One crisis, three photos: how Europe started caring for refugees

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Jan Blommaert 

Bayern München, one of Europe’s greatest and most distinguished football clubs, today announced that it will donate one million Euro to initiatives assisting refugees with shelter and support.

The news hardly makes headlines, in spite of the fact that it is actually quite spectacular. Organizations such as Bayern München are not normally known for generosity towards people other than their players, VIPs and sponsors; the fact that they now jump the bandwagon of grassroots support for (mostly) Syrian refugees tells us that it is, indeed, quite a bandwagon. And that bandwagon races ahead at an amazing speed and carries a rapidly increasing volume of cargo, in spite of European governments’ overwhelmingly discouraging response to calls for increased support and empathy towards those who seek refuge within the safe boundaries of the Union.

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Undoubtedly, historians will later write about the summer of 2015 as a moment in which the EU all but completely lost control over its own public image. The summer started with the brutal suppression of whatever attempt towards regaining sovereignty and democracy was made by the Syriza government of Greece. The results of a referendum were brushed aside without much ado, and barking “austerity!!” became the default mode of communication of the European institutions towards anyone raising even mildly critical questions about it. The EU emerged from the Greek budget conflicts bruised and scarred but with a stiff upper lip; large segments of the European population, in the meantime, had turned their backs on the EU, and probably forever.

Greece was equally the scenery for the second wave of extraordinarily damaging events for the EU when hundreds of small and unstable boats, packed with refugees from the crisis areas in the Middle East, started arriving on the shores of the Greek Islands in the Aegean, often in dramatic conditions. I should be more precise, though. The damage to the EU, and to individual member states’ governments, was done when images of such arrivals were splashed on the front pages of almost any medium in the world.

The “refugee crisis” (as it is now dubbed) started in April 2015. Sure, there were boat refugees prior to that date (Lampedusa, recall), but when hundreds of dead bodies (including those of women and children) were discovered by patrolling ships in the Mediterranean in mid-April, Pandora’s Box was opened. The EU’s “Mare Nostrum” policy was instantly blamed for this tragedy – a repressive policy of “keeping immigrants out” as part of what is now dubbed “Fort Europe”. The outcry was tremendous, and the EU leadership rapidly changed tactics, sending navy vessels on search-and-rescue missions and bringing, thus, thousands of refugees safely ashore. The “refugee crisis” started as soon as the ideological angle of debates on immigration shifted from the immigrants themselves to the political institutions refusing assistance or support to them. Until then, and for a couple of decades already, the political consensus (and its propaganda, of course) had defined immigrants in negative terms, as “adventurers” and “fortune seekers” who have no good cause to seek asylum in the EU and were basically here to take advantage of the wealth accumulated by hard-working EU citizens. Since good numbers of immigrants were Muslims, suggestions of terrorist “fifth column” threats were whispered, and the heavy metal of moralizing condemnation of such “irresponsible” people by European politicians blasted through every TV and radio speaker. A very large chorus of journalists, opinion makers and citizens on social media joined in.

From mid-April 2015, the tone changed entirely. And the cause of that change was visual. The bandwagon started rolling as soon as extraordinarily sad and painful pictures appeared from refugees who did not look like the “adventurers” of European anti-immigrant propaganda. They looked like innocent victims, and the visual confrontation with such “real” refugees was what caused an opinion shift in favor of supporting refugees, and increasingly critical of governments’ stubborn refusal to do so. The burden of “guilt” for what happened thus shifted from the shoulders of the immigrants towards those of governments who had been busy designing repressive anti-immigration policies and had, while doing so, also neglected the administrative and material infrastructures required for offering support to those who applied for it under the terms of international conventions. The real “crisis”, in that sense, became less a crisis of huge numbers of people entering the Union, than a crisis of the perplexing inadequacy of the systems necessary to cope with such numbers. The crisis became political.

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Before taking this argument further, a general point is in order. We live in a media-saturated society in which the supply of graphic images is virtually unlimited, certainly in an information market in which traditional mass media are complemented by vast volumes of social media broadcasting, in which citizen journalism, crowd-sourced information and virality are rapidly changing the rules of classical mass media propaganda. When Herman and Chomsky wrote their “Manufacturing Consent” (1988), they described a world in which the Murdoch empire could make or break governments as long as one applied the rules of propaganda. This propaganda model is in need of drastic revision at present: sure, Mr. Murdoch can still make or break governments, but he must keep track of a broad range of unpredictable (and uncontrollable) forces – true “mass (social) media” not within his control. The “light” communities of the social media age are still not taken too seriously by analysts of power and social structure; that is to their own peril, because we are seeing with increasing frequency and intensity how such “light” communities start behaving very much like the “thick” communities of classical social and political analysis. They abandon the quick-and-easy “clicktivism” often ascribed to them, move offline, get organized and start citizen movements and action groups, engage in new forms of economic transaction, and win elections.

Politics, in that sense, has become considerably less predictable, for the rules of public opinion formation have been pluralized and dispersed over vastly more voices and actors, many of whom cannot be brought under control that easily. What happens to the EU now, consequently, came as a surprise to many of its leading politicians – the summer months are traditionally a period of political insignificance, in which the media and their publics get upset about trivial things. In 2015, if politicians switched off their monitoring tools in June and switched them back on in September, they found themselves in an almost unrecognizable world.

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I must get back to the images that triggered that change. The refugee crisis of mid-2915 was documented by means of millions of pictures, several of which caused considerable impact. There were shocking pictures, of course, of the drowned victims floating in the Mediterranean; of refugees trying to enter the Channel Tunnel in Calais; of refugees storming trains in Macedonia and Hungary; of seventy-odd dead bodies of refugees in a truck somewhere in Austria; of police brutalities committed against refugees; of makeshift or formal “concentration” camps for refugees, and of barbed-wire fences being raised along the borders of countries so as to keep the immigrants out.

Of these millions of images, however, three specific ones have made a massive impact – they went viral, were shared millions of times on social media platforms, and triggered avalanches of angry and committed commentary both in mass and social media. There is little intrinsically exceptional to the pictures themselves – those who have followed reporting over the summer have seen better and worse ones, to be sure. Semiotically, the sequence of three photos represents an escalation from bad to worse, but that is all. So the question as to why these specific pictures were “chosen”, so to speak, to become the emblematic ones punctuating the rhythm of mass grassroots mobilization among EU citizens cannot be answered by merely looking at them or by dissecting the semiotic structures they represent. There is a greater randomness to the actual image than to its context – if we wish to understand the impact of these pictures, it is the context that should concern us, and it is the context that I shall try to address in a moment. Let us first consider the three iconic images of the “refugee crisis” of the summer of 2015.

The first picture started circulating towards the end of April 2015. We see a confused scene on a Greek island in the Aegean in which a woman is dragged out of the sea onto the cliffs by a man. The man is a Greek citizen, and the woman an Eritrean refugee, whose boat had crashed into the cliffs just minutes earlier. The woman was pregnant and gave birth shortly afterwards.

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This image was widely shared and intensely commented and discussed; the protagonists were interviewed and became modest celebrities for a short while. The supposed “danger” of immigration was here represented by a pregnant woman from Africa – not someone who corresponds to the propaganda stereotype of the young masculine fortune seeker, but a person embodying extreme vulnerability. The woman is a victim, not a perpetrator, and her face tells a terrifying story. Saving someone in that situation from an almost certain death is morally unchallengeable: it is something good, something we all have a duty to. Discussions on social media fora, consequently, quickly struck an outspokenly moral tone: the refugee crisis had become a question of good versus evil, and if governments remained hesitant or reluctant to welcome such people, the governments were a rotten bunch.

The impact of this picture was considerable for a while, until the headlines gradually started focusing on the Greek Syriza-Trojka drama which occupied most of public opinion in June and July. But then the second photo started circulating.

The second picture appeared in August; the scene and setting are almost identical to the first one. We again get a “landing” scene, of refugees on the rough shores of a Greek island, at dawn. An adult man, crying, holds a child in his arms and hugs another, while victims and rescue workers fill the background.

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This picture suggests a parent-child frame: a father in deep distress holding that radically vulnerable type of human in his arms – his children. Again, these are victims, and it is impossible to read anything else into this image. It is equally impossible not to imagine, and sympathize with, the misery experienced by the man, or his emotion at the moment he knows that his children are safe and alive. As a footnote we can add here that, semiotically, children connect the three photos – from a pregnant woman to a father with his kids, and soon towards the lone child: there is a line. But this is a footnote.

This picture went viral; memes were developed on the basis of this image, and it circulated with angry captions directed at the insensitivity and incompetence of governments turning such innocent people away from their borders. The picture revived the theme of refugees after some weeks of relative quiet, and it circulated in an expanded range of audiences. Its mobilizing force was obvious, and citizen movements started forming in several places in the EU.

In the first days of September, the third picture was released and hit the public like a nuclear bomb. That radically vulnerable type of human being, a child, was still alive and with his father in the second photo. In the third one it is dead and abandoned, lying as if asleep on a beach near Bodrum in Turkey, fully dressed and very, very small. If ever there was an image of an innocent victim, this is it.

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Not much more needs to be said about this photo because whatever can be said is utterly distressing. But the picture went viral in a global community, it instantly gave rise to memes and caricature replicas (see the image on top of this essay and the postscript below), it provoked hundreds of opinion and editorial articles in the mass media, and forced politicians to speak out. Even David Cameron, adamant until then about the UK’s refusal to accept more than a token number of new refugees, sounded mellow when he announced his willingness to accept a significantly higher number of refugees. The photo of Aylan (the boy’s name) had become a public opinion B-52..

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The publication of this third photo generated a mass of active solidarity across Europe; it is this photo that persuaded Bayern München to donate one million Euro for such purposes. In The Netherlands, over one hundred celebrities published an announcement in newspapers stating their willingness to personally host refugees, given their government’s extreme reluctance to take appropriate action in this direction. Similar actions were noted in France and Belgium. In Finland, the Prime Minister (not someone known for left-wing sympathies) announced that he would host asylum seekers in his private residence. In Belgium, an entirely spontaneous movement had formed, started by one individual on Facebook, collecting clothes, foods and other crucial items for the benefit of the thousands of refugees camping out in an informal settlement in Calais. In a couple of weeks, the movement grew spectacularly and acquired an amazing level of organization and effectiveness. The massive public impact of the third picture made today’s convoy of this movement to Calais suddenly headline news.

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Three photos, thus, shifted the balance of public opinion on refugees in a matter of months. They became emblematic, not just as images of the crisis but also as pointers to the moral positions people can assume in relation to it. And morally, the debate is polarized: inactive or hesitant government personnel, PEGIDA and other racist actors are now the target of moral stigmatization, while support for and empathy with refugees is morally qualified as a self-evident instance of “good”. This moral polarization shows us, perhaps, one of the engines pushing the “light” communities of social media offline and into the realm of social and political action traditionally reserved for “thick” communities. Moral causes have become the fuel for a new type of formal-informal voluntarist politics.

There are historical precedents to this, of course. Many of us remember this picture of a girl dreadfully burned by a US napalm attack in Vietnam:

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There, too, the focus of moral outrage was a child, terribly hurt by military actions officially targeting an “enemy”. And the picture had a seismic effect on US public opinion on the Vietnam War. This phenomenon was, however, quite exceptional. Given the tremendous affordances of the new media environment in which we now live, much more of this is to be expected. There is no predicting whether any instance of it (let alone which instances) will have the mobilizing effects of the three photos discussed here. But what may be predictable is that governments can, and will, be confronted with mass grassroots moral opposition whenever it happens; and that they have very little control over what will cause such trouble, and when.

They will leave such conflicts badly injured if they fail to appreciate that such forms of moral opposition have a more “absolute” character, and are therefore far more “popular”, more compelling and less liable to compromise, than the good old ideological conflicts and disagreements that structured the field of politics for so long. Some will call it populism, no doubt. But it is a grassroots populism – like it or not – that is rapidly changing the rules of politics.

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POSTSCRIPT: “Aylan” as a viral motif

Within 24 hours after the publication of the third picture, the internet was ablaze with hundreds of popular-cultural uptakes of Aylan. Here is a small sample of them. See also

Artists Around The World Respond To Tragic Death Of 3-Year-Old Syrian Refugee

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Touchés par la photo d'Aylan Kurdi, ce petit garçon syrien de 3 ans gisant sans vie sur une plage turque après le naufrage de son embarcation, des dessinateurs ont pris leur crayon. Ici,
Touchés par la photo d’Aylan Kurdi, ce petit garçon syrien de 3 ans gisant sans vie sur une plage turque après le naufrage de son embarcation, des dessinateurs ont pris leur crayon. Ici, “L’Europe est morte”, pour Elchicotriste, auteur de ce dessin partagé sur https://twitter.com/elchicotriste0/status/639253610308726784

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Chronotopic identities

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Jan Blommaert 

In their seminal study on the unequally accessible cultural capital of French university students, Bourdieu and Passeron made the following remark:

“Sans doute, les étudiants vivent et entendent vivre dans un temps et un espace originaux” [“Undoubtedly, students live and expect to live in an original time and space”] (Bourdieu & Passeron 1964: 48)

The specific time they live in is measured by the academic year, with its semesters, lecturing times and exam sessions. And the way they live it is relaxed, slightly anarchic and down to themselves when it comes to organizing their days, weeks and months – “le temps flottant de la vie universitaire” [“the fluid time of university life”] (id: 51). The specific spaces include, of course, the university campus, its buildings, lecture halls and staff offices; but also “des quartiers, des cafés, des chambres ‘d’étudiants’” [“’student’ neighborhoods, cafés and rooms”], cinemas, dance halls, libraries, theaters and so forth; the Parisian Quartier Latin, of course, serves as a textbook example here (id.: 51). It is no miracle, then, that a walk through the Quartier Latin during the academic year would reveal a specific demographic pattern –a dense concentration of young people who would be students and middle-aged men who would be senior academics – different from, say, people shopping along the fashion stores on the Champs Elysées or taking the commuter trains out of Paris at 5PM.

According to Bourdieu and Passeron, due these specific timespace givens, students acquire a sense of shared experience which, invariably, becomes an important part of their autobiographies later in life – “in my student days”, “we met when we were students…” The specific timespace of student life involves specific activities, discourses and interaction patterns, role relationships and identity formation modes, particular ways of conduct and consumption, of taste development and so forth, most of which are new, demand procedures of discovery and learning, and involve the mobilization of existing cultural and social capital in the (differential) process of acquiring new capital. References to similar timespace elements (a charismatic or dramatically incompetent lecturer, a particular café or a then-popular movie or piece of music) create a shared sense of cohort belonging with others, which co-exists with pre-existing belongings to social groups and which enters into posterior forms of belonging. In that sense, our student days do not compensate for or replace pre-existing class memberships (which the book documents at length), and neither is it the sole bedrock for posterior identity formation – it is, in Bourdieu & Passeron’s view, a relatively superficial phenomenon, “[p]lus proche de l’agrégat sans consistence que du groupe professional” [“closer to an aggregate without consistency than to a professional group”] (56), let alone “un groupe social homogène, indépendant et intégré” [a homogenous, autonomous and integrated social group”] (49), which reproduces underlying (class) differences while constructing one new layer of shared biographical experience. Thus, while students share almost identical experiences and develop particular, and similar, identities during their days at the university, the meanings and effects of these shared experiences will differ according to the more fundamental social and cultural identity profiles they “brought along” to university life.

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Probably without being aware of it, Bourdieu and Passeron provided us with one of the most precise empirical descriptions of what Bakhtin called a “chronotope” (Bakhtin 1981: 84-258). Bakhtin coined this term to point towards the inseparability of time and space in human social action and the effects of this inseparability on social action; in his work he identified the “literary artistic chronotope” where “spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole”, such that the chronotope could be seen as “a formally constitutive category of literature” (1981: 84). By means of chronotopes Bakhtin could address the co-occurrence of events from different times and places in novels, the fact that shifts between chronotopes involved shifts of an entire range of features and generated specific effects. He saw the interplay of different chronotopes as an important aspect of the novel’s heteroglossia, part of the different “verbal-ideological belief systems” that were in dialogue in a novel, because every chronotope referred to socially shared, and differential, complexes of value attributed to specific forms of identity, as expressed (in a novel for example) in the description of the looks, behavior, actions and speech of certain characters, enacted in specific timespace frames. Bakhtin, importantly, assumed that chronotopes involve specific forms of agency, identity: specific patterns of social behavior “belong”, so to speak, to particular timespace configurations; and when they “fit” they respond to existing frames of recognizable identity, while when they don’t they are “out of place”, “out of order” or transgressive (see Blommaert 2015 for a discussion).

In a more contemporary and applied vocabulary, we would say that chronotopes invoke orders of indexicality valid in a specific timespace frame (cf. Blommaert 2005: 73). Specific timespace configurations enable, allow and sanction specific modes of behavior as positive, desired or compulsory (and disqualify deviations from that order in negative terms), and this happens through the deployment and appraisal of chronotopically relevant indexicals (i.e. indexicals that acquire a specific recognizable value in a specific timespace configuration). Thus, one can read Goffman’s Behavior in Public Spaces as a study of the orders of indexicality operating in public spaces and not elsewhere, while his description of poker players in Encounters can be read as a study of the orders of indexicality valid in places such as the poker rooms of Atlantic City or Las Vegas (Goffman 1963, 1961). Obviously, Howard Becker’s (1963) Outsiders also operate the way they do in clearly demarcated timespace configurations such as the nighttime jazz club, as much as studies of doctor-patient interaction typically are set in the timespace configuration of medical centers and consultation times therein (Cicourel 2002).

In such timespace configurations, Goffman situated specific actors enacting specific roles (poker players can never have met each other elsewhere, and they gather just to play poker and do that competently), enacting specific, relatively strict “rules of engagement” and normative assumptions (focus on the game, play the game by its rules), as well as identity judgments (a “superb” poker player). Goffman, like Bourdieu & Passeron, Becker and others, described the indexical organization of specific chronotopes: the ways in which specific socially ratified behavior depends on timespace configurations, or more broadly, the ways in which specific forms of identity enactment are conditioned by the timespace configurations in which they occur. The “gatherings” described in Behavior in Public Places are such timespace configurations, and the specific modes of behavior Goffman describes and analyzes are the ones that “fit” this specific configuration. The careful description of such nonrandom chronotopic connections, by the way, bears a well-known academic label: ethnography.[1]

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This is the central idea that I wish to elaborate in what follows: we can see and describe much of what we observe as contemporary identity work as being chronotopically organized; it is organized in, or at least with reference to, specific timespace configurations which are nonrandom and compelling as “contexts”, and “chronotope” enables us to avoid an analytical separation of behavior and context which is not matched by the experiences of people engaged in such activities. In its most simple formulation, the idea I’m attempting to develop here is that the actual practices performed in our identity work often demand specific timespace conditions; a change in timespace arrangements triggers a complex and massive change in roles, discourses, modes of interaction, dress, codes of conduct and criteria for judgment of appropriate versus inappropriate behavior, and so forth.

Take a pretty simple example: a group of colleagues who share their 9-5 daytime in the same office; all of them have mutually known names and roles, often hierarchically layered, and specific shared codes of conduct govern their interactions (the shortcut term for such codes is often “professionalism”). Men are dressed in suits and neckties, ladies wear similar formal-professional dress. The group, however, has developed a weekly tradition of “happy hour”. Every Thursday after work, they jointly leave the office and walk to a nearby pub for a drink or two. The moment they leave their office building, men take off their neckties, and the tone, topics and genres of talk they engage in with each other change dramatically. “Professional” and job-focused talk may be exchanged for banter, small talk about family life, joke-cracking or flirting. And the roles and relationships change as well: the office “boss” may no longer be the “coolest” person, and a very competent worker may turn into a very incompetent drinker or joke-teller. We see the same people engaging in entirely different social practices and relationships, embodying entirely different roles and identities – due to a change in the timespace configuration in which they move. “Happy hour” behavior is intolerable during office hours, and office behavior is intolerable in the pub (“no job talk!!”) – timespace reordering involves a complete reordering of the normative codes of conduct.

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Such phenomena, once we start looking for them, occur constantly. In fact, one may be hard pressed to come up with modes of social conduct that are not conditioned by nonrandom timespace arrangements. My suggestion here is to take this kind of “context” seriously – that is, let us address it in a systematic and meticulous way and see what purchase it has. Doing so may increase the accuracy of our analyses of the dynamic and changing nature of social life and of the groups that organize it. And as to these groups, identifying chronotopically organized identity work might contribute to a clearer understanding of the “light” communities we witness in so much contemporary work (see Blommaert & Varis 2015). Let me now try to outline some aspects of this issue.

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At the most basic level, it is good to point out that the chronotopic nature of specific forms of identity is already entrenched in our everyday vocabularies. Thus, when we speak of “youth culture”, we obviously speak (be it with perplexing vagueness even in published work) about a complex of recognizable cultural phenomena attributed to a specific period in human lives – “youth” – which is often also specific to a place or a region. Talcott Parsons’ (1964: 155-182) discussion of American youth culture, thus, differs from that of French youth offered at the same time by Bourdieu and Passeron. “Youth culture”, therefore, is always a chronotopically conditioned object of study.

Let us take this commonsense observation as our point of departure. Identifying something as “youth culture” in terms of its chronotopic conditions involves and explains certain things. I shall first look at what it involves.

It involves generalizability. If specific forms of cultural practice mark specific periods of life, all such periods must have their own forms of cultural practices. In other words, a chronotopic qualification such as “youth culture” could (and perhaps must) be extended to any other form of cultural practices describable as tied to and conditioned by specific timespace configurations. In fact, there is nothing more special to “youth culture” than to, say, the culture of young parents, mature professionals or retired senior citizens. In each case we shall see specific forms of practice and identity construction conditioned by the specific stage of life of the ones who enact them, and usually also involving trajectories through specific places (think of schools for teenagers, banks for young people taking their first mortgage, kindergarten for young parents). And just as youth cultures typically set themselves apart by specific forms of jargon and slang (now both in spoken and written forms), other age groups similarly display such discursive and sociolinguistic characteristics.

Generalizability, in turn, implies fractality. There is no reason why chronotopic cultural practices would be confined to the “big” stages of life only, because even within narrower timespans we can see nonrandom co-occurrences of timespace configurations and forms of cultural practice and identity enactment. Think of the timeframe of a week, for instance, in which specific days would be reserved for “work” (involving specific trajectories through time and space) and others for, say, religious services, family meetings, shopping and leisure activities. The timeframe of a single day in such a week, in turn, can be broken down into smaller chronotopic units, with activities such as “breakfast”, “dropping kids off at school”, “going to work”, “being at work”, “returning from work” and eventually “watching TV in bed” all marked by nonrandom collocations of time, space and behavioral modes. The rules of macroscopic conduct also apply to microscopic behavior.

And if we take this second implication through to analytical strategy, we can see that in actual analysis, different chronotopes interact. The macroscopic chronotopes intersect and co-occur together with the microscopic ones, and the different chronotopes need to be constantly balanced against each other. To be more precise, the chronotope of youth culture, when looked at in practice, is composed of a large quantity of more specific chronotopic arrangements. Students, for instance, can perform much of their student practices from Monday till Friday in a university town, but perform their practices of friendship, family life, love relationships, entertainment and local community involvement during the weekend in their home town. And this is dynamic as well: the freshman student will organize his/her life differently from the senior and more experienced student, just as the junior professional will act differently from the “old hands” (and note that the transition from newcomer to old hand can happen very quickly – the literature on the experiences of frontline soldiers in the Great War is replete with stories of “aging” overnight during their first battle).

Different chronotopes interact also in ways that may shed light on contemporary forms of cultural globalization in which local and global resources are blended in complex packages of indexically super-rich stuff. Hip Hop is a prime example, of course (Pennycook 2007, Westinen 2014), where the global AAVE templates of Hip Hop are blended with deep sociolinguistic locality – often strictly local dialects – and lyrics that bespeak the (chronotopic) condition of local youth-in-the-margins. Chronotopes, thus, also involve scalar distinctions, and such scalar distinctions can be seen as the features that enable relatively unproblematic co-occurrences rather than conflictual ones.

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The chronotopic nature of cultural practices explains a number of things as well. It explains generations, anachronisms and obsolete cultural practices, for instance.

Except for census sociology, generations are notoriously fuzzy and puzzling units of sociocultural analysis. As Bourdieu and Passeron pointed out, the joint experience, several years long, of being a student in the same university and program does not cancel the power of reproduction of inequalities across “generations”. Thus upper-class and working-class people may have attended the same schools, the same lectures and movie or theater performances, and spent time in the same cafés and neighborhoods – none of that would reshuffle the transgenerational cards of social class difference, for the same experiences have different meanings and effects depending on this slower process of transmission and social dynamics. The “generation” of social class, therefore, is a slower and longer one than that of, say, “intellectuals”, “engineers” or “jazz lovers”.

I would suggest that we can get a more precise grip on “generations” when we consider what was said above: that at any point in time, we organize our lives within interacting macroscopic and microscopic chronotopes. This means that at any point, our cultural repertoires might contain obsolete elements that no longer “fit” into the social order we now incorporate. Middle-aged people typically still have (and upon request, can perform) a vocabulary of slang obscenities developed during adolescence and hugely functional at that stage of life as symbolic capital for “cool” or “streetwise” peer group identities, but for the deployment of which very little occasion can be found in life at present. Similarly, many people still know small bits of mathematics jargon, of Latin and Ancient Greek, learned in high school but never used again since the last day of school. Such resources remain in the repertoire and can, perhaps, be invoked on nostalgic storytelling occasions, but would have very little other function or value. As we move through “generations”, the cultural stuff that defined the chronotopic arrangements of earlier stages remains in our repertoire, but becomes obsolete.

Such forms of obsoleteness, I would propose, might be of interest if we wish to get a precise understanding of sociocultural change. Entirely new phenomena are often tackled by means of very old and obsolete cultural resources – they are often tackled by means of anachronisms, in other words. Thus, the key social identifier on Facebook – something entirely new, see further – is “friends” – one of the oldest notions in the vocabulary of social relations anywhere. The entirely new social community configuration of Facebook “friends” is thus anachronistically addressed and molded in the terms of an entirely different social community configuration. The example can be infinitely multiplied: new events, processes and phenomena can be normal for a younger generation and simultaneously abnormal for an older one, while it is the older one that holds, in many social domains, the power to define, regulate and judge these new things, and will typically do this by taking refuge in old, obsolete concepts or discourses. Such anachronisms are often the stuff of public debate and social conflict, as when the “Baby Boomers” are blamed for the creation of economic bubbles and overspending, the “Woodstock generation” is getting crucified for their tolerance of soft drugs, or the soixante-huitards (those who were students in May 1968) are coming under attack for a lofty leftism or the “decay” of the moral order.

It is this layered (heteroglossic) co-presence of chronotopically organized practices, in a sometimes unbalanced and anachronistic way, that may lead us towards the finer grain of social order and social conflict. What exactly is contested across generations? And how exactly does this contestation operate? Those are questions we might begin to explore now.

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Similarly, an awareness of the layered co-presence of such practices may enable us to get a more precise understanding of the complex balance between “thick” and “light” communities and forms of membership therein. In earlier work, we pointed towards the – in our view growing – importance of “light” communities on social media (Blommaert & Varis 2015), where people gather and jointly act while focusing on lifestyle objects, meanings and practices. Such “light” groups were never really privileged by sociology: the Durkheimian and Parsonian tradition had a marked preference, precisely, for the mechanisms of cohesion and integration that brought multiple disparate “light” communities together into a “thick” community (the nation, the tribe, the region, the family, the religious community etc.). And we have seen above how Bourdieu and Passeron disqualified students as an “aggregate without consistency” which could surely not qualify as a “real” social group.

Bourdieu and Passeron argued that in decent sociological study of students, due to the ephemeral character of this community, should not address the student community in isolation, for it could never be seen as entirely autonomous with respect to the larger, deeper forces of social class distinction (Bourdieu & Passeron 1964: 56). Thus, while students could be studied as a group, they could not be studied as a group in itself; the “groupness” of students must, rather, be constantly checked as to its features and characteristics against the “thick” community structures upon which it was grafted. I suggest that we can considerably refine Bourdieu and Passeron’s relatively rough base-superstructure model by paying attention to the specific chronotopic organization of behavior judged to be characteristic of specific groups. It would enable us, perhaps, to see that the “thick” structures, while perhaps determining, are not necessarily dominant in explaining the social valuation of cultural practices typical of “light” communities – the precise mode of valuation will be an effect of the specific chronotopic arrangements we address.

***

The largest social space on earth these days is the virtual space. And it is entirely new as a sociological and anthropological fact. I already mentioned how entirely new social environments such as social media are often approached from within anachronistic modes of social imagination; and the world of social analysis does not differ too much from that of lay practices in this respect.

I can only point towards the possibility of an extraordinarily interesting line of research in the vein sketched here. There are specific timespace challenges raised by online culture: contrary to the social imagination of classical sociology and anthropology, the social practices developed online involve no physical copresence but a copresence in a shared “virtual” space of unknown scale-dimensions, involve often an unknown number of participants (also often of unknown identity), combined with a stretchable timeframe in which temporal copresence is not absent but complemented by an almost unlimited archivability of online communicative material.

Thus, determining the specific chronotopic nature of cultural practices in a virtual cultural sphere promises to be a stimulating and thought-provoking exercise. Issues of scale – the internet is an immense social space – will call for ethnographic precision in analysis, so as to avoid rapid but unfounded generalizations of the kind “Facebook is a family of 2 billion people”. Using a far more refined research tool, directed with great precision at the specific context-situatedness of any form of social practice, must help us ditch such sociological (as well as political) illusions and replace them with a more complex, but also far more accurate, image of what really goes on in that colossal social space, what exactly contributes to modes of social organization there, and how patterns of organization change over time.

References

Bakhtin, M.M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination (ed. M. Holquist). Austin: University of Texas Press

Becker, H. (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. Glencoe: Free Press

Blommaert, J. (2005) Discourse: A critical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, J. (2015) Chronotopes, scale and complexity in the study of language in society. Annual Review of Anthropology 44 (in press).

Blommaert, J. & P. Varis (2015) Enoughness, accent and light communities: Essays on contemporary identities. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies paper 139. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/5c7b6e63-e661-4147-a1e9-ca881ca41664_TPCS_139_Blommaert-Varis.pdf

Bourdieu, P. & J-C. Passeron (1964 [1985]) Les Héritiers: Les Etudiants et la Culture. Paris: Minuit.

Cicourel, A. (2002) Le Raisonnement Médical (eds. P. Bourdieu & Y. Winkin). Paris: Seuil.

Durkheim, E. (1985 [2010]) Les Règles de la Méthode Sociologique. Paris: Flammarion.

Goffman, E. (1961) Encounters: Two studies in the sociology of interaction. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill

Goffman, E. (1963) Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the organization of gatherings. New York: Free Press.

Lukes, S. (1973) Emile Durkheim: His life and Work – A historical and critical study. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Parsons, T. (1964 [1970]) Social Structure and Personality. New York: Free Press.

Pennycook, A. (2007) Global Englishes and Transcultural Flows. London: Routledge

Westinen, E. (2014) The Discursive Construction of Authenticity: Resources, scales and polycentricity in Finnish Hip Hop culture. PhD Dissertation, Tilburg University & University of Jyväskylä.

[1] Or ethnomethodology and related disciplinary labels. In a similar vein, one can see the structuralist attempts at generalization and universalization as dechronotopicalizing attempts trying to transcend the levels of chronotopic situatedness inherent in all social behavior. Durkheim’s definition of “social fact” is an obvious and extremely influential case in point (Durkheim 1895: 99-113; see also Lukes 1973: 8-15). Saussure’s concept of “Langue” is a domain-specific application of Durkheim’s “social fact”.

Language, behavioral scripts, and valuation: Comments on “Transnationalizing Chineseness”

3.2 handwritten Chinese in Berchem

Jan Blommaert

Commentary, panel on “Transnationalizing Chineseness: language, mobility and diversity” (organizers: Shuang Gao & Xuan Wang; line-up: Xiaoxiao Chen, Shuang Gao, Hua Nie, Nkululeko Mabandla & Ana Deumert, Han Huamei – discussants Lionel Wee & Jan Blommaert). International Conference “The Sociolinguistics of Globalization: (de)centring and (de)standardization”, Hong Kong University, 4 June 2015.

Let me first point out that this panel was organized by two relatively junior scholars – Shuang Gao and Xuan Wang – and that they managed to bring together an exceptionally engaging and stimulating panel. They deserve a huge accolade for that. The points raised by them and by the authors of the papers in this panel are substantial and none of the participants can be accused of shoddy work. Neither can they be accused of irrelevance: the transformation of “Chineseness” as an effect of the global rise to economic and political prominence of the People’s Republic is a true globalization phenomenon of colossal scale, and each of the papers showed us how such terrifically large-scale transformations set down, so to speak, in actual small-scale situations, places and moments. The picture I added as a caption to this text shows that it also occurs in my own neighborhood in inner-city Antwerp, where a local Cantonese restaurant-owner, member of an older diasporic generation, addresses potential customers for renting a flat, and does so in an unstable hybrid of Cantonese and Mandarin and of simplified Chinese script and traditional character script. The global shift in “who is the Chinese in the world” forces him to readjust not only his linguistic and literacy repertoire, but to change his economic orientation, towards a new and very large community of immigrants from Mainland China – a population virtually unknown in most places in the world until the 1990s.

Such immigrants were also invisible in South Africa and Namibia (papers by Mabandla & Deumert and Han, respectively), and their contemporary presence in European societies can bump into uneasy and unpleasant walls of anachronistic stereotyping, as Hua Nie’s paper on ethnic stereotyping in “Holland’s Got Talent” so painfully showed. International tourists in China were also a rare commodity, and Chen as well as Gao document the ways in which Chinese state-governed media respond to the growing presence and politico-economic importance of the scores of international tourists presently flying into Chinese airports. For such tourists, the reassuring message is provided that the Chinese language is dauntingly difficult but nothing to worry about – multilingual celebrities such as Mama Moon (Gao) and travel writers in mainstream Chinese media (Chen) reassure the foreigners that they will have an easy time communicating with the Chinese. That, in the process, one of the world’s largest languages is made near-invisible is a price willingly paid, remarkably, by a reinvigorated Chinese nationalism.

In what follows, I will briefly review some general and analytical reflections prompted by these papers; together, they can perhaps serve as a heuristic for further empirical research; for me, they testify to the extent to which I was intrigued and captured by the exceptional scholarship presented in this panel.

1. An initial and seemingly trivial point is that the papers all addressed change, and the scale of the particular case of change – a global repositioning of “Chineseness” – has been mentioned above. In my view, studying globalization amounts to studying change – and not “flat”, linear change, but a terrifically complex array of different forms and modes of change, operating at different speeds, with different objects and instruments, mobilizing different forms of actors and resources, and with different (often unpredictable and nonlinear) outcomes. Thus put, the point that these papers address change loses its trivial ring, because we are traditionally not well equipped to address such complex and dynamic patterns of non-stability – our structuralist and synchronic toolkit has prepared us for precisely the opposite. As we shall see further, one important (and apparently constant) feature of such patterns of change is restratification: the “reordering” and “re-ranking” of cultural and symbolic capital such as language and forms of identity. The image in the caption shows precisely such restratification: the restaurant owner’s Cantonese and traditional script – until recently unchallenged in their hegemony as the linguistic emblems of “Chinese in the world” – are rapidly being overtaken by the codes of the People’s Republic, Putonghua and simplified script, forcing the author of the little advertisement to un-learn his usual codes and re-learn, problematically, the new codes. Almost all the papers in this panel showed aspects of such restratifications, in which people and their identity codes assume new, often contested, positions in the symbolic hierarchies that direct social life.I shall return to this issue below.

So we’re not really good at studying change; but the papers gave us a couple of perhaps useful leads into a productive way of addressing them. I picked up, in particular, three points that we best see as three different aspects of one bundle – an “object of change”, so to speak, for a sociolinguistics of globalization. Let me review them one by one.

2. The first point, and again seemingly evident, is that we study the ways in which processes of change affect and operate on and in language, in processes of meaningful social interaction and the resources used for them. We see that language, for instance in the presentation of Mandarin in the China Daily (Chen) becomes emblematic – no longer a “linguistic” thing strictly speaking (not used to produce denotational meaning), but a cultural thing, even a political and moralized one, as Gao’s discussion of the multilingual celebrities in the Chinese media showed. Languages, different degrees of proficiency in them, and specific ways of using them, become emblems of legitimate belonging, exemplary citizenship, personal character (or lack thereof, as in the “devious” Chinese traders in Northern Namibia discussed by Huamei Han). This works in several directions: constructively as a way of identifying oneself, but also destructively as a way of stigmatizing the other and removing the social capital potentially attributed to the other’s linguistic resources – as when a jury member in Holland’s Got Talent imitates the “l-r confusion” stereotypically attributed to Chinese immigrants (“number 39 with lice?” instead of “with rice?”). Small, almost homeopathic specks of performed or displayed language can be, and are, turned into powerful identifiers (and stratifiers) in the sociolinguistic world of globalization.

3. But, importantly, language rarely occurs alone. What we have seen in the papers (and in other recent studies), is how language almost always comes with a sort of indexical “envelope”, so to speak, of behavioral scripts. Such scripts can best be described as imaginable situations in marked (i.e. nonrandom) spacetime, provoking enregistered (and therefore normative, expected and presupposed) modes of behavior. The little bits of Chinese provided by the travel writers in Chen’s paper occurred in discussions of cuisine, in itself marked as “exotic” but presented as part of the “experience” of heritage tourism in China.

To unpack the definition somewhat: the behavioral scripts assume the form of actual real-life situations which we can somehow imagine (e.g. working for a Chinese employer in a Namibian shop, Huamei Han; or Chinese people “typically” being involved in small-scale but transnational trading or catering, Mabandla & Deumert and Nie Hua, respectively), and onto which we project normative patterns of behavior and – thence – templates of character and identity (the Chinese employer being harsh and demanding, the Chinese tradesmen being relentlessly competitive, the restaurant owner speaking nonnative varieties of language, etc.). Note that I mentioned “marked spacetime” as part of the definition: a crucial element in all of this is the actual spatial and temporal frame in which these behaviors are suggested to occur, or are preferred to occur: they are, in that sense, fundamentally chronotopic.

Language is mixed into these behavioral scripts as, sometimes, the key emblem that points to and invokes – indexes – the entire script and its normative dimensions. So language is rarely alone, and even when it operates alone, it often emblematizes, as a metonym, the broader package of behavioral expectations and identity templates. As linguists, we tend to overemphasize the former and downplay the latter, while phenomenally – as phenomena – they usually co-occur

4. The normative dimensions bring me to the final point. We already have language (in particular modes of occurrence) and the wider behavioral scripts within which they appear and operate. The third element is normative judgment, valuation. The two former features almost always appear wrapped in an evaluative frame – understood here in its Bakhtinian sense, as the social value attributed to “meaning” – and when we address change (here we come to our point of departure), it is the evaluative frames that might be of paramount concern. For all the papers (and other studies) showed that the global transformation of “Chineseness” (as with other forms of large-scale globalization-induced transformation) collapsed into actual real life situations in which we saw an unfinished struggle between old and new evaluative frames. The jury member in Holland’s Got Talent projected the “old” evaluative frame of “Chineseness” onto the candidate – a “new” PhD student and accomplished opera singer from Mainland China; and Nie Hua’s data on internet debates on the incident showed partly coordinated but also partly very different orientations in the “old” Chinese community in the Netherlands, and the “new” community. Similarly, Mabandla & deumert’s excellent historical overview of Chinese diasporas in South Africa showed how the “new” immigrants partly inscribe themselves into a slow and enduring structure of economic activity – small-scale trading and catering – but also move into more hybrid and dynamic forms of “entanglement” with the present conditions of economic, social and cultural life.

Thus, all the studies presented in this panel showed processes of social, cultural and political identity-formation developing in a polycentric environment in which various normative “cores” or “foci” could be identified – behavioral scripts, in short – but not necessarily in an equivalent way. Some behavioral scripts and their evaluative frames move slower than others, they affect other places, other social roles, other sociocultural and political effects: different spacetime frames, activity modes, membership criteria, and forms of value attribution clashed into often highly uncomfortable and sometimes densely conflictual actual situations. And this polycentric arena, I would argue, is the empirical engine of what we can observe in the way of change. Note, in passing, that when Nik Coupland emphasized reflexivity as the condition of globalization in his plenary, I assume that he has this normative and evaluative dimension firmly in mind; from what I see in our field, reflexivity in actual fact looks more like a highly effective sort of “pricing strategy”, something with a real bite in terms of power effects, rather than like a lofty meta-concern without social consequences. The same obviously counts for Penny Eckert’s “indexical fields”, which should also be understood as fields in which powerful evaluative effects prevail.

In conclusion: I have suggested three interlocked aspects of an object that might be useful in studying change in a sociolinguistics of globalization: the specific ways in which change settles down in and on language, the “packaging” of language in broader behavioral scripts, and the normative encoding and evaluation of this package in actual social practices developing in necessarily polycentric social arenas. Together, I do hope, they provide an empirical roadmap for an adequate study of phenomena of tremendous relevance and impact on our present world and the lives we lead therein.

Link:

The conference program, including the panel lineup and the abstracts, can be accessed via http://programme.exordo.com/slxg2015/

https://www.academia.edu/10086732/Chronotopes_scale_and_complexity_in_the_study_of_language_in_society

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Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes and new social structures

Piia Varis & Jan Blommaert

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

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Abstract

There is a long tradition in which “phatic” forms of interaction are seen as (and characterized by) relatively low levels of “information” and “meaning”. Yet, observations on social media interaction patterns show an amazing density of such phatic interactions, in which signs are shared and circulated without an a priori determination of the meaning. We address the issue of “virality” in this paper: the astonishing speed and scope with which often “empty” (i.e. not a priori determined) signs circulate on the internet. We address “memes” – signs that have gone viral on the Internet – as cases in point. Virality as a sociolinguistic phenomenon raises specific issues about signs, meanings and functions, prompting a shift from “meaning” to “effect”. This effect, we can see, is conviviality: the production of a social-structuring level of engagement in loose, temporal and elastic collectives operating in social media environments.

Key words: phatic communion, social media, virality, memes, meaning, function, community, identity.

Introduction

In a very insightful and relatively early paper on the phenomenon, Vincent Miller (2008) questions the ‘content’ of communication on social media and microblogs (Facebook and Twitter, respectively), and concludes:

“We are seeing how in many ways the internet has become as much about interaction with others as it has about accessing information. (…) In the drift from blogging, to social networking, to microblogging we see a shift from dialogue and communication between actors in a network, where the point of the network was to facilitate an exchange of substantive content, to a situation where the maintenance of a network itself has become the primary focus. (…) This has resulted in a rise of what I have called ‘phatic media’ in which communication without content has taken precedence.” (Miller 2008: 398)

Miller sees the avalanche of ‘empty’ messages on new social media as an illustration of the ‘postsocial’ society in which networks rather than (traditional, organic) communities are the central fora for establishing social ties between people. The messages are ‘empty’ in the sense that no perceptibly ‘relevant content’ is being communicated; thus, such messages are typologically germane to the kind of ‘small talk’ which Bronislaw Malinowski (1923 (1936)) identified as ‘phatic communion’ and described as follows:

“’phatic communion’ serves to establish bonds of personal union between people brought together by the mere need of companionship and does not serve any purpose of communicating ideas.” (Malinowski 1923 (1936): 316)

For Malinowski, phatic communion was a key argument for his view that language should not just be seen as a carrier of propositional contents (“communicating ideas” in the fragment above), but as a mode of social action the scope of which should not be reduced to ‘meaning’ in the denotational sense of the term. In an excellent paper on the history of the term ‘phatic communion’, Gunter Senft notes the post-hoc reinterpretation of the term by Jakobson (1960) as ‘channel-oriented’ interaction, and describes phatic communion as

“utterances that are said to have exclusively social, bonding functions like establishing and maintaining a friendly and harmonious atmosphere in interpersonal relations, especially during the opening and closing stages of social – verbal – encounters. These utterances are understood as a means for keeping the communication channels open.” (Senft 1995: 3)

Senft also emphasizes the difference between ‘communion’ and ‘communication’. Malinowski never used the term phatic ‘communication’, and for a reason: ‘communion’ stresses (a) the ritual aspects of phatic phenomena, and (b) the fact that through phatic communion, people express their sense of ‘union’ with a community. We will come back to this later on.

When it came to explaining the phenomenon, Malinowski saw the fear of silence, understood as an embarrassing situation in interaction among Trobriand Islanders, as the motive underlying the frequency of phatic communion. In order not to appear grumpy or taciturn to the interlocutor, Trobrianders engaged in sometimes lengthy exchanges of ‘irrelevant’ talk. While Malinowski saw this horror vacui as possibly universal, Dell Hymes cautioned against such an interpretation and suggested that “the distribution of required and preferred silence, indeed, perhaps most immediately reveals in outline form a community’s structure of speaking” (Hymes 1972 (1986): 40; see Senft 1995: 4-5 for a discussion). There are indeed communities where, unless one has anything substantial to say, silence is strongly preferred over small talk and ‘phatic communion’ would consequently be experienced as an unwelcome violation of social custom. This is clearly not the case in the internet communities explored by Vincent Miller, where ‘small’ and ‘content-free’ talk appears to be if not the rule, then certainly a very well entrenched mode of interaction.

This, perhaps, compels us to take ‘phatic’ talk seriously, given that it is so hard to avoid as a phenomenon in e.g. social media. And this, then, would be a correction to a deeply ingrained linguistic and sociolinguistic mindset, in which ‘small talk’ – the term itself announces it – is perceived as not really important and not really in need of much in-depth exploration.

Schegloff’s (1972; Schegloff & Sacks 1973) early papers on conversational openings and closings described these often routinized sequences as a mechanism in which speaker and hearer roles were established and confirmed. This early interpretation shows affinity with Malinowski’s ‘phatic communion’ – the concern with the ‘channel’ of communication – as well as with Erving Goffman’s (1967) concept of ‘interaction ritual’ in which people follow particular, relatively perduring templates that safeguard ‘order’ in face-to-face interaction. In an influential later paper, however, Schegloff (1988) rejected Goffman’s attention to ‘ritual’ and ‘face’ as instances of ‘psychology’ (in fact, as too much interested in the meaning of interaction), and reduced the Goffmanian rituals to a more ‘secularized’ study of interaction as a formal ‘syntax’ in which human intentions and subjectivities did not matter too much. The question of what people seek to achieve by means of ‘small talk’, consequently, led a life on the afterburner of academic attention since then – when it occurred it was often labelled as ‘mundane’ talk, that is: talk that demands not to be seen as full of substance and meaning, but can be analyzed merely as an instance of the universal formal mechanisms of human conversation (Briggs 1997 provides a powerful critique of this). Evidently, when the formal patterns of phatic communion are the sole locus of interest, not much is left to be said on the topic.

As mentioned, the perceived plenitude of phatic communion on the internet pushes us towards attention to such ‘communication without content’. In what follows, we will engage with this topic and focus on a now-current internet phenomenon: memes. Memes will be introduced in the next section, and we shall focus on (a) the notion of ‘viral spread’ in relation to agentivity and consciousness, and (b) the ways in which we can see ‘memes’, along with perhaps many of the phenomena described by Miller, as forms of conviviality. In a concluding section, we will identify some perhaps important implications of this view.

Going viral

On January 21, 2012 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted an update on his Facebook timeline, introduced by “Here’s some interesting weekend reading” (Figure 1). The message itself was 161 words long, and it led to a link to a 2000-word article. Within 55 seconds of being posted, the update got 932 “likes” and was “shared” 30 times by other Facebook users. After two minutes, the update had accumulated 3,101 “likes” and 232 “shares”.

Figure 1: Screenshot of Zuckerberg’s status update on Facebook, January 2012.

Given the structure and size of the text sent around by Zuckerberg, it is quite implausible that within the first two minutes or so, more than 3,000 people had already read Zuckerberg’s update and the article which it provides a link to, deliberated on its contents and judged it ‘likeable’, and the same goes for the more than 200 times that the post had already been shared on other users’ timelines. So what is happening here?

Some of the uptake can probably be explained with ‘firsting’, i.e. the preoccupation to be the first to comment on or like an update on social media – most clearly visible in the form of comments simply stating “first!”. Another major explanation could be ‘astroturfing’: it is plausible that many of those who “like” and “share” Zuckerberg’s update are in fact Facebook employees deliberately attempting to increase its visibility. We can guess, but we simply do not know. What we do know for sure, however, is that as a consequence of a first level of uptake – people liking and sharing the post – there are further and further levels of uptake, as other users witness this liking and sharing activity (some of it may already be showing in the figures here), and consequently make inferences about the meaning of the post itself, but also about the person(s) in their network who reacted to it. Further layers of contextualisation are thus added to the original post which may have an influence on the uptake by others.

Different social media platforms offer similar activity types: YouTube users can “view” videos and “like” them, as well as adding “comments” to them and adding videos to a profile list of preferences; Twitter users can create “hashtags” (a form of metadata-based “findability” of text, Zappavigna 2011: 792) and “retweet” tweets from within their network; similar operations are possible on Instagram as well as on most local or regional social media platforms available throughout the world. Each time, we see that specific activities are made available for the rapid “viral” spread of particular signs, while the actual content or formal properties of those signs do not seem to prevail as criteria for sharing, at least not when these properties are understood as denotational-semantic or aesthetic in the Kantian sense. We shall elaborate this below. The ace of virality after the first decade of the 21st century is undoubtedly the South-Korean music video called Gangnam Style, performed by an artist called Psy: Gangnam Style was posted on YouTube on 15 July, 2012, and had been viewed 2,065552172 times on 18 August 2014. Competent as well as lay observers appear to agree that the phenomenal virality of Gangnam Style was not due to the intrinsic qualities, musical, choreographic or otherwise, of the video. The hype was driven by entirely different forces.

The point to all of this however, is that we see a communicative phenomenon of astonishing speed and scope: large numbers of people react on a message by expressing their “liking” and by judging it relevant enough to “share” it with huge numbers of “friends” within their social media community. At the same time, in spite of Zuckerberg’s message being textual, it was not read in the common sense understanding of this term. The “like” and “share” reactions, consequently, refer to another kind of decoding and understanding than the ones we conventionally use in text and discourse analysis – “meaning” as an outcome of denotational-textual decoding is not at stake here, and so the “liking” and “sharing” is best seen as “phatic” in the terms discussed above. Yet, these phatic activities appear to have extraordinary importance for those who perform them, as “firsting” and “astroturfing” practices illustrate: people on social media find it very important to be involved in “virality”. People find it important to be part of a group that “likes” and “shares” items posted by others. It is impossible to know – certainly in the case of Zuckerberg – who the members of this group effectively are (this is the problem of scope, and we shall return to it), but this ignorance of identities of group members does seem to matter less than the expression of membership by means of phatic “likes” and “shares”. What happens here is “communion” in the sense of Malinowski: identity statements expressing, pragmatically and metapragmatically, membership of some group. Such groups are not held together by high levels of awareness and knowledge of deeply shared values and functions – the classical community of Parsonian sociology – but by loose bonds of shared, even if superficial interest or “ambient affiliation” in Zappavigna’s terms (2011: 801), enabled by technological features of social media affording forms of searchability and findability of “like”-minded people.

We need to be more specific though, and return to our Facebook example. “Liking” is an identity statement directly oriented towards the author of the update – Zuckerberg – and indirectly inscribing oneself into the community of those who “like” Zuckerberg, as well as indirectly flagging something to one’s own community of Facebook “friends” (who can monitor activities performed within the community). Patricia Lange, thus, qualifies such responsive uptake activities (“viewing” YouTube videos in her case) as forms of “self-interpellation”: people express a judgment that they themselves belong to the intended audiences of a message or sign (2009: 71). “Sharing”, by contrast, recontextualizes and directly reorients this statement towards one’s own community, triggering another phase in a process of viral circulation, part of which can – but must not – involve real “reading” of the text. Also, “liking” is a responsive uptake to someone else’s activity while “sharing” is the initiation of another activity directed at another (segment of a) community. So, while both activities share important dimensions of phaticity with each other, important differences also occur. These distinctions, as noted, do not affect the fundamental nature of the interaction between actors and signs – “sharing”, as we have seen, does not presuppose careful reading of the text – but there are differences in agency and activity type.

This is important to note, because existing definitions of virality would emphasize the absence of significant change in the circulation of the sign. Limor Shifman (2011: 190), for instance, emphasizes the absence of significant change to the sign itself to distinguish virality from “memicity”: memes, as opposed to viral signs, would involve changes to the sign itself. We shall see in a moment that this distinction is only valid when one focuses on a superficial inspection of the formal properties of signs. When one takes social semiotic activities as one’s benchmark, however, things become more complicated and more intriguing. We have seen that significant distinctions apply to “liking” and “sharing”. In fact, we can see both as different genres on a gradient from phatic communion to phatic communication: there are differences in agency, in the addressees and communities targeted by both activities, and in the fundamental pragmatic and metapragmatic features of both activities.

To clarify the latter: “sharing” an update on Facebook is a classic case of “re-entextualization” (Bauman & Briggs 1990; Silverstein & Urban 1996) or “re-semiotization” (Scollon & Scollon 2004). Re-entextualization refers to the process by means of which a piece of “text” (a broadly defined semiotic object here) is extracted from its original context-of-use and re-inserted into an entirely different one, involving different participation frameworks, a different kind of textuality – an entire text can be condensed into a quote, for instance – and ultimately also very different meaning outcomes – what is marginal in the source text can become important in the re-entextualized version, for instance. Re-semiotization, in line with the foregoing, refers to the process by means of which every “repetition” of a sign involves an entirely new set of contextualization conditions and thus results in an entirely “new” semiotic process, allowing new semiotic modes and resources to be involved in the repetition process (Leppänen et al. 2014). The specific affordances for responsive and sharing activities offered by social media platforms are thus not unified or homogeneous: we can distinguish a gradient from purely responsive uptake to active and redirected re-entextualization and resemiotization, blurring the distinction made by Shifman between virality and memicity.

Let us have a closer look at memes now, and focus again on the different genres of memic activity we can discern.

The weird world of memes

As we have seen, Shifman locates the difference between virality and memicity in the degree to which the sign itself is changed in the process of transmission and circulation. Memes are signs the formal features of which have been changed by users. Shifman draws on Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene (1976), who coined “meme” by analogy with “gene” as “small cultural units of transmission (…) which are spread by copying or imitation” (Shifman 2011: 188). We have already seen, however, that even simple “copying” or “imitation” activities such as Facebook “sharing” involve a major shift in activity type called re-entextualization. Memes – often multimodal signs in which images and texts are combined – would typically enable intense resemiotization as well, in that original signs are altered in various ways, generically germane – a kind of “substrate” recognizability would be maintained – but situationally adjusted and altered so as to produce very different communicative effects. Memes tend to have an extraordinary level of semiotic productivity which involves very different kinds of semiotic activity – genres, in other words.

Let us consider Figures 2-3-4 and 5-6-7. In Figure 2 we see the origin of a successful meme, a British World War II propaganda poster.

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Figure 2: British wartime propaganda poster.

A virtually endless range of resemiotized versions of this poster went viral since the year 2000; they can be identified as intertextually related by the speech act structure of the message (an adhortative “keep calm” or similar statements, followed by a subordinate adhortative) and the graphic features of lettering and layout (larger fonts for the adhortatives, ­the use of a coat of arms-like image). Variations on the memic theme range from minimal to maximal, but the generic template is constant. Figure 3 shows a minimally resemiotized variant in which lettering and coat of arms (the royal crown) are kept, while in Figure 5, the royal crown has been changed by a beer mug.

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Figure 3: Keep calm and call Batman

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Figure 4: Keep calm and drink beer.

In Figures 2-3-4 we see how one set of affordances – the visual architecture of the sign and its speech act format – becomes the intertextual link enabling the infinite resemiotizations while retaining the original semiotic pointer: most users of variants of the meme would know that the variants derive from the same “original” meme. The visual architecture and speech act format of the “original”, thus, are the “mobile” elements in memicity here: they provide memic-intertextual recognizability, while the textual adjustments redirect the meme towards more specific audiences and reset it in different frames of meaning and use.

The opposite can also apply, certainly when memes are widely known because of textual-stylistic features: the actual ways in which “languaging” is performed through fixed expressions and speech characteristics. A particularly successful example of such textual-stylistic memicity is so-called “lolspeak”, the particular pidginized English originally associated with funny images of cats (“lolcats”), but extremely mobile as a memic resource in its own right. Consider Figure 5-6-7. Figure 5 documents the origin of this spectacularly successful meme: a picture of a cat, to which the caption “I can has cheezburger?” was added, went viral in 2007 via a website “I can has cheezburger?”. The particular caption phrase went viral as well and became tagged to a wide variety of other images – see Figure 6. The caption, then, quickly became the basis for a particular pidginized variety of written English, which could in turn be deployed in a broad range of contexts. The extraordinary productivity of this meme-turned-language-variety was demonstrated in 2010, when a team of “lolspeak” authors completed a translation of the entire Bible in their self-constructed language variety. The Lolcat Bible can now be purchased as a book through Amazon.

Figure 5: I can has cheezburger?

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Figure 6: President and a possible voter having cheezburger

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Figure 7: I has a dream.

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The different resources that enter into the production of such memes can turn out to be memic in themselves; we are far from the “copying and imitating” used by Dawkins in his initial definition of memes. People, as we said, are extraordinarily creative in reorganizing, redirecting and applying memic resources over a vast range of thematic domains, addressing a vast range of audiences while all the same retaining clear and recognizable intertextual links to the original memic sources. This fundamental intertextuality allows for combined memes, in which features of different established memes are blended in a “mashup” meme. Figure 7 already illustrated this, and Figure 8 shows another mashup meme:

keep calm arrow

Figure 8: Keep calm and remove the arrow from your knee.

We see the familiar template of the “Keep calm” meme, to which a recognizable reference to another meme is added. The origin of this other meme, “then I took an arrow in the knee”, is in itself worthy of reflection, for it shows the essentially arbitrary nature of memic success. The phrase was originally uttered by characters from a video game “Skyrim” (Figure 9). The phrase is quite often repeated throughout the game, but this does not in itself offer an explanation for the viral spread of the expression way beyond the community of Skyrim gamers.

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Figure 9: Skyrim scene “Then I took an arrow in the knee”

The phrase became wildly productive and can now be tagged to an almost infinite range of different expressions, each time retaining a tinge of its original apologetic character, and appearing in mashups, as we saw in Figure 8.

What we see in each of these examples is how memes operate via a combination of intertextual recognizability and individual creativity – individual users adding an “accent” to existing viral memes, in attempts to go viral with their own adapted version. The work of resemiotization involved in such processes can be complex and demanding. Mashup memes, for instance, involves elaborate knowledge of existing memes, an understanding of the affordances and limitations for altering the memes, and graphic, semiotic and technological skills to post them online. The different forms of resemiotization represent different genres of communicative action, ranging from maximally transparent refocusing of existing memes to the creation of very different and new memes, less densely connected to existing ones.

Two points need to be made now. First, we do not see such resemiotizations, even drastic and radical ones, as being fundamentally different from the “likes” and “shares” we discussed in the previous section. We have seen that “likes” and “shares” are already different genres characterized by very different activity patterns, orientations to addressees and audiences, and degrees of intervention in the original signs. The procedures we have reviewed here differ in degree but not in substance: they are, like “retweets”, “likes” and “shares”, re-entextualizations of existing signs, i.e. meaningful communicative operations that demand different levels of agency and creativity of the user. Second, and related to this, the nature of the original sign itself – its conventionally understood “meaning” – appears to be less relevant than the capacity to deploy it in largely phatic, relational forms of interaction, again ranging from what Malinowski described as “communion” – ritually expressing membership of a particular community – to “communication” within the communities we described as held together by “ambient affiliation”. “Meaning” in its traditional sense needs to give way here to a more general notion of “function”. Memes, just like Mark Zuckerberg’s status updates, do not need to be read in order to be seen and understood as denotationally and informationally meaningful; their use and re-use appear to be governed by the “phatic” and “emblematic” functions often seen as of secondary nature in discourse-analytic literature.

Conviviality on demand

But what explains the immense density of such phatic forms of practice on social media? How do we make sense of the astonishing speed and scope with which such phatic forms of communion and communication circulate, creating – like in the case of Gangnam Style – perhaps the largest-scale collective communicative phenomena in human history? The explanations, we hope to have shown, do not necessarily have to be located in the features of the signs themselves, nor in the specific practices they prompt – both are unspectacular. So perhaps the explanations must be sought in the social world in which these phatic practices make sense.

In a seminal paper, Alice Marwick and danah boyd (2010: 120) distinguish between email and Twitter. They have this to say on the topic:

“(…) the difference between Twitter and email is that the latter is primarily a directed technology with people pushing content to persons listed in the “To:” field, while tweets are made available for interested individuals to pull on demand. The typical email has an articulated audience, while the typical tweet does not.”

The statement demands nuancing, for we have seen that even minimal forms of activity such as “sharing” involve degrees of audience design – the seemingly vacuous identity statements we described above, lodged in social media practices, are always directed at some audience, of which users have some idea, right or wrong (cf. Androutsopoulos 2013). Imaginary audiences are powerful actors affecting discursive behaviour, as Goffman and others have shown so often (e.g. Goffman 1963), and Marwick and boyd’s early statement that “Twitter flattens multiple audiences into one” – a phenomenon they qualify as “context collapse” – is surely in need of qualification (Marwick & boyd 2010: 122). The intricate social-semiotic work we have described here certainly indicates users having diverse understandings of audiences on social media. Different social media platforms offer opportunities for different types of semiotic and identity work, and users often hold very precise and detailed views of what specific platforms offer them in the way of audience access, identity and communication opportunities and effects (cf. Gershon 2010).

At the same time, Marwick and boyd are correct in directing our attention towards the kinds of communities in which people move on social media. In spite of precise ideas of specific target audiences and addressees, it is certainly true that there is no way in which absolute certainty about the identities (and numbers) of addressees can be ascertained on most social media platforms – something which Edward Snowden also made painfully clear. In addition, it is true that lump categories such as Facebook “friends” gather a range of – usually never explicitly defined – subcategories ranging from “real-life friends” and close relatives to what we may best call, following Goffman again, “acquaintances”. Goffman (1963), as we know, described acquaintances as that broad category of people within the network of US middle class citizens with whom relations of sociality and civility need to be maintained. Avoidance of overt neglect and rejection are narrowly connected to avoidance of intimacy and “transgressive” personal interaction: what needs to be maintained with such people is a relationship of conviviality – a level of social intercourse characterized by largely “phatic” and “polite” engagement in interaction. Acquaintances are not there to be “loved”, they are there to be “liked”. Facebook is made exactly for these kinds of social relationships (van Dijck 2013), which is perhaps also why a discourse analysis of Facebook interaction reveals the overwhelming dominance of the Gricean Maxims, that old ethnotheory of “polite” US bourgeois interaction (Varis forthcoming).

But let us delve slightly deeper into this. The communities present as audiences on social media may be at once over-imagined and under-determined: while users can have relatively precise ideas of who it is they are addressing, a level of indeterminacy is inevitable in reality. This means, in analysis, that we cannot treat such communities in the traditional sense of “speech community” as a group of people tied together by clear and generally shareable rules of the indexical value and function of signs (Agha 2007). Indexical orders need to be built, as a consequence, since they cannot readily be presupposed. Virality, as a sociolinguistic phenomenon, might be seen as moments at which such indexical orders – perceived shareability of meaningful signs – are taking shape. The two billion views of Gangnam Style suggest that large numbers of people in various places on earth recognized something in the video; what it is exactly they experienced as recognizable is hard to determine, and research on this topic – how virality might inform us on emergent forms of social and cultural normativity in new and unclear large globalized human collectives – is long overdue.

Some suggestions in this direction can be offered, though. In earlier work, we tried to describe ephemeral forms of community formation in the online-offline contemporary world as “focused but diverse” (Blommaert & Varis 2013). Brief moments of focusing on perceived recognizable and shareable features of social activity generate temporary groups – think of the thousands who “liked” Zuckerberg’s status update – while such groups do not require the kinds of strong and lasting bonds grounded in shared bodies of knowledge we associate with more traditionally conceived “communities” or “societies”. In fact, they are groups selected on demand, so to speak, by individual users in the ways we discussed earlier. People can focus and re-focus perpetually, and do so (which explains the speed of virality) without being tied into a community of fixed circumscription, given the absence of the deep and strong bonds that tie them together, and the absence of temporal and spatial copresence that characterizes online groups.

A joint “phatic” focus on recognizable form or shape offers possibilities for such processes of groupness, while the actual functional appropriation and deployment of signs – what they actually mean for actual users – is hugely diverse; the infinite productivity of memes – the perpetual construction of memic “accents” – illustrates this. Here we begin to see something fundamental about communities in an online age: the joint focusing, even if “phatic”, is in itself not trivial, it creates a structural level of conviviality, i.e. a sharing at one level of meaningful interaction by means of a joint feature, which in superficial but real ways translates a number of individuals into a focused collective. Note, and we repeat, that what this collective shares is the sheer act of phatic communion (the “sharing” itself, so to speak), while the precise meaning of this practice for each individual member of the collective is impossible to determine. But since Malinowski and Goffman, we have learned not to underestimate the importance of unimportant social activities. Memes force us to think about levels of social structuring that we very often overlook because we consider them meaningless.

This neglect of conviviality has effects. In the superdiversity that characterizes online-offline social worlds, we easily tend to focus on differences and downplay the level of social structuring that actually prevents these differences from turning into conflicts. Recognizing such hitherto neglected levels of social structuring might also serve as a corrective to rapid qualifications of the present era as being “postsocial” – a point on which we disagree with Vincent Miller. There is a great deal of sociality going on on social media, but this sociality might require a new kind of sociological imagination. We will look in vain for communities and societies that resemble the ones proposed by Durkheim and Parsons. But that does not mean that such units are not present, and even less that they are not in need of description.

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