Indirect objects, Saussure and 'materialist grammar'

Nicholas Siemensma nsiemensma at yahoo.com.au
Thu Dec 12 21:20:00 MST 2002


The indirect object is the thing or person affected by
the verbal action though not primarily acted upon, not
the primary object.  So Louis functions as the
indirect object in the following sentence: "Give Louis
the cup of coffee."
The critiques by Nestor, Anthony and Ed of the
diachronic perspective in grammar and its naive,
vulgar and frequently racist "evolutionism" are
correct as far as they go.  However, privileging the
synchronic over the diachronic (or separating them
strictly in the first place) as Saussure did reminds
me a little of the Althusserian attack on the
evolutionary perspective, or "historicism."  It throws
the baby out with with the bathwater.  Saussure's
anti-historicism lead to the anti-historicism of
structuralism, to the "Marxism is not a Historicism"
of Althusser, and then to the Althusserian conclusion
that Marxism is not Marxism.  The materialist grammar
that Ed speaks of should be able to (it must)
re-integrate diachrony without falling into the
evolutionist or racist trap.  Saussure was of course
correct in that language as a total system is complete
at every moment, but all the internal problems of his
work, the notion that "in language there are only
differences", which eventually led to the intellectual
screw-up of French post-structuralism and present-day
philosophy, arise IMO from the initial distinction
between synchrony and diachrony.  It is a pure
opposition that is undialectical; it doesn't lead out
of itself.  There are Kantian fingerprints all over
it.
If our notions of grammar are to be "truly dialectical
as well as materialist, as Ed suggests, then we must
incorporate some historicism, but only in the spirit
of Marx and Engels' statement that "Morality,
religion, metaphysics [and language], all the rest of
ideology and their corresponding forms of
consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of
independence.  They have no history, no development;
but men, developing their material production and
their material intercourse, alter, along with this
their real existence, their thinking and and the
products of their thinking."  This is how (of course
we all know this) we can open grammar to the realms of
history and overcome Saussure's stale opposition,
along with evolutionism.  And it would also make
grammar less bloody well boring.  I think that theory
and analysis of language has been among the weak
points of Marxist thought, so Nestor and the other
"dilettantes" should go ahead with the suggested
thread, if they have the time.
Nick


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