Ktismatics

21 November 2007

Linguistic Portality

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 4:52 pm

Continuing from yesterday’s post…

A reality is an array of phenomena organized according to a particular structure. Any single phenomenon can be assigned a place in an unlimited number of structural schemata. This means that a single phenomenon can participate in an unlimited number of alternate realities. A phenomenon, or the linguistic signifier that points to it, can thus function as a portal between alternate realities.

Probably the most frequently-encountered example of linguistic portality is the metaphor. “It’s not my cup of tea.” The phrase points to a hot drink, but the hot drink occupies a different structural place in two different realities: as a particular variety in an array of beverages, as something that’s high on the list of personal preferences. It turns out that humans are adept at traversing metaphorical portals: linguistic processing time isn’t delayed when shifting between literal and metaphorical understanding.

The question is whether the phrase “cup of tea” points to the same phenomenon in both the literal and the metaphorical situation. I suspect it does not: once the metaphorical structure is invoked by context, the phrase no longer points to the hot drink. So maybe the words are the portal rather than the beverage: the same phrase occupies a place in two different realities. But the phrase doesn’t float free of signifier: the same phrase signifies “hot beverage” in one reality and “something I prefer” in the other reality. The signifier is loosely linked to multiple signifieds, and the appropriate one gets invoked depending on which reality it’s participating in at the moment. The loose linkage makes reality linguistic reality travel a quick and almost unconscious passage. If there were no linkages readily available, or if one particular link was particularly rigid, then shifting between realities would be a lot more difficult, a lot slower, requiring a lot more conscious processing.

In a sense all words are metaphors for the things they point to. Words are portals that transport people back and forth between interpersonal communication and joint imaginary participation in a world of phenomena to which the words point.

Language also functions as a portal between the immediate specific encounter with phenomena and the more abstract realities in which the phenomena participate. The word “flower” transports the language-user from this particular flower to the idea of “flowerness” in realities having to do with plants, gardens and beautiful objects. The opening of this linguistic portal between specific and generic, between phenomena and structures, must have been a significant achievement in human cultural development. Linguistic history shows traces of the struggle. The ancient Greek and Hebrew languages had a definite article but not an indefinite article: “the” but not “a.” The early Indo-European languages — Sanscrit, Persian, Latin — had neither kind of article. The article is absent from some modern languages (e.g., Russian).

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20 Comments »

  1. a slight shift in approaching this problem is offered by bergson in matter and memory — perception is a subtraction from the real, a crystallization of some potentials at the expense of others (so structurally a kind of ‘choice’). so one doesn’t refer to ‘things in themselves’ that may or may not exist independently of perception and language (which give us a ‘perspective’ that is constitutive of reality to some unknown degree), but perception captures reality in a limited way, at one scale and not others. reality is then the infinite set of all ‘perspectives.’

    language, then, would trigger (assuming the language is understood well enough to ‘trigger’ anything except confusion) recall in the listener of their own analogous memories of real perceptions. so it wouldn’t be the interaction of multiple realities, but different relationships between memory and perception in different listeners triggered by the same words, dependent on the infinite factors that affect a scene of communication.

    one just has to be careful about how, whether, and/or in what cases language is derived from perception.

    my internet access is sporadic for the next few days, so don’t feel bad (and sorry in advance) if i don’t respond promptly.

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    Comment by traxus4420 — 22 November 2007 @ 12:51 am

  2. Thanks for the thoughts Traxus — helpful to bring in a different view. I’ll start with what comes first to mind, but I’ll probably come back to it again.

    Certainly in language acquisition there’s a subtraction from the real in terms of raw phonetics: kids can produce all vocalizations of all languages, but they learn not to be able to produce or to hear sounds that aren’t used in their own language. For Lacan the symbolic order generates a Reality that bars direct access to the Real. The “raw real” remains a never-ending source of discovery we haven’t even imagined yet — the source of virtuality for Deleuze and as multiplicity for Badiou. Once these discoveries are encoded cognitively and linguistically they reify experience, imposing structural barriers preventing further direct experience of the real.

    Do non-sentient, non-linguistic animals have a truer experience of the real? If so they can’t tell us or each other about it — they’re locked into the raw reality of the environment they occupy. Cognition and language separate humans from their environment in a sort of emergent transcendence. This has pragmatic advantages, enabling us to manipulate the environment. But it also alienates us as individuals and as a species. There’s a sort of trade-off between understanding the real and experiencing it. That flash of insight when we actualize the virtual of the Real is also that moment when the virtual loses its inexplicable hold over our imagination. The virtual is the portal from the Real to Reality, experienced as insight and transcendence and a feeling of the uncanny, both a death and a doubling.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 22 November 2007 @ 6:15 am

  3. John, your description of interactions with phenomena leads to a highly individualised ‘language’ but language is not learned individually, as you have yourself pointed out. A baby might point at something and make a corresponding vocalisation but this does not in itself constitute a signifier. A number of interactions on a signification with a number of individuals and in a number of contexts may be what drives us to generalise and make intuitive leaps so easily. It is also true that some familiarity with the usual usage of a word or expression is needed before metaphorical uses can be understood.

    In the example you gave “my cup of tea”, another phenomenon also shows up and this is that even when we don’t actually understand the originally rich context of meaning, what birthed the metaphor, still a metaphor can work.

    Some sort of a spatial area seems to be created as we realise that others may use the same signifier for slightly or even remarkably different things and in different ways and we automaically expand our space to include the new usage or different nuance.

    I wonder how early this is and where it plays its part in the development of language skills. I’ve noticed that some highly functional kids with disabilities like ADHD and some autistics too will insist on using words too precisely, alomost monolithically and these kids always have trouble with metaphors where meanings are at best derivative.

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    Comment by samlcarr — 22 November 2007 @ 8:27 am

  4. While we as individuals are language-users, the language we use is a collective cultural artifact. Metaphorical language is also part of common usage — it’s unlikely that “not my cup of tea” would come spontaneously to mind if we hadn’t learned it in conversation with others.

    “A number of interactions on a signification with a number of individuals and in a number of contexts may be what drives us to generalise and make intuitive leaps so easily.”

    I agree with that. Language is a portal not only from phenomenon to structure, from literal to figurative, from specific to general: it’s also a portal from self to other. As we discussed previously in the self-other-world triangle of Tomasello and Davidson, self can participate in language only by taking the other’s perspective toward the words and the world, as well as taking the other other’s perspective toward myself in order to infer the other’s intentionality as an interlocutor.

    “Some sort of a spatial area seems to be created as we realise that others may use the same signifier for slightly or even remarkably different things and in different ways and we automatically expand our space to include the new usage or different nuance.”

    Yes I think this is an example of our flexibility in social role-taking — trying to understand our interlocutor’s linguistic idiosyncracies and taking them into account as we discuss the world. This is Gadamer’s contribution to the triangle: two different language-users establish a “parallax view” of the world, the differences measured by variations in their cognitive-linguistic schemata. Part of conversation isn’t just to eliminate the gaps but to use them in gaining dimensionality and perspective when looking at the world together.

    Because autistic kids have a difficult time seeing others as being like themselves, they probably have a hard time negotiating the parallax. I remember reading a study supporting your observation that autism impairs the ability to understand metaphor. Maybe certain savant-like abilities — e.g. in manipulating numbers — is a compensation for cognitive impairment in attaining this sort of flexibility in shifting between realities. Maybe sheer computational ability is something that’s lost by most people in order to occupy a more socialized and indeterminate cognitive space.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 22 November 2007 @ 1:42 pm

  5. Nicely said…

    I will visit from time to time…for a breath of fresh air…

    “In a sense all words are metaphors for the things they point to. Words are portals that transport people back and forth between interpersonal communication and joint imaginary participation in a world of phenomena to which the words point.”

    I like this thought very much…I quibble a bit with “joint imaginary participation” unless by your statement you mean that our “joint participation” is largely imagined.

    I have added your site to my blogroll…

    Poetman

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    Comment by 1poet4man — 23 November 2007 @ 7:47 pm

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Poetman, you’re welcome any time. Not persuaded that we can participate in one another’s imaginations? It does seem like a futile charade most of the time I agree, the kind of utopia that can exist only in fiction.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 23 November 2007 @ 11:51 pm

  7. Probably the most frequently-encountered example of linguistic portality is the metaphor. “It’s not my cup of tea.” The phrase points to a hot drink, but the hot drink occupies a different structural place in two different realities: as a particular variety in an array of beverages, as something that’s high on the list of personal preferences. It turns out that humans are adept at traversing metaphorical portals: linguistic processing time isn’t delayed when shifting between literal and metaphorical understanding.

    I find it very nice how you combined your portalic theory here with linguistics, and I don´t even mind the cognitivism. You could say this as well in psychoanalytic terms but the difference would be more formal than essential. I really believe even if you have doubts yourself that you have an unique and distinct voice. It is probably just a matter of finding the format that suits you best without causing you doubts and anxiety, so that you can turn this into some kind of an income-generating enterprise. But I don´t think this is an impossible task at all and you shouldn´t give in to your ambivalences.

    It does seem like a futile charade most of the time I agree, the kind of utopia that can exist only in fiction.

    Absolutely not. If you want empirical evidence, I will tell you that I once experimented with mescaline type party drugs which you can buy in Dutch coffee shops, such as the mushrooms. (Readers, this is not something you should try at home without first consulting your doctor) As it turns out, when on a high induced by such drugs, you do not have the ILLUSION that you are talking to your friend´s Unconscious, even experiencing telepathy, because there is written evidence that the insights gained in this altered state of mind indeed corresponded with reality as we know it in our normal state of mind.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 24 November 2007 @ 5:19 am

  8. Thanks Parodycenter. When I’ve felt most spontaneous writing fiction is when it seems to me that what I’m writing could just as easily be true, merely a matter of the virtual making transition across the thin membrane into the actual. Likewise with nonfiction: everyday reality doesn’t hold any privileged position over any number of alternate realities that could take its place. The real is the real, largely unaffected by our cognitions or our emotions. But in terms of the way we experience the real, filtered through our membranes of self and society, reality is a fiction that everybody believes and fiction is a reality that’s still only virtual.

    Regarding the format for generating an income-producing enterprise, here’s what I really believe. There are various virtual realities in which your creations and mine would be very successful — and maybe also Poetman’s and Traxus’s too, if I knew their projects better. These realities of success depend on the emergence of tastes, preferences, even perceptions that could become attuned to what our creations are revealing to them. The link between revelation and reception is already there, quivering like a kind of wave between transmitter and receiver. It’s largely a matter of tuning in to the right frequency — what the Germans call Bildung.

    There probably are people who are already tuned to the right frequencies, or who can at least distinguish the signal weakly pushing through the noise and who then tune in, letting it come through more clearly. The question becomes one of distributing the signal widely enough. But the systems that control the transmitters are interested in only those cultural products that transmit signals along a very narrow set of bandwidths, which are the most predictable and manipulable sources of revenue. And besides, you gotta know somebody in the biz before they’ll even have a listen.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 24 November 2007 @ 8:52 am

  9. And besides, you gotta know somebody in the biz before they’ll even have a listen.

    But I do know people in the biz and they will listen, plus the atmosphere in Europe is far less hostile to let´s say avantgarde or nonstandard concepts, what you need to do is stop philosophizing about the discoveries that you already made and which are sitting in front of your nose and put them on paper. With this we can start building. I in fact advise you to use your cognitivism to tell yourself to take a purely pragmatic turn here. I also believe that the right way to go is to throw the philosophy through the prism of popular culture. This is how money can be made on top of accomplishing good philosophy.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 24 November 2007 @ 9:53 am

  10. Last night I watched Pulp Fiction again, which was a real treat. Lots of good philosophizing about really trivial shit interspersed with plenty of mindless violence amid multiple overlapping B-grade pop references, collectively occupying an alternate variant of low-rent genre reality. Some of it reminded me of Coen Brothers movies, though when it came out I didn’t think so. I understand that this is the appeal also of guys like Cronenberg and Philip Dick and the whole DIY post-punk genre immmersion of the philosophes. Lynch does it too of course.

    You’ll note that I allude to Tarantino in the first chapter of Prop O’Gandhi, as a guy who makes art out of comic book reality, just as I reference the blue box from Mulholland in the chapter I sent you. So I do think about this strategy, and envy it in certain ways. If what you see when you’re in the creator’s sphere happens to overlap with pop sensibility you might be in luck. It’s generally not what I see. But I don’t see myself writing academic discourses either.

    Honestly, Parodycenter, as I was watching Pulp Fiction I was thinking about you as a Tarantino-type figure: pop-savvy, obsessive, a bit perverse, sort of dorky, but very smart and creatively brilliant. And I was wondering about the Project transported into Tarantino-like space. After watching the movie I had a feeling of being in that world. At the post office, the Persian facteur is discussing mail delivery difficulties with the Korean visiting faculty member and his wife. At the cheap housewares store I’m buying a pannetone and a tablecloth, the guy in front of me in line is talking with me and the clerk. The clerk says his dog doesn’t like it when people change their hair color. The guy in front of me is talking about how his father’s hair turned completely white 3 days before having a massive stroke. I can see that world taking shape around me.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 24 November 2007 @ 11:01 am

  11. Tarantino is yes another obsessive neurotic, who sees the world through his anus. But I am not the police and crime genre buff, my sensibilities are a blend of arthouse cinema and lynchian perversity more than tarantino´s brand of crude violence. I am equally excessive but in another, psychoanalytic*colored way. And I think this is the realm where our respective sensibilities meet, although you also have something of a Barbie streak to yourself, a white picket fence reality from Blue Velvet, so in some parallel universe we might be lovers like Jeffrey and Sandy.

    However Clysmatics this all is still philosophizing, what I want you to do is put on paper, in three or four sentences, what your message is to the audience, something like you did for your therapy service. We can take it up from there.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 24 November 2007 @ 11:34 am

  12. As the story begins the Travolta character has just returned to LA after living 3 years in Amsterdam. He tells Samuel L Jackson that you can get a beer in the movie theaters in Amsterdam, and not just that plastic cup shit but a real beer in a real glass. I think all the talking in Pulp Fiction is in part an homage to Euro art film, in contrast to Kill Bill which isn’t really — and which I didn’t really like very much.

    I’ll email you something today I hope, because I’m starting to think about it more intensively.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 24 November 2007 @ 11:54 am

  13. Pulp Fiction is a study in anality, which it openly admits in the brilliant scene with Christopher Walken who has preserved his most precious possession / time / in his ass, but things get really interesting when the black guy abandons the anal sadistic game in favor of forgiveness, the New Testamental creed. I have tried to take some of my readers to that point but tey prefer to get fucked, obviously. The posts with the highest ratings are always those involving slander and gossip.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 24 November 2007 @ 12:11 pm

  14. I can’t help notice that somehow the roles are turning and Parodycenter is now counseling the counselor.
    I agree at least twice with Parodycenter: (1)academical & cultural Europe might be more open to your approach; (2)a commercial idea would be to write a scaffold “bildung for dummies”, “how to bildung therapy”; (3) I was going to say something about neuroticism, but forgot.

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    Comment by Odile — 24 November 2007 @ 12:13 pm

  15. Hi Odile. Yes, Parodycenter provides very insightful analyses, though he seems overly insistent on dispensing his pragmatic “just do something” advice straight out of a coaching manual. Yes, I liked the Biblical citations and hand of God working on Samuel L — is he the avenging angel, or the tyranny of evil men, or the shepherd? Samuel had to stop doing something.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 24 November 2007 @ 12:49 pm

  16. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again John, you do have the talent and the ability to be successful as a writer, whether of fiction or nonfiction.

    I’ve recently been listening to a few podcasts of Zizek, who is also a bit of a polyglot and while there are a lot of original insights, a lot of the time he just selects a field and plows along. The original, and the not so, all come together to produce something that overlaps all over the place but also is uniquely creative, and very interesting at least for the duration of the ride.

    You are a completely different sort of person and a different sort of talent but you will also find yourself occupying some unique territory while weaving together strands from a variety of sources and with your own unique perspectives and originalities both blending in and standing out.
    So, like Parodycenter says, Just Do It!

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    Comment by samlcarr — 24 November 2007 @ 3:09 pm

  17. I think all wisdom has levels and the dilemna is the most difficult one to master. To me that’s the point of reading, not to give the answer, but to help with addressing conflict, I’m not going to tell Samuel what to choose. He has free will.

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    Comment by Odile — 24 November 2007 @ 3:10 pm

  18. I agree with you Sam.

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    Comment by Odile — 24 November 2007 @ 3:11 pm

  19. Well Sam, I hope you’re ready for Parodycenter to tell you a few things about Zizek. A preliminary: Parodycenter hails originally from Serbia, whereas Zizek is Slovenian who advocated separation from the former Yugoslavia.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 24 November 2007 @ 3:51 pm

  20. Oops! The guy is an interesting blend of seemingly contradictory ideas, but overall his presentations are interesting though I’m a bit confused at present as to where it will all lead. I do like his critique of various Socialist-Marxist thinkers and his analysis of contemporary cultural stuff.

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    Comment by samlcarr — 24 November 2007 @ 4:05 pm


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