Phatic Blessings

Ansell, Aaron 2017. Democracy Is a Blessing: Phatic Ritual and the Public Sphere in Northeast Brazil. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 27(1): 22-39.

The blessing Henrique bestowed in his concluding remark seems to function as an expression of magnanimous forgiveness. Along with his classification of Marcelo as "my nephew," and his reference to open doors and household visits (or lack thereof), Henrique's blessing shifts the framework of the radio dialogue away from that intended by the liberal-minded host. (Ansell 2017: 23)

define:magnanimous - "generous or forgiving, especially towards a rival or less powerful person"

Forgiveness, in this instance, is related to respect. I looked up my not the current year in phatics file and found the earliest mention of the latter from 1969: "The majority of polite behavior is however adducible to status politeness, i.e. to patterns of vertical stratification within a community. It has been established for a community, who and in which situation is shown respect, given predecence etc. and every individual has to objey such norms." (dno 1969: 412) - Here the vertical stratification is familial and, in particular, intergenerational.

Forgiveness has been dealt with explicitly in a piece of work I have yet to read: "American literary theorist Tobias Menely (2007), in an evocative essay entitled ’Forgive me if I am fortright’, demonstrates how the phatic element of language and normative codes of politeness have the primary function of maintaining social harmony and cultivating the status quo." (Miller 2015: 11) - This is an extension of the "maintenance" aspect into broader social considerations.

Another related instance that comes to mind is Roman Jakobson's analysis of an ancient Japanese poem, where "honorific terms [signal] the social distance between the superior and his inferior" (Jakobson 1981a: 160). I'm also pretty sure that Marija Liudvika Drazdauskienė's doctoral dissertation, The Phatic Use of English: Meaning and Style (1992), which she kindly sent me for review, is explicitly about this subject matter.

From this perspective, Henrique seems like yet another feudal patrão whose orientation to politics remains mired in the colonial era, when "the family invaded the state" and rendered impossible the formation of a public sphere properly demarcated from the private sphere of family and friendship (Buarque de Holanda 2012[1936]: 53; and see DaMatta 1991). In his illiberal world, a good statesman amounts to a good father writ large, one who manages a scaled-up oikos so that it thrives unchangingly and metes out favors to those who act as loyal extensions of his own family (Borges 1922: 225-236; Alencar Chaves 2003: 158). (Ansell 2017: 23)

This problematic, the formation of a public sphere, is reminiscent of an older anthropological paper I read recently, where the author discusses the concept of plural society in sociological theory (Rex 1959) and notes that "people of different ethnic origins do not meet each other except in the market place" and "As a result no common 'social will' or 'social demand' develops" (pp. 115). Here it is not ethnicity that acts as a barrier but rather the traditionalism of "family values". The analogy between society and family is probably as valid as that between society and organism (i.e. the social organicism of Hobbes). The metaphor appears ancient, because in Estonian, for example, "statesman" is literally either "riigimees" (man of the country) or "linnaisa" (father of the city). I am not competent to address these sexist vestiges.

Here I explore the relationship between the sertanejo bença and the emergent democratic public by offering an interpretation of this ritual grounded in several nested folk models that construe its meaning in relation to context. I am particularly attuned to folk models that focus on the bença's role in opening, closing or adjusting conversational channels between kin, these channels' service as conduits of divine grace, and their mediation of human affect and disposition toward power. I aim to show how certain folk models of the bença accentuate interactional features that align participants' ritual behavior with more generic models of proper democratic conduct in the public sphere. (Ansell 2017: 24)

Lots to unpack here, especially the synonym-selections for Jakobsonian phaticisms: opening-establishing, closing-discontinuing, adjusting-prolonging. The latter is doubly difficult because while John Laver introduces "management" (of interpersonal relationships) (1975: 217), and the likes of Victoria Wang embrace it wholly, it might have been the original term Jakobson "veiled" in his own treatment, as Jurgen Ruesch's social techniques includes "approaching, managing, and handling other persons" (Ruesch 1972[1948a]: 158-159). "Adjusting" is not far off the mark: social techniques are literally "the adjustment patterns used in social interaction" (Ruesch 1948: 137). The novelty here stems from adjusting not patterns of communication but channels of communication, making it a higher-order operation but still in the purview of meta-communication.

The conduits to divine grace immediately calls to mind the work of Annette Holba, who employs Martin Buber's philosophy of dialogue, which is also the backbone to Mikhail Bakhtin and Karl Bühler, both in turn influential to Jakobson. Recall, for example, that the three primary functions (emotive, conative, and referential) are in correlation to the first, second, and third verbal persons. In compounding the latter three "meta-functions" (poetic, metalingual, and phatic), I've considered the possibility of re-contextualizing the phatic function, for example, as the "infra-contextual" function (the in presentia communicative interaction rather than the in absentia referential object), which has some interesting implications for "divine conduits". In another poetic analysis Jakobson has made use of this verbal person ordeal with regard to the conjunction "thou God" (Jakobson 1981[1966h]: 277). I shall not go into my transcommunication theory at the moment, this here is convoluted as it is.

The mediation of human affect embodied in politeness rituals such as the bença is extremely interesting because it brings together the quasi-Jakobsonian politeness theory strand (most notably Brown and Levinson, and their countless followers) with the quasi-Malinowskian affective communication strand (e.g. Julia Elyachar, Michael Schandorf, Patricia Blanco, and many more). The latter portions of the paper demonstrate the importance of nonverbal elements (here, "interactional features") in the performance of the ritual. This is part of why I like this study a lot more than the many studies of phatic politeness rituals in online communication, for example (e.g. Dipti Kulkarni, Vincenza Tudini, Kane Faucher, etc.).

The disposition toward power hints towards the chiasm between familial and political relations in the documented performances of the ritual. On the whole, I would very much like to see Foucaultian interpretations of phatic communication - he does mention Jakobson's phatic function briefly in The Order of Things, for example, but I have yet to figure out how to do this without becoming Butler-ishly abstruse and obtuse. I may eventually smuggle it into my BA thesis on "facecrimes" in Orwell's 1984, but currently these seem like worlds apart even if surface possibilities appear immediate (as when Winston refrains from looking at Julia at the cafeteria, and many other instances of their careful means of contact).

Sertanejos most commonly perform the bença ritual as a daily greeting, and sometimes as a farewell. As such, the bença has a strongly "phatic function," serving primarily "to establish, to prolong, or to discontinue communication, to check whether the channel works" (Jakobson 1960: 355). In traditional linguistic thought, phatic speech is devoid of informational import (Malinowski 1923), e.g., the conventional greeting "How are you?" serving as more of a perfunctory nod than an actual probing of another's state of being (see Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992; Duranti 1997; Zuckerman 2016 for critiques of the traditional notion of phatic speech). (Ansell 2017: 24)

This is the portion of Jakobson's definition that I have learned by heart in Russian (even though the original was in English and the Russian version is a translation) because I wanted to know how it would sound in his native language (Существуют сообщения, основное назначение которых – установить, продолжить или прервать коммуникацию...). My own "mid-tier" interpretation of his "contours" amount exactly to what Laver calls "the psychologically crucial margins of interaction". Note that greetings and farewells accord to Malinowski's examples, "Hello" and "Good-Bye", which may go to explain why the management operation remains so ambiguous - Malinowski did not intend it in the sense of managament (at least not in the sense it is used today).

The description of Malinowski's position is a bit misleading since "information" (nor "communication) does not appear in his essay (he predated information and communication theories, naturally). The statement "devoid of informational import" is also problematic in its own right beyond mere semantics. Dell Hymes caught this early on in his ethnography of speaking (1962): when mothers talk about their children or anthropologists about their fieldwork, they're still sharing information, just that the "primary" function of their talk is social (phatic). Lenience is required due to "import" in this phrasing, which pretty much captures the issue.

The perfunctoriness of phatic inquiries about health and state of being is at the heart of my titular summarization, "phaticity is sympathy without symmetry". In this regard Dell Hymes is once again very much on point in attempting to re-christen the phatic function as the reciprocal expressive function: both the addresser and addresse are expressing concern, i.e. sympathy and affiliation, but doing so in a very surface way. To quote an eloquent formulation: "It is of course simply a social gesture, performed perfunctorily by some as a concession to convention, and in a lively and friendly manner by others" (Thonssen & Gilkinson 1953: 32). This paper investigates, in parts, the chiasm between sincere and perfunctory blessings.

I'm familiar with Zuckerman's paper but have postponed taking it up on this blog because it reflects my own thinking to such an extent that it is anguishing to read. To be fair, Weston La Barre was the first one to really critique Malinowski's by-then-already-orthodox definition of phatic communion. Sadly, La Barre is not included in these kinds of brief overviews, but he should be. (Though this does appear insurmountable until the complex relation betwen emotive and phatic functions has been dealt with.)

The bença is "phatic" in another sense as well. When viewed through local folk models, the bença not only opens the conversational channel among kin, it catalyzes God's grace to move through the senior to the junior participant via the ritual conduit they form with one another (as they often embody with hand gesture). Sertanejo folk models for these spiritual conduits presuppose the existence (and threat) of external persons and fields of practice outside the kin relation, as is often the case with phatic communication (Kockelman 2010). (Ansell 2017: 25)

If only there were a listing of the many senses in which phaticity is commonly (as well as less frequently) understood. This one here seems akin to my inchoate transcommunication theory, but I can't really map the situation described here in terms of para- and meta-channels yet. If I tried, I'd say that this spiritual conduit amounts to an imaginary para-channel, but, on the other hand, the St. Augustin-ian notion that "God has the capacity to scrutinize men's interiority" (cf. Gramigna 2011: 38) without human intermediaries would constitute a divine meta-channel (cf. Colin Cherry for definition). If I'm making the reference to Kockelman out correctly, the blessing converts the blesser into a sort of communicative "parasite" (sensu Serres, actually).

As such, benças furnish transgenerational kin interactions with a "substrate of sensory-emotive experience" whose affective, kinesthetic, spiritual and sonic qualities furnish the public sphere with vernacular specificity (Hirshkin 2006: 122). I thus join a chorus of recent scholars who are attuned to the phatic dimensions of large-scale social transformations such as those from economic development (Elyachar 2010), kinship and aging (Nozawa 2015), multiculturalism (Slotta 2015), commercial exchange (Brown 2016; Muir 2016), and religious transformation (Schulthies 2016). (Ansell 2017: 25)

This sensory-emotive substrate of experience comes close to La Barre's phatic communication, which is more literally vocal, emotional, and nonverbal communication. Vernacular specificity, on the other hand, is what I would describe rather in terms of Oleg Mutt's (1982) "cultural accent, but admittedly the representative situations are markedly different. "Chorus" is a neat descriptor - my own survey shows that "phatic" is used progressively more frequently each decade since its conception and the last decade or so is demonstrably a "boom" in both usage and variety of usages. The fact that leading anthropologists who employ the term are networking makes "chorus" extremely effective. I'm only slightly disappointed that this list consists primarily of anthropologists and leaves out the many elaborations in sociology and social media studies (e.g. Vincent Miller as the most frequently quoted recent authority).

I always took (tomei) the blessing from my grandparents, uncles/aunts, and godparents, people who the family relation sacralized. It was like a family priesthood (sacerdote); it was "blessing, uncle," and by kissing hands, I deposited the respect owed to them and the recognition that, in addition to honoring father and mother, I also honored the chain of life (cadeia de vida) seated in the grandparents. (145)
Like Almeida, my consultants in Piauí view the request for a blessing (bença or benção) from a senior kinsperson as an act of respect and recognition, both for family elders and for the extended, multi-household family. Divine ligatures inhere between family members and separate them from others, though the borders of the traditional family have always been elastic, including adoptive and fictive kin and other hangers-on (aggregados) (Borges 1992: 17, 53). (Ansell 2017: 26)

This bit called to mind another old anthropological paper I recently read: "Another View of the Trobriand Kinship Categories" (Lounsbury 1965) goes deep into the technicalities of kinship categories to vindicate Malinowski over Leach and others, and shows how Malinowski was correct in identifying both the denotata ("primary" meaning) and "extended" or secondary meaning (effectively, connotata) of kinship terms. Here, something like the extensionalist hypothesis arises - by honoring a token (familial relative), one is also honoring the type ("the chain of life"). Respect and recognition I have elsewhere tagged with "acknowledgment", after Felix Ameka, who investigated an analogous interaction ritual: "The dzáà! formula is a kind of general purpose welcoming salutation. It shows the pleasure of the speaker to have noticed the arrival or presence of the addressee. It is an enthusiastic acknowledgement from the speaker that the addressee is in the place s/he is." (Ameka 1992: 251)

The bença's ritual structure holds clues to suggest how it reinforces both hierarchy and solidarity in its participants' relationship. Kurt Bruder (1997) notes in his study of blessings in an Orthodox Christian monastery in California that the speech act structure of a blessing positions the two human participants as existential equals under God's divine rule. Invoking Austin's categories, he notes that the senior person opens the channel to God (through a directive) while "siding with" the requesting junior party (a commissive). The result is "the collapse of the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the operation of blessing" (Bruder 1997: 477). In the sertão, the senior kinsperson also opens a channel to the divine, but while they may "side with" their juniors (perhaps as advocates) they do not position themselves horizontally to them. If God is the source of the blessing, the senior kinsperson acts as its vertical conduit and the junior its destination. (Ansell 2017: 27)

It reinforces hierarchy, because the elder is in a higher position (vertical stratification) and solidarity, because it is essentially a gesture of unity. Interesting contrast in itself. In the Orthodox Christian situation it is left implicit that the patriarch is "closer" to God. A curious tid-bit of general observation comes to mind (I cannot identify where I met it) - that in a situation where authority is needful, men look towards the most authoritative member of the sex regardless of age (young men can overpower old men), while women on the other hand automatically look to the eldest among them. Not sure if true or not, but interesting. This opening a channel to the divine amounts to what I call a para-channel because it invokes a participant in the communication system who is not actually present. (Here, my atheism shows.)

Sertanejos' diverse folk models for reckoning the bença's social functions are logically related to each other. A bença may serve as either a farewell or an apologetic correction to a conversational breech [sic], depending on the model of context its participants (including onlookers) ascribe to it. But that model of text-in-context is neither fully determined by, nor separate from, more foundational uses of the bença as a means of demonstrating respect, or exchanging respect for group inclusion. (Ansell 2017: 27)

I find it very interesting that "social functions" are plural. I was similarly titillated by the plurality in Laver's title, "Communicative functions of phatic communion". It is by no means a difficult inference that phatic communion performs several social functions simultaneously (to employ synonyms for phaticity: communization, consummation, etc.) but I have to acknowledge that it would take a lot of leg-work to specify these - their overlapping seems far too great.

This "model of context" sounds interesting but comes across as too convoluted for me. The gist seems to be something like the Goffmanian "framework" (or was it "interpretive frame"?). Oh no, add Malinowski's context of situation and Whorf's definition of the situation. The general intent seems to be pragmatic variation: how a ritual formula is used, e.g. its actual semiotic impact, can vary depending on a multitude of factors (i.e. "interactional features", above, for example). I've yet to undertake a more thorough investigation of Malinowski's pragmatism, which - in some form or another - vitiates most phatics.

Ugh, I have to mention another old anthropological paper not yet on this blog, concerning the plurality of functions: "The Logic of Explanation in Malinowskian Anthropology" (Goldstein 1957) contains a relevant critique of the concept of function as Malinowski uses it. I'm a bit afraid that taking it all too seriously would land me in dismissing Jakobson's functionalism as well (which was critiqued by Ernst Cassirer, of all people, in 1945). Not sure if I'm up to the task yet - should read up on Russian formalists and figure out how they arrived at "function" (over and above "technique", which also figures in Mauss and later Ruesch, for example), first.

Lastly, group inclusion. This is one of the oft-mentioned but perhaps least-in-depth-treated aspects of phaticity. In Malinowski's essay, the fact that the stranger speaks the same language as you relieves tensions; in Jakobson, similarly, common code is presupposed. La Barre goes a bit deeper, noting the role of professional jargon, informal slang, etc. but also cultural factors (though Malinowski also presupposes common cultural patterns, I guess) such as the psychoanalytical "emotional baggage". A better formulation this I recently found in a suggestion that linguistic conventions act "as a mirror of the aspirations and anxieties of people living in a given social structure" (McCormack 1961: 481). This is at the core of Ruesch's communization, and in my opinion superly relatable to Laver's propitiative function of phatic communion.

The two kin are nodes along a pathway through which divine grace travels: The bença "comes down (descer) through old people," as one older man explained to me. This implied (nth order) model of the senior kinsperson as the channel through which divine grace flows enables sertanejos to formulate another (n+1) model in parallel to the one discussed above (the bença request as demonstrated respect): Specifically, the divine grace channeled downward by the senior kinsperson can follow the junior kinsperson in their extra-familial endeavors and in this way flow outside of the conduits of transgenerational kinship. (Ansell 2017: 27-28)

To my atheist mind this sounds self-serving. Age is not completely commensurate with erudition. It does, on the other hand, point to a more general range of topics, such as ageism and our current Western admiration of youthfulness. It is also just one answer to the question who or what channels God, as answers can vary from specific groups of people to inanimate objects, or something more abstract like nature, being or the universe. My theological interest is piqued in the suggestion that seniority amounts godliness. It would certainly make a lot of heavy-handed sense in light of Gordon Allport's notorious summary: "Over and over again in a multitude of ways, the religion of the individual brings to focus the mingled motives and desires of an unfulfilled life." The aged certainly have more of their life unfulfilled.

On one occasion in 2015 when I was transporting one woman to a local spirit medium, I asked her why she needed such services. She replied that she was not sure. She went on, "I always seek the bença. But I can sense that the paths are closing to me." She said she needed God's help "in everything, in my business dealings, in my friendships, in everything." The grace that she takes from her senior kin follows the woman outside the bença ritual; indeed, that seems to be its purpose. Giving and taking benças is a form of agentive behavior, the specific benefits of which hinge on the particular construal of the contrast between sacred internal channels and the field of relations outside these channels. From the standpoint of the senior kinsperson who give benças, the practice may be construed as an investment in these external spheres. (Ansell 2017: 28)

If she's not sure why she needs it, it seems very likely that she is conditioned by her social milieu. Get 'em while they're young, and so on. On an empathetic human level, I can completely understand how something absurd can occupy a person's life in every mundane aspect. I'm among those types of fellows who gets all too obsessed with their ongoing (research, but also other types of) projects.

Like the encryption of a message in the face of an enemy over-hearer, the specific construal of extra-familial sociality contours the familial relationship established by the bença (see Kockelman 2010). (Ansell 2017: 28)

I like this active-verb usage of contours. Though wholly unrelated to Jakobson's contoural features, it made me seriously examine, for a brief moment, if contouring could not make for a sufficiently unpleasant (in terms of Peirce's ethics of terminology) term for the social techniques operating on the psychologically crucial margins of interaction. Even the sense in which it is used here would do good service: the social and philosophical milieu of the individual contours his or her interactions. Why not.

When Tomás descended from the truck, he smiled and extetnded his right hand, palm upward, toward João, asking, "Blessung, uncle?" (Bença, tio). When Joáo grumbled and looked away, Tomás's affect grew desperate. The rest of us in the truck stiffened at the sudden change in mood. "Bença, uncle. Bença, bença!," he repeated, until finally João reached out his own right hand toward Tomás, plam turned downward, and said, "God bless you, punk" (Deus te abencoi, muleque). The boy relaxed and took off running. João, pride recovered, glared didactically at the rest of us. (Ansell 2017: 29)

This description immediately made me think of the meme, "DENIED".

In Goffmanian terms, his delay constitutes a "challenge," an allegation of Tomás's wrongful breach of the interaction order. Tomás's subsequent, desperately intoned bença requests become his "offerings" of apology, and João's eventual granting of the bença signals his "acceptance." (Ansell 2017: 30)

Damn, Goffman is a gangster. He seems to have an idiom for everything.

Yet several minutes later, in a culminating moment of our conversation in which she seemed to drop into a more jokingly clandestine tone, she added, "Nobody is able to bear the other side's ra-ra-ra (a stereotypic imitation of the harping sound of a "sick" voter's voice). (Ansell 2017: 30-31)

This ra-ra-ra sounds like the phonic equivalent of "Rabble, rabble rabble" in South Park, though the content comes closer to Orwell's duckspeak.

Factional bate-boca among kin is a frequent topic of municipal rumor during the campaigns, but it's rare for overt antagonisms to occur between parents and children. "We never speak against our parents," one young woman told me. "We avoid talking of politics. We just let them say what they want." Bate-boca often occurred among siblings, but the tone was usually seemed [sic] jovial. Other rival siblings claimed to avoid one another during the political season. It is the uncle/aunt-nephew/niece relation that seemed most prone to overt conflict in scenarios of factional difference. An uncle who deviates from the family's faction has betrayed one's father, and yet one still owes him respect as an elder. Conflicts among such transgenerational kin cannot be easily averted, because to avoid one's senior kin is to weaken the family's unity. (Ansell 2017: 31)

Curiously exact description of a recent experience of mine. I gave my two cents on Facebook on the topic of wage gap, and my aunt attacked me with an emotional appeal that I am disrespecting my own mother by doing so. Needless to say it was a wake-up call and I have hence refrained from taking part of flaming Facebook discussions.

The mother then leaned toward her adolescent son who had been sitting on her porch, and asked him if he had requested his uncle's blessing that day. The boy got up and crossed the dirt road to approach the uncle. He raised his hand and requested the bença. His uncle bestowed it and his wife went inside and fetched the boy a cookie. The onlookers seemed relieved, and their chatter resumed. Walking toward his uncle, the boy's body sketched a kind of phatic diagram, opening a communicative pathway that led his mother to her estranged brother. His bença request retrospectively established the character of that communicative pathway as one defined by warm relations over and against the potential factional rivalry lurking in the background. (Ansell 2017: 31-32)

I'm very much running out of steam at this point, but I have to say this is very reminiscent of Alaina Lemon's 2013 paper which began with a very interesting take on phatic qualia and how the "character" of communicative contact manifests in sensory qualities, but quickly became very convoluted when she got to "vectors" (here, diagrams or pathways).

Outside of Brazil, colleagues helped me think through the Brazilian kin blessings, including James Slotta and Shunsuke Nozawa, with whom co-organized a panel on "phatic anxieties" at the 2016 AES conference, and my fellow panelists, Becky Shulthies, Charlez Zuckerman, and Sarah Muir. Michael Silverstein provided very useful discussant commentary. (Ansell 2017: 36)

I'm aroused.

Similarly, in Sierra Leone, "A person who is blessed is disposed to work hard. [...] A person who works hard and does his duty brings blessings to his or her family" (Jackson 2011: 178). (Ansell 2017: 37)

In Estonian, there is a saying "Tee tööd ja siis tuleb armastus" (effectively, A person who works hard will find love). As one of the most atheist countries in the world, Estonians seem to have replaced agape with profane love.

As Paul Kockelman observes, the liberal notion that proper democratic adversity is constituted against the threat of enemies echoes Roman Jakobson's understanding of phaticity: In the latter case, people design and manage communicative channels with an eye to resisting the threat of outside agents (Kockelman 2017, editorial communcation). (Ansell 2017: 37)

A "Reading Kockelman" type posts in surely in order. A folder containing a bunch of his papers has been patiently waiting for over a year now.


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