How to Use Language

The United States of America could perhaps be described as a “post-Freudian” society. In such a cultural milieu as this, it seems safe to assume that the majority of the educated middle class are familiar with the basic principles of Freudian psychoanalysis, albeit in a diffuse unarticulated sense that is prior to any particular instance of language use. In light of the demonstrated efficacy of the psychoanalytic processes, I believe that we are morally obligated to make the tools of psychoanalysis accessible to low-income populations which lack the privilege of living under the auspices granted by higher education. A readily available dissemination strategy involves implicitly training those with access to higher education in the subtle art of the psychoanalyst. To this end, I use the explication of the psychoanalytic process presented in Naomi Janowitz’s article, The Analytic Hour as Rite: Recent Theories of Ritual and Their Implications for Psychoanalysis, to clarify how a particular mode of language use embodies the art of psychoanalysis and, furthermore, how such a modus operandi may be disseminated throughout the population at large. In this capacity, I do my best to adopt the role of the proverbial “good teacher”, whether I truly fulfill that role notwithstanding, for in the words Janowitz: “The teacher is using language to teach her students about a special way to use language.”

One does not have to be a highly trained semiotician to appreciate the inherent causal power of language. In fact, the recognition of the world-creating aspect of language is embedded into the codified ethics of religions all over the world. For example, in Buddhism the prohibition which encourages practitioners to wield the power of language wisely is known as “Right Speech.” Christianity gives us another example of the perceived primacy of language in the opening lines of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It should come as no surprise therefore that the psychoanalytic tradition inspired by Sigmund Freud views language in an equally lofty regard; only in its case the emphasis on language use is viewed in the context of functionality rather than sanctity. Clinicians attempt to use language to functionally improve the lives of their patients, not to bless them — though the difference between these two might be scarcely perceived in some cases. Janowitz explicates this processes succinctly when she says, “Hours [of therapy] involve a great deal of indexical language; this language puts the patient at the center of the analytic process. In comments and questions, the analyst relentlessly ‘points towards’ the patient. This function is similar to the use of language by the shaman as he performs a cure and keeps the patient in focus during the process by means of indexicals such as ‘you’ and ‘I’.” Having briefly reviewed the variously associated approaches to the efficacious use of language, we must now direct our attention to the lived application of the prototypical mode of speech indicated herein. It is only by becoming intimately familiar with the processes of effective language use that we may disseminate our intended modus operandi throughout the population at large.

The direct pointing strategy of language use is no esoteric other-worldly practice. American businessmen know well that using a person’s first name and repeatedly shifting the topic of conversation towards ‘the other’ is an effective way to make a lasting impression. However, this tells us nothing about what might qualify as a particular instance of therapeutically beneficial language use. Janowitz sheds light on this matter when she says, “The success of the [therapy] hour is measured by its ability to create a highly specific context-in-itself and then make use of that context; thus the process which the hour is meant to promote occurs in proportion to the decontextualization of the hour from the rest of life.” The American mental health industry and the concomitant institution of psychotherapy currently has a monopoly on the creation of such a “highly specific context-in-itself.” This is in part due to the ritualized nature of the therapeutic process: the setting aside of a specific time to see the therapist, the necessarily sequestered configuration of the clinician and patient in therapy hours, etc. However, there is nothing keeping   the average American from employing the self-same technique of direct pointing, typically reserved for therapist in the “clinical setting,” in the context of everyday speech and social interaction. The tools of the psychoanalyst do not belong exclusively to them and them alone; it should be possible to employ their strategies of language use “all the time.” Going back to Janowitz’s proposed criteria for the success of the therapeutic hour, it follows that a particular instance of language use is therapeutically beneficial to the extent that it makes at least one of the given interlocutors feel that there is something “special” about the exchange in question: i.e. it has been decontextualized from daily life. Therefore, in order to disseminate this modus operandi to the American population at large, educated individuals should endeavor to create a context-in-and-of-itself in all their interactions with others.

In her explication of language use in the context of sequestered one-on-one therapy sessions, Janowitz remarked that “the ultimate goal of analysis is for the patient to have a new experience of his subjectivity.” This goal is strikingly similar to the spiritual attainments that one is encouraged to direct themselves towards in various religious traditions. Such a radical “new experience of subjectivity” could be understood as referring to “enlightenment” in the context of Buddhism, “beatific vision” in the context of Catholicism, “atonement with God” in the context of Christianity, or “moksha” in the context of Hinduism and its variously associated traditions. The particular linguistic expression of such an experience is of course beside the point, so we need not concern ourselves any further with labels. More importantly, we should understand that in the process of effective language use an interlocutor “comes to see his subjectivity as his own and not the result of external forces.” Therefore, all benevolent instances of language use function to transmit or nurture the understanding that “what [one] has taken to be objective is in fact subjective.” To put it another way, effective teachers use language to teach others about a special way to use language and concomitant with the ability to use language in this special way is the dismantling of the psyche’s perception of all things external.

I have no intention of laying the foundation for a global secular ethics with this paper. However, I feel that it ought to be taken as a given that it is our duty as individuals privileged with the boon of higher education to promote our knowledge as far and wide within the spectrum of human social class as it is possible to do. As mentioned previously, this moral imperative is encoded in religious traditions all across the world. This imperative is also implicit in contemporary American secular institutions, such as universities, public schools, therapy centers and the like. Nevertheless, significant portions of the upper and middle class seem to have missed the memo that they can help their fellow man by using language to teach people about a special way to use language. What I speak of here does not amount to a modern manifestation of the cultural virus of  “The White Man’s Burden” or any other such inimical social attitude. Rather, it amounts to a promotion of the recognition that it is possible to radically impact the world simply by choosing our words carefully.

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