Saturday, May 10, 2008

Putting the Synchronic on Hold

Shahar draws our attention to the works of Itamar Even-Zohar, who has worked out a semiotics he calls polysystemic theory. The other day I sort of casually let it slip that I would be reclaiming synchrony from the structuralists on behalf of language and good sense. Well, now I have a project on my hands because Even-Zohar has given the matter a lot of thought and he intends to do some reclaiming of his own. He says that once we recognize that semiotic systems do not exist outside of history we are led to certain conclusions:

First, it must be admitted that both synchrony and diachrony are historical, but the exclusive identification of the latter with history is untenable. As a result, synchrony cannot and should not be equated with statics, since at any given moment, more than one diachronic set is operating on the synchronic axis. Therefore, on the one hand a system consists of both synchrony and diachrony; on the other, each of these separately is obviously also a system. Secondly, if the idea of structuredness and systemicity need no longer be identified with homogeneity, a semiotic system can be conceived of as a heterogeneous, open structure. It is, therefore, very rarely a uni-system but is, necessarily, a polysystem--a multiple system, a system of various systems which intersect with each other and partly overlap, using concurrently different options, yet functioning as one structured whole, whose members are interdependent.

("Polysystem Theory," p. 11).

Of all the things there are, which of them should not be called a system? I'll turn the question on myself: of all the things there are, which of them should not be described by metaphor? Well, what is preliminary to a study of synchrony? I intend to approach synchrony as such (a metaphor, no doubt), schools and poetry in abeyance. (There's only so much a single person can do, I know, and for that matter collectives too have their limitations.) If synchrony means to abolish history, though I may disagree, I will not hesitate to report it. And if it were to emancipate itself from anti-systematicity I won't keep that under my hat either.

I take to heart Evan-Zohar's point that structuralism has been misinterpreted, even by some of its champions, as a statics. I am cognizant of his position that the polysystem is an open system. However, I must reiterate an objection to a structuralist view of culture, and I believe my criticism applies as much to Evan-Zohar's polysystem theory as to structuralist thinking, whatever degree to which the latter has been misconstrued. Evan-Zohar subscribes to cultural holism and he maintains that the literary (poly)system, his primary interest, is isomorphic with the cultural (poly)system. This peculiar idea of isomorphism should be referred to thought rather than to the field of cultural anthropology in order to sort out what exactly we should want it to mean. The doctrinary ideas of cultural holism, functionalism, structural-functionalism, on the other hand, should definitely be referred to cultural anthropology, as that discipline has put these ideas to the test (and, I reckon, has ultimately found them wanting in various ways). For my part, I am uncomfortable with an appeal to a phenomenon that is purported to stand above and beyond one's immediate field of inquiry. Whether that phenomenon would be Mind or Culture, as the case may be, one should be able to interrogate it directly as well as in its relations, or set it aside altogether.

So what kind of a relation is isomorphism, and what can we learn by interrogating it? Even-Zohar, in addition to avowedly presenting a jargon, also presents, in outline at least, a functionalist theory of "literature" (which is also a bit of jargon, as I'm sure you will recognize). Well, we must make allowances for those who would think productively, or, rather, technically. So when I question the use of the word "isomorphic" it must be clear that I am questioning all at once a particular item of language, a more or less systematic method of describing a parcel of reality, and a way of thinking. I make allowances because I know that in key respects I am a rude thinker and I wish to mitigate against my rudeness. I value comity. So it is with all due respect that I ask whether our understandings of phenomena have been tainted by a discourse on forms. (Such a discourse may also be thought of as technical, if that bakes your noodle.) You see, a heteromorphy or an anisomporhy would raise the same issues for me—though by no means do I wish to sweep aside the problem of equation. To use such language means being faced with a dilemma about what to do with forms: are forms anterior or posterior to the activity of thinking? And getting jiggy with that question surely means being able to say something about thinking, whether it is an activity at all, and, if it is, what can reasonably be said about what it does. Is there an isomorphism between the thought and the question? What would it mean to posit an isomorphism between the interrogated and the uninterrogated? In talking about isomorphism in any fashion aren't we left then with precisely a discourse on forms, shakily perhaps, but on forms?

What should isochrony mean to us? I'm going to express an opinion in the hopes that it will not be recieved as a substitute for supple thinking, which we should all aspire to in some measure: isochrony is wrong. It is wrong because it destroys anything approaching eudemonia. Perhaps I'm saying as much as isochrony is irrational. Perhaps. Culture is often irrational. I believe the noblest purpose of studying culture is to emancipate oneself from it, and I believe the same emancipatory impulse should motivate the study of forms, though of course I imagine I could be persuaded otherwise. So we have the question of forms, and here in the problem of isochrony we have a question of times and measures, and all of these questions fall under the shadow of a technocratic culture that, were we so bold as to attempt to master its secrets, would take the life from us in exchange. But my view here is, after all, just an opinion, a starting point, perhaps, for a longer discussion of what time means in our lives, and what it should mean, if time should mean anything.

In what sense can two anisochronic moments be synchronous? How do we measure history? Oh, is that History, "history" in a technical sense, or history in a real sense? Because history in an etymological sense could travel under the name of historiography, and that might be an everyday sense as well. Is it just any kind of thing that can (or cannot) be separated from an inquiry into that thing? I ask about kinds of things in order to ask about the essence of things. Does essence point to inquiry? (Do I have it all backwards?) Does the thing? Does the historicization of the synchronic, in analysis if not in practice, say something about the essence of the synchronic? I think perhaps, and yet we still do not know whether the synchronic has anything like an essence or even an existence and as a concept we have yet to clearly define its scope and its import.

Even-Zohar and I agree that the synchronic is not static, which is to say, achronic or ahistorical. I don't think we will be able to finish taking it apart until we explore togetherness, temporality, and the proper measure of temporality. (We might also ask whether togetherness has its proper measure, naturally). A passage of questions becomes apparent at this juncture, and it may occur to some that this is indeed our main passage forward: do we simply mean to say that the phenomena synchrony is purported to conceptualize are historical? Sure, but there's nothing simple about it. There's nothing simple about a science of historical phenomena, or a discursive history of an historical discourse, or, to borrow a turn of phrase from anthropologist Stephen Tyler, a reality fantasy of a fantasy reality. (I am profoundly indebted to Tyler for saying that "the point of discourse is not how to make a better representation, but how to avoid representation," "Post-Modern Ethnography," in Clifford and Marcus (eds.), Writing Culture, University of California Press, 1986, p. 128). In all this talk of synchrony should we want to concern ourselves with reality in any sense? Should we take the claim that synchrony does not escape the historical as a wake-up call to reality? Very tricky. What is the purpose of studying the historical?

As I was saying, I don't intend to definitively take apart synchrony at this time. I'll leave it on hold until I've thought more about temporality, togetherness and, perhaps, the imagination of meaning.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:18 AM.


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