Category Archives: Governing power

on the grounds of instruction into grammaticality

… scholars and other shamans might be as puzzled as two senior professors when they read the title of an edited volume by de Oliveira et al.  It goes: Multiliteracies in English as an additional language classrooms (2021).  As members of the audience addressed by this volume, they wondered whether there was a typo someplace, whether the title was ungrammatical or proof of bad editing, whether it was an attempt to Joycean play or a form of Jabberwocky.

Then a less senior professor pointed out that “English as an additional language” is to be treated as a package as it is the current proper way to say what used to be said as “English as a second language.” Thus the title should be parsed as “Multiliteracies in EAL classrooms” and is thus fully grammatical. It is also indexes that the authors are up to date in expected academic education research writing about the topic. The whole thing is normal and orderly and it allows for two senior professors to be shown ignorant and in need of an EAL teacher. And it also allows for a suspicion that they were being somewhat disorderly and in need of instruction into the appropriate.

Given that the two professors pride themselves on their work on literacy, language, culture, power, etc., they could not just stand corrected. They also had to wonder what exactly is grammatical in English and how it is established. If, as someone quipped a long time ago, a “language” is a dialect with an army—as well as schools of education, school teachers and other institutions in charge of publicizing the proper or normal (orthography, word order, pronominal usage, etc.), then one may wonder how this army exactly does its work of ordering the normal when so many keep disordering it. If, as another great man once said “here comes everybody,” what will they do when they arrive?

So, I write:
“Ignorant education research one university faculty member blog writer says…” that he expects this string of nouns to be taken as acceptable, proper, normal (as well as pedantic) and does convey that “one writer of blogs who is member of the faculty of a university famous for its research is also ignorant …” I keep seeing such strings in the titles of articles in the New York Times, as well as in scholarly publications. Stringing nouns for titles must thus be considered “grammatical” in English. However, it is essential to note that it is not grammatical in the other “language” I “know” well: in French where, for example, “faculty member” must be rendered as “membre de la faculté” (and NOT as “faculté membre”). It is also essential to note that people with decades of speaking English (one who got to it as an “additional” language, and one for whom it has been the only one) can be puzzled by such strings.

I am interested in this brief moment in my life because it can be used as another occasion to wonder about what is most general about all languages, and all ways of speaking any language. To do this I like to go back to first principles and then work my way back to the reality that, one more time, I was told I was ignorant of one special aspect of English.

My first encounter with the search for such principles occurred when I read (and re-read) Saussure’s famous book on “general” linguistics. “General” is the key word here and indexes that the book will not say much about any particular language but will outline what should be true of all human languages (as it might have been put until recently) or, better, what should be true of the grounds of all human speaking to each other (but not necessarily of other ‘speakings’-or ‘writings’ for that matter–if one wants to use the verb “to speak” for communication among animals or plants). In brief, Saussure proposed that all human speaking involves:

. arbitrary conventions

. maintained by contracts among some consociates

. about the relationship between

– an object (signified) and

– words (signifiers) produced by the vocal box of the human body
. organised as strings (“syntagms”)
. where each item can be transmuted among others (“paradigms”)

In other words that can only capture aspects of the experience of reading Saussure: when I stroke a furry animal with claws lounging on my lap, I report that I am “petting” a “cat” that can also be, in other conventions supported by a different contract, a “chat” (billee, nwamba, and many other sounds that may work here but not there). This should be “general” and thus is to be criticized when it does not handle all the cases one encounters. The critique can end either with a complete rejection (as most linguists and others do with Saussure) or with a reconstruction (as I do here).

Let’s start with petting the cat: it cannot quite be said anymore that the petting or the cat are objects. I take them to be experiences. Furthermore, these experiences can be reported not only through the vocal box, but also though the hands and face, in pictures, in music, etc. It can also be reported in various ways (“styles,” “register”) from the more prosaic (“the cat ate the mouse”) to the more poetic:

Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires. (Beaudelaire)

This poetic register reveals and constructs (conventional/arbitrary paradigmatic) associations (between cats, lovers, and scientists) as well as allow for high intellectual play (e.g. by Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss 1962)—not to mentions popular musicals (Cats!). All this may have been packed into Saussure’s paradigms, but that is not enough.

Whether there are any cats in Cats is an irrelevant question as long as all signs in the play use conventions that signal catiness (for example “cat-face,” or yellow slanted eyes)–at least according to Anglo-American conventions about catiness.eyes from poster for the musical Cats

In all cases however, the very possibility of play with the conventions involve well established, and well defended, conventions. For example, when with others speaking in “English” then “the cate ate the mouse” and “the mouse ate the cat” report on very different experiences. In French, “le chat a mangé la souris” keeps the word order but adds gender to both animals.

As Saussure, a historical linguist, well knew, there is no way of predicting how human beings will report seeing cats eating mice—except that they will find a way as long as they practically acknowledge that only this way works at this moment for these people. Saussure wrote about this practical acknowledgment using the word “contract”—most probably quoting Rousseau and thereby establishing that his general linguistics is about social, rather than cognitive, processes. And then he left it at that.

But this, again, is clearly not enough and the experience that triggered this post can help move beyond “contract” (or “social construction”). Someone who has worked for many decades with the “contract,” someone who “speaks English” having learned it as an additional language (or not), can still be told that he is ignorant, be disciplined for the ignorance—and then be somewhat unhappy about it all. How is this to be dealt with, in general?

And so, Garfinkel to the rescue: speaking is not only a matter of having learned a language and then using it mechanically and thoughtlessly, it is a matter of continual work with, and against, one’s consociates. Speaking is always social (interactional, communal, political). Speaking is not simply a matter of encoding experience, and then trying to reconstruct an experience on the basis of what one has heard about someone else’s experience (generally referred to as “decoding”), it is also a matter of checking around what the other humans involved are doing. Starting with Jakobson wondering, already, about pronominal use ([1957] 1990), noticing this social work has, or course, been the task of what is now known as “sociolinguistics” and “conversational analysis.” “Knowing” a “language” is never enough for speaking. As Ofelia Garcia (2014) may have been the first to codify, the very idea of A language in multilingual settings hides the reality of the work of settling on a form associated with one language for part of a utterance or conversation when the others might be settling on another form. So she wrote about “translanguaging.” If one adds to all this the possibility of multiple registers used alternatively within some conversation, the complexity of “speaking with” must involve a continual process of construction, correction, instruction, assertion of authority to correct and instruct, resistance to correction that will be more or less successful and reveal power differentials in meting consequences.

The last sentence is an initial attempt to get back to “general” linguistics, and particularly that of Saussure’s. What Saussure (and before him Rousseau) failed to develop is what Garfinkel said in so many different ways: drawing and maintaining a contract is necessary hard word but having to renegotiate every aspects of the contract would lead to paralysis. Take this fragment from Joyce’s Finnegan’s wake about (I think) “idendifin[ing] the individuone in … regattable oxeter (Joyce, J. Finnegan’s wake 1939: I.3.81). It may be fun, but would not work well in everyday life when reporting who is coming towards you…
it is essential for reports of cats eating mice that the audience does not question what a cat might be, whether it was a male of female cat, an old one or a young one, ETC. And yet of course, the contractual normal and orderly is actually fragile and in need of continuing instructional work. To restate Saussure, the “langue” (A language) is that which contractual work is attempting to maintain even as it is threatened by the “parole” (play, resistance, etc.)

And so, I would now rewrite the earlier summary of Saussure to say that speaking always involve:

. arbitrary conventions

. developed by ongoing ordering work among some consociates

. about the relationship between

the (“lived”) experience of the world and

– performances founded on the affordances of the human body (vocal chords, hands, faces, brains, etc.)
. organized as strings in time
. where each item can be transmuted among others thereby allowing for multiplying relationships and compounding the work of (dis-)ordering conventions

And now to play, if I say, “never was there ever a cat so clever as magical mister Mistoffelees” I am not just saying something, in English, about a cat, I am also indexing at least two poets (T.S. Eliot and W. Lloyd Weber), my own education into both high and middle-brow poetry, and most probably my ignorance (or yours) of much that can also be triggered by the statement: I “knew” that Mephistopheles is a name for the Devil, but just “learned” (thanks Wikipedia!) that the name is based on a German demon, based on a Greek construction, who appears most famously (before T.S. Eliot) in Goethe’s Faust (itself a retelling of an older legend). I suspect some would also find in the statement about a magical cat an index to European domination of current popular culture while Lévi-Strauss—as he did once with Santa Claus ([1952] 1993)—would start jumping around the world looking for other associative conventions between cats and …


García, O. and L. Wei 2014 Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education. Basingstoke, U.K: Palgrave Macmillan.

and C. Lévi-Strauss 1962 . “« Les Chats » de Charles Baudelaire,” In L’Homme: tome 2 n°1. pp. 5-21.

Jakobson, R. [1957] 1990 “Shifters, verbal categories, and the Russian verb., in On Language. Edited by L. Waugh and M. Monville-Burston. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Russian Language Project. pp. 386-392.

Lévi-Strauss , C [1952] 1993 “Father Christmas executed,” in Unwrapping Christmas. Edited by D. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 38-51.

de Oliveira et al., eds 2021 Multiliteracies in English as an Additional Language Classrooms Methods, Approaches, and Lessons. The University of Miami School of Education and Human Development Series.

Print This Post Print This Post

Modeling acting bureaucracies

Balzac was one of the first writers to make bureaucracy the subject of serious fiction, notably …, where he takes the un-Kafkaesque delight in its lumbering procedures. As he shows in these bureaucratic dramas which are still enlightening today, the monster was not so much malevolent as driven by almost random interference by its futile overactivity. (Robb 1994: 106)

As I like to say, only human beings can close, and then reopen, restaurants. So far I have mostly pointed at “governors” as the humans who act. One does not have to read much Latour to realize that this sketches a reality in much too broad a stroke. In real life, governors may order restaurants closed but the one person who will tell the manager that she must close her restaurant is probably a very minor employee of a local health administration. As I told it in March 2020, my first direct encounter with the virus-as-humanized was in a busy diner, by an interstate highway somewhere in North Dakota, when I witnessed an overly self-satisfied lady telling another lady and her staff around her that the county officials might order her to close the diner following orders from higher officials. Bourdieu reminded all of us, anthropologists, to note marks of distinction. And so I admired the distinction between the well dressed, coiffed, fed official who was not losing her job, and the harassed, not so well-dressed manager, server, cook who were going to lose theirs.

As usual, I am not saying anything as to whether restaurants should have been closed (or re-opened). What I am doing is pursuing the theme I introduced in my last post about “governmentality” as a label for something anthropologists must now take into account anywhere in the world, and as a dangerous concept if it leads to gross generalizations. “The State made me do it” is not an analysis even when the State, that is some governor, set the stage (animated it, directed it, etc.) for whatever everyday encounter an anthropologist may be “participantly observing.”

What I am proposing, and suggesting to the students in their quest for research topics, is a more determined investigation of “speech acts” as they reverberate, as well as the emergence of alternate governors as a major speech act does reverberate.

“Speech act theory” was a major advance in sociolinguistics, and in fact in all the social sciences as it emphasizes that about all human activity proceeds through speaking and not simply through symbolizing, classifying, imagining. Language is also the main tool through which some people get some other people to do what must/may (or must/may not) be done—or at least try to get them to (not) do it. However, the statement by a governor (president of a country, or university) “Get vaccinated, or else” is, ethnographically, an Ur-statement .  It is the first in what can be a very long chain of such statements.  Even so, it must must have occurred within an interaction between the Over-governor and some subordinate.  Anthropologists can only very rarely be allowed to observe such interactions but we can imagine that this statement actually had the form “tell the minister to tell the under-minister to tell” ….. an employee in some Human Resources to e-mail other employees to “get vaccinated or else” and then to report to her supervisor that she had accomplished the task (who then reported it back to her supervisor…).

So that one may not simply make fun of France for its famous overactive bureaucracy, here is a text specifying when/where masks must/may be worn in an American, “Research One,” university.

This chain may be what the word “bureaucracy” indexes but, noticing this chain as chain opens all sorts of possible investigation about the many ways that chain might be broken, or by passed, or produce ever more complex sub-mandates (as happens in France as some middle governors get to specify categories, exceptions, etc.). The media of course is an alternate chain that partially short-circuits the bureaucracy so that the last human in the bureaucratic chain (say, the HR employee) may never have to utter the order: the employee may already have complied for whatever reason—or have initiated a protest.

But there are other chains.

I have been in a small village in Southern France for the past few weeks. Here, as probably everywhere else in the world, the politics of “Covid” (what I refer as the “Corona” epoch) are a major topic of conversation both idle (“do you know what ‘they’ said?!!”) and consequential (“how do I get that pass?”). In the village, and to my surprise, at least half of the people I met asserted with vigor that they were not vaccinated, did not want to get vaccinated, and were going to resist the latest order from the over-governor of France. Many of the non-vaccinators were “young” but I met one lady well into her 70s who was not going to get vaccinated even as her husband, standing by her, said he had been. One can imagine the conversations between the two… A vaccinated of the same generation told that he would not have gotten vaccinated if his daughter-in-law had not acted as a local governor and speech-acted: “Get vaccinated or get banned from family reunions.” One can also imagine the conversations between grand-father, son and daughter-in-law (and probably many more in the kin group)! As I also like to teach local “communities of practice” are not only cozy settings for learning but also fraught settings for political conflict and domination.

In other words I imagine (not to say “I hypothesize”) that local conversations that lead to (not) getting vaccinated parallel the conversations that led the President of France (or the Mayor of New York City as of August 4, 2021) to mandate showing a pass to enter various settings. The President or Mayor, with their police powers, certainly have more power than daughters-in-law. But the power of daughters-in-law (or the lack of power of a son/husband) cannot be underestimated.

Thus the chain from Over-governors to local enactments is “fractal” in the sense that, in any setting, the relationship between however local a governor and their subordinate is going to be the trigger of a chain of sub-mandates each of which susceptible to being expanded or resisted in imaginative ways the initial governor could not … imagine.  This model of bureaucratic “overactivity” will have to be merged with Lave’s model of movement through social structural positions also must involve such speech acts as a “full” member tell another (possibly not so full member…) “let this person work in our shop as an apprentice” and so that persons becomes, analytically, a “legitimate peripheral participant.”


Robb, Graham   1994     Balzac: a biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Print This Post Print This Post

A coda on Corona and governmentality

A while ago I mused about the ending of the Corona epoch. Many parts of the world are now in transition towards this ending. As usual various governments, and subgovernments, are moving in different ways. Some remove various mandates, keep others, and make it necessary for the governed to figure out what is allowed where and when. In all cases one can observe “governmentality” at work and ponder the responses.

Continuing with my concern with sociability as sequences of triggers and responses that make conditions (facts) for the future, I keep wondering today on what people do after governors have acted to declare the end of this or that mandate. Most responses to such declarations occur behind doors that are not easily opened. But one thing is quite public: the wearing of masks. As many keep noticing, many many people continue to wear masks even after the mandates that they be worn here or there have been lifted. Walking down Broadway on June 10th, one could see people with masks, people with masks that did not cover their nose or with masks around their chins, or with no masks at all. One grocery store had a sign that “under further notices masks are required.” Down the street another store had a sign saying “those fully vaccinated to not need to wear masks.” And another had no signs at all. In another store a sign about the order to wear masks was on the door, most of the employees were not wearing masks, a customer asked, in a joking tone, “where is your mask?” to which another employee responded “it’s not required by the State anymore, we have forgotten to take the sign down.” A month later, the New York Times mused about the distinction between workers in restaurants (who wear masks) and patrons (who do not).

What is a social scientist to next? I imagine, and I may be caricaturing, that a sociologist or social psychologist would look for the “causes” of what appears a personal decisions and ask: “why do you (not) wear a mask here and now?” In designing the study one would first pick up from the literature various matters that are usually “causes” for variations in individual behavior. One could imagine that one does (not) wear a mask “because”:
. of lack of faith in governments
. to make a political statement about government mandates
. for fear of the unvaccinated
. of peer or familial pressure
. of fesistance to peer or familial pressure
. of habit
. Etc.
One might then design a questionaire. The questionaire would include the usual demographic information about the individual responder (sex, gender, race, ethnicity, location, education, age, language spoken at home, etc.) that would eventually allow for various forms of regression analyses. I imagine that the “findings” of such studies would be reported in the New York Times under a title like “White liberal men and women in Manhattan will continue to wear masks while others in the South refuse to wear them.”

All this will interest many and confirm much that is generally known. But those who analyze, critique, and contribute to government should notice that it does not actually tell us much about that to which individuals respond. (Not) wearing a mask only makes sense in a world where governments mandate such things and so social scientists must also investigate governments, their relationships to the governed, and all mechanisms through which “orders” (as acts) produce (dis-)orders (as historical conditions). As I like to say, the virus does not care what humans do. But those humans in government (and in all ordering positions), let’s call them “governors,” do—whatever they end up doing (and that is very diverse indeed!). Some of us, say “applied anthropologists,” might want to help. What might we point out?

To develop something I mentioned earlier, a governor (and that could be a 10 year old…) can put up a sign on a door stating “Do Not Enter!” with a guard or warden enforcing the order so that the governor can be about sure that the order will do what it is expected to do (as long as back doors are also locked or guarded). However, when the same governor puts a sign stating “Do Enter!” (get vaccinated, eat healthy foods) this governor may not get the expected results as people continue not to enter, get vaccinated, or eat unhealthy foods.

The observable difficulties governors have in enforcing what might be labeled “positive” mandates is worth exploring as a possibly fundamental limit on governmentality. It may even be more fundamental than the impossibility of governors to prevent people from resisting negative mandates (whether the people are or are not successful in their resistance).  James Scott has kept emphasizing this limit on negative mandates (2009).   The very need to post guards or wardens (school administrators, nurses, social workers) is testimony to the governors’ awareness of this limit. But the other limit may be more difficult to overcome.

Going back to mask wearing can help us notice further matters that are usually hidden by a simple reference to “governmentality” as sketched by Foucault and others. In the United States, it is well known, governing is quite divided. Simplified, on matters like mask wearing, the Federal government advises (and possibly dangles sticks and carrots), State Governors get emergency powers allowing to mandate and enforce negative mandates. These can be trumped, challenged, or amplified by local governments and also, very significantly, by non-governmental entities like, say, a private university, or a church that may require behaviors (like wearing masks or getting tested) even after the governmental mandates have been lifted. There is more: self-organizing groups within these institutions may themselves act out, if not mandate, a behavior otherwise allowed. In a church I know, about everyone continued to wear masks even after all other governmental and non-governmental entities announced that they were not necessary. Strictly speaking, in such a setting, there is no actual governor but the effect is about the same as if someone had mandated masks. I also know of extended families that remain consequential to each other even as various sub-parts impose on themselves various mandates about vaccines, masks, meetings, etc—and dispute among them what to do next

In abstract terms, I’d say that governmentality, as a aspect of sociability, is fractal rather than hierarchical. More on that another time.


Scott, James   2009     The art of not being governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Print This Post Print This Post