Sunday, April 14, 2013

Mikhail Epstein. Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto (1)

Epstein, Mikhail. Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto. NY: Bloomsbury, 2012.

Epstein is diving into the broad discipline of humanities and starting anew. I hope to bit by bit write about what he is laying out in his manifesto. Writing from a Russian intellectual tradition he looks at, among other Russian intellectuals, Mikhail Bakhtin, in particular comparing his ideas of community, birth, unity, and culture to those of Foucault (to greatly oversimplify). Epstein does this in part to support his concept of moving from a world of post- to a world of proto-.

In this post I will just write a few lines about his idea of word formation. In Chapter 6, entitled "Semiurgy: From Language Analysis to Language Synthesis," Epstein explores that idea of word coinage and formation. He briefly describes three types of sign making, combinative (most textual writing and in particular philosophical and literary writing), descriptive (words and their definitions as in dictionaries for instance) and the third being formative, or sign formation, the introduction of new signs into language. Epstein himself is developing a new vocabulary throughout his book, which includes an eight page glossary of new vocabulary. He predicts that "sign makers" and "sign givers" will become as important as "law makers," because he sees these two distinct activities as complementary. "[L]aw makes everyone subject to self-restriction, while the new sign creates for everyone a new opportunity for self-expression" (98). The combination of signs (as in philosophical and literary writing) will move from the bringing together of old signs, to the generation of new signs.

Along with the creation of new signs comes the evolution of new concepts bringing with it "new layers of meanings" and "new shades and nuances in the range of feelings, actions and intentions" (99). As an example Epstein presents nine new words for love including dislove, "a deeper feeling than 'dislike', a matter of personal relationship rather than taste" and siamorous, "closely connected by a psychic symbiosis based on love" (100-101). Epstein calls these new words protologisms, "a freshly minted word not yet widely accepted" (101). The name for the next phase for the newly created word as it moves into common use (aided by the prevalence of the Internet) is neologism.

To support this active development of language, Epstein calls for a fourth branch of Semiotics that he calls Semionics (the first three being semantics, syntactics,  and pragmatics). Semionics would be the study of the activity of generating new signs (99) complimenting Semiurgy, which is the practice itself of creating new signs.

Epstein talks about the development of new words and the augmentation of language in the same way a cosmologist might talk about the universe. He exhorts all those tied to words and language to give back.

"A new word is like a mini-meme; it contains the strongest power of propagation, since the maximal meaning is generated with the minimal sign. Cultures that worship Logos as the Word that was before everything must also pay attention to the Neologism, or anticipation of the new word, still silent in the depths of language, until the moment when it bursts into life. In this respect, I wish to make a plea to all writers, lecturers, orators, linguists, literary scholars and teachers, and journalists. We are all users of language's treasures, drawing from it words and phrases and turning them into the means of our very existence; in this way, language value turns into monetary value. We are all dependent on language for our lives. However, language has no Internal Revenue Service agency, to which each of us must pay back with at least one new word for each thousand or tens of thousands of words we have used. And yet, we still can repay our debt (if only in part), enriching language with new words. Let it be a matter of our professional honor" (104).

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