The “Natural lingustics” of social interaction

This is a first trial to connect “Natural Linguistics” to Auden’s general ideas about society. I can’t help but using Erving Goffman for that – a good read by the way.

Maybe a little distinction between sociological concepts of language can serve as a foil to Auden’s view on the same notions. I will try to show Auden as a kind of sociologists experimenting with all kind of intuitive thoughts and then coming up with a more constructivist view on language and identity. As Aline perfectly said, “for Auden there was no such thing as an identity that developed naturally.” Accordingly, I believe that the liberating ideas of society without any notions of future, violence or misunderstanding, which Auden develops in “Natural Lingustics”, remain in a utopian space for a purpose. Even though Auden is busy with a clear-cut demarcation  again, it is supposed to show us something concerning the morals of society (Auden uses words like grief, rage, war). For understanding what we can learn, I would need to understand the last sentence. But I still don’t.

language as the origin of society

On the one hand language could be understood as something pre-verbal, as something founding the very beginning of society as such (society is here understood as the necessary condition for mutual understanding among more than two people). “Natural Lingustics” mimics this evolutionary process by supposing that nature “broke the primal barrier of Silence”. This level of language is constitutive for our self-consciousness, to pronounce one’s “ownhood”, as Auden has it. Here he seems to claim that it is not exclusively a human feature. Also other creatures can give meaning to themselves and thereby claim to possess themselves. Even the place where creatures, things and humans are positioned can be enriched with meaning and can cause a situation, which demands language. Think of what happens when people incidentally encounter each other “at the wrong place at the wrong time”, and assigns meaning to this event. Even if your appearance was a mere accident, people might assume that you intended you be at this particular place and that you use it to portray yourself in a certain light (think of urban no-go areas, or late working hours in the library; see more in Goffman). In that perspective “visual appearance” alone evolves in a “hieroglyphical koine” – the physical world turns into an archaic yet complex language which resembles the physical world in a more stereotypical manner. The difficulty with “doing your thing”, just being where you are, is that we are entangled in that “hieroglyphical koine” as a foundation to the worldview of others. Here you can easily see that language is not only the origin of society but also a medium of communication (see below).

That all this also accounts for animals and plants is an intuitively comprehensive point of Auden, I think. Natural creatures just as humans act towards things and other creatures according to the meaning they assign to those things and creatures. This is the classic definition of “social action” by Max Weber. Interestingly this definition also contains a notion of time, which Ranjit touches upon in his analysis of “Natural Lingustics” by elaborating on the idea of a society without an understanding of future: According to Weber the socially acting individual takes “account of the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course”. Doesn’t this erode the idea of society without future? I don’t know yet.

language as medium of communication

On the other hand sociologists have an understanding of language as our medium of understanding in communication, and most intuitively in face-to-face interactions (which roughly means conversations, but also fights or little gestures). Most of our accounts of “Natural Lingustics” took this stance as well. Micro-sociologists would argue, that many other social processes such as identity are actually constituted by communication not the other way around (whereas social does not mean “nice”, of course, but also the violence mentioned by Auden). Here it is not so much language, which is originating society, but communication. For instance identity, as Erving Goffman has shown, is constructed by means of the expectations others have in our “presentation of self”, a term by Goffman (used by Ranjit here). The example of “wrong time, wrong place” illustrated this idea already. While we experience ourselves in various roles and situations and therefore perceive our character as contingent, there is much less flexibility accepted in social interactions. Habits we have developed in one context of daily life, for instance our tutorials, are labeled as a distinct character feature by others more than by ourselves. Since our fellow students base there ways of communicating on these mutual expectations, it is rather difficult for me to establish a new “Jeremias”. You guys would probably protest in one or the other way. Here you can see, that even innocent situations of just being in the supermarket and “expressing my ownhood” can quickly turn into complex situations with others imposing there expectations on us – “ownhood” turns into identity. The first half of “Natural lingustics” portrays the natural world as a utopian place where this is not the case.

This social mechanism, which is absolutely necessary to maintain the usual daily life in its routines (imagine a complete lack of mutual orientation in our tutorials!), explains why we perceive our identity as more stable and distinct when we are surrounded by others, while in non social situations (being alone and not communicating via any media) this perception is rather blurry.

            Furthermore the notion of communication, entertained by most micro-sociologists, is pretty skeptic towards the linear expression of self. You can “just practice your being” (Ranjit) if you want, but others cannot possibly accredit it and have there own ideas of who you are.

the use of gesture

According to the Goffmanian notion of communication the use of gesture, a topic brought up by Aline, is as follows: In contrast to verbal expressions we can deny that we actually intended to communicate at all and still communicate. By using body language we can deviate from expectations without risking a conflict with others who are confused by this new feature of a familiar person. An example: It is always safer to bribe a policeman by putting some money between the car-papers, which he asked for, than by bluntly asking if he would accept it. After the officer discovered the money you can always defend yourself against accusations, just because you can deny your intentions behind it. If you are lucky, however, he instantly understands walks off, and nobody saw anything. The same is true with arrogant looks or gestures of flirting. People who are good at these kind gestures are able to lead a very subtle, mutually comprehensive, quiet exclusive and quick communication. Auden admires this kind of communication, he found in nature, for its ability to fill awkward silences and avoiding “guddling”. In the elaborate language of gestures, which we can learn from nature, Auden says, “signals of interrogation, friendship, threat and appeasement” are “instantly taken in” and “seldom if ever, misread”; and if misunderstandings still occur, sociologists like Goffman would add, one can still deny the misreading as a potential source of conflict.   

Goffman, Erving (1956): The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, University of Edinburgh Social Sciences Research Centre. Anchor Books edition 1959.


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