A curiosity of English grammar (Taney Roniger)

At the end of our conversation with Charles Eisenstein yesterday, there was an interesting exchange -- initiated by Wendy and picked up by Jane and Stephanie -- about the inadequacy of conventional English to express the relational and processual nature of agency. I want to bring it up again here because it’s so relevant to the current session. 

I’m paraphrasing here, but at issue is the construction X does Y to Z (active subject - active verb - passive object), wherein something is always doing something to something else. This is a problem because it doesn’t allow for the more nuanced fact that subject and object are both active and passive; each acts upon and is influenced by the other, however subtly. Jane brought up the “middle voice” as a compelling solution. As she says in her most recent book, Influx and Efflux, “[The  middle voice] designates performances undertaken within a field of activities, rather than decisions of subjects who enter a field either to do something (active voice) or to be acted upon (passive voice).” 

Perhaps Wendy, Jane, and Stephanie would like to pursue this further here (and of course I’d also welcome input from other panelists and readers!).


Stephanie Grilli said...

I must bring Nietzsche into the mix, specifically "On Truth & Lie in a Non-Moral Sense": "For between two absolutely different spheres, as between subject and object, there is no causality, no correctness, and no expression; there is, at most, an aesthetic relation: I mean, a suggestive transference, a stammering translation into a completely foreign tongue-for which I there is required, in any case, a freely inventive intermediate sphere and mediating force."


Wendy Beth Hyman said...

Thanks for raising the question, Taney. That's a great connection, Stephanie. I wonder if Nietzsche was in fact thinking of the middle voice here (he was of course a multilingual philologist), although there are other frames of reference for him in thinking about various non-causal forces (or forces so deeply in the cultural subconscious that "cause" would not be the right way to think of them).

After the session, Jane and I exchanged a couple of emails. As I said to her, it is so fruitful to think through the affordances of a middle voice, because its absence (in English) limits our ability to conceptualize non-hierarchical instantiations of transcendence. This led me to a related thought about metaphor theory--about all the relational in-betweens and affiliations that tropes like metaphor postulate. To unpack this a little, we generally think of literary figures as decorative. But tropes--like allegory or irony or metaphor--structurally rearrange the constituent elements of the literary microcosm. If I say X Y, that is an ontological claim. That is why, for Paul Ricoeur, "tropes are indeed events." They remake meaning in their image.

Related to this is the question of vehicle and tenor. The vehicle is the comparand, the signified. The tenor is the signifier. (I tell my students to imagine the vehicle crashing into the tenor, causing it to vibrate). So, you could actually track the relationships expressed in some fascinating ways. The more capacious and imaginative writers are comfortable stretching the distance between vehicle and tenor, because they believe in a complex and interrelated universe. Their language, in fact, creates new neural and imaginative pathways among diverse conceptual constituents. A cliché is simply an ossified relation, rather than a generative affiliation.

Wendy Beth Hyman said...

Typo in the above. If I say X *is* Y, that is an ontological claim.