Linguistic Movement in Social Coordination: How an Enactivist Might Talk about Talking – IAS Research Seminar by Elena Cuffari

Elena Cuffari will be giving a talk entitled ‘Linguistic Movement in Social Coordination: How an Enactivist Might Talk about Talking

Date and place: 20th of November 2012, at 11.00, Room B14, Carlos Santamaría Building.

Abstract: In this talk I present some of my doctoral research on theories and models of co-speech gesturing in order to motivate a current project that I will also sketch out: developing an enactive theory of linguistic behavior. The conceptual toolkit that enaction offers (autonomy, adaptation, emergence, sense-making) is put to good use in response to growing recognition of the embodied and multimodal nature of high-order human communication. More specifically, I argue that the enactive perspective allows us to single out against a background of other dynamic dimensions the linguistic contributions to the sense we make in social interactions. I thus work towards what I am calling a ‘non-detachable’ philosophy of language in which we understand language as a distinct yet multifaceted sphere of reflexive coupling practices. By ‘non-detachable’ I mean that we must situate any theoretical account of language or empirical analysis of linguistic behavior firmly within a paradigm that explains the thinking and sense-making of living organisms more broadly. Within this context and informed by certain commitments and concepts, we then ask what specific contributions symbol use, abstraction, reference, and representation make to emergent shared meaning. The phrase ‘sphere of reflexive coupling practices’ indicates that linguistic behavior should be thought of as diverse phenomena unified by characteristics of intentional bodily motion through which language inhabitants appropriate, disclose, collaborate on, correct, interpret, and innovate their surroundings and shared significances.

As some video examples will show (but as passing attention to real-life experience also makes obvious!), hand gesturing while speaking is a ubiquitous practice. I suggest that from the acknowledgement that human utterances are multimodal constructions, two possible routes follow: 1) Assimilate the non-verbal modalities to models of verbal language production and comprehension. Within this tack there are a range of options and debates, but the core move is to add another dimension into a pre-existing theory or paradigm. 2) Rethink language entirely, in order to consider possibilities that may have been missed by measures made for monomodal meaning. Most gesture research describes itself as doing 2) while in practice doing 1). Which presses the question: how can we take seriously the challenge, as Adam Kendon puts it, of thinking “in terms of systems of communicative action as being at least bi-modal — kinesic and vocal always in collaboration” (Kendon 2012, 367)? Additionally to this multimodal requirement, we must also take equally seriously the quality of communicative action as being always multiplayer – thus any explanation of linguistic behavior that relies (only or mostly) on speaker intention will fall short of explaining shared sense-making, a basic attribute of what makes linguistic behavior linguistic.

The best theoretical resources for taking the second route in addressing these challenges – that is, rethinking language and linguistic behavior from the ground up – are found in the enactive cognition paradigm. I see my work as following out the leads offered by De Jaegher and Di Paolo’s definition of social interaction as social coordination (2007, 2010). To elaborate on what this might mean for linguistic behavior, I turn to the works of Maturana (1978), Pattee (1982), Polyani (1968), Gendlin (1962, 1997), and Raczawzek-Leonardi (forthcoming), which suggest related notions of linguistic symbol and linguistic behavior (coordination via symbol use) as continuous with materiality and biological life. As my project unfolds, and particularly in the context of an empirically-based project on interactive methodology that Hanne de Jaegher and I are beginning, I plan to focus on coupling, coordination, and reflexivity as traits of linguistic behavior. It may be this last, reflexivity, particularly understood as the condition for critique and sensitivity to correction, that at once connects linguistic behavior to more basic types of organismic sense-making, while also distinguishing the special capacity humans show in talking together.