[xmca] Instantiation Cline, or, Firewalls and Fires

From: Kellogg (kellogg@snue.ac.kr)
Date: Wed Aug 30 2006 - 01:07:14 PDT

First of all, I must apologize for a bit of muddleheadedness. Previously, I said that I thought that context of situation (which I associate with PRAGMATICS) and context of culture (which I associate with SEMANTICS) are not commensurable, because one is in some sense causative of the other.


This is a very silly way to put it indeed; it sounds like I think that causes and effects are never commensurable. Obviously, when vocal cord vibrations cause sound waves, the two can both be measured in Hz.


But the situation IS different when we talk about how pragmatic phenomena like use causes (perhaps "precipitates" is a better word) semantic phenomena like usage. I'm not sure the second category of phenomena are really measurable at all. Words, as contextualized, pragmatic events are measurable; I spend a good deal of my day counting them. But abstract word meanings?


When I talked to Halliday, I remember we had a big argument about whether "meaning" was a type of "information" or "information" a type of "meaning". At the time I was very thoroughly over-awed and I didn't really understand what I was saying, much less what he was saying. But now when I think back on it, I think I understand it perfectly.


Halliday thinks that information is a type of meaning, viz. it is the type of meaning which is measurable in bytes. But I think that meaning is a kind of information, specifically, it is the type of information that has been represented in some way in human consciousness. Sometimes the way it is represented is susceptible of measurement, but sometimes it is not (I think this is not unrelated to the extent to which information is decontextualizable).


I mention this at the outset because I really feel that what is at stake here is precisely whether or not we are going to allow Cartesian dualism back into our discussions by saying that "ideal" phenomena are distinct from, and in no way linked to, material ones.


Yes, of course, we may build a little firewall by saying that instantiation is only true of the descriptions we create of language, not true of language itself. That is what I did, when I said "everything else is description", and it's also what bb does when he writes:


"I interpret the features in the cline of instantiation figure to be relationships between theoretical categories. Being purely theoretical, everything is ideal. Even text is ideal. It is not the actual text created in the situation -- for example, it is not the discourse as it unfolds, but it is the recorded, transcribed, analyzed, theorized text. In his verbal analysis paper, (a copy is on his web) Jay Lemke has written that as we record, transcribe, and examine a discussion it is transposed -- it becomes a different thing than the discussion itself. The latter is the use of language for communication, contextualized with the situation, but as we analyze it, it enters into a different activity, research, in which it becomes part of a different meaning making activity, contextualized differently with theory and other interpreted data."


But this transposition is not a transfiguration; it is not an apotheosis. Volosinov's whole reason choosing reported speech as the final, "ascent to the concrete" portion of Marxism and the Philosophy of Language is that taking a text and quoting it just creates another kind of text, which may be grammatically subordinated (or not, as the case may be) but which still exists on the same plane, as text. Bakhtin says "The text (written and oral) is the primary given of all (linguistic, philological, literary, and other) disciplines and of all thought in the human sciences and philosophy in general (including theolotical and philosophical thought at their sources. The text is the unmediated (!) reality (reality of thought and experience, the only one from which these disciplines and this thought can emerge." (Bakhtin, "The problem of the text", Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, 1986: 103). Makes it VERY clear which he thinks is primary and which is derivative!


Sometimes the firewall is more dangerous than the fire. My feeling is that we may say that pragmatics and semantics are distinct, but we cannot say that they are in no way linked. When Valsiner and van der Veer talk (2000: 397) about how it is quite impossible to tell that inter-mental processes are transformed into intra-mental ones, and therefore the whole ZPD construct is a bit of speculative moonshine, my blood runs cold. I hear the clanking of Descartes' automatons.


So if we say that there is something like an abstract text (or an abstract word meaning) which does not form part of some superordinate social whole (that is, for me, pragmatics) we are either, a) reintroducing Cartesian dualism, or b) declaring the independence from and equivalence of theoretical descriptions and pragmatic facts. Or both. I can't do that.


But I think Halliday can. Here's what Halliday says, on the very first page of the Introduction to Functional Grammar:


"To a grammarian, text is a rich, many faceted phenomenon that 'means' in many different ways. It can be explored from many different points of view. But we can distinguish two main angles of vision: one, focus on the text as an object in its own right; two, focus on the text as an instrument for finding out about something else. Focusing on text as an object, a grammarian will be asking questions such as "Why does the text mean what it does (to me, or to anyone else)? Focusing on text as instrument, the grammarian will be asking what the text reveals about the system of the language in which it is spoken or written. These two perspectives are clearly complementary; we cannot explain why a text means what it does, with all the various readings and values that may be given to it, except by relating it to the linguistic system as a whole; and equally, we cannot use it as a window on the system unless we understand what it means and why. But the text has a different status in each case: either viewed as artefact, or else as specimen."


I completely agree that there are MANY different points of view possible (I've always felt unhappy at the limitation of the metafunctions to only three). But that's about it. As soon as we selected two main angles of vision, I got lost.


First of all, I don't know at all what it means to focus on a text "as an object in its own right", except that it sounds like we are focusing on it out of context, and in that case I don't think we can answer the first set of questions about why a text means something. Texts mean things in contexts; a text abstracted from a context is not a text at all, but as you said, a kind of idealized description, a textoid, whose relationship to an actual text is very doubtful to me.


Secondly, I can see how it is impossible to understand a linguistic system without understanding at least one text written in that system; Halliday's grammar wouldn't make much sense to me if I'd never read any texts in English. But I really DON'T think the opposite is true; it seems to me it's quite possible to understand texts without understanding the linguistic system, else language would not be learnable, by children or by anybody else.


It seems to me that ALL languages, in order to remain living languages, MUST evolve texts and even whole registers which can be understood without understanding the language system: that is what child language, and pidgins, and teaching languages are.



David Kellogg

Seoul National University of Education


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