Is ‘insight’ meaningless yet?

It’s only ever a matter of time until good words go bad.

Their original precision of meaning gives way, through use, to banality and emptiness.

Great words have form at the start, then they become floppy.

A recent Garticle made this very point about ’empowerment’.

No sooner am I in the door of adland than I’m reading and hearing about the fate of ‘insight’. We’d heard a lot about ‘insight’ during the course. We talked a lot about ‘insight’, too.

‘What’s the insight?’ we asked ourselves as we muddled through misapprehension. Over time, words become bludgeons.

The Taoists knew this thousands of years ago, well before the likes of Derrida:

“The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.”

In the opening words of Taoism’s most important text, Lao Tzu put a health warning on them – the written words can often take us away from the Real thing.

Soon, I’ll be expected to discover insights into people and markets and products.

So here’s an idea: I exchange ‘insight’ for ‘the Thing’.

‘So what’s the Thing, here?’ ‘What’s the Thing we need to know about this audience?’

Or, ‘The Thing I discovered about people who use Tinder in the dole queue is …’.

Why? It’s the most banal, vague yet useful word I could think of.

But, actually, for another reason I’ve been toying with for a good while.

‘The Thing’ is an idea edified by Jacques Lacan and carried on by acolytes like Slavoj Zizek (most popularly) and Alain Badiou (more betterly). There are various interpretations, but the one I mean is something like the ultimately unknowable object (an abstract object, idea, or state) that is the trigger of an individual’s deep drives.

As Wikipedia puts it:

Lacan’s concept of “objet petit a” is the object of desire, although this object is not that towards which desire tends, but rather the cause of desire. Desire is not a relation to an object but a relation to a lack (manque).

In other words, The Thing (which became ‘objet petit a‘ in Lacan’s later writings) is the driver of people’s desire for an aspect of their life that they current’t don’t have and which is always unattainable – something they lack. This phantasmic unattainability – the ‘lack’ at the heart of all desire, because true expectations always disappoint – is the engine of new desires. Ad infinitum.

Crispin Porter’s approach to creative planning is to find the ‘social tension’ lurking within or without a client brief and then to use that animus to drive an idea that gets people talking about it, influences culture, and does the business.

A social tension, rather than an idle observation or a correlation based on data or anecdote, is actionable because tension itself feels to us, at a deep level, like something unresolved. And if there’s one thing about (most) people, it’s that we desperately need things resolved to feel good about ourselves (until next time).

But ‘social tension’ can sound lofty, and ‘insight’ has, apparently, become meaningless.

‘The Thing’ wades in the same waters as the ‘social tension’, but the word itself sounds so superficial, unremarkable, underestimated.

So maybe I’ll start using a most unremarkable word – ‘thing’ – instead of ‘insight’ and see how I get on.