Critical Reading: a reply
Introductory notes :For all the reductionist talk that try to depict the current crisis in narrow, simplistic, static, dichotomized views, the turn of events are much more fluid, characterized by inconsistencies, unpredictability, indeterminacies, ambiguities and ambivalences as actors keep on aligning and realigning themselves to gain political favorsmotivated by tactical rather than strategic interests. It has been so complex and dynamic that some dominant discourses are overtaken by other events and lose their appeal in the process: from the Oro-Amara alliance to መደመር then to “ተደሚርናኢና!”, that were chanted in the streets of Asmara at the heights of Abiy-Isais honeymoon. .
The political and security dynamics brought about with them associated narratives that confronts us with such power that they defy our common sense. Given the historically located Amhara-Tor-Serawit, discursive construction, it would be unimaginable for Eritreans fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Amhara-Tor-Serawt. Very recently, a well-choreographed documentary video featuring PFDJ field commanders has been released. In an ironic reversal of roles and to the utter dismay of some Ethiopians, the fetish camaraderie of Halibay, Hadish Efrem and their gang expressed in broken in Amharic, the very language historically associated with the “enemy” in their military lexicon, was received with indignation by a senior Ethiopian journalists. This and related episodes, according to our “justice seeking” compatriots was necessary for the sake of “national security”, and against a common enemy. My learned friend, Beyan may as well dismiss this as “anecdotal”. I invite readers for an interesting analysis by the Ermias Legesse, an Ethiopian senior journalist. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tgzu7P9p3yw)
We are witnessing several curious turn of events. Competing narratives emerged catalyzed by mainly by two factors: fast and significant use of new communication technologies and the fact that thedigital communication is such an unregulated space not lending itself to the kind of traditional interactions we were used to. Despite its affordances, the obvious lack of negotiability element is a complicating factor. This lacuna clearly impacts the process of meaning construction as proponents of various positions waged debate with the aim to monopolize interpretations surrounding the war and its consequences predicated on what counts as “invasion” or “self-defense”, and “war crimes committed” by non-Eritrean or Eritrean army.
It was suggested, “Silence” was the best policy and a sign of magnanimity. Far from being so, “silence” indexes inactivity, indeterminacies, contrary to fundamental tenets of promoting civic life. It practically adds no value towards the building of a coherent national narrative. But, worse are those who are deliberately mudding the waters further. A case in point is the desertion of one movement leader at the margins of the political spectrum that crossed to the PFDJ camp. Uncoincidentally, and to make it more remarkable he did it in a rather ritualistic fashion on the occasion of the 24th of May 2023 at the PFDJ party.
In the current alignments within Eritrean political discursive space, we watched those who had not been part of the war aim, joining the bandwagon of “My Country, Right or Wrong”, on the grounds that it was a war to safeguard our sovereignty. These can be described as new converts preaching the PFDJ gospel and by extension an Eritrean chapter of ProsperityParty. A mere mention of the fact that the Eritrean army went deep into of Ethiopian territory and the immense human suffering it caused is a heresy. The PFDJ and associates have at their stock lots of lexical labelling that are attractively radical and conveniently used in order to silence opponents. This is not to downplay the kind of provocative extremist voices we have been hearing even before and after the crisis. But, we can only pursue one argument at a time in stead of keep on drawing endless moral equivalences. The video documentary mentioned above that was produced in post-Pretoria moments and the timing of its release speaks much about the regional security dynamic in which the Eritrean army figured prominently, an indication that we are not yet out of the vicious cycle of hate propaganda.
Discourses sometimes denote controversy or opposition particularly when actors wage debate with issues surrounding intractable and under-defined concepts such “sovereignty”. They are more than likely to be easily misused when interlocutors compete for “monopoly of meaning” in order that their side of arguments wins. This is what Mehan calls “politics of representation” (Mehan, 1996)
Alternatively, we would normally like to believe that people will write to be believed, to improve, to co-construct and not to demolish, particularly when the stakes are high. In general that being the case, Habermas advises us to guard ourselves from what he termed “systematically distorted communication” (Sealey and Bob 2004: 49-51).
The motivation for writing up this reply is Haw Beyan Negash critiquing my own talk of the 6th of April 2023 at the Sinitna.net on the subject mentioned above. Before delving into replying to Haw Beyan’s cherry picked fault-finding/critiquing of my talk, a few things will need to be in order. Firstly, his arguments need to be put to test if they are premised on correct assumption and authentic representation of what I said. This is because his critiquing misrepresented the spirit and content the 4 hour video. But, it lacked both balance and focus, not even mentioning what could have otherwise been a relevant contribution: making a case for Public Spere.
Secondly, looking into if the concepts and analytical categories that purport to expose the flaws in my statements have actually done what they were meant to do. Finally, it is right to ask if the analysis takes stock from the advances of in CDA, as a method of inquiry in social science in general and linguistic ethnography in particular.
With that caveat, let me address the claims made by Haw Beyan and the ways he had picked on aspects for “critical analysis” i.e. the serious methodological pitfalls that he alleges I succumbed to and failing to consult relevant literature etc.
Haw Beyan’s “assessment/ appraisal” appears to highlight the basic assumption about the connection between discourse, and social structure. On the face of it, he is using critical discourse analysis (CDA) as a method of inquiry that helps see the interplay between social structures as constraining or determining factors versus the individual’s choice or will power. However, the underlying fact that social structure (including structures of repression) and discourse shape each other don’t seem to be clearly spelled out. Readers could have benefited from these seemingly abstract ideas if they were concretized with local examples, given their paramountcy in explaining why actors behave the way they do.
In his rumbling arguments infused with opaque technical terminologies Haw Beyan insinuated the socio-cultural background was the factor explainingthe extent to which the participants remained passive consumers of my talk. Let us check the fact. The record shows that, within the 30+ participants, there were veterans of the armed struggle, politicians, civic society activists, and 5 among them were PhDs. Yes, the participants were overwhelmingly of the same socio-cultural background. But that doesn’t warrant the causality arguments. To claim that these were “echoing” what they made to listen to is to deny they possessed personal agency. They are too intelligent to become cultural dupes of a speaker.
Apparently, the fundamental deficiency of Haw Bayan’s assessment is the lack of link between claim and evidence. He doesn’t seem to recognize the pivotal role of employing the basics of linguistic ethnography, the sine qua non of a of a critical discourse analytical task. For this and the reasons I mentioned in my comments under the third and fourth “instalments”, the writing in fact should itself be subjected to critical reading.
Conceptual and analytical foundations (anecdotal vs empirical)
The image of “two-in-one”, i.e. an “anecdotal self” and an “empirical self”, as if there was an incoherent self with some mild kind of discursive schizophrenea ,is just farfetched, to say the least. These categories may apply at sophomore-level essay writing, but linguistic ethnographers talk in terms of “telling” or “key incidents”. They are key, in that they allow, the analyst with a good sense of the context and knowledge of the community to be researched, to make a “thick analysis”. (Rampton, et al 2014). I must mention here, I have researched “language in social life” in Eritrea and published for more than 20 years. Each time I heavily depended on “key incidents” to generate powerful analysis.
As such, there was no confusion. What I am talking about is speech events, which are “actual”. By that I mean the discourses occur as speech events, whether or not they manifeste themselves at the level of empirical reality but still remain as potential data for analysis. I never claimed the validity of what I said that could be extrapolated to a wider population.
Appeal to Authority
One of the weirdest arguments is his conceptions of causality i.e., cause and effect relationship. He claims reading Venosa, J. (2011) dissertation would have made my “generalized observation” a difference in terms of the “anecdotal vs empirical”. Nevertheless,Venosa’s dissertation, which is available on the internet, cannot be my Bible. I have cited giants from the limited Eritrean scholarship: those who studied Eritrea for decades, directors of research institutions and established academics both local and expats. Rather, without having to sound prescriptive (as Haw Beyan did), I urge him to do his reading on the qualitative methodology to make a robust analysis that would save one from making a priori statements, which are outrightly patronizing.
2. Problem of “Generalizability”
I have to emphasize that I never claimed that my observations could be extrapolated to a wider population. If one prescribes to post-structural and social constructivist epistemology this “generalization”, charge is a non-issue. To study and make observation of community practice across eras, a non-positivist qualitative study is best suited and for particular purpose, linguistic ethnography.
The generalizability charge ironically enough opens Pandora’s Box as Haw Beyan himself succumbed to methodological pitfalls. His attempt at applying rigorous analytical concepts and the extent to which they had helped the “assessor- appraiser” to identify the flaws only speaks to the assessor’s personal bias. The conflation of two concepts i.e., “symbolic violence” and “false-consciousness” (whatever that means in this context) into one frame to paint the pitiable image of the participant’s points to the extent of the subjectivity infused. The portrayal of the 30 zoom participants as helpless creatures that needed some consolation in their moments of sorrow at the demise of the TPLF flouts, the very principle of linguistic ethnography: “Contexts of communication should be investigated rather than assumed”. Instead of grappling with issues at hand and studying the underlying variables, he went for a simple causality claim:
“Bourdieu’s (2000) social theory of “symbolic violence” can help explain how the speaker was able to empower those who felt disempowered in the defeat of TPLF while not explicitly divulging the demise of TPLF”
This is where the critique takes a new turn in terms of substance and tone to arrive at a bizarre assertion. Where is the linguistic data to pinpoint for critical analysis, in line with underlying principles of linguistic ethnography as discussed above? The Amharas have an expression befitting such a toxic soundbite የብሽሽቅ ፖሎቲካ roughly meaning “politics of taunting”.
In the forgoing by way of addressed the major criticism levelled against the presentation. Since the assessor, unforced, chose to take the discussion to higher levels of abstractions, it was reasonable to examine the conceptual foundations of his assessment particularly the scoring guide he employed and whether they served the intended purpose of assessment / appraisal.
My main arguments is that the issues picked and statements arising from supposed analysis from did not accurately reflect the realities of what went on during the discursive event of May 6, 2023. I showed how the analysis was overtly self-assured, so much so that they were more ideological than empirical.
When discourse analysists and historians talk in terms of ideological construction vs empirical details, they are warning us against the dangers of discourses that mediate ideologies i.e. discourse that carry beliefs, wishes, attitudes and expectations. Incidentally, the socio-cultural explanation offered is typical to this fact.
The title of fourth instalment posing a rhetorical question “Can Eritreans have A Genuine Dialogue? (June 25, 2023), may serve as a springboard for further discussion. Surely, but only if they engage in rational-critical discourse that is evidence based. In my answer to the question posed, I also have to reiterate, without resorting to ad hominem attacks “we should mean what we say”. To have a genuine dialogue will require us to be rational. Otherwise, the kind of familiar hegemonic nationalist narrative only help to antagonize, polarize or even radicalize “the other”. Besides, they preclude the much more important ideals from being addressed.
Deconstruction calls for coming into terms with our past as we move on to an uncertain future. Eritrea is sitting in one of the most volatile regions, two big polities are between fragile and failed states status, the monopoly of violence no more in the grip of the central governments. These new realities might require us to adopt new paradigms. In current peace and security dynamic, among others things, issue of human security should receive primacy. It is wise to ask how the acts of others affect our security; likewise how our acts affect the security of others.
Finally, I must restate what I indicated at the beginning, we cannot have a genuine dialogue if we do not cease from forcing our interlocutor to subscribe to our own ideologically motivated narrow view instead of on the broader context of the current crisis. In addition, co-construction of coherent narratives can happen in Public Spheres, stimulated by informed and knowledge based discourses.
A Sealey, B Carter – 2004. Applied Linguistics as Social Science. Continuum.
Mehan, Huge. 1996. The Construction of an LD Student: ACase Study in the Politics of Representation. In Silverstein, Michael and Urban Greg (Eds). Natural Histories of Discourse. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Trappes-Lomax, 2004. Discourse Analysis. In Allan Davies and Catherine Elder. The Handbook of Applied Linguistics.
Rampton, Maybin, J. Roberts, C. 2014.Theory and Methods in Linguistic Ethnography. In In Julia Snell, Fiona Copland, and Sara Shaw (Editors). Linguistic Ethnography: Interdisciplinary Explorations. Palgrave.