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A few years ago, David Cayley began working on a program on Uwe Poerksen's Plastikwörter for CBC-Radio's Ideas. He knows little German. He asked his wife, Jutta Mason, to write a précis of the book. She left Germany when she was nine, so she has not really lived in her native language for a long time. As they struggled, they found they were doing a whole translation.
It was not easy, but what's strange is that it was possible. Poerksen's book is about a set of German words. In English, it is about a set of English words, and is still Poerksen's book. The success of these amateur, almost unwilling translators is uncanny-rather frightening, as if it were a symptom of an international language plague.
Am I being melodramatic? Well, though Plastic Words is not a melodrama, it is a horror story. Or rather, this scholarly work of linguistics is a challenge to genre criticism: it is a sober and coherent analysis that is pert and mischievous; soundly based in fact, it is very close to imaginative satire, drawing explicitly on Gulliver's Travels and 1984.
As a reporter, I have gone to countless "professional development" conferences. And I have read too many government and business documents for my own good. What Poerksen says about the state of languages in this time is true.
What does he say? The core is that words like "process", "development", "system", "information", and "communication" are now often used without real meaning, without substance, but nonetheless to lay claim to authority-the authority of science and expertise, the appearance of competence. Discourse of this kind prevails in large and important spheres of human activity.
"Amoeba words" or "plastic words" begin in the speech that we all speak to each other, in "the vernacular", a language full of metaphor.
Plastic words are extremely general. Vernacular words can be very general, too, but that is because they are flexible and nuanced; they embrace many associated sensesPoerksen gives "love" as an exampleand take on specific meaning and colour from a particular context.
Scientists draw on the vernacular for their technical terms, for their legitimate jargon. They give or try to give them precision, independent of context. Often, abstractions have metaphors in their pedigrees.
In the late twentieth century, some scientific terms have come back into the vernacular, still clothed with the prestige of science. They have lost their exactitude, without regaining colour, tone, voice, and the accompaniment of gestures: their life in context. Poerksen's definition is that they are "connotative stereotypes": they have associations, they connote, but they do not designate anything specific. They are like the waves that result from a stone being thrown into water, if there could be such waves without a central point of impact, without a stone .
Ivan Illich in Conversation puts Plastic Words in a broad context. For one thing, it was Illich who urged Poerksen to write it. I will not try to give a comprehensive account of this bookstill less of this man who defies categorization, but who now calls himself a historian. But I felt compelled to read it between two readings of Poerksen's book, to make sense of some of the vistas that it opens up.
This long interview stretches the genre; it is like and unlike Cayley's Northrop Frye in Conversation and George Grant in Conversationlike in its thoroughness, in its successful presentation of all the main aspects of a thinker's thought, unlike in that Illich keeps remarking on the strangeness of what Cayley and he are doing. He questions even the excellence of the interviewer's preparation, saying how odd it is to be asked now to give accounts of all his writings over the years, as if he were still thinking the same thoughts, making the same arguments. As a rule, he refuses to be interviewed but, happening to meet Cayley in the company of his children, admired the feeling he sensed between them and their father.
This triad of interviews could almost make sense as one work in three volumes: many of Illich's themes overlap with those of Grant and Frye and other Canadians, mostly obviously Innis and McLuhan. I would addto this set of writers somehow looking at technology and technocracy from inside and yet from a distanceJane Jacobs, Arthur Kroker, and the comparatively neglected Hilda Neatby, whose So Little for the Mind, often dismissed as another "back to basics" book on education, contains among other things a splendid criticism of expertocracy that is quite like Poerksen's. Strangely, Neatby's account of Canadian education and ideology in the forties and fifties can hardly have been true at the time, but it has become true of the last-third-of-this-century world that Plastic Words presents.
Illich, with Cayley, discusses his mostly dissident views of schools, medicine, reading, technology, reading, international development, gender, and other matters, all in a long perspective. He is bracing. To many, he will seem to be a crank, and in some sense, he israther like Rousseau.
Poerksen comes up a few times, most notably in the final chapter, an interview that took place after the rest of the book. Here Illich maintains that "life" has become an idol. He had said to Poerksen that "life" is a plastic word, indeed the worst of them; Poerksen got angry with him, enough not to want to talk about it again for several months. I suspect the reason was that Poerksen is a romantic as well as a systematic scholar-two things that are compatible, in Germany and elsewhereand may be a bit of a vitalist himself. If Illich is a romantic, he is one who like Carlyle and Nietzsche protests against romanticism.
The meaning of "life" is probably too loaded an issue for this to be even a powerfully vacuous plastic word. Religiosity about "life" is real, and may be as terrible as Illich thinks, but should be faced not just in its present ubiquitousness, but in its slightly earlier philosophical seriousness: with Bergson (who coined élan vital, translated by Shaw and others as "life force"), and with Nietzsche, for whom Leben often seems to be the great criterion, the overarching goal. One would do well to read, on this, C. S. Lewis's chapter on "Life" in his Studies in Words.
Illich seems in the end to be without an agenda, except for "embracing powerlessness". The same might be said of Grant or Simone Weil; something similar might be said of the later Heidegger. But this is hard to take, hard to swallow, hard to do anything with, for most of us. Poerksen does and does not enter into the full nightmare vision. Of the subject of this book of his, he says, "It is not always possible to approach it without breaking out into a sweat and feeling dizzy."
Before I read Poerksen, I sometimes reassured myself about the abstractions of contemporary discourse; I doubted that these were really very different from those of other periods, or worse. For example, past some splendid peak of scholasticism, many of the schoolmen may have lost themselves in their technical terms, so that it was time for a shake-out, for a return to a more natural, and more literary, speech. This is a cycle with phases that are to be expected. But Plastic Wordsfun as it is-makes one think that there is something truly peculiar about these times of ours, and peculiarly undesirable. It is a book that makes sense of much that one has glimpsed, or dimly discerned.
Poerksen is far from rejecting scientific thought. Rather, plastic words are a perverse mingling of two languages. But scientism, or the religiosity of science, is so strong that we cannot expect to see a time in which the prestige of science does not produce plastic words and expertocracy.
He stops short of "embracing powerlessness"; he may sweat and get dizzy, but he is also a comic artist. I think his romanticism and his sense of humour are linked to his practicality. There are still small things that can be done.
For one thing, we can refrain from using plastic words, and from muddling the scientific and vernacular spheres. Sensibly, he is not advocating a new purism; we may still say "structure" or "role" or "factor", but he asks us not to use them in the "plastic" way.
For another, we can make nuisances of ourselves in Freiburg, or wherever else we may be.
Gerald Owen (Books in Canada) -- Books in Canada
David Cayley is a producer at CBC Radio as well as a writer. He is the author of The Rivers North of the Future and The Expanding Prison which began as a series of broadcasts for Ideas. Cayley is also a contributor to Anansi's In Conversation series, which includes books on Ivan Illich, Northrop Frye, and George Grant. He lives in Toronto.