Thursday, October 04, 2007

Speech in the Round

Mikhail Bakhtin asks us to note the difference between the sentence as a unit of language and the utterance as a unit of speech ("The Problem of Speech Genres," Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern McGee, University of Texas Press, 1986). He says that the sentence "does not have semantic fullness of value," in contrast to the utterance (p. 74). In other words, meaning, in its fullness, takes place in speech. To appreciate this point it is necessary to see that the Saussurean parole is a denuded, abstract representation of speech rather than an empirical understanding of what really goes on in speech. Bakhtin criticizes structuralist representations of the speech chain:

[A]ll real and integral understanding is actively responsive, and constitutes nothing other than the initial prepatory stage of a response (in whatever form it may be actualized). And the speaker himself is oriented precisely toward such an actively responsive understanding. He does not expect passive understanding that, so to speak, only duplicates his own idea in someone else's mind. Rather, he expects response, agreement, sympathy, objection, execution, and so forth (various speech genres presuppose various integral orientations and speech plans on the part of the speakers or writers). The desire to make one's speech understood is only an abstract aspect of the speaker's concrete and total speech plan. Moreover, any speaker is himself a respondent to a greater or lesser degree. He is not, after all, the first speaker, the one who disturbs the eternal silence of the universe. And he presupposes not only the existence of the language system he is using, but also the existence of preceding utterances–his own and others'–with which his given utterance enters into one kind of relation or another (builds on them, polemicizes with them, or simply presumes that they are already known to the listener). Any utterance is a link in a very complexly organized chain of other utterances.

Thus, the listener who understands passively, who is depicted as the speaker's partner in the schematic diagrams of general linguistics, does not correspond to the real participant in speech communication. What is represented by the diagram is only an abstract aspect of the real total act of actively responsive understanding, the sort of understanding that evokes a response, and one that the speaker anticipates. Such scientific abstraction is quite justified in itself, but under one condition: that it is clearly recognized as merely an abstraction and is not represented as the real concrete whole of the phenomenon. Otherwise it becomes a fiction. This is precisely the case in linguistics, since such abstract schemata, while perhaps not claiming to reflect real speech communication, are not accompanied by any indication of the great complexity of the actual phenomenon. As a result, the schema distorts the actual picture of speech communication, removing precisely its most essential aspects. The active role of the other in the process of speech communication is thus reduced to a minimum.

(pp. 69-70)

I'm rereading Bakhtin here in response to the argument Deleuze presents about the paradox of the proposition (Logic of Sense, "Third Series of the Proposition"), with the knowledge that his argument may be supreseded by his later interest in pragmatics. Deleuze distinguishes three dimensions of the proposition: denotation, manifestation, signification–no, four, four dimensions of the proposition: denotation, manifestation, signification and sense. He asks the question of which dimension is primary, and he answers that in the domain of speech (parole) manifestation is primary, while in the domain of language (langue) signification is primary. He says:

This primacy of manifestation, not only in relation to denotation but also in relation to signification, must be understood within the domain of "speech" in which significations remain naturally implicit. It is only here that the I is primary in relation to concepts–in relation to the world and to God. But if another domain exists in which significations are valid and developed for themselves, significations would be primary in it and would provide the basis of manifestation. This domain is precisely that of language [langue]. In it, a proposition is able to appear only as a premise or a conclusion, signifying concepts before manifesting a subject, or even before denoting a state of affairs. It is from this point of view that signified concepts, such as God or the world. are always primary in relation to the self as manifested person and to things as designated objects.

(p. 15, Deleuze's emphasis)

The dimension of sense is based on a paradox of the proposition ("What the Tortoise said to Achilles"). Sense, "the expressed of the proposition, is an incorporeal, complex, and irreducible entity, at the surface of things, a pure event which inheres or subsists in the proposition" (p. 19, Deleuze's emphasis). Deleuze's empriricism is entirely focused on this dimension of sense. "Only empiricism knows how to transcend the experiential dimensions of the visible without falling into Ideas, and how to track down, invoke, and perhaps produce a phantom at the limit of a lengthened or unfolded experience" (p. 20).

What would become of Deleuze's logic of sense were he to adopt a properly empirical attitude to the domain of speech? Does the utterance have its expressed, as the sentence does?. Would one still speak of manifestation? The active role of the other might become thematized, lessening the emphasis on the emergence of the subject, without ignoring beliefs, passions, style. In lieu of manifestation one might speak of response.

Perhaps there is a paradox in the prevenient responsivity of the utterance. Take any blog as an example of complex speech genre, that is, a genre that incorporates other speech genres, primary and otherwise. A blog post responds to other utterances, including anticipated responses in various forms (comments, links, emails, digests, other blog posts). The responses to come are already responses to past responses, responses yet to be past, and at the same time responses to responses to come, and so on with no ultimate conclusion. One could almost say that if every utterance is a response, no utterance is definitively a response. This and so on describes, however, a practical "infinity" and not a pure mathematical infinity. Perhaps it has a limit in the concrete speech plan. There are only so many responses a blogger can anticipate (or recall). We might find that there's a sedimented infinity of the and so on in the utterance, but infinity may still be too strong a claim. Language death is a fact, as are lesser forms of obscurity, fragmentation and loss. Yet there may be an infinity involved in the grapsing of the phenomenon. I'm not sure of that, though.

Is the empirical a space of paradoxes at all? Can we have problems without paradoxes? This is a dilemma for me.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:03 AM.


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