• Monthly Archives: November 2013

You Are What You Say (Verbal Tics)

November 30, 2013

Every speaker has their own way of speaking, which is called an idiolect. Repetition of certain words or expressions can rise to the status of a characteristic feature of an idiolect when it is of sufficient frequency to be classed a verbal tic. For instance, one can hear native speakers of American English inserting the name of the addressee of an utterance––or some non-onomastic substitute like “honey,” “baby,” or “darling” (a loving husband speaking to his wife)––at such a rate as to be self-reflexive (call attention to the utterer). Perhaps such behavior is an instance of linguistic adaptation, wherein the history of interpersonal relations between two speakers (such as husband and wife) has habituated one or both to constantly reinforce the feeling of intimacy that assures communicative solidarity. This puts this species of language use solidly in the phatic and emotive categories and scants the referential one.

Another sort of verbal tic is the prefacing of practically every utterance with phrases like “incidentally” or “by the way.” What could this mean? The only explanation that comes to mind is some kind of mental habit that transforms every linguistic exteriorization of thought into a tag or comment on what the speaker was thinking just before the utterance, regardless of the fact that the addressee had no access to it. This manner of language use can only be a sign, as with other verbal tics, of a self-reflexive focus on the speaker. Such linguistic signs are all autotelic (“introversive” rather than “extroversive”) and communicate information about the utterer’s mental state rather than anything referential. Only when recognized as part of the emotive component of the communicative situation do such tics become understandable as manifestations of linguistic behavior.


Linguistic Tokens and Grammatical Opacity (“You’re welcome.”)

November 16, 2013

Every language has perfunctory linguistic tokens meant to accompany or acknowledge an act of some kind. The expression of thanks and its customary retort are perhaps the most common such species in the class of what are called performative speech acts. Sometimes these tokens are old enough to have grown opaque to the point of meaninglessness, as with the word welcome uttered by itself or in the phrase from which it is derived, you are/ you’re welcome, as a polite formula used in response to an expression of thanks. This formulaic utterance seems to have originated in American English in the beginning of the 20th century but has since spread to other varieties of English.

All the European languages also have some variety of acknowledgement of thanks that is equivalent to English not at all, don’t mention it, e.g., Spanish de nada, German (das) macht nichts, Russian ne stoit (не стóит [благодарности]), etc. In contemporary colloquial American English one also often hears no problem with the same function.

The linguistically most interesting of these specimens is undoubtedly you’re welcome because welcome has such a wide range of meanings. Here is its etymology from The Oxford English Dictionary Online:

Etymology: Originally Old English wilcuma ( < wil- , will- will, desire, pleasure + cuma comer, guest) = Old High German willicomo , Middle High German and Middle Low German willekome , -kume (whence Old French wilecome ), with subsequent alteration of the first element to wel- well adv. and n.4, and identification of the second with the imperative or infinitive of the verb come, under the influence of Old French bien venu, bien veigniez, Latin bene venisti, bene venias, etc., . . . .

Why welcome as a response to the expression of thanks? The first interpretation that comes to mind is the gloss “your thanks are welcome,” wherein the component “your thanks” is understood to have become identified with the UTTERER, hence “you’re/you are welcome.” In other words, just as in the case of “thanks” as a reduced form of “my thanks” or “I thank you,” you’re welcome is at bottom a product of TRUNCATION. Otherwise it makes no grammatical sense. But such quasi-meaninglessness is typical of linguistic tokens that are purely performative.


Style as Troping

November 10, 2013

The external/internal opposition is absolutely crucial to the problem of style exactly the same way that it is to tropes because style has a double focus. The first focus, which is metonymic, is external. There must be a perceived difference (as in a taxonomy) between a particular phenomenon that is ultimately to be understood as a stylistic datum and one or more other phenomena with which it is comparable by virtue of belonging to the same (natural) class. The existence of variability (and of recurrence) is, of course, presupposed.

It is in this respect that the formula “style is the regard that what pays to how” becomes pertinent; the how would be indistinguishable from the what without a variability of the how. Here is an example from modern British fiction. Specifically it has to do with the interpolation of narrative material between bits of direct discourse in the stories of P. G. Wodehouse:

“Hey! what’s this? what’s this?” Old Rowbotham had lowered his  cup and was  eyeing us sternly. He  tapped Jeeves on the shoulder. “No servility, m’lad, no servility.”

This sort of thing is a hallmark of Wodehouse’s style. He habitually breaks up and delays the temporally sequenced utterances of his characters by interspersing narratorial matter. Particularly when this strategy contrasts with the way people actually talk, but not only, the degree of regard that the what pays to the how is heightened:

“This is Oswald,” said Bingo.
“What,” I replied cordially, “could  be sweeter?
How are you?”

This Wodehousean stylistic feature has a clearly external focus. It is directed outward to a different sentence structure with which it is immediately paired by implicit contrast, one lacking the interpolation. In having an external focus, temporally discontinuous direct discourse as a stylistic datum relies in the first instance on its metonymic representation of unbroken direct discourse, to which it is opposed. What might be circumscribed loosely as its cognitive aspect is untouched by the utterance’s being discontinuous, but its affective aspect is. Without this second component the syntax in Wodehouse would not rise to the status of a stylistic datum. It does so by utilizing the existence of a virtual (implied) contrast to establish a hierarchy between itself and its nonaffective counterpart.

What, then, given the metonymic focus of style as a foundation for its perception and evaluation as such, corresponds to the metaphoric focus of style? If style establishes or instantiates a hierarchy between referential/denotative elements, which accounts for its being perceived as style, what sort of hierarchy does style reverse or neutralize as between significational/connotative elements, accounting thereby for its symbolic functioning? The answer to this question involves the relationship between stylistic and nonstylistic value that can loosely be correlated with affective and cognitive content. More precisely, in style the affective content supersedes the cognitive, which is tantamount to saying that the affective meaning is made to dominate the cognitive.

It is specifically this process of ranking that is meant in my definition of style as a trope of meaning. This formulation also has the notable effect of partly vindicating the widespread understanding of style as an affective superstructure (but not an “annex,” as R. Jakobson would have it) that dominates the nonaffective (“neutral”) information inhering in any work that is taken to have stylistic purport. It is important to recognize as something organic to the nature of style that the definition of affective (“stylistic”) and nonaffective (“nonstylistic”) rests on a circularity that is hermeneutically systematic: the hierarchy that utilizes these categories and the meaning of these categories are in a relation of biuniqueness or mutual implicature.

Consequently, it is not enough for style to remain at the metonymic level if it is to be more than an index and to rise to the status of a symbol, thereby becoming part of the symbolic content of the work, text, performance, etc. In  every case, the symbolic content also immediately adheres in varying degree as a characteristic mark to the author, producer, creator et al. of the entity in which style is embedded.

Narratorial incisions might seem like a trivial example, but it is the cumulative force of just such details that contributes teleologically to the impact of style on understanding. Such details are in fact very frequently the metonymic symptoms of much larger symbolic complexes. In music, for instance, the interpretative significance of a performance often hinges on the treatment of what might at first sight appear to be merely a technical matter.

As a clarinetist myself I can cite the stylistic impact of a marked vibrato sound contrasted with sounds produced without vibrato. A clarinet tone that does not waver is overwhelmingly a mark of the classical style. In the recent  history of classical clarinet performance the consistent promiscuous use of vibrato is associated notably with the British clarinetist Reginald Kell (one of Benny Goodman’s teachers) and has been continued in our own time by the virtuoso Richard Stoltzman. On the analysis I have presented, it is easy to see that the vibrato style is not primarily a particular physical manifestation of musical sound because it has come to be identified as a musical value. But what  is important to notice beyond that fact is the parallelism of structure between the symbolic value of a particular way of performing music and the symbolic functioning of language in literature. Just as in the Wodehouse examples, the employment of what appears to be a particular “device” or “technique” rises to the status of a stylistic datum in the genuine sense when it symbolically configures a whole semantic world together with its system of values. In the case of the clarinet, one of the properties of such a world is an adherence to the meaning of “classical” (strictness of interpretation vis-à-vis tradition), a perpetuation of the received value system whose terminus a quo is a certain corpus of musical classics, and possibly even a whole worldview that includes a more determinate, culturally conservative attitude to art and life.

Such a global attitude might, for instance, have serious implications for the way in which other types of music––like jazz––are regarded. With reference to the clarinet, which is also a jazz instrument, the resort to vibrato tends to lead to an openness and receptivity to jazz as a system of musical values. This in turn has the effect of influencing the production and evaluation of performances of classical  music.

The very term “classical” is a reminder that style cannot be understood except in historical perspective, retrospectively. As one perceptive analyst of style (B. Lang) has noted, “style, it seems, is never pristine, never without historical reference; it never reveals an object without also revealing a genealogy of means. For style, intentionality is destiny.” But the historical embeddedness of style is not just an account of origins; it enters into its ontology and into its structure in the same crucial way that comparability, selection, combination, and hierarchy do. Recurring to the discussion of the structure of tropes, I can now amplify and complete the parallelism established between style and troping by mentioning the “life cycle” of tropes, which can now be renamed “life  spiral” to reflect the cumulative and complementary nature of the changes involved in their structural interrelations.

The analogous feature to be discerned in such changes for the purposes of an inquiry into style is the delineation of a life spiral. The original metaphor fades and dies. When a revivification takes place by means of a rehierarchization of the signata (meanings) in a new figural syntagm, there is a return to tropehood. The process has come full circle, and the possibility henceforth exists for the initiation of a new voyage from metonymy and/or metaphor to paronomasia via idiomatization, lexicalization, and petrification. (Note the obvious  analogy with fashion, as in clothing.)

Style  starts out as an innovation linked to an individuated creative act that defines its uniqueness by establishing a hierarchical contrast with some relevant aspect of norm or custom. This external connection––a metonymization––is invariably accompanied by or results soon thereafter in the reevaluation of  the datum’s place in the overall system of which it is a part. In order to go beyond its incipiency as a piece of style, the datum must effect a reversal of its status: it must cease to be primarily a fact of physical substance and become one of symbolic form. In short, it must  be metaphorized.

Petrified stylistic features in artifacts and texts from historically remote epochs and cultures are often the only source for subsequent recovery of meanings and  values. Just as the teleology inherent in the relation of phenomena to ends leads ineluctably to the triumph of Law or Custom or Norm, so the lexicalization of tropes and the normalization of styles furnish us with the grounds for describing and evaluating those objects that are the material representatives of a culture’s or civilization’s spiritual legacy.

The  singling out of hierarchy as the definiens of style in parallel to the  alignment of rank relations involved in troping places style and its function squarely in the supervening domain of order and rationality, since in this understanding style “makes appeal to extra­linguistic and extra-stylistic values, to the harmony and coherence of a work of art, to its relation to reality, to its insight into the meaning of life; and hence to its social and generally human import” (R. Wellek).

The parallelism of structure between style and troping makes perspicuous the understanding of style as figuration. It is very much to the point to recall the connection between style and person that is emblematized in Buffon’s famous dictum “le style est [de] l’homme même” (‘style is [of] the man himself’). Defining style as figuration points in the direction of and ultimately substantiates Buffon’s insight but does so through an emphasis on FIGURE (Latin figura), specifically in its meaning of the human form. Recalling also that Latin fingere has a whole constellation of meanings that center on notions of moulding (as from wax, clay, or molten metal), creating, producing, and arranging as applied to the most diverse matter, including works of art and literature, it becomes possible to assert the natural union of style, figuration, and personhood or humanity. Interpreting this bond for its overarching conceptual purport, we can conclude that humanity and figuration imply each other: being human means being a “figuring animal,” and being able to “figure” means being human.

The analysis of style as figuration, as a trope of meaning, will remain in the status of an interesting thought experiment so long as no practical consequences flow from it. It is therefore appropriate to suggest in conclusion what the most  important of these are.

First, what transpires is the centrality of ranking, of hierarchization, to any stylistic analysis. The ranking of features or elements of the “work” is not optional, either from the viewpoint of the work’s immanent structure or that of the analyst’s methodology or procedure. Anyone seeking to discover and describe the style of a work must attend explicitly to the matter of hierarchy, to the rank relations among the elements or features uncovered.

Second, and as a direct  corollary of the first, the analysis implies that there is no such thing as “value-free” criticism––whatever the artistic or behavioral sphere––just as there is no value-free perception or conceptualization. This may seem an unsurprising consequence unless one recalls the whole recent history of the (largely sterile) debate over value in art and literature. Style understood as figuration coheres perfectly with the notion that all works are hierarchical by their very nature. The identification of hierarchy with value, coupled with the conception of style as emanating from the ranking of values, means that the avoidance of value as a goal of criticism can only result in a distortion of the nature of the object being studied, hence in bad criticism.

In the sense that style has now come under the compass of figuration, it ceases to be essentially a series of accoutrements (i. e., an adstructure) and assumes its rightful place as a central species of meaning through symbolization.