Monday, August 27, 2007

"The Sub-area of Pragmatics"?

The new Absent is here. Let me be among the first to take the bait. I think Kent Johnson's piece on the linguistic competence of the post-avant begs all the questions. I don't see any reason to accept the Chomskian hegemony of "deep structure" and "universal grammar" even in linguistics, but, more importantly, I think the scientific image of "grammar" has always been a mistake.

Grammar is just usage; and meaning is use. There is nothing immediately indecent about allowing the later Wittgenstein to condition one's reading of the early Chomsky and concluding that cognitive linguistics begins by misunderstanding what language fundamentally is. It reduces grammar to the rules (even the "natural laws") of sentence parsing. While I'm sure Johnson could provide the examples of comical parsings by post-avant critics he alludes to (he doesn't here, though he bids us notice that Bernstein doesn't provide examples of grammatical domination in an interview), there is really nothing funnier than "scientific" readings of literary texts (e.g., readings informed by cognitive linguistics). My favourite example is E. O. Wilson's appreciation of the "anatomical accuracy" and "alliterative t-sounds" of the first paragraph of "Nabokov's pedophilic novel" Lolita (Consilience, p. 222).

I'm poking around in Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateau's these days, especially chapter 5, "On Several Regimes of Signs". But one could also use Bourdieu to challenge the cognitive presumptions of contemporary (largely American, I think) linguistics. Anyway, Deleuze and Guattari put it as follows: "There is no ... grammaticality in itself ... . [P]ragmatics is not a complement to logic, syntax, or semantics; on the contrary, it is the fundamental element upon which all the rest depend." Deleuze didn't think much of Wittgensteinians but did agree that "meaning is use", here put in terms of the fundamental status of pragmatics.

I don't cite these people as authorities but in order to break into the assumption that Chomsky should necessarily be the point of departure for our understanding of the word "language" in Langpo or the post-avant and that poets should be ashamed of their ignorance in this regard. There is plenty of perfectly "competent" criticism of the idea that pragmatics is a "sub-area" of linguistics. Or rather, of the linguistic idea that usage comes after grammar. The whole of cognitive linguistics is a "sub-area". Cognitive linguistics is but one thing you can do with words.


Elisa Gabbert said...

the assumption that Chomsky should necessarily be the point of departure for our understanding of the word "language" in Langpo

I tend to agree -- I have a background in linguistics and I don't think Chomsky should be the point of departure for the word "language" in any context!

phaneronoemikon said...

good post Thomas!

Kirby Olson said...

I don't think any of the Language people had any idea what they were talking about in terms of language. If they were starting today they would be yodeling about Godel.

It's just a fashion thing.

Whatever seems deep -- the bad poets try to camouflage themselves against it like chameleons.

It's a funny business, culture.

The good poets go against the culture, and so are usually hated ruing their lifetimes and oonly appreciated later, when they in turn become the fashion that everyone tries to resemble.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I'm no expert on language poetry, but I've seen a reasonable grasp of, say, Wittgenstein among them.

John Lydon was probably right in saying that culture is a hokey fraud. Or, rather, what he meant was probably right.

That hokey frauds succeed in culture isn't really news. The question here is what the criteria should be for judging that poet "has no idea what she is talking about in terms of language". (Poets should know what they are talking about there; if they don't they are frauds.) Kent makes Chomsky a touchstone in this regard.

I don't think mastery of Chomskian linguistics (or anything of the kind) is the right test. I'm grateful for Elisa's support on this (it's my sense, too, that linguists are not universally impressed with that paradigm any longer.)

Elisa Gabbert said...

it's my sense, too, that linguists are not universally impressed with that paradigm any longer

I think that's absolutely the case, Thomas ... it was the prevailing paradigm for a long time in American schools, and probably still is, but a lot of programs (e.g., Berkeley, Stanford) are coming at it from a functional (basically, more scientific) stance now. My understanding is that in Europe, Chomsky never had any real hold.

Charles said...

Hi there.

I realize this post has already accrued a dusty patina, however I wanted to point out that in contemporary linguistics, the term "cognitive linguistics" is most usually associated with a functional paradigm which (as Elisa points out) explicitly eschews the formalistic account of language exemplified by Chomsky's approach.

The basic premises of Cognitive Linguistics (CL) tend to be much more congenial to, for example, Deleuze's views on language. Check out this quote from one of the founders of CL, Ronald Langacker:

"This world of discrete units and sharp boundaries is definitely attractive. Dividing it makes it easier to conquer. In particular, if meaning can safely be ignored, the description of grammar is greatly simplified (as least superficially). Discrete structures are more readily analyzed and more amenable to perspicuous formalization. Also, the categorical statements and strong predictability afforded by discreteness are highly valued in science. Yet language was not necessarily designed for the convenience or predilections of the analyst. We must therefore ask whether the basic discreteness commonly assumed by linguistic theorists has been discovered in language or imposed on it. Since my own experience has led me to challenge [ten previously cited examples of binary categories assumed by formal linguistics], I reluctantly conclude that it has largely been imposed. This is not to say, however, that everything in language in continuous--far from it--or to deny the utility of discrete representations, provided that we recognize their possible limitations." - Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction (2008)

Functional and cognitive accounts of language have been on the rise for awhile now, such that I'm not sure formal linguistics can even be considered the mainstream paradigm anymore - which it certainly was, both in the US and Europe. It's an exciting time for linguistics.