To Jan Blommaert

13 minutes to read
Article
Sirpa Leppänen
27/04/2021

When the three of us were thinking about how to put together our message to you, Jan, we came up with the idea to design it as a dialogue. To us, it seemed, a dialogue would best convey the sense that, while we all have our individual voices, we have been - and still are - part of a community in which we have worked together for many years. For some time, we were so happy to consider you as a part of that community; and then, ourselves, as part of a community into which you graciously invited us. 

We wanted to let you know that you mean a whole lot to us. Throughout the years, you have been a source of inspiration for us. Your writings and seminars are part of everything we have been doing and continue to do. Not to mention all the conversations and debates we have had together on university campuses in Jyväskylä, Tilburg, London, among others. You have had a profound effect on our work, on the topics that spark interest, and the concepts and theories with which to address them. Beyond the work that you have written, you are also such an amazing and warm character and always successfully made everybody feel welcome in your classes and seminars. 

Sirpa to Jan Blommaert

My first encounter with you, beyond the correspondence we had had to negotiate the contract of your distinguished professorship in Jyväskylä from 2007 to 2010, was at the tiny Jyväskylä airport, where Mika Lähteenmäki and I had come to pick you up for your first visit. It was a freezing and snowy January night. We were very nervous - how would things work out? How would you make the jump from the bustling Antwerp, and the even more bustling London in which you had been working for some years, to our small university town in the middle of forests and lakes?  

The messiness of social reality is not a thing to be afraid of and / or something to neatly organize, but rather, something to understand and come to terms with in all of its complexity.

But there you were. Under your fedora, in your big coat, eyes twinkling. Our nervousness did not last long. We were soon engulfed in a conversation that spanned from a comparison of Belgian and Finnish beers to grassroots literacies, to snakes on the tarmac (not Finland), to snow on the tarmac (yes, in Finland), to the world-systems analysis, the cultivation of asparagus, and political activism, and so on and so on. That conversation never ended with you, dear Jan, and you took us along, seemingly freely flowing, but always with a point. More than one, a plethora, actually. 

 

Elina to Jan Blommaert

I still remember how absolutely amazing it felt when, in a conference in Dubrovnik in April 2010, I asked you to be my supervisor officially and you said YES. (Or that you had actually already assumed that you were my supervisor, haha). On top of that, you practically arranged me an ash cloud lift back home with a couple of Norwegians you had just met at the hotel. Taking care of me, already then.

The supervisory relationship with you was beyond any expectations. I learned so incredibly much from you and you were greatly devoted to my topic. Perhaps you also learned a thing or two about Finnish hip hop culture along the way. I will forever cherish the long visits to Tilburg, and the meetings with you in your Che Guevara office and the TRAPS meetings with you and other highly knowledgeable colleagues. 

I also vividly remember a rap gig in Jyväskylä that we attended together with other colleagues, you wearing your beanie and making hip hop moves and gestures while listening to the beat :) Another special night for me was also the one in Brisbane in 2014 when we had dinner on a conference night with Alastair, Emi and Sender. Prior to that, you talked long and hard about what matters to you in research and in academia, that it is mostly about the margins, the little stuff, the seemingly unimportant stuff. And if you’re in it for the long run, it needs to be interesting to you, the researcher, and something that seems important also for the people in the community / group you’re doing research on and with. These are some of the things that have stuck with me ever since – and something that I will keep in my heart. It has been an absolute privilege getting to know you and having you in my life.

Samu to Jan Blommaert

The last time I saw you was - how fitting - in Belgium, in Leuven in November 2017, when we had the long due InCoLaS seminar and meeting. Maybe it was the last one of its kind, it seems now in hindsight, as all the great work we have done together under the InCoLaS moniker is spreading around in rhizomes and reaching new ground in different combinations and cross-fertilizations. Back then in 2017, it felt as if it had already been so long, and we were all painfully aware that you’d had to take some time off because of your burnout - something you’d so openly shared with us and the world as you always would, not only with academic and intellectual ideas but also very personal and touching matters. As if the two worlds ever were separate in the first place - the sensitive and empathetic amongst us know so deeply how they aren’t. 

I was so happy and relieved to see you back in action, bursting of ideas as always, igniting us all to sprout new thoughts, connections, conceptions, making people around you feel a nod more geniuses than the day before. I would say this has always been your magic impact on people around you, given we’d let our mind tune in to the right wavelengths. It was so good to see you back, refreshing and reinvigorating. After a long period of exhaustive toiling mostly with teaching and supervision tasks new to me at the time in their ubiquity, I quickly got the good old feeling, This is where I belong, intellectually, this is where I want to be.

Karel took us to a place where they would have that Trappist beer (wish I could remember the name!); you and Karel and Max and the other locals (no matter whether Belgian or Dutch) were arguing which beer is the best, and where could we have it that particular evening. It happened to also be my first time ever in Belgium (though I’d been to Tilburg and the rest of the Netherlands many times), and I remember your genuine surprise when I mentioned it. There was a sense of ‘let’s show the son a better bit of Belgium, will we’, and I felt happy about it. 

Then there was Day 2, too, and I felt so sorry to hear that you’d had to skip it, because Day 1 of the long due InCoLaS reunion had taken its toll. As someone who has experienced burnout myself, too, I could feel you so deeply. The feeling that you want so badly to be there, but it is better to stay at home and get some rest. But we had a great time in Leuven and your spirit was all over the place with us on Day 2, while we had a most interesting seminar day.

The first time I met you was when you first came to see us at Jyväskylä. I think you were 45 then, about the same age that I am now, yet so full of life experience, charisma, a rugged character, from your years in the African continent I thought first, such a lovable and approachable person. I thought right away you are “my man”! Back then just some year and half into my academic career, and having had some time off with my babies, I’d very recently read your Discourse and a couple of other papers, and suddenly you were here in body and flesh, and I was totally excited to have you here.

Sirpa to Jan Blommaert

One of the lessons that I learnt from you, dear Jan, is the realization that even though as language scholars our gaze is well honed to anatomize the minutiae of language, as critical sociolinguists we should never lose sight of how the bits of language we mobilize here and now are always responding to, speaking of and contributing to much more than the here and now.  To me this has translated into an understanding of scaling as a series of analytic movements that, although they often begin from the situated social space of discourse and interaction, shuttle me - my analytic gaze and perspective - upwards and outwards onto the bird’s eye scales that encompass normativity, ideologies, positionalities and practices that are having their impact on what happens here and now. At the same time, what happens here is not only indexical - rooting us in particular footholds in the social universe -  but it also has the potential of change, the capacity to change the coordinates according to which we make sense of and locate ourselves and others in the various spaces of our lives. On the other hand, what is said here and now, you taught us, is always an example of a different kind of mobility, one that connects us with what has been said before, and will be said in the future, in and through time. All that we say is a turn in a conversation, part of a trajectory, and a recontextualization of something that has happened before, but something with which we can also create something new - meanings that are uniquely voiced through us. 

Besides the many scholarly gifts you gave us, Jan, what we all share as a lovely memory is the after-seminar sessions with you, in which, like our fizzy drinks, ideas and insights tended to pop and sparkle

What I also learnt from you was that messiness is a gift to the sociolinguist. In our era of intense globalization and complex diversity, our capacity to predict and model ‘who says what to whom where, when and in what ways to do what and with what kinds of effects’ has become challenging in ways that have only partially been acknowledged by western linguistics up to the 21st century. You always sought messiness, genuinely drew pleasure from plunging yourself in it, and found ways to look at its intriguing complexity, showing us, in the end, how it made perfect sense. Take your own embodied self as a complex sign in the semiotic landscape of Berchem: in your long overcoat and broad-brimmed hat, walking and smoking, constantly scanning the urban landscape with inquisitive eyes. Always the observer, you read the thoughts of the local Jewish diamond vendors keeping an eye on the street, and you: “Now, whose son is he?” It is such a simple example, but one that can nevertheless illustrate many of your key insights: the unpredictability of what semiotic signs tell us, the complex diversity of social settings, identities and ways of communication, their polyvocality and historicity embodied by you yourself in Antwerp’s diamond district. 

 

Elina to Jan Blommaert

Indeed, as Sirpa has just said, I have also come to realize, through you, that the messiness of social reality is not a thing to be afraid of and / or something to neatly organize, but rather, something to understand and come to terms with in all of its complexity. Messiness is of course very much related to superdiversity, a concept that seems very compelling, perhaps also because of its unfinished nature. In Jyväskylä, we have aimed to conceptualize our own research topics also in terms of superdiversity, or diversities, although the Finnish contexts tend to differ a lot when compared to, for example, London where different kinds of diversities are highly commonplace. Nevertheless, this concept can help us in understanding the kinds of diversities and unpredictability at play, for instance, in my postdoctoral work on ethnicity and (non)belonging in Finnish hip hop culture. And, as we speak, there is a new book in the process on superdiversity, in the Finnish context, and in Finnish. New avenues remain to be explored - and this concept will certainly help us in the navigation. To mention a few more concepts (although there could be dozens!) that I and we have found useful in your work: resources, scales and polycentricity. These were in a very central role in my PhD when I was mapping out the intricacies of Finnish hip hop culture from the perspective of authenticity. Even though they are perhaps not at the very core of my ongoing research any longer, the deep getting to know them phase has certainly had a long-lasting impact on my work and teaching, in general, for years and decades to come. 

Finally, - I realized some time after your passing - I still have some of our discussions “on tape” in my iPhone. Thus, I still have your voice with me, wherever I go, both literally and figuratively. It brings me great comfort -- and lots of joy!

 

Samu to Jan Blommaert

In my academic work over the years, I often feel that much of what I write, say or teach echoes your voice. Sure, I have developed and found my own voice over these years, nay, decades, and it was there already, budding fresh and green before you first arrived in Jyväskylä, even before I first opened the pages of Discourse in 2006. Since our first encounters with you, our first seminars, the readings you have passed on, either ones by yourself, or others that you brought to our attention, those words and ideas have found fertile ground in my work as well as my collaborations with others, created new connections, bounced to orbit new trajectories. They have been there ever since, and I am sure they always will: rich and textured food for thought, nutrition value that we can sustain with it for years and years to come. I hope I can communicate some of that to the next generations of academics over the years to come.

In every utterance to our students or colleagues, in every sentence in the notebook, somewhere out there Jan’s voice whispering, sometimes buried in the deep, almost indiscernible, sometimes echoed clear and loud. As Bakhtin taught us (based on very different evidence), we never utter anything totally unique, but it is the others’ words and writings that live on in us, that we use, reuse, recycle and reformulate as we go on communicating ourselves in this world. Resources, resources, resources… or features, features, features! When trying to make sense of normativity, language attitudes, purism, prejudice, stigmatization and such in my work, I found much inspiration in your writings and teachings, which signposted me on my way to understand metapragmatic reflexivity, i.e. normative and evaluative statements about language (use), both indirect and direct, covert and overt. 

With you, I always shared an interest in mobile life trajectories, hybrid sociocultural practices and sociolinguistic repertoires, “biographical complexes of functionally organized resources”. At the same time, your work has helped me understand how old -isms die hard and persist in our societies: in our times of multiple identities and mobility of anything - or everything -  fixed and simplified categories dating from modernity and beyond persist in people’s minds. Especially the connections of new information technologies, the language and discourse people use in / via them and their mobility and migration patterns and trajectories have been of interest to me in the context of transnational football cultures. Indeed, it is perhaps most clearly research on online language use and discourses via newer information technologies that I felt my insights and conceptualizations helped you develop your thinking in turn: I was glad to see that you found the interest in the sociolinguistic of online communication and digital discourses in much the same way as I did.

And, as you so ever so avidly kept telling us, issues of normativity, metapragmatics, mobility, and language in space require ethnographic knowledge of why things happen the way they happen. Your work and our numerous sessions and classes have helped me develop and deepen an understanding of how we can research and gain knowledge ethnographically. In that endeavour, I have attempted to think very hard about the integration of etic and emic knowledg. Also the potentials of multi-sited ethnographies have been richly illustrated in your work, especially in issues related to globalization, mobility and language in space. Studying trajectories - whether of people, stuff, or discourses, have been a key insight to me, and part of such work often calls for ethnographic knowledge.

Epilogue 

We continue to live our academic and personal lives in Jyväskylä. To many, this northern corner of ours is definitely periphery. A distant and quiet land that, after centuries of being squeezed between and by two empires, has only relatively recently become a realm of its own. However, in much of our work, we have come to realize that in more ways than one, our peripherality does not mean that we would not be part of the global changes shaping our lives and languages. Quite the opposite, in fact: as shown already in our previous turns in this dialogue, recurring themes in our work have been the processes of social and sociolinguistic diversification and complexification, as well as the sharpening polarities and antagonisms that are no less significant here than they are in the congested metropoles elsewhere. Much of our work has engaged with these processes, with a particular focus on their mediatized connectedness, while also paying attention to their local significance in terms of identity, communality and struggle. In fact, you always encouraged us to embrace our peripherality as a particular strength, to see its value, and to study closely the ways in which the local sociolinguistic actors at the center of our work take up, engage in and contribute to more global, transcultural forms of semiosis and communication in their social media practices. In that sense, we are not in the periphery, but at the epicenter of where sociolinguistic life happens. 

Besides the many scholarly gifts you gave us, Jan, what we all share as a lovely memory is the after-seminar sessions with you, in which, like our fizzy drinks, ideas and insights tended to pop and sparkle. In one of them, in the midst of the customary big plans, the rising intellectual excitement and pleasure, hands drawing increasingly larger visions in the air, our symposium was punctuated by the sudden toppling of a bottle of red wine. The red liquid spread all over, drenching the important notebook in which we meticulously recorded our plans. We still have it, the notebook, slightly smelly, pink and blotchy, but with brilliant ideas wine-marked, archiving the good cheer and fun we always had with you, dear Jan.