Storing and Sorting


5.0

With its techno-erotic jingle, the telephone company invites consumers to reach out and touch someone.  The corporation promises an encounter perhaps only realizable in the audio-tactile universe of a McLuhanesque global village where talking and touching are commutable.  However, as with all effective advertising, cognitive dissonance inhabits the telephonic slogan.  Seductive aurality suspends itself upon the delectable pain of hearing your party talk and an aching for the touch of their touching.  The telephone company of course has no interest in mentioning that the infliction or experience of such a state is possible without technological mediation nor that its equipment provides functions equivalent to the services of a dominatrix.

5.0

5.1

Striking analogies aside, the ache is the kernel of an implied narrative.  The substitution of talk for touch follows a bodily state of talk with touch.  The sequence need not unfold in this order.  Nostalgia can be inflected in a future tense and the wish for contact, directed towards strangers.  Whatever the case, talk with touch is highly desirable.  Touch here functions as a synecdoche for fuller bodily contact including smell, sight, taste.  But the wisdom of the telephonic cliche resides in the counter desire to avoid sensory overload.  The coiners of the saying astutely recast McLuhan:  one reaches out to touch someone, not the world.

5.1

5.2

Even as telecommunications technology repeatedly places persons in contact, a phone call is no Hegelian Bewußtlosigkeit of lovers nor is it blessed maternal-infant bliss.  A chat is not a caress.  Material limits do apply to the figure of total touch in the McLuhanite myth of the uttering/outering of man [sic] in language.  Nevertheless, much discussion of language and technology continues to invoke metaphors of touch.  Unfortunately, non-verbal modes of cognition tend to be mystified in these explorations.

5.2

5.3

George Steiner, for example, has written "[w]e know no exit from the skin of our skin" (After Babel 299).  Skin is here a metaphor for language.  Earlier in his book, Steiner speculated that "[i]f coition can be schematized as dialogue, masturbation seems to be correlative with the pulse of monologue or of internalized address." (40).  His conceit is developed further:

There is evidence that the sexual discharge in male onanism is greater than it is in intercourse.  I suspect that the determining factor is articulateness, the ability to conceptualize with especial vividness.  In the highly articulate individual, the current of verbal-psychic energy flows inward.  The multiple, intricate relations between speech defects and infirmities in the nervous and glandular mechanisms which control sexual and excretory functions have long been known, at least at the level of popular wit and scatological lore.  Ejaculation is at once a physiological and a linguistic concept.  Impotence and speech-blocks, premature emission and stuttering, involuntary ejaculation and the word-river of dreams are phenomena whose interrelations seem to lead back to the central knot of our humanity.  Semen, excreta and words are communicative products. (40)

One wonders if the production of female cyprine is greater in masturbation or intercourse.  One wonders about the inwardness of flow, about its relation to an articulateness and why articulateness determines ability to conceptualize.  Thinking and speaking are linked without justification.

5.3

5.4

There is one suggestion that can be salvaged from Steiner's rather speculative exercise.  If one were to mop up the fluid, one would find that articulations are very much like folds of skin and such folded skin possesses different temperature as well as moisture zones.  If, in the comparison of sexual activity with linguistic performance, liquid production is not accepted as the prime comparator, touch metaphors can be activated in a less totalizing and less dichotomous fashion.  Activity with oneself, masturbation, cannot be so readily opposed to intercourse, activity with others.

5.4

5.5

Indeed, as Vygotsky argued contra Piaget, children acquire capacities for ego-centric speech after passing through a stage of speech for others.  Such a developmental scheme stems from the metadiscursive dimensions of language.  Furthermore, avoidance of Steiner's phallic-based dichotomies permits one to draw an analogy between the self-sensing capacities of skin and the self-referring possibilities of verbal sign systems.

5.5

5.6

Skin like language can be sensitive to its own workings.  The tactile and the metalinguistic both act as transcoders:  the one of languages, the other of sensory modalities.  The power of touch to translate is celebrated by Michel Serres in Les Cinq Sens.  He proposes touch as the common sense:

Les choses nous baignent des pieds à la tête, la lumière, l'ombre, les clameurs, le silence, les fragrances, toutes sortes d'ondes imprègnent, inondent la peau.  Nous ne sommes pas embarqués, à dix pieds de l'eau, mais plongés. (72)

We are from head to toe bathing in a sea of things, their light, their shadows, their noise, their silence, their fragrances; all kinds of waves flood, saturate our skins.  We are not floating ten feet above the waters, we are submerged.

Although he situates touch as the common sense, Serres places its operations in a tacit, silent dimension.  In concluding an extended ekphrasis of the medieval unicorn tapestries, Serres relates the enigma of the mythical animal to "le secret de la subtilité: l'emprise tacite du tactile" [the secret of subtlety: the tacit hold of the tactile] (60).  This perhaps explains why despite the prodigious power of touch, Serres places the sensory in opposition to the linguistic:

Il faut sentir ou se nommer, choississez.  Le language ou la peau, esthésie ou anesthésie.  La langue indure les sens. (74)

One must name or sense, take your pick.  Language or skin, the bodily or the non-bodily.  Language dulls the senses.

For Serres language is noisesome.  It generates, in his words, dialectic and battle.  He values quiet since for him it is the condition for creativity.  However the initial opposition drawn by Serres does not remain absolute.  Battle, political or intellectual, linguistic or bodily, leads to thick skins.  Serres recommends making one's skin delicate and sensitive, rendering it attentive to things and to others, ready for the birth of the work and the man (74-75).  Perhaps the gender exclusivity in Serres's invocation of the venerable commonplace of giving birth to oneself by being in contact with the world explains the bloodless, screamless parturition.

5.6

5.7

However, shorn of reproductive mystique, the apparatus of self-sensing skin retains its role as mediator between self and the world.  As Daniel Putman writes "[t]he learning that occurs through skin receptors has a reference, the disposition of the person or the texture of the object being touched" (Putman 61).  Any acknowledgement of cognitive attention divided between two foci, a sensory apparatus and an object of perception, forces a revision of McLuhan's metaphorics of touch and language.  There is no exit from the skin of our skin, no exit from language, because we are never in language, never in our skins.  We inhabit a space of inbetweens, a space of transcodings and metamoves.  It is a reticulated conceptual space for language itself is between.  A dyad will never suffice to stage its dialectic.

5.7

5.8

Nondyadic dynamics as well as dialectical distinctions are made possible by the double articulation of language.  As demonstrated by Émile Benveniste in his essay "Sémiologie de la langue", the sign system of verbal language possesses not only a communicative function, it exists also in a relation of interprétance to other semiotic systems.  He links the metalinguistic element of verbal language to its ability to form interpretative relations between semiotic systems.

5.8

5.9

The interpretative function requires a system to be doubly articulated.  As Benveniste explains

la langue comporte à la fois la signifiance des signes et la signifiance de l'énonciation.  De là provient son pouvoir majeur, celui de créer un deuxième niveau d'énonciation, où il devient possible de tenir des propos signifiants sur la signifiance. (65)

verbal language is comprised of both the signification of signs and the signification of enunciation.  Which explains its great power for creating a second level of enunciation from which it becomes possible to make significant statements about signification.

Verbal systems are not the only ones to possess double or multiple articulation (n1).  Metadiscursivity is not merely metalinguistic, it may well be an effect of narrative and narration.

5.9

5.10

From a cybernetic perspective, metadiscursivity can be considered as a specialialized form of feedback capable of converting noise into information.  Within "the economics of cognitive organization", human elements as components of a communication system according to George Miller discover new ways to transform, or to recode, received information (Miller 13;49).  Miller calls this practice "chunking" or "recoding".  Basically, a bit of information is tagged or labelled.  A set of tagged bits can itself be grouped and tagged.

5.10

5.11

Just as sets form sequences, cybernetic recoding generates the possibilities of metadiscourse.  The theoretical space between recoding and metadiscursivity is occupied by narrativity or the potential conversion of sequence into story.  In this space, verbal signs and their enunciation are on par with other types of signs and their presentation.  The linguistic need not be privileged.  Once tagging itself becomes taggable, the possibilities of metacommunication emerge.

5.11

5.12

Metacommunication involves comparison and as such the recoding it performs is a type of transcoding.  Fredric Jameson likens transcoding to mediation:

as the invention of a set of terms, the strategic choice of a particular code or language, such that the same terminology can be used to analyze and articulate two quite distinct types of objects or "texts," or two very different structural levels of reality. (Jameson 40)

Jameson in this passage from The Political Unconscious goes on to stress the stakes in making comparable what a hegemonic discourse and ruling apparatus does not wish to be so.  It is possible to translate the spirit of Jameson's remarks into the current discussion of the bodily sources for narrativity.

5.12

5.13

When the discrete compartmentalization of the sensory modalities is questioned, the limits of sentient being become problematic for the connection between CONSCIOUSNESS and VERBAL LANGUAGE becomes tenuous when exclusive control over metacommunication is no longer a linguistic affair.

5.13

5.14

Just as recoding operates within a same semiotic system, transcoding operates between different systems.  Once one treats the individual perceiving body as a social entity, it becomes evident that cross-modal encoding serves metacommunication.  For example, imagine visual and aural objects transcoded by tactile sensations.  The body with its multiple sensory modalities is a great comparator and arguably a storyteller even before the speaking subject arises.

5.14

5.15

In the realm of the human, whatever else it may be, the need to compare is a social need.  Anywhere signifying practices are open to rereading and to question, interpretive relations abound.  Jerome Bruner lists a striking range of such behaviour:

The perpetual revisionism of historians, the emergence of "docudramas," the literary invention of "faction," the pillow talk of parents trying to make revised sense of their children's doings ­­ all of these bear testimony to this shadowy epistemology of the story.  Indeed, the existence of story as a form is a perpetual guarantee that humankind will "go meta" on received versions of reality. (Acts of Meaning 55)

Of course, all the moments here are verbal.  Other modes exist for ordering, sorting or transmitting sequences.  As Bruner tells the story, these other modes are fundamental for human linguistic development:

Once young children come to grasp the basic idea of reference necessary for any language use ­­ that is, once they can name, can note recurrence, and can register termination of existence ­­ their principal linguistic interest centers on human action and its outcomes, particularly human interaction. [Bruner's emphasis] (Acts of Meaning 78)

Bruner's tale suggests that abstract powers such as the recognition of sequence and variation are the necessary precursors to a phase of anthropo-centrism.  Indeed, he earlier stakes a claim that "[n]arrative structure is even inherent in the praxis of social interaction before it achieves linguistic expression" (Acts of Meaning 77).

5.15

5.16

The parallels with Greimas's generative trajectory are striking.  For the Paris semiotician, the generative trajectory is the equivalent of an anthropomorphic investment in the fundamental structure of signification and its semic positions.  For both Bruner and Greimas, narrative need not be linguistic.  When human interaction is recognized as the ground of cognition, then not only is narrative structure non-verbal, certain narratives are non-verbal.

5.16

5.17

A case for the separation of narration from verbal language can also be made on neurophysiological grounds.  Howard Gardner in Frames of Mind offers the conjecture that "sensitivity to narrative, including the ability to communicate what has happened in a series of episodes, seems more closely tied to the pragmatic functions of language (and thus proves more fragile in cases of right-hemisphere disease) than to core syntactic, phonological, and semantic functions" (89).

5.17

5.18

Pragmatic functions relate to bodies in motion.  Such functions and dimensions point to systems other than the linguistic.  Sources of non-linguistic narrative are rich and varied.  One can consider the Javanese shadow puppets and the Inuit string games that appear as narratives in Kay Armatage's film Storytelling (1983) or how in Australian aboriginal culture visual design becomes song.  Wherever there is marking and action, notation and performance, there is some capacity to predict pattern and this pushed to the limit is the core of narrative.  Narrative occurs where there is the reproduction of a sequence.

5.18

5.19

If the core of narrative is reduced to sequence, reproduction and reportage meld.  For example, the repetition of a performance of nonsense syllables or tapped rhythms certainly displays the ability to "communicate what has happened in a series of episodes".  But narrative is not solely reproduction.  Narrative is also a redoing.  It involves sequence and variation.

5.19

5.20

It is like the re-represented behaviour that Richard Schechner explores in both his performance theory and theatrical production.  He examines how "strips of behaviour" are decontextualized and processed in the "twice behaved" behaviour of ritual or performance.  (Between theater and anthropology) Strips of behaviour can be slowed down, speeded up, juxtaposed.  Narrative can reach great complexity through multiple track variations, through operating on many sequences.

5.20

5.21

The pathways between perception and narration are particularly evident in non-linguistic narrative.  Set in the context of general semiosis, narration crosses sensory modalities.  This does not explain how a series of events becomes a sequence.  Sequences arise from learning.  They develop from bodies attempting to preserve and process knowledge.  Sequences disentangle synaesthesia.  For example, teaching children to count aloud on their fingers is enhanced by the introduction of slight pauses.  The teacher touches the child's finger, pauses, voices a number, pauses, and makes eye contact with the child, pauses, makes eye contact with the touching fingers.  The pattern which consists of tactile sensation, oral marking, aural sensation, and concludes with an invitation to shift to a visual mode, can of course be varied.  With two or more teachers the potential for variation increases: sequences can be assigned either solo or group performance and can be distributed according to sensory modality.  One teacher voices, an other points, the child connects.

5.21

5.22

This example is offered not to suggest that sensitivity to narrative is conditioned by mastering the art of counting but to stress that narrativity may have strong ties to multi-sensory multi-player situations in that both are instances of coordination games.  Furthermore, sequences incorporate adequate redundancy into learning and communicative situations.  The episodic character of sequences (something happened at a certain time) creates expectation.  As well, the choric potential of sequence manipulation provides for intersubjective participation in knowledge production.

5.22

5.23

As a coordination game, narration has two functions:  memory work and problem solving.  The story can serve as a template whose slots allow for the addition of more bits of knowledge.  The story becomes a key for typological readings.  Interpretation produces a grid for storing and recalling information.

5.23

5.24

Approached as an algorithm, the story is a series of steps for developing a solution to a problem.  The story models the movement between a source and a target, between current conditions and desired outcome.  Interpretation is construction.

5.24

5.25

Conceiving story as storage and story as algorithm is the key to imagining a sensorium that is more than merely receptive, to theorizing one that is interactive in regards to its modalities and its environment.  The stumbling block in imagining such a sensorium has been proper theorizing of the means of translating from one modality to another.  Verbal language seemed to be the best candidate.  However it privileged sight and hearing, the distance senses, over those of closer contact: smell, touch, and taste.

5.25

5.26

In re-evaluating the closer contact senses, especially their action under conditions of distress or extreme pleasure, one discovers that the sensorium not only is a receiver but also a dispatcher of information.  The senses are not only receptors.  The senses also transmit.  By their operation the senses provide events for interpretation.  The blinking of eyes, the cocking of an ear, the flicker of a tongue, all signal.

5.26

5.27

The human senses, whatever their number and relations, produce events.  Events can be connected.  This production of events can be experienced, can be induced, can be guided.  Memory plays a major role in this process.  Attention can be alternatively devoted to percept and to the act of perception.  The possibilities for metacommentary are connected to the possibilites for memory.  Cognitively this allows humans to preserve the trace of something happening at a certain time.  Events connected in a series of episodes lead to narratives.  The transformation of discrete somatic signals into sequences begins to explain cross-modal encoding.

5.27

5.28

Although not dealing with sequences, Alexander Alland drawing upon the work of Charles Laughlin and Eugene d'Aquili, Biogenetic Structuralism, suggests that anatomical and physiological factors enhancing cross-modal association are responsible for the emergence of conceptualization ("Roots of Art" 13-14). ; Developing an anthropology of art, Alland posits an aesthetic-cognitive function for which he offers the term transformation-representation.  His notion is allied to narrative or sequence processing.  He argues:

Art is an emotionally charged and culturally central storage device for complex sets of conscious and unconscious information.  Structure guards information in well-ordered and easily retrievable forms.  It also allows for a certain amount of variation (transformation) without loss of total information or organization.  Transformation is something that is likely to occur by accident, but it is also likely to be part of the aesthetic game in which playing with form is a major element.  Transformation without significant changes in over-all structure keeps the game exciting at the same time as essential information is guarded. (Artistic Animal 41). 

As form is to storage and circulation, sequence is to narrative and narration.

5.28

5.29

It is worth keeping in mind the explanatory power of circulation and narration while examining a more recent account of evolution and cognition.  Coupling biogenetic anthropology with models of self-organization in far from equilibrium systems, Alex Argyros attempts to construct an "affirmative theory of narrative".  Argyros implicitly embeds narrative in verbal language ("Narrative and Chaos" 665).  He equates narrative with the discursive representations of chains of causation.

it [narrative] allows for the constitution of a representational structure whose basic unit is the causal frame:  actor-action-object.  The essential feature of narrative is that it maps the world causally.  Given the universality of narratival structures, both in everyday discourse and in the myths, cosmologies and fictions generated by all human cultures, we must assume that the world is sufficiently causal to offer a species able to represent it in narratival forms a selective evolutionary advantage. (662)

As the neologism indicates, narratival structures are not the same as narrative structures.  If Argyros had not implicitly embedded narrative in a verbal form of discourse, his paradigm case would not resemble the subject-verb-object formula of Indo-European sentences (n2).  Furthermore, evolutionary advantage is a contested concept likely to generate competing narratives.  In a bid to rescue narrative from those whom he perceives as its detractors, Argyros's blocks cross-modal interaction.  The causal frame, actor-action-object, is built up out of the transformations of states of being and the observation of these transformations.  However, narrative does not depend on the question "why?".  Narratives are not always accounts of causation.  Stories are not to be equated with causal frames.

5.29

5.30

In Alland's terms narrative as a form of art is founded upon a faculty of transformation-representation or as Argyros writes "narrative is a remarkably efficient information processing strategy whose function is to store, manipulate, and create the tremendous range of information constitutive of the world of human beings" (667).

5.30

5.31

Narrative and narration also explain how objects yield events and events become reified or, in more technical terms, how a syntagm can be labelled and function as an actant.  The self is not a sign, it is a story machine and its acts of abstraction subtend both the reconstructive and the recall dimensions of information processing or transformation-representation.  Memory work draws upon powers of abstraction to make knowledge portable.  Problem solving draws on a capacity for situation anticipation to make knowledge applicable.  With applicable and portable knowledge, one can begin to think the embodiment of knowledge.

5.31

5.32

Pedagogical situations are sensory.  They are also interpersonal.  Because they are sensory this makes even learning by oneself interpersonal.  Egocentric speech is like a dialogue between the senses.  In Vygotsky's and Luria's experiments, children placed in problem-solving situations that were slightly too difficult for them displayed egocentric speech.  One could consider these as self-induced metadiscursive moments.  The self in crisis will disassociate and one's questionning becomes the object of a question.

5.32

5.33

Not only is the human self as a metabeing both fracturable and affiliable in itself, it is also prone to narrativity.  That is, the human self will project its self-making onto the world in order to generate stories from sequences and to break stories into recombinant sequences.  Its operations on signs are material practices with consequences for world-making.

5.33

5.34

The fracturable affiliable self calls for reproductive models suitable to the interactions of multi-sensate beings, models that render dyads dialectical, questionable, answerable.  Narrativity understood dialectically does not merely mean making sequences or strings of events into stories but also stories into things, strung together for more stories.  From such an understanding, emerge non-dyadic narratives of reproduction, narratives where a thing-born transforms itself into an event, comes to understand itself as a process.

5.34

5.35

The historical possibility of such narratives owes much to the metacommentary of one man upon the work of another.  Here is a segment of Marx's critique of Hegel's dialectic:

To be objective, natural, sentient and at the same time to have object, nature and sense outside oneself, or to be oneself object, nature and sense for a third person, is the same thing.

To be and to have for oneself are the same thing as to be oneself for a third.  It's a good place to start making sense of sense.

5.35


wake bridge prow





© François Lachance, 1996