Today’s post is a follow-up to something I said in a recent post about “gaslighting” (manipulating people into questioning their sanity): “If you’re a student of postmodernism, you know that naming these forms of manipulation empowers victims to fight back.”
My purpose today is to draw a connection between gaslighting and Jacques Derrida’s insistence that “there is nothing outside the text.” That quotation from his book Of Grammatology has often been used to show that deconstruction is a silly and irrelevant word game. Postmodern thinkers supposedly believe that the world is just a figment of our imagination.
I’m going to argue that deconstruction is both serious and relevant. Our useful term “gaslighting” is a perfect example.
What Derrida actually said (remember that he was writing in French!) was “there is no outside-text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texts). We can’t get away from language because we need words to process our experiences.
Even people who don’t have access to language (think of Helen Keller before Anne Sullivan became her teacher) have a system of symbols that serve as words. (For example, Keller used to stroke her face as a sign for “mother.”)
Suddenly Derrida doesn’t seem so nutty!
But there’s more. An important postmodern dictum is that if something doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t exist. You’re allowed to be skeptical about that – but I’m asking you to at least consider what it means.
Gaslighting is a perfect example. In the original Gas Light play (thanks, Jenna!), Bella Manningham thinks she’s going crazy. The truth, though, is that her husband Jack is manipulating events to make her distrust her perceptions and thoughts. She is powerless.
Fast forward to a modern-day woman or man – “Dana” – who’s being manipulated in the same way by a romantic partner, spouse, family member, or boss. Dana – like Bella Manningham – is powerless.
But then Dana talks to a therapist who explains the term “gaslighting.” Dana begins to see a pattern: Every thought, word, and action has been discounted by the person in power: “You’re overreacting. “You’re hysterical.” “You’re confused.” Once Dana recognizes the pattern and starts looking for other ways to respond, the game is over.
The same principle applies to many psychological issues. There’s no exit ramp when you’re in the grip of a feeling. It engulfs you. But find a name for what you’re feeling – depression or anxiety, for example – and you can put some distance between the disorder and yourself. Once you find a new vantage point, everything begins to look different.
Talk to any parent, and they’ll say they often tell their children to “Use your words!” What they’re really teaching children is that if you name the problem or feeling, you can classify it and start to deal with it.
Here’s a sad example: the lack of a name is one major reason sexual abuse is so devastating to children. Because they can’t process what has happened to them, the abuse falls into the unconscious and runs rampant, hidden underground where no one can see what it’s doing. But if we teach children that the problem has a name, they can classify it and start finding their way back to health.
I’m also thinking about Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique and its exposure of “the problem that has no name.” Women’s lives were never the same again after Friedan published her book.
Words are more than just a label that we slap on things. They organize and interpret our existence. Let’s be grateful for the gift of language – and for the thinkers who are trying to pull back the curtains on its mysterious inner workings.