Doing a Disservice to Your Heroes (A Too-Brief Reflection on Alton Becker's Beyond Translation)
Language, according to Alton Becker, is not a list of rules and a system of rules that tell us where to put those words; rather, language resides in memory, the memory of texts that one uses in new contexts. As he argues, such an approach to language involves “time and memory, or, in terms of contextual relations, a set or prior texts that one accumulates throughout one’s lifetime, from simple social exchanges to long semimemorized recitations. One learns these texts in action, by repetitions and corrections, starting with the simplest utterances of a baby” (188 – 189). That is, a baby does not learn language by activating some deep, a priori system of language in the brain—a baby learns by listening and by practicing. We learn to say “Pass the salt” not because we are masters of transitive verbs in the imperative mood—but because we have heard many people say “pass the salt” in similar contexts and because saying “pass the salt” has gotten us the salt time and time before. In other words, per Becker’s view, these utterances are not built from scratch every time we utter them, built from our knowledge of words and syntax. Instead, we remember utterances we have heard before, and we adapt them to new situations. Perhaps we find ourselves across the table from our dour grandparents, so we say, “Would you mind passing the salt?” An old text shaped to a new context.
In a move reminiscent of Heidegger’s rejection of theory, Becker’s body of work resists generalization. Instead, the New Philology he proposes finds its rigor in a move towards particularity. Becker writes: “Particularity is not something we begin with; particularity is something we arrive at, by repeating. Particularity is something we learn. We don’t distinguist birds until we learn their names and hear their songs. Up to that pont we hear ‘birds’ around us and then we begin to pick up their particularity along with the language. Particularity is something we achieve” (418 – 419). For Becker, learning, using, and teaching language is more closely tied to the particular than in systematic. That is, dictionaries and grammars are recognized as cultural artifacts rather than valueless, scientific tools, and finding the meaning of a text in context is more meaningful (and more demanding) than running it through a translation tool. Language, in other words, works in human interaction.
Mikhail Bakhtin writes, “After all, language enters life through concrete utterances…and life enters language through concrete utterances as well” (63). Lloyd Bitzer, complementarily, points out that “the experiential world presents to us many weighted or personal facts which are what they are because our participation gives them a status and invests them with a value they would not otherwise enjoy” (84). So it would seem that a truly effective account of language would have to engage the particulars, the context, the situation out of which language arises. Even rules that accurately describe actual usage pale in comparison to actual usage.
The underlying problem, I suppose is something like what H.P. Grice describes:
The philosophical demand for an ideal language rests on certain assumptions that should not be conceded; these are, that the primary yardstick by which to judge the adequacy of language is its ability to serve the needs of science, that and expression cannot be guaranteed as fully intelligible unless an explication or analysis of its meaning has been provided, and that every explication or analysis of its meaning has been provided, and that every explication or analysis must take the form of a precise definition that is the expression/assertion of a logical equivalence. Language serves many important purposes besides those of scientific inquiry; we can know perfectly well what an expression means (and so a fortiori that it is intelligible) without knowing its analysis, and the provision of an analysis may (and usually does) consist in the specification, as generalized as possible, of the conditions / that count for or against the applicability of the expression being analyzed. (42 – 43)
In our quest for scientific rigor, for language that works in a laboratory with strict control of variables, perhaps we have lost sight of language. Language is not a logical tool: we misunderstand it when we demand its scientific perfection. Thinking bare facts more persuasive than weighted personal facts, supposing that rigor lies in generalities rather than particulars, we have put ourselves in a spot where writing becomes a tool of information delivery rather than a medium of human experience.
Today I am not hewing to the rigor of academic reading (perhaps I never do). Nevertheless: language is more than a dictionary and grammar in the same way that food is more than nutrition facts and ingredients. We impoverish language when we require it to be an empty vessel for thought in the same way that we ruin eating when we reduce it to what we can see on a label. We don’t crave macronutrients—we crave foods. So I can’t help but wonder what happens when, in our style-averse mood, we subsist on writing that works like vitamin pills. In fact, so entrenched is our belief that language does not serve knowledge that Brian Lennon can observe: “The scholar may write, but she cannot be a creative writer, or primary producer of primary texts; the creative writer may engage in scholarly disputation, but she is not and cannot therein be a scholar” (87). Nutritionists may cook, but they often are not chefs (and the inverse is likely just as true).
So where does this leave us? Becker offers a compelling view of language, one in which the particular and the human are foregrounded, not as noise to be extracted but as the very source of rigor in studying and working with language. Of course, this can only be the shallowest of engagements with all of Becker’s work—but it suffices to say (I’m maxing out my self-imposed page limit) that language is more than channel interference on the way to knowledge. Language works now and tells us about the past and present. Style, then, is revelatory, not distracting. What we say and how we say it both matter—nutrients and flavor. When we wipe away the messy particulars of a situation, a text, a writer, in favor of universal “knowledge” we lose so much of what we mean to study, so much of that rigor of particularity that Becker advocates.
Bakhtin, M. M. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Translated by Vern W. McGee, 2nd ed., University of Texas Press, 1987.
Becker, A. L. Beyond Translation: Essays toward a Modern Philology. The University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Bitzer, Lloyd. “Rhetoric and Public Knowledge.Pdf.” Rhetoric, Philosophy, and Literature: An Exploration, edited by Don M. Burks, Purude University Press, 1978.
Grice, H. P. “Logic and Conversation.” Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts, edited by Jerry L. Morgan and Peter Cole, vol. 3, Academic Press, 1975, pp. 41–58.
Lennon, Brian. “The Essay, in Theory.” Diacritics, vol. 38, no. 3, 2008, pp. 71–92. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1353/dia.0.0062.