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Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida

Jargon is important. But it must be used judiciously. The term “allopatric speciation” may seem daunting, but it’s basically a pointer to a clear, distinct, and coherent idea. Too often scientists, and scholars more generally, get lazy in using jargon when they needn’t. But the original intent and roots of jargon and technical terminology is to condense complex and subtle ideas into one term which can serve as shorthand for specialists.

But there is another use of jargon, and that is to impress, intimidate, and signal that you are one of the initiates. Ideally jargon should facilitate faster and more transparent communication among specialists in a given topic. But in some cases jargon becomes a tool for intra-group argument, posturing, and maneuvering. It’s a stylistic flourish which connotes, rather than a substantive pointer which denotes. For example, I’ve been a bystander to arguments among conservative Christians who debate whether a particular political position is “glorifying Christ.” I have no clear idea what “glorifying Christ” means, but all the principals to the argument agree that it is a good thing, so it seems to me that this sort of utilization of the term in is mostly tactical and stylistic.

Recently I’ve been noticing a similar phenomenon in online discussions to which I’m am observer. Many on the cultural Left have started to engage in a seepage of jargon from critical theory into political arguments. The problem here is that politics is a public discussion, not discourse among specialists, so falling back on jargon narrows the horizons of engagement. To me the proliferation of terms such as ‘cultural appropriation’, as if everyone knows what that means (and if you don’t, your opinion is irrelevant), signals that the discussants are attempting to score points in their own social and political circles. Similarly, when Neoreactionaries using terms like the Cathedral they’re closing off the conversation to outsiders, and creating a group with initiate-like dynamics. Often American conservatives will talk about “liberty” and “freedom” in a manner which is more symbolic than literal (most people who are not conservatives also think liberty and freedom are good things). And libertarians have their own internal group language which points to divisions which are perceived to be significant within their own circles, but are totally opaque to outsiders.

The proliferation of this tendency across the political spectrum argues that our society is fracturing in a deep manner, as shared public lexicon is less important than winning internal battles within each faction. To some extent I think it also correlates with the decline in arguments over material-economic concerns, and the rise of cultural politics. Yes, there are populist noises across the political spectrum, but the status quo is rarely altered when it comes our economic politics today. For the social elites the cultural battles is what concerns them.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Politics 
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  1. How much of this segmentation is because debates across the political spectrum must speak to the mass of moderate voters to have any actual effect, and therefore arguments intended to actually persuade are pitched to people less educated and less intelligent than most intellectuals of any stripe? Politicians I generally agree with will say some awfully stupid-sounding things, but I’m not the audience for those statements – the undecided voter in Colorado or Iowa is.

    With the occasional exception of economists, most intellectual discussion is within a political tendency, because there’s common ground for discussion, and much of it is status positioning within that tendency, not the larger society.

  2. Why don’t I see the social media sharing buttons on my Samsung phone?

  3. Academics, social critics, and journalists have always invented (or popularized) neologisms. They usually aren’t meant to be precise or scientific. They’re meant to be catchy, memorable, and illustrative of some idea or series of events the writer hopes is already broadly understood.

    Hence, Mencken’s “Bible Belt” or Dwight Macdonald’s “masscult and “midcult” or Virginia Woolf’s “middlebrow” or Marshall McLuhan’s “the global village” or, more locally, Steve Sailer’s “World War G.”

    Mencius Moldbug’s “Cathedral” falls in that category. The term even has a precision lacking in most of his other writing, which you’ve correctly described (somewhere) as “oracular.” If the word rolls over and dies before breaking out of the small coterie of neoreactionaries who actually know what it means, it won’t be because the word sounds too academic or can’t be easily described to the average man on the street.

    Clarity is obviously not an important aim in Moldbug’s writing, but I don’t think his idea of the “Cathedral” is a good example of his tendency to obfuscate. “Cultural appropriation,” however, seems more in line with your general complaint about academic jargon closing off communication. The phrase is not catchy or memorable. The person using it is trying to sound smarter than his listeners.

  4. #4, yes, in some cases the concepts are clear. but using a word like ‘the cathedral’ is really confusing if you are not part of the 99.99 percent of world which is NOT self consciously neocreactionary. to make an analogy many of my liberal friends have started to use the word ally:

    this is a normal everyday word, and of course i had to go look up what they were saying, because obviously were saying something really specific.

  5. this is a normal everyday word, and of course i had to go look up what they were saying, because obviously were saying something really specific.

    Some coinages are successful and some aren’t, for various reasons.

    But are the neoreactionaries using “Cathedral” or your liberal friends using “ally” in the same way scientists use “allopatric speciation”? I don’t think so. I doubt there’s any pretense by anyone who uses those words that they’re scientific jargon.

    I wouldn’t say the same is true of “cultural appropriation.”

    Why is this important to your larger point? Because the neoreactionaries are probably hoping their terminology catches on with everyone in the public, even those who don’t agree with it. They didn’t coin the word to divide or fracture. They came up with it to sell their world view. I’m sure they’d love it if “Cathedral” was one day as popular as Mencken’s “Bible Belt.”

    I’m highly skeptical their marketing will be successful, but it seems likely it was their intent. Someone who uses “cultural appropriation,” on the other hand, probably hopes the listener doesn’t understand what they’re talking about.

  6. interesting point. i think neoreactionaries should stick with the standard terms which have been in vogue with the rise of the ‘new right’ in the 1960s and 70s if they want mainstream success. =~ s/the cathedral/the establishment/g.

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  8. I think there’s a pretty clear use to using specialized jargon in political or economic contexts. It’s often useful to be able to signal your basic premises to people your talking to, and exclude those who don’t.

    If your a libertarian (for example), there are plenty of people that passionately disagree with your outlook, and will happy seek out any opportunity to passionately argue against them. Which is fine, but there’s diminishing returns to having those conversations again and again. At some point you want to move the discussion forward with people who do accept the basic idea. So using some specialized jargon to make a discussion more easily accessible to such people, and less accessible to others, is a good strategy.

    Obviously you can (and many people do) take this sort of thing too far and use it to avoid ever questioning their premises, or encouraging an echo chamber. But its also true that it isn’t really useful to constantly be having the same arguments over and over with the people that don’t agree with your basic values. At some point, you want to move the conversation forward with people that do agree with you on at least some basic tenents. So using signalling and exclusive jargon is a useful way to do this.

  9. Pincher: “Clarity is obviously not an important aim in Moldbug’s writing, but I don’t think his idea of the “Cathedral” is a good example of his tendency to obfuscate. “Cultural appropriation,” however, seems more in line with your general complaint about academic jargon closing off ”

    Well, I was thinking the exact opposite. “Cultural appropriation” uses two words that already have a meaning, and the overall (dumb) meaning is roughly similar to what you would expect from the two words in isolation.

    For “Cathedral”, on the other hand, you have no way to guess what it means just by looking at the word.

    The worst thing is that there is already a word for “Cathedral”, namely, “The Establishment”. As far as I can tell, the only reason to forge a new word is precisely to create an in-group shibboleth.

  10. Toto,

    You’re thinking too literally. Language is about more than just denotation. Think like an adman. What’s catchy? What gets someone’s attention?

    “Cultural appropriation” and the “establishment” put listeners to sleep. The “Cathedral” is meant to wake them up. It wraps an expanded concept of the establishment up in religious symbolism.

    For “Cathedral”, on the other hand, you have no way to guess what it means just by looking at the word.

    This is true of many excellent words, and yet that still doesn’t make them nearly as difficult to understand as “cultural appropriation.”

    “Middlebrow” is a good example of this. You can’t look at that word when first introduced to it as a child and guess its meaning. Yet the word is so easy to understand that it’s now become a cliché to be avoided.

    I’m not a fan of Mencius Moldbug. But of his intellectual sins, I would say coining the “Cathedral” is not among them.

  11. Given neo-reactionary thought is anti-democratic, why would neo-reactionaries care if their ideas were communicable to the masses? To the extent they’d want to “convert” anyone, it would be people who could move forward the authoritarian vision (e.g., people with loads of money and power), not random readers on the internet. They want a restoration, not a revolution.

    Further, from what I can see of the “movement” the whole appeal is based upon the quasi-mystique of “Satanic knowledge.” Everything from referring to the movement as part of the greater “dark enlightenment” and joking about “Sith lords.” Similar to Objectivism (my least favorite variety of libertarianism), the main theme seems to be “You are a very smart person, one of the elect, who has looked beyond the masks which cover our society, and can see the true, cruel face of mankind without flinching.”

  12. Karl,

    Every political movement needs a public message and more followers. Authoritarian movements no less so than democratic movements. Look at how obsessed the Nazis and Soviets were with propaganda – and, no, I’m not comparing MM to Hitler or Stalin.

    So there’s no contradiction between creating a message you hope appeals to the general public and being anti-democratic. That the neoreactionaries don’t need everyone in the general public to join their little outfit doesn’t mean they don’t want their political message to spread.

  13. Are you sure that “Cathedral” is equivalent to “the establishment”? My impression is that “establishment” is used as a general term for “powerful people”, while “Cathedral” is more especific to the cultural/intelectual sphere (Hollywood, the media, big universities, but, for what I have read, not big business or the top levels of the army) – perhaps a better equivalent expression will be “the cultural elite”.

  14. I’m rather fond of Moldbug’s formulation of the Cathedral, though it’s certainly open to criticism. It has some overlap with the Establishment, but as Miguel Madeira said, the term Establishment puts more of a focus on the power of the individuals involved, with more of an aristocratic connotation, while the Cathedral focuses on the interrelationships of institutions and carries the connotation of a priesthood. Evoking the nature of progressivism as a religious substitute or perhaps a religion unto itself is an important part of the neoreactionary viewpoint. Perhaps that does confine the term to neoreactionary circles, but as a term representative of neoreactionary thought, Cathedral fits better than Establishment.

    For a good source document explanation of the concept, I’d recommend this post:
    It carries Moldbug’s usual weakness of excessive verbosity, but if you really want to get into what Moldbug meant by Cathedral, that is the post to read.

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