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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Breeding and Diversity: Using Baseball and Politics to Hide My Ignorance About the 18th Century

Posted by Aaron Bady on 05/30/09 at 12:54 PM

Opposing teams and fans enjoy attributing their success against my hapless Washington Nationals to their own dominant pitching and defense. To me, however, it is obvious that the proximate cause of the team’s 13-34 start is our impotent bats, anemic pitching, and Buster Keaton-esque, golden-age-of-Hollywood style physical comedy carnival show that masquerades as field defense. This is not surprising: the statistical idiom of baseball transforms the messy, overdetermined causation of different plays into countable units by attributing sole causation to a single player. A hitter therefore gets a hit or a pitcher gets a strikeout, without reference to the help they needed from their opposing number to do so, or the any number of other ways its causation could be understood. The language of baseball, in other words, encourages us to understand events as having a single cause, in a way that has a certain utility, but also a very specifically limited one.

If it’s not clear where I’m going with this, blame it on the psychic burden of being a Nats fan. I start with this example because, as Stephen Jay Gould writes at the beginning of Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, “we reveal ourselves in the metaphors we choose to depict the cosmos in miniature,” and just as it tells us something interesting about how baseball thinks that it gets so thoroughly mediated by statistics, so too does Gould find an important difference in whether we conceptualize biological diversity as a bush rather than a ladder. By the same token, formulating the problem of human difference and diversity as an opposition between “nature” and “nurture” reveals a great deal about the unspoken assumption underlying either position; whether it’s nature or nurture that wins out, posing the problem as an “either/or” (or even as a “which is more important?”) question very silently makes an aggressive assumption about the autonomy of both, assuming that “nature” has some kind of existence outside of the environment in which it gets nurtured, or vice versa.

But as someone like Stephen Jay Gould will happily come along to illustrate, this is very basically a wrong assumption: genes can’t do anything unless they get expressed, any more than a baseball player can get on base without the help of the pitcher. There might be a certain heuristic utility in distinguishing between the two (just as pretending that a hitter got a hit all by himself is a good way to predict future performance), but doing so also gives us only a very particularly selective picture of what is actually going on. The closer you get to the actual event itself, the less satisfactory such accounts are (as a wonderful passage from The Sea of Cortez reminds us, courtesy of EotAW).

Yet the principles of that selectivity are interesting in their own right. And part of what I learned from Jenny Davidson’s book was a better sense for both the limitations and utility of thinking in such terms, and a real appreciation for the carefully “maximal diversity,” if I may, of 18th century views on the subject. Breeding “sets a place for nature at culture’s table,” as an effort to illustrate a contrast between the very conscious ways that 18th century enlightenment figures acknowledged and grappled with the ambiguities of “breeding”—implicitly presuming the mutual implication of culture and nature—and the one-sided versions of those figures which we so often get in more contemporary discussions of the subject, as in the book’s engagement with pop-science writers like Steven Pinker. The difference between a John Locke who thought seriously about the ways culture articulates nature and Pinker’s caricature of him who is reducible to “Writing on a Blank Page,” is, after all, not only important if we are specifically interested in Locke, but is an important difference if we are interested in the problem itself, and the work of both bringing into focus the stakes for how 18th century thinkers read the biological and social data in front of them, and then allowing us to better see, in turn, how people like Pinker are (mis)reading them has tremendous potential, exactly the kind of revival of old debates to serve new needs that literary history so often strives for, but so rarely does well.

Like John , then, I think it’s a good book and I learned from it. And since the British 18th century is not my field, like Scott, I’m going to have to try to make a virtue out of my own inability to see her project except through the lens of my own. But this is more than a rationalization; it’s also a very slight polemic. While we’re all familiar with the bad faith demand that a writer exclusively address whatever particular project you yourself happen to be on about (“Excuse me, but wouldn’t your project be better if it were my project?”), there’s also something to be said for the kinds of perspective that such a contrast can provide, the value of seeing things from a different perspective, a point, by the way, which is actually quite germane to the issue at hand.

For example, because the majority of the book is so focused on the British 18th century, I register a certain jar when the book suddenly piggy-backs on the late correspondence of Adams and Jefferson to get to Edwidge Danticat or when it uses Notes on the State of Virgina as a bridge to get to the OJ Simpson trial and Ebonics. Not only is there an interesting use of Jefferson to span the gap from a very British 18th century to a very present-day American set of questions about race, but I can’t help but fixate on the chasm of history which she jumps to get there. For while she criticizes Steven Pinker’s “cavalier reference to the linguistic dislocations produced by immigration and empire as ‘genetic experiments,’” I can’t help but notice with a certain (very subjective) distress that her narrative has just as thoroughly omitted the period in which those phenomena reshaped the world, if not so cavalierly. What drops from the story when this happens? How does it affect the kinds of arguments she’s able to make about the present day? And what are the particular stakes in framing the story in this way?

As I’ve said, this is subjective, but, for me, the consistently singular tense of the term “culture” sticks out like a sore thumb, and I want to dwell on my own personal investment in the plural sense of “cultures” for a moment to show why these seems to me to be both a necessary omission and an aporetic one. After all, one of the most important innovations in human thinking that shapes the ways we think about diversity now was the crazy idea that differences between human populations can’t simply be grouped as different points along a mono-linear trajectory, that there is not one Culture (whose opposite is either the barbarity of Nature or its Edenic primitiveness) but many, a revelation which was a product of exactly the migrations and dislocations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century period that get broadly glossed under the terms “immigration and empire.” At a certain point, as George Stocking tells us, for example, it became newly thinkable to imagine different ways to be human, and in this transformation culture went from simply being nature’s antonym to being a plural field of diversity in its own right. An enlightenment singularity became a post-romantic plurality: it became possible to be human in different ways from other human beings without being any less human for it (in fact, it even sometimes became possible to understand being human to require some form of ethnic, racial, or national particularity).

It would, of course, be anachronistic and silly to demand that Davidson take any particular cognizance of this sense of culture in her account of the 18th century, since that notion just isn’t there. Fixated as I am on more modern debates, I tend to read Jefferson through the lens of that telos, and I’m always disappointed: there are inchoate versions of “cultures” claims, but only if you’re looking for it so hard that you can see little else. His fears that America will be seen as a Creole civilization, for example, lead him to dance around the notion of an American exceptionalist difference from Europe, but I don’t think he ever gives up the notion of a unifying and universal enlightenment civilization. As Davidson illustrates, in fact, his claim is characteristically that American animals are big like European animals or that American geniuses (Washington, Franklin, etc) are similarly analogous to their European counterparts. Sometimes Jefferson’s American democracy looks almost Whitmanian, but more often it’s just a familiar “country” ideology decrying the corruption of the Court and City, different only in using the New World landscape to do it. This is, I suppose, precisely why Jefferson is a useful bridge figure to the present day: the fact that he’ll put his foot in the water, but won’t step out of the boat helps extend the arguments of the 18th century into the debates that define modern politics.

With this leap in mind, however, I’m struck by the interesting re-emergence of “perfectibility” as a present day point of reference in the final chapter, “The Promise of Perfection,” and I want to note (again, subjectively) how poorly that problem-space matches up with the problem of “cultures.” Davidson’s primary adversary in those pages, it seems to me, is the danger posed by a slightly different sort of “tyranny of low expectations” than the one the right wing has so often understood affirmative action to be: she warns, I believe, that any version of determinism can provide “cover stories for moral inertia” such that explaining ourselves in terms of the causes which “explain” us can lead us to “ethical falsification.” As she puts it, finally, “to insist too strongly on [Nurture’s] powers is to allow for an erosion of moral autonomy, in ourselves and others, that is in the end difficult to distinguish from the kinds of deterministic thinking we shrink from when they are associated with genes.”

I don’t disagree with any of this as far as it goes; I find it elegantly put and persuasively argued. But I also don’t find the “tyranny of low expectations” to be a particularly frightening shibboleth, nor—I confess—am I at all troubled by the thought that anyone’s moral autonomy is being eroded by such formulations. These may be valid concerns, but they are simply not mine; while Davidson takes as her point of departure for this final intervention the begged question of how to make us all better (for which low expectations and moral inertia pose a problem), the assumption that a universal standard for better actually exists is, in my mind, at least as dangerous.

A word about the Ebonics controversy, which she touches on in chapter 6, might be helpful. Reading back over that, I’m struck—and not only because Obama Has Ended Racism!—by how dated it feels. After all, the controversy stemmed from how intuitive it could be to understand what was happening in the Oakland schools as the tyranny of low expectations: to the extent that divergence from the norm, as in the difference between standard English and Ebonics, could be perceived as a difference of quality, it became possible to classify “Black” English as bad English, in precisely the same ways that “Black” hair used to be so regularly classified as bad hair, needing to be either straightened or cut off. And I’m not sure that this is quite the issue today that it once was.

I’m not trying to make big claims about “the end of whiteness” (see Hua Hsu’s Atlantic article of that title if that’s what you want), but I was struck by how easy that equation between “black” and “bad” could be asserted then, as well as the extent to which the notion of a differently good form of English could be assumed to be counterintuitive and so openly asserted to be absurd. And in that sense, while our world resembles that world in a lot of ways, it’s also significantly not the same; the fact that our black president code switches and that the ham-fisted Republican response is more code switching, for example, illustrates how much more mainstream the notion of real ethnic diversity is in the United States, how much more normal it is to be differently human via one’s particular ethnic makeup.

After all, the diversity issue du jour is the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court, and I share with a broad variety of commentators the prediction that attempting to stir up a backlash against the very idea of ethnicity will fail in precisely the ways it succeeded in the mid-nineties. But even though I am completely conditioned by the up-to-the-minute contemporaneousness of the blogosphere, I’m not complaining about the datedness of Davidson’s examples; rather, what is clearer now than it was then is that diversity is not only not synonymous with un-quality, but that diversity itself is a positive ideal to strive for. I’m going to end by returning to Stephen Jay Gould’s Full House in a moment (since it is precisely his argument that genetic diversity is far more important than genetic perfection), but what Publius wrote at Obsidian Wings the other day on the principle of diversity on the Supreme Court is just as germane:

“Back in the day… some jurisdictions apparently required rape victims to establish that they had resisted the rape.  The idea was that resistance illustrated a lack of consent. Feminists critiqued this requirement, however, noting that it wholly ignored the female’s perspective – in essence, the legislatures had imported a very male-centric view of life into the text of the rape laws.  For instance, in most rape cases, the male is physically stronger.  In these instances, requiring resistance is rather horrible policy because it risks even further violence.

“In short, the rape laws completely lacked perspective – and were the worse for it.  The feminist critique helped expose just how slanted the “normal” baseline assumptions were that informed these laws.  If the legislative drafters had been more diverse, it’s hard to imagine that these types of requirements would have ever been enacted. But stepping back, even if you have problems with this example, the larger point is that diversity of perspective truly does have concrete value.  It’s simply impossible to get a full perspective on important legal issues if everyone is gazing through a white male prism.”

I would suggest that it is because they share an 18th century understanding of quality that so many conservative commentators not only disagree with this argument, but seem fundamentally unable to even understand it (the same way the Ebonics controversy only exists if the concept of black English is taken as an oxymoron). The notion that someone other than yourself might have a different set of values and understand the world in fundamentally different ways from you—especially a difference linked to ethnicity—and that this difference has some kind of value is just basically unrecognizable for those who believe in Universal Truths, as conservatives generally do. It simply cannot be so. But as Publius points out, the way to get the best Supreme Court is not to clone nine of whoever you decide is the ideal justice any more than a team of Barry Bonds’ would win the World Series: he might have been the most dominant player of our time, but he was never known for being a pitcher, catcher, or shortstop, and you need each of those things to win baseball games. Nine W.A.S.P. men will not produce good rulings any more than nine Barry Bonds’ will win games.

Moreover, as better pop-scientists (like Gould) can tell us, a biological population does not do well in evolutionary terms if it over-specializes, if instead of a system of healthy and flexible variation, you get excessive convergence on a single set of characteristics. Such populations are susceptible to all manner of catastrophic disasters—think Swine flu, for instance—because they lack the genetic diversity to adapt or to survive to specifically targeted problems. A “healthy” population is therefore not something you can measure by reference to an ideal sense of quality, but a function of the interrelation between different structures or tendencies within the population. I think the same thing is true on a social and a cultural level; just as we don’t have to choose between Proust and comic books—and benefit from having the choice between—the existence of many different standards for what constitutes desirable improvement in human behavior, different cultural norms and narratives for thinking about what human beings should be.

And so I wonder about the book’s final return to “perfectibility” as a point of reference—an interest it seems to share with Pinker—and whether this step is made necessary because of the 18th century lens through which it focused and by the particular kind of “partiality” that informs what is included and what is not. But then I say that not as a critique, in the usual sense: the book’s virtue is how relevant the 18th century is to the present day, while its limitations are the intervening period in which the most important conversations have changed, which is as it should be. The nice thing about critical diversity is that we don’t have to choose between them; we can have both.


First, a historicist note: if we accept Isaiah Berlin’s account of Counter-Enlightenment, the origins of this kind of particularist, anti-universalist discourse = can be found in figures like Rousseau, Herder, Burke, or Hamann, who were of course products of the Enlightenment who argued for the value of their own local knowledges, cultures, and contexts against an Enlightenment that seemed all too metropolitan, sophisticated, Francophile, etc.  Improvement comes at a cost, as her reading of Smollett demonstrates.  So we can see even at the height of Enlightenent the tension between a single, normative “culture” that represents some notion of secularized “perfection/perfectibility,” and other, more pluralistic models that value diverse models of perfection/perfectibility.

The difficulty, historically, is that these historical forms of particularism helped introduce the forms of nationalism, imperialism, racism, etc. of the nineteenth and twentieth century.  I don’t for a moment believe that contemporary discourse on diversity leads us in that direction, but this is largely because we conceive of diversity as occurring within nation-states, rather than marking off nations from one another.

All this is to say that what makes “perfectibility” so politically problematic is not its literal possibility or impossibility, but the degree to which it can be used as an ideological cover by powerful people to justify instrumental uses of other human beings, who are conceived at the level of populations. 

But I think that one of the interesting implications of Davidson’s book is its attempt to think through a notion of perfectibility in the light of this assumed plurality of ultimate values.  Is it possible to do so, without falling into the forms of exploitation, domination, etc. that it seemed to invite in the past?

By dave mazella on 06/01/09 at 09:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmm… I appreciate the nuancing of my enlightenment vs. romanticism sketch; as I’ve said, the 18th isn’t my period, so I’m very open to being corrected with respect to it. But even if “the origins of this kind of particularist, anti-universalist discourse” starts earlier than I would maybe credit it as, it’s still a dissenting minority opinion within the mainstream of “the enlightenment,” right? To stick with what I know (slightly) more about, Jefferson is another enlightenment figure who “argued for the value of [his] own local knowledges, cultures, and contexts against an Enlightenment that seemed all too metropolitan, sophisticated, etc” but, at the same time, he understands race the way he does precisely because it made sense to him to measure black divergence from the white norm as a basic imperfection. Relativism is a very second-order reflex for him, and while he often gets slotted into the “against the metropole! States’ Rights! Localism!” camp, his sense of history is capitol H History, in which all populations go through the same stages of development. Is the same not true of the counter-enlightenment more broadly?

To pick up your second point, I agree that the use of perfectibility is where the rubber meets the road, but I’m less on board with the natural link between particularism and the triple threat of nationalism, racism, and imperialism. This was why the idea of being “against the enlightenment”—in the Foucault conversation Davidson is intervening in—has so much appeal: the British rationalized colonizing savage Africa, for instance, no to turn Africans into Englishmen in particular (and they were usually pretty unenthusiastic about the possibility when it reared its head), but rather to transform human beings they saw as rooted in the “savage” stage of humanity and get them moving towards “civilization.” In other words, they understood those signposts as being staged in universalist terms, as a stage of existence that all humans had, of necessity, to pass through. There’s nothing particularist about that; even if, in practice, being “civilized” turned out to look a lot like being “English,” they never wanted to admit that (which is to say, it’s the claim that Englishness is universal that makes it <em>useful</em). 

I’m curious about your last question, though. Would you answer yes to it?

By on 06/01/09 at 05:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A few points: I think one problem with the universalist/particularist opposition is that it does tend to set up a (circularly defined) Enlightenment/Romanticism opposition that I think is problematic once we get to all the interesting cases: not just Rousseau but also Samuel Johnson, the Gothic novel (Radcliffe?), Burke, Godwin etc.  So I’m probably less interested than you might be in defining some doctrinal core to Enlightenment thought that could be identified as a “mainstream.”

Even if we accept that some figures like Burke positioned themselves against the Enlightenment in this or that caricatured version, I’m not sure that the counter-enlightenment impulse maps very neatly onto a specific or coherent philosophy of history, let alone Scottish school 4 stage theory.  Burke’s writings on India or Ireland, for example, seem to me to be a weird sentimental amalgam, and I’d be interested to hear what kind of philosophy of history might be derived from them.  My understanding of those writings, though, is that Burke criticizes British administrators like Warren Hastings to the extent they do not respect the local traditions and hierarchies of India.

We probably don’t agree about Foucault or nationalism, but to answer your final question, I’d say that the notion of perfectibility, whether in its theological or secular versions, seems to invite us to assume that there is some kind of ultimate destination or end for us to aspire to. 

So even after reading the book, I’d still answer no to my own question (is there a version of perfectibility possible that didn’t invite some form of exploitation or abuse?)

By dave mazella on 06/01/09 at 11:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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