Culture, Place, and the Affective Dimension of Vernacular Ambient Text
This essay looks at the place of written language in the urban environment through an exploration of the ambient text (signage and other written texts visible in the surroundings) encountered in the NYC neighborhood of East Harlem/El Barrio. Through examples drawn from fieldwork carried out in the area around East 116th Street, El Barrio’s main commercial street, I argue that a crucial contribution of signage is missed when we assume that their role ends once what something is or where it is has been communicated. In the case of vernacular signage—specifically those signs containing some Spanish—the language in which the text is written is not psychologically inconsequential, as it may deeply influence environmental perception, coloring people’s relationship with their surroundings in ways that foster a sense of place and belongingness. I articulate this theoretically by proposing to extend the concept of the phatic function of language, as described by Roman Jacobson (1960), to the analysis of displayed written language. Typically associated with orality, the phatic function is recast as also applicable to the pieces of ambient text that pervade the urban environment, allowing us to revisit the complex ways in which culture, place, and language are entangled in understandings about Latinidad.
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