Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Notes on Strange Fiction: Narrative's Function (3)

3. The Connective Function

So, expressive and manipulative operations could be seen as complements of each other, two different operations bound together by the principle of accord into a single mechanism, a system of transactions where the import of purpose and the purpose of import are as important as either aspect of an articulation's meaning taken in isolation. This has some interesting ramifications, I think, for what Jakobson refers to as the phatic function, what other linguists have referred to as the relational or contact function, what I'm calling the connective function.

In this sort of articulation, as Jakobson describes it, the key concern is with the channel of communication, with opening and closing it, maintaining it, verifying that it's working correctly. This is communication as communion, as the small talk of all those largely information-free greetings and blessings by which we initiate or terminate conversations, the grease in the machinery of society.

An opening:

"Hello!"
"Hey there!"
"How are you?"
"Fine, and you?"
"I'm cool."
"That's grand."
"What you up to?"
"Same old same old. Yourself?"
"Getting by."

A closing:

"I've got to go!"
"Ah, well. Same here."
"See you then."
"Catch you later."
"Been great chatting to you."
"Absolutely!"
"Take care!"
"You too!"
"Bye then!"
"Bye bye!".

The formulaic banality of these operations of phatic communion is such that information is actively absented. To impart real information during an opening routine -- to actually give a list of recent miseries and delights in response to a cursory "How are you?", for example -- is generally jarring, seeming premature... an attempt to communicate before the channel is properly established. In fact, that prematurity will most likely be interpreted as rude -- self-absorbed and inconsiderate, blithely disregarding the other person by failing to reciprocate their perfunctory enquiry.

Phatic communion has this etiquette because it is etiquette. It can be viewed as having an initiatory or teminatory function -- opening or closing the channel -- but we might well argue that to say so is to confuse location and function. Is the function of a phatic communion simply to be at the start or end of a conversation as a signal of opening or closure? If this were the sole or primary function then, since all conversations must be opened and closed, we should expect these formulaic articulations to reflect the simplicity of such a basic functionality. Instead we see protracted exchanges which, despite their lack of information, form a complex structure, an ornate verbal dance at the start and end of every conversation. We might be better asking, then, whether the apparent redundancy of much phatic communion may in fact reflect another function, that of compensating for the acts of initiation and termination which are necessary parts of all conversations simply because all conversations are finite, limited by circumstance.

What I am suggesting, in essence, is that these phatic articulations serve expressive/manipulative functions; that the operation being performed in a greeting is an expression of pleaure at meeting someone, equally designed to elicit a reciprocal expression; that the formulaic enquiry after health and well-being is an expression of care, equally designed to elicit not an informative response but again a reciprocal expression; that the perfunctory enquiry as to what someone has been up to since the last conversation is similarly an operation of revelation and elicitation. This dance of expressions and manipulations is not simply about starting and stopping a flow of words, initiating or terminating a connection at the technical level. There is a loss of accord caused by the termination of the last conversation, a potential degradation of mutual care in the time spent apart. The longer that time apart the more strained the accord will be. So we must use connective articulations to (re)establish accord in the shape of sympathy, through manifestations of the politeness principle.

In fact, this loss of accord may well be at the root of those phatic articulations designed to mitigate the imposition of the conversation, to elicit an assertion that it isn't an imposition, or at least not too much of one. Somewhere in that opening above, or following on from it, we might easily see an exchange like this:

"You busy?"
"No, no. What's up?"
"Nothing much. Just thought I'd call for a chat!"
"Cool."
"I'm not interrupting anything?"
"Nah. I was just faffing about."

There is content here, albeit of the most minimal sort, but more than anything else this exchange is a revelation of insecurity, an elicitation of reassurances that the participants are still emotionally connected, that communion is welcome.

Likewise, every blessing with which we terminate a conversation could be understood as an attempt to compensate for the loss of accord that is to come. We reveal our desire to continue by characterising the termination as a requirement we have no control over, we reveal our desire to resume communion in assurances that we will do so as soon as possible (or we exhibit it in explicit articulations of that hope), and finally we close the conversation with direct expressions of care: farewell meaning fare thee well; goodbye meaning God be with ye. The core function here seems less to do with signaling the closure of a conversation than it is to do with signaling the sympathic bonding required for the conversation to begin again, signaling the fact that this emotional readiness for continued social interaction will persist until the next encounter, that the channel of communication will remain open.

#

In the opening of THE BIRTHDAY PARTY we can see, in the exchange (or lack of exchange) between Meg and Petey, this operative function of connective articulations made obvious by failure. The character of Meg constantly seeks to initiate a conversation with expressions of care:

"Here's your cornflakes. Are they nice?"
"I thought they'd be nice. You got your paper?"
"Is it good?"
"What does it say?"
"Will you tell me when you come to something good?"
"Have you been working hard this morning?"
"Is it nice out?"

At every turn Petey refuses accord, answering with the minimal requirements of affirmation ("Very nice.") or passive-aggressive non-committal (responding to Meg's enquiry about the contents of the paper with a brusque "Nothing much."). Essentially, Petey is bluntly refusing to reciprocate, his articulations exhibiting or revealing a complete lack of care and thereby denying the accord required for the conversation to progress beyond banal niceties.

It could be argued, of course, that Petey's refusal of accord, continuing throughout the pages of the breakfast scene, essentially stalls the conversation at the opening stage of phatic communion, connective language, that Meg's attempts at initiation are failures. But given the length of the exchange and the way it functions as a conversation, albeit a malformed one, with multiple articulations that are clearly about something (the cornflakes, the paper, Stanley the lodger, Petey's work, the weather) this seems somewhat forced. Rather we might see the constant return to connective articulations throughout a conversation which is, functionally speaking, initiated on the first page (by Petey's reluctant "Yes, it's me." in response to Meg's insistent "Is that you?") as the repeated attempt by Meg to establish accord. The technical channel is open, but until accord is properly established Meg is bound to try again and again with connective articulation after connective articulation, to try various instances of what is basically a subset of expressive/manipulative operations -- expressing sympathy in order to elicit it.

That Petey's response is antipathy rather than sympathy, that the transactions of import and purpse manifested in expressive/manipulative articulations may involve the strategies of power and privilege as much as those of diplomacy, opens up another potential perspective on this connective function, one that is somewhat neglected in the idea of phatic communion. Not all connections between human beings, after all, are friendly.

#

Anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, Robin Dunbar offers two suppositions that are pertinent here.

The first is the idea, popularised in the subsequent coinage by David Wong, of the monkeysphere, the idea that an individual, practically speaking, has a cognitive limit on the number of people they can maintain stable social relationships with -- that number being about 150. There's a problem though. These relationships, in primate societies, are maintained by grooming (which is to say, by exhibitions of care). As a bonding activity, this grooming is reciprocal, founded on mutuality (which is to say, an exhibition of care constitutes an elicitation of a reciprocal exhibition of care). For an individual to maintain 150 individual social relationships, the amount of time required to be spent in grooming would be, of course, substantial to the point of impractical; tribes of other primate species are generally not that large for this reason. Which is where the second supposition comes in.

The second supposition offered by Dunbar is the idea that gossip essentially performs the same function as grooming, that language evolved primarily with this function, as a more ergonomic surrogate for grooming. With words, with gossip, we can exhibit care to multiple individuals with a single action, groom a whole group with our sympathic chatter. What he is proposing, in essence, is that a system of physical expressive/manipulative operations was replaced by a more cost-efffective system of vocal expressive/manipulative operations as the bonding behaviour which establishes, maintains (and, of course, exploits) accord.

It is, I think, a compelling theory, even if it is speculative. The parallel of functionality is persuasive, with both physical and vocal systems, both grooming and gossip, understandable as fundamentally constructed from sympathic operations. Given the potential for expressive articulations to be negative rather than positive, and the potential for manipulative articulations to be coercive rather than diplomatic, we might want to relate Dunbar's protolinguistic gossip to the antagonistic systems of status-struggles as well as to grooming, factor in the bluster and breast-thumping, the antipathic as well as the sympathic, but otherwise... In so far as both expressive and manipulative articulations can, and often do, achieve their function while carrying little or nothing in the way of content -- as in the "Aaah!" of agony or ecstasy, or the "Now!" of a demand for compliance -- it is not terribly difficult to see these as primarily vocal gestures, the equivalents of a compassionate stroke or an aggressive shove.

Where does content enter the picture, then? As the non-verbal but vocal semiotics of expressive/manipulative articulations emerges as a dialectic, as the similarly non-verbal semiotics of connective articulations emerges within that dialectic, at what point, in this model, does this fused system of diplomacy and coercion become a system of communication?

At, I would suggest, the point where you have three primates instead of two.

Gossip is a form of communion between two primates, of entertainment and expression of mutual care (hence Dunbar's view of it as linguistic grooming). It is also however a form of exploitation and indirect combat, of bonds created between two individuals through their relationships to a third -- the bond born in the shared antipathy of schadenfreude and scapegoating. While an individual's expressive/manipulative articulation may be a straightforward act of aggression (an exercise of the strategies of compulsion, the principles of power and privilege) directed towards another, it might equally well be a performance, targeting that other, the victim, but in reality directed towards an audience. Bullying is performative, an expression of animosity towards an individidual which is designed to elicit the vicious empathy of the baying, braying mob, to forge a sympathic bond between the bully and their clique -- a sharing of affect, but one that is founded not in compassion but in its exact opposite, cruelty. Remove the victim from the scene, make them the absent subject of expressions of hostility designed to elicit a similar sympathic hatred, and what you have is one of the fundamental facets of gossip -- bitching.

#

What this speculation is suggesting is an origin for representative language in the transition between bullying and bitching, in the namings and name-callings. Nigger. Whore. Kike. Faggot. These specific expressions of hatred, their import and purpose as central to their meaning as any content, may have evolved into existence a long way down the line, but they have their root in that first shove, that first spit, that first sneering sibbilant hiss, or ugly grunt, or harsh cawing cackle of disdain. This is where the vocal signal becomes the linguistic sign, in the subjection of the victim to their role in an act of communion -- of communication -- between the bully and their clique, the agent and their audience, in the transformation of that victim into a subject.

If this seems an exceedingly negative supposition as to the origins of language, a rather pessimistic view of human nature, it's worthwhile remembering that our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, have a social structure in which the most brutal bullying is virtually commonplace. The cruelty of children, meanwhile, has been commented on to the point of cliche; Golding's LORD OF THE FLIES earned its place in the canon partly by stripping away the illusions of civility and presenting us with the flesh and bones of our own primate society, showing us just how deeply it was structured by the strategies of compulsion, the principles of power and privilege. It is not a pretty picture, but for those of us who've been the subject of the hyena-pack mentality of our peers, it seems a pretty damn accurate one.

Nigger. Whore. Kike. Faggot. Piggy.

But this is not the whole picture. The negative-valued subjection of the scapegoat has its counterpart in the positive-valued subjection of the celebrity, the bonding of agent and audience through expressions of admiration and attraction. A close parallel with the specifics of the act of bullying -- where the agent's performance takes place for their audience with the subject present -- may not be immediately obvious outwith the context of the ritual toast or = similarly formal ceremonies of fussing. Parents may fuss over each other's children, friends may fuss over each other's pets, but we don't tend to see gangs of youths led by a mouthy ringleader homing in on random passers-by and lavishing them with praise. In the nearest thing we find, in fact, the wolf-whistle of some young blood as a hot babe walks past him and his mates, any fussing is generally suspect, smacking of thinly-veiled sexual intimidation. Simply to make someone a subject in this way is, in some respects, a hostile act.

The bonding of agent and audience in celebration of an absent subject, seems quite common and largely benevolent, as in the private conversations of two friends about how nice a mutual acquaintance is, how fine they're looking these days, how well they're doing for themselves, etc.. And if fussing over a present subject is less widespread as a mechanism for establishing a sympathic bond between agent and audience, it may simply be that this sort of celebratory performance requires a sincerity that, in turn, requires a disregard of the agent-audience relationship as focus of attention. If it looks like it's for the audience's benefit, the praise for the subject will come across as phony, and the action may well be counter-effective.

Either way, with the subject present or absent, gossip is born from scapegoating and celebration. In the gossip of the water cooler or the tabloid press, these two go hand-in-hand. Build them up and knock them down. Make a star and break them. Brittney Spears, Pete Doherty, Amy Winehouse. Agents and audiences, we latch on to these third parties, leonise and demonise them, render them our subjects, locked into a system of connective articulations which follow on seamlessly from the phatic communion of greetings and salutations, ritual enquiries about each others' health blending into prurient prattle about the lives of others. This is Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, but underneath this recent phenomenon is, I think, an older -- ancient, even -- Society of the Subject. Strip away the mass media and we still have the social structure that binds the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont of LES LIASONS DANGEREUSES in their game of subjection, bonding over the stories they make of others' lives. Strip away the baroque details of civilisation and we have the small town mentality of busybodies and bigots. Sometimes the gossip is harmless; sometimes it destroys lives; always it is propagated because those who do so are bonding with each other. More, they are maintaining the entire connective system of social relationships -- the empathic network (who we have sympathy for, who we do not), the ethical hierarchy (who are the role models, what code of behaviour makes them an image to be celebrated), the moral boundaries (who is a scapegoat, what transgression they are damned for.)

Somewhere between the aggression or affection targeted at a present subject but performed for an audience, and the same aggression or affection articulated to an audience about an absent subject, this vocal system of coordinative articulations (of expressive/manipulative articulations) becomes a verbal system of information dissemination. Or at least this is the supposition, the suggestion. Somewhere along the way our language evolves complexity, from "Fuck!" to "Fuck you, fucker!" to "Fuck that fucking fucker!" to "That fucking fucker fucked me. Let me tell you how..."

Somewhere along the way, the expressions of aggression or affection directed at this subject or that -- "targeted on a context" in Jakobson's terminology -- become narratives of those subjects and their actions, their private affairs, their incidents of moral transgression, the ensuing complications and outcomes, all those intricate events we parse as beings and doings in a complex system of nouns and verbs, a representative language of true content rather than simply import and purpose.

#

If what we are seeing here is grooming become gossip, gossip become narrative, what we see in the plays of Harold Pinter is this process revealed by its inversion, by a wrenching of the gearstick that puts everything into reverse. In Pinter's plays, narrative becomes gossip. Or to be more accurate, representative language becomes connective language.

The reason Pinter's plays "do not make sense" to some, the reason episodes of THE PRISONER "do not make sense" to some, is that they present us with communication as sympathic communion or as antipathic combat, the verbal baiting and badgering of the latter in a relationship to fighting as gossip is to grooming. In his portraits of bullying and fussing, as often as not, the actual content of the articulations these strategies of diplomacy and coercion are manifest in is all but irrelevant. It does not matter what questions are asked of Stanley by McCann and Goldberg during the scene in THE BIRTHDAY PARTY where they hector him mercilessly ("Why did the chicken cross the road?", "Is the number 846 possible or necessary?", "What do you use for pyjamas?"). It only matters that they are asked -- and with force, in rapid-fire sequence, insistent and repetitive, as an interrogation, demanding answers, exerting force, demanding compliance, exerting authority.

"Sit down," says Goldberg to Stanley, at the start of this scene, in a direct imperative, an exhortation, a strategy of compulsion. A claiming of authority.

"Why don't you sit down?" asks Stanley eventually, after a bit of back-and-forth, in what could either be an enquiry or an elicitation, a redirection of focus away from himself or a tentative attempt to counteract the power-differential by having Goldberg be the one who, in the end, responds to a manipulative articulation, who submits. Or it could be both.

Strip away the irrelevant content and we have McCann and Goldberg baiting Stanley, badgering him, bullying him. They might as well be barking dogs cowing a weaker member of the pack. The struggle here -- and elsewhere in Pinter's plays, or in THE PRISONER -- is in the undercurrents of dominance and submission of antipathic combat, in a gibberish that is unmistakeable as menacing, hectoring, shouting, frothing, spitting, pausing... anger and disgust. Beneath the verbal content is the vocal but non-verbal import and purpose of a connective language that is not just the grease in the machinery of society but might just as easily be the spanner in the works.

If Petey, in the breakfast scene, can be described as denying accord, rejecting sympathic communion, this is actually only half of it. In his refusal to engage with Meg his non-committal articulations are not so much neutral in their disregard as they are charged with hostility. When Meg asks what's in the paper and he replies, "Nothing much," when she pressures him ever so slightly with a reminder of past accord (a tentative reference to the sympathic, ethical and moral obligation), "You read me out some nice bits yesterday," and he replies "Yes, well, I haven't finished this one yet," he is revealing irritation and eliciting silence. In that curt, sarcastic "Yes, well," in fact, he is bringing the privilege principles into play, taking the role of an authority empowered to critique, to point out what she is costing him as a distraction, to judge her for the imposition she is making on him with her prattle. Where Meg is seeking accord through sympathic communion, using diplomacy as her strategy, Petey has turned to antipathic combat, to the strategy of compulsion, but he too, make no mistake, is trying to generate an accord of sorts -- of obedience. He is telling her to shut the fuck up, bitch.

Sometimes in conversation, that verbal dance of expressive/manipulative articulations, of sympathic communion and antipathic combat, of connective language in its intricate dynamics, is more of a tango than a waltz.

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