“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, June 21, 2013

if truth is stranger than fiction, what is a truism stranger than?

“Truth is stranger than fiction” – such is the truism. About truisms, one never says that they are stranger than fiction – on the contrary, a truism banalizes truth. It brings out, so to speak, the truth’s unconscious lie, in bringing out the system in which the truth is placed.
However, what I want to know is: why? By what measure is the truth stranger than fiction? In fact, the formalists say that making strange, estrangement, is one of the great devices of art. Skhlovskii defines that strangeness as a form of de-routinization. A part of the world – a tree, say – is given a presence that seems to depart from the routines to which trees in the human world are subject – chopping them down, planting them in groves or along streets, cooling ourselves in their shade, etc. The tree in Tolstoy’s short piece, Three deaths, for instance, is given a more tragic and meaningful death than the two human beings, even though the tree is in no way anthropomorphized.
Turning around the phrase, we have another claim: fiction is less strange than truth. Why? Or rather, How? For fiction is not like fruit, something you pick off the routinized tree, or even the paradisial tree in the Garden of Eden. Fiction is eminently made. And like many products of the modern industrial age, it is made to a certain standard.
A good example of the non-strangeness of fiction stuck itsthumb out in yesterday’s New York Times – although this thumb had shed its flesh in crematoria of Auschwitz, or in the mass graves of any number of the satellite camps. The story begins in 1952, in a heavily Catholic Christian Democrat Italy eager to discover the right kind of resistance to fascism – that is, not the communist, or partisan kind. By 1952 the system of the ratlines by which, in 1945 and 1946,  the Vatican hid priests and ecclesiastics involved in the mass extermination of Jews and Serbs in Croatia and helped them escape to Argentina, was a fading memory – or at least, at that moment, an uninvestigated one. In that year, the  Bishop of Campania, Giuseppe Maria Palatucci, decided to help out his brother’s family, who were involved in a pension dispute, by describing his nephew, Giovanni Palatucci, as a rescuer of Jews who died at Dachau because of his Christian act. How did he rescue these Jews? According to the original story, Palatucci sent them to a camp in Campagna, where they could be protected by the Bishop.
This story succeeded beyond the Bishop’s wildest dreams. A stream of books and articles attributed a major role to Giovanni Palatucci, who was called the police chief of Fiume. In these books, the number of Jews he saved rocketed to around 5,000. He was designated as one of the “Righteous” by  Yad Vashem. He was honored posthumously by the Italian state, and declared a martyr by Pope John Paul. He was on the way to sainthood…
Well, bets are now off on the sainthood. According to a pretty exhaustive report by the Centro Primo Levi, the Palatucci story is a fiction. However, in this case, again, the truth operates as an estrangement device – the truth, that is, about the way the fiction was made. In fact, Palatucci’s position in Fiume was as a functionary who did census work to identify Jews that were to be shipped off to the camps. Far from rescuing 5,000 Jews by sending them to a “vacation” camp in Campagna, there seems to have been 40 Jews sent to Campagna, and many of those were then shipped to Auschwitz. Fiume itself was remarkable for the efficiency of its Judenrein policies – 80 percent of Fiume’s Jews had vanished – up in smoke – by the war’s end. By the war’s end, too, Palatucci was dead in Dachau – shipped there because he was caught trying to make a deal with the British to save Fiume, presumably from the Communists.
These truths remind me of a particular fiction – Leonard Sciascia’s Candido. It is not, in my opinion, one of his great fictions. It is too tendentious. The story line in Candido concerns the way formerly high ranking and committed fascists under Mussolini radically changed their stories in postwar Italy, becoming Communist politicians, Christian Democrat journalists, and the like – but all remembered themselves as resisting fascism. Candido is a satire about the turncoat history upon which the Cold War Italian order was founded.  Sciascia’s great topic, in fact, was the rottenness of that order. It choked upon the lie that gave it legitimacy. The lie, here, the banal fiction, made Italian reality, as seen through the lens of the official version, much less strange than the Italy Sciascia tried to get at through his fictionalized truths – his fictions about how easily the truth could be subverted by fiction when the desire was for fiction.
It probably never occurred to the little functionary in Fiume, doing his everyday job identifying Jews for their eventual disappearance, that one day he’d be honored throughout the world for his job in rescuing his material. By now, the weight of the fiction that he did so is such that it will surely survive the revelation that it was all wrong. Too much has been invested in this story. But it will be interesting to see how long it will take holocaust memorials that have honored Palatucci to quietly put away the laurels. As for the larger story: according to the Independent, “Regarding plans for Palatucci’s beatification, the Vatican says it has now asked a historian to look into the matter.”

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

negation of the negation

Ah, the bits that are thrown away by writers in passing! I’m reading an essay collection by Mary McCarthy – yes, I’m one of that phantom audience who reads old essay collections -  and in a review of Simone de Beauvoir’s account of her American tour, I come upon this bit of diamond fit for a sceptre that was, as it were, thrown away in a bit of meat for the periodical grinder:

“On an American leafing through the pages of an old library copy, the book has a strange effect. It is as though an inhabitant of Lilliput or Brobdingnag, coming upon a copy of Gulliver's
Travels, sat down to read, in a foreign tongue, of his own local customs codified by an observer of a different species: everything is at once familiar and distorted. The landmarks are there,
and some of the institutions and personagesEighth Avenue, Broadway, Hollywood, the Grand Canyon, Harvard, Yale, Vassar, literary celebrities concealed under initials; here are the
drugstores and the cafeterias and the busses and the traffic lights and yet it is all wrong, schematized, rationalized, like a scale model under glass.”

This is, first of all, a great idea for a short story, say by Borges. Or by Philip Dick. Second of all, I think it exactly hits the sentiments of those whose lives are taken up, stolen as material, by the writer. At the moment there is a silly lawsuit going on between Scarlett Johanssen and some French novelist who used her name and certain biographic facts for the protagonist of one of his novels. Surely Johanssen – if she has read the book, instead of simply listening to a précis presented by one of her handlers – has had that feeling of déjà jamais vu – which is when something happens that you are sure has happened before, but not like it is happening now. McCarthy was right to choose Swift’s book, since its play on perspectives is so thorough that one never thinks of the Lilliputians reading it, or the Brobdignaians getting out their microscopes to trace its print. Reversal does not, in this world, trump reversal – the negation of the negation does not bring us back to equilibrium. This is what consciousness is like.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Napoleon the fourth - Chagnon's useful idiots

I've been reading, with maximum amusement, the usual ev psy useful idiots going gaga over Napoleon Chagnon's autobiography. The Dawkins to Pinker line is pretty hilarious - I will grant these people a certain scientific credit in their field, as why not? But they are, to say the least, the most credulous schoolboys on an outing ever when it comes to "primitive people". So I am going to reprint something I wrote in 2001, regarding Robin Fox, another ev psy stooge.

I read a rather dismal piece by the anthropologist Robin Fox today, in the London Review of Books. Fox, who is the head of the Anthropology department at Rutgers, reviewed the biography of Colin Turnbull, the man who studied the Ik and the Mbuti Pygmies. Turnbull's book on the Ik, The Mountain People, became famous in the seventies. It supposedly showed a people who had lost any claim to humanity - a people reduced, by starvation, perhaps, to an appalling, Hobbesian state of man against man (und Gott gegen alles). This view of the Ik was dramatized by Peter Brooks and was well propagated, even though it was based on a faulty observation of the Ik by an openly prejudiced man who advocated a form of cultural genocide being practiced against these people. 

Turnbull's earlier book about the Pygmies had stressed how good they were, in tacit comparison, especially, to the civilized Westerner. But the Mountain People, with its supposedly tough minded debunking of the Noble Savage myth, won the support of people like Robert Ardrey. In the seventies, along with the beginning of socio-biology, an anthropological school arose which claimed to be at once scientific and tough-minded about humankind. Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox (the Rutgers Team) were early and vocal adherents of this school, and of course Ardrey was a big fellow travelor. They introduce each others books, they write about each other - you know, the clique thing. Napoleon Chagnon is another member in not so good standing, now - but his book on the Yanomamo expressed the world view of this ostensibly scientifically minded group rather well in the seventies. These people held that- when you look at primitive human groups - this group had no problem with the word primitive - you'll find violence and power struggles. You won't find cooperation or altruism. And that is how humans are. 

Now, one's immediate question is: why is the Hobbesian view more "scientific" than what Fox calls the Rousseauist view? That's a good question. In Fox's review of Turnbull, he contrasts the professional, scientific anthropologist with the subjectivism of the Margaret Mead's and Colin Turnbull's. He also sounds a note common to all the anthropologists of his tribe. It is that contemporary society is dominated by the view that human beings are innately good, and that this view is projected on primitive tribes to show that they have one or another outstanding virtue. 

Let's take the later claim first. My response to it is: are Fox and his kind out of their minds? His evidence for the idea that we believe in the innate goodness of human beings seems to come from desultory discussions in the faculty lounge. Maybe Fox should take a look at concrete, even, dare I say it, objective social phenomena and ask himself - does this reflect a society which believes in the innate goodness of man? The first exhibit, of course, would be the over one trillion dollars spent in this country alone to amass a tidy 20 to 40 thousand or so nuclear missiles, and the popular perception that this amount of weaponry can blow up the world. He might want to look at TV news casts - especially local newscasts - and add up how much news is devoted to violence, and how much to, say, works of charity. He might want to check out the standard curriculum of the American high school. In my day, it leaned heavily to Lord of the Flies kind of books - emphasizing a point which is obvious to the average adolecent, that we are born under a bad sign. Far from having disappeared, the notion of original sin, in this culture, has ramified itself in dozens of ways. In fact, this makes anthropological sense - the disappearance of a cultural trope as common in this culture as original sin really would be a surprise. 

Why would an anthropologist claim otherwise? The motif for this rhetorical move is resentment. It provides a story line in bad faith, casting such as Fox as embattled, or somehow minority, intellectuals - when in fact they are quite powerful, very networked intellectuals. It presents their opponents not only as wrong, but powerful - which of course creates the question characterstic of the politics of resentment -- how did the bad get to be powerful? There's a fascinating ritual here - a mimicry of victimage by people who are not, in any sense of the word, victims. But as this ritual plays out, increasingly any challenge to the Fox worldview is immediately interpreted as violence. In this way, a group which makes the claim to be scientific engages in a discourse that is anything but. 

Because Fox's review isn't on the Net, I'm not going to play ping pong with it on this post. Instead, lets go to another example of the misuse of the word science which is generally in keeping with the school of Fox, Tiger, et al. There's a piece in the April Scientific American that is a perfect expression of the use of science, and the connotations evoked by that word, to disguise a merely ideological construct. 

It was written by Michael Shermer, who labels himself as a Skeptic. If Shermer is a skeptic, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. 

Shermer mounts a defense of Napoleon Chagnon against a book published by Patrick Tierney, Darkness in El Dorado. Tierney's book, briefly, attacks Chagnon for a number of reasons. 
1. He accuses Chagnon of provoking violence by the means he used to get information. 
2. He accuses Chagnon of being criminally careless in gathering together Yamomami Indians in 'festivals" that Chagnon filmed, knowing that some of the Indians were infected with measels. 
3. He subjects Chagnon's facts and figures to a long and complicated critique. This part of the book extends for a good one hundred pages, and even includes a humorous table showing the dates when Chagnon promised to supply his data for various article he has written, and the date when that data was actually revealed. The latter date is -- it hasn't been revealed yet. A considerable portion of Chagnon's data set, even from the seventies, has still not been made available to other researchers. 

Shermer begins his defense by his interpretation of Tierney's attack. He simplifies Tierney's points into one over-riding point: that Chagnon falsely labels the Yanomamo as Violent People. Here is Shermer's response. 

' Humans are not easily pigeonholed into such clear-cut categories. The nature and intensity of our behavior depend on a host of biological, social and historical variables. Chagnon understands this. Tierney does not. Thus, Darkness in El Dorado fails not just because he didn't get the story straight (there are countless factual errors and distortions in the book) but because the book is predicated on a misunderstanding of how science works and of the difference between anecdotes (on which Tierney's book is based) and statistical trends (on which Chagnon's book depends). " 

It is the last sentence I want to highlight here. Shermer's distinction is deeply meretricious, and, I think, syptomatic of how evolutionary anthropologists have distorted the word science. 

To say that Tierney's book is based on anecdotes is rather funny, especially when contrasted with "statistical trends." What are Chagnon's statistical trends? Well, when you track them down, they are... anecdotes. Chagnon collected a number of stories about murders. There are no police among the Yamomami - his stories about murders depend on informants. As do his other stories about violent acts. From this base, he produced his statistics. Schermer must believe that quantifying over stories given one by informants somehow transforms the anecdote into science. That belief is, to say the least, not very skeptical. 

In fact, the anecdote/science distinction is bogus, anyway. To report an occurence in a laboratory is, in one sense, to relate an anecdote. Hopefully, it is an anecdote that contains information that allows for the reconstruction of the occurence. Measurement alone is not science. I can count my fingers all day, but that doesn't make me a hand specialist. When Chagnon does quantify his research, they have a tendency to, let us say, exhibit grossly peculiar patterns. For instance, as Tierney shows, Chagnon's statistics on violence among the Yamomami show that violence among males INCREASES with age -- which, if true, would make the Yamomami a unique case. Or take the statistics on lineage based upon the blood samples taken by Chagnon and his partner, James Neel, in the sixties. According to Neel, these blood samples show a very low percentage of illegitimacy. That is, the husbands of Yamomami women usually turned out to be the real biological fathers of their children. Two things should be said about this. One is that the blood samples were taken before the technique of DNA fingerprinting was developed; so Neal and Chagnon necessarily had to use the much more unreliable blood type technique. But the other thing to say is -- what does legitimacy mean in a polyandrous society? Especially given Chagnon's own account of the prevelance of rape among the Yamomami, it is hard to know what to make of the evidence of the blood types. It is hard to know, in other words, without a supporting context of anecdotes - information from informers. 

As for Tierney's countless factual errors - well, this is a stone that the friends of Napoleon Chagnon might not want to launch. His record is filled with matters of fact and conclusions that are violently disputed by others in the field, like Douglas Good and Brian Ferguson. His attitude towards evidence is bizarrely territorial - he seems to believe that information is about loyalty rather than objective fact. His tendency to accuse his opponents of Marxism doesn't help, either.