Monday, July 30, 2018

Linguistics and Textual Criticism

I think we have not seen enough discussion about the uses or importance of linguistics to textual critics of the modern era.  It seems to be generally accepted as essential in Classical and Medieval editing.  There the critical pursuit of scribal error usually lacks the types of corroborating evidence often found in abundance in the letters, autograph manuscripts, and marked proofs relatively common for modern works.  Hence, reliance on one’s thorough acquaintance with linguistic details is essential for the detection of error, or, more important, the detection of legitimate but rare usages.
     Even editors of modern literature, whose primary goal is to represent the texts of extant documents precisely, must feel the need of linguistic sophistication in determining obscure or unusual manuscript readings where ambiguity might either be discovered to exist or possibly be resolved by appeal to linguistic knowledge or principles.
My own interest in linguistics was strictly amateurish and limited, nor would I ever claim to be a linguist or even very knowledgeable about it beyond a graduate course taken before I realized its importance and a magnificent syntax course, experienced after I realized it was important to my work as a textual editor.
     It was my privilege to have had a friend whose interest in linguistics far exceeded mine but who nevertheless let me into his thinking over a forty year period, during which he gnawed and chewed on ordinary language and how meaning was created and expressed and taken up by speakers and writers and listeners and readers.  His thinking influenced my ideas about “script act theory” elaborated in Resisting Texts and From Gutenberg to Google.
     Price Caldwell’s writings on linguistics have been gathered and edited posthumously by Oliver Cresswell and Robert J. Stainton as Discourse Structure and Linguistic Choice: The Theory and Applications of Molecular Sememics (Springer, 2018).   I was privileged to write the forward, which I append here in its pre-publication form.   Blatant self-promotion revealed, can I just suggest that you ask your library to order the book.  (

Peter Shillingsburg
Price Caldwell and I were best friends for forty years, beginning when he moved in across the street and needed help sanding the floors of his house. At the time I fancied myself a good arguer. I had won a high school medal in debating. Price just looked tired when I got in that mode. He was not interested in conducting or winning a competitive argument. Winning a debate, he said, leaves one exactly where one started. Losing, on the other hand, means one has at least had to give up some untenable proposition. He taught me to use argument to discover what I did not know. He was never satisfied with what he thought he knew. He was seldom satisfied with what he had written – hence, I think, this unfinished book. If I were to be his friend, I would need to stop debating and start examining arguments for weaknesses to be fixed and for strengths that were hidden. In conversations with him, if both of us moved off of our opening positions, we both won. I miss him.
            In two ways I represent potential readers of Price’s book. One is as a layman fascinated with linguistics and theory and philosophy, driven by a hope that pursuit of these subjects will lead, if not to truth, at least to an escape from (some) self-deception of the sort that makes one so certain. Certainty is often, if not always, supported in part by one’s ignorance (sometimes willful ignorance) of that which would undermine it. Being undermined in one's certainty is a release from the burden of ignorance, of partial understanding. Price always wanted to know how an argument could hide that which undermined it. Time and again, in this book, he suspects the standard view to be based on some assumption hidden by the rhetoric of the arguments supporting it. His work is an exploration. He is not flogging a fixed position. He was always ready to concede in light of better argument.
            The second way I represent potential readers is my desire in particular to know how meaning works, how language makes meaning, and how people make language, driven in my case by a somewhat esoteric need to understand how revision works in the process of writing. I remember the first time Price tried to explain molecular sememics to me in the cafeteria of the college where we both taught. I was skeptical. Another acquaintance had been bending my ear about a modified version of phlogiston. I was not buying. About an hour and a half into the conversation with Price the penny dropped. I understood the basic notion: that the functional meaning of a word in a sentence as it was used by a person in a situation where speaker and listener both understood nearly everything that went without saying might, just might, be the same meaning to speaker and listener (intender and interpreter), even though the words were not defined so in any dictionary. Yet, the flexibility and instability and dexterity of language was such that there was no guarantee a word would mean the same to both speaker and listener, to both writer and reader. I revisited my college linguistic books, re-read J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, ate up the writings of John Searle, Quentin Skinner, Steven Pinker, and Paul Hernadi, sat in on a syntax course taught by my colleague John (Haj) Ross, and mulled Price’s ideas, and fancied myself quite the ‘pragmaticist’.
            The truth is I don’t think Price ever believed that I had understood him fully. I did not believe so either. I fancy he wrote this book to help me get there. Over the years he sent me drafts of some of the chapters. Any layman can understand them. He hated big words as much as I did. Big words too often hide things rather than expose or encapsulate ideas. His interests were in how ordinary language works in speech and writing, in propositions, jokes, lies, innuendos, hints, deceptions, inarticulations (how does one know the difference between a doohickey and a thingamabob? how can one say one thing and mean another?) – everything; mine was in how language works in writing, in understanding the writings of inaccessible (dead) authors. Price gave me new tools for studying drafts, manuscripts, revisions, proof alterations, and revised editions.
            I found the concept of molecular sememics invigorating and useful in elaborating a variation on speech act theory, which I called script act theory. There are a variety of important differences between speech and writing, not the least of which is that, in speech, speaker and listener usually occupy the same place and time, while in writing, it is usual for writer and reader to be leagues and ages apart. The contexts of speech that form one important aspect of the molecular sememe, are shaped and modified in crucial ways by what goes without saying – understood to influence meaning, though not explicit or even acknowledged. In writing, with gaps of space and time separating writer from reader, what went without saying ceases to do so. The controlling sememic molecule is eviscerated. In addition, molecular sememics explains how, as composition proceeds, triangulating processes narrow the range of acceptable and expected words at each next point in a sentence, such that each chosen next word means what it means in contrast to the few remaining other possible words that could have been chosen. (Umpires in baseball do not call a runner “in” as opposed to “out”.) When a writer chooses, crosses out, chooses again, crosses out and finally decides, each potentially expected word from that triangulated set of possible choices affects the meaning of the chosen word and simultaneously limits the range of options for the next word. We recognize typos and malapropisms, in part, because they fall outside that set of acceptable / expected words triangulated for us by what went before, and the contexts of the speech act. In script acts the writer has more time and space for experiment, and, yet, the final choice is not necessarily the perfect choice. The crossed out words belong to a limited set and help a reader know how the writer was thinking. Knowledge of each abandoned choice helps us understand the last one more precisely. These ‘Caldwellean’ concepts stand at the core of my books on textual criticism, Resisting Texts: Authority and Submission in Constructions of Meaning and From Gutenberg to Google: Electronic Representations of Literary Texts.Price’s ideas helped me understand the significance of revisions for literary criticism and for scholarly editing. Others will find his ideas intriguing and useful in other ways  
            Twenty-five or more years ago, for example, my enthusiasm for molecular sememics led me to explain the ideas to an artist friend, who at the time was also reading Foucault and Levi Strauss. She painted a triptych in which the first panel was a fairly faithful representation of an academic gown, the second panel was a portrait of a man, and the third a somewhat chaotic combination of the colors used in the first two panels in which a pattern emerged when viewed beside the first two panels. She said, “I got the idea from your friend’s idea about the capsule, you know, the module”. Maybe she got the words wrong but she got the concept clearly enough. Recognition of sameness and difference is crucial to meaning making.
            I do not mean to imply that this book is for laymen only, and yet, it might strike some linguists reading the early chapters that the way Price has nested his ideas in the history of linguistic thought, the ways he has explained his views by contrasting them with alternatives common in the field of linguistics, have left something to be desired. That is, it could be argued that the ‘potted histories’ of linguistics in the early chapters are insufficient to give gravitas to his views. He read more than shows up in the footnotes. He took an NEH sponsored course with George Lakoff. This sense of haste in ‘covering’ existing thought in linguistics is remedied in the second section of ‘the book’ (Chapter 5). I knew Price and the way he thinks. He had a vision of how language works that made more sense to him than did the existing views. His idea of conversation or discourse was that one did one’s best to be clear, and then one listened for the responses. Persuading others that he was right about linguistics was not his main aim. Offering as coherent an argument as he could, he hoped for feedback, even blowback, that took him seriously, genuinely considered his views. At every point, he was willing to concede his position in the face of new information or better argument. Too often, I saw him at times when he felt his ideas were dismissed a priori because he questioned rather than built on received wisdom or because he was deemed an amateur.
            The structure of this posthumous book reflects the processes by which Price thought his way into molecular sememics. Understanding that process will help explain the somewhat unorthodox structure of the book. The first four chapters, being collected for the most part from previous stand-alone articles, consist of four introductions to the subject, each developing some new aspect of it, but each covering some ground covered elsewhere. This is a good thing, because Caldwell’s overall intent is to introduce a new paradigm for understanding how ordinary language works, and that requires stripping away much that many of us have adopted as unquestioned truths about how language works. Chapter 5 consists of five sections of what Caldwell intended to be ‘the book.’ It is in some ways more formal, more methodical than the first four chapters, and because it represents his attempt to organize and present the idea of molecular sememics as a whole, it takes up in a formal organized way the ideas he has been introducing us to in the first chapters. No doubt, had he lived to complete ‘the book’ it would have stood more securely on its own without the essays he produced as he was working out the details of molecular sememics. Although some ideas are repeated more often than required in a single publication, I find the result of these multiple approaches and re-explanations very useful in making the ideas understandable.
            Though for years Price and I talked endlessly about MS and molecule-selection-and-execution structures, I did not know the full range of his thinking in the deep and interesting ways that show up in Section 4 of Chapter 5, “Qualities of the Sememe”— his clearest expression of the difference between MS as an arena in which meaning gets expressed in a dynamic exercise of rhetorical skill (even by the nearly inarticulate), on one hand, and the structuralist, formalist view of language as a pre-existing set of categorical choices offered by the Langue, on the other. Molecular sememics explains ordinary exchanges of intention and interpretation (speaker/listener) as skill in innovation of expression rather than as dexterity in the application of rules. And though he wrote it first many years ago, I did not know how well he applied his sense of how language works to the unpacking of nuance in Wallace Stevens’ poems, in Section II. Anyone unaware of MS before reading Caldwell on Stevens might be none the wiser about MS but surely would be wiser about Steven’s exploration of the relation between language and one’s sense of the ‘real’ world. But, having read this book, one can see MS lurking in the background of Caldwell’s analyses of Stevens, Hemingway, and Ford. The difference between applying with dexterity the categorical options of structured language by contrast to the momentary dynamics of constructing meaning is echoed in Caldwell’s comment on Richard Ford’s writing, that “Every writer should distrust the received meanings of words and concepts. He or she should take on the obligation to make meaning...”
            In the last fifty years or so, Samuel Beckett’s question about authorship and voice in literature: What does it matter who is speaking?, has been reiterated by Foucault, Derrida, and numerous literary critics. One of the reasons for this attitude toward voice is that interpretive despair and the absurdity of modern life have made the question uninteresting. Another is that when the text is read, it is the reader who is speaking, making up the tone and feeling about what is written. Caldwell focuses on how readers make up the tone and feeling of what they read. He begins with explorations of how writers and speakers create meaning using not just words but tone and feeling and context and expectations – providing meaning-determiners that sensitive listeners and readers can use to ferret out intended meaning, or at least to avoid the literalness of tone deaf readings. Reading this book brought home to me more clearly than ever that molecular sememics, as a theory about practical meaning making, is an enormously useful tool for well-informed reading. In short, Price gives us grounds for thinking that ‘who is speaking’ does indeed matter.
            While he is no longer with us to receive feedback, Price Caldwell would have been delighted to know that his ideas entered or provoked a conversation, a reconsideration of mainstream thinking on whether competence precedes or follows performance, whether language precedes or derives from speech, whether the rules of a language system predict or circumscribe language acts or if local speech, through repetitions and incremental conventionalization first creates and then modifies the rules, whether the rules of syntax determine word order or if the salience order of discourse creates syntactic paths that become conventionalized into rules. His primary insight, from my point of view, was the dynamics of meaning creation or construction, for dynamic meaning making, whether primitive or sophisticated, provides a plausible explanation for the innovative nuances that speakers and writers accomplish on the fly; as well as for the evolution of language competencies; and for how rules develop and how they can be broken to good effect. Beyond that, when he says, “meaning belongs to the molecule, and not to the word”, he opens a path for literary critics to seek historical meanings in writings as well as exploring the limits of misprision. Using what we know about the contexts of origination, the audience, the cultural expectations of the time and noting the actually trialed but rejected words in drafts, manuscripts, and revision, a critic can often come close to recognizing the molecular sememe that determined meaning for the writer. That one cannot always do that and that one cannot do so with certainty was not, for Caldwell, a reason to abandon hope of approximating intended meanings. His conclusion (that “there is as much good reason in examining the readers’ assumptions – as reader-response criticism insists – as there is in searching for historical evidence of the writer’s intentions”), is not startling. What is new is his methods for understanding how we go about that business.
            The important issue is not whether one or the other of the possible explanations for how language works is right, but how they can help us understand meaning and meaning making. As Caldwell demonstrates and as is well known, many grammatically and syntactically ‘correct’ sentences make no sense – are meaningless. Discourse salience in molecular sememics is like an owners’ manual for deploying the tools of language effectively, not just acceptably. That there are other explanations, Price obviously knew. That his ideas gave him at least a temporary sense of satisfaction and clarity of sight is also apparent. His ideas arose from the sense of dissatisfaction with the standard explanations. He was less concerned with whether he was right than he was with whether his thinking about language, running as it does against the grain in so many ways, could stimulate further thought and analysis. He would be happy to know that he had nudged the conversation forward, even if just a bit.