This is a very important book—for at least four reasons. First, although it might appear to be just an introductory text to an area of applied linguistics—it is the first book in a new series (edited by Zhu Hua & Claire Kramsch) on ‘key topics in applied linguistics’, it is written in an easy and accessible style, and it includes suggestions for further reading and even advice on how to read (‘Never read Derrida alone’ (64))—it is much more than this. It is the result of several decades of serious thought and work. Many may know McNamara's significant research on language testing (Roever & Wigglesworth, 2019), and indeed the book includes a discussion in the penultimate chapter (‘Technologies of subjectivity: Language tests and identification’) of his work on the ‘terrifyingly ambiguous potential’ (207), according to Jacques Derrida, of the shibboleth: Language testing theory tries to remove the indeterminacy and ambiguity of the test score to yield a true reading of what a score means, but if we see test constructs as shibboleths, it becomes clear that they are in fact undecidables (Derrida again), ‘open to interpretation, inherently unstable’ and potentially ‘socially beneficial or socially harmful’ (209). Drawing on his crucial studies of the many problems with the language analyses used to determine the origins of asylum seekers, he concludes (following Michel Foucault), that such tests and analyses ‘play a fundamental role in modernity, as a mechanism for the surveillance of the subject’ (210): they are modes of inclusion and exclusion. As the broad scope of these conclusions and sources suggests, this book goes much further than most introductory texts. It takes us on an intellectual journey via Judith Butler, Derrida, Frantz Fanon, Foucault, Friedrich Hegel, Edward Said, and others, while staying grounded in applied linguistic concerns (language learning, language testing, language and gender, language in interaction).
Second, as the focus on asylum seekers indicates—the issue is the denial of the right to asylum by means of inappropriate and inaccurate language analysis—this book takes up major political concerns of our times, particularly racism (and especially anti-Semitism) and misogyny and homophobia (sexuality, gender, and queer politics). McNamara gives an account of both his own personal engagement with these domains and their importance in the contemporary world. Everyday racism, McNamara shows, is a potential ‘reservoir of violence’ (95) and the horrors of the Holocaust would not have been possible without the fertile ground of daily anti-Semitism across Europe. Here we see the importance of language and discourse in the operation of daily life and all that may be deeply disturbing in that operation. This book takes us very carefully through questions of language, gender, and sexuality: When two gay men who have known each other a long time chat in a pharmacy—one as pharmacist, the other as customer—what weight do broad social roles (sexuality, masculinity, service encounter) play in relation to professional and other roles (chemist, advice, familiarity)? This is of course a partial reprise of the old question ‘what if the doctor is a woman?’ (West 1984), but McNamara takes us carefully and knowledgeably through several decades of work on language, gender, and sexuality and shows why a poststructuralist understanding of performativity provides an important way forward for this discussion.
Third, while this book engages seriously with race and gender, the central argument is that we can understand the broad social forces involved in discourses and social power through the micro-actions of everyday interaction. Like Hacking's (2004) argument that we need not just Foucault and not just Erving Goffman but the two together, one to show us the macro-operations of discourse and power, the other to show us how this works at the micro-level of language, McNamara brings together his long interest in conversation analysis (CA) with Butler's (1997) idea of performativity: If we want to see how subjectivities are called into being, we have to look at the micro-politics of language use. This is really what this book is centrally about: In order to understand the wider workings of the world, we need to look locally at the micro-actions of language use, and, similarly, we should not get too caught up in the micro-workings of language lest we lose sight of the bigger picture. This is a much more complex argument than one that just insists that the micro is in the macro and the macro in the micro, since McNamara's interest is in how this actually works. To show this he pulls together the ideas of iterability—the importance of repetition and its failure always to be the same (Butler, Derrida)—and interaction, suggesting that ‘the notion of turn-by-turn building of interaction corresponds in an important way to the notion of iterability in poststructuralism, that is, that nothing is given a priori, as it were, but has to be achieved in each iteration’ (138).
Finally (though this list could be easily extended), it is important that the book takes the idea of subjectivity seriously. Subjectivity has been a key theme in poststructuralist work—and this book might also be seen as a really useful introduction to poststructuralist ideas, taking over the role that Weedon's (1987) text has played for many years—and sheds light on the ways that we are both subject to and subjects of discursive power. Engaging with the idea of subjectivity presents us with major insights into how discourses and life trajectories intersect (Kramsch 2009) that can be overlooked if we take up the more reductive and popular construct of identity (Norton 2000). For McNamara this is all about the ‘recognition of Self and Other—the terms in which we are socially visible to each other—visible as particular types of subject’ (9). This is part of the critique of the autonomous individual, that fantasy of Western modernity in which individuals are separate from others, act independently, use their agency to do things. This is about the ‘pain of the experience of subjectivity’ (218) in relation to the discriminatory and exclusionary discourses and social processes that surround us. This seemingly pessimistic view of humanity puts this book at odds with what McNamara sees as the inappropriate progressivism of the ‘Marxian political orthodoxy of much critical work in applied linguistics’ (219), or put another way, it makes the discursively and interactively produced experience of the subject primary, rather than rendering this a secondary effect of regressive or progressive material relations.
The book is of course open to some of the common critiques of poststructurally oriented work: It possibly puts too many eggs in the discursive basket (though the argument is strong and convincing and would need careful refutation), and it is much stronger on questions of race and gender than on class and materiality (though not every book needs to deal with all of these, and the discourse-materiality relation is complex rather than contrastive). One might also be a little skeptical about the promise of CA and the interaction order (though the case is well made) and the suggestion that we have to choose between CA and critical discourse analysis (CDA) as the only means to do critical analysis (aren't there some other alternatives?). Perhaps too the focus on anti-Semitism draws attention away from everyday racism of other kinds (though the argument here is also a comprehensive one). On the other hand, the book is not open to the common critique that poststructuralism can be obscure (the book is very accessible, though it does require some thinking by the reader), does not deal closely with texts (CDA used to make this critique of poststructuralist discourse analysis but it certainly does not apply here), is interested only in the individual or diversity (an unfortunate misreading by some critical scholars that aligns with conservative commentators), or avoids political issues (this is a political book). This is a book that applied linguists—those new to the field and those who have been around a while and think they know all this stuff—should read and talk about. Tim McNamara has always been one of applied linguistics’ deeper thinkers, one of the field's much-needed intellectuals, one of the people for whom the vulgar pragmatism of the field is not enough, and this book takes us on an intellectual ride through many domains while urging us to think politically, to engage with the local operations of language, and to act as applied linguists. I'm not sure what has been planned for the rest of this series, but this sets the bar high.