C'est nous qui brisons les barreaux des prisons, pour nos frères, La haine à nos trousses, et la faim qui nous pousse, la misère. Il y a des pays où les gens aux creux des lits font des rêves, Ici, nous, vois-tu, nous on marche et nous on tue nous on crève.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

The Abuse and Misuse of Language


I think it's time for a bipartisan plea for a couple of words to be respected. Some words tend to get thrown around in political (and other) debates with scant regard for how they might actually be used properly. A couple spring immediately to mind, though other people may have other suggestions:

Projection

It's standard fare in a blogospheric debate for one party to accuse the other of 'projecting'.
Often, this arises from Debater A telling Debater B that he/she is 'hate-filled', or some other such thing. B then tells A that he/she is 'projecting', which is little else than a slightly more sophisticated way of saying - 'I know you are, but what am I?'.

The term projection derives from psychology and psychoanalysis. In the former discipline, its usage is somewhat 'loose' and outdated, but in the latter, it has a very precise meaning. I'll look briefly at both in turn, drawing somewhat from LaPlanche and Pontalis in The Language of Psychoanalysis.

The 'loose' use of projection can be found in psychological discourse for much of the 20th Century. I take it to signify, more or less, the act of 'meaning construction' or 'subjectivisation' or 'personal interpretation' undertaken by individuals. Almost every detailed paradigm within psychology has a theory of projection in this sense. Cognitivists, humanists, and psychoanalysts would all grant that individuals actively construct the meaning of their worlds, though different theorists differ as to how this occurs. This is the sense in which 'projection' is used with reference to 'projective tests', such as the Rorschach, for instance.

Consequently, this use of the term projection is too broad to have any use in debate. By this definition, one could accuse one's opponent of 'projection' almost anything, because the process of 'meaning construction' or 'sense making' is, in part, 'subjective' for all people. By this reasoning, we can see that the likes of Bolt and co, who use the term 'projection' frequently to disparage ideological opponents, are merely engaging in lazy and half-understood rhetoric.

The psychoanalytic usage of projection (Projektion) is much more precise, and derives, understandably enough, from Freud. Freud used the term to refer to a paranoid or psychotic defense mechanism, and expounded this notion at greatest length in his account of the Schreber case.

In psychoanalytic terms, projection should not be confused with transference, or with the 'loose' meaning of the term. To risk a somewhat simplified definition for the sake of brevity, Freud distinguished between the subject and the 'outside world'. Freud uses the term projection to refer to an instance of the subject finding an aspect of him or herself radically unacceptable, and, rather than come to grips with this 'something', dislodging it onto a part of the outside world.
In the case of Schreber, for instance, Freud argues that the subject projected his latent homosexuality onto his clinician, and ultimately, onto god.

Projection presupposes that the feeling or wish being projected is something the subject refuses to recognise. To look at a hypothetical example, take a self-described 'Howard-hater' who accuses the PM of contemptuous treatment of asylum seekers. Let us then imagine that the Howard-hater's interlocutor accuses him/her of projection their own malevolent tendencies onto the PM. We can see that, in this case, it makes no sense at all to refer to projection, since there is apparently nothing disavowed or unrecognised in the Howard-hater's position. Even if there were, it is highly unlikely that, according to any psychoanalytic definition, the unacceptable 'thing' would sit neatly at the surface of some argumentative discourse.

In a nutshell, it makes little sense to accuse one's opponents of projection, unless one is being ludicrously general, is referring to clinical practice, or is simply being speculative. In any case, the term is not suitable for rational debate.

Existential

There have been plenty of discursive shifts in the so-called 'post-9/11 world', one of which is to band the term 'existential' about as a predicate, to lend ballast to whatever empty noun one is expounding on. For instance, how many times have we heard some 'expert' on a current affairs show ramble about the 'existential threat' posed to a nation-state?

The obvious rejoinder to this sloppiness is to distinguish between an 'existential threat', and a 'threat to existence'. The two are not the same.

It may be useful here to think of Walter Kaufmann's edited book, Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre.

Kaufmann traced the first use of the term 'existential' to the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard. It was the German philosopher Heidegger, however, who referred to his musings in Being and Time as 'existential analyses'. It should be remembered that, despite this, Heidegger affirmed that his philosophy was not itself 'existentialist', and ultimately this philosophy took a different path to that suggested by Being and Time.

Heidegger studiously avoided referring the 'existential' to anything we might broadly term 'concrete'. Heidegger's 'existential' analyses were, he said, ontological analyses, that is, analyses of 'being', and were not referred to consciousness or the empirical world in any great measure. Since our good foreign policy experts never speak of 'ontological' (or ontic) threats, we may reasonably presume that they are not Heideggereans.

The first and foremost self-proclaimed existentialist philosopher was Sartre. However, for Sartre, an existential 'crisis' or 'threat' was something that related primarily to meaning. It is the feeling of Angst one experiences when one contemplates openly the alleged void of meaninglessness at the heart of existence, or the irreducible fact that, as subjects, we are doomed to die. The existential, for Sartre, is bound up with the subject's consciousness, and cannot ever be used sensibly in relation to something like a nation-state, since this latter is a mere abstraction in Sartre's terms. In Camus' L'Etranger, it is just as 'absurd' that the protagonist must die 'in the name of the French people', as it would be any other grouping of people.

In short, 'existential' threats refer to individuals, not nations, and ought not to be confused with the threat of death. People emerge through existential threats by a range of means - reflecting upon life, seeking love or pleasure, listening to Leonard Cohen - but the threat of death is not dismissed via the same means.

So please, dear readers, when encountering foreign policy 'experts' who refer to existential this, and existential that, ask them to pick up a book for Freud's sake.