HOLTERMAN, Thom. "Defining Power: The Changing Geometry of Concepts"

Thom Holterman is a member of the redaction of the Dutch anarchist revue de AS

Communication. MediaHOLTERMAN, Thom (1942 - )

Every concept has a particular content and thus a certain meaning. But the content and meaning of a particular concept can be manipulated by their author. The form, the “geometry” of a concept may therefore change, and the meaning may be altered according the need of the author or to the usage, that is to say after he has used his “power to define”.
For this kind of power, the German and the Dutch language have a single word: “Definitionsmacht” (German), “definitiemacht” (Dutch). “Definition”, “definitie” means “definition”, “macht” means, “power”. For this reason I speak here of “power to define”. So anyone who has this power can manipulate the meaning of a concept to adapt it to one’s own particular taste. In the political world, we can observe that governments try to determine the "agenda" of the public debate by using their “power to define”. Why should we deal with this?

First, it is well to bear in mind that other people (such as a political opponent, a government agency, or political leaders) are trying to drive our understanding in a specific direction with particular connotations. Secondly, it is important to consider how we can by ourselves ’construct’ our own connotations (that is to say establish a geometry of the particular concept which would respect our own needs). After all, it never hurts to be aware of the power we possess to determine our own ’agenda’.

Below I will demonstrate with some examples the point I am trying to make. These examples are taken from a recent French political-social situation. Of course many other examples could be given. The first example deals with the use of the term ’security’.

In an interview included in the French anarchist weekly Le Monde libertaire (hors série 43, Winter 2011), the critical French sociologist Laurent Mucchielli was asked how he analyzed ’insecurity’. His answer provides insight with respect to a ‘definition process’.

"Insecurity", he says, "is not a scientific concept. It is not an identifiable set of issues. It is in reality a media and political notion, which does not refer to precisely defined behaviours. It refers to fears. You would rather speak of a ’feeling of insecurity’, and then you would examine the components of that ‘feeling’ (through surveys and interviews).

One would then discover that the first factor in the feeling of insecurity is independent of whether one has ever been the victim of a crime. The first factor is determined by age: older people have more fears, even if they have never suffered any harm. So it’s not about ’insecurity’ we are talking but about ’vulnerability’ and that’s something else. This also applies to other factors which come into play, such as socio-economic insecurity (precariousness), the observation of significant deterioration of the neighbourhood, increasing the degree of anonymity ... ".

What Mucchielli outlines here, demonstrates how ‘insecurity’ is a concept with a variable geometry. Depending on what one will have on the political agenda that geometry is manipulated. And a Minister of Security and Justice is not waiting for a discussion about socio-economic uncertainty. So he will use his power to create “his” reality (a reality that, for example, journalists will then analyze). In such a case he has used his “power to define” to exclude a component. To be clear I note that the terms “power to define” and “geometry” are not part of modernity.

A few years ago, for example, the German feminists of the Mamba collective devoted a brochure entitled DefinitionsMacht: schwergeMacht. Zu Vergewaltigungsdebatten in der radikalen Linken und darüber hinaus, in relation to the theme of ‘rape’ (see the website: http://arranca.org/ausgabe/27/definitionsmacht-und-vergewaltigungsdebatten). They used the term “power to define” (Definitionsmacht) to draw attention to the problem that often others than women, who are in power, capture the contents of notions about rape. What women, quite justifiedly, did not accept.
Government Statistics
So far as the French government is concerned, we may see that it is apt in twisting the meanings and outcomes of a research by applying their own power. In such a case it is not strange at all to encounter in the French daily Le Monde a headline in which the term ’variable geometry’ appears, as in ‘Des Statistiques d’Etat à geometry variable’ (Government Statistics with a variable geometry).

The term ‘geometry’ here refers to ’configuration’, ie to an outward form, to an organized set of elements. A ’variable geometry’ then relates to something that can be changed depending on the needs or wants that one deals with.

The make up of statistics has already occurred, of course, for a long time and it is not confined to the French Government alone. More than half a century ago, there was a book by Darrell Huff significantly entitled: How to Lie with Statistics (1954). And what’s the difference between ‘lies’ and ’entrancing proposals’? The French government played that card but was mercilessly caught by the ‘High Council of Education’.

As in the Netherlands, the France school system is altered at every. When the government judges its own actions, it shows them as rosy – by selecting the appropriate data. However, the High Council of Education also did its own research on the effects and compared the results with those of the French Government. The
Council criticized the government in no uncertain terms as ‘deceitful’ and ‘making only half of the work’. The French president was not amused at all by this criticism. The Élysée felt disturbed by the freedom that the Council has adopted and is now considering suppressing the Council (Le Monde of December 15, 2011).
Other (statistical) data also showed that so many things were wrong that a headline could be read: "Le bric-a-brac illégal des fichiers de police” (the illegal rumble with data by the police). In this case it was a report prepared by two MPs (one of the opposition, PS, and one of the governing party, UMP), which mapped out how widely one tampered with data. You can guess how variously the effects of the actions of the police can be ‘defined’ (Le Monde on December 23, 2011). Meanwhile, it should be remembered that within a couple of months the presidential elections take place and Sarkozy is preparing his re-election...

Word Doctor
We have so far seen a few examples of how government agencies employ their “power to define” to manipulate of the ’geometry’ of concepts and meanings. In Le Monde of December 15, 2011 is examined the work of an individual in this area. This is the American communications specialist Frank Luntz, described as a ‘word doctor’ and a ‘Republican Goebbels’. For he works for the American Republicans, and defines for them the ‘language of the 21 st century‘. He recommends among other expressions the following ones.
Do not speak any longer about the ’Pentagon’ (as too technocratic) but about the ‘Department of Defence’. Do not use the word ’problem’ for something to discuss, but ’conversation’; use the neutral word ’change’ (of the climate) instead of the disturbing ‘heating’ (of the earth). There is almost an entire catalogue of concepts to explain that gives birth to a ‘new speech’. This is quite an old method, but it is still in use today. Who is aware of this, is then quite apt to reverse and convert the debate. One can think on the following example.

“The Right to define”
The Dutch government, also, stakes high on ’security’. We have seen that it is rather ’vulnerability’ than ’uncertainty’ that must be in debate (precarity: how is my pension, my work, will there ever be work for me as unemployed?). The uncertainty comes down from so many more sides to everyone, and not only from the side of destructive groups of youths (the seriousness of which is undeniable).
‘Vandalism’ appears to be primarily a cultural phenomenon: inherently the capitalist mode of production, the capitalist market philosophy, is physically and mentally destruction. This ‘vandalism’ can be identified immediately on the ecological level (destruction of the environment) and economical level (financial crisis accumulation of debt and speculation) level.

If the Dutch minister of Security and Justice then speaks of vandalism, he holds the capitalist destructive instinct beyond his description of ‘insecurity’. The geometry is strictly limited. But let no one feels stopped by such geometry: he or she can mention other forms of destruction, like those of the capitalists. So do not let yourself get robbed of your own ‘right to definition’.