PMTH NEWS                                                                09/01/99

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  For us, a langauge is first and foremost someone talking.  But there are language games in which the important thing is to listen, in which the rule deals with audition.  Such a game is the game of the just.  And in this game, one speaks only inasmuch as one listens, that is, one speaks as a listener, and not as an author.  It is a game without an author.
Lyotrd p.71/72

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Deconstructing Binary Thinking

Perhaps there is no postmodern theme more universal than the idea of deconstructingbinary thinking . Almost all the authors who call themselves "postmodern" will talk of this.

In its simplest sense, the concept of binary thinking is very easy.  If someone accuses you of "binary thinking," you are being accused of thinking in black and white terms, failing to see the intermediates, the grays.  Every concept seems to have its opposite, and for the binary thinker, it one or the other:  One can either go right or left -- forwards or backwards, not some combination.

An important example of binary thinking came up a few weeks ago in PMTH.  Lynn Hoffman suggested that it was unfortunate that care for terminally ill patients was either medical (prolonging life) or hospice (easing pain).  Wouldn't it be better, she suggested, if we were able to do something more intermediate at times? 

If we are trapped in binary thinking, we will say the intermediate is impossible.  Either we must do one or the other.  This particular binary predicament would be that you had to either prolong life or let it go its natural course.

But is this practical?  Consider the case of a very old person dying of cancer.  Suppose medical treatment is trapped in binary treatment.  They want to do surgery and chemotherapy, making her miserable, but perhaps prolonging her life.  So, you take her to a hospice that has the opposite philosphy.  They want to avoid doing anything to delay the inevitable. They are willing to treat the pain, but not if it extends her life unnaturally.

Then suppose you find that putting a tube in her stomach will give her a somewhat longer life that is more comfortable -- but neither medical (who wants the more aggressive treatment) nor hospice (who wants to let her die "naturally") will agree. That's binary thinking.

  Jerry Shaffer and Val Lewis suggested two ways to get out of this particular version of hte trap.   Shaffer suggested that we could name a whole new treatment type, calling it something like "carepital." There you could put the tube in the dying patient's stomach and let them live a little longer in comfort.

Lewis wants something looser still.  She tell us that if we invented a "carepital," surely it, too, could acquire the rigid rules that trap us in binary thinking.  I agree, and it would be great if we could get outside binary thinking entirely.  But, on the other hand,  I also feel that Shaffer's solution is realistic.  We live in a world of binary thinking, for the most part, and people are often trapped so completely that they cannot see the gray unless we invent an intermediate institution. 

So, what do we do?  Woops!  There I go again.  More binary thinking!  It's as if I could only do one or the other. Just the other day, own Tom Craig suggested that I was thinking of his topic in terms of binary thinking just the other day.  Moi?  Ah, Tom, I'm sure it's so. 

Are they Listeners or Lurkers?

If you have followed any of our discussions about transvaluation, you have noticed that there is often both a positive and negative way to see almost everything, everything important, perhaps.  I believe Derrida would argue that one of these ways of seeing, often the negative way, gets stuck in our cultural mind and we need to deconstruct these sticky concepts now and then to unleash our creativity.  (see Shawver, 1998b ).  Another common way to put this is that the stuck end of the binary becomes "privileged" and the other end of the binary haunts us from the shadows of differAnce.  It is not that we notice that we have privileged one of the binaries.  Usually we do not notice, but an artful deconstruction makes this plainly evident.  A transvaluation is such an artful deconstruction.  Let me show you:

Last week, Claire Robson made such an artful deconstruction.  We had been talking about the "lurkers" on PMTH.  (You know what "lurkers" are.  They are the people on a forum like PMTH that read the notes but do not post.)   Well, last week, Robson transvaluated the concept "lurkers" and suggested we call them "listeners."  Wow! Maybe even "generous listeners."  Hear the difference?

But transvaluation is not so simple.  It is not a toggle switch positive or negative - for one thing, other transvaluations switch it back, and when it's switched back, it's different than it was before.  Val Lewis made this evident in her transvaluation.  She suggested that "lurkers" can be seen positively. She put a positive twist on "lurker."  She said she saw lurkers as: 

 people tippy-toeing around the perimeter,
waiting to jump in! "Listeners' while of course accurately descriptive, also suggests slightly more of a passive stance to me.

See how complex things are?  This is why a transvaluation is not a simple reframing.  Transvaluations, as Nietzche taught us, take us deep into the depths of our experience.  Can you see how ths new concept of lurker is different from the original one that made them seem sort of creepy?

Transvaluation builds layer upojn layer of perspectives, and we get, I like to think, just a little bit wiser with each layer.

More on Social Construction

Another topic is brewing I want to tell you about.  Jerry Shaffer, Judy Weintraub, Tom Strong and myself are about to get into a discussion (maybe) about the concept of social constructionism.  If you want to be a part of this discussion, I suggest you glance over some of the relevant articles in our archives.

 For example, here is Shaffer's review of John Searle's book, the Construction of Reality.  And here is a dialogue on this review between Nick Drury and Jerry Shaffer

I suggest you also look at a paper by Kenneth Gergen. Gergen is perhaps the most conspicuous spokesperson for social constructionism in psychology today.  He has listened to the conflict between realists and social constructionists and he is looking for different answers. See his paper by clicking here.

I would also like to thank a reader of PMTH NEWS who is not a subscriber (hence I am hesitant to use his name) for writing me to tell me of a typo in my paraphrase.  Thanks.  I need all the help I can get!  Thanks to all of you, too, who provide the ongoing material for our paralogy.

Oops, I see that another post came in from Shaffer.  It begins 

No, that is not the way Searles defines brute facts.  They have nothing to do with what we agree on. If they depend on our agreements, they are social constructions.  Brute facts are what are independent of our agreements.  You
may think there are no brute facts in that sense.  Do you?

Sounds to me like Shaffer is asking someone if she believes everything is imaginary, a dream.  I think we have gone this route before.  Here's the problem you need to ponder:

If you define a flower as anything that is pretty and smells good and also grows on a bush, then you will count poinsettias as flowers.  But if you are a botanist and define flowers more technically, you will not.  So, does that make "flower" a social construction?  You need to agree what to call it?  And there are no flowers if people don't agree to call them that.   Something, will exist.  It just won't be a "flower."

See the problem?  Pretty tricky.  Where do you want to come into this discussion?


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The Dream of a Perfect Language

One of the happenings on PMTH during the last two weeks was the increased work on our reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Nick Drury, Judy Weintraub, Diana Cook and myself (Lois Shawver)  continue to plow our way through Wittgenstein.  We are up to about aphorism #85 now, and the topic that we are touching on is very relevant to the postmodern project. It has to do with the trap of trying to use language as if it could be an absolutely perfect guide to the truth.  Thinking that language could work perfectly, without a hitch, is one of the reasons we fall into binary thinking.

But the dream of a perfect language is quite a dream.  Let yourself slip for a moment into the dream: 

Oh, if people could only word their statements so they were perfectly understood by everyone, so everything was completely clear.  If we could do that, then we could study things more efficiently, too. Now if we try to study what "schizophrenics" are like, for example, we have to first agree what on earth a schizophrenic is, and then, even more difficult, whether the person before us is really one.I It seems we have such trouble agreeing on how to define things. 

That was the dream of a perfect language.  It is more inside each of us than we are inclined to admit.  I believe this dream not only captures us in binary thinking, which certainly diminishes the quality of our lives, but it is the dream that causes people to complain that postmodernism is a form of relativism.  Somehow the idea is that if you remember the gray area you are actually relativist and it will drive you crazy.

So what is this dangerous dream of a perfect language.  Who has his dream?  The answer is that most of us do, and we just don't know it.  If we are going to resist being trapped by the dream, we have to learn to recognize it.

AIt was, therefore, with pleasure that I read a recent note from Jerry Shaffer on the origins of the dream for a perfect langauge. So, let me share his notes with you.  Click here to see his notes.  With a little luck, Shaffer will elaborate these ideas over time.  If so, I'll tell you about it.

A Borderzone for the Postmodern Study of Jung

New PMTH subscriber Richard Wilkerson has invited us to ponder whether dream analysis can be postmodern.  I am not sure.  At the moment Wilkerson and I are trying to create a borderzone.  This means, in our case, that he (and others, hopefully) are explaining what they mean by certain Jungian terms like "archetype" and "myth" and myself (and others, hopefully) are explaining what we mean by terms like "metanarrative" and "deconstruction." ) 

The Jungians and he Lyotardians certainly begin with different language games.  They do not translate perfectly into one or anohter.  But if we study the two vocabularies as if we were going to translate, an idiom may begin to emerge. 

There is a pleasure that accompanies the invention of a new idiom (Lyotard, p.13), an idiom, especially one in the borderzone that allows us, at last to talk.

Check back next edition of PMTH NEWS to see how we're doing.

Meet Riet Samuels and Kathy Birkett

Last week I introduced a group of new subscribers.  I hesitate to do this for everyone that joins us. Some people prefer their privacy.  I take it, however, that when you write me and send me information about yourself at my request, this gives me permission to introduce you. 

So, I want to take this time to introduce two people who are becoming familiar voices to our conversation.  Please check them out. Riet Samuels has been with us for a few weeks now.  She has been reading Lyotard in English and French and helping us with the interpretation of many of his special terms. She has also joined us in a wide variety of other topics.

Cathy Birkett has been on PMTH for about a month, mostly as a listener.  In the last week, however, she showed a wonderful talent for summarizing conversation on PMTH.  (Just what I need!  Someone to help me summarize!)  I'm sure she is busy, but I am going to use it when she makes these contributions.  Look down to the next article to see her summary of another of our conversational threads on PMTH.

What Fosters Generous Listening?

Ever hear someone and feel you simply do not have the patience to step inside that person's world?  Maybe you feel you have heard it all before. Maybe you feel that person doesn't listen to you. Maybe you were just tired, or you were distracted with other things. 

This is not a good situation for a therapist.  It is not good for our personal relationships either, not if it occurs very often.  Yet therapists are human, too.  We want to be able to listen generously, but what can we do to foster this impulse in ourselves?  And what can we do to help our clients be able to listen generously

This was one of our topics recently on PMTH and a number of us had ideas to contribute.  (Cathy Birkett contributed the following summary of our remarks:)

Birkett wrote

Something has to happen in order for us to want to
hear, to listen generously and allow ourselves to step into another's vocabulary, to give that gift, to sacrifice our own sense of what is right for a moment in order to surrender to another frame.

Lynn Hoffman wrote of Michael White:

that merely saying 'positive things' to counteract the perjorative meanings in clinic-speak or in a client's inner thoughts is all wrong. ..[there is a ]. need to create "thicker descriptions" with the aim of making the links between people richer and deeper.

Jerry Shaffer spoke of the 'stubborn residue of reality' after reframing, and Riet Samuels spoke of the need to 'come up with a different word for those who can't shake off the negative connotations.

 Lois Shawver said

Perhaps 'arresting poetic imagery' helps.  I think  that context is also one of the keys.  Surely positive transvaluation can  only occur when there is a relational context of mutual trust/respect.  For
example, from my own experience with this list, I am more able to see myself  as 'generous listener' because of the thoughtful replies which acknowledged  my listening and allowed me to see myself in this frame. 

Kathy Birkett added:

Lois,  is the 'something that happens'  a flowering of trust in the context/situation between people?

Obviously, we have not put this topic to rest. But notice what a difference there is for you between someone listening to you critically and someone listening to you generously. 

Can this sort of thing becontrolled?  Can one learn to listen generously?  Why should we bother?  Well, some of us feel that paralogy is enabled by generous listening.


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