Keep It Clean

As pointed out last time, I attended ADDA 2 conference, short for Approaches to Digital Discourse Analysis 2. I’ve dabbled a bit with digital discourse analysis in the past so I thought I’d spectate the event. Last time I focused on the plenary speakers and the tech demo, so this time I’ll focus on the regular sessions. Again, I’ll be selective with this, covering only some of the sessions, based solely on my interest in the topics. I’ll cover only the first day in this essay.

I first attended the session on ‘Language ideologies, attitudes, and norms’. First up, Anna Heuman presented on a topic that dealt with verbal hygiene, as used by Deborah Cameron in her book that carries that name. According to Cameron (1), this has to do with how we deal with language, not as a matter of using it but as a matter of dealing with it, working on it, improving it. Of course, as suggested by the title, improving language is hardly a neutral matter. So, when one indicates that someone’s language needs improving, it is seen as lacking in this and/or that way. As she (1-3) points out, it’s about cleaning it up, getting rid of some unwanted unclean aspects of language. What it really deals with, in an everyday sense, is how people come to scrub language clean, according to certain norms, values or standards, what one might also call discourses, practices, beliefs or dispositions, you know, depending on the nomenclature, that are time and place specific.

According to Cameron (3), this is not, however, to be confused with what is known as prescriptivism because it tends to be understood in negative terms, as bad or just plain wrong. On top of that, as she (3-4) goes on to point out, what it is countered with, anti-prescriptivism, is hardly any better as it easily slips into a form of prescriptivism, telling people what to do and what not to do despite its goals, telling those who tell others what to do and what not to do to to back the … off. Her (3-4) point here is not that you should just cave in because resistance is futile but that you should be aware of how all language is value-laden, how everything is attitudinal, one way or another.

To make more sense of this, Cameron (4) exemplifies this with two views. In the first view, the prescriptivist view, language, in itself, is perfect and ideal, structured according to certain principles, but speakers keep failing at it miserably, constantly misusing it, corrupting it, bastardizing it. I reckon this might also be called the abstract objectivist view or structuralist view, or, the view of linguistics ‘proper’. In the second view, the anti-prescriptivist view, variability and change are heralded but the expert stance on people as some sort of poor creatures that keep abusing it is retained. For me, what happens here is that the standard is undermined by the assertion that there are these variants, yet the framework of having a standard is retained. How so? Well, if we have a standard, what lies outside it, or so to speak, is the non-standard, the awkwardness that occurs in practice among those who cannot live up to the standard. What happens here is that instead of challenging this binary or biunivocalization, this dualism machine, the underlying logic is retained. So, when the variants become the thing instead of the combo of standard and non-standard, there’s only a move from a single division, this or that, to further division, this or that or that, ad infinitum. In fancy terms, the logic of endless finitude is retained, which results in doing more of the same even though that probably wasn’t the goal in the first place.

To exemplify this with something else, let’s take something like what it is like to be an individual, as commonly expressed by people as a matter of self-identification. So, to use a Foucauldian example, the standard of sexuality is (or was, as will come apparent) heterosexuality, essentially a man and a woman as a couple who engage in certain acts, which leaves out anything that does not match those parameters. Homosexuality was certainly out of bounds, a perversion, an illness according to some infinitely wise, for the, what, 200 to 300(-ish) years that it was a thing, as distinguished from heterosexuality within the discourse of sexuality. As hinted already, it took quite a while for it not to be considered an illness and then a bit more for it to become accepted, first as something that isn’t a mere perversion, and then, later on, not that long ago, as something that is not unlike heterosexuality in its focus on the couple and marriage rights. Now, the point here is not to say that this isn’t good. No, no. The point here is that what happened is that in the discourse of sexuality, what it is to bonk, to put it crudely, something that was once deemed non-standard, a perversion or a corruption that falls short of what is prescribed (to match first Cameron’s example), is now deemed a standard, or a variant of it, anyway (to match second Cameron’s example). In short, what you get, what we have now is what appears not to be two standards, in the sense that a standard is always exclusive, but two variants that nonetheless act like standards, as exclusive categories that are distinguished by what remains outside. So, in practice, to make more sense of this, if you used to struggle for acceptance, not fitting in as a homosexual among the heterosexuals, you are no longer measured as proper or improper in that regard but you are now measured as proper or improper with regard to homosexuality as it has been established as its own thing. As a result, it just sort of happens because the logic of it is built in, again, some are deemed as improper and therefore fall outside its boundaries as perverts, as corrupts. Now, you can of course fix that issue by adding more variants but that is basically just moving the goalposts as what you are doing adding this or that to an endless list. That’s why I called it a matter of endless finitude. What’s problematic about it is attempting to fix a division, this/that, with further divisions. It results in just more of the same, more splits.

It’s worth noting that the point here is not to say that one shouldn’t do anything because by this logic resistance appears to be futile. No, no. For me this is best explained in Foucauldian terms: an act resistance is an exercise of power, a counter exercise of power, not inherently better or somehow more noble than what is resisted. This is because from one perspective an act is an exercise of power on someone, something to be resisted, whereas from the other perspective, from the opposite side, that act may be considered an act of resistance against some exercise of power against that side. In other words, power and resistance go hand in hand. Where there’s an exercise of power, there’s bound to be friction, some opposition, some resistance to that, inasmuch as there is, of course. The point here is that power is always productive, creating something, even if it is something that is destructive or oppressive to others.

Anyway, I would rather challenge the rules of the game, the logic itself, as otherwise you are doomed to play by the rules, which results in what I explained above. I like how Deleuze and Guattari work their way out of this in ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ when they advocate for being minoritarian, as distinguished from minority. Yes, it’s about variation but not about variants. The problem with variants is that while they stand in opposition to a standard, a supposed majority that seeks to prescribe, homogenize, idealize and universalize everything in its way, which seems all well and good, they are lodged to challenge its authority by asserting their discreetness and concreteness, as this or that, as opposed to the standard, by prescribing, homogenizing, idealizing and universalizing whatever stands in their way, i.e. by using the very same tools used by their opponent. In other words, for me, the problem with variants, as discussed by Cameron (1-4), is that they are majoritarian. Deleuze and Guattari (105-106) explain this better so I’ll let them do that. Firstly (105):

“There is a majoritarian ‘fact,’ but it is the analytic fact of Nobody, as opposed to the becoming-minoritarian of everybody.”

Here it’s worth paying attention to the concepts: majoritarian and minoritarian. I characterized a standard as a supposed majority because there is no actual majority. A standard is always majoritarian. It is only a majority in the sense that it is included in the standard. That’s why a majority is always supposed. It’s not a body. It’s an effect, a product. Anyway, they (105-106) continue:

“That is why we must distinguish between: the majoritarian as a constant and homogeneous system; minorities as subsystems; and the minoritarian as a potential, creative and created, becoming.”

Again, pay attention to the concepts: majoritarian, minority and minoritarian. It’s clear that they reiterate some of the central bits here with some added emphasis. Majoritarian is about a standard, one that stays the same, hence it’s called a constant. It’s also homogeneous because something that is constant does not permit it to change. Of course something that is constant does not have to be homogeneous. Here it’s rather that majoritarian is always ideal, discreet, this or that, not something muddled (heterogeneous) and because it’s always the same (constant), it will always remain the way it is (homogeneous). It’s also a system, in the sense that you have that standard (constant) and what remains outside it, all that is actual but clearly lacking, as also pointed out by Cameron (3-4).

This is pretty much how Platonism works, having the ideal static (constant) world that is what’s the real deal and the material dynamic world that isn’t the real deal, being all corrupt with shallow passing imitations. As a side note, which I’ve made here and there in the past, someone may be dead, in this case been dead for over two millennia, but still linger, whispering to your ear, or so to speak, manifesting in no, not what you think, but in how it is that you think, which makes it very, very hard to explain the issue I take with dividuality, labeling people, including oneself, as this and/or that. Anyway, for Deleuze and Guattari, minorities are part of this system, operating within it as subsystems. So, if you challenge the standard, like in the case of sexuality, you may have changed the system, to some extent, but you remain in the system because variants are minorities, subsystems that coexists within a larger system. Minoritarian then is not to be confused with minorities because it is never fixed. It’s never this and/or that. Deleuze and Guattari (106) continue, elaborating how it is easy to be trapped in the system by mistaking the minority as better than a majority:

“The problem is never to acquire the majority, even in order to install a new constant.”

Followed by their statement that minoritarian is not about the numbers, about striving for a majority:

“One does not attain it by acquiring the majority.”

Therefore, as they (291) go on to point out:

“It is important not to confuse ‘minoritarian,’as a becoming or process, with a ‘minority’, as an aggregate or a state.”

What is a minority then? Well, this was covered already, but only in part. For them (292), a minority is what is “defined in relation to the majority.” Another way of expressing this is that majority and minority are both countable, whereas majoritarian and minoritarian are not countable. To be specific, while countable or denumerable, a minority is always, first and foremost, defined as a set in relation to the majority, as they (469-470) go on to elaborate. So, as exemplified by the two (470), we can count the people who … count as being white, according to the majoritarian standard, but, at least initially, what counts as nonwhite is non-countable, a fuzzy mass. As they (470) point out, it is at this stage, being between sets, that being cast in the minority is has the greatest potential, creating pathways out of the system, to becoming minoritarian. The initial stage, not fitting the bill, is, however, followed by a transformative stage in which the non-countable mass of non-standards are morphed into countable minorities, easily deciphered subsets (subsystems), adapted to fit the larger whole, the majority set (majoritarian system).

It’s worth emphasizing that minorities are not to be disregarded as aggregates or sets either. As things are, they way they are, it’s not pointless to try to change the system, even if it only changes certain bits in the system and not the whole system, inasmuch as that is the best thing you can do, the best course of action at that moment, as they (470-471) clearly point out. Moreover, as emphasized by the two (292), as minoritarian is always a matter of becoming, the subject of becoming is always a variable of the majority, yet within the majoritarian system the only way out, or so to speak, to becoming minoritarian is via a minority as it acts as the medium, being contrasted with the supposed majority. In other words, as they (291) clarify:

“Becoming[s] … therefore imply two simultaneous movements, one by which a term (the subject) is withdrawn from the majority, and another by which a term (the medium or agent) rises up from the minority.”

So, for example, for them (292), the majority identity is man and therefore the minority identity is woman and from there, and only there, can one escape the majoritarian system. Again, this is not about numbers and thus not about bodies. It’s of little consequence whether there are more men than women because majoritarian is a system, a machine that operates to create a majority and minorities in relation to what is the idealized majority identity. That’s why it’s a standard and what’s outside are the non-standards, the variants.

It’s also little consequence what the identity is we are dealing with as whether it is the majority identity or a minority identity depends on the circumstances, time and place. For example, German is the majority identity in Germany, whereas, say, Bavarian, is a minority identity, a variant, in the same country. However, if we narrow the scope to Bavaria, now Bavarian is the majority identity and what isn’t Bavarian, let’s say Franconian, is a minority identity. Then in Franconia, Franconian is the majority identity etc. You should be able to grasp how this works. We can, of course, go the other way as well, to state that German is a minority identity on the level of the European Union, where the majority identity is European. Again, to be clear, this is not about the numbers, not about the counted bodies. This is about how people come to think what is the standard, which then cascades into all this that I’ve been going on and on about now for quite some time. The numbers are beside the point, a secondary problem because to get somewhere is not about winning the majority, as they point out (292).

In short, conceptually majority (majoritarian) is a mere axiom that defines what is considered to be the majority (in terms of the numbers involved), as they (469) go on to point out. This is, of course, from the point of view of existing in a majoritarian system. Once you are minoritarian, what they (106, 292) hold to be the only state of autonomy, from that point of view, minorities and majorities are of little concern. It is not that they don’t exist. They do, but only as effects which may have real consequences. To explain this by using the concepts coined by Deleuze and Guattari (292), it’s rather that for a minoritarian, or a nomad, identity, be it majority or minority, is an awfully stifling affair, all too molar, rather than molecular.

Anyway, back to the presentation, it was interesting to hear how verbal hygiene, i.e. upholding a certain standard, is exercised in the social media context that the presenter was studying. The thing is, which is, broadly speaking, something that came up a lot in the presentations and discussions afterwards, in both public and private conversations, that while writing online is hardly a new phenomenon, it is, nonetheless, puzzling in the way that it happens. Is it writing? Is it speech? Is it something in between? The way I see it, it is and it isn’t, in many ways.

Next up was Vanessa Isenmann. She presented on a similar topic dealing with questions that I just listed above. Her purpose was to examine the attitudes towards language, not the language in itself. This was done by presenting the informants with a test containing two texts, one being more formal and the other being less formal, laid back and cool, if you will. What was interesting about this was how there can, of course, be multiple factors that affect the attitudes. This was documented by the presenter and the discussion of these factors continued in the following Q&A segment.

Following the presentation, I scurried to another room to see Peter Wikström present on the topic of political correctness, or, rather how it can be utilized, not to argue against it, as a matter of hush hush, as a form of elitism (in the sense of having the luxury of making a choice) which it certainly can be, and thus in resistance to it, but to present something, whatever that may be, but, centrally, one’s own views in the guise of resistance to hegemony of elite. For me, not that it was intended as such, by necessity that is, this was hardly news. For me, language is, first and foremost, a political affair, about making things happen, doing things with words, if you will. Moreover, for me, resistance is just another name for an exercise of power, a surface or point of friction necessary for something to have a force upon what may or may come to resist that force, that exercise of power. It really depends how it is viewed.

This can be aptly summarized by the cliché or the slogan (which is only apt, considering how people tend to speak in clichés and slogans, all the time, almost exclusively, just repeating what they’ve heard or read) “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” This, of course, doesn’t mean that resistance is futile. No, no. It’s rather that this has to be taken beyond good and evil. There’s always an angle, and it’s not as simple as the good side vs. the evil side. Revolutions hardly get us anywhere, but that can also be said about letting things be the way they are. Oh, and I know, I’m not giving you anything with this but that’s because there are no easy answers, no prefabricated models that explain how things really are, nor how they should be. That’s something that I like to leave to people themselves, to push them to figure things out themselves. I reckon people have to find their way on their own, whatever direction that may be. For me, it’s not how things should be or how one should live, but about how things might be or how one might live.

After the lunch break I made my way to check out a presentation by Michelle Morgenstern, followed by another one by Marina Pérez-Sinusía and Daniel Cassany. Both presentations focused on social media platforms that tend to emphasize the use of images over writing.

Morgenstern focused on how social media platforms, such as Tumblr, tend to be group specific, with specific emphasis on age. In a nutshell, what I took from this, was how a social media platform can be seen as youthful and progressive, whereas another social media platform, let’s say Facebook, can be seen as prehistorical and conservative. This view is from the perspective of the youthful progressives, of course. On top of this, the two go hand in hand. So, in other words, being youthful is not just about one’s age, being under a certain threshold which may also vary, mind you, but about what is new or progressive, how things ought to change, as opposed to how things are or were. This means that the expressions of youthfulness and even the media, the conduits for the expressions, are time and place specific.

The following presentation of this session was similar to the first presentation by Morgenstern, albeit it focused more on how interaction on social media tends to occur between friends, i.e. a close circle of people. To be more specific, the presentation focused on how friendship is constructed among teenagers on Instagram, which I though was very fitting, considering what just presented a few minutes ago on youthfulness.

The comments, related to both presentations, included good points about how age still matters, even online. Someone pointed out, speaking from experience, that at times people get along fine, not knowing who’s who, taking the comments on an as is basis, but once someone points out that they are not young and thus not youthful, a shift in attitude takes place. This puts emphasis on the threshold. What is exactly youthful? Where’s the line? What is young anyway?

I also pointed out how on Instagram it seems to be a thing that instead of commenting on something, what appears to be a close circle of friends posts various emojis, mainly hearts but also stars and bulging biceps, as comments to some photo, typically of one’s self, alone or in company, food or landscape (as a side note, faciality is super strong here, as Deleuze and Guattari might point out). I don’t really get the point of that but, then again, I might not be youthful enough to embrace this practice.

I stayed in the same room for another session. Barbara De Cock and Sandrine Roginsky presented on how politicians use Twitter to construct an identity. Their focus was on the EU level so the discussion revolved around how politicians emphasize being European or being a certain national or from a certain region of Europe. Later on, in the Q&A, the discussion got extended to assessing whether politicians construct a professional social media identity, as career politicians, if you will, or whether they present themselves as like everyone else, down to earth, engaging with crowds of people at close proximity, planting trees and the like. Of course, there’s not one way to do these things, which, I think, the presenters did point out.

The following presentation, the final one of the day for me, by Sonja Kleinke and Julia Landmann shifted the attention from people to words, in the sense that Wikipedia served as their site of investigation. The point here was not only that the content on Wikipedia varies, depending on the language in question, as you can experience yourself, but that what appears to be the same content may also vary.

It’s of course obvious that some languages, namely English, has more entries than, let’s say Finnish. However, the point here, in this presentation, was that you might think that it’s all the same, assuming that the information is the same. Now, of course, as they pointed out, Wikipedia entries are not mere translations. That said, I reckon it’s worth noting that translations are never just about providing the same in another language because, well, translation is about paraphrasing, expressing the same in other words. Simply put, this introduces difference. Anyway, their point was, however, more on how the different language entries differ because expressing something like the concept of nation is framed differently in different languages, which result in having to explain things differently between the two language versions of what may be considered the same entry. This may also then lead to having to provide examples that are familiar to the speakers of a certain language, which, of course, alters the content between different languages.

I intended to get this conference wrapped up in this essay, but I ended up on a long tangent, so I’ll cover the rest later, in a form that I’ll figured out in the meanwhile. So, there’s still more to come on the topics presented in this conference.


  • Austin, J. L. ([1955] 1962). How to Do Things with Words (J. O. Urmson, Ed.). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
  • Cameron, D. (1995). Verbal Hygiene. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
  • Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ([1980] 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Foucault, M. ([1975] 1995). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.