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This having been a week of impending midterms for the course I am teaching, plus lots of reading and in-laws in-town, this entry is a series of short(ish) notes on (1) John Haiman's "Iconic and Economic Motivation"; (2) a nascent side-project idea regarding attitudes toward "continuity" and the fabula in fandom; and (3) the literary texts that are emerging as my pets.
1) Today I read John Haiman's article "Iconic and Economic Motivation." I was already a fan of Haiman's work after having read his monograph on sarcasm and layered representation Talk Is Cheap. "Iconic and Economic Motivation" (or, as I keep trying to write, "Iconomic") is about how human language is not, contra Chomsky c. 1972, purely symbolic -- that is, a matter of convention. Haiman lays out a lovely, lucid, and nuanced account of some ways in which the "linguistic dimension" of distance between linguistic expressions can correspond to, and thus be motivated by, a number of conceptual dimensions.
He explains that the selection of reduced or non-reduced forms of expressions in various languages may often appear to be more conventional -- i.e. symbolic -- than they actually are, when multiple motivations compete, as he puts it, "for expression on the same linguistic dimension" (781). You get variation or inconsistency across expressions or across languages, and this looks like evidence that the associations between form and meaning cannot be motivated by conceptual constraints; but this can also arise from competition between two or more relatively balanced conceptual motivations, in this case iconic principles linking greater linguistic distance with greater "conceptual distance" and economic principles of least effort, where reduced forms are indices of familiarity or frequency.
Two responses to this piece:
1a) What a sexy, sexy article. I want to write an article like this. The argumentation is splendid, the examples copious and convincing, the fundamental ideas profound and compelling. Can I be John Haiman when I grow up? He is also, after all, the man who wrote that "I suspect that I am not alone among my colleagues in regarding unreflecting unself-conscious conversation almost as something of a circus trick ('God, how do they DO that?')" in Talk is Cheap (191).
1b) Back when I was putting my list together, I was gathering citation information online through the lazy man's process of Googling for each title. When I got to this item, what did I run across but a post on LINGUIST-L quoting a long email from my friend Rod. Rod is a very smart fellow, and his comments make me feel a little squirm of self-doubt. Writing about treatments of iconicity and syntax in general, he says,
...many of the articles [in Iconicity in Syntax, a collection edited by Haiman] have a really tenuous grasp of what iconicity means, and as a result it gets diluted to near meaninglessness. This is a real problem with much "functional syntax" work, which tends to invoke iconicty as a sort of vague pseudo-explanatory principle without really doing the hard theoretical work (I'll exempt Haiman and a few others from this criticism). The idea of iconicity really is meaningless unless it's founded on a theory of signs (however this is understood) and their objects; in the absence of such a theory it usually turns out to be some intuition that the way language represents things is somehow like the things themselves--not a very useful idea in its naive form, yet one that several of Haiman's contributors seem to feel is a fundamental insight.Uh-oh. I don't want to be one of those vague and fuzzy thinkers who rouse the scorn of my friend Rod! I do at least know the important outlines of Pierce's theory of signs, but I have a creeping anxiety about invoking things as vague pseudo-explanatory principles, without really doing any theoretical work, let alone the hard theoretical work.
Unfortunately I am not quite sure what I need to do and avoid doing to get this right, but the least I can do is explain (for myself and for you, dear reader) the Piercean theory of signs everyone is talking about here. The basic idea is that there are three levels of abstraction that can obtain in the relationship between a signifier and the thing that it signifies, and in this sense three kinds of signs: indices, icons, and symbols.
- Indices are signs in which the signifier stands for its referent by virtue of correlation, the way that tears stand for sadness, or spots for measles.
- Icons are signs in which the signifier stands for the thing it signifies by virtue of a systematic resemblance between the two, the way a stick figure stands for a person.
- Symbols are signs in which the signifier stands for its referent by virtue of (arbitrary) convention.
I understand all that, so maybe I am safe from the scorn of smart people. Constant vigilance is clearly called for, however.
2) I have an amusing little side-project of an article percolating in my mind, or maybe two versions of a single root project. The working title of this notional project is "Fanwanking and the Fabula." The subject of this paper would be the phenomenon of what is popularly called "fanwanking," and what it indicates about contemporary attitudes towards navigating different layers of communicative activity in the consumption of artifacts of popular culture.
2a) For those of you who are not familiar with the term, fanwanking is a name in fandom for the following familiar phenomenon: Something is depicted in an episode of some serial -- an episode of a television series or an issue of a comic, say -- that is out of keeping with the established continuity. Maybe a character did something that seems unlike him, like singing "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" even though he has in the past been shown to be remarkably ignorant of pop culture. Maybe somebody who has had a secret identity revealed to her acts as if she has no idea that Batman and Bruce Wayne are the same person. Maybe a villian who was clearly killed reappears to terrorize the populace. Whatever it is, viewers who notice it universally recognize it as a mistake, a continuity error. But then... Fanwanking is the term for inventing a tortured explanation within the world of the text that could explain away the inconsistency. See it in action here. (Notice that this writer complains, "Even the writers are fanwanking stuff now," which shows an interesting extension of the category.)
2b) This project is in the most embryonic of nascent forms, but it seems to me that a discussion of fanwanking could serve both as a cool laboratory for looking at the ways that readers navigate between different layers of what I called "narrative attribution" in a paper I presented last year, and as a fun cultural studies article. Potentially there are two half-different papers in here: one a cognitive narratology thing, and one a cultural studies/history of the book thing. If I pursue it (maybe as a breather between exam and prospectus-writing, maybe as something to be cannabalized for the dissertation) I think I will start by writing the core, in which I outline this whole category of reading practices and examples of it in action; then I can flesh it out in the preferred direction, or both directions.
3) I am beginning to find that there is a cluster of literary texts within my larger list that I am drawn to more often and tend to think about in more detail. Maybe I am discovering my dissertation texts. That would be handy. There are still too many for a dissertation, probably, but it's nice to see myself beginning to gravitate, and there's definitely coherence to the group. (They are, right now: Woman in White, The Secret Agent, The Man Who Was Thursday, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Brighton Rock, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Third Policeman. Also some satellite novels by Greene, Eric Ambler, Chesterton, Doyle, and Le Carre.)
Good lord, and I said this entry would be short! Time to stop, I think.(discussion)
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