Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Invisible Dress Codes

Please excuse the lateness of this post, but I am just recovered from a tsunami of work duties, PhD writing deadlines, and personal dramas.

Today, I’d like to sharpen my CDA skills on a simple question that I have been asked many times as an ESL instructor at a Japanese university:

“Are you going to teach class dressed like that?”

To the best I can recall, I have been asked this at least 3 to 4 times a semester for the past six years, thus between 18 to 24 times. Of these, only one incident came from a professor, the rest from fellow foreign ESL instructors. They have all happened in the morning when I arrive at work dressed in street clothes due to the sweaty, dirty nature of commuting in Japan, especially in summer. I keep clean, conservative teaching attire in my locker and change into it before starting classes.

After my objection to the question, most interlocutors defensively define the genre of their question as a ribbing joke, but their jab at humour is only pretense. The non-professor questioners have what could be described as ‘gleaming’ eyes, while the intonation is one of a markedly rising pitch. Both these body and vocal signs indicate that a certain pleasure is being taken merely from asking the question itself, not observing any reaction to a punchline indicative of humour, thus further defining it as a different genre. The one Japanese professor who asked this question lacked any of these signs, but was instead marked by a calm voice expressing concern and then relief upon the answer, and thus is excluded from further consideration.

The significant social fact is that all interluctors are of the same professional rank as myself – ESL instructor in Japan. This is a doubly precarious social identity, since ESL academics in Japan are rarely considered ‘real’ educators by academics in other fields, and also because many stay at the full or part time teaching level without ever completing a PhD. They thus have no hope of becoming a professor except in extreme circumstances of having inside help or moving to the countryside where rural institutions are more lax regarding credentials. Add to that recent changes in labour laws limiting instructors to 5 year contracts and reducing benefits and the desperation that births this sort of social jockeying becomes evident.

The main element of the utterance is the juxtaposition of‘the verb 'teach’ and the pronoun ‘that’. Teaching in Japan has the double cachet of respect traditionally afforded to the title of ‘sensei’, while MA-holding foreign university ESL teachers often consider themselves superior to the rank-and-file educators with bachelor degrees teaching in conversation schools across the country. Alternately, the use of the pronoun marks street dress as unmentionable, an alien ‘other’ unfit for the university environment. Ironically, there are non-accredited, 'scab' ESL teachers at my workplace who are forced to wear suits, in other words conform to a stricter dress code than the MA-holding contracted foreign teachers. This irony testifies to the greater social conformity exerted upon workers in relation to the precariousness of their position.

Coming from contracted, accredited foreign ESL faculty, the question itself is a form of self-policing, wherein university employees with little job security or authority attempt to exercise symbolic authority over a fellow by commenting on their violation of an implicit dress code. The fact that no code exists allows the presumption to occur, and also facilitates backpedalling when the interlocutor is confronted. As Bourdieu (1991) explains, this type of self-policing is common among the petit-Bourgeoisie attempting to accumulate social capital to make up for their lack of capital and thus power in other respects.

The fact that almost no professors ask the question implies that they are secure in their social capital and thus have no need for such strategies, although loyalty for the employer would explain the rare instance of questioning from a Japanese professor.

One can expect such strategies and gaming of social reality to increase as the precariousness of the ESL or ‘false’ academic increases in Japan along with worsening economic conditions and a rethinking of the necessity and even utility of English education here.

PS: I should note that since moving to a university with less standing, these questions have ceased, and I have even been suggested to dress more casually in accordance with other instructors.

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1991) Language & Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Finding Takeshi's Satisfaction

Whereas my first analysis started with a charged social problem as presented in a small text, for this next exercise I’d like to look at a longer text without any explicit social problems and tease out both its discursive structures as well as any social issues implicated by them.

I have chosen the ‘Satisfaction’ advertising campaign by ECC, a large English conversation teaching company or ‘eikaiwa’ here in Japan. Web and television versions of its current campaign star Takeshi Kitano, world-famous actor, director, comedian and artist.

It is first necessary to explain the context of English conversation teaching or ‘eikaiwa’ here in Japan. Eikaiwas in Japan are generally non-accredited teaching classrooms where Japanese people come and take lessons in mostly English conversation from mostly unlicensed foreign teachers, usually young people living and working in Japan for a short time. The instruction at eikaiwas is thus largely ‘casual’, with a lack of testing or evaluation, syllabuses, curriculum, or any other trappings of an institutional setting. Tiny local eikaiwas often run by a foreign husband-Japanese wife pair dot the land, while large corporate eikaiwas such as Nova, Geos, and Aeon dominated the casual English teaching scene in the 1980s and 1990s with prominently displayed  ekimae’ classrooms close to most rail stations, so as to be convenient for workers and students. The embezzlement scandal that rocked Nova in the early 2000s began a period of lower profile for these three heavyweight eikaiwas, which are still popular but not as ubiquitous as before. Conversely, ECC has recently taken a larger profile, with advertisements on TV and in trains. ECC previously specialized in children’s English classes as taught in local spaces such as houses or community centers taught by housewives looking for extra income or to use English skills acquired in their youth, but has now branched out to business and adult lessons while relegating child classes to the ECC junior brand.

Since this ad campaign depends largely on visuals, I start my analysis with them. Color is a major element in marketing considerations, and the Satisfaction campaign is marked by the use of a neon pink textbox on white background colorscheme. This is a change from the previous ECC Beat Taheshi campaign that used a scarlet background with gold piping, which held an aura of respectability. The neon pink of the ‘Satisfaction’ campaign, by contrast, is redolent of spontaneity and creativity, allowing the customer to feel their choice of ECC marks them as such.

The screenshot above is taken from ECC's main webpage, and presents the dominant themes of the campaign, as well as their inherent contradictions. On the left are four foreigners, smiling and  besuited, tokens of both the 'fun' often associated with English  ‘eikaiwa’ classes as well as the professionalism denoted by their attire. Although ECC classes may be as fun as any other eikaiwa, their professionalism is just as suspect. A link on the ECC website to its '6 Deciding Factors' (ECCの6つのこだわり) begins with its claim of stringent background checks, which is belied by the detail that foreign teachers must have a 4 year university degree, but not any teaching experience or credentials.

In terms of genre, the campaign is not just a simple advertisement, but features the informative or didactive theme of survey results. This touch of ‘scientificity’ adds legitimacy to the ad’s claims, although the objectivity and validity are questionable considering that the agency performing the survey is a for-pay market research company and not an academic organization. The survey is notable for its supposed anonymity, although the use of pseudonyms for rival schools (School A, School B etc) also calls its results into question in terms of transparency.

There are number of claims made through keywords in the main statement for the Satisfaction ad campaign, supposedly, which is found on the ECC main homepage at www.ecc.jp. It is as follows:



If you’re choosing an English conversation school, choose for satisfaction.
Learn from a professional teacher, in an atmosphere of fun learning.
Easy to come to, easy to continue, with a complete support system.
The satisfaction of English for all people.
If you’re starting out, it is ECC. (my translation)

The keywords of ‘conversation’, ‘satisfaction’, ‘professional’, ‘atmosphere’, ‘fun’, ‘easy’, ‘support’, and ‘all people’ stand out and define the discourse, as do their ambiguities. First, ECC is a ‘conversation school’, thus ‘satisfaction’ is a natural aim of its discourse instead of the results and accreditation marking the discourse of schools in the education system. For precisely this reason there is no mention of results, credentials, etc, and thus it is marked as a discourse of ‘edutainment’ characteristic of eikaiwas.

Second, the mention of ‘professional’ is a claim of legitimation, despite the lack of any mention of credentials for either students or teachers. As mentioned above, ECC teachers are not required to have any pedagogic credentials or experience. The concomitant claim of ‘support’ is similarly a claim of an organizational status ECC does not have

Next, the claim of ‘atmosphere’ is ironic considering that ECC was outperformed by School E in two categories of the survey concerning this keyword, namely Quality of Instructor Atmosphere (講師の雰囲気の良さ) and Quality of School Atmosphere (学校の雰囲気の良さ). Ironically, the use of the term ‘instructor’ (講師), which is usually reserved in Japanese education discourse for university instructors, mark yet another implicit claim to educational institutional status that ECC and other conversation schools do not deserve. Similarly, the very use of the term ‘school’ (学校)to describe ECC is a calculated misnomer, as businesses of its kind are usually referred to by the term ‘English conversation classrooms’ (英会話教室), and thus another claim of institutional status it does not hold.

Moving on to the terms ‘fun’ and ‘easy’, they hearken back to the ads of the big three ekimae eikaiwa of the past, as mentioned above, and thus are an attempt to capitalize on their popular appeal. This contrasts with the claim of being ‘for all people’, which is simultaneously an appeal for new students, as well as a statement that ECC lessons no longer for kids, as implied by the aforementioned usage of the brand name ‘ECC junior’ to differentiate between children and adult lessons.

Although on the surface this ad campaign may have little to do with social issues, the Japanese public discourse of English as opportunity and English as threat noted by Seargeant (2011) is well in evidence, and has a lot to say about the conception and valuation of foreign labour in Japan. Besides Mr. Takeshi, all actors are smiling be-suited Caucasian males and females, who both iterate the native fallacy and the definition of welcoming white foreigner. The ‘native fallacy’ is the belief that only a native English speaker can impart speakable English to Japanese, a form of fetishization that stems from the school system where foreigners are found teaching English and most kids sleep through classes, preferring to get their English from Japanese teachers at juku, or cram schools that aim to help them pass the entrance exam of the high school or university of their choice. In both these cases, fluency is far from the aim or result. The addition of the prominent ‘white gaijin’ or foreigner underlines the conception of English as a ‘first world’ language, at once both accessible to the Japanese yet denied to Filipino, Indians and other ‘brown gaijin’ who have a harder time of working as English teachers despite their fluency with the language.


Seargeant, Phillip. (2011). English in Japan in the Era of Globalization. Palgrave.

NOTE: This analysis took longer than expected, so I will simply mark the paper reference here and add internet links at a later date when I am free.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Guns Don't Kill, Circular Logic Kills

I had intended a longer text for my inaugural analysis, but seeing as starting small is probably the best thing to develop my analytical skills, as well as the only scale my busy life will allow, I’ve decided to start with one phrase:

“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

This seems a timely subject in light of the shootings in Santa Barbara and Las Vegas and on and on ad nauseum, as well as one rife with power dynamics and semiotic significance that seem perfect for a Critical Discourse Analysis.

First of all, what is the context and genre of the utterance? A lengthy web search indicates that the phrase is an unofficial National Rifle Association slogan, used primarily by pro-gun supporters in the US whenever a new massacre occurs and public sentiment turns towards the so-called ‘liberal agenda’ of restricting or regulating firearms. It is thus normalized and disseminated popularly in right wing camps to provide justification for keeping power in the hands of individual gun owners, while indirectly benefiting the gun industry and lobbies such as the NRA. As such, it can be seen as a tool of hegemonic struggle, specifically to keep the gun industry and right wing power nexus on top by appealing to individual gun owners on the grounds of keeping their freedoms. This linking of individual freedom and corporate or elite benefit is a defining feature of US right wing public discourse, as evidenced in the domination of US economic discourse by Neoliberalism, and is a structure that has come to dominant American discourse in toto.

Next, what are the syntactic and semantic features of the utterance? The first proposition, “guns don’t kill people”, by using the inanimate ‘guns’ as the subject, takes agency away from people and thus depicts gun deaths as blameless and unavoidable affairs. The stripping away of all identifying particles such as articles and inflections like verb tense, while retaining the universal plurals of ‘people’ and ‘guns’, creates a ring of truism about the phrase. By pairing this first proposition with the second tautological clause, “people kill people”, the idea of the unavoidable violence of human nature is reinforced and opposition silenced. The normalizing ‘common sense’ nature of the utterance’s grammar is precisely the kind of blindingly irrefutable shared logic warned of by Gramsci.

Of course the two propositions together constitute a false equivalence – no one is saying that guns rise up magically and kill people, but that their easy access leads to greater gun crime and deaths. This is borne out by statistics ,
(http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2012/12/gun_death_tally_every_american_gun_death_since_newtown_sandy_hook_shooting.html), but such facts have no place in this type of discourse. This simplified equivalence also ignores the material effect of guns in accelerating death – people may kill people, but may also kill many more in a shorter time with automatic weapons. All these details are brushed aside in the mesmerizingly clean circular logic of the phrase “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

The most pernicious facet of this utterance is that the listener has to admit the first proposition to a certain degree before the second is delivered. It is in this ambiguity linking the two propositions that the utterance as a whole gains discursive power. Once you admit, “Yes, guns don’t kill people by themselves…” the remainder of the phrase is driven home by the binary relation between the first and second propositions, and the false equivalency slips in and derails dialogue. Any chance to debate the details left out of the utterance (“Guns by themselves,” “Automatic guns,”) are swept aside in the overwhelming perlocutionary force of the phrase.

One irony to note here is that the slogan stands for an unregulated access to guns which is the exact opposite of the supposed origin of the phrase as spoken by head of the Colt Patent Fire Arms Co.  President Fred Roff is supposed to have said, "Our big concern is to make sure that guns get into the hands of only those who know how to use them. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Considering the recent history of NRA opposition to background checks, waiting periods and other forms of gun registry and regulation, the volte face in discourse is extreme and indicates an almost Neoliberal valuation of market forces appealing to individual freedom over concern for social costs or welfare.

What about creation and reception of the phrase? It’s existence as a ‘bumper sticker’ slogan of gun owners without any attribution to one speaker reveals the popular appeal to common logic that mark discourse about cultural norms such as gun ownership in the US. Even the speeches of politicians and pundits in the gun debate pale in comparison to the illocution and force of this pro-gun bumper sticker, which is understandable in light of the difficulty of making memorable utterances about such ‘hot button’ topics while not offending voter and industry demographics. As for reception, the aforementioned enforced necessity of acknowledging the first half of the phrase renders opposition weak and ineffective, which implies the inability of liberal or anti-gun forces to marshal an equally forceful response or slogan.

“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” allows gun supporters to feel satisfied within their bubble of rhetoric masquerading as logical thought, while creating unease and frustration among gun opponents, who have not been able to satisfactorily pierce the ‘logic’ of the slogan with concise or forceful objections. The way in which the phrase shuts down opposition to and dialog with the dominant party about redistribution of power or reordering of the status quo is an example of the silencing defensive strategy identified generally by Pierre Bourdieu, and specifically in terms of Neoliberal Discourse by David Harvey

This was my first practice CDA. It is rough and weak, but like any exercise program I intend to make it the first step on a long journey to strengthening my analytic skills. If you have any comments or suggestions, leave them below. Please note that I will not be discussing the gun debate nor responding to any comments that try to.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

How I Came To This Road...


My name is Theodore Grenfell Bonnah, but everyone calls me Ted.

I am on the road to a PhD, the road to remaking myself as an 'expert', as a 'professor'. This blog will be an account of my journey.

Sometimes I wonder how I got here. I am a Labrador Metis, so advancing in the whole white world of university has been learning to breathe in an alien environment for me.

I started with an MA in English, how I picked up a fair ability with grammar, Old English, critical theory and colonialism. To support myself, I've also acquired a BEd with teacher's certificate in first and second language teaching. I've taught English, French and Japanese to all ages in all types of classrooms.

Now I am finishing up my PhD in Global Studies, specifically a Critical Discourse Analysis of Neoliberal uses of Japanese images in US economic discourse since the 2007 global financial crisis.

Sometimes I wonder what this all means. To me, it is following an interest beyond language teaching, to how language constructs and orders our reality, and how it constrains and coerces us.

I have found CDA to be both a natural extension of my English studies and abilities as a published writer, as well as being a hard slog. I've read lots of Norman Fairclough and Teum van Dijk, finding the former inspiring but ambiguous and the latter concise but sparse. I realized that I've hit the limit of what can be learned by just reading about CDA.

I need to start practicing it, preferably every day. I take my inspiration from Roland Barthes' 'Mythologies', his great exercise in analyzing the myths that make up our world. I will choose texts that inform everyday life and uncover the way they reinforce power relations of inequality and what Gramsci calls the 'common sense' that prevents us from questioning the constraints put on us by those in power.

I can't promise that any posts will be either good reading or good analysis, but you're welcome to walk along with me and point out obstacles in my way or better paths to my destination.

Let's get started...