GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 10, 2010

A Sapir-Katz Hypothesis

Filed under: GA — adam @ 5:05 pm

We all know about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (and if you don’t, you can google it)—it’s really Whorf, who was a student of Sapir’s and greatly expanded a couple of much more tentative suggestions from Sapir regarding the relations between language, thought and culture, who is responsible for the notion that grammatical structures influence thought and culture to the extent that incommensurability arises between different languages, and through them those ways of thinking and culture. Contemporary linguists seem to treat Whorf’s hypothesis as a kind of piñata, as if to see who can smash it most decisively, and it’s easy to see how vulnerable the once thrilling idea was: supposedly, the Hopi had no grammatical means of distinguishing tenses, and therefore, rather than sharply distinguishing, as we linearly minded Westerners do, between past, present and future, they see reality as an ongoing “process”—a perspective which, Whorf went on to claim, made their way of thinking marvelously compatible with the space-time of relativity theory. Linguists, I think, like the fun you can have with this, drawing upon their knowledge of the remarkable diversity of grammatical structures and peculiarities of the world’s languages to suggest various bizarre cultural and intellectual forms by way of refuting Whorf. I can play too: English verbs have no future tense—we “normally” use “will” as an auxiliary with the verb we wish to place in the future but we also often place a time designator in a regular present tense sentence to indicate futurity (I arrive tomorrow; I’m going to be there soon; we meet at 7, etc.)—so English speakers must be incapable of thinking coherently about the future: we are, depending upon your cultural tastes, doomed to be improvident wastrels, or happy-go-lucky live for the present types. But, of course, you can reverse all this, and say that precisely because we have no future tense, complacency about the future is forbidden us—we are more mindful of the various ways the future impends upon the present because we must devise all kinds of novel ways of referring to it. Or, how about the fact that in English the present tense doesn’t really refer to the present, that is, to something that is happening right now—at this moment, I do not “write” this sentence, I “am writing” it—that is, we use the present continuous. So, are English speakers more conscious of the incomplete nature of the present, or of the distinction between things we do habitually and what we are doing at the moment? Where would go to even begin to explore such “hypotheses”? While a science fiction writer might be able to do wonders with this kind of thing, it doesn’t take us, as cultural theorists, very far.

But language must be bound up with thought and culture, and we must be able to describe thought and cultural with linguistic and semiotic vocabularies—what else are thought and culture comprised of if not words, sentences and signs? You won’t get anywhere exploring these relationships if you are focused on what obsessed liberal intellectuals from the turn against imperialism and the (re)discovery of native peoples early in the 20th century (itself a victimary development of Romantic theories of nationality and ethnicity) until today: asymmetrical differences between cultures. But how about differences within languages? Any idiom creates a new way of thinking, a way of thinking possible only within that idiom—until the idiom is normalized and made readily convertible into other elements within the language. In other words, the point is not the inherent properties of language; rather, it is, first, the possibilities for invention inherent in language, and the certainty that new desires, resentments and loves will demand new idioms of expression; and second, the incessant change undergone by language, which normalizes idioms and idiomizes norms, thereby creating new resources for expression. Slang words like “cool” (amazingly still going strong) and “groovy” (hermetically sealed within the idioms of the 60s and very early 70s, and incapable of revival due to the demise of the technology it was predicated upon) are obvious examples: for at least a cultural moment, in a particular cultural space, these words enabled people to say, and therefore think, something that couldn’t be said or thought any other way. But then they become subject to mockery (“groovy” is more likely to make people think of The Brady Bunch than of Woodstock) and extension (“cool” seems to me to have become, in many instances, more or less synonymous with “OK”), and easily translated into other terms. At this point, there’s nothing you could say or think with “cool” that couldn’t be said or thought more inventively or nimbly in many other ways; and you couldn’t speak or think with “groovy” at all.

Once we say that idioms provide a new way for thinking, we can say the reverse: to create a new way of thinking is to construct an idiom. Ethically and intellectually, this would mean that my obligation in some new situation is to construct an idiom adequate to it: a means of mediating the articulation of desire and resentment especially threatening in that situation. Idioms construct habits: the best idioms what Peirce called the “deliberately formed, self-analyzing habit.” Idioms and habits refine and direct resentments: let’s say that you decide, in a particularly tense social setting that you can’t avoid, that you will counter every expression of hostility you encounter by restating it in literal, atonal indicative sentences: in other words, you will “translate” rude imperatives, hostile rhetorical questions, interjections, sarcasm, etc., into something like: I understand that you would like to take a break now. That would be an idiom—it would get noted, ridiculed, admired, imitated (perhaps involuntarily), revised, elaborated, and so on—others would have to respond to it in some way, leading to further developments within the idiom. They may want to speak with you about your idiom—can your idiom handle that conversation? Will you draw them in or will they draw you out? It may not work—it may send resentments spiraling out of control by appearing robotic, or deeply sarcastic itself—but then some other idiom will, or nothing will (some situations are beyond saving). The point is that you would be thinking in terms of inventing and experimenting with idioms, with rules that could be at least tacitly recognized. The more deliberately you construct idioms, the more attentive you become to potential materials for such construction: accidents, mistakes, surprises, on the one hand; places where communication and amity seem to be breaking down on the other. After a while an inventory of possible idioms evolves, and the ability to improvise, to redefine an idiom in the middle of things, emerges.

In fact, I have been experimenting with such an “indicative” idiom for a while—I first discovered its ancestor many years ago, in a situation where I had to provide academically acceptable answers in a highly politicized and hostile (and, for me, rather high stakes) setting—what I discovered is, no matter how snide and sarcastic your questioners are, in the end they need to ask a question; you can then carve out that question out of the fog of vicious innuendo, restate it, and answer it. A primitive version of the idiom has helped me often since, but lately I have been working on systematizing it: writing without interrogatives or imperatives, or even disguised imperatives like those lurking within words like “should,” “must,” and so on. This forces you to, then, rewrite a sentence like “we should do that” in a way that commits you to representing an actual event: not doing that will likely involve us in the following difficulties. We can try out other rules, perhaps in controlled ways: staying within the present tense leads us to fold all consequences into their present possibility; eliminating conjunctions takes away additive and oppositional habits of thought; or, eliminating conjunctions turns additive thinking into a search for degrees and thresholds; such elimination simultaneously tends to make opposites mere differences. And every few paragraphs, or according to some other division, suspend all the rules (why not?), because you must let go on occasion and you create a veritable carnival of forbidden terms.

I have referred in previous posts, a couple of times already, to one of Marshall McLuhan’s axioms that I find compelling: the content of any medium is another medium. Meanwhile, a reading of G.A. Well’s The Origin of Language: Aspects of the Discussion from Condillac to Wundt (a book I happened to come across in a used bookstore) crystallized for me the assumption that a meaningful world of ostensive gestures must have preceded speech (I am still thinking about whether one can imagine imperatives and even declaratives emerging within a purely gestural world, but for now I am assuming a realm of ostensivity). Language is, then, primarily iconic, as gestures would mostly be, as was the first gesture, aborted actions; and, then, exaggerated actions, simulated actions responding to other simulated actions, and so on. From the beginning, though, we can assume a drift toward the arbitrary, as there are always many ways of conveying an incomplete action, and gestures would take shape in accord with the habits of a community, and groups within communities—outsiders would not be able to treat them as self-evident and would need to be taught how to use the signs. There is even an irreducible element of arbitrariness on the originary scene itself, as the sign that prevails will be the one that works, not necessarily the one that is closest to a Platonic ideal of a gesture of aborted appropriation.

If human beings are deliberately and increasingly skillfully imitating each other in meaningful ways—ways that create new shared objects and means of appropriating and distributing them—then it seems to me reasonable to assume they will be imitating other things in the world as well. Once we admit this assumption, then all those ridiculous theories of the origin or language that have long ago been dismissed, from onomatopoeia, to imitating the cries of animals or the blowing of the wind, to stylized cries of pain and pleasure, become a lot more plausible—as the origin of speech within an already existing gestural world. The sounds that ultimately get combined into words would also, then, have iconic roots, which would support arguments for “phonosemantics,” or “sound symbolism”—the argument made most audaciously by Margaret Magnus ( that the meaning of words is tied to their sounds. Sounds would initially be made to accentuate a gesture, and then to supplement it when the gesture could not be seen—aiming, then, at the same effect as the gesture. In that case, the content of speech is gesture, just as the content of writing is speech. Speech would take over vast domains of human communication first covered by gesture, while at the same time incorporating, embedding itself within and expanding the realm of gesture—and, in the end, only being meaningful in terms of gesture. By gesture, I mean all the ways human beings coordinate with each other spatially—architecture is gesture, the fact that we face each other when we talk, and generally stand a few feet apart and never, say, three inches apart (unless we are lovers)—all this, and much more, is gesture. Speech is always about the possibility that we could have something in front of us that we could orient ourselves towards together.

But what is the relation between form and content other than one of inquiry—in the sense that the “content” of the originary scene is the repellent power of the object, and the “formal” gesture is eliciting that power, which is to say seeking it out, distinguishing it from everything else in the world, and “measuring” and “broadcasting” its effects. Roman Jakobson makes the argument upon which I am modeling this one: he contends (like David Olsen) that the invention of writing reified speech and “language,” turning it into an object of inquiry—in the case of alphabetical writing, an inquiry into which were the smallest representable “units” of language. Jakobson then suggests that this linguistic “atomism” was the source of the scientific atomism that predominated in Greek philosophy—if language, why couldn’t anything be subdivided into it most minimal units? For Olsen, the problem of writing is to supplement all the elements of speech that make understanding possible—gesture, of course, but also intonation and other elements of the speech situation. So, whole new vocabularies emerge as a result of writing—a word like “assume,” for example, as in “he assumed they were lying” would be unnecessary in speech, because there would be other ways of showing someone’s attitude in reporting their speech in a spoken manner—most obviously, imitating the way they spoke (in a questioning manner, say). The word “assume,” then, like a word such as “suggest,” are the means and results of an inquiry into linguistic interaction that is prompted by the invention of writing. Speech, then, is likewise a mode of inquiry into gesture, as gesture is itself a mode of inquiry into “elemental” desires and resentments.

I have also applied McLuhan’s axiom to the elementary speech forms, and would like to update that account. An imperative, then, is a mode of inquiry into ostensivity—not only that, of course, because if you are issuing an imperative you do want the thing done (just as if you are writing you are writing about something and not just inquiring into the operations of speech)—but an imperative attends from the absence of the object to the possibility of its being made present. An imperative is also an inquiry into the effects of tone and gesture (it needs to be loud enough, but not too loud, “authoritative,” it’s better to be standing or leaning forward, but sitting back in a chair might be a way of testing the intangibles of authoritativeness as well…), all elements of ostensivity. Indeed, the imperative might be seen as inquiry into the iconicity of the person. And like any inquiry, it originated in some uncertainty regarding the object in question. Similarly, the interrogative is an inquiry into the imperative—it marks the unfilled character of some demand or command, and unmarks the possibility that it will be fulfilled; the question attends from the expectation of a demand supplied to the disappointment of that expectation, and then from the prolongation of that demand to some anticipated location in reality whence the reformed demand might yet be satisfied. Inquiry is a act of marking and unmarking—when we are converging on the object, the object is marked for destruction, but once the sign is issued we attend, first, from the sign to the object, unmarking the formal sign and sharing our marking of the object; and then, second, we attend from the object to each other, thereby unmarking the object (which is to say unmarking everyone’s defense of, resentment on behalf of, the object) and marking our own now evident, because naked, desire for the object and resentment toward the others. Signs are unmarked insofar as they single out portions of a reality than in turn marks as partial those singling out. Just as portions of reality can be marked by signs, signs can internally mark parts of themselves, which really involves marking some prior use of the sign while unmarking the sign itself. Sign use, language, is always inquiry insofar as it is always prompted by some portion of reality, and the signs which have zoned off that portion, having moved from an unmarked into a marked state, and the need to restore relation of (un)markedness.

The declarative, then, is an inquiry into the resolution of the state of uncertainty (and “patience”) unmarked by the question, marking its continuance and unmarking what would ultimately be the articulation of imperatives and ostensives that would resolve it. The sentence, then, unmarks whatever the question marks, a reality that exceeds the scope of the question: if this one were to move a bit this way, and the other a bit that way, and another were to look over there and promise not to move, etc., the uncertainty would be resolved—all those acts marked as uncertain by the question are unmarked as embedded in reality, as commanded by reality, in retrievable ostensive-imperative articulations; and the sentence can, in turn, mark and return to the domain of the question any of those articulations, which is to say, who observed and did what to make the event represented in the sentence and the event of the sentence itself possible. Inquiry, then, is the process of allowing anything on the scene to be marked or unmarked; representation is a solid state of un/markedness. The sentence articulates an event by mapping another event: where before there were increasingly marked (or potentially increasingly marked) convergences of desire and resentment, questions in danger of relapsing into commands, commands into the attempt to grab something, even if not what was originally desired, there is now an event with participants upon a scene everyone can identify and inhabit, however tacitly or indirectly. They can attend from their own scene of tribulated conversation to the scene presented by the sentence, and from the scene represented by the sentence to their own participation on the scene of speech, a participation now framed in terms of words that might match desires and resentments.

An idiom, then, creates a space of inquiry, and spaces of inquiry let things be, and suspend us in observance of those things; an idiom allows us to negotiate its own terms, guaranteeing that we will share the same space as we do so. The fleshing out of an idiom will entail its embodiment in gesture, speech and writing, and allow for certain norms regarding the issuing of ostensives and imperatives. The indicative idiom I have presented may be more weighted towards writing, but for that reason might have striking effects in speech situations; it might suggest minimal gesturality, but minimal gesturality might be maximal in its meaningfulness. Imperatives would be left largely implicit in such an idiom—an overt imperative would be heavily marked—but since the imperative space will be fulfilled one way or another, learning such an idiom would mean deducing imperatives from representations drained as much as possible of all resentments other than those directed against over-invested representations of reality. Above all (an indicative idiom would rule out phrases like “above all,” which tell—command—the communicant how much importance they “should” give to one claim over another) idioms inspire the invention of other idioms, in this case perhaps an imperative centered one that introduces equivocation into explicit imperatives.

A sign presents, bears with it, involves a scene; a sign also represents the results of a completed scene to those who weren’t on it. You might think about the difference between the working out of a shared sign on the spot, and the teaching of that sign to others, once a consensus on its shape and use has been decided upon. Each sign contains both dimensions, but in differing proportions. In presenting, in inquiry, the preliminary marking of the ultimately unmarked is enacted; in representing, that preliminary marking is unremarked upon, and the (un)markedness of the system and its elements appears ready made. The generation of idioms aims to tilt the proportion more towards presenting than is ordinarily the case, to mark more elements of language so as to make them available for future unmarkings.

Along with formalizing our own incessant idiom generation we can construe others in terms of their tacit idioms. Insofar as you can work with someone’s idioms, obeying and extending its rules, you have granted them a right to speak within a particular discursive space. There is no reason to tamper with the basic rights conveyed to us from Enlightenment politics and, in the U.S., the U.S. Constitution—free speech, free assembly, right to due process, to bear arms, and so on but rather than reducing all political discussions to these rights, which means they either get stretched and distorted or become irrelevant; and, rather than leaving talk of rights behind and allowing bureaucratic expansion to proceed by way of “non-ideological problem solving,” we can grant a kind of pragmatic, subsidiary right to idioms. Instead, for example, of a Supreme Court delivered “right to privacy” based upon a incoherent reading of the 4th Amendment with the penumbras of a couple of others thrown into the mix, why not recognize the idioms in which women speak with and about their relations with their doctors, bodies and intimates, and identify (and argue about identifying) some boundary beyond which laws shouldn’t pass—and then, rather than forbidding all laws that transgress that boundary, bring that argument into the debate over laws? We would then be using “right” in a more informal way, in the way you say to someone, “you have no right to speak to me like that!” (like what?: in some idiom, no doubt), but the use of the same word can ensure continuity with more “fundamental” uses of the concept. Such idiomatic uses of “rights” recall the origin of the term in the more medieval notion of “privileges,” which associates rights with honor within a gift and Big Man economy—and something like honor is what is usually involved when we say “you have no right to speak to me/treat me like that!” We can give linguistic if no legal heft to our intuitions that the media, for example, have no “right” to investigate the children or cousins of candidates for office, and we can embed impoverished contemporary shibboleths like “privacy” with articulations of right and obligation implicit in terms like “modesty,” “reticence,” “shame,” “respect” and other terms reflecting our tacit knowledge of social boundaries and the individual attitudes and aptitudes required to preserve them. There is a kind of extremism, found in some versions of libertarianism in particular, that sees other modes of exchange as competitors to the market mode, and it is that kind of extremism (reinforcing the leftist extremism that wants a reduction to a bureaucratic reinterpretation of “rights”) that wants to drive out all ways of adjudicating conflicts other than through “rights”—but a healthy free market would be based upon a healthy informal gift economy, and allow for transit back and forth between the two—and even encourage us to go back to the primitive egalitarian distribution found in families and other groupings (like sports teams, for example). People with a complex sense of “their own,” and with sophisticated idioms for parsing “ownness” will be all the better prepared to enter the global market economy.

Anyway, why “Sapir-Katz”? Partly for the symmetrical displacement of “Sapir-Whorf,” but that is only possible because Edward Sapir did, in fact, have a more subtle understanding of the relations between language, thought and culture than Whorf and has helped to suggest, for me, the possibility that the construction, through various means, of idiomatic shifts within the language provide new pathways for thought and culture. But that’s enough for now.

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