GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

April 25, 2020

Nominalization, Imperativity and Reading, Quick or Patient

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:50 am

David Olson makes nominalization, in particular the nominalization of verbs, central to his theory of the metalanguage of literacy. To review: the metalanguage of literacy supplements those elements of the speech scene that cannot be directly represented by writing. These elements can be helpfully reduced to all that involve the relation between the speaker and the speech of another which he is reporting. Whatever could be enacted in a speech scene—anything on the continuum from reverence to mockery—through tone, body language, etc., must be represented lexically. (This means that the spread of writing means the partial neutralization of mimesis—or its transformation into a more mediated, long-term affair.) Most of our conceptual vocabulary is comprised of variants of “say,” with “think,” “know,” “do,” “want” “happen,” and “feel” taking up the rest of the space. (A lot of what is usually associated with thinking, and even knowing, I would suggest, is really concerned with the supplementation of “saying.”) It’s also worth pointing out that studies of academic discourse have shown that what distinguishes academic, or disciplinary, discourse from “ordinary” discourse is the pervasiveness of nominalizations and noun phrases, especially operating as the subjects of sentences. Anyone who reads an article from any academic journal can easily verify this.

It seems, then, that nominalization must be central to the generative logic of translation I started working on a few posts back. Wierzbicka’s primes are very verb heavy: we have say, want, do, happen, feel, happen, see, hear, know, and touch. The nouns, meanwhile, are very generic: someone, people, all, something, thing, this, one, I, you—mostly pronouns, along with a few others like “place” and “time.” This makes sense, as neither names of people, names of places, nor names of gods could be in the primes, even though they must have been part of human language from very early on. Still, it’s interesting that even very simple nouns, like “food,” or “ground,” or “sky” or others one might imagine (body parts that all humans have, for example) are absent. Perhaps they were too particularized through being associated with deities or some kind of divine presence; perhaps what seems to us to be, self-evidently, a separate “thing,” can in fact be thingified in various ways. Verbs for various bodily functions, like breathing, are sources for many words denoting invisible objects (like “spirit”), but the invisible world is overwhelmingly populated by nominalizations of these prime verbs and those invented to supplement them.

The process of nominalization precedes its acceleration under writing—all of the verbs included in the primes have nominal forms, mostly deriving from some conjugation of the verb itself (at least in English, but I would assume this is generally the case); at most requiring a prefix or suffix (which perhaps marks that nominal as later)—thought, knowledge, feeling, want, doings or deeds, touch, hearing, sight, etc. What is the ontological status of these entities? We can trace a progression (relying, of course, on English grammar) from nominalizations that would be at one remove from the scene first represented: for example, if someone thought something, it is not a leap to refer to “a” thought, “the” thought, or “that” thought that they had; to the removal of determiners, getting us to “thought” as such. As the word is stripped of determiners, it becomes intelligible as the “object” of a specialized discipline. An oral world could have “thoughts,” but not “thought,” I assume.

Now, once we have a noun like “thought,” we can start attaching adjectives to it: political thought, cultural thought, critical thought, etc.; we can turn the noun into an adjective, like “thoughtful,” or “thought leader.” The center of gravity of the noun is the name, and so the tendency to generate nominalizations is rooted in the need to generate names, or centers (“nominalization” itself, of course, ultimately means “make into a name”). Verbs can’t be referred to, or placed at the center in the same way—the verb “think,” by itself, can only be an imperative. So, nominalization, which is the linguistic and therefore more fundamental form of “reification” and “hypostatization” is a descendent of the originary sign. A nominalization is “redeemed” in the same way, through the organization of “congregants” who can generate ostensives singularizing the nominalization. This is what a disciplinary space is: everyone in that space can say something about “thought” that everyone else in the space will recognize as saying that thing about “thought.” It’s circular, but so is all of sign use, and the circle is complete when the participation of our nominalization in events gives us something to point to, like, say, a text or “way of saying things” that we could describe as an “instance” of “thought transcending itself,” or something along those lines. (Attaching verbs to nominalizations so that they can starting “doing” things is a further step toward entrenching them. The similarity to mythical beings is transparent, and has been noted many times. Maybe this is what at least some mythical beings originally were.)

A generative logic of translation wants to target nominalizations, then—not to destroy or discredit them, but to produce new disciplinary spaces out of them. You want to turn references to “thought” into practices of thinking, which you do before, but manifest in, saying—perhaps so that saying can also become knowing. Constructing relations between the primes keeps us focused on the “destiny” of these verbs. The reference to thought is telling you to think, to think about thinking, in fact, which is to say it is issuing an imperative. I want to be very practical here—I am thinking pedagogically, like a teacher, who wants to help others learn how to do things they didn’t know how to do before. In this case, I’m also learning (a teacher who doesn’t learn things in teaching is a bad teacher). A generative logic of translation is a reading and writing practice; more succinctly, a practice of literacy (“literacy” is ultimately a “re-nominalization” of “letter”). As a teacher I’m very hostile to references to “understanding” things, which usually means something like “talking about them more or less the same way I do” (people tend to think others “understand” them when those others speak of them more or less the way that person would). I want to provide means for rewriting, or translating—from one statement to another, or to a question or command. I much prefer a translation practice that “misunderstands,” that gets things completely wrong, to a show of “understanding” that flatters the teacher but really privileges the more mimetic student, the one who has learned how to game the system—a translation that gets it “wrong” might at least initiate a series of responses that creates a new space, while “understanding” wraps things up like a test question. You understand things when you want to prove how smart you are; learning (or teaching) something plunges you into imitation and the risk of being stupid.

So, I propose deriving imperatives from nominalizations—references to “thought” are, quite literally, telling you to think about thinking. Discourses about “thought” or, more modernly, “cognition” in general, which have these nominalizations “doing” all kinds of things and possessing all kinds of capacities and characteristics are houses of cards—but the point is not so much to collapse them as to locate the point at which they would collapse most readily at the slightest movement. These points, I would hypothesize, are where “think” or “know” most closely bounds, to the point of overlapping with in part, the other primes—think and know with each other, either with want, or say, or feel, or see or hear or do or can. This provides us with a fulcrum. Of course, the cognitive sciences can speak of the relation between “cognition,” “desire,” “discourse,” “action,” and “sensation,” but only to show how they “influence” or “distort,” not constitute, each other—some pressure on those terms will fold them back into think or know, want, say, do and feel. You will always be able to locate some point where, for example, what one knows is “contaminated” by what one wants or, for that matter, what one hears, or touches. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean one doesn’t “really” know that thing, it just means that knowing is a different kind of thing than we might have imagined.

I want to again insist on putting “say” at the center here. There is something irreducible and irreplaceable about the exact words someone says, here and now—not a paraphrase, not “well the point was,” not “what they were really getting at,” but what they actually said when the moment called for words. All these are translations, which can be interesting as translations, not “clarifications.” And there is something infinitely generative about taking that utterance and translating it into all the idioms, contexts and media in which one has some degree of fluency. All thinking, doing, wanting and so on find their way through what someone says. Every nominalization can be folded back into something like “when (if) X happens, someone says (can say) Y.” To ask someone speaking of human “behavior” in some conceptual framework, something like “what would this figure of the human you are constructingsayif…” is a way of demanding the further minimalization of the hypothetical underpinnings of the claim. It’s very productive to force the transition from a statement like, say, “denial of emotional investment in relationship double binds is highly characteristic of…” to “what would one of these individuals in such a double bind say if someone else said…”? This creates a space for the oral within the literate while making explicit the scenic accretions effected by literacy. This fulfills one of the dreams of postmodernism, to make all writing “literature,” while also making “literature” a rigorous vehicle—to capture the entire meaning of a highly nominalized statement would require the construction of a complex scene, and perhaps alternate scenes, perhaps a long novel. But when time is an issue, one can write flash fiction.

These would be scenes, moreover, on which both interlocutors are present, even if though an interface. What kind of double bind is constructed in the sample statement provided in the previous paragraph, and what is your investment in it, one might ask the author (for whom, in one’s own discourse, one would have to hypothesize answers). What would you, gentle author, say if… Now that you mention it, maybe this author has already said it—let’s look around. And then you’re reading the text in a very directed, “interested” way. You’re not writing 19thcentury style realist fiction, but a self-referential text exposing its own “devices”—but always to get at that question—what would someone say if…. What could someone say? What do I say? What will you say when…” And when you saythat, what do you thinkothers will do? What will you be able to say after they do it? For that matter, what are you saying right now? We always return to the crucible of the primes. We have a logic that moves from the highest level of generality, enters the most complex discourse, while remaining rooted in the most elementary relationships, where the primes overlap, interrupt and supplement each other. A reading and writing practice that can facilitate a quick intervention in a twitter burst or the writing of a doctoral dissertation. With plenty of room for playfulness, experimentation, and extending the margin of error while developing new ways to test for error. The purpose of logic is to anticipate and address objections in advance; even better, though, is to have possible (and even impossible?) objections converted into broadcasters of what you say.

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