1st May 2019 by

Relevance Theory, Literature and (Trans)forming Knowledge: A Seminar with Deirdre Wilson

On 13th March members of the (Trans)forming Knowledge stream were visited by Deirdre Wilson, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at University College London and Research Professor at the Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature at the University of Oslo. We had invited Professor Wilson in consequence of her pioneering work, with Dan Sperber, on ‘relevance theory’, a pragmatic theory of communication and cognition which has proved both influential and controversial since its development in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Given its emphasis not least on the role of context in influencing the way meaning is conveyed and understood, relevance theory seemed particularly germane to our work on questions of creative adaptation.

Although designed to deal with a pragmatic ability that evolved in everyday face-to-face communication, Professor Wilson’s theory can shed light on a very broad range of overtly intentional (‘ostensive’) communicative acts. Hence it can in principle be applied effectively to the forms of literary and other cultural communication with which our stream typically deals. In an attempt to explore this potentially fruitful interface, her paper focused in particular on two questions: What might relevance theory, as a theory of communication and cognition, contribute to literary studies? And how might it in turn benefit from a careful consideration of the process of literary interpretation and the concerns of literary scholars?

With regard to the former question, two concepts emerged in discussion as particularly important. First, relevance theory’s conception of communication as a process of ‘taking a stroll together’. This differentiates it sharply from code-based linguistic theories which define successful communication as taking place when a signal conveyed by a speaker/writer is ‘accurately’ decoded and the original thought exactly duplicated in the mind of the addressee – a process of communication defined by Professor Wilson as ‘marching in step’. Relevance theory, by contrast, posits that successful communication takes place merely when a similarity of thoughts is created in the respective minds of speaker/writer and addressee. The key concept here is that of relevance, which has to be perceived in some form by the addressee if a fruitful and mutually beneficial creative ‘stroll’ is to take place between her and the speaker/writer.

The second idea on which our discussion particularly focused is the related one of inference. In relevance theory’s model, the communicator performs an ostensive act – designed to attract the addressee’s attention and focus it on an intended import – and the addressee then infers that import using clues provided by the communicator, plus contextual information. This inference cannot be more than a ‘best guess’, and hence relevance theory’s model of communication posits an intrinsic element of risk – that the addressee’s inference will be partial, even misguided (if interpreted in terms of the communicator’s original intentions). This model seems well suited to helping us understand the essentially ‘open’ polyvalence of literary communication; and it is also attractively liberating and empowering for readers and interpreters – who, instead of merely ‘receiving’ a message, are cast in the role of co-creators. It appeared to us that a similar model could be applied to the role of translators and editors, as well as readers and literary critics. And, not least, to the intrinsically co-creative contribution of an adapter, who might be seen for example as participating in a stroll with an ‘original’ author and their joint addressee and helping the latter in particular to process the experience of the walk – and the sights and sounds that confront her during it – in a relevant and productive way.

Professor Wilson then proceeded to draw attention to particular features of literary communication of which the application of relevance theory might facilitate our understanding. These included repetition (as a cue to ostension, encouraging a search for further implications); various forms of figurative utterance (seen as arising at the level of communication, as speakers try to convey complex thoughts); and sarcasm and irony (interpreted using the concept of ‘echoed’ thought).

Overall, Professor Wilson felt that relevance theory could assist literary study by equipping it with a “theoretical framework [that] helps to explain how intuitive interpretations are produced and shed light on the pragmatic principles and mechanisms that underlie them”. The related question, of how consideration of the process of literary interpretation might assist proponents of relevance theory, did not receive as much attention on this occasion. Nevertheless Professor Wilson feels that literary and other forms of figurative interpretations have a number of crucial features that resist analysis in terms of standard pragmatic models, and hence represent a potentially fruitful area of enquiry as relevance theory is further refined and developed. In discussion she also pointed out that the potential relevance  to her thinking of the process of adaptation had become clearer to her in the course of her visit; and both the highly constructive nature of our deliberations and the warm personal atmosphere in which they took place left both her and us keen to engage in future discussion and collaboration.

Dr Nigel Harris

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