Distraction Free Reading

Talk About Anticipation

Have you ever noticed how ideas often come together to reveal a larger trend or zeitgeist? Last week, The CASTAC Blog featured a set of ideas advanced by Lyon-Callo in a post devoted to using anthropology to focus on the positive. The goal was to encourage a broadening of anthropology’s focus to find creative solutions for change in tackling difficult problems. The idea was to avoid the oft-felt pessimism that Lyon-Callo reports that his students often experienced in anthropology classes that orient around critical thinking. The suggestion in that post was to supplement critical thinking with pedagogy and research that focused more attention on positive examples of what is going right in the world.

In a similar vein, Jacob L. Mey writes of something he calls “anticipatory pragmatics,” in the Journal of Pragmatics 44 (2012): 705-708. Put simply, pragmatics is defined as the study of language in use. According to Mey, “anticipatory pragmatics” is an extension of what has been termed “emancipatory linguistics,” a term intended to “signify the freeing of the language users from the societal oppression…as it was manifested in language.”

Mey states that historical descriptions of emancipation show that, by itself, emancipation is not sufficient to move forward and address societal injustices. For example, he discusses how freed slaves in the American South after the Civil War experienced continued oppression even after emancipation. Mey argues that what is often lacking, both historically and today, is a series of “next steps” that might help people not only move beyond “linguistic bondage” but also anticipate how “sustained supportive action” might be achieved.

Language that is abusive, removes human dignity, and otherwise offers unwelcome vitriol needs to be changed. On the other side of the coin, expressions that obfuscate harm must also be readjusted, Mey argues, to depict societal problems. An example he provides is the idea of de-glorifying discourses that refer to certain discredited individuals as “captains of industry” as opposed to “robber barons and committers of grand larceny, often in collusion with politicians.”

Of course advocating anticipatory pragmatics in particular contexts may raise the uncomfortable specter of seeming paternalistic, insensitive, or controlling. Still, Mey argues that anticipatory linguistics should boldly stride forward, while remaining sensitive to what Heritage (2007) refers to as the “boundaries of empathy.” Mey states that, “even less preferable actions are better in the end than no action at all.” The idea behind anticipatory pragmatics is to fight against language abuses. It is about changing one’s thinking and linguistic practices in particular instances and more broadly in societal discourses.

Anticipatory pragmatics has particularly strong resonance for scholars in science and technology studies, who have identified numerous problems with how technological language is often used to promote asymmetrical power relations or perpetuate injustice. Such language also sometimes functions to obscure the roots of unjust practices and important societal decisions in a vast number of fields including ecology and energy.

A prior CASTAC Blog post on metaphors described how language has been a long-standing topic for science and technology studies. Examples abound not only in classical pieces by scholars such as Emily Martin and Carol Cohn, but are also found in recent works. For example, Stefan Helmreich has written about how religious metaphors in design language influence the conceptualization and creation of artificial life. Rene Almeling has discussed how metaphors used in sex cell donation are not simply a “matter of rhetorical flourish” but rather profoundly influence “how women and men experience the exchange of sex cells for money.”

Such observations, when considered in the scholarly and cultural zeitgeist of a forward-thinking and optimistic orientation, prompt many intriguing but challenging questions. Moving forward, how might scholars in science and technology studies employ more anticipatory moves meant to create social change through language and representation? What form would such scholarship take, and how would it be achieved? For example, might it result in more collaborative knowledge production practices in which scientists, anthropologists, and other scholars discuss how metaphors impact not only the transmission of knowledge but also how they serve to cement or hide asymmetrical power relations as well as social and material injustices?

Rather than stopping at revealing patterns, might it be possible to co-collaborate and create what Mey calls “next steps” in producing less harmful representations of new knowledge? How could collaborative efforts deal with the fact that language constantly changes, and acceptable metaphors in one social context may create complications in another realm? Of course, such a collaboration assumes a mutually aligned social agenda, which quite frankly, may not always be the case in various areas of knowledge production.

But why not end on a hopeful note at this juncture? How might such collaborations and positive next steps for an anticipatory pragmatics in science and technology be achieved?

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