First issue: language vs social practice

I tend to think about this by drawing on two theoretical traditions. The first is MAK Halliday’s systemic functional linguistics (SFL). (I will get to the second theoretical tradition, the German tradition, for which I will take Heidegger and Gadamer as representative, in a later post.) I will first approach this issue in relation to the work of what SFL calls the textual metafunction.

Regarding the first issue, a key question is unravelling the interface between the two faces of language – enacting social life and representation.

For me, SFL seems to construe these two functional dimensions of language (as a harmonious relationship which are woven together by a third, the textual metafunction, to produce neatly finalised totalities – texts. But this analytic construal seems to domesticate and render anodyne what I take to be incommensurable differences – ranging all the way from epochal historical motifs to sociocultural practices to micro-inflections in wording – locked in ongoing hegemonic struggle, competition and accommodation. The SFL picture reminds me of Whiggish renderings of the Hegelian dialectic in which competing meanings are neatly transmuted into a resolving synthesis.

To my mind, all discourse but especially discourse enacting teaching and learning is struggling to find a convincing relationship between incommensurable discourses/paradigms/worlds/frameworks – like these very posts I am writing now. One of the tenets of rhetoric is that all serious discourse arises from difference, from different perspectives, different interests, different values, judgements or sensibilities. For rhetoric, the object of discourse is a contested, still indeterminate issue (causa), some thing or some situation or some action or some possible action that is still not clear and agreed upon – and so needs discussion and debate in order to find and form a credible consensus. Heidegger and Gadamer in their renewal of ancient rhetoric translate causa  with the German term die Sache which means ‘what this text/discourse/discussion/court case is about’.

The significance of this for pedagogic discourse – for the reading, writing, discussion and thinking at work in teaching and learning – is that learning only happens when more than one discourse is in play. A pedagogy with only a single discourse in play is a debased, corrupt pedagogy; it is the pedagogy of rote learning, of the catechism, a pedagogy that pretends that the world both is and appears as one and the same to everyone. It imagines that students have lived with their eyes shut, but will now have them opened to see and understand the world for the first time. But in fact students come to the scene of pedagogy with pre-existing views and perceptions; and it is only by using these as footing that students can engage understandingly with what is being presented by the teacher or the texts speaking on behalf of ‘the truth’. So, rather than think in terms of ‘topics’, we should think in terms of issues, causa, Sache – matters that need to be discussed, explored, re-shaped, transformed in order to be wrought into a coherent stable entity or object.

In my view, if we as educators (and students) refuse to think of the textual metafunction as a matter of simply wrapping an extra layer of transitions, conjunctions and metadiscourse around an already determinate package of topical content, but instead interpret the metafunction as the work of trying to bring the disparate elements of a text, elements indexing different discourses, into a harmonious and plausible alignment and movement, then the textual metafunction is in fact the site of the most critical work of learning and understanding. It is the site where incommensurables and otherness are mediated, placed and positioned in relation to one another. If I am right that significant learning is coming to see the world from within a different discourse or discipline without annihilating existing discourses, then the textual metafunction will be a privileged site for observing and discussing how the tensions, relations and contradictions between the different discourses have been (could be, might be, have been attempted to be, have failed to be, have pretended to be, have deliberately not been, and so on) ‘resolved’ to form a coherent cohesive text.

Insofar as no text can have ‘the last word’ or encompass a finalised totality, or represent a God’s eye ‘view from nowhere’, I align myself with Derrida in viewing all texts, but especially pedagogic texts, as ‘essentially’ incomplete, unfinalised, riven by contradictions, grounded in incommensurable, elusive competing traces. And my suggestion is that it is in the textualising metadiscourse that this will show up most clearly.

A practical implication for language and learning educators: It may be that the rubrics currently proffered to students regarding conjunctions, metadiscourse, topic sentences, modality and so on when taught as a given, conventional feature of academic writing or of English discourse does a serious disservice to students. They present the textual metafunction as simply a matter of convention, not as a matter of the dialectical struggle at work when incommensurable discourses, concepts or worlds are in play. This means that any lapse or clumsiness in textuality is interpreted, not as pointing to an unresolved integration of die Sache, of that which is at issue in what the text is addressing, but as merely a failure to conform to a conventional feature of English academic writing. Worse, if disciplinary educators were ever to be persuaded to read these lapses in this way, they would be depriving themselves of a key site from which to observe and disclose where a student ‘is at’ in trying to grapple with the conflicting perspectives in play.

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About Rob McCormack
I am a retired second chance educator living in Melbourne, Australia. Theory I am interested in includes: Rhetoric, both ancient and contemporary; Post-structural discourse theory, Laclau; Halliday's systemic functional linguistic theory; Hermeneutics (esp. Gadamer); philosophy, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida; 'practice theory' in social theory such as Schatzki, Bourdieu; political theory, such as Arendt, Laclau, Tully ; pedagogic theory and philosophy such as Biesta, didaktik. Praxis I am interested in include: Adult education and adult literacy; second chance education; academic discourse and writing; langauge and learning; Indigenous education.

One Response to First issue: language vs social practice

  1. Rob McCormack says:

    Later Correction:
    I think the statement that it will be in the ‘textualising metadiscourse’ that the instability of a text will show up is wrong-headed. In fact a primary role of metadiscourse is to mask or mitigate the visibility of incongruences, contradictions, ambivalences, inconsistencies, incompleteness of the text. I take this to mean that the issues of coherence and cohesion are woven throughout the entire text, not simply confined to inter-clausal relations and such like.

    In terms of helping students in the art of reading – that is, the art of unpacking what is at issue and what is going on in a text regarding that issue or issues – I suspect it would be far more helpful to direct their attention to the substantive content first, and only then to study how the textualising metadiscourse has attempted to ‘hide’ the instabilities of the text.

    Of course the point of this art of reading is not simply to critique and thereby dismiss the text (and the alignment of discourses it proffers), but to enter more deeply into the matter of the text itself and thus to produce a new reading of both the text and the issues it is engaged with. And in this way to enter into a deeper and more nuanced engagement with the stakes at play in these issues.

    – Rob

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