Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Whole Body Labors

"In the physical act of writing, the medieval Englishman Orderic Vitalis says, 'the whole body labors' (Clanchy 1979, p. 90)," (Ong, Orality, p. 95). We should be able to speak meaningfully of technologies of speaking, to recognize that the spoken word is not natural, that it does not well up from the unconscious but comes through learning, and indeed conscious effort, and so the interesting question of how technologies become "interior transformations of consciousness" (p. 82)–Ong may be quite right, given certain understandings of "interior," "transformation" and "consciousness"–can be assayed on a level field, where we can finally appreciate Ong's argument that writing is not merely a copy of speech.

"Spoken words are always modifications of a total situation which is more than verbal" (p. 101). Total situation? (We'll get back to that. Levinas may be instructive.) Aren't we really playing here with two concepts of verbality, one that contains itself, needed to begin making sense of phrases like "spoken words," and another that exceeds itself (and a third that contains its excess, and so on)? Verbality overflows. It's wordy. It's an easy enough concept. Is there then a totality in which the superfluence of verbality would be less than super? Why wouldn't verbality overflow its total situation, as, according to Levinas, language allows the other to do? Dribbling the basketball is always a modification of a total situation which is more than repeatedly bouncing the ball off the floor. Isn't it? So how do we know the situation is total? Does that simply mean it contains all the stuff we want might want to talk about in reference to dribbling (verbality, etc.)? Are we just being lazy? The whole body lazes in the physical act of blogging.

Quoting Ong again, because it's worth remembering: "Words acquire their meanings only from their always insistent actual habitat, which is not, as in a dictionary, simply other words, but includes also gestures, vocal inflections, facial expressions, and the entire human, existential settings in which the real, spoken word always occurs" (p. 47). Pragmatics, the subdiscipline of linguistics that studies how meaning is tied to situations of language use, examines aspects of language that appear to be far removed from the word yet by definition are understood to be linguistic. Such a course of study would enrich easy definitions of the verbal, but there is a danger of letting our own mental exercises interfere with a grasp of the phenomenon at hand: we start with an impoverished concept of the verbal, the lone word, in order to be able to arrive at our enriched concept, the word in its habitat, only to realize that we had already assumed the latter, which suggests to us that we not describing so much as constructing what resembles a reality–though it has a recursive dimension whose reality we are uncertain of–and perhaps our construction says more about us and our existential setting, which we can't really be sure is a total situation, than it does about the phenomenon it purports to address. What do we mean? How do we mean? Can we use science to help us live more meaningful lives? What is the role of criticism in our intellectual life? Is our intellectual life agonistic like a drama? Does it put reality on hold? Are all realities performative? If it seems that there are questions of the day, why does it also seem that some questions recur? How do questions, including forcefully answered questions, come to be asked anew? Arguably we suffer from a superabundance of ignorances, a postmodern condition; yet many thinkers surely have reasons for disregarding previous answers, established philosophical arguments and refutations. We may also suffer from a superabundance of anachronicity. My current reading of Orality and Literacy, in important respects an anachronistic text when it first appeared in 1982, is not altogether current. I admit to being uncertain about the times I live in. Does anybody care anymore about a critique of "total situations"? Is my simple critical attitude simply retrograde?

Another tack. Does one need to be able to transcend a condition in order to modify it? Technology modifies consciousness and, in the form of the word, it modifies a habitat. (This would be my difficulty, not Ong's, who doesn't theoretically regard the spoken word as a technology). So technology itself is transcendent? Perhaps we have merely found a lazy way to say that the human being modifies its consciousness as well as its relation to its wider milieu by the use of technologies which may have originally been intended to modify only one consciously thematized element or a selected few elements in the milieu. In addition to saying that technology has horizons, a lazy thought, we are also saying that transformations of consciousness take place on the horizons or at the margins of consciousness–but there is a problem of recursion here, as we are uncertain of whether horizons of consciousness precede thematizations without themselves being thematized beforehand. More, do forms have horizons, or do we posit forms in order to eliminate horizons? If the latter, do we posit horizons of form only after forgetting that we had meant to eliminate them in the first place? If consciousness is nothing like a form–something approaching pure plasticity, which would have to far more plastic than Ong allows human consciousness, though it would perhaps be "fit for molding," hugging the figure of the whole body that labors, working itself into the word–then we must not mistake moments in the plasticity of consciousness (rhythms, it might be said) for transformations. It is not merely the degree of human plasticity that's at issue here, or the degree of hardening imposed by the acceptance of cultural forms–we have some basis of agreement. Rather, the circumstances of the loss of plasticity are in question. For instance I have argued that Ong fails to appreciate the ramifications of the learning of language in early infancy; his sense of cultural horizons is limited to two principal types, which I reject. If "form" possibly eliminates horizons in order to be itself, "plasticity" requires horizons, requires that form exceeds itself–however, form already had in itself its own excess. It was already transformation, or rather, we needed to understand transformation in order to be able to talk about form. So what relation is there between transformation and the effort of the whole body–the total body?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:25 AM.


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