Explaining Academia: Jargon

Nate Winchester asks

Will the next part in the series be an explanation for when/how the professors go from doing the job, to actually believing in their own BS?

To which I replied that a full answer is beyond my ken, as I’m not a developmental psychologist.  I was only half kidding — the dictum that “liberalism is the lifelong effort to make high school turn out right” nears Platonic perfection in the ivory tower.  But I can offer at least a partial explanation, and it has to do with jargon.

Or, if you prefer, esotericism.  I’m using “jargon” here in the pejorative sense, like when you go to the emergency room and some know-it-all young resident rattles off a bunch of portentous Latin at you.  “You’ve sustained a transverse fracture of the fourth metacarpal with dorsal angulation” instead of “you broke your hand.”  But it doesn’t have to be pejorative.  “You broke your hand” works for most people, but the injury described is also known as a “boxer’s break,” and if you actually are a martial artist, you need to know that, since you’ll need to lay off certain specific activities longer.  And if you’re a professional martial artist, and you’re going under the knife, the surgeon will definitely need to know both the type (transverse) and location (4th metacarpal) of the fracture.  Jargon, then, can be not only useful, but necessary.

indexEsotericism, on the other hand, is jargon that’s designed to baffle the uninitiated.  It’s not bad in itself, necessarily — as any number of horror stories have shown, you don’t want the demon-summoning instructions just sitting out on the coffee table — but in most cases its true function is to preserve the priesthood in power.  Think Scientology.  Who would ever join if they hit you with the Galactic Overlord Xenu stuff straight out of the gate?  You need to master a formidably dense array of technical terms (and, not coincidentally, pay a whole shitload of money) before you get to the sci-fi.

This, when you come down to it, is jargon’s primary purpose within the ivory tower.  To be able to critique, say, radical feminism — and I really can’t recommend McCain’s series enough — you need to understand what they’re saying.  And that can be a full-time job.  For instance, McCain quotes this juicy bit of lunacy

“Far from being ‘natural,’ phallic sexuality is a moral and political activity. . . . Men’s sexual behaviour is not caused by hormonal dictates. It is because the penis serves the ideological function of symbolizing ‘human’ status that it is so heavily charged with erotic energy, and not because it is driven by testosterone. Men must keep using it because they need to keep proving that they exist, that their ‘humanity’ is inextricably entwined with penis-possession; women must be constantly used by it to prove that men exist, that the sum total of a man is his penis. . . . Anything and everything must be subordinated to penile activity if men are to be what phallic ideology requires them to be.”

Believe it or not, this would qualify as straightforward prose in the ivory tower.  Very little of it is coded.  In the vulgate, this passage says that men stick their dicks in women because the only way men know they exist is through the act of dick-sticking.  If you’re not actually pumping and thrusting at the present moment, fellas, you aren’t really real.

If you’re not actually doing that, guys, please go find a vagina — stat! — so that we can continue.  Ladies, please be patient…. Everybody back?  Ok.

Let’s observe a few things about this passage, starting with the bolded terms.  Decoding the jargon, we get this:

Phallic sexuality implies that there are other kinds of sexuality — vaginal sexuality, for instance, and I suppose oral and anal sexuality, too (sorry for being crude, y’all, but it’s really unavoidable when you’re talking about this stuff…which is also one of the functions of jargon).  Which I suppose is true enough, if you take it in a “natural” sense — men and women have evolved quite different mating styles, as a brief scan through a thoughtful “game” blog will show you….

But Thompson, our author, specifically denies that she’s talking about biology.  That’s why “natural” is in quotation marks up there.  Instead, she claims that “phallic sexuality” — for which we’ll read “masculinity” — is moral and political.  Those terms are so overused in academia as to be nearly meaningless, but they still have an important implication: That all of this — by which, again, I mean masculinity — is conscious and voluntary.  (Nobody is unconsciously political, or moral on autopilot).  In other words, I don’t see this

aliceevestartrekintodarand automatically feel a rush of hormones.  I have to decide that I find this woman attractive, and the thought “gosh, I sure would like to have sex with her!” isn’t mental shorthand for all the chemical stuff going on in my gonads.  That’s nature, my friends, and according to our author, it doesn’t exist.  Understood as a moral and political act, my thought — “gosh, I sure would like to have sex with her!” — is incomplete, and therefore meaningless.  It needs to be followed with “because that would prove, to me (and, coincidentally, to her) that I exist.”

No, I’m not kidding.  Go back and read it again.

What we’re talking about, then, is ideology, which in academese means “moralized politics.”  This is one reason why communication across the political divide can be so tough.  For conservatives, “ideology” means “set of first principles.”  So, we can say things like “free markets are a part of our ideology” and mean nothing more than “we are convinced that free markets produce better results than the alternatives.”  But leftists use the academic definition.  For them, “ideology” is always mixed up with morality, so when they hear “I believe in free markets,” they also hear “because I hate the poor / favor increased inequality / fuck minorities.”

And then there’s this:

 It is because the penis serves the ideological function of symbolizing ‘human’ status that it is so heavily charged with erotic energy, and not because it is driven by testosterone.

Let’s contemplate that for a sec.  Pretend this is a freshman dorm, and it’s two in the morning, and we’ve all had a few bong rips.  What does signal “human status,” anyway?  Like, with animal rights and stuff.  Surely a healthy chimpanzee has a higher quality of life than a comatose human with irreparable brain damage?  Anything you can say about the chimp to deny it its rights — it doesn’t have moral sensibilities, it doesn’t have political responsibilities — can also be said of Brain-Dead Brad, no?

I’m not trying to be cute or facile, y’all.  I really want you to think about it.  What makes you human?  And then contemplate Thompson’s answer: Having a dick.  According to her, one is only human — one is only a conscious, political agent — if one has a penis.

Again, I’m not kidding.  Read the passage again.  Tell me how that doesn’t follow from what she wrote.

But wait.  Notice the underlined term it.  What does that mean?  This pronoun is used five times in this short passage, and every time it means — or, at least, could mean — something different.  Or it could mean nothing.  The word first appears in the sentence I just quoted, where it refers to… what, exactly?  The ellipses don’t help (the sentence McCain left out reads: “Men do have a choice and they can be held to account when they exercise their freedom to choose at women’s expense”).  So no help there, because the very next sentence is all about the penis being charged with erotic energy.  And then “it” appears again in the next sentence, not being driven by testosterone.  I think she’s referring to the dick there, but I’m not willing to put money on it.

And that’s the one of the purposes of the words “charged” and “erotic energy.”  If you don’t know what those mean — and there’s no way to tell from the quoted passage — then it’s very hard to follow the pronoun shifts.  Are we still talking about the “human status” that is supposedly signaled by the penis?  Is it the penis which is somehow charged with this mysterious erotic energy (but not plain ol’ testosterone, which you can see in a test tube)?  Or are we still in the realm of “ideology”?

From thence, this:

Men must keep using it because they need to keep proving that they exist, that their ‘humanity’ is inextricably entwined with penis-possession; women must be constantly used by it to prove that men exist, that the sum total of a man is his penis

On the surface, the first part of the sentence is a straightforward — though crazy — ontological and epistemological claim.  Men only know (epistemology) that they exist (ontology) through the act of dick-usage.  But, again, what is the “it” which is being used?  The penis?  Phallic sexuality?  Ideology?  Human status?  Or the mere symbol of human status, which is coextensive with, but not identical to, a penis?

The part after the semicolon only adds to the confusion.  Again, what is the “it” that is constantly using women?  And no matter what value we assign to “it,” Thompson seems to be claiming that men actually cease to exist — that they actually blink in and out of existence like quarks — if they’re not fucking.

Right?  I mean…. right?

And here’s where you see the usefulness of jargon, in all its glory.  Because you could, of course, read Thompson’s statement as an at least somewhat reasonable — though stridently and clumsily expressed — comment on our society.  Are men who can’t get laid subject to all kinds of social ostracism?  You know, omega males and all that?  And at least some part of attractiveness is culture-bound, right?  I mean, I find this chick smokin’ hot

belly-dancers-23abut Rubens would no doubt find her scrawny and malnourished.  It’s not all hormones, in other words.  And yes, I do have a choice not to leer at her, just like I could choose not to re-post this

sQzKNnbecause, really, it’s just prurience, and I am objectifying her (and I am enjoying it, not least because she complains so much about being objectified).

Jargon, in other words, gives you plausible deniability.  If someone with the power to shut down Ms. Thompson’s program were to ask her “do you really believe — and teach your students — that men pop in and out of existence like quarks, depending on if they’re in the process of fucking?”, she could straight-facedly deny it.  “Of course not!  I’m just highlighting the social construction of gender.”  Followed by some UVa / Duke Lacrosse-style “fake but accurate” bullshit.

If, on the other hand, Ms. Thompson needed to play the more-radical-than-thou game — like, say, for publication or tenure purposes — then yes, men do pop in and out of existence like quarks, because the Ideology of Phallic Sexuality requires it.  “It” is a moral and political act, after all — what’s so hard to understand about that?

Ok, I'm just being a jerk now

Ok, I’m just being a jerk now

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is at least part of the reason why eggheads start to believe their own bullshit.  As I hope I’ve shown in that sentence-by-sentence analysis — and I’m sorry for putting y’all through that — it’s almost impossible to argue with this stuff.  If you don’t speak the code, it seems outlandish… but that’s probably because you don’t speak the code, right?  I mean, after all, this woman has a PhD; there’s gotta be something to it.  Maybe if you knew what “erotic energy” and “ideology” meant.  On the other hand, even if you do speak the code — and, alas, I do — you still can’t decipher it, because constantly-shifting pronouns and very careful use of the passive voice mean you’re never on firm ground.  Where the hell did this “phallic ideology” even come from in the first place?  Beats my pair of jacks…. maybe it’s somewhere else in the book, but who has time to go fishing for it?  Meanwhile, the paper’s due in two days — you better get something down, and it better be what the prof wants to hear!

3 thoughts on “Explaining Academia: Jargon

  1. Yes, yes it does.

    I think the whole “Explaining Academia” series should come with a disclaimer — because it’s about the obscure, inside-baseball stuff, doesn’t mean that the clear, obvious stuff doesn’t apply. You can explain at least 75% of academia with just 2 propositions:

    1) Ivory tower types are all-in on being Smarter Than You; and
    2) Therefore, evidence and common sense are stupid

  2. Pingback: Friday Quick Take: Welcome to the Desert of the Real | Rotten Chestnuts

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