Sunday, 17 September 2006

The Macbeth Effect: Wipe that Conscience Squeaky Clean In the 8 September Science, Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist studied what they call the Macbeth Effect: that is, a threat to one's moral purity induces the need to cleanse oneself. This effect revealed itself through an increased mental accessibility of cleansing-related concepts, a greater desire for cleansing products, and a greater likelihood of taking antiseptic wipes. After a quick history of religiously-motivated cleansing rituals, the pair turn their attention to The Bard: Thus, Lady Macbeth's hope that a little bit of water would clear her of the treacherous murder of King Duncan might not have been a product of literary creativity, but of Shakespeare's acute understanding of the human psyche. If physical and moral purity are so psychologically intertwined, Lady Macbeth's desperate obsession with trying to wash away her bloodied conscience while crying, "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!" may not have been entirely in vain. Contemporary psychology may have disowned Freud, but it shares his penchant for literary appropriation. Like Freud, who found in the works of Sophocles and Shakespeare a complex examination of the entry of Man into Civilization, Zhong and Liljenquist saw a student production of Macbeth and discovered bathing: "Look at her! What is she doing with her hands?" A round of vigorous shushings later, the pair exit the theater and park themselves in front of their favorite frozen yogurt stand. "Do you think that Shakespeare fellow was onto something?" "Could be. Should we do a study?" "Sounds great! But how would we study that?" "First, we'll determine whether a threat to moral purity increases the mental accessibility of cleansing-related words." "Yeah! We'll ask participants to recall in detail either an ethical or unethical deed from their past and describe any feelings or emotions they experienced!" "Then we'll have them engage in a word completion task in which they convert word fragments into meaningful words!" "And of the six word fragments, three could be completed as cleansing-related words or as unrelated words!" "Like W_ _ H, SH_ _ ER, and S_ _P!" "Then we'll see whether those who recalled an unethical deed generated more cleansing-related words than those who recalled an ethical deed, suggesting that unethical behavior enhances the accessbility of cleasning-related concepts!" Or maybe they thought the Shakespeare brand would help them find an audience. Seriously though, I have more of a problem with the unexamined theory of the symbolic favored by contemporary psychology than its psychoanalytic equivalent. Not that depth or complexity necessarily mean anything, but the ease with which Zhong and Liljenquist place cleanliness next to turpitude disturbs me: Physical cleansing may wash away moral sins through symbolic self-completion; that is, people are motivated to complete their self-definitions (e.g., musicians) when indicators or symbols of this definition are lacking (e.g., skills) by engaging in activities that complete the symbols (e.g., training). Thus, when moral self-definition is at stake, such as when one has indulged in morally questionable activities, one should naturally be motivated to engage in activities that will restore moral integrity....
The Ivory Tower? Literary scholars are so isolated from what happens in the world. (So say them all.) Today, for example, in between arguing with conservatives about what constitutes a legitimate argument; taking brutal (but clean) body blows from Arbiter of Fairness himself, Timothy Burke; and revealing too much of what I'd planned to say about The Truth about Diversity—in between all that, I read the following articles by Silas Weir Mitchell: Imperforate Anus (1851) A Case of Vicarious Secretion of Milk (1855) Improved Spirometer (1856) Muscular Phenomena Following a Blow on Muscle From a Percussion Hammer (1858) Improved Spirometer (1858) Notes upon the Effect of Alcohol, Glycerin, Water, Gum, Ammonia, and the Vacuum upon the Exposed Hearts of Frogs, Snapping Turtles, and Sturgeons (1859) Experimental Researches Relative to Corroval and Vao—Two New Varieties of Woorara (1859) An Experimental Examination of the Toxicological Effect of Sassy Bark (1859) Zoospermes of the Frog: Concerning their Vitality and the Transplantation of the Testicles of One Animal to Another (1861) A Case of Preternatural Anus (1861) On the Growth of the Nails as a Prognostic Indication in Cerebral Paralysis (1863) Reflex Paralysis, the Result of Gunshot Wounds, Founded Chiefly upon Cases Observed on General Hospital (1864) On Malingering (1864) On the Production of Paralysis in Birds (1868) On the Insusceptility of Pigeons to the Toxic Action of Opium (1869) Observations on Poisoning with Rattlesnake Venom (1870) On the Growth of the Nails as a Prognostic Indication in Cerebral Paralysis (1870) On the Growth of the Nails as a Prognostic Indication in Cerebral Paralysis (1871) The Rate of Growth of Nails as a Means of Diagnosing Certain Forms of Paralysis (1872) Mitchell's titles lost their Frankensteinian hilarity as American medicine became more professional and concentrated its attentions on nails. And their rates of growth. As a means of diagnosing paralysis. (Because, what, the lack of movement didn't give it away?) Those early titles remind me of a bit I used to perform at parties about the trial-and-error stage of chiropractic history: Now I will expose the beating heart! To glycerin! And gum! Only in the original bit, I'd crack-the-back crack-the-back crack-the-back. You know, experimentally. Sadly, Eddie Izzard stole my bit. Now, I'll have to prove that literary scholars don't spend all their time secluded in their ivory towers by making small-talk about transplanting the testes of one animal into another. (One with a preternatual anus, no less.) I'll be the belle of all the balls ...

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