Two pictures of Communication and Language

Communication is not two minds communicating information (about mental, conceptual or worldly referents). It is not agent/sayer standing over separate from the listener/passive. It is an event/action/activity/happening in the world. A happening of (Medial) conversation which is the playing out of differences in the on-going living of our lives together as socio-historical-biological-material-embrained-embodied-emoted (en-habitus-ed) beings.  In play in this happening is not just two minds/agents, but two minds, plus the event of discourse itself, the Sache, the genre, institutions, narratives, heteroglossic pulls and plays, power, conceptual systems, etc (at all points on the SFL instantiation cline). All of these are stakes in play, at risk, being played and playing, both agent and affected, with no participant as the predetermined winner (‘in the last instance’). That is, it is an open, truly multi-level-ed, historical event. [Note to self: Need to gloss this further with Silverstein et al on indexicality of context – to separate it from rigid theoreticist ‘systems’, ‘structures’, ‘paradigms’, etc.]

OK, there are of course pressures, tendencies, assumptions, ground-rules, rules of the game, conventions, norms, habits, expectations, goals, interests, power, etc in play. There may even be a ‘typical actual’ to use Firth’s term, but the typical cannot be taken for granted. There is always the possibility of contingency, variation, contamination, misunderstanding, mis-plays, acquiescence or resistance, high emotions, recklessness, (affects), as well as peculiarities, particularities of circumstance which intervene, mask, skew, tip, hide or tilt the unfolding ensemble of play.

In short, in these language games of communication there is always a place for interpretation, phronetic judgment, cunning, tact, emotional cathexis (cf semantic weight -Butt; semantic density – Maton), misrecognition, mistakes, mis-readings, ethico-aesthetic-emotional reactions.

The ‘two minds’ picture is theoreticist. The conversation picture is praxist-acal. What this means is that language itself is in the world . This seems almost identical to the Langue vs Parole pictures. So, it seems that I am saying that: the essence of communication & language is Parole, not Langue.

[Here is de Saussure (1959/1911) on why speech cannot be a stable object of investigation for a science of language: it is

many-sided and heterogeneous; straddling several areas simultaneously – physical, physiological and psychological – [because] it belongs both to the individual and to society… cannot [be] put it into any category of human facts, for we cannot discover its unity. [While] language, on the contrary, is a self-contained whole… (p.9). ]

And moreover, as Derrida, insists: even to picture a conversation as a self-standing event, something that can be interpreted, understood in abstraction from the flow of communication is absurd. The meaning, significance  of an event of communication is not given (‘present’) in or during the event itself once and for all. The event will be re-conceived, re-interpreted (re-cited-Derrida) again perhaps many times later assigning additional, new, misremembered or different meaning/significance to it and to what was said. The prominence of different statements, phrases or sequences will be re=membered, re-assigned, re-positioned. In memory or in recounting, semantic weightings will be different from that involved at the time.

This is inevitable: involvement in an event as it happens is quite different from reciting an event after it has happened. The post-factum report of a conversation will be phrased according to what is construed as its final outcome. This is not possible in the unfolding interplay of meanings as they emerge and contest possible outcomes. The tension of emotions, perceptions and judgements involved in fording a river are quite different from those in play in the re-telling of the journey. Another way of putting this is to say that each re-citing adduces by definition a different context of interpretation and interests (see van Leeuwen). Thus there is no neutral re-citing. Each repetition is a re-contextualisation, a re-working, a re-presenting of what happened—but now pictured from an-other angle, background and framing.


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.

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