Are discourse analysts ‘essential workers’?

When I was in the first grade the teacher asked us to stand up one by one and tell the class what our fathers did. This was 1965, and so questions about what our mothers did rarely came up. I watched all my classmates declare proudly that their fathers were postmen, or firemen, or construction workers. Then it was my turn and I had to explain that my father was a public relations man (again, it was 1965, and so names of professions were still gendered – there were no ‘public relations people’ or ‘public relations professionals’). My classmates stared back at me blankly: there were no pictures of public relations men alongside the firemen, police officers, teachers and shopkeepers in our primary school reader. But there was nothing I could do to clear things up for them. Truth be told, at that age I really had no idea what my father did. At that moment I resolved that, when I grew up, I would be something that people had heard of, a doctor or a fireman. As it turned out, I grew up to become a discourse analyst. So that didn’t work out too well. 

Of course, as I grew older, I did come to understand what my father did, and he came to understand what I did too. We used to say that his job was spinning things and my job was unspinning them. And we both knew that underlying what we both did was a conviction that words are important, that words have power, that words are things that ought to be handled with care. 

Last month my father died of COVID-19, and suddenly words were not enough. He was in the US and I was 4000 miles away in the UK, and so our last conversations were sketchy video calls, first with him struggling to hold the phone up to his face, and later with the palliative care nurse propping an iPad in front of him for our final family Zoom calls. And in those calls, both of us, probably for the first time in our lives were at a loss for words, him because he could hardly breathe, and me because I didn’t know what to say. There was no amount of unspinning that could help me make sense of what was happening. Sure, I could deconstruct the President’s rhetoric on coronavirus or the way it was covered on Fox News, which my father watched religiously, but all that faded into the background. I could say the things I was supposed to say, the words that experts had decided were what you should say to a dying person. ‘I love you.’ ‘I forgive you.’ ‘Forgive me.’ But the words didn’t seem to be enough. This was real. 

I’ve been thinking a lot during lockdown about what I do. I guess a lot of people have. The pandemic has brought into sharp relief which of us are ‘essential workers’ (here in the UK they call them ‘key workers’) and which of us aren’t, revealing the ironic fact that those who do the most essential jobs like stocking supermarket shelves and delivering packages for Amazon often get paid the least. It has also made clear the distinction between those of us who can work from home, and those (like the doctor and the fireman that I never became) who have to venture out every day into a virus-ridden world. So it’s gotten me to consider whether what I’m doing with my life is ‘essential’ or not, which is probably something all of us would do well to consider from time to time. 

My colleagues and I started this blog partly to keep track of what we were thinking, how we were making sense of what was going on around us, and partly to help us make sense of what we do, to help us figure out the different ways being a discourse analysts is relevant to the current moment. 

Can discourse analysis save lives?

Ron Scollon

Two decades ago, in the midst of the George W. Bush’s War on Terror, my now deceased mentor Ron Scollon wrote an essay called ‘What’s the point? Can mediated discourse analysis stop the war?’ (Scollon, 2002). We might ask a similar question. Can discourse analysis stop the death? Or stop people – whether they be politicians or the people around us – from doing things that seem to be increasing the death toll? But maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe the question should be more along the lines of, what can discourse analysis do to help us live with death, to communicate about these things that are happening to us just a little bit better, and to understand the power of words to infect and to heal, and to learn how to treat them with care?

That’s pretty much the conclusion Ron came to as well. The real question, he decided, was not whether or not he could stop the war, but rather something a bit less dramatic, and maybe a bit more important. ‘What can I do,’ he wrote, ‘that neither abdicates all action and responsibility to those who are causing such enormous human devastation nor quixotically burns up my life and the lives of those around me trying to feel as if we are taking meaningful action?’

The kind of discourse analysis Ron did –mediated discourse analysis – is all about ‘meaningful actions’, or rather, about understanding how every action is meaningful, and made possible by meaning (or discourse). Everything that happens is the result of chains of little actions following one after another, sometimes leading to monumental results, sometimes not, all woven together with words (and pictures, and other ways of making meaning). For Ron, the whole point of discourse analysis is to understand the role that discourse has in stitching together those chains of action, the role discourse has in making things happen, or not happen.   

Like wars, epidemics – diseases of all kinds– are sites where these chains of action and meaning can get particularly knotty and hard to untangle. One reason for this, as I argued in my 2013 book about health communication, is that:

Talking about health in any context is a complicated thing, first because when one is talking about health one is usually talking about other things as well, things like fear, trust, commitment, love, money, morality, politics and death, just to name a few. Second, communicating about health can be used to accomplish many different social actions from making an insurance claim, to making love, to making conversation around the dinner table, and how one talks about it depends on what one is doing with the talk. (Jones, 2013: 3) 

Two decades ago, in the midst of a different pandemic, the cultural critic Paula Treichler (1999:11) called AIDS an ‘epidemic of signification’. ‘Try as we may to treat AIDS as an “infectious disease” and nothing more,’ she wrote, ‘meanings continue to multiply wildly.’ AIDS had become ‘a chaotic assemblage of understandings’ – or, as Ron might have put it, a knot of entangled chains of discourse and action – a ‘horrendously complex entity made up of linkages among very different and independent discourses and ideologies, semiotic systems and their signs’ (Scollon, 2002). ‘We cannot,’ Treichler (1999:11) concluded, ‘look “through” language to determine what AIDS “really” is.’ Rather we must look at language. We must ‘intervene at the point where meaning is created.’ 

Noticing

In the end of the day, the best thing I can say about discourse analysis is that it provides us with frameworks to notice when and how meaning is created, and sometimes to productively intervene. Each post on this blog might be seen as a window into that process of noticing – an example of a discourse analyst zeroing in on some point where meaning was created around the pandemic at some particular moment in some particular place, whether it be noticing the signs pasted in the widows of shuttered shops in our neighbourhood, or the slogans the Prime Minister was decorating his lectern with for his coronavirus briefings, or the metaphors used to talk about the pandemic in the newspapers, or the videos, memes, or hashtags that shot through our social media feeds. And what they end up noticing is that making meaning in the context of COVID-19 is never just about COVID-19, but also about things like inequity, racism, militarism, cultural identity, expertise, and power, and sometimes meaning itself, how, at times like this, it is not just meaning but also ‘ambiguity and uncertainty’ that need to be ‘socially and linguistically managed’ (Treichler 1999:16). 

One thing these posts remind us is that it is the particularity of these points where meaning is created that is most important – that meaning is always situated, that it is always created in some place, at some time, at some point in a chain of actions. The same words have different meanings depending on whether or not they appear on our social media feeds or come from the mouth of the Prime Minister. And so these analyses are also necessarily situated. They were written in the midst of the pandemic by people who were experiencing it in all of the big and small ways that others were. 

Lots of times discourse analysts have the benefit of hindsight, we can collect texts over time, pour over transcriptions, and sometimes ignore how much and how quickly the discursive ground is shifting beneath us, which it always is. Here we have no such luxury. Each of these posts is an example of discourse analysis being done in vivo, an attempt to make sense of what was happening as it happened. And so the analyses presented here are preliminary, tentative, situated at some point in a quickly changing narrative. In one sense, that might be a weakness. Couldn’t we have waited until we had more data, more certainty, something more ‘substantial’ to share? But in another sense, it is their incompleteness that is their strength, the glimpses they offer into how we as discourse analysts were making sense of things day by day, day by day trying to figure out what it means to be ‘essential’.

Another strength of this blog is the range of different frameworks for understanding meaning and action that are represented. We are all discourse analysts, but we have our own tribes and our own tricks. These ‘bags of tricks’ go by names like critical discourse analysis, multimodal discourse analysis, mediated discourse analysis, social semiotics, interactional sociolinguistics, genre analysis, linguistic landscape studies, and corpus assisted discourse analysis. And so each of these pieces provides a demonstration, if you like, of how each of these approaches can be applied to a situation like the one we were experiencing, and how these approaches might speak to and interact with one another. 

Nothing we post to this blog is going to save anyone’s life. I’m pretty sure of that. But these posts might play some small part in some chain of action that ends up saving someone’s life, or making someone’s life better, or helping someone talk to someone who refuses to wear a face mask without getting into an argument, or getting someone to think twice about retweeting that hateful COVID-related tweet. More importantly, they might help us become more sensitive to those chains of action that have been set into motion by this virus and the role discourse plays in them before we get too entangled in them, before they get wrapped around us so tightly that we can’t talk. They might get us closer to understanding how to productively intervene where meaning is created. They might contribute to the construction of a new architecture for understanding how to talk to each other over seemingly irresolvable physical and ideological distances in contexts where we are reduced to tiny iPhone sized faces. They might in some small way help us to figure out what it means to be essential to the people around us, and how to say the things that need saying at the moments they need saying and in the ways they need saying, things like ‘I love you’, ‘I forgive you’, ‘Forgive me.’  

References

Jones, R. H. (2013). Health and risk communication: An applied linguistic perspective. London: Routledge.

Scollon, R. (2002). What’s the point? Can mediated discourse analysis stop the war. Retrieved 18 April 2003 from http://www.gutenbergdump.net/mdp/point.htm (no longer available) 

Treichler, P.A. (1999) AIDS, homophobia, and biomedical discourse: An epidemic of signification. (1999). In P. A. Treichler, How to have theory in an epidemic (pp. 11–41). Duke University Press. 

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