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::: Breakdown of the Language Metaphor (in Communicative Systems) :::


Throughout 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).

In 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.

Characteristics of the language prototype

The 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.

We 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.

In 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.

So 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.

As 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 systems.

Four alternative metaphors for communicative systems

Raking 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 is communicated.

Fashion. 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.

The 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.

If 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.

Fashion 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.

Successful 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.

A 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.

Liminality. 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.

Whereas 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.

Liminality 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 signal.

Patina. 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 patina.

In 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 same.

While 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, "," 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.

Patina 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.

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).

Gestalt. 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.

Most 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.

The 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.

Consumption 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.

Enforcing social boundaries

While 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.

Patina, 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.

Finally, 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 its costs.

Works Cited

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Eugene Rochberg-Halton: 1981, The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self, Cambridge University Press, UK.

Fred Davis: 1994, Fashion, Culture, and Identity, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Erving Goffman: 1959, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday: Garden City, New York.

A. Grafen: 1990, Biological signals as handicaps. J. Theor. Biol. 144. 517-546.

Debra Grodin, Thomas Lindlof (eds.): 1996, Constructing the Self in a Mediated World, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

D. Holland, and D. Skinner: 1987, Prestige and intimacy: the cultural models behind Americans' talk about gender types. In D. Holland and N. Quinn (Eds.) Cultural Models in Language and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

George Lakoff, Mark Johnson: 1980, Metaphors We Live by. University of Chicago Press.

Grant McCracken: 1991, Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities, Indiana University Press, Indiana

Sarah Thornton: 1996, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital, Wesleyan University Press.

Peter Trudgill: 1974, Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society, Penguin USA.

T. Veblen: 1899, The Theory of the Leisure Class, New York: Dover Publications.



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