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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Friday, October 3, 2014


A "Basbøllism" might be defined as the identification of an epistemological gap caused by shoddy scholarship, or by losing track of the "chain of custody" of ideas and words. Here's one Thomas and I were discussing at his blog. The source text:
This ’wild speculation’ on our part may not be so wild after all. Why do the X/Y notations signify theoretical differences? Why not A/Z if the author’s interest was to indicate widely divergent viewpoints? An interesting coincidence (?): At the time this book was written, 1959, women were defined as having two X chromosomes, while men were defined as having an X and a Y, according to the adopted scientific notations. (578-9)
Here's a paraphrase, or "patchwriting," in a textbook:
McGregor’s innovation is known as replacing ‘theory X’ (traditional management theory à la Taylor and Barnard) with a ‘theory Y’ (human relations theory). Why, ask Calás and Smircich, those letters? Why not ‘theories A and B’ or ‘A and Z’? They point out that it was exactly at that time that women became defined as having two X chromosomes, while men were defined as ‘XY’. McGregor’s can therefore be read, deconstructively but interestingly, as an attempt to move from an XY world to a sheer YY world: a homosocial order. (113)
The sexual differentiation of chromosomes was discovered long before, in 1905. Note that the first text does not state that 1959 was the year of this discovery; it merely uses the word "coincidence." This is a confusion in the source text, because males and females are still defined chromosomally in the same way as in 1959. The only chromosomal discovery I can trace to 1959, with my very limited knowledge, has to do with the chromosomal abnormality in Down Syndrome.

X and Y are commonly used to designate axes on a graph, for example, or for algebraic unknowns, so the idea that it is an especially significant coincidence to use these letters in 1959 for theories unrelated to genetics (in management theory) is indeed a pretty "wild speculation." The authors of the textbook seem to have no idea about what deconstruction is, and the metaphor YY = homosocial order is a bit of a stretch too. There is no person with two Y chromosomes! This reads as scientifically illiterate.

The epistemological fissure in this case occurs in taking an already shaky idea and paraphrasing it without really understanding it. The textbook falsely attributes a false assumption to the original text, ("exactly at that time") that makes the original point more forceful, but also exposes the weakness of the original conceptualization.

I am scientifically and mathematically pretty much an ignoramus. So if I do happen to need to refer to something in this area, I have to be extra careful not to perpetuate errors. I still have to trace the reference to see what the original authors thought happened in 1959, so I may have to follow up.


Andrew Shields said...

In my work on Doris Lessing, I noticed a similar problem. In her book "Particularly Cats" (first published in 1967), she speculates about how cats communicate. As part of her discussion, she refers to a 1925 book by Eugene Marais called "The Soul of the White Ant." In that book, Marais speculated that termites might use the "ether" to communicate with each other. So Lessing wondered if cats might do the same.

The problem was that the ether hypothesis of 19th-century physics had been called into question by the Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887 and then finally rendered superfluous by Einstein's theory of special relativity (1905).

Jonathan said...

I think the idea of cats communicating through the ether is wonderful, with a kind of poetic truth to it. Of course it is scientifically out of date, already in 1925. Lessing could have known that (or not), and still wanted to use that metaphor.

Thomas said...

It's true that much of my critical fervour is directed at what Heidegger called "idle talk" (Gerede): that which is said because it is what "one" says, what "they" say. A great deal of nonsense is passed along in this way, and a great way to push back against it is to point out that what is being passed along is either a misreading or plagiarism of some source (or both). Because then it is clear that no thinking entered into the transmission.

There are people who cite Derrida to suggest that the question of the identity of Hamlet's father's ghost resulted from the armour obscuring his face. As I recall, Derrida is just wrong about that, and I don't know why. But anyone who passes it along is pretending they know something about a play that they don't know thing one about. "He wore his beaver up"!

Thomas said...

PS Cats communicate through morphogenetic fields, not the ether.

Leslie said...

Lessing is fine, and isn't trying to write scienza.

My peeve is citing a secondary source when no citation is needed, but then goes on to use only that source.

[Professor] points out that [famous author] wrote [famous essay]."

(Citation not needed.)

Or: According to person X, Vasconcelos said Y, and this sentence of Vasconcelos' appears to support my theory, so I will now discuss at length Vasconcelos as presented through the filter of person X, all the while ignoring Vasconcelos himself and the enormous amount of bibiography there is on and around him.

Jonathan said...

... or quoting the editor's introduction to Vasconcelos or Bourdieu without having read the book itself.