Sunday 2 December 2012

Leveson: avoiding thinking of the whole structure

This is about Leveson, viewed through 'semiotics' and 'grammar'.

If I write 'The cat sat on the mat', I can change that in several different ways.
If I write 'The dog sat on the mat', that's different from writing 'The cats sat on the mat' and different again from writing 'Did the cat sit on the mat?'

In the past some linguists have said that the way a sentence joins together in a 'chain' is a 'horizontal' way of sticking together. This is the 'syntax' of the sentence, the words are in a 'syntagmatic' relationship with each other. Swapping 'cat' and 'dog' has altered things in a 'vertical' way, they are in what is called a 'paradigmatic' relationship. Then again, turning 'the cat' to 'the cats' has made a change but within the 'paradigm' of 'cat' (ie changing cat to one of the ways in which the word 'cat' can change. Finally, by turning the whole sentence into a question, I made a 'syntagmatic' change, I changed the grammar of the whole sentence from a statement into a question.

If this is hard to visualise, imagine that each word is written on a piece of lego and the lego bricks. Swapping 'cat' for 'dog', we might say, meant swapping a green brick for a blue one, leaving everything in the same place and in the same positions. We might imagine that if 'cat' was blue then so are 'the cats', 'cats', 'a cat', 'some cats'*. Maybe they are different size blue lego bricks. And to turn the sentence into a question, we would of course have had to change the positions of the bricks.

After the linguists played with this idea, various critics and theoreticians said that much of what we perceive and make can be described in this way. Jonathan Culler asked us to think of how, say, in Western food, we think of a meal: starters, main and dessert. That would be the 'horizontal' line, or 'syntagmatic' line. Now, for starters you might have olives or melon or hummus. Swap one for the other and you've swapped the 'paradigm'. Alter the order  you eat the starters, main and dessert or indeed leave one of them out and you have changed the 'syntax' (or 'syntagm' - but I can't pronounce that).

Again, think of conventional western male clothing: footwear, trousers, top (as opposed to, say, one long robe or, say, a toga). We might imagine that 'shoes' can be changed from 'within the paradigm of the shoes, but we switch the paradigm when we swap shoes for sandals...and so on. The syntax of this kind of clothing arrangement (mine) remains unchanged until I choose to change from this three-part structure (shoes, trousers, top) to wearing a robe, say.

This can be applied to thinking about movies, poems, novels and politics. When I work with children writing poems, it is possible (and many teachers and poets do this without dressing it up in paradigm-syntax theory!) is take a poem and invite children to do their own versions. An obvious case is the limerick, where, let's say, we stick to the basic shape but change the paradigms but in fact  you can look at a lot of poems, figure the 'structure' or 'syntax' and swap some paradigms and then see what happens.

Again, if you watch a Hollywood movies - let's say a 'rom-com', you can see a pattern (or syntax) and the producers/writers/director has simply swapped some elements either in a 'shift' or 'within the paradigm'. When there are clear hybrids (Harry Potter marrying 'fantasy' with 'school story') you can see two 'syntaxes' (?) being combined.

What about politics?

Consider what's gone on with the hacking scandal and Leveson. As it unfolded, I, along with millions of others (I thought) started to see a 'syntax' - a chain of relations between the police, the press and senior politicians. They were having social relationships which were part of their political relationships (appointments), which affected whether complaints were or were not being taken up. Money was passing between, say, members of the press and the police and so on. This was, we might say, the 'syntax' of what was going on. I thought that there was a consensus forming which said that this was wrong.

Then Leveson was appointed and the hearings took place. This exposed the syntax. We could see the shape and process of how it all joined up: who scratched whose back. Who ensured that this or that happened or didn't happen. Meetings took place, appointments were made, notebooks filled, phones were tapped, newspapers sold, police took money or indeed proceeded towards other jobs...and so on.

The Leveson pronounced. And here's the mystery. Apart from an aside where he seems to have admonished the press and the politicians for being too close and some kind of ticking off about improper behaviour by the police, all his attention has been on the 'freedom of the press'. He has recommended one syntactic change ie with his recommendation that government 'underpins' the new 'independent body'.

The new independent body would, then we might say, like swapping 'cat' for 'cats' (ie within the paradigm). Yes, suggesting that government 'underpin' this body is syntactic but one which leaves the overall power structure intact, so perhaps this would be analogous to writing 'Do you think that the cats sat on the mat?' (!) or some such, a tentative shift where the original stays intact but nothing fundamental changes overall.Why, for example, will journos stop trying to slip coppers money for information? Why, when this happens, will it be the journos who lose their jobs and not the proprietors? (Of course not!). There will of course be no ending of the revolving doors between press, politics and police, jobs will continue to flow between all three, which means much more than a matter of personnel. People take with them 'spheres of influence', knowledge of where and how to apply pressure and to get things done so that nothing shakes the system, even when there are clear miscarriages of justice eg Hillsborough.

To be blunt, I think that what is going on is a massive distraction from the real and full 'syntax'. A combination of Nick Davies' articles, articles in 'Private Eye', and what we heard in Leveson (or didn't hear) exposed the syntax of how political, press and 'security' power interrelates. (The horizontal chain.)  And then, (using whatever metaphor you want), the curtains are closing, the waves wash back, the box is closed - and we can't see it anymore. The heavyweight apologists try to focus everyone's attention on one part of what's happened so that we don't see the whole picture.

Perhaps, when the law cases open - we will get some more glimpses but more often than not, law cases end up being about the crimes, mistakes etc of one person with an underlying assumption that if he or she had been someone else, such crimes and mistakes wouldn't have happened (ie paradigms not syntax).

Apologies if this all seems rather laboured, as a way of explaining something comparatively simple. I find that this way of thinking can sometimes illuminate what's going on. I mean, it does for me!

* eagle-eyed linguists would say that the paradigm for 'cat' is: cat, cats. 'A cat', 'cats', 'the cat' and 'some cats' is a piece of mini-syntax ie how 'cat' and a 'determiner' are linked syntactically. The determiner is a paradigm of itself ie 'a' (or 'an'), 'the', 'some' and no determiner is a paradigm of itself.  Think how hard it is to learn this piece of mini-syntax when you learn another language: eg French un/une, le, la, les, du, de la, des, and no determiner. When do you use which? Aaaaaaagh.