Tuesday, November 20, 2007

language, polysemy and disambiguation

So, I've been reading Richard Dyer's brilliant book White. He writes so much that is useful to what I'm doing, but what I want to flag here is his idea (contra my most recent post) that race has historically been constructed as "the conflation of body and temperament" (1997:18) - that is, it hasn't just been understood as a physicality, it has been imbued with meaning in regards to personal qualities too. I think my taxonomy still holds, though, it's just that today, we are encouraged to talk about "cultural diversity" as a euphemism for race, and this is meant, somehow, to be colour-blind.

Anyway, the other thing that's been on my mind is the way in which so many of the words I want to use specifically to disambiguate between physicality and personality are actually polysemously related to both. E.g:
(i) pathological: I wanted to refer to mental distress as being constructed as biological (by Beyond Blue and co.), and thus removed from any sense of personal failure. I wanted to use the term "de-pathologized" to mean that mentally distressed people are (re)defined as ill rather than personally flawed. I mean, for example, the way the term pathological is used in phrases like "pathological liar" or "pathologically late". Well, then, I examined the term pathological and realised it is used in a medical sense to describe disease - that is, pathology is inherently about biology! AAARGH! This ambiguity that I want to draw attention to is embedded in the very polysemic nature (ie multiple meanings) of the word pathological - it can refer to both biology and personality, albeit in different contexts.
(ii) similarly, I am still seeking a word to contrast with physicality in my 4-way grid. I've considered personality, temperament, disposition, character, affiliation ... the problem is largely that I want a word that makes sense both for individual personal traits and collective affiliational traits. I thought maybe temperament could be a good option, since that's what Dyer used in the quote above. But then, Wiki tells me this:
Temperament is defined as that part of the personality which is genetically based. Along with character, and those aspects acquired through learning, the two together are said to constitute personality. (from entry on Temperament, accessed today)
I keep finding terms that have been used by psychology or psychiatry or medicine in ways that biologise concepts that are also commonly understood in other ways.

Ok, that's all for now :>

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