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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
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Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

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

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

That Science Thing

Posted by Bill Benzon on 03/25/10 at 10:32 AM

I don’t give a crap about science.

Let me repeat that: I don’t give a crap about science.

From which is follows, as the night the day, that I’m not interested in making the study of literature more scientific. I certainly want to see literary studies change in certain ways, use new ways of thinking—and of organizing and publishing our work. But making it “more scientific” is not part of the program.

Still, when I say “I don’t give a crap about science,” what do I mean? Anyone who has more than a casual acquaintance with my work knows that I frequently cite work in, e.g. cognitive science, neurobiology, and actually use those ideas in the body of my text. Until about three years ago I only got three academic journals, PMLA, Science, and Nature. Then I dropped PMLA (not all that interesting), a year later I dropped Nature (too expensive), and finally, alas, Science (not as expensive as Nature, but still too much). It thus seems unlikely that I intend “I don’t give a crap about science” to have its most obvious meaning, that is: I don’t give a crap about science.

I mean something else.

Most intimately, most closely to hand, I mean that I don’t worry about whether or not my work is sufficiently scientific. I worry about whether or not it is interesting, about rigor and coherence, about whether the prose is clear and, as appropriate, elegant. But is it scientific? Not an issue. Nor is it an issue in the work of others.

Another thing I worry about is objectivity. Something I find deeply obscure.

As I walk about my apartment there are all these things that clearly are objects, existing apart from me. Much philosophical ink has been spilt on that issue, but it is not that ink & its intended meanings that I mean to evoke here and now. Just the ordinary experience and those real objects out there in the world. So that is one thing.

Then there is scientific objectivity, over which much philosophical ink has also been spilt. I believe such objectivity is real, though our understanding of it is obscure and contested.

What about the objectivity of journalists? That is different from the objectivity of scientists. How does it work? Some might wonder whether it is possible at all. Can the notion of “objectivity” be given useful meaning with respect to the situations on which journalists must report?

I also recognize that some matters are ineluctably subjective. Among those, some may be relentlessly idiosyncratic and specific to individuals. But I’m not sure that beauty is among those. Nor the good. It is often possible to reach substantial intersubjective agreement on matters that are subjective. Society would be impossible without such agreement. And we may well mistake widespread intersubjective agreement on subjective matters for objectivity. Or is that a mistake? Sometimes, often, always, never?

Objectivity, how to achieve it, that has perhaps been my main methodological concern in literary studies. These days I am particularly interested in the ways in which we can extend the reach of objective analysis and description of literary works (cf. this post on how “Kubla Khan” kicked my intellectual training into oblivion, of this article on literary morphology).

What about intersubjective agreement on subjective matters? What role does it play in literary studies? Note that I believe genuine critical activity, aesthetic or ethical evaluation of texts, is subjective and so criticism in this sense is about securing intersubjective agreement.

(What about objectivity and intersubjective agreement?)


* * * * *

Ergo, I tend to regard much-most humanities vs. science discussion as ideologically-driven wanking and I regard Snow’s Two Cultures and its spawn as children of the Devil.


Comments

There are only two kinds of dichotomies. True or False.

By nnyhav on 03/25/10 at 11:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Inquiring minds want to know: Who shaves the barber?

FWIW, I believe I first learned about the Barber from Dick Macksey, who owned a first edition of the Principia Mathematica.

By Bill Benzon on 03/26/10 at 06:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Why the past tense, Bill? Doesn’t he still own it? My impression was that his 70,000 volumes only go to JHU when he shuffles off this mortal coil.

By on 03/26/10 at 03:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re right, at least I assume he still owns it. The past tense was for when I saw it, but obviously doesn’t belong on that verb.

By Bill Benzon on 03/26/10 at 05:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"It is often possible to reach substantial intersubjective agreement on matters that are subjective. Society would be impossible without such agreement.”

You’re using “agreement” very broadly here, Bill. Eg: people agree to *disagree* on their favorite sports teams, which is the dynamic without which team sports would be impossible. Or, an entire office building of male workers in Guam can “agree” on the notion that, say, erm, “Marilyn Monroe” is “sexy” without agreeing about what “sexy” means. To “agree” with a notion or a value is not, necessarily, at the same time, to agree with others about the terms on which “agreement” hinges: to say “yes” is not, necessary, to agree about what saying “yes” entails, and so forth. The more “scientific” we attempt to get with non-quantifiable pseudo-objects (ie: words and their meanings), the more we reveal the fact that true consensus isn’t even *possible* (whether or not it’s desirable) and Literary and/or Arts Criticism is, chiefly, a form of entertainment that provides the corollary service of sharpening our personal opinions on matters that no two human minds will ever view (or contain) identically (unless there’s a mind-reading Twin Study to refute this; but even a consensus of two won’t put much of a dent in my contention).

I defy anyone to assert a verifiable consensus on the flavor, feel, charm, vitality, uses, mis-uses and associations of a *single word*... more-the-less a poem or novel.

We can measure subatomic particles; we can *agree* on those measurements (I guess); but words are too fine for that.

What I don’t get is why the concept of *utter subjectivity* would disturb anyone. Again: we live with it with Religion; why shouldn’t we be able to accept it with Aesthetics? My sneaking suspicion is that the Competition Gene is involved: we want *our* tastes to be measurably “better”.

By StevenAugustine on 04/14/10 at 08:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Note that I believe genuine critical activity, aesthetic or ethical evaluation of texts, is subjective and so criticism in this sense is about securing intersubjective agreement.”

I think it’s rather more about charismatic/influential critics garnering followers (eg JW): which brings me back to the Religion analogy and the overlap (priests as interpreters of texts) is obvious.

By StevenAugustine on 04/15/10 at 04:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . I think it’s rather more about charismatic/influential critics garnering followers. . .

Which is to say that such critics are central to a social mechanism for bringing about intersubjective agreement.

I defy anyone to assert a verifiable consensus on the flavor, feel, charm, vitality, uses, mis-uses and associations of a *single word*... more-the-less a poem or novel.

Nonetheless we manage to use words for communication, not perfectly, but effectively. As for poems and novels, our academic and critical institutions stress interpretive novelty and so are designed to foment disagreement. I not saying that “deep down” we all agree. I don’t think that for a moment. Nor do I take verbalized disagreements as anything like a full measure of the “weight” and “influence” those texts have.

. . . why the concept of *utter subjectivity* would disturb anyone . . .

I’m not sure what “utter” subjectivity is supposed to mean As far as I can tell, something is either subjective or not. The color red is subjective and so is one’s experience of, say, Avatar. It doesn’t make much sense to assert that one is more subjective than the other. But one seems to be more variable between individuals, but it’s not the inter-individual variability that makes the thing subjective.

By Bill Benzon on 04/15/10 at 05:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Which is to say that such critics are central to a social mechanism for bringing about intersubjective agreement.”

My point being that the social mechanism of “agreement” is suspect when it comes to a discussion with aspirations towards something *conclusive*; it’s not even necessarily about a meeting of minds, then, this agreement of which you sing: so what’s the value in it? “The Cubs are better than the Orioles; or they aren’t”... how is it not, in the end, on that level?

“Nonetheless we manage to use words for communication, not perfectly, but effectively.”

The “argument” here being not about whether we can communicate but whether there’s any possible value in your “intersubjective agreement” so stable that discussions about Aesthetics, anchored in these agreements, can come close to generating anything conclusive.

“I’m not sure what “utter” subjectivity is supposed to me. As far as I can tell, something is either subjective or not. The color red is subjective and so is one’s experience of, say, Avatar. It doesn’t make much sense to assert that one is more subjective than the other.”

Well, I disagree: however I experience “red”, there are quantifiable definitions of it (involving wavelengths, say) that scientists/manufacturers rely on at such times that “red” is an important description of a result or a product, etc. Whereas my experience of Avatar is necessarily trickier/shiftier (even after repeated hypothetical viewings) than that. Not to mention the fact that the color red’s objective reality (as a range of wavelengths) transcends my experience of it (appearing at various uninhabited points of the universe at this very moment), whereas Avatar’s objective reality (as a crafted pattern of light and sound) has *no other purpose* than to generate an audience’s subjective experience of it. For me, the difference deserves discrimination and earns that “utter” (or someone else’ “rather” or “fairly"). I don’t see “subjective” as a qualifier-snubbing absolute (like “infinite” or “unique"). But that’s probably just subj…

By StevenAugustine on 04/15/10 at 07:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . the color red’s objective reality (as a range of wavelengths). . .

I’m afraid that’s not how color perception works. Perceptual psychology is quite clear on that point, but it’s more than I can explain in a comment. Here’s an old post that indicates some of what’s going on:

http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/color_the_subject/

By Bill Benzon on 04/15/10 at 08:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Uh oh! Somebody better tell those astronomers:

“Spectroscopy is the study of objects based on the spectrum of color they emit or absorb. Spectroscopy is an important investigative tool in astronomy where scientists use it to analyze the properties of distant objects.”

But, again. I have to confess I’m not sure what we’re arguing about, now. I agree that groups of people can line up their senses of the Aesthetic in order to agree on this or that novel or poem; I just don’t think they can generate a discussion that comes to any conclusions that are then transferable to *those with different tastes*. The issue for me is the impossibility of “conclusivity” here.

Bill, as I wrote long ago, ten Euros to anyone who can *prove* (rather than assert persuasively) that DeLillo’s Underworld is better than Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (substitute any book you think is shitty hackwork) ...or vice versa. That’s the crux of it, isn’t it? There’s no possibility of proof… and I don’t mean that in a maddeningly metaphysical pot-smoking sense, because I believe in the legal and scientific and logical possibilities of “proof”.

Anyway, I won’t dilute my points by reiterating them further… I’m happy to agree to almost-agree on this…

By StevenAugustine on 04/16/10 at 04:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, I suspect those astronomers will come up with the difference between wavelength and color if pressed. And, while I hate to harp on this, color really is subjective. The color you see is not a direct function of the wavelengths that enter your eye from (through and/or reflected by) an object. If it were, the color of objects would vary more widely than it does. Perceptual psychologists call that color constancy. Perceived color is relatively constant because the eye/brain makes context sensitive adjustments. There isn’t anything such thing as non-perceived color; there’s wavelength, but that’s not color.

And if it seems like I’m being picky on this, well I am. I want to separate the notion of subjectivity from the notion of (wild) idiosyncratic variation between individuals. I don’t deny that the latter exists in the subjective realm, but I do deny that that is a defining characteristic of the subjective realm. Talk about color is a good way to do that. But you have to pay attention to the psychophysics.

Bill, as I wrote long ago, ten Euros to anyone who can *prove* (rather than assert persuasively) that DeLillo’s Underworld is better than Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (substitute any book you think is shitty hackwork) ...or vice versa. That’s the crux of it, isn’t it?

Well, if we’re in a bar arguing good books, OK. Of if we’re arguing The Canon in some journal, OK. But we really don’t need such specific agreement in order to make culture work. And that’s what I’m concerned about, making culture work, in the large and over the long term.

By Bill Benzon on 04/16/10 at 07:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I think we’re kinda arguing past each other here (eg, read the distinction between my perception of “red”, and its objective definition as a range of wave-lengths, that I’ve already taken pains to make, as the support for my use of “utter”! laugh). I mostly agree with you! And culture definitely works.

By StevenAugustine on 04/16/10 at 07:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, but “range of wavelengths” is ambiguous. And I’m not saying that the boundary between red and, say, orange is somewhat arbitrary. Set the boundary however you wish, I don’t care; that’s not what the argument is about. It’s about what the eye/brain does over the whole ensemble of wavelengths entering at a time.

There are these demonstrations where a patch that reflects some wavelength will appear as color X in one context and color Y in a different context. Same wavelength, different colors.

By Bill Benzon on 04/16/10 at 07:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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