Tuesday, April 03, 2007

In which I mock the use of "imbricated" in literary and cultural studies

[update: link fixed. Also, the more I think about this, the worse I think "imbricated" is. Don't all discourses overlap to one degree or another? So it's not a case of using "imbricated" to mean "partially overlapping" (which would save words). I can't think of any discourses that would be "tesselated," so I don't think there's a useful distinction being made. I guess the point is that the "imbricated" discourses are held to be those that overlap more than other discourses do, but I'm not sure about how one goes about deciding when two discourses are "imbricated" and when they are not.]

I was at a wedding this weekend and was listening to my father (a physician) and my brother (an emergency room nurse) talk about injuries to the spleen and pancreas. It was very interesting, and, having grown up in a medical household, I followed most of the jargon. But at one point they started talking about "itp." After that went back and forth for a while, I had to say "acronymn, please?" and they told me that ITP stood for "idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura" (explained here). I could follow the "idiopathic" (unknown cause) and "purpura" (purple spots), but "thrombocytopenic" was, at least in conversation, lost on me. But once they explained, I followed the discussion.

That got me thinking about jargon in different specialities. There may be problems with medical jargon, but most of the time it works: once you know what the words mean (and if you have Latin and some Greek), they are pretty straightforward. Look up the term, and it is yours. This is not the case all of the time in English, and I think it illustrates a failing.

Which is why I will continue to mock the use of "imbricated" in literary studies. As I said in this post:
"imbricated discourses" aren't things--they're metaphorical descriptions of things. And that if "imbricated" is a better description than overlapping, you should explain why either metaphor has more explanatory power.
I knew the word "imbricated" from icthyology: there are a fair number of fish with the species name "imbricatus" which describes their scales. But as a quick search will demonstrate, there are also starfish, mushrooms and plants that are "imbricatus." In each case, the word is being used precisely: the scales or plates overlap just like shingles on a roof (as opposed to sitting next to each other like, say, tiles on a floor (which would be tesselatus).

In literary studies the word is obviously used metaphorically, which is fine: metaphors carry ideas from one place to another (according to Stephen J. Gould, the luggage carts at Athens airport say "metaphoros" on them); they are, to use Daniel Dennett's term, "intuition pumps" (which is itself a metaphor). I have no problem with using metaphors to explain complex ideas.

But the problem with "imbricated" is that it is a bad metaphor. When you use "imbricated," you're saying, I think, that discourses overlap partially but not completely. Ok, I guess, though when we say other things "overlap" we almost always mean that they don't overlap completely. But the discourses do not overlap the same amounts for every single one (single what, anyway? Discourse?) the way shingles do on a roof. I'm also not sure if discourses do overlap that way, anyway: they seem more intertwined rather than imbricated. And when you listen to people use "imbricated," it's pretty clear that they are not being precise at all, but using the word instead of "intertwined" or "connected."

I am being pedantic (and since I'm a teacher and professor, I think that's a good thing, kinda my job), but if the metaphor is imprecise and confusing (because most normal people don't know what "imbricated" means even in a literal sense), then we shouldn't use it. In fact, I think people who do use "imbricated" are using the word to indicate that they are members of an in-group, or to show that they are smarter than the average bear. At least for me, this doesn't work, which is why people who use "imbricated," especially in casual conversation, deserve a good mocking.

The difference between medical jargon (which can be just as "in-group" and alienating as "imbricated") is that the medical jargon is at least perfectly clear when you look it up in a regular old dictionary or know your Latin and Greek. Medical jargon also uses metaphor ("iliac," for instance), but the purpose is to illustrate and the effect is precision. The same can't be said for literary jargon, and I think that is unfortunate: again, we should be the strongest supporters of precision and detail in language use.

In Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet (a completely under-rated work by him, by the way; much better than Henderson the Rain King), there's a little passage about how it's an error to call a person "dilapidated," which means "having had stones removed from it." We fight a losing battle against fossilized metaphor and imprecise language, but it is a long defeat worth fighting, because when we preserve the specific meaning of "dilapidated" as "having stones missing" or "imbricated" as "overlapping like shingles on a roof," rather than allow these words to decay into just dead metaphors for "old" or "entwined," we keep the language richer and more powerful, more able to communicate specific, concrete ideas in only a few words.


R.M. Scottoline said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Samuel said...

The link you have posted to one of your previous posts is broken. The link is attached to the snippet, "I said in this post".

Eileen Joy said...

But Michael, isn't this, perhaps, a lot of angst over "nothing" [a word that is also often mis-used]? Words accrue and accrete meaning over time, and while "imbricate" meant, at one moment in time, "overlapping, like shingles on a roof," I don't see why that word cannot be re-contextualized and still have attached to itself some semblance of its more "former" meaning. Obviously, especially as English professors, we care about the precision of language, but I worry more about the complete loss and falling out of words from our cultural idiom than I do about the so-called imprecise use of this or that word. I worry about the impoverishment, in general, of the vocabulary of my students who may never be able to tell someone precisely why they love them, or why they should be hired for a particular job, or maybe be able to even tell *themselves* how they feel in any particular situation! Language is not a science. It is an art. It is full of felicitous and wildly imprecise imbrications.

Samuel said...

Eileen, I must respectfully disagree. Language is neither a science nor an art; it is a tool for communicating ideas between one or more parties. And just like most tools, how you use it can be either a science or an art, or a combination thereof. Furthermore, I would argue, when language loses its precision it also loses its effectiveness.

quincy_jones said...

interesting piece. if you see this, you'll notice i'm a little late to the conversation.
i can accept most of your argument. i would like to focus just on the particular source of this disagreement, though, rather than the more general point you advance. while i'm perfectly sympathetic to your abuse of what one thinker might have called 'fuddled theoreticians' in specialized academistic circles, i'm not so sure that the word is never used well in academe.
for example, i first came across the word 'imbricated' in an article by a political philosopher who wanted to make the point (against one of the thinkers with whom he relied upon heavily and generally agreed) that theory and practice were necessarily involved with each other. i do think 'overlapping' would do part of the work he wanted the descriptive term to do, but not all of it. he was trying, i think, to convey the point that thinking and doing are features of human conduct that have been and remain so inseparable that the metaphor--whether taken from studying physical creatures or roof-building--is perfect. creatures in nature don't 'think' about growing scales in patterns, imbricated or otherwise, but they're there. so, this metaphor nicely depicts the way theory and practice have just 'naturally' evolved in our conduct; his use of the word would seem to be a particularly bold rejoinder to those thinkers who disagree—theory & practice have beeen so intertwined (to use another of your substitutes) it’s almost like they’ve exhibited an organic relationship. At the same time, people purposefully (perhaps after looking at particularly good instances found in nature) build roofs in imbricated patterns because they work well. i think the philosopher who used 'imbricated' in this way did well to draw on these two main facets of the word.
because this thinker has written fairly extensively on disobedience, i suspect he came across the word from thoreau's tract on civil disobedience (or, perhaps, darwin). i'd be interested to hear your take on this usage of the word. do you think this is just another instance of obtuse hyper-intellectualizing by someone who wants to look a bit smarter than the average joe, or who wants to mark himself as part of the ‘in-crowd’. or do you think his use is legitimate? i can be reached at jsmill0@excite.com

Anonymous said...

Today in an academic job interview seminar, I heard for the first time the word "imbricated". It was meant to mean "integrated" I believe, but I am not sure because I was unfamiliar with the word. More importantly, the word kept me out of the in-group of social scientists at the seminar, made me feel ignorant and uninformed, and contributed to me becoming unengaged in the seminar.
The same person went on to use "contestations", "intersectionalities", "epistomology" (a perfectly fine word but not one I ever hear in conversations), and "polyvalency". The net effect of all of these was to exclude me from the discussion.
I am all in favour of complicated words when they are needed to enhance communication and understanding, but simplfied wording whenever possible so be inclusive of as many people as possible.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently proofreading an academic article in which the word "imbricated" is frequently used incorrectly. In this case, I'm pretty sure the author simply means "implicated" or possibly a more general sense of connectedness. The similarity in form between "imbricated" and "implicated" might lead some users to confuse them and feel that "imbricated" is somehow more elegant or literary than the more recognizable and serviceable "implicated".

Maris. said...

I like waffle.