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[Xmca-l] Re: The Stuff of Words

I'm going to keep this one.


Helena Worthen
Vietnam blog: helenaworthen.wordpress.com

On May 2, 2017, at 3:19 PM, David Kellogg wrote:

> One of the things I do regularly, is look at sound waves. That is, I look
> at a representation, on a graph, of minute changes in air pressure, as they
> affect a diaphragm in a microphone. The diaphragm then converts these
> changes in air pressure to electric signals, and these signals are really
> what I'm looking at on the graph. It's a little like watching waves on the
> sea strike a bulkhead or a breakwater: you have the sense of something
> quite natural colliding with something artificial and breaking up, but
> leaving a mark you can use to reconstruct it.
> When you look at the mark, you do not see vowels and consonants. In fact,
> you don't even see the spaces between words. They are literally not there:
> there is usually no break in the sound wave, any more than there is a
> sudden parting of the waves when you are watching the waves on the sea come
> in. I have gotten to the point where I can recognize certain patterns as
> linguistic patterns, but they are not the sort of thing that you would
> recognize (they aren't, for example, high sounds for "ee" and low sounds
> for "oooh" or anything like that (it's a quartet rather than a single
> flute--there are four "formants" of sound energy to keep track of, and
> there's quite a bit of counterpoint). The first thing you tend to notice is
> whether a whole utterance goes UP (like a yes/no question) or DOWN (like a
> statement or a wh-question). But it's really like watching waves until your
> feet get wet, and then you realize that you are also looking at tides.
> This is the stuff of words. I suppose you could argue that this is
> really very far from the real action; that the real action some current
> of meaning somewhere in people's minds. That's where the vowels and
> consonants arise, and where you get spaces between words and so on. I am
> sure that somewhere there is a linguist looking at brain signals in the
> cerebral cortex with much the same emotion I have looking at sound waves
> and much the same conviction that I have, that she or he is actually
> witnessing a current of meaning streaming through time. But to me this is a
> little like trying to say that the internet exists somewhere without actual
> computers. As far as I can see, if my sea of sound waves dried up, language
> would simply cease to exist.  Of course, we can have sound waves without
> language, just as we can have computers without the internet. But as far as
> I can tell, we cannot have language without sound waves (or hand waves, if
> you are talking sign languages), just as we cannot have the internet
> without computers.
> Now think of a table. That's it. You did it. You now have everything you
> need to park your coffee cup and lay out your book. If there isn't anything
> with four legs and a flat surface around, you can just turn the wastebasket
> upside down, use the windowsill, and when guests arrive you take the door
> off the hinges and put it on the wastebasket and the windowsill or you just
> go outside and use a stump or a rock or a log. I think you can see that the
> material of which the table is made is quite accidental. If one material
> ceases to exist, you just get another one, and if you live in a culture
> where a few feet of elevation above floor level is less important (like
> Korea, or any other place where you don't wear your shoes indoors) you
> just do without a table. Your life is a little different, but not as
> different as life without word stuff.
> D.H. Lawrence, in "Why the Novel Matters"), goes through this long and (to
> me and to women) quite coy and annoying meditation on why we imagine that
> "man alive" lives in the head and not some other body part. He goes on and
> on about how his hand, and his fingers holding his pen are just as much a
> part of "the whole man" as the head. And then, forgetting for just a moment
> that he is really talking about some other appendage that he feels very
> attached to, he muses a moment about whether his fingernails are really
> part of "the whole man" and decides that they are somewhere in between,
> because he cuts them off. He doesn't really need to get that far--if you
> have to choose between losing a finger and losing a hand, you choose the
> former and not the latter, and the same thing is true if you have to choose
> between losing a hand and losing your head.
> It's tempting to see in this crude, coarse, unmanly (and unwomanly) essay
> something like Bateson's ruminations on the blind man and the stick. But I
> see them as being exactly the opposite. If you see the essence of humanity
> as out there, amongst your fellow humans, in their livings and lives and
> voices, then it makes perfect sense to see the absence of tables as
> accidental and irrelevant, an absence of fingernails and not the absence of
> a finger, a hand, or a head. But the absence of word stuff is an absence
> indeed; the loss of word stuff is the loss of  human wholeness, if that is
> what Lawrence really meant by "man alive".
> David Kellogg
> Macquarie University
> On Wed, May 3, 2017 at 7:06 AM, Alfredo Jornet Gil <a.j.gil@iped.uio.no>
> wrote:
>> David (and or Mike, Andy, anyone else), could you give a bit more on that
>> distinction between words and tables?
>> And could you say how (and whether) (human, hand) nails are different from
>> tables; and then how nails are different from words?
>> Alfredo
>> ________________________________________
>> From: xmca-l-bounces@mailman.ucsd.edu <xmca-l-bounces@mailman.ucsd.edu>
>> on behalf of David Kellogg <dkellogg60@gmail.com>
>> Sent: 01 May 2017 08:43
>> To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
>> Subject: [Xmca-l]  The Stuff of Words
>> Gordon Wells quotes this from an article Mike wrote in a Festschrift for
>> George Miller. Mike is talking about artefacts:
>> "They are ideal in that they contain in coded form the interactions of
>> which they
>> were previously a part and which they mediate in the present (e.g., the
>> structure of
>> a pencil carries within it the history of certain forms of writing). They
>> are material
>> in that they are embodied in material artifacts. This principle applies
>> with equal
>> force whether one is considering language/speech or the more usually noted
>> forms
>> of artifacts such as tables and knives which constitute material culture.
>> What
>> differentiates a word, such as “language” from, say, a table. is the
>> relative prominence
>> of their material and ideal aspects. No word exists apart from its material
>> instantiation (as a configuration of sound waves, or hand movements, or as
>> writing,
>> or as neuronal activity), whereas every table embodies an order imposed by
>> thinking
>> human beings."
>> This is the kind of thing that regularly gets me thrown out of journals by
>> the ear. Mike says that the difference between a word and a table is the
>> relative salience of the ideal and the material. Sure--words are full of
>> the ideal, and tables are full of material. Right?
>> Nope. Mike says it's the other way around. Why? Well, because a word
>> without some word-stuff (sound or graphite) just isn't a word. In a
>> word, meaning is solidary with material sounding: change one, and you
>> change the other. But with a table, what you start with is the idea of the
>> table; as soon as you've got that idea, you've got a table. You could
>> change the material to anything and you'd still have a table.
>> Wells doesn't throw Mike out by the ear. But he does ignore the delightful
>> perversity in what Mike is saying, and what he gets out of the quote is
>> just that words are really just like tools. When in fact Mike is saying
>> just the opposite.
>> (The part I don't get is Mike's notion that the structure of a pencil
>> carries within it the history of certain forms of writing. Does he mean
>> that the length of the pencil reflects how often it's been used? Or is he
>> making a more archaeological point about graphite, wood, rubber and their
>> relationship to a certain point in the history of writing and erasing?
>> Actually, pencils are more like tables than like words--the idea has to
>> come first.)
>> David Kellogg
>> Macquarie University