Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Postmodern Words—But Useful

Originally posted on May 12, 2013

I confess that reading postmodernist tracts is confusing and annoying—they assume the readers know their jargon. If that were true, they are truly preaching to the choir, as the saying goes. Still and all, there are some new words that I’ve found to be useful, valid, and worth spreading the word about.

Logocentric: This word describes a culturally pervasive attitude that privileges those who are skilled at being glib with words sort of “better.” (Privileging is another term that suggests that people somewhat unconsciously assume certain things that make one group entitled to certain benefits, even if other groups are not so entitled.)

The problem with being glib is that it is by no means a sign of virtue that one is a “fast talker.” Some lawyers or politicians (many of whom are lawyers) may be morally much worse than an honest farmer. We have a logocentric culture: We pay big salaries to folks who are adept at words, lawyers, teachers, some writers, while people who are good with their hands or with animals or plants get paid poorly.

It’s a product of class and education in the 19th century, but also the underlying fantasy that if one works hard, one can be good with words; and alternatively, those not so good with words did not work hard; their laziness entitles them to a lower socioeconomic status. But this is the underlying prejudice of logocentricity! Many people are naturally good with words, they haven’t particularly worked at it. Other people are naturally not so good with verbal intelligence but are quite clever at types of knowing and doing that don’t involve that domain. Our culture doesn’t recognize this—and it is a terrible oversight!

The irony is that it’s hard to find people who will articulate arguments for the equality of the inarticulate. A logocentric culture runs deep, it is an unconscious bias. But it’s phony!

Historically, a logocentric culture favors laws and regulations that require word-experts, lawyers, etc., to determine “the winners,”—and winning in a logocentric culture is equivalent to “truth.” These values play to unconscious prejudices that grant that words are magically good, when in fact many legal loopholes allow unethical people to commit near-but-not-technical fraud on the less literate. Our logocentric Western culture made it seem “right” that the white man ended up with all the land from the less-logocentric natives of America and other parts of the world.

Discourse is another word that recognizes that the buzz on the street, what’s up, all operates as a social force. Discourse is a category that includes everything—content and advertisements—that happens on the radio, movies, television, DVDs, journals, newspapers, teachers’ lectures, discussion in seminars and study groups, private conversations in the dining room, all sorts of writing, talking, arguing in court, printing in books and magazines,  and newspapers. It’s a good word in putting together media, the expressed and implicit content, the semantics of the words and semiotics of the pictures and format—all are subliminal as well as overt forms of communication.

Rhetoric is a word that relates to discourse: Rhetoric involves anything communicated with an intent—conscious or non-conscious—to persuade another person. One might go so far as to say that almost all expressions that have any expectation of being heard or seen are at least mild forms of rhetoric. They are also performances, to a slight or great degree. It replaces the idea that communications are neutral, that we’re all reasonable here, that I’m just presenting the facts. The term suggests the desire to if nothing else get an audience to go along with a certain line of thinking. “Look!” is a rhetorical statement. It need not be “Vote for me!” or “Buy this.” The point is to sensitize people to the hidden agenda behind the most neutral-seeming statements.

Marginalize similarly appeals to the unconscious mind, partaking of the rhetorical device of “begging the question.” “We’re all intelligent here,” a demagogue might say—begging the question. It’s sort of like the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes: After all, who is courageous enough to admit humbly, “No, I’m not intelligent”?

Marginalize tends to have as its object a class of people: It’s not said explicitly, but it’s assumed that there’s no need to take their needs or preferences into consideration. Servants are marginalized in early 20th century homes. People of color have been marginalized in mass media until the end of the 1960s. Women have been marginalized in thinking about the professions, again that only beginning to change in the last generation. So even today, some journalists and others usually (but not always) innocently marginalize the elderly, the young, those with different sexual orientation, those who are in the minority regarding spiritual orientation, and of course race or ethnicity.

Finally, Caricature: All mother-in-laws are hated and are jealous nags. But that’s just not so, and it becomes often less so as certain values become mainstream. It was assumed that a parent—and this tends to target women more than men—would be jealous and favor their own child. Quite often, though, in-law kids get along with their mothers-in-law as well as if not better than the parent’s biological child. This was a funny joke a few generations ago, but it’s not so funny now. Yet many stereotypes and caricatures persist, about ethnic groups, vocational roles, and various other categories. That’s enough for now.

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