‘Sin your way to heaven and get slaughtered: A byzantine general problem of the self’ (part fifteen)

Filed under:Sin your Way to Heaven and get Slaughtered — posted by Schizostroller on October 19, 2018 @ 9:02 pm

Deleuze and Guattari suggest that the understanding of the machinic unconscious can be traced back to Lacan. However they argue this unconscious is a multiplicity “but how very strange thisw domain seems, simply because it’s a multiplicity – a multiplicity so complex that we can scarcely speak of one chain or even one code of desire. The chains are called ‘signifying chains’ (chaines signifiantes) because they are made up of signs, but these signs themselves are not signifying. The code resembles not so much language as jargon, an open-ended, polyvocal formation.” (p.38). In this sense we can see we are looking at that part of thought beyond inner speech identified by Vygotsky where thought breaks up “But while in external speech thought is embodied in words, in inner speech words die as they bring forth thought” or “A thought may be compared to a cloud shedding a shower of words.”
I think it is appropriate for the moment to look at language from a cognitive perspective, and then look at some of the cognitive underpinnings of language use, specifically ‘connectionism’. Generally, in cognitive theory, sentences are considered to be comprised of ‘morphemes’, these are the smallest language units that carry meaning, these can be roughly split up into content morphemes and function morphemes. In the sentence “The umpires talked to the players”, the content morphemes would be ‘the’, ‘umpire’, ‘talk’, ‘to’ , ‘the’ and ‘play’, whilst the function morphemes would be ‘s’, ‘ed’, ‘er’ and ‘s’. In spoken language morphemes are conveyed by sounds called ‘phonemes’. Speech production is categorised via places of articulation and manner of production, that are affected by airflow and the movement, shape and physical characteristics of the mouth and vocal chords (think Watson’s theory of inner speech as sub-vocalisation). With voice hearing specifically though, we might think perhaps, especially with regards acousmatic voice hearing especially (i.e. voices heard through the ‘sound’ of distant, muffled speech) that speech perception and language parsing is important. One might think less so with regards ‘inner voice hearing’ although with regards Freud’s phrase ‘he is suffering from memories’ and that we have memories of things said and described we might at least entertain that such perception is still relevant, whilst also trying to hold at the same time Vygotsky’s arguments of inner speech, and Deleuze and Guattari’s polyvocal formations. “Features of speech production also correspond to what listeners hear when they are listening to speech. Thus phonemes that differ only in one production feature sound similar to each other; phonemes that differ in multiple features sound more distinct. This is reflected in the pattern of errors subjects make, when they try to understand speech in a noisy environment. Subjects misperceptions are usually off by just one feature, so that [p] is confused with [b] (a difference only in voicing), [p] with [t] (a difference only in place of articulation), and so on… This makes it seem like the perception of speech may be a straightforward matter: A small number of features is sufficient to characterise any particular speech sound. All the perceiver needs to do, therefore is detect these features and, with this done, the speech sounds are identified… As it turns out, though, speech perception is far more complicated than this.” (p.351). One of the problems is that “within [a] stream of speech there are no markers to indicate where one phoneme ends and the next begins. Likewise, there are often no gaps, or signals of any sort, to indicate the boundaries between successive syllables or successive words. Thus, as a first step prior to phoneme identification, you need to “slice” this stream into the appropriate segments – a step known as speech segmentation.” Reisberg points out that common sense suggests to us that we are usually convinced that there are pauses between words that mark word boundaries for us, but, he argues, this is an illusion and that we often ‘hear’ pauses that aren’t there. An example is when we measure the speech stream captured by a recording device on sequencing software, or when we listen to a foreign language we don’t know so are unable to put the word boundaries in ourselves, so as a consequence we hear a continuous, uninterrupted flow of sound. Another problem is coarticulation which refers to the fact that in speech we do not utter one phoneme at a time, they overlap. So as you are uttering the ‘s’ in soup your mouth is already saying the next vowel and so on to the next phoneme. “These complications – the need for segmentation in a continuous speech stream; the variations caused by coarticulation; and the variations form speaker to speaker or form occasion to occasion – render speech perception surprisingly complex.” (p.353). So how do we manage it? Well, we are generally able to supplement what we hear with expectations (conventions) and knowledge, our Lebensweld, and this guides our interpretation. This can also lead to ‘restoration effects’ where subjects hear ‘speech’ sounds that are not presented. However, generally, inferences are used to fill in gaps, as are redundancies (such as the predictability of certain conventions with regards phonemes in the English language).
However these are not the only means we have for deciphering speech, there is also categorical perception, this is the trendency to hear speech sounds ‘merely’ as members of a category e.g. the category of [z] sounds or the category of [p] sounds. But Reisberg continues “more precisely, we are quite adept ay hearing differences between categories, but we are relatively insensitive to variations within the category” (p.354), so we are better at distinguishing [p] from [b] but not so much amongst differing [p]s, Reisberg argues that “of course ,this insensitivity is precisely what we want, since it allows us to separate the wheat from the chaff: We easily detect what category a sound belongs in, but we are virtually oblivious to the inconsequential (and potentially distracting) background variations.” (p.354). But what about more complicated sounds? English speakers use 40 phonemes, but these can be combined and recombined to create tens of thousands of different morphemes, which can then themselves be combined to form even more words. These combinations though are not random. There are patterns to these combinations, some common, some rarer. The average person knows from around 45,000 to over 100,000 different words. For each of these words the speaker must know the meaning that corresponds to the words’ sound, that is our knowledge of words must be able to tie together the phonological representation with the semantic representation. With regards the idea of concepts that Vygotsky refers to, where at age 12 the average person moves from complex thinking to conceptual thinking, there is a connection between semantic knowledge and conceptual knowledge. Some concepts are harder than others to express in words, other concepts take many words to express. Even so there are many words that express single concepts and generally speaking on can only understand a word’s meaning if one understands the relevant concepts attached to it. Some argue that to understand a word one needs to know its definition, others that one must understand the prototype for the concept named by the word. Generally though words are used to name objects or events in the world around us. What a word refers to is called the referent. Saussure says that with the word H-O-R-S-E, where the concept of horse is what is signified, the referent is what ‘kicks you’. Thus the referent always means the actual thing in the real world, to which a word or a concept points. With regards the reference to Deleuze above the signifier is the pointing finger, the word, the sound-image whilst the signified is the concept, the meaning, the thing indicated by the signifier. The thing signified is created in the perceiver and is internal to them. Whilst we share concepts, we do so via signifiers. the signifier creates the signified in terms of the meaning it triggers for us. The meaning of a sign needs both the signifier and the signified as created by an interpreter. A signifier without a signified is noise. A signified without a signifier is impossible. Take for example The Prime Minister of the UK. The reference to any particular living person changes, but the meaning itself, the position within government and its relation to the governance of a nation state has more stability. With regards the meaning of the signified being created in the perceiver, the meaning of the term Prime Minister of the UK will be different for a Labour supporter than for a Conservative voter; for an anarchist than for staunch supporter of representative democracy. However the concept referred to by the signifier, that a particular person is the head of the government at a particular time remains more stable and allows the Conservative and the Labour supporter to know that they are referring ot the same position, as much as possible.
In addition to referent we may find that two or more phrases refer to the same objects in the world but mean different things. This case of ‘same reference, different meaning’ means there must be more to meaning than reference. This is called the ‘sense’ of a word. For example ‘creature with a heart’ and ‘creature with kidneys’ can refer to the same type of living organism.
The next article we will look at the psychological reality of linguistic rules before returning to the underpinning thoughts, and then we will take another look at what Deleuze and Guattari are trying to say.

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image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace