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The following conversation between Zhu Hua (ZH) and Claire Kramsch (CK) was conducted on 27 October 2020 at a webinar organized by Rebecca Taylor and Rachel Tonkin from Cambridge University Press on the occasion of the impending publication of Claire's book Language as Symbolic Power and in the shadow of the imminent presidential American election. What follows are extracts from the conversation in which we have incorporated some of the questions sent in by the attendees.ZH:
What motivated you to choose this topic for your book?
This chapter continues our exploration of language as symbolic power in the digital age. It explains first what the digital revolution is about and what Vaidhyanathan meant by the phrase “the googlization of everything.” We then consider the nature and the role of Facebook and Twitter in providing platforms for the exercise of symbolic power. How are we to conceive of social media and the Internet as symbolic systems? I discuss the importance of taking into account algorithms and the algorithmic control of information and knowledge as we use the Internet to teach language and language-mediated knowledge. The digital revolution is also clearly a social and cultural revolution. I discuss the current spread of what Rieffel has called “connected individualism” and the hunger for attention that accompanies the pressure to participate on social media. Finally, I reflect on the current phenomena of post-truth and disinformation in the information age, and on the potential and risks involved in Google Translate.
This book aims to shift the focus from the instrumental to the symbolic dimensions of language that account for its awesome power to affect people’s view of themselves and the world. It takes a post-structuralist approach to the study of language – language not, as Dwight Bolinger wrote in 1980, as a loaded and potentially dangerous weapon, but as a discourse with symbolic effects. The chapter defines symbolic power as “the power of constituting the given through utterances, of making people see and believe, of confirming or transforming their vision of the world and, thereby, action on the world” (Bourdieu 1991) by mobilizing not only their minds but also their emotions, beliefs, memories, imaginations and aspirations. It will therefore revisit some of the mainstays of language study that are usually taught as linguistic and discourse structures and show how these structures are vectors of a symbolic power that manifests itself in all areas of everyday life from boardrooms to classrooms to courtrooms. It will show the fundamentally paradoxical nature of symbolic power that at once enhances individual language users’ ability to act upon the world through the use of symbols, and limits their ability to do so in order to be seen as legitimate members of the group that speaks that language.
Taking as an example the well-known fable “The wolf and the lamb” by Jean de la Fontaine, this chapter shows how language doesn’t merely affix labels to the familiar social reality we live in, but presents it in ways that serve the interests of the parties involved. It evokes mental and bodily schemas of experience that are recognized by others; it performs social dos and don’ts that are sanctioned by the group; and it manipulates the politics of the situation to gain symbolic distinction. Drawing from work in cognitive and anthropological linguistics and in sociology, it shows through numerous examples taken from everyday life that the exercise of symbolic power is neither good nor evil, it is what we do when we use language to communicate with others – we try to assert ourselves at the same time that we strive to show others that we respect them, value them, and want to be in turn respected and valued by them. I show how any use of language is a political act, in the sense that it is an exercise of symbolic power to present ourselves and others in the best possible light. It contributes to building our “symbolic self”, that is, our reputation, credibility and good standing among the people we come in contact with.
The chapter summarizes the argument made throughout the book: Symbols mediate our relationship to physical facts and material culture; The use of symbols enables us to construct and thus manipulate social reality; Symbolic forms have symbolic functions that are multiple, changing and conflictual; Symbolic power can turn into symbolic violence; and Language as symbolic power has been transformed by the use of symbolic systems like the Internet. It then discusses the implications of viewing language as symbolic power both for applied linguistic research and for communicative language teaching. It reflects on the role symbolic power plays in educational practice and it examines the challenging issue of how to deal with politics in the language classroom and the ethical questions this raises. The chapter ends with an analysis of Toni Morrison’s Nobel lecture and her memorable statement: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Taking as a point of departure a 2016 report in the media of the fatal shooting of a gorilla in the Cincinnati zoo and its transformation into a meme that went viral on the Internet, I consider some of the post-modern theories that explain the effect of digital technology and social media on the way such incidents are socially constructed. I compare the way parents and friends read the incident and college students interpreted it. I discuss Foucault’s notion of disciplinary society, Debord’s spectacle society and Baudrillard’s concept of hyper-reality and simulacrum from the 1970s and 1980s. I show how today these concepts have been supplemented by Harcourt’s notion of expository society that prizes visibility, normativity and veridiction. I show how today, Anderson’s notion of imagined community, born in an era of nationalism, has been supplanted by a kind of conviviality typical of social media in our era of globalization. This conviviality is accompanied by what Ferraris and Martino call “documediality,” the power of the Web to archive and disseminate verbal, visual and audio documents over the Internet in viral fashion. Digital communication is today a crucial aspect of the use of language as symbolic power.
This chapter is an illustration of the concepts encountered in the last two chapters. It compares the way children were socialized into good boys and girls and good citizens in the Germany of the nineteenth century, and in the United States of the 1930s and 1960s, by discussing what books young children were read to by their parents – Der Struwwelpeter in Germany, The Little Engine that Could and The Cat in the Hat in the United States. It makes apparent the different uses of symbolic power in the narratives of the time and how children are trained to respond to symbolic power and symbolic violence. I reflect on the power of narrative to shape young children’s understanding of the social reality they are growing up in and how narratives transmit values that bind families and communities together. I compare this use of narrative with present-day children’s books in the United States that move from moral prescriptivism to ethical perspectivism and multicultural consciousness. I discuss how the narratives that have held nations together are currently being dismantled by globalization, social media and divisive populist politics.
Taking as an initial example Donald Trump’s promise to “build a wall” on the southern border of the United States to keep out undesirable immigrants, I take the symbol “wall” to show the four meanings that the term “symbolic” can have in its relation to language and power. The first is that language, like music or painting, is called a symbolic system because it is composed of signs and symbols that combine together in a rule-governed, systematic way to make meaning. The wall incident also gives us a glimpse into a second meaning of the term “symbolic,” namely the power of symbols to create semiotic relations of similarity, contiguity or conventionality with other symbols, that listeners interpret as such. The meanings given to the wall by the various actors are more or less conventional/arbitrary, more or less non-arbitrary or motivated by the actors’ desire to pursue their own political interests. The power to manipulate the meaning of signs and to impose those meanings on others and make them “stick” is a third aspect of symbolic power; it acts not through physical force but through our mental representations as mediated by symbolic forms. The fourth meaning of “symbolic” is the power to construct and perform a social reality that people believe is natural and given. The chapter discusses each of these four aspects of symbolic power – the power to signify, the power to interpret, the power to manipulate, the power to represent .
This chapter builds on Cha[ter 4 to discuss how symbolic power does violence to others through the power of suggestion. Drawing on Bourdieu and Foucault, it shows the paradox of symbolic violence that can only be exercised if it is seen as something natural and benevolent. Even such a well-intended utterance as “I love you” can put the recipient in an awkward obligation to respond in kind – whether that was the intended perlocutionary effect of the speech act or not. I discuss the reciprocity imperative that regulates the gift-giving rituals in everyday life and the individual violence it exercises on social actors. I then discuss the institutional violence exerted by the educational system that at once empowers students to acquire knowledge and enables them to make meaning of people and events, but at the same time imposes its own discrimination and stratification among students that replicates the structure of the society that upholds educational institutions. Finally I discuss another case of communicative violence, namely the conversational inequalities that emerge across turns, topics and tasks in conversational exchanges, particularly in instructional settings between teacher and students and among students.
If digital technology requires us to completely rethink the fundamental axes of our human existence: time, space and causality, we have to ask the following questions: How are we to conceive of these three axes today when studying and teaching languages as a human activity? How can learning another language help us better understand the symbolic complexity of the human condition? And how can it enable us to engage with symbolic power and respond to symbolic violence? I discuss six scholars that have responded to these questions in recent decades: Judith Butler and her reflections on the time-bound political promise of the performative; Michel de Certeau and his thoughts on the space of strategies and tactics in everyday life; Mikhail Bakhtin on the time/space chronotope and the carnivalesque; Pierre Bourdieu and his Pascalian meditations on causality and the habitus; Alastair Pennycook and Bruno Latour on post-humanist thinking.
This chapter discusses the abuse of language as symbolic warfare in the realm of politics. It considers a particular use of symbolic violence to humiliate and crush one’s political opponents in public settings with the backing of institutional power. The current populist US president Donald Trump is such a case. His manipulation of language and of the television cameras are the two main elements of the symbolic warfare he wages against anyone who challenges his authority. His use of disparagement and ridicule, his conman-like manipulation of the interactional context and his use of Twitter to address his supporters directly, not only discredit the very institutions that have brought him to power but are raising fundamental questions as to the future of presidential power and democracy in the United States. They have led to a constitutional crisis that is forcing Americans to rethink the very bases of their electoral system, the separation of powers of their government, and the undemocratic values promoted by their commander-in-chief.
Using as an example an exchange between Donald Trump and FBI director James Comey in the Oval Office in February 2017, this chapter revisits in a post-structuralist perspective canonical concepts from pragmatics and sociolinguistics , such as Austin’s performative, Searle’s speech act, Goffman’s participation framework and Brown and Levinson's concept of politeness through facework. It shows the workings of symbolic power in the most mundane interaction rituals. It introduces the notion of institution, not only in the form of particular organizations such as the Government, the Family, the Army, or the Church, but also any durable social relation which endows individuals with power, status and resources of various kinds, for example, membership in a club, association, corporation or online community, but also more unspoken relations of wealth, race, ethnicity or gender that represent institutionalized forms of symbolic power. These institutions give people authority, legitimacy and the right to speak and be listened to. Communicative practice is therefore not just the ability to speak correctly and appropriately, but an individual and institutional struggle to be heard and taken seriously.