Wheelies and shiny disco balls

So far I’ve managed to cover the first two days of X-SCAPES workshop in Bern, Switzerland. I realize that it’s a hardly optimal, if not simply counterproductive to write these recaps weeks, now over a month, after the conference. Then again, it’s not that I’m helpless, no, I can choose, but rather that if I’m attracted to something enough, it ends up taking precedence over other things. One of the essays in between was exactly like that, read something on something, which then led to something else, which, in turn, turned into an impromptu essay. Another essay, the one before this, was actually motivated by my own presentation on this day of presentations in the conference (I’ll get to it, eventually). I keep calling it a conference despite it being a workshop. I’m not exactly sure what the difference even is, in the sense that it functioned like a conference. Then again, I guess it’s called a workshop as the emphasis on what you can learn from the other presenters.

The third and last day wasn’t actually the shortest day despite the late start, half an hour later than the days before. Each day was, more or less, jam-packed with action, to the extent that you couldn’t see it all unfold. That’s what you get with things getting bigger. I remember the hosts in Bern pointing this out well in advance, how they preferred that everyone could attend it all in a running plenary format, but that would have axed, I guess, at least, one third of the presentations, perhaps pushed them to poster presentations, which would have, in turn, axed the actual poster presenters. For me this was just fine that there were parallel sessions. I’ve been to conferences where there are multiple parallel sessions and you just have to make choices. Then there are those massive conferences where you have no idea what else was there even though you attended it, but that’s something different altogether.

Right, so, I’m sticking to my approach, covering only what I found interesting or otherwise noteworthy. Starting the day was Barbara Soukup’s presentation on a quantitative approach to linguistic landscape research. This was of interest to me because I’ve done quantitative research as well, albeit, I’d say I’m, oddly enough, quite far from what she presented on. The main difference is that, for me, what is interesting are the materialized discourses, how things come to be the way they are and how they, in interaction with us, shape us while we are blissfully ignorant of it all. To be more specific, I’m not actually interested in the objects themselves, by themselves, but how it is we come to not consciously see them and the materialized discourses. It is then my job to render them visible. Simply put, I’m not interested in appearances or list of things as such.

This does not mean, however, that data shouldn’t be taken seriously. On the contrary, it should be taken seriously. The upside of having a lot of data is being able to look at the big picture, what crops up. It also allows one to slice and dice, to look at the data from this and/or that angle, to conjure all kinds of things that may otherwise remain hidden. There’s also the thing that, for example, if I were to focus only on a couple of things, I might risk making things up as I go, perhaps only to reinforce my own presumptions or hypotheses. In my own research, I’ve most definitely been allured by encountering certain elements that I have expected, only to realize later on that they were, at best, fringe phenomena. Simply put, I have got served by my own data, but only because all the effort that went into it.

Then again, this does not mean that it’s ok to ignore theory. Otherwise it’s simply practice and no theory, mere empiricism which ignores the issue that we always bring something into our work. I reckon there’s no such thing as unmediated observation. That’s why my work is or, rather, is seen as theory heavy, which I counter by pointing out what I just wrote. You cannot have practice without theory and vice versa. They are, to use Deleuzo-Guattarian parlance, in reciprocal presupposition. You can’t have one without the other.

Anyway, Soukup’s presentation addressed multiple issues that are particularly problematic when it comes to unit of analysis. She explained, for example, how the matter of size was handled. I once pondered this and was about to include a similar approach in my own work, classifying the units of analysis by, for example, ISO standardized paper sizes. I think there’s merit to this. The problem is, however, that other factors, namely contrast (think of foreground/background) may be as influential if not more influential than size when it comes to how apparent some phenomenon is. This was something that bothered me quite a bit in my own research and I did a ton of reading on how human vision works. I intended to include it in my methodology article but that part of the text ended up being cut, so it never made it, legit, in the academics. It’s sort of there, but as more like a footnote without any actual elaboration. ‘Tis a shame, but what can you do? Nothing really. It’s not like I had any choice but to take it out because I’m are a nobody. My word is worth … all to others if you ask me. This is, of course, more about publishing than about doing a good job at something, so let’s not get tangled up on that, as pleasurable it would be to rant, on and on, about such.

There was also a very good bit in the presentation on how certain … things are problematic to count as one. It was brought up how, for example, there are letters pasted directly on to a shop window. Do they count as separate items or not? I’ve addressed in my own work. I found it pretty much impossible to even try to argue that they are separate units of analysis. It would simply make no sense to treat them as separate entities, despite being physically distinct from one another, each consisting of this and/or that much of tape sticky from the side that makes it possible for them to be pasted directly on to a plane, for example a wall or a window.

It may just be that I can’t remember it properly anymore but somehow it seemed that this was covered but no satisfactory solution to it was given to it. It seemed even contradictory when the presentation veered into the very fine details of what to count as units of analysis. It was pointed out how text, combinations of letters and numbers, on what I’d call an assortment of nuts and bolts, on, for example, streets signs are taken into account. This is, perhaps, the thing that puzzled the audience the most. But before I get to that, as I was saying, it seemed contradictory to include text, information, on bolt caps as separate units of analysis, but not then count each separate piece of taping in the shape of letter as one unit. If you go all physical in the definition, this is what you end up with. This drew criticism from the crowd.

To be fair, I’m not saying people shouldn’t be doing this or that. I’m very much Against Method in this regard. Soukup did have a point about how it would be of interest to certain people, that is to say the people who maintain them. I think that’s a fair point. Then again, it may be just me but I reckon you could do the very same thing with nuts, bolts, screws and the like as a non-situated analysis. I acknowledge and understand that this could be of value as a situated analysis, but, as, if my memory serves me right, this drew criticism from an audience member. The criticism was, in my opinion, fair because you do have to wonder if the physical size of the bolt cap, not to mention the lack of contrast between the embossed text and the bolt cap itself, warrants it. Even the people dealing with them probably know them by their size alone, even if blindfolded. In other words, it is of little consequence in everyday life what is embossed on a bolt cap, if anything at all.

If it was up to me, and it is when my own research is concerned, I’d just try to focus not on how something is in its totality, the truth and nothing but the truth, but on something that is … interesting, of interest. I don’t know about others, but there’s no way that I could get it all. This also made me think of David Karlander’s presentation, or at least what I took from it, in the sense that it ends up being an endless pursuit as literally anything could be interpreted as worth including, even scraped paint that looks like writing, but isn’t (or is it?).

Moving on, as I don’t have much to say about the presentations before the final parallel sessions, I’ll comment my own presentation on nocturnal landscapes, nightscapes or landscapes in the dark (whatever you want to call them). I reckon it was a bit theory heavy for most people and I sure didn’t get a shower of comments afterwards either, at the session, nor later on either. Anyway, I reckon it went just fine. I managed to do everything in time (there was a clock on the opposite wall to me, nice!). In summary of the questions that were asked, I did have to point out that while there is plenty of … untapped potential in making use of … assemblages and abstract machines (or diagrams), as presented in ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’, it is extremely tough to get into. It took me a couple of years to get into it and make use of it in a way that’s not merely superficial, limited to dropping fancy concepts like the ones mentioned above. I find it very applicable, but I acknowledge that it can be tough to apply if haven’t managed to wrap your head around it.

I believe I answered the wrong question regarding deterritorialization. I can’t remember what it was exactly anymore, but afterwards I felt that I didn’t manage to answer Crispin Thurlow’s question properly. I believe it had to do with the applicability of the concepts, to which I would now reply by stating that when we think of ourselves, who we are, what we’ve become, assemblages, both as machinic assemblages of desire and collective assemblages of enunciation (we could also call them as having content/expression or material/expression, dynamic arrangements of heterogeneous bodies) are particularly important.

I think this is particularly relevant to linguistic landscape studies because it is exactly what we are doing, looking at not how language operates between speakers or interlocutors (isolated from the other bodies, human and nonhuman) as often done in linguistics, but how the other bodies, namely those bodies that act as various linguistic or semiotic signs play a role in who we are, who we’ve become and, outside us, how things are (the other bodies).

Okay, paying attention to the linguistic/semiotic elements isn’t all inclusive, sure, granted, but, as much of the linguistic landscape research shows, it has been largely neglected in the past. Why that is? I’d argue that it has to do with the mainstream emphasis of the rational subject who is taken to be at control at all times. If we think that we are rational subjects, capable of navigating the world according to the best of our interest, then, yes, it may indeed seem rather idiotic to study all the … objects that we pay attention to in our research. I mean, if they can have no influence over you, why would you study them? Then again, if that doesn’t hold, as I’d argue, understanding the role of all of what we take for granted and thus ignore as having any effect on us is of utmost importance. This requires us to think differently.

This is why I find the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari particularly useful, not only for giving us a lot of the tools to do so, but also for letting us think differently. I pointed out how others did a good job explaining how Henri Lefebvre approaches space. That’s another good way to think of it all. Michel Foucault is also particularly useful when we think challenge the rational subject as the know it all we like to think of ourselves (despite often actually being subject to rather than subject of). Bruno Latour is also of interest to me because he does such an excellent job explaining why it is all these bits and bobs matter and how we even treat them as if having human qualities (while elevating ourselves as all mighty subjects, mind you).

As I believe I did point out in reply to another question after my presentation, what distinguishes Deleuze and Guattari from, say, Lefebvre, is their position on the subject. Identity is no longer primary. Difference is primary. Difference is not merely between preset identities. Identity is secondary to difference. That radically alters how we come to think of ourselves (this is the painful bit, where I’d expect you , the reader, to start objecting because it threatens your understanding of yourself, as something stable, as this and/or that). Everything now affects or at least may affect us to some degree. This decenters the subject. It’s not that we are no longer subjects, we are, at least to ourselves, but that identity is only momentary, what we’ve become at any given moment. If you think of it, what people like to call reflection (as if gazing into a mirror), you are not actually gazing at yourself, who you are, but who you think you are, that is to say who you were, from the position of who you are, happen to be. The thing is, if you, the reader, didn’t get it, that as you engage in contemporary omphaloskepsis, you are not even gazing at yourself. You see what you desire to see, to put it in simple terms.

Anyway, as the subject is decentered, it is of great interest to pay attention to the other bodies, including the nonhuman bodies. Why that is? Well, if you didn’t get it already, you are what you’ve become, in relation to the assemblages, the ever changing (as much as it does at any moment) constellations of heterogeneous bodies, including but not limited to various objects that contain language.

Latour speaks of the missing mass in ‘Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts’. To make sense of this, he (152) argues that physicists are very keen on looking for just that, the missing mass, which would then add up nicely to the total. He (152) then does the same thing with sociology, arguing that sociologists desperately try to find the missing links, the “social links sturdy enough to tie all of us together or for moral laws that would be inflexible enough to make us behave properly.” As his text pertains to sociology, as indicated in the title of his text already, he (152-153) suggest that what is missing is the mass of artifacts, the nonhuman components in our lives. He (153) argues that they are not typically given consideration because … they are not human, thus of little concern to scholars who study all things human, such as how they come to deal with one another. To get somewhere with this, his gripe in the text is with sociology, people as society.

Following this line of argumentation then, my gripe would be that in linguistics, even in sociolinguistics, we ignore the nonhuman components. I realize that this is going to be a bit of caricature of the situation, but still, when I attend seminars at the university, or in conferences, others are busy analyzing intentional uses of language, speech or writing, as spoken or as contained in some document. In other words, what is studied is part and parcel human, occurring between humans, from one or more persons to another person or persons. I tend to be the only one who is doing something else, thinking outside the box, working on something kooky. Now, no need to be upset by that. I’m not knocking my fellow linguistic landscape researchers here. This is exactly how linguistic landscape research is markedly different from mainstream linguistics. It dares to do its own thing, to go as far as to ignore humans, to simply look at things and say, you know what, this is interesting, why didn’t we think of this before?

Oh, and before you object, nonhuman is here understood as something that is not human. It can be human made, yes, but it’s not human. For example, for Latour (155) a hinge, among other things, is a nonhuman. Also, yes, you can understand various nonhumans containing or carrying text (and/or image) as texts. Agreed. However, they are not mere documents, some black on white, writing on a page, that we have a look at when we feel like it or are compelled to do so, for example in school. Yes, a book is nonhuman in the sense that it is not human. That said, you can, in most cases, happily ignore a book, leave it on a bookshelf. Where it happens to be located is of little interest and consequence. You can read it wherever you happen to roam … or not. It’s up to you. With various situated objects, including but not limited to road signs, shop signs and billboards, it’s not up to you whether you come to engage with it or not, unless you start avoiding places on the basis that there are these situated objects. To make sense of this, it’s perhaps useful to explain this as having to do with actors and actants, as explained by Latour in his book ‘Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory’. He (55) uses the word ‘actant’ in order to avoid having to resort to “sort[ing] in advance the ‘true’ agencies from the ‘false’ ones[.]” He (71) clarifies actant in relation to actor:

“If action is limited a priori to what ‘intentional’, ‘meaningful’ humans do, it is hard to see how a hammer, a basket, a door closer, a cat, a rug, a mug, a list, or a tag could act. They might exist in the domain of ‘material’ ‘causal’ relations, but not in the ‘reflexive’ ‘symbolic’ domain of social relations.”

Simply put, if the standard is on intentionality or consciousness, then, well, only humans do things … with the nonhuman objects. If objects seem to do something, on their own, it only has to do with objects colliding, because you did something for it to happen, or someone else did. This is how agency is understood if it is limited only to actors. If we think this in the context of linguistics, this assumes that intentional actors communicate, use language to transfer information from one person to another either in speech or in writing. This is not my position, but let’s not get tangled up on that (I’ve discussed this in detail in other essays). Anyway, Latour (72) continues:

“By contrast, if we stick to our decision to start from the controversies about actors and agencies, then any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor – or, if it has no figuration yet, an actant.”

So, instead of limiting agency to intentional human action, now things, any and all things, have agency, as much as they do or don’t, in the sense that they may modify the state of affairs at any given time, pending on the arrangement. Note here that I used the word ‘arrangement’. I could also speak of assemblages and then we are back to Deleuze and Guattari, who, in my view, take this to a next level when it comes to taking into account all the heterogeneous elements that effectuate the state of affairs at any given time.

If everything is taken into consideration, we could speak of haecceities, what is, for example, to take a walk five o’clock in the evening, wherever that may take place, as explained by Deleuze and Guattari (261-263) in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’. Okay, no one can take it to that level in a description of the state of affairs and I would argue that it would be not only futile but also beside the point.

What is important here, regardless of whether you take cues on this one from Latour or from Deleuze and Guattari, or someone else, is taking into account the nonhuman in our becoming human. I think linguistic landscape research already does this. Sure, it doesn’t take into account all the elements at play at any given time in an assemblage, only some. Then again, it would be futile to try to take into account everything and attempt to describe it in its totality. It’s not that we should be intentionally ignoring other elements, other factors, but I reckon addressing how language and/or image is manifested in the landscape and how it used for certain purposes is already quite the undertaking. More importantly, it’s something worth doing, no matter how your colleagues emphasize that linguistics is about this and/or that, namely about speech and writing, as produced by intentional actors, for neutrally communicating information between humans.

Moving on, on to the final presentations. The last two parallel presentations that I attended were on a rather distinct settings, one tucked away on a remote island somewhere in Indonesia, the other in rural Tennessee. These are not your typical research settings, that’s why I thought I’d bring them up.

The first one, the one set on the island, was by Ivan Panović. Not unlike my own presentation that focused on the night time or what appears like night time because of the darkness here in the winter time, yet at the same time much unlike my presentation because the focus was on going beyond language, Panović brought up how during daylight hours there isn’t much going on that remote island but then it all changes when it gets dark.

With regards to language and signs, he noted how in general there aren’t many signs to be seen, except in the areas designated for the people visiting the island. The locals aren’t overly fond of erecting signs. That’s why much of the attention in the presentation was on how place making there is more kinetic than linguistic, how dance plays a role in this. I think I should have bothered Panović more on this, as he was at the same table at the conference dinner, but, at the time, my understanding of this was … erm … rather limited. Had I done my previous essay before his presentation, I would have had things to ask on the spot. Anyway, in retrospect, this is more fascinating than it was for me at that time, but only because of me and my own shortcomings at the time, really. I find darkness particularly interesting because it forces us to re-evaluate space and place, on the spot, simply because it limits our vision, making things more close-up, here and now, and kinetic, if not palpable. That is, of course, if we let darkness be darkness instead of using light to counter or circumvent it, as I tried to point out in my own presentation.

In stark contrast to the setting presented by Panović, Rebecca Todd Garvin examined the use of placards on people’s yards in rural Tennessee. It’s worth noting here that, as presented, those yards are usually private property and, while I’m not an expert here, I reckon that they are usually respected as such. In other words, you can put up more or less anything on your private property, pending, well, I honestly don’t know what the limitations would be in such cases. That was sort of the point in the presentation, how people express their views, especially political views, whatever they may be, to the passers-by. This presentation was also interesting in the sense that it’s very different from what I’m used to, people having the opportunity to actually put up signs on their property, like it or not. I won’t go into specifics but something tells me that here you would need this and/or that permit to do that, on one’s private property, especially if it is to be anyhow visible outside the property. Oddly enough, this touches on how landscape can be used to in planning and zoning, in order to do exactly that, even if in this context that was not the case, as presented to us.

The last presentation of the day and the conference/workshop was held by Alistair Pennycook. I may have mislead you, the reader, with my title for this essay. Pennycook’s presentation had indeed to do with wheels … with bicycles, but, alas, no wheelstands were included in the presentation. That’s not to say that the presentation did not get off the ground, like a wheel in a wheelie.

Anyway, Pennycook approached cycling or biking as more than merely a medium of transport. Much of the focus was on city bikes, both the ones that are docked into a station after use and the application based ones that can be left anywhere, only to be picked up by someone else. This was of interest to me because they had just introduced these back home, while I was away in fact. He went on to point out the differences and how these bikes are not only merely there for transport, to shift people around in cities. With the docked bikes it was noted by Pennycook that they tend to be financed by advertising companies who then offer ad space on the sides of the bikes. The point here being that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You function as a mobile ad platform while on one. On top of that, the companies get data from the people who use them, which can then be used to optimize advertising and commercial services. You see where people tend to go and from where. This also applies to the application based bikes, if not more so. He also spoke of how this is connected to the gig economy, working as a bike delivery guy.

Perhaps most interestingly, at least to me, Pennycook brought up how visible the bikes are. To use a local example, it’s rather evident how visually salient the bikes are, especially when positioned at the already clearly marked docking stations that they introduced in certain hot spots around the city. It’s hard not to pay attention to the bright yellow colored city bikes with a proportionally large section reserved for advertiser on the back side of the bike. Group the bikes together at a clearly marked docking station and it’s even harder to avoid their presence in the landscape. They most certainly demand your attention, which, I’m sure the advertisers are quite fond of.

As a side note, Pennycook mentioned how this all requires quite a bit of maintenance as well, having people move the bikes from station to station because, well, it’s only bound to happen that the bikes end up in certain places. Oddly enough, I just recently ran into this happening. As one might guess, the bike docking station at the student village here ends up having a ton of bikes parked there, so, come Sunday they need to be relocated by vans to other stations in the city.

Pennycook also pointed out how people find the bikes unappealing in the landscape, how they are considered an eyesore by the people in whose neighborhood they happen to be placed. On top of that, one could add that there’s the issue of people actually biking to and in their neighborhood. What do I mean by that? Well, something tells me that certain groups of people do not want some cyclist riffraff in their neighborhood. This is the point I already made about how landscape can be used to keep people out by applying it as a standard of beauty in city planning and zoning. He also noted how this applied to the application based bikes. He showed us examples of how people objecting to these bikes had, for example, hoisted these bikes on tree branches. That’s only bound to happen here as well. We also have the river, the resting place of many bikes, the place where your bike has most likely gone if it has, to your surprise, gone missing in the city center. So, perhaps, people won’t be placing them on tree branches here.

What I also took from the last presentation was, something that I had planned a while ago already, attempting to address landscapes on a bike, but so far I’ve been unsatisfied with the quality of my work on it. We’ll see.

In summary, the last day was quite fruitful to me. I don’t know what people thought of my presentation, aside from a handful of people who commented it as interesting later on during the conference dinner. It also pushed me to rework my understanding of landscape towards something positive, something that I had postponed until to that point. That was the topic of my previous essay. In other words, it was not only about what I encountered during the day but also what came to me later on. I think I can say the same about the conference in general. I consider myself lucky if I get one good idea at a conference. I think this time was far more productive, yielding all kinds of ideas, either while following the presentations or later on back home. So, all in all, this trip was particularly productive, thanks to the organizers, as well as all the presenters.


  • Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ([1980] 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Latour, B. ([1992] 1997). Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts. In W. E. Bijker and J. Law (Eds.), Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change (pp. 225–258). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
  • Latour, B. ([1992] 2009). Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts. In D. G. Johnson and J. M. Wetmore (Eds.), Technology and Society: Building Our Sociotechnical Future (pp. 151–180). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.