Category Archives: Communication & Culture

Comments directly related to lectures I have just given in this class

Dreaming of diverging

Movie posterFor any number of reasons, my wife Susan and I went to see Divergent last Friday.  We were, by far, the oldest people in the theater.  I was, about, the only male (except for a few fathers perhaps).  Everybody else was a 12(+-2)-year-old girl.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, then you are not into Hollywood generated mass popular culture, or middle-brow cultures concerned with “gender” either.  If “divergent” means to you something that it did not mean a few weeks ago then, as an intellectual adult (one of my readers, as I imagine them), I assume you also know that it is, among other things, the second (after The Hunger Games) of Hollywood responses to the accusation that there were no big budget, action adventure movies with girls as heroines.  So, in the kind of brief synopsis that start this kind of commentary, Divergent is about a 16-year-old girl who violently restores a threatened order and then moves on into the wilderness—and 12-year-old girls know about that.

But, of course, the movie is about much else and this is a response to Andrew O’Hehir who wrote about the movies as “capitalist agitprop” (March 22, 2014).  His thesis:

To begin with, if we accept the maxim that all fictional works about the imagined future are really about the present, what do these works have to say? They contain no intelligible level of social critique or social satire, as “1984” or “The Matrix” do, since the worlds they depict bear no relationship to any real or proposed society. Where, in the contemporary West, do we encounter the overtly fascistic forces of lockstep conformity, social segregation and workplace regimentation seen in these stories? I’m not asking whether these things exist, or could exist, I’m asking where we encounter them as ideology, as positive models for living.

Later, O’Hehir writes “Divergent is basically a high school drama.” 
Continue reading Dreaming of diverging

Ima say suttin

Katy Steinmetz, a journalist for Time Magazine recent summarized “What Twitter Says to Linguists” (Time Magazine, September 9, 2013). Actually Steinmetz mostly mentions the kind of sociolinguists who like to make statements like:

the term “suttin” (a variant of something) has been associated with Boston-area tweets.

using methods such as:

researchers at Carnegie Mellon developed an automated tagger that can identify bits of tweetspeak that aren’t standard English, like “Ima” (which serves as a subject, verb and preposition to convey “I am going to”).

Personally, I would say that these methods will be more useful for a social history of the present than about linguistics.

That is, as far as I can see, both Chomsky and Labov would agree that “Ima” is a fully grammatical form of the English way to mark the future tense of the verb following: “Ima” is another way of doing “I’ll.”  Whether “Ima” derives historically from “I am going to” is interesting but has little to say about the current state of twittering English.  If it “takes” outside Twitter (and it may already have (ask Labov or his students)), new speakers will have to be told that there are now three forms of the future in English: “I shall,” “I will,” “Ima.”  And then, they will be told of the contextual “rules” that appear to govern which form to use when and with whom.

Those who know will have noticed that I have restated the (in-)famous Saussurian distinction between diachrony and synchrony—though with a twist.  The cultural question (to keep the word “social” for probabilistic statements about the recent past) is whether the new linguistic forms that continually appear–not only in Twitter, but every time someone speaks–will “take,” that is whether they will remain associated with a person, a small group, an activity, etc., or whether they will “be adopted in the collective mode” (paraphrase of something Lévi-Strauss once wrote to distinguish individual statements from myths in L’homme nu 1971: 560).

In other words, “Ima” (and the resistance against it) may become the “imposition of a cultural arbitrary by a cultural arbitrary” (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977 [1970]: 5)—unless it fails to impose itself.  In any event, the important thing about all this is the arbitrariness of the process that leads to “Ima,” its imposition (partially helped by the Time magazine article which taught people like me about the form), and its demise (as current users age out and new forms are developed).  As I have argued in other posts (9/6/2013, 9/30/2013), the future of cultural forms cannot be predicted by any analysis of the state of the present.  “Ima” is not simply “functional” in a world where statements are limited to 140 characters.  “Ill” would have worked as well.  So “Ima” is, in Boon’s terms “extra-vagant” (1999), a poetic (in Jakobson’s sense) play on grammatical/dialectal possibilities and constraints.

Note, for example, that “Ima” marks first person redundantly in a least three ways: through 1) leaving the “I” in, 2) capitalized, 3) with the first person “(a)m” form of the verb (check what McDermott and I wrote about Maxine Hong Kingston tale of her difficulty reading “I” aloud 1998: Introduction).  And may thereby signal the continued relevance of “individualism” as the field for hegemonic pratices.

Islanding assemblages of haecceities

I am finishing a draft of a paper with Juliette de Wolfe on conceits and autism.  It ends with my current favorite Garfinkelian conceit: driving down the highway of life with an immortal cohort.  In the paper where he talks about immortality and highways, he writes that “immortal is a metaphor for … an “assemblage of haecceities” (2002: 92).  Ray McDermott to whom I had sent an earlier draft underlined the last word and wrote “explained?”.   It made me acknowledge to myself that I could not quite explain the word though I knew it had to do with the latin for ‘this’ and was related to everything Garfinkel has written about indexicality.  So I searched Wikipedia (no shame!).  The first indexes in the entry are to Duns Scotus and Peirce.  Then comes the references to Garfinkel with a quote from Rawls “Haecceities is one of the many words that Garfinkel has adopted over the years to indicate the importance of the infinite contingencies in both situations and practices” (2003).  So, simply (?) put, changing the clothes of a tantruming child in a public park is, always and necessarily, a unique act that has never occurred and will never recur.  There will never be another time when this child will be changed by this mother in this park in front of these onlookers.  There will never be another time when this Rosa will say “I could read it!” in this reading group (McDermott passim).  There will never be another time when some Mexican migrants develop this glossary (Kalmar 2001).

So what is the point of reporting this?  As Kalmar reminded us when he lectured at Teachers College in the Spring 2012, the Camden glossaries are unique, but they are also an instance of what many other people (missionaries, linguists, etc.) did when faced with another language they had to learn as they attempted to survive in that moment.

So, this is another musing about ethnographic methodology and its usefulness in, precisely, this political moment in the history of anthropology and its relationship to the State.

But, as I half day dreamed about the quote (which I may initially have chosen because it included the work ‘metaphor’ which was then the key word in the evolving paper), I noticed that Garfinkel wrote about “assemblage” and wondered whether this is the recently famous word.  Did he get it from Latour? from Rawls (who would have gotten it from Deleuze)?  Anyway, it fits.  This event is made up of these matters (people, things, etc.) immortalized into “??????.”

What exactly is the word to be used?  (Suspense!)

I was working on the paper when, last week, I taught one of my favorite pieces from one of our disciplinary grandmothers: Ruth Benedict’s “Configurations of culture in North America” (1932).  Note that ‘configuration’ is pluralized, not ‘culture’ (Benedict is a Boasian, not a Geertzian).  What struck me this time is her use of the unusual gerund “islanding” to evoke the historical reality that differentiation (say in death rituals–her main examples) is not based on geographical isolation (see also Louis Dumont on the ideological differentiations between France and Germany in the 19th century (1994 [1991])).   Burying a close relative among the Zuñi requires different displays than it requires among the Cheyenne.  We were taught in graduate school to ridicule Benedict from tagging the first set of displays as “Apollonian” while the others would be “Dionysian” and to suggest that these ??? somehow “explained” the displays as if they were psychological causes.  I now read these labels as temporary heuristics that may have helped at the time establish the unique this-ness of a historical moment in the plains and high plateaus of a continent when human beings lived side by side, pushed and pulled each other, faced new conditions (e.g. the horse), and assembled themselves and their practices into some immortal thing (configuration, culture, pattern, epoch, system, [your word for a historically produced, powerfully enforced, differentiated and differentiating unique thing]).

Now, I have complained elsewhere that Garfinkel does not have an explicit theory of culture, unless, as I suggest, facing immortal assembling of haecceities is precisely such a theory–which is my point.

Thus, our scientific task is more aking to physicists disputing “gravity” (islanding, culture) than to medical researchers looking for the cause of autism, or the better therapy (technology, development).

[See also an earlier post on the Boasian revolt against classifications by function and causes]

more on intentionality

One of the most puzzling aspect of facing for the first time G.H. Mead’s (and all other pragmatists’) consideration about meaning is what happens to “intentionality” when the emphasis is placed on the openness of what is said until the “third turn” when the interpretant kicks in and that which has been done is settled, at least for a time. Students understand the argument (thanks to “what time is it” illustration) but one at least will be upset and ask the question: “are you really discounting the intention of the first actor?” I have to say ‘yes’ to that, but this cannot be the end, if only because it does not quite satisfy the common sense of the student(s) who remain convinced that action is founded on intentions and that research should emphasize those, if only to preserve the autonomy of the individual, “agency.” Students may not realize the ideological grounding of the insistence on intentionality, but they do insist.

Once thinking about this, I also realized that another aspect of my teaching Mead, or Garfinkel, is my insistence that cultural patterns (the ensemble of a identifiable three turn sequence) can be oppressive on all the individual participants (culture disables). At that moment, I have re-introduced the individual as a separate entity. As Ray and I have written several times, the individual can be a “unit of concern” (1998: 217).

But, if this is so, then the individual is also a unit possibly suffering because of the gap between that which she intended and that which it is now publicly acknowledged has happened.

I tried to say this in Chapter 8 of Successful Failure but I never got the sense that this piece was successful. Even I, sometimes, have a hard time reading it. So it needs to be said more easily. The power of Mead’s analysis lies in his insistence that we can indeed talk about an ‘I’, that the ‘I’ refers to an experience even though it cannot be identified without doing the violence to it that Ray and I attribute to “culture.”

So, it is not that individuals do not have intentions, but that their intentions are not the primary motor of the constitution of an event so that it gets known as having happened. Society cannot be explained by intentions (or by learning, etc.). Interaction can produce acknowledged (canned) intentions, and one of the purpose of social analysis can be to distinguish between such labeled intentions and the always-to-remain mysterious ‘I’ that moved others to label the actor.

The acting ‘I’ is free.

Aaron Hung and the collective construction of videogame play

While reading Aaron Hung’s wonderful dissertation about the collective construction of video game play (2009), something struck me again: Conversational Analysis, and indeed ethnomethodology with which it is closely related, has not faced quite systematically with conversational drift in longer sequences.  Hung “unit of analysis” is something like two hours.  Much of the analysis is about the shifting of the interactional orders, including moments when the shifting is actually brought to the conversational surface as participants offer different interpretations (meta-discursive comments) about what happened “earlier” so that different things might happen “later.”  By choosing such a unit of analysis Hung takes himself out of classic CA to the extent that it is intent on demonstrating the making of orders and their reconstitution through various kinds of repairs under various kinds of stresses.  He is far from the first to look at longer sequences heavily marked for particular settings (e.g. classroom interaction, counseling interviews, medical examinations, etc.).  And much of the literature is about struggles to establish and maintain an order. But there is much less about the “failures” to maintain a particular order that eventually, and relatively seamlessly, lead to another order.

I have become fascinated by these events in which I see the best evidence we have for a separate human process that we might label “education” in the powerful sense of the word where it is not collapsed into either “schooling” or “learning.”  Such evolutionary drifting also has to be ubiquitous to explain what anthropologists have been talking about when they have written about culture as a process of patterning—what I now write about as “cultural production.”  I started pushing this in a 2004 address (Varenne and Cotter 2007) which I wrote when Ray McDermott, Jean Lave and I conducted a joint seminar on the “politics of ignorance.”  What remains exciting is the attempt to base a theory of sociability, that is “culturability,” on the facing of ongoing and ever renewed ignorance about what is the feature of a current environment that is likely to make the most difference in the immediate future.  This, of course, is but another take on classical Garfinkel but with the twist that my concern now is less with ordering and more with culturing as the process of the production of new arbitrary orders which, if I am right, must be a ubiquitous, ongoing process, at the most local of levels, as well as at the macro levels anthropologists have mostly been working at.

I believe we now have a good set of ethnographies exploring various possibilities (Varenne 2008).  Hung pushes this at the most local of levels by showing how a young woman and use three young men to teach her how to play a video game first by finding herself necessary to their play (which required four players), and then by being shown multiply ignorant, eventually by discovering what it is that she had to manipulate, and then by getting at least some of the instruction she actually needed, thereby temporarily suspending “regular play,” and possibly then producing a still different order as the four started playing again with her as less incompetent.

It is only be pushing such ethnographies of everyday life that we can bring together the structural traditions ethnomethodology develops (Garfinkel 2002) with the Bakhtinian emphases on dialogical centrifugality.

‘LOL’: on the construction of a cultural fact

Mar 11, 2009 09:20:41 AM, &&&&&& wrote:

What does “lol” or “l.o.l.” mean?


On the


Those are the 3 most common ways to say you think something is drop dead funny

The questioning message was prompted by an exchange between Professor and Wife as they disputed what ‘LOL’ stood for. For wife, this was obvious: “‘LOL’ stands for ‘Lots of Love’.” Professor was quite sure that it stood for “Laugh out Loud.” So Daughter-in-Law was asked for instruction.

Her answer is unambiguous, but a professor cannot let matters stand. Who says that ‘LOL’ stands for ‘Laugh Out Loud’? Does Daughter-in-Law settle the matter? Or is it ‘everybody’ these days? Was wife ‘ignorant’? Or simply not very powerful on this matter? And what is ‘LOL’ made up of, in any event? What are the contexts in which it appeared and in which the dominant mode of interpretation appeared?

I got to wonder about this as I was teaching Jakobson on “Linguistics and poetics” (1960), and the following is a take on his model. ‘LOL’ is code for ‘Laugh out loud’ which itself is, to simplify, a signifier for at least two possible mental images (“laughing” and “loud”). It is also heavily marked for electronic messaging by particularly kinds of people. In that sense writing ‘LOL’; participates in constituting the context for the message either as electronic message or as about electronic messaging. It also constitutes the addresser as someone who “thinks that something is drop dead funny.” And it is built as a kind of play (poetry) with possibilities within English orthography. It is also particularly useful given the technical constraints of electronic personal communication (a matter of the support for the means of contact between people). And finally, it is a metalingual commentary on what was said before.

What Jakobson’s model does not quite do is allow us easily to explore the matters of control over most of these matters. Saying “‘LOL’ stands for ‘Laughing Out Loud’” is a matter of metalinguistics that leaves open the grounds for the legitimacy of the statement or its power over future conversations. This is where we need to call on the pragmatist tradition. We need to find a way to add a third dimension to Jakobson’s model, perhaps in the following fashion:

The “factors” might be:


The “functions” might be:

————————————————– Controller

The “functions” might be:

————————————————– (Policy)

I am not quite sure about all this, and particularly not about the words in parenthesis. Furthermore I am trying to fit all this within the graphic representation Jakobson proposed, and this may not be the most fruitful way to proceed.

Print This Post Print This Post

given arbitrariness, then instruction…

Professor fiddles with computer in full view of about 30 graduate students.  Complains audibly that he can’t get rid of something on the screen.  One student (or more) suggests clicking on what seems the offending screen overlay.  Professor clicks there, and then clicks somewhat wildly on various options.  Apparent success.  The overlay shrinks.  But now the cursor is wrong.  A(nother? Or more) student suggests something like “click on the ‘x’ in the upper right corner.  Professor complies and is satisfied with the result.  Professor then uses the sequence he has thereby ended as an example of “distributed cognition.”

And now I, the professor expands on this discussion in the context of the class discussion about arbitrariness and culture.  As we move from identifying the properties of a social field (culture, semiotic system, etc.) to acting within this field, the essential question then becomes: how do human beings deal with the arbitrariness of their world, including the ongoing evolution of new forms of arbitrariness.  This, for a social scientist is an empirical question.  For an anthropologist inspired by conversational analysis, this is also one that must be answered through examining closely instances when, arguably, people face arbitrariness in the midst of a collectivity.  Thus the exemplary usefulness of the above example.

Living with computers and other such technologies involves facing on-going changes in the acts needed to accomplish simple tasks.  Depending on much, this can be exciting or annoying.  During a lecture, using a now unfamiliar computer, the latter is probably the most usual personal response (from watching myself and others as the carefully prepared presentation collapses more or less completely).  The issue, in the context of a lecture on arbitrariness, is that in all cases, the act that will resolve the matter and get the computer to do what one expects, cannot be simply predicted.  Familiarity with stylistic choices by software developers (e.g. Windows vs. Macs) can suggest where to look for the solution.  But one soon discovers that familiarity can lead to dead ends (e.g. the version one is now confronting may be newer or older than the one one is used to and the sequence one has used, does not work).

In cultural anthropology and related field, the usual next step is to invoke the need to “learn” the particular encoding of the task.  This is OK as far as it goes but actually does not specify how this is to happen.  “Learning” is also the search for the instructions that will teach them.  But instructing is not a trivial task, as Garfinkel has shown (2002).

And so, in the instance above, we have an “in-situ” instructional sequence.  But it should lead to more to questions about the collective organization of the sequence than on what the professor learned (which is probably going soon to be an irrelevant bit to knowledge given probably changes in the software).


(Lots of Love?
Laughing out Loud?
Who decides? [the power question]
How does one find out? [the educational question])

more on arbitrariness

I am experimenting here with a blog that would relate to a class I am currently teaching.  This Spring 2009, I am teaching Communication and Culture.  It will mostly consist of thoughts than came to me after finishing a lecture.  It is often the case that, while walking home, I wonder whether this or that point needed to be made more systematically.

For example, after the class on Saussure, and partially in response to a question about change and education, it came to me again that, at this point, it is what he started when emphasizing the arbitrariness of the sign is most relevant to the future of anthropological theory about culture and education, along with what he had to say about syntagms.  Of course, I take arbitrariness much beyond where Saussure stopped, and will include all matters of classification (including the classification of human beings) as well as matters of processes (e.g. schooling as a means of socialization into participation).  By direct implication, this means that arbitrariness unfolds in time and involves a possibly very large number of persons.  It also implies that the very arbitrariness of the process will reveal itself continually to participants and so that they will have to keep telling each other what to do next (or what they should have done, etc.).  This then directly ties to the major concern of ethnomethodology with ordering as an ongoing process.

This has to be particularly the case given that even a well-ordered event (say a joke, a class, a ceremony or ritual), that is a syntagm of parts having to be performed in “just this way” to work so that the working is not noticed (i.e. “grammatical according to native intuition”), will take time and be distributed along many participants, including many who know much about what is happening.

Thus the ongoing possibility of trouble and mistakes, as well as fun and change through mis-takes (Klemp, N., McDermott, R., Raley, J., Thibeault, M., Powell K. & Levitin, D.J. 2008).