Monday, April 11, 2005



I learned about "terms of art" in my very eggheady law school. The phrase "term of art" is a slightly pretentious, slightly arty way of saying "technical jargon," in particular a word or phrase that may have a common meaning but that has a technical meaning within a particular professional enclave. Or perhaps the reconfiguration of common words into a slightly off combination that has such a technical meaning. "Brief" is a term of art for lawyers, meaning a written legal argument filed in court. "Filed" is a term of art for that matter, since it means lodged with the court clerk as opposed to the more commonplace stuck in a file cabinet. In fact, I think "term of art" is a term of art.

Yesterday evening, when I should have been blogging, I was instead having a work-related dinner with a party of academics. We were feasting an out of town speaker who had a presentation the next day. It was a charming group of people, and of course very intellectual, but I felt I was holding my own on the subject of where to get the best donuts in our town.

But then the subject wound around to academic stuff. I felt increasingly challenged to follow the conversation, a feeling which reached its apex around the moment when one of my dinner companions rolled out the world "totalizing."

I'd seen the word "totalizing" in a law review article a couple of years ago, and after briefly stuggling to figure out what it meant, I decided that if I ignored the word, perhaps it would go away and I would never have the misfortune of seeing or hearing it again.

As best I can determine from context, "totalizing" means something like "stereotyping," ignoring individual traits or circumstances in favor of sweeping generalizations based on characteristics attributed to a group. Anyway, totalization is plainly something bad, and the speaker was very emphatic on this point, saying the word again, for emphasis: "It's just so.... so... totalizing." I was morally certain that she was fighting back the urge to say that it was just "totally totalizing."

We academics face the difficult life choice about whether, when and how far to go down the jargon road. Sometimes the term of art picks up some connotations and becomes handy among those in the know -- "more nuanced," to use another term that has become popular in academic circles in recent years. Sometimes the term becomes a kind of code, a secret handshake among intellectual fellow travelers to signal that they are all pursuing the same scholarly subspecialty. Because we gain the academic equivalent of street cred by raising our profiles within these small hotbeds of specialization, the lure of lingo becomes ineluctable. Saying the word "totalizing" struck me as flashing the intellectual gang symbol for a set of shared ideas and intellectual commitments I'm only dimly aware of.

I don't claim to be above all this. But I think it's fair to say that I don't really move in the totalizing circles.


That's why your blog is such a pleasure to read: the incisive analysis of an academic, minus the exclusive jargon shtick.

Or am I totalizing here?
I'm actually quite surprised that academics would fall into the creation of verbs from nouns by adding "izing" to the end of them ("verbizing"), rather than use a more poetic description. In your example -- "Totalizing" meaning sterotyping -- a more poetic description would be a metaphor; e.g. "paint with too broad a brush" (or "brushizing"). "Totalizing" sounds as if it belongs in a boardroom, or at least in a meeting populated by middle-management -- it's more deserving of the MBA crowd than academia.

I'd expect to hear "totalizing" from accountants, or even mathematicians: "It's time to totalize the Accounts Receivables" (Oh, wait... "total" works as a verb in that case.)

Maybe I'm just an old fart, but I'm fed up with all the lazificationizing going on by bastardizing perfectly good words just to separate one group from another. That's segregationizing if you ask me!

Everyone knows that good jargonizing comes from creating acronyms instead of adding "izing" as a suffix to a perfectly good noun or adjective. However, it can be taken to extremes: LANizing - creating a local area network. (And I've actually heard and seen that in my tenure as a technical writer, I'm sorry to say).
Don't worry, it's obvious that "totalizing" is just a word designed for those who can't spell "stereotyping."
Great blog containing a reference to jargon. Can you understand it all - wa cant so we made a jargon buster directory that anyone can add to or use to bust their own encountered jargon. Keep it all plain english I say. Best regards and keep up the great postings.
I think that totalizing is literally "to add up." When people say that an analysis is totalizing, I think that it means that the analysis approaches the topic in question from a perspective in which, at the end of the day, the totalizing person can conclusively agree or disagree (approve/dissaprove, etc), or judge/compare things with complete certainty.

It's just really bore-headed and it leads to schools of thought that just want to divide the world up into friends and enemies. Two really good examples of totalizing ways of thinking are fundamentalist religious groups (pretty obvious how so) and a lot of stupid Marxists (not all Marxists though) who just want things to either be capitalist (bad) or proletariat (good).

I'm not sure on this, and I wanted a concrete definition for "totalizing" yet there isn't one on the internet that I can find... thus google brought me here... so here I am giving a definition...
When I'm writing papers and I think I'm not using a jargon-y word I use often with sufficient precision, I generally look up several definitions and think about how I'm using it for awhile. I must say, your post (sorry for the thread necro) was pretty on the money. Part of the reason I try to be careful about how I use those "terms of art" is because you really do risk having these catch phrases take on a life of their own. Instead, of grappling with the idea behind them you just pay homage to the buzz words and call it a day.

That said, totalizing IS an important concept if used correctly. It's most important use in my mind is when writing about identity. This includes stereotyping but also group formation, social norms, morality/ethics, essentially anything that tries to make a universal claim as to the nature of an individual given their group identification. To say something is totalizing tho implicitly assumes that this claim is problematic because the reality is that the claim is not necessarily true. So it is, in a sense, an indictment as you sensed.

It also comes up a lot in systemic theory, especially in post-modern leaning critiques. Any ideology that tries to displace others i.e. religions or capitalism/communism can be characterized as totalizing.

Anyway, that's my bit to help anyone else that's googling to get a handle on the concept... hehe.
Nice remarks! I came across the word 'totalizing' in a document that I am editing and googled it, which brought me to your blog.

Wasn't it Scheff who wrote about "academic gangs"?

It's extraordinary that many people writing in the field of the arts - which I think is meant to have something to do with beauty - use (or should I say 'employ') vile terminology.

Our language seems to be getting uglier by the day.
I saw a comment above saying that "totalizing" is just a word for those who can't spell "stereotyping" which, though super duper funny, isn't true at all. "Totalizing" is responding to a person as if one label completely represents that person. Homosexuality for example, how often have you regarded someone as your "gay friend" as if their identity is simply constituted of their sexuality and nothing else? Often, I assume, even if they have so many personality traits or characteristics, the outstanding one is homosexuality of which you label and disregard the rest (sometimes subconsciously). "Stereotyping" is defining a person in the terms of the characteristics of the group you're labeling them under. Let's use the homosexuality example once more; Say you're discussing your gay friend with someone and they ask what his hobbies are. You don't know your gay friend too well so you say, "Hm, he probably likes shopping and watching Real Housewives of New Jersey with a bottle of wine every night." That's stereotyping.
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