I remember someone once asking Jan Blommaert how he managed to be so prolific. It was at one of the receptions we used to have after research events at the Institute of Education – ‘reception’ in this case meaning a few dozen people huddled at the far end of an overlit classroom drinking the Institute’s own-brand wine (which, for some reason, had a hand-drawn owl embossed on the label). I don’t recall the whole of Jan’s answer, but what I do remember is that he said he found that a great motivator for work was anger. When he felt offended by something out there in the world he found it both helpful and productive to channel those emotions into his writing. And obviously, there was a lot going on out there in the world at the moment to be angry about.
As anyone familiar with his work knows, Jan’s prolific output is threaded through with a desire to address problems of injustice and discrimination in the world. To sublimate political anger into academic inquiry. To better understand how power shapes communities and cultures. His approach to sociolinguistics pays equal attention to the social and the linguistic; while also aiming explicitly at productive engagement with the problems of the world.
Jan Blommaert, the Turbo-prof
I first met Jan in 2005 when he came to work at the Institute of Education. The summer of 2005 was a troubled time for London. In early July a terrorist attack by four suicide bombers had killed 52 people during the morning rush hour. Three of the bombs were detonated on the tube. The fourth was on a bus as it drove past Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury. Tavistock Square, with its statue of a cross-legged Gandhi sitting at its centre, is only one street across from the Institute, and the blast could be clearly felt by people who happened to be in the building that morning. A couple of years earlier it was at almost this exact spot that students and staff from the University of London had gathered before joining the huge demonstration against the Iraq War. The terror attack on the bus that day was a very local manifestation of the wider disorder associated with the problematically-named ‘war on terror’, and the myriad of challenges that an increasingly globalised world was facing at the beginning of the new millennium.
It was at the end of this summer that Jan came to work in London. He was the archetype of the ‘turbo-prof’ during his time in the UK, still living on the continent and thus swooping into London by Eurostar each week, often trailing his suitcase straight into the office. The Institute has had a strong tradition in applied linguistics over the years, but at the time of his arrival the focus in the department had become a little narrow. The majority of teaching and research was related to TESOL, to academic literacies, and maybe some occasional SLA. There was a critical edge to some of this of course, and questions of politics certainly weren’t ignored. But for the most part it didn’t engage extensively with the big issues disrupting society.
In this environment Jan’s presence, both in terms of his own work and the relationships he forged with colleagues elsewhere in the Institute and down the road at King’s, worked as a sort of a catalyst. In particular, the emphasis in his research on ideology, and the fundamental role this plays in all aspects of language use, opened up a range of fresh and stimulating ways for grappling with political and cultural problems. Or at least, that’s how it felt for me and many of the other doctoral students around at the time.
The messiness of the data
Then there was the stress placed on the importance of looking at what he called the ‘messiness’ of data; at what real people do, with real language, in real situations. Being an ethnographer at heart, he preached that theory always flows from specifics; that case studies aren’t simply illustrations but are the raw material which allows for theorising. In taking stock of, say, the effects of linguistic globalisation, the focus shouldn’t be limited to abstract ideas of the so-called dominance of English; nor should discourse analysis settle simply for picking apart the sophistry of prominent actors like Tony Blair or George Bush. It needs to identify and evaluate the actual communicative resources that people are using when they interact, and to explore how meaning is generated from these resources as they’re drawn upon in the complex web of society.
The ‘embodied Blommaert’ shared a great deal with his textual persona – forever in motion, always attracting a dedicated following, and continually sifting and combining an eclectic mix of cultural influences.
As I say, I may be generalising a little about the influence of Jan’s thinking on the academic culture in London at the time – projecting my own experiences onto the community at large. But his two short years here were an exciting time, and certainly had a profound impact on the research that many of us were pursuing back then. It wasn’t just the ideas, of course. It was the personality as well. The demonstrative hand gestures and the regular let’s says and if you wills that punctuated his explanations.
He managed to schedule his stay in London just prior to the smoking ban, so supervisions were usually held in the café in the college’s basement, where Jan could smoke over a cup of coffee while dissecting your ideas. And where his other supervisees would prowl around in the hopes of tracking him down when he wasn’t shuttling to-and-fro to Antwerp or the flying off to various international conferences.
The ‘embodied Blommaert’ shared a great deal with his textual persona – forever in motion, always attracting a dedicated following, and continually sifting and combining an eclectic mix of cultural influences. One day you’d see him, field-marshal-like, leading a troop of students along one of the endless corridors of the Institute; the next he’d be exhorting the benefits of binge-watching ‘Allo ‘Allo! as the ideal means of relaxing away from work. As I say, an eclectic mix of cultural influences.
Some of these cultural influences feel of much more relevance now than they did at the time. I remember when I told him the title I’d decided on for my thesis – ‘The Idea of English in Japan’ – and he began quoting the lyrics of a Georges Brassens’s song to me: ‘Mourir pour des idées, l’idée est excellente’. I don’t think the song ever had a great deal to do with my thesis, and was probably just an opportunity for him to recite a few lines from Brassens (the sort of opportunity that any right-minded Francophone would naturally jump at).
But looking back, it resonates in a way that I didn’t really appreciate then. The song is a reflection on the role that commitment to causes and ideologies should play in our lives. Where previously Brassens had been critical of ideological commitments, he’s now changed his mind. ‘Mourons pour des idées, d’accord’ (Let us die for ideas, that’s fine), he sings, ‘mais de mort lente’ (but, let death come slowly). Yes, let’s pledge to give our all for an ideology. Let’s commit ourselves wholeheartedly to our ideals. But let’s also agree that this death should be a lifetime in coming.
Jan Blommaert's legacy
Jan’s work over his career has not only been dedicated to an exploration of the role that ideology plays in society; it’s also been marked by a lifelong commitment to a set of ideals and values focused on making the world a more equitable place. And it’s the combination of the rigour and creativity of his thinking, along with the tenacity of this commitment – not to mention the clarity and humour with which it’s all expressed – that’s produced the immense influence he’s had on so many people, myself included.