Friday, January 18, 2008

Tekmērion: a technically unambiguous text but a sure sign of nothing

I’ve got some explaining to do.

First, the self-identifying feminists on my dissertation committee have asked me, “Are you coining ‘feministically’? It has the pejorative connotation. You know, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, ‘Man cannot speak for woman.’ Will you be able to heed that?”

Second, a linguist blogger friend has challenged me saying, “I believe the evidence is overwhelming that texts are far less ambiguous than you make them out to be -- and far less dependent on intertextuality -- otherwise literature would not be translatable.”

Third, my good friend yesterday requested an explanation asking, “Why do you have to call yourself a ‘feminist’? I have this reaction to the word, and it has so much negative baggage. ‘Feminism,’ but come on, any ‘-ism’ is so reductive and limiting. ‘Communism,’ ‘Marxism,’ even the less charged ‘egalitarianism’ or less social ‘trinitarianism’ limits.

I’ve given them all straightforward answers. But there’s more. It seems crooked at first, but it’s not. It seems silly but if you keep reading you’ll see some serious translating, feministically. I’m asking these questions now first:

Are texts really ambiguous and dependent on intertextuality and untranslatable? Are words connotative of some nature, whether a sexed body or a gender-hardwired brain or some negative thing? Won’t you let me dodge (just a moment longer) your questions about categorical mismatch? Would you listen if I told you stories instead of propositions?

Sometimes when I teach adult learners of the English language I’ll show them the old lady / young lady optical illusion. But first I’ll cut off the corners of the picture and make it into a circle and wad it up and throw it at a startled student. Invariably, everyone laughs involuntarily to my great relief, and the student unfolds the paper, orients it, and begins with the others in the room to describe what they see: “it’s an old woman.” “it’s a young lady, see?” And when pressed, they go on. “No, no dog.” “no airplane.” And when the questions are more open ended, asking what else they observe, it gets quiet. But then there are comments about the clothing and about the race of the women and about their class and their ages and their hair and about the artist’s intention, and about mine.

One of my teachers used to say this in a different sort of class: “What we need is ‘radical relativism within rigid restraints’.” My teacher was quoting Nelson Goodman.

(But a scholar on objectivism and the problems of relativism came to the campus where I work now. When we talked, he objected to the statement on the grounds that Goodman was playing with words for alliterative impact but had no idea, really, what real relativism is. “What he means is ‘pluralism,’ the visiting scholar told me, and he mailed me a published article he’d written on that very topic to prove it to me.

((The funny thing is that I was once a visiting scholar at a very pluralistic campus. A friend, a member of the religion department there, invited me to speak, as a linguist, in a lecture series on “religion and _______.” Now the school had ‘Christian’ as one of its names but in its marketing it was invariably just “C,” kind of like the “F” in KFC just because “fried” is starting to have so many negative connotations for the body. (“Christian” University connotes “bible college” and other unhealthy such things I suppose). Anyway, I asked the audience of religionists to define “religion.” Silence. Then a smart-alecky grad student pipes up with “The True definition is . . .” which trailed off into his laughter and everyone else’s including mine. The professor of Islam finally gave the serious answer: “Religion cannot be singularly defined.” So I asked if they’d let me offer a definition of “language,” the topic of my talk. And I quoted or paraphrased or translated Noam Chomsky: “The human faculty of language seems to be a true 'species property,' varying little among humans and without significant analogue elsewhere.” I went on to center my talk around Goodman’s famous statement, insisting that we humans need both radical relativism and rigid restraints. Afterwards my friend protested saying he’d spoken with an elephant named Emily in India through a human interpreter. Language, you see, for him didn’t need the human restraints.))

But if Goodman uses ‘relativism’ when another scholar says he means ‘pluralism,’ what did you think he means? What do you believe really?)

I don’t believe a word or a text of words is ambiguous. Rather, we human beings supply the radical relativism. And we offer the rigid restraints as well. But some, and Aristotle is classic here, want to believe the text and that nature (with no regard for humanity or our bodies and our minds and our spirits) is rigid and restrained. Aristotle never met Albert Einstein. He never met Werner Heisenberg either. But that’s some imaginative radical relative fantasy to arrange such a meeting.

John Henry Freese and George Alexander Kennedy did meet Aristotle’s text. They then “translated” it. But they focused on rigid restraints, on the alphabet of the Greeks, on transliteration as if somehow to preserve the lack of ambiguity in the text. So here’s from Book I, chapter 2 (page 1357a). First Freese, then Kennedy. Then you’ll read Aristotle’s words, and next to it a translating rhetorically, feministically:

[16] As to signs, some are related as the particular to the universal, others as the universal to the particular. Necessary signs are called tekmeria; those which are not necessary have no distinguishing name. [17] I call those necessary signs from which a logical syllogism can be constructed, wherefore such a sign is called tekmērion; for when people think that their arguments are irrefutable, they think that they are bringing forward a tekmērion, something as it were proved and concluded; for in the old language tekmar and peras have the same meaning (limit, conclusion).

16. In the case of signs [sēmeia], some are related as the particular to the universal, some as the universal to the particular. Of these, a necessary sign is a tekmērion, and that which is not necessary has no distinguishing name. 17. Now I call necessary those from which a [logically valid] syllogism can be formed; thus, I call this kind of sign a tekmērion, as though the matter were shown and concluded [peparamenon]. (Tekmar and peras [“limit, conclusion”] have the same meaning in the ancient form of our language.)

[16] των δὲ σημείων τὸ μὲν ούτως έχει ως των καθ' έκαστόν τι πρὸς τὸ καθόλου, τὸ δὲ ως των καθόλου τι πρὸς τὸ κατὰ μέρος. τούτων δὲ τὸ μὲν αναγκαιον τεκμήριον, τὸ δὲ μὴ αναγκαιον ανώνυμόν (5) εστι κατὰ τὴν διαφοράν. [17] αναγκαια μὲν ουν λέγω εξ ων γίνεται συλλογισμός: διὸ καὶ τεκμήριον τὸ τοιουτον των σημείων εστίν: όταν γὰρ μὴ ενδέχεσθαι οίωνται λυσαι τὸ λεχθέν , τότε φέρειν οίονται τεκμήριον ως δεδειγμένον καὶ πεπερασμένον: τὸ γὰρ τέκμαρ καὶ πέρας ταυτόν εστι κατὰ (10) τὴν αρχαίαν γλωτταν.

[16] As to signs, some are related just as each and every thing is to the universe, while others just as the universe is to the part. The forceful ones are the sure-signs. (Those which are not forceful are the ones carried through and yet unnamed). [17] Now, I call the forceful ones those birthed from an arrangement of statements: thus, such a sign is a sure-sign. In fact, when someone thinks there’s a decisive statement, they think it’s carried forward as a sure-sign, something as if it were shown and limited; and “sure,” in fact, is “limit” from the beginning in the mother tongue.

Now, what explaining is left to do?

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