Phatic Labor and Infrastructure

Elyachar, Julia 2010. Phatic labor, infrastructure, and the question of empowerment in Cairo. American Ethnologist 37(3): 452-464.

Despite such problems, she and her friends were busy and active. They would visit one another, most often in their own block of apartments but in other parts of the neighbourhood as well. They visited women they knew from the mosque, friends they had made through other friends, and, sometimes, women they had met at the greengrocer. They also maintained ties to friends and family in other parts of Cairo, and much of their week was taken up with visiting around the city (which, with its population of 18 million, took up both time and effort). There was often no obvious purpose to those visits - no goal to accomplish, no occasion to celebrate, no fixed appointment to meet. (Elyachar 2010: 452)
Communication and social relationships are sometimes pleasurable for their own sake. E.g. phatic communion. My first thought is that "phatic labor" is an extension of phatic communion in the sense that it is sometimes laborious (taking both time and effort) to achieve.
Anthropological writing on microenterprise, empowerment, and finance usually draws on theories of political economy, finance, and development. My analysis is equally grounded in those bodies of literature, but I draw on linguistics, semiotics, and information theory as well. As a starting point for my analysis of the outcomes of women's social practices, I turn to Bronislaw Malinowski's (1936) concept of "phatic communion." With this concept, Malinowski shows how language such as gossip and catting can be a means of establishing ties for their own sake, rather than for the purpose of conveying any information in particular. In the spirit of other projects that bring together semiotics and linguistics with political economy (Keane 2008; Kockelman 2006, 2007; Pedersen 2008), I bring together Malinowski with Karl Marx to introduce the concept of "phatic labor." I argue that this labor produces communicative channels that can potentially transmit not only language but also all kinds of semiotic meaning and economic value. The period of empowerment finance, as I show below, made communicative channels created through phatic labor visible as a social infrastructure on which other projects oriented around the pursuit of profit could be constructed. (Elyachar 2010: 453)
I get very suspicious when Marxism is involved. So, too with information theory, because that stuff is almost synonymous with "mathematical theory of communication" and was reportedly a failed project (limited to technical/engineering aspects of communication). I do agree that ultimately phatics is not about small talk as such, but about social relationships - or infrastructure - and the communization of not only about signification ("semiotic meaning") but also, as Malinowski put it, about "the breaking of bread and the communion of food" (1946[1923]: 314).
In workshop neighbourhoods of Cairo, the coffeehouse is a place where deals are made, information exchanged, workers located, and opportunities pursued. The coffeehouse is a beehive of sociality, where men from workshops chat and gossip over instruments of convivality such as coffee, tea, and water pipes (sisha). Workshop masters come to the coffeehouse to settle disputes, arrange deals, and learn about new customers, supplies from new sources, and whether workers with skills they need are available for hire. Workers share information about possible jobs and gossip about their current employers. The coffeehouse has been called an "informal institution" of the Egyptian labor market (Assaad 1993). More breadly, it is a place where channels of communication in the public economic space of workshop communities come together and become visible, like train tracks come together in Grand Central Station in New York City. (Elyachar 2010: 454)
Every nexus of communication channels can be viewed this way, be it a physical coffee shop or an internet forum. Some of these descriptions sounds awfully lot like what people do on reddit; especially information about possible jobs and gossip about current employers.
Um Muhammed moved around much less than her neighbours: She generally moved only from her apartment to her husband's coffeehouse to the homes of her immediate relatives and back again. Her limited mobility may have been due in part to a slight limp. But if so, the contours of her social world had become shaped around those limitations to quite productive ends. Her life was oriented around her nuclear family and her time was spent inside the home, but Um Muhammed was not a housewife. Nor did she spend her day reproducing labor power to be sold on the market for a wage. As a loving wife and mother, Um Muhammed's affective labor and skill were crucial in creating the possibilities for her son to become a fully social man who could marry and head an economic enterprise and for her husband to enjoy his reputation as a man of honor who had the resources and the temperament to help others in their times of need. But she did more as well. In popular communities of Cairo, the coffehouse is a place where practices of sociality integral to male productive work are prominently on display. It is a communicative hub of phatic labor, as my more detailed discussion of this concept below makes clear. Um Muhammed was a maintenance worker on essential infrastructure of economic life in Cairo. (Elyachar 2010: 454)
I had a hunch that the notion of emotion work (or "affective labor") may come into play here. In this sense one can view any of Jakobson's six components and extend them towards economic theories. I think this may have begun with Bourdieu's forms of capital. His social capital has to do with the emotive, conative and phatic functions and his cultural capital with the poetic, referential and metalingual.
When Hoodfar's informant, Um Hani, needed to get her family's apartment connected to the water, she went about this task in classic Cairene fashion. She went on visits. She visited each of her neighbours in turn until she found someone who knew someone in the right office to take care of this matter. "If I go not knowing anybody," Um Hani told Hoodfar, "they will not deal with me and send me from one office to the next and will ask me to return day after day. But if I know someone who knows the rules and knows the people, the whole thing may not take more than a few hours. Here nobody helps you if you do not have connections" (1997: 230). In this case, Um Hani's visits were interested. But Um Hani also visited back and forth with her neighbours many times with no goal in mind. Most of the time, she and her neighbours were just being sociable. The disinterested nature of their visits did not contradict their statements about the importance of the connections that sociality forced. Such is the nature of phatic labor. (Elyachar 2010: 454-455)
In this sense phatic labor has to do with the aspect of relationships that I pointed out while reading another paper on phatics; namely, that communization is not merely about sharing common experience but also about having common acquaintances. A lot of small talk or, especially, gossip, is about other people. In other words, the "channel" that some phatic utterances are "about" are not the given contact between A and B but the contact that A and B both have with C. This is almost the reverse of a metachannel, perhaps something like a parachannel (although these communication theory terms are perhaps not the best ones for the occasion).
When talking about connections and their importance, Cairenes often use the words 'alaqat (relations) or wasta (intermediaries). The concept of "wasta" is pervasive in Egypt and many other Middle Eastern societies. Cultivating wasta entails great inverstments of time and energy. It is not a phenomenon of the poor alone: Wasta is central to life among elites as well (Inhorn 2004). A concept similar to "wasta" is found in other cultures: The native concepts of "guanxi" in China (Hutchings and Weir 2005; Kipnis 1997) and "nepotism" in the United States (Bellow 2004) both refer to the importance of cultivating networks of personal connections to get things done. Wast is sometimes glossed as corruption or patronage and is an object of concern for those studying the conduct of business in the Middle East (Hutchings and Weir 2005; Loewe et al. 2008). Anthropologists often gloss this phenomenon in terms of networks. (Elyachar 2010: 455)
There are corresponding concepts in Estonian as well: tutvused ("acquaintances") and vahendajad ("intermediates" or "mediators").
Given the frequency of my informants' talk about connections and relationships, not surprisingly, I began to analyze my findings in terms of "networks" during the course of my research. In this article, I take a different approach. I do not look at the network as an interlocking web of individuals, as a coordination of individual interests, or as a framework for action. Instead, I analyze communicative channels that I maintain are an outcome of practices of sociality on their own terms, as distinct objects of inquiry. (Elyachar 2010: 455)
This could very well be the proper object of my made-up field, phatics.
A number of clues within and around anthropology suggest how such an approach might look. One can, for example, think of channels in much the way Pierre Bourdieu writes about practical reason, in terms of "beaten tracks" or "pathways that are really maintained and used" (1990: 35). If one takes an approach common in linguistics since Roman Jakobson (1990), then one can think of channels as existing wherever physical proximity and psychological contact between a speaker and addressee allow them to send and receive messages. (Elyachar 2010: 455)
I knew Bourdieu had to show up at one point or another.
By recognizing that channels can rest on social convention as much as on a specific, one-to-one physical or psychological connection, one can understand a channel as anything that relates a signer to an interpreter "such that a sign expressed by the former may be interpreted by the latter" (Kockelman n.d: 3). Understood in this way, communicative channels can be analyzed as a collective resource for all kinds of semiotic communication in addition to language per se (Elyachar in press; Kockelman n.d.). And once the analytical focus shifts away from humans brought together in networks to channels themselves as a relatively stable outcome of human practices, then different kinds of metaphors come to mind as to what this might imply. Specifically, one can think of sets of channels as infrastructure. (Elyachar 2010: 455)
"Singer" and "interpreter" are such idiosyncratic terms. In a kind of backformation one could very well invent terms like "singer" and "signee" (e.g. the person who "gives" or outputs signs and the person who "takes" on inputs signs). These terms would then correlate with sender and receiver, addresser and addressee, communicator and communicatee, effector and effectee, etc. The matter is a bit more complex with the interpreter, since both sender and receiver are dealing with interpretation to some degree (the sender necessarily interpretates his or own message). One suspicious option would be to think of the sender as an interpretant and the receiver as interpreter. In this case the sender does not have to be a person as such but could very well be an imaginary of fantasy sender, as in some cases of intrapersonal communication. E.g. in the reverse case of praying, as when a person assumes that God has given (communicated) him or her a sign, God is not an actual "signer", but an imaginary construct, an interpretant in the interpreter's mind. // I agree that communication channels can be thought of as a resource (a type of semiotic resource, to be specific), but I detest terms such as "semiotic communication" and "semiotic meaning". Communication necessarily occurs through signs just like meaning is necessarily semiotic. What must be pointed out, though, is that sharing something can bypass signs - this is the case of communization. Breaking bread and sharing food, as in Malinowski's example, is not a case of communication nor is there anything particularly semiotic about it, but it is still a case of communion and involves both channel and contact. Although, to be sure, even this case is not devoid of semiotic aspects - they are merely difficult to elucidate (e.g. are perception and action semiotic, as in the pansemiotic view?). // Lastly, I do like the connection between sets of channels and infrastructure, although the notion of "infrastructure" then demands clarification.
Infrastructure is a classic "public good," as a set of resources available to all and whose use does not decrease its availability to others (Samuelson 1954; Stigliz 1999). The "smell of infrastructure is the smell of the public" (Robbins 2007: 26). (Elyachar 2010: 455)
Could "infrastructure" then be the connection between phatics and Habermasian public?
Economies cannot function without infrastructure. This is a commonplace in all kinds of economic theory. In volume two of Capital (1956), for example, Marx shows the centrality of infrastructure to the circulation and realization of value: The creation and maintenance of infrastructure is not itself directly productive of value and yet is essential to the capitalist system of production. Nor, from the standpoint of a neoclassical theory of value, does infrastructure create price. But if you cannot link a product to the market, then that product will spoil and become worthless. If you cannot link a buyer to a seller, then a market cannot function. Linking buyers and sellers entails more than physical transportation of goods. Infrastructure - roads, airports, ports, and bridges - allows producers to realize the potential economic value of a product as well. (Elyachar 2010: 455)
The "channel" in communication similarly is not itself a producer of signification but it is essential to communication and the exchange or establishment of shared signification.
Through phatic labor, both [Um Muhammed and Khadija] produced and maintained sets of communication channels in the male economic space of the workshop. (Elyachar 2010: 456)
It is quite possible to look for analogy in the scientific community, e.g. the "cross-pollunators" as Sebeok called the influential figures in semiotics (like Roman Jakobson, who took continental semiology with him to America and brought communication theory back to Europe through his writings and attendance at conferences).
Unlike the kind of pathways referred to by Bourdieu in writing about practical reason or the channels modeled by C. E. Shannon for information systems, the channels Khadija helped construct left no marks on the ground or algorithms for engineers to reproduce. (Elyachar 2010: 456)
Does this negate Corneli's idea of a mu-algorithm, then?
Unlike housework or prostitution, visiting, moving around a megacity, chatting, and consolidating friendship have not been conceptualized as labor in Western social theory. (Elyachar 2010: 457)
But what about social work? In this sense the whole enterprise of social work is an attempt to create contact between people who need government help and the government bureaucracy that can provide help. In fact, even such mundane phenomena as "registers" or "information booths" (or generally people sitting behind a table near the entrance of a building who provide information about where to go, who to see, etc.) can be thought of "phatically", although the referential function may be dominant in this case. No, but the function of such representatives is not only to hand out information but exactly to "represent" and embody the organization they stand for, so as to give it a human face and establish contact with people. For example, I have a book (Gailit's Nipernaadi) long overdue because I borrowed it from a department at the city library that isn't connected to the web-based infrastructure so you need to call the department to lengthen your return. The last time I did that the book was already long overdue and the woman on the other end of the phone sounded so pissed off that I didn't call again, leaving me with an unimaginable amount of overdue payment. Letting the book go overdue is of course my fault, but it wouldn't be a problem had the representative of the library been warmer and not make me feel like a criminal for calling in to lengthen the time. (Now I have to wait for Christmas or whenever the library takes back books without charging overdue cost.)
The "affective turn" in social sciences (Clough 2007; Hardt 2007) opens another way to think about social practices carried out by these women, which are motivated by affect and Egyptian "family ethos" (Wiken 1996) as much as by economic interest, strictly speaking. (Elyachar 2010: 457)
By the amount of papers published on the phatic function and other phatic phenomena (phatics, in general) and by the foreseeable need for studying human contact in an increasingly web-based social reality it seems to me that something like a phatic turn is waiting just around the corner, if it hasn't already begun.
But by calling rpactices of sociality "labor," I do not mean to say that the friendliness and sociality of the Egyptian people constitute a kind of opportunistic functionalism. Cairene women are not pursuing instrumentally rational behavior when they go to visit friends on a public-sector bus. At the same time, the outcome of that work of forging connections is economically vital. That kind of labor is necessary for the preservation of privilege among the upper classes. It is necessary for the preservation of life itself among the poor of Cairo, for whom it is both time-consuming and fragile in its outcomes. Just as poor people have to contend with fragmented physical infrastructure in all aspects of their lives (Larkin 2008), they have to invest more time in the maintenance of infrastructure of communicative channels as well. (Elyachar 2010: 457)
Bourdieu's "social capital" does seem appropriate in this context. One could probably comb through all the books on communication, interaction, etc. and find all the fragments about how communication is important for "producing and maintaining" social relationships and what these are good or useful for. One of the first popular books about this topic, How to make friends and influence people, was exactly about the usefulness of forming pleasant relationships for the benefit of business.
Malinowski's data for his brief discussion of phatic communion concerns his informants' engagement in face-to-face conversation in a small island community. Malinowski makes clear that what is at stake here is not "just talk". Phatic communion, he asserts, is a form of social action. Other forms of communication could be brought under the rubric of this kind of social action as well. Phatic communion in Cairo also takes place, for example, through collective "locomotory practices" in urban space that normally remain in the background of perception but through which the collective identity of the poor masses is both expressed and reproduced (Elyachar in press). Such regularized if relatively unstudied forms of bodily practice and gesture are immediately recognized by others who are part of the same "semiotic community" (Kockelman 2005: 261-262); they help maintain and reproduce communicative channels in Cairo. (Elyachar 2010: 457)
The fact of being "relatively unstudied" in why one needs to call out phatics as the study of social practice serving to establish and maintain semiotic communities. I protested against terms like "semiotic communication" and "semiotic meaning" above because those terms were kind of redundant. I agree with "semiotic community" here because this as a good alternative for Morris's interpretive family, or even (sub)culture and goes beyond the notion of community in the sense of a location (e.g. a group of people living in a community). There is a semiotic community whenever (instead of "where-ever") people share a common understanding or experience with certain signs and establish contact by means of these signs. Internet memes, for example, create semiotic communities that are physically diffuse and elusive, yet integral in the sense of sharing a common understanding of a joke, a pun, or whatever phenomenon. I recall sparking up a very pleasant conversation several years ago with a girl at a gas station at 2 AM simply because she had Longcat painted on her shoulderbag. Examples like this are endless and they all have something phatic in common.
At numerous points in his ethnography, Malinowski maintains that his analysis of kula is relevant for Victorian England. Most famous, perhaps, in this regard, is his offhand comment that the vaygu'a coveted and traded among men in the Trobriand Islands were much like the grown jewels in Great Britain: "Ugly, useless, ungainly, even tawdry" and yet worshipped as essential to collective identity (Malinowski 1999: 68). (Elyachar 2010: 458)
This conforms with my stupid example of Longcat quite well, although there are probably more pertinent examples one could bring. The focus here is on the function of phatic communion in establishing groups or communities, of maintaining collective identity. In Malinowski's own discussion of phatic communion it is so with language: the silent stranger is dangerous because it is impossible to achieve contact with him, to exchange ritualized formulas that affirm that he is "the same as you", that he means well, and so to lower tension. I think most small language groups feel good about strangers speaking their language. In a video on youtube about learning Hungarian, one of the most difficult languages on the planet, I heard that the Hungarians are very well disposed to foreigners who make at least some little effort to learn their language. So it is with Estonians and I imagine with other smaller languages as well. Mutual understanding and other very elementary aspects of human relations are at the heart of phatics.
Malinowski's concept of "phatic communion" has been relatively overlooked, outside of its influence on linguistics via Jakobson (Kockelman n.d). Jakobson (1990) adopted Malinowski's concept of "phatic communion" to identify the "phatic function" of the speech act. The phatic function is one of the six functions of the speech event he identifies. The expressive function focuses on the speaker; the conative focuses on the addressee; the metalinguistic focuses on code; the poetic focuses on sign; the referential focuses on the object, or referent, of a speech act; and the phatic function focuses on the channel through which speech is conveyed. Despite the wide range of these functions, linguistics has generally focused on the referential function of the speech event alone (Kockelman 2005: 260-261, n.d.). It might be time for anthropology to return to Malinowski's formulation of phatic communion as a way to think through a number of theoretical dilemmas confronting critical social analysis today. (Elyachar 2010: 458)
I find this very agreeable. Not only because Jakobson's interpretation ("adoption") is indeed very restrictive and in an effort to frame phatic communion as a speech function actually leaves out the true function of phatic communion - to lower social tension, to establish communion (first of words and ultimately of food, housing, perhaps sex and whatever else human beings are capable of sharing with one another). I think that semiotically inclined anthropologists would do well to consider Charles Morris's concept of communization alongside phatic communion. Finally it sounds like Elyachar herself is calling out for a phatic turn (in anthropology, no less, but still). Personally, I think that phatics would be very useful to sociosemiotics and perhaps sociology at large. But that is another topic.
Jakobson's concept of "channels" created by the phatic function depends on both physical proximity and psychological contact of the sort discussed by Malinowski in the case of the Tribriands. In Cairo, a city with a huge population, phatic connectivity does not rely on direct physical proximity or immediate one-to-one psychological contact. As the ethnographic material I present in this article makes clear, Cairenes have a more generalized disposition to create, maintain, and extend communicative channels than a one-to-one model of contact would allow. To make sense of this ethnographic material in cairo, one needs to see the channels created by phatic labor in a more expansive sense - as relating singers to interpreters so that signs of all kinds (and not just language) expressed by the former can be immediately (even if not consciously) interpreted by the latter (Kockelman n.d.). (Elyachar 2010: 458)
Here she points out yet another way in which Jakobson's interpretation is reductive: it is focused on a two-person communication system, while in the original formulation Malinowski spoke of it as a veritable social action occurring in groups (people working and talking simultaneously, people sitting around a fire and reminiscing about their lives, etc.). Thus, the "radius of communication" must also be expanded if phatics is to expand beyond the speech event as such. In the end, I think, it is about the infrastructure of communication systems, the network structure in the communication network.
We need to ask how payment space relates to phatic labor. Phatic labor has long produced outcomes that can be compared with the laying of cables or fiber-optic lines or the building of railroads. It has allowed for goods and use values of various kinds to flow - if quite different use values than those analyzed in classical political economy or Marxist thought. The outcomes of phatic labor - communicative channels - have allowed for the flow of reputation, information, and emotion. They have allowed for the transfer of finance and the creation of new kinds of equivalences. They have been a necessary if not a sufficient condition for the realization of other, more classic forms of economic value as well. (Elyachar 2010: 459)
I would argue that reputation, information and emotion constitute only half the story. Combining the phatic function in Jakobson's scheme with other functions we get: (1) phatic-emotive - meaning shared emotions or attitudes; (2) phatic-referential - shared frame of reference, cognition and information; (3) phatic-conative - shared acquaintances and reputation of those acquaintances; (4) phatic-metalingual - shared code, force unifiante or equalization in terms of language; and (5) phatic-poetic - shared messages lika mass media, books, music, etc. I'm not quite sure about the last two combinations and god only knows what would be phatic-phatic, but at least the first three seem concrete enough (perhaps these are the only ones necessary, as affect, cognition and conation were the original triad).
I suggest that Huda was part of a vast global process in which individual agents and agencies mapped out apparently radom data about who knew whom, who helped whom, who trusted whom, and who funded whom. This activity might all seem to be about social networks once again, but I argue that something else was under way.
The phatic labor of Huda's neighbours and forebears had created countless nodes of connectivity within the semiotic community of Cairo. Huda facilitated the creation of new kinds of nodes in those channels. Those new nodes incorporated different kinds of receivers for which signs had to be translated and interpreted. The insertion of such nodes into existing communicative channels subtly altered the nature of social infrastructure in Cairo. The process of uncovering channels and translating their meaning to new kinds of actors was an essential step in making legible and accessible to outsiders the social infrastructure of communication that had been built up over the centuries by the phatic labor of Huda's forebears. (Elyachar 2010: 459-460)
I don't exactly get the difference between a social network and a social infrastructure of communication.
In the process, channels along which signals and signs could travel were themselves being reshaped as a particular kind of sign - as a commodity (cf. Kockelman 2006). (Elyachar 2010: 460)
So what is the difference between social capital and phatic capital?
If Khadija was a producer of women's bodies, Huda might be thought of as a phatic pimp. Khadija prostituted women's bodies. Huda, by contrast, prostituted signs of women's bodies and outcomes of phatic labor. She helped generate and transmit signs of women to new actors in an emerging political economy in which communicative pathways would have strategic economic value. (Elyachar 2010: 460)
Won't anyone who knows a lot of people in this sense become a phatic pimp?
The concept of "phatic labor," I have argued, allows scholars to theorize the link between communicative practices of sociality, the creation of infrastructure, and the use of that infrastructure in economic projects oriented around a variety of goals, such as the extraction of economic surplus or the capturing of community resources for collective goals. (Elyachar 2010: 460)
Alas something like a definition of phatic labor. This is far removed from my purposes, which are basically revolving around theorizing the link between communication for the sake of communication, the establishing of commonages other than signification and communication about relationships. Elyachar's chain links phatic communion, infrastructure and economics while my chain links phatic communion, communization and the mu-function.
Communicative channels were accessed by poor baladi Cairenes through different means - through shared membership in a "semiotic community" (Kockelman 2005: 262). Members of a semiotic community shared resources of signs, gesture, and channels. Empowerment finance helped make that semiotic commons visible as a resource that could be put to other uses. (Elyachar 2010: 460)
I must look into the definition of a semiotic community.


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