Language as action. Vernon carried on in his inimitable way about Dewey and Wittgenstein during yesterday’s New England gathering of scholars in Language and Social Action: Meaning in LSI Research. I missed the morning sessions 🙁 but attended the presentations of Bob Sanders and Anita Pomerantz. Vernon missed the mild fireworks among Bob, Donal (who organized the event) and another member of the audience whose name I didn’t catch.
It was entertaining and instructive to witness the negotiation of meaning – particularly agreement and disagreement – among these heavyweights in the field. Bob came under fire for his interpretive lens on the elaborate ceromonial ritual of how nobility treats “a guest” of the Queen. I’m not sure if it was his own framing of insider/outsider that created the opening for this particular critique, but a critique was engaged as if there is no relation between the outsider perspective (on extreme excess) and the insider perspective (of representation and proper treatment).
Bob’s point that there is no other way to accomplish the meaning enacted by this particular ritual conducted with painstakingly precise attention to ceremonial detail appeared to get lost in the argument concerning where to rest the analytical gaze and how to recognize the limits of perception invoked by any/every such focus.
I have to confess to drifting during Anita’s presentation because her material – how patients frame hypotheses about medical causes of pain/illness/dis-ease – overlapped so much with questions and problems I encounter during ASL/English interpreting. She specifically addressed how patients offer explanations and then discount them. As an interpreter, the meaning I “take” and “re-make” from such ambiguous or even self-contradictory statements establishes a frame for the doctor-patient relationship (and, similarly, frames each and every potential relationship “across” the language/culture divide). I have to be hyperaware of my own ‘weighting’ of the relative value of the assertion (e.g., “here’s an explanation”) and the dismissal (“but it can’t be correct”).
Vernon spoke next, closing the day-long conference. I can’t retrace the unfolding of distinctions among Benjamin, Vernon, and Bob Sanders. As a rough summary (based on recall and sketchy notes) it came down to some nuances regarding how one approaches joint action: do you assume (and therefore begin with) the social or do you assume (and therefore begin with) language? How does one reconcile the flexibility of meaningfulness-through-use with the fact that words carry histories of pre-established meaning?
Ultimately (?), to what extent does the identification/definition of a background stability matter? I think this is the question of “how do we [LSI theorists] go on from here” that Bob posed and Vernon agreed would be fruitful. They disagree, it seems, on the extent to which not knowing “how to go on” is itself “a problem” to be solved or a (the?) basic condition of living.
It seems to me that the stability of meaning and meaningfulness is something that also shifts, and here is where I take my point of departure from a general language and social interaction epistemology that holds power at a far remove from the microsocial interactions that compose its main corpus of study. This is also where I find Vernon’s emphasis on the inherent quality of talk to point toward possible futures – to establish, maintain, and disrupt trajectories – so crucial. This capacity of “pointing toward” was “in” the discourse of these academics as they parsed, challenged, supported, invoked, refuted, and otherwise responded to each other’s analyses. In this context, there wasn’t much energy devoted to establishing “power over”; rather the goal was to clarify and distinguish among viewpoints, with some attention to correcting potential fallacies or (mis)perceptions.
There is no denying that the reason not to neglect the power dimension is as ideological as the reason to keep power out of focus. Here is where we find some semblance of the stability Bob was arguing must exist. If talk (among ourselves, among those we study, among people everywhere) always “points”, then the pointing itself is the
zone where stability is reinforced or altered. I agree with Vernon that the least we can do is “teach people to point.” I also think we can go further, if we choose, and teach (learn!) about the responsibilities and potentials of pointing. Necessarily, this will bring us face-to-face with our own desires for power and the challenges of mediating and negotiating the joint actions that limit or enhance the exercise of power, be it with friends or with others.