Sleep Paralysis or Folk-Tale Motif

March 10, 2013

Consider the following hypothetical situation: a young woman is asleep in bed. She awakes but cannot move. She senses a malevolent presence near her. The being comes closer, pressing on her chest with a great weight. Now consider the following “real” account:

…Sarah came every night and sat upon some portion of the body [of her sister], causing great pain and misery. (Sidney S. Rider, “The Belief in Vampires in Rhode Island,” qtd. in Bell)

What was happening to the nameless sister? Was Sarah really a vampire attacking her in the night? Or was the poor girl suffering from sleep paralysis, perhaps exacerbated by sadness over her sister’s death? Or was it something else?

Many skeptics would immediately say that it’s a case of sleep paralysis, perhaps accompanied by hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucination. During sleep paralysis, the brain is conscious or on the verge of wakefulness, but the body remains locked down. In addition to the paralysis, the sufferer may experience vivid and frightening hallucinations. These frequently involve an impression of a presence, often hostile. The dreamer may also feel as if he or she is suffocating.

Sleep paralysis is extremely common. Many people will experience it at least once in their lives. Some people experience if with some regularity. The experience can be terrifying and the hallucinations can seem very real. Many people swear that they are awake, and, in a sense, they are–more or less.

The experience of sleep paralysis varies over time and according to cultural expectation. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, people experienced demon attacks as they slept. The word “incubus” comes from the Latin “incubare,” to lie upon. While this may suggest the sexual nature of incubi, it probably originally referred to the feeling of oppression. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest use of of “incubus” in English is from Laȝamon’s Brut: there is a very numerous race–

heo beoð ihaten ful iwis

incubii demones.

ne doð heo noht muchel scaðe:

but hokerieð þan folke.

monine mo on sueuene:

ofte heo swencheð. (Brut, Cotton Caligula A 9, ll. 15782-7. Ed. Frederick Madden, 1847)

They are known, indeed, as incubus demons. They don’t do much harm, but they deceive people. They often afflict men in dreams.

It goes on to say the incubi “know” women and lead children astray.

Fuseli, The Nightmare. Wikipedia

Fuseli, The Nightmare. Wikipedia

In eighteenth-century Serbia, vampires visited their victims at night:

In addition, the haiduk Jowiza reports that his stepdaughter, by name of Stanacka, lay down to sleep fifteen days ago, fresh and healthy, but at midnight she started up out of her sleep with a terrible cry, fearful and trembling, and complained that she had been throttled by the son of a haiduk by the name of Milloe, who had died nine weeks earlier, whereupon she had experienced a great pain in the chest and became worse hour by hour, until she finally died on the third day. (Visum et Repertum, tr. and qtd. in Barber 16)

Since the second half of the 20th century, the assailants have often been aliens, bent on abduction and examination.

About 18 years ago I had gone to bed just like any night. I do not take drugs or drink. I went to sleep and some time during the night I felt something crawling up on me. It started at my lower legs and was crawling up to my chest. I could not open my eyes. It felt like it was some kind of hoffed animal. I wanted to move but could not. I was thinking what the heck is this what is happening. It semed to last for a few minutes then the weight of this thing was gone. I then could open my eyes and there was nothing. (phenomenalog.com)

In some cases, sleep paralysis has been suggested to sufferers, but they reject the notion:

A woman named Ruth told me that the crucial event for her had been a nighttime episode in which she’d felt terror, been unable to breathe, and heard footsteps. I asked her if she thought the symptoms could have been related to sleep paralysis. “no–because, see, I wasn’t asleep when it happened. I was on the couch watching David Letterman.” (Clancy)

Are we, as skeptics, justified in dismissing all these stories as sleep paralysis? No doubt we often we are. Many instances almost certainly can be explained by sleep paralysis, and it seems likely that stories of night hags and night demons originated with the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, but the stories are so prevalent that they’ve moved from the world of physical phenomenon to the realm of folk tale motif.

A folk motif is a recurring and recognizable element in traditional narratives. For instance, a cruel stepmother is a motif that appears again and again in folk tales. Another is the supernatural being who helps the hero or heroine perform chores. In the 1930s, Stith Thompson published his monumental six volume Motif-Index of Folk Literature. Entry F471 deals with dream demons. F471.1 is the Nightmare or Alp which “presses person in dream.” There follows a long list of sources. F471.1.5 concerns

Persons who at night become nightmare. Those who are born on a Thursday and christened on a Sunday must at certain times (on Thursdays) press someone or something.

E281.2 tells of a “Ghostly horse [that] enters house and puts hoof on breast of sleeper.”

According to Carl Lindahl, John McNamara and John Lindow in Medieval Folklore, the assaults of the mara, nightmare or night hag

were always connected with a feeling of anxiety and suffocation. The mara was believed to oppress and weigh her victim down when tormenting and riding it. There is also an undercurrent of latent sexuality more or less manifest in the mara traditions.

Jan Louis Perkowski, professor of Slavic languages, has published extensively on Slavic folklore. He has collected numerous tales of suffocating demons. For instance, Canadian Kashubs speak of the mwəra or succuba. He describes it as “a night spirit which suffocates its sleeping victims” (34). Among the accounts he records:

The succuba chokes. They said that it was a child who was not baptized properly. This person walks at night and chokes others.

They said that when people went to sleep it choked them.

Succuba–They are unbaptized children who died before they were baptized. They come to a person and they choke a person in the night….

A succuba is that which chokes people. She could crawl through a keyhole. Someone said that, while a succuba was choking them and then they grabbed, sometimes it was like a ball of wool and then it disappeared.

My brother Frank also caught one. A succuba, nightmare, also choked him. He had to sit up and not go to sleep on the pillow, so that it would come to him. He said that a man all matted with hair came to him, and he caught it.

The succuba had to be a person. It would come and choke you at night. Sometimes it was a neighbor. (Perkowski 35-6)

Demons, night hags, witches, ghosts, vampires and now aliens. All have attacked and suffocated victims in the night. It seems odd that we label all of these cases “sleep paralysis.” The Wikipedia entry on sleep paralysis has a section on “Folklore,” listing folktales from all over the world. A New York Times article attributes all sorts of folklore to sleep paralysis, as does a Skeptical Inquirer article by Susan Blackmore. Were all the victims suffering from sleep paralysis? Probably not. I have no doubt that sleep paralysis served as the origin of the motif, but the motif has grown beyond the physical phenomenon. It’s become a part of the story of beings that attack in the night, and it’s been a part of the story for a very long time.

This is not to say that people who tell stories of a great weight on their chests are lying or adding that element to the story because they think they should; however, the experience has become an expected element. We know that cultural expectations shape perception and memory. For instance, it has been suggested that some of the elements of Betty and Barney Hill’s alien abduction accounts were subconsciously based on science fiction television programs and movies. Certainly, the Hills’ story has influenced other accounts of alien abduction.

The very fact that experiences that would have once been perceived as demon attacks are now interpreted as alien visitations suggests just how much cultural expectations influence perception.

To return to the case of Sarah the vampire and her sister: this story is one of the earliest of the New England vampire cases. It concerns Stukeley “Snuffy” Tillinghast and his fourteen children. His daughter Sarah died of consumption, followed by several other family members. The bodies were exhumed. Only Sarah’s was found to be undecayed. Her heart was removed and burned. The deaths ceased (after one more).

The story of the Tillinghast family was recorded nearly a hundred years after the events described, in Sidney S. Rider’s 1888 article, “The Belief in Vampires in Rhode Island.” Folklorist Michael Bell researched the stories and found some information that corroborated Rider’s story: Tillinghast did have fourteen children, and several, including Sarah, died of consumption in 1799. There were also discrepancies: Rider says half the Tillinghast children died, but, in fact, only four or five died. Rider also says Sarah was the oldest child; she was actually the tenth. Enough of the story was corroborated that it is plausible the bodies were exhumed and that Sarah’s heart was burned.

However, there are elements of Rider’s story that are pure folklore and cannot be true. Some of these folkloric elements involve dreams. At the beginning of the story, paterfamilias Snuffy dreams that he has an apple orchard (which he did) and that exactly half of it died. This dream is presented as an omen of the death of exactly half of his children. Aside from problems of interpreting a dream as an allegorical prediction–or postdiction–the dream simply isn’t accurate: Snuffy lost plenty of children, but not half.

And then there are the sleep paralysis dreams. We’ve seen that an unnamed sister dreamed of Sarah sitting on her body. This was a “continual complaint” that occurred every night until the sister died.

So it went on. One after another sickened and died until six were dead, and the seventh, a son, was taken ill. The mother also now complained of these nightly visits of Sarah. These same characteristics were present in every case after the first one. (Rider qtd. in Bell)

Seven people, six siblings and their mother, dreamed every single night that Sarah visited them and pressed on them. Each of them had these dreams until they died or, in the case of the mother, recovered. These dreams, though they sound like sleep paralysis, cannot be explained by any real physical phenomena. It is not plausible that the family could have shared so many hypnopompic hallucinations. Like the prophetic dream, these dreams belong to the realm of folklore, not neurology.

This case is extreme and was no doubt intentionally embellished by a professional writer. Nonetheless, we should keep in mind when we hear tales of alien abduction that folklore may be at play as well as sleep paralysis.

ES

REFERENCES:

Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.

Bell, Michael E. Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2001. Kindle ed. N.p.

Blackmore, Susan. “Abduction by Aliens or Sleep Paralysis?” Skeptical Inquirer May/June 1998.

Clancy, Susan A. Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005. Kindle ed. N.p.

Kristov, Nicholas D. “Alien Abduction? Science Calls It Sleep Paralysis.” New York Times 6 Jul. 1999.

Lindahl, Carl, John McNamara, and John Lindow. Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs and Customs. Oxford UP, 2002.

Perkowski, Jan Louis. Vampire Lore: From the Writings of Jan Louis Perkowski. Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2006.

Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends. Rev. ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1955.


Video Proof of Our TAM Panel!

September 27, 2012

For those of you who were skeptical that the James Randi Educational Foundation would allow Bob and me to appear on a panel at The Amazing Meeting 2012, we have evidence!


A Brief Note on the Sokal Hoax

January 31, 2012

Yesterday, chum of the Skeptical Humanities site, Sharon Hill of the Doubtful News blog, posted a generally excellent piece about skeptics putting on hoaxes. Go read it. But be ye warned, she ventures like a deer into the barreling Mack track that is Skeptical Humanities when she says:

Many other hoaxes can be found on the Museum of Hoaxes website including the famous Sokal hoax where Alan Sokal sent in a paper full of gobbledegook words to a journal to see if it would be accepted. It was. He succeeded in dramatically demonstrating the decline in standards of humanities journals and embarrassing his field into reaction.

Well, not exactly. Sokal was a physicist, who was attempting to make a point about certain critics’ misuse of scientific terminology and a sort of absurd posturing that one often sees in the postmodern camps of literary theory.

In the schools of thought that concerned Alan Sokal, all language is basically a game and meaning is never absolute. He was prompted to perpetrate the hoax after he read Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, by Gross and Levitt. In Higher Superstition, the authors, both working scientists, look at a lot of the big names in critical theory, including Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva, and others and show in excruciating detail how utterly unqualified to have an opinion about the scientific matters on which they publish. Most of what they find is gobbledegook, not unlike the science word-salad of newage gurus like Deepak Chopra and Ramtha, the guy from outer space who lives inside a lady.

Gross and Levitt notice that there are some similarities between the schools of thought that accrete around these academic gurus. In these cliques, you are generally rewarded for exaggerating the socially liberating potential of… whatever text you are looking at, whether it is Finnegans Wake or the back of a Happy Meal. (I’d rather read the back of a Happy Meal, to be honest.) They notice a particular ritual vocabulary, the presence of which seems to validate whatever is being said by the critical theorist, but which is impenetrable to mortals. And, lastly, they especially focus on the ways in which critical theory has presumed to critique not only the language in which science is communicated, but the content of the science itself, that is, that in the extreme forms of this criticism, all reality is merely a linguistic construct, often one that somehow offends the political principles that motivate the cultural critics. Therefore, the critic concludes: “Science is wrong. I just recreated the entire world. I’m pretty much a genius.”

You’d like to think that I’m joking, but take Sandra Harding’s closer to her book, The Science Question in Feminism:

“When we began theorizing our experience…we know our task would be a difficult though exciting one. But I doubt that in our wildest dreams we ever imagined that we would have to reinvent both science and theorizing itself to make sense of women’s social experience.”

So, this sort of self-important posturing by the scientifically illiterate does exist, and this is what Gross and Levitt demonstrated in spades in their book. How far can it go, wondered NYU physicist Alan Sokal?

Pretty far, it turns out.

Sokal submitted a paper to the postmodern critical journal, Social Text, called, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” It’s a screamer. It makes no sense. The editors of Social Text accepted it without any changes (they had asked for some, but Sokal refused, and they ran it anyway). It seems they were excited to have a physicist speaking their language and trusted him.

Oops.

When “Transgressing the Boundaries” went to press, Sokal released yet another article in a different publication exposing the hoax. I was an undergraduate at the time and missed the controversy the first time around, but it was intense and still ignites fierce debate about the meaning of the hoax, academic honesty, and a whole range of other issues, many of which Sharon identifies with respect to other hoaxes. I discussed this hoax in a paper I gave in April, “The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory.”

What is important for the purpose of this post is that the Sokal Hoax does not actually demonstrate what people have said that it demonstrates. A sample size of one does simply does not qualify all-inclusive statements like “[Sokal] succeeded in dramatically demonstrating the decline in standards of humanities journals….” He did, after all, only show that one journal of a specific academic bent, postmodern criticism, was WAY too uncritical about what it accepted, not that humanities journals are in decline.

The type of problem that Social Text represented back in the day (it is not often noted that the editors re-schooled themselves in science after the hoax was revealed, much to their credit) should not reflect on the myriad of other journals that use accumulated evidence and genuine expertise to make statements and meaningful arguments about history, linguistics and languages, literature, rhetoric, media, music, ethics, philosophy, theology, and all the other fields of study that fall under the purview of the humanities writ large. Yes, critical theory sometimes is wacky, but sometimes it’s sensible, even enjoyable. No, critical theory is not the humanities, though by the grandiose posturing that some practitioners have adopted, you might be tempted to think that they were.

This is the point of this blog, to show that there is more to the humanities than theorizing feminist algebra, whatever that is, and to remind our friends in the sciences that we are doing serious, scholarly work as well.

RJB


The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory

April 12, 2011

The following is a talk that I gave this weekend at the Northeastern Modern Language Association conference in New Brunswick, NJ at a panel on Science and Literary Theory.

Several years ago, I took a 19th-century American literature seminar during my PhD coursework. During that class, each student in turn would guide the discussion of the week’s reading. One week, a student working toward his Masters was leading a fairly typical class, expounding at some length on the finer points of Moby Dick, and though I don’t remember the specifics of my fellow student’s conclusion, I remember that he offered a baroque hypothesis about the politics of race and gender and misrepresentation. Even though he had brought up numerous interesting observations about the text, I’m not sure I really had any idea what my friend was talking about, but I was politely professional and said nothing. When the student had finished and received polite applause, the instructor, an Americanist with whom I agreed on almost nothing, asked the one question that had been haunting me ever since my undergraduate studies of literature and culture had taken a theoretical bent in graduate school.

“Do you really believe all that?” he asked.

I can’t think of a less polite thing to ask a graduate student, or, honestly, a more important question.

I’m a relative latecomer to the subject of the so-called “science wars.” I suspect that a lot of what I have to say has been covered by any number of philosophers, scientists and academic pundits. I tend to agree with the severest criticism directed at many of the major figures in theory, the type of criticism leveled by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt in their Higher Superstition. I think that the Sokal Hoax offers an important warning that academics in the humanities fail to heed at the expense of disciplinary credibility. The hoax, you’ll remember, was perpetrated by physicist Alan Sokal against the postmodernist journal Social Text in 1996. Social Text published Sokal’s article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Saturated with scientific absurdities, the article aped postmodernist jargon, political posturing, and rhetorical habits. The fact that something which, had it appeared on the Internet (presumably in ALL CAPS), would have been blasted as purest pseudoscience, had appeared in a professional academic journal produced a scandal that was about as polarizing as any you are likely to find in the academy. The furor over what were widely taken to be the broader implications of the hoax, that literary and cultural studies is vacuous, deceptive and infantile suggests that Sokal had chomped down hard on an exposed nerve.

As I prepared my thoughts on this topic, I was struck by how similar at first glance the similarity between literary /slash/ cultural theory and the preparadigmatic state of the natural sciences that Thomas Kuhn describes in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The state of literary theory is one in which practitioners are “able to take no common body of belief for granted” and “each writer…[feels] forced to build his field anew from its foundations” (13). Certainly, a major contributing factor to this state of affairs is that the proper object of Capital-T-Theory remains, despite, more than 30 years of practice, undefined. Possible candidates include literature and other communicative acts, social structures like institutions, the nature of power, systems of meaning, and the process of making meaning. Now might this might not be such a large problem when you are comparing different theories—certain texts which raise questions that postcolonial studies are better equipped to answer than, say, fat studies, which is now apparently a thing. But even within the various schools of thought, the proper object of study varies. Take, for instance, the range of possibilities in psychoanalytic theory. I have seen psychoanalytic literary criticism directed at authors, works, characters in the works, even entire cultures. Once, and I swear I’m not making this up, I saw an author claim that Much Ado About Nothing had analyzed him (Krims, introduction xv). I mean, what does that even mean? Professional psychiatry, with the exception of a dwindling cult of hardcore Freudians, has long recognized that Freud’s understanding of the mind was fundamentally flawed.

Now, I write and research about pseudoscience and other forms of pseudoscholarship, and as I was reading and reviewing commentaries on the state of Theory, some patterns emerged, which worryingly (for reasons I will explain later) are informed by my other work. The factions of theory, including identity (including feminist, race and queer), Marxist, psychoanalytic and deconstruction camps share numerous characteristics of the type of diseased, self-perpetuating thinking typical of conspiracy theorists and other demonstrably flawed systems of thought.

The first way in which literary and cultural theory behaves like a conspiracy theory (and other forms of wishful pseudoscholarship) is how very often the absence of evidence, or even direct counterevidence, is taken as evidence for the phenomenon or theory in question. By this logic, the more counterevidence a critic produces, the more the more powerful the theory appears to become. In the lore of UFO cover-ups, the overwhelming lack of evidence in favor of the hypothesis that UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin, much less piloted by aliens, is taken by the advocates of “disclosure” as positive evidence of the size of the conspiracy. When you present UFO theorists with evidence that no, aliens did not crash in Roswell, and that balloons with classified instruments designed to detect Soviet nuclear tests did, they reply that the documents and testimony is forged, and they walk away with a sense that you have only confirmed what they have been talking about.

Numerous commentators reflecting on the state of critical theory have found that this applies to various schools of theory. Jonathan Gottschall sums the problem up nicely:

Psychoanalysts have argued that citing evidence against their belief system is quite transparently–in itself–evidence for that system; criticism of Marxist or neo-Marxist notions can be dismissed as craven attempts to bolster the critic’s economic interests; and any criticism of the so-called race-class-gender-sexuality movements can be brushed off as spasms of rightist political reflexes [...]. While these prophylactics against negative evidence have been potent, and while they help explain the impressive resilience of the dominant paradigm, they have also been primary obstacles to the generation of reliable knowledge. (39)

Embedded within this commentary is the assumption that theory means to be reliable, or at least in some sense apply to the real world. However, if there is to something to be saved of high theory, I believe that theorists must surrender this presumption of practical utility.

Perhaps the most direct contributor to the Sokal Hoax was the fact that these schools of theory have their own, alternative experts. This seems directly analogous to a group of 9/11 Truthers I have been corresponding with lately. One has told me, “Listen to the experts.” By experts, of course, he means his experts, who are an architect, a retired theologian and a physicist who happened to participate in one of the biggest science scandals of the 20th century, the cold fusion brouhaha of the late 1980s. As in the Truth community, certain groups of theorists have gurus whose credibility is left untouched by deep methodological and evidentiary flaws that would be unacceptable in any legitimate discipline, and whose work is immediately recognized as not just worthless, but misleading, by people who have genuine expertise. Take, for instance, Brian Vickers’ assessment of two of the largest superstars:

Freud’s work is notoriously speculative, a vast theoretical edifice elaborated with a mere pretense of corroboration, citing ‘clinical observations’ which turn out to be false, with contrary evidence suppressed, data manipulated, building up over a forty-year period a self-obscuring, self-protective mythology. The system of Derrida, although disavowing systematicity, is based on several unproven assumptions about the nature of language which are supported by a vast expanding web of idiosyncratic terminology (249).

These pseudo-experts misuse scientific terminology for opportunistic, rhetorical purposes, which I suspect are largely to lend them authority in the eyes of those who do not know better. And, let’s face it, this led to some of the most extravagant and embarrassing proclamations identified by Gross and Leavitt.

Conspiracy theories and critical theories also resemble one another in that the two are accompanied with a sense of righteousness or political commitment, that the theorist in some ways is crusading against an oppressive force. This is especially true in what Gottschall calls the “liberationist paradigm,” in which “Objectivity [is] just a synonym for white male subjectivity” (5). A colleague of mine who works on interregnum Caribbean slavery narratives found that Irish-Catholic males were forcibly impressed into indefinite periods of servitude and brought to tropical plantations in chains under Cromwell. When she named this, rightly I think, as slavery, a tenured colleague of hers who was a committed postcolonialist accused her of usurping the exclusivity of African slavery narratives in Caribbean studies. The correct answer to this, of course, is, “You’re damn right I am, if the African narrative alone doesn’t fit the facts,” but this is not a statement conducive to professional advancement.

Indeed, a lot the schools of theory seem to stem from popular political movements. One of the funny things about UFO contactees is how often the message that they receive from their extraterrestrial contacts are seemingly tailored to the relevant political movements and concerns of the day. During the Cold War, the benevolent Space Brothers warned us about the dangers of nuclear weapons; after the Cold War, they warned us about polluting the environment. It is probably not a coincidence that ecocriticism arrived at about the same time that the little green men started lecturing us about the importance of going green, as it were. Indeed, ecocritic Simon Estok says that “ecocriticism has distinguished itself, debates notwithstanding, first by the ethical stand it takes, its commitment to the natural world as an important thing rather than simply as an object of thematic study, and, secondly, by its commitment to making connections.” The editors of the ecocrit collection, Reading the Earth, argue that:

Implicit (and often explicit) in much of this new criticism is a call for cultural change. Ecocriticism is not just a means of analyzing nature in literature; it implies a move toward a more biocentric worldview, an extension of ethics, a broadening of humans’ conception of global community to include nonhuman life forms and the physical environment. Just as feminist and African American literary criticism call for a change in culture […] so too does ecological literary criticism advocate for cultural change by examining how the narrowness of our culture’s assumptions about the natural world has limited our ability to envision an ecologically sustainable human society. (qtd. in Estok)

In much the same way that conspiracy theories are fueled by political ideals, take, for instance the 9/11 Truthers who are absolutely convinced that they are exposing great evils, no matter how silly, and the anticommunists of the Cold War, who were convinced that they were doing no less than saving freedom itself, so too have critical theorists seen themselves as waging a good war on behalf of oppressed people, and in the case just mentioned, saving human society from itself.

A further point of similarity between literary theory and conspiracy theory is that they seem to come awareness of unknown truths about the ‘real’ nature of things through meticulous—some would say hypermyopic—attention to minutiae. For instance, take the typical JFK assassination buff. He can tell you about every little bit of evidence, the results of every single test, every little strange particle of nuance of evidence relevant and irrelevant to the events in Dealey Plaza. He is doing, essentially, a super-hyper close reading of the narrative of the assassination. The problem, of course, is that he has a bad grasp of the relative importance of various pieces of evidence to the narrative as a whole. On the basis of that extremely close reading, like the deconstructionist, he often stresses those elements that are external to the narrative. At the same time, both conspiracy theorists and literary theorists seem to evince a belief in the inevitability of political change caused by the simple fact that revealing that truth.

One of the characteristics of academic theory that allowed Sokal to convincingly impersonate serious theorists was deploying the specialized language of theory. While this is, as Kuhn recognizes, perhaps an inevitable part of professionalization and establishment of expertise in the empirical sciences, to the point that even specialists in the same academic departments might not even be able to communicate easily, in the case of theory (and especially in deconstruction) one wonders whether or specialists can communicate at all, as the verbal documents that they generate are at times grammatically correct, meaningless sentences rendered impenetrable with jargon. Edward Ervin’s Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, started as a database designed to help him clarify for himself the terminology of Lacan’s seminars, but as he later reported:

As I tried to make sense of Lacan’s bizarre rhetoric, it became clearer to me that the obfuscatory language did not hide a deeper meaning but was in fact a direct manifestation of the confusion inherent in Lacan’s own fault. But whereas most of Lacan’s commentators preferred to ape the master’s style and perpetuate the obscurity, I wanted to dissipate the haze and expose whatever was underneath. […] Ironically, it was this attempt to open Lacanian theory up to criticism that played a major role in leading me to reject Lacanian theory itself. (42)

This use of language seems to me to be more in line with mysticism or possibly cult-speak than with conspiracy theory as such. It turns out that difference may simply be to deconstruction what “engrams” are to Scientologists, insofar as they serve as markers for members of in-group members and out-group members. Obfuscatory language does not shield theory from criticism; it shields it from legitimacy and relevance.

There is some encouraging news, of course, and this is that the practitioners of theory who fall into the category I’ve outlined comparatively few in number—you rarely bump into someone outside of a specialty journal who espouses wholehearted devotion to a single school of thought. Most literary and cultural criticism appropriates only what is relevant to the topic at hand and disregards the rest. Nonetheless, the theorists whose work is taken to be representative of the various schools of criticism tend to be more sensationalistic. A peculiar feature of much theory is a tacit appreciation of its mere “boldness,” as if claims of radical destabilization are laudable in themselves. True, we have found it desirable and enlightening to reexamine our underlying assumptions, and this has led to genuinely enlightened, more informed views on issues such as sexuality and race, but it does not follow that destabilisation in itself is desirable. It is not clear what the impact of intellectuals championing these causes is on society’s perception of sexuality, gender, race or ecology. Nonetheless, when theorists declaim on subject about which they know nothing, they devalue the work of other, more responsible scholars through an unfair guilt by association.

So, what’s to be done; how do we avoid another Sokal Hoax? Wouldn’t it be great and ironic if I yelled enthusiastically, “REVOLUTION!?”

This is an important question, as the humanities are chronically starved for funding. The answer depends on how literary theorists decide to describe their job, whether they see themselves as producers of knowledge who are developing ever more accurate and detailed understandings of the nature and working of literature and culture, or if they see themselves primarily as artists. In the first case, if theorists decide, that they want, to use Gottschall’s phrase: “the ability to systematically and decisively narrow out allotted portion of possibility space–to zoom in toward truth in the immense multidimensional hyperspace of error and vacuity” (9), they have failed.

Gottschall makes an intriguing proposal about how to move forward with the project of reducing error in literary studies, and that is plying statistical sampling and analysis to literary texts. He points out that the quantification of social phenomena has always met with popular resistance, but it has revealed underlying order to any number of social phenomena. Why should literature be any exception? I think that there are two major obstacles, neither of which is insurmountable or easy. The first may be described as inertia, an unwavering devotion to the notion that there are some things like literature can’t be quantified. This, of course, is merely a bald assertion, and without trials to examine whether or not such a project would be profitable, there is simply no basis for making that claim.

The second obstacle to the successful completion of the project is that the infrastructure of literary studies, as it currently exists, is not designed to produce scholars of the type that Gottschall proposes. It is designed to perpetuate theory as it already is. The problem with this is that programs in literary theory—or cultural studies writ large—do not have the expertise in statistics needed to become this sort of scholar at either the graduate or undergraduate level. As a result, I am afraid that it will take a rather substantial overhaul of theory programs to even begin down this road. That or interdisciplinary training through other departments.

One reform, I think, immediately available to all departments, and one that I believe is fundamental to improving the standing of theory, is raising awareness of cognitive biases and their ability to corrupt research. One of the most damaging and pervasive flaws in modern humanistic scholarship is the lack of awareness or concern for confirmation bias, which is a dangerous mental habit that determines what one accepts as relevant evidence. It is the propensity for people to seek out confirmatory instead of disconfirmatory evidence. For example, when you are posed with the question, “Is Ted an extrovert?” you are likely to ask questions like, “Does he have friends? Or does he like going out on weekends?” instead of paying attention to the fact that he plays chess and reads, the types of things introverts are likely to do. In life we unconsciously notice and value elements of the world that confirm our worldview to the exclusion of those that don’t. Numerous swindles depend on this very human propensity, and currently, when we are trained in theory we are being trained to give confirmation bias free range. When confronted with a mass of data, say, a novel or a culture, and you are able to forgive yourself for squinting a little bit, it is very, very easy to find evidence for anything. If your academic kink happens to be imperial conquest, you’ll find imperial conquest. If it’s patriarchy, you’ll find patriarchy. If it’s pandas, you’ll find pandas. And we don’t pay any attention to this tendency. I searched the entire MLA database for the phrase “confirmation bias” and it appears only once.

Another vital element of a program of reform that will lead to literary theory becoming a reliable tool for discerning the real world will be to replace scientific pseudoexperts like Freud and Lacan with actual experts in the relevant empirical sciences, especially in the science of the mind. This will require some additional training, and I’m not sure it’s the type of training that could reasonably be confined to a graduate education, but if you are going to invest the time in writing a dissertation about the products of the human mind, you cannot but improve your work by informing it with an awareness of the state of the empirical science. And when you address scientific matters you need to understand the limitations of that science as well. When you are talking about indeterminacy, you need to be aware that this is a property that is only useful when it is applied to the world of particles. You may employ indeterminacy as an artistic metaphor, of course, but when you do so, you must not mistake your metaphor for the real thing or imagine that because you have used the metaphor that you have somehow altered particle physics. When you critique the content of science, or any field of knowledge, as many theorists have, you need to address the relevant issues at the level of the experts, and this is very, very difficult without specialist training. It reminds me of a situation I believe Carl Sagan described when he looked into the claims of the pseudoscientist and psychoanalyst Immanuel Velikovsy, that Jupiter ejected the planet Venus and that a series of close passes by Venus to Earth caused a number of the miracles described in the Bible. Religious scholars scoffed at Velikovsky’s interpretation of biblical events but were impressed by his astronomical knowledge. Scientists thought that the biblical stuff was ok, but thought his astronomical proclamations were ridiculous.

The other option is to surrender pretentions to objectivity and describe theorists as artists. Art makes no claims on objective reality, and some very artful and elegant readings of texts can come out of even the most badly flawed pseudoscience. I think that it would be folly to not consider an Oedipal reading of Hamlet, even if there is no evidence of an Oedipus complex in the real world. Exciting art can be made when you filter a work of literature through a novel perspective. In doing so, you are doing what artists have done for ages, drawing on and responding to the zeitgeist. I consider that project to be akin to the various repinterpretations by Dali and Picasso of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, wherein something of the original artwork remains, but the style and aesthetic concerns of the modern artists dominate the interpretation. Take the Freudian example. In psychoanalytic criticism, a theorist may in practice substitute any symbol for any other symbol. This is immensely liberating for the imaginative, creative mind. But one should not imagine that the substitutions that the theorist makes are anything but the products of their own mind. So, if theory and interpretation abandon pretenses of objective analysis and embrace the posture that they are using science as a metaphor, we will do much to clarify the work that literary and cultural critics are accomplishing.

Something needs to change. High theory, as it is currently conceived and practiced, is a celebration of disordered thinking. To prevent further embarrassment to the profession and improve the quality of our work, we need to hold our theorists to high standards; and when it comes to matters of science, we need to hold them to the standards of the field they mean to critique. We need to raise the scientific literacy of our humanities faculties and educate our students about confirmation bias. Finally, when we deploy science as a metaphor, we need to frankly acknowledge it as such, just a metaphor. Thank you.

RJB

Postscript: After I gave this talk, a guy came up to me and said, “My dissertation adviser was one of the editors at Social Text. Oops! Heehee.  (I almost typed Sokal Text–eek!). He did in fact say that the editors schooled themselves in science afterwards, which is encouraging.

References:

Estok, Simon C. “A Report Card on Ecocriticism.” AUMLA : Journal of the Australasian Universities Modern Language Association 96 (Nov 2001): 220-238. Online at <http://www.asle.org/site/resources/ecocritical-library/intro/reportcard/&gt;

Evans, Dylan. “From Lacan to Darwin.” The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. Eds., Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson. 34–55.

Gottschall, Jonathan. Literature, Science, and a New Humanities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Gross, Paul R. and Leavitt, Norman. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.

Krims, Marvin Bennett. The Mind According to Shakespeare: Psychoanalysis in the Bard’s Writing. Westport: Praeger, 2006. Introduction, xv.

Vickers, Brian. “Masters and Demons.” Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent. Eds. Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral. New York: Columbia UP, 2005. 247-270.


Is the Voynich Manuscript the Product of an Alien Intelligence?

February 19, 2011

Of course the hell not, but by sticking to the evidence, I find myself regrettably unable to run out into the quad and shout: “IT’S A COOKBOOK! THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT IS A COOKBOOK!” Sticking to evidence, however, has never been the strength of the writers at Above Top Secret, which delivered a rather soggy excuse for a story entitled: “Voynich Manuscript–Diary of an Alien or a Mad Man? 100 Years Older than First Thought.”

Already wrong, but I’ll get there.

The Voynich Manuscript is a genuine mystery. Currently housed in Yale’s Beineke Library, the Voynich MS totally skipped my mind when I went up there to do research for my dissertation. Nonetheless, it is there, which has until recently been just about the only thing we’ve known for sure about it.

According to Curt A. Zimansky, writing in Philological Quarterly (before it went all corporate–haha), says that the manuscript was originally found in the library of Rudolph II and that it was in the possession of Father Athanasius Kircher in 1666. It then dropped out of sight for centuries, until it was acquired by a Polish bookseller named Voynich in 1912 during one of his book buying tours of Europe. The provenance of the manuscript is only certain, as far as I can tell, once it is in Voynich’s hands. He found it in a trunk at Villa Mondragone, in Frascatti. Upon Voynich’s death, it passed into the hands of Hans Kraus and eventually ended up at Yale.

It’s a beautiful book–nearly 250 vellum pages–an example of fine craftsmanship, beautiful and elegant and nobody has the faintest idea what the crap it says. You see, it is written in an unknown script in a language that does not seem to exist outside of the manuscript. Based on the illustrations that accompany the text, scholars have divided up the book into parts, including the herbal section, astrological section,  biological section, cosmological section, pharmaceutical section, and “recipes,” but really, we have no idea how closely the text corresponds to the images. But even with the, say, “herbal” sections, the plants that appear are unknown. As Voynich is reported to have asked, “WTF?”

A lot of people have stepped forward to offer their interpretations of the MS. The first person to attempt to answer the question was an otherwise reputable scholar at Penn by the name of Newbold.

In April 1921, Newbold announced that he had deciphered the Voynich MS. Hurrah! He said that it was a monograph written in a secret hand by Roger Bacon. Bacon was a 13th-century English monk and one of the first Europeans to embrace empiricism and experiment; and such he is considered a founding father of modern science. Hurrah!

Among the fantastic revelations that Newbold, uh, revealed, was that the manuscript was written in two codes. The first was a surface code, a Latin-text cipher. This cipher was so rife with arbitrary rules of substitution and anagrams that it could yield basically anything. The second cipher was a more subtle, much more interesting cipher, the shorthand cipher. The premise of this cipher was that tiny, literally microscopic strokes appeared on each character, and that a complete reading of this second, more secret text depended on deciphering these marks.

He revealed that the Voynich MS revealed the invention of the telescope in the 13th century! Doctor mirabilis!

As evidence of this exceptional assertion, Newbold produced the Latin text which  he said was associated with a peculiar image in the manuscript:

The Latin decipherment Newbold associates with this diagram partially reads:

Vidi stellas in speculo concavo, in cochleae forma agglomeratas…

If my eyeballing of this snippet is correct, it reads: “In a concave mirror, I saw stars formed into the shape of a snail.” (That is, a spiral.) The rest of the passage makes this clear he is talking the Andromeda Galaxy:

Well, Holy Haleakala, Batman! Newbold pushed the history of the telescope back hundreds of years.

But, wait, there’s more! Bacon also invented the compound microscope, as evidenced by the images of what Newbold interpreted as ova and spermatozoa. (Not to mention the shorthand cipher itself, which could only be seen through a microscope.) The Voynich MS was the most important discovery in the history of science, and scholars generally accepted Newbold’s interpretation. Probably because nobody could understand his process of deciphering the manuscript.

In 1931, following Newbold’s death, John Matthews Manly wrote what should stand as one of the most thorough debunkings in the history of debunking, a spectacular and thorough treatment of Newbold’s assertions. He showed that the encryption that Newbold could not reliably generate text for the recipient. He illustrated that the cipher could achieve and had achieved “results” when applied to texts known not to be written by Bacon, to texts written long before the Voynich MS, and to mistranscriptions of the Voynich manuscript that Newbold used. In Newbold’s decipherments, sometimes the same passage revealed different messages. Manly demolished the content of the messages that Newbold had found to show that they could not square with what was known with the period. Newbold’s assertion defied even the laws of physics. Newbold apparently had simply shrugged off the objection that the Andromeda galaxy could not possibly have changed so radically in the time between the manuscript’s production and the 20th century. Also, he seemed not to worry that the spirals could not be seen by the naked eye even in a modern telescope–our images come from long exposures. It was in every way a thorough and complete trashing of the Newbold interpretation, and it left Newbold’s legacy in tatters. One may consider it a professional courtesy that Manly waited until Newbold had died before publishing his rebuttal.

It also meant that we had not progressed a single jot toward understanding what the heck this manuscript was.

As far as I can tell, the most interesting fabrication of Newbold’s mind was the secondary shorthand cipher. The little tails and swoops and signs that Newbold had found under a microscope were either clearly examples of ink bleeding into the cracks on the surface of the vellum and therefore meaningless, or they disappeared entirely when others looked at them. This strikes me as a close corollary to Lowell’s “discovery” of canals on Mars a few decades earlier, when the astronomer declared that he could see artificial channels on the surface of the Red Planet and spun a rather fanciful story to explain them. Turns out they weren’t there at all, but were artifacts of Lowell’s imagination.

By the way, I strongly recommend the conclusion of the Manly article as perhaps the epitome of the “don’t be a dick” school of skeptical criticism.

In the intervening years, a number of hypotheses have been floated about the content and meaning of the manuscript.In 1943, a bloke named O’Neill announced that he had deciphered the manuscript. In 1944, a botanist, James Feeley, have claimed that New World pepper plants and sunflowers appeared in the manuscript, which would place the manuscript after 1492. But even these botanical identifications are dubious, especially in the light of the vellum’s carbon-dating.

Without a doubt, my favorite “translation” appeared in Science in 1945, and it underlines why specialists in the humanities should be given their due respect. It came from Leonell C. Strong, who said that he had finally, really, actually cracked the code, but because of the current state of war, thought it was an inopportune time to reveal how he had uncovered its cryptological secrets (ahem, yeah). Voynich, Strong claimed, was written by 16th-century astrologer Anthony Askham. Most of the manuscript, he reported, discussed “the effects of plants on physiological processes in health and disease, especially, the diseases of women, and a conception of pre-Harveian generation and parturition” (608).

The cipher translated into something called “Medieval English,” which reads like: “When skuge uf tun’c-bag rip, seo oogon kum sli of se mosure-issue ped-stans sku-bent, stokked kimbo-elbow crawknot.” This passage, he says, is about the birth of a baby: “when the contents of the womb rip, the child comes slyly from the mother-issuing with the leg stance scewed and bent, while the arms, are knotted (above the head) like the legs of a crawfish.” I can’t imagine that anyone with a postgraduate degree in English at the time (Old English and history of English were still generally required graduate courses) did not howl with laughter when they read the “Medieval English.” It looks like it wants to be “Old English”: for instance, the “seo” is a feminine form for “that” and there are some…compound-y words. Unfortunately, it has the letter “k,” not found in Old English (you’d see it Old Norse), and words like “issue” that seem to be from a romance language. And it’s nothing like Middle English either. And what the hell’s up with that apostrophe? Strong further claimed that Ascham knew about antibiotics!

A group of cryptographers waiting to be released from the military after the Second World War spent their free time trying to decipher the sucker. I even found a reference to a report produced by the NSA on the shelves at Emory, but when I went to pull it, the report had mysteriously disappeared. Others have seen it, however, and report that the NSA was unable to crack the cipher. Take that, NSA! (Please don’t hurt me.)

A 2007 analysis of the characters by theoretical physicist Andreas Schinner suggests that the manuscript has been “generated by a stochastic (random) process rather than by encoding of encryption of language.” Damn it.

Nonetheless, crafty science types at the University of Arizona have at least pinned down the age of the vellum (which is slightly different from pinning down the age of the manuscript). The critters that died to make the MS snuffed it in the early 15th century. In the release at physorg.com, the author says that the writing doesn’t “resemble anything written–or read–by human beings.” This statement seems to have lead the imaginative author at ATS to a new hypothesis–aliens wrote it!

On vellum.

In the 15th century.

The poor guy writes, referring to the “galaxy” image above: “I will start with the picture that shocked me the most. To me, this is on par with the Sumerians knowing things they should not have been able to.”

Sigh. Me too, my friend. Me too.

RJB

References:

Kennedy, Gerry and Rob Churchill. The Voynich Manuscript: The Unsolved Riddle of an Extraordinary Book Which Has Defied Interpretation for Centuries. London: Orion, 2005.

Manly, John Matthews. “Roger Bacon and the Voynich MS.” Speculum 6.3 (1931): 345-391.

Schinner, Andreas. “The Voynich Manuscript: Evidence of the Hoax Hypothesis.” Cryptologia 31 (2007): 95-107.

Strong, Leonell C. “Anthony Askham, the Author of the Voynich Manuscript.” Science 101.2633 (15 June 1945): 608-609.

Zimansky, Curt A. “William F. Friedman and the Voynich Manuscript.” Philological Quarterly 49.4 (Oct 1970): 433-443.


Scientists discover art is rewarding…

January 10, 2011

A group out of Emory headed by senior researcher Krish Sathian has published an article announcing that art is rewarding. Sure, it sounds a bit like discovering, “Hey, Sgt. Pepper is a pretty good album,” but the Emory team is studying the mechanics behind the experience of art and have used fMRI to image the specific areas of the brain that activate when one looks at a piece of art. The paper, entitled “Art for reward’s sake: Visual art recruits the ventral striatum,” appears in the journal Neuroimaging, and suggests that viewing art objects triggers a reward center deep in the brain, the ventral stratium. Interestingly, similar reward activity influences other behaviors, like addiction, gambling and financial decision making.

It’s a very small study, only 8 subjects, so I suspect that art and science afficionados will have to wait for further research into the neurological mechanisms underlying the artistic experience. It is my personal hope that this neuroimaging study will ultimately lead to a cure for abstract expressionism.

B


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