationality applied in such governance was at once romantic and modernist: romantic since it was deployed in view of the creation of the kind of nation imagined in the European romantic tradition; modernist since it strongly relied on principles of efficiency, parsimony, singularity and linearity, usually leading to “oligolingualism” – the reduction, through conscious policy and planning, of sociolinguistic complexity in the state by promoting specific languages to the status of “national” and/or “official” language – the standardized languages normatively used in the public sphere, notably in politics, education and media – and relegating most other languages to the domain of the private sphere (Blommaert 1996; Spolsky, this volume). The terrain on which such efforts were set was usually that of relatively new postcolonial states, turning the latter into a laboratory for what Eastman (1983: 4) called an “applied sociolinguistics” committed to social change (for a survey, see Ricento 2006).
In spite of the tremendous enthusiasm for such sociolinguistic engineering among scholars of language, the laboratory cannot be said to have produced a long list of successes. As observed by Bernard Spolsky (this volume), some assumptions about how language could work in social environments turned out to be fundamentally flawed and several aspects of sociolinguistic reality turned out to “talk back” to the carefully designed and energetically enforced policies. I shall highlight three major problems.
The first problem was that language policy, certainly when insisting on maintaining former colonial-metropolitan languages as part of the institutional sociolinguistic hierarchy, was quickly identified as just another mechanism of oppression, a form of linguistic imperialism potentially endangering minority languages to the point of extinction. Issues of language rights emerged as a counterpoint to top-down language policies (Phillipson 1992; Nettle & Romaine 2000; May, 2001; for a discussion see Freeland & Patrick 2004). Even where former colonial-metropolitan languages were not overtly promoted, the newly hegemonic national language could be shown to create or consolidate sociolinguistic inequalities, mainly through the exclusionary effects of language standardization (as in Tanzania, see Blommaert 2014).
The second problem was that language policy analysis could be seen, from the early 1990s onwards, as a particular instance of language-ideological structuring. As soon as language ideologies emerged as a theoretically and empirically developed aspect of any sociolinguistic object, language-ideological analyses of language policy became inevitable and provided a critical deconstruction of – notably – the notion of ‘language’ as a standardized artifact itself (see Kroskrity, Schieffelin & Woolard 1992; Silverstein & Urban 1996; Kroskrity 2000). This fundamentally undercut the top-down approach to language policy and planning studies, because language ideologies were distributed and pervaded every aspect of production, circulation and uptake of linguistic artifacts and processes such as textbooks, media discourses and policy papers, as well as degrees of fluency in enregistering standard varieties of language (Silverstein 1996; Agha 2007). In other words, what language ideologies did was to redefine the nature of the sociolinguistic arena in which language policies were being played out, prompting very different forms of inquiry and analysis (e.g. Jaffe 1999). We were now facing a layered, scaled and fragmented complex of sociolinguistic phenomena in which overt and institutional politics represented one form of structuration, while the everyday politics of interaction and uptake represented quite another one.
This problem led to the third one. A language-ideological critique of linguistic regimes (the term used by Kroskrity 2000) necessarily led to a far more nuanced and dispersed, less linear conceptualization of power in the sociolinguistic field. Part of the sociological imagination animating early language planning efforts contained a profound, but misguided, belief in the exclusive power of institutions as effective agents of change in the sociolinguistic field and of modernist rationality regarding the construction of a ‘correct’ standardized set of languages within an oligolinguistic landscape. James C. Scott (1998) called this imagination “seeing like a state”, and language planning officers often saw sociolinguistic realities from the viewpoint of the state as the prime mover in matters of language. With language ideologies as part of the theoretical and methodological toolkit, such a totalizing view of power had to be replaced by a far more layered and fragmented one, involving actors at several scale levels and activities across the entire realm of social life, and an analysis zooming in on the smallness of situated practices rather than on policy papers, international treaties and constitutional amendments (cf. McCarty 2011; Blommaert 2013; also Tollefson & Perez-Milans 2018; Spolsky, this volume).
This is where Family Language Policy finds its rationale and legitimacy: as a response to the three problems outlined above, and as a way of engaging with far more delicate and less linear modes of rationalizing language ideologies at scale levels below those of the state, and between those sub-state scale-levels and higher ones. In his chapter on “Why family language policy is crucial”, Haque (this volume) argues that family language policy addresses the link between the private and the public spheres of social life, between the scale of everyday family life and that of life as a citizen, and between orientations towards intimacy and family-bound affection on the one hand, and orientations towards trajectories of success and mobility reflecting the perceived requirements of the state, the labor market, and ultimately the world on the other hand. Reflecting on the chapters in this book, four separate but connected remarks are in order.
One: it is hard to miss the relevance of the fact that the chapters of this book document family language planning in contexts of migration and diaspora – contexts of globalization, in other words. The subjects animating the case descriptions all face the task of – conventionally called – multilingual maneuvering in a social network which is at once local and translocal, demanding the mobilization of complex repertoires made up of functionally specialized resources.
This means that family language policy, in the cases discussed here, is not a low-scale phenomenon but something which is dispersed over several scale-levels, including (prominently) the global one from within which biographies of migration, displacement and relocation emerge. We are facing cross-scalar complexity here, a stratified and polycentric language-ideological construction enveloping multiple resources and scripts for their deployment across scales.
Two: given this cross-scalar complexity, we can see how family language policy is a form of rationality, a reasoned organization of a sociolinguistic regime at the scale-level of the family. Rules are negotiated, established and enforced, on the basis of what we can best call ‘estimates’ of the value of sociolinguistic-communicative resources stretching from language to language variety, dialect and script, to accent and degrees of fluency and pragmatic-metapragmatic appropriateness, to the regulation of specific modes of communication. In Bourdieu’s (1982, 1991) terms, a field is locally shaped, enveloping the totality of sociolinguistic-communicative resources in mutually calibrated – that is, measured and evaluated – relations.
The value of such resources is overwhelmingly language-ideological and is determined by perceived (ideological) connections between specific resources and aspects of identity and belonging, social mobility and achievement, and affective-moral attachment to the kernel community of family, relatives and people identified as belonging to kindred communities – all of which become sociolinguistically conveyable through the structures of the sociolinguistic regime.
The previous remark might suggest that the sociolinguistic regimes we observe here are profoundly irrational, given their roots in affect, imagination and language-ideological sensitivities. But the rationality of the regime lies in the non-arbitrariness of selection and preference: resources are explicitly marked (and explained, argued) as non-equivalent to each other – the ‘heritage language’ must be used in social conditions x, y, z – and such rules of selection are learned (i.e. socialized) and policed as compelling aspects of behavioral regulation (cf. Moore 2016). The rationality, in other words, resides in the normative transparency of the sociolinguistic regime.
Three: in spite of the elaborate metapragmatic narratives, explanations and accounts we encounter in the studies in this book, we should remember that we are essentially facing a regime of social action, the metapragmatic reflections on which provide us with an inroad into the rationality governing it, the perceived patterns of order in a complex sociolinguistic universe – the things Garfinkel (2002) captured under the label of “accountability”.
I emphasize this because a focus on action forces us to think beyond traditional categorizations of (Fishmanian) domains, as well as beyond binaries such as “ingroup versus outgroup code” or “dominant versus subordinate language”. If this book brings one point home, it is that there is nothing abstract to family language policies – they are concrete, situated modes of social practice involving both the deployment of sociolinguistic-communicative resources as well as their rationalization through practices of accountability. And the one thing we have learned from language ideologies is that metapragmatic reflections cannot be separated from the practices they are tied to – they are joined as a composite object in social action. This, I suggest, has far-reaching methodological implications. Looking at family language policy as a particular organization of social action will involve a perpetual critical appraisal of the terms “family”, “language” and “policy”, since none of them can be presupposed or predefined, and all of them need continually to be grounded in observations of action – which is where the boundaries of these concepts will be established, as well as their validity.
Four: most of what was contained in the previous three points can now be anchored in a more appropriate theory of power than the top-down and linear one often applied in language policy and planning research in the past. We have the comfort that we can take such a theory off the shelf: Foucault’s biopower (e.g. Foucault 2007). Biopower, recall, was described as an infinitely dispersed and fractioned system of ideologically informed action covering all aspects of life and ordering them according to perceived norms of normalcy at all possible scale levels. It was, according to Foucault, the way in which the raison d’état could be converted in a generalized rationality, prominently including the raison de famille.
While the raison d’état was enforced by the police force, the raison de famille was very much policed by the families themselves, precisely by means of the kinds of reasoned organization of action we find in the family language policies documented in this book. Family language policies are, ultimately, self-induced and self-policed modes of ‘order’ in social action, infused by polycentric and scaled language ideologies, accumulated and learned during biographically phased processes of socialization. It is good to remember Foucault’s sobering take on socialization: yes, it always involves the handling and reproduction of (seemingly soft) Durkheimian norms of social conduct, but such norms constitute a field of power more formidable and effective than anything Durkheim anticipated. In cases discussed in this book, they define the diacritics of ‘normal’ subjectivity itself – are you still ‘one of us’ when you do not use language x when talking to person y? Are you still recognizable as a member of a clear-cut social category (‘us’) or are you an outsider whose social conduct cannot be tolerated as meaningful to us?
Such issues, generously demonstrated throughout this book, should make it clear to anyone that family language planning research is not a study of families; it is a study of society in its very complex concreteness. I welcome such studies.
Agha, Asif (2007) Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Blommaert, Jan (1996) Language planning as a discourse on language and society: The linguistic ideology of a scholarly tradition. Language Problems and Language Planning 20/3: 199-222.
Blommaert, Jan (2013) Policy, policing and the ecology of social norms: Ethnographic monitoring revisited. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 219: 123-140.
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Garfinkel, Harold (2002) Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Jaffe, Alexandra (1999) Ideologies in Action: Language Politics on Corsica. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Kroskrity, Paul (ed.) (2000) Regimes of Language. Santa Fe: SAR Press.
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McCarty, Theresa L. (ed.) (2011) Ethnography and Language Policy. London: Routledge
Moore, Robert. 2016. ‘Taking up speech’ in endangered language. In Karel Arnaut, Martha Sif Karrebaek, Max Spotti, and Jan Blommaert (eds.), Engaging Superdiversity: Recombining Spaces, Times, and Language Practices: 65-89. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
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Ricento, Thomas (ed.) (2006) Language Policy: Theory and Method. London: Blackwell.
Scott, James C. (1998) Seeing like a State. New Haven: Yale University Press
Silverstein, Michael (1996) Monoglot ‘standard’ in America: Standardization and metaphors of linguistic hegemony. In Donald Brenneis & Ronal Macaulay (eds.) The Matrix of Language: 284-306. Boulder: Westview Press.
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Tollefson, James & Miguel Perez-Milans (eds.) (2018) The Oxford Handbook of Language Policy and Planning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 Thomas Ricento’s landmark 2006 book, it can be noted, was the first volume in a series edited by Jennifer Coates, Jenny Cheshire and Euan Reid called “Language and Social Change”.
Globalization refers to the process of increasing interconnectedness between different parts of the world, creating global modes of organization and conduct. This interconnectedness has ‘hard’ dimensions (economic, political, demographic, military etc.) as well as ‘soft’ ones (culture, language, religion etc.), and the key to the entire process is mutual influencing through borrowing, transfer, or power. This, we can say, is globalization-as-phenomenon.
Globalization also refers to a scientific awareness of these factual processes, which functions in that sense as a corrective to approaches privileging single states or regions in research, grouped under the label of ‘methodological nationalism‘. It is because of this awareness that we now refer to our societies as ‘globalized’. This, we can say, is globalization-as-paradigm. And while globalization-as-phenomenon is very old, globalization-as-paradigm is quite recent. The latter demands explanation.
The lens of methodological nationalism
The birth of modern science coincides with that of the modern nation-state, and the development of science was, for a long time, part of the development of the modern nation-state infrastructure. Historians would write the histories of their countries and leaders; sociologists would study the social organization of their countries, linguists would study and contribute to the standardization of the national language, ethnologists and folklorists would focus on the traditions and customs of the people living within the boundaries of the nation-state, and so forth. The modern nation-state was seen as the foundational and autonomous unit for studying and understanding society, and scientific tools such as statistics emerged (literally) as ‘the science of the state’ – a key tool for documenting and following developments within a country, as seen and judged by the state.
This focus on the nation-state was methodological also beccause it shaped deep-theoretical assumptions about the nature of societies. Certainly in the wake of the Romantic movement, nations were essentialized as sedentary communities of people joined by bonds of tradition and shared ancestry. The people currently living in, say, France, were defined as ‘French’ not purely on grounds of administrative belonging, but on grounds of shared essential characteristics – culture, ‘civilization’ , language, lineage and genealogy, religion, traditions, folklore and so forth. A similar sociological imagination was projected onto others as well, and early anthropology adopted it as the elementary frame for describing the ‘exotic’ Other.
To some extent, what emerged was a self-fulfilling prophecy: the stronger the nation-state became in terms of administrative and infrastructural integration – think of national education systems and compulsory national military service as examples – the more such countries became identifiable through things such as language and script, shared symbols and universes of knowledge (such as knowledge of the line of succession within the monrachy, knowledge of crucial victories in battles as moments in the history of the state, or knowledge of a national artistic and literary canon). In other words, the stronger state power became, the more the inhabitants of that state started resembling each other.
At the same time, evidently, such shared features were constructed – standard national languages certainly were – and imposed by the system of state governance, and much of what was proposed as essential sharedness rested on what Hobsbawm and Ranger called‘invented traditions‘. The supposed homogeneity and stability of the nation-state always covered a vastly more diverse and volatile reality. In addition, there was something profoundly paradoxical about the emergence of methodological nationalism: it occurred precisely at the time of rapid and vast globalization called, by Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, contradicting almost everything contained in the methodological-nationalist imagination. In spite of that, methodological nationalism remained influential throughout the 20th century. Globalization-as-phenomenon was, for a very long time, not accompanied by globalization-as-paradigm, but by exactly its opposite.
A quick history of globalization
Globalization-as-phenomenon is a very old process and any informed survey should include prehistorical migrations of populations across parts of the globe, spreading technologies, sociocultural practices and languages across vast spaces. We can recommend, as an example of work documenting such prehistorical movements and their effects, Jan Vansina’s study of the spread of Bantu languages across a large region in Africa. Historical processes of globalization should also include the formation of large empires through conquest and/or migration, such as the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan, the empire of Alexander the Great as well as that of Persia, the Roman empire and the Visigoth migration in Late Antiquity, and the Muslim conquests after the 7th century. They should also include premodern large trade networks such as the Silk Roads, the Indian Ocean Trade and the Viking network, all of which involved huge geographical scope and intensity of technological, sociocultural, political and religious influence and exchange. Observe that such trade networks usually involved aspects of military power as well – wealth and weaponry quite systematically went hand in hand in the history of globalization. And when weaponry is mentioned, technology becomes a topic demanding attention.
The early-modern European expansion and early colonialism (often called ‘discoveries’, as in ‘Columbus discovering America’ and ‘Captain Cook discovering Australia’) must be seen in that light, as an extension of worldwide trade networks to which some military power was added. In fact, much of the early Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch trade expansion made use of existing routes, centers and networks, and added new ones due to superior technology – improvements in ship building, navigation, cartography and gunnery enabled the Westward expansion towards the Americas as well as the sea route around the Cape towards the Indian Ocean trade area. This, then, led to the genesis of modern capitalism in Europe along with that of an embryonic global trader class and trading companies such as the Dutch East-India Company VOC, who laid the foundations of global capitalist expansion in the late 18th and 19th century.
This latter period is the beginning of high-modern globalization, culminating in Hobsbawm’s Age of Empire (1875-1914) in which huge territories were incorporated into European nation-state systems as colonial properties, of crucial importance for the growth and development of industrial capitalism in Europe. We shall return to this later. But we must remember that the world around the beginning of the 20th century was ruled by just a handful of nation-states, and there are very few present-day non-European countries that were never formally ruled as colonies, protectorates or mandate territories. When we see globalization as the increased interconnectedness between different parts of the world, the colonial era was definitely a rarely matched high point of globalization. But as mentioned before, it also led to the paradox of methodological (and, of course, political and military) nationalism.
This Age of Empire ended with the First World War (1914-1918), which, as the term indicates, was a global conflict with battlefields stretching from East Asia and East Africa to the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Western Europe and the Atlantic Ocean; and with a worldwide mobilization of military and economic forces in view of the war efforts. Soldiers from New Zealand, the USA, India and Senegal died in Flanders and Northern France and wheat imported from Argentina helped the British and French populations survive 1918. This world war heralded another stage in the history of globalization, that of global inter-state organizations such as the League of Nations and, after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, 1917, the COMINTERN. The failure of such early attempts at global political governance became clear in the 1930s with the rise of Japanese imperialism in East Asia and that of fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain.
The World War that ensued was even more global in scope than the first one, now with vastly more involvement from the two emerging superpowers, the US and the USSR, and including the Pacific Ocean as a major theater of operations. It led to the foundation of the United Nations as well as to that of the EU and postwar (and Cold War) military alliances with a global reach: NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It led to a flurry of international treaties, organizations, conventions and agreements, and it led to the end of the colonial system. The Age of Empire was followed by an era of Global Alliances, and the latter was marked by an endless sequence of local wars that were never considered as constituting another ‘World War’, but that were all connected by similar drivers, actors and forces: Korea, Vietnam, Congo, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Middle East, Central America, and so forth. It was also marked by chronic political instability across the globe, with rebellions, contestation movements and military coups, brutal dictatorships, civil wars and famines. This stage of the history of globalization came to an end in 1989-1991, when the Soviet system in the USSR and its satellites collapsed and the global superpower binary of the Cold World vanished.
While technological developments marked and deeply influenced each stage of globalization in this very brief and sketchy history, the end of the Cold War coincided with a major technological innovation, the Internet. Prior to that, the rise of audiovisual mass media throughout the 20th century (and certainly that of TV from the 1960s on) had turned local events into global news and had created a new, global level of sociocultural and political circulation. Yuri Gagarin, the world’s first cosmonaut, became a global celebrity in 1961 on black-and-white TV screens; the Beatles soon followed him; and the first landing on the moon in 1969 can be said to be the first worldwide live television event, watched in real time by people in places scattered across the world. The Vietnam War caused animosity worldwide (and fuelled rebellion and counterculture in very many places) because of spectacular global news reporting in the printed press and on radio and TV, and the famine in Ethiopia (with shocking images televised across the world) triggered the first global music charity event – Live Aid in 1985.
Nothing, however, could compare with what the Internet started offering in the early 1990s: a global system of information technology allowing a collossal increase of speed, volume and intensity, soon converted from a high-brow commodity into a mass-marketed one through the development of small computers and, in the 21st century, mobile and handheld devices enabling Internet access and content production. The present stage of globalization can therefore be described as the stage of digital globalization. It extended, deepened and made far more effective the previous layers of globalization – those of global trade networks, interstate organizations and empires. The present world maintains features of all these previous layers, now enveloped, connected and framed by a global infrastructure of digital technology.
As mentioned, globalization-as-paradigm came long after globalization-as-phenomenon. While the world was effectively globalized in the late 19th century, that didn’t mean that ‘the world’ was an live concept for those living in that globalized world, On the contrary. People lived in a world of nations, and even if such nations were global empires – think of the UK and France around the beginning of the 20th century – they were still seen as a nation and the rest of world was seen from that nation. It isn’t until mass media enabled the global and almost instant circulation of information, images and foci of attention, that the world became imaginable as a world rather than as a list of countries. And this required a World War as well as a transnational live mass media infrastructure.
The tipping point lies somewhere in the turbulent 1960s – the heyday of the Cold War, of decolonization, of Vietnam and the Beatles, and the beginning of television as the focus of cultural and knowledge circulation. Marshall McLuhan‘s The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) described, early in the day, the phenomenon of global interconnectedness through new mass media technologies (and already predicted something like the Internet). And it was in the 1960s that issues from far away became ‘repatriated’ into the sociocultural and political lives of people elsewhere. The Vietnam war as well as the struggles for independence in the colonies became objects of protest and countercultural rebellion all over Western Europe, feeding into the intensity of the near-revolutionary May 1968 uprisings; nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific and Nova Zembla led to the formation of an international peace movement crossing the lines of the Cold War and with prominent intellectuals such as Bertrand Russell and E.P. Thompson as its spokespersons; the American Civil Rights Movement, with Martin Luther King as its icon, became an inspiration for peaceful antiracist movements globally; Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China inspired and influenced rebels and left-wing intellectuals worldwide including leaders of newly independent states such as Tanzania’s Julius K. Nyerere; and Viernam’s Ho Chi Minh as well as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Che Guevara became global heroes of a new youth counterculture, for whom the soundtrack was provided by the likes of John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez,
It was only when this wave of experienced globalization was set in motion that theories of globalization emerged, and the most formative one was (and remains) World-Systems Analysis developed by Immanuel Wallerstein and his associates. Wallerstein started from a problem that emerged in the wake of decolonization: the problem of development and underdevelopment of so-called Third-World countries and the new forms of economic and geopolitical dependency that appeared due to this problem. Wallerstein’s theory sees the world as a system of interconnected states and regions, within a global division labor characterizing globalized capitalism. Thus, we get centers, semiperipheries and peripheries in a dynamic, constantly shifting and layered global system. To give an example of the layering and instability of that system: in the field of automobile production, Japan is definitely a center in the world system, while it is a periphery in the field of English. And while China is a world center for the production of electronic and Hi-Tech commodities, it is a semiperiphery in the field of automobile manufacturing. Wallerstein argued that, in the age of advanced capitalist globalization, nation-states are more important than ever, because global capitalism needs individual governments to (de)regulate and enable what other governments do not allow or tolerate.
The end of the Cold War, and the advent of the worldwide web, triggered another wave of globalization theories. Here the most influential authors include Manuel Castells and Arjun Appadurai. Castells and Appadurai both produced extraordinarily accurate predictions of the kinds of societies that would emerge from this new era of intensified online-offline globalization. In The Rise of the Network Society (1996) Castells described the impact of new information and communications technologies on fields as widely divergent as economic production, labor relations, community life and identity construction. In Modernity at Large (1996), Appadurai in turn theorized global flows enabled by the new online technologies as a set of ‘scapes’ – think of ‘mediascapes’ – within which global formats and scripts circulate, to be realized locally through what he calls ‘vernacular globalization’: global formats turned into locally enacted formats of conduct, action and thought. Cultural forms are at once deterritorialized, and reterritorialized, ‘englobalized’ as well as ‘deglobalized’.
The lens of globalization
Globalization-as-paradigm, we can see, represents a fundamental rupture with the methodological nationalism of an earlier era. It is very hard now to think of any sociocultural phenomenon that is exclusively ‘local’ and not to any degree influenced by outside, nonlocal forces – an effect of the tremendous mobility of people, resources and symbolic representations characterizing this stage of globalization. This paradigm also enables us to look back now, and to recognize that mobility was always there. What is special about the current stage of globalization is not the fact that we are mobile now; but that we are more mobile, and more frequently so, and more intensely so, than our predecessors. And the fact that we are aware of that.
The online-offline nexus also affects our understanding of what is ‘local’ and who is the subject in linguistic landscape analysis. I take you to my neighborhood in Berchem, Antwerp, to illustrate this.
(Commentary text, special issue “Society through the lens of language”, ed. Najma Al Zidjaly, Multilingua 2019; prepublication draft)
It is profoundly flattering and humbling at the same time to be asked to comment on a body of other scholars’ work inspired by and drawing on one’s own. The reason why it is flattering should be self-evident; the reason why it is humbling is less easy to explain. It has to do with how these other scholars demonstrate, in their application of ideas and notions drawn from my work, the limitations of the latter – the loose ends; the points where a concept or line of argument is merely an inspiration to be reshaped by entirely different approaches to the issue; the places where my individual efforts reached their limits and demand the creative commitment of a community of others. I encounter all of these in this collection of papers, and the work of these authors pushes and motivates me to take things further.
The work reported in the paper in this collection articulates a fundamental shift in perspective: not merely an adjustment of method and of the choice of data, but a shift at the level of what I called (following C. Wright Mills) the “sociological imagination” informing sociolinguistic work (Blommaert 2017, 2018). It is a shift from a scholarly universe almost entirely dominated by theoretical and methodological preferences for offline spoken discourse in fixed and clearly definable timespace, sociocultural and interpersonal contexts and identities, to one in which the world of communication is – at the most basic level – seen as an online-offline nexus in which much of what we assumed to be natural, primordial and commonsense about language-in-society needs to be revised, rethought and redeveloped.
The argument I tried to build was that in such revisionist exercises, the facts of communication are a fine point of departure for reassessing their place in what we conventionally call the social order or social structure. This outspoken empirical bias inevitably leads to a focus on small things: actual moments of interaction taking the shape of meaningful social conduct, provoking effects of ascribed and/or inhabited identity, group formation, alignment and/or distancing (cf. Parkin 2016). These small things include the kinds of routine acts of communication often qualified as “phatic” or otherwise “light” – the use of emojis, memes and likes in social media discourse; sharing, retweeting and reposting; forms of deference, politeness and repair in online conversation; the acquisition and deployment of implicit codes for “normal” conduct in online gaming communities; and the establishment of conviviality in ad-hoc and “light” online groups. Precisely such phenomena are central to the papers in this collection, and the authors all demonstrate how such innocuous, “light” forms of communication have powerful ordering effects in the communities in which they are normatively ratified, structuring not just personal and collective identities, but lodging such identities firmly in highly specific, circumscribable chronotopic forms of context. The chronotopic nature of identity work is hard to overlook in online interactions – all the papers in this collection testify to that – but the validity of that point is undoubtedly much wider (cf. Blommaert & De Fina 2017; Karimzad & Catedral 2018; Kroon & Swanenberg 2019; also Agha 2007). And in the same move, the specific chronotopic character of online discourse points us towards a crucial analytic feature too often neglected but fully addressed by the authors in this volume: infrastructures for social action.
Infrastructures, actions, moralizations
As briefly mentioned above, studies of language-in-society have long taken spoken dyadic interaction as the “primitive” and, consequently, the theoretically most fundamental form of language and language usage. This meant that, in practice and in several braches of the study of language-in-society, a highly fragmentary notion of ‘context’ emerged, often restricted to the ‘co-textual’ features of discourse, i.e. the parts of discourse preceding and following the particular fragment to be analyzed. The invocation of elements of so-called ‘distal context’ (non-immediate [or non-co-textual] inferential material) has consistently been a bone of contention, notably in sub-branches of conversation analysis, and has remained a diacritic identifying specific ‘schools’ and approaches (cf. Gumperz 1982; for discussions see e.g. Silverstein 1992; Cicourel 1992; Duranti 1997; Blommaert 2001). Such narrow views of context, obviously, did not address the fullness of what Goffman called “the social situation”:
“A student interested in the properties of speech may find himself having to look at the physical setting in which the speaker performs his gestures, simply because you cannot describe a gesture fully without reference to the extra-bodily in which it occurs. And someone interested in the linguistic correlates of social structure may find that he must attend to the social occasion when someone of given social attributes makes his appearance before others. Both kinds of students must therefore look at what we vaguely call the social situation. And that is what has been neglected.” (Goffman 1964: 134)
Observe how Goffman balances two dimensions of the social situation here: (a) the ‘hard’ physical setting for interaction and (b) the sociocultural conventions governing the interaction. The first dimension is, if you wish, ‘infrastructural’ and points towards the material conditions affecting the situation and delineating the affordances available to participants. In an age of social media, this infrastructural dimension becomes compelling, and for the simplest possible reason: no form of online communication is possible without the affordances offered by the technology shaping the online sphere of social life.
Infrastructural aspects of the situation are, thus, determining the actions performed online, and they form the decisive argument in favor of the newness of the communicative and interactional phenomena we observe there: no equivalent for the present usage of emojis and hashtags, to name just those, existed prior to the availability of the infrastructures presently organizing and enabling their discursive deployment. These infrastructures have effectively and profoundly reordered the deep structures of the sociolinguistic economies in which we live – the sociolinguistic system in the words of Dell Hymes (1996). There remains, therefore, a huge task ahead of redescribing and reinterpreting modes of interaction and communication that may, indeed, look similar to forms previously attested, but now incorporated in entirely new and fundamentally different patterns of circulation, distribution and social effects. Linguistic similarities should not obscure sociolinguistic differences.
This brings me to the second point. These infrastructures shape new conditions for social action, and close attention to such actions is indispensable in the huge task I just outlined.
One good reason for this is offered in Sinatora’s excellent discussion of online activism in the context of the Syrian crisis, and Tovares’ equally incisive analysis of Ukrainian YouTube examples illustrating emerging grassroots political movements. In both cases, we can see how the online infrastructures shape new public spaces affording modes of political critique and mobilization not otherwise, or elsewhere, possible in that way and to that degree of intensity. Such new spaces are chronotopic (as Al Zidjaly and Sinatora emphasize), in the sense that we should see them as specific timespace configurations in which participant roles, behavioral scripts and appropriate resources for realizing the script are interactionally established as normative. We get, to adopt Garfinkel’s (2002) terminology for a moment, chronotopically circumscribed “formats” for social action requiring constant “congregational work” by those participating in the social actions.
This congregational work is performed by means of new multimodal discursive resources. YouTube clips (as in Tovares’ analysis) evidently belong to this category, but perhaps the clearest examples of new multimodal semiotic resources are the emojis, selfies and memes discussed in the papers by Graham and Gordon, now deployed as normal and unremarkable discourse-functional instruments – an expansion of the repertoires of participants in online discourse events, and a rescripting of genres such as those of “debate” or “learning”. As for the latter, Gordon demonstrates how the use of pictures (selfies, notably) can be deployed as an argumentative device in strategies of persuasion, articulating a particularly compelling “veridictional” epistemic stance – pictures don’t lie, and displaying them puts the addressee in the equally compelling position of “eye witness”.
Such forms of stance-taking and addressee-positioning can be ranged under what Najma Al Zidjaly calls “complex identity work” in online environments. It is the deployment of specific resources – indexicals, in other words – in online chronotopes that enables such complex modes of identity work, and those can be transient and “light”, as in Graham’s online gaming communities. But they can also be oriented towards more traditional “thick” identity categories, such as nationality and ethnolinguistic belonging in Tovares’ discussion of Ukrainian YouTube clips. The “congregations” doing the congregational work can, thus, be organized and oriented in very different ways: pointing towards relatively enclosed online chronotopes (such as that of online gaming), as well as towards a relatively more open online-offline set of chronotopes, such as those of nationality and ethnolinguistic “groupness” or (as in Sinatora’s paper) positions within an existing political field. In each case, we need to look into the fine grain of the congregational work performed by the actors, for we usually only have the actions as hard evidence.
To clarify the latter: in observing online discourse, we cannot as a rule use reliable a priori assumptions about the participants, nor the ratified resources deployed. Participants, as we know, often operate as an avatar in online interaction, rendering impossible any robust inference as to gender, age, nationality and so forth. Add to this the algorithmic effects on audience-shaping and the presence of inactive participants in online interaction (sometimes called “lurkers”) and the methodological issue is clear: we usually don’t know who is involved in the interaction, and this counts both at the individual level and the collective one. As for resources, we can only observe the values and effects they acquire in the interaction itself – take as examples the convivial effects of “light” practices of emoji exchange, of repair and of “winking and nodding” described in the papers by Gordon, Tovares and Graham. There is no a priori “convivial” function to the resources deployed by participants, they are interactionally and chronotopically established as ratified resources within a particular congregation, and they are done so by overwhelmingly “moral” practices of normative ratification, uptake and re-deployment.
Next to infrastructures and actions, moralizations form the final element in the analytical line I can extract from the papers in this volume, and together they cast, in my view, the foundations for a programmatic analytical strategy.. The complex identity work outlined by Al Zidjaly proceeds largely by means of ratifications of (or challenges to) interactional patterns congregationally emerging in online chronotopes. In simpler terms: the moral-normative interactional order is an emergent phenomenon in which existing and relatively enduring moral-normative codes (such as those circumscribing national belonging in Tovares’ paper, political positions in Sinatora’s paper, or membership of specific gaming communities in Graham’s paper) can be blended with, or exchanged for, purely situation-specific actor positions articulating specific epistemic-affective-moral stances in an ongoing event – as we can see in Gordon’s examples of online discussions on weight loss (cf. Tagg, Seargeant & Brown 2917; see also Goodwin 2007). The moral dimension shines through in the plethora of “light” interactional practices of conviviality in online environments – something observable in all the papers in this volume (and see also Varis & Blommaert 2015). And it is best epitomized by the various forms of “like” functions that have become a standard feature of all social media platforms.
From groups to actions and back
I mentioned earlier the established preference in many branches of the study of language-in-society for dyadic spoken interaction as the most elementary and theoretically fundamental form of human communication. And my review of the papers in this volume was aimed at showing the creative revisionism practiced and displayed by the authors. In passing, I hinted at the uncertainty, unavoidable in online contexts, about participant identities, both individually and collectively.
I wish to expand a bit on this latter point, for this, too, refers to an age-old assumption used in studies of language-in-society. The assumption can be summarized as follows: whenever we analyze language-in-society, we see language as the final part of a heuristic triad:
GROUP > INDIVIDUAL > LANGUAGE
In plain terms: the language we analyze is tied to a “([non-]native) speaker”, who in turn is a member of a “(speech/language) community”. Concretely, when we analyze a French utterance, we consider it the product of a speaker of French, who is a member of the French language community. Features of that community affect the individual speaker, and in sequence affect the particular forms of language produced by that individual. Communities and individuals – as identity constructs – are thus seen as pre-existent and somehow “reflected” in the features of language we have in front of us. And while language is a variable given, degrees of stability are attributed to the speaker and the community.
This is a form of sociological imagination, and – I am not the first to observe this – it is flawed on several points (see e.g. Blumer 1969; Cicourel 1973; Williams 1992). One of its flaws is the focus on language as an outcome, a product with a sui generis character, rather than on interaction in which language is deployed as part of a larger behavioral arrangement. In sociological terms, the flaw is in the absence of a theory of action explaining the social order in relation to language-actors. There is no space here for developing the full argument, but when we take interaction as the point of departure – as the most essential form of social action in general – the order of the triad is reversed:
INTERACTION > INDIVIDUAL > GROUP
The papers in this volume provide sound empirical reasons for adopting this alternative theory of action, and I have briefly mentioned them above. In the online chronotopes addressed here, the identity of participants is a matter of fundamental and unsolvable uncertainty, and the tentative or indicative nature of interactional moves (already emphasized by Mead; see Blumer 2004) is highlighted. When we make an interactional move, we do so with an anticipated reaction and uptake by the interlocutor in mind; when the addressee is unknown, such proleptic moves are inevitably more perilous than when we make them in the presence of a better known interlocutor. We thus attempt to make meaningful moves, but unless there is ratifying uptake from someone else our attempts are merely indicative of what we wish to achieve.
This problem was described in an earlier literature on online interaction as “context collapse”:
“the flattening out of multiple distinct audiences in one’s social network, such that people from different contexts become part of a singular group of message recipients”. (Vitak 2012: 541)
Context collapse is the effect of a technology which “complicates our metaphors of space and place, including the belief that audiences are separate from each other” (Marwick & boyd 2010: 115). We see how, in this definition of the problem, the flawed assumptions mentioned above control the argument. We can only produce clear and transparent meanings from within clearly defined communities of which we as well as our audiences are members – so it seems. When we examine the interaction itself, however, we see different things: people are eminently able to make themselves understood even in the presence of unknown or diffuse audiences (Szabla & Blommaert 2018; also Tagg, Seargeant & Brown 2017; Georgakopoulou 2017). In fact, it is through the specific actions by participants that “audiences” take shape and that the modes and resources required to make sense to them are identified, very much in the ways documented in this volume by Gordon and Graham. We see how the particular actions of participants precipitate specific identity positions and patterns of normativity within the congregation, regardless of the a priori uncertainty about all of this.
I see the growing awareness of the impact of the online infrastructure on really-existent sociolinguistic economies as an opportunity to change the general direction of our heuristic strategies: not a heuristic that takes us from groups (linearly) towards individuals and eventually towards language; but one in which we start from actual instances of interaction and move towards individuals and groups. This may enable us to make far more accurate and realistic statements about who is who in the online-offline nexus of communication. But even more importantly: it would equip our disciplines with an exceptionally powerful theory of action and, consequently, with exceptional relevance for more general social-theoretical arguments and constructs.
Agha, Asif (2007) Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Blommaert, Jan (2001) Context is/as critique. Critique of Anthropology 21/1: 13-32.
Blommaert, Jan (2015) Commentary: Superdiversity old and new. Language and Communication 44: 82-88.
Blommaert, Jan (2017) Society through the lens of language: A new look at social groups and integration. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 178. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/0a9afaa2-3e77-4ff4-b267-899296bf4150_TPCS_178_Blommaert.pdf
Blommaert, Jan (2018) Durkheim and the Internet: On Sociolinguistics and the Sociological Imagination. London: Bloomsbury.
Blommaert, Jan & Anna De Fina (2017) Chronotopic identities: On the spacetime organization of who we are. In Anna De Fina, Didem Ikizoglu & Jeremy Wegner (eds.) Diversity and Superdiversity: Sociocultural Linguistic Perspectives (GURT Series): 1-15 Washington: Georgetown University Press.
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Garfinkel, Harold (2002) Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Georgakopoulou, Alexandra (2017) ‘Whose context collapse?’ Ethical clashes in the study of language and social media in context. Applied Linguistics Review 8/2-3: 1-32.
Goffman Erving (1964) The neglected situation. American Anthropologist 66/2 (Part 2):133-136
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Karimzad, Farzad & Lydia Catedral (2018) ‘No, we don’t mix languages’: Ideological power and the chronotopic organization of ethnolinguistic identity. Language and Society 47/1: 89-113.
Kroon, Sjaak & Jos Swanenberg (eds.) (2019) Chronotopic Identity Work. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Marwick, Alice &danah boyd (2010) I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media and Society 13/1: 114-133.
Parkin, David (2016) From multilingual classification to translingual ontology: A turning point. In Karel Arnaut, Jan Blommaert, Ben Rampton & Massimiliano Spotti (eds.) Language and Superdiversity: 71-88. New York: Routledge.
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Szabla, Malgorzata & Jan Blommaert (2018) Does context really collapse in social media interaction? Applied Linguistics Review 9/4: 1-29.
Varis, Piia & Jan Blommaert (2015) Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures. Multilingual Margins 2/1: 31-45.
Vitak, Jessica (2012) The impact of context collapse and privacy on social network site disclosures. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 56/4: 451-470.
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 I am grateful to Najma Al Zidjaly for a million things, including bringing me to Oman to attend a spectacularly interesting conference; including her relentless enthusiasm for preparing this collection of papers; and including her infinite patience in waiting for my contribution to the collection..
 Note that I use the term “sociolinguistic” here in its widest sense, not as a disciplinary label but as a loosely descriptive term to capture work addressing language-in-society. For such work, a wide range of disciplinary terms can be and are being used.
 I am making this point with some emphasis because of persistent denials of the innovative character of online sociocultural and sociolinguistic conduct and the necessity to rethink some theoretical foundations of our disciplines as a consequence of this innovation. For an early discussion, see Blommaert (2015).
 Classical variationist sociolinguistics is a textbook example of an approach operating on this assumption (for a discussion, see Eckert 2012). But the idea of the (native) speaker is much more widespread across language-focused disciplines and, certainly in assumed connection with more or less established communities, perennially problematic, as Ben Rampton (1995) conclusively demonstrated. See also Silverstein (1998) for an incisive analysis of the problem.
 Or, one could alternatively say, the flaw is in the adoption of a highly simplistic linear theory of action in which features from the community are merely “carried over” or “transmitted” by individuals into language. See Blumer (2004, chapter 1) for a lucid discussion.