Vol. 2. No. 1 R-8 March 1996
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Discourse, Consciousness, and Time: The Flow and Displacement of Conscious Experience in Speaking and Writing

Wallace Chafe (1994)
Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press
Pp. xiii+327.
ISBN 0-226-10054-5 (paper)
US $24.95

Linguistics texts do not constitute a monolithic form of discourse. Some are highly technical, replete with arcane jargon and abstruse formulations; their readers need to decipher them, pencil in hand, in order to follow the argument within. Others tell the story of an argument with the imagination and elegance of fiction and the simplicity, clarity, and profoundness of philosophy; at least this reader takes delight in uncovering their meaning, one page at a time, eagerly anticipating further developments, all the while making connections to her own experience with languages and that of her students. Charles J. Fillmore and M.A.K. Halliday write such linguistics texts, and so has Wallace Chafe in his latest book. Discourse, Consciousness, and Time does not come as a surprise to readers familar with Chafe's work since his book-length treatment of meaning and the structure of language (1970). Its sources can be traced to his well-known work on narrative strategies in the "pear stories" (1980) and on the differences between oral and written modes of communication (1991). As the second part of the title clearly states, the book is about the way our conscious awareness of reality and use of language come to terms in the flow between face- to-face interaction and fictional writing. The very cover, whose provenance is strangely unacknowledged, depicts the painter Thomas Cole and the poet William Cullen Bryant, perched on a rocky promontory above the Hudson river, conversing by the silvery stream that gains its strength from the undulating heights in the distance and is flowing merrily below. Asher Durand's painting "Kindred Spirits" echoes many of the themes in this book, from the interplay of reality and imagination in our daily lives and in fiction, to the role of observation and imagination in studying the intricacies of language use.

Just as the cover provides thematic unity through artistic means, the conceptual unity is ensured by the treatment of consciousness. Some of the linguistic issues discussed by Chafe, such as new vs. given information, have been considered before, by him and by others; moreover, consciousness itself has taken lately a prominent role in cognitive science, with such authors as John Searle and Ray Jackendoff. And yet, the book under review marks the first time that this "very core of our existence" becomes the vantage point from which crucial language pheonomena are approached and examined.

The flow of Chafe's elegant argument is divided into three parts-- a clear concession to editorial conventions, for chapters 1 [-1-] to 24, with summaries at the end, need no further structuring. The first part (chapters 1 through 4) introduces the problem, the very state of linguistics, eloquently summarized as follows: "We are all blind, each of us touching his or her small part of an elephant that is very large, very complex indeed" (p. 9). Alongside the problem, we find a major assumption, namely that "consciousness plays a crucial role in thought, language, and behavior" (p. 40). Chafe places consciousness at the very foundation of language use and investigation. Consciousness, with its "constant" properties (e.g., focus, dynamic character, point of view, and so forth) and "variable" properties (e.g., immediacy vs. displacement, factuality vs. fictionality), as well as its flow and displacement, explains much of what we do with language.

Within conversational consciousness, the intonation unit-- identified by such criteria as variable pauses, changes in pitch, or terminal contours--is the smallest unit of analysis. Several chapters are devoted to it in the second part, entitled "Flow" (chapters 5 through 14). Not a sentence, but sometimes coinciding with one, the intonation unit represents the speaker's focus of consciouness at the time when it is uttered and is a stable memory unit. Central to its relation to consciousness is the idea of activation cost, the amount of mental effort required to access informtion by the speaker; thus, given and accessible information exact less cost than new information.

The language phenomena examined in this part in some detail, on the basis of a corpus of naturally occurring conversations, are, among others: the grammatical subject (the referent from which an intornation unit moves on) and the hypothesized "light subject constraint." The latter states that in converation subjects usually refer to given or accessible information (hence, the frequency of "I"), and the new information resides, when present, in the predicate. An additional hypothesis, the "one new idea constraint," stipulates that within an intonation unit, only one independent item represents new information. Just as speakers cannot focus actively on more than one intonation unit at a time, semiactively they hold more of a conversation, which becomes apparent when we make coherence judgments. These larger units, called "discourse topics," are developed from the point of view of one referent, are verbalized only if they are in conflict with expectations, and are sustained either through interaction or narratively.

The hypotheses advanced and partially but most convincingly supported in these chapters receive further attention with evidence from the Seneca language (the Iroquoian family), in an attempt to show those commonalities among languages that may prove to be universals. For instance, the ability to activate only one idea per focus of consciousness may very well be just such a universal trait of language use. Chafe ventures even farther afield, into music, to [-2-] suggest that both language and music "are shaped by properties basic to the flow of conscious experience" (p. 191). Both chapters, by necessity short, show the wider, humanistic scope of Chafe's concerns, as well as the large amount of detailed work awaiting investigators within the conceptual framework imaginatively and persuasivel y created by him. But the area that needs elaboration more than others, the one that this reviewer found tantalizingly short, is that of written discourse, which is discussed in part of the third section, entitled "Displacement" (chapters 15 through 24).

Displacement is certainly not the exclusive domain of written discourse. Chafe provides a smooth transition to it by first taking into account the immediate and diplaced modes of talk. We are sent back to the Hudson River School conversationalists on the cover, engaged in talk about the stream right in front of them and maybe about the sources of the stream or about themselves at other times and in other places. Their active consciusness alternates between two modes. Chafe introduces a very useful dichotomy here: between "extroverted" consciousness, directly affected by the environment, and "introverted" consciousness, the one remembering and imagining. Both of them are present in conversational language: the former has a stream-like quality, is rich in detail, is the point of view of the information, and is the deictic center from which space and time are represented; the latter is island-like and selective in its inclusion of detail. In addition, we have the dichotomy between the "represented" and "representing" functions of consciousness. In the immediate mode, the extroverted consciousness is both providing the ideas that are represented and representing them; in the displaced mode, that of remembering and imagining, the introverted consciousness is responsible for both activities, while the extroverted consciousness is separate, in an imagined or remembered time.

The last chapters of the book dwell on the linguistic ways in which displaced immediacy is realized in writing: from the first person fictional narrator and the representation of speech and thought by others, to third person fiction, where the represented consciousness is simply absent (the traditional omniscient narrator), and finally, to written non-fiction in many genres. Along the continuum between dyadic face-to-face verbal interaction and written non-fiction, the various kinds of expository writing favored by the academic community find themselves at the opposite end from conversation: in their displaced immediacy, there is no represented consciousness at all, and no acknowledged representing consciousnes; moreover, there is no acknowledged reader and no obvious time or place when the language was produced or received. These forms of writing are remote--both literally and figuratively, in terms of consciousness--from the conversational flow, acquired without effort or reflection in childhood. Within Chafe's conceptual framework, spanning language use along the continuum, we should understand[-3-] better the difficulties college students have in learning written academic discourse.

The learning process becomes a miracle when the learners are functioning in a culture different from their own, with different discourse conventions and underlying assumptions, as is the case of non-native speakers of English. At the very least, Chafe's book will make those of us who teach ESL writing (and not just writing) at the college level more immediately aware not only of the many language intricacies we so often take for granted, but also of the deceptively close links between the oral and written modes of communication. At a more practical level, from the perspective of the extroverted and introverted consciousness, one can create lively scenarios to teach tricky language facts (e.g., deictics such as "come" and "go," aspects of definite article use, reported speech, verb tense consistency in discourse, and so forth) more comprehensibly and more enjoyably than by invoking textbook rules. But maybe the greatest relevance Wallace Chafe's latest book holds for language teaching consists of its bringing forcefully to the fore the importance of authentic language input: from naturally occurring conversations, but also from the rich treasures of good fiction. For it is only from such authentic language sources that the mysteries of language use will be uncovered, explained, and internalized.


Chafe, W. (1970). Meaning and the structure of language. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.

Chafe, W. (1980). The deployment of consciousness in the production of narrative. In W. Chafe (Ed.), The pear stories: Cognitive, cultural, and linguistic aspects of narrative production. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Chafe, W. (1991). Grammatical subjects in speaking and writing. Text, 11, 45-72.

Anca M. Nemoianu
The Catholic University of America


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