Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is on message

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Jan Blommaert

(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.

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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.

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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…

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Why has Cultural Marxism become the enemy?

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Jan Blommaert

In the colossal manifesto Anders Behring Breivik wrote before killing sixty-plus members of a Norwegian social-democratic youth organization in 2011, “Cultural Marxists” are a prominent category of “traitors”. It is due to the Quisling-esque sellout to the enemy by this overrepresented elite that Europe is now threatened by a genocidal Islamic Jihad, to be perpetrated by the millions of Muslims who immigrated into European countries – so it reads. Consequently, they deserve the death penalty, and Breivik executed more than sixty of them.

Cultural Marxism: the monster

Admittedly, Breivik was an eccentric and a freak even by the standards of ultra-radical European nationalists. But the logic of his ideological constructions is more widely shared and features as a template for fractions of the New Right in Europe and beyond. And the phrase “Cultural Marxism”, still rather marginal in 2011, has in the meantime become a stock term in political debate and in neoconservative writings, and it has precisely the meaning it had in Breivik’s manifesto. In the words of an American organization called “Western Mastery”,

Cultural Marxism has become the cultural branch of globalism. The enormous impact of this ideology on Western culture cannot be understated. It has effectively demolished societal structures and propagated cultural perversion. It has created a society that is racially mixed but extremely politically divided, sexually promiscuous, abrasive, hedonistic, and flat-out bizarre.”

So: what is this monster? And why has it become such an enemy of the Right?

Silly old Marcuse

When Cultural Marxism is described in such writings (and Breivik’s manifesto can serve as an example once more), fingers are pointed in two directions: to Antonio Gramsci and to the Frankfurt School. While Gramsci’s role is somewhat ambivalent – he is implicitly hailed as the inventor of metapolitics, and his strategies have been widely adopted in conservative and New Right politics – the Frankfurt School is usually presented as guilty of a long list of charges. It was the Marxist approach to mass culture developed by Adorno that provoked the “cultural perversion” mentioned in the fragment above, because Adorno exposed the bourgeois foundations of what we generally perceive as beauty and quality. And as for Herbert Marcuse, his “Eros and Civilization” is presented as a frontal attack on the robustly patriarchal and heterosexual Western sexual order, and the harbinger of the “sexually promiscuous, abrasive, hedonistic and flat-out bizarre” characteristics of contemporary Western social life – where abortion, divorce, and equal rights for LGBT people are legally inscribed in the mainstream. Marcuse destroyed (single-handedly, it seems) the age-old structures of authority in family life, in the system of education, in sexual partnership, and he really is the bad guy in stories of this kind. The more since he apparently had an “enormous impact on Western culture”.

One could, of course, spend ages offering factual refutations of almost everything said and written about this representation of “Cultural Marxism” and its enormous influence. But conspiracy theories, even when dressed up in the fancy clothes of academic discourse, are “reasonable” but not rational, and even require an outright disqualification of rationality as the foundation of their plausibility. Even so, Marcuse and his fellow Marxists definitely receive way too much credit for the perceived decay of sexual morals and patriarchal structures. It would be quite “reasonable” for those who blame Cultural Marxism to simply Google “Benjamin Spock” and the “Kinsey Reports” – American sources firmly grounded in the Liberal tradition (not that of Marx), and arguably vastly more influential in the post WW2 Western world than the works of Adorno and Marcuse. Blaming the latter for causing everything that is detested by neoconservatives is a clear case of convenient overkill. And now we can move on to more serious issues.

The cultural branch of globalism

In his address to the UN General Assembly in late September 2018, President Trump declared “the end of the ideology of globalism” and welcomed the “doctrine of patriotism” – a doctrine of “mind your own business”. I’ll return to his interesting choice of words in a moment; for now we can observe that it is exactly this element – the rejection of globalism – that unites Breivik and Trump, Orban and Le Pen, Brexit and Wilders. Globalism is the real enemy, for it presupposes a degree of democratic egalitarianism (the liberty and fraternity of the French Republic and the “all men are born equal” of the American one). And it comes with things such as immigration and sociocultural and political diversity, solidarity with people elsewhere in the world, respect for transnational agreements and loyalty in international cooperation in systems such as that of the EU, the UN and NATO. Taken together, the term “globalism” is the umbrella for everything that is wrong in the eyes of the actors just listed. And all of them militantly promote “patriotism” and its associated lexical field: “nationalism”, “sovereignty”, “independence” and “liberty”.

Trump interestingly qualifies globalism as an “ideology”, and he uses the latter term here as “false consciousness”, as a flawed and distorted representation of reality propagated by ideologues. Ideology, when used in this sense, opens a frame in which terms such as “brainwashing”, “thought control”, “propaganda” and, more recently, “political correctness” co-occur. And here, of course, we encounter the Cultural Marxists once more.

In Breivik’s manifesto, the term Cultural Marxists is very often accompanied by and equated with “Leftists” (of course), with “multiculturalists” and, curiously, “feminists”. Who is guilty of allowing these millions of Jihadists-in-spe into our countries? Yes, the Cultural Marxists are, for it is their “enormous influence” that spawned feminism, which then, in turn (due to, one can read, the softer side of femininity), has made our societies weaker and less confident. And Cultural Marxism is, in itself, a “multiculturalist” project in which the venerable traditions and canons of our Western cultures are critically questioned, deconstructed, ridiculed and denied the solid superiority they used to have. Cultural Marxists, and by extension the entire Left, are in essence postmodern “relativists” (another bad word in these kinds of discourse universe), and their relativism has led to the present threat of cultural, political, and ultimately physical genocide. They have successfully detached the people from their sociocultural roots, and this is a capital crime in Breivik’s eyes.

Cosmopolitan precursors

There are precedents for this, and they are not the most pleasant ones. The meanings now covered by the terms related to Cultural Marxism were at several moments in the 20th century covered by the term “cosmopolitan”. In Nazi Germany, cosmopolitanism was seen as the opposite of “German-ness”, and it was very often used to describe the supposed innate characteristics of Jewish people. The Jews were described as people lacking roots in the German “Volk” and in the Aryan race; due to that, they could not be assumed to be politically loyal to Germany and bore the suspicion of cultural and racial “pollution” – which motivated the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 as well as the “Final Solution”.

The term cosmopolitanism was also used in Nazi propaganda to connect the Jews to Bolshevism, or, slightly reformulated, the foreigner to the Left. The argument was that the Soviet revolution was led by Jews (such as Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev), and that the ensuing international work of the COMINTERN was part of a Jewish strategy to achieve global power. The Jews had invented Bolshevism so as to lure others into a mass movement which was meant to make them the rulers of the world, in short. Since the COMINTERN also influenced communist and socialist parties in Germany and elsewhere, the connection between Jews, German left-wing political opponents and foreign interference in German politics could be conveniently made. The Reichstag fire of 1933 was blamed on underground COMINTERN agents and led to the political purge of the German Left. German socialists and communists were the first inmates of Dachau. The Left, so it was explained, could never be “patriotic” because of its allegiance to political internationalism – remember “proletarians of all countries, unite!”

For Stalin, the proletarians of all countries were just fine, but those of the Soviet Union needed to be, above all, “patriotic” – loyal to Stalin and embodying the values of the Stalinist Soviet Union. In 1946, the Zhdanov Doctrine was introduced, forcing artists, intellectuals and scientists into a straitjacket of what would now be called “political correctness”. Jewish intellectuals were a particular target of the enforcement of this doctrine, for (in an echo of Nazi propaganda) the Jews were suspected of “rootless cosmopolitanism“, of a preference for influences and developments “from elsewhere” lacking (and thus betraying or sabotaging) the true character of the Soviet Union and its culture. Here, too, cosmopolitanism was seen as a threat to power, stability and sociocultural tradition, and people whose profession invites an openness to such influences (think of, precisely, artists, scientists and intellectuals) were identified as prime targets for repression. Interestingly, such targets were often accused of political alignment with … Leftism: Trotskist, anarchist or social-democratic inclinations, i.e. foreign influences at odds with the views of the Soviet, “patriotic” variety of socialism.

What’s left of Cultural Marxism?

There is, we can observe, a long discourse tradition in which the present attacks on Cultural Marxism fit. But let us now return to the 21st century.

It is hard not to see reflections of the 20th century “rootless cosmopolitan Jew” in the ways in which the American-Hungarian billionaire George Soros is represented in current political discourse in Hungary. Soros – not a man of the Left by any standards – fell out with Viktor Orban over the Hungarian stance towards refugees in 2015. What followed was an avalanche of accusations in which the “cosmopolitan” Soros was accused of interference into Hungarian domestic politics through the transnational institutions and NGO’s he controlled. In other words, his “globalism” was attacked from within the “patriotism” which is Hungary’s current doctrine, and the trigger for the attack was that prototypical 21st century icon of “globalism”: migration.

The backlash against Soros quickly focused on the usual suspects: intellectuals. The Central European University in Budapest, one of Soros’ transnational institutions described as “a bastion of Liberalism”, came under threat of closure. In the same move, the gender studies program at one of Hungary’s leading universities lost its accreditation. As explained by a leading Hungarian politician,

“We must raise awareness to the fact that these programs are doing nothing to lift up our nation. In fact, they are destroying the values-centered mode of thinking that is still present in the countries of Central Europe”.

It is highly unusual for the government of an EU member state to interfere in what used to be called “academic freedom”, and the measure met severe criticism internationally. Orban, however, remained unperturbed even when the EU threatened Hungary with unprecedented sanctions. In his view, cheered on by the likes of Nigel Farage, the EU should stop preventing its member countries from using their sovereign powers. The EU, in short, is way too “globalist” an institution, an alien body that should not take the place of “patriotic” national governments.

We can see, through this example, that the trope of the Cultural Marxists as sole, or main, agents of “globalism” is in actual fact a canard of considerable size. Soros is not a Cultural Marxist; there is, in fact, little evidence that he has ever been influenced by any form of Marxism. He is a cosmopolitan entrepreneur, though, whose reach of activities is global – but in a very different sense than the one intended by Marx and Engels when they wrote “proletarians of all countries, unite!”

The same goes for the EU, of which one can say all sorts of things but not that it is a vehicle for Cultural Marxism. I invite critical readers to, for instance, consult the texts of the EU Commission’s Horizon 2020 program and identify fundable topics in which we detect the “enormous influence” of, for instance, “Eros and Civilization”.  And as for immigration, I welcome (critically though) analyses in which the German employers‘ repeated emphasis on the necessity of a qualified labor force of refugees (including Muslims, ladies and gentlemen) to maintain the German economy’s growth rate can be turned into a Breivikian Leftist conspiracy to weaken Europe and its peoples.

Roger Scruton, in a more civilized argument than that of Breivik, might view these German employers as “xenophiles” – people who have a preference for foreign cultures and who are, vice versa, “oikophobic”, displaying an aversion of what is ours. “Xenophilia” is yet another term we can add to “globalism” and “cosmopolitism”: it’s the wrong kind of openness to the world. But the flaw in the argument is obvious: according to Scruton and his followers, xenophilia is typically a Leftist attitude, incompatible with that of, say, Orban, Farage or Baudet. Yet, it appears compatible to that of international entrepreneurs such as George Soros or the management of Siemens and Volkswagen. Or such as Angela Merkel and the EU Council, for immigration is very much regulated by governments, not by Cultural Marxists writing books and holding speeches. As advocates and agents of immigration and political Liberalism, all those unlikely xenophiles appear to stand on the left of Cultural Marxism these days.

Globalism and globalization

We can see that the argument connecting Cultural Marxism to all that is wrong with the present Western world when seen from a Right-wing or conservative viewpoint is terrifically muddled and incoherent. It’s an easy shot: connect your political opponent (the Left) to the lack of national political agency due to international collaboration systems (“globalism”) and a racialized, ethnicized or culturalized and moralized version of a national utopia (polluted by migration and threatened by Muslims, feminists and LGBT people), and you have a discursive template that enables you to explain everything while actually addressing nothing. It’s a political-discursive passe-partout, reasonable for those willing to believe it, but profoundly irrational. The latter was demonstrated by President Trump himself. Shortly after solemnly declaring the end of “globalism”, he called upon the UN Security Council (one of the great fora of post-WW2 “globalism”, if you wish) to back the US sanctions against Iran. Thus, his new doctrine can be reformulated as “mind your own business, while I’ll mind everyone else’s”, and transnationalism hasn’t yet left the building.

Part of the incoherence is the confusion of a fuzzy and highly elastic term such as “globalism” with a highly precise and concrete concept such as “globalization”. Globalization is the development of a worldwide system of cooperation, mutual influence, exchange and interaction, and it has “hard” economic and political dimensions as well as “soft” cultural and ideological ones. People such as Soros, the Siemens and Volkswagen managers and the EU leadership are very much in the business of “hard” globalization, and so is President Trump. But both dimensions cannot be easily separated, for an important part of that “hard” globalization is a global industry of “soft” cultural and ideological commodities. (This, one should note, is the decisive insight of the Frankfurt School’s Cultural Marxists).  Rupert Murdoch‘s worldwide media empire is a major actor in it, and while this empire makes quite a bit of “hard” money, it also considerably influences the “soft” cultural and ideological aspects of societies included in the empire. Mr Zuckerberg’s Facebook-Twitter-etc. industry does the same. If there is any real “enormous impact on Western culture”, it should be sought with its real actors, not with those who merely analyzed it. And if we look for the “cultural branch of globalism” (or, more precisely, globalization), perhaps we should look in that direction are well.

So why is the so-called “globalism” of so-called Cultural Marxist such an enemy? Perhaps the – paradoxical – answer can be found in globalization. Immanuel Wallerstein, one of the most insightful scholars of globalization, described years ago how globalized capitalism required a multiplicity of individual states, so that unfavorable business conditions in one state could be played off against favorable ones offered by other states. Large interstate systems or agreements – think of the EU now – can be favorable for business because they shape large markets; but they can become unfavorable because they would have the power to impose and enforce constraints, regulations and restrictions across that large market. The latter tendency is what “globalism” stands for in President Trump’s speech: it’s a rejection of multilateral economic regulation, to be replaced by “patriotism” – a monopoly over regulation in one’s own country.

Wallerstein also described how, in conditions of increasing globalization, culture would become the major battlefield. It is through the use of culture as an argument that individual states can make arguments in favor of protecting their own scope of agency and refuse or minimize more far-reaching forms of transnational integration. The process is cyclical, Wallerstein argues: phases of increasing integration (and, typically, of economic growth) would be accompanied by emphases on universalism, while phases of decreasing integration (and, typically, of economic recession) would be accompanied by emphases on racism and sexism.

We are far removed here from Leftist xenophilia and oikophobia, from “globalism” versus “patriotism” and from Cultural Marxists-multiculturalists-feminists. We’re in a world here of pretty robust historical facts. I would invite people to, at least, explore them, for looking at the hard facts of globalization and its effects can be massively helpful in addressing the catastrophically twisted ideas of people such as Breivik.

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Ergo: exploring the world of alternative facts

Capture Conway

Jan Blommaert

This short note is part of the Online with Garfinkel project.

It’s late January 2017. Donald Trump had just been inaugurated, and his Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in his first press briefing, had referred to record numbers of spectators at the event. This claim was swiftly and conclusively debunked. NBC submitted this “demonstrable falsehood” to senior White House staff member Kellyanne Conway, and her reply became the stuff of legends. According to Conway, Spicer had merely offered alternative facts, not falsehoods. This statement marked the beginning of what has, in the meantime, become an institutional discourse tradition: confrontational debates over the truth, over fake news, over what constitutes reality-as-we-know-it.

For many, the very term “alternative facts” is an oxymoron, since facts are absolute. Either things are facts, or they are not, and relativism when it comes to factuality runs counter to most of our cultural assumptions about what constitutes knowledge and truth. So here is the question: how did Conway come up with this oxymoron? And how come people believe such things?

Rational versus reasonable

Part of the answer is general, another part is specific. Let me start with the general part. Garfinkel and other interactionists – think of Everett C. Hughes, Aaron Cicourel and Erving Goffman – will be useful in formulating this general part.

The point of departure is a fundamental assumption used in ethnomethodology and related branches of interactionism: in their everyday conduct, people continuously try to make sense of what goes on around them, working from details and singular events towards larger frames in which such details and events can be made to fit and become meaningful, recognizable as instances of social order. We are sense-making creatures seeking coherence – that is the summary of this assumption. We seek such coherence by trying to fit small things into bigger frames. And in thus seeking coherence, we are reasonable. This latter term, however, demands utmost precision and clarity.

First, being reasonable should be distinguished from being rational. In fact, we will see below how critical this distinction is theoretically as well as in the political, ideological and sociocultural practices I shall mention later.

Being rational is the form of orientation to knowledge and truth we have inherited from Enlightenment and modern science: it stands for a “facts only” approach and for strictly logical forms of argument in which disciplined rules of hypothesis-building and evidence support are being employed in explaining issues or answering questions. Such answers are conclusive and yield facts, the status of which is absolute. This rational orientation to knowledge comes with an attitude we call “objectivity”, with a degree of detachment and disinterestedness in making arguments. In our culture, it is widely seen and institutionally embedded as a superior orientation to knowledge (which is why Habermas, for instance, saw it as the key to the construction of a healthy democratic public sphere). Facts, rationally established, are also disembodied items, not tied to people or communities but transcending them. Facts are usually “hard”.

Being reasonable is a much less precise orientation to knowledge, and – not to put too fine a point on it – “reasonable” stands for “credible”, something we and our interacting others are ready to accept as true, correct, valid, and to which we are ready to be held accountable. It is undoubtedly a form of reasoning in which explanations are offered, but it does not rely on a codex of disciplined and disciplinary rules. Garfinkel coined the term “ethno-methods” to denote such forms of being reasonable: people in their everyday lives build and use “theories” of how things are and should be, and these theories structure their conduct and interactions with others. Such theories are “subjective” and often irrational, even if they can be experienced as unshakably true, as “visibly rational” (to quote Garfinkel). Culturally, however, they are perceived as inferior to rational orientations towards knowledge: they are the stuff of “folk” theorizing, “opinion” and “common sense”. This is “soft” stuff.

It is important to realize that both orientations to knowledge, the rational as well as the reasonable, share crucial features. Both are ways of making sense of reality-as-it-occurs-to-us, and both do so by establishing explanatory patterns we call ergoic – from Latin “ergo”, meaning “because” or “therefore”. Ergoic patterns are patterns of explanation in which small things – evidence – are explained in terms of bigger and more general propositions – theory. We observe a phenomenon or event, and it can be explained as related to a larger and more general pattern: it is what it is because (ergo) it fits into the larger pattern.The difference between both orientations to knowledge is in how ergoic patterns can be and are being made, the conditions under which ergoic patterns are being ratified: strict  rules of method apply to rational orientations, while such rules are absent (or at least hugely less rigorous) in reasonable orientations.

As Garfinkel and others explained at length, we are reasonable most of the time and rational, in the sense specified earlier, whenever we feel we need to be. Being rational, one could say, is a historically specialized form of being reasonable; the fact that we judge it to be the superior orientation to knowledge does not automatically make it into the most widely practiced one. After all, Mr. Spock came from another planet.

This is the point where we can become more specific and return to Mrs. Conway’s world of alternative facts.

Making the rational unreasonable

Mrs. Conway used her notion of alternative facts as a rebuttal of what the NBC anchor submitted to her as “demonstrable falsehoods” – the ridiculously inflated numbers of spectators at Trump’s inauguration. The NBC anchor, we can see, made his claim from within a rational orientation to knowledge. Facts are facts; no bargaining can be admitted when such facts are “demonstrably” established, and other accounts are in the same move conclusively and in absolute terms established as non-facts, as fiction. No two ways about it: it’s about proof, not about belief.

Mrs. Conway’s baffling reply (obviously irritating the NBC anchor) marked a moment in a political evolution in the US, the origins of which are older and instances of which more widely disseminated. Her statement marked the moment when that evolution became institutionalized, when it became the voice of the White House. And the evolution it marked is the rise of New Right-wing metapolitics. In what follows, I will describe four crucial features of such metapolitics.

1. Disqualify the rational

The first feature is the consistent disqualification of the rational as the superior orientation towards knowledge. This is done by a systematic denial of the sociocultural connotations we attribute to the rational: its status as objective, disinterested, detached voice serving as a critical instrument for democratic political systems. These connotations are replaced by their exact opposite: a conspiracy theory.

The conspiracy theory can be quickly summarized. Rational “facts” are a tool of oppression, a creation of a Left-wing elite (sometimes called “cultural Marxists”) aimed at suppressing and dismissing – here it comes – alternative facts. These alternative facts are experienced by “ordinary people”. But they never make it to the headlines of the mass media, the textbooks used in training university students, or policy papers, since the media, the world of expertise and the major political instruments are all in the hands of this over-represented “Left-wing” elite. Rational facts are, consequently, lies maliciously spread by these elite actors, while the facts experienced by “ordinary people” are ridiculed, their reality dismissed as fiction.

Consequently, it is not those who are officially licensed to be rational, define facts and non-facts, and speak the truth who should be listened to. Quite the contrary: the truth is in our hands, and we are those who are truly rational.

Capture Truth

Another convenient consequence of this conspiracy theory is that absence or scarcity of evidence does not cripple one’s version of the truth – it confirms it, since facts are deliberately withheld from the “ordinary people”. Similarly, arguments are immune to rebuttals using rational, “objective” and “hard” facts, since such facts are … deliberately constructed lies, attempts at thought control or brainwashing, or political correctness.

The connection between democracy and the rational orientation to knowledge, inherited from Enlightenment and institutionalized in education, media and politics, has been disqualified. In its stead, the reasonable orientation to knowledge moves towards the center of what is seen as a democratic system. It moves from “soft” to “hard”, to something unshakable.

To this disqualification of what we can call “institutional” rationality, another extremely powerful feature needs to be added.

2. Moralize the truth

We have already seen how the disqualification of rational orientations to knowledge included a focus on the actors: “facts” were to be dismissed because they were produced by the wrong people. The disembodied nature of rational facts, thus, is replaced by a profound and analytically crucial merger of knowledge, person, and morality. The truth, so it is claimed, is in the hands of honest, decent people. The truth, in other words, is no longer lodged in “objective” facts, the status of which cannot be challenged in random ways. It is lodged in concrete people who embody the right moral values. The truth becomes a matter of identity.

Of course, the truth is and has always been a profoundly moralized concept, which is why our vocabulary of terms for handling the truth is deeply moral in nature and projects moralized identities upon people. When we speak the truth we are “honest”, “sincere”, “reliable”, “truthful” and so on; when we don’t we are “liars”, “dishonest”, “untrustworthy”, “false”, “corrupt” and so forth. A term such as “fake news”, consequently, is not just a judgment of a particular chunk of knowledge; it includes a moral judgment of its actors, of those who produce, believe and circulate it.

Capture dishonesty

When the truth is moralized, we are moralized, and so are our actions. When we wage a struggle, the struggle is not a vulgar one – for power or money – but a struggle for values. After all, we are fighting for the truth, for a society governed by the truth. Our struggle, thus, demands all that is attached to moral greatness: courage, determination, sacrifice, discipline, persistence. Which is why such struggles are often imagined not merely as wars but as crusades.

Capture crusade

Such imagined crusades can take ludic shapes, as in the meme just shown. But they can also be deadly serious, as in the case of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik.

Capture Breivik crusade

Breivik, as we know, described a new Knights Templar order in his long manifesto, reaching back to the early crusades. And he assassinated about 70 “liars” and “traitors”: members of a social-democratic youth movement in Norway. Crusades are real.

3. Do the ergoic work

We have seen earlier that ergoic patterns are at the core of what “being reasonable” actually means; we have also seen that it consists in relating small things – incidents, events, phenomena, occurrences – to larger patterns, to a “theory”.

This theory, we also saw, does not require the disciplined methodical underpinning of a rational theory. Absence of evidence simply constitutes proof of its validity; scarcity or falseness of evidence as well. What is required is (a) a Grand Narrative and (b) some evidence. A widespread Grand Narrative is that of Islam as a hostile religion, and of Muslims as engaged in a Jihad against “us”. This highly elastic proposition is directly connected to another very flexible theme: immigration. Immigration is always “mass importation” of “potentially dangerous enemies” who will eventually exterminate the populations of the Christian West.

Capture Wilders

(Translation: Fight with me… MORE MORE MORE: truth; no more political correctness; freedom of speech, our highest good; renewed sovereignty, no more EU-puppet; closed borders, no more Muslim migrants. LESS LESS LESS: ban Islam, a political ideology of conquest; get rid of the Qur’an, a book replete with hatred towards you; close al mosques, centers for jihadists; no more Islamic schools, poisoning. A Free Netherlands, Our Netherlands, Vote PVV, Party of Freedom)

We shall all perish because of the complicity of our leading Left-wing elites, who are actually (and especially through transnational systems of governance such as the EU, the UN or NATO) conspiring with the Arabs against us, in attempts to Islamize Europe. These elites, therefore, are our enemies. We shall perish through genocidal Jihad, and/or through demographic genocide – the gradual but steady increase of Muslim populations in the West, eventually turning “us” into a minority.

Capture Eurabia

Evidence for this Grand Narrative can be found in the smallest anecdotes relating to Muslim intolerance, aggression or cultural-religious assertiveness: women wearing the hijab, halal food in mainstream supermarkets, the use of Arabic as a publicly displayed language, Muslims complaining about violations of their rights and freedom of religion, Muslims attacking or verbally abusing non-Muslims, Western politicians meeting their Middle-Eastern counterparts or giving speeches at Muslim religious events (often qualified as soumission, following the title of a novel by Houellebecq) – there is no limit to what can be used as “facts” to prove the theory, and if there is a shortage of such facts, they can be manufactured.  Here is a short list of such hoaxes retweeted by Donald Trump.

Capture Trump retweets

The latter takes us to the fourth and final feature.

4. Use all the affordances of social media

Social media are excellent platforms for this kind of ergoic work. The economy of circulation on social media is characterized by speed, frequency and intensity, and quick ergoic patterns can be established by exploiting these affordances through short, often visual (or visually-supported), messages such as memes or gifs, or through the crisp and concise reiteration of the Grand Narrative as shown in some examples above. Veritable saturation bombardments can be performed this way.

Here are some examples, and note the ergoic patterns we observe in them.

CaptureLebanon

Capture London has fallen

Capture Allahu meme

Capture making muslims

The world of Ergo-ism.

Such ergoic patterns constitute “alternative facts”. They form a self-contained “truth”, immune to any form of factual refutation, for such refutations are – within this world of alternative facts – seen as conclusive evidence of the truth. Grounded in everyday forms of reasoning and sense-making, they have explanatory power, they create coherence in how people view their world, and they define individual and group identities. Supported by an infrastructure of social media offering unique affordances tailor-made for such quick-and-dirty explanations, they become extraordinarily persuasive – persuasive enough to turn electorates toward candidates and parties embodying the moralized “true” truth.

We live in a world where such ergo-ism defines the codes and standards of mass information and public debate. Whether this development is likely to make us “great again” is highly questionable. It is the topic of intense debate as well. And one element in such debates is inevitable: it is insufficient to simply disqualify such forms of ergoic work as a new form of obscurantism, as an endless supply of nonsense and unbelievable inferential quantum-leaps. We are facing here the rationality of our times. or better: the rationalities of our times, for there are multiple rationalities competing in the public sphere and reshaping what we used to call Modernity. Yes, the very term “alternative facts” could qualify as the ultimate marker of post-Modernity, since it turns something absolute – the rational orientation to knowledge – into a relative thing co-existing alongside a range of alternative ones. But even when we admit that we should address the puzzling moral absolutism with which such alternative versions are held to be the one-and-only truth. This is, if anything, an absolutist relativism – in itself quite an unbelievable thing.

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The pleasures of an alias on social media.

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Jan Blommaert

One of the intriguing things I keep hearing from people who are active on social media is that they use an alias there, because the use of their real name would prevent them from ‘being myself’. This always triggers a critical question from me: isn’t your real name part of your core identity? And how can you be really yourself when you avoid using that absolute and primary identity label of yours – your real name?

While the point might seem trivial to some, it is quite a challenge to widespread perceptions of what it is to be ‘real’. In his classic Seeing like a state, James Scott explained at great length how important the use of fixed and structured personal names was for the emerging nation-states of Modernity. The names we got (often somewhere in the 18th-19th century) became the alfa and omega of the bureaucratic system of governance: when a name could be conclusively stuck onto an individual, that individual was ‘known’ and could be treated as a subject with rights, entitlements, duties and obligations derived from bureaucratically administered laws and rules. We carry our names, consequently, on a range of identity documents: passport, social security or health insurance card, driver’s license, staff card, library card, and so forth; we write and read our names on the top of thousands of official documents that regulate our everyday lives. Why? Because our names identify us as real, as really existing persons that can be identified, held responsible, involved or excluded from social and political processes. In view of that, avoiding to use your real name, hiding it from others or giving a false name when asked for it, is strongly associated with deviance, abnormality, transgression, crime.

On social media, however, the practice is widespread. Very large numbers of otherwise decent and upstanding citizens operate ‘undercover’, if you wish, hiding behind the mask of a bogus name and arguing that it is this mask that enables them to be ‘real’ in interactions with others on social media. It shows us how different the rules and codes of social media interaction are, and how these technologies have shaped a different area of social action operating alongside those of the ‘real’ world of nation-state bureaucratic and social life.

The people I know and with whom I had the occasion to talk to about this practice argued that an alias grants them a modicum of freedom of speech on social media. In that sense, it offered them some degree of freedom to speak freely, without the obstacles and restrictions generated by offline life. Their real names, as said above, connect them to the rights and entitlements, but also the restrictions of offline existence, and such restrictions might be compelling. Their employers, for instance, might not be amused by some of the Tweets posted by known employees; such expressions of individual opinion and subjectivity could get them into trouble with political patrons, relatives or other members of the offline communities in which they function. The structures of their ‘real’ offline social existence, in short, prevent them from speaking freely in the public sphere generated by social media.

The use of an alias, thus, is usually an effect of conscious and calibrated decisions in which the opportunities of the online public culture are weighed against the conventional restrictions of offline public culture. Different sets of norms and codes of conduct are measured against each other, and the conclusion for these people is that you can only be uniquely and really yourself on social media when you delete or mask your real name – when you become someone else or remain an anonymous voice, in other words.

I see this as part of ‘the care of the selfie’. We are familiar with the argument developed by a range of scholars, from Foucault to Goffman, that our social existence in Modernity is dependent on large and infinitely detailed sets of norms and regulations for impression management, aimed at appearing as a ‘normal’ subject in the eyes of others. These norms and regulations are socially sanctioned, and all of us are invited to internalize and incorporate them through self-regulation and self-censorship – the things Foucault called ‘the care of the self’. What the use of aliases on social media demonstrates, I think, is how this offline care of the self is now complemented by similar sets of norms and regulations governing our online social lives. The use of aliases, along with a range of other practices, is part of a constructed ‘selfie’, an identity designed solely for online presence.

When meticulously constructed, maintained and applied, this selfie offers us the pleasures of aspects of social life not attainable elsewhere. Or, if you wish, it offers us membership into a community culture that runs in conjunction with the cultures of offline communities but can no longer be detached from it. Which is why we can be truly ourselves there in very different ways from those we practice elsewhere.

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Take care of your CV!!

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Jan Blommaert

On contemporary identity asset management

My university offers students a range of tools and tips for a particular genre of autobiography: the curriculum vitae or CV. The CV is considered of great importance in view of future careers, and in view of that, students are encouraged to start hoarding valuable CV elements, which then need to be handled very much in the ways asset managers handle real capital.

Surely, my university is not the odd one out. In fact, a brief search on the internet yields enormous numbers of CV-supporting resources, from standard CV templates and “best practice” examples  to “how to” sites and online courses or training packages suggesting ways to brush up, polish or customize the potentially less appealing aspects of your CV and turn you into the best product on the labor market.

The CV and who you really are

I often ask my students the following question. Imagine you fancy someone and want to date him or her; imagine you manage to get a date, and during that first encounter your interlocutor hands you his or her CV, saying: “it’s all in there”. Would you go on dating him or her? Would you accept a CV as an adequate way to really get to know that person? And if not, why not? Isn’t your CV supposed to be a truthful account of the curriculum of your vita? Or is the CV a lie?

Students usually dismiss the question with arguments such as “hey, I don’t want to employ that person, I want to date him or her”. And dating, naturally, demands an identity presentation which is very different from the one you would offer a potential employer. In dating, you want to meet the real person, while when you apply for a job, it’s about what you have to offer to do that job. A CV is a selection, let’s say, of one’s autobiography. A selection specifically tailored to the demands of an economic role. And sure, you should not lie in your CV. But no, you should equally not tell everything to your potential employer. With someone you date you equally should not lie, but there should be a measure of completeness in your identity presentation: you’re also not supposed to hold back things from each other.  In dating, you must see the entire person. This is common sense.

Or is it? There are studies pointing out that finding employment in a liberalized and flexible labor market involves vastly more than just displaying and accounting for “professional” qualifications, and that employers increasingly emphasize personality features as elements for employability: dynamism, natural leadership, optimism, energy, eagerness and determination. So there too, we see that withholding the entire person from the potential employer’s gaze can play against you. The potential employer, for instance, may find additional, contradictory or qualifying information on you through your social media accounts, and such information can jeopardize your career chances. So while the CV is, indeed, a selection of your autobiography, other parts of it also play a role. The division between a work-oriented identity presentation and one intended for personal relationships is no longer that clear cut.

Identity asset management

This is, in fact, stressed by my university’s career center.

“Your CV will not stand out if you did not undertake any extracurricular activities. Therefore you should start building up a good CV during your student days. The most useful strategy is to gear your extracurricular activities to the job you are envisaging after your graduation.”

Such extracurricular activities include serving on a student board, promoting student participation and taking extra courses. Elsewhere in my university, posters and flyers tell me that joining the student union on foreign trips is a “boost to your CV”, that spending a term in a foreign university equally provides extra CV dash, and that learning foreign languages is a highly valuable asset for your CV. Employers – so one suggests – will be able to read precisely these non-formal identity features off your CV when they see such extracurricular points there. That is when your CV will “stand out”.

The logic behind all of this is an economic logic. It has been described by numerous scholars, including Michel Foucault, as a neoliberal logic in which individuals are strongly encouraged to “privatize” themselves, turn themselves into a micro-enterprise in a competitive market where one has to “stand out” in order to win. They must do so by means of a permanent autobiography, a continuously reorganized and enriched story about who they are. And they must do the latter by a form of hoarding – by accumulating and amalgamating separate items of identity, judged to be valuable in the terms of the market, and perpetually performing what can best be called identity asset management to it. The valuable identity items – identity assets – need to be accumulated, invested, maximized as to return-on-investment, traded and submitted to the value estimations of numerous others.

Take care of your CV

Foucault uses the term “veridiction” for such phenomena. We have strong beliefs that particular forms of identity presentation are “the truth” – which is why you cannot lie in your CV. Your identity assets, seen from that angle, are small chunks of “truth” about yourself. Yes, you did obtain an MA degree in 2016, and yes, you also did take Intermediate Italian evening classes in your graduation year. But, Foucault underscores, this “truth” is, in actual fact, a social truth, a truth fashioned according to the formats proposed by others. Yes, most of us have internalized the criteria of others, believing that they are our own (and, thus, absolute as a truth). But support infrastructures such as my university’s career center show that these criteria are very much out there, and that internalizing them requires a learning and socialization process.

Which is why your assets have to be managed. You have to constantly upgrade and rearrange them, expand and reconfigure them, withdraw them from low-yield investments and reinvest them in high-yield ones, so as to “stand out” whenever you have to stand out. Your identity is your real and lasting private assets fund, and you need to manage it well – carefully when needed, aggressively when possible. And you need to do this because the social criteria for identity asset value are unstable, fluctuating and volatile – like “the markets” in general – and your identity capital’s value depends on such fluctuating valuations.

Identity asset management is the format of truth

I now have to return to the dating-and-CV example above. Students made a distinction between the specific and selective character of the CV as a genre tailored for an economic context, and the completeness of the person we seek in dating. I gave one qualification already: also in the economic context we see the expectation of completeness when it comes to identity presentation. You need to be more than just labor force, you need to be the most interesting and fabulous person on earth in order to get the job we offer.

There is a second qualification as well. When we examine dating apps – and there are many of them, and tens of millions of people use them – we see how the logic of identity asset management is played out on these platforms as well. Profiles on dating sites are equally a highly selective and specific composition of identity assets, not made for the labor market but for the market of friendship, love and sex. And these identity assets are managed whenever anyone swipes the screen or adds a comment to someone else’s profile or messages.

As zones of social activity, dating and employment may have more in common than what common sense suggests. What we can see is that both are affected by the same economic logic of identity asset management, even if the particular “fund” of assets might be very different. In this online-offline world of ours, this form of identity presentation may have become a format of truth. Or at least, it may be well underway to becoming such a format.

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From actions to groups and back: collective action in hashtag activism

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Plenary lecture, conference Communication in the Multilingual City, Birmingham, 28-29 March 2018.

Jan Blommaert

In today’s multilingual city, a lot of communication is done in online environments. In fact, even in places that do not, perhaps, see themselves as multilingual, it is online communication that makes them multilingual (as much of the work on rural provinces in The Netherlands performed by my good Tilburg colleague Jos Swanenberg has demonstrated). The argument is not new, I know, and it has been reiterated at this conference as well. But let me nonetheless repeat it, for it underlies what follows: contemporary sociolinguistic environments are defined by the online-offline nexus, and this propels us towards two analytical directions: complexity and multimodality. I shall engage with both in this talk.

My engagement with these phenomena has pushed me, of late, to reflect on a very broad social-theoretical topic. That topic is: “what are groups”? Who actually lives in these multilingual cities?, and how do people whose social lives are continually dispersed over offline and online context arrive at forms of collective action?

Note that the question “what are groups” has been a recurrent one in social thought throughout the past century and a half. It always accompanies major technological and infrastructural transformations of societies: the breakthrough and spread of printed newspapers, the telegraph, cinema, telephone, television kept Weber, Durkheim and Simmel busy, as well as the Frankfurt School, Dewey, Lippman and later Giddens, Habermas, Bourdieu and Castells. New technologies each time called into question the very nature of what it meant to be social. That is: what it meant to form communities and collective action, using instruments not previously available. The question “what are groups” is, thus, inevitable when we consider the online-offline nexus that characterizes our societies at present.

In addressing the question, I take my cues from Garfinkel and other Symbolic Interactionists (including the Goodwins, I must underscore), for reasons that will be made clear in due course. Let me say at this point that contemporary social and sociolinguistic complexity creates a serious degree of unpredictability, in that we cannot presuppose, let alone take for granted, much of what mainstream social theory has offered us to conceptualize communities, identities and social life. What Garfinkel offers is a rigorous, even radical, action-focused perspective on society, in which groups are seen as EFFECTS of specific forms of social interactions.

EFFECTS, not GIVENS that determine and define the interactions. I underscore this for it isn’t what we normally do: we tend to take groups and group identities as pre-given when we consider interaction, and then observe what such groups and identities “do” in interaction. For Garfinkel this is not an option. He argues that social collectives are the product of collective social action – which is always interaction of course. And when is such action collective? When the activities deployed by participants are RECOGNIZABLE to others in terms of available cultural material. It is as soon as we recognize someone else’s actions as meaningful in terms of available (and thus recognizable) resources for meaning, that we engage in collective social action, display and enact the formats we know as characterizing the specific social relationships possibly at play, and operate as a group.

In the online space, we have no access to the embodied cues that offer us pointers to the interloctors’ identities in offline talk, but we can still observe social interaction and the ways in which it points us to groups. Groups cannot be an a priori, but they can be an a posteriori of analysis.

Methodologically, this is how I reformulate Garfinkel’s focus on action. I use a very simple, four-line set of principles. ONE: whenever we see forms of communication we can safely assume that they involve meaningful social relationships as prerequisite, conduit and outcome. TWO, such relationships will involve modes of identity categorization. THREE, observing modes of interaction, thus, brings us at the very hard of what it is to be social. And FOUR, we must be specific and avoid quick generalizations, for differences in action will lead to different outcomes.

In what follows, I will take these simple principles to a typical online phenomenon: memic hasthtag activism. Memic hashtag activism has become, rather quickly in fact, a major new format of political activism, certainly where Twitter is concerned. And even if it is by definition an online form of action mobilizing the now-typical online multimodal resources for interaction, there are clear offline effects too.

The particular case I have chosen here is Dutch, and it revolves around the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, mister Halbe Zijlstra. Let us quickly provide some general informative points.

Zijlstra was until very recently a rising star in Dutch politics, climbing fast through the ranks of the ruling liberal party VVD due to a very close relationship with Prime Minister Rutte. When the most recent Dutch government was formed, Zijlstra got the plum job of Minister of Foreign Affairs. So far so good.

Now, Halbe Zijlstra had for years been telling a story. The story was that, in a pre-political capacity, he was present at a party at Vladimir Putin’s datcha, where he overheard Putin saying that Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet stations should become part of a future Greater Russia. He had heard Putin saying something that could, in other words, be an indication of Russian imperialist ambitions.

In February 2018, while Zijlstra was preparing to meet his Russian counterpart Lavrov, a newspaper reported that all of this was a lie. Now, you must know that the relations between The Netherlands and Russia are delicate due to the incident with a Malaysian airliner shot down in 2014 over the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine, killing 193 Dutch nationals. Zijlstra’s talks with Lavrov were announced to be tough, and just as that was about to happen, Halbe Zijlstra’s credibility got shot to pieces.

There were two problems. ONE, it was shown that Zijlstra was never present at that party. A top executive of oil company Shell was there, and Zijlstra had heard the account second hand, from him. The SECOND problem, however, was that this Shell guy came out saying that Putin had actually argued something else: Ukraine, Georgia and so on were past of Greater Russia’s past, not its future. Halbe Zijlstra, in short, had been caught “pants down”, lying quite nastily about the people he now had to do business with.

Social media went bananas, and on Twitter a meme-storm started, which lasted for 24 hours and operated under the hashtag #HalbeWasErbij – in English “Halbe was there”. A hashtag, by the way, is a framing device that ties large numbers of individual messages thematically, pragmatically and metapragmatically together within a common broad indexical vector. And in this function, it is of course an online innovation.

Let’s now have a look at the meme-storm.

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Obviously, Halbe’s claim that he WAS THERE with Putin became a meme theme. Hilarious parodies of this theme, preposterously suggesting intimacy between both, started circulating. Zijlstra was with Putin on a trip into the woods.

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His photo dominates the Kremlin.

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And Putin supports Zijlstra in the Dutch Parliament.

Those are straightforward memes, even to some extent logical and expected permutations of Zijlstra’s claims. But “Halbe Was There” can of course be made more productive as a motif. And this is what happens in meme-storms: the productivity of the theme is exploited, leading to ever more absurd extensions of “Halbe Was There”.

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Halbe was there when Napoleon marched his victorious troops through Europe.

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He was in Dallas in 1963

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He was there when Martin Luther King had his dream.

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There cannot be any doubt that Halbe was one of the Beatles.

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Whenever history was made, Halbe was there. So when Charles and Diana got married, guess who stood next to them.

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And since this guy is now the biggest maker of history, he too must be connected to Halbe.

The meme-storm went on, relentlessly, for hours on end. And in this new information economy of ours, new and old media do not operate in entirely separate spaces but are profoundly networked. So what is “trending” on Twitter tends to become headline news in the traditional mass media too.

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Such a scale jump from small levels of new media circulation to larger mass media ones generates a tremendous impact. Soon, the Dutch national broadcasting system made an item of the #HalbeWasErbij phenomenon, substantially adding to the public pressure on Zijlstra by complementing more strictly political arguments against him with ludic ones ridiculing him, entirely undercutting his credibility and, consequently, his political reliability.

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And so, by the time Halbe Zijlstra was forced to resignation about a day after the start of the meme-storm, this was world news. Memic hasthtag activism is effective because of the impact it has on mass media.

This impact has not necessarily to do with the masses carrying so-called “public opinion”. I mentioned “trending” here. Now, usually when we say “trending” we imply “viral”. And “viral”, in turn, is somehow strongly associated with large numbers. (Think of Trumps tweets which get hundreds of thousands of “likes” and retweets.)

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In this case, however, “viral” is in actual fact “LOW VIRALITY”. Consider the images on this slide. On the left, we see the most popular meme of the entire meme-storm. Yes, it received almost 900 retweets, but compared to the heavy artillery of, for instance, Trump, Taylor Swift, or your average Premier League star, this is peanuts. The virality in the #HalbeWasErbij in effect amounted to a handful to a few dozen of retweets. That’s strange, isn’t it?

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Unless we consider the kind of community behind it. This community is, whenever we count heads, small. But it is relentless and profoundly committed to what it practices. The memes were used as instruments in dialogue, in the form of ludic replies to wordy statements as well as to other memes – causing genre shifts in Twitter threads from one type of debate format into another one. And above all, what we saw was unending creativity, with continuous transformations of memes in a kind of saturation bombardment on the topic of Zijlstra’s politically consequential lies.

And the latter point is very interesting, for what characterizes memic hashtag activism is that it occurs not necessarily on the basis of a pre-existing community of experienced activists, but in an ephemeral, open, “light” community tied together by a set of formatted practices. I mean by that: the idea is to make more memes and new ones, and anyone joining the community is welcome as long as he or she steps into this format.

It’s an easy and cheap format in addition. The skills needed are widely available – you just need inspiration and some photoshopping technique, and you will have the time of your life. And for those who lack the photoshopping skills, other members step in. At one point during the afternoon, someone tweeted this image:

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This is a photoshopped section of this picture, where we see Halbe Zijlstra athletically jumping over a fence.

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And the photoshopped section is offered, in a sort of ludic instruction mode, as raw material to people lacking some necessary skills but desiring to enter into the #HalbeWasErbij meming activities.

Now, this actual, slightly awkward pose of Zijlstra’s became the most popular one in the meme-storm.

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Dallas, 1963

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Normandy 1944

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Berlin 1989: Halbe Was There, each and every time, in this photoshopped capacity.

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He was even there when Leonardo painted La Gioconda. And of course, Halbe was on the pitch when Holland had its finest moment:

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When they won the European Cup in 1988: Yes sir, Halbe Was There.

We can conclude now.

It is through paying attention to what people DO that we can get to what and who they ARE – this is what Garfinkel and his associates emphasized.

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We have seen how the hashtag #HalbeWasErbij connected a very large set of transformed, morphed, memes in what Anselm Strauss famously called “the continual permutation of action”. This continual permutation is the core of interaction here: we see on this slide how three different memes refer to the same moment in history, a World Cup game between Spain and Holland, which Holland won. Those involved in the meming activities interact through small but profoundly creative and ludic transformations of particular signs, all of them connected and all of them separate. Those involved in it are form a loose, rhizomatic community without fixed boundaries, but with – surprisingly perhaps – a pretty robust structure revolving around shared expectations, shared cultural material and shared norms of engagement. It’s all about learning, showing, trying, sharing, and having politically informed good laughs. And it proceeds within the constraints of what Twitter affords (the so-called platform affordances) as well as within the boundaries of what is recognizable in terms of the formats of action.

This explains the “low virality” issue: not MEMES go viral, but MEMING as an activity goes viral and shapes a viral community (another term for “rhizomatic”, perhaps). We can say here that “virality” is not a quantitative matter, but a qualitative one that has to do with the intensity of interaction within particular formats of social action. This interaction, we have seen, is characterized by tremendous variability, yet it is tied together by a hashtag, which gives it a specific INDEXICAL VECTOR: any and all individual tokens of the hashtag point towards the same thematic complex, connect a community in the activity, and shape networks of communicability to other actors in the field of the shaping of public opinion. The national broadcasting system in The Netherlands, let alone Reuters, has a much wider audience than the individual hashtag activists. But the latter’s relentlessness and intensity became the stuff of higher-scale political expression by so-called “influencers” and mass media.

This evidently complicates our understanding of “public opinion”. We see that small and “light” but nonetheless structured communities can, through networked upscaling effects, become tremendously influential in the public sphere. Those involved in various forms of local urban activism are doubtlessly already familiar with such unexpected high-scale effects of small-scale action. Such effects shape forces of collective meaning-making and understanding in our societies, in ways that we still largely need to find out. But while doing so I would propose to start from action, not from groups. Because as I hope to have demonstrated here, the effects of the actions cannot be predicted from the features of pre-existing groups, however we wish to imagine them.

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Trump’s Tweetopoetics

Donald_Trump_2016_RNC_speech_(4)_(cropped) Tweets

Jan Blommaert

It has been remarked before: when Donald Trump gives a public speech, the units of his speeches are tweets – or at least: he produces chunks of performed rhetoric that can be effortlessly converted into the format of tweets. Thus we can squeeze an almost unaltered fragment from his speech for the H&K Equipment company in Pittsburgh PA (18 January 2018) into the Twitter box:

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But at the same time, this fragment of his speech draws from a tweet he posted the day before the speech:

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That is the point: Trump’s offline, live discourse has an almost natural spillover quality into his online discourse. Talk is tweet, and tweet is talk.

This, then, grants some of his tweets (the most appealing ones, perhaps) an orally-performable dimension. Put simply, some of his tweets appear as chunks of discourse that can be spoken by others. In fact, they contain lots of pointers as to exactly how they can be delivered in spoken speech. In other words, they are instructional, showing his followers how to speak like Trump. Let us consider an example.

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Trump posted this tweet on his official account on 18 January 2018, and it reflects on the same speech in Pittsburgh. The tweet, note, is not a fragment of the speech. In the tweet, we see how he uses upper case for specific words and phrases – a familiar feature for those acquainted with Trump’s tweeting habits. He also uses an exclamation mark at the end of the tweet – once again, a familiar feature. Both features of written discourse, of course, are metapragmatic instructions: they suggest not just content relevance, but they also suggest a way of pronouncing: louder, and with some emphasis.

But there are more metapragmatic pointers in this tweet, and here we need to turn to what is known as “ethnopoetics” – an analytical technique designed to bring out the implicit structure in spoken discourse. When we transcribe the tweet according to ethnopoetic conventions, we get this.

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We now see that the tweet is replete with different forms of rhyme: several kinds of connections tie parts of the text together into powerful features of performance.

  • The tweet opens with “America” (in upper case). This term is repeated twice: once halfway (“shape America’s destiny”), and once in the final (punch) line: “make America great again” (in upper case). America is a central motive.
  • The term “again” – the motive of revival, so powerful in Trump’s rhetoric – reoccurs in the opening phrase and the closing phrase, each time connected to “America”. America is new in this text.
  • The “once again” in the opening line prefigures the “make America great again” of the closing line. Opening and closing are rhetorically connected, they are each other’s echo – hence the highlighting. But the repetition in the closing line is enriched by what precedes – the opening line sets the stage, then comes an argument, after which the opening line is reformulated as the conclusion of the argument. The rhetorical circle is closed.
  • So how is this argument organized? In the opening line, “America” is equated with “nation” (also in upper case). What follows is a classical “triplet” – three repetitive lines – in which he qualifies this nation. He does so by “escalation” (again, a well-known rhetorical trick): “big-bigger-reaches for the stars”. “Reaching for the stars” is also semantically connected to “dreaming” in the previous line.
  • Next, this “nation” is projected onto the audience: “You” (in upper case) followed by “are the ones who”. The term “you (are the ones who)” is the central structuring device in the middle part of the text. Trump again uses a classical “triplet” here: he organizes “you” in three consecutive, repetitive and structurally similar statements. We get a triple rhyme through the repetition of “YOU are the ones who”.
  • You is twice associated with “America” (“America’s destiny” and “making America great again”), and once with “our” in the phrase “our prosperity”. You = us = America.
  • Of these three statements, the first two display sound rhyme (destiny, prosperity), while the third one brings the climax: the central slogan of Trump’s campaign and presidency (“make America great again”). Any doubt that this would be the climax is removed by the exclamation mark. So we get: you = us = America = Trump.

This is a pretty fine example of rhetorical craftsmanship, in which literally nothing is out of place. We get a nice piece of poetically structured – and thus affectively appealing – political discourse here. This degree of poetic structuring makes the text performable: the audience gets loads of cues as to how this text should be, and can be, spoken to others. It is also no longer just a one-liner: it is a far more complex argumentative bit of text, driven by strong and very well elaborated images of good-better-best in a new America under Trump. It’s the stuff of persuasive talk.

But we get all of it in a tweet: a typically written genre of online discourse appears to display dense characteristics of spoken discourse. There is just one thing that cannot be extracted from the online to the offline world of speech: the hashtag #MAGA is the unique Twitter-only feature of the tweet. The rest of the text is exportable.

This shows us how the online and the offline rhetorical world of Donald Trump are profoundly connected. We are witnessing a new format of public broadcasting here, of presidential spoken discourse. Not just for contemplation and admiration by his audience, but for active uptake and repeated offline performance. And not the broadcasting of lengthy stretches of text, but of texts that are formatted as tweets – for retweeting as well as for repeating as tweetable speech. Trump referred to Twitter as “his voice”. Through tweets such as these, he enables his followers to imagine his voice as actually heard, and even spoken collectively as a new nation.

We get a copybook example here of “vox populism”, the version of populism that is centered around manufactured representations of the “voice of the people”: first, I teach you how to talk like me, after which I can claim to talk like you, to represent your voice and turn it into a political, “democratic” program. And virality becomes a crucial infrastructure for such vox populism: look at the many thousands who retweet my words. Surely I must be a democratic politician. I must be the most democratic one ever.

(Thanks are due to Ico Maly and Rob Moore for inspiring comments)

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