Jan Blommaert, in memoriam, sociolinguistics,

Tribute to Jan Blommaert as public intellectual

13 minutes to read
Ico Maly

It was mid-October in 2000, when I entered the Ghent University auditorium on the corner of Rozier and Sint-Hubertusstreet. At that time I had just started on what could generously be described as a personal mission. The year before I had thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing my master thesis. Although I had just graduated with a fresh master in cultural sciences, I had a fundamental dissatisfaction. It was a gnawing feeling, an acute realization that I still had a lot to learn. In those two years of cultural sciences I had developed a keen interest in research, but had no craft. I wanted a second chance and therefore registered for a post-master in Development cooperation, politics and conflict focus.

Learning to re-search with Jan Blommaert

I saw that year mainly as an opportunity to write a new thesis. The rules of the program were clear: the thesis had to be about a contemporary conflict and be linked to an elective course. That year the Second Palestinian Intifada broke out. It seemed like an excellent opportunity to find out more about a region I knew little about. Digging through the list of electives, my eyes fell on a course on racism taught by a professor I didn't know, a certain Jan Blommaert. I decided to take a trial lesson, which is how I ended up at the top of that auditorium in the majestic Ghent Book Tower. In the front, a tall young professional was eager to teach about Roland Barthes, about how his theory of 'myth' was ahead of its time and confirmed by sociolinguists today. I was totally digging it.

After the lesson I asked Professor Blommaert if he wanted to act as a promoter for my thesis on racism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Little did I know then that his answer would change my life forever. When I came home that evening, my roommates were immediately and enthusiastically educated about the relevance of Roland Barthes. The following week I couldn’t stop talking about hegemony and Gramsci. It became a weekly ritual: every Tuesday evening I went to his classes full of enthusiasm, and every Wednesday I went to the Walry bookstore to order the books Jan had passionately taught about the day before. Before I knew it, my thesis and Jan's classes absorbed the entire academic year - a phenomenon I also saw almost two decades later in Tilburg.

I began to dutifully study the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and follow news about the conflict in The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz and Newsweek, on CNN and the BBC, and in the Flemish media. If Jan's lessons made one thing clear to me, it is that contemporary discourses have a history. Studying those discourses was therefore only possible if I had knowledge of those histories myself. After a few weeks I realized how broad my assignment was. Jan suggested starting with Edward Saïd. I read all of Said’s works and soon devoured the works of authors such as Robert Fisk, Amira Hass, Noam Chomsky and Herman Edwards. Through the latter I also discovered the so-called new Israeli historians such as Benny Morris and Illan Pappé. The book that blew my mind, however, was Zeev Sternhell's The Founding Myths of Israel. For the people who know my work, it may be clear that the seeds of that life were sown in that year.

Jan Blommaert was without a doubt one of the most important social scientists in Belgium and one of the most renowned sociolinguists in the world.

I tried to absorb everything from the history of Israel's origins to the then recent history of the Oslo trials. That journey through Israel's histories filled a fundamental gap experienced by many cultural science students. Jan made it very clear that culture can only be understood in a social, economic, political and technological context. It was also immediately clear that 'science' is not locked in an ivory tower, as the populist discourses proclaimed at the time. Knowledge production is part of the world. Science helps to create our view of the world and that places a great responsibility on the scientist. The latter was something that Jan invariably emphasized: we as scientists are forced to give the best of ourselves, for science, but also for society. Society has invested tax money in us and it is our duty to give back.

On the surface, my thesis was largely a self-taught piece of work. Most of the time I was alone at my study table. I don't think I turned to Jan more than twice for concrete advice. Those two sessions lasted - at least in my memory - no more than ten minutes. But they were extremely productive. He pointed out to me that Israeli discourses depoliticized the conflict. It was only one sentence, but it made all of my observations suddenly fall into place. In the first session he also recommended that I read Hanan Ashrawi's article 'The anatomy of apartheid,' and after the second session he gave me a copy of a paper by discourse analyst Rojo Martin Luisa on the personification and demonization of Saddam Hussein. Both papers helped me to organize the analysis of the data into a thesis.

In reality, that thesis was collaborative. It was a group work. The combination of a careful study of Israel's histories, Jan's teaching, the study of discourse analysis, and the personal sessions with Jan helped me to analyze my data. I learned that an orderly collection of data was a crucial but not sufficient for becoming a good researcher. My research also made it very clear how the media frame our world and thus also guide our reactions. It gave an urgency to the role of the intellectual. The intellectual is not a 'media expert' – somebody who fits the frame of mass media and reproduces the prevailing discourse - but someone who dares to question and goes against the grain when necessary.

That academic year was - at least from my perspective - a great success. As rudimentary as it was, I had acquired a craft. The unfulfilled feeling had disappeared. That backpack full of knowledge and research methods gave me a clear view of the future. I wanted to become a researcher and build a better society.

When Jan asked me what my plans were after my thesis defense, I answered that unfortunately I had to look for work and would apply for the vacancy that hung on his ad valvas board. I did not get that job. In the months after graduating, I combined applying for a job with reading and analysis with classic 'bullshit jobs' to pay the rent. Working in a factory and call centers only strengthened my dedication to using my knowledge for society.

Jan Blommaert, the public intellectual 

Many of my generation remember the beginning of the 21st century as a period of rapid change and hope. The period was marked not only by the advance of the extreme right but also by anti-globalists standing up worldwide and making themselves visible through their own global medium: Indymedia. Digitization seemed to give the left a boost. Anti-racism went hand in hand with opposition to Israel's occupation and the foreign policy of the United States and Europe. The World Social Forum carried the hope that civil society could organize itself globally, that another world was actually possible.

And then came the unthinkable. I was working as an order picker in a surf gear depot when two planes pierced the World Trade Center towers in New York on September 11th. After the first tower was hit, work stopped as we all watched the second tower collapse on a small television. Fresh out of college, my head full of information about US foreign policy and Middle East geopolitics, I saw the events on that monitor differently than my colleagues. With the exception of a coworker of Lebanese descent, no one linked this act to a political history. None of the on-screen commentators pointed to US foreign policy. Israel's former prime minister, Ehud Barak, was suddenly portrayed as a 'neutral' terrorism expert. Islam and Muslims became the cause. This event and my colleagues' reactions were the signal to closely monitor, categorize, and analyze all media in the days, weeks and months after, work that would later find its way into a little Dutch book I wrote (EPO, 2009).

Jan is a classic example of a public intellectual. He was someone who combined an enormously rich and demanding top-level academic career with an exceptional social commitment.

In retrospect, 9/11 was a huge blow to the alterglobalist movement. The global movement lost momentum and no longer set the agenda. Active logic, in which people thought and competed for a better world, became reactive. The alterglobalist movement was absorbed into the anti-war movement. When an informal EU summit took place in Ghent a month later, it seemed as if the city was occupied. Crowd barriers and police convoys popped up everywhere. Pubs, shops and the university had to be closed. Protestants gathered in the South and a few teachers from Ghent University taught in the street as protest against the closing of the university. One of them was, of course, Jan Blommaert. He spoke as a professor, but also as a public intellectual with sympathy for alterglobalists, and an ardent orator. It further strengthened my conviction to find a way to make my knowledge public, to do research that mattered.

Jan had just published a new Dutch book on political language and the rise of the extreme right in Belgium – Ik stel vast, Politiek taalgebruik, politieke vernieuwing en verrechtsing (EPO, 2001) - a razor-sharp analysis of the Flemish political landscape. In a favorable review in the newspaper De Morgen, Karl Van den Broeck described him as a 'radical', who dared to use the 'C' word (Capitalism). As a former student, I didn't really understand that qualification. I had read the book and saw it as an excellent, evidence-based academic and pedagogical work. Why he was labelled as a ‘radical’, was something I couldn’t understand. The qualification only became clear to me when I later received that label myself. It is a label that says much more about the norm in media circles than the person and analysis branded as such. It is to his credit that Jan never allowed himself to be influenced by such labels or much fiercer opposition from the news, academia, civil service and politics.

Jan is a classic example of a public intellectual. He was someone who combined an enormously rich and demanding top-level academic career with an exceptional social commitment. The late Edward Said wrote about the intellectual as someone who is always in exile. Someone who, driven by universal principles and critical analysis, is invariably forced to be an outsider, to question the status quo, and to make that analysis public. Jan was the embodiment of an intellectual committed to the great ideals: democracy, universal human rights, justice and equality. He was never looking for applause, he was in it for the greater principles. He didn’t speak to please the powerful, but to let the voice of those in the margins be heard.

Academia, civil society and antiracism

A year later I had my first real job. I started working as a diversity consultant for the City of Ghent in Belgium. This basically meant that I started a study. Coincidentally, Jan had been there before me too. Years before I started working, he had set up a huge action research initiative, and I eagerly built on it. His racism course, and especially his work with Jef Verschueren (Debating Diversity) proved to be an excellent preparation for the job. As Jan had taught me, I took the job very seriously. I began reading any work on diversity, diversity policy, migration and integration that I could get my hands on

Meanwhile, after working hours, I continued to research and try to make my writings public. That's how I ended up at the anti-racist movement Kif Kif. The step from civil servant to civil society felt like a liberation. From 2002 onwards, with many volunteers, we built an anti-racist platform: an alternative medium that would make way for voices from below. Jan not only had a prominent voice on that platform but also regularly gave lectures and led workshops. I ended up among a group of militants and like-minded people. It was no coincidence that many of them were Jan's former students.

In the period between my graduation and the start of my phd, Jan was my permanent connection with the university. His books published by EPO, along with his contributions to magazines such as SamPol and VMT and the Center for Islam in Europe website, were my gateway to academia. I read and studied them systematically, checked the references and tried to read those articles and books too. The Tilburg Working Papers in Culture Studies introduced me to top academics from all over the world. His commitment to open source publishing and opposition to academic publishing was not only a blessing to academics at less privileged universities but also incredibly useful for people active in civil society.

Both Jan's academic career and his demonstrations as a public intellectual contributed to that better world. His interventions were always didactic in nature. They took the reader, viewer, or student by the hand and showed them things that had remained invisible until Jan spoke. As a teacher he never sought to impress but rather to create students that were able to research and critically analyze society. This is precisely why Jan's scientific and social impact cannot be underestimated.

Jan Blommaert's legacy

Jan Blommaert was without a doubt one of the most important social scientists in Belgium and one of the most renowned sociolinguists. He has published hundreds of peer-reviewed papers. His books have been published by top scientific publishing houses, from Cambridge University Press and Routledge to Bloomsbury. He has given lectures and workshops around the world and has been associated with top universities in Great Britain, the US, China, Finland, South Africa, and the Netherlands. He is also one of our most cited academics.

He combined this academic work with writing dozens of Dutch books and hundreds of analyses on alternative media as well as interviews in the mainstream media. He spoke at hundreds of debates, workshops and lectures for civil society. He was a guest of the unions so often that it was almost as if he worked there. At times it seemed as if twenty Jan Blommaerts were working at once. His role as a public intellectual was very similar to his role as an academic: inform the public and teach people to see. Only if he could inform, and thus co-determine the format in which he spoke, did he accept an invitation, free of charge.

Jan Blommaert is the embodiment of the public intellectual and his life was in service of that ideal. As long as I have known him, he has never taken the easy path.

Jan's legacy is therefore by no means limited to the academic world. He has single-handedly trained many people in civil society - the heart of democracy. When I got the chance to help establish Kif Kif Mediawatch in 2004, every year a new set of volunteers came along who had been trained by him, ready to fuel the anti-racist struggle. You can find Jan's former students in civil society, journalism, civil service, and politics.

Jan Blommaert is the embodiment of the public intellectual and his life was in service of that ideal. As long as I have known him, he has never taken the easy path. He was never the super networker or a man who sweet talks. He was straightforward and thrived on his hard work, quality, determination and persistence. That didn't make him the easiest person, but it did make him honest and principled. That became clear to me when he wanted to supervise my doctorate on the N-VA. I will never forget how he said he was going to work hard to give me the opportunity to write. The rest is up to you, he said. Since my PhD, I have had friend in Jan, someone who both criticized and supported me.

Since 2015 I have had the pleasure of working with him at Tilburg University. For five years we commuted from Belgium to Tilburg. Merxem, 8:15h. he would text me the night before. After picking him up, we discussed our analyzes, shared our incomprehension about the state of our country and the world, criticized the assumptions in journalists' questions and the ubiquitous dilettantism in the public sphere. We discussed unwritten books, research projects and individual ideas. We planned our dream program. We expressed our frustrations, but above all we roared with laughter at regular intervals. There was always the commitment, the drive, and the dedication. There was also the confirmation of his erudition - at times it seemed as if Jan had read everything. That, too, was the duty of the academic.

Jan, the educator

Jan’s work and life is best read as an invitation to lecturers to take on the role of public intellectual and democratic educator. In the acceptance speech for my doctorate, I wrote that in that research, and in all my current and future publications, Jan's voice can be heard. Jan shaped me intellectually and I - and many others - will always be grateful to him for that. I can only hope that other students will bump into such lecturers and that I am such a lecturer to a new generation of students. This essay is an eulogy. Not only for Jan as a public intellectual, but for the academic as public intellectual. The academic who is more than an employee in a diploma factory, but an academic who imagines himself or herself as a cornerstone of democracy. An academic who sees his research, his teaching position and social demonstration as his task, one that should be taken on with care and commitment.

Anyone who works in academia knows that this is not an easy task. We work and in many cases live in an academic world that absorbs us completely, which makes a combination with a social life, let alone a committed life, impossible. The result is that we often decide all too quickly to put that duty in the closet. It is high time for academics to examine the structures that curtail that social role, so that we can once again take up the role of public intellectual to the fullest. Jan's academic life can help us look towards the future, to fight for the place of the public intellectual in society and the university. To oppose our instrumentalization as an efficient producers of degrees and to give ourselves the space to think, investigate and assume our social role. En avant!