December 19, 2015

Jon Fosse between the language games

I recently had occasion to watch the play Barnet [The child] by Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse at the Dramaten Theatre in Stockholm. It was a moving experience; the dialogue moves slowly and undramatically, the surface is calm but strong emotions move underneath: dread, love, compassion. Speakers communicate not so much through the specific things said, the words used, as through the way they speak, or through the mere fact of saying something.
            The dialogue has a ring of Beckett or Pinter, but in Fosse’s play the words are closer to actual everyday conversation. He appears to have an ability to listen to the way we actually talk free from preconceptions about what linguistic communication is. (Fosse also seems to view his characters with more sympathy than Beckett and Pinter do.)
            The play is about a man, Fredrick, and a woman, Agnes, who meet, fall in love and move in together. She becomes pregnant, there are complications, she is taken to hospital, tests have to be made to determine whether labour will have to be induced prematurely, which would entail a grave risk for the survival of the child.
            Here is a conversation between Fredrick and a nurse waiting for the test results:

Does something like this happen often

It seems so anyway

Because it’s things like this they work
on here


Yes it’s like that I guess
But won’t she come soon

(Looks at her watch)
Yes she’ll probably come
soon now

Is it taking a longer time than usual

(Draws it out)

(Looks at her sceptically)
Are you certain

Maybe it’s taken a little longer
It’s taken a bit of time
(Short pause)
But that isn’t unusual
These examinations
can often take time
You know
the doctors are often busy

I know

But tonight
it’s been quiet so far
She’ll probably come soon

(The quotation is from Jon Fosse, Plays One, London: Oberon Books, 2002, pp. 265 f. The translation is by Louis Muinzer. It may be noticed that the lines do not have punctuation marks.)
            If one were to try to understand what the characters are saying as an attempt at acquiring and conveying information it would all seem hopelessly bewildered. What exactly would it mean for “something like this” to happen “often” or not so “often”? How often is “often”, how soon is “soon”? Does the nurse have any concrete grounds for saying that Agnes will be back soon? She offers an explanation of why the process might take longer (“the doctors are often busy”) but immediately takes it back (“tonight it’s been quiet so far”).
            (There’s the same kind of ambivalence in the doctor telling Fredrick to prepare for the worst yet keep his hopes up:

It can be all right
this sort of thing
well to be frank
the chances aren’t so great)

Fredrick’s questions seek reassurance rather than information, and the nurse tries to offer it. Their remarks have something of the character of poetry or song. The dialogue brings to mind Wittgenstein’s remark (Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Vol.  I, § 888):

The way music speaks. Don’t forget that even though a poem is framed in the language of information, it is not employed in the language game of information….
            Verbal language contains a strong musical element. (A sigh, the modulation of tone for a question, for an announcement, for longing; all the countless gestures  in the verbal cadences.)

One could imagine a culture in which, rather than ask and answer questions, the participants in this kind of interaction played pieces of music for one another, or together. Of course, what they played would vary with the situation.


The interest of this, to me, is that Fosse brings to the fore aspects of human conversation that tend to be overlooked in accounts of language and meaning.
            Paul Grice, famously, defined speaker’s meaning as follows:

“A meant­NN something by x” is (roughly) equivalent to “A intended the utterance of x to produce some effect in an audience by means of the recognition of this intention; and we may add that to ask what A meant is to ask for a specification of the intended effect. (“Meaning”, originally in Philosophical Review 66 (1957))

(“MeaningNN” – “nonnatural meaning” - stands for cases in which somebody means this or that by something, as opposed to cases of “natural” – i.e. roughly causal meaning – as when we say “These spots mean measles”.)
            One type of case Grice considers is “an utterance [which], if it qualifies at all as meaningNN something, will be of a descriptive or informative kind”, in which case the attitude to be produced “will be a cognitive one, for example, a belief.” When the nurse says, “she’ll probably come soon now”, then, is she attempting to produce a certain belief (which belief exactly?) in Fredrick? But even if we take it that that is not what she is doing, can we really understand her words except through reference to the practice of conveying information? Her words are “framed in the language of information” (and that’s what enables us to understand them) but they are not “employed in the language game of information” (nor do we take them to be).
            Similarly, we might ask: in Searlian terms, what is the illocutionary force of the nurse’s lines? Are they assertives, thus counting “as an undertaking to the effect that [the proposition uttered] represents an actual state of affairs”?


J. L. Austin was impressively sensitive to word nuances, not so much to the kinds of speakings there are. Philosophers of language like Grice, Austin or Searle are apt to look at the variety of human forms of linguistic interaction through a grid pattern imposed, I believe, by a tendency to model speech on written language – or perhaps we should say: on the kind of language we were taught to produce at school, with complete and grammatically consistent subject-predicate sentences and clearly indicated references, each sentence having been constructed for a distinct purpose. (For an exception, see Charles Taylor on the expressive use of speech, “Theories of Meaning”, in his collection Human Agency and Language.)
When M. Jourdain in Molière’s The Bourgeois Gentleman is told that unknowingly he has been speaking prose all his life I am not so sure that was accurate. The idea of written prose shapes our ways of looking at speech, it influences the way we actually speak in various contexts, but many of our interchanges are no closer to written prose than they are to poetry.
            We are all familiar with conversations like that quoted above, yet philosophers are inclined to ignore them in thinking about language. The speakers’ lines have an obvious role in the interchange. We can well imagine the sort of line that would be out of place in the context. Yet the words are not used instrumentally in the sense of being deliberately chosen with a specific aim in mind.


Wittgenstein writes, in Philosophical Investigations, Part II ix:

79. ---- Is it so surprising that I use the same expression in different games? And sometimes, as it were, even in between the games?
80. And do I always talk with very definite purpose? – And is what I say senseless because I don’t?

A playwright like Jon Fosse can make us notice what lies between the language games.

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