Language and political economy

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Susan Gal. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.021


Language and political economy

An afterword

Susan GAL, University of Chicago

This brief commentary sketches some of the historical context and motivations of the writings on language and political economy in the 1980s–90s, comparing and highlighting the distinctly different contributions of this special issue. Included are observations made at the roundtable discussion that closed the conference at which the papers in this special section were first presented.

Keywords: reflexivity, language ideology, inequality

These provocative papers need no further commentary; they and the introduction speak for themselves. Instead, I wish to express my deep thanks to Andy Graan for organizing the conference on “Language and political economy revisited” out of which these papers grew and for thereby directing renewed attention to this lineage of theory and research. I thank as well the contributors to this special section, and others who presented papers and panel commentaries, for their rich contributions. Although he generously picked out my paper for attention, Graan was pointing to a whole spate of work in and around 1989 that expressed dissatisfaction with the institutional and conceptual separation between studies of linguistic form and social interaction on the one hand and on the other hand sociohistorical processes that were called political and economic.

The lively discussion that closed the conference reflected on how the questions, objects, and analyses have changed in the last quarter century. In addition to conference participants, this roundtable included Summerson Car, Susanne Cohen, Costas Nakassis, Michael Silverstein and myself. Here I touch briefly on a few of our observations and impressions.[332]

It seemed to me important that many linguistic anthropologists, circa 1989, were rejecting two widespread presumptions: First, that the “talk” we studied was a separate realm of activity (the famous “interaction order”) and second, that language was an inert medium that merely named, displayed, reflected, or was correlated with other and more important processes of political domination and economic stratification. In the face of such presumptions, we were trying to grasp how inequalities, power relations, authority, and legitimacy were actively constructed by linguistic practice-as-action, and by the uptake or evaluation of talk-in-context. There were puzzles and challenges for those with political commitments that, I am glad to see, are echoed in the papers of the conference and this special section: If talk was merely derivative or ancillary, then how could activists spur social movements such as feminism through interactional practices of consciousness raising; how could civil society rely on organized speech events of deliberation; how could popular protest push back against state policies; how did public spheres form at all and have effects?

With these questions we were seeking partners in sociocultural anthropology who were interested in similar issues. Thinking together across the subdisciplines was important twenty-five years ago and was also notable as one of the leitmotifs of this conference. The papers of this special issue are indeed fine examples of such engagements. They derive inspiration from—while also critiquing—classic anthropological and recent critical theory, legal and postcolonial writers, and Foucauldian analysis, as much as linguistic and semiotic frameworks.

As Graan’s introduction argues, the works of 1989 were engaged in a rethinking of those linguistic anthropological frameworks. Despite the stark tripartite label— language, political, economy—subsequent analytics in linguistic anthropology did not retain these reified domains. Instead, there was a powerful move to study how linguistic practices invoke such categories. We asked, what ideological/discursive perspectives construct these separate domains; how do linguistic practices presuppose what is deemed to belong under these rubrics? How and when are domains kept apart—by analysts or participants or both—and to what effect? How was “language” made to seem a supposedly autonomous, bounded object separate from the regimentations of such indexical signaling? Language ideology, semiotic ideology, metapragmatics, Bakhtinian dialogism became the conceptual tools for understanding how epistemological and ontological principles are invoked, enacted, and performatively entailed in registers of talk, within interactional contexts that contribute to producing institutional practices later deemed economic and political. In the years since, linguistic anthropologists have not been alone in focusing attention on discourse and its regimentation, and that has enabled collaborations among scholars in different subfields.

As Costas Nakassis remarked, “anytime we look to cite the economic or political, we always find linguistic and discursive activity going on. A new space is opened up where new objects of analysis can be formulated, ones that cut across questions of ‘language’ per se and ‘political economy’ per se.” Indeed, I joined Nakassis in thinking it important that the papers focused on objects of analysis—publicity, brands, protests, diversity, consumption, regulation—that would be hard to classify as one or the other of these three categories. Michael Silverstein noted that the earlier, pre-1980s ideological perspective treating language, politics and economics as though [333]they were separate “marbles” that would somehow be put together was “counter-productive both for an ‘empirically realistic linguistics’ and for those working in sociocultural realms, who are discovering the incredible suffusion of everything sociocultural, including the economy, with modes of semiosis of which language is the most obvious in many ways, but certainly not unique.” In the same spirit, Summerson Carr drew attention to the necessity of theorizing institutions anew, now with a view toward the political possibilities of semiotic ambiguity in their construction.

To me it was crucial that the earlier period we were citing—the years around 1989—saw the end of the Cold War. The subsequent world was no longer binary (not militarily, nor as social form), and this hastened the questioning of other binaries. We had thought we knew what “political economy” meant as a contrast of systems: socialism vs. capitalism, for instance, or the fairly fixed center-periphery relations of world systems theory, or Marxist analyses of superstructure and base, or even hegemony vs. resistance. We thought we knew who was dominant and who subaltern and that ethnographers would be aligned with the peripheral, the postcolonial, and the less powerful. But the changes of the 1990s (and their earlier harbingers) threw these understandings into disarray. Attention turned to many kinds of subalterns, and our ethnographies increasingly have engaged with many sorts of elites and experts who have differing ideological commitments and agendas. Moreover, related divides between the cultural/material, structure/agency, public/private, macro/micro that had marked genres of research were unpacked and critiqued. We had also thought we knew what “language” was. Yet the process of undermining the binaries helped to recast that too, foregrounding the study of the linguistic and broadly semiotic process by which such apparently disjunctive, co-constitutive categories are created and naturalized, but are also sometimes undone.

The subsequent capitalist triumphalism showed the centrality of communication: the translation and very wide circulation of specific forms of talk that indexed, justified, and imposed corporate power; the appropriation and transformation of other ethics and projects into this increasingly pervasive one. The papers are striking in showing us the global proliferation of linguistic registers that signal the organization of social life around values of “markets,” “business,” so-called “empowerment,” and “responsibility” in institutions of every kind and scale. They gesture as well at the US export of terms that have since had checkered careers, like “freedom,” “transparency,” and “democracy,” dispersed via experts imposing text-templates of constitutions, contracts, and voting systems. Practices that had been reviled and stigmatized were recontextualized and newly valorized (think of “markets” and “individualism” in eastern Europe). The papers show how these (neoliberal) projects were constructed, and how oppositions to them (think current disputes around “commons” or “nation”) were organized as countermoves, like responses in a virtual conversation. We learn from these papers how politicians, consumers, publics, and activists are no less adept than scholars at reflexivity, at reconceptualizing and relabeling social reality within their own value-contests. It is clarifying to think about these moves and countermoves as an open-ended, contingent historical process, semiotically mediated, and one that we observe in medias res, as it is actively made through reformulations and recontextualizations of terms and ideological stances that may seem familiar to some participants, yet are often starkly recast and disputed in meaning and value for specific projects of change.[334]

As Silverstein noted, the papers were an “impressive, sustained counterargument” to what he called the “presumed synchronicization of sociocultural phenomena.” That is, the papers rejected the assumption that “a political economy is a kind of functionally closed system that operates according to certain . . . principles, [and] that a neoliberal modality of governmentality is an identifiable functional system.” By contrast, the approach of the papers, he noted, saw neoliberalism as “a useful, both folk and analytic, ideological stance that can be mobilized, rationalized, and dialectically engaged with actual practices on the ground to somebody’s advantage . . . and therefore to someone’s disadvantage, in the allocation of valued stuff, where that stuff in a certain sense gets objectualized.” The “contributory hallmark of the papers,” he stressed, “is a linguistically or semiotically informed way of doing analysis . . . by which [we see that] people articulate their stakes by labeling [them] . . . for particular transformative projects of one sort or another . . . mode of analysis that is certainly conscious of the politics of value, and in that sense political economic, but also really deeply engaged in the constitution of value as itself a kind of modality of social life”

Yet, as Susanne Cohen rightly noted, this displaces the earlier “place to stand” that was seemingly provided by the older work on political economy. Can we as scholars still speak up to recognize the patterned inequalities being reproduced? This brought together the works circa 1989 and the stance of the conference papers. For, the current work gives one a “place to intervene”; we as scholars are co-eval with the phenomena we analyze. As many of us have written, there is no view from nowhere; we are part of what we study. Just as the terms of opposition in any public debate can be quickly appropriated by those who are targeted, so are anthropological concepts increasingly repackaged, repurposed, and relaunched, no longer as technical terms within a scholarly context but increasingly for quite diverse purposes and uses, sometimes with the echo of scholarly expertise as an authorizing shadow, sometimes without. “Culture” is only the oldest and most (in)famous example. “Narrative,” “discourse,” and “translation” have all appeared at your neighborhood clinic, cinema, and supermarket. The papers of this special section return to “language and political economy” in a transformed way, throwing important light on these ongoing, powerful reflexive processes. Once again, I thank Graan and all the contributors for a compelling intellectual event, and look forward to continuing exchanges.[335]

Économie politique et langage: un épilogue

Résumé : Ce commentaire évoque succinctement le contexte historique, ainsi que ce qui motivait les écrits sur le langage et l’économie politique dans les années 1980-1990, tout en comparant et soulignant les contributions radicalement différentes de ce numéro spécial. Y sont inclues des observations faites lors d’une table ronde qui conclut la conférence à l’occasion de laquelle les essais rassemblés dans ce numéro spécial furent présentés pour la première fois.

Susan GAL is Mae and Sidney G. Metzl Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Chicago. She has written about the semiotic and linguistic practices that construct political economic processes as well as gender relations in Eastern Europe. Her continuing ethnographic work in Europe explores the relation of linguistic diversity and language ideologies to sociohistorical transformations.

Susan Gal
Department of Anthropology
University of Chicago
1126 E. 59th Street
Chicago, Il 60637