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. Read more of this post

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Preliminary thoughts on Halliday and semiotics

Trying to understand Halliday’s motivation for the concept of Instantiation has impressed on me the realisation that the very concept arises from Semiotics as a research paradigm. The very idea of assigning the identity and meaning of actual items on the basis of their relationship to a paradigm of virtual possible entities, that is, the relationship between meaning potential (system) and instance (actual), is perhaps the key move in semiotic structuralism. It is the move that severs the relationship between meaning and world, thereby insisting that signs must be defined, not by reference to objects, referents, fact or situations, but relationally to each other. Thus language, as a privileged example of a semiotic system, can be exhaustively described and explained purely on its own terms, without any reference to its actual uses in social life.

It is important to point out that what is at issue here is not the claim that the identity and meaning of a sign or linguistic item is not self-transparent and is determined by a context or background, by something outside of itself as it were. This contextualism is shared across many accounts of language. For example, Heidegger would say: ‘what it is that makes something what it is resides outside itself, not inherent in it’; actually he would would have phrased that as: ‘the essence of something lies outside itself’. Similarly, the shift from the Tractatus to Philosophical Investigations by Wittgenstein was a matter of no longer insisting that the identity of names or basic propositions was grounded in their transparent relationship to atomic entities and facts, but rather rested on the unfolding of the varied and fuzzy contextual situations of social life. Thus the meaning of a term is a function of what ‘language game’ it is implicated in, and the language game a function of what ‘forms of life’ it is enacting.

So, the move to a context to account for meaning and identity is common to both semiotics and what we might call the more anthropological or praxis accounts of meaning and language by Heidegger and Wittgenstein. The point of difference between the two approaches lies in the character of the respective contexts they nominate. For semiotics and systems theory, context is a relational constellation or assemblage of other virtual possible meanings, meanings that could potentially have been selected in a speech act but were not, whereas for the praxis paradigm, the context is actual ‘worldly’ social situation in which the language is figuring, and the situation itself embodies and expresses deeper socio-historical themes, imperatives and motifs.

If this sketch is even half right, what instantly springs to mind is that a deep gambit on Halliday’s part is a ‘both-and’ attempt to retain and reconcile these two competing paradigms: European semiotic structuralism and Anglo-American anthropology, as he himself phrases the difference. The global vector of Instantiation – patterns of agnation – indexes the former paradigm; the global vector of Stratification, especially its encompassing of ‘the eco-social environment’ mobilises the latter.

I picture Halliday as a Kafkaesque tight-rope artist precariously balancing on the wobbly shoulders of two giant paradigms within linguistics – the systemic and the functional.  This is to attend to the name of his linguistics – SFL: systemic functional linguistics – and note that although it presents as a nominal group functioning as a proper name, a name in which the terms ‘systemic’ and ‘functional’ are set peacefully alongside each other, in fact it may represent more an aspiration, a balancing act, than naming an actual finalised stable entity or accomplished reconciliation of the two paradigms in play.

I end this post with a number of questions for follow-up:

  • What to think about structuralism and its (continuing) role in SFL?
  • How does Halliday try to stitch together such two disparate paradigms as structuralist semiotics and praxis anthropologies?
  • What was the motive for attempting this, and how did it relate to the structural-functionalism of British anthropology at the time?
  • Was this effort simply a result of a dual interest in the Marxist oriented study of language by the Prague school and various Russian schools on the one hand, and the ethnographic functionalist anthropology of Malinowski and the American ethnographers on the other?
  • How did the shifts of British anthropology such as Mary Douglas, Evan-Prichard and of continental Marxists such as Gramsci & Althusser away from a simple, perhaps reductive, materialist and functionalists account of ‘species being’ and ‘society’ impact on the SFL account of the ‘social context’ or ‘social system’ or ‘meaning potential of the social system’?