Dynamics of dialogue & discourse

Riding the train to attend a workshop on uses and abuses of language in asylum and migration hearings, I read a sequence of scholarly articles critiquing my main research methodology: critical discourse analysis. The dynamics of dialogue among this select group of experts communicating with each other in view of a wider audience was mirrored, in some respects, by the dynamics of dialogue that played out in the asylum workshop among an impressive range of participants, including academics, legal experts, professional interpreters, and volunteer activists. The mirroring is substantive, if not in terms of content, definitely in terms of process ~ the how and why of communicating with each other is a dialogic endeavor determined by the ways in which participants orient themselves to the potentialities of the situation and setting. These orientations (i.e., Goffman’s concept of footing) are in constant flux, contingent upon individual trajectories of engagement. By trajectory, I mean to refer in general to the personal and professional biography that brings each person to the encounter. By engagement, I include active and passive responses to the framework established by the particular setting, as well as interactions with each other as everyone negotiates relative positions of membership and role.
The core of the argument laid out by Michael Billig (in the articles from Discourse and Society 2008, Vol. 19, Issue 6) is that we who think in terms of critical discourse analysis (CDA) need to be acutely aware of our own uses of language, lest we repeat some of the very elements of language use that we critique in others. Billig’s concern is with social scientific language in general; he selects CDA for heuristic and practical purposes: “It should be a major issue for analysts who stress the pivotal role of language in the reproduction of ideology, inequality and power” (p. 784). Whether or not there is danger is a theme that emerges in responses by some of Billig’s peers, all of whom are renowned within the field of CDA. I want to engage the question of risk because the indexicals in academic/activist speech and writing do have consequences into the future, not only in terms of the clarity of our analyses and arguments (which is the concern foregrounded by Billig) but also in terms of our collective ability to exert change in the institutional processes we study.
The strongest example from the workshop is Clarisa’s request of Katrijn not to use the term, “interpreter,” to refer to the person in a Belgian asylum hearing who asks questions of the asylum seeker in (theoretically) a language comprehensible to the asylum seeker, writes down their answer in a language probably unknown to the (often illiterate) asylum seeker (English in the case we examined), and gives this “translated” written account to the official interviewer – thus subverting any spontaneous oral interaction between the primary interlocutors. I put “translated” in quotation marks because I suspect professional (or at least qualified) translators might also object to the use of this label. At any rate, that activity bears no resemblance to the work of professional interpreters: the conflation is sloppy at best and, at worst, perpetuates the undermining of simultaneous interpretation at multiple levels: as a professional career (individual), as a necessary communicative intervention (interpersonal), and as a reasonable institutional solution (systemic, intercultural and transnational).
One of the most powerful findings of Katrijn’s work is its illustration of the collision between modernist and postmodern realities at the junction of language and the national order. Jan Blommaert details the high modernism of a monoglot nation-state as exposed in the workings of asylum hearings. Below, I have reformulated some of his points regarding language ideology – the ideas about language that government officials in asylum hearings use (apparently without doubt):
• Languages belong in places; i.e., history doesn’t happen – meaning there are no reasons why a language common in one area could ever become a language known in another area. (There are no language-based consequences of displacement due to war, violence, poverty, disease . . . no such thing as a linguistic diaspora.)
• Language use within places (i.e., especially in places that are known as countries), are uniform, consistent, and show little variation. Anyone who lives in that country (no matter how large or ethnically/linguistically diverse or politically/militarily unstable) will know the official language (even if they have never attended school) and also know only the languages associated historically with their region.
• Languages do not change. While people may be aware that languages mix and change over time and through contact with other languages, this never happens in real life. Or, if it does, it does not indicate anything of significance about that person’s life.
• Meaning is fixed. Whatever linguistic resources a person might put together to try and convey their point to you (by mixing words from different languages, for instance, or shifting between formal and informal varieties) this does not convey anything meaningful, because “meaning” is only possible with complete knowledge of one language.
Many of the participants in this polyglot workshop group reacted strongly to the implications of these ideas, as they run to counter to experience. I kept thinking of deaf children who were (historically, in the U.S.) misdiagnosed by so-called experts as mentally retarded, even though records display evidence of impressive adaptation (with signed language) of their own message in attempts to convey meaning to the adult (using spoken English). The children were judged on the adult’s failure to understand, rather than on their own cognitive abilities. Discussion in the workshop, after Jan’s presentation, was passionate regarding the standard of proof (legal reasoning, the presentation of legal arguments, and the structure of communication within the legal field about linguistic developments), and the lack of training by so-called “language experts” in sociolinguistics. Lisa and I carried on our own side conversation about ethnocommunication, language as performance, and experts doing “applied research” who lack any kind of training in qualitative research methodologies, yet whose results are taken as industry standards without question.
Katrijn then presented two cases, taking us through the asylum seeker’s transformation from a human being with an identity, a biography, and a voice to a few abstracted sentences written in a format absolutely foreign to the asylum seeker. The elisions of accountability from the human beings executing the official, institutionalized processes of assessing the truth of the asylum seeker’s statements are as disturbing as the violence done to the asylum seeker him- or herself. The institutional argument that treating everyone in the same impersonal fashion guarantees equality is clearly lopsided: the ‘equality’ generated in this equation is one of excusing the consciences of those engaged in this messy business. (Who, I am sure, are generally good people doing a difficult job within a structure that consistently validates the necessity of their task.)
How to mediate the unique parameters of each asylum seeker’s application was a subject of intense discussion, centering around the proper and appropriate uses of simultaneous interpretation and questions of how to treat the actual written document produced by that quasi-translating editor (who literally prepares the asylum seeker’s case according to the requirements of the institutional legal structure). John, a judge, asked if the document could be taken as a rendering of reported speech. The more-or-less affirmative answer is qualified on two important counts: the false appearance of a conditional in the case at hand (a problem of translation between grammatically different verb forms) and the even more crucial – and general – fact that the account has been modalized.
Jan explained the process of modalization, and Katrijn’s second case poignantly emphasized the point. First, the asylum seeker is stripped of voice through a battery of dialectical maneuvers enacted while he or she attempts to tell their story. Then, the asylum seeker’s voice is ‘given back’ (so to speak) in the grammatical formation of the written report, which presents ‘what the asylum seeker said’ in the first person, as if what is written is a verbatim transcription of what the person said. In fact, there is virtually nothing left of what the person actually did say. When the judge who is going to determine the truth claims of the asylum seeker’s story reads the written account (they do not interact with the actual applicant unless/until there is an appeal), the judge assumes – as a matter of standard institutional protocol – that this so-called first person account is a first person account.
The horror of the asylum seeker from Sierre Leone’s dehumanization in her asylum hearing pervaded the room. Parallels with rape victims giving testimony in U.S. court cases come to mind. I can hardly imagine what it was like for Katrijn to observe this interaction while it occurred. I am also reminded of the vicarious trauma experienced by signed language interpreters witnessing/participating in dynamics of oppression in the U.S. – and these are mild (let’s be honest) in comparison with interpreting for victims of torture. There was evidence that I was not the only one affected, as workshop participants continued to propose problem-solving techniques and pose strategic alternatives for communication (such as the use of picture prompts) as if our task in the moment was to repair the damage done. In terms of workshop design, the progression of theory and evidence was brilliant. Conversation turned, in the end, toward our responsibilities and possibilities as interested parties.
Adrian posed the question from his position as respondent, asking about desire and flight: Do we want to engage the institutional structures of asylum hearings or shove them away with a barge pole? The responses of the workshop participants to this question brings me back, finally, to that mirroring of process that I noticed between a tightly-scribed circle of scholars writing about critical discourse analysis and this broader coalition of professionals learning about the role and uses of language in asylum hearings. The core matter in both dialogues is a challenge. Billig asked, are we (CDA researchers) guilty of perpetuating the same dynamics we criticize? Adrian asked, are we (interested in asylum) charged with trying to change the dynamics we criticize? Drawing upon Bahktin, the responses offered are both centripetal (moving toward a center) and centrifugal (scattering).
In terms of centrifugal forces (those dialogic elements of language indicative of difference and heterogeneity), Roxy questioned the question. To be fair, he shifted levels (orders of indexicality) significantly, to the discourses about asylum hearings presented by government (“we are keeping those people out”) and by big business (“we need lots of cheap labor”). To the extent that both these institutions are accomplishing what they seek (PR designed to calm xenophobia; rhetoric intended to justify low wages), the microsocial interactions of participants in asylum hearings may be inconsequential. In the CDA scholarship, Van Dijk argues vigorously with Billig about creating a pseudoproblem. In the workshop, John went on a tangent about the economic interests of countries from which educated emigrants seek to leave. In the CDA dialogue, Martin picks up – not on Billig’s main argument – rather, on his illustrative example, using it to justify the continued relevance of one of the founding intellectual inspirations of critical discourse analysis.
Centripetally, trying to wrap up the workshop, Jan emphasized the relevance of academic research for policymakers and practitioners, echoing Lisa’s vision of engaged interventionists working with deep theory and uncompromised empirical realities. Peter offered a plea for engagement because the problems will only continue or even worsen. Clarisa made a compelling argument for the need to proactively involve interpreters in these conversations – whether they are academic, strategic, or both. In the articles on CDA, Fairclough responds in centripetal fashion by engaging Billig’s question directly and elucidating areas of agreement and disagreement. Their dialogue continues with another short round of clarifications, as each seeks to establish boundaries defining the centrality of their respective vantage points.
Participants of the asylum workshop are now poised on the verge of dis/continuation. Ben worked the middle of the emergent centrifugal and centripetal forces, bridging Roxy’s question of relevance to other venues in which we do see postmodern solutions to transnational dynamics (such as in popular culture), a stance which Jan echoed by naming some of the other places where tensions between actual social environments in which people use a wide range of resources are posed against the officially-imposed national language scheme (such as basic language requirements for speaking the national language). Finally, as our time together came to a close, Ben notified us of “a compendious email” that will be sent around with resources for continued study and engagement.
Hopefully a sizable percentage of participants from the workshop will continue to communicate, enabling a dual movement that:

  • enacts collaborative tacking among discourses and dialogue (which can be studied and learned from)
  • while generating strategic tools for reforming the processes of asylum hearings in practical and effective ways.

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