Crunching the Umbrella and Spinning the Reinvention Treadmill

[Note: This post has been crossposted to Pillowfort.]

Back on March 8th, the day before I published my Genealogy of Queerplatonic, Siggy published a response of his own to the whole discussion, titling the post as “Death of the coiner” (an allusion to Barthes’ “Death of the Author”). In Cor’s addition onto that post, co wrote:

my main response is that it’s useful and arguably necessary for us to document and continually notify people of the pattern of semantic drift in words having to do with rejecting models and how they are reinscribed within those models to be less threatening

This post is about the same thing and that same dynamic: the pattern of ambiguous gray areas and umbrella words getting crunched into narrower redefinitions, leaving the need for their original ambiguity unmet, and paving the way for others to come along and try to reinvent the wheel.

I’ve seen this happen so many times now, it seems. I’ve seen it with identity terms. I’ve seen it with relationship terms. I’ve seen it with attraction terms. I’ve seen it with ace terms. I’ve seen it with aro terms. I know the latest won’t be the last.

Gray-asexuality is where I saw it first. In quick 101/glossary definitions, people love to define it as “experiences sexual attraction infrequently,” which doesn’t really cut it. Sometimes people have even substituted “infrequently” with the word “rarely,” which invokes the pressure of scarcity. People have underestimated grey diversity. People have condemned the very concept of “the asexual spectrum” because you’re either ace or you’re not (so what do we need a gray area for?), and have repeatedly assumed that gray-aces are “actually” something else entirely. Oddly enough, they never seem to suspect that gray-aces are “actually” asexual. People have pushed for more specific definitions of “asexual” and “sexual attraction,” which is why Siggy wrote about troubles with definition specificity. In that post, he argues that a more specific definition isn’t always a better one, and gray-a folks are themselves the evidence of that. There has been lots and lots and lots of talk on the strategic value of different definitions of gray-asexuality and its many ways. As I have mentioned before, trying to assess what’s “too high” and “too low” to count as gray-asexuality is a part of gatekeeping — an issue of pressuring people to abandon an identity and community space. Over and over and over and over, I’ve seen people try to narrow it down and crunch it into specifics instead of letting it remain a gray area.

From what I can tell, it’s happening with greyromanticism, too. In 2015, Queenie wrote a post on greyromanticism as “a vague and fuzzy umbrella term,” but now, more recently, I’ve seen an Arocalypse thread noting a push to get away from greyromantic as an umbrella term, and Laura has even described the word as “lost to the discourse.” As they wrote in that post, “back in the day (four years ago),” greyromantic was used both as an umbrella and as a personal identity term, and further down on the reblog chain, they and others discuss a discomfort with narrower interpretations — that is, people interpreting “greyromantic” and other umbrella terms to infer “does experience romantic attraction” & more generally pushing greyro in the direction of a more solid definition.

Sidenote on the word discourse, since it’s used in that post’s title: the evolution from translations of Michel Foucault > the word “discourse” proliferating in academia, especially queer theory > the tumblr “discourse” meme > people forgetting it’s a meme and using the word “discourse” unironically > ace & aro “discourse” coming to represent a particular manifestation of bitter ongoing (anti-)ace & aro arguments and back-and-forth, especially as understood in terms of LGBT border warring… is ironic, because Foucault himself was a gay man with some ideas pretty dang hospitable to asexual critiques of society. But I digress.

With the quoiromantic umbrella, it’s nearly the same story as the gray labels. Cor has talked about seeing people keep defining it as “can’t tell the difference between two attractions,” as opposed to cos intent of “applying romantic orientation doesn’t make sense here.” People keep ascribing it a different definition (supplanting cos wording with their own), only for someone else to come along and try to propose a new term to mean the exact same thing that the original was supposed to mean, i.e. accomplish the exact same semantic work.

Looking back on the history of queerplatonic, you can see that Smith initially introduced it as an umbrella term: “The point is that this is an umbrella term that encompasses many different types of relationship, rather than being rigid; it’s fluid!” And Sciatrix, who played a role in popularizing the term, has used the term for a relationship in the “weird fuzzy gray-areas” that’s been “cheerfully agnostic about whether it is romantic or not.” Yet in subsequent years, people have asked about “how to tell the difference” between “strong platonic” and “queerplatonic” feelings, treating it as something with a hard boundary at the edges. Some have even stayed away from it because they weren’t sure whether or not their relationship was nonromantic enough. People have crunched “queerplatonic” down to a fixed point to be contrasted against along a linear spectrum, defining terms like soft romo as “between” queerplatonic and romantic, or treated it as something more narrow and rigid, defining terms like appromour as a nonromantic relationship that doesn’t “fit into you ‘typical’ idea of QPP.” There’s people who use “queerplatonic” like it’s something specific and unambiguous, or insist it should be, or outright disapprove of it being used to mean something ambiguous. When the term passes from hand to hand, glossary to glossary, reduced to one-liners bereft of links — how many are even bothering to mention that it’s an umbrella term?

I suspect that the shunting out of queerplatonic ambiguity (or else the quick turnover cycle of ace and aro tumblr lexicon) played at least some part in the coinage of alterous, in turn. Alterous was initially defined as a word for attraction where “neither romantic or platonic attraction is accurate.” Somewhere along the way, this got translated into “between” romantic and platonic, in that it is “more than platonic but less than romantic,” and thus intended for “more than just friends.” With alterous thus positioned as a point in between romantic and platonic on a hierarchical linear scale, that in turn led to the coining of exteramo to, again, mean “neither platonic or romantic,” except this time “off the spectrum.” In that very post, exteramo was contrasted against alterous, alterous itself has been contrasted against queerplatonic, and for that matter, alterous & queerplatonic both have been contrasted against friendship, too.

But isn’t friendship, also, something of an umbrella term? I’ve seen and inferred at least five different ways of defining it. For specific examples, you can see for instance the vast differences between how Rae uses it and how Siggy uses it. Friendship is a vague, fuzzy category that can be applied differently by different people at different times.

Eventually, looking back at it all, you can start to notice a pattern. A pattern of people needing words for gray areas. A pattern of people creating umbrella terms for that reason. A pattern of other people subsequently reducing those umbrellas into narrower fragments. A pattern of still other people, who themselves need words to do the same semantic work, creating new words and contrasting them against the originals — and then sometimes the very same cycle happens to the new words themselves in turn: the redefinition treadmill.

While grabbing links for this post, I happened to stumble across this reblog chain, where Sciatrix wrote:

There’s this tension between having identities that are difficult to define and wanting to say “It’s complicated” or “it’s ambiguous” and then having other people come along later and go “well, how is it complicated; how is it ambiguous EXACTLY” and try to drill down in specificity to better understand.

I have been on both sides of that, for what it’s worth. But I think that the ace community will continue to see an effect rather like a euphemism treadmill, where people who are not well served by existing models stake out a shorthand for “ambiguously near this area of model space, but it’s complicated and I don’t want to get into the details right now” and other people who are not well served by existing models try to use those terms as a springboard to extend models of sexuality and create well-defined places for themselves. 

…and that seems like more or less what I’m seeing.

We have and do and will need umbrella terms, not just specific terms, to hold open that sorely necessary space for gray areas of feeling, relationships, and identity. Crunch down one term, and somebody will eventually make a new one to take its place, starting the cycle over again. But we shouldn’t have to start over again. We should get to build on what we have instead of reinventing the wheel every three years with whole new terms to do the exact same semantic work. And if we can’t stop that cycle from happening, the least I can do is at least give a name to it.

This post, to be clear, is not a polemic against people coining new words in general. While it’s one thing to come up with a new name for a concept, challenge the theoretical grounds of an existing concept, or even start remodeling it altogether, it’s another thing to keep spinning the redefinition treadmill: creating terms whose definitions (or re-definitions, or usages in practice) arise from or even rely on crunching the umbrella of others.

14 responses to “Crunching the Umbrella and Spinning the Reinvention Treadmill

  • Siggy

    I wrote an article about the same thing (scheduled for a future date), and I love seeing us come to similar conclusions using independent approaches. I especially appreciate you digging up lots of links, because the difficulty in finding links can sometimes be a barrier to talking about it.

  • Elizabeth

    I feel like I’ve been trying to explain my confusion & frustration with this for years, and not really getting what I mean through, because what I was saying was too easily confused with “don’t make new labels, words are bad” which is not what I mean at all. So I’m glad you’ve gotten into this here and named it, it will be useful to point to this post later whenever this comes up again.

    • Coyote

      I know what you mean lol. In a kind of precursor to this post, made several months back, I (more exploratorily) asked something like “At what point does creating new boxes for people who don’t feel like they fit in boxes just turn into replicating the problem?” and I got some (well-meaning) responses in the general form of “I think that people should be allowed to use whatever labels they want to use.” Sure. It’s just that labels like these are always defined in relation to others, is the thing. That’s one of the things I failed to really get at, the first time around — that those relationships themselves can be worth interrogating.

      So anyway here’s hoping that this can be easier to point out now the next time we see it happening.

  • Coyote

    Fun fact (I’m being sarcastic, this fact isn’t fun) — apparently the same thing has even been happening with “nonbinary”:

    consider the existence of words like ‘nontrinary’, which is almost certainly a reaction to these kinds of terms. people have internalized the idea that nonbinary identities still always imply a relation to the binary so hard that they’re coining words like this to escape that. and then ‘nonquaternary’ exists too, for similar reasons. that’s kinda silly! and the pressure isn’t coming from outside here, because mogai tumblr is an incredibly self-contained and insular community. nonbinary people are forcing ourselves out of our own spaces and words because of internalized rebinarization.

    • luvtheheaven

      Wow. I’m sorry to hear that’s happening to nonbinary in that way too. I thought it might already be gaining with nonbinary only because i know of agender people saying nonbinary was too much like “having a gender that is nonbinary” and they feel that they don’t have a gender which is different but. This is next level.

  • Carmilla DeWinter

    Reblogged this on Der Torheit Herberge and commented:
    For posterity. Very true observations.

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