chapter  4
18 Pages

Talking in the city: The linguistic landscaping of locality

Melbourne’s graffiti have become a tourist attraction, so much so that groups of tourists head straight for some of the best-known alleys, such as Hosier Lane, just off Federation Square in central Melbourne. Two young Korean women, having seen Melbourne street art on Korean television, examine and photograph “a dense, lurid collage that ranges from rudimentary signatures drawn in marker pen to giant dayglo paintings and intricate paper prints pasted on the wall. ‘Very good,’ says one, indicating a playful image of a moon-faced Asian child hugging a docile killer whale. ‘I like it very much’” (Jinman 2007, p. 11). “Head down Hosier lane on a weekend,” suggests Coslovich (2005, np), “and you will see how the swirling, wild creations of the city’s stencil and street artists engage the mainstream.” This is not just a site for “wannabe rock stars seeking street cred for their new CD cover”, but a much broader section of society who head for the backstreets to be “photographed against the gritty, glorious backdrop of street and stencil art”. Tourists, passers-by, artists, brides and bridesmaids pause in front of Melbourne’s graffiti to “secure a touch of urban chic” for their photographs. Such graffiti tourism can be seen as part of the broader domain of hip-hop

tourism (Xie et al., 2007), which in turn is related to music tourism more generally (Gibson and Connell, 2005). As Xie et al. (2007) explain, “The ghetto or the hood, which were once a source of sublime terror and fear, have been transformed by Hip-Hop into an enticing landscape for tourism: an image, a sound, graffiti mural waiting at a distance for visual and sensory consumption by those who come from farther afield” (p. 457). In addition to Hosier Lane in Melbourne, there are other well-known sites such as The Graffiti Hall of Fame at 106th Street and Park Avenue in New York, or Yokohama’s graffiti wall in Japan. Although it is hard in many ways to mourn the disappearance of the Berlin Wall, we have nevertheless lost one of the world’s great collections of artistic and political graffiti. Berliner Mauerkunst is still celebrated in museums, on postcards, in books, but it has gone as a living linguistic landscape. The rise of British street artist Banksy, meanwhile, has greatly increased the

value of some city walls, and has led to the inclusion of graffiti in some art exhibitions, either within galleries or as part of a tour round the city. In July

2009 there were long queues outside Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery to see some of Banksy’s work on display, work that had moved from accessible city walls to the interior of a gallery. The 2008 Tate Modern ‘Street Art’ exhibition in London invited well-known street artists (Blu from Bologna, the Faile collective from New York, JR from Paris, Nunca and Os Gêmeos from São Paulo and Sixeart from Barcelona1) to create new works for part of the building’s façade, while a collective of Madrid-based artists created a series of works around the city which people could visit on a walking tour. While such graffiti areas have become sanctioned (the tourist gaze, especially when supported by tourist dollars, plays a part in constructing the city), for many city officials, dwellers and visitors graffiti remain precisely that which should not be seen. Graffiti beckon from our peripheral vision as we traverse urban landscapes in cars, trains, buses, rickshaws or on foot, yet for many they are little more than passing flashes of indecipherable colour, reminders of antisocial tendencies and the ubiquity of global subcultures. In this chapter, through a focus on graffiti and the struggles over urban

space, I will look at the practices of locality, at the ways in which we create the spaces in which we live. Now that we have considered practices (Chapter 2) and language (Chapter 3) in greater depth, it is time to focus on the local. As already suggested in Chapter 1, a careful reconsideration of what is meant by the local can take us beyond accounts of context as inert backdrops against which we use language. A problem with the notion of the local is that it all too often operates only as a counterpoint to the macro, the global, the universal, the big. While this focus on the local as micro may be very welcome, useful, grounded and practical, the use of the term local in this context reduces the potential meaning of the term to the contextual or small-scale. Discussing ‘language planning in local contexts’ for example, Liddicoat and Baldauf (2008) make a good case for the need to view language planning not just in terms of top-down governmental decision making, but also in terms of local, individual, educational and community action on language: “Considering language planning only as the property of those who hold the institutional power to effect their decisions, ignores the interplay between the macro and the micro which is fundamental to all language planning work” (p. 11). The common strategy in such approaches to the local is to define the macro

category against which the local will be juxtaposed and then proceed with contextual studies of language policy, education or language use. Once the work has been done to define the context of locality – in opposition to global, macro, national top-down approaches – work then proceeds at this level of analysis without further consideration of the meaning of locality. The local is here, this place, this minority language, this activity (Guernsey French, the Maltaljan variety of Maltese in Australia, the role of the Kadazandusan Language Foundation in Malaysia). This focus on the context of language policy, on the often-overlooked, on rarely discussed languages, is of course generally a great advance over the work that remains only at the level of the common and the macro. What I want to argue, however, is that if we confine

the notion of the local always to the small and the overlooked, the micro and the contextual, we run the risk of constraining the potential of the local at the same time that we explore it. We need to understand how language planning often builds on small local

actions, on decisions made in communities, on local publications. Such a focus on local action is a useful corrective to the bland work on language planning that has held sway for too long, doing little more than describing national policies. At the same time, however, we need to be cautious lest a focus on the local remain only on the ‘bottom-up’, the micro, the contextual, and is thereby bereft of more powerful interpretations. Amongst other things, we need to bring in an understanding of space here, and, as Thrift (2007) warns, in doing so, we need to avoid the reduction of space and locality to notions of scale or closeness. Indeed we need to banish “nearness as the measure of all things” (p. 17). When we think in terms of locality, we should not be concerned with either smallness or proximity. Focusing on the local, as Canagarajah (2005a) observes, is far more than merely looking at particular contexts, since it entails “radically reexamining our disciplines to orientate to language, identity, knowledge, and social relations from a totally different perspective. A local grounding should become the primary and critical force in the construction of contextually relevant knowledge if we are to develop more plural discourses” (p. xiv). From this point of view, taking locality into consideration is also about taking seriously local understandings of locality. I intend to push these insights further by looking in much greater depth at

locality as spatial practice. In addition to the practices turn discussed in Chapter 2, a ‘spatial turn’ has also influenced thought across the social sciences, including education (Edwards and Usher, 2008; Gulson and Symes, 2007a; 2007b). These turns, along with the linguistic, somatic and ecological (see Chapter 6), share a great deal in common. All come in the wake of poststructuralist/postmodern emphases on the constructedness of social life: all emphasize that we cannot take language, the body, the environment, space as given entities with evident meanings. Humans endow their surroundings and themselves with layers of meaning that are not in the end separable from the thing itself. While this might suggest a reluctance to engage with ‘reality’ through these turns, there is also at the same time an emphasis on bodies, actions, locations, spaces, environments, contexts. If reality has been set at a slightly greater distance (reality is a less knowable thing because of the ways we construct our worlds), the focus of attention has also moved more locally, to what we do, say, perceive. The spatial turn draws on insights from writers such as Lefebvre (1991/1974),

Soja (1989; 1996) and Massey (1992; 1994). More broadly, as suggested by the contributors to Crang and Thrift (2000), many key thinkers, from Bakhtin, Bourdieu and Deleuze to Fanon, Foucault and Said, can be considered as spatial thinkers. For Lefebvre, space is socially produced, and social relations can only be understood in relation to the space in which they are constituted. He gives the example of the Mediterranean, which in addition to its basic

geographical features is also a socially produced space with a particular focus for Northern Europeans as a leisure space. For French Hip-Hop artists of North African origin, by contrast, this becomes a ‘black Mediterranean’ (Swedenburg, 2001, p. 69), a metaphorical space where musical influences flow back and forth. The notion of the black Mediterranean is a reference to Gilroy’s (1993) earlier notion of the Black Atlantic, referring to the many cultural and linguistic influences between West Africa, the Caribbean, North America and the UK. The French Atlantic (Miller, 2008) is also a focus of study in terms of similar relations between France, West Africa (Mali, Gabon, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire) and the Caribbean and North America (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Quebec). Where French slave routes formerly operated, complex mixes of music and culture now flow (Pennycook, 2007a). Indeed, ‘oceanic cultural studies’ (Ghosh and Muecke, 2007) is an emerging field of study, looking at oceans as cultural spaces of trade, exchange, movement, social relations and imagination. The spatial turn is thus both a reaction to changing conditions of movement – diasporic movements, labour migration, media connectivity – and a rethinking of the ways in which space has been understood. At the core of the spatial turn is the observation that rather than being a

neutral setting, a backdrop, a blank canvas against which social relations are acted out, space is a central interactive part of the social. For Soja (1996), drawing on Lefebvre (1991/1974), space is the “third existential dimension” (p. 3) that needs to be considered alongside, as well as deeply interwoven with, the social and the historical. This spatiality/historicality/sociality nexus, argues Soja, affects not only the ways in which we consider space but also the ways in which we understand history and society. Several basic concerns emerge from thinking through space. Claims to universality, to aspatial abstraction, become highly suspect. All thought, theory, ideas and writing need to be located geographically. Nothing happens non-locally. As I have already suggested, and will be exploring further in following chapters, this idea of the relocalization (rather than recontextualization) of language practices draws on these ways of thinking about space and locality. A problem here, as with all turns, is that space (like language, the body,

practice, ecology) may become little more than a generalized metaphor within social theory, “the everywhere of modern thought. It is the flesh that flatters the bones of theory. It is an all-purpose nostrum to be applied whenever things look sticky” (Crang and Thrift, 2000, p. 1). The same might be said of the so-called linguistic or discursive turn (Eagleton, 2004), with its constant call that everything is constructed in language. An overemphasis on space, as May and Thrift (2001) point out, has come about in part from the continued use of the time/space dichotomy. Even those who sought to challenge the conception of time as dynamic and space as static by reversing this polarity (e.g. Soja, 1989), have maintained the distinction. Indeed, the elevation of space over time in radical geography and social theory, while moving away from a “debilitating historicism” (p. 2) has led, according to May and Thrift

(2001), to a potentially equally debilitating spatialization. What we need, following Massey (1994), is a dissolution of this divide, an appreciation that space and time are indissolubly interlinked. Recent thought on space, therefore, has sought to move beyond the rem-

nants of a Kantian version of space as fixed and immutable, towards space that also encompasses a notion of time and change, space as process. From this point of view, we can look at “practice as an activity creating time-space not time-space as some matrix within which activity occurs” (Crang, 2001, p. 187). This insight is crucial for the arguments I am developing in this book: space (place, location, context) is not a backcloth on which events and language are projected through time. Rather, language practices are activities that produce time and space. The invocation of the everyday – practices are very much part of the focus on everyday activities – suggests not only the temporality or frequency of things that occur over and over in a mundane way, but also an everyday locality: our everyday activities are always in places that become part of the process. A local language practice – writing graffiti, talking about it, writing a policy to remove it – does not simply occur in time and space; time and space are part of the doing, and indeed are produced in the practice. This is not therefore only about the local as opposed to the global, about

the here and now, about the contextual, about micro rather than macro. Nor is it only about local understandings, language ideologies and the pluralization of discourse. Rather, it is about how we construct the local through what we do and say. This is not only about de Certeau’s ‘walking in the city’ but also about ‘talking in the city’. To explore what I mean by this, I shall turn to a discussion of space and movement. Graffiti as a spatial practice and tourism as mobile practice will help shed light on these issues. Graffiti are one of the ways in which cities are brought to life and space is narrated. Graffiti, as both products of artists moving through an urban landscape and as art viewed in motion, are part of the articulation of the cityscape. That graffiti are deemed a threat to property, propriety and pristine walls has to be seen in terms of struggles over the preferred semiotics of a city. Insistently and colourfully reminded that graffiti will farewell and welcome them from city to city, the possible discomfort for global travellers needs to be understood in terms of the flattened class images of the global that tourism produces.