Friday, June 21, 2024

Writing And Identity, Chapter 2


Summary of Chapter 2: Discourse and Identity

In this brief chapter, Ivanič discusses how her terminology and analysis derives from, and aligns with, several key influences, viz., Halliday, Fairclough, Bakhtin, and Vygotsky (by way of Wertsch). She starts off the chapter by delineating her usage of the terms “discourse,” “language,” and “text.” She uses the first two largely interchangeably to refer to “language-in-its-social-context,” the first because it emphasizes this social context, and the second because it emphasizes the linguistic-per-se, which might otherwise get forgotten in sociological discussion of context; at the same time she emphasizes that she does not want the two terms to be seen as somehow opposed or demarcating specific fields which could be somehow disentangled and studied separately (37). By “text” she will refer to “the physical manifestations of discourse... the marks on the page,” to foreground “the role of form in discoursal/linguistic processes and practices as a whole” (38).

She derives three lessons from the work of MAK Halliday:

1) “language is only one of many sign systems which convey meaning” (39) and needs to be analyzed within this broader context.

2) “language is integrally bound up with meaning, and all linguistic choices can be linked to the meaning they convey”.

3) As indicated by the term “social-semiotic,” meaning is dependent on two kinds of context, which Halliday calls the context of situation and the context of culture. [This sounds reminiscent of Goffman’s “loose coupling” of the interaction and social orders.]

Halliday further proposes three “macro-functions” of meaning (40):

1) conveying ideational meaning (ideas, content, etc.);

2) conveying interpersonal meaning (status, relationships, etc); and

3) the textual function, whereby the physical text makes “the meanings hang together.”

Ivanič will add to Halliday’s account with a more sustained focus on the role of identity; she lists three “dimensions” of social identity which relate directly to H’s three macro-functions:

1) “a person’s set of values and beliefs about reality,” conveyed through ideational meaning;

2) “a person’s sense of their relative status in relation to others,” linked to interpersonal meaning; and

3) “a person’s orientation to language use,” which affects how they construct texts.

Turning to Fairclough, she reproduces (41) a diagram from Language and Power showing the linked “layers” of text, interaction (with process of production and process of interpretation), and context (with social conditions of production, and of interpretation). She uses Fairclough’s work to extend and deepen the focus on social interaction and context, out of Halliday’s framework; then, in turn, adds in Bakhtin’s richer metaphor and discussions of the “taste” of words, ventriloquation, double-voicing, etc., to extend Fairclough. Finally she brings in Vygotsky, mediated through James Wertsch’s Voices of the Mind, which pulls together Vygotsky and Bakhtin.

She discusses the roles of “genre” and “discourse,” emphasizing Fairclough’s distinction between two kinds of intertextuality: manifest intertextuality and interdiscursivity (47-8). Manifest intertextuality is the explicit quotation, and referencing of another text; Ivanič prefers to call it actual intertextuality, because it is not necessarily all that “manifest.” Interdiscursivity, in contrast, refers to abstract text types, conventions; it is the relating of this text to others through the level of genres, etc. [The distinction between these two kinds of intertextuality brings to mind my most recent round of paper grading, much of which involved pointing out to students who had used generative AI that their citations, quotes, statistics, etc. were hallucinations – because chatgpt (or whichever they are using) is totally stuck at the “abstract” level of interdiscursivity, which it imitates; it is quite able to generate a sentence which might plausibly appear in a given text, but has much more difficulty providing an actual sentence which appeared in that text. Thus, it can reproduce interdiscursivity, but not actual intertextuality, most likely because it cannot tell the difference between them.] She notes that Bakhtin often “blurs” the distinction between interdiscursivity and actual intertextuality, “sometimes usefully, sometimes annoyingly” (51).

Via Wertsch, Ivanič notes that one of Vygotsky’s key contributions is the argument that “higher mental functioning in the individual derives from social life.” Though drawing on Vygotsky, Ivanič is not so interested in the “unilinear development” which his work focuses on, but instead on a non-hierarchical multiplicity of potential paths of development undertaken by individuals as they explore ways of developing their own identities through writing. Instead of assuming that students need to develop their thinking and writing in some particular direction, she is more interested in how they play out their identities in relation with the more or less privileged or privileging discourses, genres, styles, etc., available to them (and she discusses how these terms, derived from Wertsch, provide a more active and agentive account of the relative status of different discourses and genres, than the more static term dominant). She is interested in how writers develop a “toolkit,” per Wertsch (54), or “building materials” (apparently from Fairclough) (47), to construct their own identity and its performance through writing. [The objection springs to mind, raised by, for example, Merleau-Ponty, against such a portrayal of a subject confronting the world somehow abstractly and then pulling out all this kit of mental resources, tools, etc., not unlike the linguists of Laputa carrying around their bags; though I suppose M-P was objecting to the empiricists, etc., who try to understand perception and sensation this way; the metaphor is arguably more reasonable when discussing writing, which can even involve drawing upon literal examples of such resources, I mean I have right here a thesaurus and a bookshelf of books to pull out and reference... so I guess I, ahem, withdraw the objection...]

She concludes with a nice positioning worthy of Sextus Empiricus, to the effect that when she writes of language-users “selecting,” or “choosing” from “options,” she does not mean this as the necessarily conscious agency of some perfectly free will. To the contrary, such “choice” is constrained, situated, and often unconscious. Thus, she asks readers to accept wording like “choice” in this context as “a simplying metaphor for what are in fact fleeting, subtle, complex, subconscious processes which are socially constrained and not under the full control of the individual” (54). [Quite fair, and is not the very “self” or “subject” not also just such a “simplifying metaphor,” an edifice built, to paraphrase Nkee, on running water]. She ends with noting how, in the midst of this situated constraint, etc. writers develop something which “is often simplistically called the writer’s ‘own voice’” (55). Ivanič will instead call this the writer’s owned voice, “the writer’s choices, from among many competing socially available discourses, of ones s/he is willing to be identified with.”

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