Any assumption of ineffable or untranslatable cognitive data would be a contradiction in terms. But in jest, in dreams, in magic, briefly, in what one would call everyday verbal mythology and in poetry above all, the grammatical categories carry a high semantic import. In these conditions, the question of translation becomes much more entangled and controversial.
Roman Jakobson, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation”
This week I’ve been close-reading structural linguistics and structuralist social theory and I love it. Levi Strauss, Saussure, Jakobson… With all this grant writing and fieldwork, I’ve missed the pleasure of just playing intellectual games for the joy of it.
I’m excited to see if I can help my students feel the same way.
I have been struggling for many years, with really owning how much I love theory, abstract thought, intellectual battles, and mental challenges of any kind. I love these activities and feel starved without them. At the same time, I dislike when they are used to (a) make other people feel small, (b) impress and sound smart without caring about the concept at hand, and (c ) devalue other kinds of intelligence and enjoyment. The loveliest nerds are those that are actually passionate about their topics of study, and love learning for its own sake. The asshole nerds are just competitive and egoistic and have forgotten what’s fun about it.
I struggle with this also because historically, European theory and continental philosophy - the languages I know best- have condescension, racism, and white supremacist logics coded into them. They confer status and power by letting me speak in a white male voice. I have observed how people I love and care about, feel intimidated and oppressed by continental philosophy and its standards. They feel small and judged, even by me. I hate that it makes them feel that way. That’s why theorizing in these languages feels like a guilty pleasure.
Perhaps the way to have my (theoretical) cake and eat it, is to make Euroamerican theory feel accessible and fun to people that have been historically excluded from it. To stop revering the canon. To call philosophers by their first names. It could be playful, a good-natured ribbing, like a game of chess. Or it could be furious, demolishing an argument to pieces before feeding it to a fire.
Another is to shut out the world and immerse myself in what I love about theory. To chuck the sordid history in the dustbin, and play in peace, read and write as if history had been different, as if all theory is mine, ours, as if there is nothing to fear. When the world doesn’t meet my standards, sometimes I have to force it into submission, to insist on living as if my standards have been met, to grab what I want instead of waiting for it to be given.
The sad thing for me is that Levi Strauss, and all of them, would not have thought of me, a brown girl, as relevant, much less an intellectual threat. I have begun to have trouble feeling like I entirely belong in theory classrooms. My mind and voice are loud and confident, but my body enters like an afterthought. I’m haunted by the feeling that I am trespassing, that I’m lucky to even be given a seat at the “theory” table by my white benefactors.
If I am given a second-rate seat at the"theory" table, I can refuse to behave, I can be a “bad houseguest”.
A third way is to educate myself into other worlds of theory and logic, where Euroamerican theory is not the important frame of reference. This feels necessary, although intimidating. Are there entire worlds of intellectual game-playing out there, waiting for me to join in, if only I muster the courage?
How would you deal with this conflict and embrace your love for Euroamerican theory without any shame or guilt?
Jakobson, siguiendo una vieja tesis también suya formulada en su obra de 1919Lengua poética de Xlebnikov, había esbozado ya su idea en distintos ensayos anteriores. En 1921, por ejemplo, había definido la poesía como el lenguaje utilizado en su función estética, en tanto que se caracteriza por que su enunciado presta atención a la expresión del mismo. Luego, en 1934, en su ensayo «Qu'est-ce que la poésie?», indicaba que, tratándose de la lengua literaria, la palabra se sentía también como tal palabra y no solo como elemento para designar lo nombrado.
Finalmente, durante la clausura de un Congreso celebrado en Indiana en 1959 sobre «Estilo del lenguaje», pronunció una conferencia titulada «Lingüística y Poética», de singular importancia teórica para la poética lingüística, pues convirtió su tesis de la «función poética» del lenguaje en un concepto central para la misma. Jakobson pretendía diferenciar el mensaje verbal literario de otros tipos de mensajes verbales, y siempre con el horizonte más amplio de insertar la Poética literaria en la Lingüística. En dicha conferencia, tras repasar los seis factores que intervienen en cualquier acto de comunicación verbal, Jakobson los asocia con sendas funciones, que vienen determinadas por los mismos (según un orden jerárquico), pero que no son exclusivos de cada uno de ellos. Para completar el esquema, añade el factor del «mensaje» e indica que la tendencia hacia el mismo como tal es lo que hace aparecer la «función poética».
Según Jakobson, el medio del que hace uso la lengua literaria para atraer la atención sobre la forma del mensaje es la «recurrencia», esto es, la insistencia en lo ya dado a través de recursos como el paralelismo gramatical.
Certainly, then, words like mama and dada wouldn’t necessarily stay the same, or even close to the same, in languages around the world and over tens of thousands of years. So what happened?
The answer lies with babies and how they start to talk. The pioneering linguist Roman Jakobson figured it out. If you’re a baby making a random sound, the easiest vowel is ah because you can make it without doing anything with your tongue or lips. Then, if you are going to vary things at all, the first impulse is to break up the stream of ahhh by closing your lips for a spell, especially since you’ve been doing that to nurse. Hence, mmmm, such that you get a string of mahs as you keep the sound going while breaking it up at intervals. […] Nichols has proposed that the reason a language like Yukaghir’s pronouns for I and you look so much like the mama/tata alternation—as well as why French has moi and toi and English once had me and thou—is because even as these languages have changed over time, the sounds of the words for I and you have been influenced by the way mama and tata differ. The m sound is used for what is closest—mama for Mommy and “me” for the self. The t sound—often learned just after m—is for what’s just one step removed from the closest: Daddy hovering just over there, which we can understand would feel like “you” rather than “(Mommy and) me.
the funny thing about falling, at least in this instance, was that jayce didn’t know he was falling. one moment he was taking a shot, and the next he was on the ground. a glass followed him, shattering near his head.
“are you….?” the raven-haired man looked blurry to him, from such a distance, and after what seemed like a lot of yelling, he was being hauled to his feet once again.
“go, go.” gentle, but firm hands were at his lower back, ushering him out the backdoor of the bar. jayce resisted at first, but as his toe caught on the door frame, it took all of his focus to keep from falling onto the sidewalk. he heard the door slam and turned around, his gaze instantly falling on jazz.
“’s cold.” he whined, wrapping his arms around himself. the look on jazz’s face was equal parts annoyed and amused. “yes, it gets cold here at night.” he stated. jayce blinked slowly, watching as the other man unzipped his jacket and draped it over his shoulders.
a night at the bar was, perhaps, just what he needed. even
if the bars were subpar compared to what he was used to. he didn’t go home to
change first, assuming he wouldn’t meet anyone interesting.
but, of course, he’d been wrong before. not often, but it
had been known to happen.
“who are you?” a voice drawled from beside him, thick with
the native accent. jayce turned his head almost boredly to regard the other
man, but his attention piqued rather quickly when he saw just what was sitting
#Mayakovsky... 'on a generation that squandered its poets)...
i feel/like a soviet factory manufacturing happiness. i don’t want/to be plucked like a flower/after a the days work ………………………………………………. i want the heart to be paid its wage of love/at the specialists rate i want the factory/committee to put a lock on my lips when the work is done i want the pent to be equal to the bayonet and i want stalin/to report in the name of the politburo about the production of verse as he does about pig iron and steeeeel thus, and so it is/we’ve reached the topmost level/up from the workers hovels in the union of republics the appreciation of verse/has exceeded the prewar level
Mayakovski – quoted in Jakobson (On a generation that squandered its poets…) in the fabulous Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time…
Though really if Jakobson and I were sitting drinking espresso in some small place in paris we’d be lamenting of the way the spectacle has generated a generation that squandered its intellectuals…
On December 22, 1926 Trubetzkoy answered me with one of his most significant messages: […] The general outlines of the history of language, when one reflects upon them with a little attention and logic, never prove to be fortuitous. […] If Saussure did not dare to draw the logical conclusion from his own thesis that language is a system, this was due in large measure to the fact that such a conclusion would have contradicted the widely accepted notion of the history of language, and of history in general. For the only accepted sense of history is the notorious one of ‘progress’, that queer concept which as a consequence reduces 'sense’ to 'nonsense’.
From “Chapter 5: Speech Artefact” in Word, Sound, Image: The Life of the Tamil Text by Saskia Kersenboom.
I am not a linguist, but linguistic theory has understandably had a huge impact on the critical study of literature.
Roman Jakobson, like Shklovsky, was interested in exploring the formal function of language on poetics. The question that he hoped to answer was what makes a verbal or written message a work of art. As a linguist, Jakobson built on the work of Saussure (this seems to be a recurring pattern here), expanding on and questioning some of Saussure’s basic notions about the arbitrariness of language and the linearity of the sign. Many of the poetic features that Jakobson notes apply more generally to semiotics, and thus have an application to the study of film and painting as well as language proper.
“The poetic function is not the sole function of verbal art, but only its dominant, determining function” (1264).
from “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances” (1956)
In this short excerpt, under the heading “The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles,” Jakobson lays out the two poles of how meaning is created: relations of similarity, or metaphor, and relations of contiguity, or metonymy. These are how we create value.
Jakobson noted the predominance of one or the other in various types of literature. In the Romantic and Symbolist poets, he noted the primacy of the metaphoric register. In Realist work, metonymy. Jackobson also noted that this oscillation of relations also occurs in other sign systems as well. In film for instance, the close-ups favoured by Griffith were of the metonymic register, while the montage in Chaplin and Eisenstein was more metaphoric. He coins these “filmic similes.”
This structural analysis based on linguistics can be a useful tool and give a critic or theorist a way to get a strong handle on a work.
Jakobson’s friend Claude Lévi-Strauss attempted to apply this same kind of Saussurean structuralism to cultural studies. In his famous book, Structural Anthropology, Lévi-Strauss looks at cultural phenomena as forms of communication, including myths.
I read Chapter XI of the book, “The Structural Study of Myth,” in which Lévi-Strauss investigates the role and function of myths. He compares the seeming arbitrariness of myth against the similarities of myths across cultures and regions. Thus, the link between linguistics and mythology is in how meaning is made in relations between myths.
For Lévi-Strauss, “myth is language” (209). He applies even more linguistic analysis to his exploration of myths, using the term mythemes to describe the discrete units of myths that he is comparing. Thus, myth is made up of the relations between this units. And, like Jakobson notes, these relations are both diachronic and synchronic.
Lévi-Strauss believed that while poetry could not be accurately translated, myth was that which survives the worst translation. The substance of myth is the relations between mythemes.
Lévi-Strauss is one of the first theorists here that I’m not quite convinced by. His theories are the least compelling to me, as his structuralist approach seems at times somewhat arbitrary and yet also too specific.
The pun, or […] paronomasia, reigns over poetic art, and whether its rule is absolute or limited, poetry by definition is untranslatable. Only creative transposition is possible: either intralingual transposition–from one poetic shape into another, or interlingual transposition–from one language into another, or finally intersemiotic transposition–from one system of signs into another, e.g., from verbal art into music, dance cinema, or painting.
Roman Jakobson, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation”
[Lacan] called upon the findings of structural linguistics in order to explain the complex relation between oedipal dynamics and language, using Freud’s (1920) famous example of the fort/da game and Roman Jakobson’s (1956/1971) phonology to illustrate the way in which the acquisition of language goes hand in hand with the process of primal repression.
…Therefore, when Freud’s grandson was able to say fort/da to symbolize his mother’s leaving and returning, … expressing joyfully, through words, his ability to control a loss, the child in this paradigmatic anecdote at the same time repressed the cause of his sadness, and his unconscious came into being.
From this moment on in development, the unconscious becomes the repository of all the phonematic traces related to subsequent experiences of loss or lack.
Joël Dor, the Clinical Lacan, the Paternal Function and Psychic Structures