Notes from the Text-Worlds Reading Group – 21st November 2018

In this meeting of the Text-Worlds Reading Group we tackled Chapter 5 on Common Ground (CG). The blog below was written by Sam Browse, from Sheffield Hallam University.

Do we need any common ground or can we get along without it?

With the exception of some additional diagrams, the 1992 version of Chapter 5 of the manuscript is quite similar to the 1999 version. Werth’s (1992) use of the term CG is linked to his ambitious attempt to define context; indeed, he notes that ‘the obstacles [that accounting for context] presents certainly are formidable’ (p.194). Unperturbed, Werth uses the term ‘exclusively to refer to the relevant situational background for a particular discourse […] the context is constructed by the participants into an agreed set of “facts”, which we call the Common Ground’ (p.194). CG is therefore ‘the totality of information which the speaker(s) and hearer(s) have agreed to accept as relevant for the discourse’ (p.198). As the discourse proceeds, participants increment more propositions into the CG which shifts and changes accordingly.

An important feature of this account of context is that it is text-driven. It is delimited by the important caveat that it is the information ‘necessary to produce and comprehend a discourse’ (p.194); that is, ‘the text […] determines which areas of knowledge […] have to be evoked in order to understand it’ (p.245). Werth provides a very useful comparative analysis of the inferential processes involved in different readers’ understanding of a text about Ronald Reagan. The analysis shows how knowledge is incremented into the CG either by straightforwardly activating the reader’s pre-existing frame knowledge about Reagan, or – in the case of readers who are completely ignorant of the (now former) president’s biography – causing them to make inferences based on the general frame knowledge they do possess. The CG is thus the body of knowledge incremented into the discourse – by inference or frame activation – that’s necessary to make a text coherent to discourse participants (and, in fact, much of the chapter is dedicated to a discussion of coherence).

Members of the reading group raised a number of questions about and objections against Werth’s view of CG. The first related to ‘where’ in the ontological layers of Text World Theory the CG is located – is it part of the discourse-world, the text-world or something else altogether? In the early section of the chapter (for example, p.196), Werth appears to suggest that the CG is a subset of discourse-world knowledge. Later, though, it’s described as the combination of backgrounded and foregrounded information in the text-world (p.198). This latter formulation is the one I’d favour, although it brings with it a second issue; as some members of the group suggested, Werth’s (p.196-7) explanation for how knowledge is incremented into the CG feels a little clunky:

The speaker selects a topic, which the hearer is free to accept or reject. This topic may spring from the immediate situation, but if it does, the participants select only a subset of the entities manifest in the situation, and these entities have already been identified and categorised by the participants, using memory and inference [here is where the CG seems to be framed as ‘a subset’ of the discourse-world – SB]. More likely perhaps is that the topic will come out of memory or imagination, and it is perhaps even clearer that these sources require joint negotiation. If the memory is in the participants’ mutual knowledge of previous shared experience, then negotiation may be minimal, assuming that the hearer agrees to make this particular memory the topic. If the memory is exclusively in the speaker’s mind, then the hearer may want to clarify unclear details, explore further implications or simply ask for more information, all of which are part of the negotiation process. Precisely the same applies if the speaker’s source is imagination: the hearer may well wish to negotiate for further information. If all is satisfactory, then this (set of) propositions gets incremented into the CG, which as we have seen is the specific context for a particular discourse. The same process applies to all subsequent propositions except that they are also tested for coherence.

The process of ‘negotiation’, here, seems overly procedural. Discourse participants often do ‘want to clarify unclear details, explore further implications or simply ask for more information’, but in cases where they can’t they’re not stopped from creating a text-world representation (even if that world, based on partial, incomplete or even misheard information, seems vague or bizarre).

This quite mechanistic approach to negotiation is perhaps a corollary of the propositional theory of knowledge Werth adopts. According to this view, the frames that underpin the creation of text-worlds can be expressed as a series of statements (‘propositions’), or facts. Since 1992, however, cognitive psychologists and linguists have advanced alternative models of semantic meaning. In contemporary cognitive linguistics, knowledge is seen as a form of conceptualisation, and concepts as forms of embodied multi-modal simulation (see, for example, Barsalou, 2003). From this vantage point, text-worlds can be viewed as analogue mental simulations which discourse participants create, update and (re)construe in response to cues in the text, rather than banks of given and new propositional knowledge incremented as the discourse proceeds. If we take this former view, there doesn’t seem much need for a CG; it just is the text-world. Indeed, that we don’t really need the CG to explain how discourse participants create text-worlds is reflected in the fact that Gavins’ (2007) highly influential account makes no mention of the concept. Notwithstanding my own work (see below), contemporary text-world theorists have largely ceased referring to it at all.

Although the field has perhaps moved on since Werth’s original account of CG, in my own (2018; see also forthcoming, 2019) analysis of reader responses to a speech by Theresa May, I’ve found the concept useful for accounting for resistant or critical forms of reading. In the speech, May uses passive grammatical constructions with agent deletion in order to implicitly blame immigrants for economic problems such as falling wages (she says ‘wages have been forced down’, rather than ‘immigrants force down wages’). Readers were able to supplement the indirect representation proffered by May with their own frame knowledge in order to blame her for those economic problems. Crucially, though, they could also supplement this representation with the knowledge possessed by May’s ideal audience; that is, they could see that while she didn’t mention them directly, May clearly was suggesting that it is immigrants who drive down wages. Insofar as CG names the body of knowledge required to make a text coherent, I think it has a use in accounting for these kinds of inferential processes in which audiences construct the text-worlds they suppose speakers intend, based on the knowledge they impute to the speaker’s ideal audience. Notably, however, in my current research I’ve found myself moving away from CG towards describing this process in terms of Stockwell’s (2009) more contemporary idea of mind-modelling.

While there were differences of emphases, then, all in the group seemed to agreed that as a concept CG is very much of its time. The discipline has moved on since 1992 and although Werth offers a label for the particular body of knowledge required to make a discourse coherent, there are more economical and productive ways of talking about it than CG provides.

References

Barsalou, L. (2003) Situated simulation in the human conceptual system. Language and Cognitive Processes, 18 (5/6): 513-62.

Browse, S. (2018) Cognitive Rhetoric: The Cognitive Poetics of Political Discourse. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Browse, S. (forthcoming, 2019) ‘That’s just what we hear on telly all the time, isn’t it?’ Political discourse and the (cognitive) linguistic ethnography of critical reception. In Hart, C. (ed.) Cognitive Linguistic Approaches to Text and Discourse: From Politics to Poetics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Gavins, J. (2007) Text World Theory: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Stockwell, P. (2009) Texture: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Reading. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

 

 

 

 

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