Language Management/Labor

Bonnie Urciuoli and Chaise LaDousa
Anthropology Department, Hamilton College, Clinton, New York 13323;

First published online as a Review in Advance on
July 24, 2013

This article’s doi:
How language is conceptualized as labor is a function of the economy
within which profits are made and businesses are structured. Under capitalist
regimes, language practices have been conceptualized as apart from
labor, as part of the means of production, and as the product. Under neoliberal
regimes and conditions of globalization, and depending on the language
worker’s job description and status as managed or managing, ethnicity/race,
gender, and affiliation with national or nonnational language practices are
conceptualized as skills subject to Taylorization, as natural abilities for employers’
occasional use, or as indexes of authenticity. What ties all this together
is how language workers are imagined in relation to the organizations
for which they work, a key element being the degree to which language labor
represents an internalization of the organization. In this way, language labor
is conceptualized in relation to agency as a technology of self.

sociolinguistics, agency, capitalism, neoliberalism

Register: a language variety specific to a set
of social actors engaged in some
defining form of interaction (social,
occupational, etc.)

Enregisterment: the process by which
registers continually develop from
preexisting registers

general semiotic (interpretive)
principles organizing specific acts of cultural
action and interpretation

As any good Marxist knows, what counts as labor is the place of work in an economic order. Under
capitalism, workers exchange their labor for wages. In an earlier capitalism, wage labor generally
went into the production of material goods, which were sold as commodities. Work, then, was
generally thought of as physical labor and commodities as material goods. Under contemporary
conditions of capitalism [or late capitalism or, after Harvey (1989), post-Fordism], the work may
take the form of (rather stylized) interactive linguistic practices, as might the commodities. The
difference lies in whether those practices are imagined as an act of communication emerging
from social relations or imagined as what Cameron (2000a) calls communication skills, a form of
linguistic capital (Bourdieu 1991, Irvine 1989) valued in relation to its workplace utility (making
such knowledge a specialized instance of cultural capital). In short, whether linguistic practices
are social interaction or job skills depends on whether they are performed as labor and the extent of the speaker’s agency in their production. Insofar as people sell their labor power, and insofaras the value of their labor power depends on their knowledge of particular linguistic practices,
such practices become commodified (Heller 2010a,b; Heller & Duchˆene 2012, Duchˆene et al.
2013b). The commodification of language as labor, like other dimensions of the commodification
of language, is nested firmly in the conditions of contemporary neoliberal capitalism (Harvey 2005)
that structure the places and options available to workers. Language as neoliberal labor further
presupposes the reimagining of the person of the worker as an assemblage of commodifiable elements, i.e., a bundle of skills (Urciuoli 2008).
Language as a form of labor (like language as commodity) has material dimensions (Shankar
& Cavanaugh 2012, pp. 360–62). If people are paid for language work, what constitutes work is
likely to be objectified, especially when such work is considered a skill set subject to monitoring
and assessment. Linguistic practice as a form of cultural capital is convertible to economic capital: People get paid for doing it. If they get paid for doing it under conditions that demonstrate an
authentic or classy performance, their linguistic practices accumulate symbolic capital that can
further maximize the conversion to economic capital (Bourdieu 1986). Recent work on branding
(Moore 2003, Foster 2007, Meneley 2007, Manning 2010) examines the discursive work involved
in the provision of market value to commodities, a process in which semiotic and material value are
interdependent (Kockelman 2006). Comparable semiotic work is also evident in the production
of discursive constructions of experience, especially touristic experiences of ethnic authenticity,
a business in which it is advantageous to interpret linguistic elements iconically and to erase
variability (Irvine & Gal 2000).
People experience language practices as registers, as co-occurring linguistic elements and
patterns, as participant structures and roles, and as social ends in which they operate. Thus, speakers
participate in continual processes of register formation, i.e., enregisterment (Silverstein 2003a,
Agha 2007). Although particular performance elements—a turn of phrase or vocal inflection—
might seem like those of ordinary conversation, in a neoliberal regime of language work they
might be enregistered with other elements distinct to and connected with specific work settings
and goals and interests. In this way, such elements can index the processes by which they have
been scripted for situations or conditions of profit-maximizing use. Language work, particularly
in neoliberal regimes, presupposes the channeling of employee sociality and (in varying degrees)
subjectivity into company interests. Employees thus operate in work-specific (and neoliberally
governed) regimes of metasemiotic regimentation: “metamessages delimiting the range of possible
interpretations, but which do so indirectly, implicitly, or inductively. The regimentation found
in these contexts is all the more powerful because social actors are not confronted with explicit
metasemiotic forms” (Parmentier 1994, p. 134, after Silverstein 1993). Insofar as discursive activity

in such regimes is continually guided by (generally profit-oriented) metamessages, it participates
in metacultural shift, the accelerated circulation of metasemiotic regimes into social spaces where
they were not previously found (Urban 2001). In this process, linguistic elements are guided
toward new patterns of standardization, specific to the enregisterment processes under which they
Gal (2012) outlines the ways that language ideologies mediate neoliberal conditions, producing
metamessages about how to use language to what end: Whereas use patterns and valued forms may
have changed, the metamessages channeling use and value grow from language ideologies rooted
in those of modernity (Bauman & Briggs 2003). Efficiency and productivity are notions central to
modernity. Much design of language performance, as for call center workers, is oriented to that
end. Standardizations of language work involve considerable entextualization (Silverstein&Urban
1996) of performance scripts, manuals, source books, websites, etc. The dominant metamessages
underlying standardized literacy practices, particularly in the United States, have been utilitarian
efficiency, self-improvement, and a striving for perfect communication (Heath 1983, Peters 1999,
Collins & Blot 2003), all of which are coherent with the American ideology that language forms
should be clean and clear of impurities to best channel meaning (Silverstein 1996).

Much of the literature on language labor has emerged within a larger critique of labor under contemporary
capitalist regimes of production surveillance and quality control. Neoliberal discourses
about workers as entrepreneurial bundles of skills reflect assumptions that good workers internalize
organizational values. The language work itself reflects pervasive ideologies of language and
nation, linguistic purity, ethnic authenticity, and the primacy of standardization and referentiality
as the basis of good communication. Just as laborers who do this work are conceptualized in ways
quite distinct from actual human beings, the language work itself is conceptualized as forms and
practices that are, in fundamental ways, the opposite of actual living language.

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