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Sunday, 09 March 2008

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Ahistoricality

I hestitate to ask, but you can only answer if it won't actually require you to read more of the book: is "yellow vampire" a reference to an Asian housekeeper of some kind? Knowing more about the book does indeed make the joke funnier, but then I got it the first time....

I've heard, though it may be apocryphal, that Masao Miyoshi once publicly repudiated his early writings as he became more postmodern, but his department page carries no caveats. As you say, top-level scholars get extra credit for evolving and have little difficulty getting their self-revisions published.

This raises all kinds of other potentialities: scholarship as a sort of wiki-project....

SEK

"Yellow" here refers to light-skinned African Americans. The reason Stoneman thought he could "uplift" his help is that she possessed more "white blood" than the average African American. Nothing like faux-genetics to damn a class of people to perpetual second-class citizenship -- "yellows" weren't trusted by African Americans because they were too white, and they weren't trusted by Caucasians because they were too black.

As for the archive, yes, I think some sort of wiki-solution would be nice. The only problem is we'd have to perpetually update it, and I could easily see it turning into a "team sport," if you will.

Luther Blissett

Scott, I did realize that you had invented the scholar and the argument, and the argument was a funny take on critics' attempts to read against the grain. I just didn't get the retraction part.

On the other hand, didn't Benn Michaels read Dixon against the grain, sort of, by arguing that the overtly racist work of that time at least wasn't racialist, insofar as it put all people on a sliding scale of more or less quality rather than on separate ethnic groups?

Aimee W.

That entry was hilarious - I loved it.

JPool

I'm not sure which thread to comment in, but I suppose I'll do it over here, at least to prove scientifically that I have read this statement too.

When I read your first post, I understood that the thing was a joke and satire (and, yes, a very funy one), but what sort of joke and satire was it? I wanted to read it as Zunguzungu did, mostly because that would agree with what I already thought, but I suspected that there might be something more programmatic in it than the vive la différence that he read.

So let me just say: No. It would be horrible if we humanities types could retract articles. First of all, if the problem is a kind of faddism where otherwise clever thinkers take on dumb ideas because they're pop-ew-ler, the answer isn't a get out of jail free card that says dumb ass articles can simply be retracted (and certainly, outside of fundamental misreadings, false statements, or, as you suggest, fraud, never because other scholars failed to "reproduce one's findings"). You are committing to something by publishing an article and should be. That's why they're different from the presentation papers with their admonitions not to cite without first checking to be sure that the author still believes what they wrote. Even for young scholars, such as weselves, you shouldn't be able to say, "Yes, six months ago I argued that Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer represented the abominiable birth of twins in Ibo conceptions of personhood, who must killed through exposure in the forbiden forest of the American wilderness, but upon further study I conclude that Twain was perhaps less directly influenced by Ibo culture than I first implied, and so I have retracted the article and book chapter."

Ahistoricality, psychohistory's an extreme case, but can you give me some examples of respected disciplinary historians who embraced it at the time, only to see the error of their ways later? The only folks I know from it are true believers, like Lloyd deMause, who never retracted nothin. The more common cases I can think of in my field are of the more extreme structuralist Marxism of the late 1970s and early 1980s (modes of production analysis, dependency and underdevelopment theory, and the like). But even there, the more extreme practitioners of this kind of fashionable excess (Andre Gunder Frank, Colin Leys) have dug themselves ever deeper holes in defending the continued relevance (or, in Frank's world, the absolute truth) of their now generally discredited theoretical frameworks, whereas more skilled practitioners (say, Edward Alpers) might have taken on elements of then popular schema while still producing nuanced and sensitive work.

N. Pepperell

It's an interesting thing, to think about this in relation to those of us who blog on our academic work, under our own names: it's fairly easy with my work, for example, to watch positions mutate rather dramatically - sometimes over the course of a single intense discussion, where I slowly work out what I'm trying to say, and how to say it, in reponse to criticism from other people - and where I learn, sometimes the hard way, to drop untenable positions. I actually like the record blogging provides of these kinds of shifts, as I think it demystifies a certain image that academic works emerge full-formed.

Admittedly, I cringe at a great deal of what I have written (I had someone contact me a few weeks back, wanting me to develop one of the earliest pieces I put up on the blog, into an article, and I almost had a heart attack at the thought of someone reading that piece...). But it doesn't bother me to say, "That was pretty primitive draft work, and I've written better things since". I realise "properly" published articles are meant to have a different status, but I would think it would be generally understood that people develop over time - that exchanges and responses to published work react back on the work's author - that changing historical circumstances bring new problems and perspectives to the fore, etc.

The stranger thing, I suspect, is a piece of work with which an author no longer agrees, which many other people still find compelling. I was talking with someone last night about a particular use someone else has made of some of my work, and how strange I find that use to be. But there is a funny sense in which our externalised work isn't "ours" any more - it floats out there, developing a life of its own. Whether we still endorse what we said, or what has developed out from our earlier work, is in a funny way a side issue... I don't know if this makes graceful retreats easier...

Sisyphus

We were supposed to know there was a caption on the picture, and that it was clickable, why? I picked up on the style of the piece, but not that element of it.

More ominously, when I googled the name of that fake scholar (to see if there was something else I should be picking up from that reference) I found this very Acephalous article on a couple different automatic news feed websites. Evidently web spiders can't read satire, but I don't know what lesson to take from that.

Rich Puchalsky

Didn't this start as a kind of science envy? There was an article about a scientist having to retract his or her work.

But perhaps the humanities could do with a little bit of it. I remember that chat transcript on Bitch Ph.D's that you linked to, a few posts back, and the incredulity with which one of the participants brought up that some people might believe that a peer-reviewed paper makes claims that people are supposed to think are true. Well, yes -- true to the best knowledge of the writer, of course. Not falsified, except in rare cases of misbehavior. Otherwise science is impossible.

Isn't the real fear that no one cares? That all sorts of errors could be buried in humanities papers from years ago, and it would make absolutely no difference?

Ahistoricality

Ahistoricality, psychohistory's an extreme case, but can you give me some examples of respected disciplinary historians who embraced it at the time, only to see the error of their ways later?

Nothing in print, no. There were a few historians of Asia who dabbled in it (e.g. Personality in Japanese History; for what it's worth, the authors in that volume were not known for biographical sketches and I don't really think any of them did anything much like it again) but that was about it, so my exposure was limited.

zunguzungu

Jpool wrote: "Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer represented the abominable birth of twins in Ibo conceptions of personhood, who must be killed through exposure in the forbidden forest of the American wilderness"

This is actually what my dissertation is about, so please forward me any work you've done and retracted on the subject.

Rohan Maitzen

Some aspects of these exchanges reminded me of a question one of our MA students asked in a recent workshop on developing an MA prospectus: "Is it possible to get negative result?"--that is, as he explained, could one write a thesis explaining that you had pursued the proposed plan of research and discovered that in fact, as far as you could assemble and analyze the relevant materials, your initial conjectures were wrong and nothing fruitful in fact came from exploring those particular avenues? The answer, of course, is no--isn't it? Now, it's true that the question itself is flawed, put that reductively, because part of the process of research in the humanities is that you keep reformulating your questions (and your theoretical approaches, primary sources, etc.) until you get a positive result--one that you find plausible and defensible. But at the same time, I think his question shows at least a potential problem with the argument made above that publishing an article ought to represent a firm commitment to it (as well as a rather peculiar aspect of humanities research). Given the professional importance of publication, and the investment of time and effort research represents (often hard-won time, for academics juggling teaching and other responsibilities), isn't there some pressure to push an argument forward into print even if in the end you yourself aren't convinced? The whole question of the standing of our research 'findings' is actually a rather puzzling one to me.

Rich Puchalsky

In astrophysics, you get (and publish) negative results so often that there is actually a specialized phrase for it. Any paper whose title is something like "In Search Of X" means "we looked for X and didn't find it." It's important to publish those so other people won't waste time looking for the same thing.

Rohan Maitzen

Imagine the humanities versions: "deconstructive analysis of Keats proves fruitless," or "no connection found between Elizabeth architecture and structure of Shakespeare's plays"...

Rich Puchalsky

Can you imagine how interesting that would be, actually? Think about what you'd have to do to show no connection between Elizabethan architecture and the structure of Shakespeare's plays. I mean, any undergrad can make up a connection between any arbitrary X and Y.

JPool

From the Journal of Literary Primatology:
Abstract:

Under labratory conditions three groups of infinite numbers of monkeys (hereafter, INM) were given a corresponding infinite number of word processors (Hamilton, et al., 2003, having shown definitively that no overall difference in results obtained from the use of word processors rather than typewriters) and allowed sufficient time (ST) to reproduce all of Shakespeare's plays.

Group A were raised in a physical environment consisting of nothing but Elizabethan architecture. Group B were raised under normal monkey conditions, but then given intensive exposure to and instruction in the field of Elizabethan architecture. Group C, the control group, were allowed no exposure to Elizabethan or neo-Elizabethan architecture.

The three INM groups were monitored in real time, and their literary output, including fragments and drafts, were compared to all of Shakespeare's plays. At the end of ST, no disceranble difference was present in the literary output of each INM grouping. The three grops did produce variations on the plays' known plots and characters. For example, Group A produced a variation on "Othello" in which Desdemona, not actually dead, but only winded and contused, arose at the end of the play, only to kill herself again. Group C, produced a number of versions of "The Merchant of Venice" in which Shylock is indeed awarded a pound of flesh, thoroughly drained of blood, and Antonio walks with a limp for the remainder of the play. In each case, however, the INM grouping also eventually produced the more tradtional versions of the plays and the variations that they produced were not found to correlate meanigfully with their exposure to Elizabethan architecture.

Based on INM Simian Modeling Theory, then, no correlation has been found between Elizabethan architecture and Shakespeare's plays.

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