John J. Gumperz Memorial Lecture: Susan Gal (Anthropology/Linguistics, University of Chicago)

Event Date: 

Friday, June 1, 2018 - 1:30pm to 3:30pm

Event Location: 

  • Education 1205

John J. Gumperz Memorial Lecture

Speaker: Susan Gal (Anthropology/Linguistics, University of Chicago)

Topic: Discursive Strategies of Dominance: How Publics Are Homogenized


Discursive strategies of dominance: The homogenization of national publics

Susan Gal

University of Chicago

Scholars have been noting for many years the increasingly polyphonous, fractured and heterogeneous discourses that have gained public visibility in this era of the internet, “superdiversity” and “globalization.” True. Yet, if we look around the world, we see many recent processes – equally remarkable – that move in a different direction: There is a closing down and homogenization of mass mediated political talk. Right wing parties in power in many European countries have destroyed opposition newspapers, TV outlets, billboards, internet sites. We see the naturalization of what were previously thought to be offensive, racist and misogynistic talk. Often these discourses gain their authority as "the voice from nowhere" by aligning with the figure of the nation and claiming to speak for "everyone" who is "really" part of the nation. The making of boundaries and exclusions follows, producing a homogenization of mass media, often controlled by the state. I explore the discursive and rhetorical strategies with which this happens. My primary tools are sturdy sociolinguistic concepts like John Gumperz's "variety" and the related notion of "register." Since his innovations, more work has continued to develope these analytical tools: I will talk about "enregisterment" and describe a process of "grafting" that makes new, recombinant registers of political speech. Political speech is transformed by "grafting" onto an older, legitimated set of discourses some strikingly different forms of talk that were just recently their opposite numbers: Military invasion is equated with humanitarianism; women’s rights are seen as dangerous to progress; homosexuality, capitalism and Roma are equated, as against religion. Demonization of external enemies is an old political tool. Here we see the equation of external enemies (immigrants, Europe) with internal categories (women, Roma, leftist parties) creating a novel identity politics. My analyses come from Hungary and Poland, but I believe there are parallels in the U.S. that illuminate the re-alignments of “enemy”-images and “friends” in political discourses. These re-alignments are taken up in everyday linguistic practices. The final twist on this process is a cross-national collaboration among state-controlled national media in such a way that right-discourses are – ironically – globalized, while claiming to be fighting globalization. The goal is not simply to diagnose the situation, as many observers have done, but to identify the sociolinguistic processes that are operating and have made these discursive moves possible.


Susan Gal is Mae and Sidney G. Metzl Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, a member of the Anthropology and Linguistics Departments. She is the author of Language Shift, and co-author of The Politics of Gender after Socialism. As co-editor of Languages and Publics: The Making of Authority, and in numerous articles, she has written about the political economy of language, multilingualism and empire, and the semiotics of gender and other forms of differentiation. Her continuing ethnographic work in eastern Europe explores the relationship between linguistic practices, semiotic processes and the construction of social life.

The John J. Gumperz Memorial Lecture honors the life and work of John J. Gumperz, the founder of interactional sociolinguistics and a longtime member of the LISO community.