The invasion of the body snatchers: Synthetic embodiment and metalinguistic entanglement on TikTok


When: Thursday 3rd December 2020 12.30-2pm (GMT Time) 

Registration: To attend the event please sign in below and you will receive a Zoom link:

This talk explores TikTok as a site for sociolinguistic research into issues such as language stylization, metadiscourse, and enregisterment. It focuses on the ways new practices of synthetic embodiment made possible by digital technologies change people’s relationship with the voices and bodily performances of others, and the implications of such changes for their understanding and experience of the relationship between language and social identity. 

Professor Rodney Jones begins by considering the ways digital technologies have introduced new possibilities for embodied meaning making, drawing on my earlier work on the socio-technical practices of urban skateboarders (2011).  He then considers the unique affordances for synthetic embodiment offered by Tiktok, most importantly the ability it gives to users to inhabit the verbal and bodily performances of others, re-presenting them with their own bodies through practices of lip-synching and ‘transmodal stylization’ (Goodwin & Alim, 2010). While most of these performances involve the appropriation of commercial popular music, the app allows, and, in fact, encourages users to re-use the soundtrack from any video posted on the platform, resulting in the rapid circulation of various kinds of (often racialized or gendered) performances (of dances, catch phrases, accents, etc.) in the form of thematic memes and ‘challenges’ via ‘speech-chains’ (Agha, 2003) of stylization and re-stylization. 

Whether these performances are based on commercial content or the verbal performances of amateurs, they inevitably engage users in performing and implicitly commenting on the ways of speaking (and moving) associated social groups other than their own, and this itself has given rise to a genre of video in which users provide metalinguistic commentary on the videos of others, critiquing the authenticity of their performances or criticizing them for engaging in cultural appropriation or perpetuating racial or gender stereotypes.

While sociolinguists have developed a rich lexicon for discussing practices of language stylization and mocking as well as of metalinguistic discourse, the unique affordances of TikTok for synthetic embodiment and collective practices of creativity and critique present new theoretical challenges. To address these challenges Professor Rodney Jones argues for an integration of concepts from queer and posthuman studies with more traditional sociolinguistic approaches to stylization and embodiment, an integration which allows us to move away from notions of ‘mimicry’ and ‘appropriation’ and see these performances as ludic entanglements (Barad, 2007) of bodies, voices, music, material spaces, and digital technologies (including the algorithms which help to select which videos ‘go viral’) through which users collaboratively debate complex issues of race, gender, sexuality, self and other.  


Agha, A. (2003). The social life of cultural value. Language & Communication23(3–4), 231–273. 

Barad, K., (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press, Durham. 

Goodwin, M. H., & Alim, H. S. (2010). “Whatever (Neck Roll, Eye Roll, Teeth Suck)”: The Situated Coproduction of Social Categories and Identities through Stancetaking and Transmodal Stylization. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology20(1), 179–194. 

Jones, R. (2011) C me Sk8: Discourse, technology and bodies without organs. In C. Thurlow and K. Mroczek (eds.) Language in the new media (pp. 321-339). Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Biosketch: Rodney Jones is Professor of Sociolinguistics at the University of Reading, UK. Rodney’s main areas of interest are discourse analysis, interactional sociolinguistics, and language and digital media. He is particularly interested in how digital media affect the way people conduct social interactions and manage social identities. For the past two decades he has been involved with the late Professor Ron Scollon and other colleagues in developing an approach to discourse called mediated discourse analysis, the principles of which are laid out in his 2005 book with Sigrid Norris Discourse in Action: Introducing mediated discourse analysis. He has applied this approach to a range of contexts including health and risk communication, classroom discourse, professional communication, computer mediated communication, and language and creativity. Rodney has authored/edited twelve books and over fifty journal articles and book chapters. 

To watch the recorded talk, see here:

The Multimodality Talks Series is organised by Elisabetta Adami (University of Leeds), Sophia Diamantopoulou (UCL), Eva Insulander and Eva Svärdemo Åberg (Stockholm University). 


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