The twofold Demise of a Communicative Genre. Shutdown-notes during the fifth Austrian Shutdown

Last fall’s Corona wave hit Austria with full force and brought us our fifth lockdown. In the latest contribution to his series, Karsten Lehmann continues his observations on shutdown notes and shows how the habituation effect has left its mark on this text genre. 

Among many other things, the COVID-19 pandemic is a socio-cultural phenomenon of dynamic change as well as surprising consistency. This is the fourth post of series of small texts that want to contribute to the understanding of the social dimension of the pandemic. The author, Karsten Lehmann, has yet another look at what he describes as the ‘communicative genre’ of the shutdown-notes. In the present post he will provide further update on those short texts that have been put into the shop-windows of small businesses in a street (of one of the Viennese one-digit districts (Bezirke) to legitimize the closure of the respective businesses during the Austrian shutdowns.

In doing so, the present post documents the twofold demise of this particular communicative genre – first in terms of numbers and second in terms of content: During the first shutdown (March and April 2020), more than half of the shop-owners of the aforementioned street put shutdown-notes into their display windows (leading up to 44 shutdown-notes on display). These notes highlighted in very different ways that the shop-owners were forced to close their businesses due to state regulations. During the second and third shutdowns (in November and December 2020), these notes were still more or less ubiquitous. Most of the small businesses that displayed shutdown-notes during the first shutdown, displayed them during the second and third one, too.

During the fourth shutdown (April 2021), however, the number of these notes decreased significantly. In April 2021, only five shop-owners were putting up shutdown-notes. This has been interpreted as a removal of the pandemic from public space. It might also be understood as a normalization of the pandemic influence on the professional life of the shop-owners. In the upcoming post, we see that this process has been continuing during the fifth shutdown (from November 22nd 2021 – December 11th 2021). We witness an increasing demise of the communicative genre of the shutdown-note. During the most recent shutdown, there were once again five shutdown-notes on display. They document an almost stereotypical normalization of the shutdown-situation.

The Communicative Genre of the Shutdown-Note

First a few notes on the notion of the communicative genre: The concept of the communicative genre is a technical term that primarily emerged in those strands of the Sociology of Knowledge that have been strongly influenced by the work of the late Thomas Luckmann. Most generally speaking, Luckmann described ‘communicative genres’ as solutions to specifically communicative problems. Along with the command of language itself, such solutions – Luckmann argued – are available in the social stock of knowledge. In other words, communicative genres are among the basic building blocks of the communicative construction of our social reality.

Against this general background, shutdown-notes can be described as a particular (written) communicative genre in as far as they communicate a legitimation for the closure of a business. Throughout the years, businesswomen and –men used this type of notes during holiday seasons to indicate the closure of (primarily) small businesses for a certain period of time. In addition, shutdown-notes have been used – particularly within the display-windows of family businesses – to indicate closure due to illness and / or family-festivities.

With the COVID 19-pandemic, the genre of the shutdown-note has – at least in the initial phase of the pandemic – gained a surprising degree of dissemination as well as significant new dimensions. At least, within the street under review in the present series of posts, shutdown-notes have initially been found all over the place and the pattern of information provided by those notes seems to have changed significantly. The notes under display provided different types of legitimations for shop closure under the condition of the pandemic – and were no longer limited to holidays or family-festivities.

During the first shutdown as well as the second and the third shutdowns, those notes documented how businessmen and –women constructed the corona-virus-induced shutdown as an unconceivable threat that has been posed by state authorities. Analytically speaking, they thus raised the question what might be the consequences of such a construction of the pandemic for socio-cultural discourses in general and for political action in particular.

Changes among Shutdown-Notes

As has already been indicated in the previous post, this situation changed significantly during the fourth shutdown of April 2021. The vast majority of the shop-owners was no longer using shutdown-notes to legitimate the closure of their shops. Those who displayed shutdown-notes, however, seemed to cover the whole spectrum of businesses. At least, the notes under display in April covered the whole spectrum of different types of shutdown-notes that were used during the first, second and third shutdowns.

In terms of numbers, the fifth shutdown has produced a similar set of shutdown-notes as the previous one. Once again, five shop-owners used shutdown-notes in their shop-windows. Three out of these five shops had already been displaying shutdown-notes during the fourth shutdown. The other two shop-owners had not been displaying any type of notes half a year earlier. The shops displaying shutdown-notes during the fifth shutdown were once again primarily smaller, family led businesses.

In terms of content, the character of the shutdown-notes has, however, changed significantly. The scope of the topics has been reduced significantly: All the shutdown-notes under display legitimized – in different ways – the closure of the respective business with explicit references to official state regulations:

  • Aufgrund der derzeitigen Ausnahmesituation (due to the current exceptional situation),
  • laut Lockdown (due to lockdown),
  • aufgrund der derzeitigen Verordnung (based on current regulations),
  • aufgrund der beschlossenen Lockdown-Maßnahmen (due to the lockdown measures that have been adopted),
  • auf Anordnung der Bundesregierung (by order of the federal government). This is the shutdown-note displayed at the beginning of the present post.

In other words, the focus on state regulations – that had already been observed with regards to the initial shutdown-notes – has by far become the dominant denominator of the shutdown-notes. This leads hack to the initial two questions: What does such a demise of a communicative genre stand for? And what does this process add to the understanding of the socio-cultural constriction of the pandemic?

Demise of a Communicative Genre

The present demise of the communicative genre of the shutdown-note – in terms of numbers and content – can be interpreted in two ways: On the one hand, a Sociology of Knowledge-approach indicates that a communicative genre is about to vanish as soon as a specific problem is no longer in place. In the case of the COVID 19 pandemic, this seems to be no particularly plausible reading, due to the fact that the pandemic is still very much influencing the businesses under analysis. So, such an interpretation seems not to be particularly helpful.

On the other hand, it has been argued that a communicative genre is about to vanish as soon as the communicative solutions to the respective problem(s) need no further legitimation. This seems to be more helpful to understand the present demise of the shutdown-notes. Five shutdowns have led us to the point, that the respective closure of businesses is no longer perceived as an extraordinary incidence. Along those lines, the previous observations suggest there is no need for further legitimation – or rather that the degree of legitimation has been reduced significantly.

To put this into a nutshell: If shutdown-notes are still in use, we observe an increasing reference to state-centeredness in the public construction of the pandemic. In other words, the shutdown-notes link the pandemic directly to the political realm. This suggests, how the shutdowns (as well as the treatment of the pandemic) contribute to an increased political controversy. The shutdown-notes document how the pandemic has become a socio-cultural phenomenon that is (almost) exclusively framed along the lines of politics.

Photograph (redacted to preserve rights of shop owners) by Karsten Lehmann.

Rat-Blog Nr. 02/2022

  • Prof. Dr. habil. Karsten Lehmann is Research Professor for inter-religiousness at the Kirchliche Pädagogische Hochschule Vienna/Krems (KPH), member of the RaT-Research Center, and Guest Professor for Religious Studies at the University of Greifswald / Germany.

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