Re: [xmca] No Firewalls

From: Kellogg (
Date: Thu Aug 31 2006 - 22:57:12 PDT

Dear Phil, bb, and the other David K:

It certainly HAS been a very profitable discussion! At first I was a little taken aback by all the recommended reading (Hasan? Lotman?) and the apparently unrelated topics (literacy?). But when I took the time to go and look, nothing was irrelevant and all of it worthwhile, for which many thanks.

Unlike bb, I don't really think that we are reading different meanings into Halliday. It's just that I am inclined to take his disclaimer of dualism with a block of salt, both because I once heard him propose a theory of the whole universe which divides it, at least given our present state of knowledge, into incommensurable domains of information and matter and because, as bb admits, the description of "context of situation" and "context of culture" cuts BOTH off from the world of practice.

Of course, I don't think anyone can really mount a spirited defense of Descartes' theory of mind; you would have to believe all kinds of malarky about the pineal gland, and you would have to imagine that animals are basically robotic. But laying out and sticking to a coherent alternative to a dualistic theory of language is much more difficult. You really have to want to jump out of the firewall and into the fire.

In response to (the other) David K, I would first of all say that I would be very happy to see him in Seoul (give me a call at 2-3475 2505), and I know some very good spots for soju and geupjang (pig's anus, actually; but don't knock it till you've tried it).

Then I would have to admit that I deny the "systematicity" of language as a whole. I think that, for example, "the" English language is not a unified system at all, but merely a motley collection of speech genres, many of them mutually unintelligible and more closely related to discourses found in similar environments in "other languages" than to those found in dissimilar environments in English (think of mathematics discourse, for example).

Child language, teacher talk, and pidgins are indeed non-systematic, but they are actually rather more systematic than "the" language as a whole (whatever that is) simply because they are bound by smaller communities of speakers and more definable contexts.

To take up (with gusto) the literacy theme proposed by bb, the difference between the literate discourse of speakers of Cantonese and speakers of Mandarin is actually minimal, while the difference between their spoken language is so large that I have to translate for my Chinese wife when we visit Hong Kong. Or, to take an example that is probably more familiar to readers of the list, "English as an international language" is really a written form, not a spoken one, and in that sense resembles nothing so much as Modern Standard Arabic. Language IS very hard to decontextualize, precisely because once you do it, say, by inventing writing, it creates a new context around itself.

It's really like Volosinov says. Languages are NOT rule governed; they are the stuff of ideology, and thus context governed. That is why the Lotman reading that David K. recommends so horrified me; it is replete with the kind of structuralist parallelism that I am complaining about, e.g. where he says that a whole culture may be read as a text.

Vygotsky, on the other hand, started with a stern critique (of Hall, of Haeckl) that utterly rejected the idea that phylogenesis was in some way "recapitulated" ontogenetically. He certainly rejects the idea that microgenetic texts are "recapitulated" in socio-cultural entities.

Vygotsky is no structuralist, and neither is Volosinov or Bakhtin; I think they are better understood as dialectical content-ists, where content is constantly reformulating and reconstituting structure, and where content is, in the long run, always concrete, always material, and always (in the long run) primary.

But Halliday I am less sure about! Widdowson complains that Halliday's grammar implies that we can simply "read off" meaning from a text, without inspecting the context. You can easily see where he gets that impresssion; Halliday tells us, on the very first page of the grammar, that this is what his grammar intends to do.

And sure enough, that IS what the Critical Discourse Analysis people have been up to, and it's why they so often simply end up discussing textual "truth effects" rather than contextual truths, as if they were writing literary criticisms of rather than linguistic analyses of daily newspapers. Widdowson's criticism of CDA has been written off as being fusty and liberal. This is very far from the truth; Widdowson is strongly sympathetic to socio-cultural theory, but it is really old school socio-cultural theory, with a materialist philosophical basis and a strongly realist epistemological stance. Me too!

According to this stance, the "truth effect" of a particular discourse on rational human beings is pretty negligible if it can be easily demonstrated to be untrue. Now, you may find that view naive (when I read Western coverage of Iran, for example, it appears very much so; for example, the lie--later acknowledged to be so by the US government--that the Iranian government forces Jews to wear a yellow emblem was spread on this very list without contradiction, and it is almost impossible to find a Western newspaper that will admit the obvious fact that Iran's current nuclear program is perfectly legal and there are no grounds for sanctions under international law.) But as a mercilessly rationalist epistemological stance, it would have made perfect sense to Spinoza, Marx, and Vygotsky himself.

This latent structuralism is what's really wrong with the Hasan I've read too. Hasan considers that the unity of language is in its systematicity. This is why her analysis of children's literature (1985), so similar to the first chapter of the first edition of Halliday's Intro to Functional Grammar, is almost pure structuralism.

I really suspect that this structuralist vein, which Halliday probably got from the Prague linguists, is the source of my discontent; Vygotsky, Bakhtin, and Volosinov all cut their theoretical teeth on debunking Saussure and/or Shklovsky (though when I read LSV's "Psychology of Art" I can feel a strong youthful sympathy for Russian formalism.)

The material which Phil recommends I also find very problematic. It's not just that Hasan unthinkingly recycles the Stalinist canards about Luria's Uzbek work (2005: 147). It's not just that she confuses--fatally--the higher psychological functions--by which Vygotsky means volitional memory, voluntary attention, and self-control--with literacy and classrom pedagogy (p. 18, p. 116, and p. 148). It's that she attempts to portray Vygotsky as someone who has a purely ideational (logico-experiential) view of language (2005: 142, 146).

If that were true it is hard to see how language could mediate anything other than representations of reality. But it simply isn't true. Language begins and grows as a form of interpersonal mediation in Vygotsky, just as it does in Halliday's brilliant work on child language.

It doesn't take very much imagination to see that when LSV was writing the "Teaching Concerning the Emotions" he was simply clearing the table, as he always does, with a critique of extent theories before elaborating his own. He died before he could quite pull this off, but we can easily imagine a whole theory of mediated emotions fairly similar to his theory of mediated intellect, in which the "lower level" emotional responses (sex, fear, anger, etc.) are semiotically mediated (for example, through works of art) into higher ones, such as love, justice, and socialist altruism.

One might complain, with some justice, that by dividing intellectual functions into higher and lower, and emotional functions into higher and lower (and even language into literate and non-literate, or monolingual and multilingual) Vygotsky was creating a kind of dualism. But first of all, it is a real socially tangible, concrete distinction, not an invented one like the difference between ink-and-paper text and the theoretical construct of a text (where the only actual difference is that one exists and the other does not). Secondly, Vygotsky has provided us with a bridge.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

(In lieu of recommended readings!)

Hasan, R. (2005) Language, society and consciousness. London: Equinox.

Hasan, R. (1985) Linguistics, language and verbal art. Deakin University.

Widdowson, H.G. (2004) Text, Context, Pretext. London: Blackwell.

xmca mailing list

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Tue Sep 05 2006 - 08:14:31 PDT