WP 1: Jargon

Iambic Phalloi in Pinque, or, The Jargon of Idiots versus the Idiom of Ruritania

Martin Wallen

In his novel, Angels and Demons, Dan Brown has his main character, Robert Langdon, work through a key step in unravelling the great riddle by recalling his English class at Phillips Exeter Academy where he was taught that iambic pentameter consists of “Five couplets of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables.”1 Of course, as anyone who had actually listened in his or her English class would know, iambic pentameter has traditionally been understood to consist of lines of verse made up of five iambs, or ten syllables of alternating stressed and unstressed rhythm; a couplet would consist of two entire lines of verse in any meter and of virtually any length.  That Brown’s character, supposedly a Harvard professor and foremost expert on an obscure field identified as “symbolology,” should flub such a basic term in prosody indicates that Brown himself, wherever he was educated, has no control over the terms that supposedly signify his character’s intelligence and learning.  Another way of saying the same thing is that the novel consists of page after page of sheer idiocy.

But before we get too excited about Brown’s ignorance, we would do well to recall on our part two details, one from another branch of literary history, and the other from linguistic history.  First, in Watt, Beckett identifies Sam Lynch’s daughter Kate as “a fine girl but a bleeder,” an apparent solecism even more grotesque than Brown’s, except that in a footnote Beckett explains, “Haemophilia is, like enlargement of the prostate, an exclusively male disorder.  But not in this work.”2

With that note Beckett demonstrates that linguistic power of the novelist who defines what counts as reality, and linguistic accuracy, within the boundaries of the narrative.  Beckett demonstrates that a term with specific meaning in the non-fictional universe may acquire a different meaning within the world of a novel.  Such a different, even if twisted and apparently solecist, meaning would then attain the status of—and here I refer to the second detail—idiom, a term which, after all, shares the same etymological root as idiocy (Greek, idios, “one’s own”).

If an idiot is someone, like Brown, who takes his own (twisted and ill-informed) comprehension as the general sense, then idiom is the use of terms within a somewhat narrow context in a way that does not necessarily coincide with general sense.  Beckett’s use of “haemophilia” to identify Kate Lynch becomes idiomatic when the footnote explains that such a possibility exists within the context of that narrative.  To speak of a female as “haemophiliac” makes no sense outside the novel, but provides a meaningful identification among the characters, narrator, and reader of the Beckett novel.  A reference to a female haemophiliac would put one in risk of being termed an idiot, unless one could make the reference in the context of Beckett’s novel, idiomatically.

Similarly a phallus would generally be understood simply as a male organ, except in Lacanian theory, where it acquires a specific meaning that enables females to possess it.  As the power to shape the symbolic field, the Lacanian phallus reinstates the metaphorical quality of Freud’s mapping of family dynamics, in part by underscoring the gross paternalism governing Freud’s analyses.  Phallocentrism and phallogocentrism become valuable terms enabling theorists to uncover and disarm the patriarchal structure of the nineteenth-century discourses – psychoanalytic and otherwise – that continue to dominate Western thinking.

A slightly different example occurs in the context of fox hunting.  The Duke of Beaufort instructs enthusiasts of the hunt that proper attire would always include a red (“please,” he says, “not pink”) coat.3 His parenthetical reference is to those idiots who believe that the scarlet hunt coat is properly referred to as “pink.”  Scarlet, to anyone who can see, and to any real hunter, is anything but pink.  Except in this country.  For in American hunt fields the idiomatic term for the proper coat is not just “pink,” but “pinque,” the strange spelling indicating the specific coat tailored and worn for the specific context of the hunt field.  In the English field one would be labelled an idiot for referring to a pinque coat, and in the American field one would be an idiot for referring to a red coat.

What matters in both the hunt field and Lacanian theory is that a speaker desiring acceptance as anything but an idiot must show proficiency in the idiom.  It is such proficiency, I would say, that constitutes jargon, rather than the specific terms, such as “phallus” or “pinque,” (or for that matter “iambic pentameter”) themselves.  For the word “jargon” has an onomatopoeic origin very like the Greek “Barbarian,” referring to the sound heard by those not proficient in the idiom when those acceptably using the idiom speak to one another.  Jargon lies in the ear of the listener, then, one who has ventured into a specialized discourse and feels assaulted with unfamiliar terms.  And as an accusation, that a discourse is plagued with jargon, say, the charge—in its most generous form—is that those using the jargon are unfairly excluding anyone without specialized knowledge; in its most condemnatory form, the charge is that the discourse itself is meaningless, and that those using jargon are speaking in a meaningless language, like the Barbarian who, to Greek ears, can only say “Bar, Bar,” the users of jargon (perhaps of the race of Jargonauts) can only say what sounds like “Jarg, Jarg.”

Jacques Derrida, from whom many theorists and philosophers have derived a jargon that has proved offensive to a great number of people—especially those who fear that he has spearheaded a movement to destroy that same great humanist tradition that Dan Brown’s protagonist “learned” about at Phillips Exeter Academy—identifies the idiomatic quality of a language as a resource that is untranslatable.4 And the same holds for jargon, since, by the definition that I am attempting, it would constitute a highly idiomatic idiom consisting not only of specialized terms, like “phallus,” but also the manner of functioning within the discourse that comes with the ability both to think within the specialized terms and to speculate on how the terms themselves—the jargon—shape the discourse.

If jargon is a discourse, and a manner of functioning within the discourse can be discerned, at least by those also proficient in the jargon, then it is subject to rules of the same sort that govern any language or idiom.  These rules themselves are the manner that enable users of a jargon to engage in inquiries and speculations not wholly translatable into other idioms (this is as true in Lacanian theory as in foxhunting).  The manner, the idiomatic usage that wrests terms from their literal or common sense allows for a fluidity of reference that opens concepts not only to new questions but to new types of questions.  Certainly the rules demarcate correct and incorrect usage within the specialized discipline or field, just as the American hunt field wears the pinque coats that would only be gauche in the English hunt field, and just as a woman may have haemophilia within Beckett’s novel but not outside that narrative.  But the most prominent rule of all is that jargon always remains overtly metaphorical, resisting the ossification that turns a creative discourse into what Nietzsche describes as the columbarium of dogmatic language.5 Jargon—so long as it remains jargon and not the discourse of dogmatism—foregrounds its metaphorical basis which dogmatic language necessarily conceals, for as a discourse of specialized usage jargon must distinguish itself and its users from other discourses.  And of course like Ruritania, the land of Jargonia does not exist, jargon can never claim to be indigenous language that identifies and unites its speakers into a collective ethos or nation; those who use jargon are always necessarily aware that it is a jargon, specialized but not specific, subject to rules but ones that change and are far from absolute.  The terms of a jargon designate attempted formulations of concepts that are still tenuous and speculative, that have not yet begun to employ what is so vital to dogmatic concept-formation, the “qualitas occulta,” or the concealment of “what is individual” in order to classify particulars into a group: “nature,” Nietzsche says in this same context, “is acquainted with no forms and no concepts, and likewise with no species, but only with an X which remains inaccessible and undefinable for us” (my italics).6 In its overt metaphoricity, jargon confronts what dogmatic discourse suppresses and resists defining; and critical theory employs jargon in its confrontations in an attempt to resist falling into dogmatic referentiality.  Theoretical speculation occurs within a discourse that is never indigenous, or, rather, that is indigenous, like Kate Lynch’s haemophilia, to a made-up region, and which therefore cannot be translated freely into another discourse.

And yet, if a jargon does adhere to rules, even just the one that its users foreground its metaphoricity, then it constitutes a genre of discourse, since it demarcates itself from other discourses, other jargons, and requires, however tacitly, that its users recognize that “it is supposed to be what it is destined to be by virtue of its telos.”7 Those of us who exchange ideas, who formulate questions that can be extended into debates, through the almost unavoidable use of a jargon recognize its telos through an understanding of just how the particular terms function—of their manner and propriety.  A gross error like Dan Brown’s, or a comic reversal like Beckett’s demonstrates just how imperative the law can be in restricting propriety of an idiom and especially of a specialized idiom like jargon.

And this is where the danger arises with jargon, and this is what convinces those outside the jargon that it is gibberish (a word also of echoic origin, and, not surprisingly, often listed as a synonym of jargon).  The telos of a jargon restricts its usage to a particular discursive field in which only certain statements can be formulated, only certain questions asked, and in which the direction of the debates is restricted as determined by proper understanding of the terms.  Within the field of a particular jargon, the terms acquire a referentiality that determines correct or incorrect usage—whether a statement is idiomatic or idiotic.  Idiomatic usage requires a certain degree of mastery over the terms of a jargon, then, a mastery that may easily reduce the telos to technē, and in so doing transform the fluid and metaphorical concepts of a discursive speculation into a restrictive field of demonstrative performance.  Jargon then acquires the status of a technical terminology enabling a masterful subject to refer to and categorize a set of concepts which have been reified into objects.  The untranslatable idiomatic manner of a jargon that had foregrounded its metaphoricity now becomes the demonstrable mastery over a determinate set of known concepts that constitute a discipline, such as botany or analytic philosophy.

In analyzing the way different disciplines create and sustain themselves, Heidegger—who built an extensive jargon for ontological inquiry through continually exposing the forgotten etymologies of ordinary words—identifies a few key stages of delineation:

The totality of beings can, with respect to its various domains become the field where definite areas of knowledge are exposed and delimited.  These areas of knowledge—for example, history, nature, space, life, human being, language, and so on—can in their turn become thematic objects of scientific investigations.  Scientific research demarcates and first establishes these areas of knowledge in rough and ready fashion.  The elaboration of the area in its fundamental structures is in a way already accomplished by prescientific experience and interpretation of the domain of Being to which the area of knowledge is itself confined.  The resulting “fundamental concepts” comprise the guidelines for the first concrete disclosure of this area.  Whether or not the importance of the research always lies in such establishment of concepts, its true progress comes about not so much in collecting results and storing them in “handbooks” as in being forced to ask questions about the basic constitution of each area. . . .  The real “movement” of the science takes place in the revision of these concepts, a revision which is more or less radical and lucid in regard to itself.  A science’s level of development is determined by the extent to which it is capable of a crisis in its basic concepts.8

In Heidegger’s account, disciplines create themselves by exposing certain kinds of possible knowledge about beings.  This exposure comes about through the raising of questions concerning those beings and about the knowledge held of those beings.  As a discipline shapes itself through its questioning, it acquires an idiom, which Heidegger elsewhere refers to as “the mother of the tongue.”9 The discipline is made possible by the idiom that allows the questions to be asked that continually put the foundation of the discipline itself in crisis.  This generative idiom is the jargon that foregrounds its metaphoricity.  The discipline that collects information and stores them in “handbooks” has ceased to question its fundamental concepts and instead gives itself over to mastering the technical terms that affirm those concepts as objects to be regulated.  Such a discipline has forgotten the radical—root—constructions of its terms, imagining them to be commonplace to a clear-eyed accounting of the world and accurate in their reference.

In one of his many warnings on the dangers of technē, Heidegger writes that “by building the world up technologically as an object, man deliberately and completely blocks his path.”10 An idiom that no longer puts its fundamental concepts into question has given over its role as mother of the tongue to take on the regulative function of policing statements for their truth measured as accuracy.  Technical jargon certainly retains the power of asking questions, but only questions that have already been preformulated by the policing action of restricting mastery to correct usage of technical terms.  And in this way the questions allowed by technology already contain their answers.  As Nietzsche says in this regard, “If I make up the definition of a mammal, and then, after inspecting a camel, declare, ‘look, a mammal,’ I have indeed brought a truth to light in this way, but it is a truth of limited value.  That is to say, it is a thoroughly anthropomorphic truth which contains not a single point which would be ‘true in itself’ or really and universally valid apart from man.”11 I would narrow Nietzsche’s restriction of the truth value of such technical terms by saying that their truth does not extend beyond the technological system in which they function; but their danger is that they seem to pertain well beyond that system.

A solecism like Dan Brown’s exposes something about the technē governing a culture or discourse that has not only stopped questioning its foundations but actively opposes any questioning, even at the cost of no longer understanding its own cultural beliefs.  Brown’s novels purport to expose secret networks of knowledge and power, and if they actually did something like that, they could be truly dangerous works that might even generate a crisis in the culture that blindly clings to a religious system that has long ceased to be critically examined.  Such exposures might be found in the horrors of Aeschylean tragedy, the philological ravings of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and the relentless examinations of everyday cultural structures in Derrida’s deconstruction.  But Brown’s narrative only consists of a collection of technical terms—that the author himself does not understand—blocking any questioning of either church doctrine or the various cults that dominate much of Americans’ views of what they believe they believe.  The huge success of these novels shows how easily technological discourse can supplant the dangerous questions of critical thinking and, instead of creating a crisis in the constitution of a discipline, impoverishes the culture of its ability to question at all.

A less sensational example of a jargon that developed overtly from metaphors but that has successfully covered over the metaphorical quality is the Linnaean taxonomy, first developed in the eighteenth century and still necessary to any acceptable study in biology.  Carl Linnaeus based his system of classifying plants on the basis of their reproductive organs—the number of stamens and pistils contained in the flowers.  As objective as this principle appears, Patricia Fara explains that

the prejudices of Enlightenment Christian moralists are built right into the heart of this scientific plan for plants, which Linnaeus outlined by using romantic words such as “bride” and “marriage”. . . . Linnaeus gave priority to male characteristics; in other words, he imposed the sexual discrimination that prevailed in the human world onto the plant kingdom.  His first level of ordering depends on the number of male stamens, but only the sub-groups are determined by the number of female pistils. . . . Linnaeus had mapped human society onto the botanical world, but from then on men of science could argue in reverse.  Since sexual hierarchies prevail in nature, male supremacy must also—so the distorted logic runs—be appropriate for people; this argument conveniently forgets how this sexual ordering was inferred from society in the first place.12

As scientists continue to rely on the Linnaean taxonomy, they not only reinforce a cultural sexism of male primacy that can claim to derive from nature, but they also police (however inadvertently, through overlooking the literal meanings of the Greek and Latin words that have been transformed into labels of genera and species) the concept of Nature as a system of relations that reflect Western social relations—class, gender, race, family, and so on.  The first step in gaining entry into the biological disciplines is learning to recognize to recognize organisms through their placement in the Linnaean taxonomy, a discursive paideutics no different from that of learning to distinguish the pinque coat from the red.

Jargon, then, can provide the vital idiom, “mother of the tongue,” that makes theoretical questioning possible by framing the untranslatable concepts that can regenerate through transformation the unexamined assumptions of a culture; such concepts, framed in a jargon that foregrounds its metaphoricity, contain their own inevitable transformation and even refutation as their telos in the idiom involves their continual re-examination.  More than other modes of discourse, however, jargon carries the danger of closing off questioning by moving from its fluid metaphorical quality toward the rigidity of technē; and for jargon this danger is especially real because of the great ease of such a move guided by the process of education requiring mastery of terms before admission into the discursive discipline.


Martin Wallen is Professor of English at Oklahoma State University.  His recent books include Fox in the Animal series for Reaktion Books, and City of Health, Fields of Disease: Revolutions in the Poetry, Medicine, and Philosophy of Romanticism for Ashgate. He has published articles on Romantic painting, F.W.J. Schelling, Thomas de Quincey, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  He is completing a project on dogs in the art and literature of eighteenth-century England.