A recently spotlighted diary on Daily Kos concerning Miley Cyrus ill-famed performance at the 2013 Video Music Awards caught the Word Sommelier's eye. That diary contained the following sentence:
...Cyrus's gyrations rendered the award show a locus for objectification that ultimately reified the type of patriarchal paradigms that are diametrically opposed to the edicts advanced by sex-positive rhetoric and realities.Now the Word Sommelier has been on inter-election hiatus from his vocation of helping people make more effective and striking word choices; but the pathetic spectacle of this diarist's poor meaning mired in an unfriendly lexical morass moved him to swift action.
For the Word Sommelier's advice on this sentence, continue with him below the divider doodle.
Now for those unfamiliar with the office of the Word Sommelier, his vocation is the enhancement of self-expression, specifically in that area of self-expression concerned with making effective word choices. It is not his business to tell anyone what to think. Even so, Word Sommelier in his capacity as a private citizen has not an iota of disagreement with this diarist's meaning, so far as he can make out that meaning.
And therein lay the rub: this sentence wins, by a country mile, the award for the worst word choices ever in a dKos diary. Its grotesque vocabulary afflicts this poor utterance with all the senselessly baroque articulation of a plain homespun sentence all dressed up to attend the neo-Marxist ball.
Now "reification" has several meanings in philosophy, engineering and linguistics, but the one attempted here seems to be what Marxist theorists call, in German, Verdinglichung -- literally "making into a thing". The common English translation of Verdinglichung into the obscure and technical reification is unfortunate; in German at least one has a fighting chance of making some sense out of the thing. Had the Word Sommelier been alive in 1846, the year "reification" entered the English Language, he'd have suggested a much plainer sounding neologism: "thingification".
Verdinglichung refers to two closely related processes which Marxist theory posits underly the transformation of labor into a conveniently tradeable (and amassable) commodity: the treatment of a worker as a thing (aka "alienation"), and the creation of symbols -- spuriously treated as if they could have the utility value of concrete things -- to which value properly belonging to human experience will be misattributed. The diarist unlimbers this clumsy but potent ideological cannon, only to fire it at an apparently randomly chosen and vaguely identified target, viz., a certain left-unnamed-by-the-diarist type of "patriarchal paradigm".
The natural target for this charge of "reification" would be Cyrus' self-objectification. So what might the "reification" of a "type of patriarchal paradigm" mean? As nearly as the Word Sommelier can determine, had the diarist has a particular reason to use "reify" it would be to accuse Ms. Cyrus of transforming the use-value of her own sexuality into a readily marketable commodity image.
That's actually quite a clever charge to lay at the feet of Ms. Cyrus, but the problem is that the Word Sommelier is not sure the diarist actually meant that. Indeed this whole sentence is rife with awkward, portentous words whose clumsy use obscures the diarist's meaning: "locus", "rhetorical" and "paradigm" -- even the normally dignified "edict" finds itself swept along in the semantic train wreck. The respectable working class word "reality" seems to serve no persuasive function in the sentence; it is as if it were picked up by a whirlwind and when it awoke it found itself chained in the pillory with the disreputable "rhetoric". I suspect "realities" is there for the diarist to hedge what might be taken by some as an assertion that "sex positive" notions are entirely a matter of self-serving rhetoric, not just in this case. But this kind of nervous dodge would entirely unnecessary in a sentence constructed from cheerful, familiar words rather than disturbingly alien ones.
There's an important principle of word choice that needs application here: never to use a museum-piece word when more widely understood words carry your meaning with equal or greater precision. The violation of this principle makes the diarist's meaning somewhat obscure, but the diarist appears to be arguing roughly along these lines:
By transforming the award ceremony into a showcase for the sexual objectification of women, Cyrus' antics made the VMA's sex-positive posturing ring hollow.The Word Sommelier believes that the above sentence is far superior in its word choices to the original, although he wouldn't care to warrant that it conveys precisely the same meaning. But what's so bad about "reification"? Is there no use at all for such a word?
There is nothing wrong with "reification". You should use it when no other word compasses your meaning so perfectly, and your audience can be expected to understand precisely what that meaning is. For example, in an academic paper about the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxist philosophy "reification" could be used without explanation. Anyone apt to read such a paper would naturally have a precise and ready grasp of the technical nuances of the word. Another effective use of a technical term such as "reification" might be to criticize an action or idea under the feigned purpose of explaining what the term means.
Routine self-expression does not require the services of the Word Sommelier. Simply keep the audience in mind when you select your words. Remember you are attempting to communicate with them, not merely impress them with your familiarity with unfamiliar words. Feel free to use words like "reify" (or "paradigm" and "locus" for that matter) if your audience will understand it and it is just the right word. Or should the Word Sommelier say, the mot juste? No, he should not!