The 2019 Nora and Edward Ryerson Lecture: Michael Silverstein & Constantine V. Nakassis

Posted By on December 3, 2019


ROBERT ZIMMER: Good evening
and welcome to the 2019 Ryerson lecture. The Ryerson lectures are named
in honor of Nora and Edward Ryerson. Edward L. Ryerson, Junior
was a long standing member of our board of trustees
from 1923 to 1971. So that is indeed long standing. And he served as the chairman
of the board of trustees from 1953 to 1956. The Ryerson family,
now the Ranney family, has an association with the
university that dates back to our earliest days when
Martin A. Ryerson served as a member of our
first board of trustees. In recognition of
his philanthropy, the Ryerson physical
laboratory was named in honor of his father. The annual Ryerson
lecture is an opportunity to hear from an esteemed member
of the University of Chicago faculty, and has been a central
event in the intellectual life of the university since
John Hope Franklin delivered the inaugural lecture in 1974. The collected Ryerson
lectures represent 45 years of the
university’s scholarly work across the disciplines, and
also provides a type of guide to much of the intellectual
history of our broader society over that time. As many of you know, the
selection of Ryerson lecture is a very special one
for the university. Each year a committee of faculty
from around the university takes nominations and
chooses one faculty member to deliver the following
year’s Ryerson lecture. An individual whose extended
research contributions are believed to be of
lasting significance, and who the committee believes
the entire intellectual community of the university
would like to hear from, and will benefit from hearing. Last year the committee
selected Michael Silverstein to be the 2019 Ryerson lecturer. Michael is the Charles F. Gray
distinguished service professor of anthropology,
linguistics, and psychology, and in the Committee
on interdisciplinary studies in the humanities. He’s also the director of
the Center for the study of communication and society. As an anthropologist
and linguist, Michael seeks to interpret
the social and cultural matrix of languages in
order to understand why people from disparate
parts of the world perceive the way they speak as
a core part of their identity. His highly influential
work is concerned with the structure, history, and
functional contextual section of language, as well as the
anthropology of language used in this history of
linguistic and ethnographic studies. Michael also investigates
language use and textuality in contemporary American
society as sites of contestation and transformation of
quote cultural value, reconceptualizing sociocultural
and rhetorical practices in light of semiotic
anthropology of communication. In 2014, he was honored by
the American Anthropological Association with the Franz Boas
Award for exemplary service to anthropology, the
most prestigious award in the field of anthropology. The association
described him in a way that will be
familiar to all of us at the University of Chicago,
as a virtual force of nature and the discipline through
his pedagogy and service, recognizing him for
his efforts to reshape linguistic anthropology
and bring it into a closer relationship to
the rest of the discipline. He’s also been elected
to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the
American Philosophical Society, and the
American Association for the Advancement of Science. Michael first joined the
University of Chicago faculty in 1972 as an
associate professor in the departments of
anthropology and linguistics. He was previously
a junior fellow in anthropology and
linguistics at Harvard, where he also earned both his
Bachelor of Arts and his PhD. And I will say he was also a
graduate of Stuyvesant High School. Those of us who have known
Michael for a long time recognize not only
his great scholarship and his dedication
to teaching, but also his role as a great
citizen of the university. In all of these
ways, he represents the highest aspirations of
our intellectual community. And he has always done this,
not only with great seriousness of purpose that
reflected his work, but as we all recognize with
extraordinary great humor. Michael accepted our invitation
to be the 2019 Ryerson lecturer in June last year. He prepared his lecture
earlier this year, but due to illness he is
unable to join us this evening to deliver it personally. Instead one of his
closest colleagues, Constantine Nakassis,
has been asked to present Michael’s Ryerson
lecture tonight on his behalf. Constantine is an associate
professor in the Department of Anthropology in the college. He’s a linguistic anthropologist
whose research interests include semiotics, film
theory and mass media, trademark law, brands and
counterfeiting, and youth culture with a particular
focus on India. Constantine was taught
by Professor Sifaka, I hope I’m getting that
pronunciation at least approximately correct, who
is professor of anthropology at the University
of Pennsylvania, and one of Michael’s
former graduate students here at the
University of Chicago. Constantine is an example of
Michael’s tremendous legacy and influence and
of the importance he has placed on building
a corps of scholars to preserve and continue to
develop the fields that he has been so instrumental in
shaping throughout his career. Now Michael will be
joining us from home, and will be available to take
questions after the lecture. And there’s some
technology that is set up to enable that to happen. So please join me in welcoming
Constantine Nakassis, who will be delivering
Michael’s lecture entitled, “Getting and getting
across the message”. Constantine. CONSTANTINE: Good evening and
thank you President Zimmer for your introduction,
and to the Ranney family, and to Michael for making
this event possible tonight. Were he able to deliver
the lecture himself, professor Silverstein
would have done so. This typically erudite,
contagious energy that many of us here have
come to know so well and never fail to be inspired by. But in the circumstance
I am honored to lend him my boombox,
as he called it, in asking me to be here tonight. And I’m flattered by Professor
Silverstein’s confidence in me to stand in on the occasion
to get across his message. And here it is. We experience social life
through the central medium of verbal messages. What coordination we
achieve with others depends upon the fact that
we talk to each other, we write and read
in graphic forms. We manually sign as well as
gesture in the visual channel. How do verbal
messages really work? No matter what your
English Composition teacher might have told you, I think
we have developed new light to shed on the matter. I want to use our time
together to sketch the intellectual adventure I’ve
been on along with students and colleagues for
about 50 years now, an adventure I gratefully
say stimulated that long ago by an invitation out of
the blue for me to come to the University
of Chicago to teach a graduate course on
language and culture during an autumn
quarter 1970 visiting assistant professorship. Paradoxically
enough, to shed light on the matter of how
verbal messages do their sociocultural work, we
need to think about pantomime. This silent performance
art form there is after all no language
and it, consists entirely of movements of the body and its
various parts in an otherwise seemingly empty space. From the flow or sequence
of such movements, the mime’s audience
of spectators, the mime’s addresses come to
see that the sequence of body and facial movement is tracing
some culturally coherent event or recognizable experience in
a determinant, if only imagined frame of objects,
populated physical spaces, and social situations
that are almost, virtually is a good word, present. Too because the
addressee is project them as they tried
to make organized sense of the movements. A successful mime
immerses her or himself in a gradually thickening
and dense context that the spectators need
to project or supply is the counterpart, the
complement with an E, of the body movements to
make a whole interpretation. The body movements gradually
come to perceived coherence in recognizable ways in a
gradually determinant framing envelope, the necessary
counterpart effect. The text, as we might
call it, a bodily movement thus projects the
surrounded context. Context comes to reciprocally
frame performer and addressee as in a compatible same
or similar social space of interpretation. As an event takes shape
relative to the now no longer indeterminate context,
the mime can even display affect or emotion, and
even instill affect and emotion in the spectators. The mime and his
or her addresses thus achieve a kind of
social relationship. They both come to be
intuitively understood, kinds or types of persona or
characters with human feelings and understandings through
the magic of what we can term the dynamic text
context structure that comes into being in
cognitive and affective space, and is transformed
over event time. The key words here
are text and context. Keep in mind I’ve
described a structure at the center of the
mime’s magic, text coming to linkage with context. The structure emerges
over the interval of performed bodily
narrative, and a space gradually dimensionally
with volumes, planes, lines, and points within, as
well as with protectively imagined people and
things that reciprocally render the mime’s narrative
coherent for the audience. The audience quote gets
the complex message that the mime endeavors
to quote get across by projecting a densely
structured context that no one actually sees, but everyone
comes to understand, must be there. I want to elaborate this account
of the dynamic text context structure in real
time and space as we turn to discursive interaction. Interaction that centers on
the unfolding of discourse of language in use. We will come to see
that discourse too works in social life as a
kind of multi-modal pantomime, once we make the right
analytic moves to study it. A central undertaking in
linguistic anthropology over the last several decades. So what happens when
two or more people, or even persons and nonhuman
beings of some sort, participate in a
discursive interaction? That is recall a
social interaction centering on the deployment
of language or its equivalent. In one of my
disciplines, linguistics, we focus on the fact of
grammar underlying one kind of regularity and discourse. Grammar is the
universal condition of representational
form anchoring every human
communicative regime. No language lacks a grammar. In discourse, the
grammar of language allows us to refer to
entities and conditions in any cognizable universe. And we do so as we predicate
modally true states of affairs about those entities
and conditions. Linguistic centers
on the forms called sentences and their
parts which give regular shape to how we go about
our referring and predicating. Such grammatical shapes
lurk in our utterances as templates for
arrangements implicit in the uttered signals. I like to think of a
grammatical analysis as like an in-depth
X-ray of the actual referring and
predicating discourse in discursive interaction. But does this really
determine the message one gets when someone tries
to get across a message? To jump ahead the answer is no. By contrast, consider
the interaction aspect of what we mean by discursive
interaction, the focus of fields to sociology
or anthropology and social psychology. As social scientists were
interested in the ways people are not mere psycho
biological organisms. We’re interested in persons
with many identities defined by collective societal
structures and their workings. As such, individuals
are organized into cross cutting groups. They instantiate or inhabit as
well distinguishable categories of social existence
in terms that they use to understand how
they affect one another. In effect,
interpreting themselves and others in a reflexive
or ethno sociology. Interaction, then
is the cover term for all events of
co participatory coordination of the
people and other beings of the social universe. Some interaction depends
essentially on discourse. This is discursive interaction,
whether face to face or remote. So using language allows us
to represent and communicate about the world of our
experience and imagination, and as well, using language
is the social instrumentality for bringing groupings and
social identities into being in the here and now,
allowing us as persons to coordinate in such terms. We can’t pretend
that language lacks its representational function. But how can productively
think about how signals we use in
this way may also play a role as the medium
of social coordination, on the face of it a
very different function. In the course of communication
the processional discourse, the processional
aspect of language, unfolds as one says, in the
quote social context unquote that it effectively
brings into being. The context of discourse
as we can perhaps now see is the always
transformable structure of salient social identities
and relationships that comes over interactional
time to frame the ever moving interactional here and now. Though projected, in fact,
from the text of discourse, context at every moment
is that framework in which individuals socially
coordinate in one or more ways. We may start out not knowing
much about an individual with whom we are
interacting and vise versa. So we make a stab at
uttering something. Our interaction or partner
contributes something back, sharpening the
parameters of identity on which interaction precedes. We make a further conversational
move, perhaps even more revealing of who
was involved in what, and what therefore must
be going on socially. And in kind our counterparts
next co contribution about a represented world
makes clear the dimensions of identity and the social
consequences now possible if interaction is to proceed. Such alternating
turn contributions constitute one of
the elementary forms of measure or unionization
of diatic to cocontributor interaction. Such alternating contributions
are termed adjacency pairs, where what one says and say
even number position links up with one what
someone else has said an odd number of positions. And where one says something
in an odd number position, expecting the interlocutor
to contribute an even numbered utterance to the event. It’s like a dance, or
better practical poetry of turn taking. A clear example of the
principle of metricalization, of measure, which when
violated constitutes trouble the participants
have to address, as we’ll see in a moment. Just think of all
the different ways we greet each other
in social encounters. Hi, how you doing, uttered
to our interlocutor contrasts markedly with
hello, how do you do. Note that the difference between
these otherwise equivalently uttered greetings actually
plays upon the grammatical forms out of which the interrogative
phrases are composed, not upon any real difference
of content words, how you do, but instead upon grammatical
and phonetic style. Except for the grammatical
variance and grammarians terms, progressive aspect vs. punctual,
and stated vs. active control, an otherwise identical
question is being asked here. Each form of the
question is moreover compatible with the special
initial greeting word, hi or hello as the case may be. Seeking a compatible response
from the individual greeted, each variant will
have set up, will have made salient
and contextually real the social reality of possibly
in play identities of self and other that can thus
be presumed upon that will have been,
quote, gotten across, unquote, in whatever
interaction may follow. The interlocutory partner
gets the interactional import of the variant
message by producing a compatible or
non-controverting response, indicating that understanding
of the social relationship come into being is mutual. Hi, how you doing offers
friendly in groupness. Hello, how do you do
offers the distance of status dependent
positionality as salient in the situation to which
one had better pay attention. Which is accepted
in each instance or contravened in the pas
de deux of alternating co-participation,
this is the question. As you can see, it’s
not so much what one says in the
way of contributing to a representation
of something. It’s how one says
what one says by way of such a contribution
that does the work of social coordination. We can never successfully get
across such a message that points to social context until
someone else, quote, gets it as revealed in a
confirmatory or at least non-contravening return,
one that is compatibly as we say in the same
interactionally relevant denotational register. Imagine the uneasy
situation if someone answers the proffered first
register variant the high form with the second the hello form. Oops. It’s like saying keep
your social distance, bub, and pay attention to
who I am and who you are not. Only we don’t have to
say this explicitly. Just using the
understood context shaping variant as opposed
to a register alternative does the trick. So think of discourse
using language and similar cultural signs as
the very medium or intermediary of how people engage each
other in social interaction. People compose and
convey messages that they presume are
to varying degrees appropriate to or allowable
in the social context. People speak to the who,
what, where, and why of the social
situation as defined for them up to some
point in an interaction. And given the purposiveness
of communication, such messages are to varying
degrees effective in clarifying and maintaining and
contesting or in transforming the social contexts
in determinate ways that is if social life
mediated by discourse has any regularity
or normativity to it as empirically it seems to. Discourse is cumulative
in time and space to be evaluated
not only in terms of semantic and logical
coherence, the focus of the tradition of the
Enlightenment in the West, but as well in terms of its
degrees and kinds of coherence of social effect both
within and across interactional encounters. Logical coherence
of what one says is measured as an
aspect of what I like to call denotational
textuality, representations of an experienced or imagined
world that one co-constructs in the course of communication. By contrast, when we are
interested in the coherence of discourse as action in the
realm of social coordination, we can tell a narrative about
interactional textuality, how discursive forms bring about
one’s understanding of what is happening in the
cause and effect world of social coordination. An account of
denotation answers– tries to answer the
question what did they say. An account of interaction
answers the question in and by denotationally
saying such and such using thus and such signs what did they
bring about in social life. How then is denotational
textuality properly viewed projected into
interactional textuality? As an example of
greeting, how does how one says what
one denotes come to count as what one contributes
to the envelope of social life and lives in which
communication is experienced? Of course, even the
most carefully intended or strategized purpose
of acts of an individual can go astray in
all kinds of ways because interacting
individuals may not already be mutually coordinated
as social types. The transcript on
the screen reveals that as interaction proceeds
between a certain A and B, even if it seems to cause
a coordination problem, it can be as it
were recalibrated through alternate remediating
coordination of identities, all through the magic of
messages that are themselves about getting and
getting across messages. Here’s the scene of interaction. It’s after hours in some
organizational headquarters, for example, a suite
of departmental offices in a college or university. Through a door
left ajar, B walks into A’s office in the
evening at the time when office cleaning
regularly happens. A is staring at
a computer screen in a corner of the office. A verbalizes without looking
away from the computer screen. There’s some more
trash to take out under that table over there. B, surprised, incredulous facial
expression, frozen body stance, A turning to take
in B, oh, sorry. Forgive me, I thought
you were the janitor. Individual A reveals that the
first turn at talk mistakenly ascribed an identity
to be that lay behind the particular
formulation, the how of the message used. In explanation, A
describes that identity to which A’s turn was directed. I thought you were
the dot, dot, dot with a so-called noun
of agency, a noun that denotes a status
derived from someone’s habitual or institutional
role to perform. In this sector of the American
English cultural community, A’s meta comment counts as a,
quote, apology plus excuse, unquote, for A’s prior turn
at talk that reflexively recognizes it as a social
faux pas on A’s part and thus invites
closure and discounting of the interactional
segment of which it was intended as a turn. The unit segment of which
it was a first contribution is termed an adjacency
pair you will recall, the reaction to which
contributed by B was not talk, but was B stopped in one’s
tracks bodily reaction? An apology plus the excuse
for A’s prior misconstrual thus counts as an
attempt to diffuse the situation of surprise
or affront on B’s part and to allow a reset,
partial or complete, of the relationship
between A and B for any further interaction. What message is A
apologizing for? A was simply trying
to, quote, get across a message appropriate for
an interaction context presumed to exist at that
moment of utterance. A’s original turn
to talk was offered as a hint that counts as
a request or order for B to do something. Why did A presume in
issuing the hint at order– to hint as order that B would
know in that projectively communicated
identity what to do? Denotationally A’s
first utterance appears to be just a
statement of contextual fact. But, of course, a statement
of contextual fact that informed B of the existence
of, quote, some more trash, unquote, that is to say, in
addition to the usual or nearby available to sight
trash in a perhaps unexpected or non-visible
location at some remove from where the speaker then
was, quote, under that table over there, unquote. But note not merely
some more trash, some more trash to,
quote, take out, unquote, i.e. of A’s office by someone
to be sure the addressee B. So A is specifying a focus
of attention for B, the extra trash, A’s utterances
locating under landmark, a certain table in
relation to where speaker and addressee then were. And further, formulating
a purpose of action to be accomplished by
someone in respect of it. Guess who? Did A utter something
like might you please take out the trash
under that table in the corner of the office or even
with a pointing gesture take out the trash into
that table over there. No. We’re interested in
the specific form A’s message took as opposed
to these and other forms among several possible
in the instance so as to be able to account for how
the form A uses actually points to the presumed
upon social context and so as therefore to
understand B’s second turn reaction. In American English, to any
socio-linguistically competent user of the language,
what A uttered did count interactionally as a
command, a directive in the interactional
text that put B in the position of
having either to comply with its terms or not. A’s misguided usage
has, in fact, precisely conformed to the late
Susan Ervin-Tripps’ classical empirical finding
summarized on the screen that such hints as
directives occur in the register of either
talk among intimate familiars or to someone
expected to conform, to routine roll
expectations of a job or similar circumstance
where identities and the presumption of
associated role fulfillment are clear. How so? In an empirical study of
American English usage in and around Berkeley,
California, in the 1970s, Ervin-Tripp and her students
studied alternative sentence types, each of which
equivalently counted as the issuing of a so-called
mand, a demand, an order, a quest under particular
relational social conditions that describe the context in
which the mand was successfully communicated. There were six major
types of utterance shapes among the 1,200 or
so they collected as summarized in the chart. They also discovered
that in response to such a first utterance,
each syntactic type normally triggers particular verbal and
other behavioral responses. That is the addressee of the
mand fulfills or declines to fulfill its terms. As it turned out, Ervin-Tripps’
syntactic variance for mands and social
context parallel dimensions of variation of using
French vous and tu, German sie and du, and so
forth that English speakers find so difficult to master. They involve a balance of
how the issuer of the mand presumes that the addressee’s
contextual identity is entitled or not to the paying
of deference thereto and also the
speaker’s presumptions of informal in group
intimacy between the speaker and addressee as
members of a dyad. Think of a household
with many routinized and allocated tasks where one
can, quote, hint, unquote, to another household
member that it is opportune for him or her to do
a regularly assigned or generally expected task. We’re out of eggs said to
the individual who normally does the grocery shopping. And note, of course,
the generic verb here, which I’ve described
a habitual routine activity, grocery shopping. Or similarly the
dishwasher is clean said to the individually normally
charged with putting away dishes and cutlery. So in our office cleaning
example, it’s important for us to recognize that
A is not simply reporting a state of
affairs under an office table as an interactionally
irrelevant denotational text as B certainly
recognized taken aback in the framework of this
particular interactional situation by what B took
with justification to be a directive issued by
A under the presumption of mistaken identity. A had been presuming upon
the temporality of what goes on in the organizational
site of an office building including the habitual
organizational functions like office cleaning. Knowing only that someone
has entered A’s office, A’s first utterance appears
to rest on presumptions of B’s stipulated role
within the organization structure of statuses thinking
it must be the janitor. A’s presumptuous
utterance points to, it indexes, this
understanding of the pre-discursive
social context as the operative framework. Since A and B apparently share
discursive interaction norms of the kind
Ervin-Tripp identified, B has interpreted what
interactional text is a building in and
by A’s utterance. And accordingly, B performs
surprise or even shock at A’s identifying presumption
in uttering the directive. B has not really responded to
A’s directive in kind either silently doing the
stipulated a task, doing it with a verbal signal–
no problem, sure thing boss– or offering an excuse
for noncompliance. B’s bodily communication
is, in effect, a commentary on A’s
ascriptive booboo, a meta-pragmatice
or meta-discursive move we term it,
cutting the misguided would be effect of the
prior turn off at the pass as it were. B has thus declined to
participate in the interaction under the identity
A has apparently ascribed to B. Don’t you talk
to me like that, young man, you may have heard from
an offended parent at one time or another during your
teen years, your parent issuing to you a verbal
meta-pragmatic response. Similarly A’s following
apology plus excuse is, in effect, a
responsive commentary on that bodily
commentary by B, which rejected the presumption
of A’s directive. A as we can now see
justifies the use of the hint as
directive utterance by revealing A’s incorrect
presumption of the role relational facts of the
pre-discursive context that by Ervin-Tripps’ norms
both A and B implicitly know as members of the culture. Both participants
know the norms and how these norms are invoked
in and by actual utterance in social context. And both A and B know that were
B a slightly junior co-worker, A might well have said might
I possibly impose on you to help me by taking out
that trash under the table over there, all in
conformity with the way the how of utterance, the
specific syntactic formula, points to or indexes the
dimensions of social context relative to which one from
among a whole paradigm of variant forms is
appropriate and effective. At least A apologizes to
B with an excuse as well, a precursor to any
repair or reset of the social relationship. A’s apology is
perhaps to be followed by an appropriately calibrated
greeting ritual based on actual identities and
mutually acceptable role relationality. This would put everyone
on the proper footing in a post workday
collegial encounter framed as dropping in on a
colleague’s office after hours. A might then continue
good to see you B. I was meaning to ask you
about your new journal article but didn’t get a chance earlier It’s very important to see that
even in this brief exchange, there is a social context
presumed upon, pointed to, indexed by the particular
forms of the utterances and that the social
context is transformed over the time of interaction
as a function of each of these co-contributions to
an emerging doubly organized text, both the what has
been said denotational texts and the what has been
done interactional text. Second, it is clear that
discourse in this turn bound manifestation is not structured
merely like a run of beads serially strung along a chain
whether sentences or turn utterances or whatever. Rather there’s a complex
chunking of layered segments organizing text,
some more closely internally structured according
to what the participants contribute to the
unfolding metrical forms like adjacency pairs. And as well there’s also a
hierarchical relationship of turn contributions that come
to count as text and meta-text as shown on the screen,
the meta-discourse, here the adjacency pair turns two and
three, commenting on the text in building under a
particular interpretation sometimes explicitly
announced of what was said, who said it to whom,
and what it presumably counted as in the way of an
interactional textual segment. For example, A is presumptuous
and misdirected attempt at an order via an offhand
formulation as a hint to the, quote, janitor. A’s turn 1 is the first part of
an incomplete adjacency pair. B’s turn 2 acted
out in pantomime, opening a meta-discursive
sequence completed by A’s turn 3. So the time bound unfolding
of units of discourse can– and here does–
precipitate multiple orders of functional structure
of textuality. So discourse as it unfolds
over interactional intervals is measured out not necessarily
in words and phrases that interest us as
grammarians but by all kinds of segment units drawn from a
repertoire of alternative forms that point to specific
conditions in the context in which they occur, sets of
possible indexically potent alternatives as we term them. In analyzing discourse,
the significant units of formal indexical
variance come into view through pattern
repetition, parallelism, positional contrast, and
so on, in short a poetics of an emergent
textuality in context. In interactional phases,
a potentially highly elaborate structure of
seeming hierarchical depth unfolds even though at every
significant identifiable phase of discourse, something
about the form used makes salient the parameters
of contexts that confirm and rendered clear what has
been going on up to that point and what will have been going
on because of its occurrence. That is how its
contribution makes the context clear
and thus reciprocally how the context
clarifies the text. Each significant
segment unit presumes upon a particular
configuration of social context and insofar as this
segment succeeds in its interactional
contribution confirms or transforms the context
in which it now occurs. It really does seem to
be an indexical context presuming and context
entailing pantomime, the systematic
character of which is generally beyond language
users’ consciousness or ken. Now for those of
you still with me, all this minute detail
and an account of a two turn greeting routine or a
three turn interactional misfire may seem highly irrelevant to
important and serious matters. And if you’re still
with me, I would now claim that these
examples, in fact, clearly demonstrate my
paradoxical assertion that verbal discourse and social
interaction works like language less pantomime in
so far affording what we say in
interactional sense by continuously
projecting its context. Full sentence turn utterances
like these examples are in this respect
low-lying fruit. But what about the
real subtleties of how we coordinate as
interlocutors and running discourse, defining ourselves
and projecting identities onto others and so on? Here we find
individuals periodically give off indexical signals
that gradually accumulate over the duration
of an encounter, allowing us to make a
cumulative sense of who that is sociologically speaking
what they are as presenting as identifiable persons
and their contributions to an interactional event. In such everyday
discursive interactions, what actually goes on into
what I’ve been calling the how of what we say or
signal to each other? What are the building blocks
of interaction more generally, and how are they combined? My intellectual
adventure at Chicago has led me to draw together
strands of linguistic theory I was first exposed to in the
classes and writings of one of my Harvard teachers,
Ramon Jakobson, through whom was
introduced the semiotics of the polymath
Charles Sanders Peirce and as well to Jakobson’s
refashioning of Moscow and Prague formalist poetics for
American domestic consumption. At Chicago, I was welcomed into
a heady intellectual milieu of all my then
senior sociocultural anthropologist colleagues
eager to understand the symbols and meanings of culture, symbols
and meanings most clearly at issue in the central foci of
anthropological investigation, a society’s rituals. In that milieu, it
soon became clear to me that rituals constitute
the ne plus ultra phenomenon of discursive
interaction, that ritual forms unfold in space and time
as complex densely laminated metricalizations of signs
and that these signs make sense only in a context
of beliefs or presumptions that they index, and that
the unfolding textual form of ritual tropically
instantiates that which it represents,
a process I’ve come to term dynamic figuration. Surely everyday
discursive interaction to the degree that
it is effective is a less vivid form of ritual
though interaction ritual it is as my late friend
Erving Goffman intuited. Or put another way, ritual is
the asymptotically full-tilt version of the semiotics
of everyday discursive interaction, elaborated
and intensified with all manner of
incremental semiotic codes. And indeed cracking
the poetic code, as it were, of
everyday discourse in the light of
ritual has led me as well to many
institutional sites– to courtrooms where
ritual dialogues are, quote, truth and
therefore, quote, justice abound as well as to
US electoral politics wherein office seekers or office
holders getting across a message that a polity’s electorate
gets as intended is the central medium of an
increasingly market structure and imagination among media
and political professionals. But back to the basics. What is so semantically
special about ritual? Performed and understood
within its cultural order, a ritual is in effect an
intendedly self-grounding activity event that
compellingly structures the here and now of participatory
human experience as instance made flesh on earth, the
instance and dynamic figuration of the universal
or abstract, what I like to term the
cosmic order upon which ritual efficacy presumes. And Emile Durkheim, of course,
certainly understood this. How does ritual accomplish
this dynamic figuration? Here on the left side of the
slide are the essentials. Full-blown culturally
recognized ritual as we find it typically involves
specialized esoteric registers of language,
cosmogonic narratives and structured beliefs,
tropic denotation, multiple parallel
metrical modalities, and dense and explicit
metricalization. In short, it is a
hyper-metasemiotic that intextualizes itself as
an autonomous textual structure in cosmic context. By contrast, our everyday
discourse and social context does not attend to
these dimensions, yet there they are ever
present in attenuated form. As an example of full-blown
culturally recognized ritual, consider the Eucharist. A person officiating at the
service of the Eucharist bounds off a ritual
space of objects at a table, an
altar in the space time of liturgical right– wine poured from a cruet into
a chalice, wafers or pieces of bread on a paten
or ceremonial plate, both comestibles at a ritual
table between the efficient him or herself
and a congregation of co-participatory onlookers. He or she begins to tell
the story of the Last Supper of Jesus and the
Apostles, specifically quoting in the transposed here
and now a first person figural narration and at the appropriate
places for ostensive reference pointing to the objects of
the congregation’s perception and the officiant’s narration. Gesturally holding up in
turn the ritual objects, the congregants are informed
that this is my body and instructed
partake ye thereof. And likewise this is my blood. Drink ye of it just as
where the Apostles according to the liturgical order of
the fateful Passover Seder that constitutes by
belief actually the first or authorizing
occasion of the ritual in which the officiant and
congregants are participating in an unbroken indexical chain. The dynamic figuration
of the ritual thus is such that
the officiant is to the congregants
in the here and now as Jesus was to the Apostles at
the sacred initiating moment. The first is
spatio-temporally experienced as a continuation of
the second to which it is connected in the cosmic
order of sacred belief. Observe, too, that the specific
figurational equivalences, the ritual baptism of
objects with names, will have been stated by someone
whose authority goes back indexically as we say in
presumptively unbroken line to Jesus himself via a causal
chain of authorization. The ritual action to follow
with these now figurating signs has thus also been
given figurational value within the bounds
of the ritual form. And ritually trans-substantiated
as these commence tables now have become, to eat and drink,
to consume or incorporate we should say, is
mystically followed by an equal and opposite
or greater incorporation. For as one consumes or
incorporates the host in turn, first the officiant
him- or herself and then the totality of
individual congregants, each figurationally
re-sacrifices, quote, the Lamb of God in
the, quote, new covenant so as to be incorporated
him- or herself through the figure of mutual
co-participation in the body and blood of Jesus made
institutional on earth to wit the church and its
spiritual corporation. The individual act of
faith incorporating so as to be incorporated figurates
in the Eucharistic mystery and aggregate becoming
a collectivity in Christ as one says with a pregnant
metaphor of containment made literal such
liberalization being the case for metaphor and all ritual. The central ritual
of Christian faith moreover is a brilliantly
compact chiastic structure of action as classical
rhetoric would see it from the Greek term for
a marking with the letter chi, chiasmos, a criss-crossing
reciprocation figurating, of course, the cross. Here the 90-degree
perpendicularity of the iconic cross
is dynamically figurative than the Eucharist
by reciprocal action, a back and forth whereby a
small ingestion figurating incorporation is
tantamount to i.e. results in a large
counter-directional incorporation into a mystical
corporate union or fellowship. This is literally an act
as an social act of renewal of individual faith in
the divine, selfless, self-sacrificing agency of
Jesus who became the sacrifice on the cross, this act, the
foundation for the faithful of Christianity, as lived. Here we come to the right
side of our earlier slide. Our research over
several decades has revealed that
if you want to study the relationship between
denotational text and interaction text,
between what one says and what it’s saying
counts as doing in the organization
of social life, then look to ritual for
the clue even if you’re interested in the most banal
everyday social coordination. In particular, look to
the form of ritual events and what they accomplish. Ritual does its
work as we’ve seen through what my teacher Roman
Jakobson terms its, quote, poetic function, unquote, its
hypertrophied spatio-temporally bound metrical organization
of potent tropes as shown on the left,
unfolding in phased sequence in the course of performance
and participation. People are always nervous
about getting the ritual order and the tropes precisely. Some rituals even
have rehearsals to ensure faultless performance. And on this basis
here is the claim about even everyday
discursive interaction, giving analytic precision to
Erving Goffman’s observation that even in ordinary,
everyday life, interaction ritual,
as he put it, is the basis for how individuals
coordinate with one another as social beings. The poetic organization
of what peoples everywhere experience as their
ritual occasions has been clear to
social anthropologists as well for some time. The poetic organization of
everyday denotational text as projectable into
interaction text makes good on the
Goffmanian intuition once we learn how to parse
the denotational a language with the proper analytic tools. We may mislead
ourselves into thinking that we affect
social coordination through logical coherence of
discourse parsed as sentences. But the claim here is that
it is the poetic organization of linguistic form that
is really if unconsciously at work. For example, to utter a
statement denotationally agreeing with the prior
speaker is a dynamic figuration of interactional alignment
with the persona through which the prior speaker has
articulated it, inhabiting as it were a position
in a presumed upon schema of social
differentiation that has been keyed into
the current social event. The key is to see that everyday
discourse is poetically chunked in terms of multiple,
sometimes very subtle aspects of form principally around
categories of language called deictics and around variant
contexts projecting register values of both words and
expressions and construction types that seem
to language users to fit together over
spans of discourse. Lest all this leave
you in a cloud of terminological
confusion, let me emphasize the machinery involved. So we’ve parsed or
analyzed what counts as denotational text in a very
different way from what one might do if logical
coherence were what counts in relation to interaction. Textuality thus is as we’ve
argued a poetic function of language in use, in fact,
one that operates completely differently from grammar. Where grammar involves
relationships of ordinality, that is things occurring
before or after one another as in first in a phrase,
second in a phrase, third syllable from
the end of the word, et cetera, poesis,
by contrast, is all about cardinality,
that is things occurring as equivalent units
for repetition and elaboration. Nothing could be more
obvious in this respect than ritual language or
metricalization, the occurrence of stretches of signs as
measures of the overall text, reaches a maximum
so as to include within the poetics of the
text everything of importance to projecting an interactional
text via dynamic figuration, attempting thereby to preclude
any possible misfires. Our task within
linguistic anthropology is thus somewhat
different from that of the student of grammar
and denotation, all the while recognizing that this
world of academic and applied political
communication exists. We are social scientists
interested in exploring political communication
by thinking about it as institutionally
framed discursive interaction. The texts precipitated
in the conduct of which form the starting point
for interpretive or hermeneutic analysis. What we study are
events of communication that come to count as a
particular kind of audially, visually, or other sensorially
mediated interaction with social cause
an effect that’s consequential for polities
in groups within such events. So how can we
interpretatively contextualize such discursive interaction in
its, as Max Weber termed it, institutional matrix? Consider in this regard
the institutional framework of American electoral
politics and the concept of the consequential promise
uttered by a candidate for office. There is to be sure a folk
label, the campaign promise, that associates such utterances
in the politicians who make them with a non-literal
puffery of advertisement, the very lexeme campaign
promise showing that it is not to be understood as what
binds and commits someone to a certain course of action as
the non-modified term promised us. Yet binding or no, it is a risky
communicative act in so far as someone, especially partisans
of an opposing candidate or other– any other
similarly positioned critic, is likely to insist that though
it may be a campaign promise, it is a fortiori a promise. Similarly note how
people argue about a, quote, deathbed
conversion, unquote, or a, quote, shotgun
marriage, unquote, emphasizing the contextual
dependence of the socially consequential communication. And though a
campaign promise may have been uttered or performed
in the course of a more complex event, it is
binding on its utterer. You may have heard
of George H W Bush’s now famous no new taxes,
long Republican mantra at all levels of
government, especially from the Reagan years. This phrase uttered at the
formal beginning of Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. It was a staged
imaginary quotation of the then to be elected
President Bush at that imagined time in the future where
members of Congress would come to the White House
pleading for more revenue. In 1988, Mr. Bush
One was running scared of what the
punditry termed, quote, the wimp factor, unquote,
the fear that the voting public would recognize him
for what he was, a Connecticut Yankee of a genteel privileged
Groton and Yale background and not the He-Man from
the West Texas oilfields. So he needed as a dynamic
figuration some Clint Eastwood swagger, he of the
spaghetti Western and later Republican
Convention empty chair talk. So Peggy Noonan,
Bush’s speechwriter for his nationally
televised speech accepting the Republican
nomination at the party convention in New
Orleans on 18 August, she duly set up the scenario
with a cinematic renvoi. And I’m the one who
will not raise taxes. [APPLAUSE] My opponent now says
he’ll raise them as a last resort
or a third resort, but when a politician
talks like that, you know that’s one resort
he’ll be checking into. And I– [APPLAUSE] My opponent– my opponent
won’t rule out raising taxes, but I will. And the Congress will push me
to raise taxes, and I’ll say no. And they’ll push,
and I’ll say no. And they’ll push again, and
I’ll say to them read my lips no new taxes. Look at the extraordinary
poetic structure of this rhetorical
passage, which I’ve laid out to– which Michael
has laid out to– highlight. The parallelistic
oppositions out of which this passage is built
contrast two sets of actors on the political stage. First Governor Dukakis,
quote, my opponent, unquote, versus
Vice President Bush and who will or will
not if elected, quote, raise taxes, the key phrase. Second, the members of Congress
versus future President Bush, who Dirty Harry-like
will stand firm with his read my lips macho contempt. Note as well the description
of Governor Dukakis as a politician by implication
different from the sitting vice president and the inscription
to him of three priorities or, quote, resorts in the way
of holding the line on taxes as Bush had already discussed. Note how beautifully these three
increasing degrees of intensity are as well animated
in respect of Congress also then democratic
and majority coming to the president
not once, not twice, but three times. Goldilocks and the
Three Bears anyone? And each time they are
thwarted in their attempt to raise taxes. Between these two segments
is a kind of humorous parenthetical about how
politicians, not the speaker, behave with a delicious
play on words involving checking into a resort
in the sense of a hotel for a luxurious getaway and
checking into whether or not some course of
action is feasible. Well, Congress had only to come
to Mr. Bush one once in 1990 with a revenue package that
included tax increases– note not technically new taxes– and spending cuts for him
to sign on to and sign the eventual legislation. So had he promised
not to raise taxes? The Dirty Harryesque
line is about, quote, new taxes,
but in the context of the poetics of
the passage, raised taxes are alas as you
can see in the red column tantamount to new
taxes, notwithstanding the literal
denotation that could let a proverbial Philadelphia
lawyer slither out of culpability. Pat Buchanan and
others hammered Bush on this in the
Republican primaries, leading up to the
1992 election as did, of course, Arkansas
governor Bill Clinton, his successful
democratic opponent in the general election. As we can see from the
example, well, the passage may have drawn on
popular culture to deal with the wimpiness
of the candidate using as a focus a bit of conservative
Republican orthodoxy, it’s risky politics turned it
into what the public as well as media and political
professionals felt was equivalent
to having uttered the explicit primary
performative. I, George Herbert
Walker Bush, hereby promise that as president
I will not agree to or will veto any
increase of taxation. And that is, of course,
the supervening power of poetics and politics– there’s a good
alliterative phrase– a poetics that
outweighs denotational efficacy as in this case
somewhat ironically. We always want to ask then under
what conditions– under what social conditions does
whatever agentive source of such conveyed content
get to communicate to the recipient target. How is communication
shaped and infused with meaning in relation
to norms of various sorts? Is an emergent text upholding
or withholding expectations under light conditions
of communication? What is the strategic role or
function or merely happenstance like the inadvertently found
art here that sunk Mr. Bush One? What is the role or
function or happenstance of such communication
in relation to the interests
that come together in political processes. In other words, we concentrate
in opening up and framing discursive poetics so as to
understand that communicative events chains or cycles of
such communicative events, societal structures
that facilitate such change or cycles,
controlling interests that agentively establish
and institutionalize such structures whether
positively or negatively. These are all part of the
way that communication, which is to say poesis, is
the central mediating fact of political process. It is what assertions of
political, quote, power, unquote, is really all about,
the demonstrated ability to shape and control conveyed
message in all relevant medium modes and channels. Recall the grisly poetics of
videotaped ISIS beheadings uploaded to the web
some years back where their intertextual renvoi to
Hollywood and similar images of medieval and evil Islam. Recall the image is now
a visual pictorial genre of random victim terrorism
in public places. Recall the English
language medium talking heads demands straight
out of the 1960s campus upheavals of Subcomandante
Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation
in Chiapas broadcast to an international
anglophone world, all genred poetics,
every last one of them. We must insist then that we try
to go behind the mere surface appearance of political
organizations of this or that sort, the ones
that most people expounding political communication
simply take for granted. The sociological and
anthropological legacy we have is a relatively
clear-eyed view on the distinction
between societal structure– the presumed
upon orderliness of the social universe– and
social organizational process, morphology if you
will and physiology. Communication in the sense
of discursive interaction is the central mediator of
process as I’ve just said. Communicative events have a
who to whom about whom, what, by what means, where
in social spacetime quality about them, of course. But we note that repeated
relatively alike or genred events of communication
involving relatively similarly recruited kinds of people as
the personnel of such events, this is the path of
institutionalization of such events. And these processes of
institutionalization are normitivies
involved in both senses of that term, the
statistical or aggregate and the ethno-stipulative
or prescriptive. It is on the basis of these
kinds of empirical studies that certain general features
of sociological study have emerged a
theoretical discourse that is useful in
particular for talking about political communication. So these are some
of the fundamentals I hope we keep in mind as we
think about communication, political and otherwise, in the
essential and mediating role of poetics in it. In my own work ranging from
American political texts and discursive forms to
those of the local scale societies on which I
and others have worked, these questions that start
from the poetics of discursive and textualization, the
coming to textual formedness and context have
always been uppermost. And if I may be permitted
a historical reflection on all this, I want to
emphasize an important larger consideration in the
way we look at language in the post-Enlightenment
Midwest. We generally think about
the powerful lineage of Bacon, Hobbes, Boyle, Locke
and the founding of the Royal Society and its various
continental imitators in the developing
view of language as a central instrumentality
of scientific thought. However, a central initial
force in the emergence of modern Western
views of language as an instrument of rationality
and logical inference was the anti-Catholic bias of
the Protestant Reformation, which especially focused
on ritual and ceremonialism and all that it
was made of to be sure good things like
formal linguistics, analytic philosophy,
and cognitive science can eventually emerge
from bad beginnings. But the simplifying model of
the structure of discourse measured only by its logical,
its syllogistical coherence, in the belief that this
emerges sentence by sentence from grammatical structure. Such a model jettisons from
our intellectual program considerations of how
language is universally the semoitic medium
par excellence for social coordination. This view of language
certainly works to run computational machinery,
but that’s why there’s such a problem with
human machine interfaces that take no
account of discourse and other semiosis
in their natural, that is sociocultural, habitats. To be sure, I confess that
there’s something deliciously ironic in my using
the theory and methods of empirical semiotics, a
rational scientific discourse about sociocultural
meaning, to understand the systematicity of how
communication actually works in far from rational or
logical if effective ways in spite of ourselves,
cultural creatures in the first instance. But perhaps this slight and
I hope interest-whetting talk has revealed how
the modern semiotic or hermeneutic social sciences
of analyzing discourse go about their valuable
work of figuring out how in the theater
of social life we are such dynamically
figurated stuff as messages make of us. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] So we have a few
minutes for questions and Professor Silverstein
will be joining us on screen any moment now. And I believe there’s some
mics in the audience for those who want to ask questions in
the minutes we have remaining. [APPLAUSE] AUDIENCE: Thank you,
Michael, very much, for that, for many of
us, an inspiring talk and that you laid
out so clearly what it is that linguistic
anthropology does in the broadest
possible sense. I wonder if you
would want to take us a little further into the kinds
of methodological implications that your work has, especially
since you’ve made comments about coming from a
linguistics department, a linguistic training, to the
anthropology department here and, in fact,
psychology as well. And I know that you’ve thought
a great deal about the way that fieldwork works
in various disciplines. So could you tell us
something about the way that your understanding
of poetics versus grammar works itself out in various
kinds of field situations, especially since you’ve also
worked in local societies, as you’ve said, in Australia
and in Northwest native America? MICHAEL SILVERSTEIN: Yes. Thank you for the question. I should first, of course, thank
Bob Zimmer for the invitation to deliver this lecture,
to the committee that made a recommendation to
him, and most emphatically thank Costas Nakassis for
his wonderful and energetic delivery of my text. To respond more directly
to your question, my sense is that the distinction
between the kinds of structures that we’re centrally
interested in, as linguists or grammarians– let me call us,
with no disparagement thereby– attend to normativities
or regularities of a particular sort. And for the longest
period of time, grammarians have been
interested in such normativities and regularities. The point of linguistic
anthropology, sociolinguistics also,
as it’s sometimes called, interactional social
psychology and so forth, is on the other hand to look
in terms of the dynamics of the socio-spatio-temporal– if I can coin a
new abomination– socio-spatio-temporal
dynamics of movement or flow of coming to
coherence, such coming to coherence being a text
as it were, in its context of existence. So it’s really very
much empirically based upon occurrences
of one sort or another– as, for example, all of
my illustrative material was this evening. So there’s a real
methodological implication here of studying what you might
want to call discourse as it flows through and
structures social lives. AUDIENCE: Hi, Michael. It’s Eve Danziger from the
University of Virginia. I came a long way for this. MICHAEL SILVERSTEIN: Oh, hi. AUDIENCE: Hi. It’s a question about
the Bush example. And given that you
began with mime, the most famous
part of that example is, of course, the denial
of language, right? “Read my lips.” I just wondered if
you had any comment on that sort of ideological
metrapragmatic ostensive rejection, which has the
poetics of suggesting that the promise
is even stronger. MICHAEL SILVERSTEIN:
That’s a nice point, Eve. The example, as it turns out,
is highly complex insofar as I believe that the Clint Eastwood
character actually says, make my day, rather
than, read my lips. But in any case,
the crucial point is that there is a position
that that character takes, which is refigurated by
the then candidate, which is, as you say, beyond
language in so far is no amount of interaction
in particular is going to budge that character
from a particular position. And so it’s very much a
notion that whatever kind of negotiation that you– you, the people
coming for revenue– whatever position
you take is not going to budge the position
that I have already taken. In fact, in a certain
sense, made a pledge about in that particular
convention of speech. AUDIENCE: Hi, Michael. This is Anastasia
Giannakidou from linguistics. MICHAEL SILVERSTEIN:
How are you? AUDIENCE: Good. Good. It’s wonderful to see you here. Thank you for the talk. I have a question about
the term “poetics.” As a scholar of Greek, I
am a little bit confused with the word “poetics,”
because poetics, as we know from
Aristotle’s poetics and the Greek word
poetics, relates to, actually means,
relating to poetry. So I am a bit
confused about the way this word is being
used right now. And I wanted you to elaborate
a little bit on what it means. So do we mean by
poetics, performative? Is it different
from performative? In any case, I feel that there
is an ambiguity in the word poetics that, for many
also possibly the audience, may send us back to
the concept of a poem and Aristotle in his
poetic studies, poetics, like as in poetry. MICHAEL SILVERSTEIN: Yes. Yes. Well, two points, it seems
to me, are important here. One is that the modern, that is
to say 20th century and beyond, usage of the concept
of poetics is rather different from Aristotle. And in fact, there
was at one point the argument about who
was licensed to use it because of that. But I think if we look
to the specifics of how poetic structures emerge in,
what we call, textualization, coming to textual
formedness of discourse, that we’re on safe ground
with identifying poetics in the wider sense with
this notion of coming to structuredness
in particular ways. The particular
ways, as I mentioned in the course of my talk,
evolve metricalization in the first instance. That is to say, the
unitization of discursive forms into figures that depend
upon repetition, parallelism, et cetera, et cetera. So as a technical
matter, as it were. But the crucial point is that,
from the early 20th century on, poetics has been
highly influenced by matters of textual form
as the central problem of discourse. And I know that
many people find it problematic to say that
discourse itself has a form, but there it is– emergent, most clearly,
as I also said earlier, in ritual forms, in particular. So I think it’s important to let
Aristotle go in the instance, just as it’s important
to understand that Machiavelli’s
prince is not necessarily a modern politician. [LAUGHTER] ROBERT J. ZIMMER: OK. This brings the 2019
Ryerson lecture to a close. I want to thank Michael for
a wonderful and stimulating address. And I also want to thank
Michael for everything he’s done over so many
years for so many of us here at the
University of Chicago. So thank you all for coming, and
thank you very much, Michael. [APPLAUSE]

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