Language and culture. Intracultural language modulation - press, advertising, politics

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1 1 Language and culture. Intracultural language modulation - press, advertising, politics The question of the relations and possible dependencies between language and culture are studied under the heading of anthropological linguistics. Anthropological linguistics views language through the prism of the core anthropological concept culture, and as such tries to uncover the meaning behind the use, misuse or non-use of language. It is an interpretative discipline peeling away at language to find cultural understandings. Depending on how culture is conceived of, language is granted different status - language is equated to mental representation in the schools which believe culture is inseparable from cognition (Goodenough); language is a system of symbols for those who consider culture is a comprehensive system of signs by which a human being enacts his/her embodied understanding. (Geertz s symbolic anthropology) In the first tradition culture is a mental phenomenon that resides within the individual. In the second culture is a shared social practise. How can an individual s cognitive world producing appropriate cultural behaviour become social, public and community shared is the troublesome theoretical question. One possible solution comes from the enactment theory of culture. Crucial for this theory is the concept of structural coupling and its embodied history in the habitus which presupposes mutual codetermination of organism and environment. Culture in this view is a transgenerational domain of practices through which human organisms in a social system communicate with each other. These practices may be verbal or non-verbal, but they must be communicative in the sense that they occur as part of ongoing histories of social structural coupling and contribute to the viability of continued coupling. It is through their effectiveness in continuing the viability of social structural coupling that we can describe these practices as meaningful. Through its inculcation in the habitus culture becomes embodied in the self and reproduces itself in future action. According to Bakhtin any present meaning is always a reframing of the past, reworking things from past histories into the present relationship. Meaning both generates and is the product of ongoing transgenerational histories of social interaction. In order to fully grasp and pay due respect to this profound insight we have to define two terms: a) habitus and b) structural coupling. The habitus (according to Bourdieu, who introduced the notion into contemporary parlance) is a set of dispositions which incline agents to act and react in certain ways. The dispositions generate practices, perceptions and attitudes which are regular without being consciously co-ordinate or governed by any rule. The habitus provides provide individuals with a practical sense of how to act in their lives, giving guidance but ultimately determining action. The practical sense is embodied and the dispositions are inculcated in the way the body acts, stands, sits, talks, cries, laughs and copulates. The inculcation of these embodied dispositions occurs through histories of structural couplings with other beings through life. Such inculcated dispositions are

2 2 generative of patterns of behaviour and action but are unreflective and preconscious. These embodied action patterns are highly durable and persist through life. The body is the site on which the history of our structural couplings is inscribed. We are the product of this history, but because the dispositions of the habitus are generative, we continually and creatively reproduce it. Ultimately the grounding of our cognition is embodied and pre-reflective. This is the reason why it is problematic to describe what we know explicitly through a system of rules. That which provides the grounding for the rules to operate is always taken for granted. (Nowadays the most popular notion is that this grounding is provided by the body and its sensorimotor capabilities). This necessitates the distinction between tacit and articulate knowledge. Articulate knowledge is that which is derivable from specifiable premises according to clear rules of logical inference. It corresponds to what can be explicitly stated and critically reflected on. Tacit knowledge is a-critical and is characterised by an essential personal commitment. Tacit knowledge does not take the form of logically connected chains of reasoning, rather it consists in the mere act of internalising understanding, i.e. the creative grasping together of disjoint parts into a comprehensive whole. These two types of knowledge presuppose two kinds of awareness: focal versus subsidiary. All human knowledge is a combination of these four with different configurations prevailing at different periods and in different communities. We usually know something explicitly and focally within a much wider background of subsidiary and tacit knowledge, our bodies being the central locus of this background. Culture could never be considered a unified and finite domain whose contents are shared by all. It is the domain of cultural practices (knowledge, symbolic behaviour and social interaction all fused together), those meaning creating practices by which humans sustain viable trajectories of social structural coupling; and yet is a rarefied and amorphous domain with loci of density and regions of salience. In a modern industrialised society individuals engage in especially intense recurrent structural coupling with a small set of other individuals (family, friends, workmates, service people, etc.). There structural coupling with larger groups is sporadic. In consequence some instances of structural coupling become more recurrent and intense (age mates, co-initiates, kin relations, etc.) thus forming complex networks of relations of structural couplings with greater density. Exactly these densely coupled areas is what we recognise as social phenomena. The dispositions inculcated in the habitus are likewise structured because they reflect the social characteristics of the particular relationships of structural coupling in which they were acquired. Being meaningful cultural practices are not homogeneously distributed. They reflect the density of the patterns of the network. Of course contemporary media are trying to reduce the density distinguished areas and unify the salience regions. Salience regions are density loci with already attached value defaults. Density and salience discrepancies are the major sources of mutual misunderstandings and various breakdowns of communication.

3 3 Structural coupling appears to be the most crucial element which provides the unbreakable linkage in this complex symbiosis. The meaning as enactment theory underlies this type of theorising and analysis. The enactive approach to meaning and cognition (advanced in 1991 by Varela, Rosch and Thompson) claims that the most crucial property of a nervous system is its operational closure, i.e. the brain uses processes that change themselves. The principle activity of the brain is to make changes in itself. The brain does not manufacture thoughts the way factories make cars. The brain makes memories which change the way we will subsequently think. Due to its status as a self-modifying system, the nervous system undergoes continuous structural changes. What counts as environment emerges from the world through the present structural organisation of the nervous system, which is a function of its history of previous organisations. The environment does not exist as an object of cognition apart from the state of operational closure of the nervous system; it is not pre-given. The nervous system affords the world as environment its significance for present and possible subsequent states of organisation and in turn the world contributes to generating a history of the organism s states. This history of recurring interactions between organism and environment leads to a resulting congruence. This process is called structural coupling. All that happens are correlations of changes of states in the nervous system and changes of states in the environment. Living systems do not operate by representation. Instead of representing an independent world, they enact a world as a domain of distinctions... (Varela, Rosch and Thompson, 1991:140) Meaning is not something one communicates to others, bit rather created and forged with others. As a case in point Duranti (1988) offers the practice of Samoan political debate. Within this discursive practice an utterance means not what the speaker intends it to mean but fundamentally what the powerful participants in the debate ultimately determine it to mean. The example though reminds one more of contemporary media communication where it is unclear who these powerful participants are - the producers or the consumers. (Mind the wording in the representation of media itself) A medium in communication parlance is something which facilitates the transmission of signals from a sender (source) to a receiver (target). The most important media in terms of their popularity and impact are the photoelectronic media and print (i.e. television, films, video, radio, newspapers, magazines, records and books). Media have been termed the extensions of man (McLuhan). They have also been claimed to be more powerful than the message: the medium is the message. In this line of analysis a sharp distinction is drawn between the type of medium and the concomitant submessage it invariably carries - the print media are linear and encourage rationality, while the electronic media are all-at-onceness in an all-surrounding manner and encourage emotional responses to media. Print is believed to lead to uniformity, continuity, individualism and nationalism. Electronic media are held to lead us in the opposite directions. The main function of media amounts to diffusing cultural practices, i.e. to expanding the possible reach of structural couplings.

4 4 It goes without saying that from a semantic point of view far more interesting and yielding analysis is print. Media discourse - a fairly young subbranch of semantic and cultural studies - articulates the mechanisms employed for the successful functioning of mass media - the fourth power. Despite being extremely powerful (in a specific sense and for achieving specific goals) the media re subject to a large variety of social constraints, which necessitate the mixing of generic strategies and the negotiation of selected options depending on the different social purposes on particular occasions. By propagating social and cultural consciousness and value systems, the media paves the way for the institutioning of its own subordination to social control. The mechanisms of generating, negotiating, achieving and disseminating meaning in this complex process of global interaction are numerous and entangled. Suffice it here to mention a few of the most general and indisputable ones. The firs of these is, of course, the recognised polyphonic, generic heterogeneity of media discourse units/texts. The second is known under the name of hedging/intertextuality. The third is the linguistic means exploited for re-presenting reality through the media. The degree of marking linguistically the underlying ideological implications, i.e. the fourth mechanism is the strategic exploitation of the explicit/implicit ratio. The major trigger of all these is the tension between public and private or between cognitive(individual) and semiotic(community shared), etc. A driving force is also the strife to preserve the balance between informativeness and entertainment, conversationalisation and drawing upon the available stock of genres and discourses and how they match the influence of cognitive models and schemata for the production and comprehension of media contents. The relation between language and the media resides nowadays in the workings of culture industry/mass culture and the implementation of tacit knowledge where one of the most powerful mechanisms is that of reinforcing stereotypes and fixing group solidarity values. It is difficult to separate and study the various mechanisms in isolation because what makes the media so powerful is the inexhaustive range of possible combinations between all these. In brief, the upper hand in media functioning takes the ideational, or better still, ideological function of language. Language is used for social role enactment in media products. Stereotyping is a mighty tool mercilessly made use of in media discourse, which shapes or chisels power relation within the community. The major linguistic categories exploited incessantly in media discourse are: definiteness, transitivity, animacy, temporality, taxis (subordinating devices, thematic roles, etc.), sequential word ordering, communicative dynamism distribution and others. What units them is their capability of enacting identities and values. Linguistic choices (paradigmatic sense relations) are potentially ideologically significant. The major areas which allow for such choices are the process type and the participant type in a news item or other genres of media texts. The choices are meaningful within the network of mappings between the thematic(content) and (schematic) structure of media discourses. Vocabulary choices play a major role in the process of categorisation (interpellation) and stereotyping(hailing).

5 5 Grammatical choices are more influential in rendering process types - the differences between an action (with a causal actor) and an event (without a causal actor) is an instance of enacting or not responsibility, affiliation, adherence, etc. This choice of voice (gram.) creates in the media discourse different realties. (The full range of process type choices consists of Action, Event, State, Mental Process, and Verbal Process) A clause which codes an event (ideationally) in terms of a process type also assesses the truth or probability of the proposition so encoded, as well as the relations between sender and receiver(s). Herein comes with its contribution the analysis of pronoun use, modality, speech acts and many others. The category of modality is a semantic and pragmatic one. It is used to cover features of texts which express speakers and writers attitudes towards themselves, towards their interlocutors and towards their subject matter. Of course we could have a whole course on strategies of meaning generation in media discourse but for the pressures of space and time we will leave off this unquestionably most interesting and stimulating for you topic with one more remark. Each media text positions its audience within the sociocognitive frame work of the community. The mechanism of positioning is a matter of the common sense assumptions a text attributes to its receivers. It positions the receivers through the hedging (linguistically framing) of certain presuppositions. The presuppositions are the result of the belief that there are other texts (either actually existing or not) which are common ground for senders and receivers. Actually the pressuposition-as-intertextuality forms a gradience of degrees of presence - absent, presupposed, backgrounded, foregrounded. These degrees appropriate the receiver into the text s world and community culture by acknowledging authenticity by evoking in the receiver the sense that he is already part of this world, that he is familiar with its particulars. This all of course amounts to doing popular politics to better do politics by imposing the populist view. Habermas (1989) problematizes the contemporary media discourse as an act of refeudalisation of the mediatized public sphere. Audiences become spectators rather than participants and are addressed as consumers not as citizens. This creates a mediatized political public sphere where rational debate of political issue is subdued by the politics of mass culture production and media discursive practices, where language inevitably stars. No one has ever questioned the fact about the inseparable connection between language, media, culture and society. But linguistic anthropology probes even beyond this. Weeds and silence, dirt and framing are not concepts hat immediately yield a common ground for conceiving a relation between them. Anthropological linguistics provides an udisputable unifying principle - they are all meaningful cultural practices which both result form and are reflected in the ways language is used. Basso (an American anthropologist) studied the strategic use of silence, i.e. the denial to make use of language as the most widely shared medium among the Cibecue Apache. He found out that silence was even more outspoken than use of language in specific social situations. The latter included: a couple during the

6 6 early stages of courtship, on meeting strangers, on the return of an individual who has been away for a long time, when in the company of those in mourning, during a curing ritual, and when being insulted and abused verbally. The question arises of what is the common denominator which unites these situations. Or in other words what silence in this particular culture means. Essentially it indicates that a central participant in a social situation - the source of verbal abuse, the stranger, the partner in the courtship, the returned relative - is unknown to a greater or lesser degree, and hence unpredictable. This Apache culture valorises predictability of social roles in ongoing interaction and unpredictability is perceived as equivalent to potentially dangerous. An anthropological linguist discloses silence as a culturally mandated sign in these contexts and describes and explains its meaning and the belief which generates the pattern of use of the sign. In the same way it turns out that the traditionally assumed natural division of plants has an exclusively cultural basis. Weed is a cultural creation. It is claimed to have a more or less universal definition represented in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: a herbaceous plant not valued for use or beauty, growing wild and rank and regarded as cumbering the ground or hindering the growth of superior vegetation. The ultimate signification, denotation and overall meaning of the imputedly universal linguistic category though is insurmountably culture specific. Such turns out to be another presumed universal category - dirt. When there is dirt there is a system, claims Mary Douglas. Dirt is a by-product of a systemic ordering and classification of matter in so far as ordering presupposes and involves the rejecting of inappropriate elements. It is a residual category, rejected from our normal schemes. It is symbolic in character and culturally determined. Food is not dirty in itself, but it is dirty to leave utensils in the bedroom or when the food is bespattered on our clothing and is not carefully arranged in our plates, etc. Framing is the phenomenon of demarcating, of putting a limit or of foregrounding. As a phenomenon it is all-pervasive and universal. The way it is achieved and the contents included within the frame are culture specific and form the focus of linguists attention. The particular way of framing a spate of activity provides an official main focus and renders other modes of activity and lines of communication, something standing quite apart. (The result of this framing effect is discussed in the paragraph about the positioning of the receiver and the hedging technique of media discourse). This framing effect forms the point of intersection between social and cultural dimensions of behavioural patterns, including the linguistic one.