A Preliminary Study on Definition and Its Function
Abstract: Definition has a special function in a certain process. People can take different measures to make use of it. This essay argues a preliminary study on definition and its function. It tries to explain the relationship between definition and control.
Key Words: definition, control, discourse power
From the point of itself, definition has a special function in a certain process. It’s the start point in the process or the final destination as well. This phenomenon also goes in the control process, in the society, for instance. People often make use of it especially when they have to make defense if something not good happens, or under the circumstances that people want to grasp the discourse power.
As a basic element in a society, control plays such an important role that “millions of heroes have laid down their lives for it”. Around this point, there arises the question: who controls and how to control. The relatively easy way to get discourse power, in some aspect, is to define and make use of definition.
Any process starts from definition or falls for it just like Confusion once said that If terminology is not corrected, then what is said cannot be followed; If what is said cannot be followed, then work cannot be accomplished. People needs a clear (not that clear sometimes, anyhow) definition mainly because it’s the most powerful and direct way to gain discourse power.
Foucault put forward that discourse is power in the book The Order of Discourse. The
intellectual's role is no longer to place himself “somewhat ahead and to the side” in order to express the stifled truth of the collectivity; rather, it is to struggle against the forms of power that transform him into its object and instrument in the sphere of “knowledge” “truth” “consciousness” and “discourse”.
Here leads to the relationship between definition, discourse and power that the gaining of power depends largely on grasping discourse, which starts from the source of defining.
? What is Definition
Definition, as it’s defined, the act or process of stating a precise meaning or significance, has a special meaning in control. There are some different ways to make use of it.
1. Use a traditional definition to explain and control
People are quite good at making use of existing definitions.
Freedom, for instance, is often used as an excuse to criticize some other countries when the western countries want to control, to some extent, the certain area of the world. While the criticized countries defense themselves by explaining “freedom” in their own ways.
In a society, the governing class will always sue for a theoretical system to defense its reining. In the feudal society, kings or queens consolidated and make ways for their reining by giving enormous publicity to so-called “Divine Right”.
It seems like that people have a special inclination for traditional definition. In our society, we can see quite often that the buildings of long history are ruined violently and the new-built structures are imitating the ancient ones.
2. Create a new definition to explain and control
When it comes to a situation that there is not such an existing definition, people begin to find new ways to solve this problem and fill in the blanks.
1) Invent a new definition
Along with the fast spreading of Internet in China, net-users seem to grasp some discourse power through Internet, the instance for which is that so many new world of usage are invented by them. In the year 2009, according to an investigation, the word “bei(被)” occupied the first place of “words of the
year”. As well some seldom-used words are redefined and used in a special way.
Inventing a new definition is a common phenomenon when the government has to make explanation and there is no existing one. “Playing Hide and Found(躲猫猫)” once became an excuse for
the undetermined origin death of a prisoner in China, and it was soon used by the net-users to make joke of or criticize the government. In the same way, some other words are invented by the government, such as “压力差”, “叉腰肌”, etc.
It seems that inventing a new definition is not quite effective under some circumstances. That’s mainly because the inventor cannot persuade the users when power is challenged.
2) Borrow a new definition
It often occurs that some traditional definitions of certain words are abandoned and new one takes the place. For instance, “38” in China means the International Women’s Day originally, but more and more people accept it as slang to call one’s name. And also, in Internet, a lot of words are used in this
way. “cups(杯具)” are used for tragedies, which is a good example for this.
As a country, it has a powerful enough way to put forward a new definition, or explain one in its own way. “Harmonious(和谐)” is a best example for this. On one hand, the country want to use this concept to
untie people’s willing, on the other hand, people seem to accept it well, although there is also another informal way of saying Harmonious--- “河蟹”.
? How does definition function as control
Foucault once argued that the collective group seizes the supreme right, which infiltrates the legal norms and obligations into the individual’s life. When the action of the individual breaks the limits of legal norms, the collective group will define it as criminal and punish the one. This can be the best way to explain how definition functions as control.
Learners of Social Cybernetics put forward that the cybernetic approach is centrally concerned with this unavoidable limitation of what we can know: our own subjectivity. In this way cybernetics is aptly called "applied epistemology". At minimum, its utility is the production of useful descriptions, and, specifically, descriptions that include the observer in the description. The shift of interest in cybernetics from "observed systems"— to "observing systems" explicitly incorporates the observer into the
description, while maintaining a foundation in feedback, goals, and information. It applies the cybernetic frame to the process of cybernetics itself.
In this process, definition brings a fundamental basis. One kind of Social Cybernetics is forced institutional control and unforced uninstitutional control, the former depends on norms, laws, theocracy, or religion, etc., the latter depends on etiquette, fame, forbids, or public opinion, etc. All these elements origin from one source: definition.
Typically, there are two kinds of ways for definition functioning as power.
1. from the upper class to the lower
This model is the most effective way because the upper class has powerful measures to assure the norms and laws are carried out and obeyed. In the ancient society, for instance, when Emperor Qin wants to unify Chinese characters, surely, there is a process of giving out the definition of the new form and make sure his orders become laws of the country to ensure the new forms of characters are used instead of the old ones. In modern society, people are skilled at this. Before something happened, the informal rumors spread, and the very people observe the public opinion. There is always a way to cater for the supporter and make the opposed silent. One way is to give out a so-called investigation that “most” people support it.
2. from the lower class to the upper
Compared with the above model, this one seems distinctly weak. The lower class losing the discourse power leads to the weakness as discourse power is usually grasped by the Interest Groups who gain their interests from the lower class. But sometimes, the vulnerable group can influence the norms and laws to some extent probably because the upper class understands that where their living foundation lies in.
Definition plays a quite important role in the process of power coming into being. It’s the most powerful and direct way to gain discourse power. How to make use of definition leads to quite different results in different measures. The upper class can put forward a new definition easily under the help of power, and the lower class can influence the norms and laws of the society to some extent. Ways of making use of definition appear, but no matter who, if one wants to grasp the discourse power favoringly, for sure, definitions are needed to explain the policy or the reason.
The Order of Discourse pp. 47-53 edited by Robert Young (London: RKP, 1981)
von Foerster, Heinz, ed., Cybernetics of Cybernetics, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois, 1974.
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