2008 political parapraxis II

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A lovely example of a word-substitution error, from David Kurtz's commentary in "TPMtv's View of Michelle's DNC speech":

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and uh below us is speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi
((uh)) and a coterie of other Republic- or Democratic leaders

This is a classic semantic paraphasia, of the kind that Freud wrote about in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901). He saw slips of the tongue as examples of Fehlleistungen, "faulty actions", which he believed often show the unconscious mind subverting the process of speaking in order to express its repressed fears and desires.

In the psychotherapeutic procedure which I employ in the solution and removal of neurotic symptoms, I am often confronted with the task of discovering from the accidental utterances and fancies of the patient the thought contents, which, though striving for concealment, nevertheless intentionally betray themselves. In doing this the mistakes often perform the most valuable, service, as I can show through most convincing and still most singular examples.

James and Alix Strachey invented the odd Greek-derived scientism parapraxis as the English translation for Fehlleistung, but the general public has adopted the more transparent term "Freudian slip". And there's a sense in which Kurtz's mistake is obviously a Freudian slip, in Freud's original sense — it reveals the (normal and unsurprising) fact that Kurtz regards Republicans and Democrats as instances of the same semantic category.

Here is what Freud wrote about the process that generates such slips:

The speech disturbance which manifests a speech-blunder may in the first place be caused by the influence of another component of same speech that is, through a fore-sound or echo, or through another meaning within the sentence or context which differs from that the speaker wishes to utter. In the second place, however, the disturbance could be brought about analogously to the process in the case Signorelli, through influences outside this word, sentence or context, from elements which we did not intend to express, and of whose incitement we became conscious only through the disturbance.

I quoted Freud's (indirect, multi-stage, even convoluted) analysis of the Signorelli example, at length, with a diagram, in "Fear North Dakota", 10/16/2004. He considers an occasion where he failed to recall the name of the painter Signorelli, and a chain of associations led him to substitute the names of the other artists Botticelli and Boltraffio instead. His analysis involves an earlier discussion of Bosnia, the idea of Islamic fatalism, a visit to Trafoi where he learned of a patient's suicide due to "sexual disturbances", his view of the sexual attitudes and customs of the Turks, and so on for more than 1200 words.

Freud believed that such analyses often provide a useful window into the unconscious. But whether or not you agree with him, no similar complexities of analysis are required to explain the chain of associations that leads from Democratic to Republican.

In fact, it's a common misreading of Freud to see him as insisting that all speech errors reveal unconscious fears or desires. He began with the simple idea — derived from earlier work by Wilhelm Wundt among others — that associations of form, sound and meaning are obviously involved, and he suggested that when the nature of the connection is not obvious, there may be idiosyncratic associations or avoidances that reveal something about the individual's mind. Freud's complex style of associative reasoning might be true or false, in general or in particular cases, but there's no reason to invoke it when the causes of the error are obvious.

And in general, psycholinguists have turned away from Freud's interest in exploring the less obvious associative connections that may be involved in slips of the tongue. As I wrote in the post just cited, discussing an episode of Meet the Press where Pete Coors warned about weapons of mass destruction in "Iran and North Dakota" instead of "Iran and North Korea":

A half-century of research into slips of the tongue suggests that Freud's attempt to provide them with unconscious motivations was at best unnecessary. We screw up in speaking because speaking is incredibly hard. Our poor overloaded frontal lobes are trying to select packages of multi-modal associations from the other end of the cortex at a rate of three or four per second, arrange them in complex patterns, and use them to coordinate the multi-dimensional wiggling of our eating and breathing apparatus so as to modulate sound waves in a way that will cause some mostly-unknown fellow humans to experience analogous patterns of structured associations, and consequently modify their mental state in ways advantageous to us. When it comes to talking, our unconscious fears and desires are the least of our problems.

[One other small but interesting point: Kurtz uses "or" to mark his repair. This usage doesn't make it into any dictionaries, or at least not into the first few that I checked. It's fairly common, I think, though often in the form "or rather".]



5 Comments

  1. Crown, A. J.P. said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 9:25 am

    Most of Freud was first translated by an American, A.A. Brill, though the Stracheys are probably more famous. James was the younger brother of Lytton Strachey, the author of Eminent Victorians.

    Oops, that's off the topic.

    [(myl)It's true, though. Brill did translate Freud before the Stracheys did. I've corrected the body of the post. But at least according to the OED, parapraxis was coined by Strachey:

    1916 J. STRACHEY tr. Freud Introd. Lect. Psycho-anal. I. i. 25 Certain phenomena..are what are known as 'parapraxes', to which everyone is liable..for instance..a person who intends to say something may use another word.

    And indeed there were many famous Stracheys.]

  2. Barry Hilton said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 1:28 pm

    A lovely example of a word-substitution error, from David Kurtz's commentary in "TPMtv's View of Michelle's DNC speech":

    and uh below us is speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi ((uh)) and a coterie of other Republic- or Democratic leaders

    [snip]

    [One other small but interesting point: Kurtz uses "or" to mark his repair. This usage doesn't make it into any dictionaries, or at least not into the first few that I checked. It's fairly common, I think, though often in the form "or rather".]

    xxxxxxx

    In a quasi-journalistic organization where I once worked, the tongue-in-cheekily approved format for such repairs was

    "Iran–or Iraq, as it is also known"

  3. dr pepper said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

    Freudian slip: where you say one thing but mean your mother.

  4. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

    I've heard a dirtier version of dr pepper's joke above.

  5. karl said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 6:09 am

    How about this slip: http://trailblazersblog.dallasnews.com/archives/2008/08/charlie-wilson-said-what.html

    The speech got a good response, but Wilson flubbed one line in his call for new leadership.
    "We should be led by Osama bin Laden," he said, then quickly corrected himself. "I mean Obama and Biden."

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