Phatic (Dys)functions

Genosko, Gary 2000. Phatic (Dys)functions: The Shifting Contour of the TV Screen. Semiotics Institute Online lecture.

This lecture is grounded in a debate in communication theory about the functionality of phatic communication [...] (Genosko 2000)
When and where was this debate held?
The lesson of this debate, which shows the inherent dysfunctionality of the concept, is then applied to a further dimension of contact – that is, tactility – and its fortunes in media studies of television, with particular attention to screens themselves. (Genosko 2000)
Huh? Is it dysfunctional because "the phatic function of speech" etymologically amounts to "the speech function of speech"? Because in that case one can refer to precedents in Roman Jakobson's thinking that moot this putative dysfunction. I also have an inkling that this emphasis on "tactility" takes "contact" to mean actual physical bodily touch instead of communicative contact. That is not at all what most theorists and researchers mean by "phatic". Only other case I'm currently aware of that takes it so literally is the glue manufacturer who thought the emphasis on contact could make "Super Phatic'" a good name for a specialty glue.
Again, the consequences of contact with the tactile medium of tv, while full of potential for valorizing in various ways synesthetic experience, tend toward dystopic elaborations in theory as well as in various kinds of popular practices (pop music and film). (Genosko 2000)
I was not aware that TV connects viewers with the visual conten via the sense of touch. In fact it makes very little sense.
Russian linguist Roman Jakobson (“Closing Statement” 1960) derived the Phatic function of his poetic model of communication from Malinowski’s concept of “phatic communion,” the use of language to maintain a social relation through ritualized formulas such as greetings, chit-chat about the weather. (Genosko 2000)
As logical as it is, I suspect that it's not true. I'm suspect that he took the term and the meaning with it's modifications from David Abercrombie, and pretty sure that he added the part about holding attention from Hobart Mowrer and some technical aspects of channel regulation from Gregory Bateson. There is very little left of Malinowski's conception of phatic communion in Jakobson's formulation of the phatic function.
If Jakobson advances this social function, it is by inclusion of the means of discontinuing communication rather than simply prolonging it (including confirmation of the interlocutor’s attention). (Genosko 2000)
As I just explained, Mowrer (1949) and Bateson (1951).
The “mere purport,” as Jakobson puts it, of prolonging communicative contact suggests the emptiness of such contact; the example from Dorothy Parker is illustrative: ‘Well, here we are’, he said. ‘Here we are’, she said, ‘Aren’t we?’ ‘I should say we are’, he said. (Genosko 2000)
Not emptiness but awkwardness. The characters in Parker's short story are newlyweds traveling by train to New York City for the first night of their honeymoon. There are reasons for awkwardness in that particular example. Their dialogue is characterized by semantic emptiness (or referential irrelevance). Their relationship (contact) itself is not empty just because they are nervous.
This not only makes the function susceptible to atrophy in which there is “constant contact without a message,” [Umberto Eco] but in addition suggests that the emptiness of contact has a propitious technical function as a test of the system itself: “Hello, do you hear me?” (Genosko 2000)
Unless there are phatic technologies that make the contact an auxiliary function, there is no contact without a message. The latter part takes one of Jakobson's illustrations way too seriously. My argument is that this is a linguistic reformulation of Bateson's "signals asking for signals to be repeated" (Bateson 1951: 209). This is just one type of metacommunicative signals. It's not the essence of phatics as such.
The Phatic function shares a great deal with the Metalingual function. (Genosko 2000)
This is actually pretty incisive. Both phatic and metalingual function have their beginnings in Bateson's theory of metacommunication, which itself was divided into communication about code (metalingual function) and communication about relationship (phatic function).
Jean Baudrillard has advanced a telling critique of the Phatic function as a “simulation pact” based on “tele-phasis”(Seduction, 163-66). Baudrillard writes: “The phatic function of language, used to establish contact and sustain speech’s formal dimension: this function first isolated and described by Malinowski with reference to the Melanesians, then by Jakobson in his grid of language’s functions, becomes hypertrophied in the tele-dimension of the communications networks. Contact for contact’s sake becomes the empty form with which language seduces itself when it no longer has anything to say.” (Genosko 2000)
I often have a nagging feeling that Baudrillard doesn't really know what he's going on about. Excuse me, Baudrillard's critique, while breaking and tearing through the anatomy of communication, prefaces the postmodern performance of contact with an articulation of the struggle to assure substance in an otherwise rigidly disciplined authority in the rhetorical biomechanic of that particular sanguine system of functions that populist linguistics vexes as a necessary and apparent innovation. Jakobson's scheme of language functions is a schematic, not a grid. What he seems to say is that the scheme of language functions doesn't really work well when applied on televised communication. That makes perfect sense, for it was meant for speech analysis, not makeshift culturology. Contact for sake of contact is as empty as when people who are otherwise strangers exchange formulaic expressions in order to get to know each other and establish some sort of relationship. If that is empty then so be it. Human relations are empty then. But what really irks me is the phrase "with which language seduces itself". Not only is language, that system of signs humans use, given agency and removed from the users of language, by making it reflexive (seduces itself) it also removes language from those whom it is used on. In other words, all human intervention is removed from language and the abstract system takes on a life of its own in some abstract universe that only Baudrillard and other French critics have privileged access to comment upon. For everyone else language is a tool, for them it is a monster.
This is what Eco calls “sports chatter” – vapid phatic communication in which one may be totally immersed but with negative consequences. (Genosko 2000)
Vapid? Define: offering nothing that is stimulating or challenging. Vapid! Hey! That's the thing what this lecture is.
In Seduction Baudrillard has much to say about the phatic function as it hypertrophies in the cold universe of information systems. The zero degree of contact in the tele-dimension: tele-phasis. (Genosko 2000)
Information systems are cold only if you go looking for human contact where there absolutely is none. Information systems are information systems, not social systems. Tele-phasis is what? Tele-speech?
By the time Jakobson revisited the concept he had lost its original symbolic sense in Malinowski, Baudrillard maintains. That is, it no longer involved incessant and metabolic ceremonial challenges and ritual exchanges: “Language has no need for ‘contact’: it is we who need communication to have a specific ‘contact’ function, precisely because it is eluding us.” (Genosko 2000)
By the time Jakobson revisited the concept, phatic communion had devalued in anthropological review into "talk for the sake of talk". Jakobson gave it an inalienable place in the scheme of language functions, acknowledging that speech always involves some form of social contact, be it through speech or writing, it is always another person who receives and decodes it. Language itself, of course, has no need for anything. It has no agency of its own, at least no more than any other human invented tool has. By emphasizing elusiveness and emptyness I get that Baudrillard is trying to be edgy, but it comes across as poignantly polemical over basically nothing of substance.
The phatic function “analytically restores” what is missing in communication, far, far removed from the “frayed spaces” of genuine interpersonal exchange in the pulsing (beyond meaning) “tele space” of networked terminals at the ends of which classical assumptions about “inter-individual logic” no longer make sense. (Genosko 2000)
"What the fuck did you just fucking say about me, you little bitch?" communication systems respond "I'll have you know I graduated top of my class in the Navy Seals, and I've been involved in numerous secred raids on Al-Quaeda, and I have over 300 confirmed kills."
So, Phatic communication is primarily (dys)functional; to put it another way, this function is almost immediately tied to its dysfunction: it holds open the channel but in so doing puts genuine communication at risk. (Genosko 2000)
Thus far I've seen nothing but rhetoric and French demagoguery to substantiate this claim. In actuality the phatic function holds open the channel in order that genuine communication can occur. Genuine communication is unimaginable without some social lubricate to releave the tension of strangeness when confronting a stranger. The phatic function of speech in fact enables communication. The only way it can become dysfunctional is when it stops functioning (when people are unable to engage in it for whatever reason, perhaps due to not knowing the local language and customs) or when it is viewed, on the theoretical plane, as a creature on its own unhinged from the system of communication it is actually a part of. That is, phatic communication is dysfunctional only when it is reduced to being phatic only, which is theoretically possible but practically... unpractical.
One of the most enduring figures in ongoing efforts to decode the experience of television is the medium’s tactility. Whether it is a trope of stickiness, massage, jolts and other body blows, or the effects of a protruding gaze of an eye-window-frame-potato processing, pablum dispensing machine, seems moot. (Genosko 2000)
Words are plaything which which I juggle universes from reality to unreality and back without a connexion to coöperation that complexifies the content in contractable contexts full of convexities and concaves of concatenation. This lecture is potatoe and I refuse to continue reading it.


arided said...

Regarding the etymology part, as you put it elsewhere,

«The connection between phanai and phanein emphasizes the conjunction between "to say" and "to show". That is, show and tell appear to be related.»

Regarding tactility, it looks like Genosko is trying to follow in Baudrillard's footsteps, or at least trying to signal that he is. Baudrillard is himself taking this over from McLuhan. Dunno what we get along with that pedigree, but my sense is that the further we go up up the chain, the less degraded the signal is. (I think Baudrillard even says something like this somewhere, I'll try to find the quote for you, I'm sure you'll enjoy it.)

Note, I've mostly read Baudrillard for entertainment, here and there getting something from it (often, what I put in). By and large his writing seems to provide a mild but somewhat bitter drug.

Nice review.

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