Resurrecting Mechanisms: Language as Power, Influence, Circuitry and Catalyst (A Critical Reflection)

In Pierre Bourdieu’s Language and Symbolic Power, Bourdieu’s foundational argument is that, rather than serving merely as a medium for communication, language is a manifestation and transmitter of power to which all individuals subject (although to varying degrees; and in Bourdieu’s text it is to meaningfully clarified that some subjects wield greater influence over the linguistic habitus than others, or are more immediately able to access language as personal power and thus be rewarded by what Bourdieu describes calls the “linguistic marketplace”.) Essentially speaking: perhaps second only to what might be described by some as “human nature”, language is the complex psychic and verbal/compositional machine that humans use as the builder of institutions, the establishing body of hierarchies (including race, class, gender, identity, and other elements of being), the circuitry of hegemony, the system of checks, balance and assessments, and the partly invisible, but always impactful “bank” of social proof and order which disburses or taxes the social standing, psyches and material conditions of—if we are to take ecofeminist thinking into consideration, which I feel we must for the sake of truly understanding language’s material impact—all life, all ecologies, all environments both physical and metaphysical, but most intentionally the lives of human beings. In this digital article, I seek to bring some of Bourdieu’s thinking into contact with concepts in media studies, “content” and “influence” marketing (and a broader media habitus), identity and the intersecting realities of what I will describe in this piece as the “default world” (that which our physical flesh occupies) and the digital realm.

Bourdieu speaks meaningfully to how language affords (or subtracts) social capital to subjects in a variety of ways, but perhaps one of the most meaningful moments in Bourdieu’s thinking (for the sake of this project) emerges early in the text, when Bourdieu touches on the concept of legal discourse, stating:

“Legal discourse is a creative speech which brings into existence that which it utters. It is the limit aimed at by all performative utterances—blessings, curses, orders, wishes or insults. In other words, it is the divine word, the word of divine right, which, like the intuitus originarius which Kant ascribed to God, creates what it states, in contrast to all derived, observational statements, which simply record a pre-existent given. One should never forget that language, by virtue of the infinite generative but also originative capacity—in the Kantian sense—which it derives from its power to produce existence by producing the collectively recognized, and thus realized, representation of existence, is no doubt the principal support of the dream of absolute power.” (Bourdieu 42)

Certainly, the generative capacity of language extends well beyond legal discourse—which is in many ways the point of Language and Symbolic Power. As described in the introductory paragraph of this article, language is a key determiner of material conditions and the situatedness of all beings—and human beings most intentionally. That said, pointing to Bourdieu’s early argument about legal discourse is important because, if one brings Bourdieu’s thinking in the above passage into contact with studies in American sociology (and more specifically for the sake of this critical reflection: the maintenance, surveillance, and manipulation of black human beings), it vividly illustrates what impact language can have on physical bodies and spaces.

Save only for the violence of brute force (just one form of violence directed at black bodies), one struggles to imagine a mechanism that has been more instrumental in the exploitation, movement, brutalization and limitation of blackness as a point on the complex matrix of class hierarchy than language—and its ability to affect very real conditions onto lives, to establish institutions and to influence (or create) “mainstream thinking” which impact black bodies.

In Savage Portrayals: Race, Media, and the Central Park Jogger Story, Doctor Natalie Byfield (a former journalist who at the time of the famed “Central Park Five” incident worked at the Daily News before going on to become a sociologist and professor at St. John’s University) deftly illustrates this dynamic by pointing out how language—situated at the vertices of individual being (the bodies of the colored boys involved in the incident), mainstream hegemonic “common sense” (as represented by the institution of mass media in the United States; though not all of the individuals that make that institution up), and legal discourse (represented by the New York and federal carceral systems)—impacted the fates of six individuals of color wrongly charged in and punished to varying degrees for the sexual assault of investment banker Trisha Meili.

Watch: Dr. Natalie Byfield Speaks on the Central Park Jogger Story

“The rape of Trisha Meili a twenty-eight-year-old investment banker working in Manhattan’s Financial District,” Byfield writes, “drew international media attention through a narrative focus on an allegedly new type of street crime called ‘wilding.’ Simply put, the term meant intentionally behaving in a crazy manner, causing harm to others and damaging property. According to police, the rape of Meili was the culmination of an evening of wilding in Central Park that began with other incidents of sexual assault and harassment. With that police declaration rape and wilding would become joined in the public consciousness.” (Byfield 1–2)

Taken alone, Byfield’s autoethnographic account of the police and media’s cooperative tying together of “wilding”—arguably a re-situation of responsibility for New York City’s then severe problem of violent crime onto the shoulders of its youth and vulnerable populations—is a transparent manifestation of the “reality-making” powers of legal discourse that Bourdieu describes (Byfield 2). While the police described by Byfield are not legislators or judges, their declarations are nonetheless imbued with the authoritative powers of the state to a significant degree—and to that end, at least in this case (and arguably in countless others), their word is implied to be law. Mass media’s (again, defined here as a broad institution and herein is momentarily considered without granular attention to the individuals who operate within and negotiate with it) transmission of the carceral state’s claims (via the police) here plays a codifying role, making the implicit notion that the police’s word on this subject is indeed law into a discreetly explicit reality that is codified as common sense by virtue of its adoption as a mainstream position within the context of an institution that broadcasts influential thought to countless viewing subjects who have been conditioned to accept the authority of the state and the credibility of the media. The viewing subjects make up a new vertex in this equation, as the opinions, they form and the way that people respond (at large and as individuals) to the information broadcasted form realities with which the subjects described in these media portrayals must negotiate, oftentimes to their own significant disadvantage.

Watch: Trump Still Thinks ‘Central Park Five’ Are Guilty

The dimensions of race and class further complicate the manifestation of what language “did” in this case and continues to do to black bodies to varying degrees in institutions beyond the carceral state. Beyond tying “wilding” and thus the entirety of New York’s problem with violent crime (as well as the crack epidemic of the 1980s) to the region’s youth and vulnerable populations, tByfield argues that he carceral state and the media also (in a manner perhaps less obvious to those whose bodies and communities were not the targeted by the reality-making described above) carefully, and subliminally tied these issues to non-whiteness, by calling back to (through the use of language) racial stereotypes of ignorance, savagery and violence long-associated by dominant groups with non-whiteness while simultaneously presenting these “facts” through a lens that purports itself to be neutral and objective but is in fact as beholden to a racialized, violent, supremacist superstructure as any other institution, reinforcing the perspective and power of (Byfield 4–10). The effects of this on vulnerable, non-dominant populations is arguably more insidious than even that of the “viewing public” (of which non-dominant populations are certainly apart of). As Byfield states:

“The problem with mainstream logic and the practices it engenders is that their underlying assumptions are not regularly challenged. This is especially true of the interworkings of race, class and gender. People routinely behave in ways that support the mainstream conception of hierarchical social structure, even they do not realize it and derive no benefit from such behavior. For example, women routinely defer to men, people generally defer to those with more wealth or higher social status, and so forth.” (Byfield 3)

Considering this line of thinking in relation to the United States’ historical relationship with black and brown bodies—thinking about the transatlantic slave trade, sharecropping, Jim Crowe laws and the linguistic mechanisms that regularly populated the public consciousness in support of these institutions, which Byfield describes at length throughout the text—it should come as little surprise that the young men who charged with the crime were viewed with immediate suspicion, portrayed immediately as guilty and deserving of incarceration (or more permanent forms of violence, as articulated by Donald Trump at the time), or that, after hours of police questioning (recall that the police represent the reality-making carceral state), these young men would confess to their guilt—quite contrary to the truth that would set them free when Meili’s true assailant came forward to confess to his crime, as corroborated by forensic evidence made public in 2002 (9, 154, 186)… evidence which some institutions (and the individuals that represent them) refused to accept as fact, including the 45th President of the United States (a self-professed arbiter of conservative “law and order” who reiterated his position that the Central Park Five were guilty) and personalities in the media who suggested that the admission and presence of Reyes’ (the actual rapist) DNA did not in any way preclude the possibility that the young, incarcerated men had not happened upon Meili after the initial assault and perpetrated the commission of further crime after the fact (186).

The refusal to read colored bodies as innocent—even in the face of substantiating evidence—can be described, in my view, as a manifestation of a dominant pattern of thinking or institutional circuitry erected in large part by language and upheld by those institutions/individuals who seek to (consciously or otherwise) preserve this literacy and method about reading, then organizing and controlling colored lives. When dominant discourses read colored lives as threats to be perpetually surveilled, incarcerated, or multi-platform laborers to serve the whims social/racial “upper classes” without achieving so much agency that they upset the perceived “natural social order” (read: supremacist, heteronormative patriarchy), those colored lives have the privilege of survival (78­­–80). When such readings of colored bodies challenge those notions, either by the possessors of those bodies or by the dominant groups and institutions which largely control the narrative about them, dominant groups like the carceral state, the media, and even academic institutions may begin to deploy “reality-making” language that is designed to be intentionally limiting or deleterious to non-white subjects.

Another reading/literacy, possibly less transparent to possessors of colored bodies (or broader publics) but salient in its consequences, is the perception that the “default” common sense and language is neutral and therefore not particularly dangerous to anyone who observes the rules of a capitalist meritocracy. This understanding, alluded to by Byfield in her statement about the “problem with mainstream logic” and expounded upon in her discussion about the existence and impacts of “color-blind racism” found in dominant mainstream systems (2–16). A sense that the “default” is neutral and therefore devoid of influences that are harmful to those whose lives (genders, races, identities) are not read as default helps to perpetuate the notion that mechanisms like language, institutions like media and governance, or platforms like social media are also neutral and therefore incapable of inflicting harm without the intentional effort of bad actors. Just as a common refrain in the United States is that “guns don’t kill people—people do”, a similar refrain has emerged in public discourse about mass media, social media and various data-driven technologies which suggests that only users possess bias, not mechanisms over which language has influence and through which communications pass. When we understand technology as an object we manipulate that is otherwise independent of human influence and incapable of affecting any influence of its own, it is easy for us to think this way.

Bourdieu’s Language and Symbolic Power, as well as Byfield’s autoethnographic analysis of the Central Park Five incident give us the language we need to call that perception of mechanisms into question, ascribing a certain power to the mechanism of language that is worth taking into consideration when we think about the multimodal rhetorical situations we find ourselves engaging with in a world that is increasingly influenced by the digital. If we broaden the terms of our thinking somewhat to think about language as a social technology not altogether different from social media software like Facebook or Twitter, it becomes somewhat easier to call into the question the idea of
default”, “standardized” or mainstream’s neutrality because, as Safiya K. Noble articulates in Algorithms of Oppression, when we understand that technologies (including language) are designed by people, we are better able to understand how those people’s biases may influence the impacts that those technologies have on the lives of people that they touch.

Recognizing the influence of and potential retransmission of biases through technology like algorithmically-driven social media, language, and various social institutions speaks to a notion of “communicative competence”—the ability to recognize and respond to a variety of rhetorical circumstances, written, spoken or otherwise and here expanded to include reading social cues and informational dynamics—described by Geneva Smitherman in Talkin And Testifyin (Smitherman 201–244)..

Having read these materials and thought about them in conversation with the work I embarked upon in launching The Web Literacy Project—which was informed largely by texts focusing on the “digital divide” described in Ray, Jackson and Cupaiulo’s Digital Literacy as well as various other text—I am coming to better understand the necessity of developing multimodal/digital literacy pedagogies that are conscious of broader concerns than “how to read and understand credible sources”, “how to detect content marketing and propaganda” or “adapting classrooms to suit the concerns of digital natives” (all items that appear on the “Web Literacy Syllabus” I developed in late 2016. For some time I was deeply resistant to the idea of embracing matters of black studies, feminism, ecology into my thinking about digital pedagogies (despite the fact that I think of digital literacy and digital rhetoric and composition as an extension of “community rhetoric” thinking) and literacies because I thought that they were somehow unrelated to the concerns of the day. I believed, like people commonly do, that somehow the mechanisms of rhetoric and communicative technology in general were indeed neutral sites which, while they could serve as platforms for discussion about sociological issues, were not themselves manifestations of the “default world’s” sociological situation and thus there was little need to read them from perspectives that “politicized” them.

I have since come to realize, in large part thanks to the works of Noble, Bourdieu, Eubanks (mentioned in the critical preface/rationale of my emerging comps list) that reading from those points of view can, in fact, better prepare me to make meaningful recommendations about how to address gaps in competency for students and, more importantly, it can help me to think more granularly about institutions and what must change about them if we are to liberate ourselves from modes of thinking that are harmful to students, to consumers, to human beings in general. Reading these materials has helped me to develop a sense of “organizing principles” which, while providing me with new informational foundation to stand on, have revealed to me just how much I do not know. Realizing my limitations in this respect is daunting—but simultaneously liberating, because I no longer feel paralyzed by the notion that I might not have anything new to add, or that there are no intellectual footholds into which I can dig in..

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