Liminality, Social Drama, and Social Field Liminality may perhaps be regarded . . . as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise.
— Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols
In the early sixties Edmund Leach’s Rethinking Anthropology was only beginning to make small dents in the armored behemoth of structural-functionalism, which nevertheless lumbered along for decades and is still to be found, alive and living, not in Argentina but in the monographs and seminars of “development anthropology.” As we have seen in discussing Leach’s and Lévi-Strauss’s contributions to cultural analysis, Leach’s call for a topological anthropology that would issue in a new meaning of dimensionality in the emergent field of structuralism went mostly unanswered or misinterpreted. Up-and-coming, hard-charging young structuralists, not unlike Lévi-Strauss himself, were anxious to take up questions of symbolism and meaning without acquiring the stigma of being thought mathematical “reductionists.”
In addition to Leach’s work at this phase of his thought (he tried on some very different hats during his long and illustrious career), a striking and profound departure from the general background noise of structuralist-functionalist accounts of culture was provided by a team of highly productive and prolific ethnographers: Victor and Edith Turner. The Turners conducted extensive field work among the Ndembu of northwestern Zambia, beginning in 1950 and continuing, with Edith carrying on alone after Victor’s death, into the eighties, thus making theirs one of the more impressive ethnographic projects in the history of anthropology. In a series of brilliant theoretical works on ritual symbolism initiated in the late fifties, Victor Turner unveiled a new perspective, processualism or processual analysis, that broke radically with an already tired structural-functionalism and with the new fashion of Lévi-Straussian structuralism, and that has much to contribute to our present discussion of dimensionality in culture.
In fact, without saddling Turner’s memory with the peculiar mix of ideas in the present work, I want to emphasize that the fundamental attributes I believe I have identified for culture in general and for the Dreamtime world of American movies in particular — virtuality, multiple reality, internal contradiction, intersystem, and even a vector-driven semiotic dimensionality — are strikingly reminiscent, to the point of being translations in some instances, of Turner’s tremendously seminal concepts of liminality, multivocality, polarization of meaning, and field. As with other thinkers cited here, I borrow (steal, actually) as needed to put together a framework of a theory of culture as semiospace, without attempting a scholarly review of their work (imbalance being, after all, the watchword of the theory under development).14
Considered just as on-the-ground anthropology, i.e., out in the field working with the “natives,” the Turners’ ethnographic work could not be more different from that of Lévi-Strauss or many of the structuralist studies inspired by him. Lévi-Strauss’s approach is magisterially eclectic: rather than go and live with a particular community of people for any length of time, he draws on his encyclopedic knowledge of the ethnographic literature, principally of the Americas, to construct vast comparative studies of hundreds of myths told in dozens of different “societies.” The Turners exemplify (and greatly exceed) the “old school” approach to doing anthropology: select a particular group of “tribal” or at least “ethnic” people, establish residence among them, and get to know them intimately on a day-to-day basis. What distinguishes the Turners’ work is that they kept returning to and writing about the Ndembu, amassing a tremendously detailed collection of material and a lifetime of impressions and memories. In today’s fast-paced and under-funded academic world, by contrast, cohorts of anthropology graduate students fan out to exotic locales in the rural Third World or, increasingly, ethnic neighborhoods of American cities, try to get in a year’s dissertation field study, and subsequently spend only a few months, at most, living with “their” people. The depth of the Turners’ ethnographic understanding of Ndembu society and ritual symbolism is thus quite extraordinary, and made it possible for them to interpret their material in terms of the long-term, ebb and flow of experience. In sharp contrast, Lévi-Strauss’s long-distance comparisons of groups scattered over two continents and using ethnographic material gathered by others give his work, monumental as it is, an oddly stroboscopic effect of tiny slices of text or behavior frozen in place and time, and juxtaposed through a bewildering set of “structural transformations” with other tiny slices of life taken from here, there, and everywhere.
These pronounced differences in ethnographic method are tied to profound differences in theoretical orientation, for Victor Turner’s analytical writings are unique in their unrelenting concern for process and event as opposed to structure and text. Having known the Ndembu, collectively and as individuals, over a major portion of his and their lives, Victor Turner recognized the importance of the transitions that punctuate an individual’s life and that impel the rich symbolism of life-crisis rituals which accompany those transitions. Moreover, he extended this theme of a life crisis ritual focused on an individual initiate (he called this person an “initiand”) to the cathartic social dramas (political and religious movements) that mark major transitions in the life of an entire community. Hence Turner’s call for a processual analysis of society or culture as a whole, that would emphasize the “antistructure” of periods of great turbulence and effervescence in social life (a very rough gloss for what he termed “communitas”) and focus on the large issue of how those abnormal periods of life are knit together with normal, structured periods.
Yet through all these changes [associated with social drama], certain crucial norms and relationships — and other seemingly less crucial, even quite trivial and arbitrary — will persist. The explanation for both constancy and change can, in my opinion, only be found by systematic analysis of processual units and temporal structures, by looking at phases [of social dramas] as well as atemporal systems. For each phase has its specific properties, and each leaves its special stamp on the metaphors and models in the heads of men involved with one another in the unending flow of social existence. In keeping with my explicit comparison of the temporal structure of certain types of social processes with that of dramas on the stage, with their acts and scenes, I saw the phases of social dramas as culminating to a climax. I would point out too that at the linguistic level of “parole,” [that is, speech as opposed to the rules of language] each phase has its own speech forms and styles, its own rhetoric, its own kinds of nonverbal languages and symbolisms. These vary greatly, of course, cross-culturally and cross-temporally, but I postulate that there will be certain important generic affinities between the speeches and languages of the crisis phase everywhere, of the redressive phase everywhere, of the restoration of peace phase everywhere. Cross-cultural comparison has never applied itself to such a task because it has limited itself to atemporal forms and structures, to the products of man’s social activity abstracted from the processes in which they arise, and, having arisen, which they channel to a varying extent. It is much easier to prop oneself on the “paradigmatic” crutch, coolly remote from the vexatious competitiveness of social life. Such cross-cultural comparison, moreover, cannot be made until we have many more extended-case studies. An extended-case history is the history of a single group or community over a considerable length of time, collected as a sequence of processual units of different types, including the social dramas and social enterprises mentioned already. This is more than plain historiography, for it involves the utilization of whatever conceptual tools social anthropology and cultural anthropology have bequeathed to us. “Processualism” is a term that includes “dramatistic analysis.” Processual analysis assumes cultural analysis, just as it assumes structural-functional analysis, including more static comparative morphological analysis. It negates none of these, but puts dynamics first. (43—44, emphasis in original)
Turner’s processual analysis, formulated here in his 1974 work Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society, is an elaboration of ideas first presented in a 1964 essay, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage,” one of the most original and evocative works in anthropology’s brief history. The key concept of the essay, and really the key to understanding Turner’s work as a whole, is liminality. Liminality is, quite literally, that experience of being “betwixt and between” phases of life or states of consciousness which possesses the initiate during a life-crisis ritual and plunges him or her into an interstitial realm where the rules and values of everyday life cease to apply, where the structure of normal life gives way to the antistructure (which I would call The Dreamtime) of initiatory experience.
The essential feature of these symbolizations [of the seclusion and “rebirth” of initiates] is that the neophytes are neither living nor dead from one aspect, and both living and dead from another. Their condition is one of ambiguity and paradox, a confusion of all the customary categories. Jakob Boehme, the German mystic whose obscure writings gave Hegel his celebrated dialectical “triad,” liked to say that “In Yea and Nay all things consist.” Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise. . . .
We are not dealing with structural contradictions [i.e., like those in Lévi-Strauss’s structural models] when we discuss liminality, but with the essentially unstructured (which is at once destructured and prestructured) and often the people themselves see this in terms of bringing neophytes into close connection with deity or with superhuman power, with what is, in fact, often regarded as the unbounded, the infinite, the limitless. . . .
The arcane knowledge or “gnosis” obtained in the liminal period is felt to change the inmost nature of the neophyte, impressing him, as a seal impresses wax, with the characteristics of his new state. It is not a mere acquisition of knowledge, but a change of being. His apparent passivity is revealed as an absorption of powers which will become active after his social status has been redefined in the aggregation rites. (97—102, emphasis in original)
The individual’s profound psychological experience of liminality feeds, on a social level, into the social dramas experienced by communities of individuals caught up in turbulent social, political, or religious movements. The dual processes of liminality and social drama thus provide a powerful model, not just of ritual symbolism, but of culture as a whole. In my efforts to describe the Dreamtime world evoked in popular movies, I could not produce a better statement of the crucial theme of virtuality than Turner’s description of liminality as “a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise.” Moreover, Turner’s insistence that cultural processes occur in a field of paradigm movement [a concept he took from the work of the psychologist, Kurt Lewin, himself inspired by mathematical physics] is closely tied to the importance I attach to the operation of vector forces in the semiospace of cultural dimensionality. The critical factors in liminality, like those in the theory of culture as semiospace being developed here, are movement and interstitiality within some specifiable domain of symbolic or semiotic space. The initiate in a life-crisis ritual is first traumatically separated from his or her ordinary, daily surroundings, then secluded in an extreme fashion that often involves induced hallucinations, and finally reincorporated, as a new, postliminal person in a community that has now itself changed, redefined by the addition of a new member.
But, you may ask, is it really feasible to draw a close analogy between Turner’s initiate, an individual from a “primitive” culture who experiences a major, once-in-a-lifetime transformation of his entire being, and the more mundane and urban situations we are concerned with here? Can a Topeka teenager checking into the local theatre for a couple of hours of Spielberg or Lucas even begin to be compared with an Ndembu initiate entering the sacred seclusion hut to undergo his tribe’s initiation ritual? The answer to this question requires a closer look at the fit between Turner’s “ritual process” and the idea of cultural dimensionality at issue here. This particularly involves considering just what kind of “interstitial” phenomenon Turner has identified and how it meshes with the interstitiality of virtual experience and the rest of the Dreamtime toolkit, as I present it in this work. In pursuing these issues, the concepts of intersystem and continuum, attributes of true Dreamtime cultural dimensionality, assume critical importance.
Intersystem and Continuum . . . monstrosities cannot be separated by any distinct line from slighter variations.
— Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species
It is clear that Turner’s insights into ritual symbolism and the nature of culture assign considerable importance to concepts of process and transformation in a social world that is inherently spatial.15 In my obviously biased view, Turner’s concepts of liminality, process, and field take us to the verge of a new theoretical formulation, which he may well have rejected had he had an opportunity to examine it. That formulation is the model of culture as semiospace: a world of virtual experience, ambivalence, and contradiction, all of which are movements or vectorial processes within a number of identifiable semiotic dimensions. In short, I am proposing that Turner’s work points the way toward a cultural analysis informed by concepts of physical reality — phase space, Hilbert space, vector fields, etc. — so admirably elucidated by Roger Penrose. At the very least, I find it remarkable that Turner’s processual analysis, like the quite divergent views of Lévi-Strauss, Leach, and Fernandez examined earlier, incorporate at a fundamental level such constructs as a topologically active cultural space (Leach), geometrical relations among sets of structural elements which undergo structural transformations (Lévi-Strauss), and metaphorical movements, or predications, on inchoateness within a quality space of culture (Fernandez). These major theorists of culture, who approach their topic from very different conceptual and methodological premises, nevertheless seem drawn to a cluster of diffuse ideas about culture as a dimensional entity in which directional processes, movements, or transformations are paramount.16
If Turner’s ideas lead us toward formulations of the semiotic dimensionality of culture, do they furnish a complete framework for such a theory? For example, would an astute application of his concepts of liminality and social drama enable us to understand (if we feel we even need to understand) the content and phenomenal popularity of movies like Star Wars, Jaws, and E. T., and, more importantly, the culture that spawned those bizarre creations? Again, as with Fernandez’s provocative notion of culture as a “quality space,” I believe that Turner’s ideas of liminality and social drama stop short (he would doubtlessly have been relieved to know!) of the broccoli-like labyrinths of phase space (see Penrose’s Figure 5.14, reprinted in footnote 5) and the bewildering quantum elusiveness of Hilbert space as these concepts might be deployed in cultural analysis. Despite his emphasis on liminality and drama, Turner does not commit his processual analysis to the kind of situations and constructs we have been considering throughout this work. The problem with his approach may be examined by way of introducing two concepts that are fundamental to the model of cultural dimensionality: intersystem and continuum.
A few nights ago, in a moment of unthinking weakness, I turned on the TV to watch the late evening news on one of the L. A. stations (actually, several stations, since this is the age of the remote, the perfect device for orchestrating a little Gong Show of your own). Sitting there clicking channels, half asleep, I learned that nothing unusual had happened that day — just the usual atrocities — when an item came across the tube that pierced even my postmodern, desensitized hide. It went pretty much like this: “This just in. A five-year-old Compton boy was killed earlier this evening in a drive-by shooting, apparently gang-related. More from the scene live later in this broadcast. And now in sports. . .” And now in sports — this jarring change of frame delivered, in the announcer’s rushed Calspeak, with hardly a pause. And it was this vertiginous break, this tilt of consciousness I have described earlier, in more sanguine contexts, that got me, that sank the hook. For drive-by shootings are a commonplace occurrence in Los Angeles, where the term had to be invented by some of those very TV news people to describe the latest barbarity, following on an earlier spate of “freeway shootings,” to befall the City of Angels. And it is just as common for children to be the victims of these senseless acts, since the intended victims — other gang members — are often hanging around school yards, maybe even attending class when they are not dealing crack, or on the streets outside apartments where children congregate and play. The low-rider car cruises by, a smoky-tinted window glides down with the touch of a button, the snout of a Mac-10 pokes out, a trigger is pulled and held, a random spray of bullets ricochets in the street, and a five-year-old boy dies, within a block of his school or home, his life probably already horribly blighted by a childhood in South Central L. A., and we hear about it an hour or so later, between Bosnia and the Bulls, with details on the death to follow “live.”
This world of random, senseless violence that comes to us on the evening news, that many of us inhabit on a daily basis as we drive the same streets and freeways as killers, that the five-year-old boy knew before his life was snuffed out without warning, is it like the world of Turner’s Ndembu initiates and their parents, the world of the Zambian countryside as Turner knew it years ago? Or, to turn the question around, can we apply Turner’s ideas of liminality and social drama, which, as we have seen, are unique in their emphasis on process and change, on the dynamics of culture, in attempting somehow to make comprehensible the grisly business of drive-by shootings and the sprawling megalopolis that breeds these episodes? I think not. The grim vignette of urban life and death we have been considering throws a harsh light on Turner’s ideas, revealing problems with them. Despite their innovative emphasis on process and change, “liminality” and “social drama” as Turner employs these ideas are simply too sedate, too refined, civilized, and, if you will, gentlemanly — like Turner himself — to accommodate the randomness and frenzy of the “initiations” of urban gang life (which may involve “making your bones” by killing a child) or of modern “dramas” like the Los Angeles riots of 1992, Jonestown, and David Koresh’s Waco cult. Turner’s “ritual process,” for all its dynamism, has a thoroughly predictable, orderly flow, as do his “phases” of social drama; they take the individual or community from an initial rupture or conflict in daily life through stages of isolation, transition, resolution, and reincorporation or reaggregation of the psyche and the collective spirit. The wholeness of life is briefly lost, only to be restored at the end of the ritual or drama.
In the physical science analogy I have been proposing here, Turner’s is very much a “classical” theory of the properties of culture. Things change, but in a fairly tidy, directed manner much like, as Turner emphasizes, the acts of a stage play. For that reason, I believe his theory cannot accommodate the undirected turbulence and near randomness — the self-organized criticality — of the cultural processes that control our fates today. Those have more to do with Penrose’s multidimensional broccoli sprouting in phase space or with the elusive quantum multiplicity of Hilbert space. There is really no way to tell where things are going, but you know they’re getting there in an awful hurry. The wholeness Turner attributes to Ndembu lives is overwhelmed by the fragmented nature of contemporary existence. Have you ever had the experience of flicking a few droplets of water on a hot grill or, heaven forbid, spitting on a hot rock around a campfire at night? The frenzied, skittering, frying motion as the droplets hissed away into nothingness, or into Something Else, is a fair, if not flattering analogy of modern life, of our lives. It is not a happy notion. It will not get a smile-button award from the local chapter of the Jaycees, and I doubt that it would have sat well with Turner as he pondered Ndembu ritual. But it is probably a bit closer to the way things happen than we, or Turner, would readily admit.
Hence the problem I have with Turner’s account of the “interstitial” phenomena of liminal experience. While the “inter-ness” of the concept is extremely attractive for a model of cultural dimensionality, the term evokes thoughts of interstices between existing, concrete structures. And as I have just argued, that is indeed the sense in which Turner employs it. In its place I would propose the linked concepts of intersystem and continuum (ideas stolen in this case from the unlikely field of creole linguistics, with a healthy dollop of pop mathematical physics).17 The idea of an “intersystem” as developed by Derek Bickerton and other creole linguists involves a profoundly revolutionary departure from the tenets of an earlier, “structural linguistics” (which is implicated in the now-dreaded “structural-functionalism” I was lambasting earlier).
At the time creole linguistics entered the academic fray (“hit the fan” is a more apt metaphor), the field of linguistics was on a roll. The work of the first generation of structural linguists before World War II, including that of Troubetzkoy, Lobachevsky, and Jakobson, which, as we have seen, so impressed Lévi-Strauss, promised to transform the tedious business of describing sound patterns and documenting historical changes in languages into a powerful science which would identify structural principles to account for the features of language and language change. Following the war, Zellig Harris, Noam Chomsky, and a growing cohort of M.I.T.-trained linguists extended this program tremendously, so that they began to speak of the “deep structure” of a language (usually English) as a set of generative and transformational rules which produced the actual speech of persons whose brains had unconsciously assimilated those rules in early childhood (and whose brains were genetically programmed for language acquisition). A popular image of the relationship between this deep structure and actual speech was the camshaft of an engine, which is hidden away in the recesses of the machine but which produces, through its precisely engineered form, all the mechanical operations of pistons moving up and down at exact intervals that cause us to say the engine is “running.”18
In the sixties and early seventies, just as linguistics was seeming to mature into a truly scientific discipline (unlike those messy social sciences, including anthropology, which were still mired in endless description and historical anecdote), a small group of linguists began asking difficult questions about the coherence of individual languages. These linguists, including Douglas Taylor, William Labov, David DeCamp, B. L. Bailey, S. Tsuzaki, Gillian Sankoff, and Derek Bickerton, were prompted to formulate the questions on the basis of their various field researches in speech communities of West Africa, the Caribbean, New Guinea, and other Pacific islands. In those locations particularly, the historical processes of colonialism, slavery, mass migration, and very rapid cultural change have fashioned highly diverse societies whose members speak “creolized” versions of some international language (English and French being prominent examples).
The fascinating thing about creoles is that they typically incorporate extremely heterogeneous features of two or more conventional “languages” as different from one another, for example, as English and indigenous languages of West Africa such as the Kwa group. Those disparate elements are fused into a coherent and functional language, or creole, which nevertheless embraces a tremendous amount of internal variation within the speech community as a whole. There is nothing “contaminated,” “reduced,” or “inadequate” about creole speech; in fact it is often far more eloquent than the printspeak of educated Americans (one accessible source, although very spruced up for an international audience, is the calypso lyrics of “The Mighty Sparrow”). Internal variation within the speech community takes the form of a continuum. One person’s speech may contain more African-derived grammatical features (as in the formation of verb tense markers) than another’s, but — and here is the vital point — each speaker can understand and communicate perfectly well across a certain band or swatch of the linguistic continuum. Thus John may converse easily with Mary and Mary with Angela, but John and Angela will have some difficulty in communicating; whereas a fourth individual, Frank, who has wide ties in the community, may readily converse with all three by shifting his speech accordingly. This process is much more than a mere facility with “dialects,” for the internal variation within the creole speech community is greater than that found in the “standard” language (since English, for example, does not contain West African grammatical features). The particular pairs of speakers in the above example thus constitute or produce intersystems within the total speech community, which can only be described as a continuum of linguistic parameters that frame the disjoint collection of intersystems. While no single individual will be fluent across the entire continuum, different speakers are competent within narrower or wider bands of it. The totality of their speech or competencies comprises the “dynamic system” of, say, Guyanese Creole English or Hawaiian Creole.
The research papers and theoretical essays of that small group of creole linguists began to make the linguistics of “natural” languages appear rather contrived. If Chomskyian structural linguistics is a set of engineer’s specifications for the “camshaft” that drives the “engine” of a particular language, then what does the “engine” itself look like? What are its boundaries? Since a language such as “English” is not an actual piece of machinery you can reach over and tap with a wrench, how do you know when you are hearing, or even speaking, English and not some other language with a somewhat differently engineered “camshaft”?
These questions have that vertiginous feel to them you may have experienced earlier, when simple questions about the length of an ant path or the dimension of a figure led into some very rough terrain for our commonsense understanding of the world. If you are a “native speaker” of English, your first, exasperated response might be something like: “What kind of question is that? Of course I know when somebody is speaking English! Except for a few words of Spanish I can’t understand any other language — and I certainly know when I’m speaking English!” If an engine is a separate physical object, so your reasoning might go, then a language is a separate set of words and grammar that together form a system of parts much like an engine.
The problem with this seemingly straightforward argument has to do, once again, with the now familiar and terribly complex issues of boundary and scale (Mandelbrot rides again, only this time in the guise of a linguist). In the practical-minded outlook we have come to take as a signature of the myth of America, you may well think of language as a tool you use among others, including the engines of cars, to accomplish a particular task, to get the job done. A little reflection, however, begins to tease apart this little piece of the Dreamtime and to reveal the essential, if disturbing symbiosis of common sense and myth.
If you drive a Ford and I drive a Chevy, our two cars can go in different directions and places because they have two separate engines. However, if you and I want to talk about our cars, or anything else, we have to use the same language or, by definition, we will be unable to communicate anything through speech. And if we persist in using the analogy of language as a tool, then we will have to say that each of us may have different handles, different competencies with that tool. Your fifth grade English teacher, when she was not busy coercing you to diagram sentences (when is the last time you diagrammed a sentence?), probably taught you that there was one correct way to use the “tool” of the English language and that all other usages were “poor” English, including the dreaded “slang,” and the “dialects” that, if not eradicated from your speech, would later tell your adult peers that you were a hillbilly or from an undesirable neighborhood (And keep you from being president one day? Not at all!). Translated into the terms of structural linguistics, which, when you get down to it, differ little in spirit from the homelies of your old English teacher, the English language comprises a system, and that system possesses invariant properties, or rules, which together have the capability of generating all possible utterances in “English.”
It is on this point that creole linguistics’ concepts of intersystem and continuum are so appropriate, even if they fly in the face of much accepted wisdom regarding the cohesiveness of language. The boundary disputes associated with intersystems come rushing in, rudely elbowing their way into the tidy world, desks all arranged in straight little rows, of the English classroom and the M. I. T. lecture hall. For although your fifth grade teacher, if confronted with the outlandish examples of Guyanese Creole or New Guinea Pidgin, might claim that those “alien” forms have little to do with “correct English,” there is really no difference in kind between the linguistic experiences of a “native speaker” of Guyanese Creole and your own experiences with language as a son or daughter of Dreamtime America.
Suppose, for example, that you live in southern California, where you moved after growing up in the Midwest (perhaps you were that movie-going teenager from Topeka). You were never very interested in or particularly good at foreign languages, and when your cretinous guidance counselor at Topeka High advised you to take a year of German because you were interested in science and planned to go on to college, you dutifully but unenthusiastically obliged. A few years passed, you went to college for a couple of years, took no more language courses, worked at a few different jobs, and then, tiring of Topeka (or Sleepless in Seattle), wound up in sunny California, hoping to find the American Dream at its source. Once settled in Anaheim, you quickly discover that, although you didn’t need a passport to get there, you seem to have moved to another country. Buying groceries, getting gas, finding an apartment, and working at your new job, all these aspects of daily life bring you into contact with people who are clearly not from Topeka and who probably wouldn’t have a clue about where to find it, assuming you were able to ask them.
Although this swarming multitude seems to speak dozens of languages, you soon find that a great many residents of this new Babel are Hispanics, themselves from all over the western hemisphere, who speak, not English (and definitely not German) but Spanish as their “native language.” Of course, some Hispanics you meet speak English that would have pleased your fifth grade teacher more than your own Topeka twang, but others are recent immigrants with little formal education whose English is minimal and almost unintelligible to you. The majority fall somewhere in between, speaking English that you, recalling the wisdom imparted by your teacher, regard as “incorrect,” “ungrammatical,” and heavily “accented.” After a while, you develop a disconcerting sense that almost all your conversations with Hispanics are somehow affected by a perceived “language barrier,” that makes it difficult to use relaxed speech, to kid around, to tell jokes, to make friends.
As a sensitive individual with a social conscience, and as an organism adapting to its new environment, you decide to ameliorate the difficulties and embarrassments of this language barrier by enrolling in a Spanish immersion course. At the end of a summer of fairly intense study (when you were not out there having fun in that warm California sun), you have acquired a new ability to understand some of the Spanish spoken around you and even to conduct parts of simple conversations in Spanish. Do you now “speak Spanish”? In all fairness and modesty you have to admit that you do not, that most of what you hear on the street and on Spanish TV stations completely passes you by. Oddly enough, you discover, as have countless language students before you, that your most gratifying experiences with the language, when you feel you are right on top of what is being said, come in conversational sessions with fellow students in your immersion course, or in slightly more or less advanced courses. You find that you can spend a good part of an afternoon conversing in a fairly relaxed manner “in Spanish” with these fellow language-learners, only to leave class, stop at a gas station on the way home, and, your mind still working “in Spanish,” make a simple, casual remark “in Spanish” to the station attendant, whereupon you receive a blank-faced “Que?” in response.
Does this deflating experience mean that you still haven’t learned Spanish, that several more summers of immersion courses will be necessary before you can confidently pull into that gas station and have a pleasant little chat with the attendant? While you are pondering this discouraging scenario, a strange thing happens. An acquaintance of yours from the office, a real angeleno Hispanic, pulls up to the pumps, jumps out of his TransAm, says “Hello” to you, and barks a command in rapid-fire Spanish to the attendant — whereupon he gets the same, blank-faced, uncomprehending “Que?” that greeted your effort at communicating in la lengua. But your office-mate is far from cowed: with a look of disgust he does not bother to conceal, he turns to you and mutters, “These damn Cubans can’t even speak the Spanish language!”
Welcome to the world of intersystems. You don’t have to be eavesdropping on Rastas in a Jamaican rum shop or on Guyanese rice farmers in a Georgetown bus to experience the kaleidoscopic play of intersystems within a linguistic continuum; your local Anaheim Mobil station will do nicely. Clearly, there are things about the language-learning business that your fifth grade teacher and your immersion course instructors have not told you, and would become quite uncomfortable over if questioned closely about little episodes like the gas station incident.
The big question, of course, is “What counts as speaking Spanish?” Is Spanish like what your fifth grade teacher told you about English, that there was one correct way — her way — to speak it and any number of incorrect ways? In that case, what were you and your fellow immersion course students speaking during all those afternoon sessions? Was it some pathetic, reduced version of a true “Spanish” that was just good enough for the limited communicative purposes to which you put it? And even if you bow to the authority of those long-ago English classes and self-effacingly reject those pleasant, chatty afternoons of “Spanish” as something shamefully inauthentic, what are you to say about the little scene your officemate threw at the gas station? Did this angeleno, who had never been south of his Rosarito vacation condo in his life and who grew up with the innumerable anglicisms of L. A. Spanish ringing in his ears, somehow have a lock on the “true” Spanish language that seemed to be eluding you and, evidently, the hapless cubano station attendant?
Suppose, to compound the example, a diplomat from the Spanish consulate, a native Barcelonan, had pulled into the pumps right behind your rude acquaintance. What would he think (but, being a diplomat, would not say) about the Americanized speech of the brash angeleno? About the speech of the cubano attendant? And would the attendant, for his part, have more or less difficulty understanding the diplomat than understanding the angeleno — or even you, since, after all, you had weighed in with a little “Spanish” discourse of your own?
In such complex, fluid situations, which are about the only kind around these days, even your old, ruler-thwacking fifth grade teacher (who, bless her heart, probably thought her ruler was straight and measured lines accurately) might find it difficult to insist on the procrustean standard of a single, correct speech. Perhaps she might backpedal a bit and say some vague things about a language having “dialects” that issue from regional or class differences and impede communication, sometimes to the point of unintelligibility. That, of course, is just backpedaling from the awful truth, for it leaves the really vexing questions completely unresolved. Is there a “standard” Spanish and several dialects, or just a collection of dialects? And if, in that collection, you find two dialects that seem to be mutually unintelligible (like the speech of our angeleno and cubano), then how in the world can you say that speakers of those dialects are speaking the same language? And what about the fruits of your immersion course(s)? Had you, or at least some of your more advanced colleagues, not managed to cross over that putative “barrier” (which looks more and more like our ant path) separating “English” and “Spanish,” so that you could make yourself understood to some “native speakers” of Spanish and at the same time could converse “in Spanish” with beginning immersion students whose own efforts en Espanol were painfully inadequate?
Do you have that unsettling feeling that we have hit this wall before? That we have reached much the same impasse we encountered in trying to shore up and salvage other seemingly obvious, objective notions like “line” and “dimension”? Do you sense that the common and terribly important idea of “a language” is now being sucked into the vertiginous maw that swallowed those other concepts in its churning, murky depths? Concepts that we rely on habitually to tell us that things are “on the level” and running “true to form”? If you are having any of these thoughts, then my little vignette of our Topekan friend has served its purpose.
For the moral of the story, just as in that of the ant path, is that no amount of backing and filling, i.e., making more measurements, using finer instruments, identifying better grammatical rules, firing up faster computers, will preserve our commonsense notions (line, dimension, language) once we have begun to question them from the perspective presented here. Just as it proved impossible to salvage the simple idea that an ant path or a stretch of shoreline has a certain fixed length, so it is impossible to save the idea of a cohesive, unitary, “standard” language. Invoking ad hoc explanations such as “slang” or “dialect” to account for the tremendous amount of internal variation within a speech community is really only to clutch at straws. For if the measurements of a line or the scalings of a dimension proliferate endlessly, depending on our approach and instruments, then so do the intersystems of language. The linguistic system we call “Spanish” or “English” does not consist of a core, “standard” set of rules (“invariant properties”) for generating speech and three or four, or even ten or twenty, subsidiary sets that kick in to describe dialectal or regional variation. The system that we might gloss as “American English” (“Ah kyan’t speak Anglish too good, but I shore know how to tawlk Amuricun”) actually contains millions — or tens of millions or hundreds of millions; the choice is yours; you hold the ruler — of intersystems that taken together establish the parameters of what we are pleased to call “the English language.”
This perspective on the highly variegated composition of a language is quite close to the molecular chemist, Manfred Eigen’s, mathematical analysis of a virus as a quasispecies whose great genomic variability can best be modeled as a spreading, sprawling thing in a multidimensional semantic (“sequence”) space, much like Penrose’s broccoli sproutings in phase space (see Figure 3.3).19
Figure 3.3. Tendrils of Identity. (A Cross-Section)
Virus, Language, Humanity: Internal Variation Within a “System.”
It follows that each of us, even if we have no “foreign language” skills, speaks several languages: how you address your gas station attendant differs significantly from the speech you use with your spouse or “life companion” or lover, with your five-year-old, with friends, business associates, etc. This is not just a quibble or a mischievous toying with the sacred concept of language. The vast number of speech events that occur in the United States in the course of a single day are all little nudges (that vectorial process of pushes and pulls again) that move “American English,” or whatever we decide to call it, in directions whose destinations we can only guess at.
One little example, one little nudge stronger than most of ours because it has made it onto the silver screen of The Dreamtime, is Pauly Shore’s “Dude,” a form of speech that seems, to these tired old ears, to be an amalgam of surfer lingo, (San Fernando Valley) Val-speak, and L. A. black street talk. Try going to his Encino Man (which has an explicitly anthropological topic!) or Son-in-Law, or listening to his clever audio tape The Future of America (which he claims to be, along with his fellow “Dude” speakers). Can you follow Pauly’s speech readily? Probably not. Are some of the things he says totally incomprehensible to you? Probably. Does it matter, you may ask with understandable irritation, since the stuff is so silly? Again, probably not, for in twenty years “Dude” may have vanished without a trace: the “future of America” in the domain of speech may have taken an entirely different, unanticipated turn. But the point is that it will take a turn, and one that we cannot foresee. “Dude” may vanish without a trace, or it may leave a minor but recognizable imprint on American English in the twenty-first century (when we would find a few linguistics graduate students meticulously transcribing the dialogue from Encino Man for analysis in their dissertations!). In twenty years, or fifty years, or one hundred years, or five hundred years there will have been discernible changes in American English, changes that are increasingly noticeable as the time scale lengthens. But the direction of those changes, what the future of American speech will sound like, is as indeterminate as the next hop our water droplet makes as it sizzles away on the grill.
We don’t, however, even have to wait for those changes. If you, like me, are in that state of physical and social obsolescence euphemistically dubbed being “over-forty,” then just slide into a booth at McDonald’s some day and eavesdrop on the teenagers in the next booth.20 Or, God forbid, if you have a teenager of your own, then reflect on how you and your teen converse — if that is what you want to call it. Better yet, make an audiotape of a few of those “conversations,” so you can study them later, after your feeble old heart has stopped fibrillating from your latest encounter with your flesh-and-blood, with the real/reel-life “future of America.” What you will hear is much more than biographical anecdote or confirmation of your good sense in the face of flakiness; you will hear, live and under way, instances of the complex process of linguistic change, which is as inexorable as the flowing of a mighty river.21
Linguistic change, like cultural change and all other processes, is clearest when viewed through hindsight. Wind the clock back a couple of centuries to when George and Tom and the other founding fathers were putting “America” together (again, little was said about “founding mothers” except for that heavily mythologized seamstress, Betsy). While we can read their writings perfectly well and admire their (archaic) eloquence, if George and Tom had possessed audio tape recorders (and a little of Dick’s trickiness) we might find ourselves listening to excerpts of their two-hundred-year-old conversations (trying to get to the bottom of Cherry Tree-gate or Monticello-gate) and having a hard time understanding their speech. Certainly if those time-warped tape recorders had captured conversations between, say, George and his cook, William (“Can you bake a cherry pie, Billy boy, Billy boy. . .”), or his stable hand, or especially between the cook and stable hand when George had left the room, we would be hard pressed to follow what was being said.
If you choose to believe that the “English” of American speech is more coherent than I suggest here (and who can really say, since we don’t have those time-warped tapes?), then it is only necessary to wind the clock back further, another four hundred years, say, to Chaucer’s “Middle English” or another eight hundred years to the “Old English” of Anglo-Saxon, until we encounter “English” speech that is completely unintelligible to our modern ears. If we had a tape of Chaucer’s miller sporting with his milkmaids (which would definitely not get the Tipper Gore seal of approval) we would be able to understand little more than, shall we say, the more elementary exclamations.
The critical point here is that historical changes in American English
occur only because our own everyday speech already embraces a tremendous diversity or internal variation which, radiating chaotically in this direction and that, provides the springboard for transformations that alter our speech, sometimes even as we utter it, beyond recognition. It is also crucial to note that the diversity or internal variation is not the result of a simple clumping of the population according to some convenient sociological criteria: children speak one way, adults another, and similarly for men and women, blacks and whites, rich people and poor folks, urbanites and farmers, and so on. The whole point about intersystems and the multidimensional continua that frame them is that it is the peculiar pairings — or three-ings or four-ings, etc. — of a child and adult speaking to each other, of a man and a woman,22 of a black single mother and her white welfare counselor, and so on that constitute the linguistic system.
The individual speaker, you or I, is not a mere pawn in this proliferation of intersystems, but the source of them: each of us “speaks several languages” because each of us is a multiplicity of selves, a whole repertoire of virtual beings who, not unlike the photons in a Hilbert space, may appear at an infinity of locations within an unchartable labyrinth of complex dimensions. Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass (appropriate metaphor!) that each of us contains multitudes. I doubt that he had quantum mechanics, creole linguistics, or anthropological semiotics in mind when he composed that line, but its sense could not be nearer the meaning of “intersystems” operating in “semiospace” as I have tried to describe that process here.
It is a fundamental point of this work that our linguistic competencies, summarized under the rubric of “language,” are far from being a privileged model of culture, of what, again, is “uniquely human,” for the very good reason that those competencies are the interactive product of an extremely variegated, multiplex identity of the individual speaker. And the individual “self” or, in the abstract, personal identity — whatever it is that counts as being a particular human being — is an inexplicable cipher, a meaningless term, without some understanding of the cultural processes that have brought humanity into being, that continuously transform it, and that may well end its career, not necessarily with a bang or a whimper, but with an undirected, wandering series of minor transitions that take us, along with that water droplet, across the line into the domain of Something Else.