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[Xmca-l] The Social and the Semiotic



A few years ago there was a minor theoretical kerfuffle at the
International Congress of Systemic Functional Linguistics in Vancouver.
Systemic Functional Linguists tend to be gentle, ruminant creatures, who
frown on intellectual prize fighting (building "vertical" intellectual
structures, like building chemistry on physics and biology on chemistry, is
the goal rather than building "horizontal" knowledge structures like
competing fields of sociology, psychology, cognitive science). But they
also prize delicacy and like to make fine distinctions that account
exhaustively for data (e.g. vocabulary is treated as nothing but most
delicate grammar, and grammar as most general forms of vocabulary, hence
the use of "words" for the latter and "wording" for the former).

Accounting exhaustively for language as a social-semiotic phenomenon
usually involves a delicate distinction between the social and the
semiotic, something like the distinction between physics and chemistry on
the one hand and biology on the other. But Jim Martin argued that semiotic
activity does not occur independent of social activity and vice versa, so,
by Occam's razor, the terms are redundant and the hyphen superfluous.
Surely the distinction between social behavior and meaningful behavior is
nothing like the distinction between animate and inanimate, sentient and
non-sentient, carbon-based self-replicating matter and inorganic compounds.

Yesterday, we went whale watching out of Sydney Harbour. The Southwest
Pacitic humpback community, which numbers between thirty and forty
thousand, spends the summer (that is, your winter) months in Antarctica
feeding on krill and small fish; they have an ingenious method of feeding
called bubble-netting which takes about 27 years for a whale to learn. It's
a lot like Leontiev's description of a primitive hunt: twelve whales work
together to emit a circle of small bubbles encircling the prey, and
gradually shaping it into a tall cylinder about thirty metres in diameter.
When the krill kill is shaped in this way, the dinner table is set. The
whales just sluice up and down through the cylinder with their baleen
plates agape, raking in thousands of fish and/or tiny crustaceans with each
pass.

But then they embark on the road trip which brings them past Sydney Harbour
and to points further north. The migration lasts many months, during which
the whales do not eat at all. Even mothers, who have to produce about 40
litres of whale milk daily, fast the whole six months. I noticed that the
whales we saw were always in groups of two or three and I wondered to the
marine biologist on board if whales worked in small communities in
Antarctica but then went on holidays in nuclear families. She pointed out
that these dyads and triads were all the same size and gender. "They're
just mates," she said.

She also said that the study of whale songs is being "de-anthropmorphized":
it was previously believed that since they vary much like languages, with
regional dialects and some "multilingualism", they must have an economic
function in feeding, a sexual function in mating, or a political function
in establishing male dominance (no easy feat, because females are
polyandrous and rather larger than males). None of this is the case: whales
sing when they aren't feeding, when they aren't mating, and when they
aren't fighting: they just like to sing. And in fact the four-tone songs
vary more like pop-tunes than like regional dialects or functional
registers.

Now, when the kerfuffle broke out between Halliday and Martin in Vancouver,
Halliday pointed to ants as a species who were social but not semiotic
(there is no reason to believe that "meaning" as distinct from molecular
biology is at stake). You might think the Southwest Pacific humpback
community is a good counter example, since they clearly have both social
and semiotic activity. But it seems to me exactly the opposite: they are a
clear example that social activity is goal oriented in one way, and
semiotic activity is goal oriented in quite a different way. I have never
liked using the term socio-cultural to describe Vygotsky's theory (it is
the term generally used in my own field of applied linguistics) because I
thought it was redundant; now I am not so sure.

-- 
David Kellogg
Macquarie University

"The Great Globe and All Who It Inherit:
Narrative and Dialogue in Story-telling with
Vygotsky, Halliday, and Shakespeare"

Free Chapters Downloadable at:

https://www.sensepublishers.com/media/2096-the-great-globe-and-all-who-it-inherit.pdf

Recent Article: Thinking of feeling: Hasan, Vygotsky, and Some Ruminations
on the Development of Narrative in Korean Children

Free E-print Downloadable at:

http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/8Vaq4HpJMi55DzsAyFCf/full