Re: [xmca] Beyond Alterity/Intersubjectivity

From: Kellogg (
Date: Mon Aug 28 2006 - 00:05:40 PDT

Thanks to everybody who recommended more reading: actually, I've been trying very hard to track down the Gordon Wells/Michael Halliday work in Language and Linguistics, and I would very much appreciate a PDF file.
     I'm not sure more reading will cure me, though. I've been working through the Collected Works of both Halliday and Hasan (and gotten to Volume Seven and Volume Two respectively), I've been an often uncomprehending lurker on the list for some time, and I've read most of the discussions you mentioned. I admit that sometimes the very best discussions occur when I am occupied with classes and I have to skate over them. If I sound ignorant, then, it is really NOT for lack of reading; it is more likely to be caused by divided attention (classes have just started here in Korea).
     At first I too was quite convinced that Halliday and Vygotsky were made for each other, and I was rather surprised when Halliday told me that the reason he doesn't mention Vygotsky much is that he doesn't think other people really mean what Vygotsky says. I have always considered myself as belonging to the category of "other people" no matter who uses it; I am clearly not identity, so my intersubjectivity depends on identifying myself with this referred-to alterity. And now I find that he was right: I too am "other people", and my Vygotsky is not Halliday's at all.
     I do applied linguistics myself (and I am very willing to put what little language expertise I have in French, Chinese and Korean into the XCMA multilingual project) so one of the very first things I read by Halliday was his marvellous essay "Towards a sociological semantics", in Johnson and Brumfit's 1979 "The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching". Using a rather unhappy example, he describes (exhaustively) the various threats, punishments, warnings, and other semantic resources available for controlling a child. I remember that even twenty-five years ago I found myself very troubled by the idea that the resulting system was too complex to be represented in the mind in any way that made it usable. For a while, I consoled myself with the thought that, like an ant on the beach, we only handle one decision point at a time, and therefore the real complexity is not represented in the mind at all.
     But Halliday still does think that language is made up of these decision points, and that these decision points represent something very like traffic signals (see Vol. 3 of Halliday's Collected Works, p. 4). Now, traffic signals do lend themselves to decontextualization and universalization; on any street corner you can find one, and the red always means stop and the green always means go.
     It seems to me that human language is NOT like this. Human language is extremely difficult to decontextualize; it is quite possible for "green" to mean "stop" (e.g. "stop polluting") and red to mean "go" ("get out of here!"), and that is not even considering things like sarcasm and metaphor. Harris (1990: 173) remarks that in some ways human language is more like a car klaxon than a stop light. When you honk the horn, it doesn't have a fixed meaning at all; it is simply not the case that one beep means "I'm waiting for you" and two beeps means "get out of my daylight". When you hear a klaxon you need to inspect your context carefully, and above all you need to make some kind of inter-subjective identification with that alterious other, in order to understand what is meant by it. This is the process by which Ana and others on the list have gotten so very much mileage out of "mm-hm" and a nod or a wink.
     This "integrationist" view of Harris' is much closer to Volosinov's (and thus to Vygotsky's) than it is to Halliday. Harris actually denies that language is separable from other forms of human communication, or that human communication is in principle separable from that of animals. He does not actually believe that there is such a thing as "a" language--the languages we speak are much closer in nature to their non-linguistic environments than they are to each other.(Peirce comes to very similar conclusions using a very different method: "legisigns" are context-free and "qualisigns" are context-embedded, but most signs fall somewhere in between.)
     For Halliday, on the other hand, a language is, at bottom, a fixed code, with specifiable and decontextualizeable rules. Of course, all language has non-fixed, non-language origins in gesture and intonation and other forms of semiosis, but it has come too far to turn back. Vygotsky, or at least MY Vygotsky, seems to think that language is CONSTANTLY turning back to its nonlinguistic origins. In the last chapter of Though and Speech, he is very much closer to Volosinov's analysis of "Well!" in the appendix to "Freudianism" or else think of Vygotsky (and also Bakhtin's) commentary on the passage of Dostoevsky where six workmen bandy about an unprintable adjective. Even Halliday, where he is writing about CHILD language, is very close to this view (see Volume Four of the Collected Works, especially Part one). I guess I just think that adult language has not come as far in the direction of a decontextualized code with fixed rules as Halliday thinks.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

Harris, R. (1990). Must monkeys mean? In Love, N. (Ed.) The foundations of linguistic theory. (pp. 158-179) London and New York: Routledge.


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