We all owe thanks to our new Lounge Colleague Steve Lubet for his exceptionally interesting and thoughtful string of comments here and elsewhere on Alice Goffman’s On the Run, an “immersive” sociological study of an impoverished Philadelphia neighborhood. (See here (Lubet’s original book review in The New Republic), here (Goffman’s reply), here and here (Lubet’s response to Goffman’s reply), here (UCLA sociologist’s Jack Katz’s comments), and here (Lubet’s rejoinder to Katz).) I’d like to offer another perspective on the Goffman book that may provide a useful complement to those expressed so far.
This additional perspective arises out of what I agree with Lubet is the striking and disturbing inconsistency between Goffman's original presentation in her book of her actions and motivations on the night she drove around with her armed friend Mike looking for their mutual friend Chuck’s killer in the hope of exacting revenge, and her later restatement of the same events after Lubet had pointed out that, as Goffman had originally portrayed her own conduct and intentions, she had not only committed a felony, but had endangered human lives. (Neither of these practices, it is fair to say, is or ought to be a common feature of sociological fieldwork, “immersive” or not. That may not be a very limiting constraint, but even if it were, I would hope that it could command a broad consensus.)
Specifically, Goffman relates in her book that, Mike having earlier affirmed that “somebody gon’ die regardless,” she volunteered to drive Mike around one night in search of their friend’s killer “because, like Mike . . . , I wanted Chuck’s killer to die.” Goffman says she waited in the car with the motor running, “ready to speed off as soon as Mike ran back and got inside,” as Mike got out with his gun to go after someone he thought might be the killer (it turned out he wasn’t). After Lubet raised serious and legitimate questions about what the hell an assistant professor of sociology was doing engaging in conduct that appeared to comprise a conspiracy to commit attempted murder, Goffman posted an explanatory response on the Internet asserting that “I had good reason to believe that this night would not end in violence or injury”; and that “Talk of retribution was just that: Talk.” As Lubet explains in more detail, you can shuck and jive all you want, but the “before” and “after” versions of Goffman's story can't realistically be reconciled. The discrepancy raises important and serious questions about which narrative more accurately presents Goffman's actual actions and intentions. As Lubet points out in one of his posts, we don't know, and that in turn raises troubling issues about the reliability of Goffman’s entire book.
That prompted me to think about the uncomfortable (and unwelcome) erosion of the distinction between memoir and fiction, which Lubet’s commentary began to persuade me might be traced to, or at least compared with, developments in social science research implicated here. It is my superficial understanding that, as originally conceived, sociological and anthropological ethnography was an observational science in which the investigator as dispassionately and “objectively” as possible described the behavior of a culture's members, and through observation and interview inferred their beliefs and motivations. (Readers should supplement or correct this understanding in the Comments if it’s incomplete or wrong; I freely disclaim any depth of expertise.) “Immersive” study allowed the investigator to step into and become to some degree a part of a culture or its practices: Instead of depicting Yaqui Indians engaging in ritual ingestion of hallucinogens, describing their gestures, words and post-hoc recounting of their experiences, Carlos Castaneda actually takes peyote with his brujo, Don Juan, and tells us what he saw and felt. (Castaneda’s first three books were part of his undergraduate and graduate studies in anthropology at UCLA.) More generally, “immersive” observation allows the investigator to observe her own feelings and reactions as well as describe those of the subject population, and hopefully thus gain additional understanding and perspective on the culture being investigated that is meaningful, and meaningfully different from dispassionate “objective” observation.
But whether you're watching from the outside or the inside, there will inevitably be questions about the integrity or verisimilitude of your portrayal. Margaret Mead's seminal and deeply influential 1928 study of Samoan culture, for example, has become a battleground over whether she got many important features right, and if not, why not. I don’t know that anyone has accused Dr. Mead of fictionalizing or embellishing, but you don’t have to. The problem is that any observed portrait of a culture necessarily simplifies it to make it accessible as an object for study and understanding. And it necessarily does so by emphasizing certain details and omitting or downplaying others; finding patterns in some concatenations of circumstance but not in others; and so on. Ironically, observation becomes characterized not by its accuracies, but by its inevitable inaccuracies—what the observer necessarily simplified, or emphasized, or left out to render us an observation that is more meaningful, organized, and accessible than the impossibly messy and inaccessible mass of countless human details the observer was watching and trying to describe.
And once you concede that your observations are necessarily inaccurate and incomplete, it is a much shorter and seemingly easier step to consciously and deliberately tailoring your observations to your conceptions in the service of the deeper "truth" that you have "found" embedded out there. Carlos Castaneda admitted to narrative license in his work “to heighten some dramatic sequences,” while at the same time insisting that his stories were absolutely true to life. Challenged about discrepancies in a Time magazine interview, he said, “To ask me to verify my life by giving you my statistics . . . is like using science to validate sorcery. It robs the world of its magic and makes milestones out of us all.” Boy, is that ever a long strange trip from Emile Durkheim’s imperative of observational objectivity less than a hundred years before. (I use Castaneda as an example here because he was so prominent in popular culture—his books were widely read in nonacademic circles, and he was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1973. By publishing her study as a general-interest trade book, Goffman apparently aspires to similar popular notice and influence.)
Ethnographic observation, especially the “immersive” kind, is really a memoir of sorts. And it would be fair to say that the slide from motivated perception to self-deception to outright misrepresentation in some corners of ethnography saw parallel development in the literary memoir and, a bit later, even journalism. The 1990s and early 2000s brought us James Frey and his Oprah-endorsed memoir of recovery, A Million Little Pieces, significant parts of which turned out to be made up; Stephen Glass, who repeatedly fabricated sources and incidents in The New Republic and elsewhere to substantiate his perspectives on modern culture, and then manufactured fake reporter's notes and otherwise confabulated to try and cover it up, and Jayson Blair, who plagiarized and invented sources for his reporting in the New York Times. All of these people, and others like them, were using contrived "facts” to paint a picture they believed was ultimately accurate in some real and important sense, just as Castaneda’s narrative license created stories he felt were true to life (if not literally true) and consistent with the purposes of his ethnographic studies. This entire concept is brilliantly illustrated in Stephen Colbert’s notion of “truthiness”—made-up “facts” presented as reality because they demonstrate something important the speaker earnestly and sincerely believes to be true.
Given the discrepancies between Goffman’s “before” and “after” stories, it may be that she is just reacting to the shock of recognizing the moral and mortal danger in conduct that felt perfectly natural to her at the time and accurately mirrored the thoughts and feelings of the study subjects who had become her friends. But it may be that Goffman fits uncomfortably into the unfortunate if narrow tradition of ethnographer as fabulist. Was her stint at the wheel that night a focused and premeditated mission of revenge or, as she now insists, just participation in a ritual of grieving that threatened no one? How much of each version of the story, factually and emotionally, actually happened? Can she even tell anymore? The only thing that seems clear on the current state of the record is that both stories—asserted with equal certitude by the same observer—cannot comfortably coexist in the same reality. Something’s gotta give.
If you think about it, good fiction is just a skillful narration of invented facts resembling some of the ones we live with that, one way or another, illustrates truths about our culture or condition. Really good fiction may illustrate such truths more evocatively or indelibly than the accidental vagaries of reality. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no difference between reality and fiction. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you’re right to claim something fictional really happened in the service of a deeper "truth" you earnestly believe.
Sometimes we get lucky and everything lines up. This weekend was like that. I spent Friday and Saturday at my favorite I.P. conference sponsored by Franklin Pierce/UNH. Today, was a concert at Symphony Hall with Itzhak Perlman. What can you say but “aahh.”
Each year I spend the first few minutes of my Civ Pro class, as I expect so many other profs must do, showing my students the death cage match from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The battle between the “man with no name” and the baby-faced giant, all to decide who really owns a vehicle, sets up a lively discussion about procedural justice and modes of dispute resolution.
The second day I turn away from no-holds-barred adversarial battles and towards topics that are less traditional for Civ Pro classes. For reasons that at first clearly perplex my students, we take our second day in Civ Pro to discuss a book called The Geography of Thought, written by a psychology professor named Richard Nisbett. The book collects the results of decades of research by Nisbett and others, in which experiments are run on the cognitive styles of different cultures. In particular, he contrasts the cognitive style of east Asians – such as my students – with the cognitive styles of Europeans and Americans, such as myself.
The first interesting thing about Nisbett’s results is that cognitive differences are notable in very early childhood. They are in no way genetic – Chinese Americans, for example, test as Americans after a generation or two – but they are sufficiently deeply rooted in cultures that they show up before philosophies or dogmas can be taught with any sophistication.
On NPR today, “Morning Edition” ran a fascinating story on the role of chance in success and failure. Is the Mona Lisa much beloved because it truly is exceptional or because of factors other than artistic quality? According to nicely-designed research by Matthew Sagalnick and colleagues, chance plays a much bigger role than most people would suspect. Their results indicate that “after you meet a basic standard of quality, what becomes a huge hit and what doesn't is essentially a matter of chance.”
This should not be surprising. Movie producers, television executives, and book publishers are notoriously ineffective at sorting the likely to succeed from the unlikely to succeed. Thus, multiple publishers rejected the first Harry Potter book, and the Beatles “struggled to get a record deal.” People often favor a particular piece of art, music, or literature simply because other people favor it.
There is no reason to think that studies would come to a different conclusion for academic research. One wonders whether law review editors, book publishers, tenure committees, and other evaluators will give these findings the weight they deserve, especially since current practices tend to reinforce rather than counterbalance elements of chance.
In the Frankfurtian
sense of bullshit, that is. Or so it appears. Malcolm Gladwell is often hailed as bringing
the insights of social science to the masses. But most social scientists (and
many others) have long known that Gladwell plays fast and loose with that
science. He cherry picks data (often discussing studies with splashy findings
while failing to acknowledge other—often larger, more recent—studies that
failed to replicate the beguiling counter-intuitive finding). He fails to
acknowledge the limitations of the studies with which he captivates his
audience (such as their embarrassingly small sample sizes). And so on.
But failing to do the
science justice does not, all by itself, make Gladwell a bullshitter. He might
earnestly believe in the truth of what he says—say, in Outliers, about becoming an “expert” in any competition
by spending 10,000 hours practicing the relevant skill—but simply lack the competence to carefully
assess and communicate the literature. Or he might just as earnestly believe
that the 10,000-hour rule he popularized is false, and aim to mislead his
readers (for whatever reason).
neither scenario implicates bullshit. Instead, for him, the “essence of
bullshit” is a “lack of connection to a concern with truth,” an “indifference
to how things really are.” Whether someone is a bullshitter or not,
then, depends not on any correspondence of their statements to objective truths
but, rather, on the speaker’s state of mind. In several remarkable recent
interviews—analyzed in this
Slate article*—Gladwell talks
about his writing (and live “performances”) in ways that suggest that he is
primarily concerned with telling a good (read: captivating) story, and not
especially concerned with the scientific truth of those stories. In other
words, Gladwell is a bullshitter.
The only question, now, is whether his audience knows
they’re being bullshitted.
* Disclosure: the Slate article is written by my husband.
I wouldn’t link to his work, however, if I didn’t share his deep loathing for
bullshit, whether in popular writing or (ahem) academia. Nor would I do so if I
didn’t think that the Gladwell problem is related to (if distinct from) similar
questions closer to home, such as when an academic may pursue advocacy that
selects data and arguments in the service of a preselected conclusion and when,
instead, an academic’s writing should come with an “implied warranty of scholarly
I was not expecting her to be
putting her butt that close to my son. The problem is now I can never unsee it.
. . . Him? Loved it! I love that
suit, the black and white suit. I don’t understand what Miley Cyrus is trying to
do. I just don’t understand. I think she’s misbegotten in this attempt of hers.
And I think it was not beneficial.
Gloria, I’m confused about your confusion. I
mean, look, the whole obscenity concern trolling thing isn’t my bag. VMA has
been doing this for years, and if you wanted to see something else, well,
that’s what they have C-SPAN for. But hey, you’re certainly free to
know it when you see it. Obscenity, that is.
What I don’t get is why you see it in Cyrus but
not in your own son.
To be fair, it’s not just you. All the commenters I’ve
seen, from Sean
Hannity (“outrageous,” “downright raunchy,” and
“inappropriate” for a role model) and Bill O’Reilly (“she’s a troubled young
lady” and “out of control”) to Camille
Paglia (whose focus is on the philistine rather than the
obscene nature of the routine) have reserved their criticism for Cyrus.
A mommy blogger’s open
letter to her daughter, warning her not to
follow in Cyrus’s footsteps, has gone semi-viral. But not a single Mommy
blogger has warned her son against following in your son’s footsteps.
To no one's surprise, Bill O’Reilly blames Cyrus’s twerking on “bad parenting,” and after Miley’s father,
country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, defended
his daughter, O’Reilly asked whether he should be “shunned.”
Even Brooke Shields, who played mom to Cyrus’s Hannah
Montana, felt the need to weigh
in and demand answers: “I
was Hannah Montana’s mother. I do not approve. Where did I go wrong? I just
want to know who’s advising her, and why it’s necessary?” (By contrast, Shields
“shocked” by the controversy over her own
performance in the infamous “You wanna know
what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” ad
campaign, which she shot when she was just fifteen years old (Cyrus is twenty),
and which was banned
And yet no one blames you, Gloria, for raising a
son whose music and videos are—in addition to being just as "obscene" as
Cyrus’s (and just as arguably misappropriating of black culture and glorifying
rapey. Following the VMA hoopla, Cyrus's father canceled a scheduled interview with Piers Morgan at the last minute. But free from the burden of having to defend your parenting and your child, you
can grant media interviews in which you accept the condolences of a shamed nation and join the #MileyGate
pile on. It’s all a little reminiscent
of Justin Timberlake, whose image was only barely and very temporarily
tarnished by the “wardrobe malfunction” of Janet Jackson (remember her?), which
he, too, apparently helped orchestrate. I don’t personally care about either
Cyrus’s butt or Janet’s nipple, Gloria. But I am annoyed by the double standard involved in
criticizing the female but not the male co-venturers in these manufactured controversies—the twerkers but not the twerkees, if you will—which is why I'm writing. (More after the jump.)
A poem about slavery written by the country's first published African-American writer, Jupiter Hammon, who was himself a slave, has been discovered by a University of Texas at Arlington doctoral student. The poem criticizes slavery and pleads with God to end it. More information is available here.
An exciting special issue on law and literature is forthcoming from University of Toronto Quarterly. The issue, due out in August, is being edited by Greig Henderson (Dept. of English, University of Toronto), Cheryl Suzack (Departments of English and Aboriginal Studies, University of Toronto), and Simon Stern (Dept. of English and Faculty of Law, University of Toronto). As far as I know, all of the pieces were invited submissions. A fuller description of the issue is available here.
The articles are as follows:
Elizabeth S. Anker (English Dept. at Cornell): “In the Shadowlands of Sovereignty: The Politics of Enclosure in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”
Mark Antaki (Faculty of Law at McGill): “Genre, Critique and Human Rights”
Dale Barleben (Dept. of English at John Jay College, CUNY): “Law’s Empire Writes Back: Legal Positivism and Literary Rejoinder in Wilde’s De Profundis”
Todd Butler (Dept. of English at Washington State University): "Victim Impact Statements, New Media Technologies, and the Classical Rhetoric of Sincerity”
Gregg Crane (English Dept. at Michigan): “The Hard Case: Billy Budd and the Judgment Intuitive”
Ann E. Tweedy (Hamline Law): “How Allotment-Era Literature Can Inform Current Controversies About Tribal Jurisdiction and Reservation Diminishment”
Nicole M. Wright (Postdoctoral Scholar at Chicago): “‘A More Exact Purity’: Legal Authority and Conspicuous Amalgamation in Eighteenth-Century English Law Guides and the Oxford Law Lectures of Sir Robert Chambers and Samuel Johnson.”
My piece responds to the Supreme Court's practice of justifying denials of tribal jurisdiction over non-members in current cases based on the presumed expectations of non-Indian settlers during the allotment-era that reservations would disappear (thus eliminating any possibility of tribal jurisdiction). In a recent piece in the Seattle University Law Review, I examined historical newspaper articles from the allotment era that addressed the opening of Sioux reservations in South Dakota. I argued that, because many of these articles revealed injustices to tribes in the takings of their lands, settlers who read the articles--or who were privy to the information in them-- could not have formed justifiable expectations that the reservations would disappear. In this new piece, I examine some works of allotment-era literature set in South Dakota and nearby areas to see if these works similarly provide notice of such injustices. The results in the case of the literature are more mixed, but some works--particularly those of Zitkala-Sa and Doane Robinson--provide notice of the injustices inherent in land takings.
Once in a while you discover a nugget of culture that makes you double-take. So it is with the publication, The Chicagoan - a spittin' image knock-off of the New Yorker that published in the 1920's and 1930's. The University of Chicago library has digitized the entire collection - God bless 'em - and you can view issues here.
The New Yorker carttons and columns, and the slightly altered Topics of the Town - you just don't see the appropriation of another magazine's entire guts every day. It makes Us and People look like different genres!
For people who like looking through old stuff, and especially people with ties to Chicago or a passion for that era, I present to you hours and hours of entertainment.
North Carolina’s Research Triangle is a glorious place to live. Besides the benefits of three major research institutions within a half-hour of each other (UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke and NC State), it’s warm, green, diverse, friendly and overflowing with great food and culture.
But living in a college town can have its dangers. This week’s police blotter in Chapel Hill reports that a developer building a small residential enclave near my neighborhood has had the development’s new street sign stolen off the pole three times since January. The new street: Road Less Traveled. For those who took the Road Less Traveled, I want to know: Did it make all the difference?
This is what happens when people read. Poetry corrupts; good poetry corrupts creatively.
It is a
virtual commonplace of legal theory and the history of legal and political
thought today that Jefferson is not to be counted among its great subjects.
With the notable exception of Sanford Levinson, constitutional theorists and
historians of legal thought today generally pass by Jefferson’s comment to
Madison that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living” as at best an overly
idealistic road wisely not taken. David Strauss and Jed Rubenfeld treat
Jefferson as a fundamentally unrealistic and anti-historical thinker (by Rubenfeld’s
lights, akin to Nietzsche, which is telling), while Stephen Holmes dismisses
Jefferson as simply an “anti-constitutionalist.” David Konig, the leading
historian of Jefferson’s legal career and the editor (along with Michael Zuckert) of his legal commonplace book, argues that Jefferson’s stance is that
of a speculative philosopher which had to be subsequently reigned in by his
more judicious friend and collaborator. Hannah Arendt noted Jefferson’s ward
republic idea as a precious gem forgotten by both American politics and the
revolutionary tradition, and Jennifer Nedelsky and Richard Matthews (among
others) have noted Jefferson’s radical theory of property rights in his
extended dialogue with Madison, but those are the apparent limits of
Jefferson’s identity as a legal thinker. Paul Finkelman writes about he impact
of Jefferson on American constitutional law, but that impact is felt through
his subsequent political career.
of Jefferson’s critics on this front have in common is a feeling that
Jefferson’s idea was simply ahistorical- an example of what Michael Oakeshott calls political rationalism at its worst. Robert Tsai has an appraisal of
Jefferson’s idea and the project of legal revolution, but he suggests Jefferson
is ultimately inadequate here because it requires us to imagine ourselves
stepping out of our context and the assemblage of law and history that brought
us to it. Similarly, Kunal Parker views Jefferson and Paine as exhibiting a
revolutionary theory of the timelessness of consent. I just don’t see it that
way at all. What is Jefferson doing hunting down manuscript copies of the
colonial laws of Virginia and the records of the Virginia Company if he thinks
he is conveniently stepping out of the thickness (or the need for) historical
representation? What about his concern for the writing and rewriting of legal
text so apparent in his plans for councils to go over proposed amendments to
the state constitution, or his wish, again, expressed to Madison, for a
plebiscite to make suggestions before approving the US Constitution? And what
flippant anti-historical idealist composes the Manual for Parliamentary
Jefferson as first and foremost a practically engaged theorist of the politics
of historical representation, and he distilled that theorizing into an
understanding of the ideal citizen as essentially a user of inherited
materials- land, yes, property, yes, but also of law and of language. In that
sense, Jeb Rubenfeld’s linking of Jefferson and Nietzsche is apt, but precisely
because Jefferson, at his best, thought basically historically, or
genealogically and counter-genealogically, or even archaeologically, about law
Somewhat (and I emphasize the somewhat) in
the spirit of Corey Robin’s recent separate posts on Jefferson as a racial thinker and Nietzsche as the closeted inspiration for neoliberal economic
theory, we could, anachronistically, say that Jefferson’s thinking about the
use and disadvantages of history for life and his vision of a transformative
human subject was capable of both radically democratic and reactionary, violent
implications. Unlike Nietzsche the philologist and philosopher, Jefferson the
man of action, slaveowner, and proponent of continental empire had a direct
hand in realizing some of those implications himself. In the final analysis (if
there is such a thing), Jefferson’s career is incomprehensible without
understanding it as a project of constituting and protecting the racial,
gendered, and geographic boundaries of a potent ideological vision of the true
and ideal citizen.
problematizing and forgetting are two very different things. In our current
moment, it might just be that the memory of Jefferson’s conjoined concepts of
law as use and of the citizen as a particular kind of reader can appear in a
new light. The historical practice appropriate here is one not just of recovery
but of active recollection. If Jefferson if of any use, it is to teach us that
that is where our political thinking can begin again.
I want to thank Al Brophy and Dan Filler for letting me chime in here at the Lounge for the past month or so- I have been and always shall be a regular reader of this great blog.
Recently, several media outlets, including NPR, the New York Times, and Big Think, have covered the story of Ph.D. student in Electronic Arts Heather Dewey-Hagborg, who makes 3-D "masks," or "portraits," of the faces of unknown individuals using the DNA they unwittingly discard on such things as cigarette butts and chewing gum. The media coverage has conjured an Orwellian dystopia for readers (check out the first few comments on the NPR piece for a sample). The artist herself apparently shares these concerns. In addition to her upcoming exihibit, Stranger Visions, she will be leading policy discussions on the implications of her art. She's also working with the Delaware medical examiner's office to try to identify the remains of a 20-year-old body.
The problem? As I commented over at Bill of Health, based on what she's said about her methods, they do not allow her to predict someone's face with anything but the crudest of guesses.
Matthew Herper of Forbes took my criticisms and those of others directly to the
artist. I confess that her response
does not make me feel any better. Even if you're "only" engaging in
art, it seems to me that when that art has an obvious science policy
message — indeed, one that you invite — you have some obligation to be
clear about how "speculative," as she puts it, your art is. But when
you decide to move from the world of art into the world of science, and
to start leading policy discussions based on your speculative art and working with forensic examiners? Then you really
have a strong duty to be very clear about what your work does and does not mean. Among other things, you should take care when talking to the
media, and correct the media if they get it wrong. (This is, of course, a lesson that applies to all scholars, including legal scholars, not only to scientists.)
Yesterday, the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium,
an international consortium that pools and conducts social science
research on existing genome-wide association study (GWAS) data, and on
whose Advisory Board I sit, published (online ahead of print) the
results of its first study in Science. That paper — "GWAS of 126,559 Individuals Identifies Genetic Variants Associated with Educational Attainment" (plus supplemental data)
— like much human genetics research, has the potential to be
misinterpreted in the lay, policy, and even science worlds. That's why,
in addition to taking care to accurately describe the results in the
paper itself, including announcing the small effect sizes of the
replicated SNPs in the abstract, being willing to talk to the media
(many scientists are not), and engaging in increasingly important
"post-publication peer review" conversations on Twitter (yes, really)
and elsewhere — we put together this FAQ of what the study does — and, just as important, does not — show. So far, our efforts have been rewarded with responsible journalism
that helps keep the study's limits in the foreground. Perhaps Dewey-Hagborg should consider issuing a similar FAQ with her speculative art.
[Adapted from a post and comments at Bill of Health]
The O'Reilly Theater at Keble College, Oxford recently played host to a new show: John Rawls's A Theory of Justice: The Musical! It was billed as "an all-singing, all-dancing romp through 2,500 years of political philosophy."
In order to draw inspiration for his magnum opus, John Rawls travels
back through time to converse (in song) with a colourful cast of
political philosophers, including Plato, Locke, Rousseau and Mill. But
the journey is not as smooth as he hoped: for as he pursues his love
interest, the beautiful student Fairness, through history, he must
escape the evil designs of his libertarian arch-nemesis, Robert Nozick,
and the objectivist seductress, Ayn Rand. Will Rawls achieve his goal of
defining Justice as Fairness?
The world’s first feature-length musical about political philosophy
showcases a script steeped in drama, humour and romance - with a musical
score that covers everything from rap battles to power ballads.
Based on the ground-breaking philosophical book "A Theory of Justice"
(1971), this exciting new musical was met with critical acclaim when it
opened in Oxford in 2013. Philosopher Nigel Warburton called it
"brilliant: hilarious witty and profound... I cried with laughter for
most of two hours!"
A crisp student review of the show is here in Philosophy Now. There are apparently plans to bring the show to the U.S., but those who don't want to wait can download the full production for $9.99 here.
Anyone working on Habermas: The Musical? Sunstein: The Musical?
Nice little bit from artist Vi Hart over at Brain Pickings. Taming the Trolls. A little uncomfortable psychoanalysis in the piece if negative comments get you down (which they do me from time to time). Brain Pickings is a great site and offers lots of wonderful tidbits of interest to academics and non-academics alike -- most of which have nothing to do with trolls and such.
So last night, the Twitterverse discovered, seemingly by accident, that today at noon, Jonah Lehrer will make his first public appearance since his spectacular fall from grace after admitting not only to self-plagiarism but also to borrowing from other writers (including his friend Malcolm Gladwell) without attribution and fabricating interviews and sources. His appearance will come in the form of a keynote address at the Media Learning Seminar 2013, sponsored by the Knight Foundation. The organizers of the event report that Lehrer will give a typically Lehreresque talk on the neuroscience of decisionmaking, including the decisions that led him to defraud his readers. In case you aren't in Miami, it's your lucky day: the event, including Lehrer's talk, is being livestreamed here.
As some have pointed out (see the comments, too), this was a pretty soft launch for what organizers are only now saying, after Twitter and its many angry fellow science writers discovered Lehrer's scheduled appearance, will include a mea culpa from Lehrer. The fact that the conference bio of Lehrer makes no mention of his misdeeds, including the fact that the publisher of his most recent book, Imagine, took the unusual step of recalling all copies of the book, does not inspire confidence that either the Knight Foundation or Lehrer initially intended this to be a thoughtful, appropriately contrite reflection on what happened. Lehrer's former colleague, collaborator and friend, the science writer David Dobbs, for one, is pretty angry. He says that he and others he knows are owed, but have not received, apologies from Lehrer, and he has pressed the conference organizers to put a few questions to Lehrer today.
As for Lehrer's anticipated discussion of the neuroscience of plagiarism and fabrication, I confess that my expectations are low. I've always thought that by far Lehrer's biggest sin was not his self-plagiarism, his more traditional plagiarism of others' work, or even his fabrication of Dylan quotes. Reusing text from his blog in a New Yorker post is between Lehrer, his God, and the various people who paid him for unique content, but I can't get very worked up about it on behalf of his readers. And as for his "old fashioned" plagiarism, that is, of course, a serious misdeed, but Gladwell readily forgave his friend, and Dylan, not surprisingly, doesn't seem to care.
As a serious consumer of social science and one interested in how it is produced and communicated, for me, Lehrer's biggest sin will always be the poetic license he took with science in the name of crafting a sexy and sellable just-so story. (Lehrer's fellow science writers who were denied the opportunities Lehrer has been given, in part because they insisted on engaging in careful and responsible — but less sexy — science communication are also victims of this sin.) You can read more about that here. (Disclosure: Lehrer's interlocutor in this exchange, and in an earlier New York Timesbook review of Imagine, is my husband. I also watched with some irritation as Lehrer came close, as the scandal unfolded, to blocking publication of their interview. Discount accordingly.)
Update: The archived video of Lehrer's talk is here (the conference organizer begins moving in the direction of an introduction to Lehrer at around the 1:00:30 mark, and Lehrer himself starts at around the 1:03:30 mark). As others have remarked, the paralells to Lance Armstrong's mea-culpa-cum-comeback are hard to miss. Also of note: the giant screen behind Lehrer scrolling live tweets, most of them critical of him. No doubt the $20,000 Lehrer was paid for the talk helped ease the pain.
Update 2: Image above is an ironic screen shot from Poynter.org, which first reported Lehrer's fee, which Knight is referring to (also ironically) as an "honorarium."
Update 3: Aaannd...updated title to reflect that the speaker in question is in fact Jonah, not Johan, Lehrer.
Well, I've finally been able to set aside time to see Django. Though I rarely see first run movies, I make an exception when they relate to Jim Crow or slavery. Wow. So much to talk about, like the depiction of slavery -- and especially the law of slavery and slave sales. I was pleasantly surprised -- shocked might even be the right word -- with how much law is in that movie; jurisprudence even more so.
As we were walking into the theater, my colleague Rob Smith asked if I thought there'd be a character like Fed in it? I paused for a moment and said, probably. That requires a little explanation.... Turn back to the late summer of 1831 during the Nat Turner rebellion. As panic swept Southampton where the rebellion was taking place, in neighboring Sussex County slave-owners worried what would happen when the rebels reached their county. The rebellion never got there, but that didn't stop people from preparing to meet rebellion with violence -- and with violently responding to perceived threats to slavery.
One slave-owning family was convinced that their slave Fed would join the rebels and they repeatedly spoke about it in the presence of their slaves. I wonder about who Fed was and why his owners were so convinced he would join the rebels. Upon hearing the speculation that Fed would join the rebels, one slave said in essence -- yes, and I'd join them too. At trial a few weeks later, as the white community sought to regain control and retribution, that slave who said he would join the rebels was sentenced to death. Fed, however, was not convicted -- for he had never said anything. Fed's fellow slave was convicted of plotting rebellion; Fed, who may very well have harbored designs of freedom through rebellion, was returned to his owner to suffer what fate we will never know.
I suppose Django's character has a lot in common with Fed -- and maybe with Nat Turner, too. What surprised me about the movie was not the violence -- in fact, if anything it was less than I expected. I guess it's because these days I'm so used to the extraordinary violence that lay at the heart of slavery that the scene of the slaves fighting to the death for the amusement of Candie -- or the dogs tearing the run-away slave apart wasn't all that suprising. (I had initially written disturbing, but that's obviously the wrong word -- it was incredibly disturbing, just not out of keeping with what one might expect in this kind of movie.) I'm used to reading descriptions of extra-ordinary brutality -- not so much for amusement of the owners, though it wouldn't surprise me if that was part of slavery -- as for money and control. I mean, "Blackhead Signpost Road" got its name from the head of a supposed rebel that was placed on the road into Jerusalem, Virginia, as a warning to other rebels.
Two things particularly interested me about this, which I want to talk about now. First -- and some of this is sort of transparent -- is the role of law. There are three scenes of slave sales, where contracts (and particular warranties) loom large. Maybe Ariela Gross should be writing about this instead of me, because she is the leading scholar on slave warranties, but wow I find it interesting that the movie is so framed by law. There's the opening scene with the "sale," the talk of drawing up a contract for the sale of "Eskimo Joe," and the bill of sale and manumission document of Broomhilda. But law is present in a lot of other places, too. It frames what bounty hunters can do and on several occasions the community that's rising up against the bounty hunters accepts that there was a legal justification for killing. They even go to a local records office to see who purchase Broomhilda. I mean, how unexpected to find a title search in a Tarantino movie?! And then there's the pervasive talk of property -- of how Candy can do whatever he wants with his property. Tis is straight out of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. And pretty closely related to Thomas Ruffin's State v. Mann.
Second is the jurisprudence of all of this, such as how the bounty hunters justified their killings of both the people they're seeking and the slave-owners at Candyland. Maybe the most poignant scene of several in this regard is when Django kills a man who's plowing a field. Obviously Django is doing his job (and also extracting punishment for past crimes), but he's bothered that he's killing a person with a family. This may inspire people to go back and think again about the duties of people caught up in a system that is violent -- or in the case brutally oppressive. I guess Django is in some ways like the anti-slavery judges that Robert Cover (and Harriet Beecher Stowe) wrote about, who recognize inhumanity, but still engage in the system. Or maybe like lawyers for slaves, who try to work within a system that is unfair but still seek some balance for their clients. Shades of Melville's statement in Moby Dick, "who ain't a slave?"
And what do we make of Dr. Schultz' final words after shooting Candie, "I had to do it." (Or maybe it was "I couldn't resist.") In the moments leading up to the shooting, he was turning over in his mind Candie's order to have D'Artagnan fed to the dogs. Schultz, though quite dependent on law for his living -- and someone who recognized the constraints of law (he convinced Django that they couldn't just go and rescue Broomhilda) -- he stepped outside of the southern law and he did so because he believed he had to.
I'm going to think on this some more. Books and writing are all over this movie -- the contracts and receipts for sale; the record books; the wanted handbills; ... even the library at Candyland, where Dr. Schultz went to look for a copy of Alexandre Dumas' Three Muskateers. God I love the history of the book. One final thought -- don't you love how Broomhilda's emancipation papers were a pre-printed form?! Further evidence of how far the technology of printing was put to use by law. And one of these days I'll talk about the cemetery scene, too!