Poetics in Schizophrenic Language - Speech, Gesture and Biosemiotics

Louis Wain was an English artist suffering from schizophrenia known for his drawings, which consistently featured anthropomorphised large-eyed cats. The progression of his psychosis (e.g., increased abstraction as symptomatic) can be clearly seen in his series of drawings and illustrations.

Psychologists have cited this increased abstraction as symptomatic of Wain’s schizophrenia

An interesting paper contributing some insight into the nature and phenomenology of schizophrenia and the state of psychosis (as characterized by a kind of freeflow semiosis, primitive experience of language and regime of constructing meaning and making sense). Below are excerpts and paragraphs from the paper that capture the the essence of it:

This paper offers a biosemiotic account of the poetic aspects of gesture and speech in schizophrenia. The argument is that speech and gesture are not the mere expression of pre-verbal thoughts. Instead, meaning is enacted by the temporal and semantic coordination of speech and gesture. The bodily basis of language is highlighted by the fact that, failing to create language that is organized around topics, individuals with schizophrenia often rely on poetic associations in directing their utterances.

Schizophrenic language can be seen as a hypertrophied manifestation of the discourse-scaffolding function of poetic associations in speech and gesture. The analysis of schizophrenic language shows that language behavior need not be built on pre-verbal thoughts and important aspects of schizophrenic language, such as metalinguistic awareness and semiotic agency, can be clarified by applying concepts from biosemiotics.

Schizophrenic discourse is often not organized around topics, and it can take on a poetic quality. Furthermore, individuals with schizophrenia are often easily distracted by poetic and etymological relationships in language. Individuals with schizophrenia often interact with language in an overly abstract or hyper-reflexive manner, as if, like when learning a foreign language, it was an object of contemplation.

In considering what these phenomena tell us about both language and schizophrenia, I will explore the function of poetics in the self-organization of discourse by integrating Alexander’s (2009) view of purpose and poetics in biosemiosis with McNeill’s (1992, 2005) psycholinguistic theory of speech and gesture production. In turn, I will attempt to show how biosemiotic views of language as social coordination (Cowley 2007b) can shed light on general semiotic processes in schizophrenia. I will present a case study of gesture in schizophrenia to help illustrate how a biosemiotic account of language production, and meaning-making writ large, is more parsimonious than views of language as a code-based system.

Schizophrenia is a heterogeneous condition that affects one out of a hundred people worldwide (DSM; American Psychiatric Association 1994). Along with disorganized discourse, the core symptoms are delusions, paranoia, disorganized behavior, motor dysfunction, and emotional dysregulation (DSM; American Psychiatric Association 1994). Not all individuals with schizophrenia produce disorganized discourse (commonly referred to as “thought disorder”) and the symptoms are often intermittent and fluctuate significantly based on the emotional salience of the topic under discussion (Docherty et al. 1998). Schizophrenic discourse often contains clang associations that include rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and punning (Andreasen 1984). These associations give a “poetic” quality to the discourse. However, in this paper, the term “poetic” refers to language or signs that are tied together by coincidental formal (iconic or indexical) relationships and it is not limited to poetry as an artistic creation. Some semantic issues in schizophrenic discourse include loose associations, ambiguous referents, and neologisms (Sanfillippo and Hoffman 1999). Individuals with schizophrenia may also have difficulty producing coherent goal- directed discourse (Sanfillippo and Hoffman 1999). This is related to “associative chaining” where the semantic and formal associations between contiguous utterances tie the discourse together.

When asked to define “contentment” this individual deconstructs the variousconstituent elements of the word and plays with the polysemy of these lexicalfragments. When individuals with schizophrenia behave as amateur linguists inthis way, they often fail to attend to language as a means of achieving socialunderstanding. Importantly, with this hyper-reflexive attitude towards language,“…the schizophrenic who becomes acutely aware of his or her own words orgestures as words or gestures, they suddenly reveal their nature as signs—orsemiotic things” (Phillips 2000, p. 19).

In schizophrenia everything is interconnected, from itself everything results,every fact, even the most insignificant one (it could be a movement of adoctor’s hand or a bird which alighted on a window-sill for a moment) areunited into a monumental determined coincidence. In the world of schizo-phrenia the accidental does not exist. Facts, objects, and phenomena of naturepulse with their unrelenting meanings. These meanings catch fire in a chain-like fashion, one from the other, like flames which consume everything allaround (Wróbel 1989, p. 106).

In most “code” views of language, language production is controlled by an autonomous “central executive” in a top-down fashion (cf. Levelt 1989). In the alternative models that envision language as a coordinating activity, there is no need to posit a central executive because the mental “representations” of symbols are distributed across multiple agents and time-scales. In distributed views of language and cognition, sentence production does not begin with a preverbal thought in our mind that is then simply translated into a particular language. Instead, meaning emerges dynamically through the distributed coordination of multiple social, psychological, and biological processes including, but not limited to, speech and gesture. We can view the enactment of meaning in discourse as a self-organizing biosemiotic process that has no need for a central executive.

In biosemiotic views of language as distributed coordination, affect is an important variable for explaining how “meaning spreads” in conversations as, “… affective processes co-ordinate speaking, feeling and acting such that, when words matter little, dynamics dominate talk” (Cowley 2006, p. 16). Cowley contends that the biomechanics of affective processes regulate the interactive dynamics of speech and gesture (both between and within individuals) so that unintended meanings emerge through felt bodily processes (2006, p. 16).

Code views of language take our folk-based concept of “words-as-objects” and reify it into the theoretical position that we process these linguistic objects as decontextualized symbols. Individuals with schizophrenia, like many linguists, also tend to become obsessed with words-as-objects and ignore how words are embodied and embedded within the first-order activity of socially coordinated multimodal communication. We can witness this in the poetic wordplay and etymological musings of individuals with schizophrenia. This attitude towards language has been seen as one aspect of “hyper-reflexivity” in schizophrenia, where what are normally implicit psychological processes become salient objects for reflection (Sass 1992).

A GP (Growth Point) can also be thought of as a point of differentiation or a newsworthy contrast that emerges within a discourse context. In the flow of discourse, a GP emerges from, and is contrasted with, the context of the previous GP. A subsequent GP brings forth a new idea or point of differentiation from the context of the antecedent GP. This entails a, “…dynamic, continuously updated process in which new fields of opposition are formed and new GPs or psychological predicates are differentiated in ongoing cycles of thinking for speaking” (McNeill 2005, p. 107). Context is a built- in component of the dialectical resolution of imagistic thought and analytic language that occurs in GP formation. The ongoing cycles of GP production involve the recurrent construction and disintegration of GPs. Examining the dynamics of GP production allows us to explain how the semantic and material qualities of one GP (the just-produced GP) are recycled into a subsequent GP. The contextual contiguity between successive GPs is brought about by the “fragmentation phase.” In the fragmentation phase the material from one GP, the coherent whole of the GP, is fragmented to initiate the dialectical processes of temporal and semantic unification of speech and gesture in the next GP. Part of the intrinsic motivation for this reintegration is the “benign instability” (McNeill 2005, p. 105) engendered by the opposing semiotic modes of imagistic gesture and analytic language. This inherent semiotic tension sparks the formation of novel GPs as the benign instability:

…builds semantic cohesion directly into the process. If the fragments of thepreceding cycle are used to start the next cycle, there is inevitably a partialcontinuation of the preceding stream of speech and thought, ensuringcoherence (McNeill 1992, p. 239).

Another area where GP theory departs radically from representational views of language is that we are not required to posit a central executive that controls the formation of GPs. This follows the idea that the signifying capacity of material carriers enables the emergence of complex self-organized discourse. If we abandon the concept that preformed thoughts are simply expressed through speech and gesture (cf. Levelt 1989) we can see:

…mind in terms that more closely resemble a semianarchic parallelorganization of competing elements, …where different elements gaincontrol at different times. But crucially, no element in the dodging andbumping horde is the privileged source of thinking… Instead, gesture and(overt and covert) speech emerge as interacting parts of a distributed,semianarchic cognitive engine, participating in cognitively potent self-stimulating loops whose activity is as much an aspect of our thinking as itsresult. (Clark 2008, pp. 131–133).

We can see the role of material carriers in speaking and gesturing as the, “cognitive equivalent of a forced induction system” (Clark 2008, p. 131). In a distributed view of language, the “origin” or “source” of the coordinated discourse is distributed in time and space within and between interactants.

To qualify as original, in this sense, something must be beneficial for a self-organizing system, and not just novel. In this framework, biosemiosis entails that self-organizing systems, anything from cells to societies, follow the same basic patterns when producing meaningful behavior. Alexander advances the idea that, for biosemiosis:

At the level of individual actions/state changes within a self-organizing system,there are relationships between things that matter in ways that are language-like, involving index and icon, or at least nascent versions of signs. Language-like interactions make a system’s evolution unpredictable. Possible outcomesare not equiprobable in the evolution of a complex system, and the moststatistically prevalent do not necessarily prevail. Instead likeness—or meta-phoric properties—begin (sic) to effect outcomes. Also, the causal relation-ships invoked by nearness—or metonymic properties—begin to effectoutcomes. This is my interpretation of formal or neutral selection (2009, p. 86).

The power of formal selection lies in its ability to destabilize entrenched semiotic relationships and help reorganize them into original patterns. In discourse production, formal selection, the iconic and indexical relationships inherent in the material nature of language, provides a vehicle for transitioning bet een semiotic states, i.e., GPs. The beneficial effect of spontaneous poetics in discourse, the benign semiotic instability in GP formation, is to pull one’s ideational trajectory in unexpected and original directions.

Formal selection serves a fundamental purpose in biosemiosis, but in “conventional” discourse production, which focuses on creating language that is readily interpretable, it often appears to play a secondary role. Alternatively, poetry brings the creative purpose of formal selection to the fore. In schizophrenia, the poetic discourse appears to lack a pragmatic goal and formal selection seems to “unintentionally” drive discourse production. In biosemiosis, this lack of directionality follows from being over-determined by formal selection, where semiotic self-organization is subjugated to semi-anarchic poetic coincidences. However, in Alexander’s interpretation of biosemiosis in self-organizing systems, original “pragmatic” goal-directed behavior, i.e., new transitions between semiotic states such as GPs, actually materializes out of formal selection through the fortuitous misinterpretation of signs. With such misinterpretations, “If that sign actually represents a different kind of object that turns out to be functional for the system in a different way, there may be a re-functioning of the system/response to maintain a new purpose—originality” (Alexander 2009, p. 87). The poetic mode of selection enables self-organizing system to incorporate original and productive behaviors.

Written on December 28, 2018