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

Filed under:Sin your Way to Heaven and get Slaughtered — posted by Schizostroller on October 21, 2018 @ 10:11 am

Sentence structure varies in length from the very brief of commands such as “Go!” to the very long. Most sentences on average contain around 20 words. From this it has been estimated that there are a possible 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible sentences in the English language. There are some sequences of words that aren’t sentences. These words are considers unacceptable, one can argue that this is because there are prescriptive and descriptive rules about how sentence structure works. These rules are known as syntax, grammatical rules that determine the sequence of words that constitute a sentence. Some would say that grammatical acceptability is related to meaning. However nonsense writing such as that of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky would disprove this. The acceptability of sentence structure lies more in phrase structure. Behind this phrase structure lie the sentence’s underlying structure (or ‘deep structure’), which provides the starting point for semantic meaning, e.g., who does what to whom. However one can move around the element’s structure, perhaps for stylistic reasons, or to draw attention to one element rather than another, this is the surface structure (or s-structure). This is the structure of the sentence expressed in speech. A sentence’s underlying structure cannot be observed directly, instead it is inferred from various patterns in the surface structure. When an element of a sentence vacates a position to move somewhere else, it doesn’t depart cleanly. Instead it leaves a trace behind. The trace isn’t expressed out loud, but is evident in the speech pattern. These traces thus allow us to document that elements have been moved around and from where they have been moved. This then establishes that different types of sentence, such as questions, are not formed by running through the appropriate phrase structure rules, but by moving elements around in a tree structure in accord with the movement rules.
This relates to sentence formation, but how do we comprehend the sentences we read or hear? How do we parse sentences? We know that subjects use phrase structure to interpret the sentence in the first place. But how do we figure out the phrase structure? It seems listeners and readers use phrase endings to do so. But how do they identify such phrase endings in more complicated sentences? Parsing a sentence turns out to be a complex process due to the variety of sentence forms and also due to ambiguity. Temporary ambiguity can occur within a sentence, where the first part of sentence is ambiguous but the second part clears things up. It seems we use a variety of different strategies to parse sentences. For example as a matter of convenience, we assume sentences for the most part are active, rather than passive (at least in English) and listen out for them, although this can cause issues parsing when passive sentences are encountered. Other factors involved in parsing are function words and the various morphemes that signal syntactic role. There is also minimal attachment, this means that throughout a sentence the listener or reader looks out for the simplest phrase structure that will accommodate all the words heard or read so far. Parsing is also guided by semantic factors, not just syntax. With regards words for which there are multiple referents for the same word, then people tend to assume its most frequent meaning.
So we now have a combination of syntax and parsing, and we bring these to bear in parsing language, but how do these factors combine? The interactionist view is that all one’s knowledge comes to bear on a sentence simultaneously. Then there is the modular account, where one uses different sources of information at different points whilst parsing the sentence. One might first try to analyse the syntax without consideration of semantic elements, only bringing these elements to bear once the syntax has been understood. Although the interactionist model seems a best fit when it is observed that moment-by-moment, word-by-word parsing is influenced by semantics when trying to untangle syntax. But the picture is different when we look at word identification. When an ambiguous word is used, there is a delay, so initially in parsing word identification is quite open, but as the latter parts of a sentence come into play, the reader or listener make their selection and the ambiguity is shut down to one possible interpretation.
Although we have looked at the complexity of interpreting language, this description still understates things, firstly there are pronouns. Pronouns without specific referents can be very ambiguous. The sketch with the Knights Who Say Ni in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail who are ultimately defeated by an overuse of the word ‘it’ is a case in point. Then, especially with regards spoken word there is prosody, the rise and fall of intonation and the pattern of pauses, the rhythm and pitch cues of speech, which plays an important part in speech perception. It can reveal the mood of the speaker, it can, through effect, direct the listener’s attention to a specific focus or theme in the sentence. It can also render unambiguous a sentence that would otherwise be confusing.
And after examining this we have not dealt with how language is produced. How does one turn ideas, intentions and queries into actual sentences? How does language come from thought? This was partially covered by Vygotsky. Likewise after parsing a sentence how does one particular sentence integrate with earlier or subsequent sentences? With regards this we have looked at Wittgenstein, although there is also the issue knowledge of pragmatics, that is how language is ordinarily used. However this proceeds into on the one hand literature, the other politics, communicative ethics and rhetoric. We however want, for the moment to venture backwards to the unconscious and back to our discussion of Deleuze and machines. First though it is useful to refresh are discussion of Vygotsky and inner thought. For the psychotic and voice hearers, at least those distressed, there are clearly issues of ambiguity in the voices heard. Is this as Vygotsky argues the issue of predicates? We have seen that in a sentence of at least two parts it is the first part of a sentence that is ambiguous, but if inner thought is based on predicates, do we only hear one part. Take the statement ‘she passed’. Is that someone dying? Missing a turning in a journey? Passing an exam? Passing a ball in a game of football? But it is ‘heard’ so we have the phoneme issue in spoken word, so there is (like in the game Charades) a ‘sounds like’ element, so is the statement ‘she parsed’ instead? Perhaps we have a further clue when the statement is revealed as a longer one: ‘She passed the sentence’. Perhaps it was a mishearing after all and it is ‘she parsed the sentence’, someone (‘she’ bearing in mind ‘who’ is still ambiguous) has understood a sentence. But maybe not perhaps the referent is a judge and the judge has passed sentence on a criminal? As has already been implied this is before the issue of ‘referents’ with regards pronouns is taken into account. At we have yet to question the possibility of metaphor as argued by Freudian psychoanalytic theory. However, from this issue with sentence parsing in voice hearing, I would like to remind, for the third time, of Vygotsky’s statement that “while in external speech thought is embodied in words, in inner speech words die as they bring forth thought” and that “a thought may be compared to a cloud shedding a shower of words” and in the next article we will return to Deleuze and Gauttari and the machinic unconscious, that the chains thought in the unconscious 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.”

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image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace