Defining moements

Silence your groaning, imagine how it was to actually type that odious title! Worry not, it is apt to reflect the quality of the equally odious post here under. In it I will be the worst kind of curmudgeon, the one who imagines to have a point.

The question “Where is moe?” is queer. If asked “Where is love?” or “Where is anger?”, I’d be consternated and profoundly confused what was being sought for, given lack of context. (Given right context, any arbitrary set of words could make sense.) Failing to establish one, shooting in the dark would be necessary. “In the courtyard” doesn’t seem admissible. “In the meetings between people” might work, but is false. “In the world” is perfectly true though uninformative. Whatever the answer, it’d be all metaphor and poetry, which of course is very much fine. Understanding does grow through it, if one seeks not to put too much stock in it. And it would naturally be wrong to interpret it literally, per definition.

But here it is meant in a quite literal sense. Here the danger lies – moe is used as the name of an object. Objects, of course, ordinarily have places. One can see this sometimes helpful metaphor pop up again in Cuchlann’s language: “the space around the text“. Herein the hazard. It is perhaps the most persistent delusion that language primarily names things. Should one pause to consider the actual use of language, hopefully soon this delusion would disperse – unless one has already a theory of language. I was an earnest semiotician (something I cannot quite regret – Hoffmeyer, who showed me the power of biosemiotics, also led me to nearly all interests I have which cannot be traced back to Warhammer or Biggles).

The notions behind Cuchlanns endeavour are at times clear, in spite of the queerness of the question he answers. And I believe,that he is essentially correct. It is certainly true that moe lies mostly in a reaction to an artwork rather than in itself (as opposed to colours, or story elements, or pacing). But it also certainly does not hang suspended by nothing; I do not think that moe pops up propped by a person’s sensibilities, and the culture around her, with the work having nothing to do with it. In that case we wouldn’t find a character moe – we would indeed not necessarily feel moe in connexion with anything at all in any anime or manga or anything, much less any specific character. We’d find a spectral endearing sensibility snooping up on us as a result of having associated with the anime subculture. Cuchlann does not hold this weird view, of course: “Certainly there are typically markers in the text on which moe is built, but those markers are not, in themselves, moe. ”

I am moe for Tiaki here because of what she does. (Neither do I feel the desire to protect her; and would be baffled if this led someone to. Protect from what? Mamoruism is not moe, I’m very much with what Ubiquital says in the comments here.)

To accommodate Cuchlann’s metaphor of “we read into a text the moe we feel”, I would say, certainly: but we do so through very real cracks. We aren’t in the business of drilling holes.

But surely, moe is also use in another way: that of the moe ‘genre’. Even if someone feels no moe while watching K-On!, given a familiarity with the term, she could likely readily identify it as belonging to that genre.

But again, all of this is futile if we cannot define “moe”. There’s no point in figuring out its relationship to attraction if we cannot understand “moe” in itself. (Ubiquital [->])

Si: the first claim is false, the second is true but lacking in connexion to the first. For it is certainly not futile to talk without definitions (we do it all the time!), and it is certainly futile to talk without understanding – but understanding is not really a matter of definitions.

What is a definition? (Metatastic.) It could be said to be a limited list of descriptions for what a term covers. It could also be said to be an indication meant for a competent speaker to see how the word is used. In the earlier sense, I do not think moe has a definition – most words don’t. In the latter sense, moe certainly must have a definition. Not that there is any specific definition in that case, just that there are manners in which we can clear up misunderstandings.

A definition comes in several flavours. A certain distinction therein which is very important here is the difference between a constituting and descriptive definition. In the case of mathematics and similar areas of inquiry definitions can be the be-all and end-all of a specific term. It is also very frequently used for a temporary stipulation of what a certain person means at a certain time. Most words, however, have a natural meaning by being used in life. While perhaps possible to define some of these, it would be quite presumptuous and ultimately futile to seek them. We do not learn these words by definitions. We cannot well exchange them with definitions. Definitions of this kind are pointers to how the word is used. By that it is meant, they are not the usage themselves. Needless to say, words with constitutive definitions are rare and technical, or in the case of context-specific stipulations, exactly context-specific.

For example, the seemingly popular notion of moe as a wish to protect: this is wrong. I would like to protect many people from the ills of the world, say the homeless from homelessness, or whatever idealistic notion have you, but I am certainly not moe for them. Perhaps the core notion sought for is that a moe character seems to be in constant peril – I’d contest this too, as many of the more moe things I know of are so not of weakness. On the other hand, I would never find Olivier Mira Armstrong or Ryougi Siki moe, however much I fancy both characters – so something is certainly in this emphasis on weakness. Too strong a character can be hard to find moe. The danger is to let the definition rule the word, instead of vice versa. The definition is the roadmap. Once you are at the road, it’d be dangerous to rely on the map rather than your eyes. And if you were at the road all along, certainly the map would not be of use to you.

Well, I think there are two ways we might go about “defining” moe. Firstly, we could come up with a functional, temporary definition based on how a number of people seem to use the word, with the understanding that our definition would be specific to whichever population we’re mining. And secondly (and this may be the same as the first, essentially), we can come up with a theoretical definition, test it against the common use of the word, hang on to it as long as it’s productive in terms of fueling thought, and throw it out when we don’t need it anymore. So, even if moe is technically undefinable, I don’t think trying to define it is necessarily a pointless endeavor. (Pontifus [->])

The first way is the only way we need, thus. The second, theoretical definition, would be by nature wrong. Since it precludes describing the actual word and how it is deployed, it will not be about that word nor with any likelihood that meaning, even if sufficiently close a replica.

So how to go on? Wait until confusion arises. It might be good to think of obvious, striking things about it.

Obvious: Moe is an adjective.

Obvious: Moe is particular from other adjectives in that it describes an emotion, and/or attitude.

Obvious: Moe is particular from other emotions in that it also can describe a certain genre, set of tropes, and so on.

Obvious: Moe is particular from other adjectives in that it lends itself well as an exclamation; “MOEEEE!” works far better than “VIOOOOLET!”. It is also particular in that it is close to “HNNNG!”, which is close to an imagined pleasant heart-attack. (The picture of the old man grabbing his chest in contortions of pain is how moe looks like.)

Obvious: Moe has something to do with protection instinct, but is not the same thing.

Obvious: Moe is particular from many other emotions in that it can scarcely describe intrapersonal relationships. It may be used as grounds for one, much like shared æsthetic appreciation of artwork may. But it cannot describe the relationship. (As opposed to loving, angry, bored…)

Obvious: Moe is used in fandom. What is easily forgotten when one defines, is exactly how a word is entrenched in our life, the ‘usage’ of a term doesn’t only mean the frequency of the term next to other terms, it means in what contexts, and most importantly, what we do – both with and around it. Here lies the essence of a word.

To thus describe some facets of the use of our beloved term is merely an exercise to preclude the dangers of confusion, and they function as decent signs to it.

(In altogether a side note I note with trepidation the clause “fans view moe as something in the text that they decode”, which I find dangerous as it is an entirely empirical statement but without any supporting research – it’d be nigh impossible to carry out -, and I also strongly suspect it is wrong – specifically the decode part.)

Reading material

For a finer exposition of this view of language, try Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. And since he can be obtuse, Oswald Hanfling has written some marvelous exegesis (Wittgenstein and the Human Form of Life, Philosophy and Ordinary Language: The Bent and Genius of our Tongue). And for topic-relevant reading, try Wittgenstein, Theory and the Arts (eds. Allen and Turvey). That last one should be compulsory reading for students of humanoria :v

If you wish to figure out what may be wrong with this radical Wittgensteinism, and a possible road to defining everything, try, for example, Anna Wierzbicka’s Semantics: Primes and Universals, which is an ingenious summation of very much, and very serious scholarship.

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  1. Pontifus

     /  4 April 2010

    The post I have scheduled for Friday is probably relevant; it’s my journey through Azuma’s Otaku, and Azuma is all about moe as a defining aspect of post-Evangelion fandom and its arts. Azuma led me to revise my relative positioning of moe and protectiveness/helplessness — I never thought the former amounted to the latter (or vice versa), but now I think I have a better sense of how helplessness, as a moe element, is such a small factor in the greater scheme of things — it’s neither requisite nor necessarily likely. Azuma’s use of moe is quite general and broad, and one might argue that he has precluded the functional definition with his own needs — you should check that post out when it goes up and let me know what you think.

    • Kaiserpingvin

       /  5 April 2010

      That I shall, then.

      Wonder if I should bother convincing my library to get it for me.

  2. It might be useful, since the relevant objective is defining the term, to point out what moe is not. I’d certainly like to read what you have to say on the matter.

    • Kaiserpingvin

       /  5 April 2010

      Well, there are many things which aren’t moe. So where would we start?

      I’m reminded of that literary technique where you make an analogy, but instead of going “like x…” go “not like x, not like y…”. Lovecraft did good use of it in describing a byakhee. The name of it entirely eludes me, but I suppose doing something like that would work – id est, “not like love, not like cuteness-reaction, not like aesthetic appreciation…” and so on. Picking out things which are close, alluding to the function it has in our lives like so.

      • I was just describing that to my students today — I don’t recall the name right now either, but Wolfgang Iser talked about it, where the negation remains even while the text claims it should be negated: it can’t be negated, it has been presented as positively as anything else in the text.

        Also, I should be responding for reals to your post, but I can’t think of anything intelligent to say yet.

  3. ubiquitial

     /  5 April 2010

    Gah. Reading this is giving me a headache. I’ll try again after a nap. :P

  4. ubiquitial

     /  5 April 2010

    “The notions behind Cuchlanns endeavour are at times clear, in spite of the queerness of the question he answers. And I believe,that he is essentially correct. It is certainly true that moe lies mostly in a reaction to an artwork rather than in itself (as opposed to colours, or story elements, or pacing)”

    Well, technically, color too [is based on a reaction]

  5. ubiquitial

     /  5 April 2010

    ‘But again, all of this is futile if we cannot define “moe”.’

    This Part was referring to the topic of “the structure of moe,” not the above post. That might be why it’s confusing.


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