Reflections on the AAA, Part 1: On Speculative Anthropology

Editor’s note: This year, two of our people (the Linguistic One and the Cultural One) went to the American Anthropology Association’s Annual Meeting in San Jose, California. This is an optimistically titled “Part 1″ of their reflections on the conference, since they are undoubtedly returning to their ‘”real” lives as we speak and staring at the pile of grading that did not magically diminish while they were otherwise occupied learning new things, sharing their own work, and meeting with old and new colleagues and collaborators. 

A few days before I left for San Jose, members of the AAA got what was honestly a very surprising email announcing a special guest lecture that about five hundred people would be able to attend. Tickets were free, but were scooped up within a few hours of this announcement, because while we are used to getting excited about academic rock stars, it is pretty rare for someone who is truly famous in the rest of the world to connect to such an event.

The guest was George Lucas, and the near universal reaction to this announcement was…wait, what? What does Lucas have to do with anthropology? (An alternative

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A less-than-spectacular photo proving that George Lucas did indeed have a conversation with Deborah Thomas, editor of American Anthropologist, and that I watched from a balcony seat.

reaction was recounted to me by a colleague, who had a graduate student ask her about the famous anthropologist George Lucas and what he worked on, because the only George Lucas he could think of was “the Star Wars guy”, and that didn’t make any sense). Well, Lucas studied anthropology in college, before finding his way into filmmaking somewhat, as he tells it, by accident. The themes he explores in his films are, in some ways, rooted in what he learned in that context – most famously, the theory of mythical journeys associated with Joseph Campbell, and the imagining of the archaeologist as hero-adventurer, but also the ethnographic lens that he took in American Graffiti, which documents what he then saw as a disappearing rite-of-passage in American life. The event was billed as a way of thinking about storytelling in anthropology in discussion with a “Master Storyteller”.

So how did that turn out? Well….not great, honestly. Lucas was never trying to be an anthropologist, or to be rigorous in thinking through anthropological ideas, or, of course, to stay current within anthropology. He made quite a few references to “primitive” cultures, and invoked a general view of the “universal journey” that was a) highly masculine (as Campbell is known to be) and b) …not actually universal at all. While some praised the moderator, Deborah Thomas, for navigating his problematic highly offensive statements (seriously, there were audible winces a few times), I myself felt a bit frustrated as she continually turned the discussion back to asking him to comment on anthropology. The thing is, no one in that audience had anything to learn about anthropology from George Lucas. He was in his element talking about stories, and about his educational outreach initiatives with the new Museum of Narrative Arts. For me, the most interesting recurring theme was about the twelve-year-old as the site of imaginative potential. There was a thoughtfulness about the idea of coming-of-age (though not at all based on actual knowledge of coming of age rituals around the world), human creative potential, and hope, that was quite beautiful. But even that was undermined by his “encouragement'” of anthropology as, essentially, a really good way to learn to do market research (which, ok, it can be), and eye-rolling at “ivory tower” academics who refuse to admit that the “real world” is all about capitalist wealth accumulation. It is quite something, as a group that includes many people who try, however imperfectly, to walk with and understand a huge range of human experiences, including severe economic and political marginalization, to be lectured by a kajillionaire about being “out of touch”. Applauding when Lucas was given a lifetime membership in the AAA – when an annual one is difficult to afford for many active, passionate, graduate student and precariously employed anthropologists – left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

At the conference itself, I attended a panel that presented an interesting counterpoint to the talk by Lucas. After the death of author Ursula K. LeGuin earlier this year, linguistic anthropologist Bernard Perley organized a series of talks reflecting on her work and its anthropological legacy/roots. LeGuin was the daughter of Alfred Kroeber, a foundational figure in North American anthropology (which, as one of the panelists noted, is not necessarily reported as a compliment, given the colonial roots of our discipline), and she was raised in a world steeped in anthropology. The speakers on this panel were diverse, both in terms of their identities and their anthropological specialties. They talked about different aspects of LeGuin’s stories, sometimes positively, sometimes critically, but always with an eye to how she used her fiction as a kind of (what she called) speculative anthropology. How do we understand our own world through the lens of another one? How do we move as ethnographers through characters like Genly Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness, or the narrator in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas? How do we understand ourselves as sharing responsibility for the stories that shape our world, and what do we owe to the peoples whose stories have been colonized by others?

There were reflections, through these lenses, of both the limitations of LeGuin’s imagined worlds (rereading The Left Hand of Darkness in the context of teaching Language & Gender, Jocelyn Ahlers analyzed how gender markings actually crept in, in ways she hadn’t seen previously – as LeGuin herself also conceded a few decades after writing it, at least with respect to the “generic he” pronoun) and of anthropology (archaeologist Lee Bloch used the journey of The Dispossessed to ask provocative questions about the techno-scape of the temporal paradigms on which the field relies, and the colonial logic of these frames in themselves). There was engagement with the contemporary political moment and how examination of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas – always a challenging story – resonates in a time and country in which children in cages is not even a little bit metaphorical.

It was interesting to me to contrast these two different genre of anthropological conversation with two different creative minds’ uses of an anthropological imaginary. At its best, anthropology allows us to see universality refracted across radical difference. At its worst it tries to reduce that difference into a universalizing narrative of progress and improvement. I left California with a desire to imagine more, and in their own way, both these discussions are helping me to do that.

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The Underlying Hope of Anthropology: Reflecting on the Work of Jane Hill

This past week, the world of linguistic anthropology – and the world in general, though that world is presumably less conscious of the loss – lost a giant with the death of Jane H. Hill, Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Arizona. It is an odd thing in academia when a person whose ideas loom large over a field of thought passes away, much like the death of a more popularly influential artist makes some of us return to their work with a renewed sense of its meaning and impact on the world. I never met Jane personally, though my academic lineage traces back to her in a very short line (she was the PhD supervisor of my PhD supervisor). By all accounts I’ve ever heard, in addition to being a brilliant scholar, she was a wonderful human and mentor, and I can only imagine how that loss is felt by the people closest to her. At the time of this writing, her faculty page at the University of Arizona is still active, and on it, she invites students to “join [her] on the tightrope”, where, as she puts it

I attempt a precarious balancing act among diverse commitments: to the detailed documentation of languages and cultures and specialized expertise in technical tools such as comparative linguistic analysis, to the understanding of the scope and diversity of human history that is the glory of anthropology, and to using what I learn to advance social justice and mutual respect among human beings.

In a case of social media producing something right, anthropologist Anthony K. Webster (@ethnopoetics) suggested to the American Anthropological Association on Twitter that, in light of Hill’s death, the organization could provide access to her publications for free – and they did! For six months, any of Hill’s articles from the considerable library of publications housed at AnthroSource are available to access free of charge. Anyone interested in the broad areas of language, culture, and social justice should absolutely take advantage of this opportunity.

This blog is not really the best place for me to even try to highlight the value of these contributions (the upcoming AAA meetings in San Jose are sure to include many such reflections), but I will make a few recommendations about what to read, from that list, as well as additional work.

  1. The Everyday Language of White Racism – I am starting immediately with a book, which is not, of course, made accessible through AnthroSource, but which is too significant not to lead with. This is the book I always go to whenever anyone asks for the one recommendation from my field that I think everyone should read. Hill wrote this book late in her career, based on analysis of online discourses and commentary about various racial issues manifested in language, including slurs, appropriation, and “gaffes”. The title of the book makes clear what this is about – whiteness, and the quotidian ways in which a white racist social order is maintained. Now ten years old, it is dated only in some of the technological details, and I have found that the tools she uses with reference to US contexts are equally relevant for understanding racism in Canada.
  2. “Language, Race, and White Public Space” – American Anthropologist, 1999. This article previews some of the analysis presented in the book above, and fortunately is available for free online. Here, Hill focuses on how language is used not only to construct a negative racial view of non-whites, but also “whiteness as an unmarked normative order”. The discussion of “Mock Spanish” that originates here has become a staple of linguistic anthropology courses, especially in the US, because it so powerfully demonstrates the multifaceted political and social underpinnings of what is initially easy to dismiss as an offhand, casual joke.
  3. “‘Expert Rhetorics’ in Advocacy for Endangered Languages: Who is Listening, and What Do They Hear?” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 2002. This is the article that I refer to most in my own work – without checking, I would put money on it being probably the only piece of writing that I have cited in literally everything I’ve ever published. Hill started her career working with speakers of Mexicano (Nahuatl), and continued her work with Indigenous language advocacy in the Southern US and Mexico throughout her life. In this article, she takes a critical eye on how we talk about Indigenous languages, and how in our efforts to convince people that they should care about this sometimes difficult-to-articulate issue, we inadvertently reinforce colonial power structures and the very marginalization that we aim to counteract. This is an example of the best kind of anthropological critique, to my mind: while we can often become cynical or righteous in ‘tearing down’ the efforts of well meaning folks around us, a call to re-examine how we do our work, from a place of love and valuing of the goals of our advocacy effort, is often needed.
  4. “The Grammar of Consciousness and the Consciousness of Grammar” American Ethnologist, 1985. This one is for those of you who are fully on board the linguistic anthropology train already, as it includes a lot of theoretical discussion of how to think in relation to both structural grammar and political economy. It is, however, definitely one that is worth engaging with in order to gain a more advanced understanding of these interrelated systems of power, and it’s a reminder for those of us who are students of language, in whatever form (linguistic, anthropological, or otherwise), that our object of study is one that is deeply intertwined with a political world.

Hill’s writing is definitely with an academic tradition, but it’s relatively accessible. I’ve used all but the last of the above articles in my undergraduate classes, and even included chapters from The Everyday Language of White Racism in a first year course. Revisiting her work reminds me of why I do what I do, and to keep in mind the “balancing act” that she highlights, with a commitment to creating a more just world acting as the centre of gravity that orients my study of both linguistics and anthropology. The echo and imprint of her time in the world is a great one, and it gives me something to aspire to.

On What Was Really Lost in the Fire

As everyone almost certainly knows by now, just over a week ago, the Brazilian Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro burned, with massive damage and the complete destruction of huge proportions of an extensive collection of irreplaceable artifacts, fossils, documents, and artwork. No one thinks this is anything less than a tragedy, though people have varying levels of anger about it – some seem to see it as an unfortunate accident, others (who know more about Brazil, including most Brazilians) are quick to focus rage on decades of neglect by a series of governments, who at best just didn’t care enough about maintaining this building and its contents.

I’m writing this to call attention to another level of anger, which is mainly being expressed by Indigenous people, and which I’ve briefly commented about on Twitter and elsewhere. This anger is about why we allow so much cultural knowledge and linguistic information, not to mention sacred and/or valuable artifacts, from Indigenous peoples around the world, to be housed in singular buildings run by colonial governments in the first place? Why do we accept the assumption that these organizations are inherently better at “preserving” this information than the communities themselves? Why do we uncritically act as though, despite the fact that anything in a museum is inherently removed from its context and active role in the community from which it was taken, this form of “preservation” is a priority?

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Photo by Felipe Milanez, Creative Commons License (source). In addition to showing the fire, the image includes the looming figure of Dom Pedro II, the last monarch of the colonial Empire of Brazil.

At this point it’s worth stepping back to ask who the “we” is in those above questions. There is only a certain proportion of “us” who have accepted or advocated for these things, or made these assumptions. Because as I noted, many Indigenous people reacted to this with one common statement – repatriate. Return museum materials to their rightful owners. Reprioritize – instead of emphasizing access for outside, mainly European-descended, people and some kind of ideal of “global human knowledge”, consider the needs and values of living Indigenous cultures and languages. The “we” in these discourses generally refers to white academics. So much of what was lost, the stuff that can’t be recovered (like the entire linguistics section of the museum, containing the only documentation of several languages that have no remaining speakers), was Indigenous knowledge. It’s one thing to lament the loss to our (there’s that word again) knowledge of language in general, and it’s completely another to consider what this loss means to the community that spoke that language and how devastating it is to see the elimination of essentially any chance at reawakening it.

I’m angry about this. I’m angry at governments who build museums to preserve and publicize knowledge and then neglect them. I’m angry at centuries of colonial theft that has built these museums, trapped thousands of different types of hostages inside, just waiting for the spark to light them on fire. And I’m angry at my disciplines, in which we continue to treat language documentation and preservation in buildings far away from the people who can or would use the language as a substitution for supporting reclamation and revitalization. Digitization is a major step forward, and documentary work can be done in a way that is profoundly community-oriented. But it doesn’t have to be, and there is plenty of academic reward involved in perpetuating the old “salvage” model of linguistics, the one that puts this information into archives and museums. The fire is really the logical end point of anthropology as colonial enterprise, in which we take Indigenous worlds, reduce them to paper, lock them away where they can’t be actively used, allow them to burn, and then feel sorry for ourselves because we lost that source of academic insight.

My anger is superseding most everything else as I write this, but I should say that I do understand the value of museums. Public scholarship matters, and museums serve as an excellent corrective to navel gazing research and publication circles in which we carry on an abstract theoretical debate with two or three other researchers over the course of our entire careers. Not everything in a museum, including not everything in the Museu Nacional, has been stolen from Indigenous people. I feel little guilt for deeply appreciating, for example, a museum filled with dinosaurs, and wanting to know more about the scientific discovery of knowledge about them. But at the same time, I think this conversation needs to move beyond how to create better fire proofing for a colonial museum, or how to ensure that governments care about museums in general. For some, the fire was the last stage of a loss that began a long time ago, and until it happened, too few of us in academia were engaging seriously with that loss.

Language is Social: A Quick, Slightly Angry, Introduction by Way of Media Response

A couple of articles have crossed my Twitter path in the last few days that are, from a linguistic anthropological perspective, shockingly ignorant. They come not from random people writing about language, but actually from prominent academics, including linguists. I’m writing this in response to those articles/discussions, first in order to give a very basic, accessible rebuttal to them, and second in order to illustrate a very frustrating pattern of thinking about language from a limited, asocial perspective.

The first example is really low-hanging fruit, come from Steven Pinker, who despite his status as a Harvard cognitive scientist, frequently demonstrates a remarkable lack of intellectual curiosity or willingness to engage beyond his assumptions. He tweeted:

There are several layers about this that are fundamentally incorrect, including the idea that Plato believed that words held limited power (Plato was in fact very concerned about the potential power of speech and art). It’s also highly debatable as to what one should call “the first insight of linguistics” — there’s no reason to discuss Plato as a linguist, or to dismiss insights about language that come from outside of a very limited conceptualization of what counts as a canonical tradition of knowledge. And at the core, the statement is a fundamentally incorrect one – the idea that words are conventions doesn’t nullify their power. Taboo words, ritual words, even everyday bits of interaction like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ cannot be explained and expressed through a mere reference to conventional representation (a form of meaning we call “denotation”). The meaning of so much of language depends entirely on how it is used and what it does socially. In addition to really well known theoretical formulations of this concern (e.g. JL Austin’s How to do Things with Words), this premise drives almost the entire field of linguistic anthropology. Language isn’t made of ‘words’ detached from their use and effect in the world – rather, it is a social and interactional practice that has immense power, “magical” and otherwise.

This is in no way a new insight, nor a particularly challenging one – which brings me to my second example, an article that came in to my feed when it was tweeted by the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) entitled “Scientists Advocate New Approach to Linguistic Research”. This new approach? That context matters in understanding meaning.

I know. Shocking, right? The article gives the example that the statement “every night I drink a glass of wine before I go to bed” would be interpreted differently if the speaker is a ten year old girl (than if, presumably, it is an adult speaking). Which is to say – the meaning of language doesn’t rest strictly on denotative content of component ‘words’, but rather requires interpretation of information about speaker identities, interlocutors, setting, etc. It goes on to say that psychological research on the processing of meaning should look at more ‘natural’ use, recognizing that laboratory environments deliberately strip context from the situation. My problem with this, of course, has nothing to do with the content of the observation – this is all 100% true. My problem lies with the claim that this is new, because it’s literally the entire basis of more than one academic (sub)discipline (linguistic anthropology, sociology of language, sociolinguistics…), not to mention of any number of Indigenous philosophical frames of thought about meaning,

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Self portrait of the author when reading this article today.

language, and society. The article and the LSA has been dragged on Twitter pretty quickly for exactly this reason, and while it enrages me that there are apparently linguists who think a) this is insightful and b) the best collaborators for this project come from the disciplines of “neurosciences, psychology, …and biology”, it’s worth noting there are also plenty of linguists, including those in the non-socio subfields, offering this critique.

These two stories share more than just a mockability factor of 10/10, though – they’re both based in a view of ‘meaning’ that is about words and conventional ‘definitions’. This is a position that is really pervasive in Western contexts, reproduced in educational practice, and manifested in the relationship that people have to texts like dictionaries (note here that I don’t mean the goal of lexicographers themselves – the people who make dictionaries can be profoundly aware of the instability and complexity of the meanings that they try to reduce to a clear definition and a few example sentences – but rather to the way laypeople come to use the dictionary to tell them ‘what a word means’). It also emerges frequently in fields like developmental psychology, where discussions of toddlers’ linguistic practices centres on counting the words that they know and use (or, as Nelson Flores critiques so thoroughly, counting the words that their caregivers apparently expose them to). And, of course, it emerges in discourses about racial slurs, as prominent authors like Pinker are disdainful of the very basic idea that some words carry a great deal of power to hurt, or that the meaning of these expressions is fundamentally altered by the identity of the speaker using them.

Thinking about language as a socially situated practice is actually really important in any number of ways, but this basic insight can still be dismissed, not only by laypeople, but by academic researchers and policy makers. At the very least, getting angry about things like that helps to remind me why I do linguistic anthropology, and why it matters.

Aggressively Human: An Anthropological Manifesto

A few months ago, I was talking to a group of students after class. One of them commented that they appreciated my openness about different things as a prof, and how it made me more “human”. I responded by saying “Yeah, that’s intentional. Dr. Biittner and I are, like, aggressively human“.

It was a quick, off the cuff, semi-joking statement, but as we thought about it afterwards, we realized it was much more than that. It was, and is, our guiding principle in approaching teaching and doing anthropology. Anthropology as…aggressively human, if you will.

I’ve been thinking more and more about this idea as we’ve observed the discussion around the abusive practices that have characterized the work of the journal Hau. For a quick primer on the issues and concerns that have been raised, see this Twitter thread by Hilary Agro (and links within). There are also too many fantastic critical posts and threads to note, but I would highlight Zoe Todd’s powerful discussion of decolonial anthropology, as well as discussions and contributions organized by Allegra lab (disclosure: a short comment I made will be part of a discussion about the implications for teaching and education to appear there shortly), and of course, searching #hautalk will bring up a lot of great commentary and information.

As those links show, this story has quickly become one that is about how academic institutions, and anthropology in particular, can work to not only shield abusers, but also create contexts in which they able to perform their violence – for example, through the exploitative and insecure structures of employment and payment that make some members of our community very vulnerable to economic abuse, as well as preventing them from speaking up about other forms of abuse at the risk of losing their job (or, more commonly and frighteningly, losing the opportunity of a hypothetical job well in the future). As several BIPOC scholars have noted, the revelation of abusive practice of Hau’s editorial board was unsurprising to them, because the journal was premised on an exploitative, white-centric model of anthropology and ethnographic theory, visible immediately from its choice of name (see this illuminating discussion the Mahi Tahi collective of New Zealand scholars).

As I note in my contribution to the forthcoming Allegra post, this story reflects a pervasive pattern within academic, and specifically anthropological, teaching and training – the idea that learning occurs through suffering, and that suffering is therefore a necessary part of one’s experience as a student. This is especially true at the graduate levels, where we undergo our final set of rigorous tests to obtain credentials that admit us into the ranks of disciplinary experts, but certainly doesn’t start there. I have heard far too many colleagues justify teaching practices that leave their students in tears, dismiss traumas that they have experienced in the field, or suggest outright that emotions have no place in the academy. To be clear, academia is difficult. Knowledge can be upsetting. Fieldwork is inherently stressful. But it is possible to support students through those difficulties, rather than minimizing their suffering, or worse, actively creating it in the spirit of some kind of “trial by fire”  – abuse disguised as pedagogy.

I link this back to our intention, here to be “aggressively human”, because to me, the model that I have seen reflected in the stories about the abuse at Hau, and the defenses of this abuse as some kind of “difficult but fair” authoritarian model of scholarly practice, is one that is profoundly inhuman and inhumane. This is especially ironic, to my mind, in a discipline that is about the human, and a subfield (ethnography) that develops knowledge through the human practice of connection and empathy.

So, then, an aggressively human anthropology, and specifically, an anthropological pedagogy, is one in which

  1. We place empathy at the core of our learning and teaching experiences, and the human at the centre of our approach to theory and method
  2. We engage directly, constantly, and actively in calls to decolonize the discipline, to move away from and explicitly renounce anthropological practice that is dehumanizing, dismissive, and exploitative of Indigenous and racialized people
  3. We use our positions of relative privilege and power to advocate for humane academic working conditions, to push against increasing precarity, and to protect students from exploitation and abuse within their learning environments
  4. We push against status hierarchies and the creation of academic ‘rock stars’ who can use their status to shield themselves from the consequences of their own abuse, and we advocate for a community of academics that is collaborative and mutually enforcing rather than competitive and egotistical.
  5. We exemplify kindness and care toward ourselves and others, and we aggressively insist on reminding people that we are humans first and scholars, teachers, and employees only in addition to that.

I write this post from my own position, but in consultation with my blogging partner Dr. Biittner, and these points are a shared commitment for us. Continuing this conversation, we need to define what kinds of attainable goals exist within each of these principles, and consider more fully what this looks like within our work as undergraduate instructors, or within our research practices in various communities. Suggestions from fellow aggressively human scholars and anthropologists more than welcome.

Recognizing the Language of Toxic Masculinity

It’s been a bad couple of days here in Canada, and especially for anyone with a connection to Toronto. Acts of violence such as the van attack that killed ten people and injured many more are always difficult to process. In this heavily mediated world, there is a rush to find explanations, there is often misinformation, and there is rampant speculation. As the dust is settling, it is becoming more apparent that Alek Minassian identified with what is called the “incel” (‘involuntary celibate’) movement, which is essentially a community of men who validate and amplify their resentments at the fact that women don’t want to have sex with them. There has been some discussion about a Facebook post, which was the primary indicator of Minassian’s membership in this community and the role that membership played in his violent attack, and whether it was in fact real. It is increasingly the consensus that it is, but regardless, even if it wasn’t, it’s worth talking about this particular community and its role in enabling and encouraging acts of violence, both large and small scale.

This Twitter thread by journalist Arshy Mann outlines the research that he has been doing about various types of masculine internet subcultures, including incels, which he identifies as “the most virulently misogynistic” (which…in a race that includes Men’s Rights Activists and Pick Up Artists and others, is not an easy prize to win). As that thread notes, people paying attention to these spheres have been saying for a long time that these communities are ones that we should be very concerned about. They are the petri dishes in which the violence of toxic masculinity is being mixed and allowed to grow. As (terrible) luck would have it, two of the students in my Language, Gender, & Sexuality class this semester did research projects related to this theme – this set of tumblr posts by Vega Ewanovich, directly about incel language and culture, and another essay by Dorian about 4chan more generally. I told both students their work was very relevant even before the events in Toronto took place, and I’m saddened to have been proven so right. But given the timeliness, I want to highlight some linguistic/anthropological points that are raised by these two students that we can use to better interpret this form of misogyny and violence.

  • First, the label. “Incel” is a term that was actually coined by a queer woman from Toronto in the ancient days of the internet (aka the mid 1990s). She had frustration and pain in her life about her loneliness, and she created a label in order to allow for the creation of a community of support around that. This is a powerful act – naming something can solidify a conglomerate of vague emotions, experiences, and practices into a comfortingly comprehensible thing. In ling anth terms we talk about this as ‘entextualization’, and it has a lot of power to enshrine and attach meanings to texts. This power is unclear though, as the story of this particular term shows – texts escape into the wild and it isn’t predictable how they will be picked up, used, and transformed by different speakers. The literal meaning of a term like “incel” can be either productively transformative (getting support and creating a network of understanding folks) or violently toxic (justifying and blaming others for one’s personal circumstances). Nothing in the language allows us to see how this will happen until it happens, but a detailed examination of the transformation of a term like this and its movement across contexts can tell us a lot about that particular brand of misogyny that is premised on male entitlement to women’s bodies.
  • The context in which this labeled identity develops is a meaningful one, and Dorian examined the broader world of 4chan based on the thematic idea of “no girls on the internet”. I found his framing to be fascinating because it allowed them to trace how contemporary examples of extreme toxicity (manifested in Minassian) are rooted in patterns that seem much more innocuous, like default masculinity. Basically, “no girls on the internet” refers to older text-based play where, because some users would create fake female identities in order to receive apparently “preferential treatment”, anyone identifying as a woman is probably lying (Ed: woooow layers to that concept, but I’ll let it go). Dorian offered an improved phrasing to say that, since there obviously are girls (or you know, women) on the internet, it’s actually more like everyone is “Assigned Male at Login”. 4chan, which does not require profiles, creates a heightened anonymity context, which further amplifies the dynamic of default masculinity. As we discussed in our class, “male only” spaces are often licensed as ones in which specific forms of masculinity are reinforced and transmitted linguistically (think “locker room talk”). 4chan becomes dominated by those users who not only see it as default/solely masculine, but also work to actively enact it as such, demanding that anyone who identifies as a woman “prove it” by posting a picture of her breasts. Anything this person says is to be responded to only in this manner – “Tits or GTFO” – until they either comply or leave. The process here is significant – there is a presumption of the default male online, which leads to the establishment of male-only online spaces, enacted in part through the routine sexual harassment of anyone who claims to be a woman, which then tap into common narratives of masculinity (including elements of sexual and social dominance, hostility to anything feminine, and lack of empathy/compassion), which are then used to situate and transform experiences of sexual/romantic rejection.
  • Vega’s post about the role of jargon in incel communities is a particularly useful one. Here, they discuss how we can see fractal recursivity at work in the classification of a fundamental divide between members of this community and outsiders (“normies”); this means that one category of experience (sexual rejection) is not only encoded as one part of a binary (rather than any kind of spectrum), it is also mapped on to binary distinctions in other aspects of character and life, so anything “normie” must be fundamentally wrong/incompatible with being “incel”. They further illustrate the role of authentication and the use of specific terms that work within this community of practice to socialize members into the expected attitudes, behaviours, and belief structures, specifically regarding hatred toward women and expectations about the possibility of love/relationships.
  • Dorian also spends some time discussing the implications of trans and non-binary gender identities in the 4chan environment, and it’s worth noting that all of this vile misogyny is premised on very strict adherence to the notion of binary, biologically stable sex and gender, as well as an apparently objective ‘attractiveness hierarchy’ of male and female traits. Dorian illustrates how the systematic denial and mockery of trans and nonbinary gender identities within these contexts is central to how “incels” and other 4chan users situate their experiences of gender and sexuality – non-binary identities destabilize their claims about “biological” foundations for sexual needs, as well as about the justifiability of violence, specifically against women who are failing to meet those needs.
  • The creation of the symbolic “God” of the incel movement in the person of a man who committed what was, until the last few days, the most obvious example of incel public violence is also significant. One point that I made in my comments to Vega about their work is that there is a tendency in the post to distinguish between the ‘real world’ and ‘the internet’, and I would push back against this, because the internet is a way in which real humans engage with other real humans using tools that shape the materiality of that interaction, but that don’t detach them from ‘reality’. And this is important. What we have here is a group of people who call themselves a movement. This means they aren’t forming a community to support each other, but rather to change the world. In these spaces, they socialize each other into how to behave, and they collectively construct their vision of an ideal world and ideal humans (men) within it. The creation of a hero is a powerful symbol to a movement, since of course it works to provide the exemplar of what community members should strive to be. Their hero – their unapologetically labeled ‘God’, chew on that – is someone who went on a public rampage and murdered people because of his anger at his “involuntary celibacy”. In this world, creating more of these instances is not just an unfortunate potential consequence, it’s the goal.

The online conversation over the last few days about this event has not been pretty. This is a compilation of some of the types of responses that are being posted as a result of news reports about Minassian’s apparent motivation for his rampage:

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There is another project entirely involved in examining the ways in which a killer like this is construed as the victim deserving of sympathy, and how suggested solutions to the problem include “government provided sexual relief”, as though it’s a welfare service. On Twitter, I noted, in light of not only this event but any number of others, that toxic masculinity is the biggest threat to public safety in North America (I’ll concede the possibility of hyperbole and would be willing to entertain a few other contenders for the “biggest” label, but it’s easily in the top 3). Responses from people I’ve never talked to before included both mockery and questioning of my mental health and the claim that in fact, “intersectional feminism” was the biggest threat because of the degree of “cultural damage” that it does. This idea is also reflected above – “a guy can’t win”, this is the “male version” of #MeToo.

We desperately need to talk about toxic masculinity, and I think examining the linguistic and social practices of so-called incels and other “manosphere” webspaces are vital aspects of this conversation. We also need to consider the ways in which non-group members take stances and position themselves in relation to these stories – who is construed as the victim, what solutions are advocated, whose voices are amplified and given authority in relation to these questions. I love that anthropology classes are giving my students some of the tools they need to think through these issues, but I hate that they are so tragically relevant.

Student Guest Post: The Cat Kicks the Language Because it is Tired.

Shulist’s introduction: The following is a guest post by my student, Harry dal Bello, who was brave enough to work on constructing a language with me as an independent study project. The story behind this is that last year, after seeing the ConLanging documentary (which, as my review here noted, I loved), I was inspired to think about ways to use language creation in my teaching (and for fun, but I’ve had less time for fun lately).

Enter Harry. Harry has, from the first day of my introduction to linguistic anthropology class, had a passion for the topic, and in September, will be entering a graduate program at my own alma mater, the University of Western Ontario. Given that MacEwan has no courses in linguistics proper beyond the first year level, Harry lamented that he hadn’t had a chance to learn more about grammatical description and other key elements. And here was my guinea pig – an opportunity to use the ConLang creation process as a way to teach a lot about language in a relatively short period of time and a fun way. 

On the whole, it turns out it worked fairly well. We definitely had fun. We formed an informal “ConLang club”, and a few interested students joined us, and met weekly so that I could give a very quick lesson about different linguistic concepts – how do nouns work, what is agreement, what is case, whoa holy crap verbs, etc. Harry’s reflections on his first experience with ConLanging and learning about language in general are below. 

Language is hard. This is something I don’t think that people think about enough, just how complex this thing we call language is. We take it for granted every day that we are able to communicate with each other. There is an uncountable number of different systems at play when we use language. I just finished spending the last 4 months trying to make one from scratch and have acquired a whole new appreciation of just how complex language can really be. So when Shulist (the linguistic one) gave me the opportunity to look back on this project and write a post about it I jumped at the chance. I thought I’d take the time to give you some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way so hopefully you can avoid some of the pitfalls that caught me if you ever give it a try.  So without further ado I present: Tips for making a language from someone who’d never done it before.

  1. Know a language other than English (at least know someone who does)

Let’s take a quick detour to talk about the most commonly used word in the English language: “the”. How do you define “the”? Well the Miriam Webster dictionary does it in 507 words and only uses “the” 24 times to do it. Why so long? Because “the” does a lot in English: It’s a determiner we use for almost everything and yet it still finds time to be an adverb. “Harry”, I can see you asking, “what does this have to do with learning another language, let alone making one?” Well there are a lot of things a language has to do, and English make things like “the” and word order do a lot of it. This is great for us, but makes using English to make examples difficult. Learning a new language is hard, if it wasn’t we would all be polyglots, but I’m not saying you need to go out and become fluent in Portuguese. Even my tenuous grasp of Spanish grammar was invaluable when it came to understanding things like conjugating verbs and nouns.

  1. Get yourself some IPA (the alphabet not the beer)

Do you have a favourite sound? Mine is probably either / n / or / ʃ / . Now if you just sounded those out in your head as you read them then you can probably skip this section but for the rest of us: let’s chat about IPA. The International Phonetic Alphabet was an invaluable invention to linguists everywhere, a universal set of glyphs that corresponded to every possible human mouth sound. A way to bypass cumbersome Latin alphabet transcription. There is only one problem: It’s not very user friendly.

This is something I can’t stress enough: if you have no experience with IPA you are going to have a hard time making a language that sounds like anything other than English, a problem you are going to have anyways. While you are at it start to play with sounds, see if you can make some of the strange ones (read: any missing from English) by arranging your mouth in the right shape. This aspect of language making is probably the one that will get you the most weird looks, I know I got some when I spent a 3 hour flight trying to untangle the difference between / ɳ / and / ɲ /. Don’t worry about it though, because a good grasp of what symbol sounds like what and why will save you a ton of time down the line.

  1. How does your cat sit? (use example sentences)

When I started my language I had no idea what I wanted it to sound like, let alone what it’s structure would be, but I quickly started to fill out long list of parts you need to make a functional languge. How big is this list? I’m still not sure, but It certainly isn’t all written somewhere for you to read. This is where Example Sentences come in to play. Starting with short, simple ones, come up with a list of phrases that you would like to be able to say in your language. From there take a crack at translating them. Uh oh, you can’t translate this sentence because you forgot about pluralization? Well guess what, now you can add pluralization to that list of things to do. Using this method of trial and error I was able to find what I had finished and what I was missing in a way that is easy to visualize.

Cat sits /sɨh ɵoɳ wol/
Cat eats rat /loh ɵoɳ wol ɲɨlɵoɳ/
The cat eats the rat because it is tasty /loh ɵoɳ wol  ɲɨlɵoɳ ɵolɨlan/

Above are a few of my example sentences with English on the left and / ʃɨðʎom / (read something like sh-ith-yom) on the right. Note how I keep as many words the same between sentences as I can. This is so I can avoid having to make to many words up while I am still playing with the grammar. It would suck to come up with a whole collection of plural nouns just to later decide that you don’t need them. This way I can focus on just filling out what I need to make a fully functioning grammar. This is actually the biggest perk of example sentences. They let you slowly put together your  language in a modular way, so that even if you don’t have verb conjugation sorted out (like I don’t) you can still see how it works in a practical situation.

  1. Verbs do things. LOTS of things. (and this makes them hard)

In the over 4 months I worked on this project I found again and again that verbs only made things harder. Verbs were about as complex as nouns but three fold. Think back to your last English grammar lesson: what were the parts of a sentence? Well you had verbs and nouns, nouns were things and verbs were what those things did. Simple right? Well not so much unfortunately. English teachers have been lying to us for YEARS now telling us that “verbs are action words” when they are so much more than that. If a noun is a thing then a verb is what you know about that thing, what it does, what it’s like, how it feels, all kinds of stuff. These are just the beginning as well. Verbs can (and often do) encode all kinds of other information such as tense, gender, number, aspect, mood (don’t get me started on modality), voice, and any number of other grammatical categories.  Add adverbs to the mix and things get even worse. In fact a lot of things we call adverbs are just stuff that didn’t fit in another category. So enough doom and gloom about verbs then, whats my advice about them? Well unfortunately I don’t have much except: worry about it later. I haven’t even made a verb system for my language yet. Don’t get bogged down trying to perfect your verbs until after you sort your nouns out. If you are working with example sentences like I recommended then just make some placeholder and don’t worry about conjugating. This is exactly what I did, and you can see it in my above examples If you look close enough. You can always leave verbs to another day.