Reification in language (and in politics)

In gestalt psychology, reification is when form is perceived beyond the explicit information that is sensed. Wikipedia offers these helpful examples:


From the three black Pacman shapes in A we perceive a triangle. From the two ying-yangs in B we perceive a wormy thing wrapped around a pole. From the spikes in C we perceive the bloody brain-splattered ball of a ball and chain. From the curves in D we perceive the Loch Ness monster (or simply a tree branch floating in the water if we’re skeptical).

Reification can also be aural. The principle is at work all the time in verbal communication. It’s what enables us to occasionally understand the speech of drunks, old men, or President Bush. And it’s the reason listening comprehension in a foreign language can be such a bear. Sure, you may know all the grammar and vocabulary being used by the person speaking in the language you are trying to learn, but the casual hurried mumbling of such a phrase as “Wanna touch my monkey?” that is no trouble at all to discern for the native speaker who has heard the phrase a million times before, can be total Greek to the language learner. With enough experience listening and speaking in the language the gestalt becomes easier to perceive.

Haven recently gotten involved in some recreational fansubbing (of Hello! Project videos, you guessed it), this is the roadblock I continue to bump into. I can’t ask the speaker in a DVD to please slow down or to please speak more clearly when he utters words I just can’t make out, even though those words may be known to me. Ultimately what this means is that I need more experience with the language I am attempting to translate to English, in this case Japanese, or that Japanese blows.

Reification can apply to politics too. What most of us perceived when the twin towers went down was an act of terror attributable to a dedicated group of religious fanatics from a part of the world far removed from us. But if you stare at the shapes long enough there is more to behold, oh yes, much more. Many things, wondrous things! Zionist conspiracies, oil/imperialism theories, New World Order plots, the end of the free world as we know it, an Orwellian nightmare in full bloom before our very eyes! Few people have the experience necessary to make out these disturbing forms, and few of those who do even see the same ones. The esteemed intellectual Michael Moore has been squinting at those shapes for some time now and is still finding new animals in them. What hope does the average person have of seeing what is unseen, of realizing what is unreal?


4 responses to “Reification in language (and in politics)

  1. Sorry, but “I wanna touch your monkey” made it way too difficult for me to get back into a serious state of mind for your closing paragraph.

    Great stuff. lol

  2. That’s too bad. A serious state of mind is absolutely essential for grasping the content of the closing paragraph!

  3. We talked about the dangers of reification in my abnormal psych class this term. Basically, we were warned not to take a construct too seriously just because people had given it a name. Thus, people should be a little bit cautious about the veracity of such perceived phenomenons as “road rage”, “global warming(s)”, and “oil/imperialist conspiracies”. On the other hand, some things do exist slightly outside the realm of strict empiricism, and names and phrases can help clarify, understand, and converse about them.

  4. Sounds like they teach something useful in that psych class!

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