Berthoff, Ann E. “Sapir and the Two Tasks of Language.” Semiotica, vol. 71, no. 1/2, Sept. 1988, pp. 1-47.
First this: our library at GSU doesn’t subscribe to Semiotica. This article was difficult to track down, though I do believe there is a copy of it in Ann’s papers at UMass Boston. She told me she thinks this is the best article she ever wrote. I can see why. In many ways it addresses (sometimes implicitly) the moves comp/rhet as a field is making during the 80s and 90s. It certainly addresses the source of her suspicions about postmodernist philosophy and what it has to offer the teaching of writing.
Sometimes—well, most times—I think I’m trying to do too much in my diss. Why don’t I just say that there is a lot to gain by thinking about AEB’s work as we move our writing teaching into digitally-saturated spaces? The “why now” complicates things, though. I can say that her work brings together conversations in new materialisms, embodiment, multimodality, teacher training and design, and that these conversations remain rather disjointed from each other, but that doesn’t feel quite right. Even when conversations do bring together “embodiment,” say, and “visual rhetoric,” usually in a monograph or a section on “practical uses,” rarely do we hear what theories of language and theories of learning undergird suggested classroom practices included at the end. We have a funny idea of what is praxis, I think. As though including a section—”what this approach looks like in the classroom”—is all it takes to make a “praxis.” A “praxis” is not a “method.”
Berthoff’s work forces us to think more deeply, to theorize more practically and to practice more philosophically; to strive, perhaps, for method. In a time when change happens so quickly, it’s hard to do it. At a time when teaching is devalued so thoroughly it’s hard to do it. But if teaching is going to return to being (or become) a human enterprise, humanifying our society against the onslaught of AI, algorithms, and oppressive social systems… I think we need Berthoff. See? I’m always trying to save the world 🙂
Ann is genius, though. If all this dissertation does is organize into a package the suggestion that her work can be leveraged to return us to notions of method rooted in literacy studies, and provide direction to resources for people to do so… Well I can’t ask more of myself… So here are notes from “Sapir and the Two Tasks of Language,” Berthoff’s “best” essay.
1: Berthoff’s critique of “The Sapir-Whorf” hypothesis. She identifies John B. Carroll as the party responsible for misrepresenting Sapir by creating the hyphenated relationship, a construction that misleads. Berthoff seems to be identifying, too, a root of postmodernism’s problems with language. She calls it “the doctrine of linguistic relativity”: “…since the doctrine of linguistic relativity is often called upon to validate certain politically suspect attitudes in literacy theory and to support highly questionable pedagogies.”
She goes on: “Its interest is also theoretical, since this hypothesis has encouraged some to support spurious interpretations of ‘indeterminacy’.” **Note that Berthoff later (and consistently) defines a difference between “indeterminacy” and “ambiguity” (*Mysterious Barricades)
Berthoff distinguishes “Whorf’s ‘linguistic relativity’ from Sapir’s pilosophy of language, to show that Whorf’s views are expressions of a thoroughgoing positivism, whereas Sapir’s views are informed by an understanding of symbolization and of the concept of mediation” (1-2). ***I think for many who happen upon Berthoff’s work, it’s too easy to get caught up in name-calling around “positivism.” Unlike Ann, I don’t see the value in fighting against that tide; I’d rather energize “the concept of mediation”… And it seems like we’re doing that right now… talking about mediation… only we’re doing it in terms of “materialisms” and “bodies.” Berthoff returns language (written, spoken), and other meaning-laden experiences, to our conversations about mediation. (YES! That’s right.)
2: “Sapir wrote searchingly on the principles and method of psychoanalysis; he wrote one of the first reviews of George Manley Hopkins (probably the most influential poet of the early part of this century), and he was himself a poet and pianist. He understood very well the importance of the kind of distinction Wittgenstein and others were attempting to make between discursive and non-discursive forms of symbolic representation.”
“Almost from the first, Sapir was concerned to develop a conception of language which would be biologically and psychologically sound and capable of generating an appropriate method of inquiry into languages’s role in culture.”
**Berthoff advances the notion here that Whorf “borrowed Sapir’s language,” but when he did so, he did not borrow Sapir’s ideas. **I’ve contended that’s happened in our field with Berthoff’s work, particularly we have drawn on one term or another (“chaos” or “all-at-once”) without fully accounting for her meaning in the context of her theoretical point of view.
“Sapir is thoroughly committed—first and last, early and late—to a triadic view of the sign” (3).
“He does not conceive of reference and representation as relationships holding directly between a signifier and a signified; the sign functions only because of the mediating idea which empowers and articulates the symbolic relationship of what represents and what is represented. Thus, in Sapir’s anthropological linguistics, the meaning relationship is always given a social or historical context…It is notable that the triadic sign is central to Vygotsky’s conception of ‘meidated activity’; to the meaning of meaning, as set forth by Ogden and Richards; to Wolfang Kohler’s studies of perception and communication; and to Cassirer’s philosophy of language and myth” (3).