Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Body of Language

Concerning Maturana and Varela's approach to language, Bains notes that in their view "although language requires the neurophysiology of the participants, it is not a neurophysiological phenomenon. Language takes place in the flow of consensual coordinations of actions, not in the bodily materiality of the participants" (The Primacy of Semiosis, p111). I think I'll take issue with that formulation, with the proviso that the body of language is not exhausted by its neurophysiology. It's not just that the bodily leaks into language, which I think is demonstrable. Its a question of how language is possible. Our bodies does more for us than to serve as "nodes of operational intersection" (p. 112). They enable language (and action, for that matter) in such a way that the bodily is never quite completely forgotten.

In any case, I don't think the interesting claim here is the one against the body, but rather the one for the field of social interaction. (In that regard surely the body of a hypothetical single organism is not sufficient to enable language.) This view of language leads Maturana to the notion that the self is a product of language.

For Maturana the key feature of languaging is that it enable those who operate in it to describe themselves, thereby generating the self and its circumstances as linguistic disctinctions of the self's participation in a linguistic domain–that is, a domain of recursive consensual coordinations of actions. Meaning arises as a relationship of linguistic distinctions. Thus, words are distinctions of consensual coordinations of actions in the flow of consensual coordinations of actions–they are not symbolic entities–and meaning and languaging become part of the medium in which the participants exist contingent on the conservation of the social system.


What do we do with that now that we have evidence of mirror self-recognition in dolphins, chimpanzees and elephants? We could just cast Maturana aside on this point, but that would seem to be ducking the crucial issues. Are we willing to allow that elephants, for instance, have something akin to human language? If we can admit to having been just a little bit wrong about the capabilities of elephants, how deeply then are we willing to probe into our own ignorance? Is there not an ethical problem with defining language in such a way that excludes elephants, chimpanzees and dolphins? Even if we ultimately set Maturana aside, we cannot do away with the social dimension of language and the implications this has for human relations with other self-aware social mammals.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:39 AM.


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