Preliminary thoughts on Halliday and semiotics

Trying to understand Halliday’s motivation for the concept of Instantiation has impressed on me the realisation that the very concept arises from Semiotics as a research paradigm. The very idea of assigning the identity and meaning of actual items on the basis of their relationship to a paradigm of virtual possible entities, that is, the relationship between meaning potential (system) and instance (actual), is perhaps the key move in semiotic structuralism. It is the move that severs the relationship between meaning and world, thereby insisting that signs must be defined, not by reference to objects, referents, fact or situations, but relationally to each other. Thus language, as a privileged example of a semiotic system, can be exhaustively described and explained purely on its own terms, without any reference to its actual uses in social life.

It is important to point out that what is at issue here is not the claim that the identity and meaning of a sign or linguistic item is not self-transparent and is determined by a context or background, by something outside of itself as it were. This contextualism is shared across many accounts of language. For example, Heidegger would say: ‘what it is that makes something what it is resides outside itself, not inherent in it’; actually he would would have phrased that as: ‘the essence of something lies outside itself’. Similarly, the shift from the Tractatus to Philosophical Investigations by Wittgenstein was a matter of no longer insisting that the identity of names or basic propositions was grounded in their transparent relationship to atomic entities and facts, but rather rested on the unfolding of the varied and fuzzy contextual situations of social life. Thus the meaning of a term is a function of what ‘language game’ it is implicated in, and the language game a function of what ‘forms of life’ it is enacting.

So, the move to a context to account for meaning and identity is common to both semiotics and what we might call the more anthropological or praxis accounts of meaning and language by Heidegger and Wittgenstein. The point of difference between the two approaches lies in the character of the respective contexts they nominate. For semiotics and systems theory, context is a relational constellation or assemblage of other virtual possible meanings, meanings that could potentially have been selected in a speech act but were not, whereas for the praxis paradigm, the context is actual ‘worldly’ social situation in which the language is figuring, and the situation itself embodies and expresses deeper socio-historical themes, imperatives and motifs.

If this sketch is even half right, what instantly springs to mind is that a deep gambit on Halliday’s part is a ‘both-and’ attempt to retain and reconcile these two competing paradigms: European semiotic structuralism and Anglo-American anthropology, as he himself phrases the difference. The global vector of Instantiation – patterns of agnation – indexes the former paradigm; the global vector of Stratification, especially its encompassing of ‘the eco-social environment’ mobilises the latter.

I picture Halliday as a Kafkaesque tight-rope artist precariously balancing on the wobbly shoulders of two giant paradigms within linguistics – the systemic and the functional.  This is to attend to the name of his linguistics – SFL: systemic functional linguistics – and note that although it presents as a nominal group functioning as a proper name, a name in which the terms ‘systemic’ and ‘functional’ are set peacefully alongside each other, in fact it may represent more an aspiration, a balancing act, than naming an actual finalised stable entity or accomplished reconciliation of the two paradigms in play.

I end this post with a number of questions for follow-up:

  • What to think about structuralism and its (continuing) role in SFL?
  • How does Halliday try to stitch together such two disparate paradigms as structuralist semiotics and praxis anthropologies?
  • What was the motive for attempting this, and how did it relate to the structural-functionalism of British anthropology at the time?
  • Was this effort simply a result of a dual interest in the Marxist oriented study of language by the Prague school and various Russian schools on the one hand, and the ethnographic functionalist anthropology of Malinowski and the American ethnographers on the other?
  • How did the shifts of British anthropology such as Mary Douglas, Evan-Prichard and of continental Marxists such as Gramsci & Althusser away from a simple, perhaps reductive, materialist and functionalists account of ‘species being’ and ‘society’ impact on the SFL account of the ‘social context’ or ‘social system’ or ‘meaning potential of the social system’?

First issue: language vs social practice

I tend to think about this by drawing on two theoretical traditions. The first is MAK Halliday’s systemic functional linguistics (SFL). (I will get to the second theoretical tradition, the German tradition, for which I will take Heidegger and Gadamer as representative, in a later post.) I will first approach this issue in relation to the work of what SFL calls the textual metafunction.

Regarding the first issue, a key question is unravelling the interface between the two faces of language – enacting social life and representation.

For me, SFL seems to construe these two functional dimensions of language (as a harmonious relationship which are woven together by a third, the textual metafunction, to produce neatly finalised totalities – texts. But this analytic construal seems to domesticate and render anodyne what I take to be incommensurable differences – ranging all the way from epochal historical motifs to sociocultural practices to micro-inflections in wording – locked in ongoing hegemonic struggle, competition and accommodation. The SFL picture reminds me of Whiggish renderings of the Hegelian dialectic in which competing meanings are neatly transmuted into a resolving synthesis.

To my mind, all discourse but especially discourse enacting teaching and learning is struggling to find a convincing relationship between incommensurable discourses/paradigms/worlds/frameworks – like these very posts I am writing now. One of the tenets of rhetoric is that all serious discourse arises from difference, from different perspectives, different interests, different values, judgements or sensibilities. For rhetoric, the object of discourse is a contested, still indeterminate issue (causa), some thing or some situation or some action or some possible action that is still not clear and agreed upon – and so needs discussion and debate in order to find and form a credible consensus. Heidegger and Gadamer in their renewal of ancient rhetoric translate causa  with the German term die Sache which means ‘what this text/discourse/discussion/court case is about’.

The significance of this for pedagogic discourse – for the reading, writing, discussion and thinking at work in teaching and learning – is that learning only happens when more than one discourse is in play. A pedagogy with only a single discourse in play is a debased, corrupt pedagogy; it is the pedagogy of rote learning, of the catechism, a pedagogy that pretends that the world both is and appears as one and the same to everyone. It imagines that students have lived with their eyes shut, but will now have them opened to see and understand the world for the first time. But in fact students come to the scene of pedagogy with pre-existing views and perceptions; and it is only by using these as footing that students can engage understandingly with what is being presented by the teacher or the texts speaking on behalf of ‘the truth’. So, rather than think in terms of ‘topics’, we should think in terms of issues, causa, Sache – matters that need to be discussed, explored, re-shaped, transformed in order to be wrought into a coherent stable entity or object.

In my view, if we as educators (and students) refuse to think of the textual metafunction as a matter of simply wrapping an extra layer of transitions, conjunctions and metadiscourse around an already determinate package of topical content, but instead interpret the metafunction as the work of trying to bring the disparate elements of a text, elements indexing different discourses, into a harmonious and plausible alignment and movement, then the textual metafunction is in fact the site of the most critical work of learning and understanding. It is the site where incommensurables and otherness are mediated, placed and positioned in relation to one another. If I am right that significant learning is coming to see the world from within a different discourse or discipline without annihilating existing discourses, then the textual metafunction will be a privileged site for observing and discussing how the tensions, relations and contradictions between the different discourses have been (could be, might be, have been attempted to be, have failed to be, have pretended to be, have deliberately not been, and so on) ‘resolved’ to form a coherent cohesive text.

Insofar as no text can have ‘the last word’ or encompass a finalised totality, or represent a God’s eye ‘view from nowhere’, I align myself with Derrida in viewing all texts, but especially pedagogic texts, as ‘essentially’ incomplete, unfinalised, riven by contradictions, grounded in incommensurable, elusive competing traces. And my suggestion is that it is in the textualising metadiscourse that this will show up most clearly.

A practical implication for language and learning educators: It may be that the rubrics currently proffered to students regarding conjunctions, metadiscourse, topic sentences, modality and so on when taught as a given, conventional feature of academic writing or of English discourse does a serious disservice to students. They present the textual metafunction as simply a matter of convention, not as a matter of the dialectical struggle at work when incommensurable discourses, concepts or worlds are in play. This means that any lapse or clumsiness in textuality is interpreted, not as pointing to an unresolved integration of die Sache, of that which is at issue in what the text is addressing, but as merely a failure to conform to a conventional feature of English academic writing. Worse, if disciplinary educators were ever to be persuaded to read these lapses in this way, they would be depriving themselves of a key site from which to observe and disclose where a student ‘is at’ in trying to grapple with the conflicting perspectives in play.

What do I want from Schatzki?

Over the last few days, my mind has been turning to Schatzki and forming a desire to re-read him more extensively and more carefully. Why? Why detour from the three master thinkers/ paradigms I have been most concerned with in recent times: Halliday and his systemic functional linguistics; Heidegger (Gadamer) and their ontological hermeneutic phenomenology of Dasein; and Laclau and his poststructural rendering of hegemonic politics? Not forgetting, of course my long standing interest in Rhetoric, more particularly Perelman’s New Rhetoric with its foregrounding of solidarity-building epideictic discourse.

Three elements of Schatzki’s work keep entering my mind:

  1. his privileging of social practice over language as the ground of intelligibility;
  2. his grappling with the complexity of the notion of ‘context’;
  3. and finally, his exposition of an ‘event’-based notion of ‘timespace’ for framing history, action and social causality.

If my memory serves me right, each of his three books is dedicated to these issues in turn:

  • Social Practices: A Wittgensteinian Approach to Human Activity and the Social (henceforth, SP) to the first topic – social practice over language;
  • The Site of the Social: A Philosophical account of the constitution of social life and change (henceforth SS) to the second – context: and
  • Timespace of Human Activity: On Performance, Society, and History as Indeterminate Teleological Events (henceforth THA) to the third topic – ‘events’ as the ground of social life.

Knowing the way my mind works, I am sure that there will be many detours along the way, but grappling with Schatzki carefully as a way of wrestling again with thinkers who have been constant companions to my own thinking will hopefully be a productive strategy for provoking a fading and lazy brain.

Warning: As Tony Abbott warned, most of what I will write in the early blogs will be provisional and speculative, thus open for revision or retraction. So, don’t hold me too strictly to anything I say or any particular phrasing. Hopefully, over time my judgement, grasp and language will tighten up, becoming more incisive and insightful – and thus worth engaging with. In short, the early blogs will be principally addressed to myself as provocations; hopefully the later blogs, if I can find some footholds, can be addressed to a wider audience.