Migrant Knowledge

Invective Loops: How Shaming Migrants Shapes Knowledge Orders

In the West, COVID-19 presents with an invective side effect. People of Asian descent are insulted, degraded, and sometimes even physically threatened because they have been associated with the virus’s origins. Such incidents illustrate the vital interplay between xenophobia, whether against migrants or other minorities, and emotions, a relationship that becomes even more apparent in pandemic times. Recent reports about acts of humiliation from different parts of the world share stunning similarities with historical accounts.1 In the United States and Germany, people of Asian descent note the existence of “everyday racism in the form of small remarks, insults, generalizations and open hostility on the street.”2

These humiliations produce diverse social consequences for those targeted and marginalized, but here we wish to consider the significance of the disparagement practices themselves. For those who go after others with gestures, words, or even violence, degradation and shaming are essential for excluding people and forming social groups. Consequently, shaming can be seen as an indispensable mechanism for producing social stratification. Whether groups are ethnic, social, or national, they gain form by practicing othering, especially on an emotional level. The emotional dynamics and social functions of stereotyping, including the protection of citizens’ dignity, are well-researched fields,3 also in connection with migration and minorities.4 Here we would like to introduce an approach that focuses on the dynamics of such disparagement practices, utilizing a model recently developed in Dresden by CRC 1285 “Invectivity: Constellations and Dynamics of Disparagement.”

The long history of shaming migrants and minorities frequently entails escalations from verbal degradation into physical violence. To understand this dynamic, we can examine specific instances of invective communication, paying particular attention to the integration of third parties, to communication loops, to changes in the direction of shaming, and especially to the effects triggered at each stage of invective escalation and de-escalation. These impacts go beyond emotions. Critically, the emotions produced are profoundly linked to migrants. With time, shaming them reorganizes or actualizes bodies of knowledge, forming or reinforcing social groups and defining or altering positions of power or impotence.5

A Small Riot

On April 1, 1907, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported on a “Miniature Riot” at the city’s Grand Central Depot. More than 1,000 immigrants from Italy and Hungary had been on their way “to the West, where the foreigners [would] settle and force higher-paid American labor into obscurity.” The article continued with a description of “an insulting remark” that members of the large and “obnoxious” group had made “to two ladies in the waiting room.” At this point, the incident—probably rooted in misunderstandings, language problems, or cultural unfamiliarity—shifted from verbal to physical violence.6 “Depot policemen and prospective passengers heard the remark and gave the Hungarians a beating.” One of them suffered a head wound and needed medical attention.7

A situation that had started with verbal disparagement drew in other, initially uninvolved people, producing two opposing groups and a violent clash. The incident was probably based on emotions that had motivated the initial remark, but it fed mainly on affects triggered as it progressed. The policeman and waiting passengers had emotional responses to a comment from a presumably diverse group of people, who the article simply said were from “Italy” and “Hungary.” It can be assumed that the beaten immigrants experienced intense emotions too, not to mention the bystanders. While the newspaper described two communication loops (the insult followed by the brawl), the reporting represented a third. Moreover, the reporting presumably affected a broader audience, one that grew through the act of reading.

The discussions that followed the report, the emotions intensified by reading it, the resulting stabilization of stereotypes against immigrants—these things and the insult and fighting that led to this point are elements of a complex communication process we call “invectivity.” Highly dynamic, the direction of such a process, whether it escalates into violence or settles into silence, is highly contingent. So are the emotions triggered in the associated processes of growing solidarity and increasing hostility.

Many migration-related incidents or conflicts are emotion-driven, endorsing prejudices, hatred, and feelings of superiority. Their power and momentum grow in two ways: First, they affect bystanders and entangle them in the emotional dynamic of the situation. Second, they stabilize stereotypes through recurring cycles of depiction.

Shaming stabilizes racist prejudices and amplifies the marginalization of specific social groups, attaching to them affects of contempt, hatred, and aggression. Historical examples like the one in Cincinnati highlight the interplay of migration, affect, and emotion. Examining them from an invective perspective reveals the underlying dynamics of the social formations and knowledge patterns they shape. In this way, invectivity represents a new approach in social and cultural studies,8 enabling us to relate migration, emotion, and knowledge to one another.9

Invective Dynamics and Effects

Degradation, humiliation, and exposure are basic social operations produced within a broader and dynamic communication process, and they affect at least three parties: the insulters, the insulted, and third parties. Noteworthy are the numerous loops of recursive reactions in the resulting communication process, one that is highly dynamic and characterized by changing participatory roles. Who plays the role of insulter or insulted depends on the perspective of the participants and can change repeatedly, as can also happen to bystanders who become involved. Insults and the resulting roles within the invective triangle of a given situation are not defined by their offending content but instead are developed contingently among all participants.

Essential for the formation of a stabilized body of disparaging knowledge are the reverse loops of follow-up communication.10 As “basic manifestations of the social,” invective practices always have ambivalent effects. They may disrupt or stabilize social and knowledge orders, depending on the emotional effects produced in preceding and degrading interactions. Understanding the resulting emotional dynamic requires careful analysis of the medial, political, social, and aesthetic dimensions of invective interactions in historical settings because such processes are based on the construction of shaming and the production of knowledge within the loops of interaction.

Attributes based “on ethnic, national or religious affiliations, gender, or sexual orientations” often lie at the center of invective practices. This is why migration and marginalization processes cannot be understood without taking invective loops—and their power to produce or stabilize power relations—into account. Their impact on community formation and orders of knowledge can be revealed by analyzing the invective dynamics involved.11

Shaming merges affects with particular messages. It also helps to create, stabilize, disrupt, or reorganize orders of knowledge, often employing images from the past. Returning to the newspaper report of the incident in Cincinnati, debasement and exclusion become visible in both their social settings and their discursive or media contexts. The immigrants were pictured as menacing to American workers, unfamiliar with common standards of behavior, “obnoxious,” and even violent. Here, invectivity operated as a violent practice, using the power of language to affect emotional and physical sensations.12

Disparaging language is used to marginalize and insult people already othered as immigrants, frequently by labeling them en masse as members of a specific out-group (as with “the Hungarians” above) while neglecting their ethnic, national, or social differences. The applied stereotypes are drawn from a longer existing archive of invective knowledge and ignorance. Indeed, historical and cultural contexts are crucial for understanding which practices can count as invective.13 It is even possible for people to use originally disrespectful and marginalizing descriptions to describe themselves, thereby inverting the meaning and direction of the invective loop.14 Take, for example, rap lyrics, that turn “bitch” or the German “Kanak” on their heads in proud self-definition. Transforming once disrespectful narratives to claim respect and power illustrates the complicated dynamics of the invective loops. They are highly contingent, and their outcomes are often unpredictable.15


Analyzing invective practices and the communication loops they produce offers essential insights about knowledge orders because the invective is grounded in them. At the same time, the knowledge orders themselves are shaped by the interplay of top–down power structures and the reactions, resistance, and redefinition work of migrants. Analysis reveals the excluding power of invective patterns as well as the structural openness of invective communication to resistance and self-empowerment, which can reshape knowledge systems.16

To grasp the complex invective loops involved, we always have to seek out and integrate the perspectives of all parties involved. The article from 1907, for example, depicted immigrants as a passive group without a voice to explain the incident from their perspective. This kind of coverage, understood as part of the knowledge production about migrants within societies, is relatively common. But it tends to overlook significant aspects of invective communication toward migration, and it underestimates the potentially powerful and subversive role of migrants’ agency. Elliot Young’s important admonishment to reach further than portrayals of Chinese “Coolies” as victims is relevant here.

The employment of disparaging terms and other acts of shaming, that is, acts of verbal and physical violence, are often the first encounters migrants have with a new language and social environment. And they usually accumulate knowledge from this invective communication in order to navigate the new environment. We can access the invective loops involved through sources created by migrants, such as private letters, diaries, the migrant press, and other migrant-produced publications. Resilience, coping strategies, resistance, and self-empowerment become visible, bringing us right to the center of this kind of knowledge production.

Invectivity often relies on established narratives, archives of invective, so to speak. Updates of disparaging remarks fuel current debates, drawing strength from their apparent durability and the longstanding emotional regimes they produce. In this sense, invectivity can be seen as a bridge across time, heating up present-day communication with historical references that require careful historical analysis.

Dagmar EllerbrockORCID holds the Chair of Modern and Contemporary History at the Technische Universität Dresden. She is a founding member of CRC 1285 “Invectivity: Constellations and Dynamics of Disparagement” and the principal investigator of its subproject, “Invective as Emotional Mobilization from the Weimar Republic to National Socialism, 1924–1938.”
Steinberg, Swen
Swen Steinberg is a lecturer in Migration and Diaspora Studies at Carleton University and an affiliated scholar of the German Historical Institute Washington, focusing on young migrants and knowledge in transit. He is a cofounder and coeditor of this blog and can be found on Twitter under the handle @SwenSteinberg.

Featured image: Logo of the Collaborative Research Centre 1285: “Invectivity. Constellations and Dynamics of Disparagement” developed at the TU Dresden. See the website.

  1. Historical examples include the antisemitic “whisper campaigns” and news coverage that followed another outbreak of the Spanish Flu in 1929 Paris; Léon Poliakov, The History of Anti-Semitism, vol. 4, Suicidal Europe, 1870-1933 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 288. Note too the shaming of displaced persons in Germany for the illnesses they acquired under Nazi rulep Dagmar Ellerbrock, “Healing Democracy”—Demokratie als Heilmittel (Bonn: Dietz, 2004). See also Christos Lynteris, “Yellow Peril Epidemics: The Political Ontology of Degeneration and Emergence,” in Yellow Perils: China Narratives in the Contemporary World, ed. Franck Billé Sören Urbansky (Honolulu: Universtiy of Hawaii Press, 2018), 35–59; Sören Urbansky, “A Chinese Plague: Sinophobic Discourses in Vladivostok, San Francisco, and Singapore,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute Washington 64 (Spring 2019): 75–92, here 90–92. ↩︎
  2. Cathy Park Hong, “The Slur I Never Expected to Hear in 2020,” The New York Times, April 12, 2020; Noa K. Ha, “Vietdeutschland und die Realität der Migration im vereinten Deutschland,” Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte (2020) 27–28, https://www.bpb.de/apuz/312269/vietdeutschland-und-die-realitaet-der-migration-im-vereinten-deutschland. ↩︎
  3. Martha Craven Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity. Disgust, Shame, and the Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). ↩︎
  4. For example, Gerhard Saenger, who fled Nazi persecution to the United States and published on refugees and assimilation in 1941. After the Second World War, his interest shifted to the psychology of prejudice; Gerhard Saenger, Today’s Refugee’s, Tomorrow’s Citizens: A Story of Americanziation (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941); Gerhard Saenger, The Social Psychology of Prejudice: Achieving Intercultural Understanding and Cooperation in Democracy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953): 26–31. ↩︎
  5. Dagmar Ellerbrock et al., “Invektivität—Perspektiven eines neuen Forschungsprogramms in den Kultur- und Sozialwissenschaften,” Kulturwissenschaftliche Zeitschrift 2, no. 1 (2017) 1: 2–24, http://doi.org/10.2478/kwg-2017-0001. See also Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2015). ↩︎
  6. For the relation of invective speech to verbal and physical violence see: Fabian Klinker, Joachim Scharloth and Joanna Szczęk, eds., Sprachliche Gewalt. Formen und Effekte von Pejorisierung, verbaler Aggression und Hassrede (Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 2018). ↩︎
  7. “Miniature Riot,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 1, 1907. ↩︎
  8. Dagmar Ellerbrock and Gerd Schwerhoff, “Spaltung, die zusammenhält? Invektivität als produktive Kraft in der Geschichte,” Saeculum 70, no. 1 (2020): 3-22; Ellerbrock et al., “Invektivität.” ↩︎
  9. Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg, “Why Young Migrants Matter in the History of Knowledge,” KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge 3,2 (2019): 195–219; Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg, “Knowledge on the Move: New Approaches toward a History of Migrant Knowledge,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 43, no. 3 (2017): 330. ↩︎
  10. Ellerbrock et al., “Invektivität,” 3. ↩︎
  11. Ellerbrock et al., “Invektivität,” 4. ↩︎
  12. Silvia Bonacchi, ed., Verbale Aggression: Multidisziplinäre Zugänge zur verletzenden Macht der Sprache (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017); Sybille Krämer, Gewalt der Sprache—Sprache der Gewalt (Berlin: Landeskommission Berlin gegen Gewalt, Senatsverwaltung für Schule, Jugend und Sport, 2005). ↩︎
  13. Hans-Joachim Roth et al., eds., Sprache und Sprechen im Kontext von Migration: Worüber man sprechen kann und worüber man nicht sprechen soll (Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2013). ↩︎
  14. Robin Jeshion, “Pride and Prejudiced: On the Reclamation of Slurs,” Grazer Philosophische Studien 97, no. 1 (2020): 106–37. ↩︎
  15. Dagmar Ellerbrock and Silke Fehlemann, “Beschämung, Beleidigung, Herabsetzung: Invektivität als neue Perspektive historischer Emotionsforschung,” in Politische Bildung mit Gefühl, ed. Anja Besand et al. (Bonn: Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung, 2019), 90–104. ↩︎
  16. See the most recent conference report on “Migration and Racism in the United States and Germany in the Twentieth Century,” in H-Soz-Kult, 16.07.2021, www.hsozkult.de/conferencereport/id/tagungsberichte-9001. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Dagmar Ellerbrock and Swen Steinberg, "Invective Loops: How Shaming Migrants Shapes Knowledge Orders," Migrant Knowledge, August 24, 2021, https://migrantknowledge.org/2021/08/24/invective-loops/.