Context and its complications

chat-english-online

Jan Blommaert, Laura Smits, Noura Yacoubi

Draft chapter, Handbook of Discourse Studies (eds. A. De Fina & A. Georgakopoulou). London: Routledge 2019.

Abstract: The point of departure for this chapter is the contention that the online-offline communicative economy in which we now live compels us to rethink some of the core vocabulary and assumptions underlying our thinking about ‘context’ and ‘contextualization’ in discourse studies. We formulate a set of proposals grounded in the interactionist tradition and focused on (inter)action rather than on participants and communities. Next, we propose to see contextualization as a process that takes us from chronotopes over frames to formats of action, situationally deployed.

Introduction: Online-offline action

In his classic Cognitive Sociology, Aaron Cicourel made the following general observation:

The problem of meaning for the anthropologist-sociologist can be stated as how members of a society or culture acquire a sense of social structure to enable them to negotiate everyday activities. (Cicourel 1974: PAGE)

This statement can serve as an extraordinarily accurate description of what was later called and methodologically developed as “contextualization” (Gumperz 1982, 1992; also Auer & DiLuzio 1992; Duranti & Goodwin 1992). Yet two components of the statement demand closer attention: “social structure” and “everyday activities”, for since the beginning of the 21st century the realities of social structure and the range and modes of everyday activities have been profoundly affected by the generalized introduction of a layer of online social life, complicating the offline social world on which these earlier formulations of contextualization were based. In this chapter, we intend to sketch the complications emerging from discourse produced interactionally in such an online-offline environment now serving as the backdrop for what Ron Scollon (2001) called “the nexus of practice”.

We must pay closer attention to the aspects of contextualization that have changed, we said, but that does not mean that we must do so from within a methodological tabula rasa. We believe the effort can be profitably made by means of some central insights and principles from within the interactional tradition of discourse studies. In fact, all the scholars already mentioned here belonged to that stream of ethnographically grounded studies of actual situated discursive practice, which has been the richest source of fundamental reflections on the notion of context and its role in social interaction. It is from that source that we can draw the general principles directing our discussion:

  1. Context should not be seen as an abstract, stable or latent presence; it is a resource deployed in concrete socially situated meaning-making action: context is always contextualization.In that sense, it is highly unpredictable, evolving, dynamic and unstable. Also, while contexts operate at various scale-levels and structures a multitude of concrete interactions, the analytical point of departure is their situated effects on making sense. To quote Herbert Blumer in this respect: “People (…) do not act toward culture, social structure or the like, they act toward situations” (Blumer 1969: PAGE)
  2. Contextualization is the key to making sense, because it consists of interactionally constructed indexical connections between actual discursive features and relevant chunks of sociocultural knowledge (Silverstein 1992; Hymes 1996; Gumperz 2003; Agha 2007).
  3. Such indexically deployed and invoked knowledge is never neutral but always evaluative and in that sense moral, and by extension identity-related (e.g. Goodwin 2007). Making sense is a moral judgment grounded in socioculturally available normative-behavioral scripts situationally projected onto persons. Goffman (1974) called such moralized scripts “frames”; the ways we implement them have been variously called (with distinctions not overly relevant here) “indexical order” (Silverstein 2003) and “orders of indexicality” (Blommaert 2005). The concepts are joined by their emphasis on (Bakhtinian) evaluative uptake and on the dimension of social order as part of meaning-making practices – recall Cicourel’s statement quoted above.
  4. The contextual resources that people draw upon in interaction have to be recognizable, but not necessarily shared (Garfinkel 2002; also Blommaert & Rampton 2016: 28-31). Sharedness is evolving as the interaction proceeds but can also evolve as a shared sense of misunderstanding, i.e. a shared sense that very little of substance is shared in the interaction. What needs to be recognizable is the broad outline of a format of interaction, a general script for social action.

We can see that these principles favor action over content and participants, and situated and evolving effects over a priori categories (such as speech acts, conversational maxims, “meaning” and “understanding”). The reason for these preferences is that, due to the changes described above, very little can be taken for granted with respect to what is “ordinary” and “normal” in communication. To name just a few of the widely used assumptions that need to be qualified: the assumption that communication is self-evidently a human-to-human activity has been challenged by human-machine interactions, and has thus become a variable rather than a stable feature. This, of course, has numerous knock-on effects on widely used criteria in theories of meaning: intentionality, agency, (human) rationality. Even more widespread is the assumption that the most “normal” or primitive form of communication – in the sense of: the kind of communication on which we base our fundamental theoretical imagination – is unmediated, spoken dyadic face-to-face interaction in shared physical timespace and between persons sharing massive amounts of knowledge, experience and sociocultural norms within a sedentary community (an offline conversation between similar people, in short). The online world has critically destabilized that assumption by inserting scripted, multimodal, non-simultaneous, translocally mobile, multiparty and technologically heavily mediated forms of everyday communication into the communicative economies of very large numbers of people, not as peripheral modes of interaction but as important, inevitable ones. We now communicate intensely with interlocutors with whom we do not share much (not even acquaintance as a natural person and a human subject), across space and time, and through complex modes of non-acoustic semiotic work.

Our core vocabulary and assumptions derive from an implicit sociological imagination of which we assume that it reflects the true state of things. Changes in the state of things often take some time before they translate into an alternative sociological imagination (cf. Mills 1959; also Blommaert 2018a). In the meantime, however, they render some of our core vocabulary for talking about language, interaction and meaning-making less salient and applicable, and invite a focus on the phenomena we can identify as constants. The constant feature, we would argue, is social action – a synonym, as Anselm Strauss (1993) among others emphasized, for interaction. Even if we now communicate with machines, with unknown mass audiences (as in mass online gaming), by means of delayed, asynchronous messages scripted in new forms of graphic visualization and design – we are still performing interactions in attempts to make sense of our world. Taking social action, defined in this sense, as our ontological point of departure enables us to start describing and understanding old and new patterns of interaction, how they intersect and how they structure our social lives.

With these principles established, we shall now engage with four different sets of issues, all of them inspired by the changes we noted earlier: the transition from an offline world of communication to an online-offline one. Some of these issues are not new – they have been constant features of debates on context and contextualization – but demand a renewed engagement in view of changes in the world of communication. In reviewing them, we will make proposals for reimagining aspects of them and for adopting another vocabulary in our descriptions of them.

Beyond the macro and micro: recognizability and formatting

A persistent feature of discussions of context and its uses in scholarship is the use of the “micro-macro” dichotomy (occasionally turned into a triad by inserting “meso” in between). “Micro”-contexts would then be the factors affecting and informing local, situated events: the timespace frame, the participants, the immediately and directly relevant social roles, the topic, and so forth. “Macro”, in turn, would stand for the nonlocal, broader factors in which the event can be situated and by which it is indirectly affected: the wider historical, sociocultural and political parts of the picture making (at least part of) the event understandable (see the discussion in e.g. Goffman 1964; Silverstein 1992;Cicourel 1992; Duranti 1997; Blommaert 2015a).

While such distinctions might be discursively and heuristically helpful, they are methodologically unhelpful from the perspective we formulated above. They do point to a fundamental fact: the non-unified and complex nature of context – any context – but they do so in an inaccurate way. Certainly when we become aware of the ways in which they rest on a particular sociological imagination, and of the ways in which and structure an epistemological field. The sociological imagination on which the dichotomy between “micro” and “macro” rests is the one sketched earlier: a world in which we can separate and isolate specific aspects of social life as being the direct conditions for conduct – the local, sedentary, individual, variable and mundane aspects – while other aspects appear to only indirectly inflect such conditions for conduct, due to their remoteness and their stable, collective character. The first set of facts we could call “processual” factors, and they would always be unique, while they others would be “procedural”, and they would be general. The first set would index “community” – a specific small-scale group involved in shared practices, but diverse and changeable – while the latter would index “society” – the organized, stable, enduring, systemic large-scale group characterized by common institutional characteristics. Obviously, this imagination of the social world is far removed from what Castells (1996), in a visionary text, called the online-offline “network society” (cf. also Blommaert 2018a).

The dichotomy between “micro” and “macro” also structures an epistemological field in which “micro” would stand for the anecdotal, the concrete, the singular, the possible exception, the empirical and the “token”, while “macro” would point to the systemic, the abstract, the generalizable, the norm, the theoretical and the “type”. Thus, so-called “micro-sociologists” and ethnographers would be dismissed as scholars whose attention to the uniquely situated features of cases precludes any attempt towards valid generalization, because generalization can only be made at a “macro” level of analysis where analytical detail has to be surrendered to abstraction (see the discussions in e.g. Mills 1959, Blumer 1969, Giddens 1984).

From a viewpoint privileging social action, all of this is highly unproductive, and the acuteness of the problem was repeatedly emphasized by Pierre Bourdieu and others. Bourdieu – often seen as a “macro”-sociologist whose work speaks to society at large – would emphasize that concepts such as “habitus” (a general concept) could only emerge through ethnographic attention to actual situated practice, not by statistical surveys. It was by observing the struggles of Algerian farmers to come to terms with a new market economy that Bourdieu saw the actual working of capitalism as propelled into socioculturally inhabited modes of practice (Bourdieu 2000; cf Blommaert 2015b). The big things reside in the small things, and the most inconspicuous and uniquely situated social action is, in that sense, “systemic” and “typical”, as well as the source for theoretical generalization. Evidently, the same insight animated Goffman’s work on interactional ritual and frames (1967, 1974): even if all instances of human interaction are unique, they display general characteristics and patterns sufficient to lift them from “micro” to “macro” relevance (cf. also Rampton 2016).

This is the point where we can start formulating a proposal in line with the principles outlined above. And we can draw for inspiration on the authors just mentioned, as well as on Garfinkel’s (2002) uncompromising formulations of the issue. Garfinkel saw recognizability as the key to understanding the social nature of interaction, and as already mentioned above, recognizability should not be equated with sharedness of norms, assumptions and worldviews. It is a recognition of the joint potential for specific modes of action that gives such action the character of “congregational work”, he argued – work performed collectively because we are jointly involved in it. We enter jointly into an action of which we know very little outside its possible general features, and we jointly construct such actions as forms of social order. This order can be entirely ad hoc, temporary and ephemeral. But while it lasts, it is a firm order that generates roles and identities along with a range of moral codes controlling (mis)behavior.

It is this aspect of recognizability, generating congregational work and its social outcomes, that renders distinctions between the factors discriminating “micro” and “macro” aspects of the act meaningless. Since acts are social, they will draw on available and accessible social resources – from the different social positions from which we enter the action, the kinds of language and discourse we use, over the topic, to the actual things we say, hear, write or read (cf. also Briggs 2005). And even if we see that such resources are unevenly distributed, a degree of order will emerge from the action itself. The latter was exemplified in a magnificent study by Charles Goodwin (2004), in which a man who,following a stroke, had lost almost all of his linguistic capabilities was shown to engage in lengthy and complex interactions with his friends and relatives. Evidently, the absence of shared linguistic resources imposes constraints on what can happen in such forms of interaction – resources are crucial contexts for interaction (Blommaert 2005: 58-62); but when we intend to understand what is happening, recognizability is the key.

Recognizability, however, is not an empty and random container. We recognize particular social situations and their features as something specific – a quarrel, a lecture or a Facebook update – on the basis of perceived properties of the situation (what Garfinkel  called ”autochthonous order properties”, 2002: 245) associated with what Goffman called “frames”: the ways in which we organize our experience. Recognizing a situation means framing it along what we could call a general indexical vector, i.e. entering that situation as one that imposes and enables specific forms of interaction, one or different orders of indexicality. When we recognize something as a Facebook update, we recognize that it enables (among other actions) different forms of response, and that it imposes keyboard writing and a specific set of symbols (e.g. emoticons) as techniques for responding to it. When we recognize the particular update as an instance of trolling, we recognize it as enabling an unfriendly response, and so forth. This we can call, following Garfinkel, formatting: shaping the particular situated interaction in “typical” (i.e. generic, non-unique) ways and bringing the “sense of social structure” mentioned by Cicourel into the particular action we are engaged in with others.

A lot of what we do in the work of contextualization is moving from recognition through framing to formatting. We do so dialogically in congregational work with others, and we do so by drawing upon socioculturally marked – indexicalized – resources that acquire a general direction in such activities. This, we propose, is the cornerstone of the argument here. We can now proceed to elaborate it further.

Chronotopes, scales and synchronization

In every moment of interaction, contextualization draws upon specific and non-unified resources (cf. Cicourel 1967, 1974; Silverstein 1992). Both dimensions are crucial if we wish to avoid undue simplifications such as “the context for this utterance is X”. The contextual resources drawn upon in contextualizing concrete interactions are inevitably multiple and layered (cf. Blommaert 2005). But they are not infinite, and not without structure and pattern. If we draw upon Goffman’s frames, we see that social experience is organized into such structures and patterns, in which particular forms of interaction – with attributes to be discussed in a moment – are attached to specific social situations in forms comparable to what Bakhtin called “chronotopes”.

Bakhtin developed the notion of chronotope (literally “timespace”) as a way to describe the sociohistorical layering in novels, more precisely the ways in which invocations of particular sociohistorical frames structured “voices” in specific situations, infusing them with identity scripts, moral orientations, participation frameworks (Goodwin & Goodwin 1992), expected and unexpected normative modes of conduct and roles within the situation – in short, the full sociocultural value of otherwise random forms of action (see the discussion in Blommaert 2015a and Blommaert & De Fina 2016). Thus in a fairy tale, the Big Bad Wolf is exactly that: male, big and bad, a threat to the others, and someone to be defeated by the others. Chronotopes, seen from this rather orthodox Bakhtinian perspective, provide moralized behavioral scripts in specific social situations (we called them formats above), and the recognition of social situations as specific (e.g. as a formal meeting) will prompt such scripts: as soon as the chair announces the beginning of the meeting, we will all reorganize our conduct, assume a different set of body poses, discursive patterns and relations with the other participants (e.g. respecting the chair’s formal leadership and the differential allocation of speaking rights), and align with the congregational work performed by the others. As soon as the meeting is over, we can shift back into another register of conduct, and the opponent during the meeting can turn into an ally in the pub during the post-meeting drink. Chronotopes impose formats on those inhabiting them, and this means that from the potentially infinite aspects of context animating events, a specific subset will be invoked and deployed as the normative script for conduct within that chronotopic situation, as the specific bit of social order to be followed by all those involved. Violating or disrupting that order – Goffman called them frame breaking – comes with moral judgments: everyday notions such as inappropriateness, rudeness, insolence, being off-topic, or trolling come to mind (cf. Blommaert & De Fina 2016; see Tagg, Seargeant & Brown 2017 for social media examples).

Chronotopes are, we believe, a useful gloss to address the specific nature of context and contextualization, one that forces us to examine with utmost precision what is elsewhere simply called “the context” of actual interactions. The notion also offers us a view of context as active, something that structures action and makes it socially recognizable and, thence, socially valued. The demand for precision will almost inevitably lead to outcomes in which particular chronotopes are

  • composed of several different actions and types of actions, as when someone checks his/her email or takes orders for sandwiches during a formal meeting – where each of these will have to proceed along the specific formats for such actions. Goffman (1974: 561) clearly pointed to that (using the term “realm statuses” for what we call formats here), and see e.g. Goodwin (2013) for excellent discussions.
  • Connected to other chronotopes, as when the relations between participants in a formal meeting are affected by already existing interpersonal relationships specific to other areas of social life or when the history of a particular issue is invoked as a frame for discussing its present status, or even when quoted or indirect speech is introduced into interaction embedding one chronotope and its actual voices into another one (e.g. Voloshinov 1973; Goodwin 2003).

Both outcomes are particularly interesting, for they take us to the issue of the non-unified nature of context and bring issues of scale into view (cf. Blommaert 2015a). Scale can best be understood as reflections and expressions of how social beings experience dimensions of sociocultural reality as indexical vectors, as informing the general normative patterns that shape formats of action (cf. Das  2016; Carr & Lempert 2016). Scales, thus, are interpretive and normative-evaluative, suggesting distinctions between what is general and what is specific, what is important and what is not, what is widely known and what isn’t, what is valid and what is not, what can be widely communicated and what cannot, what can be widely recognized and understood and what cannot. There is nothing stable, absolute or a priori about scales – we can obliquely recall our discussion of the “micro-macro” distinction here – for what we see in actual discursive work are scalar effects. To give a simple example: when the history of a particular issue is invoked as a decisive argument in discussing its present status, then that history is presented as a way of upscaling the current issue to normative levels immune to contemporary petty or personal concerns (“We already discussed and decided this point in January, there is no point in returning to it now!”) Conversely, when someone raises a point which is not seen by others as belonging to the most general normative layer of what goes on, it can be downscaled (“This is a detail” or “This is just your personal opinion”). In their actual deployment, scalar effects are indexically ordered degrees of moralization in social actions.

The presence of such non-unified (plural and scaled) contexts in concrete situations brings us to a third notion: synchronization (cf. Blommaert 2005: 131-137, 2018b). The scalar effects we just mentioned occur in real-time and on-the-spot moments of interaction, in a sort of evolving “synchrony” which hides layers of non-synchronous resources and folds them together into momentary and situated instances of making sense. We call this process synchronization because the highly diverse resources that are deployed as context are focused, so to speak, onto one single point in social action. In other branches of scholarship this process would be called “decision making”, with strong undertones of individual rational calibration. From an action-centered perspective, synchronization is a collaborative social act in which the format, not the rational calculation of its actors, is predominant (cf. Goodwin 2013).

Within such formats, synchronization ensures the degree of coherence we expect to find in interactions as an essential component in making sense of situations.

Formatting and nonlinear outcomes

Coherence, however, must not be imagined as a straight line from premises to conclusion. Neither can formats be imagined as closed boxes with extraordinarily transparent orders of indexicality, generally known to all participant. As said earlier, order is evolving and contingent upon the congregational work performed by participants. Recognizing a situation, we explained, proceeds through perceived order properties of such situations that can be framed into formats, then guiding the actions of participants. But outcomes cannot be linearly predicted from the starting conditions, because multiple forms of action can emerge within the same format, and be coherent to the participants. In other words, different kinds of actions can be ratified as properly within the format; formats allow nonlinear actions, and when it comes to normativity in connection to formats, we see a relatively open and relaxed form of normativity there.

This violates several older assumptions about communication. In speech act theory, J.L. Austin famously distinguished clear “felicity” conditions for smooth and “correct” interaction, while deviations of them (even a violation of one of them) would make the interaction “unhappy”, or “infelicitous”.  Equally famous are Grice’s (1975) “maxims” for conversation – conditions for maintaining a well-ordered mode of interaction with any other interlocutor. Both (and many others) grounded their theories into widely shared folk views of the strong normative order required for interaction. Another set of assumptions that is violated by the nonlinearity-within-the-format we mentioned is that underlying the kind of naïve survey methodology devastatingly criticized by Cicourel (1964) and others. In such survey enterprises, the stability of the format is used as an argument for the stability of its outcomes. Concretely, it is assumed that as long as we ask the same questions in the same format to large numbers of respondents, the answers will be commensurable because each respondent was addressed identically. Converted into the terms we are using here, stable formats will generate linear actions, since every action will be an identical response to an identical prompt. Cicourel’s penetrating critique targeted the impressive amount of ignorance about actual forms of communication buried inside this methodological assumption, leading to the incredible suggestion that hundreds of different people would all have identical understandings of a question (and its meanings for the analyst) and that the actual (and highly diverse) conditions of the question-and-answer events would not have any effects on the respondents.

The fallacies of such assumptions can be shown through the following example, involving the present authors. In late 2017 Jan Blommaert set up a small practical exercise in research interviewing for MA students including Laura Smits and Noura Yacoubi. The instructions were clear: pairs needed to be formed and the roles of interviewer versus interviewee needed to be assigned; the interview was to proceed in English and (unbeknownst to the interviewees), the interview had to contain some potentially frame-disturbing elements. One of these elements was the opening question: “who are you really?” The format, we can see, was entirely scripted and uniform for all the teams.

Laura and Noura were both interviewees and were interviewed by classmates with whom both had a history of friendly personal encounters and lengthy conversations – in Dutch. All of them – interviewers and interviewees – were also students in the same year of the same program track at Tilburg University. Thus we can suppose other elements of potential stability to be there: shared membership of a clearly defined community, a shared history of interaction making all participants familiar with each other’s speech habits and idiosyncrasies, and also enabling all to know quite well who the other “really” was. Laura and Noura, however, responded to this question in radically different ways. Let us look at the sequences following the question; in the transcript “I” stands for “interviewer” and “R” for “respondent”.

Laura’s answer

I:          SO Laura*, who are you REALLY?

R:        Who are I (am) really.. Eu::hm. What do you want to know of me. What is–what is really?

I:          TELL me something about yourself

R:        Okay. I’m Laura .. Laura Smits .. I a::m twenty-three years old .. eu::hm.. I study Global Communication here at Tilburg university I play volleyba::ll I have a little sister, I have a boyfriend, and I live in Tilburg eu::hm furthermore<1> I think<1> I am very happy at the mome::nt in the situation I live in .. eu::hm ja* enjoying life/ …

I:          Okay.

 

Noura’s answer

I:          Uhm .. who are you really?

R:        Who I am?

I:          Yes

R:        Well.. what do you mean? What do you want to know?//

I:          Yeahh who are you?//

R:        That is a.. difficult question [Laughing]/

I:          Why is it difficult?//

R:        Because you are asking *a lot* at the same time. Do you want to know my characteristics, my name, my birth, my hobbies, do you want to know my study?

I:         Tell me what *you think* who you really are//

R:        *Dude* [Laughing] well I am a… Dutch, well Moroccan-Dutch girl, born here, I’m uuhh 22 years old. Uuhm who I am? <2> Well I am a student that is part of my identity, I *feel* as a student, I am.. living the life of a student. Uhmm.. I am studying global communication/

I:         Ohh

R:        What a coincidence [Laughing]

I:         Me too [Laughing]

R:        Can you ask.. can you ask the question more specific?//

I:         Is this really who you really are?

R:        Well it’s uhm.. it is quite a lot who I am I mean.. also history comes into pla::y, also family comes into pla::y uuh who I am yeah I am a human being//

I:         Okay but/

R:        Punt

We see that Laura and Noura are both initially looking for the right frame, as both ask for clarification of their interviewers’ actions (“what do you want to know”?). Both, consequently, receive a reiteration of the question (part of the instructions given by Jan to the interviewers). But what follows are two entirely different courses of action. Laura instantly aligns with the perceived frame and gives what we could call a “profile answer” – the kind of clearly organized factual and affective information offered on social media profiles and in short introductory “pitches” to unknown people. She “neutralizes”, so to speak, the interviewer whom she considered to be a close friend, and addresses her in her role as an interviewer performing an unusual kind of interaction, which in the same move is “normalized”: this is an interview, it’s strange, but we’ll do it the way it should be done. The synchronization towards the format is complete in Laura’s case. Noura, by contrast, does not exit the interpersonal and intertextual frame, but engages in several turns of metapragmatic negotiation with the interviewer (also someone with whom she maintained a very friendly personal relationship), expressing discomfort and resistance to align with the format in utterances such as “dude” and “punt” (meaning “period”, “that’s it”). And while she does offer a kind of “profile answer” at some point, the answer is followed by a repeated request for clarification of what goes on. The chronotope of interpersonal friendship sits uncomfortably with that of the training interview, and synchronization is a process that demands quite a bit of construction work here. Note, however, that later in the interview Noura offers long and detailed autobiographical-narrative answers; the synchronization demands more work but happens eventually.

If Austin’s felicity conditions would be rigorously applied here, Noura’s initial response would perhaps be called “unhappy”, a “misfire”. Laura’s response would, from a similar perspective, be “correct” and “happy”, as it articulates the linear uptake of the interviewer’s action. From the viewpoint of making sense of the particular situation, however, Noura’s actions and those of Laura are equivalent and fit the format in spite of their substantial differences. What we can take from this is that uniformity in format does not guarantee uniformity in actions – a confirmation of Cicourel’s critique of assumptions to the contrary – and that diverse lines of action can occur within the same format, even if some actions are not linear responses to what preceded. Formats are not one-size-fits-all and linear–normative units.

Context collapse versus expansion

At this point, our action-centered proposal is complete: we see contextualization as the recognition of a situation through perceived order properties of such situations, that can be framed into formats, then guiding the actions of participants. We submit that it is applicable to interaction online and offline, since it avoids many of the core assumptions (and vocabulary) that are challenged by features of online interaction.

In studies of online interaction, “there are great analytical gains to be made by looking very closely at how particular activities are organized” (Goodwin & Goodwin 1992: 96). The advantages of that tactic can be illustrated by looking at an issue widely debated in the world of social media research: “context collapse”, i.e.

“the flattening out of multiple distinct audiences in one’s social network, such that people from different contexts become part of a singular group of message recipients”. (Vitak 2012: 541)

The theoretical and empirical validity of the concept of context collapse has been criticized by several discourse analysts (Georgakopoulou 2017a, 2017b; Tagg, Seargeant & Brown 2017; Szabla & Blommaert 2018). Indeed, online technology “complicates our metaphors of space and place, including the belief that audiences are separate from each other” (Marwick & boyd 2010: 115) and has taken us from a world of relatively transparent audiences to that of far less transparent “networked publics” (boyd 2011). But such complications cannot be solved by drawing on the sociological imagination we sketched earlier: that of “normal” dyadic face-to-face communication with well-known similar people in a tight community – which is what happens in the literature on context collapse. Such an anachronistic imagination spawns an abstract conceptualization of context as something which is only transparent when we situate humans in transparent situations in transparent communities, where “audiences” are known and trusted and people have full control over what they do in social action. When we move into the online world of online audiences and inconspicuous overhearers, of lurkers, aliases and bots, and of algorithms regulating the traffic and distribution of messages, such theoretical and analytic instruments obviously cease to be useful and have to be replaced by more flexible and precise ones.

In a case study of a long and highly complex discussion on a large Facebook group for Polish people living in The Netherlands, we used the action-centered perspective described here (Szabla & Blommaert 2018). At first glance, the case would be eminently qualified for context collapse: we had an enormous community of effective and potential participants, large enough to speak of a “networked audience” consisting of people who did not know each other. The lengthy nature of the online discussion may have disturbed our “metaphors of space and place” and the particular rudimentary platform affordances of Facebook may have complicated our expectations of coherence and sequentiality in dialogue, as responses to a prompt may not appear in adjacency but be separated by several intervening responses from others – a practical problem of synchronization, in fact. Facebook formats interactions in a curious way, and people may lose their bearings in such formats.

Our first empirical observation obviously complicated things further: the general activity of a “discussion” was, in actual fact, a mosaic of different actions, some linear and connected to the initial action (a request from a Polish-origin journalist for assistance in the making of a documentary on the labor conditions of Polish workers in The Netherlands) and many nonlinear, embedded and parallel to the initial action. People would indeed respond to the journalist’s request (and be redirected to the private messaging section of Facebook) but would also attack the orthographic errors in het Polish writing, discuss linguistic correctness in relation to Polish identity; they would accuse and scold each other on specific statements they had made, venture conspiracy theories about journalists and Polish émigrés, offer general observations about the work ethos of Polish and Dutch workers, and so forth. Each of these different lines of actions was normatively recognizable as a different chronotopic unit of participants, topics, orders of indexicality and moral codes, and was formatted accordingly.

The second observation, however, was that people found their way around this terrifically complex web of actions. The non-sequentiality of scripted Facebook interaction, the meandering of topics and participants and the generally confusing character of what went on did not appear as an obstacle for participants to participate in the specific parts of the event in which they got involved. We saw participation frameworks shift along with topic shifts, in such a way that just handfuls of people would be involved in an action, and know quite well who their actual addressees were and how they should proceed, and how they could migrate to another participation framework or exit the discussion when lines actions were closed. In other words: we saw plenty of congregational work shaping formats and subformats and connecting or disconnecting parts of the discussion from other parts. Participants made sense of the specific actions in which they were involved – they performed adequate contextualization work throughout, even if that included self- and other-correction and rectification, necessitated by the awkward Facebook discussion affordances. They recognized the specific situations, framed and formatted them into indexically ordered discursive actions. No contexts appeared to collapse; instead we saw an amazing density and intensity of contextualization work – context expansion, if you wish.

Conclusion

The example of context collapse versus context expansion brings us back to our point of departure: the need to rethink our commonly used notions of context and contextualization so as to make them useful and accurate for addressing a world of communication in which ordinary dyadic face-to-face conversation is no longer the Archimedian point and foundation for theory. Contemporary discourse analysts must be aware that the sociological imagination balancing on this Archimedian point is anachronistic, and that we cannot accurately address the phenomenology of contemporary communication without sacrificing that imagination. Doing that does not mean that we are left empty-handed to the task of analysis. We can fall back on reasonably robust tools and approaches that do not carry that bias of anachronism or can be refashioned so as to be free of it. In this chapter, we have made some proposals in that direction. Let they be a prompt for others to think along.

References

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

Auer, Peter & Aldo DiLuzio (eds.) (1992) The Contextualization of Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Austin, John L. (1962) How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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

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

Blommaert, Jan (2015b) Pierre Bourdieu: Perspectives on language in society. In Jan-Ola Östman & Jef Verschueren (eds.) Handbook of Pragmatics (2015): 1-16. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Blommaert, Jan (2018a) Durkheim and the Internet: Sociolinguistics and the Sociological Imagination. London: Bloomsbury.

Blommaert, Jan (2018b) Chronotopes, synchronization and formats. Tilburg papers in Culture Studies paper  207. URL

Blommaert, Jan & Anna De Fina (2016) Chronotopic identities: On the spacetime organization of who we are. In Anna De Fina, Didem Ikizoglu & Jeremy Wegner (eds.) Diversity and Superdiversity: Sociocultural Linguistic Perspectives (GURT Series): 1-15 Washington: Georgetown University Press.

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Chronotopes, synchronization and formats

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Jan Blommaert

Commentary, AAAL 2018, panel “Chronotopes and Chronotopic Relations” (convenors: Anna De Fina & Sabina Perrino).

  • Anna De Fina, Guiseppe Paternostro & Marcello Amoruso, “Odysseus the traveler: appropriation of a chronotope in a community of practice”
  • Zane Goebel & Howard Manns, “Chronotopic Relations and Scalar Shifters”
  • Farzad Karimzad, “Metapragmatics of Normalcy: Mobility, Context, and Language Choice”
  • Sabina Perrino & Gregory Kohler, “Chronotopic Identities in Northern Italian Executives’ Narratives”
  • Paul Prior, “Becoming a biologist: A lifespan case study of chronotopic lamination, disciplinarity and semiosis”
  • Kristina Wirtz, “Mourning as political action: Chronotopes of encounter with the dead”

All of us, at some point in our training, must have been told that sociolinguistics is the study of who can say what to whom, when, where, how and why. For decades, this set of variables was loosely categorized under the label of ‘context’ in actual research, usually as part of a synchronic and local (i.e. situated) descriptive analysis of bits of real-live language-in-situ.

This did not do justice to the handful of scholars who saw context (and situation) as a dynamic, scaled and practice-based evolving feature of meaning-making – think of Gumperz, Hymes, the Goodwins and Cicourel. But this snapshot view of context took some time to be replaced by a laminated and complex one. Language ideologies made us realize that the formal structures of language-in-situ were always pervaded by informal, implicit ones providing layers of historicity to moments of communication, and turning Gumperz’s notion of contextualization into what Silverstein called an ‘indexical metric’ not just organizing talk, but dynamically and dialogically organizing (‘constructing’ in the sense of social constructivism) the situation (i.e. the context) and the participants’ roles and identities as well, in a world of indeterminacy and mobility of people, the resources they could draw on, and the situations they could become involved in.

I see chronotopes and scales as potentially useful instruments for adding accuracy to this laminated and complex understanding of the old sociolinguistic question. Of fundamental importance to Bakhtin’s notion of chronotope, in my view, is the social-historical dimension of social action he inscribes into it – an effect of his dialogue with Marxism, and something that underlies almost any other of his key concepts (think of heteroglossia). Utterances always ‘come from somewhere’, they draw on histories of use and abuse in a way that marks them (indexically) as potentially configuring chronotopes, activating them as represented, embodied and inscribed meaning potential, and enabling heteroglossic ‘lamination’, as Paul Prior beautifully illustrates in his paper.

Prior also gestures towards one of the Catch-22’s of Bakhtin’s social-historical approach in his paper: reading texts as embodying history and historically configured social positions always risks a certain degree of determinism – something we see, for instance, in Bourdieu’s La Misère du Monde. The stories that make up and define a life can, certainly for a discourse analyst, historian or biographer but also for a judge in a criminal court and an immigration officer, be given a dimension of linear continuity, consistency, coherence and ‘logic’, if you wish, absent from the experiential world of the narrator whose accounting practices travel through (as Prior points out) multiple semiotic remediations, including rescaling work – from stories to lives, from moment to history, from individuals to communities.

I found the presence of coherence, continuity and consistency both as a chronotope in its own right, and as a cross-chronotopic connection, strikingly present in the papers of this panel. And before I move into a closer discussion of this issue, let me just point out one thing. It would be quite stimulating, I suppose, to reread for instance Goebel & Manns’ paper using a vocabulary drawn from sentence- and text-grammatical or -pragmatic work on coherence and cohesion (one could try Halliday & Hasan). Such work, needless to repeat, is having a revival of sorts currently due to the automated use of big data corpora. This rereading exercise should show us the different games we are playing. While big data analysts robustly stick to language as a linguistic system, Goebel & Manns (and the others in this panel) approach it as a sociolinguistic system. In so doing, we have taken fundamentally different epistemological and ontological positions. Chronotopes and scales can only occur in a sociolinguistic paradigm, not a linguistic one. And it is good to remind ourselves that this is the universe we are operating in.

But this was a mere footnote situating what we discuss here in a larger frame of intellectual development. I now return to the point about consistency, coherence, continuity.

The idea of consistency, coherence and continuity is of course most clearly present in the papers of Wirtz, Perrino & Kohler and Prior. Wirtz’s description of rituals of commemoration all include – even literally, as in Raul Castro’s speech about his brother’s speech – cross-chronotopic continuity as a trope. The dead can be made present by invoking their ‘legacy’ as part of contemporary lived history. Not just the dead can be present, but the DNA of a metaphysical Italian society can be turned into the currency of today’s identity work, as Perrino & Kohler’s case showed. In both papers, we see how such invocations of continuity, coherence and consistency have powerful political effects: both manage to carve out, isolate and appropriate specific layers and chunks of history presented as theirs and unique to them, and in that sense as a denial or reversal of the hegemonic histories imposed on them.

Consistency, coherence and continuity are the stuff of a chronotope here, while of course in so doing several chronotopes are diachronically (and/or metaphysically) connected as one. Grandfather’s pioneering efforts of the 1920s are inseparable from those of the present leader of the family enterprise in Italy, just like Fidel’s speeches from the late 1950s are elementary ingredients of today’s political soundtrack for all Cubans. Of course, invoking the 1920s and 1950s involves chronotopic displacement – an imagination of a past and of dead people – but such chronotopes are, one could say, synchronized as a new one, valid for the present. I called this phenomenon ‘layered simultaneity’ a while ago.

In Prior’s analysis of Nora’s becoming a biologist, we see the layering in such simultaneity. Sequencing work needs to be done in which episodes are connected. Formulated differently, we see elaborate accounting practices stretching from the present towards the past, semiotically remediating stuff that can – only from the present – be seen as a prefiguration of what followed. A ‘logic of action’ (to borrow Bourdieu’s words for a moment) that is produced and articulated in the present but is in effect timeless: a chronotope of tradition, authenticity or (as Karimzad writes) ‘normalcy’ appears here as a cross-chronotopic synchronized bricolage of signs all made to point in a general direction: the present, me/us, and the future of me/us. The indexical vectors of diffuse chronotopic fragments have been discursively reoriented towards meaningfulness in a here-and-now.

I would think that any moment of synchronization involves such indexical vector reorientations, and I will try to elaborate that a bit in what follows. But before I can do that, I need to make another small side-step.

I used the term ‘accounting practices’ just now, and I used it in as ‘making meaningful in the here-and-now of social action’, much in the sense of Garfinkel. I should mention two things now that have kept me busy lately in my own rethinking of chronotopes and scales: (1) an action-theoretical perspective, and (2) continuous moralization.

To start with the first: a quite radical action-theoretical perspective appears inescapable, I believe, if we wish to avoid the degree of determinism mentioned earlier when we mentioned Bakhtin’s sociohistorical view of chronotope. There is much in the moment-to-moment evolving of social action that defies a prioris about identity, community and action itself, and the Goodwins reminded us two decades ago that “there are great analytical gains to be made by looking very closely at how particular activities are organized”. They themselves were inspired by Garfinkel’s radically action-centered approach in which (following George Herbert Mead and in line with e.g. Strauss and Goffman) whatever we consider to be identity in interaction cannot be formulated in terms of stuff that is already there – resources, social categories, opportunities and constraints on action – but needs to be seen as concrete, actual social effects of such situated interactions. I believe this is a sound principle, but it needs to be handled with care.

The reason for that is my second concern: moralization. We see that such effects are invariably constructed and construed interactionally by invocations of available and accessible moral criteria, projected onto equally available and accessible behavioral scripts. So, one could say that there are a priori’s (and in fact, this was a bone of contention between e.g. Cicourel and conversation analysts in the Schegloffian school), but at the same time only as a latent, potential and unequally distributed interpretive resource, which needs to be dialogically co-constructed in social action. So: it’s a priori and not a priori; a resource but also an action; a given and a created thing. Karimzad’s paper captures this excellently by using the term ‘chronotopization’, referring to the way in which people do not just ‘step into’ existing chronotopes but build them anew while drawing on existing, intertextual and pretextual moral indexical arrangements. Identity judgments are – here, I borrow older pragmatic terminology once again – judgments of appropriateness, of things that fit a script and are seen as enabling the social enactment of such scripts. And appropriateness is a moral judgment with its feet firmly planted into social history (variously labeled as ‘tradition’, ‘customs’ or – Karimzad – ‘normalcy’). Such patterns of chronotopization, thus, involve what Perrino & Kohler call ‘solidification’: chronotopically organized social action needs to be ratified in order to be made consequential, and this is done on the basis of ‘solid’ invokable intertexts and pretexts.

While I apologize to my audience for the overly technical tone of my comments at this point, I shall continue along this line for a brief moment. For now, I need to fold my two concerns together and apply them to what has been presented in this panel.

The solid invokable intertexts and pretexts are, I would suggest, indexical vectors: general indexical valuations attached to sets of indexicals, turning them into positive, negative or anything in-between evaluative pointers. This is the mechanism of what Bakhtin called ‘evaluative response’, and it brings us, I believe, to the heart of what Garfinkel saw as the essence of social order: recognizability.

There is a long tradition, of course, of using recognizability as linguistic identifiability (‘I recognize your words as English’; ‘this is [recognizable as] 11th century Swahili’); I suggest we see it as a primarily moral concept capturing (1) the relative stability of judgments about social and cultural appropriateness, combined with and in spite of (2) the tremendous variability in which such appropriateness can be actually encoded semiotically. In an older (Whorfian) jargon, it’s about stability of functions and diversity of linguistic structures, but (as Hymes told us) this form of relativity is bidirectional. We are talking here about specific sets of sociolinguistic resources tying (dialogically) the practice of communicative action to moral judgments, creating what Garfinkel called ‘autochtonous order properties’ of behavioral scripts or ‘formats’ – where ‘order’ is a moral notion.  In a very vulgar rewording, we’re talking about the moral economy of communicative practice.

When I now turn to the papers in this panel, I begin to see examples of this almost everywhere, most emphatically in the papers by De Fina, Paternostro & Amoruso; by Goebel & Manns and by Karimzad.

In the paper by De Fina, Paternostro & Amoruso, the Odyssey is used as the input for creating ‘order’, if you wish, in the narratives of young refugees in Italy. The key phrase here, expressed by one of the subjects, is ‘practically everybody knows it’. By using this widely known (and thus recognizable) frame into the moments of narrative production, these moments get ‘autochtonous order properties’, they are ‘formatted’; more precisely they are given clear indexical vectors organizing the valuations in the narratives. It is no surprise that one of the subjects identifies the warm and hospitable Nausicaa as a ‘good’ figure in the story, and identifies with her. Like Fidel Castro for contemporary Cubans and the Italian DNA for contemporary fashion entrepreneurs, cross-chronotopic synchronization is enabled here and it involves an indexical vector reorientation of almost everything, in ‘figures’ of good, bad, and anything-in-between. The power of the paper by Anna and her colleagues lies in the demonstration of how exactly such a cross-chronotopic synchronization can trigger substantial pedagogical, therapeutic and healing effects. We already saw that it provokes or enables political effects too, and taken together, what we see is that such forms of synchronization – remoralization, so to speak – could prove to be massively important for our understanding of social life.

Like Karimzad, Goebel & Manns emphasize the emerging and contingent nature of chronotopes – ‘chronotopes are always under construction’ – and perhaps more so than in other papers, we can observe the step-by-step construction work of synchronized cross-chronotope constructures in Goebel & Manns’ paper. There is no hocus-pocus to chronotopic solidification, no mental map suddenly unfolding: it is hard interactional work to be performed by participants in social actions. Which is why it is often strongly ritualized, as in Wirtz’s examples: yes, the dead can be present perpetually in someone’s life, but their actual co-presence in social events requires a ritualized platform and ritually ratified participants.

It is significant, in Goebel & Manns’ paper, that metapragmatic commentary on language choice is a locus of scale-shifting. We can reformulate this slightly: it is a locus of the renegotiation of indexical vectors attached to specific sociolinguistic resources in such a way that they enable specific chronotopic work to be done. In Karimzad’s examples, I also noted how language shifts accompany topical moves: a densely moralized person, moment or account is surrounded by careful metapragmatic work, organizing the moral universe in which this specific piece of information needs to be set. In Perrino & Kohler’s examples, I observed the ethnopoetic patterning – repetitions, parallelisms – surrounding the cross-scale moves and the foregrounding of core motifs such as tradition and authenticity. And briefly returning to another topic: a closer look at the examples presented in the papers would, I anticipate, show that the crucial actions in the search for continuity, coherence and consistency would all be marked by significant discursive-formal and narrative-structural features. If we need examples of the moral economy of communicative practices and the specific moral load interactionally attached to specific sociolinguistic resources, look no further: the papers from this panel are replete with them.

What these papers jointly demonstrate, I believe, is the power of profound ethnographic and case-based analysis of ‘big’ issues. Chronotopes and chronotopic relations are big issues connecting situated moments of interaction to the very large patterns of social order. I already mentioned the way in which an obsolete notion of coherence and cohesion currently regains momentum due to the deployment of hi-tech onto colossal textual corpora. I have heard people in that field predict that they will soon make predictions – predictions about human social behavior, interactionally established social order, and of course human nature. My confidence about predictions of predictions is generally speaking quite low; I tend to attach more value to a mode of analysis in which one assumes that – to paraphrase Cicourel – people make sense of society by making sense of situations. A mode of analysis, in other words, in which we assume that the big things can be found in a much more accurate way in very small things. The papers in this panel demonstrate the lasting value of this approach.

And so I can conclude. I believe that I have tried to formulate two substantive points in these comments. One was about chronotope as a primarily moral notion; the other was about chronotopic relations as forms of synchronization, where the latter was understood as revolving around indexical vector reorientation towards ‘formats’. None of what I formulated here was formulated before I saw the papers of this panel. I am deeply grateful to the presenters and the convenors for offering me the thing that makes every academic happy: an opportunity to think new things.

Online with Garfinkel

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Jan Blommaert

The Durkheim and the Internet project (DAI in what follows) being completed, I now move on towards a more radical exercise: using some of Harold Garfinkel’s central intuitions as a lead into forms of online analysis. This exercise, I should underscore, builds onto DAI and does not replace or qualify it – it extends it. For a summary of DAI, see Blommaert (2018).

This extension is warranted, I believe, because of one methodological outcome of the project: the “four lines of sociolinguistic methodology” that I designed as a way to investigate new forms of collectivities in online-offline contexts. Here they are:

  1. Patterns of communication necessarily involve meaningful social relationships as prerequisite, conduit and outcome;
  2. Such relationships will always, similarly, involve identities and categorizations, interactionally established;
  3. Thus, when observing patterns of communication, we are observing the very essence of sociation and “groupness” – regardless of how we call the “groups”.
  4. And specific patterns of interaction shape specific forms of “groups.

I added the following reflection to these four lines:

“Groups, then, are not collections of human beings but patterned sets of communicative behaviors and the relationships with which they are dialectically related. Whenever we see such ordered forms of communicative behavior, there is an assumption of active and evolving groupness – sociation – but the analytical issue is not the nature of the group (or the label we need to choose for it) but the specific social relationships observable through and in communication. All other aspects of sociation can be related to this. So if one needs the definition of a group: a group is a communicatively organized and ratified set of social relationships.”

This analytical point pushed me to a re-examination of Garfinkel’s work, notably Garfinkel (2002). I shall not follow Garfinkel in any canonical way, however. The nature of the exercise I undertake here would prevent it, and the fact that Garfinkel’s incredible methodological idiosyncrasy makes much of his book barely readable further supports that decision. Fortunately, Anne Rawls does a great service to Garfinkel in her introductory essay to the book (Rawls 2002 and other contextualizing essays, 1987, 1989). And finally, I reject several of Garfinkel’s assumptions and principles. But there remains much that can be profitably reformulated and redeployed as well. Let me summarize these reformulated elements.

Garfinkel’s intuitions

Let me start by listing what I see as productive fundamental intuitions in Garfinkel’s work. The connecctions with the “four lines” above should be clear at once.

  1. Garfinkel focuses on social order as a locally accomplished social fact. In this, he is entirely empirical, in the sense that he rejects any conceptual a prioris and prioritizes the actual, observable social actions as a site of “structure” and “theory”. That naturally implies that Garfinkel rejects the old binaries of “micro vs macro” or “structure vs agency”, as well as an ethos of scientific practice in which conceptual and theoretical “implementation” is sought.
  2. Rather than to take (predefined and “known”) individuals and groups as a starting point in his analysis, he takes situated actions as the point of departure; the people acting within such situations are merely the “local staff, its local production cohort” (Garfinkel 2002: 247). And in line with G.H. Mead, action is interaction.
  3. Actions can be shown to have “autochthonous order properties”, i.e. “empirically observable properties of the congregational work of producing social facts” (id. 245). Rawls (ibid, FN) further clarifies: “Congregational refers not only to to the idea that these social facts are made collaboratively by a group, but that the population cohort has its cohort or congregation by virtue of being engaged in doing just this thing”.
  4. In other words: groups are made by the actions they are involved in, and Garfinkel emphasizes “situations that provide for the appearances of individuals” (Rawls 2002: 46).
  5. Such involvement is predicated on the recognizability of actions and their properties of order. Social actions occur as formats, the characteristic features of which are recognizable to others and, thus, intelligible as action x, y or z. Garfinkel’s example of a queue (2002, chapter 8) is telling: it is the queue itself that organizes the behavior of people as a queue. The queue has a set of “properties of order without which the phenomenon ceases to be recognizable as what it is” (Rawls 2002: 45).
  6. This aspect of formatting is reflexive: there is no “external” or explicitly stated rule for action, but its execution “must work and be seen to work by others” (Rawls 2002: 41). Thus, rules become reflexively apparent after their implementation in social action. It’s when a queue has been formed that people can tell you that there is a queue, and that it starts thère, not here. Social actions “have a [normative] coherence when one is finished with them that they did not have at the outset” (ibid).
  7. Recognizability and reflexivity as features of social action involve and presuppose at least two things: (a) that no social action is “individual” in any sense of the term but always interactional; (2) that the formats of social action need to be learned, acquired.

It is clear that Grafinkel attributes a sui generis character to situated social action and its forms of order: its characteristics cannot be reduced to individuals’ intentions and interests, nor to external (“institutional”) constraints. In fact, the sui generis character of situated social action is an echo of Durkheim’s qualification of “social facts” as having a sui generis quality – the very foundation of Durkheim’s sociology. And just like Durkheim’s statement, Garfinkel’s is easily (and widely) misconstrued. So we must be precise here. The sui generis character of situated social action involves – contra methodological individualism – that individual social beings are constrained in their choices of action; people rather “enter into” the ordeliness of situated social action, as soon as such an order is recognizable, and attribute intelligibility to their own actions in that way. Their actions become meaningful to others by entering into the orderly procedures that make such actions recognizable as specific actions.

Garfinkel joins Goffman here, and Rawls attributes the same sui generis character to Goffman’s notion of interaction order: “the interacion order has an existence independent of either structures or individuals” (Rawls 1987: 139). This point, too, has often been overlooked, and Goffman’s concept of self, consequently, has often been misrepresented as strategically performed identity, central to his social theory. In actual fact, Goffman’s self is “a dramaturgical effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented” (Goffman 1959: 253, in Rawls 1987: 139; italics added). So it is not just “performed” but interactionally ratified – morally sanctioned – by others: “both in its capacity as performer and performed, the self ultimately depends upon interaction” (ibid.). Such interactions require a scene – an orderly and recognizable situation that makes the dramaturgical effect (the particular, enacted and ratified self) an intelligible outcome of social action. In Rawls’ (ibid) terms:

“The self is therefore not the ontological starting point for a theory of social order. For Goffman it is an end product, the existence of which depends upon a presentation order which is the primary constraint of situations of co-presence”.

This presentation order is replete with reciprocally exchanged moral expectations – “involvement obligations” – providing a degree of security in social encounters (cf. Rawls 1987: 140). There is slightly more space for empathy and anxiety in Goffman’s view of order than there is in Garfinkel’s, and Goffman’s “ground rules of interaction” are moral ones (id.: 142). Goffman’s insistence on the ritual character of interaction (often seen as an insistence on communicative routine) is in actual fact an insistence on the maintenance of a moral order in social action. And this is done in view of the interaction order itself (sui generis), “and not directed toward the reproduction of social structure at all” (id. 145).

Rawls here brings Goffman and Garfinkel together once again: both rejected “micro vs macro” and “agency vs structure” distinctions, since for both, whatever we understand by “structure” should be empirically observable in the orderly features of actual, situated social action; the former actually coincides and identifies with the latter. And in both, the self is an outcome, a product, an effect of the orderliness of situated social action – which, consequently, should be attended to in full detail. In most work, situated social action would be seen as a building block or a reflection of “larger” social-structural phenomena (power, class, gender, race, etc.). What we have here is a radical refusal to treat situated social action as “just” the small stuff that relates to bigger stuff. Instead, we get a view in which the big things are right there, in and through situated social action – which is, consequently, a big thing. Social order in any form is interactional.

Qualifications

Garfinkel’s radicalism is certainly appealing because it refutes most of mainstream social theory, with a particular vehemence reserved for deductive theory-internal analysis, concepts-as-realities and simplistic interpretations of “micro vs macro” and “agency vs structure”. Aspects of this refutation are compelling and inescapable, while others are potentially fertile as a heuristic, and still others are probably nonsense. Thus, I will adopt the elements I sketched above and add two important qualifications to them.

  1. I maintain the theoretical framework designed in DAI, with its emphasis on complexity, mobility, scalarity and polycentricity. The “social order” and its “autochthonous order properties” that Garfinkel was after (and Goffman’s “interacion order” and its “involvement obligations”) are, consequently, made more precise and accurate when we see them as ordered indexicalities occurring in social arenas that are by definition polynomic, dynamic and flexible.
  2. Garfinkel’s view of situated social action as necessarily recognizable presupposes a mutually assumed sharedness of expectations (which he confirms), and of resources. The latter remains unaddressed, while it is precisely the sociolinguistic dimension of DAI. While situated social action may be a form of order sui generis, the stuff that enters into such actions isn’t: it is conditioned historically and assumes its concrete shape in interactions in the form of entextualizations, the nature and valuations of which need to be learned and acquired. So here is the second qualification to Garfinkel’s intuitions: we need to add to them an awareness of the concrete historical conditions enabling certain forms of action to assume certain kinds of order not others. This, I underscore, does not mean that we need to revert to an older vocabulary of institutionalization, routinization or even “macro” or “structural” aspects of action. What we need to do is to see situated social action as historically conditioned (and we can take some cues here from Bourdieu, for instance). This, I believe, is crucial if one wishes to maintain the claim about the sui generis character of the orderliness of such situated social action.

The historical conditions for action include infrastructural conditions as well. I underscore this because we intend to go online with Garfinkel – entering into a world not just of queues in front of the Starbucks counter at LAX, but of virality, memes and social media profiles. And a world not just of presenting and presented selves but of selfies – new technologically mediated modes of self-presentation for which Garfinkel, Goffman and others provides necessary, but insufficient, analytical frames. Such infrastructures have changed the “order” of social actions, and we must take them on board.

References

Blommaert, Jan (2018) Durkheim and the Internet: Sociolinguistics and the Sociological Imagination. London: Bloomsbury.

Garfinkel, Harold (2002) Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism (ed. Anne Warfield Rawls). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Goffman, Erving (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday Anchor.

Rawls, Anne Warfield (1987) The Interaction order sui generis: Goffman’s contribution to social theory. Sociological Theory 5/2: 136-149.

—– (1989) Simmel, Parsons and the interaction order. Sociological Theory 7/1: 124-129.

—– (2002) Editor’s introduction. In Garfinkel (2002): 1-64.

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Online-offline modes of identity and community: Elliot Rodger’s twisted world of masculine victimhood.

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Jan Blommaert

(with ICD 2017)[1]

 

  1. Introduction

Online environments have become an integrated part of social reality ; as a new, huge and deeply fragmented infrastructure for social interaction and knowledge circulation, they add substantially to the complexity of social processes, notably those related to identity work and group formation.[2] We see, on the one hand, the emergence of online communities of unprecedented size – think of the population using Facebook, or of the huge numbers of players on some Massively Multiplayer Online Games. All of these have long been provoking questions about identity and social impact, often tending towards views of  the destabilization of identity and of social cohesion (cf. e.g.  De Meo et al 2014 ; Lee & Hoadley 2007). On the other hand we have the online emergence of strongly identity-emphasizing and highly cohesive “translocal micro-populations” (Maly & Varis 2015), and practices of online meaning making, control and circulation that betray the presence of at least widely shared systems of normative consensus and conviviality (Varis & Blommaert 2015; Tagg et al 2017; LaViolette 2017). Given the scope and scale of the online world, it is clear that we have barely started to scratch the surface, and in this paper I cannot claim to do more than that.

In what follows, I will venture into the less commonly visited fringes of the Web 2.0, in a space called the “Manosphere” (Nagle 2017). The Manosphere is a complex of (mostly US-based) websites and for a dedicated to what can alternatively be called “toxic masculinity” or “masculine victimhood”: men gather to exchange experiences and views on the oppressive role and position of women in their worlds, and often do so by means of ostensibly misogynist, sexist, (often) racist and (sometimes) violent discourse. The intriguing point is that the Manosphere, as an online zone of social activity, appears to be relatively isolated and enclosed. Large numbers of men are active on these online spaces, but there is no offline equivalent to it: no ‘regular’ mass movement of angry men organizing big marches, petitions and other forms of offline political campaigning. The Manosphere population is very much a group operating in the shadows of the Web (see Schoonen et al 2017; Smits et al 2017; Dijsselbloem et al 2017; Vivenzi et al 2017; Peeters et al 2017; Beekmans et al 2017).

There are moments, though, of public visibility, and I shall start from one such moment. In May 2014, a young man from California, Elliot Rodger, killed six people and injured fourteen others (before taking his own life) around the UCSB campus at Isla Vista, in what looked like one  of many college shooting incidents (Langman 2016a).  Rodger, the son of a Hollywood filmmaker, sent out a long manifesto by email just before his killing spree, entitled “My Twisted Life: The Story of Elliot Rodger” (see Kling 2017),[3] as well as several YouTube clips recorded prior to his actions.[4] Since Elliot mentioned Manosphere sites in the text, the manifesto offers us an opportunity to look closer into the ways in which such online infrastructures provide affordances for constructing an – admittedly eccentric – logic of action, strengthening Rodger’s sense of victimhood and providing rationalizations for the murders he committed during what he called his “Day of Retribution”. More in general, this exercise may lead us to a more precise understanding of the role played by popular online culture infrastructures in the construction of contemporary “outsider” identity templates, individual as well as collective ones (cf. Becker 1963; also Foucault 2003).

Drawing from Rodger’s manifesto, I shall first sketch the universe of communication in which he lived, focusing on how his online activities interacted with offline forms of interaction. This will offer us a tentative view of Rodger’s “culture”, characterized by a strong affinity with masculine victimhood and violence, which he shared with parts of the Manosphere. The latter operates, along with several other popular-cultural elements, as a learning environment in and through which, through “ludic” but quite serious practices, a logic of action is constructed.

  1. Elliot Rodger’s twisted world of communication

Herbert Blumer summarized one of the central insights in the tradition of Symbolic Interactionism as follows:

(…) social interaction is a process that forms human conduct instead of being merely a means or a setting for the expression or release of human conduct. (Blumer 1969: 8)

With this in mind, let us have a look at how Rodger’s manifesto informs us about the kinds of social interactions he maintained.

Born in 1991, Elliot Rodger was 22 when he took his own life and that of six others; he was a digital native, and he had a long history of mental disorder (Langman 2016b).[5] His parents and acquaintances described him as extremely withdrawn, and Rodger himself in his manifesto frequently described his “social anxiety” – an incapacity to adequately communicate in collective face-to-face situations, which he invariably experienced as extraordinarily stressful. Here is an example:

The class I started was a political science class. I figured I would gain some useful knowledge by taking it, though I disliked the teacher because he had the tendency to randomly call on me to answer questions. I was still terrified of speaking in front of the class, even if it was for one sentence. My social anxiety has always made my life so difficult, and no one ever understood it. I hated how everyone else seemed to have no anxiety at all. I was like a cripple compared to them. Their lives must be so much easier. Thankfully, there were no couples in this class, but I still had to see them when I walked through the school. The only thing I could do was keep my head down and pretend they didn’t exist. I still cried on the drive home every day.

This communicative disability leads to isolation, and this isolation quickly assumes a very specific shape. As an adolescent, Rodger develops a strong heterosexual desire, but girls do not appear to be attracted to him. Consequently, his problem of loneliness shifts towards something more specific and acute: a problem of involuntary celibacy which he experiences as torture. Since the girls he fancies do connect with young men (in Santa Barbara, especially men described by Rodger as “hunky”), couples become his object of resentment, and  a sense of injustice is piled onto that of unhappiness:

As I spent a lot of time contemplating, I realized that my life was repeating itself in a vicious circle of torment and injustice. Each new semester of college yielded the same lonely celibate life, devoid of girls or any social interaction. It was as if there was a curse of misfortune placed upon me.

This injustice is acute, since Rodger imagines himself as superior to most other men of his age; he describes himself as “a perfect gentleman”, as good-looking, smart and generally attractive – which renders the fact that other men are more successful with girls outrageous:

How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more. I tried not to believe his foul words, but they were already said, and it was hard to erase from my mind. If this is actually true, if this ugly black filth was able to have sex with a blonde white girl at the age of thirteen while I’ve had to suffer virginity all my life, then this just proves how ridiculous the female gender is. They would give themselves to this filthy scum, but they reject ME? The injustice!

Rodger attempts to turn this outrageous state of affairs around by material improvements: fashionable and top-of-the range clothing, a BMW car (a present from his worried mother), and dreams of wealth. In order to realize the latter, he spends large sums playing on the Lottery:

This must be it! I was destined to be the winner of the highest lottery jackpot in existence. I knew right then and there that this jackpot was meant for me. Who else deserved such a victory? I had been through so much rejection, suffering, and injustice in my life, and this was to be my salvation. With my whole body filled with feverish hope, I spent $700 dollars on lottery tickets for this drawing. As I spent this money, I imagined all the amazing sex I would have with a beautiful model girlfriend I would have once I become a man of wealth.

When these desperate attempts to acquire a fortune fail, fantasies of violent retribution emerge, always triggered by seeing young couples who “steal” his happiness and are, in that sense, “criminals” who deserve to be severely punished:

I wanted to do horrible things to that couple. I wanted to inflict pain on all young couples. It was around this point in my life that I realized I was capable of doing such things. I would happily do such things. I was capable of killing them, and I wanted to. I wanted to kill them slowly, to strip the skins off their flesh. They deserve it. The males deserve it for taking the females away from me, and the females deserve it for choosing those males instead of me.

And a detailed script is constructed for the Day of Retribution:

After I have killed all of the sorority girls at the Alpha Phi House, I will quickly get into the SUV before the police arrive, assuming they would arrive within 3 minutes. I will then make my way to Del Playa, splattering as many of my enemies as I can with the SUV, and shooting anyone I don’t splatter. I can only imagine how sweet it will be to ram the SUV into all of those groups of popular young people who I’ve always witnessed walking right in the middle of the road as if they are better than everyone else. When they are writhing in pain, their bodies broken and dying after I splatter them, they will fully realize their crimes.

What is striking in Rodger’s manifesto is the paucity of offline, ‘normal’ communication he describes. As we have seen, he suffers from communicative anxiety whenever he is facing a group of interlocutors; but even one-on-one communication situations are often described as unsuccessful or unsatisfactory. But as mentioned earlier, he is a digital native, and frequent reference is made to online interactions in his manifesto. From early on, for instance, he is a dedicated player of the MMOG World of Warcraft (WoW), and playing that game provides him a (delicate and fragile) sense of community:

Upon setting up my new laptop, I immediately installed all of my WoW disks. I logged onto my account and took a look at all of my characters that I hadn’t touched for a year and a half. Right when I logged onto my main character, I was contacted by James, and he invited me to join an online group with him, Steve, and Mark. They all gave me a warm welcome back.

Changes in the nature of the WoW player community, however, make him decide to quit that game: too many “normal” people had joined WoW.

The game got bigger with every new expansion that was released, and as it got bigger, it brought in a vast amount of new players. I noticed that more and more “normal” people who had active and pleasurable social lives were starting to play the game, as the new changes catered to such a crowd. WoW no longer became a sanctuary where I could hide from the evils of the world, because the evils of the world had now followed me there. I saw people bragging online about their sexual experiences with girls… and they used the term “virgin” as an insult to people who were more immersed in the game than them. The insult stung, because it was true. Us virgins did tend to get more immersed in such things, because our real lives were lacking.

Other interactions with friends also proceed online, or are predicated upon prior online interactions:

During one of my frequent visits home in late Spring, I reunited with my old friends Philip and Addison. I hadn’t seen them since the night I emotionally cried in front of them at the Getty museum in the beginning of 2012. This reunion was sparked by the political and philosophic conversations I had been having with Addison over Facebook.

And Facebook also enables Rodger to keep tabs on his offline relations:

In November, my brief friendship with Andy, Stan, and their group faded away. I often saw on Facebook that they did things together without even inviting me, which is the same thing I’ve had to experience with other groups of friends that I’ve had in the past. I was always an outcast, even among people I knew. I grew tired of their lack of consideration for me, so I stopped calling them. They weren’t even popular anyway, and I wasn’t benefitting at all from their friendship. I still continued to meet with Andy at restaurants on occasion, however.

And then, of course, there is the Manosphere. Engaging with websites such as “PUAHate.com” (“Pick Up Artists hate”, taken down and renamed “Sluthate” after the Isla Vista killings) reassures Rodger that he isn’t the only one suffering from the cruelty of women:

The Spring of 2013 was also the time when I came across the website PUAHate.com. It is a forum full of men who are starved of sex, just like me. Many of them have their own theories of what women are attracted to, and many of them share my hatred of women, though unlike me they would be too cowardly to act on it. Reading the posts on that website only confirmed many of the theories I had about how wicked and degenerate women really are. Most of the people on that website have extremely stupid opinions that I found very frustrating, but I found a few to be quite insightful.

The website PUAHate is very depressing. It shows just how bleak and cruel the world is due of the evilness of women. I tried to show it to my parents, to give them some sort dose of reality as to why I am so miserable. They never understood why I am so miserable. They have always had the delusion that everything is going well for me, especially my father. When I sent the link of PUAHate.com to my parents, none of them even bothered to look at the posts on there.

Observe how Rodger describes the website as a place where a theory or worldview is constructed – an epistemic  move towards generalization, from the particular and idiosyncratic to the systemic and common. And note that he considers this an important factor of understanding, valuable enough to be communicated to his parents. He had discovered a space where his own feelings, outlook and experiences were normal, even normative. And he wanted to communicate this to those who, in his eyes, systematically misunderstood him and defined him as an outsider. It is telling that, in the entire manifesto, the above fragment is the only one in which he attempts to share a resource for understanding his predicaments, with people from whom he genuinely expects support and sympathy.

  1. Sources and templates: the cultural material

Given what we have seen so far, it is safe to say that Rodger saw websites such as PUAHate.com as formative learning environments, places where he learned how to see his individual predicament fitted into a larger system, and where he learned how to respond to this systemic injustice (cf. Schoonen et al 2017). But apart from Manosphere sites and the World of Warcraft game he was passionate about, Rodger mentions several other sources of inspiration: he was quite deeply involved in particular forms of popular culture.

Remember that Rodger grew up in the Hollywood movie milieu; in his manifesto, he suggests that stars such as George Lucas were (at least) family acquaintances, and he proudly describes attending several red carpet premières of Hollywood blockbusters. His father was involved as a second unit director in the production of the 2012 hit movie The Hunger Games.[6] This genre of violent dystopian fantasy (to which WOW can also be added) clearly belonged to his range of strong interests, and he got addicted to A Game of Thrones as soon as he read it:

For the rest of the summer, I took it easy and played WoW with James, Steve, and Mark; just like old times. I also started reading a new book series called A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin. This medieval fantasy series was spectacular. The first book of the series was A Game of Thrones, and once I read the first chapter I just couldn’t put it down. It was like nothing I had ever read before, with a huge array of complex characters, a few of whom I could relate to. I found out that it was going to be adapted into an HBO television series, and I became very excited for that.

Delving into fantasy stories like WoW and Game of Thrones didn’t make me forget about all of my troubles in life, but they did give me a temporary and relieving sense of escape, which I need from time to time. Life would be impossible to handle without those temporary respites.

We can sense the powerful appeal of imagined universes characterized by violence, sex, ruthlessness and brutality in Rodger’s words here. Popular culture products such as these provided him with templates by means of which he could organize his experiences and conduct. The latter is made explicit by Rodger with respect to yet another source : a movie called Alpha Dog.[7]

The Santa Barbara plan was formed on that night, but its roots stretch all the way back to when I just turned eighteen. It was all because I watched that movie Alpha Dog. The movie had a profound effect on me, because it depicted lots of good looking young people enjoying pleasurable sex lives. I thought about it for many months afterward, and I constantly read about the story online. I found out that it took place in Santa Barbara, which prompted me to read about college life in Santa Barbara. I found out about Isla Vista, the small town adjacent to UCSB where all of the college students live and have parties. When I found out about all this, I had the desperate hope that if I moved to that town I would be able to live that life too. That was the life I wanted. A life of pleasure and sex.

In other words: the entire scenario of his Day of Retribution is modeled on a template Rodger largely derived from a violent movie. Popular culture proves to be a learning environment in the most immediate sense here.[8]

Of course, Rodger’s manifesto isn’t a log of his online activities and popular culture interests. The few items he explicitly mentions can be assumed to have particular importance in his constructed world, but there must be far more. There is, for instance, the powerful effect of the dramatic shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, perpetrated by teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, which led not only to widespread outrage (voiced, among others, in Michael Moore’s award-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine),[9] but also to a video game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG (based on original surveillance camera images of the shootings),[10] and a number of copycat incidents in which perpetrators declared to be (or were later proven to have been) inspired by Harris and Klebold’s example. The Columbine massacre remains perhaps the most dramatic of the American school shootings, also because of its knock-on effects in other, similar incidents. It became, in effect, a template for similar actions.[11]

One such post-Columbine action, bearing striking similarities with that of Elliot Rodger, was the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. On April 16 of that year, a student called Seung Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people. Interestingly, he, too, had posted videos prior to his actions, and he, too, left a manifesto: a collage of texts and images, articulating a sense of victimhood and a desire for (violent) retribution bearing striking similarities to that of Rodger. Consider the following fragment from Seung Hui Cho’s text:[12]

By destroying we create. We create the feelings in you of what it is like to be the victim, what it is like to be fucked and destroyed. Because of your annihilations, we create and raise new breeds of Children who will show you fuckers what you have done to us. Like Easter, it will be a day of rebirth. It will be a start of a revolution of the Children that you fucked. You have never felt a single ounce of pain your whole life, thus, by destroying you, by giving you pain, we attempt to show you responsibilities and meanings of other people’s lives.

Cho, like Rodger, expresses profound pain and bitterness over what he must have experienced as a life destroyed by the agency of others – who, because of that, deserved to die. Cho calls himself a victim, and Rodger concludes his manifesto with exactly the same qualifications:

All I ever wanted was to love women, and in turn to be loved by them back. Their behavior towards me has only earned my hatred, and rightfully so! I am the true victim in all of this. I am the good guy. Humanity struck at me first by condemning me to experience so much suffering. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t want this. I didn’t start this war… I wasn’t the one who struck first… But I will finish it by striking back. I will punish everyone. And it will be beautiful. Finally, at long last, I can show the world my true worth.

The point to all this is that Rodger, in premeditating, preparing and executing his shooting, could draw on abundantly available cultural material for concrete and specific templates structuring his act. There is, as it were, a carefully elaborated aesthetics to the actions – see his “it will be beautiful” above. And in elaborating this aesthetics, Rodger draws on examples and models derived from earlier similar incidents as well as from the online and popular culture sources he intensely engaged with. All of this sources provide “logical” modes of action, patterns of argumentation and rationalizations that Rodger could invoke in designing his own actions.

  1. The aftermath: becoming cultural material

Elliot Rodger, as a digital native, not only consumed online popular culture, but as we have seen, he also created some. His manifesto was electronically circulated hours before his fatal drive into Isla Vista, and I already mentioned that he had uploaded several videos on YouTube as well. Both the manifesto and the videos are remarkable: the text is exceedingly well written and structured, and the videos appear to be well-rehearsed staged performances. Undoubtedly, Rodger’s exposure to the Hollywood professional in-crowd was formative.

Evidently, the Isla Vista shooting was headline news in the US, and several major TV networks controversially broadcasted fragments from Rodger’s YouTube videos, bringing material from the extreme fringes of the Web into mass circulation, and thus creating the raw materials for what we know as “memes” – a new and complex online popular culture genre in which (static or moving) image and message are blended in highly productive and diverse ways, often for no other apparent purpose than conveying “cool” conviviality in online communities (cf. Blommaert 2015; Varis & Blommaert 2015). A particular line from Rodger’s “Day of Retribution” video became emblematic in such memes: “I am the perfect gentleman”. Figure 1 illustrates this.

th-elliot-rodgers-is-autistic-gentleman-supremacy-e-golden-mem-4460351

 

Figure 1: Elliot Rodger “Gentleman” meme. Source: https://me.me/i/th-elliot-rodgers-is-autistic-gentleman-supremacy-e-golden-mem-3683956  (20 November 2017)

Other memes poked fun of Rodger’s materialism and naiveté in dating girls,[13] and still others simply copied elements from Rodger’s manifesto and circulated it as a serious, instructional message, as in Figure 2.

to-judge-thots-is-up-to-god-but-to-send-24131278

 

Figure 2: Elliot Rodger text-quote meme. Source: https://onsizzle.com/t/elliot-rodger

(22 November 2017)

There is nothing exceptional to all this: memes can find their sources in nearly all and any event or aspect of life, so choosing a high-profile and heavily publicized incident as the object of memes is self-evident. The point is, however, that Rodger was directly influenced by specific sources and operated within existing templates when he committed his acts; but that he also became a format after the act. He and his killings became cultural material either providing legitimacy or rejecting his logic of action. In the present economies of knowledge and information, online infrastructures provide a colossal discursive overlay upon the more conventional news reporting.

Naturally, there was no shortage of uptake of the Isla Vista killings in the Manosphere, and this uptake was ambivalent. In discussions on Manosphere platforms, men condemned Rodger for being a “loser” while others praised him as a hero, as in Figure 3.

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Figure 3: screenshot of Manosphere discussion on Elliot Rodger. Source: https://imgur.com/r/4chan/AET4cgb  (20 November 2017)

The interesting thing, however, is how the figure of Elliot Rodger became entirely absorbed in the ideological structures of the Manosphere. One of these structures is sketched by Angela Nagle as follows:

“One of the dominant and consistent preoccupations running through the forum culture of the Manosphere is the idea of beta and alpha males. They discuss how women prefer alpha males and either cynically use or completely ignore beta males, by which they mean low-ranking males in the stark and vicious social hierarchy through which they interpret all human interaction.” (Nagle 2017: 89)

The Manosphere itself is split between alpha- and beta-male camps, and beta-males are usually encouraged either to turn themselves into alpha-males, or altogether reject (and possibly destroy) that world of male-female relationships (cf. Schoonen et al 2017; Vivenzi et al. 2017). The beta males, obviously, are the victims of a world in which women choose alpha males, and the label is shorthand for an entire system of rationalizations of unhappiness, involuntary celibacy, loneliness and revenge.

If we now return to Rodger’s manifesto using Nagle’s description of alpha and beta males, it is overly clear that Rodger self-identified as a beta male, a victim of a society in which women – way too independent and manipulating as they were, in his view – consistently ignored him in favor of more brutal, muscular and rugged types of (alpha) men. The latter, whom Rodger saw as stupid and naïve because they walked into the traps set out for them by women, also became his enemies, and eventually his victims during his Day of retribution. This act of uncompromising beta-masculine ideological rectitude turned Rodger into some kind of icon of the beta male camp, as we can see in Figure 4:

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Figure 4: Elliot Rodger the beta male meme. Source: http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1092353-beta-uprising  (20 November 2017)

And within the Manosphere, he became a template of such till-death-do-us-part rectitude, important enough to have his acronym “ER” included in the glossary of Sluthate (the renamed successor of PUAHate.com).[14] Rodger’s figure indexes a radical, even extremist position which can be copied (as a template) by others. Smits et al (2017), for instance, describe the interactions of a man nicknamed “About2GoER” on Sluthate. The name signals intimate identification with “ER” (Elliot Rodger), and suggests a similar path of future action to that taken by “ER” (“about to go”). About2GoER “states that he rather wants to be with ‘slayers that are funny’ than ‘faggots that want the world to feel sorry for him’” (Smits et al. 2017) and is aggressive and extravagantly offensive, even by the quite impressive standards of Sluthate.

To sum up and conclude the analysis of the Elliot Rodger case: we have seen how his actions were “formatted”, so to speak, on the basis of sources and templates he had learned and developed in the online-offline world of the Manosphere, games and other forms of popular culture; and we have seen how his line of action, in turn, became part of the cultural material informing and providing action templates for others. Such templates provide a logic of action in which experiences, knowledge, feelings and aspirations are brought in line, so to speak, in a way that plausibly motivates specific lines of action. In the case of Rodger, the templates he had learned and developed converted loneliness and unhappiness into a strong and ideologically structured sense of victimhood – an identity of “victim”- which in turn, logically, motivated the extremely violent, destructive revenge on those whom he considered to be the perpetrators of the “crimes” that made him lonely and unhappy. We see here, in many ways, a classic instance of what Raymond Williams (1977) famously called “structures of feeling”: seemingly incoherent reactions and responses to experienced social realities that gradually become “structured” by ideological framings provided by similar feelings articulated by others. In the process, we witness the emerging of individual and collective identity categories (“victims”, “beta males”) and commonly ratified (“normal”) lines of action, which can now be ideologically rationalized as “the truth”. Rodger, in short, operated within the “culture” of the beta males – a culture of victimhood and resentment – and he took this cultural logic to its limits.

  1. Conclusion: the ludic formatting of online-offline social life

I now must take one step back, away from the concrete (and admittedly harrowing) case of Elliot Rodger, and explain how “outsiders” such as Rodger can inform us on more widespread social phenomena and processes. And we need to recall Blumer’s thesis, quoted earlier: what I have surveyed in the case of Rodger are, in essence, forms and patterns of social interaction forming human conduct, not just reflecting or expressing it. If we add George Herbert Mead’s view to this, such forms of interaction also form (not just reflect or express) who we are – our “minds”:

“We must regard mind, then, as arising and developing within the social process, within the empirical matrix of social interactions.” (Mead: 1934: 133)

In a slightly overstated rephrasing of Mead’s point, we could say that who and what people are is a residue of the totality of social interactions they engaged in over their lives, and specific aspects of who and what people are will be the residue of specific kinds of social interaction. Analytically, then, the crux of the matter is to understand the precise nature of these interactions. And this is where we need to engage with the peculiarities of the new online-offline communicative worlds we presently inhabit.[15]

We know a few things already – though not many. Identity work has acquired an outspoken level of fragmentation and mobility, something that can be imagined as “chronotopic”, in which different resources and normative behavior templates (“microhegemonies”) need to be deployed in specific TimeSpace configurations (cf Blommaert & Varis 2015). The elaborate identity repertoires needed for adequate levels of integration in this ever-expanding field of identity work requires permanent learning and re-learning work, and most online environments can be empirically described as “communities of knowledge”: chronotopes in which specific identity resources can be formed, learned and policed (cf. Blommaert 2018, chapter 4).

We also know that such communities – even if they operate as real communities, including forms of leadership and authority, normative behavioral scripts and levels of integration – are open, undemanding and flexible when it comes to membership, and that older conceptions of what it means to be a member impede a precise understanding of the actual forms of attachment developing between individuals and groups. The Manosphere is a case in point: even if men can be regular visitors and contributors to Manosphere forums, and attach great importance to interactions on these forums (as did, apparently, Elliot Rodger), the community does not have the robust and perennial structure of, say, a trade union or a sports team. As Smits et al (2017) showed, outspoken dissidence and even hostility are (even if grudgingly) tolerated, and as Vivenzi et al (2017) demonstrated, people can enter and leave as they wish.

So how do we imagine the specific forms of social interaction within such “light” communities of knowledge? Let us turn to a, perhaps, unexpected and counterintuitive (and rarely visited) corner of social thought.

In his classic Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga emphasized what he saw as an important counterpoint to Weber’s rationalization drive in Modernity: the playful character of many social, cultural and political practices. In our tendency to organize societies along rational management patterns, Huizinga insisted, we risked losing sight of the fact that much of what people do is governed by an irrational logic, a ludic pattern of action. Even more, much of what we see as the rational organization of societies is grounded, in fact, in play (Huizinga 2014: 5).

Huizinga (2014: 7-14) lists several features of “play”. I shall select a number of them.

  • (i) Play is significant: it is a site of meaning-making in which “something is at play”;
  • (ii) it is, at the same time a voluntary activity often experienced as a site of personal freedom;
  • (iii) it is relatively unregulated and unconstrained by established rules and forms of control (distinguishing “play” from a “game” such as chess or poker);
  • (iv) it is an authentic activity in which we observe the unconstrained “playing out” of the self; it outside the range of what is commonly seen as “useful” or “effective” (it is done “just for fun”);
  • (v) it is enclosed in the sense that it often requires a particular spatiotemporal organization different from that of other activities; and finally,
  • (vi) given all the previous characteristics, it is also a serious activity demanding focus, intensity and skill, and it has an inevitable aspect of learning to it.

Two remarks are in order. One, with respect to the characteristic of authenticity (iv above), it must be underscored that it is perfectly normal to play someone else while expressing some essential “self”. In fact, forms of play in which roles are assumed by players, masks or other garments are worn or names are being changed for the duration of the event are found everywhere. In the online world it suffices to think of highly developed communities such as those of cosplay and gaming to see the point; but think also of the widespread use of aliases or nicknames on social media platforms. Just as we can distinguish a Foucaultian “care of the self” in various forms of play, we see a “care of the selfie” in online play as well (cf Li & Blommaert 2017). In Rodger’s case, we saw plenty of such impersonations, and we saw plenty of hard work invested in the “care of the selfie”: the elaborate aesthetics of his manifesto and his videos, for instance.

Two, with respect to (v) above – Huizinga’s requirement of spatiotemporal “isolation” for play – we can emphasize the chronotopic nature of ludic practices. Play is often reserved for, and reliant upon, restricted and elaborately organized TimeSpace configurations. Think of a “play room”, “playground” or “play corner”, of “holiday” and “leisure” as segmented TimeSpace configurations reserved for ludic activities, but also of current expressions such as “quality time” or “me time” (a segment of time spent on ludic, non-work activities). Observe, by the way, the strong moral ring of such terms: they refer to things we absolutely need and value highly; denial of such things is often perceived as unacceptable. In online activities, the TimeSpace configuration is present as well, and relatively undemanding in addition: we need an individual and an online device, and little more is required. Which is why “spending time behind your computer” is often perceived as “asocial” or “individualistic”: we perceive an individual alone with his/her device, who is deeply involved, of course, with a community not sharing the physical TimeSpace but very much present and active in the “virtual” one. In Rodger’s case, we saw how the perception of offline social awkwardness bypassed his intense engagement with online and popular culture communities “below the radar”, including those of the Manosphere. And we saw the pervasive effect of these forms of separated, enclosed forms of involvement on his “mind” (to use the Meadian term here).

If we now take Huizinga’s characteristics and apply them to the “light” forms of membership in online communities, we see a potential for application – perhaps not to all forms of online membership but to many of them. We can see how attachment to online groups is not (in a great many instances) conditioned by permanent, heavily ordered, policed and “total” involvement – one does not have to become an expert in, say, advanced Barbecue techniques just by visiting Barbecue-focused websites or forums, and one does not have to participate in all events on a cosplay forum in order to be a “member”. One can also enter and participate on such online platforms without subscribing to the full range of norms, expectations and cultural premises prevailing there, and one can articulate one’s participation in terms of very different intentions and desired outcomes than the next person. An online gaming forum is not a school, even if we find organized and tightly observed learning practices on the online gaming forum too. It turns the gaming forum into a ludic learning environment in which different forms of knowledge practice are invited, allowed and ratified. Such practices – precisely – are “light” ones too – think of “phatic” expressions of attachments such as the retweet on Twitter and the “likes” on Facebook: knowledge practices not necessarily experienced as such, and rather more frequently seen as “just for fun”. And capable, in that sense, of generating “structures of feeling” shared among participants in the community.

But do note Huizinga’s final characteristic: ludic practice is serious practice. The relatively “light”, mobile and flexible features of online communities do not prevent intense and profoundly focused forms of attachment. The experience of freedom and authenticity, and the absence of obvious “normal” forms of usefulness and efficiency might, on the contrary, precisely contribute to the sometimes phenomenal investments made by members in their attachments to such groups. There is a degree of intimacy evolving from ludic practices (including the “phatic” ones just mentioned): people make friends while playing, because play enables them to show their “authentic” self, to show the “truth” about themselves.[16] Here, once more, are the “structures of feeling”: something is genuinely shared and constructed through such ludic forms of practice, and this sharedness is experienced as important and formative.

It is formative of strong normative templates, as we have seen in the case of Rodger. What he learned and developed in his online-offline enclosed communities of knowledge was a strongly normative (“normal”) sense of being and of action – a logic of action, as I called it earlier, or a “culture”. Rodger derived from his engagement in those communities an absolute certainty about his identity as a victim of a world that conspired to steal away his (sexually focused) happiness, and enough of a commitment to take this logic of action to its very end. And in so doing, he, in turn, contributed templates of thought, action and identity to other members of that community – his use of available formats contributed to a further solidification of these formats.

This is quite something in the way of social effect. Extreme cases of “outsiders” such as Elliot Rodger should alert us to the powerful “cultural” effects of the new online-offline worlds we inhabit, and for which, presently, we only have diminutive terms: “virtual” or “light” communities engaging in “playful” forms of attachment. The very lightness of these terms must encourage us to critically re-examine them, time and time again.

 References

Appadurai, Arjun (1996) Modernity at Large : Cultural Consequences of Globalization. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press.

Becker, Howard (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: The Free Press.

Beekmans, Inge, Anne-Marie Sweep, Linmin Zheng & Zhifang Yu (2017) Forgive me father, for I hate women. Diggit Magazine (in press).

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

Blommaert, Jan (2017) Ludic membership and orthopractic mobilization: On slacktivism and all that. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 193. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/6cfbdfee-2f05-40c6-9617-d6930a811edf_TPCS_193_Blommaert.pdf

Blommaert, Jan (2018) Durkheim and the Internet : Sociolinguistics and the Sociological Imagination. London : Bloomsbury.

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

Blumer, Herbert (1969) Symbolic Interactionism: Perspectives and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press

Castells, Manuel (1996) The Rise of the Network Society. London : Blackwell

De Meo, Pasquale, Emilio Ferrara, Giacomo Fiumara & Alessandro Provetti (2014) On Facebook, Most ties are weak. Communications of the ACM 57/11 : 78-84.

Dijsselbloem, Jan, Ashna Coster, Boudewijn Henskens & Eva Veeneman (2017) Because of Patriarchy! Diggit Magazine (in press)

Foucault, Michel (2003) Abnormal. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. New York: Picador

Kling, Ben (2017) Elliot Rodger, Male Entitlement, and Pathologization. Medium, May 23, 2017. https://medium.com/@benkling/elliot-rodger-male-entitlement-and-pathologization-c394500309b3

Langman, Peter (2009) Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters. New York: Macmillan.

Langman, Peter (2016a) Multi-Victim School Shootings in the United States: A Fifty-Year Review. https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/fifty_year_review_1.1.pdf

Langman, Peter (2016b) Elliot Rodger: An analysis. https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/rodger_analysis_2.0.pdf

Langman, Peter (2016c) Eric Harris: The search for justification. https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/harris_search_for_justification_1.3.pdf

LaViolette, Jack (2017) Cyber-metapragmatics and alterity on reddit.com. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 196. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/6614d6f8-3b03-4c8a-8ac9-b56ecf4b9cb1_TPCS_196_LaViolette.pdf

Lee, Joey J. & Christopher M. Hoadley (2007) Leveraging identity to make learning fun : Possible selves and experiential learning in Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). Innovate : Journal of Online Education 3/6, article 5. http://nsuworks.nova.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1081&context=innovate

Li Kunming & Jan Blommaert (2017) The care of the selfie: Ludic chronotopes of baifumei in online China. CRTL+ALT+DEM 22-11-2017. https://alternative-democracy-research.org/2017/11/22/the-care-of-the-selfie/

Maly, Ico & Piia Varis (2015) The 21st-century Hipster: On micro-populations in times of superdiversity. European Journal of Cultural Studies 19/6: 1-17

Mead, George Herbert (1934) Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nagle, Angela (2017) Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. London: Zero Books.

Peeters, Saskia, Natalia Wijayanti, Magan van Meer, Dennis de Clerck & Jonathan Raa (2017) The Threat of Toxic Masculinity: From Online Manosphere to Toxic Masculine Public Figures. Diggit Magazine (in press)

Schoonen, Maud, Hannah Fransen, Ruben Bastiaense & Norman Cai (2017) The Manosphere as a Learning Environment. Diggit Magazine (in press)

Smits, Laura, Meauraine van Gorp, Madelinde van der Jagt, Marissa Bakx & Noura Yacoubi (2017) Extreme Abnormals. Diggit Magazine. (in press)

Tagg, Caroline, Philip Seargeant & Amy Brown (2017) Taking Offense on Social Media: Conviviality and Communication on Facebook. London: Palgrave Pivot

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

Vivenzi, Laura, William Schaffels, Gabriela De la Vega & Lennart Driessen (2017) Infiltrating the Manosphere: An Exploration of Male-Oriented Virtual Communities from the Inside. Diggit Magazine (in press).

Williams, Raymond (1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Notes

[1] ICD 2017 is shorthand for the 2017 class in my “Individuals and Collectives in the Digital Age” course at Tilburg University, with whom I explored the issues documented in this text. I am deeply grateful to all of them: Marissa Backx, Ruben Bastiaanse, Inge Beekmans, Norman Cai, Ashna Coster, Dennis de Clerck, Gabriela De la Vega, Jan Dijsselbloem, Lennart Driessen, Hannah Fransen, Boudewijn Henskens, Daria Kholod, Thi Phuong Anh Nguyen, Dianne Parlevliet, Saskia Peters, Jonathan Raa, William Schaffels, Agotha Schnell, Maud Schoonen, Laura Smits, Eva Stein Veeneman, Anne-Marie Sweep, Madelinde van der Jagt, Meauraine van Gorp, Megan van Meer, Laura Vivenzi, Natalia Wijayanti , Noura Yacoubi, Zhifang Yu, Linming Zheng.

[2] This is the point of departure of Blommaert (2018), and this paper is part of the larger Durkheim and the Internet project. Evidently, the observation is not new, and I let myself be profoundly inspired by, among others, early visionary texts such as those of Castells (1996) and Appadurai (1996).

[3] The manifesto is an unnumbered 141-page document; in what follows, consequently, I cannot provide page number for the fragments I shall use. The full text is available in original form on https://medium.com/@benkling/elliot-rodger-male-entitlement-and-pathologization-c394500309b3. As we shall see further below, writing a manifesto is in itself part of a format for such forms of crime. Probably the most famous instance of the format was the 1515-page long 2083: A European declaration of Independence by Norwegian mass-murdered Anders Breivik, 2011. See https://publicintelligence.net/anders-behring-breiviks-complete-manifesto-2083-a-european-declaration-of-independence/

[4] Several of these clips can still be viewed on YouTube. His “Day of Retribution” clip can be viewed (with parental guidance) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-gQ3aAdhIo. See also Rodger’s profile on Criminal Minds Wiki: http://criminalminds.wikia.com/wiki/Elliot_Rodger

[5] See this excellent article for a detailed account of Elliot Rodger’s life: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/02/us/elliot-rodger-killings-in-california-followed-years-of-withdrawal.html

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hunger_Games_(film)

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alpha_Dog

[8] Langman’s (2016a) review of half a century of college shootings in the US shows a dramatic increase of such incidents since the turn of the century, an era coinciding with the generalized introduction of the Internet as a household commodity. Harris and Klebold, we can note, were both active on online platforms in the peripheries of the Web. We cannot make categorical statements here, of course, but the Elliot Rodger case shows a direct influence of these new popular-cultural infrastructures on the formatting of his killing spree.

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowling_for_Columbine

[10] http://www.columbinegame.com/

[11] See Langman (2009; 2016c) for an analysis of Eric Harris’ motives and personality; Langman’s remarkable website contains original documents related to school shooters including Harris and Klebold, and it is helpful to look at the similarities across cases after the Columbine incident. A full analysis of these documents is beyond the scope of this paper. For a sober analysis of public multi-victim shootings in the Us, one can consult the FBI report examining incidents between 2003 and 2013: file:///C:/Users/c/Downloads/(U)_ActiveShooter021317_17B_WEB.PDF

[12] See https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/cho_manifesto_1.1.pdf. On Criminal Minds Wiki, a clear parallel is drawn between Cho’s and Rodger’s shooting formats: http://criminalminds.wikia.com/wiki/Elliot_Rodger

[13] See for an example https://www.memecenter.com/fun/3276299/elliot-rodger-aka-jew-rich-boy-dating-simulator-2014

[14] See http://sluthate.com/w/Glossary#ER

[15] What follows is based on Blommaert (2017).

[16] This explains the very widespread genre of “confession” on social media. Confession, as Foucault (2003) observed, is a veridictional genre, a genre of truth-speaking in which an uninhibited self communicates fundamental truths to other uninhibited selves. Elliot Rodger’s manifesto and videos are, evidently, veridictional genres. And the density of “confessions” on the Manosphere is documented in Vivenzi et al (2017) and Beekmans et al (2017).

The care of the selfie

ScreenHunter_747 Nov. 22 11.23

The Care of the Selfie

Ludic chronotopes of baifumei in online China

Li Kunming & Jan Blommaert

Introduction: from the self to the selfie

In online-offline societies, both zones of social life offer specific affordances, some of which are compatible or complementary, and some of which are overlapping and conflictual.[1]Theorizing this new kind of social system is a task that still awaits the full efforts of a large scholarly community; consequently, much of the theory currently used for addressing new social phenomena draws on mainstream views designed to cope with pre-Internet societies (but see Castells, 1996; Appadurai, 1996; van Dijck, 2013; Blommaert, 2017b). In what follows, we intend to document the ways in which online infrastructures in China offer affordances for chronotopic identity work not otherwise available in offline contexts. More specifically, we shall describe the practices of young Chinese women designing and marketing imageries of feminine beauty and attractiveness on social media. While describing these phenomena, we also intend to sketch a conceptual framework for addressing such forms of online practice. The latter, we believe, is necessary, for online social practices display features that may be similar to more common offline forms of social conduct, but may still deviate in crucial ways.

It is due to such deviations that online infrastructures offer specific, complementary affordances to users, and these affordances need to be described by means of a conceptual vocabulary that does not reduce online forms of social action to their offline near-equivalents. The key issue in what follows is that of identity, broadly taken. There has been, and still is, a strong tendency, both in expert and lay discourse, to describe online identity work as “virtual” (with connotations of “fake”) and as opposed to offline “real” identity work (see e.g.,Indalecia, 2010; also Adrian, 2008). The point we must take on board right from the start is that identity work in online context is as “real” as the work we observe in offline contexts, and that we need to be far more precise and specific in describing the peculiarities of online identity work. We can follow the tradition of Mead (1934) here, who emphasized that every social context demands specific forms of organization of the self, and add the fundamental insight of Erving Goffman (1959) that any form of identity is an outcome of “dramaturgical” performance work and is thus, in a sense, “ludic” (Blommaert, 2017a). Thus, what we encounter in the Chinese online contexts we will examine is as “real” a performance as any other, and we should focus on the specific nature of that kind of performance and the conditions under which it can happen.

These conditions are, as we know, determined by the technology that defines the online world. Conditions for online social interaction do not include the physical co-presence in a closed and synchronized TimeSpace arrangement characterizing, for instance, ordinary offline conversations. In that sense, these conditions exclude direct physical (tactile) contact between interlocutors, as well as the mutual monitoring access to the interlocutors’ bodies – that crucial reservoir of knowledge of the self and the other in interaction, on which Goffman focused so much of his attention.[2] In return, technologically mediated interactions such as the kinds we shall discuss offer a number of very different affordances. The specific set of affordances we shall discuss here revolve around the design and construction of an artefactualized, technologically mediated representation of the self. As a shorthand for these affordances, and paraphrasing Foucault (1986), we shall use “the care of the selfie”: an elaborate complex of “ludic” practices aimed at constructing and performing a specifically online (and more specifically small-screen) “image of personality” in which usually three different elements have to be carefully created and maintained:[3]

  • an avatar: an online name often containing significant clues as to the particular image of personality offered in interaction;
  • carefully doctored pictures or video-streamed images of the selfie;
  • specific online interactional scripts to be observed in contacts with audiences.

We shall see that when such rules are observed, a specific chronotopic environment emerges within which highly sophisticated forms of identity work can be interactionally performed, in ways that have no equivalent in the Chinese offline social spheres. Let us now turn to the case itself.

Becoming baifumei by refusing it

The term baifumei has over the past number of years developed from online slang to a very widespread term in Chinese popular and media culture, pointing towards a particular “type” of Chinese woman (Li, Spotti & Kroon, 2014). The compound baifumei (白富美) was coined by internet users out of three Chinese lexemes, namely bai白, fu富and mei美. Each of these three constituent lexemes has a range of related meanings and discursive figures, grounded in Chinese tradition (as shown in Table 1). When used to describe people, especially women, bai primarily refers to the whiteness of one’s skin; fu to a great amount of wealth in one’s possession; and mei to an attractive appearance.

ScreenHunter_740 Nov. 22 10.45

Thus, baifumei identifies a woman who is attractive in a highly specific way (the white skin is critical) and who is, in addition, financially well-off. The connection between beauty and wealth brings a degree of moral ambivalence to the label due to the suggestion of prostitution or related forms of conversion of female attractiveness into money.  In addition, the label is easily associated with an extravagant, luxurious and mercenary lifestyle. The caricature in Figure 1 features a stereotypical baifumei: a beautiful woman with a slim figure, fair skin, well-developed breasts and an elaborate hairstyle, obsessive about her looks and indulging in shopping sprees, buying piles of handbags of the big brands.

ScreenHunter_737 Nov. 16 13.32

Figure 1: A caricature of a baifumei girl (source: http://www.china.org.cn/china/2013-12/27/content_31022201.htm, last access in January 2014)

This potentially threatening ambivalence notwithstanding, baifumei has been adopted by large numbers of Chinese women as a model of self-presentation in online contexts. It has become, in other words, a model for the care of the selfie, approximations of which may result in “authentic” baifumei membership. This authenticity needs to be designed (in the sense of Kress, 2010) by drawing on the available resources, perceived as contributing to that kind of authenticity, and in very precise and particular ways specific to the online contexts in which it must be performed.[1] According to Blommaert and Varis (2011, p. 144), identity practices are “discursive orientations towards sets of features that are (or can be) seen as emblematic”. In this sense, to be considered as an authentic baifumei, one has to comply with the semiotic array of features and discursive practices that leads to “enough” baifumei identity features – not too little and not too much. To get close to such level of enoughness and with that of authenticity, one needs to have a good control on the dose of “enoughness” that ought to be perpetually adjusted, reinvented and amended (Blommaert & Varis, 2011). And women aspiring to the baifumei label use specific online contexts for testing, developing and improving their identity performances.

One such online context, and a quite popular one, is the “Baifumei Bar” forum on the online platform Baidu Tieba (see Li, Spotti & Kroon, 2014; Li, 2018). On this “Baifumei Bar” forum, baifumei authenticity needs to be played out visibly and is constantly subject to its audience’s (both male and female) interactional assessment of the performed “selfie”. The selfie, as we have seen, consists of a stage name, a doctored visual image, and carefully scripted interactional behavior. The latter is achieved by balancing two major categories of discursive moves: “affiliating acts” and “distancing acts”. The performance of baifumei often begins with a distancing act and a self-denial as a baifumei person. However, underneath this initial distancing move and others that may follow, affiliating acts are implicitly articulated. A concrete example will show this.

We shall look at the profile of a woman called *fang[2]; in September 2014,Li (2018) noticed her top-ranked post in the baifumei bar, with 6578 replies up to the time of this contribution.[3]The post was headlined as follows:

ScreenHunter_741 Nov. 22 10.46

As we can see, *fang straightforwardly denies being a baifumei, explaining she is just a selfie lover. Let us now take a look at these selfies. The headline is followed by the three pictures included in Figure 2:[1]

ScreenHunter_734 Nov. 16 13.30

Figure 2: Three photos posted by *fang (source: https://tieba.baidu.com/f?kw=白富美, last access on 10 August, 2015)

The choice and the visual architecture of the pictures are deliberate. Picture A in Figure 2 reproduces a screenshot of *fang’s iPhone lock screen, backgrounded by a close-up photo of her. Compared with the selfie in a dim-lit bedroom in photo B, *fang’s skin tone in A is much paler. While different from the half-length portrait in A, *fang in B displays her sartorial skills: a red blouse, patterned shorts, a bracelet and red high-heel shoes. C is a photo taken in a BMW car, a stereotypical emblem of wealth, not just in China. Observe that the driver in photo C is a man: *fang’s boyfriend and the owner of the car, as later confessed by *fang. The photos are designed in a well-ordered sequence from A to C, in which the attributes of being bai (fair-skinned), fu (wealthy) and mei (beautiful) are highlighted one after another. This clue unveils *fang’s “backstage preparation” (in Goffman’s words) towards baifumei authentication. Observe also how the self-disqualification of baifumei in her opening line is instantly contradicted by the “grammar of visual design” in the three photos (Kress & van Leeuwen,2001).

On the second étage of her post,[1] *fang wrote the following:

ScreenHunter_742 Nov. 22 10.46

With a departure from the baifumei-affiliating act in Figure 2, *fang here disclaims her intention of wanting-to-be-baifumei: her updates should be merely seen as a realistic documentary of her daily life. She suggests challengers to save their malicious remarks and leave her profile space. This, if interpreted in Goffman’s terms, is an example of dramaturgical circumspection, in which a prior warning serves as a defensive measure and a safeguard. In the above two examples, *fang’s stance toward baifumei develops from the initial pronounced ‘distancing’ to a covert graphical ‘affiliating’ and then to the ‘distancing’ again. The orderly and multimodal stance pattern can be understood as the “line”, as used by Goffman (1967), to address the pattern of verbal and nonverbal acts that a person takes in a communicative event. The line is dynamic and, as in *fang’s case, is maneuvered constantly and strategically for appropriate impression management.

After the opening, we have seen in Example 2, the post thread continued and got both positive and negative comments. *fang often dismissed compliments and found a way out of the less commonplace challenges. On the 97th étage, a man (called Male A here) interacted with *fang as follows:

ScreenHunter_743 Nov. 22 10.46

In this example, by using the online register term “逆袭 (ni xi)”[1], Male A shows his aspiration to conquer a baifumei girlfriend or marry a baifumei girl. This obviously refers to *fang, and we can see that Male A identified *fang as a baifumei, in spite of her systematic disclaimers. *fang replies with a sweating-face emoticon which allows her to avoid a direct positioning: *fang could either feel overwhelmed or embarrassed by Male A’s words. Then Male A repeats his request and gets refused. The refusal is a reply made to Male A’s befriending (or marriage) request but does not directly rebuts his allusion to *fang’s baifumei identity. We see the play of affiliating and distancing acts at work here: disguised as a refusal, *fang tacitly got confirmed as a baifumei girl.

Then on the 348th étage, the following communication happened between *fang and another man (called Male B here):

ScreenHunter_744 Nov. 22 10.47

On this étage, *fang identifies with Male B as a diaosi (屌丝, literally “penis hair” and figuratively “loser”),[1] distancing herself from the covert baifumei identity established on the 97th étage. However, *fang’s self-identification with diaosi fluctuates. In one of her posts, she once became outraged at a boy who had described her to as a diaosi. Hence, *fang’s self-identification with diaosi here is, to a large extent, a tactic aimed to establish a rapport with Male B.It is a form of self-belittling in Goffman’s terms, in which one’s own positive qualities are deliberately underplayed: “if a person knows that his modesty will be answered by others’ praise of him, he can fish for compliments” (Goffman, 1967, p. 24).

Seen from the above examples, *fang’s “line” is changeable and context-adaptive, from the initial distancing in the headline to the affiliating in her photo arrangement, and then distancing once more, with another affiliating act following. However, the line*fang takes is not in any way a consecutive distancing-affiliating sequence. What emerges prominently and importantly from the data is that *fang never makes her affiliating acts obvious, overt and pronounced. By contrast, she shows her distancing in a clear and assertive way. Although *fang did sometimes face questions about her true motives from critical participants, her dramaturgical circumspections and performed modesty won her a widely ratified baifumei identity, as attributed by men. It is an interactional achievement, resulting from highly skilled and flexible, “ludic” performance practices.

The ludic economy of baifumei

The practices performed by *fang are entirely conditioned by the technological environment in which she performs them: an online forum explicitly designed for and devoted to baifumei identity work. They are, in that environment, entirely “normal” – an expected behavioral script that demands careful performance, and in which participants draw on available cultural and technological resources for adequate outcomes. Such practices are, consequently, chronotopic in the full sense of the term (Blommaert & Varis, 2015; Blommaert & De Fina, 2016). The chronotope, however, is not a closed TimeSpace constellation: it draws on cultural materials that have their origins in older traditions and organize conduct in a variety of social spheres.

The careful play of distancing and affiliating acts performed by *fang is a case in point.Modesty is highly valued as a traditional virtue of China. “Virtue” is called mei de (美德lit. beautiful moral) in Chinese. With the same ‘mei(美) (beautiful) as in ‘baifumei’ (白富), mei de indexes the general beauty of a person. Chinese people are, in many contexts, expected to understate their personal accomplishments rather than speak highly of their own merits. So, a woman’s modesty, if recognized, will be related to the Chinese virtue and add weight to the “enoughness” of the baifumei identity.

A very similar interplay between cultural tradition and new online technological affordances can be observed in the second case we examine here: the performance of baifumei on Zhibo (直播, literally “online live-streaming”). By June 2016, there were about 325 million livestreaming users in China, accounting for nearly a half of the Chinese total netizen’s population (CNNIC, 2016). Across about 200 livestreaming platforms (iiMedia Research, 2016), there are 4 million participants (both hosts and watchers) simultaneously present in about 3000 livestreaming rooms at peak times. And one extraordinarily popular form of live-streaming involves baifumei women performing forms of online flirting and intimacy with male audiences, who, in return, donate “gifts”. In contrast with the static images and texts we observed on Baifumei Bar, we are facing moving real-time images and interactions here.

ScreenHunter_732 Nov. 16 13.28

Figure 3: User interfaces of Yizhibo, Yingke and Momo (source: yizhibo.com; yingke.com; momo.com, last access on 14 December, 2016)

Such performances occur within a technologically circumscribed arena, enabling certain forms of interaction while constraining or excluding others. Almost all major internet companies in China have launched such livestreaming services, and the actual shapes of the interfaces are quite similar. Yizhibo (一直播), Yingke (映客) and Momo (陌陌), three of the most influential livestreaming platforms in China, look alike in their user interface layouts. More specifically, all of them have the status zone (marked as No. 1 in Figure 3) at the top, hostesses’ performing zone at the center (No. 2), the threading of viewers’ messages at the left lower part (No. 4) and the viewers’ operation zone at the bottom (No. 5). The homogeneous interface designs and livestreaming technological frameworks have resulted in severe competition between different livestreaming service providers in China. The success of each depends much on how many excellent hosts they can manage to attract. One such highly successful host, active on Yizhibo, is called Dongbei Wuxue.

Dongbei Wuxue (东北污雪) is a top-ranking “talkshow” hostess on Yizhibo. As mentioned earlier, the avatar or screen name used in selfie performances is of importance, so let us first examine the name. Dongbei (东北, literally “north east”) explicitly refers to a regional background, widely seen as “peripheral” in China, and incidentally also showing the largest number of female live-stream hostesses.Wu (污), a Chinese adjective which literally means “polluted” and “dirty” is put in juxtaposition with xue(雪), the “snow”, which is generally considered to be pure (as it is white) in Chinese culture. As a screen name, DongbeiWuxue’soffers layers of inferential meaning and suggests a sense of cynicism and dark humor, matched by DongbeiWuxue’s dramatic, stylized and entertaining speech style. These characteristics prove to be effective. At the time of data collection on 11 December 2016, Dongbei Wuxue had already harvested 79,000 followers and earned 37,059,600 credits on Yizhibo, which amounts to 370,596 RMB (approximately 47,269 Euros) through 53 broadcasts within 46 days.[1]DongbeiWuxue’s income is about 54 times the average national income per capita. She is a highly successful baifumei entrepreneur who employs several assistants in her business.

As we have seen, the interface of Yizhibo is characterized by a multimodal design, which is meant to be interactive and spontaneously responsive to ongoing communications during livestreaming. The essential structure is: a female hostess interacts with an online (male) audience, members of which can send messages and offer “gifts” to the hostess, all of which is publicly visible. These gifts are shown as symbols on the screen but, converted by the platform, represent real money income for the hostesses. First let us have a close look at the interface design of Yizhibo as shown in Figure 4.

ScreenHunter_731 Nov. 16 13.03

Figure 4: The Yizhibo livestreaming interface design for Dongbei Wuxue (source: Yizhibo iOS application, last access on 9 January, 2017)

We now begin to understand the features of the specific chronotope of livestreaming female-male interactions. With all those multimodal elements in motion and interaction with each other, the message flow in the livestreaming is dialogical and responsive to ongoing communications. When new messages pop up, previous messages will immediately move up on the user interface and recede out of the audience’s vision. Given that online livestreaming rooms are often crowded with viewers, new messages from viewers constantly appear, move up and then disappear – all at great speed. But the relative prominence of particular audience members (within the parameters of the system) is made visible. As shown in Figures 3 and 4, the Top Five spenders among the viewers are listed on the top right on the users’ interface, and their prominence is immediately visible to all viewers. The system also includes interactional asymmetry: Dongbei Wuxue as the hostess runs a continuous livestreamed performance in front of an audience, members of which can only communicate with her through text messages and gifting. The audience has no acoustic or visible-tangible presence. Given this exposure discrepancy, apart from text messages, gifting is an important tool for an audience to interact with Dongbei Wuxue.

Gifts occupy a large and central space in the interface design, the very epicenter of the stage, as with the glittering diamond in Figure 4. Gifts are further technologically glorified by triggering an array of enlivening animate effects. And gift senders, especially those sending expensive items, are greatly appreciated by Dongbei Wuxue and more likely to be directly addressed in friendly and intimate ways. Each time after receiving the gift of “love”, which costs 10 RMB (approximately 1 euro), Dongbei Wuxue immediately shows her “love” by air kissing and playing a piece of love music that has been popularized by Feicheng Wurao (非诚勿扰, “If you are the one”), a famous Chinese dating program hosted by Hunan Satellite TV. Figure 5 features Dongbei Wuxue expressing her gratitude for a gift through air kisses while depicting the heart-shaped gesture for “I love you (我爱你)”. This immediate expression of appreciation is orchestrated to a large number of viewers, amplifying the importance of generous gifts and the prominence of those who offer them.

ScreenHunter_747 Nov. 22 11.23

Figure 5: Dongbei Wuxue’s gestural response to a “love” gift (source: Yizhibo iOS application, retrieved on 9th January 2017)

The gesturing and facial expressions of joy and gratitude are evident. But as we have seen, the system also allows the hostess to directly talk to her audience, while audience members can only respond through text messages. Discursively, such moments of affection are expressed as follows:ScreenHunter_745 Nov. 22 10.48

 

ScreenHunter_746 Nov. 22 10.49

As soon as *Re sends in his gifts, Dongbei Wuxue’s attention focuses on him, while interaction with other participants is not entirely interrupted. *Re, however, gets treated to repeated and emphatic verbal and nonverbal expressions of love and intimacy. Such moments of direct address in interaction shape the kind of ludic “imagined togetherness” (Mortensen, 2017) which is a key feature of online flirting, and which is much coveted by male audience members. All of this evolves in the highly specific contours of the online livestreaming chronotope, in which such ludic roles, relationships and practices can be enacted as features of “normal” interactional conduct.

With her slim figure, well-developed breasts and long hair, white-skinned Dongbei Wuxue embodies the baifumei model of feminine “selfie” beauty. She is often scantily clad and as a good jokes teller (more specifically, an excellent teller of risqué jokes), she is good at drawing male audience’s attention. Being energetic, optimistic and talkative, Dongbei Wuxue has excellent social skills to maintain a nice rapport with her audience, including shifts from collective audience address into one-on-one interactions addressing specific audience members in acts of “imagined closeness”. The “selfie” she presents online is a virtuoso one, drawing on a vast repertoire of identity features and characterized by superbly executed performances. An important part of this revolves around handling the gifts from her male audience members.

Different from traditional business and mercantile practices, economic transactions in livestreaming undergo a semiotic “romanticization” process, where the audience’s money spent in showrooms is sugar-coated by a dazzling array of virtual gifts, which serve as cultural proxies that navigate the ambivalences mentioned earlier and reduce the risk of moral condemnations and allegations of prostitution The semiotic representation of the gifts, in particular, avoids the connotation of “payment-for-sex” by calling – in a “ludic” way – on established Chinese traditions of courtesy and hospitality. In China, which is characterized by collectivism and Guanxi, gifting practices are widely seen at all walks of life (see Steidlmeier1999; Luo et al. 2012). Compared to the potentially high cost for offline safe intimacies, the gifting expenses for live-streamed intimacies can be quite low. Hence, emerging livestreaming platforms provide males more chances to communicate with and befriend those desirable hostesses, who are less accessible to most men in their offline lives. For someone like Dongbei Wuxue, the reference to traditional forms of gift-giving enables her to be (sometimes explicitly) erotically appealing to the men, while avoiding the social stigma (and legal sanctions) attached to prostitution. In addition, it enables her to earn an income many times larger than what ‘regular’ offline jobs would offer her.

All of this is made possible by an online technology and its semiotic and interactional affordances. In livestreaming some viewers are willing to pay very substantial sums to buy virtual gifts to please the hostesses they prefer (see Li & Wei, 2017). In return, hostesses conspicuously display their gratefulness for the viewers’ gifting and perform that appreciation to an extent that a big audience can well recognize and glorify the gift sender. All of this, however, stays in the online environment and does not migrate offline: the courtesy of the gift is responded to by means of a dramaturgy of online flirtation. The livestreaming hostesses usually respond more actively, elaborately and intimately to those big spenders, with directly addressed words, facial expressions, body postures and gestures. In other words, with a certain amount of payment in the form of gifting, a viewer can get involved in specific public but intimate genres of interaction, ranging from being mentioned by name to being air-kissed and offered a love confession. Interactional events such as these can only happen in the tightly circumscribed online TimeSpace configurations provided by the Internet applications; and when they happen, they happen according to the normative formats befitting this specific chronotope.

Conclusion: ludic selfie chronotopes

In his classic Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga (1950/2014) emphasized the playful character of many social, cultural and political practices. In our tendency to organize societies along rational management patterns, Huizinga insisted, we risked losing sight of the fact that much of what people do is governed by an irrational logic, a ludic pattern of action. Even more, much of what we see as the rational organization of societies is grounded, in fact, in play. Huizinga (1950/2014, chapter 1) listed several features of “play”. Play is significant, for instance: it is a site of meaning-making in which “something is at play”; it is at the same time relatively unregulated and unconstrained by established rules and forms of control; it is also an authentic activity in which we observe the unconstrained “playing out” of the self; it is an enclosed activity in the sense that it often requires a particular spatiotemporal organization different from that of other activities (a “playground”); and finally, it is also a serious activity demanding focus, intensity and skill (see Blommaert 2017b for a discussion).

We have examined “playgrounds” here – technologically mediated and configured enclosed TimeSpace configurations in which ludic activities revolving around authenticity can be played out. With respect to this authenticity, it must be underscored that it is perfectly normal to play someone else while expressing some essential “self”. In fact, forms of play in which roles are assumed by players, masks or other garments are worn or names are being changed for the duration of the event are found everywhere. In the online world, it suffices to think of highly developed communities such as those of cosplay and gaming to see the point; but think also of the widespread use of aliases or nicknames on social media platforms. Just as we can distinguish a Foucauldian “care of the self” in various forms of play, we see a “care of the selfie” in online play as well. This selfie, we hope to have illustrated, demands forms of knowledge and skill specific to the online chronotopes in which it is presented and performed. We have seen complexes of norms at play in our examples, in which older and established cultural material was blended with the particular affordances of online platforms in such a way that different forms of identity work and male-female relationships could be constructed and enacted in playful ways – by elaborate forms of graphic doctoring of images, delicate forms of interaction and joint choreographies of the body and the features of the online apps. These playful practices are, however, significant and serious, and certainly in our discussion of Dongbei Wuxue’s work, something “was at play” – there was a real, “hard” economic transaction buried within the ludic, frivolous and artful interactional work she performed for her audience, and this transaction takes place in a neoliberal competitive market arena. There is nothing “virtual” to the income she generates through her talk shows, even if the stuff she offers in the transaction is just a “selfie”, a semiotic, immaterial artifact that needs to be meticulously and carefully constructed and checked (as *fang showed us) in order to be ready for economic transaction.

Online identity work and processes of community formation remain poorly understood social facts, often suffering from reductionist interpretations grounded in a pre-Internet sociological imagination. We believe it is helpful to approach the complexities of such new social facts with the help of frameworks such as the one we have attempted to illustrate here. In the cases we have discussed here, we detect traces of significant socio-economic change. The women engaging with the ludic selfie chronotopes offered by Internet providers can enter a labor market and develop economic activities not legitimately accessible, or more strictly policed, in offline spheres of society. Of course, such new economic activities will always look insignificant when measured against the standards of the mammoth Chinese formal economy; at the same time, as we have mentioned earlier, they are not marginal and may constitute more than just symbolic opportunities for people often marginalized in the bigger socio-economic game. This in itself should suffice as a reason to explore phenomena such as these as integral parts of the development of new social systems.

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Notes

[1]This paper draws on cases analyzed in Li Kunming’s PhD dissertation (Li, 2018).We are grateful to Sjaak Kroon and Max Spotti for guidance and suggestions throughout the research project, and to Caixia Du, Hou Mingyi, Lu Ying and Ted Nieh for critical discussions on the issues presented in this paper.

[2]Goffman surely was not alone, and contemporary scholarship on social interaction emphasizes the intrinsic fusion of visual, tactile and verbal aspects in communication. See, e.g., Goodwin (2007) and Bezemer & Kress (2014).

[3] For alternative surveys of practices for online self-presentation, see, e.g., Adrian (2008) and boyd (2014).

[1]Kress’s notion of “design” refers to the strategic semiotic work performed by subjects in interaction with others, with particular goals in mind (Kress, 2010, pp. 26-27, italics in original):

“Design meets the interest of the rhetor (…) in full awareness of the communicational potentials of the resources which are available in the environment and needed for the implementation of the rhetor’s interest.”

[2]The Chinese character fang (芳), which etymologically refers to a specific kind of fragrant grasses in ancient China and metaphorically refers to a girl’s desirable appearance,is often used as a girl’s call name in China. In this sense, the screen name is part of the selfie *fang puts on stage.

[3]Data are retrieved at 23:29 on 28 September, 2014 (UTC+1:00, Amsterdam).

[1]Originally, the photos are in a vertical sequence.

[1]Étage or “floor” is often used in Tieba as a simulator to a construction in the offline world. The first post of a thread is called the First Etage and the rest in the same way in a chronological order. An étage can be maintained by others’ replying to it. Changing an étage in Tieba usually means an ending of the previous conversation turn and the beginning of a new one.

[1]The original Chinese term ni xi is a military jargon noun, which literally means “inverse attack”. It has been widely used on Chinese social media in its figurative sense to refer to one’s procurement of life-changing social upward mobility.

[1]The term diaosi is widely used to describe the large groups of people feeling excluded or marginalized in China’s booming socio-economic environment. For more discussion on diaosi, see Yang et al., (2014) and Du, (2016).

[1] Data are retrieved at 14:39:16 on 11 November 2016.

 

 

Ludic membership and orthopractic mobilization: On slacktivism and all that.

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Jan Blommaert

This short research note is part of the Durkheim and the Internet project and attempts to theorize social phenomena emerging from the online-offline nexus. In what follows, I shall add to earlier steps in the project, specifically those related to “light” groups complementing, in socially relevant ways, the “thick” groups of an earlier Durkheimian-Parsonian sociological tradition (Blommaert 2017).

To recapitulate the earlier argument: in the online-offline nexus, we see a tremendous variety of new groups emerge, from social media networks (think of Facebook “friends”) to more specific topically formed groups (e.g. fandom, brand-focused, lifestyle or foodie communities) (e.g. Maly 2017). In addition, we see how ‘offline’ communities get solidified by means of an extensive online infrastructure, the most crucial function of which appears to revolve around the distribution of knowledge and the organizing of elaborate (even if “light”, i.e. not formalized nor institutionalized) learning practices (Maly & Varis 2015; Blommaert 2016). We observed that such “light” groups display “thick” characteristics: they can migrate offline and deploy powerful forms of activism there, in some instances bordering on what can be called “revolutionary” action (e.g. Costea 2017).

There is a literature that tends to be dismissive of such online-offline forms of activism, calling it, alternately, “clicktivism” or “slacktivism” and distinguishing it clearly from “real” sociopolitical mobilization and activism (e.g. Morozov 2011). I do not intend to frontally attack such dismissive statements; what I wish to do, though, is to offer suggestions for a more nuanced and accurate understanding of such forms of social practice – an attempt at reimagining “slacktivism” if you wish, by pointing to some of its crucial features and providing a theoretical vocabulary to describe and generalize them.

I believe there are two issues that demand attention here. One is the issue of group membership, the other of group mobilization. Both issues have been critical topics of social and political-theoretical debate throughout the twentieth century. In fact, they are key issues in revolutionary theory from Lenin to Gramsci, in democratic theory from Dewey to Habermas, as well as in cultural studies. I cannot go into these historical debates here and shall reserve them for future discussion. In what follows, I must confine myself to sketching the skeleton of a larger theoretical structure on what presently might constitute, in important ways, the morphology of “the public” or “the masses” as a sociologically relevant (and agentive) force.

Ludic forms of attachment

What do we know so far? We know that the online-offline nexus has resulted in the mushrooming of technologically mediated social groups of bewildering diversity and without precedent, best imagined (following Castells’ 1996 early characterization) as “networks” and enabling a vast array of new forms of identity performance and experience (boyd 2011). Identity work has acquired an outspoken level of fragmentation and mobility, something that can be imagined as “chronotopic”, in which different resources and normative behavior templates (“microhegemonies”) need to be deployed in specific TimeSpace configurations. The elaborate identity repertoires needed for adequate levels of integration in this ever-expanding field of identity work requires permanent learning and re-learning work, and most online environments can be empirically described as “communities of knowledge”: chronotopes in which specific identity resources can be formed, learned and policed.

We also know that such communities – even if they operate as real communities, including forms of leadership, normative behavioral scripts and levels of integration – are open, undemanding and flexible when it comes to membership, and that older conceptions of what it means to be a member impede a precise understanding of the actual forms of attachment developing between individuals and groups.

In his classic Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga emphasized what he saw as an important counterpoint to Weber’s rationalization drive in Modernity: the playful character of many social, cultural and political practices. In our tendency to organize societies along rational management patterns, Huizinga insisted, we risked losing sight of the fact that much of what people do is governed by an irrational logic, a ludic pattern of action. Even more, much of what we see as the rational organization of societies is grounded, in fact, in play (Huizinga 2014: 5).

Huizinga (2014, chapter 1) lists several features of “play”. I shall select a number of them.

  1. Play is significant: it is a site of meaning-making in which “something is at play”;
  2. it is, at the same time a voluntary activity often experienced as a site of personal freedom;
  3. it is relatively unregulated and unconstrained by established rules and forms of control (distinguishing “play” from a “game” such as chess or poker);
  4. it is an authentic activity in which we observe the unconstrained “playing out” of the self; it outside the range of what is commonly seen as “useful” or “effective” (it is done “just for fun”);
  5. it is enclosed in the sense that it often requires a particular spatiotemporal organization different from that of other activities; and finally,
  6. given all the previous characteristics, it is also a serious activity demanding focus, intensity and skill, and it has an inevitable aspect of learning to it.

Two remarks are in order. One, with respect to the characteristic of authenticity ((4) above), it must be underscored that it is perfectly normal to play someone else while expressing some essential “self”. In fact, forms of play in which roles are assumed by players, masks or other garments are worn or names are being changed for the duration of the event are found everywhere. In the online world it suffices to think of highly developed communities such as those of cosplay and gaming to see the point; but think also of the widespread use of aliases or nicknames on social media platforms. Just as we can distinguish a Foucaultian “care of the self” in various forms of play, we see a “care of the selfie” in online play as well.

Two, with respect to (5) above – Huizinga’s requirement of spatiotemporal “isolation” for play – we can emphasize the chronotopic nature of ludic practices. Play is often reserved for, and reliant upon, restricted and elaborately organized TimeSpace configurations. Think of a “play room” or a “play corner”, of “holiday” and “leisure” as segmented TimeSpace configurations reserved for ludic activities, but also of current expressions such as “quality time” or “me time” (a segment of time spent on ludic, non-work activities). Observe, by the way, the strong moral ring of such terms: they refer to things we absolutely need and value highly; denial of such things is often perceived as unacceptable. In online activities, the TimeSpace configuration is present as well, and relatively undemanding in addition: we need an individual and an online device, and little more is required. Which is why “spending time behind your computer” is often perceived as “asocial” or “individualistic”: we perceive an individual alone with his/her device, who is deeply involved, of course, with a community not sharing the physical TimeSpace but very much present and active in the “virtual” one.

If we now take Huizinga’s characteristics and apply them to the “light” forms of membership in online communities, we see a potential for application – perhaps not to all forms of online membership but to many of them. We can see how attachment to online groups is not (in a great many instances) conditioned by permanent, heavily ordered, policed and “total” involvement – one does not have to become an expert in, say, advanced Barbecue techniques just by visiting Barbecue-focused websites or fora, and one does not have to participate in all events on a cosplay forum in order to be a “member”. One can also enter and participate on such online platforms without subscribing to the full range of norms, expectations and cultural premises prevailing there, and one can articulate one’s participation in terms of very different intentions and desired outcomes than the next person. An online gaming forum is not a school, even if we find organized and tightly observed learning practices on the online gaming forum too. It turns the gaming forum into a ludic learning environment in which different forms of knowledge practice are invited, allowed and ratified. Such practices – precisely – are “light” ones too – think of “phatic” expressions of attachments such as the retweet on Twitter and the “likes” on Facebook: knowledge practices not necessarily experienced as such, and rather more frequently seen as “just for fun”.

Note Huizinga’s final characteristic: ludic practice is serious practice. The relatively “light”, mobile and flexible features of online communities do not prevent intense and profoundly focused forms of attachment. The experience of freedom and authenticity, and the absence of obvious “normal” forms of usefulness and efficiency might, on the contrary, precisely contribute to the sometimes phenomenal investments made by members in their attachments to such groups. There is a degree of intimacy evolving from ludic practices (including the “phatic” ones just mentioned): people make friends while playing, because play enables them to show their “authentic” self.[1]This brings us to the next point.

Orthopractic mobilization

With the image of ludic membership, we may have somewhat softened the attribute of “slacktivism” attached to forms of online mobilization. We are not seeing “traditional” groups in action here, but a ludic form of group attachment in which intentions, functions and outcomes may differ greatly, in spite of joined (and strongly experienced) focus of attention and intense learning. It is the nature of such forms of membership that excludes, I believe, traditional notions of “hegemony” as the engine driving individuals to mass action. Such forms of hegemony presuppose levels of organization, leadership, and ultimately of rationality in planning and approach, none of which can be expected in ludic online communities of knowledge.

Yet, considering these moments where online activity went hand in hand with mass offline action – think of the Romanian “revolution” documented by Costea (2017), or of the millions of people taking to the streets in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris (carrying “je Suis Charlie” banners and badges), mass mobilization is not just possible, but possible on a rarely observed scale as well. Hashtag activism is not the Holy Grail of new politics, but it is not an impotent thing either.

In order to grasp its potency, we need to introduce two elements. One: structures of feeling. Rather than the full-blown ideologies, fully understood and shared by the masses in the Gramscian tradition, online-offline mass mobilization might rely on what Raymond Williams (1977) called “structures of feeling”: inchoate mass-shared understandings of a moral/aesthetic kind translated into political reactions. Online resources offer an incredible potential for the ultra-fast sharing of sentiments, instant reactions to events, images and symbols. Those reactions can suffice to bring people out in the street, certainly when they can be generalized to broad passe partout feelings of fear, injustice or fairness.

If we accept this first element, a second one is straightforward. I suggest that we see such forms of online-offline mass mobilization as moments of “orthopractic” mobilization. The term “orthopraxy” is here borrowed from James C. Scott (1990), and refers to a display of ideological agreement not necessarily accompanied by full ideological endorsement. By absence of a full-blown ideology in online mobilization, what appears to be shared is a “common sense” – a common reaction to events easily formatted into mass-shared templates of expression: the use of banners, symbols and slogans often backed up by hashtags (“Je Suis Charlie”), mass marches and rallies, silent wakes, flowers and candlelight displays, and so forth.

The formatted character of such moments of mass action makes them “orthopractic”: people perform the restricted sets of rituals articulating structures of feeling, the codes and templates of which are often produced and distributed online. It thus becomes a mass form of “quality time” – an enclosed moment of shared authenticity, recognizable play and moral valuations to which one attends intensely and with great doses of sincerity. And while the online actions usually largely survive the offline ones, the moments of offline mobilization are impressive as well as politically significant, the more since such moments of mobilization often have a grassroots, “from below”, spontaneous and therefore unexpected nature. The mass mobilization across the EU in the summer of 2015 in favor of a more generous approach towards refugees, for instance, caught the governments by surprise and led, in some instances, to a lasting and well organized transnational solidarity movement.

Reimagination once more

The online-offline nexus produces new forms of social relationships and practices, new forms of cultural performance, and new political formats of action as well. More traditional modes of political organization – political parties, trade unions and so forth – still exist, but their capacity for mass mobilization (based on fixed and permanent membership, full subscription to a program, recognition of leadership structures etc.) is a permanent source of concern for them, while it is still considered to be a major factor of political legitimacy (and thence, of power). Such traditional modes stand, thus, in an uneasy relationship with the new forms of mobilization discussed here. The masses still take to the street, and do so in huge numbers, but not necessarily as a response to the call from parties or unions.

In describing these different forms of group attachment and mobilization I had to draw on two terms carrying, in common parlance, rather negative connotations. The “ludic” is often seen in opposition to the “serious” business of sociopolitical organization and governance. And “orthopraxy” is often seen as a fake form of ideological alignment, a “pretending to” and “doing as if” one subscribes to a political program or ideology. The same goes for the term “light” in expressions such as “light groups”: it stands in opposition to, and is seen as inferior to, “thick” groups such as those defined by nationality, race, gender, class, religion or age.

It is difficult, for the moment, to change the terms. But it is possible to change their indexical vector from negative to, at least, neutral – descriptive. And to simply take the phenomena they cover seriously and responsibly, as social facts demanding analytical attention and comprehension. It is the task of perpetual reimagination of a reality which, damn it or bless it, refuses to sit still.

References

Blommaert, Jan (2016) ‘Meeting of Styles’ and the online infrastructures of graffiti. Applied Linguistics Review 7/2: 99-115

Blommaert, Jan (2017)Durkheim and the Internet: On Sociolinguistics and the Sociological Imagination. Working Papers in urban Language and Literacies, paper 204.

boyd, dana (2011), ‘White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook’, in Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White (eds), Race after the Internet, 203–22, New York: Routledge.

Castells, Manuel (1996) The Rise of the Network Society. London: Blackwell

Costea, Anca (2017) The Online Resources of Contemporary Social Revolutions: The Case of the Romanian #Rezist Revolution. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 190.

Foucault, Michel (2003) Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France 1974-1975. New York: Picador.

Huizinga, Johan (2014 [1950]) Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. New York: Roy Publishers.

Maly, Ico (2017) Saabism and Saabists: A Digital Ethnographic Analysis of Saab Culture. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 188.

Maly, Ico and Piia Varis (2015) The 21st-century hipster: On micro-populations in times of superdiversity. European Journal of Cultural Studies 19/6: 1-17.

Morozov, Evgeny (2011) The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World. London: Penguin.

Scott, James C. (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Williams, Raymond (1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Note

[1] This explains the very widespread genre of “confession” on social media. Confession, as Foucault (2003) observed, is a veridictional genre, a genre of truth-speaking in which an uninhibited self communicates fundamental truths to other uninhibited selves.

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Small genres of veridiction: the Twitter profile

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Jan Blommaert 

1.

Michel Foucault’s course of lectures at the Collège de France in 1974-1975 was devoted to the theme of “Abnormal”. The edited version of these lectures offers one of the richest analyses of the genesis of the modern individual as an effect of power – a new system of power revolving around norms and enacted by a wide range of actors, from the Law through the family doctor to the family. In this new form of power, risk is the central given, and the body is the focus. The body is the seat of our instincts and, when out of control, may turn us (any and all of us) into a monster. The body, thus, becomes gradually “readable” as an index of character, of who you are. And families are charged, under the guise of “educating” their children”, with the care of the bodies of their children, who gradually should become people whose bodies are “healthy” and, hence, “normal”.

A catalyst for organizing this mode of power (a biopower governmentality) , Foucault argues, is the confession. Confessing becomes the archetype for one of the central tools of power: the “examination”, a regulated series of genres in which one has to speak the truth in the face of an authority, who will pass judgment over it. We have to confess to the police, the doctor, the psychiatrist, the priest, but also to the school teacher, our parents, and our peers. The confession, in that sense, becomes a step-up to one of the themes developed in Foucault’s latter courses: veridiction, the specific behavioral-discursive templates we have developed for “speaking the truth”. And the generalization of such forms of confession, adds Foucault, results in a “permanent autobiography” made up of small and big stories about ourselves, submitted to the normative judgment of others. And this permanent autobiography, thus constructed, is “who we are”: it is how we show ourselves to others within normative templates that can be recognizable as truthful.

2.

It is easy to see how Foucault’s observations about the confession, and modes of veridiction more generally, could resonate in the field of social media practices today. Much of what we are invited to do on social media, I propose, revolves around the construction of a “permanent autobiography” in Foucault’s sense: a sequence of small and big veridictional narratives by means of which we show ourselves to others as “true”, “real”, “authentic” and – derived from that – “likable”, “cool”, “attractive” or what not. Facebook’s “timeline” format provides a chronological linearity to updates – an iconic feature of “(auto)biography” – and “being yourself” is a key ideological precept there, as well as on other social media. Even if the formats and functions of Facebook are not the same as, say those on “professional” social media such as LinkedIn or dating apps such as Tinder, the normative expectation on each of them is that you are “yourself” and not hide behind a mask.

 

Social-Media-Mask

This, evidently, is the key element in confession: speak the truth, do it consistently and frequently, and do it in the presence of evaluating others. Others – note – will judge whether you are “true”, and it doesn’t suffice to believe that you’re “true” yourself. A “true” identity is interactionally, and normatively, constructed, around an imagined identity essence – “being yourself”. This essence is imagined singularly (and opposed to plural “masks” we have to wear in so many sites of life), while in reality it assumes very different shapes in different media. To make this clear: compare someone’s CV to that same person’s profile on a dating site, and ask which one would be judged as a “lie” by the person who constructed both. We are “ourselves” in a broad variety of actual forms and shapes (chronotopically organized, I would say), each of them experienced as “real” (even if not comprehensively so).

3.

This now takes us to social media as tools of governmentality. There is a burgeoning literature on social media as data-gathering tools serving interests alien to those animating the practices we perform on social media. Such interests include security as well as commerce, and they are fed by big data drawn from the activities performed on social media.

The quality of such data, naturally, heavily depends on the reliability of the information provided by users in their social media activities. And this is where the identity essentialism mentioned above enters the picture. The normative expectation informing social media interaction is, effectively, “veridictional”: since we wish to enter into specific types of relationships with others, we need to do so on a footing of credibility – the ways we show ourselves to others must trigger the indexicals of veridiction, converted into identity attributions that enable membership of groups and networks. And in view of that, we provide loads of stories feeding into such identity essentialism. Profile data – the basic stuff you have to provide for opening an account on social media – are a case in point.

These profile data are usually multimodal and contain images as well as text. Both are narrative modalities: they separately and jointly tell something about us, and are selected in such a way that we expect (or hope) others to recognize the relevance and authenticity of our stories. Let us turn to my own Twitter profile for an example.

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The usual ingredients are there: (a) a profile picture, (b) a text on “who I am”, and (c) a banner illustration. The text (b) identifies me as “academic and knowledge activist”. This is how I want to address people from my Twitter account, and what I post there should reflect those “essential” identity feature. The relational appeal is: read my tweets as messages produced by an academic and knowledge activist. As for the two pictures (a) and (c), they directly connect to (b). In the profile picture (a), I am presented in my capacity of academic, lecturing in front of a screen showing lecturing slides. The banner illustration (c) is an (unclear) picture of me giving a speech at a trade union strike picket in Antwerp harbor a few years ago – here is the activist. The two “essential” identity features I offer to my followers on Twitter are mirrored in the pictures. Together they construct an autobiographical micro-narrative in which two moments of my life – a lecture and a speech during a strike – are invoked as evidence supporting the “truth” of who I am.

Much here, of course, is implicit and becomes readable through shared tacit indexical codes. Sometimes, people are more explicit though. The following profile picture displays a young aspiring Belgian politician next to Mrs Christine Lagarde (head of the IMF) – a “frame” in which the young man’s political ambitions are quite loudly stated by the presence of a global political celebrity. The autobiographical and veridictional nature of this picture is, I hope, entirely clear.

slide 7b

In both illustrations, the actual bodies are visible as part of the narrative. We can see Foucault’s moral “topography of the body” in the details: in my Twitter profile, for instance, I am dressed differently in both pictures – one kind of dress “typical” for academic lecturing, another more appropriate for early-morning trade union activism. My body posture, too, is different: the thoughtful lecturer versus the fiery activist. Both pictures, of course, were the outcome of a selection in which the “essence” (i.e. the “truthfulness”) of the identities I wished to convey was the benchmark.

But even if bodies are not shown, similar “essences” can be expressed. Consider the Twitter profile images below, where people use “real” pictures (and names) as well as symbols, allegories, mottos and other items to identify themselves.

slide 6b

There is, thus, great semiotic diversity by means of which we produce such small stories about who we are, but the veridictional direction, I suggest, remains mandatory.

4.

Profiles such as the ones shown here, we can see, are small veridictional genres. They provide micro-narrative clues as to who we are, submitted to the normative judgment of others. The information contained in them, given its normative direction, is presented as “essential” – as the stuff you really have to know about me in order to enter into this particular relationship. As said above, it is this particular relationship that acts as a filter on what one releases in the way of information – hence the chronotopic differences between what we show in our CV, on Facebook, and on “professional” or dating sites.

It was Foucault’s massive contribution to theories of power that he showed how, in the power systems of Modernity, we ultimately police ourselves. The distributed and infinitely fractal nature of power (as normative regulation of everyday life) begins and ends with the modern individual him/herself, incorporating and enacting normative and evaluative expectations in every instance of social behavior. The norms we find “natural” ans “self-evident” as instruments for smooth social interaction (as Durkheim sketched them), Foucault insists, are at the core of the modern system of power.

The things documented here enter into interactions with protocols and algorithms designed by commercial organizations to produce sellable data on who we are and what it is we are after. Thus, when analyzing the more scary sides of social media usage, pointing towards the bad guys who collect such data on us and convert them into profiled formats by means of which our “bubbles” are created, doesn’t suffice, for we cannot exclude our own forms of agency from the equation. The system begins and ends with all of us, confessing regularly, frequently and consistently in a self-organized permanent autobiography, providing the perfect raw materials for highly sophisticated and infinitely detailed systems of power.

 

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