Radical media, politics and culture.


[The following is a rambling loose reflection, in part, on some of the effects of certain types of work on speech and relationships. It’s part of my own trying to understand some of the claims made about immaterial labor, and the differences between different types of this labor, and its effects on those of us who do it for a living…]

“For too long some of the most influential disciplines in the humanities - disciplines such as politics and economics, which determine the course of nations and the human possibilities of millions – have shared more with the enterprise of "Newspeak" in which the boundaries of the thinkable perpetually contract and ossify. As Orwell implicitly understood, this is a serious political danger, both for the practice of democracy and the enterprise of policy. It reduces knowledge to an instrumental tool, a political commodity, and mouths an arrogant rebuke to the liberal premises of the university as a free space of intellectual inquiry. Yes, knowledge needs structure and logic, but it also needs freedom and surprise, sudden disjunctions and conjunctions, caution and daring at once. Theory needs to be constantly challenged, both on its own epistemological terrain and at the crossroads of its intersection with history and practice. Theory needs to find itself surprised by events, even as it breaks up their structure of obviousness and commonsense.”

Borderlands is a fine entity. I pasted in this quote from their manifesto mainly because I like it. The quote also resonates with some conversations my partner and I have been having lately.

Recently on a long car trip we started talking about speech. The conversation started off talking about when we lived in the UK, about different phrases that have different meanings in the UK vs the US. Then we start talking about the circle of friends we had there, which included a number of exchange students who were not native English speakers. In order to converse with some of those friends we had to monitor our speech, avoid colloquialisms and certain metaphors, including ones that we didn’t recognize as metaphors (“take a right on Dalkeith then head south”, “I’ll fix you a cup of tea”, etc).

I quite enjoyed aspects of this, being deliberate about word choice and so on. For years I have periodically decided upon new terms and phrases to introduce into my regular parlance. (My most recent favorite is “interweb”.) I used to do this in high school, train myself to use new terms and phrases until they became habitual, then I would see if my friends would pick up on them, and I would then decide whether or not I wanted to keep using the term. (I started saying “swingin’!” in high school, in place of “cool!”. It took two or three weeks before I stopped being embarrassed and before it stopped being forced. After another 2 weeks most of my friends had picked it up, and in another month the phrase had entered the vocabularies of people from entirely different subcultural units.)

This conversation turned into a conversation about friends and family. We both are at the higher end of the formal education spectrum for our families. We have some friends who are grad students and professors, and many who are not. We have both had the experience of using terms that others didn’t understand. When we first starting reading Marx we would have annoying go-rounds with people where we’d be trying to make points about, you know, The Man, and people wouldn’t get what we meant. “Estrangement? Externalization?” Being honest, it was sometimes a type of maneuver – a powerplay within the language game. Certain modes of speech can serve to place one on a hierarchy. (Of course, this hierarchy is somewhat relative – some people are wowed by polysyllabic phraseology, others are dismissive and unimpressed.) In my experience this has occurred most frequently around lefties – big words and name- dropping can be a way to win an argument.

On the other hand, it can be particularly frustrating to try and talk to someone and to accidentally make a conversational move that is interpreted as a powerplay. This can happen with theory/philosophy and politics, and in my circles of friends used to happen with indie music. (Luckily we’re mostly all grown out of deliberately trying to score points by knowing obscure bands’ discographies and changing member line ups.) Someone would be talking about a band they’ve become very excited about, and someone else would think they were trying to impress people, to be an expert on indie music. It’s certainly happened with me and members of my family. People have asked me what I like to read, or what I was studying when I was in university. I would explain in the terms given in the books and courses. Afterward what I had created was not clarity over my interests, but a communicative misfire (ie, they didn’t understand me and I felt frustrated either at their inability to get it or at my inability to explain). Of course, misfires are themselves productive of other effects – they can be performative actions to place at a position on a hierarchy. (“You don’t understand me because I am smarter, better read, more sophisticated.”)

There’s a great essay by HP Grice called “Logic and Conversation”, argues that conversation is basically structured around a pragmatic principle of agreement. At the very least, an agreement to converse, which, more fully fleshed out , includes agreements or rules like ‘be relevant’ (don’t make non sequiturs), ‘be clear’, and so on. These rules can be violated sometimes in the spirit of agreement – non sequiturs can be a form of humor, for instance. Grice doesn’t address that the rules can also be violated in order to produce other effects, like jockeying for position. What’s particularly frustrating is when one does this by accident, when one is genuinely not trying to jockey for position but has mistakenly violated a rule (since clarity is relative) so that the other person thinks that one is playing a game of one-upsmanship.

When I first went through organizer training at the AFL people would make this mistake – lefty studenty types like myself, using phrases like “this exploitive situation can be rectified if you and your colleagues act collectively”. This type of misfire can be a big problem during a home visit, when one is trying to establish initial rapport with someone. If people don’t learn to stop doing this, they don’t last long on the job.

On rapport building… My partner works as a nanny. I have worked in a variety of ‘nonprofit’ organizations, as an organizer, canvasser, etc. Both of these involve linguistic labor: rapport building (with the child and with the parents; with workers and with union bosses), asserting authority (over the child; to the workers to establish oneself as an expert who should be obeyed when necessary), and establishing competency (to the parents with regard to one’s ability to understand and care for the child, and to hand emergencies; to the union bosses as a ‘loyal soldier’, as someone who can both build rapport with workers and who can assert authority over them as needed, and as someone who can strategize). Each of these areas has its own competencies.

It’s useful to think of each of these areas as a set of goals and techniques for maneuvering oneself into a position on a conversational hierarchy. Rapport building for a nanny and an organizer, to be successful, requires establishing a horizontal relationship, a relationship between relative equals who can plan and converse together in a situation of trust, confidence, and ease.

Typically when dealing with children and workers rapport building is an operation of climbing down a hierarchy, one starts from a position of perceived superiority and asserts that one is not (or does not think oneself to be) so much above the other after all. In some settings, though, depending on the child or the worker, there may be an initial assumption on the other’s part that one is inferior in some fashion (not cool, too old; overeducated, too young, too white, etc). This rapport building, when successful, places one in a horizontal relationship with an option upward: one is not just an equal, but an equal who can be superior. That is, one occupies a position of equality on a hierarchy with the flexibility to rise to a higher point as needed (ie, one can, as needed, assert authority/expertise in order to be listened to). When dealing with one’s employers, rapport building is a matter of establishing an inverse horizontality: an equality that recognizes it is an equality as the behest of the employer. One ascends to this equality, but does not assert without tacit approval. That is, the boss is still the boss.

Asserting authority is the placing of oneself in a superior position on a hierarchy. In dealing with children and workers this is an authority which allows one to give orders, to be listened, to dictate strategies and behaviors. One uses different terms, different body language, and different tones of voice to do this. One speaks differently when disciplining a child and explaining behavioral expectations (asserting oneself as in charge and to be listened to) than when one is praising or simply chatting or playing. One speaks differently to workers and tenants when one is explaining legal knowledge or campaign strategy (and such explanation is often as much a performative expression of one’s right to explain and to dictate strategy, that is, an assertion of oneself as an expert to be listened to) than when one is chatting, getting to know someone, learning their concerns and grievances, etc.

In dealing with employers, one also asserts oneself as an authority, but this is not the ability to make decisions. Rather, it is the ability to make decisions as authorized by the employer (the boss is still the boss). The authority is a form of expertise, not command. It is the establishment of competency. At times, this competency or expertise may be greater than that of the employer or lesser than that of the employer (it may be genuinely greater or lesser, or perceived as greater or lesser). This can vary depending on the situation and the employer – some want to be the greater expert, others want the employee to have a greater expertise.

Both of these jobs involves not only being good at the competencies of the specific areas above but also at being able to move from one type of linguistic labor to another fluidly.

My partner works as a nanny for people who are relatively educated and who have enough money to afford a nanny. She has to be able to converse with them, in a way different from how she converses with the children. The ability to change between these types of conversations is an element of her success in the work. The speech used to converse with the child is very important, but she will not be allowed to use it for long if she does not have a different, preferred mode of speech when dealing with the parents.

It’s the same with my experience in union and community organizing. One must be able to talk to workers and residents. One must also be able to talk to the bosses about those conversations, in a mode of speech that is sometimes taken to be superior to - but always held to be inappropriate for – the way one talks with workers and residents. And of course, there are different aged children with different backgrounds and parents with different backgrounds and temperaments. There are residents and job classes with different educational and other backgrounds. One can’t talk to each of them in exactly the same way, or rather, one will be less successful in the work if one does so.

So, a large portion of the work (of being perceived as competent in the work, which is what determines one’s degree of success) involves a pragmatic flexibility: the ability to shift between idiolects in order to be able to converse with many different – and different types of - people (and, of course, to accomplish required tasks in/when using a given idiolect, ie, one mush be able to converse successfully with different types of people, successful as defined by the ends of the job [and just to make sure I’m clear, by ‘idiolect’ I mean something like ‘idiosyncratic dialect’, basically the individual and relatively unique way that each person talks, which includes word choice, sentence structure, body language, tones of voice, and which people usually vary from setting to setting]). Success in each work related idiolect has a set of skills and techniques that must be acquired (we used to roleplay home visits, in order to be able to be more successful at them).

Flexibility in changing between idiolects is also a skill, and one for which, in my experience, there is less pedagogical technique developed. That is, there was less – certainly less deliberate and recognized – training in shifting gears between modes of conversation, than there was in certain specific modes of conversation. (Personal aside: I have found this flexibility of idiolect tremendously useful in my social and familial life. Misfires happen much less often, and much less often by accident. I have also found the techniques of rapport building very useful – In some settings and moods I tend to be reclusive, nervous, and shy, particularly when meeting and getting to know new people and in large group settings. From my work experience, however, I have gotten practiced at asking a set of questions to show interest in someone, and to get them talking about themselves or some subject of interest to them. I have also gotten practiced, though this skill is harder to maintain, at pay attention to cues – body language, tone of voice and diction, as well as conversational content – which indicate where to ask follow up questions, to get someone to speak further and to elaborate on some topic. )

Among our friends who are professors and students it strikes me that sometimes they have less flexibility of idiolect. My hunch is that this is because the labor of professing and studying involves less rapport building, and certainly less rapport building downward. That is, professors (like doctors, lawyers, other teachers, other experts) work in a setting where part of the work is establishing and maintaining oneself in a superior position on a hierarchy, both superior to those one works on (students, patients, clients) and superior to those outside the realm of that work (ie, smarter than those outside the academy, more in touch with health than the rest of the popular, etc. I suspect there’s much in common here with clergy – a relation between clergy and laiety, in which laypeople are defined in part by the clergy’s access to/use of certain language and texts.) The rapport building that does exist is less of the rapport with those who are below one, like rapport with children and workers for the nanny and organizer, rapport with an upward option (though perhaps this is overstated, and perhaps it changes with trends in pedagogy and customer service – trying to get know one’s students, having a good bedside manner, etc) and more rapport with colleagues – fellow professors, doctors, and lawyers, where one must define oneself (and one’s discipline/area of expertise) as equally (or better yet, more) competent and worthwhile compared to others, rapport that is also (is predicated on) establishing competency, rapport that resists any downward motion, the nonvoluntary placement of oneself at a lower place in a hierarchy. I think the linguistic labor of students mirrors this, but I’m not entirely sure.

What is most interesting to me in all of this, and which I haven’t really touched on, is the relationship of work and nonwork here, and some of the occupational hazards of immaterial labor (and, given that there are different sorts of linguistic and relational work, claims about the political possibilities of immaterial labor must be further qualified, as some of the relationships produced by immaterial labor are not of they type that one wants to see continue). The work on the clock certainly impacts the time and life off the clock (and some of the time off the clock is unremunerated work – reading and writing for students and teachers, for example, not to mention the effects of stress etc.) When I worked as an organizer I became decidedly unsocial in my personal life – spending my time building and maintaining relationships for a living for me meant that I had less energy and interest (and given the god awful work hours, very little time) to spend my little free time on similar pursuits off the clock. My partner leaves work hungry for adult conversation and to be on the receiving end of caring attention, rather than the giving end. It strikes me that one effect of graduate student and perhaps of professorial and other expert labor (an occupational hazard, so to speak) is a rigidity of idiolect, with regard to the terms, style of speech, and contents of one’s conversations. This is why I include the Borderlands quote – the mention of ossified language, and the dangers it poses to thought and democracy. I’m not sure about the thought and democracy part in this particular case, but I have seen this rigidity cause tension in relationships (friendship, familial, and romantic). Partly there is a disconnect – a tendency toward unintended misfires. These misfires can sometimes be taken as attempts at powerplays, at jockeying for position on hierarchies. And sometimes they are powerplays – the operation of producing oneself in the position of an expert can become habit, and can be corrosive to horizontal relationships in the rest of one’s life. (Of course, this is not to say that these particular damaging effects of work are worse than others, but there is perhaps a different wrinkle… being too tired or too stressed to go out because of work can be damaging to relationships too, but it is recognizably linked to work. Habits that one has because of work, habits of interaction, can be taken at times as being less as work related behaviors than as character or personality traits, as part of ‘who one is’, and so can perhaps be a different sort of challenge to deal with.)