Thursday, July 29, 2004


In an earlier post I reproduced a message I had sent to a Cognitive Linguistics mailing list which related the story of a woman who, while publicly breastfeeding, found herself confronted with a "well-dressed woman in her thirties" who asked "Do you fuck in public, too?".

I'm going to try to "think out loud" about the sociocultural cognitive models underlying this encounter.

I cannot be sure the story is true. I am reasonably sure that when the story was told, however, just about everyone who heard it understood it to depict an intentional verbal assault (or challenge, or rebuke) of a certain sort.

If the remonstrative woman had asked "Do you dream in color?" the remark would, I think, be interpreted as a non sequitur. "Dreaming in color" does not evoke a moral frame. To the extent that telling the story could be said to have a point at all, in that case, it would have to be a point that depended on the context in which it was told. The story, by itself, would not travel very well beyond the situation of its telling.

The fact, given only the minimal context provided in the story (of"a publicly breastfeeding woman"), that the remark is understood to be negative would seem to call for an explanation.

Consider what the story would seem like if the question posed had been "Do you clip your nails in public, too?" Many listeners, I believe, would understand the remark to be some sort of negative comment but, absent a certain manner of delivery, would not judge the degree of negativity to be as great. This version of the story would be comprehensible but somehow puzzling to me.

Now think about the following variations:

a) "Do you defecate in public, too?"
b) "Do you shit in public, too?"
c) "Do you copulate in public, too?"

Example a  conveys a more negative attitude than the nail-clipping question but doesn't convey the same level of what I would call vehemence. Besides, as I believe the more vehement example b  demonstrates, the negativity is understood to have a somewhat different grounds than the rebuker was invoking. A story culminating in remark c would, I think, be understood in almost the same way that our actual story is understood. "Copulate", however, does not convey the same vividness  as does the word "fuck" and therefore, I think, does not convey the same vehemence.

The effect of statements a  and b  would be to compare breastfeeding to other 'distasteful' aspects of digestion. This is not the point the rebuker is trying to make, in this story. Statement c compares breastfeeding to other 'distasteful' aspects of reproduction but it does not do so with sufficient 'rawness' or 'coarseness'.

This brings us to the description of the woman who delivered this comment; she was described in the story as being "a well-dressed woman in her thirties". The reason for this, I believe, is to establish, through old-fashioned socioeconomic stereotype, that the woman was likely educated and therefore probably had a wide range of choices about how to express herself. The fact that she was in her thirties establishes that she is not from a different generation, not from a "different time" when such an attitude might be more expectable. The effect, therefore, is to make her utterance all the more deliberate and, therefore, strident.

The group of breastfeeding mothers among whom this story was told reportedly felt that the added stridency made the question particularly objectionable. It seems quite possible, however, that ardent opponents of public breastfeeding might interpret the elements of the story the same way but evaluate it differently; the question might seem to be a particularly effective dig.

I believe that that the things we call 'culture' and 'society' are real things, not simply abstractions, and that they are composed of enormous numbers of linked interactions such as the ones represented by this story (both the incident it purports to depict and in the tellings of that incident). I see cognitive linguistics as providing significant tools for the analysis of such interactions. It is for that reason that I thought it important to report the story and to analyze it using exactly the words that were used to tell it.

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