What’s New about Transpositional Grammar

What’s New about Transpositional Grammar

0.0 MARY: Now some difficult ideas and a brief explanation of what is different about we are doing to orientate you to our purposes. We don’t write about this until right near the end of the second of our two volumes, “Adding Sense.” So, by putting this video early on in the series, we are for a for a moment jumping to our conclusions.

We have four proposals.

0.45 BILL: Proposal 1. We want to offer a generalized grammar that works across all forms of meaning. This is framed around five functions of meaning that we call reference, agency, structure, context and interest. By function, we mean the orientation or purpose of a meaning. Whether the form of meaning is text, image, space, object, body, sound or speech or a multimodal combination of these, any and every meaning can always be parsed for all five functions.

Any meaning, every meaning, always refers to things in the world – these things can be entities or actions, they can be a single instance or multiples captures in concepts, they can have properties such as their qualities or their quantities.

Meaning always involves agents, who take the roles of self, other or thing, in events, involving different modulations of conditionality, such as assertion, or requirement, or just possibility.

Every meaning has a structure which gives it coherence, this structure is a matter of design, and the result has both material and ideal aspects.

Meanings are always made in context, shaped by positions in time and place, whether materialized by likeness, directedness or abstraction, and using material media for their making.

Finally, meanings express interest, whether in an explicitly rhetorical way or meanings that are not so explicit. These are just a few aspects of the pattern language we develop in this transpositional grammar.

2.29 MARY: Our second proposal. The humanities and social sciences were dominated in the twentieth century by something that is frequently called “the language turn.”

Among its most famous protagonists were Ferdinand de Saussure, founder of structural linguistics and Ludwig Wittgenstein, a towering figure in a movement that came to be called “Analytical Philosophy”.

To understand language is to understand how we mean, Saussure and Wittgenstein would say. Language, according to this view, is the key to meaning, the pivotal point for understanding how we as humans think. It is also in this view what makes us different from animals.

What we mean by an “ontological turn” is this – there are meanings in objects, in our bodily feelings and actions, in spaces, and these can be represented in image, text, sound and speech.

And even text, image, sound and speech, these are not simply symbolic, they are more than just signs, they are material practices, things that we do with our bodies, in space, and with the help of objects. Our meanings are always crossing backwards and forwards across these different forms. We use the one supplement another when the meaning needs to be given further depth.

This we call ontology, the things we as a species to do mean and the material objects and practices we use to give meaning. There is nothing special in language because the meanings even of language are in the traffic in and between language and the world. We don’t even want to use the word language, because in our parsing of the forms of meaning, text and speech end up being so very different.

There are two aspects to this ontological turn a philosophical aspect and a technical. The philosophical one takes us back to the Greek roots of the word. Ontology is the analysis of being in the world.

There’s also a technical meaning these days, one that arises in the era of digital representation and communication of meaning. Digital media, mechanically speaking, run on meaning schemas that computer scientists call ontologies. This grammar is itself an ontology in this sense, a metaschema for tying together digital ontologies.

4.53 BILL: Proposal 3: Meanings are not a statistic system of namable things, nouns versus verbs in text, or points versus vectors in image. They are systems of movement, where nouns and verbs can be made into each other, points can be on vectors.

Ferdinand de Saussure was the founder of structuralism in linguistics, an idea later transferred to anthropology, sociology and other areas of the humanities and social sciences. The idea is that meaning is in the system. Words sit together in the system of contrasts that is language, and the system repeats itself each time we speak.

Most famous among his successors is Noam Chomsky, who argued that the system in our language is the system in our brains.

After that, there was a reaction, famously argued by Jacques Derrida. This reaction was called, unimaginatively perhaps, for want of a more positive, descriptive term, poststructuralism. All there is, Derrida and his followers said, is repetitions, but the repetitions are never the same. It is as if we are lost in a swamp of irreducible differences, and the best we can do is trace the circumstantial trace of one meaning back to another.

Now, with a transpositional grammar, we’re saying something different again. The meaning of a function is in its readiness to change, the imminent possibility of it becoming something different. So, if structuralism is about stable categories in systemic relation, and poststructuralism, is about irreducible change and endless differences, transpositional grammar is about the patterns in the movement.

We are not interested to formalize structures of meaning into categorical objects that have been frozen for the moment of analysis. Rather, we are interested in the patterns of their becoming, what they have been and what they are begging yet to become.

Transposition is a likelihood, an impatience, a risk, a danger, a possibility, an opportunity, an impossibility, a shock, a hell, a utopia … and a whole lot of other possibilities.

7.06 MARY: Now, to our fourth proposal. One of the great tensions in modern Western philosophy between antinomies that are loosely called materialism and idealism. (In the two volumes that go with these videos, we also give Indian, Arabic, Indigenous examples.)

Here are the archetypical protagonists …

On the one hand, we have John Locke who was interested in how our subjecthood is constituted from an objective world. He focused on the naturalness of our knowledge derived from our senses. Human beings, Locke famously said, are a tabula rasa, a blank slate. We are what we have learned from material experience. For Locke, the material takes priority over the ideal.

Now here is Rene Descartes. He was more interested in the relationship of subjecthood and the world. Human knowledge is in its basic structures innate. The mind is the source of all meaning. Cogito ergo sum, Descartes said, “I think therefore I am” – the world is the ideas in my head.

If, for Locke, the material takes priority over the ideal, then for Descartes, the ideal takes priority over the material. Of course, both Descartes and Locke are smart enough for their ideas to be more carefully qualified than this.

Now, I suppose you are going to say that these are just dead white men… and of course, you are right, these are the kinds of people who have dominated the conversation in western thought. And if western thought is flawed, it is in part because these kinds of people are flawed.

But in these videos and the two volumes of our transpositional grammar, we also find versions of the conversation going among First Peoples, in India, and the Arabic speaking world … to give just a few examples of the places we want to take you on this journey into the meanings of meaning.

We also want to bring back into people’s consciousness some great and unjustly neglected thinkers, like the great theorist of semiotics Victoria Welby and the philosopher, Edith Stein.

Across the dichotomy of material and ideal, of subject and object, we want to propose that everything has a material aspect and an ideal. There is no meaning-in the material without there also being meaning-of the ideal, though at times the material can exceed the ideal (the undiscovered) and the ideal can exceed the material (the imaginable).

  • Reference: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope, 2020, Adding Sense: Context and Interest in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning, Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, pp. 325-27.