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Screaming Females - Castle Talk
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Castle Talk
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The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
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Halcyon Digest
4AD
No Age - Everything in Between
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Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
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Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Konichiwa
The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Lisbon
Fat Possum
Uwe Poerksen
Plastic Words
Penn State University Press

Rating: 9.5/10 ?


June 10, 2008
Writing in a critical fashion similar to that of Jonathon Swift and George Orwell, Uwe Poerksen has produced one of the most influential linguistic works of modern times. In Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language, Poerksen, a renowned German writer and linguist, details language that he describes as originally specific and defined, yet throughout time has become arbitrary and essentially all-encompassing. He concentrates on a cluster of words he describes as "plastic." Many of these words originated in the hard or soft sciences, and made their transition into contemporary language through politics, media, and/or general daily usage. A sampling of plastic words: strategy, problem, development, sexuality, and project; but those are just the tip of the plastic terms iceberg. These words tend to transcend all their relevant associations and connotations, and render past definitions inadequate and archaic in the face of modern-day vernacular. Poersken argues:

"Plastic words are not new in how they look but 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 globe 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 being 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."

A few of the more common places where readers may encounter such words are political functions, board rooms, academia, and of course, throughout most media outlets. The words are not contained to a few different contexts or languages. They are all-pervasive, invading languages and countries across the globe. Although Plastic Words was written and published in Germany in 1988, the book was not published in English until 2004, and since then has seen a renewed relevance as it has continued to spark debate and controversy over contemporary language. The interesting thing about Poerksen's theory is, despite being composed two decades ago, how relevant it remains to so many everyday events. As with most great literary works, after reading Plastic Words it is hard to view words, wording, and/or language in the same light as before. And so many aspects that are commonplace to our lives (e.g. speeches, commercials, talk shows, telephone conversations) now are examined in greater depth and substance, thanks to Poerksen. However, other writers and thinkers have examined the generic and all-encompassing nature of language as well. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the mid-19th century, described how democracy has altered the English language:

"Democratic nations are passionately addicted to generic terms and abstract expressions because these modes of speech enlarge thought and assist the operations of the mind by enabling it to include many objects in a small compass…….Democratic writers are perpetually coining abstract terms of this kind, in which they sublimate into further abstraction the abstract terms of the language."

Poerksen would likely agree with the above statement. However, Tocqueville's phrase of 'enlarging thought' may have not been the best way to describe the effects of generic/abstract (essentially, plastic) language. What Tocqueville probably meant to say was that using these terms leaves an extremely large range of interpretative possibilities, which is why many people may gravitate to their usage.

Poerksen's research touches upon almost all aspects of contemporary vernacular, especially the arena of politics. In fact, the political realm is where plastic language may be most widespread, and essentially destructive. Just think about some of the most common words we hear from politicians: responsibility, accountability, protection, prevention, change, strategy, efficiency, effectiveness, patriotism. Each of these has a distinct definition, yet in modern-day usage their meanings encompass an extremely wide range of interpretative possibilities. Politicians from almost every country use these words on a daily basis, much to the befuddlement and enjoyment of their constituents. Additionally, many of these terms are adorned in the titles of legislation, various speeches and campaign sound bites. These words appear to be used to paint the rosiest picture possible, as the kaleidoscope of interpretations certainly produces a fantastic cocktail. As Poerksen states:

"Abstract language serves to cover up reality. It prevents the imagination from reflecting on what actually happens to people. It ignores what they experience and what they feel, their life histories. The language of overview leads to disregard to what is most important. The seal of science or of administration, stamped on the everyday by the expert, hides suffering beneath an inhuman objectivity."

This watery language notoriously dominates political affairs in the United States (just watch an episode of Comedy Central's Daily Show for specific examples). Thus, most political "ideas" and/or "solutions" actually describe nothing, yet simultaneously appeal to mass audiences. It is through these vague, but essentially positive qualities that attraction to such language is developed, as Poerksen points out that "the highly abstract character of plastic words is their most effective property; the abstractness levels the language field and the field of the affected objects."

The danger with plastic words is that when used they mask the true reality behind most situations and create an attenuated verbal context in which most conversations sound similar, and in which language becomes a vehicle for distraction. Poerksen sums this phenomenon up nicely, stating:

"Plastic words are points of crystallization that order the in-between world of our everyday language. The phantom world of the media and the things that have melted down to signs also resemble this in-between world. They contribute to the forging of this little set of words. But these words not only determine consciousness. As former historical concepts, now cut loose from history, they become instruments of manipulation and generate blueprints of a new reality."

The interpreters responsible for enlightening us to Uwe Poerksen's theory, Jutta Mason and David Cayley, should also be toasted, as they recognized the genius behind his work, and through their efforts have thus expanded the language debate to English-speaking society. In an era that at times seems to have forgotten the dangerous principles of language that George Orwell so eloquently explained, Poerksen has produced a society-changing work that challenges everyone to become aware. As plastic language is likely to increase in scope throughout the coming years, exposing the reality behind this language is the challenge laid before us.

Reviewed by Brian Christopher Jones
A student living in Scotland and working toward a PhD in law.

See other reviews by Brian Christopher Jones

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