[xmca] Mandelstam and the Illusory Nouniness of Concepts

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Sun Jun 03 2007 - 16:37:47 PDT

Dear Mike:
  Yes, so many things to read! This particular thing to read is going to be a little long, I'm afraid. But if you are really intent on reading Mandelstam's essay, I might be able to save you a little writing time; here are some juicy quotes I jotted down in the library (Annoyingly obstrusive exegesis by me in italics):
  First, Mandelstam's epigraph:
  "But we worry about things and forget
That only the word glows and shines
And the Gospel of John
Tell us this word is God"
  On the evidence of the epigraph to Psychology of Art, LSV believes wholeheartedly in those four little words with which Spinoza slew the Frankenstein monster of man-made religion: "God, that is, Nature..." But here is the WORD, the ultimate man-made deity, erected as an idol-by John, the original author of the Blood Libel against the Jews.
  But wait--Mandelstam was a Jew too. And that luminous image is certainly reflected in the very last sentence of Thinking and Speech. Better read on!
  "We've surrounded it with a wall
With the narrow borders of this world
And like bees in a deserted hive
The dead words rot and stink."
  Compare Minick's:
  And as the bees which have sunk into their silent Yule season
  So do dead words sink.
  It seems to me that Minick's is neither a typo nor a mistranslation--it's a DIFFERENT poem, or a different draft of the same poem. In some ways, it's a better one--it implies that bees HIBERNATE (and so they do!) This metaphor fits rather better with the idea of "forgetting" from the "Swallow" epigraph.
  And Kozulin's:
  "Dead words stink", the words of a dead poet walking, written just after that dead poet's revered teacher (Gumilov) had been shot and buried. Of course it's tempting to see an "act of defiance" in this (as van der Veer and Valsiner do).
  But whose act? Mandelstam's, certainly. But LSV's? LSV was far too aware of what was at stake to make a grandiose gesture and have his last testament on psychology disappear without a trace. He would only have included this if a) he thought he could get away with it, and b) it was really part of the argument he wanted to make.
  I don't know if he got away with it. We'll have to find out if the quotes are there in the 1934 or the 1956 edition (on the admittedly sketchy evidence of the Hanfmann and Vakar translation, they are not).
  But I think it IS part of the argument he wanted to make, an argument which has been unfortunately grossly neglected by BOTH Belyayev and (A.A.) Leontiev. Belyayev and Leontiev are having a chat/spat about whether it is possible to "think" in a foreign language; Leontiev, predictably, decides that "activity" is prior to language, and denies that we "think" in any language at all. Strangely, though, they BOTH seem to agree that concepts are basically WORDS, and archetypically NOUNS.
  I think this is something that Mandelstam very clearly rejects:
  "The word in the Hellenic conception is active flesh that resolves itself in an event. Therefore, the Russian language is historical even in and of itself, the incessant incarnation and activity of intelligent and breathing flesh." P. 69
  Mandelstam's "Hellenism" is not simply a reference to the Greek of the New Testament and the Greek of the Cyrllic alphabet. It's a reference to Romantic Hellenism, the revolutionary romantic stance that poets like Shelley and Keats took towards the French Revolution ("Prometheus Bound", "Chapman's Homer" and of course eventually "Frankenstein"), according to which the revolution, like the Hellenic civilization, represented an early and ultimately not completely successful attempt on the part of man to master his environment and himself. For this attempt to steal the fire of Zeus, the Greeks were punished by Roman and ultimately Turkish occupation and rewarded by the death of Byron.
  LSV doesn't use the word "Hellenism" much; in the first chapter of Psychology of Art he steals Marx's idea (from the Grundrisse) that what we need to explain about the Greeks is not what they meant to themselves but why they still mean something to us. This was Marx's way of distinguishing himself from the sort of critics that we would today call "New Historicists", and LSV is not slow to avail himself of it.
  LSV doesn't pick up on Mandelstam's Russian Hellenism, but he certainly DOES pick up on Mandelstam's idea that the deed is "made flesh" in the word; that's all over the last few pages of Thinking and Speech. Flesh and not meat, incarnated, and not con carne.
  "In Hellenic terms, the symbol is a utensil, and therefore any object drawn into the sacred circle of man can become a utensil; and therefore a symbol too." P. 75
  Tony Whitson was just making the point that LSV considered symbols to be tools. I'm not sure about this; it seems to me that LSV considers symbols to have GROWN OUT of tools, much the same way that tools grew out of arms and hands, and that having emerged from tools, they have a fundamentally different property, namely that they can cut both ways, internally as well as externally, and can help the user master his or her own mind and not simply the environment. If a symbol were really the same as a tool, then a shadow could use a tool to carry stones. But you can see what LSV would find attractive in this phrase.
  p. 75: "Hellenism means consciously surrounding man with utensils (utvar) instead of indifferent objects; the metamorphosis of these objects into the utensil, the humanization of the surrounding world; the environment heated with the most delicate teleological warmth. Hellenism is any stove near which a man sits, prizing its warmth as something related to his own inner warmth. Finally, Hellenism is the boat of the dead in which Egyptian corpses set sail, in which everything is stored that is needed for continuation of a man's earthly wanderings including even an aromatic jar, a hand mirror and a comb. Hellenism is a system, in the Bergsonian sense of the word, which man unfolds around himself, like a fan of phenomena liberated from temporal dependence, commonly subordinated to an inner bond through the human 'I'". p. 75.
  Here we very clearly see the link between Mandelstam's Hellenism and the Romantic Hellenism of Shelley and Keats, their vision of man's attempt to master the environment himself as something heroic but ultimately tragic and doomed.
  Willis makes the point that both Mandelstam and his wife rejected rationalism, development, progress, and any form of teleology, and that LSV did not. In this sense, Mandelstam is a Hellenist, but LSV is an actual Hellene.
  p. 76: "Man was no longer master in his own house; it would turn out he was living in a church or in a sacred druidic grove. Man's domestic eye had no place to relax, nothing on which to rest. All utensils were in revolt. The broom asked holiday, the cooking pot no longer wanted to cook, but demanded for itself an absolute significance (as if cooking were not an absolute significance). They had driven the master from his home and he no longer dared to enter there. How is it to be then with the attachment of the word to its denotative significance? Isn't this a kind of bondage that resembles serfdom? But the word is not a thing. Its significance is not the equivalent of a translation of itself." P. 76
  Mandelstam is revolting against the revolt of words, protesting against their reification, denouncing the creation (in the eighteenth century) of a semantics that was completely independent of pragmatics, the idea that "correct usage" of words was something quite different from ordinary use and something that had to be taught in schools.
  LSV does not revolt against this; like the development of symbols out of tools, the creation of abstract word meanings is yet another manifestation of "the incessant incarnation and activity of intelligent and breathing flesh."
  But LSV DOES revolt against the "nouniness" of concepts. In "Thinking and Speech" a concept is a process and not an entity-it grows upwards from the everyday utensil to the equipment of the science laboratory and downwards from the science concept to the spontaneous one.
  For LSV the archetypical concept is not "floor" (Belyayev's example) or "fruit". He would CERTAINLY reject AAL's conclusion that only words that have ostensive, objective correlates are concepts. That's Chapter Five of Thinking and Speech. But what about Chapter Six?
  LSV's example of a concept (in Chapter Six) is "because" (that is, the whole concept of causality) or "although" (that is, the dialectical relationship of "linked but distinct").
  So why do we, like preschoolers, keep making the mistake of thinking that concepts are basically transmogrified NOUNS? Well, for Halliday, both "because" and "although" are relators. A relator can be treated "metaphorically" as a process, like this:
  Rot causes stink.
  Interestingly, Halliday claims the OPPOSITE never happens-we don't take verbs and reconstitute them as relators. Similarly, processes can be reconstrued as entitities:
  The cause of stink is rot.
  But the reverse does not happen. When it does we feel something distinction unscientific is going on. One of my students was teaching a class in which she was trying to explain the difference between berries and nuts (a distinction that does not exist in Korean) and she said that berries were designed for birds to "outlet" them as dung. This is a clear example of a noun reconstituted as a process (and even a preposition reconstituted as a noun) but it's also clearly not a scientific concept.
  I think LSV sees that words are mental utensils for creating scientific concepts. But the utensil is not the concept.
  77: "It is most convenient and in the scientific sense most accurate to regard the word as an image; that is, a verbal representation. In this way, the question of form and content is removed; assuming the phonetics are the form, everything else is the content. The problem of what is of primary significance, the word or its sonic properties, is also removed. Verbal representation is an intricate complex of phenomena, a connection, a "system". The signifying aspect of the word can be regarded as a candle burning from inside a paper lantern; the sonic representation, the so-called phonemes, can be placed inside the signifying aspect, like the very same candle in the same lantern."
  "The old psychology only knew how to objectivize representations and while overcoming naive solipsism, regarded representations as something external. In this case the decisive instant was the instant of what was immediately given. The immediately given of the products of our consciousness approximates them to objects of the external world and permits us to regard representations as something objective. The extremely rapid humanization of science including in this sense epistemology too, directs us onto another path. Representations can be regarded not only as the objective-given of consciousness but also a man's organs, quite like the liver or heart." 77
  To return to Mike's query about to what extent Mandelstam's ideas about the word are compatible with LSV's. On the one hand, LSV is a Hellene, not an Hellenist. He BELIEVES in human progress, human development, teleology. So in that sense they are NOT compatible.
  But on the other, it seems to me that the WHOLE of Thinking and Speech can be seen as an elaboration of these two ideas.
  a) The sonic properties of a word and its meaning properties are BOTH part of word meaning, because although speech and thinking have different GENETIC roots, it is only when they fuse that we can speak of word meanings.
  b) The illusory nouniness of concepts is a product of human thinking, a lazy projection of percepts onto the field of conceptual meaning. Brains are well adapted to handle objects in the visual field, rather less well adapted to think about processes in the meaning field, and economical with mental effort, and thus given to reconstruing the latter as the former.
  You can see that if we assume that tools are symbols we are particularly susceptible to falling into this trap, because tools are manifestly entities and not processes.
  I don't think LSV fell into this trap. All tools have handles, but the handles do not tell us what they are for. Similarly, all concepts are accessible through words, but this fact tells us nothing about what they actually do.
  David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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