Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is on message


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.

screenhunter_1445 jan. 21 14.18

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.

screenhunter_1446 jan. 21 14.19

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…



Why has Cultural Marxism become the enemy?


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.


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.


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.








The citizen in the European GDPR: We’re all data subjects now


Jan Blommaert

As of May 25, 2018, the new European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will be enforced. This new regulation took a long time to prepare and implement, for its scope is vast and its effects will be huge. Reading the voluminous documentation about the GDPR, especially when done with a moderate dose of critical discourse analysis, yields some puzzling and potentially disconcerting insights.

What is the GDPR about?

On the EU website dedicated to the GDPR, the aims of the regulation are described as follows: the GDPR “was designed to harmonize data privacy laws across Europe, to protect and empower all EU citizens data privacy and to reshape the way organizations across the region approach data privacy.” Even if the term “data privacy” is used as the element of coherence, we can anticipate something very complex here. We get a regulation that (a) creates legal uniformity regarding data privacy throughout the EU (and beyond); (b) in some way defines and delineates (and so presumably “empowers”) the data privacy rights of EU citizens, and (c) regulates and streamlines the ways in which data privacy is currently handled by “organizations”. The latter can be almost anything, from a boy scouts troupe to a multinational corporation, from a badminton club to a newspaper, from a university to a government department and internet provider. Knowing how the EU proceeds in its legislative work, one can only imagine the density of lobbying work that has preceded the GDPR, for almost anyone is affected by it.

Surely, data privacy is one of the most pressing concerns these days. The Cambridge Analytica-Facebook data leaks scandal is still being rolled out to the public, cybercrime (including identity theft, hacking and copyright violations) has become a top security priority, and all of us have had the pleasure of receiving emails from extraordinarily friendly people inviting us to re-activate our bank accounts or social security numbers by sending all our personal details over. So it is clear that something needed to be done about such new forms of risk in an online-offline world. And yes, in the GDPR there are long and carefully worded sections “empowering” citizens when it comes to data privacy.

But much more attention is given to the transactional aspects of personal data: the conditions and rights to acquire, store and use such data in commercial, security, research and other contexts. The GDPR codifies the age of the Internet of Things, of Big Data and of the many ways in which Big Data generates social, economic, cultural and political effects, most of them entirely new and, consequently, poorly regulated. The citizen’s rights to privacy are defined in a regulated world in which such data are traded, exchanged, merged, and analyzed by a tremendous range of other actors. And that is where things become intriguing.

From citizen to data subject

The text is what we would now call “posthuman”: human beings are not central in them. This becomes clear from the standard use of the term “data subject” in the GDPR rather than, for instance, “citizen”.  To understand the implications of that, we need to take one step back and consider the most fundamental definition in the GDPR, that of “personal data”. Personal data stands for “any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person (‘data subject’); an identifiable natural person is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly, in particular by reference to an identifier such as a name, an identification number, location data, an online identifier or to one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural or social identity of that natural person”. 

The “identifiable natural person” is equated with “data subject”. This is not self-evident, but the reason lies in the small phrase “directly or indirectly” when it comes to being identified. Such innocuous-looking frases always look crucial to the critical discourse analyst, for they are deliberately vague while tremendously inclusive. They create an almost infinite scope for what counts as “identification” and, by extension, “identity”.

For here is the thing: one can be “identified” not just by anything directly leading to the “natural person” but even more by aggregations of indirect data gathered by others and within others’ range of legitimate agency through almost every instrument currently in place. The GPS data of your mobile phone, the algorithms of your social media profiles and your shopping routines, the IP address of your computer, records of medical check-ups and footage from surveillance cameras or drones placing you somewhere: all of these are “identifiers” that generate personal dataBut without the “natural person” as an active, intentional agent – it is not the “natural person” who creates and controls these traces of identity. We are in the world of “profiling” here and, indeed, I can be “implicit in the algorithm” and identified as a bundle of correlated features only indirectly suggesting particular actions – to which actions I can be held accountable nonetheless.

Are such data still “personal”? Can they be reasonably used as “identifiers” not just of people but of their individual character, behavior and actual (intentional) actions? In a 2015 interview, European Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli was clear: no. Butarelli saw a post-personal (or posthuman, as I called it) future ahead: “the concept of ‘personal data protection’ will disappear in the near future, as will the concept of ‘personal data’. We will all be easier to predict and identify even without data about our individual identities, it will be easier to reuse the information and group it together with other information and interpret it accordingly”. He went on: “The concept of ‘data-subject’ and therefore of the individual will in all likelihood disappear too, as we will be grouped together according to segments of information (…) The difference between ‘personal’ and ‘non-personal’ will then be blurred”. We are, in the most literal sense of the term, the profiles constructed of us by Big Data. And since, in the views of the European Data Protection Supervisor, we are facing the end of the individual, one should wonder what’s left of privacy?

Who owns “me”?

Most of the identifiers discussed in the GDPR are not created by the “natural persons” they index, I said. I must add: many of them are not even owned by these “natural persons.” We return to the core purpose of the GDPR here: it should enable and regulate the trading, exchange, storage and use of data about “natural persons” but by other commercial and noncommercial actors. Yes of course, the GDPR now stipulates that when personal data leading to an identifiable “natural person” are being used, these persons have to be informed and consent must be asked and obtained. The latter, however, is far from an absolute rule in the GDPR. There are several exceptions and there is a gigantic loophole under the label of “anonymized data” – the thing Butarelli alluded to when he spoke of people being grouped according to “segments of information” rather than anything properly “personal”. This, in actual fact, is what the term “data subjects” actually means: people grouped and identified as “type” or “category” X, Y, Z on the basis of Big Data aggregations, of specific combinations of data leading to specific profiles for people. Such constructions can sometimes lead to “individual identities”, as Butarelli said. But they need not.

The thing is that even if data are not properly “personal”, in the end they still are about, and from, “natural persons”, no matter what the degree of privacy protection is. After all, the entire thing revolves around identifiability, and even if the data gathered on me are used in “non-personal” ways, what is being done with such data can still have an impact on me. So there is a very wide space left for constructions of “me”, for which I can be held accountable in variable ways, but which have not been made by me, nor are they owned by me – profiles of me are creations and commodities made by others about me, and what the GDPR does well and in detail is to organize a firm legal footing for trading and exchanging such items in a Big Data market. Data subjects, in the sense just described, are the product in that market; if the specific data subject is me, I am a product, not an actor in the deal. Not much citizen empowerment can be observed in the process.

The clever play of words in EU texts such as the GDPR has, on many previous occasions, had the tactical advantage of silencing or delaying public debate. Public declarations on the GDPR will continue to foreground the phrase in which EU citizens are said to be empowered with respect to data privacy. A careful reading of this text, however, raises several large and pretty fundamental questions left unaddressed by the decision makers – and for that, too, precedents are plenty in the history of EU decision making.

For more information on GDPR, see here.


Did anything happen in May 68?


Jan Blommaert

Half a century ago, a wave of revolt hit countries as far apart as Japan and Czechoslovakia, Germany and the US, Mexico and France. Certainly due to its high profile around the Parisian Quartier Latin, where students confronted the regime of the legendary General De Gaulle during riots in May and June of that year, the events were nicknamed “May 68”.  And under that name, the events became the object of heated controversy. The 50th anniversary of May 68 will be no exception to that.

Nothing has happened

As we know, May 68 in France ended when De Gaulle rallied his supporters and won the elections of June 1968 by a landslide. And it was the great French conservative thinker Raymond Aron who proclaimed shortly after the end of the revolt that rien ne s’est passé – nothing really happened in May 68. The order of De Gaulle’s republic had been restored, after all, and the bourgeoisie as well as the police state that were the joint targets of the revolt were still firmly in power.

While this version of the events became mainstream, another one was addded to this. May 68, claimed the likes of Bernard-Henri Lévy, was a moral and culturalcrisis, a vague counterculture with unspecified values, nothing more. It was a revolt against the cultural patriarchism, the traditional (masculine) structures of authority and the puritan morality of a conservative society, and it was above all a movement of individual empowerment and liberation. Young kids just wanted to be free, free to listen to rock music, grow their hair and wear blue jeans, make love not war, and tell their fathers to mind their own business.

This, in the eyes of more radically conservative thinkers, had led to a moral anarchy, a radical relativism of identities, values and norms and an over-the-top rejection of what was stable, good and true. May 68 has since become a bête noire for the New Right, and for half a century now it has been consistently blamed for almost everything that went wrong in Western societies since the 1960s: immigration and multiculturalism, feminism, sexual promiscuity, the liberal use of drugs, the normalization of homosexuality, the attacks on what is seen as robust masculinity – in short, May 68 destroyed all that was normal in societies such as ours. But other than that, nothing had really happened. Nothing politically at least.

May 68 was a decade long

Well, I’m not so sure about that, because in such acccounts of what happened in May 68 only a fraction of the events is discussed. A decade of worldwide turmoil – the 1960s – is reduced to a couple of weeks in which students (and only students) threw bricks at the police and painted funny slogans on the walls of their university halls. Why they did that, and why in so many places and in this way, is conveniently deleted from the narrative. So let us look at some elements that surrounded May 68. We shall see that it was actually a decade long.

The students did not just paint funny slogans on walls; they openly, loudly and relentlessly criticized the system of power characterizing their societies: the power incorporated by De Gaulle in France, Johnson and Nixon in the US and the Communist Party in Prague. In all of these cases, the power regime was connected – openly, loudly and relentlessly – with the Cold War which had led to increasing militarization and more agressive policing, with millions of young men drafted into national military service on their respective sides of the Cold War divide, and with powerfully developed surveillance and repression resources aimed at (even moderate) public dissidence. In the West and elsewhere, the Vietnam war became the iconic object of protest; but it wasn’t the only issue.

Vietnam became iconic because it was part of the huge wave of decolonization that characterized the 1960s, and because it showed how decolonization had been swept up in the power play of the Cold War. The 1960s started with Fidel Castro proclaiming the end of US imperialism in Cuba, soon followed by the failed US-backed invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs, and by the Cuban Missile Crisis that rendered the possibility of a nuclear apocalyps part palpable everywhere. The colonial empires were rapidly replaced by independent states, the leaders of which often proved reluctant to enter into neocolonial relations with their former rulers. Mao Zedong theorized the “Third World” as a catchword to define the refusal of newly independent states to choose sides in the Cold War; the US intervention in Vietnam, as well as several other interventions against the rulers of the newly independent states, proved that the the Cold War protagonists didn’t like such forms of non-alignment. This kind of intervention was called imperialism by the May 68 activists, and they rejected it. In their eyes, alternative (read: socialist) roads to development and sovereignty should be, at least, allowed.

They also rejected it because the Cold War overseas imperialism was mirrored by what they identified as the return of “fascism” at home. The Cold War imposed anticommunism as a state doctrine in all NATO member states, and this had concrete consequences. It meant, for instance, that after the post-War “denazification” purges, military and security staff recruitment in countries such as Germany and France now displayed a preference for people with strong right-wing sympathies (including actual ex-nazis and collaborators) over people favoring socialism or communism. Maurice Papon, the powerful police prefect of Paris in the first half of the 1960s, was such a former collaborator, but it took until 1981 before he was convicted for direct involvement in the death of Jewish subjects under the Vichy regime.

With chiefs such as Papon, the police assumed the shape of a military and intelligence outfit outspokenly aimed at crushing any form of action that could be seen as pro-Soviet, however far-fetched. In other countries, similar processes occurred, and the targets of heavy-handed police interventions often included trade unions and striking workers, suspected of (directly or indirectly) assisting the socialist cause and destabilizing society. In the UK, an Emergency Powers Act was introduced in 1964; in Germany, similar laws were voted in 1968 to quell the widespread political and labor protests. The general current was to increase the power of the forces of order while reducing the civil rights of citizens (certainly when they were organized), and to increase the use of police violence in cases of unrest. The 1960s ended with TV-footage of Chicago police forces brutally beating young demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and with National Guardsmen shooting at students on the campus of Kent State University, Ohio, killing four.

TV-footage in that decade also included the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Patrice Lumumba, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the shooting of student leader Rüdi Dutschke in Germany and of two miners during a strike in Belgium, the self-immolation of Czech student Jan Palach and several Vietnamese Buddhist monks, and endless reports on bombings by American B52s in North Vietnam. The entire decade was one of unrest, large-scale dissidence and extreme violence. May 1968 was one moment in which much of this crystallized into a remarkable form of protest and rebellion, characterized by alliances between students and workers, men and women, urban and rural activists, black and white ones, intellectuals, artists, journalists, workers and lay people.

Everyone saw May 68

The 1960s ended also with another piece of historic TV-footage, seen across the world: the landing on the moon. And here is one dimension we should not overlook: the 1960s were the decade of television, of a new global mass media culture. And this, too, had an impact. TV-sets became a normal item in the homes of middle class and working class people alike all over the West, and with literacy levels rising, newspapers and magazines thrived. Jointly, the expansion of the new mass media created a globalized scale of image and content distribution which conclusively transformed the culture of the 20th century. Nothing remained outside the scope of the media now, even if it came from the exotic peripheries or from otherwise obscure corners of the world.

In the 1960s, not just the Beatles became global icons. Mao, Castro, Che, Nehru, Nasser, the Shah and the Negus, Nkrumah, Boumedienne and Kenyatta also rose to stardom. So did the North Vietnamese warriors Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong and General Giap, and so did the Czech anti-Soviet activists Jan Palach and Alexander Dubchek; so too did Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Among the most iconic images of the decade is that of the black US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists in antiracist protest during the medals ceremony at the Mexico 68 Olympic Games. In the small Belgian village where I spent my childhood, my primary school teacher pinned the photo, cut from the local newspaper, on the wall of our classroom; it was there for months.

Vietnam and the Cold War imperialism it bespoke became a worldwide focus of protest and mass mobilization not just because the Cold War affected (and infected) large parts of the world. It became iconic because these parts of the world were now effectively connected by streams of media information and imageries. Vietnam was the first truly global mediatized war, which is why it became the object of effectively globalized protest and resistance and why such protest assumed similar shapes in very different places. Vietnam was the moment when the Cold War became a globalized object of reflection, analysis and popular imagination, affecting global as well as local issues. “Vietnam is in our factories” was a popular slogan among the French workers during the enormous strike that accompanied the student protests in May 68.

May 68, consequently, was a global mediatized event as well – perhaps the very first globally shown instance of popular mass protest in the West, and like Vietnam, a moment in which previously separate dots were connected. The protests were not parochial; people openly, loudly and relentlessly proclaimed international solidarity with oppressed people everywhere, in the factories as well as in the ex-colonies and in the jungles of Vietnam, with women, immigrants and the victims of institutional racism in South Africa and the US. Intellectually, the events accelerated the recognition of voices “from below” or “from the margins” (advocated by Sartre, but also by historians such as E.P Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Carlo Ginzburg and sociologists such as Howard Becker). It also provoked a new critical study of power – with Foucault as its main architect – and it kickstarted the study of globalization processes (think of Immanuel Wallerstein) and worldwide structural inequalities (André Gunder Frank, for instance). It also laid the foundations for the international peace movement, the movement against nuclear weapons and movements for sustainable development and environmental awareness. In many ways, the world as we presently know it was shaped in the late 1960s. The effect of May 68 was massive, and it was above anything else, political.

Everything happened in May 68

The world as we presently know it is of course largely neoliberal and conservative. And this, too, can be partly attributed to May 68. I already mentioned the conservative backlash against the events of 1968 – the reduction of the events to a moral and cultural crisis, a loss of traditional values, a counterculture and so forth. But there is a more complex part to that story, which I can only briefly sketch here.

The focus on Vietnam in May 68, and the intellectual work that surrounded and followed it, marked the end of classical imperialism as a viable doctrine. It was effectively destroyed by the challenge of tiers-mondist (“Third-World-ist”) worldwide solidarity, framed initially by Mao Zedong’s theory of Third World non-alignment. But this challenge, in turn, caused old-style imperialism to be transformed into an amalgamation of neoliberalism and ethnocentrism. Both took another decade to enter into full force, and the end of the Cold War turned them into the cornerstones of a new world order.

Through neoliberalism, the neocolonial ties between the First and the Third Worlds could be rationalized, depoliticized and made “objective” in the form of purely economic, financial and monetary transactional relationships. At the same time, domestic social unrest could be equally turned anodyne, by reducing the political reading of class antagonisms to a depoliticized reading of balance sheets, efficiency and human resources management. The politics of inequality was converted into the economics of equal opportunities and free enterprise.

The political dimension of imperialism morphed into a heavily moralized ethnocentrism, in which “objective” racial, class and civilizational superiority was replaced by individualized, case-based judgments of moral compatibility. People in, say, Congo or Sierra Leone should no longer be seen as victims of extremely disadvantageous rates of exchange in the world markets and of exploitation by multinational corporations extracting surplus value without fair return. They were victims of corrupt leaders and warlords, and the latter – the Third World leaders – should “take responsibility” for their people’s well being. Worldwide solidarity was replaced by “we cannot solve all their problems”. And as for immigrants from such countries, they could always be accused of refusing to contribute to their country’s progress, and of not fitting in the codes of norms and values of their host societies. As Balibar and Wallerstein outlined in the early 1990s, class struggle and race theory had been replaced by softer, but equally effective discourses of cultural and moral compatibility. Similar discourses of moral and cultural compatibility can be (and are) deployed with respect to “domestic” issues of deviance and marginalization. “Hard” political analysis has been replaced by a rhetoric of blame, responsibility and character.

Raymond Aron was quite wrong in his appraisal of May 68. Those who now try to reduce its scope and impact to rock and roll, LSD, and flowers in one’s hair are quite wrong as well, as are those who rant against the “May 68 generation” as the architects of a society of hedonistic individualists devoid of any respect for values, traditions and norms. May 68 was above all else a political event in which a lot was reimagined and redefined. The worldwide protests laid bare some of the major fissures and contradictions of the post-war world; they shaped modes of globalized social, political and intellectual action that marked the end of that part of the 20th century and the beginning of the part that spilled over into the 21st century. May 68 was big, very big.



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

ScreenHunter_1131 Mar. 27 16.22

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.


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.


His photo dominates the Kremlin.


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”.


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


He was in Dallas in 1963


He was there when Martin Luther King had his dream.


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


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


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.


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.


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.)


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?


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:


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


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.


Dallas, 1963


Normandy 1944


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


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


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.


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.





The Corbyn spy hoax and the cycle of (fake) news


Jan Blommaert

In mid-February 2018, the British tabloid The Sun published an article in which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was accused of having been involved in espionage activities in the 1980s. According to The Sun (and quickly endorsed by The Daily Mail), Czech archives and statements by a former Czech spy confirmed that Corbyn had repeatedly met Warsaw Pact intelligence agents and had been paid for his services. In a curious return to the days of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Sun claimed the existence of secret Stasi files, the contents of which might reveal numerous names of British traitors whose real identities, alas, “we will never know for sure”. But Corbyn? Yes, they were sure of him being a traitor to his country.

The allegations were swiftly turned into truth by hostile politicians and opinion makers. The Defence Secretary stated that Corbyn had betrayed his country, and another Cabinet member compared Corbyn to the Cold War cause célèbre Kim Philby – here is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy once again. In the overheated atmosphere of the Brexit debates in UK politics, heavy artillery is quickly and frequently used. Evidently, the issue went trending on social media and became headline news and a major commentary topic in all mass media as well.


The allegations, however, were quickly debunked. Corbyn himself swiftly dismissed them as “a ridiculous smear” and ridiculed the tablois for “going a bit James Bond,” probably as a sign of fear for the Labour leader whose popularity is on the rise. The real James Bonds – British intelligence officers – backed him up. There was no evidence of Corbyn performing espionage duties for the Czech secret services. On social media, hashtag activism started at once using #CorbynSmears as the thematic label for three large types of actions: direct discussion (as in Figure 1), boomerang statements pointing towards other fake news stories by these tabloids (as in Figure 2), and more broadly focused political essays on the role of media in society (as in Figure 3). A highly effective campaign was waged on social media this way, marginalizing the voices supporting the tabloids and their stories.

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Figure 1

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Figure 2

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Figure 3

Battle hashtags such as #CorbynSmears went trending as well, for several days, and while the tabloids made desperate attempts to raise the “free press” flag and extend their line of revelations, they lost the day. When the facts and the backgrounds are on your side, fact checking (or better: fact reconstruction) is a devastating weapon in social media discussions. The three genres of activity shown here shaped three interlocking frames of action: (a) demanding factual evidence for claims in direct one-on-one interaction; (b) background checks disputing the overall credibility of the tabloids, and (c) pointing to broader motives of political power and influence behind such forms of media reporting. Taken together and deployed en masse, they were highly effective in silencing the opponents in the online debates. The Corbyn supporters had shown themselves to be a formidable social media force on previous occasions; they did so once more in the spy hoax case.

The mass media (who a few days earlier carried the story as headline news) turned against the issue – now identified as fake news – with unusual vehemence. The Independent printed a razor-sharp sarcastic commentary piece including a summary of other outrageous tabloid hoaxes about Corbyn. And BBC Daily Politics anchor Andrew Neil mercilessly pummeled a Cabinet Minister on the question of whether or not Corbyn had betrayed his country, concluding “Surely the real scandal is not what Mr Corbyn has ..supposedly done but the outright lies and disinformation that you and fellow Tories are spreading – that’s the real scandal isn’t it?” The clip of this interview fragment went viral too, and in many ways functioned as a climax to the debate: if the BBC formulates the issue in such a categorical way – connecting “scandal”, “lies” and “Tories” in one sentence – then that’s it.

The cycle of fake news

The Corbyn spy hoax of course taps into the highly complex issue of fake news – perhaps the most important new theme in media culture nowadays, certainly after the exposure of the impact of media such as Breitbart News on the election victory of Donald Trump. And in connecion to this issue, the Corbyn spy hoax shows us a thing or two about what we can call the contemporary cycle of (fake) news. In a graphic form, this cycle can be represented as such (Figure 4).

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Figure 4

Three wheels are constantly turning in a validation debate, in which the tabloids and the social media do most of the work, while the mass media perform a relatively passive, responsive  but nevertheless decisive role. Debates about the validity of news items are hot and hectic in the first two media channels, and these validation debates are taken up by mass media at various stages of development. Thus, mass media very often make an item not just out of the “facts” of the case, but about the debates on the validity of these facts in other media channels.

What we observe here suggests a changed media environment in which it would be wrong to see social media as just echo chambers for what was produced in more traditional media channels. They now must be placed alongside those more traditional channels, as echo chambers, surely, but also in two other capacities: as critical producers of news in the strict sense of the term; and as the critical producers of the criteria for “real” and “fake” news. This latter capacity is what makes their position in this new media environment perhaps inevitably controversial, but nonetheless of extreme importance for understanding the present structure and dynamics of the public sphere and public opinion – a key concept for defining democracy.