GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 17, 2010

The Right of the Idiom, 3

Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:17 pm

Disciplinary spaces are both open and closed: when you just enter a disciplinary space, a space with a real focus, an evolved vocabulary, and means—both explicit and tacit—for rerouting the attentions of the others within the space; when you just enter such a a space you don’t really know what’s going on. Even more, you read it in terms of what you do know. At the same time, if it’s a genuine disciplinary space, it provides various transitional terms that both de-familiarize what you thought you understood about the shared attentionality demanded and provide you with the means to participate in disciplinary events. We can formulate this inside/outside relationship as follows: the probability that anyone will iterate signs put forward within the discipline approach 100% the more they have entered the disciplinary space and randomness the further they are outside of it. We can think about it this way: imagine standing in front of a contained representation, like a painting or photograph, with someone else—you could conduct your discussion almost completely in deictics or shifters, that is, “look at that”; “how close would you say this is supposed to be to that?”; “do you mean him or her?”, etc. You, with your eyes on the same thing, can be completely mutually intelligible to each other; anyone without their eyes on this scene could not even begin to make sense of your conversation. That’s what a discipline is—we all know we are looking at the same thing, and can proceed from there. At the same time, we can welcome others into the scene, and welcome the new perspective they bring with it; and, even more, we have to continually refresh and check our sense that we are, indeed, looking at the same thing. Within a discipline, it becomes especially evident when we are not, as we believed, looking at the same thing: the deictics lose their referential power.

We can contrast disciplinary discourse with what I called, in the previous post, “crowded” (and crowding) discourse—that is, partisan discourse organized around gaining access to the state’s power to protect and divide property. Those inside one crowd and (of necessity) outside the other, understand equally well, but in the opposite manner, what goes on inside the other crowd. In other words, those on the left understand “Obama is a socialist” just as well as those on the right; those on the right understand “Palin is a fraudulent woman” just as well as those on the left—in both cases, the meaning of the statement is saturated, and marks an entire field along with the oppositions that constitute that field. It’s as if each crowd has a map that overlaps perfectly with the other crowd’s map, but with all of the places named differently. This has nothing to do with right or wrong, and I’m not claiming that political opponents are morally equivalent with each other—the war against Nazism worked this way, and the struggle against communism even more so, and while this insight into mimetic modeling can help is to identify excesses and distortions that can be curtailed and ameliorated, there is still a substantial difference between democracy and totalitarianism.

I would like to define language as the from which we attend to each other’s attending to. I am using the idiom of Michael Polanyi’s understanding of tacit knowledge, more specifically his The Tacit Dimension. According to Polanyi, we are always attending from one thing to something else, with the thing we are attending to that of which we are aware—what we attend from is essentially invisible. He gives the example of using a stick to stay in contact with the wall in trying to find your way out of a dark place—you are aware of the wall, not the stick. Of course, if the stick breaks, you will become aware of it—but that just means you will be attending from something to the stick—perhaps from your hand, which you now touch the end of the stick with, in order to determine how much of it remains.

If we attend from language to each other’s attending to, we are attending from language not merely to some object of shared attention, and to others’ attending to that object, but to both: language always implies not only something we are or might be talking about but the others with whom one might be talking about it—the two are bound up inextricably. The implication of my description is that language is ordinarily invisible—we don’t notice ourselves speaking, we don’t think of ourselves as adding one word to another as we speak, much less as making sounds that we could “listen” to by bracketing their meanings. Except for when, as in the example of the stick, language doesn’t work—when a foreign accent forces you to focus carefully on the sounds of the words, or a grammatical mistake forces you to hypothetically reconstruct the other’s meaning, etc. That’s when we have to look at language, which we do, of course, with language. Metaphysics is the attempt to rectify language when such events force language into self-reflexive states so that we can continue to look through language; originary grammar tries to articulate looking at language and with language with looking through language.

We can articulate an account of the originary scene in the Polanyian terms I have just introduced with the theory of “markedness” first constructed by Roman Jakobson and by now a staple of much of contemporary linguistics. I will make markedness theory do a lot of work, but I will also use it in some idiosyncratic ways—as is necessary to make it fully compatible with the originary hypothesis. Jakobson intensified Saussure’s insistence on the constitution of language through a series of differences by arguing that these differences are, most fundamentally, asymmetrical binary oppositions: always an opposition between an unmarked and a marked element. This opposition already does quite a lot of work for Jakobson and his followers, enabling them to account for phonetic, grammatical, semantic and other relationships; it can easily be taken even further, as in Eric Gans’s definition of White Guilt, as the guilt of the unmarked toward the marked. As Gans’s definition suggests, to be “unmarked” is to be generic, the norm, the taken for granted, or, in Polanyi’s terms, the tacit, what one attends from. To take a couple of simple examples, the present tense in English is unmarked, the past is marked (we add endings to the word): you look for the word “love” in the dictionary, not the word “loved,” which presupposes that “love” is the normal form of the word and “loved” the modified form. To take another, more semantic example, we ask how “tall” someone is, not how “short” they are (someone is 5 feet tall, not 5 feet short)—“tall” is the unmarked term, which means that referring to someone as “5 feet short” would add more information, implying, for example, an ironic stance on the part of the speaker. It would, in other words, be drawing attention to the word chosen, in a way “he’s 5 feet tall” wouldn’t.

We can locate (un)markedness on the originary scene in the distinction between sacred center and profane periphery. Indeed, the center must be marked first of all, insofar as the participants in the event attend from the sign/gesture to the object; but the effect of this shared attention is to have everyone attend from the object as sacred to each and every one’s profane desire for the object, culminating in the regulated sparagmos. The sign, then, signifies doubly: it refers to the object, but also the Object (everyone else’s blocking of the object) as the possibility of a normative approach to the object. The sign simultaneously marks and unmarks the object and thereby constitutes the unmarked/marked distinction in the first place. All that remains to be done is to show how the subsequent development of language, from the ostensive, through the imperative and the interrogative to the declarative, through the development of grammatical categories and rules and so on, is nothing more than the application of this “method” discovered on the originary scene. Once we have a meaningful unit, meaningful units can be combined into new units; and that unit can itself be broken down into units, meaningless in themselves, but meaningful in new combinations—just as the gesture on the originary scene is “analyzed” in the attempt to imitate it “correctly.” In this way we would have an originary linguistics and (my preferred term) grammar, which is to say an originary way of thinking through all the possible relationships between linguistic elements, or all the ways we think through, at and with language.

In every sentence, even every word, one part is stressed in relation to another—we attend from the unstressed to the stressed; or, from the part that would ordinarily have been stressed to the part that is stressed this time. What is stressed in “I didn’t expect to see you here,” for example: the “I,” the “you,” or the “here”—or, perhaps, the “see” (maybe you were expecting a phone call). The stressed is marked, that part of the utterance that provides the most, or most pertinent, information—just as the center itself is empty or silent, while being an inexhaustible source of knowledge regarding attempts to obey, violate or modify its commands. The theory of (un)markedness in turn makes the issue of “deictics” especially important: deictics, or shifters, are those words which take on their meaning from other elements of the message or the speech situation—for example, “him” or “that” depend upon what has been referenced in a previous sentence, or someone present who can be pointed to. I doubt I am the first person to observe that we can identify a deictic element to just about every part of any utterance, which is to say that the meaning of any statement has a scenic component—at any rate, attending from the unmarked to the marked pervades every use of language, to the point where one could pretty effectively and thoroughly describe the meaning of any utterance just by following all the ways in which the unmarked, present in the scene or utterance, or implicit in our knowledge as language users, directs our attention to whatever it is the utterance would have us mark. Indeed, the point of any utterance could be described as follows: to preserve, modify and/or expand the realm of the unmarked by marking whatever most immediately demands others’ attention—because, as those familiar with the originary hypothesis know, whatever is marked is a potential source of rivalry, crisis and violence.

Distinguishing between the unmarked and the marked raises new questions—simply, unmarked and marked for whom, in what setting, according to what criteria, etc.? The distinction is always made in some event, on some scene, and must ultimately lead us to an ostensive gesture—this word, this act, is marked because it is set off from some norm in the following way; “distinctive,” or “distinguishing features,” to use Jakobson’s terms, can always be indicated. In other words, distinguishing between marked and unmarked takes place on a disciplinary scene, however rudimentary and tacit. Whereas Jakobson would, understandably enough, distinguish between the speech situation and the represented scene we can locate in any speech act, and identify the deictics in play accordingly (“someone was standing to the left of John” functions deictically on the represented scene, assuming John has been placed on that scene; “over there” functions deictically in the speech situation, but wouldn’t on the represented scene), I would approach that necessary distinction as follows: there is what can be identified on the disciplinary scene, or what I will also call the scene of presencing; and there is what can be represented by those on that disciplinary scene to those outside of it. What can be represented to those outside of a disciplinary scene are the results of that scene: what emerged in a continuous, spontaneous manner (the disciplinary scene always culiminates in and maximizes deictics—“look at that… now see what happens here… go back to that…) is now represented as completed, in a narrative or conceptual form.

Deictics introduce the marked/unmarked distinction into grammar, because some words, originally meant to accompany a gesture or direct our attention to something on some disciplinary scene, is now redirected so as to draw our attention to something else in the sentence. We attend from relative pronouns like “which” and “that” to a clause we are to place in relation to the previous one. Personal pronouns direct our attention toward someone who has previously been named and commented upon. As we transition or transform our relations from presencing to representational ones, verbal elements that were involved in constituting the scene by establishing symmetrical shared attention are turned to the purpose of reconstructing the scene by placing the names of participants on the scene and the character of events transpiring upon it into grammatical relations with each other.

The first declarative was an “answer” to an interrogative. This makes perfect sense because any sentence can be read as an answer to a question. Indeed, most sentences can be read as answers to multiple questions, questions implicit in other questions, questions asked by various, perhaps opposed, inquisitors, questions occurring to the speaker him/herself as he/she composes the sentence in response to another question, etc. Questions and types of questions repeat themselves over time, and language economizes—one very important thing grammar does is build types of answers so as to pre-empt a whole series of questions into the structure of the sentence itself. Conjugating verbs packs together the answer to the question what is done with the question who does it. In English, for example, the adjective almost invariably precedes the noun it modifies—on the one hand, we are deprived of a possible marker of style (maybe “hat red” would carry subtle, yet genuinely different connotations than “red hat”); on the other hand, we are saved from what might be an unworkable level of confusion regarding what is modifying what, thereby answering a potential question in advance. Grammatical rules, along with the vast number of linguistic formulas (of greeting, of marking agreement, of providing recognition, etc.) unmark vast swathes of language and can arouse great resentment when violated or mistaken—precisely because such violations open up questions, and through those questions, imperatives and contradictory imperatives thought to have been silenced. In all of these cases the same process is at work: words which once had scenic, presencing force, are turned into terms from which we attend to whatever the sentence and larger discourse would have us attend to. The linguist Guy Deutscher, in his excellent The Unfolding of Language, provides a fascinating analysis of the development of the word “going” into an auxiliary verb and ultimately into the phrase pronounced “gonna,” by now an independent grammatical marker (as Deutscher notes, we don’t say “I’m gonna the store”—“going to,” in its original sense of moving toward some destination, still exists, but separately from this other, evolved, form). Conjunctions and prepositions are evolved adjectives, which are in turn evolved from participles and language is dead metaphors all the way down. Ultimately language evokes and constitutes events and the participants thereon by naming and tracking them with specialized means of directing attention: when you represent a scene for someone who was not a participant, the only way of doing so effectively is by using or creating metaphors (say, an imperative become a verb become, via a participle, a condition) from which others can attend to their own disciplinary locales. We can articulate all of language out of ostensives become substantives, imperatives become verbs and decitics with all subsequent complications resulting from the new ability created by the declarative sentence to quell all questions (behind which lurk threatening imperatives) by referring them to a reality subject to its own imperatives which override those with which we presume to approach it.

Using Jakobson’s distinction between the axis of combination (the relations between words in a sentence, or grammar) and the axis of selection (the choice of one word over others that could go in its place, or semantics), we could say that the conventions of grammar allow us to mark a particular element of the sentence as that which the sentence is most significantly conveying: if I say “I am going home” I can emphasize the “I,” as in you might stay on, but not me; or the home, as in you might have some other destination in mind, but as for me, it’s home. The “I” or the “home,” then, is the marked element. At the same time, selecting “home” unmarks home in relation to, say, one’s address, or as opposed to “out of here,” both of which might be implicitly marked as mocking or excessively provocative. Finally, the one who hears the sentence, who, in Jakobson’s terms will “decode” it—but I prefer to describe language iconically, as a mapping, which the listener or reader navigates, or fails to navigate—will in turn iterate the act of (un)marking, in what he or she says, does, and doesn’t say or do (in the common tripartite division of the materials of linguistics, grammar, semantics and pragmatics, this final move is the pragmatics).

At any rate, to conclude this discussion, which I see has not yet gotten to either rights or idioms, our distinction between disciplinary spaces and crowded spaces, scenes of presencing and scenes of representation, can be determined not so much in terms of quantities of marked and unmarked elements as in the extent to which what is unmarked and marked is determined on the scene: more precisely, the more disciplinary, the more presencing, a scene, the more anything might be attended to just as easily as it can be attended from; the more crowdy, the more representational, the thicker the commonplaces and predictable phrases one need merely attend from; the more disciplinary, the more diverse the imperatives flowing from reality and the more intermixed they are with imperatives and interrogatives put, nevertheless, to reality; the more representational or metaphysical, the more unilateral, irresistible and univocal the imperatives flowing from reality. Which is really a way of repeating my first couple of paragraphs, and laying a little groundwork from really getting to the right of the idiom next time.

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