Re: [xmca] process structure of semiotic mediation

From: Kellogg (
Date: Mon Nov 06 2006 - 16:33:46 PST


I think we are BOTH right. That is, Valsiner WOULD say that "how" places a certain constraint (or "hierarchy" or "paradigm") on the conversation (although, as I show below, it is merely a grammatical constraint and it is easy to break with the inter-personal resources of discourse). And he ALSO believes that grammar is an intra-personal set of relations which allow the elision of elements in inter-personal discourse.

I think that is the basis for my criticism (though this criticism is really just an aggressively ignorant question). It seems to me that Valsiner really holds a "fixed code" theory of language, whereby "meaning" is the essence of a linguistic sign (rather than "sense", which is LSV's position, or "theme", which is Volosinov's).

Let me return to my example (and I should reiterate that this example is my own, and I'm not even really sure if this kind of elision is what Valsiner means when he talks of abbreviation).

A: How are you?
B: Fine, thanks, and you?

This is what Halliday would call a preferred response; a default reponse. Interestingly, the VAST majority of responses in our Elementary English textbook are of this nature, e.g.

Ann: What a nice day!
Nami: Yes, it is.

But when we put the kids in groups for "verbal volleyball" or in pairs for "pair pinpong" (a game in which they have to keep the conversational ball in motion for as long as possible or lose a point), this is what we get:

Ann's Team: What a nice day!
Nami's Team: A nice day? It's TERRIBLE.
Ann's Team: Terrible? Look at the sky...


The kids have realized that it is possible to resist the constraint of whatever grammar the initiator places on the conversation by giving a DISpreferred response. As Halliday points out, a dispreferred response always gives the respondant more discretionary power than the initiator expects him to have.

What he doesn't point out is that discretionary power is not intra-personal grammatical power (the dispreferred response STILL obeys the hierarchical grammatical constraint of "how" in that it must be paraphrasable by an adjective or adverbial phrase). It is inter-personal, and therefore discoursal rather than grammatical in nature.

To return to my example (which also appears in our fifth grade English textbook here in Korea):

Mrs. Smith: How are you, Jinho?
Jinho: Not so good, Mrs. Smith.

Here Jinho has power over Mrs. Smith, because Mrs. Smith is now CONSTRAINED to ask what is wrong. But the constraint is not grammatical in nature; it's discoursal. Mrs. Smith can ask "Why?" or "What's the matter" or "Tell me about it" or even "You look okay to me".

(This is true of ANY kind of dispreferred response. The situation is identical if Jinho beams and answers in an unusually exuberant tone of voice that he feels wonderful.)

There is nothing grammatically fixed about this discoursal constraint that I can see, and it is not easy for me to see how the underlying inter-personal discourse rule could be "abbreviated" or internalized. I think I am content to let it remain embedded in context as most language users who are not psychologists do. I think it is not systematically distinguishable from non-linguistic contextual factors, such as Jinho's pallor, background knowledge about his relationship with his girlfriend, the state of his digestion, etc.),

I think here and in many places, Valsiner resists this inter-psychological "intergrationalist" attitude towards language as irretrievably embedded in context. For example, Valsiner appears to use "sign" and "linguistic sign" almost interchangeably; I think this is misleading because some sign systems are undoubtedly decontextualizeable (e.g. traffic lights) but language is not one of them. In some of his diagrams and examples "e.g. "I am ANGRY",

Valsiner comes dangerously close to implying that a sign "stands for" a feeling or a psychological process, at least in the middle levels (away from "speechlessness"), something he admits is NOT compatible with "real-life examples" (e.g. "fun", on p. 95). Real life examples are more like a car horn than a traffic signal; we hear them, and we must needs look around at the context and conjecture intentionality before we can assign a correct interpretation.

Did Vygotsky believe in fixed word meanings? I think the quote that Valsiner gives us on p. 89 needs to be put into context. Vygotsky is contrasting "meaning" with "sense", which he considers concrete, material, and thus far more fundamental; meaning is simply an abstract, self-identical idealization of the concrete reality of sense.

Today we would call this contrast one between "semantic meaning" and "pragmatic meaning". Most linguists, being philosophically idealist, would try to claim that the former and not the latter is fundamental, hence our astonishment when the information given in dictionaries is flatly denied by computerized corpora of actual language use.

But in Vygotsky's day, linguists were younger and wiser. Volosinov called this distinction not two types of meaning, but a contrast between meaning and theme, and I think this is what Vygotsky is getting at (and "theme" may simply be Titunik's translation of "smysl", perhaps the Russianists on the list might help here).

For Valsiner, it is theme which comes and goes, but meaning is the unchanging reality of language (p. 89). It is impossible to imagine Vygotsky or Volosinov subscribing to such a non-materialist, Platonic idea.

On the contrary. In a gedankenexperiment, it is "meaning" and not theme which Volosinov does away with. He imagines a world (inhabited by pre-hisoric men) where only a single word exists, a grunt which must be applied in a multitude of contexts (Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, p. 101). This all meaning word (and it IS a word) has no meaning at all--only myriad themes (that is, senses).

I think that, unlike the opposite gedankenexperiment which linguists are constantly playing with (that is, words which have no pragmatic value and exist only as semantic "meanings"), Volosinov's fantasy has real, empirical counterparts: it is the way Darwin's grandson applied the same vocalization to a swan, a coin, a lake, and a glass of water. It is the way children use "aaa" or the way teenagers say "do sumthin' and "you know what I mean".

(It is the way in which George W. Bush is "understood" as an unimpeachable miltarist despite his incoherence and ungrammaticality, while John Kerry is "understood" as insulting the enlisted men he has always so vociferously identified with for a much smaller lapse in grammar. We "understand" Bush because we understand his warmongering themes, not his garbled meanings. The Republican-dominated media insist on pure self-identical semantic meaning only in the case of Kerry.)

Helen Keller writes (in "The Story of My Life") that her great realization at the water pump was that "everything has a name" (interestingly, Ann Sullivan disputes her account at almost every point!). Helen is very good at putting things in a language that the ordinary hearing and seeing person can understand, but this way of putting it, which I think conforms better to Valsiner's view of meaning rather than Vygotsky's sense of "sense", expresses not the reality of language but merely a thundering banality. Every thing does indeed have a name, and that name is "thing".

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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