Twisted in the Anti-Circle:
Response to Mary Bucholtz, "Word Up: Social Meanings of Slang in California Youth Culture"
Yo! I'm the anti-circle
On the mad train like a rain
That's verbal I storm
Never comin' twice in one form
(The Roots: Organix)
The Anti-Circle Mary Bucholtz's paper: "Word Up: Social Meanings of Slang in California Youth Culture" is an insightful and provocative exploration of youth lexical practices in a Northern California high school. Bucholtz is interested in the use of terminology to mark a particular generation and reflect and mediate social relations - especially around race. And she pursues this area of research by analyzing discourse in one of the most revered, misunderstood and harrowing spaces known to humankind - teenage hangout zones on high school grounds. This territory is ideal to explore the display and representation of racial and ethnic identity, especially the tension between ideology and practice. Bucholtz's particular focus is on slang - a term widely used in popular culture but generally rejected by linguists. Her resurrection of slang for serious investigation and discussion in linguistic anthropology is welcome, especially since the public use of the term itself reflects ideology about the terms in question. Mary Bucholtz defines slang as a specific lexicon associated with taboo topics that are creative and rapidly changing. She focuses on slang's referential function as it relates to youth identity and the dialectic between ideology and practice. It is through this aspect of analysis that she finds slang to be a richly semiotic component of the lexicon in which linguistic practices and ideologies collaborate to produce youth identities based on distinctive styles. Bucholtz investigates slang's use to signal coolness and proof of engagement in youth culture, to mark off racial boundaries, to construct subcultural participation and to create interactional identities. Her analysis is based on the notion that language ideology and identity are found within a community of practice - where language is one among many social practices (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 1992,1995). She warns that these practices are not fixed identities tied to particular forms of practices. "It is the regular iteration of such [linguistic] practices by specific community members that creates the illusion of a fixed identity tied to particular forms of practice." In this sense indexicality reproduces identities through linguistic and other social practices. Mary Bucholtz is negotiating a demanding and intricate terrain here in that she is not only tackling how language ideology is represented in social identity, but teenage social identity - one that experiments - and thus mixes crucial identity issues with play and back again. What's more, identity is viewed through referential and indexical language use and the ideology that underpins not only the terminology itself, but also the power of the discourse ideology. As Stuart Hall says, "Identities are “constituted within, not outside of representation, within, not outside, discourse, and constructed through, not outside, difference (p.4)." It seems that Hall may have had teenagers in mind when he described identity as the changing same (see Gilroy 1994), and "not the return to roots, but the coming-to-terms-with our 'routes' (p.4)''. What is of interest to me is the extent to which youth intend to do some of the things they do with language. It may be that teenagers expose and 'flash' their routes all the time, on their way to understanding their difference as well as their sameness. This flashing is especially revealing in Bucholtz's analysis of how slang words that are associated with a particular racial identity can mediate a positive social face like coolness.=20 While coolness is central to American teenage identity, it should be remembered that it is a principal aspect of African American culture and exists in relation to the loss of positive social face - a fool. Thus youth must avoid the hidden dangers of mistaken identity and confusing their intention. The task of representing shifting identities is of particular interest because youth are - at times - aware of the identity of others and their own need to assert various aspects of their identity across contexts. Of course one of the main ways this happens is through indexicality. One can be sustained within their group and represent that group, but they may have to borrow from other groups to embellish their notion of membership and coolness across groups. And they will require co-authorship or at the very least audience collaboration to do so. Therefore, if we think about cultural as well as racial identity in high school, it is likely that students of color will be aware of how these identities are constructed in more detail - including nuances - than Anglo students. For it is in multi-cultural high schools that white youth really begin to understand that white privilege is unmarked. People eat and socialize with those with shared local knowledge - what's revealing is not that they come together to relax with people who are like them. Instead, it is interesting to note what they consider to be shared significant attributes for that identity moment (e.g. athlete, outsider, nerd), how they configure the other groups and whether their identity is actually in relation to others present. For example, Bucholtz has shown that Mark (a popular European American (EA) boy with only EA friends?) who maps the grounds of the school according to race while his social group remains unmarked, supports the literature on whiteness as the unmarked category and how it is performed (e.g. Frankenberg 1997). In contrast, the African American student, John Doe (does this name signify some sort of erasure? I'll refer to him as JD) seems to recognize everyone - but not always within a dialectic in relation to himself, his group or a sense of superiority and privilege. That is JD experiences race as a social/cultural category. Because of this, JD refers to the Latino group as XIV since that is what the group calls itself and he knows it. The XIV is a group identified by a specific norm of membership and an identity that is not fluid and not framed by school groups. All of these questions focus on what Bucholtz raises as the tension between ideology and practice. So youth identity is constructed around and within an ideology that representations and references (signs and symbols) are indexical and creates institutional practices; what the signs and symbols index remains fluid and prismatic rather than fixed. But it goes even further. Urban youth language ideology assumes that agency and power reside in the form of language use itself. That is, it is based on indexicality where language use focuses on contextualized existence and points to the sociocultural context or "real world" reality of urban youth. It refers to the secret handshake, knowing look and coded message. For youth, indexicality is a refreshing stroke of Foucaltian madness because they believe that the presence of the linguistic choice - alternative is the movement itself. And reference to public individuals, events, objects, etc. can stand for, point to and connect and target particular groups and contexts (Silverstein 1993, 1998). And so linguistic choices can have multiple signification or iconicity, erasure and reclamation and reconfiguring of the forms. So what does this say about how slang functions? These terms have exchange value for only a limited time to some. That is, as Bucholtz argues, it is trendy to use slang to those for whom the practice is only associated with a youthful age seen as a passing fancy. But for those that experience slang as a process of identification, it is not only the popular items that have exchange value but also how they function within a system of markedness. This system of markedness functions within popular and local trademarks (cf. Coombe 1996) and youth use the system to mark the same symbol as positive and negative in any given moment. =20 As cultural practice, language ideologies are mirrors and tools that probe, reflect, refract, subvert and exalt social and cultural production, reproduction and representation. As Woolard and Schieffelin explain, language ideologies "envision and enact links of language to group and personal identity, to aesthetics, to morality, and to epistemology (1994:56). Moreover it is precisely shared ideologies that link cultural and linguistic phenomena (Silverstein 1998). So we may extend Woolard's (April 24, 1995) reference to Crowley (1989) in this column that a single word can assign you to an inferior class and reveal a hidden history. To use terms associated with a racial group that also defines coolness for the larger society (including masculinist stereotypes) is to appropriate the referent as a trademark, symbol and index - within a narrow framework of coolness. Though one may not lose their white privileged identity by using African American terminology, there are still dangers. It may not be considered cool to use these appropriated terms in the presence of African Americans - as demonstrated in a recent movie (Romeo Must Die) when a white character refers to cash/money by using the hip hop term cheddar. As Mary Bucholtz says at the end of her essay, the complexity of language in use as a resource for the production of social subjectivities is of vital importance in understanding the thorny question of identity. I guess that's why rapper Aceyalone refers to slang as representing and inserting the power cord.
Coombe, Rosemary. 1996. Embodied Trademarks: Mimesis and Alterity on American Commercial Frontiers. Cultural Anthropology 11.2:202-224.
Crowley, T. 1989. Standard English and the Politics of Language. Urbana: Univ. Ill. Press.
Frankenberg, Ruth. 1997. "Locating Whiteness, Localizing Whiteness In Ruth Frankenberg, Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism (pp. 1-33).
Gilroy, Paul. 1994. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, London:Verso.
Hall, Stuart. 1996. "Introduction: Who Needs Identity?" In Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (Eds.) Questions of Cultural Identity. Sage: London (pp. 1-19)
Silverstein, Michael. 1993. Metapragmatic Discourse and Metapragmatic Function. In Reflexive Language: Reported Speech and Metapragmatics. John A. Lucy (ed.) Pp. 33-58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Silverstein, Michael. 1998. The Uses and Utility of Ideology: A Commentary. In Language Ideologies, Practice and Theory. Bambi B. Schieffelin and Kathryn Woolard (eds.) Pp. 123-45.New York, Oxford University Press.
Woolard, Kathryn, & Schieffelin, Bambi. (1994). Language Ideology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 23, 55-82.