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 senses-Poerksen gives "love" as an example-and 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.
Poerksen wanted to call the book Lego Language, but the publisher was afraid this would be a trademark violation. The point is that these words are like "modules" that can be almost arbitrarily stuck together, so independent are they of context:
"Information is communication. Communication is exchange. Exchange is a relationship. A relationship is a process. Process means development. Development is a basic need. Basic needs are resources. Resources are a problem. Problems require service delivery. Service delivery systems are role systems. Role systems are partnership systems. Partnership systems require communication. Communication is a kind of energy exchange."
Genuine specimens do not go in for such short sentences, however.
Picking up on Poerksen (and Book III of Gulliver's Travels), some translators devised a "phrase-threshing machine", which can churn out all sorts of things like "integrated organizational structure", but it emerged that some such schemes had already been circulating in such places as the ministries of health in the U.S. and Schleswig-Holstein, and in the United Nations; some ingenious bureaucrats wanted to help their colleagues give documents an air of authority, or even "to foster creativity."
This book is bracing to anyone who cares about language. Poerksen is right that these words have a particular power in such spheres as science, economics, and administration; it is now hard not to use them. Which raises a question: How goes it with literature?
Well, I do not think that plastic words have so far corrupted or tyrannized literature, but perhaps this freedom is only possible because literature has been largely estranged from politics and business where that tyranny is real. Today a Stendhal or a Balzac, at least in dialogue, would have to cope with the plastic words of those spheres.
The most ambitious twentieth-century literature is also estranged or removed in other ways from vernacular language-possibly in some kind of reaction against the scientization of the vernacular.
No doubt some writers are dealing with these "connotative stereotypes". The first example that comes to my mind is Don DeLillo's White Noise. After some sort of "airborne toxic event", the main character wants to know if his health has been harmed. The only official answer is that "we definitely have a situation." In a sense that passage is no longer satirical, so common has this usage become. "Situation room" is a phrase generally understood. When the RCMP was embarrassed recently by a trespasser's getting into the Canadian prime minister's house, an official acknowledged that there was a situation.
As for literary criticism, the universities and "the media" are certainly not free of plastic words, being so involved with some of their favourite realms. Hence, criticism, though not taken over, has been touched by them.
A friend of mine who teaches a graduate course in politics and media finds that his students show no interest when he asks what "information" means. Apparently they cannot imagine that we do not all know the answer, but they do not have one themselves.
Perhaps the question should be what is not information. Poerksen gives the example of exhibitors at a garden show being told that such shows "can offer nothing fundamentally new because the `core information' "-the flowers and flower arrangements!-"always remains the same." But if everything is information, what does "information" mean that is different from "being"?
Poerksen offers an arresting definition:
"I know an old gentleman who reads newspapers with a ballpoint pen in hand. He reads a great many newspapers and magazines and underlines at the same time; I have had in my hand articles that he had gone over and have wondered on what basis he underlines. Finally it became clear to me that he underlined according to no principle. Almost everything was important for him.
"In his apartment a number of appliances operate simultaneously. When he doesn't want to miss an important radio program and something interests him on TV at the same time, he tapes the radio program. Or vice versa. He is constantly moving between rooms. He never misses the eight o'clock news.
"This is no invention. The gentleman is about seventy-five and has been doing this for a long time. One could of course call him strange. I would say that he has understood something. Information is what one has always just missed."
(I am acquainted with a few similar people, who seem to live with, live by, and communicate through news or newspaper clippings. But then "communicate" is a plastic word.)
There are only a few dozen plastic words by Poerksen's account. He recognizes room for disagreeement on what words are true members of this class. I would nominate a few good candidates he does not mention, words of such generality and abstraction that they have lost meaning without losing power: "security", "access", "abuse". And perhaps "the economy". What is that, after all?
In one of Poerksen's less convincing but admirably mischievous passages, he maintains that "sexuality" was the equivalent in West Germany of "development" in East Germany, as the central vacuous terms of the two states. Surely "sexuality" is still a little more specific than "structure" or "role"? Maybe he's right; he quotes a famous German scientist, the president of the German Research Society, saying, "Language is the sexuality of human culture." Mostly, though, "sexuality" has to do with one sprawling realm, which does exist. Perhaps there is a semi-plastic category in which whole spheres named in a foggy way: "sexuality", "the economy", "health"-though this last is also an Orwellian euphemism for its opposite, and euphemism is one connected matter that Poerksen does not go into.
Even "nature" can be a plastic word in phrases that avoid the idea's rich history when all that is meant is "quality"-or suffixes like "-ness" or "-ity". In a phrase like "the significant nature of this strategic plan", one could have said "significance." or said in a separate clause or sentence, "This strategic plan is significant because.." (But then, "significant" is itself often an appropriation from statistics, a plasticizing.)
There is only one shaky part of Poerksen's essential argument. He well and carefully distinguishes plastic words from abstractions, scientific terms, pieces of jargon, clichés, empty formulas, buzzwords and catchphrases, and slogans. "Catchphrases contain instructions for action," he says. "Slogans are instructions for action."
Language does have a power of its own, and this is true in a particular way of plastic words. Yet their effects are in practice entangled with intentions, with proposed actions. From Poerksen's own objections, it is clear that they are very much caught up with agendas, and so also with "agents", with "actors". These are the experts, people who are not really scientists or specialists, but speak with authority and "wander back and forth between specialized fields and society at large." As such, I'd add, they have a symbiosis with us journalists.
Do the experts and the words have an agenda, a "program", or not? If yes, how are they separable from catchphrases and slogans? I do not think this is really a flaw in the whole thesis, but that the distinction between plastic words and slogans or catchphrases is unstable and shifty in itself: not just in the book or in its author's head.
For that matter, does Poerksen's critique itself rest on an agenda, or a doctrine? What are the practical implications? (Alas, I suspect that "policy" itself has become a plastic word.) Poerksen lives in the southwest of Germany, in Freiburg, and his book is strengthened by its recurrent sense of place. And indeed urban planning are certainly realms in which plastic words roam free, loom large.
We expect the people who oppose "development" down the street-skyscrapers, superhighways, and all that-to favour "development" in faraway, poor countries. A book like this is disconcerting because of its opposition to both, as if it were the same thing.
"While I was working on the analysis of plastic words," says Poerksen, "I sniffed the air around me for appropriate examples. It occurred to me that in Freiburg I could hear meetings breaking up all around me, and the same thirty people were emerging from their meetings spouting words that seemed to float in the atmosphere like a contagious cloud. `My' words clearly were the carriers in this outbreak."
After looking at Freiburg's "development plan", he wrote a satire called "How Does One Turn a City into a Laboratory?", later expanded into a novel called Schauinsland.
In this book, he quotes some passages from a "Blueprint for a Plan of Space Utilization", and says that its abstractness should not "fool us; it is more than merely hollow. It is a grader that flattens the landscape." The quotations show a relentless mixture of plastic words and technical terms. What emerges is a craze for demolition. The city must be aired out by "corridors" with unobstructed views, which must be cut through it. This is not just a matter of roads; "city sections" have to have their "subcentres" and their quota of parks and green areas-another reason to knock things over.
This is not just seen in urban planning: "Near Freiburg is the Kaiserstuhl, a volcanic range where wine grapes have been cultivated since Roman times..with barely any opposition, plans were carried out to turn the entire region into an artificially terraced landscape, which has resulted in overproduction and, hence, a soured landscape and sour wine." As Poerksen says, in other days-as lately as the last century-farmers would have taken out their weapons to resist a plan like this.
Such is the book's local setting. Ivan Illich in Conversation puts Plastic Words in a larger context. For one thing, it was Illich who urged Poerksen to write it. I will not try to give a comprehensive account of this book-still 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 Conversation (House of Anansi, $16.95 and $16.95 paper): like 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 add-to this set of writers somehow looking at technology and technocracy from inside and yet from a distance-Jane 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 is-rather like Rousseau.
Poerksen comes up a few times, most notably in the final chapter, a 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 elsewhere-and 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 Words-fun 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 is one of the authors in Rethinking the Constitution: Perspectives on Canadian Constitutional Reform, Interpretation, and Theory, just published in March by Oxford University Press, and in George Grant and the Subversion of Modernity, to be published in September by the University of Toronto Press.