When America Was America: Cultural Critique Beyond the Lexicon


In a previous post I began to share some of my ongoing explorations into how the humanities (perhaps more accurately: the interpretive disciplines, especially those that study textual artifacts) came to dwell solely in the lexicon. Why have literary and cultural studies produced countless treatments of words (the meaningful units of discourse) while lacking a minimally plausible account of grammar (the means of combination)? Later on I’ll say why I think these initial formulations of the question are incorrect or at least imprecise. But first I want to take a step back to answer a more basic objection:

Why shouldn’t the study and theory of literature and culture carry on as it is, untroubled by its lexical exclusivism? Studying words – their history, their use, their social and poetic function – really is a rich and revealing and wholly legitimate pursuit, one that teaches us a great deal about how, in Stuart Hall’s terms, we “impose intelligibility on the world.” If that leaves those who study textual artifacts with a relatively unsophisticated understanding of language, well, sophistication for its own sake is hardly a virtue. We should be comfortable studying keywords (and perhaps a few “small words” or “function words”) and leave the rather arcane aspects of grammar to the linguists who are professionally equipped to deal with them.

It’s true that disciplinary division of inquiry is a rational response to the specialization of knowledge. And oh wow is linguistics specialized. As the linguist Geoff Pullum puts it in his account of the “divorce” of English linguistics from English literature, work in theoretical syntax since the 1960s has produced “over-hyped pseudoscience of a sort that seems almost calculated to be unintelligible to humanities academics, especially when no real scientific gains seem to be emerging from such work” (2010). I admit that my interests have led me to invest substantial time and intellectual labor in getting a handle on X-bar theory and learning to distinguish (for example) raising from control .

But it’s unclear what the payoff would be for understanding and interpreting particular texts, cultures, or histories, since in their very formulation these concepts aim to describe human universals – abstract rules or principles that are subtracted from differences of culture and history. Learning the ins and outs of c-command, or the pros and cons of the DP hypothesis, isn’t going to help me interpret Paradise Lost differently or change the way I understand literary culture, sectarian strife, or political violence in the seventeenth century. And many of these concepts are, so to speak, “theory internal” anyway; they are specific to a particular flavor of grammatical theory; when that theory changes, or another is adopted, they can vanish with a puff of smoke or transform into something quite different. So why bother?

That’s the academic side of things. In popular discourse, by contrast, grammar and syntax usually appear in the guise of nitpicky injunctions issued by judgy pedants and cultural gatekeepers. As long as humanists understand “grammar” to mean debates over the permissibility of split infinitives or dangling participles, they will rightly avert their gaze, devoting their limited attention instead to the word-concepts that articulate our identities, voice our lived experience, and shape our ways of living together. Debating how best to use a loaded word like “culture” can be deeply productive and revealing; debating whether “which” can be used to introduce a restrictive relative clause – not so much.

These objections have force. But there are, I think, compelling reasons why the study of culture shouldn’t stop at the shores of the lexicon. Without an account of a language’s combinatory capacities, we won’t really understand how language articulates and makes the world meaningful. Any account of poiesis (how literary artifacts are made) or hermeneutics (how we interpret texts) limited to words – to their selection and combination – will be inadequate. So long as our theories of the sign travel only the road leading from word to world and back, our accounts of both form and meaning will be hopelessly parochial. I will return to these points another time, but let me focus for now on one deficit in particular. To the extent that we think about meaningful non-linguistic systems by analogy to language – the unconscious is structured like a language; the forces and relations of production are structured like a language; “race is more like a language, than it is like the way in which we are biologically constituted”; culture is like a language and its meanings reside largely in and as language, etc. – the lexicalism of literary and cultural studies puts a check on our analysis of culture, our ability to see and critique how it works.

By way of illustration I want to expand on an analysis of a linguistic form that is treated only briefly in Cyberformalism: Histories of Linguistic Forms in the Digital Archive , which is just out this month with Johns Hopkins University Press. Consider the following utterances, located using Google Books:

“And it’s oh! for the days when Men were Men.”

“…when America was America, when people pulled together and made no bones about it.” (Jack Kerouac)

“when America was America; when there was a West; when a man could start with a capital of one hundred and fifty dollars borrowed money and make good.”

“…in early days, when women were men’s mates, when women were women and not just ladies…”

“dogs today are not what they used to be…. There was a time when dogs were dogs…”

“a day when poetry was poetry, as to children cake is cake, whatever its shortcomings.”

These passages include a range of words that are part of what Judith Butler calls our “basic vocabularies”: men, women, America, dogs, poetry, and, er, cake. But their ideological function – the nostalgic desire, the reactionary construction of history, the location of the ideal in a fictional past – is not performed by the words in this vocabulary or any other, but rather by the abstract linguistic form that they fill, which we can initially notate as N [Past Tense Be] N. If we want to analyze that ideological function to see how it works or to contest its working, then attending to vocabulary, studying word histories with the methods of philology, or deconstructing their binary oppositions, won’t get us very far.

The form N [Past Tense Be] N is part of a family of “tautologous constructions,” a set of related sub-constructions. (This shouldn’t be confused with the classical rhetorical trope, tautologia, which refers to the useless restatement of the same thing in different words.) Other members include phrasal templates and the fixed expressions that instantiate them: N [Future Tense Be] N, as in Boys will be boys; [Art] N be [Art] N, as in A promise is a promise, and most obviously N is N, as in Cake is cake, or War is war, or Kipling’s “East is East and West is West.” If you allow for embedding or repetition (or both), then the family could include Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Sonnet, “Love is love” or its line, “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love.” The open categories of these forms – which I will henceforth refer to using the wily spelling of Joyce’s Wake: “tautaulogy – are typically filled by individual nouns, but they accommodate noun phrases (NPs), as suggested by [Art] N Be [Art] N, where [Art] N is a NP, or the now ubiquitous tagline, It is what it is, where [what it is] is a NP.

Love is Love.jpg(The family of tautaulogies is considerably bigger than the sub-constructions listed above, with more distant cousins including I’ll see you if I see you and If it’s broke, it’s broke and qué será, sera and Let Bartlett be Bartlett, and many more. But cataloging must stop somewhere.)

Once you learn forms like these, you can fill them in various ways (potentially infinite ways, if embedded NPs are included) to produce utterances that are new to you and quite possibly (why doubt it?) new in the history of the world. Try it out for yourself!

Tautaulogies are partially unfilled forms that allow you to say new things by filling their blanks in new ways, but they also constrain the ways that their blanks can be acceptably filled. You can announce that Enough is enough, or hark back to the good old days when enough was enough, but saying Much is much or Enough will be enough will likely raise eyebrows. The boys are the boys might not sound wrong, exactly, but I, for one, would be hard pressed to assign it an interpretation, and A boys was a boys will lead people to suspect you’re a) not a competent speaker, b) writing avant-garde poetry, c) a poorly programmed bot, or d) all of the above. (As I said in an earlier post: there’s no end to norms in language.)

Tautaulogies have presented a puzzle to linguists. The problem is that they are apparently vacuous. To the extent that they resemble the logical formula P=P, they seem to express analytic – and therefore necessary – truths. (In the terms of modal semantics, we could say that a sentence like War is War is true in all possible worlds and so doesn’t tell us anything about our world (Snider). And unlike definitions, such as A bachelor is an unmarried man, which are also analytic, tautaulogies don’t even analyze the first term in different terms. So they would seem, on their face, to be completely uninformative.

Yet speakers make felicitous use of tautaulogies with some frequency and even seem to regard them as conveying profound wisdom. And in fact we can give fairly precise and cogent accounts of what tautautologies mean. As Anna Wierzbicka argued in a groundbreaking article, future tense tautaulogies, such as Boys will be boys, express what she calls “a tolerant and indulgent attitude,” and I might instead call an attitude of acquiescence, helplessness, acceptance, or resignation. Tautaulogies of the form [Art] N be [Art] N express obligation in spite of one’s preferences, as when we say The law is the law, A promise is a promise, A deal is a deal, The rules are the rules. This sub-construction is polysemous: other instances, such as A goal is a goal, and War is War, suggest indifferentiation between members of a category: all goals count as goals, regardless of how they are scored, and all wars inevitably share the characteristics of warfare.

Tautaulogies mark differences as well as erase them. Wierzbicka cites the opening words of a Ku Klux Klan leader, “White is white,” and writes that

In such sentences, the speaker stresses the unique quality of something which must be accepted because it cannot be expected to change. But qualities like ‘whiteness’ are also seen as belonging to certain contrastive sets; so, by stressing their uniqueness, the speaker emphasizes the irreducible difference among the members of the set. (98-99)

So tautaulogies can signify the indifferent belonging of members to a group, their contrastive and irreducible difference from members of an opposed group – or both at once. Kipling’s “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” makes explicit the contrastive set, while “White is white” leaves it implicit. In the semantics Wierzbicka proposes, tautological constructions encode specific attitudes, and the words that fill them specify the categories of things towards which those attitudes are expressed.

Earlier attempts at explaining why it is that tautologies are meaningful despite their apparent vacuity drew on Paul Grice’s notion of implicature, and particularly his maxim of quantity: “Make your contribution no less, and no more, informative than required.” On these accounts, tautaulogies do not say anything informative, but they do imply an informative meaning through the logic of conversation. Because tautaulogies appear to flout the maxim of quantity – uninformative counts as less informative than required – hearers will seek to make them informative by reasoning their way to an unspoken meaning that Grice called a conversational implicature.

Wierzbicka, I think, demolishes the simplest version of the pragmatic account of how tautaulogies mean, which postulates a set of language-invariant maxims (or, mutatis mutandis, a human tendency to maximize relevance) by which speakers reason their way to an implied meaning. This version is unable to account for, on the one hand, the differing semantics of the various tautaulogies within a language (Boys will be boys expresses a different meaning than Boys are boys, while The boys are the boys doesn’t have an obvious interpretation), or, on the other hand, the different semantics and distribution of tautautologies in different languages (Wierzbicka compares English, German, French, Russian, and Polish, and Japanese). In rejecting the pragmatic explanation, Wierzbicka concludes that tautological constructions are language-specific signs – conventionally established pairings of signifier and signified, form and meaning. The meanings paired with tautaulogical forms vary significantly across languages, and speaker-listeners must learn those meanings as part of learning a language. In Russian, for example, tautaulogies indicate that one must do something rather than that one must put up with something. In French one wouldn’t say La guerre est la guerre, though one could say C’est la guerre or La guerre, c’est la guerre. Subsequent studies have shown the wide variation in the conventional meaning of tautaulogies in various languages, including Japanese (Okamoto), Korean (Kwon), Chinese (Wen), and Jordanian Arabic (Farghal).

While Wierzbicka shows that tautological constructions can’t be “FULLY worked out on the basis of any language-independent principles” (99), she does not deny that there are some aspects of their use and meaning that are not conventional and construction-specific. The meaning of a tautaulogy is not wholly arbitrary; it is partly motivated both by its lexical constituents (the tense of be and the characteristics of the repeated NPs) and its parent constructions (more general constructions, such as predication, whose semantic properties tautaulogies inherit). Even once we’ve learned their conventional meaning, comprehending the meaning of their instantiations involves some process of inference, prompted and constrained by convention. Tautaulogies thus present a puzzle of sorts to speaker-listener-writer-readers as well as linguists.

Consider an instance of the sub-construction we started with, “there was a time when dogs were dogs.”  Interpreting this tautaulogy involves introducing difference at the level of the signified even when there is identity at the level of the signifier. We construe dogs as an empirical designation in the subject and as an ideal in the predicate, as meaning, in effect: when those things we call dogs were what dogs should be (Rhodes). (Here I have some doubt about the terms: I might also say that dogs appears first as a cover term, then as an emphatic term.) The nostalgic, reactionary function of the tautaulogy arises from the displacement of dogs = dogs with dogs were dogs, implying that dogs are no longer dogs and, consequently, that now dogs ≠ dogs. In this respect the past-tense tautaulogy shares semantic properties not just with other tautological sub-constructions, but with also with contradictory constructions, such as “Love is not love” from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 or Iago’s “I am not what I am,” which mark the semantic/functional difference between the identical terms with a sign of negation, not. But I suppose that the interpretation of many (and perhaps all) tautaulogies involves just this sort of convention-constrained introduction of difference at the level of the signified to supplement the lack of difference in the signifier.

There’s plenty more to say about the linguistic characteristics of tautaulogies – about their semantics, pragmatics, syntax, and so on – but I’ve said enough for now to move on to establishing their relevance to cultural critique. No less than the words of our basic vocabularies, they are linguistic signs that take their place within a larger system of differences. Their meanings are at least in part conventional and specific to different languages. And they are productive, affording speakers and writers the constrained creativity they need to say acceptable things that they have not read or heard before.

Like the words of our basic vocabularies, tautaulogies don’t signify in some neutral sense. They serve a particular ideological function, smuggling in synthetic judgments under the guise of analyticity, giving to culturally specific and conventional judgments the appearance, at the level of the signifier, of necessary and self-evident truth. In the terms of modal semantics, they appear to index all possible worlds while covertly indexing only a subset of those worlds (of which our world may or may not be one). They invite us to perform the convention-conditioned process of inference, even as they make the results of the inference process appear natural and universal. How, without appearing to contradict oneself, can one deny, of anything in particular or of everything in general, that It is what it is?

The semantics of tautaulogies varies by language, but in English, at least, they convey an attitudinal posture of acquiescence or helplessness towards the world as it is, even while measuring the empiricity of the world against pre-given, idealized essences. We can see this ideological function operating in the specific, subject-interpellating domains of gender (Boys will be boys), empire (“East is East and West is West”), nation (When America was America) and race (“White is white”). But their ideological function is not limited to individual or communal subject-formation. In some cases tautaulogies frame acquiescence to existing institutional frameworks, even callous or cruel frameworks, not merely as helplessness or tolerance but as obligation (The law is the law, A deal is a deal). In others they nostalgically locate an ideal in the past and cast the present as a declension from that ideal (When America was America).

To study tautautologies is to study a consequential element of what Gramsci called “common sense” or “good sense,” the popular thought, built from the fossilized fragments of philosophical discourse, that “creates a folklore of the future” – in this case, a future that is bound, irrespective of human agency, to look indifferently like the present (War is war, Boys will be boys). I invoke Gramsci here because he is one of the thinkers who teaches us to see the way that systems of meaning, and especially the meaningful elements of common sense, do not merely function as unequivocal elements of domination, but also serve as resources out of which resistance and dissent are built. This is as true of tautaulogies as it is of words. They are not implements intrinsically tethered to a single class or political interest. Even when they have not been subject to explicit critique, they have been the objects of parody, as when Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes of the “antebellum esthetic position” that wishes to return to a time

when men were men and men were white, when scholar-critics were white men and when women and people of color were voiceless, faceless servants and laborers, pouring tea and filling brandy snifters in the boardrooms of old boys’ clubs.

They can and have been renovated and made critical, taken up and repurposed for oppositional political aims and used as part of attempts to reconfigure the present. Love is love, which appears on protest and yard signs as well as in Lin-Manuel’s poem, shares its semantic and discursive function with other instances of what we can now notate more precisely as NP1 Be NP1, signifying that all members of a category (homosexual and heterosexual love) participate indifferently in that category (love). As with other tautaulogies, Love is love presents its synthetic judgment as natural and analytic, no less necessary that P=P. “War is war,” wrote Gramsci, “and he who embarks on that adventure must feel the full force of the beast that he has awoken.”

Tautaulogies articulate, and partially configure, the contested terrain within movements as well. When the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie asserted in an interview that “Trans women are trans women,” she articulated a factional position within the domain of liberal/left feminism. Her utterance shares its semantics and ideological function with other contrastive tautaulogies, such as “East is East, and West is West,” except that it leaves the contrastive pair implict. It unmarks differences within the named group in order to mark differences with another unnamed group, in this case cis women. Of course, it has to be understood not simply as the bearer of its own conventional meaning but as a response to – and indeed a rejection of – another sentence, Trans women are women, often associated with trans activism and trans inclusion, and that appears on posters and yard signs, in newspaper and blog headlines, in hashtags and tweets and social media posts. For purposes of analysis, here are the two utterances:

Trans women are women

Trans women are trans women

It is easy enough to notice that the two statements differ only by the presence of a single word, a single attributive adjective, “trans,” in the predicate NP – a word that also appears in the subject NPs of both statements. But the difference between the two utterances, at the level of form and meaning, can’t be accounted for merely by the presence or absence of a word.  Unpacking the word “trans,” however instructive in other contexts, would contribute little to the analysis of these utterances and their opposition. Trans women are women participates in a non-tautaulogical predicative construction that assigns a species to a genus. Other utterances that participate in the same construction are White women are women and Black women are women and, for that matter, Red cars are cars and Big birds are birds (and so on, quite literally ad infinitum). Though it is not tautaulogical, this predicative construction has, at the level of the signifier, much of the force of a tautaulogy, since the same noun head, “women,” reappears in both subject and predicate, with difference marked only by the modifier in the subject NP. But Adichie’s tautaulogy, “Trans women are trans women,” with identical subject and predicate NPs, competes for the same rhetorical and ideological force. In defining what Judith Butler termed “the subject of feminism,” it unmarks some differences (the differences between one trans women and another) in order to mark others (the differences between trans women and cis women), even as it appears to state only a necessary identity.

To be sure, there is no logical contradiction between the statement that “Trans women are trans women” and Trans women are women.  Yet in a “Clarifying” follow-up Adichie pointedly refuses to say that “Trans women are women,” except to cite it as what is said by another, on the ground that doing so is “disingenuous.” Conversely (and to locate myself) I am unwilling to say that “Trans women are trans women,” except to cite what has been said by Adichie. But this is just to say that the contradiction between the respective statements is a political contradiction rather than a logical one.

I hasten to point out that such statements – slogans, dicta, hashtags, etc. – are not dispositive in issues of ethical, social, and political reasoning, nor should they be. They do not on their own settle ideological struggles or resolve contradictions between real interests (nor have I proposed to resolve them here, as if that were possible). Yet, like the words of our vocabulary, they configure the way that debates unfold. They influence the shapes that factions take and the commitments they assume. Through them factions become legible to one another and, for that matter, to themselves.

Having surveyed the politics of tautaulogies, their role in configuring particular social contradictions, and their peculiar ideological functioning, let me step back to a higher level of abstraction.  In the works of thinkers such as Lacan, Althusser, Barthes, Kristeva, Irigaray, and many, many others, the theory and study of culture adopted its most basic, infrastructural account of meaning and representation from structuralist linguistics. There is no shortage of texts in which that account is rehearsed, but my own reading has most recently included the remarkable lectures on the history of Cultural Studies that Stuart Hall delivered in 1983 and for which the transcripts were recently published. In those lectures, Hall describes how, in Saussure,

the matrix of a language consists of a limited set of elements, which might be as arbitrary as the different phonemic bits of which a language is made up or with which a computer works, and the rules which tell you how to select certain bits and how to combine them with others in order to produce well-formed chains in order to say things intelligibly and correctly. This is an elegantly simple model consisting of elements and rules of selection and combination. (63)

Like many theorists working at the time, Hall silently imports into his exposition of Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and structuralism more generally a number of concepts borrowed from Chomskyan generative grammar. He writes, for example, that “Langue,” a Saussurean concept,

is synchronic deep structure: “deep” because it is not necessarily conscious; “structure” because it expresses the processual and dynamic sequencing of linguistic performance as a static system of rules. (63)

While “synchronic” is Saussurean, the provenance of the term “deep structure” (although not the meaning: see my earlier post) is Chomskyan, as is the concept of “linguistic performance.” Likewise, the notion that “an infinite set of actual speech acts or cultural acts can be performed out of a limited matrix of rules,” is a central doctrine of Chomskyan accounts of language, one that Chomsky himself traces back to the nineteenth century Prussian linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt. The conflation of structuralism with generative grammar aside, Hall’s synoptic history passes from language to myth to “human activities” more generally, including “symbolic systems, social organizations, political systems, or kinship systems” (70), and especially to the “structuralizing” of Marxism: “you have the elements of a mode of production and the different rules of combination through which the forces and relations of production are combined, for example, either in feudalism or capitalism” (100).

Across all of these various domains, structure is composed of two ingredients: “a limited set of elements” and “the rules which tell you how to select certain bits and how to combine them with others.” In the domain of language, we would say: the words of a lexicon and the rules of a grammar. Words and rules, words and rules, words and rules.

Where in the structuralist notion of “structure” composed of words and rules do tautaulogical constructions of the form NP1 Be NP1 fit in? They are simultaneously word-like and rule-like. Like the words in a lexicon, they are conventionally established signs, parings of signifying form and signified meaning. But like the traditional rules of grammar, tautaulogies are means of combination that get filled in creative but constrained ways to produce a large, perhaps indefinitely large, number of distinct and acceptable utterances. This is why I suggested that my starting question – “Why do humanists study only the meaningful units of discourse while lacking a minimally plausible account of the means of combination?” – was imprecisely formulated. Tautaulogies are both meaningful units and means of combination.

So where do they live? One option would be settle them in the margins of the structure, whether as a rule-like supplement to the words of the lexicon or as a sign-like supplement to the rules of grammar. Yet as I argue in Cyberformalism, and as I will suggest in future posts, this settlement is unsatisfactory. Tautaulogies and other linguistic entities like them compel us to reject (in fact deconstruct, though I’ll have to justify that term) the very distinction between words and rules, elements of meaning and means of combination. Following the lead of Construction Grammarians, humanists will need to rebuild, from top to bottom, the “structure” of structuralism – and with it the linguistic foundation of the last half-century of studying, theorizing, and critiquing culture.


One thought on “When America Was America: Cultural Critique Beyond the Lexicon

  1. Pingback: Searching for Love is Love | DanielAllenShore

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