28 septembre 2019

Uwe Poerksen, Plastic Words (note de lectura)

Subtitle: The Tyranny of a Modular Language
The Pennsylvania State University Press
German original version 1988. English translation version 1995

plastic words = connotative stereotypes
The vernacular has been colonized or invaded by science. But science is altered in vernacular context: it becomes contradictory, doctrinaire, and imperialistic.

The plastic words are present everywhere: in the speeches of politicians and on the drawing boards of city planners, at academic conferences, and in the ever more taken-for-granted in-between world of the media.
The nation state weeds out languages.
Universal signs – words that become common sense.
Those words already existed two or three hundred years ago; but they have changed their meaning.
Popular concepts from the vernacular are transmitted into science or some other higher sphere, where they pick up the semblance of generally applicable truths. Then they wander back, authorized and canonized, into the vernacular, where they become dominant myths and overshadow everyday life.
The scientific teachings of Marx and Freud reappear in the everyday as doctrines and myths that disable the vernacular.
Amorphous plastic words are the elemental building blocks of the industrial state.
If the one looks only at the words, they sometimes appear to be a skeleton that displays the structure of the world more clearly than a full ideological presentation would.
The words are modules of a new reality – a reality that locks us in a conceptual prison.
Language crystallizes  consciousness and forms an intermediate world.
Language is an intermediate world.
Plastic words have weak contours.

Plastic words are rarely used in a particular, precise, appropriate manner. They are used as interchangeable modules. Because of this, they lose any potential for precision, concreteness, or exactitude.

1. Plastic Words on Both Sides of the Elbe
The Composite Image

The word has been penetrated by the science of psychoanalysis and molded by it.
How plastic words are used bears some resemblance to metaphor.
In Freud’s concept of “sexuality” there was originally a visual content. He took the psyche as an apparatus inside which measurable or at least estimatable quantities of energy circulate. The energy can be dispersed, repressed, displaced, heightened, or lessened. The idea of the psyche as an apparatus for energy distribution derived from physics.
“Sexuality” is a metaphor in a double sense, as a concept derived from science and by reason of the language of images from physics.
“Sexuality” has become a universal explanation.
A person in the Middle Ages had no “sexuality”, neither the word nor the thing. This is a relatively recent construction.
“Sexuality” has an impressive aura. It signals science. It silences.

It is an automatic attribute of all events, emphasized for its own sake.
The word names the property of forward movement. Everything that does not explicitly or actually correspond to it is hopelessly backward and out of date.

1. The speaker lacks the power to define the word.
2. The word is superficially related to scientific terms. It is a stereotype.
3. It has its origin in science.
4. It is carried over from one sphere into another, and is in that sense a metaphor.
5. It forms an unnoticed link between science and the everyday.
6. It has a very broad application.
7. It displaces synonyms.
8. It replaces the conventional, precise word.
9. It replaces an indirect way of speaking or a silence.
10. It condenses a huge field of experience in one expression.
11. It is impoverished in content.
12. Its imagery is vapid and diffuse.
13. It is historically disembedded.
14. It transforms history into a laboratory.
15. It dispenses with the question of value.
16. The "aura" and associations of the word dominate.
17. It names a property and contains the appearance of an insight.
18. It has more of a function than a content.
19. As a scientific "idealization" of something limitless it uncovers and awakens needs.
20. Its "naturalness" strengthens this pull.
21. The resonance of the word is imperative.
22. It has multiple uses.
23. Its use increases prestige.
24. It leads to silence.
25. It anchors the need for expert help in the vernacular and serves as a resource.
26. It forms new words and is a flexible instrument in the hands of experts.
27. It makes previous words look out-of-date.
28. In this sense it is new.
29. It is an element of an international code.
30. It lacks an intonation and cannot be replaced by pantomime or gesture.

Essential characteristics:
A. It originates from science and resembles a building block. It is a stereotype.
B. It has an inclusive function and is a "key for everything."
C. It is a reductive concept, impoverished in content.
D. It grasps history as nature.
E. Connotation and function predominate.
E It generates needs and uniformity.
G. It renders speech hierarchical and colonizes it, establishing an elite of experts and serving as their "resource."
H. It belongs to a still very recent international code.
I. It limits speech to words, shutting out expressive gesture.                      
Plastic words:
- basic need
- care
- center
- communication
- consumption
- contact
- decision
- development
- education
- energy
- exchange
- factor
- function
- future
- growth
- identity
- information
- living standard
- management
- model
- modernization
- partner
- planning
- problem
- process
- production
- progress
- raw material
- relationship
- resources
- role
- service
- sexuality
- solution
- strategy
- substance
- system
- trend
- value
- welfare
- work
Our theme is the most recent phase in the standardization of ordinary language.
Plastic words are first and foremost concepts.

2. Are Plastic Words a New Class of Words?
Nietzsche holds a centuries-old overextension of language responsible for the independence language has assumed.
the fundamental alteration in the meaning of classical topoi
Information is what one has always just missed.
“Information” is a word derived from the Latin. In classical Latin “informatio” means “training, instruction, correction” or “image and imagination”. In the Latin of the Middle Ages the word acquires the additional sense of “inquiry” and “investigation”.
Old meanings: “explanation”, “instruction”, “report”, “evaluation”.
Since 1970s, the meaning is “news”.
In everyday life, people think less and less in sentences and allow themselves to be led more and more by words.
“Information” becomes superior to mere opinion, or only intuitively grounded suspicion, or even feeling. It is fortified with data. It can be checked. As a datum, it is the essence of the thing. It opposes everything that is not information. As soon as it is quantified, its opposition inevitably becomes a zero.
The user of amorphous plastic words is much more likely to be a slave to the words. He cannot check them; instead he may have the illusion of viewing a territory in a comprehensive way.
It’s an old propaganda trick to present a desired image of the future as a present reality, the hoped-for history of tomorrow as the nature of today.
Catchphrases contain instructions for action, slogans are instructions for action.
“the energy crises”
“the struggle for existence”
“a place in the sun”
“the yellow peril”
“total mobilization”
“the decline of the West”
“total war”
“zero hour”
“the iron curtain”
“currency reform”
“a planned economy versus a free market”
“the economic miracle”
“the crisis in education”
“the energy crisis”
“quality of life”
“freedom or socialism”
“the economic crisis”
“the information age”
Amorphous plastic words are not picturesque or aggressive or target-oriented, but apparently neutral.
So catchphrases are interpretations of history. They are a static precis, fragments of sentences turned into formulas. They share attributes of our plastic words, in that they are autonomous and outside the control of the speaker. But our plastic words do not have the defining power, the picturesqueness, or the polemical pointedness of catchphrases. They are far less conspicuous and apparently more factual. They also interpret, but without aggression. They are in fact completely nonaggressive and nonpartisan. They interpret nature, not history. Expressed more precisely, they locate history within nature, and it is just that way that they achieve their dreadful effect.”
Plastic words are idols.
Plastic words are connotative stereotypes drawn from science that function as ciphers in the vernacular.
Plastic words are dressed up in the authority of science and its claim to a universal power of eplanation.
We are dealing with a new type of language usage-one might call it modular-and a new word type-plastic.
The myths of Roland Barthes transform history into nature (so the plastic words).
The news of Günther Anders make reality unreal and (so the plastic words).
Plastic words are points of crystallization that order the in-between world of our everyday language. The phantom world of the media and the things that have melted down to signs also resemble this in-between world. They contribute to the forging of this little set of words. But these words not only determine consciousness. As former historical concepts, now cut loose from history, they become instruments of manipulation and generate blueprints of a new reality. They are tools for the laboratory of the real.”

3. Plastic Words as Building Blocks of New Models of Reality
Language is reduced to a series of plastic modules.
Lego words
These merry games represent the condition of language; they point to a kind of loosening of our language that is historically unprecedented. But at the same time they also reflect the fact that reality itself has taken on an unparalleled flexibility. Nor do these word games only produce empty phrases or technical jabbering. That would be harmless. Their most effective products-and if one narrows the game to plastic words one can recognize this-are the finished building blocks of our world. Natura fictionem sequitur. Nature follows art, and at this moment pretty bad art, trash. A language of interchangeable words is reflected in a world of interchangeable trash.

4. Experts as Functionaries Who Make Reality
Models of reality take shape in the laboratory of plastic words.
The vernacular has been infiltrated by a hybrid lingo made by marrying plastic words to technical terms.
Plastic words function as metaphors.
Transmission of words between spheres is barely noticed anymore and, for that reason, it seems all the more commonsense. The success of the practical colonization of our world partly depends on a prior metaphorical colonization. A toolbox of modular stereotypes is available and ready to use. But this transmission not only opens up new regions, as I have said, it also disfigures and estranges them. The metaphorical colonization means, linguistically as well as concretely, a perversion of the social world.
There are three colonizers: science/technology, economics and administration.
Abstract language allows the world to be planned, levels it out evenly, and makes it available to the drawing board. It constructs homogeneous and easily visualized spaces. It avoids sensuousness, diversity, and individual variation, and focuses on what remains when one gets rid of all particular cases. This is precisely how it opens up the world for exploitation.
At the same time abstract language serves to cover up reality. It prevents the imagination from reflecting on what actually happens to people. It ignores what they experience and what they feel, their life histories. The language of the overview leads to disregard of what is most important. The seal of science or of administration, stamped on the everyday by the expert, hides suffering beneath an inhuman objectivity. The expert robs the senses of their reality.
The expert is an enemy of extremes. He identifies extreme positions as dangerous, and one of his most common arguments is that one must maintain a middle ground between enthusiasm for progress and fear of the future, between economics and ecology. There is such a thing as a car fetish, he says, but there is also a danger of turning the car into a bogeyman: one needs to find a balance between these views. The pattern he follows is a parody of Platonic dialectic. He holds the middle ground regardless of the question and bravely faces into the future: "We must endure the tensions."
The language of the experts imitates stability and secures the journey into the future.
-          the criteria we have established for plastic words apply to the expert as well
The expert
- silences
- and reforms the world of everyday life through the concepts and the
-vocabulary of the scientific world;
-he eliminates the chasm between these spheres (1-5);
- his language has a very wide radius of application
-and displaces locally meaningful signs (6-9);
-his speech is poor in content;
- his speech reduces great diversity to a common denominator ( 10-12 );
-he disembeds localities from history,
-transforms them into a laboratory,
-and dispenses with the question "good" or "bad" in favor of the question "progressive" or "backward" ( 13-15);
- he mediates goods and always appears on the side of Enlightenment;
-the resonance of the name "expert" and the social function he fulfills are more important than what he actually does ( 16-18);
- he awakens limitless needs,
-whose "naturalness" become an imperative through him;
-he is capable of replicating things (otherwise he is replaced) (19-22);
-the efforts of expert bodies raise prestige;
- he institutionalizes himself and the need for his help through his language;
- he creates compound words and new words which serve as flexible instruments with which to manufacture new models of reality (23-26);
- he makes the past look out-of-date,
-his position is relatively new,
-he has the cachet of the international (27-29),
-and his language lacks an individual voice (30).

5. The Mathematization of the Vernacular
Our vernacular is becoming increasingly mathematized.
The whole of science is becoming mathematical.
Mingling of spheres: the sculpting of the everyday world and its language by the natural sciences.
Abstraction, ahistorical universality, numerical sizing, the arbitrariness principle, reduction, combination, multiplication, model building unrestricted by any social norm, geometrization, and enumeration-if these expressions fit, then it is meaningful to speak of mathematization of the vernacular. Mathematics's claim to universality has not only reached the humanities, but has also jumped over into everyday society, where it is mirrored in its speech. But the vernacular has not become more precise as a result: plastic words only parody mathematics, just as they only denature the vernacular.
1. Plastic words are characterized by a high degree of abstraction. This abstract language creates homogeneous domains that can be scanned quickly. It directs attention away from individual differences. "The Federal Republic is becoming an information society." This language delivers the world into the hands of planners, levels the terrain, and places everyone at the mercy of the drawing board.
2. Words such as "communication" lack a historical dimension; they are not embedded in any particular place or society. They are shallow and they taste of nothing. They describe nature in the terms of natural science. They banish history from the worlds they invade and destroy the human scale.
3. Our key words are used in the manner of boldly outlined building blocks, as though one were dealing with numeric quantities. The aura predominates, but even in the vernacular, many of these stereotypes suggest a quantifiable amount. Not just "energy," "production," and "consumption," but even "information" or "communication" increasingly appear before us as statistics.
4. The plastic words have a tendency to create sentences when placed in almost any order. The words are alarmingly interchangeable, they can be equated with one another or strung together in a chain of equations. "Communication is exchange. Exchange is a relationship. A relationship is a process .... "
5. We are speaking about only a small set of words, but they are the building blocks of countless models of reality. Whether the topic is the Third World, health, agriculture, or town planning-in the mill of the plastic words models are manufactured and projects developed in an instant. Experts inflect each word according to the sector to which it is assigned. Some of the words are already on the way to becoming suffixes, to entering a grammatical category. They tend to form series. Our world is deficient, malleable, and continually refashioned into new structures: this is the point of this modular Lego language.
6. Mats of words creep across the surfaces of our living spaces and grip them fast. They are comprised of the advice of experts, catalogs of criteria, examination papers, marks, points, tests, test results, and percentages. Enumeration and geometrization reach into every crack.
The new concept of language put forward by several leading twentieth-century linguists reflects and support the mathematization and mobilization of the vernacular.
Orwell’s Newspeak – a language without a historical dimension, an artificially created plan-language sanctioned by state
Our theme is a different instance of mathematization: the basic international code of modular plastic words. It is simple, has no real history, is easy to learn and manipulate, and is limited in vocabulary and syntactic rules: a type of Lego. It overlays and displaces the local vernacular, replaces nuanced and nonverbal modes of expression, and over time  insinuates itself everywhere. The Lego language of the industrial state plasticizes the planet.

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