Jan Blommaert left us in the early morning of Thursday, January 7. Like many, he was also the victim of the disease called cancer. After a short but intense agony his body broke down. Blommaert turned 59.
Professor Blommaert is well known on the Flemish Left. His commitment ranged from trade union leaders in forgotten villages to visits to strike pickets to his teaching practice. Thousands of tributes from students, trade unionists, nurses, academics... spread like wildfire over social media in recent days. Everyone had a memory of Jan. In this tribute, I focus on Jan's revolutionary struggle, which he himself called knowledge activism.
I got to know Jan as a twenty-year-old student at the department of Africanistics at Ghent University. In the dirty cellar of the Blandijn building, a balding tall man came in wearing a heavy police vest, which lit up one cigarette after another. He pointed at a map of Africa and said "Some people think Africa is a country" while he hung out of the window to continue smoking heavily. As bizarre as that sounded at the time, so real was this statement in the foreign politics and vision of political idiots like Palin and Trump. Years later I met Jan again and travelled after him, first to Finland as a PhD student and then as a fellow researcher and colleague at Tilburg University. One thing remained constant, wherever Jan went, or whoever you talked to about him; he was generous and set up a system of democratic knowledge sharing wherever he went. As a sociolinguist, he was a true rock star, and if you wanted to talk to Jan at a congress or at the office, there were long queues. But those ten minutes you got with him were so inspiring that you could go on for months.
The democratic construction of knowledge was also reflected in his teaching practice.
In recent years, Blommaert has also been overzealous on social media such as Facebook, where he tried to introduce a public 'debate hygiene' by means of ingeniously devised phrases. After his cancer diagnosis, he felt the need to quickly record all kinds of videos on important subjects for his YouTube channel, in order to make sure that unfinished material could be passed on to future generations. This knowledge activism is at the heart of Blommaert's work: he defended 'open access', and you could always find his books first as 'working paper' previews somewhere for free, often to the annoyance of his publishers.
The democratic construction of knowledge was also reflected in his teaching practice. Students were challenged so they had to aim just that little bit higher, but without humiliating them. Students were fellow fighters for the democratic ideal that Jan was trying to realize. The will of the people was also visible in his research. Through the practice of ethnographic monitoring, research subjects were not treated as such, but as real specialists in their own lives. Blommaert was merely the commentator, the collector, the organic theorist, who in a Gramscian manner elevated people from the field to the highest theoretical level. Examples of this are numerous, including his work with African asylum seekers.
And above all, Blommaert was a socialist at heart. In addition to his renowned international work (no Belgian scientist in the humanities was as often quoted internationally as Blommaert), he wrote for his beloved publisher EPO two handfuls of books that made difficult theoretical insights accessible to workers, trade unionists and others at the cutting edge: the same people with whom he towered over the pickets dressed in bear hats and raincoats. Today I commemorate Jan Blommaert's struggle. Rest in peace Jan! Long live socialism and democracy!