Sunday, September 25, 2011


Synecdoche is a linguistic term for when part of something is used to refer to its whole, or when the whole is used to refer to a single part.  I would therefore argue that in a sense all labelling and name-calling is synecdoche, and that it reflects the ways in which language plays a significant role in our understanding of the world around us. 

Whether you refer to your car as your ‘wheels’, or to your chassis, internal combustion engine, transmission system, exhaust and wheels etc. as your ‘car’, each label omits details that are implicit and often only vaguely understood.  You might state that your ‘car needs fixing’, when you really mean that some specific part of it is broken, or that you like jazz, when you are actually referring to just a number of pieces that belong to that genre. 
It is a case of abridging explanations, of drawing a simpler map and thus disregarding certain features of the landscape.

My name is Elliot.  This is the label I have been given to refer to myself when in time of need, and coincidentally it is the name most others recognise me by.  What’s interesting is that no two people have the same Elliot experience, yet the unique information that each person has can all be found stored in the collective Elliot section.

The problem is that once you’ve created this basic profile, the information it contains seems to be rarely updated except for superficialities, or in the case of global changes.  Instead of taking the subtleties into account, the creator of the file is free to fill in the blanks with his own ideas, steered by cognitive biases, blind to their existence and influence.

The name brings to mind a definite set of qualities which will depend largely on the relationship you have with me and the different situations you have seen me in.  ‘Elliot’ is not a universally accepted idea.

It occurred to me that it is misleading to describe yourself or anyone else as having an undersized vocabulary.  Sure there are words that we don’t use, as in the case of the ‘passive vocabulary’, but I don’t believe that lack of comprehension is our biggest barrier to bringing them into active use.

We understand more than is necessary to live our daily lives and are exposed not only to terminology that we understand and do not use, but also various other experiences that we have the potential to add to our active ‘vocabulary’. 
I feel that the situations and social groups we interact with determine the ways in which differing examples of vocabulary are expressed.  It’s not necessarily that we are so limited by what we know (although the significance of our ignorance shouldn’t be understated), but by what we are comfortable and accustomed to using, and by what we imagine is appropriate given the situation.

Think of the way you might talk to your best friend, versus how you might speak to their parents.  You will present a different version of yourself to them, but neither could rightly be described as being ‘more accurate’ than the other, although this is almost certainly not the way you friend may see it.

If you ever observe someone try something completely new for the first time, be it a change of appearance, a new language or a different hobby for example, it is generally quite an awkward affair.  A person must take the time to become familiar with the new terminology and so forth, and to become comfortable through exposure and repetition – to make it ‘their own’; to add it to their active vocabulary. 

We can imagine the kinds of things we might do or say if we were to utilise parts of our passive ‘vocabulary’, for instance we can envisage the way we might talk or carry ourselves if we were confident in a situation that currently unsettles us.  And we can imagine ourselves speaking, writing, dancing and so on, in ways that we are currently only familiar with as passive observers. 

To be uninhibited; to be willing to try each and any unfamiliar thing, and to allow ourselves the opportunity to assimilate new information, and to broaden our vocabulary in the widest sense.   As adults we seem to lose this habit of imitation as a means of learning things that interest us, perhaps it is because we don’t acknowledge that conditioning is necessary, and we irrationally expect or hope to be good at and comfortable with things we have never tried before.  We need to put our pride aside and humbly accept that we must begin at the beginning, regardless of age, other experience and competencies and the expectations they bring with them.    

How I imagine things work is something along these lines:

You have a lot of information in your brain, along with the potential to act in all manner of ways, but it is your interactions with other people and things outside of yourself that brings out or causes the activation of the different aspects of what is commonly referred to as your ‘self’. 
Conditioning will determine what information you store as well as the patterns of thought and behaviour that you are more familiar with, along with the programs that are ‘instinctually’ chosen over the others.  
What arises out of your conditioning, the limitations of the human brain, and your various interactions, is a multidimensional experience that contradicts the static representation that is generally evoked when we recall anyone by name or image.

What should be more significant is that we think of even ourselves in these simplistic and biased terms.  We suppose a list of features that describe us, and another that clearly doesn’t resemble us in any way.  But if we had an accurate memory, or at the very least a basic record of the different ways in which we have acted throughout our past, then we would see that not only could we use list two to describe ourselves, but there would also be many instances in which it would be inaccurate to use the descriptions from the first list.
There may be such a list that describes how we are on average; a ‘way’ in which we behave most commonly, but how are we able to separate those facts from all our own biases about ourselves? 

How do we keep in mind the fact that who we think we are is at least in part determined by the routines we are acting out?  Because in that sense we are reflections of things, just as a computer is always a reflection of its programming, no matter who the user is.

Perhaps a new experience of ‘self’ is possible if we make it a practice to think of ourselves as always being more than what we currently have the habit of thinking?  To retain the awareness that the possibilities for new behaviour are always there, often just out of sight.

It’s comforting to think of things in terms of what we know, understand, and expect, but it’s also necessary to categorise in such a way for the sake of communication, as in the case of labelling.  But in order to have a conversation that is perhaps a better representation of something, the subject must be understood on increasingly deeper levels.  For most things in everyday life this may be completely unnecessary, but I feel that an awareness of this idea is important.

On one level you merely have a pizza, perhaps divided into slices.  On another level the pizza has a fancy sounding Italian name and you are conscious of all the toppings.  Another level down and you are aware of all the constituent ingredients and nutritional information.  Further still and you might talk of the various chemical components that make up the ingredients and so on.
Likewise, in order to have a more precise conversation about what an individual is like it is necessary to understand his multifaceted and compartmentalised nature.  It’s simply not good enough to imagine that everything is so black and white.

When you consider that our perceptions of people are based on our own predilections, and that no characteristic is constant, it should become clear that out own minds are responsible for what we all too often mistake for concrete facts.  For example, whether or not you find someone ‘nice’ or ‘irritating’ will be dependent on how they fit or go against your preferences, which can vary from time to time.
So using your name, your job title or even your age to describe yourself is like using a chainsaw to perform keyhole surgery.  At the end of the day you must select the right tool for the job, the right language, words and details to refer to the known territory.

A pizza could be made from any flour, have any number of different toppings, it could even be sweet.  By only using the word ‘pizza’ the reader is left to fill in the blanks again, and the same happens when you describe yourself in simple terms, like by your hobbies, interests, or political leanings for example.  We each have our own ideas and associations to these things which will taint our perception.  We infer further similarities where there aren’t necessarily any, only because we share characteristics on paper.

So if you like making assumptions and drawing conclusions based on superficial details, then this blog is for you!

1 comment:

Ushnulmi LIAGE said...

"Knowledge of reality is a light that always casts a shadow in some
nook or cranny. [...] Reality is never ' what we might believe it to be': it is
always what we ought to have thought.
"Reality is never "what one might believe" but it is always what one should have thought. It is impossible then to erase every single trace of
our ordinary, everyday knowledge once and for all. When we contemplate
reality, what we think we know very well casts its shadow over what we
ought to know. Even when it first approaches scientific knowledge, the mind is never young. It is very old, in fact, as old as its prejudices."

The Formation of the Scientific Mind: a Contribution to a Psychoanalysis of Objective Knowledge

I can send you the whole book (in English + french if you want! :) )
I thought you could be interested, because sometimes your "process" of thinking reminds me of what he says about "scientific mind."


The quotation in its original version :

"quote it in french (original version of the text) :

"La connaissance du réel est une lumière qui projette toujours quelque part des ombres. [...] Le réél n'est jamais "ce qu"on pourrait croire" mais il est toujours ce qu'on aurait dû penser. [...] Il est alors impossible de faire d'un seul coup table rase des connaissances usuelles. [...] Quand il se présente à la culture scientifique, l'esprit n'est jamais jeune. Il est même très vieux, car il a l'âge de ses préjugés."

"La notion d'obstacle épistémologique" in La Formation de l'esprit scientifique de G. Bachelard, Editions Vrin, p. 15-16. (Just in case!)

A plus !