23 March 2007

Positional Linguistics

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:41 pm

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun…
She speaks, yet she says nothing. What of that?
Her eye discourses; I will answer it.
I am too bold; ’tis not to me she speaks.

– Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1594

My daughter’s English class is reading Romeo and Juliet. Yesterday they acted out the balcony scene, in pairs. To capture the scene the teacher had each Juliet stand on a platform so that she stood higher than her Romeo. The positioning is important, because Romeo likens her to the sun: above, aloof, unapproachable, silent. Parents are taller than children; men, usually taller than women — the height differential corresponds to a power differential. It’s important in Shakespeare’s play that the differential be reversed in Romeo’s first declaration of worshipful love.

The last few days I talked about space; today it’s furniture and the relative position of bodies in psychological space. You’ve seen movies where the analyst sits in a chair behind the patient lying on the couch? This arrangement was a holdover from the days when hypnosis was the main analytic technique. Here’s the rationale for continuing the positional arrangement from The Technique and Practice of Psychoanalysis by Ralph Greenson:

The circumstance that two people meet together repeatedly and alone for a long period of time makes for an intensity of emotional involvement. The fact that one is troubled and relatively helpless and the other expert and offering help, facilitates an uneven, “tilted” relationship, with the troubled one tending to regress to some form of infantile dependency. The routine of having the patient lie on the couch also contributes to the regression in a variety of ways… The patient is lying down and therefore is lower than the analyst sitting upright behind him, that the patient’s locomotion and bodily movements are restricted, and that he speaks but he cannot see to whom… this combination of elements recapitulates the matrix of the mother-child relationship of the first months of life.

In contrast to the disciplined severity of the analytic scene, there’s the more relaxed and interpersonal style of counseling. The main criterion for a good room is that it not be noisy or distracting; the client will adjust to whatever is in the room. The relationship is a professional one, and the therapeutic technique does not rely on the client to establish a child-to-parent transference relationship with the therapist. Consequently, no attempt is made to recapitulate the “tilted” relationship through the positioning of furniture. Here’s Alfred Benjamin from The Helping Interview on arranging chairs:

Some interviewers like to sit behind a desk facing the interviewee… Others feel best when facing the interviewee without a desk between them. Still others prefer two equally comfortable chairs placed close to each other at a ninety-degree angle with a small table nearby. This arrangement works best for me. The interviewee can face me when he wishes to do so and at other times he can look straight ahead without my getting in his way. I am equally unhampered. The table close by fulfills its normal functions and, if not needed, disturbs no one.

I think I’m with Benjamin.



  1. I’ll take my comment from the previous post over here. The basic sum of it all was this: What are the ramifications of doing counseling and psychology via the internet: Email and instant messaging.

    Your conselor would be everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. A patient could pour things out on an email and the counselor could get to it in her/his own time. There are no physical barriers, and the client has the opportunity to pour it all out.

    I’m sure this kind of thing is being done….anybody ever heard of it?


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 23 March 2007 @ 6:52 pm

  2. I responded on the previous post while you were commenting here. I said i thought some combination of face-to-face and virtual presence would be better, but it would be interesting to figure out what could be done through an entirely on-line practice. Written versus oral communication changes the dynamic for sure. Timewise it’s more flexible, but the sheer amount of communication per minute is reduced by typing rather than speaking. I’ll look into it a little and get back to you.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 March 2007 @ 7:07 pm

  3. Chairs at a right angle, huh? Why not at 33.333 degrees OFF of 90 degrees? Might be kinda’ awkward. Both parties might ask, “Dude, am I facing this other person, or not? What’s the deally yo’?!”


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 23 March 2007 @ 7:43 pm

  4. I think swivel chairs. Then you can turn your backs on each other if you want.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 March 2007 @ 7:59 pm

  5. Ok. Here’s the thing. In the absence of non-verbal communication, the client is forced to express herself or himself completely through language. This, I would think is therepeutic. It makes you express in writing where you are, what questions you are asking, and the feelings that you have….Maybe a counselor would be in a better position to evaluate a client when the counselor could not “cheat” by reading body language or expressions, etc….You are priviledging certain forms of communication, this was one of the first deconstruction projects of Derrida, which ushered in a switch from Structuralism to Post-Structuralism….


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 23 March 2007 @ 8:49 pm

  6. Swivel chairs, y’er funny! Interestingly you don’t see many faces in Corbusier’s drawings (especially the representation perspective ones), but much more of the bakcs of people’s heads. But swivel chairs turn in circles, too!! But wait…they still have a central axis and then a turning radius…still two-ness, crap…


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 23 March 2007 @ 10:14 pm

  7. Jonathan –

    Maybe churches should be run on the internet. You could itune the songs, read the sermon, email in prayer requests, pay your tithe by paypal… And I think your reading of Derrida is seriously flawed. And didn’t you read Romeo’s speech? “Your eye discourses,” he says. How’s he going to see her eye discoursing on a chat line? Sheesh, you try to get some serious advice and what happens?

    Jason –

    And that goes for you too.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 March 2007 @ 10:23 pm

  8. Johnathan, you invoked my name – so I’ll respond. Seriously, I don’t know if you’re joking or not. I don’t know how to respond. The body (Incarnation)…writing…information…you can’t…uuhh…yeah, I don’t know what you say…are you serious? “Cheat”? What’s getting healed if your body isn’t included?


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 23 March 2007 @ 10:32 pm

  9. Fine. Don’t take me seriously, but I take myself seriously…..and so do all the cats that live with me….

    But I still don’t see how virtual therapy could not have incredible advantages over the traditional face-to-face meeting. Why do you need to “read” my face? Or read my tones? Or my body movements? The point is to force the client to say what they perceive to be their problems.

    By the way, the current setup of most churches is atonymous, anyway, so why not do it all online? How many of us are actually engaged in anything more than mindless and heartless absorbsion of information?


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 23 March 2007 @ 10:44 pm

  10. Johnathan,

    I was taking you seriously…I just didn’t know if YOU were. I don’t know you well enough. And yes most churches are as you say, but that ain’t church. I don’t get nervous and anxious when I confess my sins online. “Confess your sins and pray for one another, so that YOU MAY BE HEALED.” “You” includes the body; the Incarnation is incredibly important and central to my thinking and living. On second thought, then, maybe what you speak of, what most folks do, is church, but it ain’t Incarnational.

    Anyway…funnily apparently you and John and Geoff Holsclaw and David Fitch take me seriously, but none of the folks I know personally seem to do so sometimes, lol.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 23 March 2007 @ 10:54 pm

  11. Jason –

    So maybe your body language and nonverbal signals are misleading in person? Maybe you unconsciously undermine the seriousness of your intentions by acting non-seriously? Hey, maybe this could work after all.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 March 2007 @ 11:08 pm

  12. Maybe I’m in counseling to learn to make believe through my body too, like I was so good at as a kid, always dressing up in costumes every day and crap. Thanks for the thoughtful informational, though, John. I’ll now, from the distance between here and when it possibly happens, try to put that into bodily action or application. I’ll then, from the possible distance between then and some possible future time after that, let you know how it went.

    That’s a cemetary with mechanical structure (typically hidden in the walls, and structurally supporting the building itself) as supporting nothing but circulation for the living…entirely separate from the plasic forms of concrete meant to hold the coffins.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 24 March 2007 @ 12:30 am

  13. Jason –

    Maybe so. Maybe you intend to present yourself non-seriously in the blogosphere but the audience can’t see the visual cues so we take it seriously. Or maybe you’re trying to pretend that the world and its doings are serious matters rather than a farce, and if you speak and act seriously it will start to seem serious to you. Or maybe you wish everyone in physical and virtual space would play more, assume more alternative personas, experiment with self-presentation, with ways of being-in and being-toward. Deterritorialize the stage and the audience a little bit. Probably some of all that is true for me, maybe for you too.

    I read about a study recently where people laugh more if they’re in a social situation where they hope to gain something from the others who see/hear them laugh: social acceptance, a job, whatever is on the line. People who are already “in” — bosses, professors, centers of social circles — don’t laugh as much. Getting someone who’s on the inside to laugh with you is to equalize the status differential, to draw you into the circle with them. So then I wonder what’s going on with the gal who says she likes a guy because he makes her laugh.


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 March 2007 @ 6:04 am

  14. So then I wonder what’s going on with the gal who says she likes a guy because he makes her laugh.

    It is reverse manipulation. The female laughs at the male to boost the male’s ego and self-esteem, and hence it makes the female more desirable. The female only thinks that she likes the guy because he makes her laugh. However, she laughs because she is sending out signals and engaging in the earliest stages of seduction.

    Why wo/men “like” or “love” each other cannot be determined. It is undefinable. It is intangible. And yet we can define it in terms of “he makes me laugh” or “she’s hot” or “we have so much in common”, etc.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 24 March 2007 @ 5:48 pm

  15. Jonathan –

    I believe you’re right. Let’s work through the reverse manipulation. The one who laughs is in the one-down role, which suggests that the guy who makes the gal laugh has established himself as the desirable one. But he craves her laughter, it makes him feel on top, stokes his sense of himself as being desired. So they both send out signals of seduction — him being amusing, her laughing — because they each desire to be desired by the other. And they also desire each other as fulfillment of themselves: “he makes me happy,” “she thinks I’m fun.” Doesn’t this sound a lot like our old friend the master-bondsman paradigm of Hegel, Freud and Lacan? Both take turns desiring and being desired, believing the other possesses that obscure object of desire that completes them?


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 March 2007 @ 6:49 pm

  16. Good observation, K……and so we dance…..


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 24 March 2007 @ 7:49 pm

  17. Or do we bother dancing, and go and make up or own game?


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 25 March 2007 @ 1:27 am

  18. And play by yourself?


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 25 March 2007 @ 11:56 pm

  19. Impression management: some people are better at it than others. It’s easier to project a persuasive image of yourself (sexy, powerful, trustworthy, whatever) if you’re persuaded it’s the “real” you — which means it pays not to be too complex or self-aware. If, on the other hand, all you can see about yourself are the bad points, then you’re lack of complex self-awareness probably won’t work for you very well.

    If you see your own faults as well as your strengths, it seems that your self-projection will be more convincing if it includes the whole package, not just one or another facet that seems either self-serving or self-denigrating. The doubt is that you’ll ever find anyone who’s got the patience or subtlety to discern, and to appreciate, a multilayered personal presentation. Do you appreciate such a self-presentation from others, including gals? If so, then you’ve at least got your own example of the possibility. Love your neighbor as yourself, as the (son of) man said.

    Or are you looking for someone who’s good at what you yourself are bad at, someone who can fill the gaps in yourself, who can be for you what you cannot be for yourself? And vice versa: are you hoping to fulfill what some gal cannot be for herself? This project seems founded on some degree of mutual self-loathing, kind of an anti-narcissism. This is the Hegel-Lacan version of desire: desiring in the other what you lack in yourself.


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 March 2007 @ 4:13 am

  20. “The doubt is that you’ll ever find anyone who’s got the patience or subtlety to discern, and to appreciate, a multilayered personal presentation. Do you appreciate such a self-presentation from others, including gals? If so, then you’ve at least got your own example of the possibility. Love your neighbor as yourself, as the (son of) man said.”

    This is my struggle, my game, my whatever you wanna call it. Besides that I’m not so good at presentations, unless its specifially a painting or drawing. Maybe a poem. This is why I imagine myself as more of a director than an actor…and play more of that role in real life as well.

    And Johnathan…I can be pretty foolish. Learning not to be…and to relate to the body of Christ instead.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 26 March 2007 @ 6:49 am

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