1. souse, n.5: 3. A drunkard. slang (chiefly U.S.). (OED)
  2. white souse, n.1: A blog for literature, politics, science, and the occasional cocktail.

Friday, June 1, 2007

This day in jargon

One of the best pieces of advice I received from a professor was to single out popular keywords or phrases which had become ubiquitous and avoid them like the plague. Her example was 'paradox,' which achieved such wide academic currency in the late 1970's that it threatened to devalue the specie of literary criticism. As she put it: "everything was 'paradox.' But if everything was paradox, so what?"

From time to time, I've decided to share a few of my pet pariahs of phraseology. A wealth of such phrases abounds in business; recently a friend of mine from an energy company told me that everyone was talking about 'drilling the onion' -- whatever the hell that means. But I'm an academic, not a businessman, so I'm going to focus on the terms of my trade.

Today's word is 'overdetermined.' It's a term originally drawn from mathematics -- and it is invoked when you have more information than is sufficient to solve an equation. The extra information allows you to solve the equation in more than one way, each reaching the exact same answer. Hence, "overdetermined."

As far as I can tell, this word moved definitively into deeper academic waters through Freud, who used to argue that the dreams of the unconscious were like a code, and like any code, could be "solved." Freud speculated, moreover, that you could often take several different paths to decoding a dream, but that they would all reach the same core meaning -- hence, dreams were "overdetermined" much like some equations. Whether or not you believe that dreams are in code, I think you'll agree that at the least, dreams and dream interpretation are quite a bit fuzzier than algebra. Which is why this algebra metaphor seems stretched -- real interpretive problems don't have multiple crisp avenues to a fixed and certain solution.

But from the writings of Freud, this use of "overdetermined" metastasized, spreading to deconstructive critics like Lacan, and thence, into academic jargon generally. The term has come so far that it can now be found in some (high-fallutin') journalism. As an example, Josh Marshall at TalkingPointsMemo used the term yesterday with regard to the question of why we're in Iraq. He begins by quoting reader "BH":

At present, your logic seems to be: There are only two possible purposes of maintain a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq: nefarious (i.e., securing the world's oil supply), and virtuous (i.e., ensuring democracy for Iraq). Bush is nefarious. Therefore, the purpose of Bush's desire to maintain a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq is to secure the world's oil supply.

[Marshall responds] I don't find any of this persuasive. In fact, I find the whole bit of reasoning needlessly over-determined. I myself wrote a long article just before the war started, explaining how the grand neo-con plan was to institute an outward unfolding cycle of democratizing and chaos in the region that would ultimately topple almost all the governments in the region.

Here, Marshall seems to be using "over-determined" to mean tied down too concretely into specific arguments. He is taking exception to how his reader has distilled these arguments into two exclusive propositions (the purpose of maintaining troop presence is either virtuous or nefarious, bush is nefarious, therefore purpose is nefarious). Of course, this exclusive propositional logic in fact takes Marshal's arguments and makes them more mathematical in their precision. In other words, BH's interpretation is what makes it possible to talk describe Marshall's arguments as 'determined' at all. Outside of such concrete and exclusive formulation, the language of determination just doesn't apply. Marshall's use of 'overdetermined' as something like 'too logically specific' therefore runs counter to the term's meaning; which means to have multiple, logical paths to solution. It seems that the "over" is being taken as a pejorative modifier of the quality of determination, rather than, as in its original use, a multiplier of the quantity of determinations.

To my griping, one might respond that this is just how language changes. But I think the problem here is that, as with most jargon, what Marshall really means to say is something simpler -- perhaps "too logicky" or "too concrete" or "too absolute" -- and instead he's using "over-determined" because it has a nice hefty mathematical sound to it. The problem is that outside of formal languages (like logic and mathematics), 'overdetermined' simply does not apply, and it asserts a plainly false sense of the specificity of meaning. For me, this situation boils down to my (sometimes-followed) mantra for dissertation writing: if it can be said more simply and more precisely, for Jeebus sake, do it.
Note: "Overdetermined" is now most popular in psychology, and can mean a whole host of things, from having more than one psychological cause, to giving expression to more than one need or desire (OED). This is clearly still not what Marshall meant, but does go to show how terms, when abstracted from their intended use, tend to get sticky and unclear.


Scott said...

I'm torn. Though jargon can really bother me (like the current trend in technical papers of using "utilize" to mean "use"), I think it often fills a linguistic need. I suppose in the big fight between prescriptivists and descriptivists, I fall slightly closer to the descriptivist camp.

Scott said...

Also, if you want really sticky and unclear, autoantonyms will blow your stack.

Matt said...

Hey, Devo, it's Matt Wright. Seth sent me the link to your blog last week. Just stoppin' in to say hear, hear. It's the cross-over into the common language that you identify that makes jargon worthless, because by then it's lost the specific meaning that made it useful. As for drilling the onion, that's just dumb. Adios, man. Take it easy.

A said...

I enjoy your argot.