Super 'Phatic!

Phatics has been one of my favourite topics for some years now. Although I've considered it more thoroughly (and written a paper about the history of the term) only lately, it has been on my mind ever since I first read a six-page excerpt of Jakobson's "Linguistics and Poetics" in spring 2011. I've also enjoyed collaborating with Joe Corneli on our Phatic Workshop. This post here will hopefully lead to further work in the shop.

What I aim to do here is curiously captured in the name of a glue product, "Super Phatic". Given that the archaic meaning of super is "an extra, unwanted, or unimportant person; a supernumerary", I am here going to take up 10 latest papers (from 2005-2015) that concern phatics, but which I have found to be too extraneous or needless to read in full. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with these papers. It is that I haven't found the time and energy to read them all.

Instead, I am going to experiment with what the authors of Make It Stick (2014) call generation - "The act of trying to answer a question or attempting to solve a problem rather than being presented with the information or the solution is known" (2014: 85) such as "rephrasing key ideas in your own words" (2014: 87). In effect, I am going to focus on the abstracts of these papers and attempt to piece together whether the full texts have something to offer for my aims. This will hopefully enable to narrow my aims, as well as to elaborate the ideas I already have about phatics. I don't usually pay much attention to abstracts and just read the full text, so this will be new to me. If I do find a paper that excites me enough, I will read it in full in the future.

Bagheri, Hossein; Noor Aireen Ibrahim and Hadina Habil 2012. ‘aha, ok, alright’ as Phatic Talk: An Analysis on Opening in Multilingual and Multicultural Clinical Consultations. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 66: 8-16.

In clinical consultations, doctors and patients try to align their efforts to meet the goal of consultation which is diagnosis and treatment. The general pattern of a clinical consultation, as an activity type, normally includes: opening, history taking, examining, diagnosis, offering treatment, and terminating. This study analyses the structure of clinical consultation in a multilingual multicultural setting (MMS) in which the participants are non-native speakers of English. This paper will discuss, in particular, the opening of 15 consultations which reveal a unique feature of the MMS consultation. (Bagheri, Ibrahim & Habil 2012: 8)
Huh. I did not expect an abstract to contain so little (useful) information. What can be gleaned is that it's an approach to clinical consultation that emphasizes the structure of the interaction. This is possible because clinical consultation is a structured encounter. Thus, while opening and terminating frame every kind of interaction, the intermediate phases of "history taking, examining, diagnosis, offering treatment" are specific to clinical consultation. Overarching theme: the phatic aspects of the structure of the interaction.

I have also taken note of the alignment of efforts and would like to connect it with the history taking aspect. Namely, the latter may appear to be specific to clinical consultation, but I would argue that it's more universal, and moreover frames the alignment of efforts. I've noticed in internet radio podcasts that when it involves an interview (for example, Marc Maron interviewing Louis C.K.) they often begin with a discussion of common history. E.g. how they came to know each other, where they first met, what their relationship was, is, and what it could become, etc. This is akin to "history taking" in the sense that they reflect on the history of their relationship. And it commonly serves - very phatically, in the Malinowskian sense - to alleviate whatever tensions these people might have had, so that they could get on with their common goal (in this specific example, being entertaining to listen to).

For this aspect I would very much like to appropriate a term coined by the infamous coiner of terminology, Roger Wescott (1966), who "telescoped" the "phrase "phatic communication" into the single word "phasis," the study of which becomes "phatics."" (1966: 350-351). He also (ibid.) telescoped the phrase "phatic utterance" into the single word "pheme", but this is another matter. Wescott is commendable for his terminological ingenuity. But his fault lies in appropriating these terms to a wholly different meaning than Malinowski and Jakobson had in mind. Namely, he thought that phatics could stand for what Trager called "paralanguage". I see no point in this allocation - "paralanguage" works just fine. Pro his signifiers, contra his signifieds, I'd like to appropriate "phasis" in turn for exactly this part of the structure of the interaction: the phatic phase of communication, so to say.

In this paper the authors discuss "phatic talk", and how "most mainstream reported speech on medical encounters [...] include phatic talk in the beginning and end of the medical interviews" but in a multilingual and multicultural clinical consultation "such social small talk does not exist" - the explanation is given in Goffmanian terms, that in these interactions "medical topics are foregrounded and social talks are backgrounded" (Bagheri, Ibrahim & Habil 2012: 14). This brings me to something I noticed something like this when comparing papers about phatics from an Indian and a Belgian researcher. Using these Goffmanian terms: Kulkarni found that when Indian students communicate with teachers, there's a backgrounding of phemes due to the unequal social status of the interactants; Nord on the other hand hypothesized that what she calls phatic talk, metacommunication, is especially important in asymmetrical relationships because the sender (i.e. student) tries to persuade the receiver (i.e. teacher) to take an interest. Overarching theme: phasis in relation with social statuses and social relationships.

At this point I realize that I cannot avoid dipping into the content of the paper. In effect this turns out to be a kind of skimming interpretation. I'm not going to read the whole paper but I am checking out the tokens of the word "phatic" in the text. The most significant part, in the subchapter "Conclusion and recommendation", must be quoted in full:
The analysis of the opening in consultation in the multilingual multicultural setting has resulted in the following tentative conclusions and related recommendations.
  1. The institutional factors such as time constraints, limited number of physicians, etc. can prioritise medical talk over phatic talk even to the level of disregarding the latter.
  2. The complexity of phatic talk and low familiarity of doctors with this type of talk in comparison with the ease and familiarity of the technical language of their expertise offers room for further training of the doctors. The doctors are educated to practice medicine and their activities are different from psychologist.
  3. Culture-sensitive nature of social talk may prone clinical consultation to miscommunication as a result of misinterpretations. Medical talk can be either understood by the patient or not understood. They are less prone to misinterpretation and conflict than phatic talk.
(Bagheri, Ibrahim & Habil 2012: 15)
This is indeed an invaluable contribution to the subject. Let us try to generalize. The first point brings up the question of setting: whether we are dealing with a structured or unstructured, goal-oriented or non-goal-oriented interaction. And if it is a structured and goal-oriented interaction, the role of phasis, that is, the phatic phase of the interaction, is indeed conceivably dependent upon these factors. To generalize, these broadly concern time and space: if time is constrained then phasis must be limited; but instead of the number of physicians available I would focus on the number of people present, which is a spatial factor. Underlying theme: the time and space limitations of phasis.

The second point is noticeably primed by the interests of linguistic research. "The complexity of phatic talk" and "familiarity with this type of talk" can be telescoped as phemic complexity and phemic familiarity. Now, I have opted for "phemic" instead of "phatic" because if the aim is to construct a very general outline of what Phatics as "phatic study" is concerned with, which I think it is, then it is not wise to stick with phatic this and phatic that. It gets repetitive - I know this from skimming some other papers that are coming up below. We'll see if phasis and pheme work out in the broad scheme of things later. Thus, let us pose phemic complexity and familiarity as qualities of phatic utterances on two opposing sides: how complex are the sender's phatic utterances and how familiar the receiver is with these utterances.

These terms might actually make sense, but we'll see how it pans out with nonverbal communication and "phatic technologies" below; maybe we'll have to invent the category of "phatic acts" as well. It can get really absurd really fast. Like, phraxis (phatic praxis), or something. One thing is for certain: both Malinowski and Wescott were plagued by what the former called "the demon of terminological invention". "Plagued" is a very accurate term, because terminological invention follows the concept of "phatic" like an infection: whoever takes it up is doomed to coin a whole host of new terms. The overall aim of this post (and perhaps a future paper) may very well be to systematize the terminological field of phatics.

Cruz, Manuel Padilla 2013. An integrative proposal to teach the pragmatics of phatic communion in ESL classes. Intercultural Pragmatics 10(1): 131-160.

Learners of English may have problems or make mistakes when engaging in phatic communion, as its use requires a meta-pragmatic awareness of a wide range of complex and subtle issues, such as when and with whom to engage in it, the underlying reasons to do so, the types of phatic tokens that may be exchanged, the topics that such tokens may address, or potential effects achievable. Although many didactic materials implicitly deal with some elements related to phatic communion, they do not include it as an independent topic, nor do they neatly define it, distinguish its different manifestations or address its socio-cultural peculiarities. For this reason, this paper suggests a methodological proposal to teach the pragmatics of phatic communion and raise learners' meta-pragmatic awareness. Based on an approach to teach the pragmatics of specific L2 aspects (Martínez Flor and Usó Juan 2006), this proposal integrates relevant findings about phatic communion from pragmatics and other neighboring disciplines, combines different approaches to teach intercultural pragmatic issues in class and includes tasks. (Cruz 2013: 131)
Metapragmatic awareness seems to be the awareness of the rules and consequences of communicative messages, such as "noticing of relevant features, deduction of underlying norms and understanding of how it [phatic communion] works in the target community" (Cruz 2013: 155). Basically, the what? why? and how? of phatic communion. If generalized, this would amount to phatic knowledge, knowledge of phatics, or something of the kind. "Metapragmatic awareness" is of course a more fashionable way of putting it, but it seems to revolve around the same underlying themes of phemic complexity and familiarity.

Phemic complexity could very well be elaborated on the basis of these aspects. For example, "the types of phatic tokens that may be exchanged" is a pertinent question. If I do intend to use Wescott's terminology, pheme and phasis, then I have to acknowledge that I mean to use them more generally than Wescott did. I think of pheme in the sense of a phatic structure and of phasis as a phatic process. The pheme does not necessarily have to be restricted to linguistic structures ("phatic utterances"). Phemes could very well be nonverbal signs like headnods and handshakes, computer-mediated messages like facebook "likes" and "shares", and probably much much more. There is a need for generalization and typologization.

While types of phatic tokens concerns the variety of signifiers (the forms of phemes), "the topics that such tokens may address" concerns the variety of signifieds (the content of phemes), or, more broadly, their so-called "semantic domain". This, as far as I know, is an aspect that has not been studied very thoroughly. Most studies seem to focus on the function of phatic utterances in communication (mainly how many phatic elements there are and what purpose they serve) while the meaning of those utterances is taken as a given.

For example, I've noticed that common English and Estonian phemes express an implicit concern for another's health or wellbeing: this is evident in Estonian in the phrase like "Kuidas läheb?" ("How are you doing?"), and even the word for "Tere!" ("Hello!"), which has a semantic history stemming from the word "tervis" ("health"). A common variant of "Tere!" is "Tervist!", literally "Good health!". Contrast this to Arabic greetings, for example, which are, as far I know, variously related to praise of God. It may very well be possible to abstract cultural universals from this kind of analysis (i.e. which cultures ephasise health, God, or something else in the semantic domain of their phemes).

What Cruz has in mind is probably the topic of small talk, i.e. what is a permissible subject to discuss in inconsequential exchanges. The most common stereotype is weather. But this is where Ruesch's communization could really become handy and link up with the "familiarity" aspect: small talk is often a method to gauge the other person's background, personal history, interests and hobbies, etc. - quite possibly with an aim to find common ground, be it common discourse (books we've both read, ideas we both hold) or common experience (something we've both have lived through, or something we both have done or commonly do). It seems like a self-evident given that topic of small talk is dependent on the relationship between the communicators. Hopefully other papers touch on this connection more.

The "potential effects achievable" is where it really gets pragmatic. This aspect should shed light on the practical importance of phasis. What is it that we wish to achieve, what do we anticipate and intend, when we engage in phatic communion, when we talk to another person just for the sake of it. Since the definition of phatic itself excludes the referential-intellectual dimension, as well as the emotive-conative pole, it really leaves communication and contact itself as the object of communication and contact. This is exactly why Christiane Nord identifies phatic communication and metacommunication. That is, when I say "Hello!" I am not saying anything other than addressing the fact of our communication. It is indeed, as Jakobson puts it, a message about contact.

But that is surely not the end of the story. For if we consider facebook likes and shares in their phatic aspect, the contrast between purely or predominantly phatic communication and other types of communication that have a detectable phatic component comes to light. By liking and sharing a friend's post, we are not only communicating that we like it (the dominant emotive aspect), but also the very fact that we read it. This is reminiscent of the difference between Western and Japanese headnods. As popular knowledge since Edward Hall has it, the Japanese do not nod in agreement. They nod in acknowledgement. Not "I agree with you" but "I understand you". Perhaps one domain that should be looked into is the topic of "engagement", e.g. interactional involvement.

As to the "socio-cultural peculiarities" of phatic communion, these can be categorized according to the themes already treated: the variety of phemes, the semantic domain of phemes, the functions of phasis, etc. This categorization will hopefully become more elaborate when I look at papers on phemes in various cultural groups (Spanish youth, American teenagers, contemporary Japan, and Australian outbacks). Cruz's paper generally deals with phatic utterances in second-language learning and seems to make some very good points about the necessity of including phatic talk. I will have to read it in full after I'm done with this post. Right now I'd bring out a lengthy passage in which Cruz enumerates various functions of phatic communion, phatic discourse, and phatic talk.
Learners should also know that phatic communion favors harmony and amicability at openings because of the working consensus it creates thanks to its functions (Laver 1975):
  1. Propitiatory, since it diminishes the potential hostility attributable to silence and frames exchanges as friendly (Placencia)
  2. Exploratory, for it implicitly conveys indexical information about interlocutors or, if they know each other beforehand, it confirms previous information
  3. Initiatory, as it ensures interaction by "using emotionally uncontroversial communicative material, and demonstrating [...] signals of cordiality and tentative social solidarity" (Laver 1975: 221)
At the closing phase, phatic discourse ensures a future consensus owing to these functions (Laver 1975: 230):
  1. Mitigating, inasmuch as it assuages any likely feeling of rejection
  2. Consolidating, as it emphasizes the enjoyable quality of encounters, mutual esteem and solidarity, amicability, and the continuation of contact
Finally, within conversations phatic talk creates or maintains a favorable atmosphere by fulfilling these functions (Rosnow 1977: 159-163):
  1. Entertaining, insofar as interlocutors do not seek any important purpose, but talk amicably guided by equity and parity
  2. Reinforcing or strengthening previous information, attitudes to and viewpoints about specific events or behaviors with a view to approval, endorsement, and sanction
  3. Influencing other interlocutors by means of the dissemination of ideas and points of view about specific matters
(Cruz 2013: 137-138)
This is a lot to unpack. Since I've decided to read this awesome paper on its own right, I'll just point out how my previous discussion links up with these functions. Let us go through this list of functions. The propitiatory (conciliatory, intended to reconcile or appease) function is very much the stuff of Malinowski's phatic communion, that is, "needed to get over the stange and unpleasant tension which men feel when facing each other in silence" (Malinowski 1946[1923]: 314). It is rightfully the first function in the list.

The exploratory function of phatic communion is almost exactly what I meant by gauging (estimating or determining) the other person's background, personal history, interests and hobbies. The part about "indexical information about interlocutors" is the hallmark of John Laver's thinking. He distinguishes three types of information: cognitive (propositional, factual, semantic); indexical (information about the speaker himself); and interaction-management information (cf. Laver and Hutcheson 1972: 11-12). He writes (ibid.) that "The listener uses [indexical information] to draw inferences about the speaker's identity, attributes, attitudes and mood." This is the function most related to nonverbal communication and semiotics: index itself is a very semiotic term, comparable to Augustine's signa naturalia and what are sometimes called "symptoms".

The initiatory function is again the stuff of Malinowskian phatic function, namely concerning the "formulaæ of greeting or approach" (Malinowski 1946[1923]: 313-314). What is relevant here is Laver's emphasis on "emotionally uncontroversial communicative material". This is true for both greetings and small talk, for it would be offensive (that is, contrary to the propitiatory aim, in effect arousing hostility) to greet people with something like "Sup, bitch?" and the emotional neutrality of small talk seems to stem from the primarily asemantic nature of phatic utterances. It is impossible for phemes to be absolutely asemantic, but it should ideally be low in emotional, conative, and cognitive information.

The mitigating function and consolidating function obviously have to do with Malinowski's feelings of conviviality. That is, phatic communion should enable people to come together and feel a sense of union. "Mitigating rejection" could very well be rephrased as "espousing acceptance", but that's exactly the stuff of consolidating. It would appear that this distinction between mitigation and consolidation is echoing centripetal and centrifugal forces. From this viewpoint mitigation encounters centrifugal force that would drive people apart, and consolidation effects the centripetal force that drawn people together.

This image works better to illustrate these functions than some others involving the Gravitron carnival ride, because here the centripetal force is not enacted by a wall but by contact (the children are holding hands).

On the last three functions I have very little to say. The source for these is "Gossip and marketplace psychology" (1977) by Ralph Rosnow (Journal of Communication 27(1): 158-163). Sadly I am unable to acquire this paper at the moment (the ERIC database entry is supposed to link to full text but it doesn't). In any case the inclusion of Rosnow's functions is very intriguing. I don't exactly know how to approach these functions but they do seem to be valuable. Perhaps an area that should be looked into, when considering small talk, is the study of gossip. JSTOR yields a great amount of very specific case studies of gossip and rumors. Definitely an interesting avenue.

Ponce, Maria Isabel Rodríguez 2012. Apreciaciones sobre elementos valorativos y usos fáticos en el estilo comunicativo juvenil. Sintagma: Revista de Linguistica 24: 7-21.

Notes on evaluation and phatic uses in youth communicative style. This paper offers an approach to youth language from the perspective of positive and negative evaluations studied in a Spanish Spoken Corpus of Youth Language (COLA, Corpus Oral de Lenguaje Adolescente). By analysing the tendency towards dysphemism among Spanish young people, in relation to phatic function, we reflect on the standardizing of verbal rudeness in general Spanish, paying special attention to its sociolinguistic effects. (Ponce 2012: 7)
Dysphemism is a derogatory or unpleasant term used instead of a pleasant or neutral one, such as “loony bin” for “mental hospital.” As the few English language references in this paper confirms, it deals with insults. When taken apart, dys-phem-ism reveals an interesting etymology not unrelated with the previous discussion. Namely, Pheme is the the personification of fame and renown in Greek mythology. Her Roman equivalent is Fama, and that's where the English language got the word famous. According to another source she was also "the goddess or spirit (daimon) of rumour, report and gossip". This is a happy coincidence if one equates phatic communion with small talk. It is less happy when pheme is understood as phatic utterance.

There is very little more to take away from this paper. It's kinda nice to know that "phatic" is fático in Spanish. Via Google Scholar I can make out that it studies how the insults that youth throw around are characterised by their phatic function of interaction ritual, involving "an atmosphere of playful agressiveness" (un ambiente de agresividad lúdica). The example involves a boy calling a girl ¡Celulítica! ("cellulite") and she is unoffended, replying "I don't care, I'm good" (No me importa, estoy buenísima.). It is phatic in the sense that the insult does not really insult.

Stenström, Anna-Brita 2014. Avoid silence! Keep talking!: Pragmatic markers as phatic devices in teenage conversation. Functions of Language 21(1): 30-49.

The primary aim of this study has been to find out whether the choice and frequency of pragmatic markers can be said to distinguish phatic talk ('chats') from informative talk. A secondary aim has been to consider the bonding effect of the pragmatic markers. Five conversational extracts from COLT (The Bergen Corpus London Teenage Language), four representing boys' and girls' phatic talk, and one representing informative teacher talk have been investigated. The study shows that the distinction between the two types of talk is not a matter of frequency but a matter of marker choice. The bonding effect of the markers dominates in the girls' talk in the form of appeals for agreement and encouragement signals. In both types of talk, the pragmatic markers are successfully used to avoid conversational gaps. (Stenström 2014: 30)
This study is obviously oriented towards the propitiatory function. Avoiding silence and continuing to talk (even when there may be very little impetus otherwise to do so) is related with the aim of lowering social tensions. While dealing with the first paper in this series and thinking of new phatic terms I thought of one to characterize the need to keep talking. I would have called it the phatic imperative. Here Stenström reports on Leech's (Principles of Pragmatics, 1983) innovation of "the 'Phatic Maxim' as a complement to Grice's maxims of Quality, Quantity, Relation and Manner, the core message of which is 'avoid silence' and 'keep talking"'" (Stenström 2014: 31). Grice's maxims are not so much imperatives as guidelines, i.e. the maxim of quantity is something like "try to be as informative as you can, give as much information as is needed, and no more".

The approach is different from what I've seen elsewhere because the focus is not on complete utterances but on specific expressions as (pragmatic) markers. In the list of these markers some are quite interesting: backchannels (like mhm) "show that the hearer is listening and have an encouraging effect, signalling 'tell me more!'"; contact checks (like you know, yeah, etc.) "are uttered by the current speaker to emphatize with the addressee"; vocatives (like the dysphemisms in the previous paper) "are used to establish and strengthen the bonds between the speakers" and "even if they are realized by taboo words they are generally used in a friendly, playful sociable way" (Stenström 2014:34-35). All these seem phatic to me.

But the last pragmatic marker in the list, links, (like cos) "work both within and between turns both as textual and interactional devices" and "Some linguists refer to them as purely phatic by filling an empty slot; others argue that they cannot be viewed only in purely phatic terms, since they do not simply fill an empty space" (ibid.). This is exactly the thing I would not consider phatic but rather syncategorematic (i.e. fills the function of connecting - linking - one thought to another, i.e. it's a cognitive thing). This discrepancy comes from linguists taking "phatic" to mean just "asemantic". The best takeaway from this paper is "the bonding effect":
The need to use phatic talk depends on the nature of the relation between the speakers. On the one hand, there is less, or no need for, phatic talk in terms of introductory and winding-up talk in the sense of Laver (1975), Leech (1983) and Stenström (1999) mentioned in the introduction, when the speakers are intimate friends, as in the case of the COLT speakers, but the other hand, with phatic talk defined in a wider sense and with the 'present' speaker in mind, Tannen's description of phatic talk (1990: 102), that is serves a big purpose, by maintaining camaraderie, is exactly the point. And here the bonding, socializing, effect of of pragmatic markers play a crucial role. It manifests itself in both varieties of talk, but in different ways. (Stenström 2014: 44)
As a throwback to Bateson's μ-function, "the relation between the speakers" must be pointed out. When the speakers are friends there is obviously less need for rigorous formulae of greeting and approach. Instead of initiating contact the emphasis is now shifted to maintaining contact - here, camaraderie. The latter can also be thought as an "atmosphere of sociability" (Malinowski), "a favorable atmosphere" (Rosnow, above), or even "an atmosphere of playful agressiveness" (if you happen to be dealing with Spanish youth). In any case the phasis is involved with keeping the communicative situation communicative.

Schandorf, Michael 2013. Mediated gesture: Paralinguistic communication and phatic text. Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19(3): 319-344.

This article draws an analogy between physical nonverbal gesture and the textual conventions of new and social media to argue that the vital nonverbal functions of face-to-face communication are not absent from digital media, but that communicative functions typically enacted nonverbally are transposed into new spaces of interaction afforded by synchronous and near-synchronous textual media. Digital and social media text is conversational text that fulfills the phatic needs of typical social interaction: 'keeping in touch' does not in any way constitute a cultural regression but represents the fundamental ground of human cognition, which is inescapably both social and technologically dependent. An analysis of examples from the popular microblogging service Twitter serves to illustrate the gestural functions of digital media text, including the enactment of mediated social 'spaces'. The closing section explores the theoretical implications for identity and agency of connecting embodied nonverbal communication to digital media communication that is all too often erroneously understood to be or implicitly approached as 'disembodied'. (Schandorf 2013: 319)
If me and Joe do aim to publish in Studies in Media and Communication, this is exactly the kind of paper we should familiarize ourselves thoroughly. That is, I am definitely going to read this in full. Still, since I'm following the Make It Stick method of generation, I'll try to abduce what I can from this abstract and by skimming the text, so that later reading it full will enable me to correct my understanding of it.

The analogy between nonverbal and digital is especially interesting, but probably best left to full reading. What I'd like to point out here is the concept of phatic needs, which I presume are needs to "stay in touch", i.e the need for social contact. This is more akin to what I had in mind by the phatic imperative than the concept of the phatic maxim. But it is also probably a concept that already has a specific term coined for it somewhere else, most likely in social psychology. That's actually something I would like to discuss here. Reading these abstracts I have a strong suspicion that phatics (qua phatic studies) is encroaching on the subject matters of many other fields.

Above I discussed the demon of terminological invention and how almost everybody who operate with the concept of "phatic" are doomed to coin a whole host of new terms to suit their particular aims. After a little consideration I decided that this would be best presented in the style of academic mythology: there is a demon named Phatica that occupies the minds of researchers who deal with phatics. The first victim of Phatica was Bronislaw Malinowski. Phatica actuated him to call the new speech function he had discovered phatic communion. "A type of speech in which ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words" has henceforth taken over many minds.

Roger Wescott can be introduced here as another early victim of Phatica. Wescott's case was of course extreme - he invented more new terminology than anyone can possibly keep track of (I've read that his students actually protested against him because of this - they did not understand what he was talking about). I'd like to convey that one of the prime characterstics of Phatica is that s/he is dedicated to taking over the field of communication. Most everything phatics has to do with can be, and is, elsewhere discussed with different terms. Phatica is constantly conquering foreign territory.

To make sense of it, I cannot help but interpellate another demon - Poetica. Both were popularized by Roman Jakobson but originally conceived by someone else. The idea behind the poetic function is that aesthetic value has no other purpose or object than itself. It is "autonomous", "autotelic", "self-referential", etc. This idea has infected literary criticism and made poetics what it is today. The modus operandi of Phatica is much the same - the idea behind the phatic function is that communication may have no other purpose or object than itself. What I have treated as its "asemanticity" or "non-referentiality" can very well be framed in terms of its autonomy. At least there's a possibilty of doing so.

The issue at hand is simply this: phatic communion has shifted the idea of communication from the transfer of meaning to the creation of social bonds. That communication establishes relationships may have been self-evident all along, but ever since the phenomenon gained a name it has been growing exponentially. Moreover, it is increasingly moving away from strictly anthropological and linguistic concerns and taking up ever more varied topics. That is to say, phaticity, as Schandorf (2013: 335) here calls it, is indeed breaching the barriers of communication study and becoming a media study tool. On this topic I would like to skip Schandorf's paper for now and jump to a passage in a paper that wasn't originally among the 10 that had "phatic" in their titles.

Soukup, Charles 2009. Techno-Scopophilia: The Semiotics of Technological Pleasure in Film. Critical Studies in Media Communication 26(1): 19-35.

Echoing these concerns of the "propaganda" system of film and advertising, Paul Virilio has harshly critiqued the role of media and technology in contemporary society or "technoculture." For instance, suggesting a scopic gaze, in his book The Vision Machine, Virilio (1994) described:
The phatic image - a targeted image that forces you to look and holds your attention - is not only a pure product of photographic and cinematic focusing. More importantly it is the result of an ever-brighter illumination, of the intensity of its definition, singling out only specific areas, the context mostly disappearing into a blur. (p. 14)
As a humanist/phenomenologist, Virilio believes that technology destroys our humanness (our body/our art, etc.). In his words, the technologies of tele-surveillance, tele-vision, and advertising are "a small step for man, but a giant leap for inhumanity" (Virilio, 2000, p. 64). (Soukup 2009: 21)
The reference here is Virilio, Paul 1994. The Vision machine. Translated by London: Verso. As much as I can make out, Virilio is a French cultural theorist of the Guy Debord ilk. I'm not a fan of Frenche theory and I don't know anything else about Virilio, but this quote here is ingenious. In The Vision Machine it is preceded by a quote from Ray Bradbury about intensifying the details of an image, and followed by a discussion of how this works in propaganda posters. The book contains a handful of more passages that discuss the phatic image.

Why I'm so excited right now is not only because it is a breach into media studies but because it illustrates the analogy between the poetic and the phatic function and in a way that, for me, constitutes a possibility to include E. R. Clay's The Alternative (1882) in this discussion. Namely, when Clay treats of attention he differentiates it from what he calls quasi-attention. This is one of the parts of the book that I like the most, which I think is most valuable in his reconstructive definitions, and which I would very much like to treat more throughly in my forthcoming bachelor's thesis. (I'll take the liberty to dwell on this aspect a bit thoroughly here by way of experimentation or practice.) Clay writes that "Attention is discernment that depends on intentional effort." (Clay 1882: 64). From this definition he proceeds:
A mental event, however that resembles attention in every respect save that of dependence on intentional effort, is commonly confounded with attention. There are objects that fascinate and all but absorb the mind, for example, intense pain or recent good fortune. So far is the concentration of mind caused by such objects from being dependent on intentional effort that the utmost efforts of the subject to direct his mind to other objects are abortive. This kind of discernment then, if dependence on intentional effort be essential to attention, is not attention. It is a mistake to advise the grieved friend to divert attention from the grief. He does not hold to, but is held by, the grief. Another error mistakes for attention the discernments of the point of greatest vividness in the field of objects that simultaneously occupy a mind. Following the analogy of the term "field of vision," the term "objective field" has been given as the common name of the whole of which the parts are the objects that are simultaneously present to a single mind. (Clay 1882: 64-65)
That is to say, if attention is defined as a discernment that depends on intentional effort, then it turns out that there is phenomenon often mistaken for attention but which lacks dependence on intentional effort. On this he dictates: "Let the concentration of mind that is caused by the attraction of the object be termed quasi-attention" (Clay 1882: 66). Virilio's phatic image is exactly on the opposite pole of quasi-attentive discernment, it is the object of discernment that "fascinates and all but absorbs the mind", an object that is not held by mind, but which itself holds the mind captive.

Returning briefly to the topic of the aesthetic or poetic function, the difference between an aesthetic image and a phatic image now becomes more pronounced. The characteristic feature of the aesthetic image is that it is set (directed, focused upon) the image itself, for its own sake. It is characterized by the method of construction that makes the image autonomous from the outside reality (ideally, the aesthetic image in this sense depicts objects that do not or cannot exist). The phatic image, on the other hand, is autonomous in a slightly different sense. The phatic image is itself agentive. It is constructed in a way that captures attention without the viewer's intentional effort.

I left in a part of Clay's discussion of the "objective field" because this is another topic that demands a more thorough examination, especially in relatin with Charles Peirce's phaneroscopy. That is, "the whole of which the parts are the objects that are simultaneously present to a single mind" is essentially what Peirce calls phaneron, i.e. "the collective total of all that is in any way or in any sense present to the mind". The part about "field of vision" is important to consider because this is exactly the topic that Virilio actually discusses in relation with the phatic image, i.e. the aspects of "illumination" and "the intensity of its definition".

I think it's safe to say that the phatic image is an object of quasi-attention, that is, an image intentionally constructed to arrest your attention without your intentional effort. The analogy with phatic communication is almost self-evident: just like phatic utterances they serve no other purpose than to hold your continued attention, to maintain the process of communication for the sake of continuing the process of communication. That is not to say that it is purposeless or that it doesn't have a function. With reference to Malinowski's original conception of a type of speech in which ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words, rthe phatic image is a type of image which forces you to look and hold your attention by its very construction. The Jakobsonian interpretation is perhaps more favourable: both serve to keep the channel open.

A footnote in The Vision Machine acknowledges that phatic image is "a technical term employed by Georges Roques in Magritte et la publicite" (Virilio 1994: 76). So the plot thickens. Sadly, Roques does not have a wikipedia page, nor can I find this text. The French do have a lot of theorists who make use of the term l'image phatique, but it is beyond me to Google Translate any of it. And there's no need for it - Virilio's remarks are more than enough to construct a more complehensive theory of phatic image (especially if considered in conjunction with Clay's discussion of distinctness and indistinctness, for example).

What is important for me here is that be it Virilio's phatic image or Schandorf's phatic text (which I will treat separately when I read the whole paper), these concepts verify the usefulness of Wescott's terms, pheme and phasis. Understood in the broad sense of structure and process, it turns out that whatever message in whatever medium - from speech to text to image - can be viewed as a pheme, that is, a phatic structure. And the operation of pheme, the action it is involved in - be it communication or looking at an advertising - can be viewed as phasis, that is, a phatic process.

That is the crux of the matter for me at this point: phatics are multiplex and multifarious. There is no limit to phatic phenomena - every form of communication by necessity contains a phatic aspect. It is only a matter of shedding light on it, bringing it into focus and calling it out. The latter is what I mean by the work of Phatica, the demon of terminological invention that follows phatic study everywhere it is taken up. I think that we need to write a paper that introduces pheme and phasis as complements to the concept of phatic, so that, on the one hand, there can be variety in the terms used to handle these phenomena, and on the other hand, so that the the multiplex and multifarious studies of phatics could be brought to a higher level of generalization.


Before continuing with the 5 remaining papers I'd like to thank Joe for commenting on the text of this post thus far. We'll probably publish our discussion on the Phatic Workshop blog, but here I'll like to revisit some more salient points made in that discussion so that I'd have something to guide me while moving forward.
  1. We should aim to construct a diagram of the varieties of phatics. For this we need to find out what types of phatic communication there are, whether phatics is restricted to communication (or involves non-communicative media as well, for example, and how to handle that outside of the communicative framework without moving too far from more strictly phatic concerns).
  2. When dealing with phatics we should not overlook other aspects, such as the contextual and metalingual, because in even phenomena that has a dominant phatic function can have a subordinated cognitive, metalingual, or other function. In other words, the relation of phatic function to other communicative functions should be kept in the agenda.
  3. More attention to Bateson's work is necessary in order to consider the relationship aspect in more detail without reinventing the wheel. That is, we should revisit Bateson's writings on metacommunication and the μ-function, especially in Communication (1951), from which I have culled excerpts but which is unexplored in its entirety.
  4. If the aim is to establish a new field of study called Phatics, there should be some reflection about the aspirations and struggles ahead on the way towards establishing phatics in public consciousness. Is there a way to establish phatics by bringing together people who already operate with the term, preferably without stepping on toes and getting too caught up in academic politics?
  5. Some thought needs to be invested in the practical applications of phatics so that it doesn't stay or become merely a theoretical venture. Perhaps social isolation and psychosocial integration should be looked into in order to see if phatics can contribute anything of value in that sector.
  6. Not to shy away from the phatics of disharmony, disunity, and belligerence. Contact should not be viewed only from the aspect of opening but also from the standpoint of terminating. Avoiding contact is also a phatic phenomenon.
  7. The concepts of pheme and phasis need more work. It's very semiological to dichotomize structure and process, but if they are to become useful working definitions they have to make better sense, probably with pertinent illustratations.
Although I had planned to go through 10 papers I will now turn my attention to the most cited papers on phatic communion (i.e. John Laver's 1975 paper) and continue the "Super 'Phatic!" saga later on.


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