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Earlier this week I said that I would be writing about Jerry Hobbs' Literature and Cognition. That's still my plan, but I'd like to start out by talking about a different book, Using Language, by Herb Clark. Clark's major thesis is that language use -- all kinds of "activites in which people do things with language" (pg. 3) -- is neither solely an individual process nor wholly a social process. Instead it is a variety of joint activity, like playing a piano duet or waltzing. Individual actions are certainly involved, but the activity is more than the sum of those individual processes. Instead, waltzing and conversing alike are emergent activities that arise from performing individual acts in coordination.
This proposal may not sound terribly revolutionary. And when you read Clark's work, that impression is exacerbated by the fact that he explains things so lucidly and deliberately that all of his theorizing acquires a sense of inevitability as a result. Like many good ideas, it seems obvious in retrospect. But in fact, the clarity and inevetability are just signs of Clark's rigor, not the obviousness of his ideas. It's a very productive way to think about language, bridging the approaches of social theorists and those of psychological theorists.
Perhaps the most interesting outcome of considering language use in this way is that it allows us to consider the construction or understanding of meaning as a kind of coordination problem, after the work of Thomas Schelling (1960) and David Lewis (1969). This is a useful, and largely novel, way of approaching a number of problems in discourse analysis and pragmatics.
Still, the currency of this early game-theoretic economic psychology has tarnished a bit. Though groundbreaking and still highly influential, it is no longer the shiniest new penny in its home disciplines, which suggests some the usual sticky problems of interdisciplinary work, as with the many strange and distorted versions of Chomskian Principles and Parameters theory that have appeared in the pages of illustrious literary criticism. The state of affairs with Clark is no means so dire as that, but it might be nice to see the refinements and revisions of rational choice theory that have emerged in the past several decades brought into his discussion. In another space, I've spent some time musing about the implications of more recent research in game theory for Clark's approach to language use; I might return to it here later this semester, if time permits.
Clark often gives the impression that he believes joint activities are coordinated consciously, because the examples he gives paint the coordination in that light. But I do not think, as John Shotter argues in his 1999 review, that "[a] joint action is thus, in Clark's view, something people deliberately contrive between them," or that Clark "claim[s] that a joint action only occurs as a result of individuals intending it." It is true that his examples either explicitly involve deliberative coordination or are explained in a manner that elides conscious and intentional cognition with less conscious and rational modes of thought. And the emphasis on rational choice accounts of coordination skews the book by emphasis and omission.
But misleading though it might sometimes be, I suspect that Clark would quickly disavow any claims as strong as those Shotter puts in his mouth. The elision seems to me to be much along the lines of discussions of the "calculabity" of conversational implicatures, where it often sounds, especially to the less-experienced reader, as if linguists are claiming that we all sit around concsiously contemplating the implications of every sentence before settling on our final, "calculated" understanding of the speaker's intention. They're not, or at least no one I know is.1
So, that difficulty aside -- and retaining the assumption that discussion of coordination and calculation is not to be taken to endorse a view of language users as always engaged in detailed, conscious, and deliberative reasoning as they coordinate their meaning construction -- let me turn to the question of the relationship between the author and the reader in a Clarkian framework. I recently suggested in a paper I presented at ICLC that it is fair to say that I in some way understand myself to be participating in a joint activity when I am, for example, reading Moby Dick.2 However, I argued, this is true only to the extent that I am continually monitoring what I can reasonably consider to be common ground between… well, whom, exactly? Certainly not between my actual self, the 21st-century reader and the actual person of Herman Melville, the 19th-century writer; there is something substantial missing from an account that claims merely that he and I are acting jointly. I might poetically say that we are speaking with each other across the chasm of time and space, or more practically claim that our joint action merely lacks co-presence and simultaneity, but such ways of speaking beg almost every interesting question about the conceptual work involved. Instead, it is useful to think about two "joint" activities, both of which are pursued in solitude, but which are not merely individual processes.
My point was that the processing involved in language use in a written setting involves a projected, if sketchy, notion of a complete joint activity for each participant. So in writing Moby Dick, I claimed, Melville kept track of what some reader, however vaguely conceived, would have a basis for understanding to be the case about the events and characters depicted in his novels. While he could not have anticipated many components of my actual cultural ground as a reader, he still wrote with an eye toward coordinating with potential readers, many of whom he could reasonably expect to share relatively little cultural ground with him. Similarly, as I read Moby Dick, I project myself into what I understand to be the reader role implied by the text, editing out interpretations I consider anachronistic and taking the most educated guesses I can muster about the communal ground appropriate to the frame of Melville’s writing.
Clark endorses the basic assumptions undergirding this way of looking at language use in less canonical circumstances (the face-to-face conversation is his candidate for the "basic" setting for language use (pg. 8), Derridian objections to the contrary). Nonbasic settings can involve complications, mediation, and layers of construal, but are all predicated on the basic understanding of communication as joint action. He points to the example of the "response cry" (originally discussed in Goffman 1978) as an argument for the notion that joint activities can take place even in settings where we are ostensibly engaged in no interaction at all.
I still think the idea of the putative coparticipant is an attractive one, especially because I am so generally convinced by Clark's arguments about the roles of context and coordination in ordinary language use. But reading Hobbs has made me reconsider my (neo-hermeneutic? neo-reader-response? neo-both?) stance.
The major thesis of Literature and Cognition is that meaning is a function not of intentionality but of interpretability, and that interpretation is a function of a knowledge base or belief system and a text. (Hobbs, as a scholar with his roots in AI, means "function" in its technical sense -- "An interpretation procedure F takes a knowledge base or belief system K and a text T, and produces an interpretation I" (pg. 20)). This assertion is a claim against both radical deconstructionist readings and radical hermeneutic readings, though it doesn't seem entirely clear to me that Hobbs is aware that these approaches are radical, or that there are other approaches within literary criticism; he speaks of "one camp" of theorists who claim that "the interpretation of a text can be anything" and "the other side," who believe in "a single correct interpretation" (pg. 9). But never mind; it's still refreshing to read his argument, in which he sensibly and memorably observes that once you see interpretation as a function of two arguments -- a set of beliefs and a text -- "the controversies are as if one camp said that the mathematical operation of multiplication was hopelessly indeterminate because in the context of 2 the product of 2 is 4 whereas in the context of 5 the product of 2 is 10, which the other camp claimed that, no, the product of 2 is always 4" (pg. 9).
Again, appealing! And along the way he makes an excellent point about the assumption that readers need to be able to imagine authorial intent in order for an utterance to have meaning.3 He provides several convincing examples illustrating the point that readers regularly understand texts to mean something that is fully independent of an author's intention.
One nice one -- though one I can still explain away -- is the example of the printer's error. He cites one from an article in the New York Times where a misprint for "plaque" led to the printed sentence "Pioneer 10 carries a message... in the form of a plague designed to show... the place and time where it began its long journey." He argues that we can interpret this, and enjoy it, and understand it to mean something, even though what it means is something other than what the author intended. This is a fine example to demolish a strong view that meaning arises from the actual intention of actual authors, but does nothing to undermine the possibility that constructing meaning relies on a framework derived from a basic situation in which meaning corresponds to intention. That is, just because we don't need to think that the real author of this article intended this meaning, that does not necessarily mean we aren't understanding it by reference to some putative intentional "author" who would have meant -- intended -- this by writing the piece as it appeared.
A trickier example, to my mind, is the example of the pocket calculator (pgs. 12-13): You type in numbers and operands and the calculator responds with a text. You are not the author of this text. The designer and manufacturer, Hobbs argues, are too distant from the particulars of this exchange to qualify as its author(s). Yet the sequence of numbers constitutes a meaningful text that you interpret, or at least Hobbs claims you interpret (and it seems to make sense cognitively, on the grounds of parsimony), using the same interpretive rules or process that you would use if a human being had written it in response to your query. There is no intention behind this meaning, no human author, and, I think, no reason to think that we need to pretend that there is in order to intepret the text the calculator produces.
I'm not sure where to go from here. It seems to me that there is probably a good way to split the difference and resolve these arguments with a solid, cognitively realistic account of what is going on in textual interpretation, but I'm not sure I want to speculate too armchairishly on what that would be.
1On the other hand, before I too cavalierly dismiss this whole issue, I should observe that there are real disagreements about the degree to which and in what ways language users draw inferences in the course of understanding. It's just not a debate, for the most part, over whether or not all their inferencing is conscious and intentional. See Graesser, Singer and Trabasso (1994) for a good overview of different positions in the debate on mental modeling and inferencing.
2Obviously I should consider reworking this discussion to revolve around an example more relevant to my own historical and geographical period of specialty! I think I originally chose Moby Dick to simplify matters in making comparisons with an example Clark himself uses.
3Here I think he's arguing more directly against the Gricean meaning-nn concept, where intention is a defining distinction between natural meaning (like the "meaning" of the cigarette butt that Sherlock Holmes understands to signify that the suspect was standing by the window for eight and a half minutes) and non-natural meaning (when I say "We're home" I mean that you and I are at our home).(discussion) | Comments (4)
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