Jargon and Infinity

14 Mar

I have a conflicted relationship with jargon. In academia and the workplace, it’s easy to hate on. It raises the access threshold to many topics significantly and often ends up obscuring the ideas it’s trying to convey to anyone who hasn’t spent five years painstakingly learning the field. People learn to despise it or be intimidated by it – or conversely to deploy it wantonly for reasons more related to ego than intellectual need.

A good friend and mathematician, who has asked to be referred to as Recursion Goat, eventually showed me the value of jargon. A large swath of the population doesn’t like math, in large part because it’s incredibly poorly taught. Most people are never introduced to higher math and end up thinking it’s all about algebra and moving numbers around, which is a shame. Even if they are introduced to higher math, the jargon scares them away.

Recursion Goat is a bit of a mathematical evangelist. He makes a point of explaining big, jargon-y concepts in accessible terms to anyone who will hold still long enough. He eventually got me to revise my lifelong antipathy to math by making me realize that I didn’t understand what math actually was.

Now, R-Goat does a kind of math that is truly, mind-bogglingly self-referential. He essentially does math to the notion of doing math — examining what kinds of problems are too complex to be solved by computers, extrapolating backwards from proofs to premises, using entirely different logical frameworks to think about thinking. Good stuff. He has helped me understand a lot of truly arcane concepts, without even making me feel particularly handicapped by my ‘well, you passed’ grade in calculus.

But I eventually realized a lot of the work he does actually depends incredibly heavily on jargon. Jargon lets you make huge things – complicated ideas – small enough to manipulate. Once you have the concept of what a poset  is (a notion that itself assumes the whole idea of a set), you can use them in forcing to answer questions that quite frankly would be too complex to even state if you had to build them from the ground up every time. A basic forcing proof would be the size of the encyclopedia britannica if it had to define every single word fully. Knowledge condenses to produce more knowledge.

This is cool because techniques like these let mathematicians make statements about how logic works with rigor. There is an answer to the why-question for a lot of mathematics – every time a teacher said just-because, they lied. There is totally a way to answer why addition is true (okay, actually that’s a complicated question, but it’s interesting), why first order logic is the easiest to work with, what happens if you decide you don’t want to accept all the premises they taught you in school and want to do math differently. Math can totally use a different set of assumptions than the ones you know. If you want, you can abandon the notion that things are either true or false! It’s difficult, but you can work with it. The only way to do that through is jargon.

It’s common, when trying to do math to infinite things the way R-Goat often does, to talk about local similarities. Does the infinite thing have an internally repeating pattern? Is something that’s true of this chunk in the middle of it true for all of it, or most of it? Jargon is sometimes like that;slicing the infinite in ways that lose some of the truth of the thing, but make it possible for us to interact with it at all.

So clearly, I have accepted jargon in STEM things. It’s in Altlandia that jargon sometimes concerns me. *

On the one hand, it’s so hard to talk about things you lack a vocabulary for. The phrases enthusiastic consent or microaggression collapse a set of two or three paragraphs into a word, so that you can talk about how these ideas affect the culture in a persuasive, adroit way and use them to create yet more complicated ideas. It’s mighty difficult to examine a phenomenon when you can’t speak its name.

On the other, labels are very popular in Altlandia in a way that I don’t think is entirely positive. Many Altlanders hit their jargon development all at once and in the rush of realizing that these things they’ve thought and felt are 1) real 2) only the first step in developing new ways of interfacing with the world, turn into those math guys who use jargon wantonly without stopping to think – is this necessary here? Is this adding clarity and/or enabling previously-impossible thoughts?

Lots of people start eagerly checking boxes: cis/trans/genderqueer, gay/straight/bi, romantic/aromantic, sexual/ace, kinky/vanilla – the list is long and I won’t embarrass myself by trying to be comprehensive and missing something. All of these things are real, important things that have been woefully underexplored and disregarded until the jargon moment. The existence and use of these words is good.

But I think we Altlanders could sometimes benefit from looking at ourselves and our relationships and wondering if the closest-approximation jargon is accurate enough – or if we are best-served by collapsing these things into one word instead of giving them their three paragraphs. For an example, bisexual is one of my words. This jargon fits me and I don’t have any qualifications to make to it. I might pick a number on the Kinsey scale for lols, but really I feel like my sexual preferences are locally isomorphic. Which here means they are the same everywhere, no matter where you slice them. Bisexual isn’t disguising any complications for me.

On the other hand, cis doesn’t feel quite like mine. Nor does trans, or even really genderqueer, genderfluid, or any of the other many bits of jargon we’ve come up with to describe the places where gender identity doesn’t behave in a straightforward way. I am uncomfortable with gender. My feelings on it are a complicated three (or three dozen) paragraphs and I don’t think they are well-served by being collapsed into genderquestioning or some sort of catch-all word for unsure.

As R-Goat would say (about totally unrelated math-things), sometimes you want to blackbox the complexity in order to get the proof done, but sometimes you really need to write out every step.

Also, some things are true about me that still don’t constitute a major part of my identity. Which isn’t to say they can’t or shouldn’t for someone else, but sometimes I just don’t want a fact about me to be part of my tagline.

The obvious answer to that seems to be ‘so don’t make it part of the tagline, silly, no one’s playing identity twenty questions with you’. But that can lead to problems. [Tag] might not be a major part of my identity, but sometimes I will want to talk about it. In the world of pervasive jargon-taglines, it can be hard for someone who does not regularly say they are a [tag] to still join the conversation about [tag] as a person with a valid, non-outsider point of view. Jargon constructs insides and outsides and even if they make conversations more manageable, they can exclude a lot.

Saying that you can be X or you can be Y is a huge step forward. It’s so much better than being told, ‘You can only be X. X is all there is.’ But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that you can also be XY, or 22% X and 78% Y, or Z, or POTATO. There’s someone in the world for every box, and that’s awesome. You can’t name them all – nor should you. **

In my gender example from above; I can’t join a conversation about being trans, cis, or genderfluid as an insider and definitely shouldn’t try. I would be appropriating experiences I don’t share. But I would like to be able to approach a conversation about gender as someone who is none of those things, yet still isn’t automatically other-than-you. I would like to talk in a non-labelled space about the whole infinite subjectivity that is happening there.

The rationalist’s urge, which I totally share, is to see something that’s not named and say, well name it! Problem solved! But I think that obscures the deeper problem – some concepts fall through the cracks in labeltown and no matter how many labels you have, some things will still always fall through the cracks. It’s turtles all the way down. Jargon is really useful as a practical tool. But it’s a tool. Taxonomy is not truth; it’s a way of grappling with infinity.


* I am ignoring the fact that it is funny in this context that I have just invented a word for the broad community of people who are kinky, poly, gender not-normative, ace, feminist, anarchist, or are otherwise living and defining themselves in opposition to The Mainstream Cultural Narrative.

** This paragraph courtesy your friendly neighborhood RoboSquid 🙂


2 Responses to “Jargon and Infinity”

  1. Squiddy March 15, 2013 at 12:08 am #

    Someone needs to make the first comment. I’m so happy about this blog! You know I read this while you were working on it, but I’m really glad to see it posted :).

    I’ll try to avoid just straight up carrying on our chat conversation in this window, but the pressure to “live up” to a label has its own problems when you’re interacting with people outside the alt-community too. True story – back in high school, while I was still trying to figure out if I would ever be attracted to guys, I hedged my bets and identified as bi for a few years. When I started dating M. I was told (sometimes by adults, my parents included) that I could not be bi, because I was dating a boy – I was in a straight relationship, and that meant that I was straight. Setting aside the part where that doesn’t make any sense (saying that you identify as bisexual and then entering a heterosexual relationship is not a contradiction), that “straight until proven gay” mentality is a really bizarre phenomenon, and I think it gets people into a weird head-space with these things.

    I’m not sure what the point of that comment was, except to say that society at large is very label-oriented. And I think it pressures people into feeling like, if they don’t want to be questioned for identifying as XYZ, they’d better /really/ own it. Whether it’s a major component of your identity or not, you wind up feeling like you have to either (a) turn the XYZ dial up to 11 at all times, or (b) stay in the effective closet. And that’s unfortunate. People shouldn’t feel pressured to overemphasize parts of themselves anymore than they should feel pressured to suppress them.

    tl;dr: Yay blog! People are complicated and often silly!


  1. Sister Act | sidkettle's Blog - March 16, 2013

    […] is part of why I try to make a point of continually coming out in casual conversations. If this post was about boxes! are they always good for us? I guess the conclusion here is that sometimes you […]

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