word #23: “peripeteia” (n)

noun. (literal Greek translation: “sudden change”)

  1. Peripeteia – or peripety – is a reversal of fortune; a fall. In drama, usually the sudden change of fortune from prosperity to ruin; but it can be the other way about. A much debated term, it was first used by Aristotle in Poetics (Chap. VI). The relevant passage, in Bywater’s translation, is:

[Peripety] is the change from one state of things within the play to its opposite of the kind described, and that too in the way we are saying, in the probable or necessary sequence of events; as it is for instance in Oedipus: here the opposite of things is produced by the Messenger, who, coming to gladden Oedipus and to remove his fears as to his mother, reveals the secret of his birth.



Is a Term a Word?

Terminology sometimes refers to specialized language, but it also can refer simply to language that requires more than one word as its signifier. Are terms then in this second sense not also words?

There are two ways that words can contain more that one signifier and still – incontrovertibly – be called words: the compound word (i.e. sailboat, birdbrain, loveshack) and the hyphenated word (i.e. half-baked, gold-digger, mind-boggled). These both leave unaccounted the so-called term (i.e. fish tank, human history, credit cards). Terms refer to a single idea or thing, so in this sense they are cleanly nouns, and yet they are simultaneously not words but are instead a kind of word-set, something universally compounded in usage but never formally linked whether typographically or grammatically. They are paradoxically two-word words.

While this contradiction in the definition of “word” may or may not hold, the OED points to a crack in the foundation of “term” as well:

13 a: A word or phrase used in a definite or precise sense in some particular subject, as a science or art; a technical expression

13: b. In wider application: Any word or group of words expressing a notion or conception, or denoting an object of thought; an expression (for something). Generally with qualifying adj. or phrase.

In the first definition, terms are something specified, technical, scientific and exacting; yet in the second, the thing is general, vague, whimsical, and inexact.

The word “signifier” is a linguistic term that appeals to the ambiguities and tensions of our common conceptions and definitions for the word “word.” Presumably, a signifier refers to what is being used to signal the thing subjected to discussion (signified) whether it is through a hyphenated word, compound word, utterance, term, word-set, sentence, sneeze, or hiccup.

These gaps in clarification highlight just how much grammar (which is a kind of mutant field of philology) and Linguistics (which is both a pseudo-anthropology and a pseudo-neuroscience) are distinctly separate disciplines. Besides their socio-political differences (Grammar is insular, Linguistics is cross-cultural), they have fundamentally different conceptions of what builds our symbolic networks. Each is helpfully insufficient, and both curiously incompatible. Moreover, both the slipperiness of the terms and their porously abstract conceptualizations that attempt to (with varyingly degrees and success) buttress as well as conceal the mechanistic virtues (or even sense) of either further supports the counterintuitive claim that language is far more material and physically resonant than semioticians or grammarians have historically highlighted when configuring the Whats and the Hows of language.

Precarity and its Sponsors

When you drive as much as I have this year, sometimes you forget exactly what germinates a line of thought, even an obsessional line of thought. All you know is that you were driving at the time. The image I’m reminded of appears off the main road – it might actually be Main Street – to and from Catskills High School off the NY Thruway: there are beautiful views of the mountains cut in zigzags by rust-belt industrialization, a towering railroad bridge, decrepit estates hugging eroded cliffs, businesses racked by plywood, exhausted human beings. My thought, barreling through beauty and blight, is that while it’s cliché to note how cities are alienated from the natural world, there’s barely a city on earth whose locus isn’t a river, a bay, a lake, a shore—and isn’t that a contradiction? March’s issue of Harper’s features a piece by Elizabeth Royte called “The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn” about urban spelunking and the search for ancient waterways trickling up in New Yorker’s basements. Only a few months after this recollected I time, I moved to a coastal city, which is, topographically speaking, where you’ll find half of humanity on a given day. Long story short, I don’t know why I am fixated on this absurdity of Modernity where, although we predominantly inhabit the world in indifference to or defiance of our natural surroundings, we predominantly  do so at exactly those geographical spots where nature is its most animate and fertile and chaotic and wondrous.

I’m continually fascinated (and a bit perturbed) by how between the disciplines there are many different names to talk about the same thing; this can be instructive, like a kind of academic Rashomon, but also a kind of decadence where a discipline is simply air-guitaring with newfangled jargon (think Silicon Valley). In my reflections above, I am leaning on the words “contradiction” and “absurdity” – which in other disciplines can be referred to as conflicts, paradoxes, tensions, antagonisms, negations, on and on. In France during the Occupy Wall Street heyday, protestors began using the term “precarity” to name what it was they were protesting (OWS in Zuccotti Park were heavily criticized by sympathetic know-betters who said they needed to adopt a platform so they could achieve a tangible result from their work). Precarity in many ways speaks to being stuck driving-while-thinking, and thus unable to write down one’s thoughts (a sociological study of Cuomo’s 91 texting zones or so-called “Text Stops” would be fascinating to read; commissioning the NSA to produce a Humanities study with their illegally mined data and not military-industrial reports would be an interesting act of bureaucratic atonement). Precarity also is exactly the name that fits Deborah Brandt’s definition of literacy in her deeply insightful paper, Sponsors of Literacy. Brandt writes,

“literacy as a resource becomes available to ordinary people largely through the mediations of more powerful sponsors. These sponsors are engaged in ceaseless processes of positioning and repositioning, seizing and relinquishing control over meanings and materials of literacy as part of their participation in economic and political competition. In the give and take of these struggles, forms of literacy and literacy learning take shape.”

Throughout 2016, the question of just what is “literacy” has proven vexing, but Brandt seems to see fluctuating inconsistency as a key feature of literacy, which has all kinds of repercussions for the initial frame of inquiry.

By focusing on the “sponsors” of literacy, Brandt is smartly consolidating a lot of politically-charged language into a term new in this theoretical form: patrician philanthropy, corporate advertising, community organizing, social customs, wealth concentration, resource distribution, political representation, family structures, on and on. Importantly, Brandt’s personified literacy sponsors are not necessarily intentional actors, nor are literacy practitioners self-consciously intentional in a given literacy’s formation, practice, or outcome. I think because of this point of sponsorship, literacy is sufficiently distinct from Dewey’s “education is life” algebra (i.e., education happens, thus literacy is enabled). The following quote is an extended list of this unintended enabling and its outcomes (which now becomes hard to distinguish from what we call “the world” or “history”):

This analysis of sponsorship forces us to consider not merely how one social group’s literacy practices may differ from another’s, but how everybody’s literacy practices are operating in differential economies, which supply different access routes, different degrees of sponsoring power, and different scales of monetary worth to the practices in use. In fact, the interviews I conducted are filled with examples of how economic and political forces, some of them originating in quite distant corporate and government policies, affect people’s day-to-day ability to seek out and practice literacy. As a telephone company employee, Janelle Hampton enjoyed a brief period in the early 1980s as a fraud investigator, pursuing inquiries and writing up reports of her efforts. But when the breakup of the telephone utility reorganized its workforce, the fraud division was moved two states away and she was returned to less interesting work as a data processor. When, as a seven-year-old in the mid-1970s, Yi Vong made his way with his family from Laos to rural Wisconsin as part of the first resettlement group of Hmong refugees after the Vietnam War, his school district which had no ESL programming-placed him in a school for the blind and deaf, where he learned English on audio and visual language machines. When a meager retirement pension forced Peter Hardaway and his wife out of their house and into a trailer, the couple stopped receiving newspapers and magazines in order to avoid cluttering up the small space they had to share. An analysis of sponsorship systems of literacy would help educators everywhere to think through the effects that economic and political changes in their regions are having on various people’s ability to write and read, their chances to sustain that ability, and their capacities to pass it along to others. Recession, relocation, immigration, technological change, government retreat all can-and do-condition the course by which literate potential develops.

In this way, we are always the authors of our natural disasters since, after all, nature cannot destroy nature but merely makes itself look different. Education seems to become another of these “tensions” if not an outright contradiction: it aims to make people not just aware but knowledgeable of the literacies that they are already practicing, while also making them aware of the literacies of others because by doing this they will become more knowledgeable about not just their own literacies but the nature of their sponsorships, whether governing or precarious.