Lately I have been developing an account of how literary and cultural studies, along with intellectual history and related disciplines in the humanities, became lexicalist disciplines. That is, how did they come to study and understand language as what Reinhart Koselleck variously calls a “dictionary” or a “sociopolitical vocabulary”? How did questions about meaning and signification get narrowed to questions about the relationship between word and world?
One needs to take only a small step away from the lexicon to see many of the methodological developments of the last few decades – the study of keywords, Begriffsgeschichte, historical semantics, cultural semantics, critical semantics, literary semantics, queer philology, the architecture of concepts, and many of the methods that now fall under the umbrella of digital humanities and distant reading – as variations on a single, coherent project: historicist lexical semantics. Martin Jay has recently offered a useful survey of how this project, flanked by metaphorological and rhetorical counterparts, has changed and evolved in intellectual history over the last century.
I always hasten to add: I think the project of historicist lexical semantics is legitimate, productive, illuminating, and worthwhile. As an account of language, meaning, and creativity, however, it is also incomplete, limited, and limiting. My new book, Cyberformalism, tries to suggest how humanists might move past the lexicalism of historicist semantics to study other kinds linguistic sign units. But now I am asking: hud did the humanities acquire its lexicalist limits in the first place.
One text to which I’ve turned is Stuart Hall’s history of Cultural Studies, as he related it in a series of lectures delivered in 1983. There he gives an account of the structure of structuralism as, “an elegantly simple model consisting of elements and rules of selection and combination” (63).
The elements – words – get further attention, but the rules of selection and combination quickly retreat from view. Here is a passage where we can see that retreat as it happens.
In Jamaica, Where I spent my youth and adolescence, I was constantly hailed as “coloured.” The way that term was articulated with other terms in the syntaxes of race and ethnicity was such as to produce the meaning, in effect: “not black.” The “blacks” were the rest – the vast majority of the people, the ordinary folk. To be “coloured” was to belong to the “mixed” ranks of the brown middle class, a cut above the rest – in aspiration if not in reality. My family attached great weight to these finely graded classificatory distinctions and, because of what it signified in terms of distinctions of class, status, race, and colour, insisted on the inscription. Indeed, they clung to it through thick and thin, like the ultimate ideological lifeline it was. You can imagine how mortified they were to discover that when I came to England I was hailed as “coloured” by the natives there precisely because, as far as they could see, I was “black” for all practical purposes! The same term, in short, carried quite different connotations because it operated within different “systems of differences and equivalences.” It is the position within the different signifying chains which “means,” not the literal, fixed correspondence between an isolated term and some denotated position in the colour spectrum. (147)
This is a powerful example of how the structuralist account of language became an implement in the arsenal of critique. Tipping his hat to Althusser with the word “hailed,” Hall shows that the same word (signifier) has different meanings, marks out different identities, when located in a different cultural and linguistic systems. Two terms that are essentially synonyms in British English (coloured=black) instead mark an opposition or distinction in Jamaican English (coloured=not black). Hall’s analysis (which follows the trajectory of his autobiography) challenges the necessity of racial regimes by showing their contingency across languages and cultures (in other passages, across historical periods as well). Though this kind of analysis owes much to Hall, it does not belong to him or even to the category of race, but instead has roots and ramifications across all identity categories and all domains of cultural theory and critique.
Notice Hall’s use of the term “syntaxes.” What does it mean to speak here of “syntaxes of race and ethnicity”? One might suppose that the term refers to the “rules of selection and combination” that, along with meaningful elements, he earlier described as twin components of linguistic structure. But Hall’s analysis, however powerful, performs no analysis, and offers no examples, of “combination” – no sentences, syntagms, chains, or sequences of words – at all. There are only individual terms – “coloured” and “black”- and the semantic associations between them. (Perhaps we can suppose that they are members of a common paradigm, from which they can be “selected” and combined into any number of utterances). The upshot, in any event, is that “syntax” refers only to the “systems of differences and equivalences” between meaningful elements, between words. In Hall’s analysis – as in the structuralist tradition of which he is, I think, highly representative – “syntax” is fully absorbed into the lexicon.
There is nothing wrong with using the term “syntax” in this way – to indicate the relations between the words in the lexicon. Linguists who, since Chomsky, have focused on the structure of sentences have no monopoly on that term (or, for that matter, on the term “grammar,” which also occasionally gets used in the same way). But using “syntax” in the way that Hall does leaves anonymous and unaddressed the issue of creative combination. Without a name to call its own, at least in the structuralist tradition, the issue of combination – how a finite repertoire of meaningful elements are joined to make an indefinite number of complex utterances, and indeed to invent new elements – steps out of the frame.