Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Monday, June 1, 2009

Word of the month: Sachzwang

Here's another something+zwang word without exact English equivalent that I find useful. It's composed of Sach, short for Sache ("thing, object") and Zwang ("compulsion, pressure, constraint"). The term denotes the necessity to do something that is inherent in a situation or, as my dictionary so coyly puts it, a "compulsion by the object in question"--no wonder I'm using the German term even in English!

Examples and pronunciation note in my first comment.


Ulrich said...

I find the notion of Sachzwang particularly useful in political discourse, where it may help us to distinguish between arguments and decisions made by politicians that are a rational response to the conflicts inherent in a given situation and those that are based on ideology or political pressure.

An example: The social security system in countries like the USA and Germany is based on a "contract between the generations": Those that work agree to contribute part of their wages to support the pensions of retired workers with the expectation that the next generation will do the same for them. This system worked admirably when the number of retired persons was small relative to those that worked. The system gets more and more unworkable as the population ages--if wages have to support also an ever increasing number or retired people, product prices will increase accordingly and may put companies out of business, especially in the age of globalization.

So, there is an increasing need to change the system from one that relies on a contract between generations to one that deals with each worker individually. That is a Sachzwang in my opinion.

What is not a Sachzwang is the solution that a government may propose because there are various alternatives that reflect, possibly fundamental, differences in philosophy and political orientation. Beware of politicians that argue Sachzwang when they are, in fact, arguing ideology!

Note on pronunciation: The "ch" is throaty as in Bach or Scottish (and German) loch. The "z" is sharp and sounds like English "ts", and the "a" in zwang is not like the "a" in "gang", but like the "a" in "father", yet shorter.

Marlene said...

Hi Ulrich, As always a great word. I just looked it up on line and found another definition, "inherent constraint." But it seems to me your definition is broader than that, that a "sachzwang" is not necessarily an inherent limitation but also a kind of forgone conclusion, where something has to occur because of the very nature of the situation or existing facts. Having said that, though, I'm trying to come up with an example and am completely blank. Can you provide at least one more illustration? I get the meaning, or think I do, but not well enough to apply it.

Ulrich said...

@Marlene: I'm still thinking of a really good example, but want to give you a quick preliminary answer. I think "inherent constraint" is broader. For example, when my battery fails in winter b/c it drained over night, I need someone to help me jump-start the car and bring it to a garage to have the battery recharged, or find another way to get it to a garage. To me, that's an inherent constraint, if I want to use my car again, but I wouldn't call it a Sachzwang--it's too obvious, too uncontroversial.

I've seen Sachzwang used more in political contexts to distinguish between needs inherent in a situation and politically- or ideologically-motivated solutions. Going back to my initial example, the need to put Social Security on an individual basis is a Sachzwang, but "we need to privatize Social Security" is not--it conflates a Sachzwang with an ideologically-motivated solution, one that is based on the (unproven) assumption that "the private sector always does things better than government could do."

At least that's the context in which the term is used in German political discourse, if I remember correctly. For example, a "technocrat" is defined as someone who only responds to Sachzwänge (that's the plural) and doesn't want to get involved in discussions about political philosophies.

Ulrich said...

Here's a second example, again from politics. In the debate over health care reform, the need to contain costs, or to stop the escalation of costs, is high up on everybody's list, and it's a Sachzwang in my opinion--whatever system is adopted must remain affordable for the people it's supposed to benefit.

This seems to be particularly difficult to achieve in health care, where the level of treatment given for certain conditions is open-ended--often, more is better, but also, possibly, prohibitively expensive; i.e. there seems to be a built-in spiral. Now, the interesting question is where does this end to be a Sachzwang (i.e. reflects real costs .i.t. of labor and equipment use) and starts to reflect greed on the part of providers and insurers. Which is to say, it may be difficult to determine in certain situations exactly if one is dealing with a Sachzwang or disguised self-interest.

But this is not so say that the term is useless--on the contrary, it gives us a concept to cut through the fog of conflicting claims and find out what's really going on.

Marlene said...

Hi Ulrich, That second example certainly helped and I think what you say about deciding where "sachzwang" leaves off and greed begins gets to a core issue in the whole health care debate, making your word of the month a really useful conceptual tool for analyzing arguments.

I want to mention too that I googled "sachzwang" and discovered that the German writer Heinrich Boll (I don't know how to do the umlaut) had written a good deal on the word. I don't include the URL here because I can't find my little index card telling me how to make it a hot link and I never remember how to do it on my own. In any case, Boll criticizes what was NATO's argument that the the situation in Europe required the placing of missiles as a way of avoiding future attack, which would assuredly come without them.

Boll made exactly your point that the situation was being presented as a "sachwang" and it wasn't. He went a step further, though, and-- I think anyway because a lot of the discussion was in German and I'm rusty--argued that the idea of situations forcing, necessitating or requiring certain decisions was morally reprehensible because it's ultimately people who are the crucial factor in decisions, not "sache."

I found this argument kind of compelling, although, given how long it's been since I really spoke German, I may be misrepresenting it.
If I can figure out how to do it, I will post the URL so you can take a look at it. I'd excerpt some of the argument here, but it's in one of "Google's Books" and Google has rigged the site so that's impossible to do.

I also wanted to know what Boll's reputation in Germany is currently. He was once a big name here, but I don't see him mentioned much any more. Maybe that's just a reflection of what I'm reading or maybe it means he's no longer considered a writer of first rank. I don't really know but I was wondering what you thought.

I have liked all your monthly words, but I think "sachzwang" is the best one yet because it forces me to really think about how critical or crucial choices are made, so thank you for thinking of this one.

ArtLvr said...

Please see my last comment in the Next 100 Days segment of Ulrich's blog, re Aaron Glantz' book which deals with more disastrous fallout from the cynical twisting of terms by G W Bush and cohorts.

I have to add another book of interest by Gillian Tett, "Fool's Gold", which begins with the author getting her PhD in anthropolgy, learning the exotic language and rites of a people situated near Nepal. Oddly, she is now a distinguished financial journalist who found herself analyzing the under-reported field in terms of the nearly foreign language spoken at a credit summit conference she covered in 2005!

She found the terms and intellectual framework did not come from academia, but from an under-reported inner group at J P Morgan, which a British mentor helped her explore -- and they came to see that the "free market" was not free but controlled by this new Mafia. The instruments they were devising with the bundling of subprime loans into CDOs and other instruments eventually ran out of fodder -- and then collided with the reality of the real estate bubble they had created, leading to the current crash.

I loved it that her initial novel linguistic approach led to her uncovering the roots of the economic fiasco, which culminated in the author winning the Wincott Prize for financial journalism in 2007 and British financial Journalist of the Year in 2008. Though it was too late to prevent the debacle, I thought you'd be amazed at the uses of language study in this modern intellectual detective story of such grim consequence to us all?


Ulrich said...

@artlvr: The book is reviewed in today's NYT Book Review--your reminder is timely.

Even if we are getting away from Sachzwang, we are staying with the deeper issue, the use/abuse of language in political discourse.

Example: Fox News claims "accuracy" as one of it distinguishing features precisely at the point where the instances accumulate in which they deliberately edit live videos to make a point, often to turn something a politician to the left of them said into its opposite: "Accurate" no longer means what the dictionary says it means--it means, for them, "conforming with our view of the world, let the facts be damned."

This abuse of language became rampant under Bush and continues on the extreme right (Cheney is particularly shameless about it) with even greater vigor as they no longer call the shots from the White House. And the media do not call them to task, with notable exceptions like Jon Stewart and Keith Olberman.

mac said...

@Ulrich: your comments were so timely, since just today I read (and of course the newspaper is already in the recycle bin to be picked up early tomorrow morning) that a Republican politician is telling his compatriots not to use the word "socialist" any more, because it has lost some of its negative feeling; start using fascism!
It's a scary country we are living in.

Ulrich said...

@marlene: I found the preview of an English Book on Böll's "Aesthetic Thinking", which contains a page on his treatment of Sachzwang as a term or concept. I found two things pertinent to our discussion (assuming that you found the same source):

Böll's use of the term agrees with what I think it means. The commentator, Frank Finlay, gives its meaning in English as follows: "pressures inherent in a given situation, which compel one to act" and suggests "circumstantial necessity" as an English equivalent. And again, I find none of these versions have the terseness or "snap" of the German term.

On a substantive level, Böll doesn't seem to deny the existence of Sachzwänge; rather, he seems to be afraid of a time in which they have taken over, pressing us into a system "from whose entanglements we can no longer escape".

This is unexpected--I could envisage a critique from the left insisting that there is no such thing as a Sachzwang--every perception of a given situation depends on interpretation. I would argue with that (see my previous examples), but I understand it. I don't get Böll's "fatalistic" outlook--if I look, for example, at the debates in the US, there remains plenty of choice even if one accepts certain Sachzwänge as givens. But then again, I haven't seen Böll's original text.

In any case, I very much appreciate your interest in this topic and am really grateful for mentioning Böll in this context--if one agrees or not, his thoughts are pertinent.

Ulrich said...

@mac: As ridiculous as this switch of labels is, it illustrates where the Republicans are post Karl Rowe: They are no longer able to engage in a political argument--all they can do is stick labels on their opponents and wait to see which one may stick. It would be pathetic were it not for a portion of the population that laps this up.

I am, of course, particularly sensitive to a frivolous use of the term "fascist" or "Nazi" in order to make a point--in most cases, it trivializes the real thing (one can observe this also in Germany, where the label is sometimes thrown around all-too-easily).

Marlene said...

Hi Ulrich, I am glad the discussion of Boll interested you. I found it interesting too and it set me thinking. Given how the translator interprets what Boll says, I thought Boll was concerned about the notion that circumstances could force a particular or a specific action. when, in his world view, there are always a variety of actions possible because there are always a variety of perspectives. It seems to me, though, that your illustration of social security would suggest a sachzwang that must bring forth a specific action, even if the action itself can be managed or implemented in a number of different ways.

Thus, I see Boll as interested in something more subtle and nuanced than the abuse of language. important as that topic is. Because some of the essays were listed under the title "morality of language," I had the feeling that Boll was analyzing specific words to suggest that an underlying world view in implicit in them was moral or immoral. And based on my very rusty German, I thought he was suggesting that the notion of a sachzwang existing undermined freedom of choice and was therefore bad from the get go.

In the discussion of the term, Boll's analysis reminded me somehow of the Austrian (I'm not really sure of his origin) writer Seebald, whose discussion of how violence should or can be portrayed in literature, I found fascinating. Do you know it? Both seem concerned with the morality of verbal representation. Is either author read much in Germany.

Their focus on the morality of language reminds me of a previous thread where you talked about the difference between American and German speeches, pointing out rightly, I thought, that the Americans are better at the snappy, memorable sound bite. I wonder if that's related to a difference in how one views language i.e. as mode of communication or the subject of philosophical analysis. I'd argue that Americans are more comfortable with the former than the latter and that makes it easier to come up with catchy slogans.

And lastly does one say that a situation is a "sachzang" or is in "sachzwang"? How would you use it in an English sentence? Again, a rich and wonderful choice of words on your part. I think you need to write a dictionary. We would all learn a lot.

Ulrich said...

@marlene: One would say that the need or pressure created by a situation is a Sachzwang, not the situation itself. To take Social Security as an example: The fact that in its current form, it is unsustainable (which is an observation) creates the Sachzwang to do something about it, more specifically, to move away from the generational contract to a contract for individuals.

Back to Böll: His sensitivity to nuances in the meaning of words and to ideological dispositions revealed by the choice of words is admirable. In some instances, he is a bit off, to me--like when he criticizes the term "economic miracle" (Wirtschaftswunder) on the grounds that only Jesus can perform miracles. To me, that ignores the metaphorical use of words without which language, especially poetry, would be very dry indeed. If I would criticize the "miracle" part of the phrase, it would be b/c it seems to imply that the post-war recovery was due to some external forces, rather than the hard work of the post-war generation (helped by US dollars). But then again, metaphorically speaking, it may only point out that the rapidity of the recovery was unexpected, i.e. "miraculous" in that sense.

As to Sachzwang, he also overshhoots a little, in my opinion.

ArtLvr said...

Talk about moving away from a social contract, the situation in the NY State Senate is chaos now. At least Gov. Paterson has just announced that he will not sign their paychecks as long as they refuse to do their jobs. I wanted that to happen ages ago!


ArtLvr said...

Wow! Gov. Palin betraying her oath of office -- Wish I could remember who said it: Sarah Palin IS the Bridge to Nowhere....


Ulrich said...

@artlvr: Among all the things this brings up, I find this most revealing: She pretends to be tough, but starts whining the minute someone attacks her (but then again, she shares that trait with other right-wing bullies, like Bill O'Reilly). Well, more revealing about her coterie is the right-wing commentator who called her incoherent ramblings "a profile in courage".

Ulrich said...

Please continue the Palin topic on the next 100 days thread!