The world and its societies have been colonized by an invisible colonizer: Covid-19. Colonizers impose and overrule, they may even change several ways of living without any explanation and to a certain degree, the coronavirus has done that.
Corona the Colonizer: a new podcast
The podcast revolves around the metaphor of pandemic-as-colonizer and the way it affects international students in Tilburg. We are three Art & Media Master students who researched the impact of the pandemic on international students for the course Urgent Media Topic: Migration. We interviewed three international students at Tilburg University about their experiences in the Netherlands, specifically, has the pandemic united or divided them? In the podcast, we will refer to our interviewees as B, C, and J.
Mimicry and enregisterment
Our conceptual framework consists of two symbiotic approaches derived from the ideas of critical theorist Homi K. Bhabha and anthropologist Asif Agha: mimicry and enregisterment. Further clarifying our concept of enregisterment is the text Enregisterment into Dutchness: integrational discourses in volunteer-run Dutch language classes (2020) by anthropologists Massimiliano Spotti and Eline van Rooij.
Enregisterment in this podcast’s context means the set of rules or the “assemblage of norms and values by which people live” (Spotti & van Rooij, 2020, p. 393), or “a linguistic repertoire that becomes differentiable within a language as a socially recognized register of forms” (Agha, 2003, p. 231). This case concerns the Dutch ‘coronaregels’ (corona measures) intended to lead society through the pandemic. Mimicry appears through this enregisterment when members of states become colonized societies. Mimicry means “normalizing the colonial state” (Bhabha, 1984, p. 3), or imitating and taking on the culture (i.e. the rules and enregisterments) of the colonizer. The government and the people have to mimic the virus by following these rules, or else get sick.
Corona measures as mimicry
Corona rules and measures (washing hands, wearing facemasks, keeping distance) are forms of mimicry that corona has imposed on the government and the government has in turn imposed on the people. The government has to 'imitate' what corona dictates, and the people have to imitate this in turn too. If we want to analyze this mimicry, we have to do this from a top-down perspective. However, similiar to Spotti and van Rooij's (2020) work, the interviewees spoke about their own reactions to these rules. They give us their “grassroots level,” bottom-up perspectives, “by ways of a close-up” (Spotti & van Rooij, 2020, p. 392).
The pandemic is channeled by the WHO and the state because in response to widespread illness. It is a mix of mimicry and enregisterment because the state and the WHO ask you to behave in a given way and fulfill certain moral behaviors, like wearing facemasks, washing hands, and maintaining social distancing. However, there is a grassroots response to these top-down regulation. People have acted and reacted, negotiated, and even fought against these rules. People have taken up some of these behavioral enregisterments while ignoring others.
This podcast explores ideas about imposed mimicry and enregisterment through the lens of the pandemic. It examines the extent to which mimicry and enregisterment have affected a specific group of people, how they act and react, and whether they feel unified or divided.
Bonding through digital infrastructures
At first glance, the international students we interviewed were divided by the pandemic. When these students first arrived in the Netherlands, there was virtually nothing for them to engage with: almost no physical education at the university, no social connections, no Dutch experience, and no connection with the local society. They became divided because they had to socially distance and isolate at home. They described how they were scared to make friends and get infected or infect others.
At second glance, however, the students are also unified. Instead of making friends in Tilburg, they reached out to friends and family in their home countries. The pandemic prompted them to talk more than ever before with their friends and family. Because it was hard to make new connections in the Netherlands, they found solutions online, through digital infrastructures where they could easily stay in touch. The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of digital infrastructures. Indeed it is, at least for now, the only way, the only way for people to feel unified.
The pandemic has both united and divided international students at Tilburg University. International students have found a safe haven in digital connections with their far-away family and friends. Despite the distance, experiencing a pandemic in a foreign land has brought them even closer to home.
Agha, A. (2003). The Social Life of Cultural Value. Language & Communication, 23, 231-273.
Bhabha, H. (1984). Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse. October, 28, 125-133.
Spotti, M., & van Rooij, E. (2020). Enregisterment into Dutchness: integrational discourses in volunteer-run Dutch language classes. Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 15(4), 391-403.