Indexical orders of commoditized identity

24 02 2009

Today I  learned that you are what you say about what you eat. Michael Silverstein drove this point home in his paper on indexical orders. Without going into much detail, indexicality is the meaning relation which links language use to a particular context.

Consider the catchphrase  ‘Fire in the hole!’, a warning which most people would associate with particular kinds of speakers (soldiers) or contexts of speaking (detonating an explosive device). It is this association between discourse and context which we call indexical, i.e. pointing to a meaning (an imminent explosion).

Indexical meanings are ordered – they are not unstructured – and such ‘indexical orders’ can become emblematic of particular social categories. Case in point is the register I have an on/off relationship with: wine talk. Silverstein argues that wine talk is indexically iconic of (i.e. bears resemblance to) yuppoisie (a 1990s term, we would now speak of ‘millenials’). There is indeed an undeniable link between describing a wine as having ‘a balanced ménage à trois of aroma, depth and finish’ and an elitist/snobbish/posh consumerist social identity. Talking wine indexes socially valued traits in the speaker. So, in Silverstein’s words (2003: 226):

As we consume the wine and properly (ritually) denote that consumption, we become, in performative realtime, the well-bred, characterologically interesting (subtle, balanced, intriguing, winning, etc.) person iconically corresponding to the metaphorical “fashion of speaking” of the perceived register’s figurations of the aesthetic object of connoisseurship, wine.

Note that Silverstein refers to wine as a “perduringly constant prestige comestible”. Scrabble, anyone?

Silverstein, Michael (2003). Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language & Communication 23 (3-4): 193-229.


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12 10 2009
Michael McIntyre on indexical order « Tom Van Hout

[…] McIntyre on indexical order 12 10 2009 I have written about this before, but Michael Silverstein’s concept of indexical order is so good it makes me smile. Indexical […]

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