Flexibility III - John Sinclair’s ‘Objective’ Approach to Language
The thesis of the seventh chapter of John Sinclair’s Trust the Text (2004) is difficult, as it highlights the necessity of refraining from taking a stance on an emotionally charged problem (neoliberalism, for our purposes) in order to describe how language makes its meaning.
Sinclair begins by identifying two general trends in language analysis: subjectivity and objectivity (and my reader will probably already anticipate the difficulties involved therein). “The basic task is the explication of the text, and while some scholars reject any systematic approach, relying instead on a direct appeal to the sensitivities of their audience, many prefer to make use of descriptive schemes, claiming that they have several advantages over the self-reliance of the individual.” (Sinclair 2004: 115) Citing Norman Fairclough among others, for Sinclair ‘critical discourse analysis’ = subjectivity, against which he situates his own descriptivism and objectivism. Text study, as he puts it, is a slow and laborious process in that it is expected to be comprehensive; it must cover, indeed saturate, the entire field of its context. He quickly concedes, however, that such analyses will always fall short of their goals, “since at extremely refined levels of interpretation there is almost certain to be a personal element, no shared system of analysis will be considered accurate. This reservation, of course, applies to all areas of intellectual inquiry.” (ibid.: 116) The reality of any observation involves a certain slippage between subjectivity and objectivity, but ideally, a context would be without subject. Technology has given linguists the possibility of studying large corpora, objectively, in contrast to the appeal to emotion on the part of the subjectivism of critical discourse analysis. “Reference can be made to the huge accumulation of usage that is lodged in the corpora, providing evidence of shades of meaning and subtleties of expression that have not until now been transferable into the shaded area.” (ibid.: 117)
Using Fairclough’s analysis of flexibility as an example (see Fairclough 1999), Sinclair dismisses as an Orwellian paranoia the notion that a word having exclusively unpleasant consequences for its users would occur only in positive or benign contexts. Corpus linguistics, he argues, goes beyond an individual’s capacity to inspect a certain discourse like that of flexibility. “For example, the flexibility reported in Fairclough’s paper is represented as uniformly undesirable for those who are obliged to be flexible, and yet there are plenty of instances in the corpus of flexible and flexibility used with approval by people other than the captains of industry.” (Sinclair 2004: 119-20) Citing 13,318 occurrences of the word in his corpus, Sinclair notes that the majority of these are positive, and Fairclough’s argument thereby all the weaker. But this point is just banal; of course flexibility is generally a good thing I think most people prefer over rigidity. People generally prefer freedom over control, and life over death.
The thing with words is that a championing of ‘freedom’ can just as easily be rallied to support the unsanctioned military invasion of a country by the US, just as a championing of ‘life’ can bizarrely justify both blowing up abortion clinics and encouraging the death penalty. Flexibility also works to ensure high turnover rates, decrease workers’ rights, reduce trade barriers, foster unemployment, all the while maintaining the lifestyle of the planet’s wealthiest elite. Sinclair’s argument is that “citation of ‘used language’ proves nothing in itself about language unless the process of selectivity that is inevitable in such circumstances is controlled.” (ibid.: 120)
Sinclair has a point; of course one can’t only focus on observing those occurrences of a term that support one’s ethico-political claim. But perhaps two different aims are at stake here: one could study throughout the entire corpora of financial print culture occurrences of the word ‘dollar,’ but the reasons why one would do so would be lost on me. It’s unfair to say of Fairclough that his focus on certain concepts lack context, particularly because context itself is neither subjective nor objective, any observation of discourse will always entail a certain normativity.
The strangest thing of Sinclair’s book for me is in fact its opening dedication to M.A.K. Halliday, one of the founders of ecolinguistics. Halliday undertook laborious deconstructions of the grammatical metaphor in English to reveal that many of our blind spots concerning environmental degradation were built into the structure of the language itself (see his “New Ways of Meaning” in The Ecolinguistics Reader). An awareness of these structures, it is hoped, would pave the way for a more just ecological future. Indeed, if context is itself the oikos of ecology and economy, any observation or description of language bears within itself, or is inextricably bound up with a possible resistance, critique and normativity for a more just economical, and ecological future.