“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, September 21, 2007

a rough passage

One of the great contributions of Greimas’ semiotics to the world at large, or – more to the point - to the petty world maintained here by LI, is the notion of modalization, which is, briefly, that there are instances in discourse in which modals overdetermine descriptive utterances. Now, those of you who have taken a foreign language know what modal verbs are. They are verbs of ability, obligation, necessity, belief, and knowing, which usually take as their objects other verbs. Thus, ‘he goes’ can be turned into ‘he can go’, ‘he needs to go’, ‘he wants to go’, ‘he may go’, or even ‘he knows that he can go’, ‘he believes he needs to go,’ and so on. In logic, modals are about degrees of possibility, which highlights the linguistic modals around ‘can’ in our example – but in Greimas’ scheme, possibility leads us to the objective and subjective theories of possibility, which in turn leads us to knowing, believing, desiring, feeling – the propositional attitudes.

Now, LI is making this foray into the Antarctica of the arid for a reason. It is by using the notion of modalization that one is able to, as it were, crack the code of the polar affect model. A code that is rooted in the geneology of the ascription of positive or negative to feelings. As we noted in a previous post, the three sources that seem to be of interest in the development of this Sprachestil go back to the utilitarians, the energetics models of the 19th century physicists, and the language of animal magnetism. What is interesting, with relation to the latter, is that animal magnetism stands at the beginning of the great American idea of ‘positive thinking’. Positive and negative thinking arises out of the mixture of religious, therapeutic and social discourse in 19th century America, particularly in the North. It was made popular by that peculiar semi-religious precursor of New Age thinking called New Thought – the first self-conscious self help movement in the U.S. That movement was imprinted with the vocabularies of Christian science and a faint echo of transcendentalism, and was characterized by that thing that pops up in America again and again – the peculiar elasticity and availability of fact in the face of thought. Positive thought implicitly references the mentalist idea that the world is thought, and so thought can do things in the world – change the world. Now, there are many roots for this notion, but one of them is definitely animal magnetism. I am going to write a post about the voyage of Dr. Charles Poyen to these here states in 1839 – a little transatlantic epic that would have fascinated Charles Olson. But my larger point – for my essay – is that the polar model as it is used in everyday life now is dialectically divided between two modalizations, one inflecting ‘thought’, the other ‘feeling’, which are borne along by antithetical presuppositions.

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