much of the sociological literature on identity, language recurs
as a tempting metaphor for the characterization of communicative
systems. Perhaps this is because our most prominent prototype for
social communication is speech and the written word; therefore,
natural language will always be the de facto analogy we turn
to when trying to understand communicative systems. Understanding,
after all, requires building an analogical bridge from the new system
to some known system, and this is a position which has been aggressively
advocated by Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By (1980).
As we examine how the language metaphor has been applied to various
theories in the literature, we discover that it is usually an approximate
metaphor which fails to account for, and oftentimes even contradicts
other parts of the same theory. McCracken, in particular, has criticized
the over-application of the language metaphor to explain communication
systems such as clothing and possessed objects (1991, ch. 4).
this paper, I first sketch out what the language metaphor means,
which then allows us to better understand how and why it is ill-suited
to the description of most sociological systems in our literature.
Second, having identified the weaknesses of the language metaphor,
I propose four thematics which I have identified from the literature
as being more specific and suitable metaphors for understanding
communicative systems: fashion, liminality, patina, and gestalt.
Each thematic is compared to language and their differences are
highlighted. Although the four thematics differ nuancefully from
the language metaphor, they do share some functional goals, such
as the enforcement of social boundaries, and the signalling of identity;
all this is discussed in the final section of the paper.
of the language prototype
language metaphor has been a dominant force in sociology because
natural language -- speech and the written word -- are humanity's
most prized example of a communicative system. Why then, should
the metaphor not be employed freely to understand theories about
other sociological systems? Admittedly there are some very appealing
properties of language such as the compositionality of its meaning,
its infinite combinatorial capacity, and the memetic stability of
its signs which may indeed help to explain aspects of some other
sociological communicative systems. However, language often fails
to account for, or produces contradictory accounts of many marginal
and more nuanceful aspects of communicative systems.
see evidence of this throughout the literature. For example, Davis,
in Fashion, Culture, and Identity (1994) begins his treatise
by proposing that clothing is governed by a linguistic "code"
with "meanings evoked by the combinations and permutations
of the code's key terms (fabric, texture, color, pattern, volume,
silhouette, and occasion)" (p. 5). However, soon after planting
the language metaphor in the mind of the reader, Davis admits that
the clothing code does not behave like most languages because the
meanings of the codes are constantly shifting. In fact, throughout
the rest of the book, the idea of a sartorial language directly
contradicts many other aspects of Davis' account of fashion. For
example, whereas the rules of language are public, stable, and well-understood,
the rules of communication through fashion are hard to formalize,
ever-shifting, and ill-understood. Whereas meaning in language is
primarily a product of combinations of linguistic tokens, combining
various pieces of clothing is not as outstanding a source of sartorial
communication as ambiguity, irony, or subtlety. Perhaps it is for
these reasons that Davis disregards the rhetoric of the language
metaphor soon after the initiatory mention.
order to understand the implications of the language metaphor for
our understanding of social communicative systems, we need to recognize
the explicit prototype which any mention of language evokes. Lakoff
and Johnson advocate that each metaphor has an essential prototype
which is the basis of its understanding, citing Rosch's experiments
on human categorization which finds that "people categorize
objects, not in set-theoretical terms, but in terms of prototypes
and family resemblances" (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 71).
So sparrows and robins are prototypical birds because they fit well
within our prototype/stereotype of a small creature which flies
and sings. Even though chickens, ostriches, and penguins are birds,
they do not fit within the prototype of what a bird is, and consequently
we usually think of them as peripheral members or exceptions. The
implication of prototype categorization theory for the language
metaphor is that even though languages do shift and change and have
many manifestations, when we evoke the language metaphor to understand
a communicative system, we tend to only project the most generic
stereotype of language unto the target system.
what constitutes the language prototype? Lakoff and Johnson suggest
that our prototypes come from our most early experiences with a
subject. In the case of language, the formal models of syntax, grammar,
and spelling constitute are our most early experiences with the
concept of language. These inevitably lead us to think of language
as being structured with explicit and formal rules, and that words
and grammar of a language are known quite universally throughout
the speakership of that language, whose dialects only differ in
minor ways. We are also led to think of language as being fixed,
with a priori definition. Language is completely public, and it
is easy to reproduce. Anyone is allowed to speak and write language,
and all adults are presumed to be able to understand language in
the same way. In short, the prototype of language we form very early
on is that it is public, unchanging, expressible and intelligible
by everyone, governed by formal rules and objectives, and whose
dialects differ in minor ways.
innocuous as the language prototype may seem, when we project this
prototype onto some of the communicative systems in the sociology
literature, it can become a major source of misunderstanding and
distortion. Many attributes of the prototype, namely its fixity
and universality, stand at odds with the spirit of heterogeneity,
dynamicity, and nuancefulness inherent in many of the communicative
systems. In the following section, we overturn the monolithic language
metaphor and identify four rather aspectual metaphors which recurrently
surface in theories in the literature. These metaphors are: fashion,
liminality, patina, and gestalt; while none of these metaphors can
explain the whole of a communicative system, each does successfully
characterize some nuanceful subset of sociological communicative
alternative metaphors for communicative systems
through the various theories about clothing, objects, consumption,
and media in the identity literature, four metaphors stood out to
me as major themes of communicative systems: fashion, liminality,
patina, and gestalt (alternatively, we could think of them not as
metaphors but as communication modalities). Each metaphor differs
markedly from the language metaphor and better supports the nuances
presented in many of the literature's theories. It is important
to understand that these metaphors are complementary rather than
competitive, each highlighting some salient aspect of how identity
Although fashion embodies many ideas, the most fundamental
prototype of fashion is that of change. Fashion is characterized
by a cycle. In the beginning, new objects such as a new season of
clothing are imbued with cultural meaning. The significance of objects
in this stage are known only to the avant-garde and some early adopters,
and the exclusivity of objects at this point in the cycle make them
highly desirable. As these objects become increasingly known, they
become more and more commodified and thus less and less meaningful
and desirable. At some point, when the objects are widely known,
their aesthetic dies. All the while, new object-meaning combinations
are constantly being born and flowing through the fashion cycle.
fashion metaphor is relevant to many sociological systems discussed
in the identity literature. Davis (1994) explicitly invokes the
fashion metaphor to describe the shifting signification of clothing
and its effect on signalling identity. Veblen (1899) implicates
fashion as being a governor of conspicuous consumption suggesting
that social status is measurable by one's subscription to the good
tastes of the day, whose dynamicity weans out those we aren't able
to dedicate the necessary resources for the upkeep with fashion.
For Thornton (1996), members of the underground club culture define
themselves by their place in a fashion cycle. Their aesthetics must
lie at a point outside (and usually before) the mainstream, and
the whole cachet associated with the underground culture, which
Thornton calls "subcultural capital" is premised on the
exclusivity of their interests and tastes, which is the same exclusivity
had by the avant-garde in fashion.
we take a single snapshot in time of the progress of fashion, this
snapshot looks like a language with some peculiar features. First,
certain symbols -- corresponding to new objects -- having more ambiguous
or tenuous meanings. Davis terms this "undercoding." Other
symbols -- corresponding to old objects known to all the masses
-- have more definite meaning, though their meanings usually carry
more mundane and pejorative connotations. When Davis implies that
clothing is like a language, he is most likely trying to argue that
a given snapshot in time of the progress of fashion resembles some
kind of language. However, by emphasizing the snapshots rather than
the animation of fashion, we lose many valuable insights. One of
which are the resource demands required to maintain a place in the
fashion cycle. In the Language Prototype, language is not lost once
it is learned; however, in the Fashion Prototype, resources must
continually be dedicated to keep up with what's new in fashion.
Thus, an individual's place along the fashion cycle -- be it designer,
avant-garde, early adopter, trendy, mainstream, classical, or non-fashionable
-- signals to a degree, the prowess of their time and money resources.
Having a privileged position along the fashion cycle means that
one is able to afford time to maintain contemporaneous good tastes
and to afford money to purchase pricey goods. Veblen, for example,
cites the resource demands of fashion as a reason why fashion serves
as such a good sieve for membership in the leisure class.
is not only more dynamic than language, but arguably, its purpose
is to fight entropy toward language. The purpose of language is
communication, and in the Language Prototype, an ideal language
is one that everyone can speak and understand; however, being fashionable
carries cachet only because not everyone is able to "speak"
or "understand" fashion. Fashion changes and turn over
precisely because it does not want to be understood by everyone.
If there is anything unchanging about fashion, it is not the meanings
of garments, but rather the goal of staying "different"
and some techniques and prescriptions for achieving this goal.
communication through language is to minimize ambiguity and maximize
clarity, but successful communication in fashion is to often possess
ambiguity and irony. This is because an ambiguous or ironic statement
will raise more questions and attract more interest than a definite
statement, and attracting attention is often the modus operandi
of a participant in a fashion system (like a peacock wants to draw
attention with its feather display). In the early stages of fashion,
the meanings of objects are only partially articulated and not quite
definite, yet it is only in these early stages where objects possess
a strong "aesthetic code," as Davis argues. Also, there
is skill in producing an ambiguous or ironic statement (usually
only those who live in the earlier stages of fashion cycle) and
this in and of itself is a derivative signal about the subject.
further point of difference is that whereas language is usually
thought of a symmetrical act between speaker and receiver, fashion
is more asymmetrically and competitively communicated. Both Goffman
(1959) and Holland and Skinner (1987) state that dominance or prestige
is often the subject of competition and negotiation in a dyadic
relationship. The signaller competes with the signal receiver. Because
fashionability is a desirable trait, the speaker will want the receiver
to be able to appreciate her fashion utterance but will not want
to communicate so much to the receiver such that the receiver is
able to replicate her utterance symmetrically. To differentiate
oneself from possible imitators, a speaker will pay attention to
subtleties which may only be received by a most nuanceful receiver.
Davis's example of disingenuous mistakes is an example of this sort
of fine-grained differentiation, and this will be discussed more
judiciously in the following subsection.
The "liminal" is that which is barely perceptible.
A liminality, then, is the set of barely perceptible features which
characterize any action or object. Liminality may be a great metaphor
for understanding the nuance- and authenticity- aspects of communicative
systems in the literature.
language does not particularly value details more than the generalities
of a communication, it seems that it is the details which communicates
better and more reliable information about a speaker. This is because
details are harder to replicate in a deceptive communication than
generalities, and in evolution's attempt to make more astute signal
receivers, the focus was turned to the details. Liminality is seen
throughout the communicative systems in the literature. In Goffman's
theatrical interpretation of human interaction (1959), "expressions
given" are not as reliable as the expressions "given off,"
which are "more theatrical and contextual" and "non-verbal,
presumably unintentional" (p. 4) In Fashion, Culture,
and Identity, Davis (1994) argues that liminality can be manipulated
to a signaller's advantage through "disingenuous mistakes,"
(p. 66) such as the act of purposefully forgetting a button on a
shirt or forgetting to shave; these mistakes add a "rough around
the edges" genuineness to a sartorial ensemble leading to higher
quality signalling. Liminality also factors into Thornton's discussion
of subcultural "authenticity." Thornton suggests that
obscurity and rarity are the keys to authenticity. This in part
accounts for the fact that the underground dance music scene is
saturated with so many artists and tracks. Not only is there no
motivation to sort it all out, but to the contrary, the space of
dance music is purposefully inchoate, in order to differentiate
posers from authentic hipsters.
differs from language in a number of respects. First, because we
generally think of language's goal as being willful communication,
language necessarily implies a sense of pragmatism, forthrightness,
and obviousness. In contrast, liminality is more concerned with
sensitivity, disfluencies, and idiosyncrasies. Second, while language
is formally capturable, liminality is difficult to articulate, and
often an inchoate mash of features. Third, language is far easier
to manipulate than liminality, although liminality signals do not
appear to be necessarily more difficult to receive than linguistic
signals. Fourth, liminality more often than language, is involved
in communicating authenticity and is regarded as a more reliable
Patina is a unique metaphor describing an unparalleled
communication mechanism. Strictly speaking, patina is the blue-greenish
oxidization which accrues on objects and buildings as a result of
age. In Western cultures, particularly those antedating the 18th
century, patina was regarded as an authenticator of status. It is
unique from other communicative systems because it is easy to visually
verify by all, yet it is quite impervious to fraud. Thus, only those
who possess it can reap the legitimacy associated with signalling
Culture and Consumption, McCracken puts forth a theory
of patina which explains in terms of structuralist discourse that
patina is different from most symbols because the message it encodes
is itself: "patina, as a "signifier," stands for
status, as a "signified," because of the "natural"
connection between them." (McCracken, 1991, p. 36). McCracken
likens patina to Pierce's definition of an "icon," that
is to say, "the patina of the object reproduces the duration
of the family's claim to status." (p. 37). Its iconic status
is patina's main source of expressive power, and also what distinguishes
it from other systems of communication like fashion, whose symbols'
meanings shift while patina's symbolic meaning always remains the
McCracken contends that patina is waning in modern society, being
instead supplanted by fashion, I suggest that a more liberal reinterpretation
of patina will lead us to see that it is still a pervasive and important
system today. What is the spirit of patina? Patina is an object
whose age is easily visible and verifiable, and very difficult to
fraudulently reproduce. It is also touched by some sort of personalization
(as most patinaed objects were historically houses and family heirlooms)
so as to dissuade transferability. We can think of many objects
which fit this more liberal definition. An American Express Gold
Card, thought by many to permanently retain status cachet, features
the inscription of a date: "Member since 1981." This should
be thought of as patina because it is difficult to forge, the age
is easy to verify, and as a personal credit card, it is nontransferable!
Similarly, certain rare email addresses demonstrate patina. For
example, if someone had the address, "email@example.com,"
it clearly demonstrates the age of the account. It is widely known
that first names, especially common ones, are the first to be taken,
so to have a first name as an email address is a sign of someone
who was one of the first to receive an email address from a certain
domain. Email is also associated with non-transferability because
it is not usually commodified and traded.
is also found in the modern home. While family heirlooms fit more
traditional notions of patina, a liberal interpretation will find
patina on the yellowing and bend corners of family photos which
have stood the test of time, furniture which has begun to show age
and creek or otherwise develop age-caused idiosyncrasies (the light
switch to my parent's chandelier requires a special tap to turn
on). In Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton's survey of objects
in the American home (1981), the objects which are most likely to
exhibit patina (books, art, furniture, and photos) happen to be
the four most cherished classes of objects in the home (p. 58),
and this further testifies to the authenticatory power of patina.
differs markedly from language. Whereas language is public and expressible
by all, patina must be possessed and its communicative power is
only granted to its non-transferable owner. Also, whereas the meaning
of language may be ambiguous or may require interpretation, patina
has definite meaning which is intrinsic in the appearance of an
object: the object with patina signifies historical possession and
authenticity. Finally, because patina is personalized and cannot
be bought or traded, it is impervious to fraud, where language is
not (at least not at the scale of a single utterance).
In language and in fashion, it is often possible to emulate
a particular utterance or a particular outfit, and this is troubling
because the possibility of fraud devalues the cachet of the whole
communicative system in which the fraud is perpetrated. I introduced
the idea of liminality as a natural mechanism of fraud detection
which works by paying attention to barely perceptibles. However,
even liminality can be deceived on occasion. A final metaphor for
communication is the Gestalt, or, the sum or integral of a series
of choices and decisions. While it is possible to emulate a single
utterance or outfit, it is nearly impossible to emulate a whole
series of utterances or outfits without getting into the mind or
aesthetics of the person generating those choices. There is also
a sense that when attempting to assess abstract difficult-to-grasp
qualities such as identity, we often turn to the gestalt to reveal
a "deeper truth" about an inchoate idea. This interpretation
of gestalt is that certain latent variables only get communicated
through larger patterns.
of the sociological theories about identity in the literature invoke
the metaphor of the gestalt without explicitly identifying it or
invoking it as a mode of communication. Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton's
conceptualization of the home as a symbolic environment which collectively
characterizes the nature of a family should be seen as an embrace
of the gestalt because while no single object reveals unambiguously
the individuality-familiality of a person, or the warmness-coldness
of a family, the gestalt of the choices of possessions does lend
itself to more decisive conclusions.
most contemporary social construction theories of identity are indeed
pillared on the emergent properties of the gestalt. Social constructionism
argues that "selves, persons, psychological traits ... are
social and historical constructions, not naturally occurring objects"
(Sampson, cited in Grodin & Lindlof et al., 1996, p.
5). Viewing the self as being formed through the aggregation of
instances of how the self relates socially, is to essentially believe
that out of patterns of relations emerges a gestalt centroid which
serves as some definition of self.
too, forms a pattern whose gestalt has communicative power. While
particular consumptive choices may be backed by any on of an ambiguous
field of possible motivations, the overarching corpus of all choices
reveals the values of certain variables which lay latent and invisible
in each of the individual choices. The gestalt communicates emergent
properties of an individual or object which otherwise remain unknown.
In the domain of consumption however, there is an open problematic
regarding the nature of the gestalt. While idealistically, we would
like to think that the gestalt is provides the most candid and honest
signal of identity, it is not beyond manipulation. What McCracken
calls the Diderot Effect is a force which promotes consistency and
continuity in consumption patterns. However, it can also serve to
produce a false gestalt -- a situation in which the gestalt signals
not the most natural convergence of choices unto a self, but instead
a convergence imposed by the Diderot Effect. In other words, the
Diderot Effect may cause a few early decisions to become commitments
which must unnaturally be followed through with in the remainder
of decisions, thus constituting the false gestalt.
fashion, liminality, patina, gestalt and language all differ in
communicative mechanism, they often share some of the same goals.
One shared property is that all of these communication systems serve
the enforcement of social boundaries, separating high-status from
low-status, and separating authentic from poser. Language enforces
social boundaries primarily through dialects and idiolects. While
in our treatment of Language as Prototype, we have posited language
is objective, the reality of language is that it is actually quite
subjective, though at the level of group-subjectivity rather than
individual-subjectivity. In Sociolinguistics (1974), Trudgill
asserts that "value judgments concerning the correctness and
purity of linguistic varieties are social [sic] rather
than linguistic. There is nothing at all inherent in non-standard
varieties which makes them inferior." (p. 20) Yet despite this
revelation that all dialects are equal, language is routinely used
to identify and discriminate against people for the educational,
ethnic, and regional characteristics of language. Language thusly
understood, is used by members of certain groups, for subjective
rather than objective motivations, to exclude others from the group.
Patina works in a manner similar to language to enforce social boundaries.
Patina, possessed by the haves, is nontransferable, and
just as an outsider cannot fully manipulate his dialect to emulate
a more educated speech, patina cannot be easily spoofed either.
along with gestalt and liminality, also define a social boundary
of authenticity, and prevent others from being able to manipulate
this boundary. Liminality is difficult to spoof because it presumably
concerns barely perceptible and not easily manipulable details.
Gestalt is difficult to spoof because while isolated utterances
can be emulated, emulating a whole series of utterances would require
an inaccessibly intimate understanding of the signaller's psyche.
Patina cannot be manipulated because it is personalized, non-transferable,
and physically aged. Through the enforcement of authenticity boundaries,
a poser cannot easily present himself as a hipster and penetrate
an underground club culture; a mediocre writer cannot, in the long
run, pass as a real poet because he cannot sustain his tricks over
any period of time; and a cold family cannot pretend to be a warm
one because it cannot fake the age and wear-and-tear of various
shared or sentimental objects which show a history of a family united.
fashion enforces a social boundary generally correlating to high-status
versus low-status by levying a hefty resource cost on each subscriber
to fashion. In Grafen's formulation of the handicap principle (1990b),
fashion would correspond to a "strategic choice" handicap,
or costly signalling, as it is otherwise known, because each signaller
chooses how large of a handicap to produce. It so happens though,
that those who possess wealth and independence of time will be able
to disproportionally better afford the resource cost associated
with keeping up with fashion than those who are less affluent and
with less leisure time to spare. Costly signals, like fashion, however,
may also be worthwhile pursuits as winning the status attribution
pays dividends which may equilibrium with, or more than justify
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Davis: 1994, Fashion, Culture, and Identity, University
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Grafen: 1990, Biological signals as handicaps. J. Theor. Biol.
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Holland, and D. Skinner: 1987, Prestige and intimacy: the cultural
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Lakoff, Mark Johnson: 1980, Metaphors We Live by. University
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McCracken: 1991, Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the
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University Press, Indiana
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