Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Opening the door on Structural Linguistics

While a short time ago I wrote a post on this subject in a different universe, I am going to do a short intro on this subject here, for Toby...
Some preliminary remarks.
Linguistics is a relatively new domain. It is a ...door in our collective Western consciousness that our fathers opened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The constitution of linguistics as an area of study and investigation represents a... revolution in our way of thinking. The consequences of this revolution ON OUR CONSCIOUSNESS have largely escaped us.
How do we constitute an OBJECT of investigation ?
We do so by... extracting or expulsing that "object" from what was previously considered as... SUBJECT. Logical, right ? What is not object is subject. What is not subject is.. object.
This is pretty technical, I'll admit, and not easy going. Not poetical at all. Strictly philosophy.
But I'm going to illustrate it now, so that WE understand it better (I hope...)
About twenty years ago my brother told the following story about his experience as an English teacher in Japan.
He had an American friend who traveled through Japan, and passed through a small, secluded mountain village where he got to talking with an old Japanese man.... in Japanese...
At one point in the conversation, the old man told the young American "you know, it's really remarkable, here I am living in this little secluded village, never having gone to school and... I never would have guessed that I knew how to speak English until I met you."...
End of story...
Are you impressed ? WE are light years away from that little old man now, MOST OF US in our Western culture, living in the cities... (Who knows, maybe there are people living in some secluded little villages in Switzerland who are still capable of saying this...)
I am NOT making fun of the.. NAIVETE of this old man.
For him, language is NO OBJECT, and linguistics, as metalanguage, or TALKING ABOUT the object, language, does not exist (even if it looks like he is capable of talking about English, he doesn't know what "English" means...). Like for our ancestors. For them... a cow was a cow was a cow, and that was IT. Period.
Think for a minute...
Here I am talking about... language WITH words. Language.
Is that like.. taking interest on lending money, maybe ? Maybe. I haven't thought it through enough yet. And my illustration with the old man may be off. I'll wait for your comments.
Extracting OBJECT from what was previously subject is not an innocent occupation.
(Think about all the hype about "objectivity" for a minute.)
It is an occupation that has the advantage of at least THEORETICALLY getting something out and in front of your eyes where it can be seen...
But there is a price to be paid for getting that "something" under your eyes...
In a subtle way, it is no longer YOU, or part of you, as subject.
One way to think of this is what happened.. in the Garden.
End of preliminary.
Structural linguistics is based on the idea that our language, and EVERYTHING that our language organizes, and transmits, is an elaborate, and organized system. (Careful, a system is not necessarily a MECHANIC system. We could and DO say that our language is living. How can something live without..breathing ? I don't know, but we say that languages, like life, are born, live, change, and die. Like societies.)
The atoms : phonemes, sounds (oral language).
Look :
Understanding language means differentiating discrete elements against a backdrop of continuity. We do this by comparing. In the first two words, we immediately pick out the difference in the middle vowel sound. We see the difference because I have held constant the context, the initial and final consonant. In order to give meaning, we are constantly comparing our world for difference AND similarity, continuity.
All of the sounds cannot be found in all of the contexts. There is a code.
You differentiate the sounds by comparing what you hear in the PRESENT to the ABSENT elements of the code that are possible in that context, given that not all elements are possible in all contexts. Those present and absent elements are in dialectical (I think...) tension.
You know the code (for your mother tongue). You know the code without ever having opened a book to learn it.
You knew the code by the time you were...2 years old. Smart you...
You knew the code at this very elemental, atomic level. You knew it at the molecular level, which is that of words, what we call the lexic. (More later...)
More importantly... at two years old you knew HOW language works. (My two year old son when he understood HOW language works excitedly pointed at a horse on the TV screen, ran to find a picture of a horse in a board book, and ran to the direction of the window to point to the field where there was a.. horse he was in the habit of feeding carrots to on his daily walk. While saying HIS equivalent of the word "horse" which was part of a nursery rhyme where the word "horse" appeared...
All of this without ever having anyone TELL you anything ABOUT language or crack a book on the subject.
The fact that you know all of this without... knowing just exactly WHAT you know, or how you know it should indicate to you just how UNCONSCIOUS and automatic this knowledge is for you. Which basically means that... re one of my previous posts "what you receive", this knowledge that you don't know you know determines a lot of your behavior... without your knowing it, right ?
The BAD thing about not knowing ABOUT what you know is that it determines your behavior, in such a way as you are less free.
The.. GOOD thing is.. that you are less SELF conscious, right ?...
Those... doors..


Toby said...

I love this stuff! Language is such a slippery beast, because to understand it we have to use it. So, this passage:

"We do so by... extracting or expulsing that "object" from what was previously considered as... SUBJECT."

strikes me as over-simplified. I'd be interested to hear the suped-up version! The procedure for expelling language from subject to object requires language as the propellant, and then we have to use language to discuss the results. If we create a meta-language with which to conduct this analysis, that becomes the new subject, and the problem starts all over again. "Object ... subject ... subject ... object ... let's call the whole thing off."

Love the story about the Japanese guy, absolutely fascinating. Reminds me (somewhat tangentially) of Jung in the jungle. The less conscious we are, the less capable of making subject-object distinctions, and the more in the grip of our unconscious.

But there will always be high-subjectivity. I'm reading Capra's "Web of Life" and the opening pages are very eloquent on science's vain battle to remove subjectivity and value from its efforts (economics has always been at pains to say it is "value free" -- what a crock!). Capra quotes R.D. Laing:

""Galileo's program offers us a dead world: Out go sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, and along with them have since gone esthetic and ethical sensibility, values, quality, soul, consciousness, spirit. Experience as such is cast out of the realm of scientific discourse. Hardly anything has changed our world more during the past four hundred years than Galileo's audacious program. We had to destroy the world in theory before we could destroy it in practice."

Interesting points about language being alive and therefore not a mechanical system. Mechanical systems are not self-healing and self-propagating (although this is changing I'm afraid -- I work in IT and self-healing is more and more apparent, and software can clone itself, so...), but language does propagate. Self-healing in language? Sounds odd. Maybe you could expand on this in a subsequent post, Debra?

Also fascinating is how we learn language by distinguishing its elements from the miasma of information that is always going on around us. John Holt in "How Children Learn" discusses this at length. What the human child accomplishes absent explicit school-based instruction is phenomenal. Your short story about your son is a sweet example of this. I take this as evidence that formal schooling is in the way of humanity's great potential, which is why I want deep and total education reform along the lines proposed by John Holt and John Taylor Gatto.

I look forward to more on this subject.

Debra said...

Toby, thanks for your really interesting remarks.
Actually... it was while I was busy.. THINKING the other night that I came up with the "subject/object" idea, of what is object being extracted from subject.
When I made my break with psychoanalysis, one of the reasons I did it was because I realized that we, the shrinks, extracted from our psyches the problems that most preoccupied us in order to put them in front of our eyes to TALK ABOUT them. (What I'm doing HERE and NOW, by the way...)
At one level, we could talk about an elaborate defense mecanism, but then.. where would THIS idea take us ?
As I said, doing this has its advantages and disadvantages, but I don't like the fact that most shrinks hold themselves in an area of moral and intellectual superiority to their patients, while I don't feel that this superiority is really justified.
Yep, you're right, language definitely does propagate, and it does NOT follow a zero sum model to propagate. Exponentiality is multiplication and zero sum can NOT handle it.
One thing that bothers me about the computer models is the glorification of the binary (hence zero sums, by the way...) and I think that a lot of interesting complexity gets phased out in binary thinking models.
Formal schooling gets in the way because it is not designed to develop our potential.
It is designed to "federate" community and promote uniformization, unfortunately.
And... when I develop structural linguistics more, you will see how DISTINCTIVE OPPOSITION is the name of the game... like.. opposing... children and adults, for example, so that.. the meaning of "child" and "adult" can emerge.
Cool, huh ?
Did you see why I was talking about the Garden ?
If you read the biblical creation story very carefully, you will see all this appear. Ingeniously.

Debra said...

Great Laing quote. Laing is coming back into style.
Destroy the world in theory in order to destroy it in practice ?
I think that the world we are living in now is the LOGICAL CONCLUSION of scientific models developed maybe a few hundred years ago..
Theodore Roszack makes this point in "Where the Wasteland Ends", another prophetic 1970's book.
But here I also think the question is more complicated. Our models influence and determine our perception of reality, but they too are subject to inflection in turn by our experience.
What is IT ? in connection with artificial intelligence ?
Our words are CONSTANTLY changing meaning FOR THE SOCIAL BODY, Toby, but we rarely perceive this. Or should I say, in linguistic fashion, we rarely perceive THAT our words are changing meaning.
We perceive... something else..

Toby said...

"One thing that bothers me about the computer models is the glorification of the binary (hence zero sums, by the way...) and I think that a lot of interesting complexity gets phased out in binary thinking models."

I'm not sure I agree with this. Binary can express an infinite variety, as can base 10, Hex and any other system that uses a 0. It just goes on and on forever, and isn't zero sum, not as I understand it anyway.

However, it does raise the question of whether Universe is digital or analog? I'm not sure, and though I kindasorta want it to be analog, I always end up with something binary in my thinking; proton electron, yes no, 0 1, matter antimatter, contraction expansion, and so on. That may well be the ego though, and a language developed over millennia through the filter of the ego. Maybe this is an unanswerable question while we are in human form, or using human language.

I hadn't heard of Theodore Roszack. I'll look him up.