Plastic words

I should explain what I meant by the term “plastic words” in the essay-poem about tundra swans (which Tom Montag at The Middlewesterner has generously designated “Link of the week.” Thanks, Tom!). Fortunately, I just remembered where I had shelved my copy of Uwe Poerksen’s Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language (Jutta Mason and David Cayley, translators, Penn State U.P., 1995). Since I don’t have more than three or four books on linguistics, they are shelved with poetics and litcrit. I’m getting increasingly good at hiding things from myself…

Poerksen is a German medievalist. I imagine it was his professional background that gave him enough of an alientated perspective to recognize a feature of modernity that others had overlooked. He identifies a small class of words that have been liberated from their original context in the sciences, where they had highly specialized meanings, and are now liberally employed in academic/bureaucratic/managerial contexts mainly for prestige.

The phenomenon of plastic words has often been described and held up for ridicule under various headings, especially in its academic form. But Poerksen isn’t some curmudgeonly prescriptivist intent on returning modern language to some golden age of “correct” usage that never existed. His alarm stems from the perception that the newly modular language he identifies is spreading its tentacles into every facet of ordinary life, from food to health care to environmental protection. In the hands of what left-libertarian economist Michael Albert calls the coordinator class, plastic words like development, project, strategy, problem, says Poerksen, “become the building blocks for plans and solutions that may seem utopian but end up impoverishing the world.”

The book isn’t too long, nor are its arguments too complex. I won’t attempt to outline Poerksen’s entire argument. Let me just quote the opening paragraphs, include a stripped-down definition of a plastic word, add a few thoughts of my own, and conclude with an example relevant to yesterday’s post on anorexia.

Plastic words are not new in how they look but in how they are used. They have been fashioned for the purpose of laying down the tracks and outlining the routes of a civilization that is covering the world with gathering speed. Their origins can no longer be discerned. They resemble one another. It is as though there were a place somewhere in the world where these words were released at intervals, as though at an unknown place there existed a factory releasing them complete from its assembly line, or as if they were coming into being simultaneously in many different places.

They may not be noticed, but they 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. They invade private conversation. When they first appear, they are fashionable and command attention; but then they merge with the everyday and soon seem commonsense.

In the spring of 1985 I attended a conference in the little Mexican mountain city of Tepotzlan, involving several noted industrialists, politicians, and academics of that country. The discussion was about how Mexico could take advantage of the most recent developments in high technology. Please note: not whether this ought to be done, but how. … The discussion was dominated by a number of words that floated through it like driftwood: ‘progresso,’ ‘proceso,’ ‘modernización,’ ‘necesidades,’ ‘comunicación,’ ‘información,’ ‘crisis,’ ‘desarrollo.’ The North American expressed himself a little differently. He replaced ‘desarrollo’ with ‘development,’ and was ahead of the others in that he seemed to be already settled on the high plateau of ‘high tech,’ whereas they had to orient themselves toward the shining mountaintop of the future by using his position as a marker…

I was only an accidental guest at this meeting; and, during a break, I remarked to a Mexican friend that the talk seemed to consist of no more than a hundred words. My friend shook his head and said quickly: ‘With a hundred words you could become president! Here there are barely fifty.’

Or perhaps there were only fifteen…

Like any self-respecting German scholar – especially one on a self-appointed campaign against vagueness – Poerksen is not content to discuss the problem in general terms. He identifies 30 criteria that must be satisfied for a word to qualify as fully “plastic.” But determined to make his findings useful to the general reader, he boils these down into nine “essential characteristics”:

A. [A plastic word] originates from science and technology 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.
F. 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.

So, do ‘development’ and ‘sexuality’ mean the same thing? It seems to me that they signify different things, but what they signify is less important than what they mean. And the meaning is the same. These are close relatives of the myth of everyday life described by Roland Barthes. They are idols, magical and empty.

This last sentence, by the way, hints at the one connection I wish the author had not left unexplored. In pre-modern Europe, as Poerksen must know, word-magic was at least as prominent as it is today. Though we have lost the sense that words can actually carry power in some essential way, I do feel that spells and other forms of charged speech constitute the most direct precursor to the modern planner’s use of plastic words. In European spells, much of the language was deliberate nonsense in which “connotation and function predominated.”

Investing language with magical power is a very different phenomenon from the use of modular language, which is by definition denatured of content. All I’m saying is that the latter doesn’t arise from a complete cultural vacuum, as Poerksen seems to suggest. In fact, the use of language to obscure rather than to elucidate seems universal, and might in fact be a major driver of linguistic evolution, to the extent that people invent new words and new ways of expressing themselves in part to differentiate themselves from the surrounding society or a neighboring society. Thus, it only makes sense that the increasingly internationalized club of ‘experts’ would want to devise their own lingo, the use of which connotes membership in the cognoscenti at the same time that it excludes the hoi polloi. Its plasticity arises from the shallowness and fundamental dishonesty of this new culture’s belief-system. But what elite has ever been willing to admit to itself the true nature of power?

I’ll close with one example of Poerksen’s that ties into a theme from yesterday’s post: the increasingly vague and modular use of the word “health.”

No one who is healthy talks about her health. Nothing is bothering her; she doesn’t lack anything. There is no reason for her to speak of this ‘nothing,’ since she doesn’t notice it. She only begins to speak of it when her body forces itself on her attention: then she talks about her illnesses, if they come, or the memory of her pains. the word ‘health’ comes up infrequently in the old texts, and when it does, it designates an absence: it means ‘uninjured,’ ‘alive.’ whoever was healthy lacked nothing. But in the time in which we live health has become a virtue, of which we keenly feel the lack. This lack has now been implanted in everyday consciousness. So we are constantly talking about our illnesses.

When the concept of health gets loose in the vernacular, it generates new forms of deviance. Originally, it was a rather unobtrusive idea, but that was before it was authorized and sanctified by experts. Now it introduces arbitrary boundaries into the continuum of experience, erecting a barrier between ‘healthy’ and ‘sick,’ and specifying a norm that has been set ever higher, so that ever more people are identified as sick. …

The scientists’ awareness that ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ are distinctions located on a shifting scale are lost. The notion of a norm that emerges from this particular vocabulary, of a healthy middle range that lies between ‘too high’ and ‘too low,’ has become a fixed standard in ordinary life. This norm is set at a level that we somehow always fail to reach. And so, because of the authority residing in a normative language, the continuum of experience is measured against a fixed yardstick, with the result that we are constantly asking ourselves: Aren’t we coming down with something? Isn’t something wrong with us? When the yardstick is passed into our own hands in the name of prevention or personal responsibility, we become in effect our own clients. It turns out that no one is ‘healthy’ any more.

5 Replies to “Plastic words”

  1. Thanks for the good explanation of plastic words, a powerful concept.

    Ivan Illich, a friend of Poerksen’s, shocked his friend by pointing out that “life” is a plastic word. There is a Canadian radio program about this, “Life as Idol,” a purloined copy of which is available here for downloading: (Search and ye shall find; the other Illich programs are well worth listening, too, as well.)

    Re words as magic: I believe the words grammar and glamour share a common root, referring to those powers available to those who could work with written words. I put a spell on you, etc.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Re: life as idol, yes, I believe Illich expanded on that insight in the last chapter of David Cayley’s book Ivan Illich in Conversation, as well.

  2. I stumbled upon this article whilst looking for information on “information”, which turns out to be a plastic word now. Mm…. This makes things a lot more confusing. Thanks for that, though. ;)

    Besides, I’m glad I’m the second poster within one week in this thread after 9 years of silence. Are we having a trend here? ;)

    1. Ha! Glad to help… even if by “help” you mean “confuse further.” :)

      Yeah, it’s funny — this site used to have better SEO before Google’s Penguin update to its search algorithm last year. Now it’s hard to figure out why certain posts get traffic and others don’t. (I should point out, though, that these older posts had lots of comments originally, but I lost them all when I moved to WordPress in 2006.)

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