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Re: [xmca] When the Message Takes Over the Bottle
I was wondering if I should change the subject line of this thread to something a little catchier (say, "Life Is too Short and Some XMCA Posts Are Too Long"). But it seems to me that I should not, because the reasons for the craziness of the subject line still stand.
Here's what I would really like to have the original Russian for. It's from the same essay that Mandelstam wrote about the broom that refuses to sweep and the pot that won't cook. This time, Mandelstam is talking about the relationship of SOUND to MEANING in the word.
p. 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.”
Mandelshtam, O.E. (1977) Austin: University of Texas Press. Selected Essays. (Translated by Sidney Monas.)
So sometimes the sound is INSIDE the meaning! How does THAT work? Let me hazard a rather longwinded guess.
Steve, as part of a long running debate over whether signs may be considered "tools for thoughts", wanted to know about methods of discourse analysis (DA). DA really got its start in Birmingham with the discovery that texts and even conversations have a kind of structure that may be called "grammatical" (and in fact it is this that allows us to reconstruct paragraphs out of jumbled sentences on tests).
For a long time DA was cursed by a highly structuralist statement of purpose that basically defined it as the grammar of anything bigger than a sentence. Those of us who are serious about, though, actually see grammar as being a rather ossified form of rule class style, the syntactic equivalent of znachenie, and therefore subordinate to DA, which includes, necessarily, the living themes of language and not just the structures.
But of course signs (unlike tools, which have to be oriented towards the exterior) do have the abiilty to make themselves into themes. A conversation is both made of language and in very important ways about the stuff it is made of, and that's why we don't stop conversations in order to fix them.
The article Mike sent around on Mandelstam's forgotten word is a beautiful illustration of this. Gronas argues that the poem "Swallow", which Vygotsky uses as an epigraph for Chapter Seven is not only about the "tip of the tongue" phenomenon but it is itself an example of it, because the word "Aid", or "hell" is woven into the poem but never actually mentioned (which explains why circumlocutions like "Pluto's Palace" and "Stygian gloom" feature so prominently).
Here's are two more self-illustrations that work along the same lines. The first is far too long to include in this e-mail, and in fact that's the point. In 1909, in order to kill time, a cousin of Henri Bergson's began a three thousand page novel on the topic of wasting time; it famously opened with a two hundred page sequence on a man trying to get to sleep and crescendoes to the most famous madeleine ever to be dipped in a delicate decoction of lime juice and tea. Trotsky found it unbearable, and even Anatole France remarked that "life is too short, and Proust is too long".
One of the many ideas that Proust may have stolen from his cousin was the idea that involuntary memory was actually MORE structured (because MORE concrete) than volitional memory. This idea is clearly there in Vygotsky's early studies on memory (and also on his experiments on how reading literary texts affects physiological processes such as breathing). In fact, the child's struggle in primary school is largely reducible to a struggle to organize voluntary memory so that it is at least as efficient as involuntary.
The second illustration of the capacity of literary language to illustrate itself is quite a bit shorter than Proust's: it's from Yeats, a poem called "Memory":
One had a lovely face
And two or three had charm
But charm and face were in vain
Because the moutain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain
As you can see, the meaning seems to fade away as you finish the poem.
Or it SHOULD, anyway; I'm afraid it doesn't quite work in a lascivious mind like my own. I just thought this poem was just about how the author's memory of pretty girls he had known was marred by his carnal memories. But my professor Henry Widdowson, with his usual high-minded flair for these things, glossed it by interpolating a kind of Bakhtinian other voice, thus:
One had a lovely face.
A girl in youth I used to know.
And one or two had charm.
But charm and face were in vain.
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.
That in the grass thre is no trace
Where the hare has been?
This is what I mean to say.
The grass, the charm, the lovely faces
Cannot help but keep their traces
But traces cannot help but fade away.
(See H.G. Widdowson, 1992, Practical Stylistics, OUP, p. 16, 194)
Widdowson thinks that the coherence (and incoherence) of every text (what Volosinov called the "vitiated dialogues of the paragraph) comes from mentally interpolated questions like these, which come, of course, from the reader, or rather from the writer's imaginary recreation of the reader--the kind of thing that must have been going through my friend Katie's head when she composed her message in a bottle to me.
Seoul National University of Education
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