Indonesia, its youth and “light communities”

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Jan Blommaert

Comments on the panel “Margins, hubs and peripheries in decentralizing Indonesia” (part 1), Conference on ‘The Sociolinguistics of Globalization”, Hong Kong University 5 June 2015. Panel convenor: Zane Goebel. Line-up: Michael Ewing, Dwi Noverini Djenar, Lauren Zentz, Meinami Susilowati.

All of the papers in this part of the panel focused on youth language and the sometimes problematic ways such “new” forms of speech clash with strong nation-state institutional cultures of standardization. Over and beyond this general focus, three points merit deeper engagement; let me review them briefly.

1. Youth language, universally, is an example of how societies (in spite of often very strong homogeneistic self-imaginations) in effect contain numerous “niches” developing at different speeds, occupying specific spatiotemporal arenas, and operating along specific normative frameworks projected onto behavioral scripts in which specific forms of language are part of what counts as accepted/acceptable behavior. It was Cicourel who stated that what people effectively do when they do the work of interpretation is to try and make sense of situations by reading social structure into it. I shall have more to say on social structure in a moment, but the point can already be made that social structure is manifestly plural: different structures interact and intersect, triggering often unbalanced confrontations of normative frames – what is “meaningful” and therefore socially and politically expectable – with often unexpected outcomes.

2. Furthermore, the papers all showed how such confrontations of different normative frames represents the experience of change. Indonesia, like any other place on earth, changes fast as an effect of globalization (and, in this case, also because of momentous national political shifts), and the on-the-ground experience of such change often takes the shape of conflictual discourses of normativity (again projected, concretely, into behavioral scripts encompassing specific forms of language usage). These normative frames provide a sense of “order” (recall Cicourel’s idea bout understanding as reading social structure into situations), and it is the clash of different “orders” that creates the sense of insecurity, anguish and destabilization we often see and encounter in data on people’s actual social experiences. In our own jargon, it is the immersion in a polycentric social environment that constitutes the baseline experience of macro-changes triggered by globalization. It is the encounter with not one single, transparent and hegemonic social structure, but with multiple structures in competition over spaces, membership and socially ratified meaningfulness with the potentially threatening effect of restratification, that consitutes the lived experience of “change” for many.

3. But even more importantly, what are these contrasting and conflicting “orders” like? In order to answer this question, we need a distinction between nation-state and globalized forms and representations of “community”. Remember that, in the tradition of Durkheim, Weber and Parsons, the nation state was typically a local, “thick” community – a community in which people shared vast amounts of resources through common backgrounds, institutional governmentality and socialization.

The papers in this panel, however, showed invariably “light” communities often tied together by shared “niched” practices (Goffman’s “Encounters” can also inspire us here). These light communities, remarkably, are local – see the emphasis on locally grounded youth vernaculars in the papers here – but translocally infused and framed, which is why they are often seen and decried as “westernization” while strictly local vernaculars and indexicals are used. The new globalized order, thus, with its intense physical and virtual mobilities, appears to stimulate and even privilege the formation of “light”, local communities whose orientation is not towards the nation-state but towards ideals and imageries drawn from the wider world, and involving specific spaces of deployment, specific actors and specific codes of meaningful practice. To return for a moment to the issue of structure: the “light” communities represent a “light”, flexible, volatile and fast-moving structure, interacting with and often only perceptible from within “thick” and slower-moving structures. Our disciplinary traditions have consistently emphasized the “thick” structures, while “light” ones tended to be dismissed as insignificant or superficial.

I’m afraid we can’t afford this any longer. The tremendous importance of “light” communities, and the fact that for those inhabiting them they often experientially, emotionally and socially prevail upon the traditional “thick” communities of family, religion, ethnicity or nationality, is perhaps the most pressing theoretical and descriptive issue in the study of globalization nowadays. From practices and their performers and performing conditions, over the kinds of communities they generate, to specific modes of social structure they propel: this to me sounds like a research program of considerable interest. The papers in this session provide excellent and substantial food for thought in this direction.

Links

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

https://www.academia.edu/10789675/Commentary_Culture_in_superdiversity

https://www.academia.edu/8403164/Conviviality_and_collectives_on_social_media_Virality_memes_and_new_social_structures_Varis_and_Blommaert_

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

3.2 handwritten Chinese in Berchem

Jan Blommaert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link:

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

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

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Marxism and urban culture: A review

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“Marxism and Urban Culture”, Benjamin Fraser, editor. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014. Xvii + 253pp

Reviewed by Jan Blommaert

Since late March 2015, the Antwerp Grand Place offers a remarkable sight to the thousands of tourists passing to admire the city hall and the monumental fountain in front of it: dozens of Individual citizens stand there seemingly alone, several meters separating each from the other. They carry no slogans or banners, rarely even emblems of parties or organizations. There is no shouting or chanting, no fists in the air. Some are quietly reading a book, others chat with bystanders or plainclothes police officers. For this is a protest action called “the upstanding citizen”. It started as an individual initiative after an unauthorized sit-in there, protesting against racist remarks by the Antwerp Mayor, resulted in the mass arrest of over 200 people and the prohibition of follow-up protests. The City’s rules only allow demonstrations that have been approved by the Mayor; they define a demonstration as something that happens in a group, and the latter is defined as several people doing things “together”.  “The upstanding citizen” mode avoids all of those: while the action is obviously collective, people are not acting collectively – they define the spatial and activity template that defines a “demonstration” by avoiding the proximity rules and recognizably joint activity modes defining collective behavior – shouting, chanting, jointly making symbolic gestures. Much to the frustration of the Mayor and his senior police officers, “the upstanding citizens” appear at irregular intervals – it is an unpredictable event – and the person who initiated it does not make any overt appeal or invitation to others in view of joining him. He merely puts an announcement on his Facebook page, saying that he’ll visit the Grand Place at, say, 6PM on Tuesday. Scores of others follow him each time. No law or regulation has been violated, while the city’s political and historical-architectural center is converted into a space of overt but unpunishable contestation.

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Such forms of creative, subversive and ludic interventions in public space are the stuff of this wonderfully edited collection of essays in which authors explore the purchase of central issues and concepts from the work of, mainly, Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey, with an occasional foray into the oeuvre of Engels, Bauer, Gramsci, Thompson, Soja and the Situationalists, in a joint (and largely successful) attempt to revive Marxist perspectives on “the urban” as a field of cultural production, of humanist freedom and of dis-alienation. The book suggests a preceding enthusiastic and engaging dialogue between its authors, which makes its contributions lively, sometimes riveting, and the collection compelling. Much is achieved in this book, and I can indulge in what follows in some thoughts and observations triggered by the studies in this volume.

Before I do so, let me summarize the main intellectual line developed in the book and nicely sketched in Benjamin Fraser’s introductory chapter.  The conceptual point of departure is Marx’s classic distinction between exchange value and use value – value within a market, and value outside the market, one could say. It was the genius of Lefebvre to apply this distinction to a political view of the city, which – in a critique of functionalist urbanists such as Corbusier – he saw increasingly becoming captured in a logic of exchange value. Cities were becoming, in the age of industrial capitalism, the locus where a giant workforce needed to be kept healthy, politically inert and fit for labor; cities were an instrument of capitalist power. The post-industrial stage, in turn, saw cities converted into capital itself, with speculative real-estate exchange value dominating the logic of infrastructuring. Against this reality, Lefebvre pitted a concept of “l’urbain”, in which the city was not a mere built-up space or an exchange-valuable infrastructure, but a process of production driven by use-value. His “Le droit à la ville” (1968) codified this view:[1] the city was, for him, a place where community life took place, consisting of an infinite multitude of ties between people, invested by interests but not driven by the quest for profit, but rather by the opportunities to achieve what Gortz later called “self-production”: becoming the homo faber whom the young Marx so passionately described in the Manuscripts.[2] Achieving this level of humanity, for Lefebvre, was a fundamental right – hence “le droit à la ville”. This reconceptualization heralded an era of critical thought on urban spaces in scholarship as well as policy, and David Harvey did massive work identifying the tremendous critical potential lodged in this view. Needless to say that much of the politics of spatial contestation since 1968, with Occupy as its most recent articulation, has its roots in Lefebvre’s reconceptualization of “the urban”.

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Note, of course, that Lefebvre’s application of the Marxian distinction between different types of value to his view of “the urban”, eventually leads to a cultural bias.[3] While modes of self-production have material dimensions, their outcomes are largely immaterial – a social ambiance which Lefebvre emphasized as necessarily “ludic”, playful, but of fundamental importance for achieving the humanity he saw as the ultimate aim of Marxism. The authors in this book are, thus, not off-mark when they engage with the ways in which cities have been depicted in movies, novels, or contemporary forms of carnivalesque demonstration. Note, at the same time, that Lefebvre’s Marxism was for precisely those reasons long considered as heterodox (hence, revisionist) “new left” by the non-Gramscian other half of Marxism. The authors in the book subscribe to this “new left” tendency – the book title says it all – and the range of authors from whom they draw inspiration, surveyed above, testifies to this. There is one exception: in an otherwise empirically stimulating paper on the Austromarxists’ dream of “Red Vienna”, Kimberly DeFazio sides with Engels’ conclusion that only a revolutionary change in fundamental economic relationships will solve the urban problem, dismissing en route any approach that does not accept revolutionary action as the sole means of transformation as un-Marxist. It is a pity that she passes the same verdict on people who never dismissed revolution as an aim and instrument of historical change but merely described the complex transformations of capital, labor and capitalist society – think of André Gortz and E.P. Thompson as cases in point.[4] But let us return to the issue of the city.

Lefebvre consistently stressed the importance of a “total science” of the city, decrying the ways in which institutionalized divisions between “social sciences” and “humanities” had become obstacles to holistic analyses of complex and dynamic phenomena such as cities and the patterns of human activity they involve. It is one of the achievements of this book that it manages to dissolve the distinction between what is “cultural” (hence, a matter for humanities) and what is “social” (hence, objects of social science). The cultural is fully social here, and even if we read chapters on eminently “humanities” objects such as novels or movies, the analysis demonstrates how such cultural objects are in no way “superstructural” – in a definition of the term that made it synonymous with “superficial” – but often the stuff that generates, sustains and determines crucial social processes of group and community formation, the articulation of sociopolitical and economic interests, the construction and ratification of identities, and so forth. Evidently, this folding of the cultural into the social generates a third sphere: the political. Here again, the intellectual lineage within Marxism is clear: Thompson, in most of his work, famously claimed that there is no proletariat without shared experiences of capitalist expropriation and exploitation converging onto structured patterns of what we would now call identities. The bourgeoisie, likewise, controlled its membership more by means of symbolic than hard capital – Bourdieu’s work, but also much of Erving Goffman’s, established that in great detail.[5]

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It is this great detail that I wish to briefly engage with in what follows. The question of detail is not a question only of analytical accuracy, it is a conceptual and ontological issue that revolves around the locus of “culture” and of “the urban”. In the book, such loci are, to some extent, stereotyped: we see typically “urban” images in typically “cultural” objects such as movies, texts, architecture and forms of political carnival. Thus “culture” and “the urban” are unproblematically clear in this book, so it seems. In actual fact, they are not.

Let me start with the “cultural”. If the cultural equals the social (and thence, the political), then the locus of culture is the everyday re-enactment, over and over again, of socially patterned activities that are perceived to be meaningful by others (hence, driven by shared complexes of norms and expectations). It is this fundamental observation (and ontological principle) that propelled the likes of Herbert Blumer, Aaron Cicourel, Howard Becker and Erving Goffman to consider the micropolitics of everyday social practices, not because they considered the microscopic to be the privileged locus of whatever we understand by the term “society”, but because such micropractices are just not “micro”: they are effectively “macro” – the only realistic specter we can have on big things such as “society” or “culture”. “Culture”, thus, is not just lodged in a novel, a poem or a painting, but also in a routine greeting, a downcast gaze or a raised middle finger. And the experiential basis of “social” units such as class gains a clear empirical footing: whatever we call “social” rests on degrees of sharedness in recognizing what others do; or even more practically, in the ways in which we are able to make sense of social situations by means of such degrees of sharedness. Briefly returning to our “upstanding citizen” protests in Antwerp, we can see how such actions can be read, and understood as being politically meaningful, by reference only to locally valid cues about what counts as “demonstration” and what doesn’t count – insignificant actions become significant ones through the recognizable “frames” they articulate (at least, recognizable to some).

I’m saying nothing new here – I merely reiterate the fundamental assumptions of Symbolic Interactionism.[6] From a Marxist perspective, I find them quite productive, if for nothing else, because they compel us to turn a term such as “praxis” – often, to my profound frustration, used in a lapidary and loosely generalizing way – into an empirical program. Let us go out and look for those moments of practice that can be read, and dissected, as “praxis” and, as such, the ideology-infused moments in which “society” and “culture” enter reality. In my own work, I have attempted to take these principles into analyses of the actual, dense and complex semiotizations of urban spaces by their inhabitants and users by means of what is now called “linguistic landscapes”.[7] People produce tremendous quantities of (what Benjamin Fraser, in the introductory chapter, calls) “Humanities texts” in the spaces they inhabit, turning them from mere space into social space (and thence, into politicized space); they do so by means of shop window signs, posters, banners, stickers, graffiti, post-its on window and doors, scribbled signs on the pavement and so forth. Such forms of semiotic activity, individually as well as collectively, lead us to insights into their histories of production and their potential uptake by selected audiences (no single sign is meant for everyone), and show us how space is demarcated into actual zones of ownership, legitimate usage and contested presence – by means of eminently “cultural” materials: written and designed messages communicating with specific addressees. They teach us that social and cultural spaces are spaces defined by real or virtual copresence (a feature central to Goffman’s work, of course) and, hence, by patterns of communication that do not offer themselves easily to a priori definition or a posteriori generalization.

5.8 The Gujarati grocery

Attention to this level of praxis, thus, de-stereotypes the “cultural” and disperses it over a tremendous amount of everyday events and practices; it also destereotypes “the urban”, I would argue, for such forms of praxis occur in areas we typically define as urban as well as in areas seen as “peri-urban” or even “rural”. And they occur in tremendous multitude in that new space, often overlooked in current studies: the virtual space, which now crosscuts and connects “urban” as well as “non-urban” spaces in ways we still need to get our heads around, but of which we can assume that they render strict distinctions (and thus, definitions) of what is “urban” and what is not quite problematic. “Urban culture” – the term from the book title – may (and does) occur in phenomenally similar ways in spaces we would rarely call “urban”. And to the extent that Lefebvre’s “droit à la ville” concerned the fundamental right to a specific level of humanity, a disconnection between, on the one hand, “the urban” as the complex of rights to this kind of humanity and, on the other hand, the actual – stereotyped – cities known by names such as Mumbai, Paris or München might be necessary if we wish to preserve the fundamental humanist (and Marxist) sense attributed by Lefebvre to “l’urbain”.

I make these remarks not as a targeted criticism of “Marxism and Urban Culture”; as I emphasized above, the book does a remarkable job in re-opening a field of inquiry in which I merely sketched some other lines and opportunities. The fact that I felt invited to do so testifies to the stimulating nature of the book: it engages one in an intellectual space of significant interest and relevance. The editor and the authors are to be credited for it.

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[1] Henri Lefebvre, Le Droit à la Ville. Paris: Antropos 1968.

[2] André Gortz, Critique of Economic Reason. London: Verso 1989. For Marx’s humanism, see Erich Fromm, Marx’s view of Man. New York: Continuum 1961.

[3] Lefebvre’s view of Marxism is outlined in his concise “Que Sais-Je” booklet Le Marxisme (Paris: Presses universitaires de France 1958). An excellent discussion of the various developments within Marxism can be found in Eric Hobsbawm, How to Change the World. New haven: Yale University Press 2011.

[4] One can check E.P. Thompson’s Poverty of Theory for evidence (London: Merlin 1978).

[5] See for instance Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press 1984; Erving Goffman, Relations in Public. New York: Basic Books 1971. An entertaining and related study is Franco Moretti, The Bourgeois. London: Verso 2013.

[6] Two books in particular can be recommended: Herbert Blumer, Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press/New York: Prentice Hall 1969. Aaron Cicourel, Cognitive Sociology. Harmondworth: Penguin Education 1972. Observe that Symbolic Interactionism has been an extraordinary but rarely discussed influence on Bourdieu’s work. For the latter, see Jan Blommaert, “Pierre Bourdieu and Language in Society”, Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 153, 2015.

[7] See e.g. Jan Blommaert, Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes: Chronicles of Complexity. Bristol: Multilingual Matters 2013.

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“Culture” and superdiversity

Bronisław_Malinowski_among_Trobriand_tribe_3

Jan Blommaert 

(Commentary, Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 2015)

“Difference in Diversity” presents us with an engaging reflection on the contemporary state of “culture” and its discourses; it offers stimulating ways out – the recognition of difference within diversity itself is a case in point – while also illustrating some of the perennial problems of such reflections. The key problem is the presumed stability of the notion of “culture” itself, its reification both as a discursive identifier (a widely used word, simply put) and as an empirical analytical category enabling subcategories such as those prefixed with “multi”, “inter” or “trans”. In my commentary, I will focus on this problem and review some aspects of it.

An aspect of this problem touches my own position as a scholar and a commentator here. Assuming “culture” as a classifier is also part of a discourse regime, giving voice to, or taking it away from, people speaking out on the topic. I find much argumentation on postcolonial views highly problematic when it presumes, without much substantive proof, that certain academic discourses are “clearly” locked into one or another culture – that of the Euro-American global Northwest, that of the South, or more specifically that of an Anglosaxon “tradition”, an “Indian” one or a “Latin American” one. It is problematic because it includes an implicit judgment of the legitimacy of voice: a scholar from the global Northwest is not well placed to speak about globalization, for instance, since his/her own location in the process of globalization is supposed to prevent fundamental understanding of those equally locked into other positions in that process.

People holding such views must have missed some quite central features of globalization itself: the emergence, over centuries, of intense patterns of interaction and profound mutual influencing across local and regional boundaries, creating diverse cultural and social features sharing a number of fundamental assumptions and characteristics. Thus, in spite of severe differences and inequalities within the system (which I myself have attempted to document quite extensively: Blommaert 2008, 2010; also Velghe 2014), the world has become literate over the preceding century or so, and digitally literate over the past two decades. “Cultures” (to continue the register for the time being) have now all adopted scripts and forms of literate transmission as part of their fabric; the ways in which such scripts are deployed and distributed within actual societies can differ substantially; the fact that such scripts – invariably – create communicative and therefore sociopolitical and cultural scale-levels previously inaccessible to members remains and demands adjustments in our thinking about (a) the autonomy of such “cultures”, because scripts cause scale-jumps, i.e. “transcultural” interactions and influencing; and (b) the historicity of their present structure in view of the effects of literacy – many “cultures” currently employed as labels, notably national-cultural labels such as “Indian” or “American”, could only become what they are because of state-enforced literacy regimes and the scale-sensitive patterns of cultural influencing that come with them.

The fact is that as soon as one places “cultures” under the microscope of critical analysis, we begin to see phenomena far removed from the standard imaginations of “culture”. We notice, for instance, that contemporary intellectual communities (such as the ones involved in this very discussion) are characterized by another “culture” than, for instance, nation-state bureaucrats, trade unions or local football teams. Their culture is global, porous, highly volatile and dynamic, and intensely reflexive – postcolonialism, feminism, queerism and so forth would never have been possible without such features. I have, as an Africanist scholar, naturally exercised myself in postcolonial self-critique; the outcome is that I am far more optimistic about “transcultural” dialogue and openness than many others, and that this optimism cannot be fed back to my own, presumed comfortable position in the global Northwest. Any degree of epistemological and methodological reflection should teach us that even simple dialogue should be impossible without at least a degree of sharedness in assumptions, codes for meaningful communication, awareness of common purpose and objectives, and so forth – “culture”, in short.

This brings me to another aspect: “culture” itself. I have just defined it in communicative terms, much in the way the symbolic interactionists taught us (e.g. Becker 1963; Goffman 1963): culture is that which creates meaning in social contacts. As soon as people achieve a level of understanding, they share something – even for a very brief moment, as when we ask directions in a foreign place by means of heavily articulated body language and facial expressions. And this means that, during that brief moment, a “culture” has emerged enabling its “members” to engage in social interaction of some sort. This culture, no less, organizes the mutual roles, positions and identities of the participants – it involves a particular social order that needs to be followed in order to render individual interactions at least potentially successful. There is, thus, no reason to dismiss such temporary and apparently superficial forms of “culture” as irrelevant for the discussion: it is precisely such ephemeral phenomena that might demonstrate what culture is in its most elementary form – the capacity to enter into an ordered play of social conduct seen as jointly meaningful by those involved in it.

Much of my own current work addresses what is called “superdiversity”: the extraordinary complexity of contemporary social configurations due to post-Cold War migration patterns and the digital revolution (Vertovec 2007; see Blommaert & Rampton 2011; Blommaert 2013, 2014). This recognition of – precisely – “difference in diversity” pushes us towards a far more modest stance on defining what is “culture” and what is not, since everything is “multi-“, “inter-“ and “transcultural”, if you wish. The minimalist symbolic-interactional definition I gave above is what works empirically: rather than solid and robust “groupness” – the stuff of our traditional imagination of “culture” – we see minimal conviviality and temporary cohesiveness (Varis & Blommaert 2014). Remember that Erving Goffman defined “encounters” as focused activities that involve a degree of sociality which Goffman did not accept as a feature of social “groups” (Goffman 1961). While I hate to disagree with someone such as Goffman, what we now see is a world of “encounters” – focused social activities as described earlier – which do generate “groups”, but groups that no longer fit the Durkheimian-Parsonsian image of groups that has dominated sociology and anthropology for a century and that underlies our traditional view of “culture”. Contemporary “cultures” are best seen as characteristics of social “niches”, arenas we pass through on an everyday basis, and in which we have to deploy specific cultural resources in order to be “normal”, “integrated” and so forth (cf. Agha 2007). Any living individual would be expected to have access to a terrific multitude of such “niches”, and would therefore be tremendously “multicultural” (or, if you insist, “superdiverse”). Naturally, in such a condition the classical notion of “cultural” becomes meaningless.

If, as scholars engaged in a global dialogue on the character of globalization, we wish to do our work well, I suggest we look for those avenues of thought that enable us to create a maximum of meaning, and a maximum of “voice” – the capacity to make ourselves and our interlocutors understood on their own terms. Traditional concepts of “culture”, I fear, have passed their sell-by date in that respect; perhaps a radically empirical stance offers superior possibilities for at least agreeing on the ontology of what we are observing: humans in their actual social environments. I encourage my readers never to give up the search for such avenues.

References

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

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

Blommaert, Jan (2008) Grassroots Literacy: Writing, Identity and Voice in central Africa. London: Routledge

Blommaert, Jan (2010) The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan (2013) Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes: Chronicles of Complexity. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Blommaert, Jan (2014) Lingua franca onset in a superdiverse neighborhood: Oecumenical Dutch in Antwerp. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 112.

Blommaert, Jan & Ben Rampton (2011) Language and superdiversity. Diversities 13/2: 1-22.

Goffman, Erving (1961) Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Goffman, Erving (1963) Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings. New York: Free Press

Varis, Piia & Jan Blommaert (2014) Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 108.

Velghe, Fie (2014) ‘This is Almost like Writing’: Mobile Phones, Learning and Literacy in a South African Township. PhD dissertation, Tilburg: Tilburg University.

Vertovec, Steven (2007) Super-diversity and its implications. Ethnic and Racial Studies 30/6: 1024-1054.

Citizenship, language and superdiversity: towards complexity

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Jan Blommaert 

(Journal of Language, Identity and Education, Forum on ‘citizenship’ (Vaidehi Ramanathan, ed.) 2013.)

The issue

There is a dramatic need to unthink and rethink some of the most basic concepts in social science – notions such as community, identity, and indeed citizenship. The reason for this is that since the early 1990s, some fundamental changes have taken place in the ways in which all of these notions take shape in real life. Vertovec (2007, 2010) has described these changes as a transition from ‘diversity’ to ‘superdiversity’, a diversification of diversity due to changes in the migration patterns worldwide. People from more places now migrate to more places, causing unprecedented forms of social and cultural diversity especially in the large urban centers of the world (for an early appraisal, see Cohen 1995, 507ff). Adding to this complexity, the emergence and global spread of the Internet and other forms of mobile communication technologies – synchronous with the new forms of migration – have created a ‘network society’ (Castells 1996) in which people live and act in relation to long-distance, ‘virtual’ peers in sometimes enormous online communities. Taken together, these two forces have re-shaped social life around the world, and the most sensitive index of these transformations is the emergence and development of new forms of human communication – the social transformations go hand in hand with sociolinguistic transformations yielding degrees of complexity hard to imagine previously, and prompting an escalation of new terminology to describe them: languaging, polylanguaging, transidiomatic practices, metrolingualism, supervernacularization and so forth (for a survey see Blommaert & Rampton 2011).

The problem is one of imagination: how do we imagine these new forms of complexity? Static, horizontal-distributional and synchronic images and metaphors fail to do justice to the phenomena we encounter, because dynamic and historical processes are observed, most often featuring ‘vertical’ patterns of stratification and restratification. Linguistic resources enter a specific environment, acquire an indexical value relative to existing norms within that environment, thus shape new norms, and so acquire a potential to perpetually reshuffle the linguistic-symbolic hierarchies. Social lives are thus organized not in relation to one single complex of norms but in relation to many competing and/or complementary ones – a feature of sociolinguistic superdiversity we call polycentricity (Blommaert 2010: 39ff); individual repertoires bear the traces of such perpetual reshufflings of norms in a polycentric environment (Blommaert & Backus 2012), and complex forms of identity work can draw on the resources that orient towards the multiple sets of norms present in someone’s ‘communicative competence’ (cf. Rampton 2006; Jorgensen et al 2011). The latter notion must now be understood as the capacity to acquire multiple normative orientations and shift from one set of norms (those of the classroom, for instance) into another (say, those of Facebook) and back (the classroom), then forth to yet another one (age and gender group norms, say) and back again. The resources deployed in these moves are each time specific and specialized: we call them ‘registers’ (Agha 2007). We select from our repertoires the registers that are functionally adequate within the specific niches in which we intend to deploy them. This is why I speak in a different way to my mother than to my wife or to my colleagues, and this explains why these various modes of communication are not interchangeable. If I would speak to my mother the way I would speak to my colleagues, or vice versa, chances are that I will be perceived as socially awkward by all.

The key terms in what I just said define the lines of inquiry into such processes: resources, norms in relation to other norms, identities anchored into such sets of norms, and rapid shifts to-and-fro between normative orientations within a polycentric environment. Understood throughout this is the fact that such complex communicative and identity work comes with entitlements and constraints – people, thus, perform such complex work because it comes with a price and this price is different for each of the social niches between which people move.

Citizenship and dis-citizenship

If we imagine a social world in the terms sketched above, several well-established notions invite revision. To start with, a notion such as ‘integration’ used in relation to immigrants can be redirected from its usual monofocal bias – integration in the ‘majority’ social system, integration into ‘our’ culture and values, and so forth – into a more nuanced, plural and surely more accurate direction. ‘Being integrated’, we can see, means being capable of making oneself understood in a wide variety of social environments.

These environments include not just the ‘dominant’ culture but also various ‘sub’-cultures. Immigrants need to ‘integrate’ in the many niches that compose their actual social environment, and they have to acquire the resources to do so – they have to ‘enregister’ the resources adequate for the various specific niches (Agha 2007; Moller & Jorgensen 2012). These niches are of course not just those of their ‘host societies’, but also those of émigré communities in a diaspora, of their ‘home’ cultures, of gender, age, social class, profession, workplace, religion, consumption, hobby, media etc. niches. It is not sufficient to be ‘well integrated’ in the administrative culture of the ‘host society’, for instance, because this kind of integration does not necessarily appear useful when the results of one’s child need to be discussed with a school teacher, or even when performing mundane tasks such as shopping. One set of resources – always specific and specialized – does never suffice for the totality of social life; no single set of resources has the generative potential to cover all aspects of social life in which ‘integration’ is mandatory, desired or useful.

Thus, learning ‘a language’ is never enough. Immigrants are increasingly subjected to pressures to acquire the standard varieties of the national languages of their host societies, and this pressure is driven by a monofocal and generative view of ‘standard’ as the unique instrument for integration. However, acquiring that standard language in practice means acquiring one specific and specialized register, suggested to be universally deployable in all and any social environment.

This, then, is the current institutionalized sociolinguistic face of citizenship in a growing number of countries; evidently it is inadequate (see e.g. Spotti 2011). Superdiverse social environments are intensely polycentric and, thus, put high demands on register development for those who live and act in them. The traditional notion of ‘citizenship’ (always related to institutionalized trajectories of ‘integration’) suggests that integration into one aspect of social life – the administrative and public culture of the nation-state acting as ‘host’ to the immigrant – is sufficient for the immigrant to lead a successful life.

This is sociolinguistically ludicrous, and it also runs counter to what is in actual fact expected and/or demanded from immigrants. We expect them not just to pass the mandatory language test administered by the administration in charge of immigration; we also expect them to be fluent in the register of education, of labor, of gender, age and so forth – we expect them to be ‘fully’ integrated in every niche we detect in society. Failing that, immigrants will perpetually be regarded as ‘dis-citizens’, even sometimes anti-citizens as in the case of more radical Muslims in various countries of the West. In placing such demands, we usually overlook the complexities specific to immigrant social life – the fact that apart from ‘our’ culture and values, immigrants also have to orient towards niches of ‘their own’ culture present in diaspora contexts. Forms of Muslim identity articulation – take the hijab as an intensely debated example – can simultaneously be understood as ‘not integrated’ into the ‘dominant values’ of the host society and as ‘fully integrated’ into the religious culture of the diaspora, or even into a global aesthetics of femininity among a particular female peer community (see Blommaert & Varis 2012). The simultaneity of contrasting interpretations here is an effect of the polycentric environment in which (in this case) young Muslim women in the West currently live; their practices, consequently point towards very different orders of indexicality at the same time. The conflicts, thus, are intrinsic to the increasing complexity of contemporary social systems.

If we understand citizenship as a particular degree of ‘integration’, thus, we must realize that superdiversity has created unprecedented levels of polycentricity in social systems, causing the kinds of contrasting and conflicting understandings described above. Some signs, consequently, will inevitably be seen as signs of citizenship as well as dis-citizenship, and it is likely that the political dynamics of citizenship in superdiverse societies will hinge on the degrees to which people – experts, legislators, opinion makers – are capable of imagining the levels of complexity that characterize the real social environments in which people ‘integrate’. The capacity to replace the simple imagery of structuralism by an imagery of complexity and change will decide the debates on citizenship in the future.

References

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

Blommaert, Jan (2010) The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan & Ad Backus (2012) Superdiverse repertoires and the individual. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 24.

Blommaert, Jan & Ben Rampton (2011) Language and superdiversity. Diversities 13/2: 1-22.

Blommaert, Jan & Piia Varis (2012) How to how to: The prescriptive micropolitics of Hijabista. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 30.

Blommaert, Jan, Ben Rampton & Massimiliano Spotti (eds.) (2011) Language and Superdiversity. Special issue, Diversities 13/2: 1-83

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

Cohen, Robin (ed.) (1995) The Cambridge Survey of World Migration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jorgensen, Normann, Martha Karrebaek, Lian Madsen & Janus Moller (2011) Polylanguaging in superdiversity. Diversities 13/2: 22-37

Moller, Janus & Jens Normann Jorgensen (2012) Enregisterment among adolescents in superdiverse Copenhagen. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 28.

Rampton, Ben (2006) Language in late Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Spotti, Massimiliano (2011) Ideologies of success for superdiverse citizens: The Dutch testing regime for integration and the online private sector. Diversities 13/2: 38-52.

Vertovec, Steven 2007. Super-diversity and its implications. Ethnic and Racial Studies 30/6: 1024-1054.

Vertovec, Steven 2010. Towards post-multiculturalism? Changing communities, contexts and conditions of diversity. International Social Science Journal 199: 83-95.