Showing posts with label OED. Show all posts
Showing posts with label OED. Show all posts

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Deconstruction and “Ways of Talking”

Derrida denied deconstruction was of any importance

As I’ve mentioned previously, the last time I saw Jacques Derrida, who is credited with coining the term “deconstruction,” being interviewed he was quite adamant that “deconstruction” was not a concept of any importance, not even a theory, not even a word that he used anymore. ( See "Critical Thinking Skills" and "Family Values")  Nonetheless, the word has taken on a life of its own and, while it may have gone out of fashion, it is still with us and showing no signs of disappearing from the language.  (See footnotes.)

Postmodernist deconstructionist smuggery

If you have ever tried to confront a postmodernist deconstructionist by pointing out that his work was contradictory, illogical, duplicitous, nonsensical and hypocritical, you would likely find him responding with glee, “Exactly!”—as if he were personally responsible for your recent intellectual epiphany.  Given the deconstructionist stance that language is guaranteed to fail and is ultimately meaningless, you might wonder why Derrida seemed so happy with the tens of books (meaningless books, obviously) he had published.  Why write at all?  If you asked your postmodernist deconstructionist friend that question, the conversation would inevitably lead to a tangential monologue about a recent grant application winning hundreds of thousands of dollars, an upcoming publication in a prestigious journal, a conference in Hawaii, and high expectations of promotion.

"Ways of talking" in The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself

So how can we confront deconstruction?  How can we address the malaise of postmodernist deconstructionist smuggery?  Recently I found an answer in an unusual source, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, by a physicist named Sean Carroll.  The answer lies in an expression that Carroll uses quite frequently:  “ways of talking.”  However, before we get there we need to have a better grasp of what deconstruction is/was.

Deconstruction begins with "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences"

Whenever I taught deconstruction (no, I didn’t only teach the stuff I admired), I would focus on the definition that Derrida provided when he was being cross-examined after his seminal conference paper “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” at Johns Hopkins University in 1966.  (Excuse all of my ellipses which follow but I find they are necessary if you want to pick out what Derrida is saying from the obfuscating verbiage.  I’ll put the full quote in a footnote, so you’ll know I’m not fudging.) Derrida said, “[. . . .] déconstruction [. . . . .] is simply a question  of being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use [ . . .  .].”* 

Deconstruction is a very old, and not very complicated, idea

“Being alert to the historical sedimentation of language” is good advice.  In fact, “being alert to the historical sedimentation of language” is exactly what generations of lexicographers and scholars have done over centuries in creating The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) since the project was first begun by Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1746.  If you peruse the OED, you will notice that the meanings of words change over time, until every word in the language seems to have, on average, five or six different meanings. If you imagine a sentence in English with ten words and each of those words has five potentially different meanings, and the meaning of the sentence can be affected by connotation, figures of speech, interpretations, intertextuality, tone of voice and punctuation, you can begin to appreciate postmodernist deconstructionist claims that the language fails, that its meanings are “indeterminate,” “deferred,” even “infinite”—and therefore meaningless.

Deconstructionist ways of talking about language create meaninglessness

How do these claims work?  How is it possible that this deconstructionist idea that language fails to communicate seems so logical and convincing, even though I remain absolutely confident that when I read or hear ten words of a sentence in English I understand the meaning, even if it contains some ambiguity or irony.  The explanation I now see is that there are different “ways of talking” about language.

"Ways of talking" is a profound concept

Carroll’s description of that “innocuous sounding but secretly profound idea that there are many ways of talking about the world, each of which captures a different aspect of the underlying whole” helps us to understand how deconstructionist claims about the meaninglessness of language can be convincing even as we hold onto the strong conviction that we do manage to understand the meaning of language on a daily basis.  

The "way of talking" can determine meaning or meaninglessness

The easiest and most obvious way to reflect upon different “ways of talking” is to consider that the average human being is comprised of seven billion billion billion atoms (7 followed by 27 zeros).  Consider the claim that “I don’t understand Mary because she is comprised of billions of billions of billions of atoms and they are constantly changing.”  It’s pretty hard to argue with the science and the logic of this claim but, at the same time, it seems obvious that this is not an appropriate or meaningful way of talking about Mary or any human being for that matter.  

As Carroll explains,"There is one way of talking about the universe that describes it as elementary particles or quantum states [ . . . .] There is also another way of talking about it, where we zoom out a bit and introduce categories like ‘people’ and ‘choices’.”

Mary may, with scientific certainty, be an octodecillion of atoms and be 99% oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, but talking about her this way will certainly make her appear impossible to understand and, in fact, meaningless.  In truth, I can sometimes understand Mary and may sometimes misunderstand her, but overall I know that she is comprehensible and meaningful.

Deconstructionists' "way of talking" about language makes it meaningless

Similarly, postmodernist deconstructionists’ way of talking about language reduces it to marks on the page or collections of morphemes and phonemes.  This way of talking precludes understanding and meaning.  To get understanding and meaning you have to use these words in the way of talking in which people--who aren't just clumps of molecules--usually use them.


*”Here or there I have used the word déconstruction, which has nothing to do with destruction.  That is to say, it is simply a question of (and this is a necessity of criticism in the classical sense of the word) being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use—and that is not destructive”  (Derrida in Contemporary Literary Criticism 497).

Sunday 16 February 2014

How to Make Love to a Logophile?

What does it mean when John gives Mary flowers?

For more than a dozen years, I taught an introductory literature course to 60 or so first-year undergraduates, 80% of whom were young women--a number of whom would typically report being interested in questions of love and romance.  Every year in the first class I described the following scenario and asked the class what word they would use to describe this young man’s actions.

John’s eyes always light up when Mary enters the room.  He always talks in a tender, flattering manner to her.  He takes her out to dinner and buys her flowers and small gifts. Etc. Etc.

What is the verb for when a man pursues a woman?

As I presented this hypothetical heterosexual scenario, I could feel Judith Butler and the gender police breathing down my neck, but bear with me. So what do we call what John is doing?  Over the years I noticed a shifting in the tenor of the answers.  The typical mid-90s answer was that he “was cruising,” “on the make,” “hitting on her” and, cutting to the chase, “trying to get laid.”  At the millennium the answers became strident:  “he’s a sexual predator,” and “it’s patriarchal oppression” and “hegemonic domination.”  In more recent years the pendulum swung back slightly and it was typical to hear reported that it’s not about him but them:  “they are friends with benefits” or “they’re dating” or “hooking up.”

Without "wooing" and "courtship" is romance dead?

As I called the room to order, I reminded my students of what they already knew: that the expressions they had given me did not include the correct verb for the scenario I had described.  When pressed, someone would eventually come up with the proper expression:  “to court.”  Eliciting the older and much more English verb “to woo,” even among students who claimed to have read Romeo and Juliet where the lexeme is used a half dozen times, was a much greater challenge.  I eventually asked my students when they had last used the expressions “to court” or “to woo” in conversation.  The point of my questions was to provoke philological reflection on the relationship between language and culture using an example that I knew mattered to a lot of them.  What does it mean that there are no current, earnest words for courtship?  Does this gap in the vernacular prove that romance is no longer part of our daily culture?  The number of advertisements I see for dating and match-making companies and web sites tell me that there is a void in the culture which consumer capitalism has been moving rapidly and vigorously to fill. 

"Making love" before 1920 and after

The scenario I have described used to be called “making love.”  Thanks to Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence, we can now date the shift in meaning to what Wharton called the “French sense” of the expression (i.e., having sex) to just before 1920 in the USA.  We might also associate this American shift of mores with the automobile, which F. Scott Fitzgerald likened, in his famous essay on the 1920s, to a bedroom on wheels.

"Making love" in the 19th century

It would be perfectly reasonable for us to imagine a conversation between two men in the 19th century in which one mentions fairly casually to the other, “I noticed you making love to my sister last night.”  Modern readers are likely to misinterpret Algernon’s meaning when he tells Jack, in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to someone else, if she is plain.” Not a very nice sentiment, but not quite as bad as it sounds. “To make love” in this context means to display the courtship rituals I have described above; it does not mean to copulate.

"The Rules" for making love

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the earliest usage of “to court” meaning “to pay amorous attention or make love” as 1580.  The OED dates the Old English verb “to woo” as 1050.  Oddly, the OED describes “to woo” as “Now somewhat homely” but contradicts itself by adding “also poetic.”  (Much as we might love the OED--and I do--we should remember that the original version was significantly compiled by a homicidal maniac confined to a lunatic asylum.  See:  The Professor and the Madman.) “To court” is also a problematic expression because of its elitism since it explicitly refers to what goes on in the royal court and more specifically what went on in the court of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine where the rules of “courtly love” were first written.  The rest of us peasants and plebeians were to get by in whatever way we could, clubbing women over the heads in Neanderthal fashion and dragging them off to our caves I suppose.  I feel like the Grinch in saying so, but a lot of the behaviours which people today point to as evidence of “true love” are the remnants of the rules of “courtly love” codified in the 11th century under the supervision of Queen Eleanor and her daughter.  Over the last 30 years,  Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider have turned their version of The Rules of “courtly love” into a not-so-cottage industry.  

Making love to a logophile 

Oh yes, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post:  a “logophile” is a lover of words, so the answer is almost redundant-- with words!

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