5.09.2005

Gee. That's cool.

"... in our everyday lives and in much traditional psychology, what we think of as 'mental' is in fact, 'social'. Meaning and memory, believing and knowing, are social practices that vary as they are embedded with different Discourses within a society. Each Discourse apprentices its members and 'disciplines' them so that their mental networks of associations and their folk theories converge towards a 'norm' reflected in the social practices of the Discourse. These 'ideal' norms, which are rarely statable, but only discoverable by close ethnographic study, are what constitute meaning, memory, believing, knowing, and so forth, from the perspective of each Discourse."


Mr. Gee said that in the midst of proving that all our stories are divided into (somewhat) poetic lines and stanzas without our knowledge. Let me just say, Bad. Ass. He's quoted in Dell Hyme's "Ethnograpy, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice."

But, I'm also going to take issue with a few things in that quote. First of all, 'ethnography' sounds a bit fishy to me. It raises a lot of questions - why is this discussion, which could be applied to so many things, centered around race? But you (one, Gee) have to approach these kinds of studies from some field or other, so I don't think the word 'ethnography' is too major a fault. It just seems to me that the history of studies that are ALMOST really successful is riddled with examples of professors and researchers who get too attached to the methodology of their field and the aims of their own studies to break away from divisions (like race, gender) that their departments take as given.

Anyway, keeping that in mind... I think Mr. Gee is real close to hitting the nail on the head. The idea that the history of a concept can be discovered based on the "networks of associations" to it is straight from Foucault, I think, but the interesting twist is that, instead of history or cultural criticism, Gee, Hymes, and people like them are coming straight from linguistics.

Another issue i'd like to raise is whether or not Discourse has perspective. I've always found the whole concept hard to pin down: Is it a group of people? Is it a set of utterances? Is it language, disembodied, floating around us? Big questions. I'll do some more reading and come back to this, but I tend to think of Discourse as the possibility of speaking , so that the 'ideal norms' in the quote above are actually proper statements and i use that broad phrasing intentionally. Grammatical mistakes and mispronunciations are not approved (on the grounds of not being understood), but so are offensive statments, incorrect statments, and so on, in certain settings, for certain people, and to certain degrees. these statements, though, can't be considered outside the Discourse. They're just discouraged within it, according to various methods of discipline, as Gee mentions. There's a lot more to this idea, but it's a thesis worth, so... onward.

The other interesting thing about these kinds of studies is the poetic element. The idea that these kinds of patterns in Discourse that organize the way we speak are transmitted in lines and rythms and sets of stanzas is pretty important. I don't know if Gee proves that this is the case, but blurring the lines between poetry, prose, and normal speech is a great thing - it demonstrates the power of Discourse and language to operate under any conditions to transmit its forms and meanings and associations between people.

A final note: Hyme writes, "It is sentence-like contours that have proven to be the central building blocks of narrative form." So, how did this 'ideal form' of the sentence become such a priviledged thing? If we speak in contours, or poetic lines, how did the formal period-ended-capital-letter-begun sentence become 'proper', 'correct', 'a complete idea', as everyone learned in every writing class ever? Is there a way to trace the movement of that concept (the Sentence) with all its associated network of ideas, through specific historical moments to demonstrate how its very priviledge has shaped all subsequent Discourse?

2 comments:

Nicholas Sanders said...

Do your peculiar understanding of "ethnography" and the "d" mysteriously added to what is otherwise privilege merit the description invented usage?

Nick

Cristi said...

yes. (shh, don't tell anyone, but every usage is invented.)

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