Friday, October 26, 2012

I'm really enjoying teaching linguistics, partly because I get to revisit Saussure, Boas, and all these old historical characters. Today for example we reviewed Boas and went on to Sapir and Whorf, and what happened after them.

But I came to this one little segment of a chapter called "Relativism and Enactionism." I read it a few times before I realized I was onto something. But then, I googled "enactionism" and Google put me directly onto enactivism.

I read and reread Enactivism until I determined that they were talking about the same movement as the one the book had; it had the same people, same basic idea. They also mentioned Universal Darwinism and other biologically-based theories of cognition.

My book, Anthropological Linguistics by Foley, was published in 1997 and has been reprinted several times. I had a hard time believing this was just a typo, this idea of Enactionism. But Enactionism got no hits. Either they let the typo go because they didn't care, or didn't know, or whatever. It's somewhat surprising. It's like purposely misspelling someone's name to subvert the possibility that it could ever get any more famous.

Back in the 90's I found a friend poring over this movement. Back in those days people depended on these list-serves, where people of like interests would share comments and get involved in huge discussions. This is a group, he said, that was interested in the power of perception as the center, as an important force in making the world what it is. To learn about it, he said, write an e-mail joining the group. They will send you a great introductory piece that will explain it. But then, he said, get off the list immediately, or you will be flooded for days with thousands of e-mails.

I can't remember if I followed his advice or not. The movement, which posits that humans and the environment interact, develop together in sensitivity to each other, is difficult to grasp, or more of it would have stuck with me. I'm more interested in that now, because I believe in a Darwinist interpretation of the self-organized system of language. What are the little actors, that have within them the capacity to adjust, to adapt, to change? Human perception is at the center of this. It's true that it's the words, the pieces, the structures, etc., that live or die, let the strongest survive. But it's the human perception that gives them their strength, that either values them and uses them, or doesn't value them and lets them rot on the vine. It's my job to put this together somehow and explain it. I'm still mulling over how.

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