Anachronism as power

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Jan Blommaert 

What follows is part of the “Durkheim and the Internet” project – a self-conscious attempt at drawing theories of wider relevance from recent sociolinguistic studies and evidence. The theories are designed to provide a generalizable heuristic for new research, a set of potentially productive “grounded” hypotheses to be deployed in a wide variety of domains of investigation.

One of the theories emerging from this project is a theory of power – not a general one (power per se) but a specific one, about one kind of institutional power. Two points of departure underlie the effort here.

  1. In The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber describes the fundamental stupidity of contemporary bureaucratization, observing the spread of what he calls “power without knowledge”: “where coercion and paperwork largely substituted for the need for understanding (…) subjects” (2015: 65). The contemporary power of bureaucrats often involves an assumption of total knowledge (articulated, e.g. in Foucault’s work). Graeber, however, disagrees: “situations of structural violence invariably produce extremely lopsided structures of imaginative identitification” (69): rulers have no clue about who and what their subjects are, what it is they do, what they attach importance to, how they live. The schematization and simplification of bureaucracy serve as a substitute for intimate and experience-based knowledge, but evidently fail to match up to that.
  2. A decent amount of applied-linguistic work, notably on bureaucratic procedures such as asylum applications, shows how transnational subjects, often carrying the traces of a checkered diasporic biography, are nonetheless caught in administrative templates in which their “origins” are determined on the basis of imaginations of nation-state regimes of bureaucratic identity and on “modernist” theories of language (cf. Maryns 2006; Blommaert 2001, 2009; Jacquemet 2015). Concretely: if applicants’ claims as to origin (being from country X) are being disputed, knowledge of the official, national languages of Country X is used as a definitive test. If one fails this criterium, asylum is being denied. The same happens whenever an applicant provides discourse which is sensed to violate the rules of denotational purity: whenever s/he produces contradictions, silences, a muddled chronology or a lack (or overload) of detail, the applicant is judged to be untrustworthy and the success of his/her application is jeopardized.

The “lopsided structures of imaginative identitification” described by Graeber, we can see, in actual fact assume the shape of anachronisms: schemes of social imagination, and thus of patterns of meaning-making,  perhaps valid in an earlier stage of development, but not adjusted to recent changes and thus inadequate to do justice to the phenomenology of present cases. At the same time, these obsolete schemata are strongly believed to have an unshakeable, persistent relevance as a rationality of administrative information-organization, and are enforced from within that rationality. Thus, an important part of contemporary institutional power is based on anachronisms.

Anachronisms are, of course, an inevitable feature of social change, and we know that governmentality – the logic of institutional bureaucracy and governance – is widely characterized by inertia. It represents a segment of society which develops more slowly than the segments it is supposed to deal with. The gap between the phenomena to be addressed, and the schemata by means they are addressed, is a grey zone of uncertain understanding and often arbitrary judgment – and thus, increasingly, of miscarriage of justice and of litigation.

In terms of research, such anachronistic gaps offer a very rich site for investigating social change itself. It is based on the general image of social change described elsewhere: an image of different layers developing at different speeds. The different speeds manifest themselves in actual, situated cases of misunderstanding (or rather: the incapacity for understanding) and/or of experienced injustice.

The awareness of anachronisms is nothing new, needless to say. Durkheim’s own efforts, we have seen, were grounded in his convicition that “society” had not been adjusted to an important range of innovations caused by the industrialization and urbanization of France. Similar views, of an old social order being crushed under the weight of a new one, are widespread in the sociological literature. What this theory of anachronisms as power now offers, is accuracy. When earlier generations saw “society” being ill addapted to innovation, they couldn’t possibly mean all of society, for the parts that had been innovated were also very much part of that society. What we can contribute, therefore, is a highly precise focus when we look at such phenomena. The anachronisms are particular modes of organizing social interaction through specific patterns of meaning-making: categorization, the connection of different phenomena, objects or persons in specific sets of relationships to each others (as when an asylum seeker is brought in a certain relationship with national languages in determining his/her origins), patterns of argumentation and the ways in which we attribute judgments of persuasiveness to certain such patterns. Our theory enables us to look for very precise objects of analysis that can document change and the anchronistic effects that accompany it.

Evidently, the internet as a technology that has brought substantial innovation to the modes of social interaction now common around the world, is prone to such anachronisms. It is a segment of contemporary social life that develops at very high speed, while our modes of meaning-making are slow to be synchronized. Thus, we talk about, and in, new modes of internet communication very much in ways reflecting an pre-internet complex of social relationships.

A very clear example of this is the fact that Facebook, the largest social media platform in the world founded in 2004, uses one of the oldest and most primitive terms in the vocabulary for human relationships as its core tool: “friends”. Evidently, Facebook “friends” are not necessarily coterminous with offline friends. Facebook also uses a similarly ancient and primitive term to describe the most common interaction function on its platform: “like”. And evidently, this “like” function covers a very broad and extraordinarily heterogeneous range of actual meanings. No-one needs to actually like an update in order to “like” it, and no-one needs to be an actual friend in order to become a Facebook “friend” (which is why s/he can be easily and swiftly “defriended” whenever differences of opinion arise).

Those are of course innocent phenomena, merely indexing the anachronistic gaps caused by developments in social media. Less innocent, but very difficult to pinpoint, are the effects of some of the organizing principles behind social media: the algorithmic engines used by e.g. Google and Facebook to bring people, messages and zones of social activity together on the basis of aggregations of huge amounts of data and metadata generated by users. These algorithms belong to the world’s best-kept industrial secrets, and the assumptions on which they are based can, consequently, not be directly researched. But some of their effects are known.

All of us, I am sure, have at times error-clicked some advertisement on a social media page – let’s say, an advertisement for the newest model of urban SUV by Peugeot. All of us must have noticed how in the days following that erroneous click, multiple advertisements for cars appear on almost any page we open, usually cars in the same price range as the Peugeot we error-clicked. Less visible, perhaps, is the fact that in our social media newsfeeds, we are likely to encounter more people who recently clicked such advertisements in the days following our error-click, most likely people from our contacts network and people in the same geographical area as us. And also less visible, perhaps, is the fact that our perceived interest in cars of a certain brand and price range will be correlated with other data we produce through our social media usage – other products we express an interest in, other aspects of lifestyle, other persons, perhaps political views or preferences for certain sports or sports teams – all of this resulting in a permanently updated “algorithmic identity”, of certain interest for marketing and security professionals, over which we ourselves do not have any control, let alone agency.

Altough we can, as I said, gauge these procedures from a distance only, we can infer from what we know that these algorithms are anachronisms too. They are overwhelmingly linear and reductionist: linear, for clicking an item is interpreted as necessarily rational and deliberate – the mind-reading procedures of the algorithm exclude the possibility that we clicked the button by acccident. And reductionist in the sense that clicks are seen as inspired by very specific forms of interest in the thing we clicked – an interest, for instance in buying that object rather than to just admire it or confirm our opinion that such things are absurdly expensive.

The algorithmic identities thus ascribed to us may be light years removed from the actual motives driving our social conduct and from the ways in which we see ourselves. Well known, for instance, is that at a certain time when terrorism alert worldwide was red-hot, googling for information on pressure cookers was algorithmically flagged as suspicious because these mundane receptacles happened to be widely used in manufacturing home-made explosive devices. Which is an activity performed, fortunately, by very few individuals; but in order to locate these individuals, a great many more must have come under close scrutiny by security and intelligence officials – for no reason other than, perhaps, they contemplated buying a very nice pressure cooker so as to boost the quality of their bowl of evening soup.

Patterns of human interaction and meaning-making are the most sensitive indicators of social change – every neologism in our everyday language usage demonstrates this. If we wish to understand the fine grain of social change, close attention to these patterns is therefore sure to offer far more analytical purchase than almost any other aspect of social life. Power, too, can be investigated by looking at the anachronisms characterizing patterns of interaction and meaning-making deployed in governance; it can be looked at in very great detail.

References

Blommaert, Jan (2001) Investigating narrative inequality: African asylum seekers’ stories in Belgium. Discourse & Society 12/4: 413-449

Blommaert, Jan (2009) Language, Asylum and the National Order. Current Anthropology 50/4: 415-445.

Graeber, David (2015) The Utopia of Rules: On technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. Brooklyn: Melville House.

Jacquemet, Marco (2015) Asylum and superdiversity: The search for denotational accuracy during asylum hearings. Language & Communication 44: 72-81.

Maryns, Katrijn (2006) The Asylum Speaker: Language in the Belgian Asylum Procedure. London: Routledge.

 

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From structures to constructures

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Jan Blommaert 

Sociolinguistics has over the past six decades provided a wealth of empirical evidence of great theoretical value, while it has quite consistently failed to formulate crucial insights as more generally valid social and cultural theories (cf. Williams 1992; Coupland 2016). In the “Durkheim and the internet” project, I extract and formulate theories from contemporary sociolinguistic research inflected, notably, by research on the connection between online and offline phenomena. The goal is to formulate social and cultural theories often fundamentally revising dominant ones, or, alternatively, lending support to views articulated earlier but left largely underexplored.

Several building blocks for the “Durkheim and the Internet” project are available in embryonic shape here. See, for instance, the essays on mobility, context and the chronotope, chronotopic identities, on conviviality and new social formations on social media, on the notion of culture, and several others. In what follows, I will offer some brief reflections on “structure” – as in “social structure” or “structuration theory”.

What I wish to avoid

Let me first sketch the field of arguments in which I shall situate my reflections. I wish to steer clear from two quite widespread frames of reference for discussing structure.

  • First, “structure”, certainly in a Lévi-Straussian variety of structuralism, has acquired strong suggestions of absoluteness, abstractness, predictability, anonymity, a-temporality and staticity. Structure, as the guiding value system of a society, is that which provides enduring stability to a social system and makes it resilient – as Parsons suggested – to the onslaught of cultural revolutions from within youth culture (Parsons 1964). And even if structure is the outcome of active structuration at a variety of scale levels in social life (Giddens 1984; Thompson 1984), most scholars would still use the term to describe dominant (if not determining) rules, values or principles driving the development of societies across spacetime. It is also quite often presented as a social force operating below the level of consciousness and agency of people, a set of tacit and not always “emicly” well-understood aspects of social life.
  • Two, “structure” is often seen as something antagonistic to “postmodernist” and “mobility/complexity” approaches to social life. While traditional (“modernist”) social science would be on the side of anonymous structure, “postmodernist” science would favor individual agency and thus become at once “poststructuralist” – in an unrealistic either/or frame in which methodological preferences appear to lead directly to ontological strictures. (Nik Coupland walks into the trap of such false antagonism: 2016: 440-442). It is rarely observed that scholars such as Bourdieu and Foucault do not just reject any concept of structure but reject a specific one: the Lévi-Straussian one referred to above. They reject a certain kind of structuralism (“poststructuralism” would be more accurately defined as “post-Lévi-Straussism”) but not “the structural” as a dimension of social systems. In general, this false antagonism often renders more nuanced understandings of structure impossible.

Since I am very much on the side of mobility/complexity in this debate, I am likely to be misread, given the lines of debate just sketched. Many fail to recognize that complexity is not the absence of order, but a different kind of order. I shall therefore use another term to make my point. Rather than using “structure”, I shall use “constructure” in what follows. New terms enable us to examine the validity of the older ones, and they also afford some measure of detachment from unwarranted intertextual readings. “Constructure” is not technically speaking a neologism – it is an archaic term that offers a nice collocation of “structure” and “construction” (and, if you wish, “conjuncture”). The term “construction”, as can be seen, can easily be changed into “agency”, and so we have a concept in which both dimensions, often seen as antagonistic, are heuristically and analytically joined.

Constructures

The baseline assumption – one that, I hope, is unproblematic – is that any social event is structured: there is always “order” in any observed social event. But from a complexity perspective on sociolinguistic phenomena and processes, this order is always:

  • dynamic and unstable: order is always a temporally contingent quality because systems are perpetually unfolding and changing; (E.g. describing language at one point in time will necessarily result in a description which is different from what was current a generation ago, as well as from what will be current in the next generation).
  • unfinished: given the perpetual change, any momentary observation of “order” will contain open-ended, quickly evolving features anticipating new forms of “order”; it will also contain features that are contested and conflictual, and features in the process of being eliminated or established; (E.g. archaisms and neologisms, short-lived as well as more lasting ones, are always part of any synchronic observation of language).
  • non-unified: any “order” consists of a mixture of different forces, developing at different speeds and with different scope and range; (E.g. the different registers and genres in anyone’s repertoire have different speeds of development, with “standard” registers usually slower in development than e.g. youth registers – hence our sense of “trendiness”).

In these different forces, we are used to reserve the term “structure” for the slower, more persistent forces, the durée. I suggest we avoid this distinction and consider the entire mix when we use the term “constructure”, because given the complexity perspective, there is no telling a priori which of the features in the mix will determine future developments – change often happens in the margins and begins a statistical minority or exception, often negatively qualified. Think of the spectacular rise of emoticons as part of several mainstream genres of writing nowadays. Emoticons have not replaced the conventional forms of alphabetic writing – we still write from left to right, and we still use the conventional “orthographic” symbols we associate with the written form of the language we are using. Emoticons have been added to the mix of contemporary writing, so to speak, they represent what we could call a “light” feature, blended with the “big” features of conventional orthography.

Constructures are, thus, a permanently unfolding mix of various separate “structures”, the momentary deployment of which in social practice grants the latter a degree of orderliness, recognizable and ratifiable for others.

Constructures as change

In constructures, we can unify traditional notions of “structure” and “agency”; slightly rephrased, we have a tool for recognizing two essential characteristics of social life – iterativity and performativity. Most of the behavior we deploy socially is overwhelmingly iterative, but slightly inflected by unique, creative and situated performativity – something Piia Varis and I earlier called “culture as acccent” (Blommaert & Varis 2015).

Observe that I do not equate iterativity with “stability” and performativity with “change”. The entire mix is continuously changing, including the “iterative” aspects of it. Detaching the performative “accent” from the iterative “structure” obscures the fact that, for people in everyday practice, the “accent” is often the essence of what they perceive as meaningful in social action. And it is by means of the performative “accent” that the iterative features of behavior are also transformed into unique and creative characteristics of specific social actions performed by specific people. To make a superficial comparison: every novel is a token of a genre-type “novel”; but we have our favorite novels as well as novels we can’t possibly enjoy because of the actual unique “accent” brought to each novel by its author. And the entire genre changes due to such unique, individual and innovative acts of creation, all of which develop within the genre of the novel.

Rather than as a concept that points towards the stability of social systems – the simplistic interpretation of “structure”, noted above – constructure thus points to the permanently changing nature of social systems. When we read Erving Goffman’s observations on social life in the US of the 1950s and 1960s, we can still recognize a great deal of it today, even if much of our social life these days is performed in a social space that didn’t exist in Goffman’s world: the virtual space of social media. Interaction in this virtual world is organized along different sets of norms many of which differ strongly from the ones Goffman detected in face-to-face engagements. Online sociality, however, has not replaced the Goffmanian world of social interaction – the mix has changed. Which is why we can still recognize ourselves in Goffman’s work, even if we realize that large chunks of our lives are led in very different ways. The constructures have changed.

References

Blommaert, Jan & Piia Varis (2015) Enoughness, Accent, and Light Communities: Essays on Contemporary Identities. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 139. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/research/institutes-and-research-groups/babylon/tpcs/item-paper-139-tpcs.htm

Coupland, Nikolas (2016) Five Ms for sociolinguistic change. In Nikolas Coupland (ed.)Sociolinguistics: Theoretical Debates: 433-454. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Giddens, Anthony (1984) The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Parsons, Talcott (1964) Social Structure and Personality. New York: Free Press.

Thompson, John B. (1984) Studies in the Theory of Ideology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Williams, Glyn (1992) Sociolinguistics: A Sociological Critique. London: Longman.

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What Pokémon Go teaches us about society

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Jan Blommaert 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Commentary: Mobility, contexts, and the chronotope

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Jan Blommaert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Agha, Asif (2007) Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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

Bakhtin, Mikhail (1981) The Dialogical Imagination. Austin TX: University of Texas Press.

Blommaert, Jan (2015a) Chronotopes, scales and complexity in the study of language and society. Annual Review of Anthropology 44: 105-116.

Blommaert, Jan (2015b) Meaning as a nolinear effect: The birth of cool. AILA Review 28: 7-27.

Blommaert, Jan & Anna De Fina (2016) Chronotopic identities: On the timespace organization of who we are. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 153. Tilburg: Babylon.

Blommaert, Jan, Jim Collins & Stef Slembrouck (2005) Polycentricity and interactional regimes in ‘global neighborhoods’. Ethnography 6/2: 205-235.

Cicourel, Aaron (1967) The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice. New York: Wiley.

Cicourel, Aaron (1992) The interpenetration of communicative contexts: Examples from medical encounters. In Alessandro Duranti & Charles Goodwin (eds.) Rethinking Context: 291-310. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, Erving (10974) Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New Tork: Harper & Row.

Gumperz, John (1982) Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hylmes, Dell (1996) Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice. London: Taylor & Francis.

Silverstein, Michael (1992) The indeterminacy of contextualization: when is enough enough? in Peter Auer & Aldo DiLuzio (eds.) The Contextualization of Language: 55-76. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Silverstein, Michael (1996) Monoglot “standard” in America: Standardization and metaphors of linguistic hegemony. In Donald Brenneis & Ronald Macaulay (eds.) The Matrix of Language: 284-306. Boulder Co: Westview Press.

Silverstein, Michael (2003) Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language & Communication 23: 193-229.

Varis, Piia & Jan Blommaert (2015) Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures. Multilingual Margins 2/1: 31-45.

by-nc

The history of global information networks: some notes

Jan Blommaert 

Just a few notes, triggered by the amazingly informative book by Donald Read, The Power of News: The History of Reuters (Oxford University Press 1992).

First, observe the continuity of old structures and infrastructures of globalized information distribution. The following map (Read, p68-69) shows the telegraph sea cable infrastructure in the 1880s.

map of telegraph cables, 1880s Read 1992 The Power of News 68 69 Oxford UP

Now look at the map of Internet sea cables in 2012.

SeaCableHi (1)

With the exception of the cable infrastructure in the Pacific area, the map shows nearly identical patterns. Telegraph cables in the Pacific were built in 1902-03, and from that moment onwards the global infrastructure for information distribution acquires its present pattern.

Second: the issue of volume and density. Reuters was the market leader of its time in the field of news and information distribution, and the company consistently used  (and sometimes created) the most advanced technologies. Yet, the volume of actual words was restricted by factors such as cost-per-sign and the clumsiness of morse code for communicating larger texts. Reuters used a code system by means of which longer phrases could be condensed to one or a handful of words, to be “translated” by Reuters agents at the receiving end of the telegraph line. In 1914, the volumes of words per month sent worldwide was as follows (Read, p.71).

map of density of Reuters traffic 1914 Read 1992 The Power of News 68 69 Oxford UP

Important stations such as Bombay and Cape Town received a monthly volume of 10,000-12,500 words of “news” (a Bulletin), possibly complemented by a 9,000 word volume of dispatches. This is the volume of two academic papers per month. Less important stations had to rely on a lot less – from a few hundreds of words to a few thousands.

Evidently, this volume (for which receivers paid handsome amounts of subscription money) has been blown away by contemporary social media – this is trivial. Just consider the volumes of daily traffic of just one of the various social media currently available, Twitter.

ScreenHunter_67 Apr. 29 11.23

More interesting is to see that the same center-periphery models that were already present over a century ago are simply replicated in the here-and-now. We have seen how the Internet sea cabling patterns mirror those in place by the end of the 19th century. The global Internet traffic map of 2010 confirms this:

global-traffic-map-2010-x

And we can see similar patterns of center and periphery when we look at a map showing us the year in which parts of the globe started using Twitter. I take this map from an interesting source.

figure18 when join Twitter center periphery

The parts of the world that were connected by telegraph cable in the late 19th century join Twitter earlier than the more peripheral parts.

So while speed, volume and density of information distribution have definitely increased during the Internet revolution, these differences are grafted upon old structures and infrastructures, about a century old.