Monday, April 21, 2008

Language: felicity and feminisms

Richard Rhodes is blogging a foundation for a language theory that will further prop up an understanding of the Bible as God-inspired. He’s working through the low-level first-order concept of felicity, which he sees as “the null assumption for any communication and particularly for historical texts.” Such a baby step (for "inerrancy [being] the 800 pound gorilla in the room") is critical for the in-vogue translation methods Bible translators these days have grabbed onto: relevance theory.

(By the way, not many days ago, a friend of mine arranged for me to meet at SIL with one of the leading instructors of relevance theory, who tells me it’s a misnomer of sorts. The theory focus is not so much on what’s “relevant” as on “how things make sense,” on how the gap is closed between what is said and what is meant, on what goes on in the mind, as with cognitive linguistics, and what the listener or reader gets right or right enough. Speech act theory and pragmatic theory are useful prereqs.)

Felicity is as necessary to relevance theory as grammar is, for ESL teachers, to helping their English language students improve their abilities in writing or speaking or as mathematics is, for engineering professors, to communicating advanced concepts in their structural discipline. “Felicity” is a prerequisite, just as “logic” is for Aristotle in all of his other advanced observations.

Felicity, like truth, like logic, like Chomskyan linguistics, like most science, like phallologocentricism, is based on the binary. Either there’s felicity or there’s NOT felicity. “Not felicity” is bad; “felicity” is good.

Now quite different from the mere binary are feminisms and feminist rhetorical theory. In such, person stays “above” the mere binary, above logic, above formalism, above mathematics, above grammar, and even above binary felicity. I’m using “above” metaphorically here just to say the person is always more important than any of these things. How does that work? Allison Randal would agree with Larry Wall and declare There is more than one way to do it. (And both Randal and Wall work with the language of computers, which so it seems today always and only must operate on the system of binaries.)

Well, I told myself I’d only take 15 minutes to write this post, so let me hit the high points. The binary insists on boundaries. It’s a particle view. And feminisms include that view too. But rather than the mere “dimorphic” view, a feminist rhetorical view of language is “polymorphic.” feminisms also allow for and even insist on these: a wave view (as in dynamism, or powerful change, as in a conception, pregnancy, and birth where the boundaries of life but the very development of life is crucial); a field view (as in relationships, where it also matters tremendously whether I’m an outsider or an insider, whether sexed female or sexed male, whether you are somebody's grandaughter daughter niece sister mother or grandmother when we talk); a subjectivity that allows for the “fact” that whenever anyone observes any subject (whether another person or a thing) then both the observer and the observed person or thing change in the discovery.

Huh? I’ve got just a few more minutes. So here’s a little illustration. Judy Redman makes these great statements about grammar over at Mike Aubrey’s blog. Oops. Time’s up. I really must stop blogging.


Richard A. Rhodes said...

Actually felicity doesn't really have an excluded middle. Yes, we talk about utterances as being felicitous or infelicitous, but in actual use there are gray areas, like exaggerations and understatements, assertions on insufficient evidence, little white lies, and so on, which are almost felicitous, but not quite. As you like to point out, there is always a "people"-factor in real communication.

J. K. Gayle said...

But isn't it necessary to have "+ felicity" for relevance theory and for biblical in errancy and in spiration theory?

You said in your post: "God doesn’t have to tell us the truth — in the narrow platonic sense — to be felicitous. He just has to see that the writer He is inspiring gets point of the communication accurate."

Bob MacDonald said...

JKG - I always enjoy your posts whether precise or not. In this case - not - on one point. Computers have to allow for null - not valued as well as the binary. The not valued - besides other things - contributes to lots of serious problems in precision.

BTW - an aside - making sense is what it is all about - some understandings of our history and tradition deny such incarnation. Only a body can 'sense'. (Therefore I come to do thy will ...)

J. K. Gayle said...

Bob, Thank you for your kind comments. I love the way you word this clause, in passive voice and in near imperative: "Computers have to allow for." And yet we still wonder, as human beings, whether we really have to value precision more.

Yes, I do see the sense of relevance theory. But is embodied sense (and thanks for rightly making a point of this -- even "thy will") to be kept in the mind, in the head, with such singularity?

Richard A. Rhodes said...

You ask

But isn't it necessary to have "+ felicity" for relevance theory and for biblical in errancy and in spiration theory?

In short, no. If felicity has a range from fully felicitous to not felicitous at all, then for a theory of inerrancy to work, we have to trust that Scripture is at (or maybe just very near) fully felicitous.

Bob MacDonald said...

Kurk - thanks for the question: is embodied sense to be kept in mind with such singularity? I will think about it (hah!).

Six seconds later - a few thoughts come to mind based on the heard word (whoever hears my word and believes on the one who sent me ...) - as much as you have done it to the least of these ... you have done it to me.

Policy that bears this burden - is enabling acts of love. So this embodiment of Spirit extends throughout the political landscape.

It is a good question - and often inconvenient. I think there is much more both to speak of and unspeakable - yet still embodied. Finding words that create as God creates - ... pondering ... Consider that the opening of Psalm 1 is all action - sitting, standing, walking - negative of course, but the positive contrast is the delight and growth of the (R)righteous (O)one that comes through the meditation on Torah, but has results that are no less tangible.

Your question raises for me the mind of the earthly (A)anointed (O)one reading and meditating on the Psalms...

But how will I translate your word 'singularity'? It is the single eye, and the mathematical non-computable extreme, and the hapax legomenon all in 'one'.

mike said...

The binary insists on boundaries. It’s a particle view....

I smell Pike...

I'm not familiar with Relevance theory at present so my ability to participate in this discussion is limited - though I did recently check out a diss. entitled A Relevance Theoretic approach to the Particle IVA in Koine Greek and stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

J. K. Gayle said...

Your statement, "we have to trust that..." makes me want more than ever to hear what you have to say on "trust vs. belief."

I love your poetic last paragraph: "But how will I translate your word 'singularity'? It is the single eye, and the mathematical non-computable extreme, and the hapax legomenon all in 'one'." Makes me think of the Psalms, with their parallelisms, their statements repeated for repetition's sake but for re-vision as well.

Rich and Bob,
I have a friend who has a theory about the Trinity, that there's dissonance in the Trinity, as in music. If there weren't dissonance in music, well, it would just be so unlike music, maybe uninteresting. So the analogies always break down. But don't you think the idea of plurality within singularity also mirrors your respective notions of felicity and of embodied sense?

You've got a good sense of smell. When I sat down with the Relevance Theory practitioner - teacher, he asked my interests and when I confessed "tagmemics," his quick reply was "Tagmemics? Now that's a term I haven't heard in a long time." We spent a good bit of time doing contrastive analyses from that point. I bet the diss you checked out is much more interesting than some of the tagmemic ones collecting dust--and what translation do the Gideons put in the drawers of the Inns these days?

David Ker said...

JK, I notice Rich is muddying the binary waters with his talk about spectrums. I grew up thinking verbs were verbs and nouns were nouns, and then my linguistics prof starts talking about "verbness" and "prototypical nounishness." Grammar never sounded so nonsensical. But it began to sound like a better description of language.

And bravo on a 15 minute post. It's good to delineate our lives especially this virtual one that can crystallize or synthesize our muddy thinking but can also swallow it whole and leave us reacting to an endless stream of stimulus from the matrix rather than plugging in to the lives of those around us.

J. K. Gayle said...

Yes-wouldn't Heraclitus have a field day with Rich's muddy waters, which are rivery rivers with riveriness when you step into them. Someone once said that was the "literal" meaning of shibboleth and "field" day.

Well, okay, it was 15 minutes and 10 seconds. But it is most important to get back to the lives of the most dear ones around us! Thank you for that reminder.