Alastair Pennycook is no stranger to agenda setting in applied linguistics, consistently taking a ‘critical perspective’, and highlighting the political dimensions of the discipline in an extensive range of publications (Pennycook 1989, 1999, 2001). In his latest book, he takes on the ambitious project of persuading applied linguists to respond to one of the newer ‘-isms’ currently influencing the social sciences, namely, posthumanism. This is a challenging project because, as he notes, ‘through the idea that it is language that separates humans from non-humans’, linguistics and applied linguistics ‘have played an important role in the maintenance of human exceptionalism’ (p. 38). Thus, a core strand in his argument is a rejection both of human exceptionalist positions and of those conceptions of language that help to sustain them. At the same time, given the lack of much uptake to date in applied linguistics of this philosophical movement, Pennycook is obliged to provide an introduction to the heterogeneous currents of thought that come under the ‘posthumanist’ umbrella, and to argue for his own interpretation of these, including through dialogues with several other perspectives on salient issues. This is a tall order, and it is to his credit that Pennycook largely maintains control over this wide range of topics. To set the scene, the book’s opening chapter anticipates the kinds of questions readers may ask, about why, amid the current turmoil across the planet, we should question the very notion of humanity. It then proceeds to explain how anthropocentrism ‘bedevils our understanding of ourselves’, with reference to several of the core authors and texts that have contributed to posthumanist literature, and to introduce key concepts such as the agency of objects, a focus on networks and assemblages, the implications of technological modifications of biological organisms, extended cognition, and so on. This chapter then provides an initial answer to the question ‘what’s all this got to do with applied linguistics?’ (pp. 10, 13), which leads into a helpful outline of the remainder of the book. Chapter 2 lays out the theoretical antecedents of posthumanism, before introducing the ‘new materialisms’ and the challenge they pose to exaggerated claims about the power of discourse(s). It is also at the end of this chapter that Pennycook separates out, from the complex ‘relations among posthumanism, humanism, religion, science, materialism and the humanities or social sciences’ (p. 38), his own priorities—a focus on ‘the discursive production of humanity’ and how ‘language, humans and our surrounds’ (p. 38) could and should be reconceptualized. Chapter 3 opens with one of the many engaging vignettes with which Pennycook leavens the heavier sections of his text. By way of an account of his experiences of scuba diving off the Australian coast, readers are led into a discussion of ‘resemiotization’ or ‘relocalization’, that is the ‘remaking’, ‘redistributing’, ‘reinscribing’, and ‘reorientating’ of meanings (p. 40), with reference to divers’ experience of the underwater world in all its materiality. This is followed by an argument for the conceptualization of language as distributed, where the ‘challengeable exchanges of everyday life’ constitute ‘semiotic assemblages’ (p. 54). Another aspect of the privileging of the human is tackled in Chapter 4, with an extended discussion of the semiotic affordances of smell, followed by a section on the political significance of the sign languages used in the Deaf community. Both are used to illustrate ‘the human hierarchy of senses’, as contrasted with ‘the capacity of animals to sense through many other means’ (p. 71). This paves the way for Chapter 5, in which summaries of some of the cognitive capacities of non-human species precede a section on the controversies over language as a distinguishing criterion of humanity, and another on pointing as an example of communicative gesture. The author concludes this chapter with a reiteration of his understanding of language as ‘embodied, embedded, enacted and distributed’ (p. 89). Pennycook argues in Chapter 6 that conventional views of language, from Aristotle, through Locke to Saussure, are examples of the ‘telementational fallacy’ (Harris 1981: 9), where communication is understood to be the transmission of ideas from one human head to another via a shared linguistic code. In contrast, he wants to challenge two assumptions: that mutual understanding is the goal of using language; and that ‘understanding is normal, common or complete’ (p. 94). An extended discussion of a ‘metrolingual’ example is used as an illustration of this thesis, which is linked to Pennycook’s posthumanist project through its association with a rejection of Eurocentricity and ethnocentricity. He also advocates positions of ‘alignment’ and ‘attunement’, in preference to ‘mutual understanding’ or ‘intersubjective conformity’, arguing that ‘meaning-making occurs in relational terms rather than in linguistic or cognitive systems’ (p. 106). The penultimate chapter tackles the vexed issue of relationships between language and reality. As elsewhere in this book, Pennycook makes his argument more accessible with specific examples—one of which in this case is a debate in which I was one of the protagonists. He carves a path between the various ontological camps that he identifies as ‘transcendent humanism’ (p. 114), ‘vibrant materialism’ (p. 119), ‘hardline constructionists’ (p. 122), and ‘bland realists’ (p. 124) (I was unclear how ‘blandness’ had crept in), before proposing a ‘critical posthumanist realism’, which is developed in Chapter 8. This begins with a recapitulation of his central arguments, and an acknowledgement that, as Klein (2015) asserts, the damage that humans are doing to the planet can be limited only by ‘forms of collective action based on forms of cooperation far greater than anything capital and state governments can achieve’ (p. 128). He then points to various contemporary trends in applied linguistics that he believes have the potential to converge with the ideas he presents in the book. These include nexus analysis, the new sociolinguistics, linguistic landscapes, ecolinguistics, sociomaterial, and sensory literacies. In conclusion, Pennycook arrives at the notion of ‘an applied linguistic commons’. Another vignette, this time concerning a campaign to protect fig trees in a public area of Sydney, in which he was involved, opens a discussion of the ‘commons’ as an alternative to neoliberalism and a way of combining new and old approaches to materialism. The argument is that the notion of the commons recognizes ‘the need for collective action, concern about the environment, reorientation to the more-than-human world’ (p. 143), and that a critical posthumanist applied linguistics can ‘open up alternative ways of understanding language in relation to people, place, power and possibility’ (p. 144). It will be apparent from the above summary that the book seeks to cover a lot of ground, and this presents some challenges. As the author acknowledges, ‘posthumanism’ is associated with a number of positions, and there is a risk, not entirely avoided in the book, of introducing some parts of many of them at the expense of a thorough exploration of the complexities and implications of any particular interpretation. One example is the use of the term ‘assemblage’, which occurs at various points but invites a more detailed exploration. For Pennycook, the link appears to be with the version of the integrationist theory of language suggested by Cowley (2011), with its emphasis on ‘real-time activity’ (p. 52). Space does not permit a thorough discussion of the issues, but a more consistent acceptance of the concept of emergence and of its relevance, along with ‘territorialisation’, to assemblage theory (as discussed for example in DeLanda 2016: 108–110) might have been useful here. In my view, it is possible to accept both that languaging happens in real time and that these accumulated productions lead to emergent properties that are ‘distinct from the sum of … each … considered alone’ (Bennett 2010: 24, cited on p. 54). Similarly, one can recognize that different languages are not unitary, distinct entities and yet acknowledge the partial success of practices that reify, codify, and separate them. However, used partly as a rejection of the concept of languages as distinct entities, Pennycook’s analysis of an interaction in a ‘French-themed bistro’ in Tokyo is also an implicit rejection of their status as emergent properties. He explains how a particular word used in this interaction is ‘one of those many terms that seem to hover between languages’ (p. 97)—but if there are no languages, how can any terms ‘hover between’ them? He reports that one of the protagonists seems to believe that ‘aka serori is the Japanese for rhubarb (which it isn’t)’ (p. 99)—but does not the identification of this as a misconception rely on just such a concept of ‘Japanese’ as he rejects elsewhere? Several other areas touched on in this book invite further clarification. Pennycook is keen to reject any inference that he self-identifies as a sentimental pet owner, so also leaving under-explored some of the more radical and stimulating ideas emerging from human–animal studies, including, in Despret’s (2013: 29) formulation, the agencements ‘through which creatures of different species become, one for another and one with another, companion-agents’. I think posthumanism also has more far-reaching implications for the discourse analysts among applied linguists than are explored here, since we urgently need to identify how different languages(!) classify, name, describe, and report on the activities of the organic, inorganic, and abstract assemblages that comprise our world, and how they might do so differently (Heuberger 2017). Nevertheless, this book represents a provocative, wide-ranging, and welcome contribution to a necessary dialogue between applied linguists and posthumanist theory. References Bennett J. 2010 . Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things . Duke University Press . Cowley S. J. (ed.) 2011 . Distributed Language . John Benjamins Publishing . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS DeLanda M. 2016 . Assemblage Theory . Edinburgh University Press . Despret V. 2013 . ‘From secret agents to interagency?’ History and Theory , 52 : 29 – 44 . Harris R. 1981 . The Language Myth . Duckworth . Heuberger R. 2017 . ‘Overcoming anthropocentrism with anthropomorphic and physiocentric uses of language?’ in Fill A. , Penz H. (eds): Routledge Handbook of Ecolinguistics . Routledge , pp. 340 – 52 . Klein N. 2015 . This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. the Climate . Simon and Schuster . Pennycook A. 1989 . ‘ The concept of method, interested knowledge, and the politics of language teaching ,’ TESOL Quarterly 23 : 589 – 618 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Pennycook A. 1999 . ‘ Critical approaches to TESOL ’, TESOL Quarterly 33 : 329 – 48 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Pennycook A. 2001 . Critical Applied Linguistics: A Critical Introduction . Lawrence Erlbaum Associates . © Oxford University Press 2018
Applied Linguistics – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 10, 2018
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