Monday, April 5, 2010

On Using Words as Shields

I recently posted on my facebook wall that I had come very close to using the word "heteronormative" in the previous night's Pride and Prejudice seminar, when my tutors (first-among-equals facilitators of discussion that take the place of professors at St. John's) began to laud marriage as a proxy for adulthood and responsibility. One of my friends rejoined that heteronormative was not quite the right word, and something like monogamy-centric might be a better one.

She has a point. Heteronormative isn't the right word to use there, not quite. It nettled me that she was mostly right, since it's been a dissatisfaction with the little writing I've done here. I feel like I've finally been set free and given a set of tools to describe what was constraining me before; on the other hand, using the words "heterocentric," and "hegemonic masculinity," as a catch-all talisman for warding off everything I dislike about modern culture is imprecise, leads to wooly thinking, and is aesthetically unpleasing.

It's all the more frustrating because there is an obvious connection between all these -isms. Transphobia, homophobia, sexism, and dislike of gender variant people obviously have some unity to them. The above may be more artfully described as marriage-centric than heterocentric, but obviously extolling marriage as the sole path to respectability negatively impacts social groups that have for the most part been denied access to that institution. What I was really trying to express is that both have an insufficient regard for the diversity of what makes for a happy life, and focus too much on conventional methods of attaining that life. "Conventional," and "normative" have worked to describe that vague feeling in certain circumstances, but they're ultimately unsatisfying. What I really want is a language I can deploy analytically to sharpen my thoughts and make myself clearer to my readers.

Unfortunately, such a language may be logically impossible. If I lack access to such language right now and must seek out the works of academia to construct a satisfying vocabulary, there's no way most of my readers will have access to such a vocabulary. In being able to articulate myself I risk becoming so dense that no layperson would ever be able to decipher me.

So, um, help?

1 comment:

  1. Words are just directions on a map, which point others towards the concepts we're trying to convey. That's why translation is possible - the same concepts are just pointed to differently by different languages.

    What it sounds like to me is that you're getting too hung up on the finger, and missing the moon. You don't need the perfect word - just one that's good enough. Give an image, a thought, a context, and let the vocabulary attend to itself.

    One of the biggest signs that you're reading a good writer is that when you come across an unfamiliar word and you don't have to look it up - you already understand its meaning. That's the standard I strive for in all my book: a collegiate vocabulary that everyone understands regardless. Check it out a