Leeuwen's Discourses of identity

Leeuwen, Theo Van 2009. Discourses of identity. Language Teaching 42(2): 212-221.

In their [British linguists in the 1970s] view, style expressed social meanings of two kinds – meanings related to identity, and meanings related to specific roles, occupational roles, for instance, and specific contexts, e.g. specific types of discourse such as news reading, sports commentary and prayer. Social style, as they saw it, expresses ‘who we are’, in terms of stable categories such as class, gender, age and provenance, and in terms of specific socially regulated activities and the roles we play in them. The former were seen as more or less ingrained habits which are for the most part out of conscious control by the language user. The latter were seen as competencies, social rules of ‘appropriateness’ that must be complied with. (Leeuwen 2009: 212)
Identity - who we are in terms of class, gender, age, provenance (place of origin), and prayer (religion). Roles - specific out-of-awareness ingrained habits in specific contexts, competence of performing the role and rules for appropriate performance.
In both cases the distinctive features that manifest specific styles were not seen as meaningful, but as identifying ‘markers’, linguistic labels – as a kind of linguistic ‘uniform’, one could say, that reveals the social role of the wearer at a glance. At the same time, the authors recognized individual style, the ‘relatively permanent features of the speech or writing habits that identify someone as a specific person’ – style, in other words, as a kind of linguistic fingerprint or identifying mark that is in itself meaningless, but does distinguish a person from all others. Such ‘individuality’ was then to be distinguished from ‘singularity’, a form of stylistic individuality that is deliberately developed and manipulated – for instance, the style of a literary author. But, although individual style was recognized in this way, social determination and social variation were seen as the main area of study for linguistic stylistics. (Leeuwen 2009: 212-213)
It seems that the concept of style has both sociolectical and idiolectical versions: social role on the one hand and individual style (of a literary author, for example) on the other.
In short, the concept of style that came across to me in this time created a strong opposition between the social and in the individual. There was on the one hand social style, a matter of inescapable social classification in terms of categories such as class and gender, and of the strictly regulated obligations of social institutions and practices. And there was on the other hand individual style, which somehow managed to live in the interstices of social regulation, like grass growing between neatly laid, rectangular flagstones, and which could only exist because social regulation cannot cover every detail of our behaviour and therefore leaves room for the expression of individuality, even if only in small details, because there was, alongside the public world, the private world, which provided some room for unbuttoning and expressing individuality, and there was, in a world otherwise governed by bony-structured rules, some degree of license for breaking social conventions, especially for women, children and artists. (Leeuwen 2009: 213)
This is a neat contention (I like it). It is interesting that the allowance for individuality is made especially for women, children and artists - as if "real men" are supposed to be uniform, un-individual.
After the 1960s, the word ‘style’ was heard less and less. The intellectual mood of the day favoured the social, and the backgrounding of the individual which could already be felt in Investigating English Style evolved into a silencing of the individual, perhaps forefelt in Roland Barthes’ concept of ‘degree zero style’ as writing from which all traces of individual personality have been erased, ‘colourless writing, freed from all bondage’ which will set the author free from the ‘prison of style’ (Barthes 1967: 82) and also in his later emphasis on the ‘death of the author’ (Barthes 1977), which was just one of the manifestations of the emphasis on social determination that prevailed in the intellectual climate of the time. (Leeuwen 2009: 213)
Indeed even Ju. Lotman cited an English book about style from the 1950s (I can't say exactly what it was). In any case it seems that the concept of style was very popular in the 1960s (e.g. Martin Joos' language styles) but left the scene in the 1970s.
Such forms of expression are social because they not only allow people to express interpretations of the world, and shared affiliations with certain values and attitudes, but also to recognize others, across the globe, as sharing these interpretations and affiliations. They are also social because they emerged as corporations looked for new ways of creating market demand, with marketing experts replacing ‘demographics’ with ‘psychographics’, clusters of ‘behaviours’, ‘attitudes’ and ‘consumption patterns’. (Leeuwen 2009: 214)
Well that's an interesting term: "Psychographics is the study of personality, values, attitudes, interests, and lifestyles".
Lifestyles, on the other hand, are expressed differently and much less systematically, and rest on one of two principles, the principle of the ‘composite of connotations’ and/or that of experiential metaphor. Connotation, as was already explained by Barthes (1977) some forty years ago, is not systematically organized. It can be characterized as an unordered lexicon of culturally meaningful signifiers which derive their meaning from provenance, from ‘where the signifier comes from’. The principle is this. A sign from a certain domain – a certain period, or other context, such as region, country, culture, occupation, etc. – is imported into a domain where it has hitherto not been part of the repertoire. In that new domain it carries the associations – the values and attitudes – which, in that new domain, people have with the domain from which it comes, so expressing a kind of affiliation with those values, in the ‘lifestyle’ mode. To use, again, the example of dress, in recent times many signifiers from the military domain have entered the domain of street fashion. People walk around wearing drill trousers with a camouflage motif, for instance. (Leeuwen 2009: 215)
This makes me wonder if my SEGA Sonic varsity jacket connotes Americanness? I did have to do a google search to find out that it's called a varsity jacket; otherwise I would have associated it with American football or baseball. It is also called a letterman jacket and it is indeed associated with high school or college athletics.
However, there is also another form of control over our semiotic practices emerging, and that is technological control. At the same time that linguists began to reintroduce style as the expression of identity, software producers did the same thing. HTML, for instance, introduced the style sheet, on which you program what will be the overall characteristics of the text you are writing, especially through colour schemes and choice of typography, which offers its own metaphor potentials as I have tried to explain elsewhere (Van Leeuwen 2006). Thus the concept of style, and the way we create an identity for our text and for ourselves as its producer, is as it were built into the very tool we use to create it. (Leeuwen 2009: 219)
I could have never guessed that I would meet discussions of HTML in semiotics. But, indeed, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) s a veritable semiotic resource.
A new concept of identity has come into being over the past thirty years or so. It merges the individual and the social, making individuality a social and socially regulated affair, rather than something which escapes the social, and making the social an apparently individual affair, open to choice, rather than coercive. This kind of identity is expressed through style, that is through semiotic characteristics which are constant for the duration of a whole text or communicative event, or for the identity of a person or corporation during a particular period. In that constellation, style is no longer the arbitrary marker of a particular identity, but it has meaning. It expresses attitudes, values, personality traits and so on, all of which therefore become more consciously and reflexively constructed. To construct such identities, people need to constantly monitor semiotic resources and the discourses that model them. (Leeuwen 2009: 219-220)
I'm essentially interested in this in terms of body language: how bodily behaviour has become not only a marker of race and culture, but of socially constructed individuality.


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