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.

Based on a true story: W.’s performance

30 09 2008

In Talking Politics, University of Chicago anthropological linguist Michael Silverstein compares the presidential communication styles of Abraham Lincoln and George Walker Bush and finds that both styles are squarely within their sociopolitical Zeitgeist. Abe’s “enduring style of substance” (p26), he argues, effectively embodied the voice of “American civic morality” (p30) while Dubya talks like a man who “has moved up from the Texas Rangers and Harken Oil to head the country’s largest diversified corporation, the United States government” (p68).

Amusing as Dubyaspeak may be, this style “communicates concern […] but not expertise; command, as it were, but not control” (p72). It is exactly this indexical property which made and makes Dubya’s political rhetoric work. Indeed, as Dubya has “successfully projected, and successfully continues to project, determination, “really trying”” (p71), he has come to iconicize the earnest CEO who, when given lemons, makes lemonades, as opposed to the bourgeois, can’t-keep-your-pants-on Clinton know-it-all. In such a context, language “reformed for a People Magazine politics” (p115) works and provides enough ammunition to make a promising satire out. Oliver Stone’s W. debuts October 17 stateside and October 30 in Europe.