On Psychopathy TM

By Ryan Knighton | September 27, 2002

A friend of mine in Toronto recently sent me a web-log written by someone named Brandon Barr at the University of Rochester. Barr wrote, Because my composition class (Being Digital/Digital Writing) is so focused on computers, I get a lot of computer science majors taking the course to fulfill their primary writing requirement at the U of R.

One student turned in essays that were oddly organized: short paragraphs (two to three lines) with no connective material or transitions, several paragraphs at the end which contained the thesis and main points. I was puzzled over the structure until I realized that the student was organizing essays just like a computer program. Like functions which get placed at the foot of a program and then called in the main program above, the student’s main points were at the end but were called in by the shorter previous paragraphs. The essay was optimized like good code, with nothing extraneous thrown in (like, say, transitions). And the essay was meticulously punctuated (in programming, a missing semi-colon has tangible results—the program will not run).

The student’s "problem" was not writing ability, it was that the student was used to writing in a different language, with different rules: C++. A new case of ESL. My task, then, is to give able writers like this a way to translate their skill for creating machine-readable script: to help them create human-readable script. They understand when I equate "thesis" with function. Transitions are another story; after all, they are rhetoric: not tangible, with no utility. I want to supplement their way of writing without destroying it. Because I’m not sure that their way doesn’t make more

This phenomena is creepy, no doubt, yet it is becoming highly visible in the student body where I teach. We should worry, I think, not because it is a discursive phenomena particular to this generation, but because it is, to my mind and ear, participant in a broader linguistic pathology. To a certain degree it supports an idea I’ve been mulling around about psychopathy and

If we agree with the long-standing definitions that psychopathy involves semantic dissociation or "madness without confusion", a sense of "reading the script" of being human but not being grounded in a world of reference and referent, then some serious concerns are raised about branding and advertising as privileged and virulent linguistic features of our malls, parking lots and classrooms.

I was working with a student yesterday and the notion of Hamlet’s to be or not to be came up as a useful example for our discussion. We considered the soliliquay for a bit and finally, frustrated by the complexity of the ideas, my student tried to either resolve the complexity–or dismiss it–with "well, like they say, just do it." Hers is an application of advertising script which not only erases complexity and the textures of thought and experience, but also encourages the very semantic dissociation described in books like Hervey Cleckley’s The Mask of Sanity: a linguistic feature indicative of psychopathy, or at least the seeds of its blankness. I don’t mean to suggest my student is flat-out psychotic. Nothing could be further from my point. What does concern me is that she inhabits a media environment which refabricates her experience to a degree and, by the pervasiveness of its phrases and slogans, readies an easy means for dissociating from experience itself, be it of her own mind or the particularity of the world around her.

What’s equally worrisome is its inverse. I saw the film I am Sam the other day. Sure, I probably torture kitty cats for fun since I wasn’t moved by Sean Penn’s heartfelt portrayal of one of my distant but fellow gimps, but I could barely see him (er, well, hear him) through all the chummy brand clatter and mugging for the camera that was going on around Penn’s character, the mentally challenged Sam. Starbucks was the real star of this film, ostentatiously demonstrating its equal and compassionate hiring practices by placing innocent Sam behind the espresso bar. The managers never expressed any frustration or imposed any wrist-slapping over Sam’s inefficiencies (perhaps because management had special needs instruction training at some coffee-scented barrista retreat in the Puget Sound woods). Starbucks even went so far with their fantasy PR screenplay to promise Penn’s character a promotion at the beginning of the film and, by god, came through with it in the end. Sam is clearly not an employee or a character: he’s a corporate mascot.

Naomi Klein notes in No Logo that companies like GE and GM at one point encouraged their customers to think of their name not as a trademark for a corporation, but as the initials of a friend. Starbucks too, as shown by the film. We’re encouraged not to think of corporations as a place and network of remote economic and social forces, but as an amalgam of human virtues: caring, honest, loyal and nurturing down to the last drop.

But this is, of course, the back door to psychopathy. Here it’s not that the speaker does not live or experience the meaning of those words, the classic symptom/cause of semantic dissociation, but here, in this branded experience, words are given agency to a hollowness, a corporate entity like Starbucks, as if it were really speaking its mind and living up to its role in the social contract of human relations instead of making an economic empire.

Hannibal Lecter isn’t the problem. Were it that simple. What’s really cannibalizing language is out there stalking our sanity.

936 w. September 27, 2002


  • Ryan Knighton

    Ryan Knighton lives in Vancouver, teaches at a college in North Vancouver, and peers at the world with a strange but distinctive focus. He just signed a whopping book contract based on a series of pieces that appeared on this site, and his publisher made us erase them.

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