Close Reading

I re-read an article yesterday or Sunday that I kept wanting to do a comment on as I read it. Line by line, even word by word, in places. I wanted to comment not just on the article as a whole, but on each bit of sly rhetoric as I read and noticed it. Not a macro-comment but a micro one, not an overall comment but a close-up.

And that reminded me, in an almost nostalgic, sentimental way, of the beginning of N&C. In September or October 2002, when we were thinking about and discussing what to include on B&W, what features to add. It reminded me that we didn’t exactly think of N&C as a blog, at first, or even as a blog-like thing. The original idea was that we needed a place to do close readings of nonsense. Sort of Leavisite lit-crit examination of manipulative rhetoric, fancy footwork, evasive tactics, subject-changing, translation, that sort of thing. That was the first thought. I don’t even remember how we got from there to a bloggish sort of thing – whether we just realized, well, that sounds like a blog, or we actually decided, well let’s make it a bloggish sort of thing while we’re at it, since we might as well.

Which of course raises the question, what’s the difference? What is a blog or a blog-like thing, and how does it or would it differ from a place to do close readings of other people’s rhetoric? That’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer. It’s not unlike the question ‘What does the word ‘race’ mean, and is it a word that refers to something real that exists in the world, or is it a word that refers to a human idea about or description of something that exists in the real world?’ Then again it’s not all that much like the question, since blogs are clearly a human invention, whereas the word ‘race’ purports to name something in the world, though whether it actually does that or only purports to has been much debated in human history. And then again, again, the question of what a blog is doesn’t matter much, whereas the question of what race means, if anything, has massive implications. People have been slaughtered in wholesale lots on the basis of the reality of that word, which seems unlikely in the case of blogs.

But that’s all a digression. The article in question is from Lingua Franca, July-August 1996; it’s the response of Andrew Ross and Bruce Robbins, editors of Social Text, to the Sokal hoax. ‘Mystery Science Theater,’ they call it with the masterful irony Ross is famous for. Now, it may seem slightly in the breaking a butterfly on a wheel department, to bother with an ephemeral article from nearly ten years ago. It may even be in that department, as well as seem to be. But the kind of rhetoric it resorts to is still around, and still percolating through the larger culture, and then this article is such an egregious example of it, that I think it’s worth a look anyway. Or maybe I just mean that I feel like it. So. There are several bits I want to look at; this one is near the end. (The article, alas, is apparently no longer online, at least all the links I found were dead, so I’m quoting from the version published in The Sokal Hoax by Lingua Franca Books, University of Nebraska Press, pp. 54-8.)

Our main concern is that readers new to the debates engendered by science studies are not persuaded by the Sokal stunt that this is simply an academic turf war between scientists and humanists/social scientists, with each side trying to outsmart the other. Sadly, this outcome would simply reinforce the premise that only professional scientists have the credentialed right to speak their minds on scientific matters that affect all of us. What’s important to us is not so much the gulf of comprehension between ‘the two cultures,’ but rather the gulf of power between experts and lay voices.

There are several things to say about that passage; I’ll just mention one for now. Consider ‘the premise that only professional scientists have the credentialed right to speak their minds on scientific matters.’ What does ‘speak their minds’ mean, for a start? Surely we all have a right to speak our minds on scientific matters – don’t we? I don’t know if we have a credentialed right or not, but then I don’t know what that phrase means, either. That’s just it. It’s supposed to imply a lot, without actually saying it, because if it said what it means too plainly, it might be too obvious how silly it is – so that’s where meaningless phrases come in handy. What they seem to mean is something more like ‘only professional scientists have the credentialed right to speak their minds on scientific matters and be listened to.’ Which is another matter. I can ‘speak my mind’ all I like, on the human genome project, on virology, on GM crops, on anything I like; so can you, so can anyone. But that doesn’t mean we’ll say anything valid, or true, or useful, or worth paying attention to in any way, does it. And it seems reasonable to think that ‘professional scientists’ are more likely to be able to say valid, true things about ‘scientific matters’ at least in their own fields than non-scientists, doesn’t it. Which is not to say that scientists and only scientists should be the ones to discuss the consequences of science, but then that’s not what the passage says either.

And then consider ‘the gulf of power between experts and lay voices’. Ah yes, that gulf. Like the gulf between, say, cancer researchers and Prince Charles? Researchers who know something about autism and the MMR vaccine, and Juliet Stevenson? That gulf? No, not that gulf. That’s not the one they mean, but it ought to be. The result of hand-wringing over this ‘gulf of power’ between people who know something about a subject and impassioned people who know nothing about it but want to ‘speak their minds’ is – that we get science according to celebrities and journalists in place of science according to ‘experts’. Be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes.

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