Jargon and Communication

Speaking of Scotsmen, let me say that as a general rule I am quite a fan of Hal Duncan’s blog–especially those gigantic blog entries where he intellectually swashbuckles his way through certain philosophical issues with verve and panache, using academic jargon like Mrs. Parker used wit.

In particular, I have been intending for a while now to write an appreciation of, and perhaps to a small degree response to, his Halls of Pentheus series of posts (start here).

However, I’ve got to tell you that his latest enormous transmission into the void, a post trying to struggle with the distinctions between fantasy, horror, science fiction, etc, in terms of narrative grammars, crosses the line between “using technical terms to convey exact and precise shades of meaning among specialists” and “overreliance on jargon to the extent that the text is completely impregnable to all but a select group of people who have taken part in specific academic ‘conversations'”.

For example:

5. Boulomaic Modality

Where it all becomes more complicated is in the way, I’d argue, additional subjunctivities may be introduced into the narrative and used to generate a sense of modality that shades the subjunctivity. In so far as subjunctivity is to do with levels of possibility, this may be stretching the meaning of the term, but in so far as our notion of nomological possibility, of “how the world works”, is experienced as a sense of natural order, bound to and coloured by our aesthetics and ethics, of “how the world should work”, I think it’s worth our while to extend the term to boulomaic as well as epistemic modalities. If the events portrayed in strange fiction “could have happened” or “could not have happened” according to our sense of nomological possibility, then there is also a degree to which, according to our sense of aesthetic and ethical necessity these events “should have happened” or “should not have happened”. I don’t think it’s hard to see how a reader’s reaction to the strange may add exactly this sort of boulomaic modality, particularly with Horror, where the strange becomes the uncanny, where the transgression is as much moral as nomological, where the events not only “could not have happened” but “should not have happened”.

I challenge anyone who hasn’t spent significant time in post-graduate English programs, or done a lot of critical analysis work, to make heads or tails of that.

I tend to view this sort of thing as a challenge, though, if my suspicion is that something interesting is being said. In all honesty anything that even tangentially touches on, much less addresses head-on, the whole “how do/should we distinguish fantasy from science fiction from …” question usually bores me to tears, so I could probably just move on without doing the work here.



Oh hell, I’m going to have to go learn a bunch of terminology, aren’t I? If I manage to decode the post I might have more to say on its content later. For now I’m translating.

FYI, here’s some of what I found for terms that show up in the quoted paragraph:

Boulomaic Modality: Googling the word boulomaic returns a page that’s mostly full of links to academic papers, as well as two different links to Duncan’s own blog. For some reason I find this tremendously amusing.

“…want and need verbs, a category of modality that Hoye calls boulomaic modality verbs.” (from)

“Boulomaic modality broadly concerns any linguistic expression of desire” (from)


“I define subjunctivity as the intellectual state whereby one can imagine, think reasonably about and communicate “what is not.” Because humans are a symbol-using species, we can fashion virtual worlds out of words. We have developed the means to invent and describe realities that do not exist, yet we can think about them as if they were in existence. I wrote that last phrase using the subjunctive tense, to demonstrate the ways in which we employ subjunctivity all the time. The fact that we have a verb tense that describes this realm of the possible–this virtual shadow world–demonstrates the degree to which subjunctivity is common to humans. The cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, who wishes to understand the human mind, finds subjunctives to “represent some of the richest potential sources of insight into how human beings organize and categorize their perceptions of the world.” Being human means not only being able to understand what is, but being able to describe what isn’t or what is yet to be.”


Linguistic Modality: There’s a whole Wikipedia entry on linguistic modality that you can refer to.

\ˌnä-mə-ˈlä-ji-kəl, ˌnō-\
nomology science of physical and logical laws, from Greek nomos + English –logy

: relating to or expressing basic physical laws or rules of reasoning <nomological universals>

  4 comments for “Jargon and Communication

  1. January 22, 2008 at 1:51 am

    Or maybe, you “should not have posted that”. 🙂

    Actually, that kinda makes sense…. but I may fall into the the “critical analysis work” bucket. Then again, I may just be tired and I only think it makes sense.

    I do like the idea of aesthetic necessity, it certainly has a nice ring to it.

  2. January 22, 2008 at 2:24 am

    Are you saying your sense of aesthetic neccessity triggers a reaction to this post which incorporates the kind of boulamaic modality one would normaly associate with Horror? Or indeed that it represents a moral transgression? You’re happier in sunjunctivities where this had never occurred?


  3. March 30, 2011 at 12:01 am

    Actually, “boulomaic” is also used by Allwood et al in “Logic in Linguistics”. They oppose it to “doxastic” (dealing with beliefs). It of course has Griceian connotations! Jlsperanza@aol.com for the griceclub.blogspot

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