Saturday, 08 September 2012

"Wikipedia informed Roth that it would require 'secondary sources' to verify his assertion that his novel was not inspired by the life of Anatole Broyard" That seemingly innocuous statement is from the “Inspiration” subsection of the Wikipedia entry on Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain. I write “seemingly innocuous” because it points to problems central to both Wikipedia’s operating ethos and literary analysis. Speaking to the latter first: this isn’t a case about what a text means or what its author intended it to mean so we can avoid the hairier arguments about whether meaning resides within a text or is communicated through it. This argument is about source material. Where something came from instead of what and how it means. According to a Wikipedia-approved secondary source, Michiko Kakutani, The Human Stain is the story of a black man who decided to pass himself off as white. This premise seems to have been inspired by the life story of Anatole Broyard—a critic for The New York Times who died in 1990—at least as recounted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his 1997 book 13 Ways of Looking at a Black Man. Kakutani’s review meets all Wikipedia’s criteria for a “reliable source.” Except it isn’t. She said the “premise seems to have been inspired by the life story of Anatole Broyard,” which indicates that she’s no more familiar with the source material than anyone else. Charles Taylor’s review of the novel at Salon constituted the other “secondary source” for the Broyard connection and made its way into the Wikipedia entry thus: Taylor argues that Roth had to have been at least partly inspired by the case of Anatole Broyard, a literary critic who, like the protagonist of The Human Stain, was a man identified as Creole who spent his entire professional life more-or-less as white. But as with Kakutani, Taylor’s evidence—mistakenly identified in the Wikipedia entry as an argument—is also pure supposition: There’s no way Roth could have tackled this subject without thinking of Anatole Broyard, the late literary critic who passed as white for many years. Given the “strength” of the “evidence” provided by these secondary sources, there’s no need to perform a detailed literary analysis to determine that the connection to Broyard didn’t warrant inclusion in the Wikipedia entry. Since no one else would the task fell to Roth’s biographer: Or at least someone claiming to be his biographer. An editor demand proof and re-inserted the Broyard bit: At which point Roth’s alleged and now annoyed biographer re-re-deleted the Broyant bit: Later that afternoon a different editor re-re-inserted the Broyant bit and added a little more on it: This other editor, Parkwells, then took it upon him- or herself to further substantiate the idea that Roth based his novel on Broyard: So despite Roth’s purported desire that there be less about Broyard in the entry, Parkwells is determined that there be more. Remember Kakutani’s weak proposition about what the premise of the novel “seems” to be? Here’s how Parkwells translates her “seems”: Kakutani’s now been “struck,” as if with great force, by the parallels between Roth’s novel and Broyard’s life. But Parkwells’ not finished...
I would be a moral monster, were it not for... From a “hard-hitting” interview with Gov. and Ms. Romney: DAVID GREGORY: There was something that caught my attention, I’m sure it caught yours from the keynote speaker of the Democratic convention, which is—sort of went to this charge that somehow neither one of you are as empathetic about what’s going on in the country to people who are out of work. And the line was from from Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, “You just don’t know how good you’ve had it.” How did that sit with you? MS. ROMNEY: The thing that I want to communicate to people, and that it’s so important that people understand, is that Mitt and I do recognize that we have not had a financial struggle in our lives. But I want people to believe in their hearts that we know what it is like to struggle. And our struggles have not been financial, but they’ve been with health and with difficulties in different things in life. And one thing that I again like to remind people is that multiple sclerosis has been my teacher. It has been at times a cruel teacher. But it has also been a great gift in my life because what it has done it has taught me to be more compassionate and caring for others that are suffering. And I know that people are suffering right now. And for people to think that we don’t have empathy just because we’re not suffering like they’re suffering is ridiculous. Because life is a metaphor for baseball: Castro says that those born on third base don’t know how difficult it is to hit a triple. Ms. Romney responds by conceding that she doesn’t know what third base is and noting that standing in the warm summer sun is difficult too. Which it certainly is. Third base is a good place to be but by no means is it an inherently safe one. Most pitchers are right-handed so it’s easy to be picked off. Most batters are right-handed so when they pull the ball down the line hard and sharp you’re a target. And as Ms. Romney suggests, being on third base requires you to stand in the warm sun, meaning it’s possible that you’ll sunstroke or lock your knees and pass out or that swarms of angry hornets from the concessionary will ascend and attack you. That could happen. In fact it did happen to Ms. Romney: She was standing on what she didn’t know was third base, minding her own business, when a small plane sucked a large duck into one of its propellers and caused a gruesome hail of engine and duck parts to rain down upon the field. A heavy metallic something brained Ms. Romney that fine summer afternoon and she’s spent the rest of her life finding it more difficult to stand on what she still doesn’t know is third base than she did before. This statistically improbable event introduced her to a concept with which...

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