Language socialization across borders: Producing scalar subjectivities through material-affective semiosis

Lynnette Arnold

Abstract

Recent scholarship on language use has developed a resurgent interest in the complex interrelationship of language and materiality; given its longstanding investigation of both non-verbal communication and political economy, language socialization research is well-positioned to make important contributions to this investigation of language materiality. This paper advances such a project by demonstrating how the discursive processes of language socialization make the material affectively meaningful. Through an exploration of prompting interactions in cross-border conversations within transnational Salvadoran families, the paper elucidates how processes of material-affective semiosis produce subject positions that are made normative for some individuals, in this case, differentiating between migrant and non-migrant kin. Drawing out the role of materiality in such processes thus reveals how language socialization functions as a scale-making resource that turns the inequalities of transnational migration into constitutive features of family life.

Keywords:
Publication history
Table of contents

1.Materiality in language socialization

In recent years, linguistic anthropological scholarship has increasingly challenged the presumed separation between discourse and materiality inscribed in Saussurean models of language. Building on Marxist-inspired work in literary and cultural studies, one strand of this scholarship has emphasized value, focusing on the role of language in political-economic systems (Gal 1989Gal, S. 1989 “Language and Political Economy.” Annual Review of Anthropology 18: 345–367. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Irvine 1989Irvine, J. T. 1989 “When Talk Isn’t Cheap: Language and Political Economy.” American Ethnologist 16 (2): 248–267. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Urciuoli 1995Urciuoli, Bonnie 1995 “Language and Borders.” Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 525–546. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Woolard 1985Woolard, Kathryn A. 1985 “Language Variation and Cultural Hegemony: Toward an Integration of Sociolinguistic and Social Theory.” American Ethnologist 12: 738–48. CrossrefGoogle Scholar); a second strand has taken a semiotic approach, exploring how the material is both produced by and productive of meaning (Keane 2003Keane, Webb 2003 “Semiotics and the Social Analysis of Material Things.” Language & Communication 23 (3–4): 409–25. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Kockelman 2006Kockelman, Paul 2006 “A Semiotic Ontology of the Commodity.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 16 (1): 76–102. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 2013 2013Agent, Person, Subject, Self: A Theory of Ontology, Interaction, and Infrastructure. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar; Lee 1997Lee, Benjamin 1997Talking Heads: Language, Metalanguage, and the Semiotics of Subjectivity. Durham: Duke University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Manning 2012Manning, Paul 2012The Semiotics of Drink and Drinking. London : New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.Google Scholar). Shankar and Cavanaugh suggest that these two bodies of work can be productively unified in a “language materiality” framework in which materiality is understood broadly as “the state or quality of being material, embedded within and taking meaning and value from sociocultural and political-economic structures and processes” (2012Shankar, Shalini, and Jillian Cavanaugh 2012 “Language and Materiality in Global Capitalism.” Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (1): 355–69. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 356). Such an approach is particularly useful to understanding the role of language in today’s globalized world, characterized as it is by new forms of commodification and circulation (McElhinny 2007McElhinny, Bonnie S. ed. 2007Words, Worlds, and Material Girls: Language, Gender, Globalization. Language, Power and Social Process 19. New York: Mouton de Gruyter. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Urciuoli and LaDousa 2013Urciuoli, Bonnie, and Chaise LaDousa 2013 “Language Management/Labor.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (1): 175–90. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Cavanaugh and Shankar 2014Cavanaugh, Jillian R., and Shalini Shankar 2014 “Language, Materiality, and Value: Producing Authenticity in Global Capitalism.” American Anthropologist 116 (1): 51–64. CrossrefGoogle Scholar).

Language socialization research is well positioned to make important contributions to this broad exploration of language materiality. Early language socialization research, such as Schieffelin’s foundational work (1990Schieffelin, Bambi B. 1990The Give and Take of Everyday Life: Language Socialization of Kaluli Children. Tucson, AZ: Fenestra Books.Google Scholar), highlighted political economic considerations; this attention to the communicative work that reproduces political economic relations has continued in scholarship on food exchanges (for a recent review see Karrebæk, Riley, and Cavanaugh 2018Karrebæk, Martha Sif, Kathleen C. Riley, and Jillian R. Cavanaugh 2018 “Food and Language: Production, Consumption, and Circulation of Meaning and Value.” Annual Review of Anthropology 47 (1): 17–32. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). In addition, this approach has been shown to productively illuminate recent interest in the production of subjectivities, which conceptualizes the verbal routines of language socialization as Foucauldian technologies of the self that constitute particular subject positions and make them more or less desirable to particular individuals (Fader 2009Fader, Ayala 2009Mitzvah Girls: Bringing up the next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. Princeton: Princeton University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 2011 2011 “Language Socialization and Morality.” In The Handbook of Language Socialization, edited by Alessandro Duranti, Elinor Ochs, and Bambi Schieffelin, 322–40. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Kulick and Schieffelin 2004Kulick, Don, and Bambi B. Schieffelin 2004 “Language Socialization.” In A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, edited by Alessandro Duranti, 349–368. Malden, MA: Blackwell.Google Scholar; Smith and Thompson 2016Smith, Benjamin, and Gregory A. Thompson 2016 “Semiosis, Temporality, Self-Fashioning: An Introduction.” Language & Communication 46 (January): 14–18. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). For example, Senegalese children’s participation in the semiotic negotiations that shape material exchange practices are linked to asymmetrical but complementary subject positions defined in terms of caste and gender (Yount-André 2016Yount-André, Chelsie 2016 “Snack Sharing and the Moral Metalanguage of Exchange: Children’s Reproduction of Rank-Based Redistribution in Senegal.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 26 (1): 41–61. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Age-graded subjectivity can also be produced through political-economic relations, as shown by Berman (2014)Berman, Elise 2014 “Negotiating Age: Direct Speech and the Sociolinguistic Production of Childhood in the Marshall Islands.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 24 (2): 109–32. CrossrefGoogle Scholar who demonstrates that the social status of Marshallese children as children (rather than adults) is constituted in part by the expectation (and practice) that they violate the norms of material exchange.

In addition to such political economic research, language socialization scholarship has also long explored the importance of non-verbal semiotic resources both as tools for socialization and as the objects of socialization. For instance, particular built environments create communicative affordances and inhibitions that shape socialization (Ochs and Schieffelin 2012 2012 “The Theory of Language Socialization.” In The Handbook of Language Socialization, edited by Alessandro Duranti, Elinor Ochs, and Bambi B. Schieffelin, 1–21. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar), as do the embodied configurations in which infants are habitually carried (De León 2011 2011 “Language Socialization and Multiparty Participation Frameworks.” In The Handbook of Language Socialization, edited by Alessandro Duranti, Elinor Ochs, and Bambi Schieffelin, 81–111. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Non-verbal actions also play important roles in the socialization of both children (Goodwin 2006Goodwin, Marjorie Harness 2006The Hidden Life of Girls: Games of Stance, Status, and Exclusion. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 2015 2015 “Care-Full Look at Language, Gender, and Embodied Intimacy.” In Shifting Visions: Gender and Discourses, edited by Allyson Julé, 27–48. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.Google Scholar) and adults (Arnold 2012Arnold, Lynnette 2012 “Reproducing Actions, Reproducing Power: Local Ideologies and Everyday Practices of Participation at a California Community Bike Shop.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 22 (3): 137–58. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Extending this historical focus and arguing for a more prominent role for material objects in language socialization, Smith (2016) 2016 “Turning Language Socialization Ontological: Material Things and the Semiotics of Scaling Time in Peruvian Aymara Boyhood.” Language & Communication 46 (January): 42–50. CrossrefGoogle Scholar contends that artefacts such as the marbles and pastureland playing fields of Aymara boys in Peru may come to act as socializing agents in their own right through semiotic processes in which materiality is not only construed as meaningful but itself becomes a resource for producing meaning.

This paper takes up Smith’s call to expanding our understanding of how material objects participate in processes of language socialization, situating this semiotic approach within a broader political economic approach to materiality. I draw attention to how the discursive practices of language socialization interweave materiality and affect, another topic of longstanding interest in the field (Ahn 2016Ahn, Junehui 2016 “ ‘Don’t Cry, You’re Not a Baby!’: Emotion, Role and Hierarchy in Korean Language Socialisation Practice.” Children & Society 30 (1): 12–24. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Goodwin, Cekaite, and Goodwin 2012Goodwin, Marjorie Harness, Asta Cekaite, and Charles Goodwin 2012 “Emotion as Stance.” In Emotion in Interaction, edited by Marja-Leena Sorjonen and Anssi Peräkylä, 16–41. New York: Oxford University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Paugh 2014Paugh, Amy L. 2014Playing with Languages: Children and Change in a Caribbean Village. 1. pbk. ed. New York: Berghahn Books.Google Scholar; Schieffelin and Ochs 1986Schieffelin, Bambi B., and Elinor Ochs 1986 “Language Socialization.” Annual Review of Anthropology 15 (1): 163–91. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Rather than exploring affect as a distinct phenomenon, however, I examine processes of material-affective semiosis in which affective orientations to others are materialized and in turn, material objects take on affective meaning. The analysis presented here demonstrates that close attention to the particular communicative enactment of material-affective semiosis reveals how such orientations are constitutive of particular subjectivities. Through language socialization, specific subject positions are made normatively inhabitable for some individuals, while being proscribed for others. As demonstrated by the research of Yount-André and Berman, the discursive constitution of such subjectivities inevitably positions them vis-à-vis other locally available positions.

By revealing such systems of interlocking and asymmetrical subjectivities, attention to material-affective semiosis opens up insights into how mundane communication participates in social reproduction, or “the array of activities and relationships involved in maintaining people both on a daily basis and intergenerationally” (Nakano Glenn 1992Nakano Glenn, Evelyn 1992 “From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of Paid Reproductive Labor.” Signs 18: 1–43. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 1). Although such carework produces the subjectivities and social capital necessary for capitalist accumulation, capitalism systematically un(der)remunerates carework and pushes those who provide care – often women and people of color – to the margins of the global political-economy (Folbre 2014Folbre, Nancy 2014 “Who Cares? A Feminist Critique of the Care Economy.” New York, N.Y.: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.Google Scholar; Fraser 2016Fraser, Nancy 2016 “Contradictions of Capital and Care.” New Left Review 100 (August).Google Scholar). In the face of this devalorization, feminist scholarship has long argued for the fundamental role of social reproduction within political economic systems (see recent perspectives in Bhattacharya 2017Bhattacharya, Tithi ed. 2017Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. First published. London: Pluto Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). The analysis presented here supports these claims by elucidating how mundane communication, understood as communicative acts of care (Arnold forthcoming a), enmeshes affective labor and political economic relations. Utilizing language socialization as a framework that elucidates the discursive production of marginalization within political economic systems (García-Sánchez 2016García-Sánchez, Immaculada M. 2016 “Language Socialization and Marginalization.” In The Routledge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology, edited by Nancy Bonvillain, 159–74. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar), I demonstrate how cross-border language socialization in multigenerational extended families living stretched between El Salvador and the United States is simultaneously produced by and reproduces global inequalities between North and South.

2.Language socialization, care, and transnational migration

Studies of language socialization in contexts of migration have shown it to be a particularly productive site for examining the discursive constitution of both marginalization and resistance. Research with immigrant communities has demonstrated how the language socialization paradigm allows scholars to “more comprehensively examine processes and practices of continuity and identification, as well as discontinuity and dis-identification” (Baquedano-Lopez and Mangual Figueroa 2012Baquedano-Lopez, Patricia, and Ariana Mangual Figueroa 2012 “Language Socialization and Immigration.” In The Handbook of Language Socialization, edited by E. Ochs, B. B. Schieffelin, and Alessandro Duranti, 493–514. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.Google Scholar, 536). Through language socialization, immigrant communities negotiate belonging in multiple communities, navigating contradictions and ideological tensions between diasporic heritage identities and belonging in their receiving societies (García Sánchez and Nazimova 2017García Sánchez, Immaculada, and Kristina Nazimova 2017 “Language Socialization and Immigration in Europe.” In Language Socialization, Vol 8. Encyclopedia of Language and Education, edited by Patricia A. Duff and Stephen May, 441–56. New York, N.Y.: Springer International Publishing.Google Scholar; Reynolds and Chun 2013Reynolds, Jennifer F., and Elaine W. Chun 2013 “Figuring Youth Citizenship: Communicative Practices Mediating the Cultural Politics of Citizenship and Age.” Language & Communication, Figuring Citizenship: Communicative Practices Mediating the Cultural Politics of Citizenship Age, 33 (4, Part B): 473–80. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Language socialization demonstrates how discursive processes come to have consequential outcomes for the position of individuals, families, and communities within political economic systems and migration regimes (Gallo 2014Gallo, Sarah 2014 “The Effects of Gendered Immigration Enforcement on Middle Childhood and Schooling.” American Educational Research Journal 51 (3): 473–504. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Mangual Figueroa 2013 2013 “¡Hay Que Hablar!: Testimonio in the Everyday Lives of Migrant Mothers.” Language & Communication, Figuring Citizenship:Communicative Practices Mediating the Cultural Politics of Citizenship Age, 33 (4, Part B): 559–72. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Moreover, through everyday language socialization, children and other newcomers learn about the political-economic conditions of migrant life; in such encounters, for instance, families and children work out the meanings of juridical categories of citizenship and the implications of differing forms of legalized exclusion (Mangual Figueroa 2012Mangual Figueroa, Ariana 2012 “ ‘I Have Papers So I Can Go Anywhere!’: Everyday Talk About Citizenship in a Mixed-Status Mexican Family.” Journal of Language, Identity & Education 11 (5): 291–311. CrossrefGoogle Scholar).

Such research reveals how language socialization functions as a discursive form of scale-making (Carr and Lempert 2016Carr, E. Summerson, and Michael Lempert eds. 2016Scale: Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life. Oakland, California: University of California Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar); questioning pre-given scalar hierarchies, this approach examines how semiotic processes produce relationships between scales, such that some are presumed to be of a higher order and thus more significant than others. The scholarship on language socialization in contexts of migration demonstrates how these practices scale up the presumably intimate domain of family life even as seemingly large-scale political economic regimes are scaled down, producing kin ties indelibly permeated with the global inequalities that drive regimes of (im)mobility. Moments of language socialization in contexts of migration can thus only be fully understood through perspectives that are open to their scalar effects, and it is just such a perspective that is advanced in the analysis presented here.

While most existing scholarship on language socialization in contexts of migration focuses on co-present immigrant households, this article explores cross-border language socialization in technologically mediated conversations between migrants in the global North and their non-migrant relatives in the global South. Due to political-economic policies that limit visas to workers without dependents or necessitate dangerous unauthorized migration, such transnational families are often forced to sustain their relationships across borders for years at a time with no face-to-face contact. Moreover, for such families, migration is not a one-time event but rather an ongoing process that often involves not only the migration of new generations, but also changes in individuals’ migration status that impact their ability to work, to access education, and to travel. Such changes have implications for how individuals are able to participate in the work of family care across borders; thus, the current global resurgence of xenophobic rhetoric and anti-immigrant policies places increasing strain on the social reproduction of transnational families.

Nevertheless, research with cross-border families in a range of contexts has demonstrated the wealth of strategies these kin networks develop to enact multidirectional forms of care across borders (e.g. contributions to Baldassar and Merla 2013Baldassar, Loretta, and Laura Merla eds. 2013Transnational Families, Migration and the Circulation of Care: Understanding Mobility and Absence in Family Life. Routledge Research in Transnationalism 29. New York: Routledge. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Increasingly, this scholarship has drawn attention to the importance of technologically mediated communication for sustaining social reproduction in transnational families (e.g. Benítez 2012Benítez, José Luis 2012 “Salvadoran Transnational Families: ICT and Communication Practices in the Network Society.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 38 (9): 1439–49. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Mahler 2001Mahler, Sarah J. 2001 “Transnational Relationships: The Struggle to Communicate across Borders.” Identities 7: 583–619. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Madianou 2012Madianou, Mirca 2012 “Migration and the Accentuated Ambivalence of Motherhood: The Role of ICTs in Filipino Transnational Families.” Global Networks 12 (3): 277–95. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Wilding 2006Wilding, R. 2006 “ ‘Virtual’Intimacies? Families Communicating across Transnational Contexts.” Global Networks 6 (2): 125–142. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). However, because such work relies largely on interviews and participant observation, it is often not able to describe the specific communicative practices enacted in these conversations (though see Francisco-Menchavez 2018Francisco-Menchavez, Valerie 2018The Labor of Care: Filipina Migrants and Transnational Families in the Digital Age. Asian American Experience. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar; Inoue 2012Inoue, Chiho Sunakawa 2012 “Virtual ‘Ie’ Household: Transnational Family Interactions in Japan and the United States.” Unpublished Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin.Google Scholar). Attending closely to the precise communicative labor enacted in such conversations is crucial under the ever-more restrictive regimes of (im)mobility that structure the lives of transnational families today; for many, the material and affective work of kin care is managed largely through transnational communication, which becomes the primary means by which families meet increasing political-economic, ideological, and discursive threats to their continued survival.

Transnational communication should thus a be understood as a key transfronterizo (cross-border) practice, a lifeway that has emerged out of continued encounters with borders and crossings (Fránquiz and Ortiz 2017Fránquiz, María E., and Alba A. Ortiz 2017 “Co-Editors’ Introduction: Who Are the Transfronterizos and What Can We Learn from Them?Bilingual Research Journal 40 (2): 111–15. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Zentella 2016Zentella, Ana Celia 2016 “ ‘Socials,’ ‘Poch@s,’ ‘Normals’ y Los Demas: School Networks and Linguistic Capital of High School Students on the Tijuana-San Diego Border.” In Raciolinguistics, edited by H. Samy Alim, John R. Rickford, and Arnetha F. Ball, 327–46. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Through cross-border talk, kin work out how to manage the everyday concerns of family life, providing housing, food, clothing, education, and health care to the members in both countries; in addition, and often simultaneously, these conversations provide the primary venue through which transnational families can connect, re-working and sustaining their affective ties to one another. Language socialization participates fully in these forms of care-work, allowing families to manage not only common lifecycle transitions in which children are born and grow up, new partnerships are formed, and elders pass away, but also to navigate the changes that migration introduces and the challenges it presents for social reproduction. To fully grapple with the implications of transnational talk for social reproduction under these conditions, the grounded approach offered by the language socialization paradigm is productive, shedding light as it does on the concrete communicative and semiotic practices through which change and continuity are both managed and produced.

3.Prompting in transnational Salvadoran families

The families in this study participate in a well-worn migration pathway produced and reinforced by a long history of U.S. involvement in Central America. Interventionist U.S. policies during the Cold War destabilized the region, leading to an exodus of Salvadorans who sought to escape violence by traveling North. Since that time, the United States has pushed neoliberal economic policies that have undermined rural livelihoods in the region, thereby encouraging continued emigration (Velasquez Carillo 2010Velasquez Carillo, Carlos 2010 “The Neoliberal Oligarchic Consolidation in El Salvador: Origins, Impacts, and Challenges for the FMLN.” In NALACS 2010 Annual Conference “Latin America And the Caribbean: Beyond Neoliberalism?” University of Groningen, Netherlands. https://​www​.academia​.edu​/818780​/_The​_Neoliberal​_Oligarchic​_Consolidation​_in​_El​_Salvador​_Origins​_Impacts​_and​_Challenges​_for​_the​_FMLN_). At the same time, U.S. immigration policy has consistently denied Salvadorans the opportunity for authorized migration, resulting in a high percentage of undocumented individuals and mixed-status families among the Salvadoran immigrant community (U.S. Census Bureau 2012U.S. Census Bureau 2012 “A Statistical Abstract of the United States: Population.” U.S. Census Bureau. http://​www​.census​.gov​/compendia​/statab​/2012edition​.html). Continuing instability and poverty within Central America has fueled widespread violence and impelled yet another generation of Salvadorans to flee home (Varela 2014Varela, Julio Ricardo 2014 “Humanitarian Crisis of Migrant Children Confirms US Failure in Central America.” Latino Rebels (blog). June 7 2014 https://​tinyurl​.com​/yd55w2rr). Arriving in the U.S. in search of safety, these newest migrants instead encounter xenophobic rhetoric that portrays all Salvadoran migrants as dangerous gang members; this dehumanizing discourse has fueled increasing enforcement, detention, and mistreatment that further marginalize undocumented migrants.

This national history is reflected in the lives of the families in my study who first became transnational in the early 2000’s, when young men – seen as the best breadwinners – traveled North without documentation. In the intervening decade, these migrant sons continued to send remittances to their relatives back home, even as they established nuclear families in the United States. Their migration coincided with the advent of cell phone technology in rural areas that had never been reached by land lines, and this new communication infrastructure facilitated continued connection between migrants and their relatives back home in ways that were more difficult for previous generations of migrants. Since 2014, these established migrants have been joined by young people who migrated North to flee being forcibly recruited to participate in increasing violence. These youth have become part of the transnational economies of their extended families, finding work and participating in the sending of remittances upon which their families in El Salvador rely for survival. The inequality that characterizes international relations between the United States and El Salvador is echoed within families (Dick and Arnold 2018Dick, Hilary Parsons, and Lynnette Arnold 2018From South to North and back again: Making and blurring boundaries in conversations across borders. Language & Communication 59:17–27. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) in the sustained economic asymmetries between migrant bread-winners and their non-migrant, financially dependent kin.

I first came to know these families before they became transnational, when I lived and worked in their village as a volunteer with gender development and youth engagement programs. During this time, I learned the Spanish spoken in this rural village, gaining the communicative competence necessary to conduct my research. Moreover, my fifteen-year relationship with these families made possible this intimate investigation, which involved not only ethnographic interviews and participant observation in everyday family life, but also recordings of mundane family conversations. These recordings were collected using collaborative methods (Chevalier and Buckles 2013Chevalier, Jacques M., and Daniel Buckles 2013Participatory Action Research: Theory and Methods for Engaged Inquiry. New York: Routledge. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) that aimed to protect the intimacy of the conversations. I collaborated with family research assistants, who were trained in the use of the recording technology and provided with a small monthly stipend; these individuals then decided which interactions to record and which recordings to pass along to me. Most of the recorded conversations were serially dyadic, consisting of a string of two-person conversations between migrant and non-migrant family members. Here, however, I examine cases where this technologically shaped norm temporarily gives way to multiparty interaction when a third person, co-present to one of the interlocutors in the phone call, is incorporated into the cross-border conversation.

All of the multiparty transnational interaction in my data involves prompting, or instances in which one person tells another what to say. Prompting is a widespread practice by which adults socialize children into valued communicative competencies (e.g.; Bhimji 2005Bhimji, Fazila 2005 “Language Socialization with Directives in Two Mexican Immigrant Families in South Central Los Angeles.” In Building on Strength: Language and Literacy in Latino Families and Communities, edited by Ana Celia Zentella, 60–76. New York: Teachers College Press.Google Scholar; Demuth 1986Demuth, Katherine 1986 “Prompting Routines in the Language Socialization of Basotho Children.” In Language Socialization across Cultures, edited by Bambi B. Schieffelin and Elinor Ochs, 51–79. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar; De León 1998De León, Lourdes 1998 “The Emergent Participant: Interactive Patterns in the Socialization of Tzotzil (Mayan) Infants.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 8 (2): 131–161. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Iwamura 1980Iwamura, Susan Grohs 1980The Verbal Games of Pre-School Children. London: Croom Helm.Google Scholar). Part of what makes prompting a canonical language socialization routine is its reliance on repetition, which helps children identify key communicative practices (Schieffelin and Ochs 1986Schieffelin, Bambi B., and Elinor Ochs 1986 “Language Socialization.” Annual Review of Anthropology 15 (1): 163–91. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) while also encouraging creativity (Duranti and Black 2012Duranti, Alessandro, and Steven P. Black 2012 “Language Socialization and Verbal Improvisation.” In The Handbook of Language Socialization, edited by Alessandro Duranti, Elinor Ochs, and Bambi B. Schieffelin, 443–63. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar). Examining prompts can reveal ideologies about what kind of speech is important and must be taught, as opposed to that which children are assumed to learn spontaneously (Moore 2012Moore, Leslie 2012 “Language Socialization and Repetition.” In The Handbook of Language Socialization, edited by Alessandro Duranti, Elinor Ochs, and Bambi B. Schieffelin, 209–26. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar). Nevertheless, although prompting seems to be an overtly pedagogical form of language socialization, prompts are always produced as part of ongoing interaction and thus have broader functions such as facilitating teasing routines (Moore 2012Moore, Leslie 2012 “Language Socialization and Repetition.” In The Handbook of Language Socialization, edited by Alessandro Duranti, Elinor Ochs, and Bambi B. Schieffelin, 209–26. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar) or managing awkward situations (Miller 1982Miller, Peggy J. 1982Amy, Wendy, and Beth: Learning Language in South Baltimore. Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar). The multifunctionality of prompting is due in part to the fact that such interactions tend to be triadic, involving the prompter, the child prompted, and a third party whom the child is encouraged to address as their recipient (Field 2001Field, Margaret 2001 “Triadic Directives in Navajo Language Socialization.” Language in Society 30 (02): 249–263. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Pfeiler 2007Pfeiler, Bárbara 2007 “ ‘Lo Oye, Lo Repite y Lo Piensa.’ The Contribution of Prompting to the Socialization and Language Acquisition in Yukatek Maya Toddlers.” Learning Indigenous Languages: Child Language Acquisition in Mesoamerica 33: 183–202.Google Scholar). At the very least, therefore, the modeled utterance must be understood as designed as much for its intended recipient as for the child it aims to prompt (Ochs and Schieffelin 1982Ochs, Elinor, and Bambi B. Schieffelin 1982 “Language Acquisition and Socialization: Three Developmental Stories.” Sociolinguistic Working Paper 105. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.Google Scholar). Because of its prominence in multi-party interaction, prompting teaches children about who can say what to whom, in what setting, and to what ends (De León 2011 2011 “Language Socialization and Multiparty Participation Frameworks.” In The Handbook of Language Socialization, edited by Alessandro Duranti, Elinor Ochs, and Bambi Schieffelin, 81–111. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell. CrossrefGoogle Scholar).

Prompting can therefore be considered a form of metacultural positioning (Smith 2012Smith, Benjamin 2012 “Language and the Frontiers of the Human: Aymara Animal-Oriented Interjections and the Mediation of Mind.” American Ethnologist 39 (2): 313–24. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) through which claims are staked as to the normativity of particular ways of acting, being, thinking, talking, and feeling. For the transnational families in this study, prompting in multiparty cross-border interaction is utilized to constitute particular material exchanges and associated communicative practices as normatively enacting care across borders. In the analysis that follows, I demonstrate how this communicative production of care is accomplished through particular forms of material-affective semiosis that create particular subject positions and make them differentially available for individuals to inhabit; distinctions between migrants and non-migrants emerge as particularly salient in this context of transnational language socialization. Prompting routines socialize both migrants and non-migrants into the forms of material-affective semiosis seen as normative for their particular subject positions. In so doing, this material-affective semiosis sets up a fractally recursive relationship between global North and South and the normative subjectivities of migrants and non-migrants (Dick and Arnold 2018Dick, Hilary Parsons, and Lynnette Arnold 2018From South to North and back again: Making and blurring boundaries in conversations across borders. Language & Communication 59:17–27. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), enacting social reproduction that is both shaped by and simultaneously reconstitutes the inequalities of the global political economy. The analysis thus reveals how language socialization practices function as a form of scale-making through which seemingly fleeting everyday interactions take on durative significance.

4.Material-affective semiosis in cross-border prompting

Four months after he arrived in the United States, Adán had finally saved up enough money to send his first gift to El Salvador: a small pair of sneakers, which he sent not to his younger brother but to his cousin Wilbur, who was two at the time. All members of the family described Wilbur’s relationship with Adán prior to his migration as apegado (very close). When he said goodbye to Wilbur before migrating, Adán promised his disconsolate younger cousin that he would send him something that they had both long coveted: sneakers in a particularly trendy brand and style. The shoes would provide Wilbur with a concrete reminder of a relationship that might otherwise have faded from his developing memory, while also demonstrating to others in the family the special status of this cousin bond. As soon as he could, Adán made good on this promise, insisting on buying the shoes in the United States where he could be sure they would match his own despite advice from more experienced migrants that a different pair of shoes could have been purchased for half the price in El Salvador, which would have also saved the cost of sending the shoes via private courier.

The importance of the physical resemblance between Adán’s own shoes and those he sent to his cousin suggests that they are imbued with greater meaning than simply that of a material object with a particular use value. Of course, as stylish sneakers, they convey a certain social status upon their wearer, but their significance clearly goes beyond this. Adán’s efforts to send shoes that matched his own produce the gifted footwear as an iconic sign that is connected to its object through a relationship of resemblance; Wilbur’s new shoes are thereby semiotically linked to Adán’s own due to their similarity. Moreover, this connection extends beyond the shoes themselves to their wearers, producing meaning about the relationship between Adán and Wilbur. Here, the shoes become not simply iconic but indexical, pointing to the close relationship that these two cousins have; the iconicity of the shoes strengthens their indexical function as a signal of closeness between sender and recipient, suggesting that just as their shoes are connected by similarity, so too Adán and Wilbur remain apegado despite the distance that now separates them. This indexical reading of the gifted shoes emerges clearly in the following phone call, which was recorded a few days after the sneakers had arrived in El Salvador. Here, at the invitation of his mother and with her support, Wilbur talks to Adán. The child immediately mentions the shoes as a motivation for this conversation (line 1), and Sara then prompts him to thank his cousin for the gift; Adán responds by teasing them gently (lines 8 and 12) for the tardiness of their thank you.

Example 1.

“Gracias por los zapatos” (Thank you for the shoes)

(In the transcript, A = Adán, S = Sara, W = Wilbur)

1. W: Vaya, #### zapatos va. Okay, #### shoes right.
2. S: Sí. Hola Adán decile. Yes. Hi Adán tell him.
3. W: Hola Adán. Grac[ias ##] por, [[los za]]patos. Hi Adán. Thank [you ##] for, [[the sho]]es.
4. A: [Que ondas Wilbur?] [[Ah]]? Cómo? [What’s up Wilbur]? [[Huh]]? What?
5. W: Zapatos. Shoes.
6. S: Gracias por los zapatos decile. Thank you for the shoes tell him.
7. W: Gracias por zapatos. Thank you for shoes.
8. A: Ah vaya ya. Y hasta ahora verdad? Oh okay I get it. And finally now huh?
9. W: Están bonitos. They are nice.
10. A: Ah:. Oh.
11. S: Que están bonitos dice. They are nice he says.
12. A: Y hasta ahora verdad? And finally now huh?
13. S: Sí decile. Yes tell him.
14. W: Sí. Yes.
15. A: Y y y, cuán- cuándo los recibiste? And and and, whe- when did you get them?
16. W: (Allá están la casa), zapatos. (There they are in the house), shoes.
17. S: Ahora me los voy a poner, en la tarde. Y voy a sacar fotos decile. Today I’m going to put them on, in the afternoon. And I am going to take pictures tell him.
18. W: Voy a sacar fotos. I’m going to take pictures.
19. S: [Por la tarde]. [In the afternoon].
20. A: [Ah pues quiero una] foto, bien bonita [[allí. Que tires]] plante. [Oh well then I want a] photo, a really nice one. [[Where you look impressive]].
21. W: [[##]] [[##]]
22. A: Wilbur? Wilbur?

This interaction discursively produces the shoes sent by Adán as indexing close ties between the cousins in two ways, both of which rely on material-affective semiosis that actively scales this enchronic moment as participating in the perduring political-economic inequality of transnational family life. Most clearly, the prompting in this conversation is focused on socializing a normative response to receiving a gift: thanking. Wilbur initiates the thanking (line 3), which his mother Sara supports with a subsequent prompt (line 6); he then follows the thanks with a spontaneous positive evaluation of the shoes (line 9), showing his familiarity with the requirements of the genre. Following Smith (2016) 2016 “Turning Language Socialization Ontological: Material Things and the Semiotics of Scaling Time in Peruvian Aymara Boyhood.” Language & Communication 46 (January): 42–50. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, this instance can be seen as an example of the agency that can be embedded in material objects in processes of socialization; here, the gifted shoes are understood as making normatively relevant a next action of thanking, a form of affective communicative labor. This response is positioned as normative by all participants, including the sender of the gift, who twice teasingly chastises Wilbur (and by extension his mother) for not having produced the thanks soon enough after receipt of the gift (lines 8 and 12). The talk thus constructs a material object as eliciting an affective response from the recipient, naturalizing a form of material-affective semiosis in which material objects give rise to affective forms of response produced via communicative practices. The affective labor that Wilbur is socialized into here attends to his relationship with Adán, as he learns to produce the affective response that is normative for someone who has received a gift; in thanking Adán for the shoes, Wilbur thus enacts his role of recipient relative to Adán’s role of giver, thereby reaffirming their relationship as a close one in which such exchanges occur.

In addition, however, the converse relationship is also articulated here, with affect producing material consequences. Specifically, the shoes Adán has sent to Wilbur are discursively produced as a materialization of his affection for his younger cousin. This assumption is revealed by Sara’s plan to take photos of Wilbur wearing the shoes (line 17); although she does not explicitly state who the photos will be for, Adan’s eager response requesting a particular kind of photo (line 20) confirms that he sees himself as the intended recipient. Sara’s assumption that Adán will want to see photos of Wilbur wearing the shoes, as well as his enthusiastic response to this idea, construct the gifted shoes as motivated by Adán’s emotional connection to Wilbur, as a materialization of affect. In this interaction, then, the material is semiotically produced as affective and the affective is produced as material. The gift of shoes evokes an affective response, but is also preceded by a particular affect, and it is this interweaving that produces both the gift and the response to it as forms of care.

Furthermore, as this material-affective semiosis is produced, it becomes tied to particular individuals who are expected to display certain orientations to this interwoven materiality and affect. Here, the participants – including Adán himself – construct Adán’s affect as materialized in the gift of the shoes. More obvious here is the orientation expected of Wilbur, who is socialized to produce the appropriate affective response to a material cue. Thus, as it carries out material-affective semiosis, everyday talk also carves out subjectivities characterized by certain normative orientations. Through language socialization, different individuals are encouraged to inhabit these subject positions, to understand their experience in particular ways. In this case, Adán is positioned as a gift-giver, motivated by affection for his kin, while Wilbur learns to produce himself as an appropriately thankful recipient. The distribution of these material-affective subjectivities is tied to individuals’ position in the global political economy and produces relationships characterized by sustained economic asymmetries. The gift discussed here is one instance of a larger pattern of one-way material transfers from migrants to non-migrants, which most often take the form of remittances that meet the day-to-day needs of the relatives back home. Consequently, while Adán and Wilbur take up these subject positions in the enchronic moment of this interaction, these roles are not new but conform to durative expectations about appropriate subjectivities for migrants and non-migrants. Those who have greater access to material resources (migrants) are encouraged to experience themselves as motivated by affection to share these goods. Conversely, the non-migrant relatives who lack this material status are expected to produce affective labor that responds to these transfers.

Socialization into these asymmetrical but complementary normative subjectivities is thus shaped by broader political-economic inequalities in the distribution of wealth. At the same time, the habitual inhabitance of these positions reproduces such asymmetry over time, since it is this material-affective subjectification that maintains the economic and emotional ties upon which transnational families depend. The material-affective semiosis through which such subjectivities are continually reconstituted is thus the vehicle by which social reproduction is scaled up and global political-economic inequality is scaled down, becoming imbricated in the persistent asymmetry of transnational family connections. On first glance, it might seem that these asymmetrical subjectivities participate in the capitalist erasure of social reproduction, since the affective labor of non-migrants may seem to be subordinated to the remittances sent by migrants. However, close attention to the communicative enactment of these subjectivities reveals a more complex picture. In the interaction shown here, all participants – including the migrant, orient to the importance of the affective communicative work conducted by non-migrants. In so doing, they demonstrate an understanding of such care work as upholding the ability of transnational families to sustain themselves as a family form. Thus, while material-affective semiosis constitutes familial asymmetries that replicate global inequalities, it simultaneously pushes back against capitalist logics by both envisioning and enacting the importance of social reproduction in the political economy of family life.

The importance of material-affective subjectivities for these families is most clearly revealed in cases where normative subject positions are oriented to as not appropriately enacted, as shown in the next example. This case involves prompting in a cross-border conversation between three adults, once again regarding management of a material gift sent by migrants to their non-migrant kin in El Salvador. Here, long-term migrants Magda and her husband Francisco have just shipped a box to El Salvador filled with new and used clothing, shoes, jewelry, and small household electronic items destined for relatives on both sides of the family. Francisco’s sister Perla – the oldest sibling remaining at home – has been designated to receive the box. In this call, Francisco is discussing with his sister the logistics of the arrival of the box, and its contents, providing a detailed listing of which gifts are for whom. Magda consistently participates in this enumeration of the gifts, as she had selected and purchased the vast majority of these items, even those for Francisco’s family. This particular extract comes part-way through the conversation, as Francisco’s lack of participation in the gift-giving is foregrounded; here, the act of not sending gifts is constructed as meaningful through material-affective semiosis that once again carves out differential subject positions for migrants and non-migrants.

Example 2.

“Regañelo para que se acuerda de ustedes” (Scold him so he remembers you)

(In the transcript, F = Francisco, M = Magda, P = Perla)

1. F: Y para ustedes, yo no- no se- -- no me acuerdo si les mando, o no. @@@@ @@@@[@] And for you, I don’t- don’t know -- I don’t remember if I’m sending anything, or not. @@@@ @@@@[@]
2. M: [Si] vos no mandastes n[[ada]]. You didn’t send anything.
3. P: [[@]]@@@ [[@]]@@@
4. F: No más para Jacinta, creo que va una, no se, va algo para la Jacinta, creo. Just for Jacinta, I think there is a, I don’t know, there is something for Jacinta, I think.
5. P: Mm. Mm.
6. F: No pues. Yo le dije a esta, “No, yo no ando comprando nada. Yo si les voy a mandar, les voy a mandar unos, .. unos diez dolares cada uno.” le dije yo. No then. I told this one, “No, I am not buying anything. If I am going to send them something, I’ll send them like, like ten dollars each.” I told her.
7. P: (Está) bien. @@@@@@@@@@ That’s ok. @@@@@@@@@@
8. F: Sí vos. Esta que manda- -- O- -- Yes you. This one sends- -- Oh- --
9. M: Regañelo. Regañelo para q[ue se acuerda de ustedes]. Scold him. Scold him so that he remembers you all.
10. P: [####] [####]
11. F: [[Yo siempre me acuerdo]]. [[I always remember]].
12. P: [[#### nada]]. [[#### nothing]].

As in the first example, in this excerpt, material objects are discursively constituted as indexical signs that can be read in ways that reveal underlying truths about relationships; in this case, the absence of gifts is produced as conveying a troubling lack of closeness in transnational relationships. This signification emerges most clearly when Magda inserts herself into the dyadic phone conversation, speaking loudly enough for her sister-in-law in El Salvador to hear her as she addresses her directly, prompting her to scold her brother (Francisco) so that he remembers the family in El Salvador (line 9). Her interjection counters Francisco’s explanation for not having sent gifts; whereas he seeks to represent these actions as logical and therefore justified, Magda depicts them as sanctionable. In so doing, she draws on the normative assumption that material gifts emerge from the sender’s affection for the recipient, so that a lack of gifts is evidence of a lack of affect. Magda thus depicts her husband as not caring sufficiently about his family, doing so in a way that makes a public statement of normativity. Although Francisco responds by insisting that he always remembers his family (line 11), the assumptions underlying Magda’s prompt make it clear that this affect is meaningless if it is not materialized in normative ways.

Her prompt produces a particular subject position in which affect is only meaningful if it results in a material manifestation. Once again, it is the migrant, the one with greater access to material resources, who is urged to take up this subjectivity. In cautioning Perla that this box of gifts is not be interpreted as a sign of affective engagement on Francisco’s part, Magda implies that she had been the one to remember her husband’s family, purchasing and sending the gifts. Of course, gendered assumptions about who is responsible for care work likely shaped Francisco’s expectation that his wife would perform the labor that makes gift giving possible; like much social reproduction, this labor may have gone unrecognized, with the husband ultimately receiving credit for the end result. But by insisting on making her contributions visible through her prompt, Magda challenges this gendered erasure of social reproduction. All migrants, including her husband, should participate in the labor of materializing affect into gifts sent across borders; the material-affective subjectivity expected of migrants overrides the traditional gendering of care.

In addition, Magda’s prompt has implications for her sister-in-law. By cautioning Perla to scold Francisco so that he remembers the family back home, Magda uses a widespread shorthand in Salvadoran migration discourse whereby remembering non-migrant kin involves sending them material gifts or economic remittances (Arnold 2016 2016 “Communicative Care Across Borders: Language, Materiality, and Affect in Transnational Family Life.” Dissertation. University of California, Santa Barbara.Google Scholar). The existence of this pervasive formulation is itself evidence of the import of material-affective orientations to the subjectivities that are normative for migrants and non-migrants. Her interruption mobilizes this fear of being forgotten to impress upon Perla that Francisco has not fulfilled his expected role, despite the appearance of gifts. As Magda encourages Perla to rebuke Francisco for this failure, everyday talk once again constructs material items as producing a particular affective response. Whereas in Example (1), a gift produced gratitude, here Magda suggests that the lack of a gift should produce disappointment on the part of the non-migrant. The prompt urges Perla to take up this affect and articulate it through scolding. Again, non-migrants are normatively expected to inhabit a subjectivity in which the material actions of their migrant kin produce an affective response.

By reminding both her husband and sister-in-law of normative subjectivities for migrants and non-migrants, Magda’s socializing efforts here hold both parties responsible for the lapse in familial relations signaled by Francisco’s failure to send gifts to his relatives. This prompt sets forward a vision of family life in which the asymmetrical material-affective subjectivities of migrants and non-migrants are understood as working together to constitute their cross-border political economy. Only if migrants materialize their affect to support their families back home will non-migrants be able to respond affectively to these gifts; similarly, the affective labor of non-migrants is crucial for sustaining the emotional connections that are understood to motivate migrants’ sending of remittances. Thus, even as material-affective semiosis imbues physical objects – or their absence, as shown here – with meaning and socializing agency, it continually reconstitutes the interrelated subjectivities through which the transnational family is sustained. While these subject positions reproduce firm distinctions between migrants and non-migrants and thus work to scale family life in ways that inevitably reinforce the irremediable economic inequalities between North and South, at the same time, such transnational socialization also serves as a powerful resource for the social reproduction of cross-border relationships. By weaving together materiality and affect, such discussions create subject positions in which all family members, whether migrant or non-migrant, are understood as contributing to maintaining the transnational family, pushing back against the capitalist erasure of social reproduction by insisting on its vital importance.

One final example demonstrates the pervasive effects of material-affective semiosis in producing the subjectivities that sustain transnational family life. Unlike the first two examples, this example involves a gift sent by non-migrants to their migrant kin; the gift in this case is neither money nor an object with a particular use-value but rather a video recording in which non-migrants produce elaborate greetings to their migrant kin. Individuals greet different migrant relatives in turn, using the same formulaic expressions; often after the adults have performed their greetings, they attempt to induce children to participate as well, using prompting to model line-by-line the ritual organization of these cross-border greetings. The sending of such cross-border video greetings was a common practice among the non-migrants in my study, but migrants did not reciprocate. Thus, the communicative practice of cross-border greetings seem to play a crucial role in non-migrant but not migrant subjectivities. This dynamic can be seen clearly in the example analyzed here, in which a mother socializes her child into this subject position. In this instance, my video camera and my skills as videographer were recruited to record the greeting. I had gone to visit Rosa in order to video-record her house and surrounding lands at the request of her migrant siblings in the United States. Her young son Zacarias, age five, watched avidly and eagerly asked his mother if he could go to see his aunts and uncles. She denied this request without explanation, but then urged the child instead to send a greeting to his aunt Serena, the most recent migrant and the only one whom her son remembered. She prompted him unsuccessfully for a full minute, but he refused to repeat any of her multiple prompts, until she produced the threat shown in line 1.

Example 3.

“No te va a hablar” (She won’t call you).

(In the transcript, R = Rosa, Z = Zacarias)

1. R: Decile pues. Si no, ya no te va a volver a hablar. No te va a hablar por teléfono. A ella decile allí. Hola tía Sere decile. Say it now. If not, she won’t call you anymore. She won’t call you on the phone. To her tell her there. Hello aunt Sere tell her.
2. Z: Hola tía Sere. Hello aunt Sere.
3. R: Le mando un saludo decile. I send you a greeting tell her.
4. Z: Le mando un saludo. I send you a greeting.
5. R: La quiero mucho. I love you a lot.
6. Z: La quiero mucho. I love you a lot.
7. R: Y cuídese. And take care.
8. Z: Y cuídese. And take care.

In this example, Rosa socializes her son into an affective communicative ritual involving a formulaic greeting (lines 1 and 3) and well-wishing (line 7) along with an explicit statement of affection (line 5). This communicative practice is part of a subject position that involves specific orientations to the child’s migrant relatives, which must be articulated in particular affectively coded ways. The fact that the affective labor of greetings is consistently produced by non-migrants for migrants, and not vice-versa, suggests that it participates in the system of interrelated material-affective subjectivities through which transnational family life is instantiated and sustained.

In this particular instance of socialization, the mother’s threat to her son relies upon unspoken ideologies that assume the role of materiality in this seemingly affective form of subjectivity. Specifically, Rosa threatens her son that if he does not produce the greeting, his aunt will stop calling him; because the family lacks the resources to make calls to the United States, this would effectively end Zacarias’ relationship with his migrant aunt. Thus, the threat here is one of disruption of the child’s world, which helps to explain its immediate effectiveness in securing his cooperation with the prompted greeting. However, the relational disconnection threatened here is not just the severing of a connection between a child and his aunt, but more broadly between a non-migrant and a migrant. As seen in Example (2), there is a great deal of concern within transnational families to maintain these cross-border ties, with a common fear being that migrants will forget their non-migrant relatives and stop sending remittances. In threatening her son to induce him to greet his migrant aunt, Rosa implicitly draws on this broader discourse, suggesting to her son that his actions can cause such feared abandonment. If he does not inhabit the expected non-migrant subject position by articulating his love for his aunt in this ritualized way, she will forget him and stop calling. His engagement with this subjectivity is crucial to ensure that his migrant kin will remember him and will think of him affectionately. This threat constitutes perhaps the clearest valuation of the vital role that the affective labor of non-migrants is understood to perform in sustaining the political economy of transnational family life.

The cross-border greetings sent by non-migrants to their migrant kin participate in the same process of material-affective semiosis as the physical gifts sent by migrants. Just as material gifts (or their absence) index the nature of cross-border kin relations, so too does the communicative practice of greetings. In this example, for instance, the child is encouraged to greet the one migrant relative he remembers; in other cases, I have found that migrants are greeted in order of their participation in remittance-sending, with non-remitters at times being entirely excluded from the list of greeted individuals (Arnold forthcoming a). In addition to this indexical function, however, these video greetings also construct and rework transnational ties by explicitly articulating the greeter’s affection for and connection to the person greeted. The affective labor of these greetings is thus understood to play a crucial role in sustaining cross-border family life, in much the same way that migrant gifts and remittances are discursively produced as meaningful. The enactment and sustaining of transnational kinship relies on distinctive material-affective subject positions in which migrants are normatively expected to materialize their affect for non-migrants in the form of gifts and remittances while non-migrants are expected to produce affective forms of communicative labor that will evoke emotion in their migrant relatives and thus continue the cycle of care. Such forms of subjectification through material-affective semiosis have clearly contradictory effects. On the one hand, such semiosis produces fundamentally asymmetrical roles for migrants and non-migrants that continually scale family interactions and produce relationships permeated with global political-economic inequality. At the same time, these subject positions are constructed as complementary, such that all relatives, regardless of their migration status, are seen to participate in the work of sustaining family life, thereby advancing a political economic model that incorporates the importance of social reproduction.

5.Conclusion

In this paper, I have explored prompting interactions in transnational phone calls between Salvadoran migrants in the United States and their non-migrant relatives back home. My analysis demonstrates that these cross-border language socialization encounters constitute particular material goods and communicative practices as forms of care through material-affective semiosis. Material objects and economic remittances are constructed as indexical of relational closeness and read as the materialization of affection; at the same time, these gifts are imbued with the agency to elicit normative forms of affective responses from their recipients. Material-affective semiosis can also be seen in the ways in which the affectively-laden communicative practice of greetings is constructed as crucial form of labor by which non-migrants contribute to the sustenance of the cross-border relationships in ways that make material gifts and economic transfers such as remittances possible. Moreover, this material-affective semiosis produces particular subject positions and the verbal routine of prompting, functioning as a technology of the self, is utilized to encourage individuals to take up these subject positions. I have demonstrated that different subjectivities are discursively constituted as normative for migrants and non-migrants within transnational families; while migrants should materialize their affect towards their relatives back home, non-migrants must produce affective labor in the form of communicative practices that reproduce cross-border kin ties and thus sustain the conditions for material goods to be sent.

Over the long term, the normativity of these differential subjectivities can lead to resentment as both migrants and non-migrants may feel trapped. Migrants regularly reported feeling frustrated, saying that their non-migrant relatives only called to ask for money. Their perception did not accurately capture the wealth of communicative practices in transnational conversations (Arnold 2016 2016 “Communicative Care Across Borders: Language, Materiality, and Affect in Transnational Family Life.” Dissertation. University of California, Santa Barbara.Google Scholar), but this interpretation nevertheless reveals the strength of a model in which the communicative work of non-migrants is understood as affective prompting of material and economic gifts. Although the non-migrants in my study did not articulate such overt dissatisfaction with their role, other scholarship with transnational families demonstrates that these expectations may lead non-migrants to feel intensely surveilled from afar (Madianou and Miller 2011Madianou, Mirca, and Daniel Miller 2011 “Mobile Phone Parenting: Reconfiguring Relationships between Filipina Migrant Mothers and Their Left-behind Children.” New Media & Society 13 (3): 457–70. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). These frustrations can sometimes lead to overt conflict between migrants and non-migrants (Arnold forthcoming b). However, as Francisco-Menchavez argues (2018Francisco-Menchavez, Valerie 2018The Labor of Care: Filipina Migrants and Transnational Families in the Digital Age. Asian American Experience. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar), care labor should not necessarily be assumed to emerge always and only from feelings of nurturance and love; rather, the work of social reproduction across borders continues even in the face of frustration and resentment. In light of this longer-term reality, it is important to highlight that the process of material-affective semiosis described here does not make any claims about what people actually feel, but rather focuses on understanding how affect is mobilized to do productive work. For the families in my study, gifts are interpreted as the materialization of affect, even as affective labor is used to prompt continued gifts. Thus, material-affective semiosis may function to manage negative affects, curtailing their effects and minimizing conflict in ways that contribute to maintenance of transnational family as a form of kinship.

The analysis put forward in this paper thus contributes to the long-standing tradition of anthropological work that examines how exchanges negotiate social relationships (Mauss 1925Mauss, Marcel 1925The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar). As shown by the processes of material-affective semiosis detailed here, such exchanges always involve both material and affective components, a point that is particularly crucial to underscore in transnational contexts where the economics of remittances have long been emphasized while other forms of exchange have been elided (Cole and Groes 2016Cole, Jennifer, and Christian Groes eds. 2016Affective Circuits: African Migrations to Europe and the Pursuit of Social Regeneration. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Indebtedness is of course a key aspect of exchange (Graeber 2011Graeber, David 2011Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House.Google Scholar), and the prompting interactions examined here emphasize the debt of gratitude that non-migrants bear towards migrants; this debt motivates their communicative efforts even as this affective labor then enacts an obligation of material reciprocation on their migrant kin. This finding demonstrates that in gifting, the recipient of the gift is not passive and dependent but rather has a crucial role to play, emphasizing the importance of analyzing not only the gift itself but how such exchanges are prompted (Retsikas 2016Retsikas, Kostas 2016 “The Other Side of the Gift: Soliciting in Java.” Heidelberg Ethnology Occasional Paper (January). CrossrefGoogle Scholar). For the transnational families in my study, the affective labor of non-migrants is understood to be crucial in prompting gifts from migrants, thus highlighting the often invisible work that makes gift exchange possible (Josephides 1985Josephides, Lisette 1985The Production of Inequality: Gender and Exchange among the Kewa. London ; New York: Tavistock.Google Scholar), in this case socially reproductive forms of communication. In socializing migrants and non-migrants into their normative material-affective subjectivities, the exchanges examined here simultaneously envision and enact an understanding of transnational kinship in which the work of social reproduction is crucial to the cross-border political economy. Thus, even as language socialization constitutes the vehicle whereby asymmetrical subjectivities are reproduced, these practices also constitute a space in which the importance of social reproduction is continually asserted and maintained in the face of capitalist erasures.

Language socialization thus constitutes an important resource for the discursive constitution of scale. In this case, the verbal routine of prompting works to scale both family life and the global inequalities that cause transnational migration, weaving global inequalities into the very weft of everyday family life. While language socialization that is enacted across borders may bear a heavier burden in the reproduction of familial relationships and social life, the processes of material-affective semiosis and subjectification examined here are more broadly relevant to the study of language and social life. Particular material-affective orientations are of course part of other subjectivities beyond those discussed here and can be utilized to organize these subject positions relationally in a range of ways. Whereas in this analysis, the political-economy of transnational migration is particularly salient, in other settings, such analysis may help to elucidate the role of other political-economic structures, or of normative hierarchies tied to gender, generation, or institutional context. The distribution of these material-affective subjectivities is perhaps unusually stable in transnational families, tied as it is to the relatively durative status of migrant or non-migrant. For other relationships, subject positions may be more fleeting or may be more closely tied to developmental lifecourse trajectories. Moreover, while this analysis highlights interactions surrounding material gift exchanges as a locus of material-affective semiosis, the final example of the greeting demonstrates that such processes may be at work even in cases where materiality is not so explicitly focal. Further examinations of material-affective semiosis should therefore consider the full range of language socialization practices, teasing apart the political-economic grounding as well as the material-semiotic processes of even seemingly affective routines. Attending more expansively to the role of materiality by thinking through its relationship to affect can thus prove a fruitful avenue for future scholarship that seeks to underscore the importance of the language socialization paradigm in developing a broad understanding of human experience.

Acknowledgements

This research was conducted with support of the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program, the U.C. Institute for Mexico and the United States, and the Chicano Studies Institute of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Thanks to the anonymous reviewers as well as to my colleagues Kristine Køhler Mortensen and Hilary Parsons Dick for feedback on an earlier draft. Any remaining errors or oversights are my own.

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Appendix A.Transcription conventions

@

laughter, each token marks one pulse

[ ]

overlapping speech

[[ ]]

overlapping speech in proximity to a previous overlap

#

unintelligible; each token marks one syllable

( )

uncertain transcription

-

self-interruption

Address for correspondence

Lynnette Arnold

Department of Anthropology

Brown University

Box 1921

Providence, RI, 02912

lynnette_arnold@brown.edu

Biographical notes

Lynnette Arnold is a linguistic anthropologist who studies language and migration. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California in Santa Barbara in 2016 and is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Brown University.