Notes and Comment Blog


Splinter Groups

Dec 10th, 2003 9:40 pm | By

Something interesting here from the Guardian. I’m not entirely sure (well not sure at all really) what to make of it, because I’ve heard George Monbiot say very silly things, and I’ve read very sensible things in spiked. That’s why we link to spiked now and then, and once at their invitation re-published an article of theirs. A good article it was, too. But then again, as I’ve said before, the free market agenda is not my agenda, and I’m not particularly eager to assist the agenda of people who want the market to decide all disputes in its own interest.

But I also don’t want such thoughts to inhibit me from linking to articles I think are good on their merits. So on the whole I try not to do that. But then it seems like a good idea to make the information available.

Philip Stott has a good post on the subject.

Well, one reason, George, is the fact that much of the left seems to have abandoned the Enlightenment completely, which has put many mildly left-wing scientists (like yours truly) in a bit of a bind…Indeed, I will write for most reasonable outlets so long as I can write honestly about what I believe and if my poor scribblings are not edited out of all recognition (and, I may add, Sp!ked has a better track record than The Grauniad on that front!). My ‘natural’ outlet would, in the past, have always been The Guardian – but that has become so emotive, so extreme, and so uncritical on the environment that I have been forced to migrate to more rational and tranquil waters. I hope I make up my mind on every issue carefully and on the evidence, an approach that seems to be at variance with the religious zeal of too many Guardian and Indy writers. Perhaps you and The Guardian might like to think about that a little.

One can even be more than mildly left-wing, as I think I am in some ways, and be dead set against abandoning the Enlightenment. In fact the Enlightenment was quite a radical phenomenon, and what one gets when one abandons it can be all too reactionary. Radical, yes, but them’s the wrong roots.

And an update for your favorites: Norm Geras has moved to a new site, so note new address.



Emotionally Biased Is It

Dec 9th, 2003 9:19 pm | By

There was an “article in the Guardian last week about requests from doctors who worked with Andrew Wakefield, the scientist whose research prompted the MMR controversy, not to show the program.

A former colleague of the scientist at the centre of the row claims the programme will endanger children’s lives by fostering doubts about the triple vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella…One of the doctors who has worked with Dr Wakefield wrote to Jane Lighting, Five’s chief executive, asking her not to transmit it. The doctor, a co-author of the original Lancet paper that provoked the controversy, says in the letter that the film is undeniably good drama, but it unacceptably and dangerously blurs the border between truth and fiction.

Which you would think responsible people would feel hesitant about doing when the result could endanger people’s lives. Wouldn’t you? That’s not a hyperbolic claim, it’s just reality: measles, mumps and rubella are not trivial diseases, they can and do kill. Wouldn’t you think that under the circumstances tv executives would decide Hmm, maybe we don’t know enough about this, maybe this is a subject that isn’t quite right for the ‘docudrama’ approach?

The programme-makers point out that elements have been fictionalised in order to tell the story coherently…Adrian Bate, the producer, admitted the film was emotionally positive towards the concerned parents, but insisted it remained rooted in fact. “It is emotionally biased, but it’s not factually biased,” he said. Tim Prager, the writer, said: “What we have tried to do is to say that there should be a freedom to think and report what you discover without fear of losing your career, and to show that much of what has been written about the possibility of a link between MMR and autism has been based on statistics – part of the point was to humanise the story.”

Freedom. Hm. A glorious and emotive word, but is it really the right one in this situation? And then that contrast between statistics and ‘humanisation.’ Yes well that’s just it, ‘humanising’ can be highly manipulative – almost always is, in fact. You can ‘humanise’ anyone and anything. So the story-tellers in this case opted to ‘humanise’ the anti-MMR side and dehumanise the other side (listen to how robotic and indifferent that GP sounds on the bit of tape they played on Start the Week). So they made their program ’emotionally biased’ but not ‘factually biased.’ Well that’s the problem, you fools! The emotional bias is the point! That stuff works, we all know it works, we’ve all experienced it a thousand times, in movie theatres and just sitting staring at the box. They know how to get us, so even if they do get the facts right, if they get the compelling actor (and Juliet Stevenson is a terrific actor, I wish she’d stayed out of this one, I must say) to say the compelling lines, it doesn’t matter about the facts. As they surely know perfectly well. And there it is.

An an interesting blog linked to B and W on this subject the other day (yes of course I look, I like to know who’s reading us, naturally).

Just as Norman Geras and Marc Mulholland have already said much of what we’d meant to say on other topics (see yesterday’s post headed “It’s a Funny Old World”), we’ve been very largely trumped on this topic by Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels. But never mind: we’re glad of the opportunity to link, not only to her spot-on remarks about this project, but to a secular-humanist site that’s well worth exploring.

Thank you, yes it is, even if humanist isn’t quite exactly the right word, but no matter, it’s close enough.



A Treat

Dec 8th, 2003 9:40 pm | By

There’s been a mildly interesting, or interesting in parts, discussion at Crooked Timber about more obscure (or relatively obscure, slightly obscure, not really obscure but not on any of those Top 100 lists either) favourite books. I got in early with Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, and it’s had more seconds than any other choice that I’ve noticed. Three, plus a link to a quotation on Terry Teachout’s blog, which I’ve just added to Quotations and will also offer up here. It is so generally apposite.

With her brightest students Miss Batterson was always on terms of uneasy, disappointed admiration; their work never seemed to be helping their development as much as the work of the stupider students was helping theirs. Every year there was a little war—an eighteenth century one, though—about whether the school magazine was printing only the work of a clique. Miss Batterson was perfectly good-hearted in this: if you cannot discriminate between good and bad yourself, it cannot help seeming somewhat poor-spirited and arbitrary of other people to do so. Aesthetic discrimination is no pleasanter, seems no more just and rational to those discriminated against, than racial discrimination; the popular novelist would be satisfied with his income from serials and scenarios and pocket books if people would only see that he is a better writer than Thomas Mann.

And yet that book was written in the 50s. How he would have enjoyed Stephen King’s whinge at the National Book Awards, and the spectacle of literature professors attacking dead white guys.



Channel 5

Dec 8th, 2003 1:59 am | By

I thought this was quite interesting too. Just exactly what I thought, when I heard that bit of dialogue the other day.

A number of senior doctors have boycotted a debate to be shown after Channel Five’s drama documentary on Andrew Wakefield, because they say it is biased and emotive in its portrayal of the scientist behind alleged links between the MMR vaccination and autism…David Elliman, consultant community paediatrician at Great Ormond Street children’s hospital, said: “The film is very, very partial. It’s very much this one man against the medical establishment, who is the only man who listens to children and to parents – paediatricians don’t and GPs don’t.

Exactly. And it’s so tediously familiar – Lorenzo’s stinking Oil redux. The medical establishment is all wrong and they don’t pay attention and they’re stuck in their rut and they’re clueless and if only they’d listen and blah blah blah. Yes, if only medical research were done by parents with sick children, how much better everything would be. No possibility of mistakes or confirmation bias or fudging of evidence there! Oh hell no! And the more of this kind of dreck gets made, the more people believe ‘alternative’ medicine is better than the other kind. And of course more of this kind of dreck will get made, because it’s popular, and the entertainment industry tends to do what’s popular, doesn’t it. So public policy, health policy, people’s lives and health, get shaped by people who have no knowledge or expertise about the subject in hand, but just want to tell a good story, and look as if they’re crusading for something or other at the same time. As Neil Postman said, we’re amusing ourselves to death.



Don’t Go Out Alone

Dec 7th, 2003 9:35 pm | By

Well all right, if you can’t imprison and confine and repress women by putting them in purdah, or making them wear bags whenever they go outside, or slicing their genitals off, or smashing their feet, or whipping them with car antennas if they show a bit of hair or wrist – well hell, just get serious and stab them to death. That’ll teach them! I mean they’ve got a hell of a nerve thinking they get to go outside on their own, haven’t they. Who do they think they are? Adults? Responsible human beings like other people? Of course they’re not! They should be safely inside their houses, preferably in their kitchens, doing what women are supposed to be doing.

Oh, I know, that’s a bit unfair and intemperate. This sort of thing could happen to anyone, really, at least to anyone smaller and weaker and more knifeless than the assailant. But so often it is women it happens to, and then out come the warnings.

Detectives last night warned women not to go jogging on their own after a 39-year-old was left fighting for her life following a knife attack by a man believed to be responsible for murdering another female runner…’While we do not wish to be alarmist, we would ask that women who are jogging in parks or exercising their dogs try to be in the company of a friend,’ he added. ‘There are a large number of similarities between the two attacks. Both involved women of small stature, jogging alone through parks.

Try to be in the company of a friend. But what if walking alone is an activity you happen to enjoy and value? And what if the ability to walk alone is an ability you value even more? What if the idea of deciding to stop walking alone in parks makes you feel like a damn prisoner? What then?

You ignore the warning, that’s what, and go on walking alone whenever and wherever you feel like it, just as you always have. And in truth the warning is slightly absurd. Statistically, what are the odds of getting stabbed to death (or stabbed at all) in the local park, even if you are alone, even if you’re a tiny woman and it’s three in the morning? Not all that likely, surely. It’s not as if every park is stuffed with knife-carrying would-be murderers, just waiting for some fool of a woman to come toddling along, is it. No. There appears to be one out there, who has killed one woman and nearly killed another. That’s horrible and disgusting, obviously, but is it really reason to stop going into parks alone? Surely not. A great many more people are killed in car crashes every day, more people on foot are killed by cars every day, but people don’t stop either driving or crossing the street.

But the mere suggestion makes me indignant – as you may have noticed. Well I don’t like having murderers tell me how I get to live my life, even by implication. I’m nowhere near Clissold Park, or London, but that’s beside the point. This kind of thing is a meme, it spreads, it has to be resisted. I used to do a lot of hitch-hiking in my youth – all the way through my twenties, in fact. Alone. Of course I was warned against it, often by people who gave me lifts, and of course I already knew it was dangerous. But I did it anyway. I would have regretted that decision if anything horrible had happened, and I was aware of that when I did it, but I did it anyway. I did not want to be confined by fears. I wanted the adventure, I wanted the adventure that other people got to have, people called men; I didn’t want to accept limitations. So out I went, on roads and highways in the UK and Ireland and California. Defiantly. I had a good time, too. I had my adventure.



Radio Machete

Dec 6th, 2003 2:07 am | By

Ah, and just when I was talking about Rwanda, here is this story. How very interesting. The first time media executives have been convicted since the Nurenberg trials. Well that’s too bad, for a start, because Serbian radio was also used to whip up murderous ethnic hatreds. But it’s better than nothing.

In the first verdict of its kind since the Nuremberg trials, an international court today convicted three Rwandan news media executives of genocide for helping to incite a killing spree by machete-wielding gangs who slaughtered about 800,000 Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda in early 1994. A three judge panel found that the three defendants used a radio station and a twice-monthly newspaper to inflame ethnic hatred that eventually led to massacres at churches, schools, hospitals and roadblocks. The radio station, dubbed Radio Machete in Rwanda, guided killers to specific victims, broadcasting the names, license plate numbers and hiding places of Tutsis.

This is the kind of thing I always wonder about when free speech absolutists get wound up.

“The power of the media to create and destroy human values comes with great responsibility,” the court said in a 29-page summary of its judgment. “Those who control the media are accountable for its consequences.”…John Floyd, who defended one of the executives, a newspaper editor named Hassan Ngeze, denounced the verdict as a major setback for free speech and an invitation to dictators to close down any media outlet that is out of favor. “This is a terrible, terrible decision, the worst decision in the history of international justice,” Mr. Floyd said. “This is very, very dangerous. This case would have been laughed out of an American court.”

Would it? I hope not, but maybe it would. Fortunately we haven’t (as far as I know) had a situation like that, but if we did, would judges laugh a prosecution of such media executives out of court? US courts do protect political bribery and various kinds of advertising as free speech in the US, no matter how corrupt and harmful they may be, so…who knows.



Lots of People

Dec 5th, 2003 9:48 pm | By

Another interesting point at normblog. Well I can’t help it if he says something that catches my attention twice in three days. That’s just how things fall out sometimes. And really, this is something I’ve been mulling over for a couple of weeks or more, ever since re-reading Philip Gourevitch’s book on Rwanda. Longer than that really, maybe since last spring – maybe around the time Fareed Zakaria’s book on democracy was published. It wasn’t the book itself (which I haven’t read in any case) that sparked the pondering, it was the air of surprise in some of the reviews, that someone could make some shrewd and pertinent comments about democracy which recognized that democracy has some tensions or dangers. I was surprised that reviewers were so surprised – as if this were an idea that no one had ever thought of before, or at least as if it were an idea that everyone stopped thinking of once the universal franchise was in place, at least everyone to the left of General Franco. But surely it’s obvious if you think about it for about one quarter of a second that there is no magic law of the universe that prevents a majority from wanting to do things that are bad, oppressive, unfair, cruel to other people.

And that’s where Rwanda comes in. The population of Hutus was about 90%, of Tutsis about 10%. Not all Hutus wanted to slaughter all Tutsis, but a great many of them did. If there had been a referendum and they had voted on it and the kill-Tutsis side won, that would have been democracy.

Now to what Norm said:

If the liberation of the Iraqi people by military intervention was overall wrong, that needs to be argued independently of the circumstance that there were many in Egypt or Jordan or Syria who were likely to be enraged by it.

Just so. Those are two independent things. 1. X is wrong, or right. 2. X will enrage a lot of people.

Everything is going to enrage someone, and a lot of things enrage a lot of people, and some things enrage most people. But whether the things that enrage them are good or bad is a separate question. In fact one could argue that this is one of the drawbacks of democracy: that out of habit or sloppy thinking or good intentions, we mix up voting and public opinion and merit, as if they’re all more or less the same thing. Then we start to think that it’s arrogant and elitist to have an opinion that the majority of people don’t share. Then we start to think it’s arrogant and elitist ever to say anyone is wrong about anything – and then our brains turn to soup.



What Is He Laughing At?

Dec 5th, 2003 1:58 am | By

There was more of interest in that Start the Week than just the tv drama about the MMR issue. There was also a guy who’s written a book called A Dictionary of Idiocy, which is interesting because we have a little dictionary ourselves, so we’re interested in other examples of the genre. This one doesn’t sound much good though, frankly, at least not if the writer is anything to go by. He kept laughing too much, when nothing was all that funny. It’s always so embarrassing when people do that on chat shows and the people they’re chatting with don’t join them, but in fact get less and less giggly as they get more so. There was Stephen Bayley roaring with uninfectious laughter every few seconds and there was Andrew Marr talking soberly away, politely ignoring this odd behavior. Marr ended up saying the book was a bit of a grab bag – the laughter must have gotten on his nerves at last.

And then, much better, there was Jamie Whyte’s book Bad Thoughts: A Guide to Clear Thinking. Well you know what I’m going to say. How interesting! I thought. We’ve got one of those, only it’s called Bad Moves instead of Bad Thoughts, but the idea is exactly the same. And unlike the dictionary guy, Whyte sounds very sensible and clever. And there was a fascinating moment between the two of them…They were obviously bound to get on each other’s nerves anyway, because Bayley thinks opinions are great things and everyone should have more of them, quite regardless of quality. Just more and more opinions, livening up the place. Whyte thinks precisely the opposite, that people have a lot of damn silly opinions based on nothing and they should learn to do better. So he was explaining this line of thought and Bayley interjected with his own, and Whyte replied something to the effect that after all the truth is not a bad thing to aim at, and Bayley said – you know what he’s going to say. ‘But there’s no such thing as truth, is there?’ I waited eagerly for the reaction. There was a frozen pause – then Whyte said, with politely suppressed exasperation, that that would take us too far into philosophy but, etcetera. Highly amusing. And it’s in the archive, there for your listening pleasure.



What Silence?

Dec 4th, 2003 7:37 pm | By

Front Row yesterday included discussion of and a clip from a Channel 5 drama called ‘Hear the Silence’ about the controversy over the MMR jab and autism. Monday’s Start the Week also discussed the drama, with Juliet Stevenson who stars in it.

The bit of dialogue we heard on Front Row confirmed my worst expectations of what such a drama would be like. Oh great, thought I when Mark Lawson first described the subject matter. Plucky victimized parent takes on medical establishment and shows how wrong it is about everything, thus convincing everyone that MMR jab causes autism. And sure enough – the bit of dialogue was well-acted, to be sure, but it was also utterly predictable. Chilly rational uncaring doctor tells mother some boring facts about autism, passionate upset angry mother tries to convince c.r.u. doctor that the boring facts are beside the point, that her son was fine before the jab and autistic after it. In short, the doctor is repellent and the mother is highly sympathetic. Great. So the audience is manipulated into having an opinion on the link between the MMR jab and autism that has nothing to do with evidence or research and everything to do with the way a screenplay is written and acted. Um, is that really an ideal way to form public opinion?

They did talk about the controversy on Front Row though, and they talked about it more (having more time) on Start the Week. That’s good. But not everyone who sees the drama will have heard the discussion, naturally. And the trouble with this whole subject is that it’s not a situation where one course of action is dangerous and the other is safe. It’s not safe to omit the vaccination(s). So it’s difficult not to think that actors and screenwriters are not really the best people to be shaping the debate at this stage.



Geography

Dec 4th, 2003 1:30 am | By

There is a very interesting post at Normblog on the whole vexed question, which I’ve mentioned a time or two here, of what exactly is ‘left’ (or ‘right’) anyway, and who gets to decide, and how do we know, and why does it matter.

I find it odd, especially given that Marc himself was a supporter of the Iraq war, that he should feel it appropriate to frame the discussion as one about moving rightward – as if it’s already pre-defined where, in this division of opinion, the authentic values of the left lie, and we can gauge from that who’s moving which way. Why couldn’t it be, rather, that the left, like pretty well the rest of the world, was internally divided over a major political and moral issue of our time, and that’s it? To think of it in terms of rightward movement and ‘renegacy’ (even if this last is in scare-quotes) concedes too much to a way of thinking for which the left has already paid a heavy price: a way of thinking, that is, according to which there can only be one legitimate viewpoint on the left.

That’s just it, you see. What are the authentic values of the left, where do they lie? I must say, the more I read and hear of the bizarre ravings of people who think it’s left-wing to despise reason and logic and secularism and the Enlightenment, that it’s left-wing to be ‘sensitive’ towards the culture of the Other no matter how disgustingly the people with all the power in that culture treat women or untouchables or child slaves, that it’s left-wing to upbraid critics of such practices for being Eurocentric and hegemonic – the more I think I’ve gone through the looking-glass. That’s certainly not what I mean by left, or progressive or socialist or radical or whatever you like to call it. In short, the word has reversed its meaning in a lot of ways, so claiming people have moved to the right needs a lot of unpacking before we can even understand it.

…what I care about are the values that I’ve always thought of the left as standing for, and not my spatial positioning in relation to anybody else.

Just so. Left, right, up, down, back, front – whatever. Who cares. At a time when so many putative ‘left’ ideas are ones that Edmund Burke would have greeted with cries of joy, the word just isn’t all that useful.



Claimants Decide

Dec 3rd, 2003 1:08 am | By

I thought I would try to find some more articles on this Human Remains Working Group Report. I was aware of it, I remember hearing it mentioned (and even discussed briefly, in passing) on Start the Week recently, but I didn’t pay enough attention. I think I meant to, I think I made a vague mental note, but…well, we know how it is with mental notes, don’t we.

So here is a BBC article, which starts from the point of view of people who want the bones returned and then after several paragraphs mentions the objections of scientists and museum directors and pesky people like that. But here is another BBC article from last May, and this one starts from the scientific point of view.

The scientists are campaigning against the adoption of legislation already passed in Australia and the US which has seen thousands of specimens handed over to aboriginal communities. “These collections are central to what we do; if we have to hand some of this material over it will be tragic,” said Dr Robert Foley, an anthropologist from the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at Cambridge University. “There is enormous interest in human evolution; huge interest in how modern humans came out of Africa and spread across the world. These bones help us understand that.”

It also mentions the ominous precedent of NAGPRA in the US:

In the US, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (Nagpra) has seen a steady erosion of collections. Claimants decide the future of the bones, whether to rebury or destroy them, or to keep them available for study.

Claimants decide. Not, claimants and scientists both decide, but claimants decide. Not good.



O That Esoteric Windiness

Dec 1st, 2003 11:39 pm | By

And another treat, this review of a long biography of Jung. It’s full of good jokes and pertinent observations. For instance –

I picked it up with some words that Macaulay wrote in a review of a two-volume biography of Lord Burleigh echoing through my mind like the insistent snatch of a tune (I quote from memory): Compared with the labour of reading these volumes, all other labour, the labour of thieves on the treadmill, the labour of children in the mines, the labour of slaves on the plantation, is but a pleasant recreation.

And then –

Jung was decidedly not born a charlatan—or at least, he was not one throughout the whole of his career. True, he grew up in a family with a more than average number of table-rappers, which no doubt inclined him later to the study of the esoteric (for it certainly never occurred to him to wonder why the esoteric was, in fact, esoteric), and was subjected in his youth to that Teutonic windiness which comes so easily, though no means inevitably, to those who think and write in the German language. There is nothing quite like esoteric windiness for creating a penumbra of profundity, to which bored society ladies are drawn like flies to dung: and this no doubt explains how he became the Madame Blavatsky of psychotherapy.

I particularly like that, because it’s so relevant to the Bad Writing topic we’ve been gnawing on lately. ‘There is nothing quite like esoteric windiness for creating a penumbra of profundity…’ Exactly so, and that’s why people do it. That, plus the way it makes it so much harder for critics to pin down their mistakes.

Jung was a preternaturally unclear writer and thinker: he would never say anything clearly when obfuscation would do. Whether this was from lack of talent or an unconscious appreciation that clarity led to the possibility of contradiction and even refutation…

Precisely. Dangerous stuff, clarity. It can make it clear that we’re talking nonsense.



Dry Bones

Dec 1st, 2003 9:04 pm | By

There is an excellent article at spiked by Tiffany Jenkins, who wrote another excellent article for us last spring. An excellent article on a very depressing and irritating subject – this passion for defining all human remains, however old and however uncertain of provenance, as someone’s ‘ancestors,’ thus ensuring that they can’t be studied or preserved for future research and study.

Note that the report by the Human Remains Working Group, which was appointed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, is called a majority report ‘because the group’s only scientist refused to accept its verdict.’ Note that and then ponder it a bit. Ponder the fact that a matter with such large implications for science is handed over to a working group with only one scientist. Which is not to say that political, ethical, moral or other non-scientific concerns should never second-guess or criticise or veto scientific ones – but it is to raise an eyebrow, at least.

But another factor is the message that this policy sends out – it effectively suggests to all and sundry that scientific research is not a priority, and that science should be put second to mystical kinds of belief. The panel of experts that will oversee the treatment of remains, for example, will explicitly not include any scientist or researcher who works on the remains – but it will include those ‘versed in belief systems’. The panel will be akin to a new high priesthood guarding the sacred relics.

And not all of this pressure to ‘return’ bones and remains is a response to demands by indigenous (or any other) groups who have had their ancestors’ remains unceremoniously carted off – a lot of it starts at the other end, among museum staff and lawyers, smitten by a bizarre mix of political zeal and spirito-mystico nonsense. It’s enough to make a cat laugh, frankly.

Even in cases of unaffiliated or unwanted remains, the report leans on the side of return. While there are campaign groups who have made strong and vocal demands for return, there are as many people contacted by museums who have been uninterested in receiving boxes with bones of their possible ancestors…The report seems to suggest that descendants are in denial, arguing that: ‘Museums might wish to look critically at the political, economic and other reasons for any silence or absence of protest.’

Well don’t let that stop you! If nobody wants the damn bones back, just ‘look critically’ at the reasons for that absence of protest until you manage to come up with a convincing explanation and then, wallop! drop the cartons of bones on the doorstep of some lucky descendants.

The target of this report is the researchers and scientists working on the remains. The constant message is that remains are sacred and that research must be restrained by ‘respect’. Museums’ claims to scientific or historical objectivity are implicitly criticised…What is drummed home is the idea that no bone shall be regarded in an impersonal fashion. Every molecule, hair and fingernail is seen as sacred unless proven otherwise – and even then, it is thought that the sacred significance has not yet been discovered.

The people who want the remains back have not yet been discovered, the sacred significance has not yet been discovered – so the energy that once would have gone into research on the remains themselves now goes into discovering ‘sacred significance.’ Sad, isn’t it.



Miscellany

Dec 1st, 2003 12:55 am | By

A couple of miscellaneous items. A scientist goes off-topic to talk about women composers, thus revealing (and not for the first time) that scientists tend to know more about the arts than artists and humanist scholars know about science.

And then there’s a very interesting long post by John Holbo on Bad Writing. He’s just read Just Being Difficult?, the new book that re-ignited the subject of bad writing, and he has some excellent acerbic comments on it. There’s also a discussion of Holbo’s discussion at Crooked Timber. One reader there makes this classic comment:

I’ve always wanted to ask Steven Weinberg why he became a scientist. The answer would be most likely because of a certain kind of desire for a certain kind of truth. But truth is a metaphysical construct with a whole lot of poetical baggage. In court they don’t talk about ‘truth’ but about ‘facts’ which are much more mundane. No one spouts of about The Eternal Search for FACTS! do they?

Ah. Truth is a metaphysical construct with a whole lot of poetical baggage, is it. And is that all it is? Does that exhaust the subject? Does no one ever use the word ‘truth’ without attaching words like ‘eternal’ or rather ‘Eternal’ to it? Whose poetical baggage and metaphysical construction is whose, here? Interesting.



Asymmetry

Nov 28th, 2003 9:00 pm | By

Well good, we’ve got that cleared up: all the potential Democratic presidential candidates are religious, there’s not an atheist in the bunch. That’s a relief, isn’t it? And a surprise? Atheists being so thick on the ground in US politics, especially at the national level.

The assumptions behind the news article reporting on this shocker are rather strange, however. Or at least, if not strange in the context of US politics, still, strange in other contexts one can think of. There is this remark, for instance:

Each of the Democrats vying for the right to challenge Bush next year has reaffirmed his or her faith, refusing to cede spirituality to the Republicans.

So, they refuse to cede spirituality, but they’re perfectly content to cede skepticism, secularism, atheism. Why is that? Well one obvious answer of course is that there are more religious people than non-religious ones in the US, and people seeking votes naturally want more rather than fewer. But is that all? Is there not an underlying assumption that ‘spirituality’ (whatever that is) is a good and virtuous thing and therefore must not be ‘ceded’ to the other party? Or am I imagining things.

And then of course there’s the permanent irritation of the way Democrats are always in such a sweat never to ‘cede’ anything to Republicans, and it hardly ever works the other way around. Again, why is that? Why do Dems never worry about ‘ceding’ anything to the left? Why do Republicans never worry about ‘ceding’ anything to Democrats? Why is it almost always just the Democrats who have to follow the Republicans’ lead? This is not just an artifact of the recent takeover of every conceivable political office by Republicans, either, Democrats have been doing it at least since the ’50s. Lyndon Johnson had deep misgivings about sending troops to Vietnam in the summer of 1964, for instance, but he did it anyway because otherwise Goldwater would be able to portray him as weak on the Commies. And it’s always like that. Democrats are always afraid of being seen as ‘too’ lefty, Republicans are hardly ever afraid of being seen as ‘too’ righty. I suppose that could be because Republican ideas are inherently better ideas, but, somehow, I don’t quite think so…



More

Nov 26th, 2003 12:35 am | By

More update on Stephen King at the National Book Awards and the whole ‘You should feel guilty for not reading John Grisham’ line. Excellent comments from Terry Teachout here and here. And the story in the Independent.



Dr Fox

Nov 25th, 2003 9:12 pm | By

A kind and helpful reader alerted me to this article in an email yesterday. It’s very interesting (and also rather amusing, especially at the beginning), but it turns out it doesn’t corroborate what I’m saying in quite the way I thought it might. But that’s okay, because it does raise another issue, which I think it’s worth talking about.

The claim of the article is that difficulty carries prestige, quite independent of content or substance. That educated people will rate a lecture or article more highly if it is ‘difficult’ than if it’s not (with the substance remaining the same). But the trouble is, the measure of difficulty is not a very good one, as the author, Scott Armstrong, acknowledges of one test.

This test is a crude measure of readability because it uses only S, sentence length in words, and N, the number of syllables per 100 words:
F = 207 – 1.02 S – 0.85 N…The Gunning Fog Index (G) is based on average sentence length (S) and the percentage of words (W) with three or more syllables; G = 0.4(S + W).

Yes, and that’s not what I mean by ‘difficulty’ or obscurity or indeed bad writing. At all. I like both polysyllables and long sentences with dependent clauses, and I emphatically don’t like Dick-and-Jane baby writing. I have seen some books of popular philsophy that resort to short sentences and words, and it always surprises me. Surely the audience for popular philsophy is not people who balk at long words or sentences – surely it’s mostly educated people, but educated in other fields. So that’s not it. It’s far more a matter of that dread word, ‘jargon’. That is a loaded word, and I flinch a bit whenever I use it. One person’s jargon is another person’s everyday vocabulary (or it’s another irregular verb – I use technical language, she uses jargon), technical fields do rely on jargon where it would be cumbersome to try to do without it, and it can be and often is anti-intellectual to complain of any and all jargon/technical language. But, in spite of all that, it is almost impossible not to suspect that jargon as used by Bad Writers is not necessary, but rather a device for expanding a small, banal idea into a huge billowing one that impresses the audience, just as Dr. Fox impressed his.

Consider Martha Nussbaum’s translation of Judith Butler’s prize-winning sentence, for example:

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

Now, Butler might have written: “Marxist accounts, focusing on capital as the central force structuring social relations, depicted the operations of that force as everywhere uniform. By contrast, Althusserian accounts, focusing on power, see the operations of that force as variegated and as shifting over time.” Instead, she prefers a verbosity that causes the reader to expend so much effort in deciphering her prose that little energy is left for assessing the truth of the claims.

‘Verbosity’ is yet another subjective term, of course, but surely it’s obvious enough what Nussbaum means. And Nussbaum herself is no short sentence, cat sat on mat writer. In fact she is quite difficult at times, but since she is actually saying something, it’s not the baffling, energy-depleting sort of difficult that Bad Writing resorts to, in a conscious or unconscious effort to prevent assesment of the truth of the claims. The Dr. Fox theory has a lot of merit.



Stephen King Revisited

Nov 24th, 2003 11:46 pm | By

Update – I commented a few days ago on Stephen King’s strange remarks at the National Book Awards. They’re having a very lively discussion of the same subject at Crooked Timber today.



Amazing Mess

Nov 24th, 2003 11:34 pm | By

Serendipity is always fun. I tend to experience a lot of it, because my bookshelves are so peculiarly organized, and also double-shelved, so that it’s easy to forget what’s behind the front row – I’m always rummaging around looking for one book and ending up with five or six others that I’d been thinking of looking for, wondering where I’d put, wishing I had in my hand. And everything is like that. I’m not very tidy. There are forgotten magazines, forgotten notes, forgotten drafts of essays and articles, forgotten all sorts of things. Nothing that will decay – I’m careful about that – no oozy apples or slimy pears turning up after months of wondering what that smell is. But things that don’t rot tend to get buried under drifts of more of their kind until I go looking for them. So yesterday I decided I wanted to find an old article I’d printed out – so I went through a tall stack of them that has been sitting in a corner for a couple of years now. It’s all right, it’s out of the way there, it doesn’t hurt anything. I didn’t find the one I was looking for, but I did find several others I wasn’t, but was very glad to find. One is the William Kerrigan article from Lingua Franca that I’ve mentioned a couple of times lately. Now I can tell you the title and date, in case you want to read it. November 1998, “The Case for Bardolatry: Harold Bloom Rescues Shakespeare from the Critics.” I wish I could link to it but I can’t, it’s not online. But I can quote from it, and discuss it a bit.

One bit I want to quote from gave me quite a start – I suddenly felt like a spirit summoned from the vasty deep.

Should some avatar of Ambrose Bierce ever write a Devil’s Dictionary for the modern profession of literary studies, which has indeed asked for such a scourge by generating theories about its own professionalism, one might well find the following entry: ‘Professional, noun. One who has never been struck by genius.’

I felt like jumping up and down and waving, or sending up a flare, or something. We’re here, we’re here! The avatar, its hour come round at last, is here, writing that very Dictionary. The part that’s on the site is only a fraction, you know. There’s going to be a lot more…

Only we’ll do better than that, I’m unkind enough to say. The problem with that definition is that it’s not particularly funny, and then he seems to miss the obvious joke about being struck. I don’t think we walk into obvious traps like that, thank you very much! We’re good avatars.

And then there’s the one I’ve been quoting lately:

I am told that a noted New Historicist begins her graduate Shakespeare classes by telling the students: “Do not fetishize the language.” They might have to do some fetishizing of this language in order to figure out what “fetishize” means. Used in different senses by Marx and Freud, the word “fetish” has a titanic frisson for contemporary theorists. Simply to employ it appears to induce rapture…In any case, I suspect that the word “fetishize” in “Do not fetishize the language” must be theory-speak for “value” or “get excited about.” What students are to get excited about, I guess, is the defiant act of not getting excited and using magic words like “fetishize,” to congratulate themselves on their lack of taste and sensibility. One has to wonder if a critical school programmatically excluding literary greatness can possibly have a happy prognosis.

See why I like the article? And one more bit.

Today’s critics seize any opportunity to affirm their moral superiority to the literature they study…[W]e see politicized catastrophe being deliberately imported into the realm of literature with the aim of making any other intellectual or imaginative invitation found in that space seem by comparison indulgent and elitist – a potential diversion from the grim, yet doubtless complex, business of gender and nationality.

So. Thus we learn it is good to bury things under other things, so that you can have the pleasure of finding them again. It once, was lost, but now, it’s found. Etc.



Crowded Barrel

Nov 22nd, 2003 11:58 pm | By

Oh dear, oh dear, I really shouldn’t. But I’m going to. Pester another fish in another barrel. Because it’s quite interesting how lame their arguments are, how beside the point or redundant or both. Either they accuse me of not talking about that which I never said I was talking about, or they say something I already said.

I have to say I found the ‘Bad Writing’ article extremely dissapointing. Like, unfortunately, too much criticism of theory it was utterly, utterly trivial. I mean, was this what the ‘theory wars’ were all about, that some people dislike Judith Butler’s use of subordinate clauses?

But ‘Bad Writing’ isn’t criticism of theory, it is what it says it is: a criticism of Bad Writing. Bad Writing in ‘theory’, yes, but still, the subject is bad writing, not theory. And subordinate clauses are not the problem.

Some theory is hard to read (though no harder to read than some analytic philosophy, – Gender Trouble is not appreciably harder to read than Word and Object, although the two books are difficult in different ways).

Yes. That’s my point – that ‘difficult in different ways’ bit. That covers a lot of territory, doesn’t it! I haven’t read Gender Trouble, but the theory I have read is difficult in a pointless, empty, arbitrary way, and that’s what I complain of. Writing that is difficult because the subject is inherently difficult is another matter, but that’s not the kind of writing I was talking about.

If postmodernists are wrong, critique their arguments…The best critiques of postmodernism do just that; witness the gulf separating the ‘Bad writing’ article on this site from the excellent article by Martha Naussbaum which it linked to, which engaged with the actual substance of Judith Butler’s views, rather than raising a fuss about her style.

We do critique the arguments of postmodernists, of course, in other articles. And of course the article by Nussbaum is excellent, that’s why I linked to it. But it’s certainly not accurate to say or imply that Nussbaum doesn’t ‘raise a fuss’ about Butler’s style. She does just that, here for instance:

It is difficult to come to grips with Butler’s ideas, because it is difficult to figure out what they are. Butler is a very smart person…Her written style, however, is ponderous and obscure…Thus one is led to the conclusion that the allusiveness of the writing cannot be explained in the usual way, by positing an audience of specialists eager to debate the details of an esoteric academic position. The writing is simply too thin to satisfy any such audience. It is also obvious that Butler’s work is not directed at a non-academic audience eager to grapple with actual injustices. Such an audience would simply be baffled by the thick soup of Butler’s prose, by its air of in-group knowingness, by its extremely high ratio of names to explanations.

That first sentence says it all, really. But then the other sentences go on to say quite a lot too. How can we help concluding that theory-lovers admire Butler not despite the ponderous obscure style but because of it? Especially since we have yet to encounter any who can say coherently what it is they admire about her?

Is sniggering at examples of ‘bad writing’, apparently as a substitute for providing genuine argument, really the best the self-desribed defenders of the Elightenment can come up with?

Of course it’s not. It’s the subject of one of many, many articles on this site. I disagree with the writer that Bad Writing is trivial or completely non-substantive, however, especially bad writing of the kind in question. I think it promotes bad thinking, obscures bad thinking, drives people out of the humanities, and gives the humanities a bad name, just for four things. I do think it matters. That doesn’t mean I think that’s the only thing wrong with Postmodernism, but then I never said I did. I begin to wonder if another problem with bad writing is that people who like it become incapable of reading carefully. Judging by the defenders on this site at least one would have to suspect that it does.