Communication as Emergence and Possibility

This month we published The Transformative Materiality of Meaning-Making by David Parkin. In this post the author explains the book’s focus.

Words, and other forms of communication such as bodily gesture, facial expression, tone of voice or written text, are never innocent. They may hurt or soothe, please and enlighten, often in unexpected ways. They may also invite responses which may counter or reinforce the emotion expressed in the utterance, whether negative or positive. Or the speaker may expect silence as validating his/her authority over the listener. The listener may reject the speaker’s status and so redefine him/her and therefore themself.

The many choices involved in communicative exchange tend to fall into patterns depicting hierarchy, equality, competition or cooperation. Speakers’ and listeners’ utterances and responses can usefully be understood as transactions. Like the exchange of gifts, they can evoke many different sentiments, follow set rules or deploy various strategies to get round these rules.

By looking at human communication cross-culturally, we see that such patterns broadly exist everywhere. But their details vary and we may regard communicative transactions as ontological variations on a range of recognizable themes. By defining and redefining identities and prompting sensory responses, communicative exchange has material effect as well as itself made material through semiotic transactions.

The chapters in the book use ethnography to illustrate the themes of communicating as ‘becoming’, the transformational dynamics of political speech and rhetoric, and the hidden power behind allusion and similar ambiguities. We can look ahead to future work on this materiality of meaning-making. For instance, when people communicate bodily through gesture, eyes and face as well as through voice, noise, silence, texts, objects and spatial position, they experiment with the different senses that such materiality can evoke. Multi-modal communication is thus multi-sensory.

In communicating with each other, humans may conform to expectations but often experiment in how they can affect outcomes. Poiesis is a concept that captures this creativity. It connotes something emerging from a previous state: someone communicates in an unexpected and even outrageous way and effects a new mode of meaning and interaction.

We ask here what makes language and communication generally change. ‘Chance’ variations of syntax, grammar, phonetics, lexicon, topic and the influence of wider events trigger structural change. But what role do the senses play in transforming how humans communicate above and beyond structure? And do the senses mediate and reconcile interpersonal communication and impinging world contexts?

For more information about this book please see our website

If you found this interesting, you might also like Chronotopic Identity Work edited by Sjaak Kroon and Jos Swanenberg. 

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