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[xmca] Re: Vygotsky and Saussure and Whorf and language, meaning, and culture

I'm rather fond of trying to pull threads together, so bear
with me as I try to do so with this post by speaking to both
my original post on language ideology, Michael Glassman's
response, and on Joseph Gilbert's post on emotion (the phrase
"biting off more than you can chew" comes to mind, but I've
got too big of a mouthful to be able to say it).

First, in response to Michael's response to my post, a few
quick points. I should start by noting a similar conversation
on XMCA that was started by Dot Robbins a few years back:
Aside from being a rich source on this topic of what Vygotsky
means by "smysl" and "znachenie"), I noticed that Robbins
(Dot?) makes reference to "a trend to get away from
internalization within sociocultural theory" and was wondering
how this conversation articulates with the concerns raised by
Peter Jones (any reference to a link or previous conversation
would be appreciated - no need to explain it all since I
assume there is a longish explanation behind the comment about
the trend to get away from sociocultural theory).

FOr me, the real question with Vygotsky and Saussure (and I'll
briefly add Peirce) is whether or not Vygotsky has room for
something like Peirce's signs which function indexically. The
notion of indexicality seems crucial for any semiotic theory
because it provides a way to avoid the infinitely vast
separation of word and world that leads you to either
Derrida's meaninglessnes or Searle's intentionalist semantics
where meaning is "what you mean". This gap can be arrived at
through Saussure's langue and parole or signifier and
signified or Frege's sense and reference - and I wonder
whether Vygotsky would have been influenced by Frege's work
either directly or indirectly. Does Vygtosky head us down this
road? I've noticed a lot of people bring Peirce into this
discussion board but I wasn't clear whether people felt that
the two semiotic theories are really complementary.

Peirce's notion of indexicality and iconicity (and developed
as such most notably by Michael Silverstein and other
linguistic anthropologists)  provides a way of grounding
meaning in reality. A sign functioning indexically is a sign
whose relationship to its object of signification is an
"indexical" or "pointing to" relationship. Thus, in contrast
to Saussure's approach (which only picks up on signs
functioning symbolically and in which the world of signs and
the world of the things that they signify are separated by an
insurmountable gap), Peirce's approach provides a grounding of
semiosis in real experienced context while at the same time
providing a way of maintaining a certain unity of the event of

Building this out to the other thread currently out there, I
think that this gives us a more agnostic (cynical?) and less
emic understanding of emotion. Michael, in your response, your
sense of "emotion" seems to split it off from activity and
from the social in a way that I'm a little uncomfortable with
(e.g., "The first level of meaning belongs to society and
allows us to function in society and simply get the things
done we need to get done.  The second level however, sense, if
I am reading Paulhan correctly, is very emotion based").

I see emotion as much more performative (and this can also be
seen as a critical response to Joseph Gilbert's post), and let
me mention three bits of evidence to flesh this out. In the
view that I am putting forward here, emotion is a sort of
complex semiotic form that is called up by various indexes of
subject-hood including language forms, prosody, and bodily
behaviors. This puts "emotion" on a more equal footing with
other forms of semiosis (as being somewhere between individual
and society) rather than cordoning them off inside of the
individual as if they are authentically produced from the
insides of the individual, only becoming social when they are
put into words. So here is some evidence to consider:

1) First is my experience with my own kids. When they are
first able to express themselves emotionally, they seem to
jump from one emotion to another. One could interpret this as
the fickle-ness of children (as if they actually "have" these
varying emotions), or alternatively, one could view this as
the child's attempt at testing out various emotions to see
which one works for whatever activity they are engaging. In my
experience, the latter view seems to fit the facts much better
(and unfortunately too often the way that kids get things done
is by crying or whining rather than by being quietly
cooperative -- but this is really our fault as parents).
Sometimes I can even catch my daughter in a "performance" of
emotion (although this can be incredibly difficult) and she'll
start laughing. Whether or not the performance is "authentic"
or not depends largely on my response.

2) Second is Goffman's paper on response cries. This paper can
be seen as evidence of how emotional states are signalled
through language. Importantly, he argues that these are
"managed" depending on social contexts. Here again emotion is
constituted (mediated?) in part by social context.

3) Third is work by a colleague of mine (and a student of
Mike's) Bianca Dahl, on the socialization of emotion. To
oversimplify what is a really lovely chapter of her
dissertation titled "Singing with Sad Faces", Bianca presents
evidence that particular emotional responses to something like
the death of a loved one are culturally contingent. She was
able to observe moments where Westerners would re-train these
children to "sing with sad faces" as they are singing a song
about the death of their parents and the performance of which
is intended to raise money from wealthy Westerners for the
AIDS orphanage in which they live. She notes how some of the
older children and young adults have begun to "internalize"
this Western way of mourning and how strange it is to their
non-Western elders. To me, this points to the way in which
emotion is not simply something that comes from the inside and
is then put into words. Rather, the emotion is a part of an
activity and is constituted by social and cultural context as
much as it is by individual experience (or maybe rather,
individual experience is conditioned by social contexts).

The emotion based notion of "sense" taken from Paulhan seems
like it would a bit too much of an individualistic theory (in
Marx's sense from the Grundrisse). But then again, the whole
inner/outer dualism that carries through much of Vygtosky's
writings (as with Bakhtin/Volosinov) seems the sort of thing
that I would have thought these non-dualistic thinkers would
have not been comfortable with. Am I reading Vygotsky (and
Bakhtin/Volosinov) wrongly? Or is there an inherent dualism in
the inner-outer dichotomy? (and I suspect there is a previous
post discussing this, so feel free to point me in that direction).

Enjoying the conversation.
Greg Thompson
Ph.D. Candidate
The Department of Comparative Human Development
The University of Chicago
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