Lionel Wee and Robbie Goh on their book, Language, Space, and Cultural Play

 

Language, Space and Cultural Play

Interview by Ida Hoequist

https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/language-space-and-cultural-play/327DE07D95DC80767188DE0AA9139EDD

Ida Hoequist:  In this book, you combine affect theory with an attention to the human built environment and a philosophy of meaning-making borrowed from linguistics, and the end result is the impressively seamless framework that you call “affect regimes”: ways that particular places structure the dispositions of people in them. Given that your framework is so eclectically sourced, which disciplines do you see this book speaking to and what do you hope it brings to those conversations?

Lionel Wee and Robbie Goh: This book hopes to speak to disciplines such as linguistics, sociology, and anthropology. For linguistics, the study of affect remains relatively new in spite of growing recognition of its importance, not least because language still tends to be conceptualized as a medium for cognition. Affect and cognition are often treated as separate phenomena, with the former working against the supposed proper functioning of the latter. At the same time, while disciplines such as sociology and anthropology have long given much emphasis to affect, the attention to how affect is materialized in the built environment remains a relatively new focus. In its study of semiotic landscapes, we try in the book to both accord greater recognition to the role of affect and to also show how that role can be theorized.

Ida Hoequist:   Affect theory is by no means a cohesive body of scholarship, so there is a wide and varied field of potential ways to understand what affect might be. Can you share with us how you came to the particular understanding of affect that you use for your book?

Lionel Wee and Robbie Goh: It is hard and sometimes misleading to try to go back and trace one’s scholarly influences, especially since one’s exposure to ideas and discussions with colleagues hardly ever follows a neat linear trajectory. However, works by Patricia Clough and Arlie Hochschild were important in initially shaping our ideas. These were further refined through further readings and discussions, and perhaps most importantly, our own experiences doing fieldwork as we collected data from actual landscapes.

Ida Hoequist:  Your title refers to cultural play; can you share with us how that ties into the landscapes in the book and the semiotic processes you describe?

Lionel Wee and Robbie Goh: This is an elaboration of some of the concepts commonly deployed in cultural studies, urban/cultural sociology and cultural geography.  One of the key ideas running through these fields is that space is never a blank slate, but rather the site of contestations, negotiations and influences.  These can take a myriad of forms, including spatial size, spatial design, signage, historical overtones, media representations, and so on.  Often, too, different groups will have different investments in the same site: for very young children a playground is for swinging or see-sawing, for teenagers it may be for practicing parkour moves, for pet owners it is for their pets to play, for foreign domestic workers it is a refuge from the regimentation of the households in which they work.  The play of these different structural/semiotic elements in combination with the interventions of different groups, is what creates affective regimes, and also what makes them so complex.

The bottom line is that affective regimes are not static and monologic, but rather the product of dialogical tensions and texts.

Ida Hoequist:  The concepts in this book are so eerily applicable to the currently ongoing coronavirus pandemic that they almost seem prescient. Many parts of the world right now could serve as stellar case studies for your framework — for example, the use of signs, floor markings, and barriers in grocery stores could be part of an attempt to construct an affective regime of caution. You also write about the effects of people increasingly leading their social lives in digital spaces, which people are doing now more than ever in places where social distancing is mandated. If you were to add a pandemic-focused section, what might be in it and would it prompt any changes in or expansions of your framework?

Lionel Wee and Robbie Goh: Yes, the restructuring of spaces (‘social distancing’), the introduction of fines and other penalties for non-compliance, the use of tracing apps (with concomitant privacy concerns), the gradual re-opening up of different sectors of the economy (since some spaces are more easily restructured to minimize the transmission of Covid-19 than others) – these are situations that call out for analyses along the lines we have discussed in our book. We would in any such discussion want to add a section of how to conceptualize a semiotic landscape that has been temporarily shut down or closed off. For example, a shop sign that says ‘Entrance’ is no longer operational if the entire site that the shop is part of has been shut down due to a citywide lockdown. But the sign cannot be said to have been discarded or abandoned (which would be the case if the site is slated for demolition). The communicative function of the ‘Entrance’ sign is in abeyance for the duration of the lockdown. Exactly how to theorize this is an interesting matter, and it is one that Lionel is pursuing in his latest book.

The digital mediations accelerated by Covid-19 certainly bear on many of the practices we discuss in the book, including travel, friendliness and public space, romance, and others.  One aspect that we would probably have expanded on in a pandemic-focused additional chapter, would probably be fear – how this is circulated and channeled in the absence of physical movement and a greater reliance on media.

Ida Hoequist:  It’s clear throughout the book that both of your ways of thinking, as scholars from different disciplines, are threaded through the material. Were there points that you see as being particularly enriched by your cross-disciplinary co-authorship, or points that were more complicated or challenging to work through together?

Lionel Wee and Robbie Goh: We work well together because of a mutual respect for our different disciplinary backgrounds (Lionel is a linguist and Robbie a scholar of literary/cultural studies). There was only one complication to really speak of, and that was in our different approaches to writing up the book. As a linguist, Lionel is more in the habit to constantly referring back to specific linguistic examples when discussing ideas. In contrast, Robbie is quite comfortable expounding without always making such references. This was never a major issue because drafts were being circulated back and forth between the two of us. This was a deliberate writing strategy to minimize having two otherwise distinct voices in a single book.  By the same token, it was enriching to benefit from a combination of the solid grounding in linguistic debates, with the wide range of examples and perspectives from popular culture, tourism studies and literary history (among others).

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