19 January 2010

Monday Sans Caffeine

It's still Monday; at least it sure feels like Monday.

  • I'm shocked — shocked, I say — to find credible documentation (and admissions) that the FBI broke even the TRAITOR Act with wiretap requests based on phony terrorism "threats". It almost makes one long for the Hoover era, when at least everybody admitted what was going on... and why. I suppose it beats expiring under "rigorous interrogation" at GITMO, but not by a lot...
  • Also in criminal justice news, we've got a brewing controversy over civil commitment of sex offenders after they complete their criminal sentences. As a thought experiment, ask yourself a parallel question: If we do it for sex offenders, why don't we do it for con artists — a class of criminal for which there is a much richer (and more internally consistent) literature and data set regarding the probability of a given con artist's "persistent inability to conform [his] conduct to social or legal norms"? Snide remarks that the 'net makes it possible for con artists to continue their offenses from inside are not completely irrelevant... nor are these:

    Non Sequitur, 16 Jan 2009

  • A mystery that perhaps only Sherlock Holmes himself could unravel: assertions that the character is (allegedly) still in copyright in the US. It's actually much, much more complex than the article even hints at... and the entire article is founded on theories from cases that may no longer be good law (and haven't been for thirty years).
  • Jo Walton started an interesting thread on the ill-supported concept of "reading protocols" for speculative fiction. Purely by coincidence, my comment (the first one) is merely a recapitulation of a graduate seminar paper. The concept of "reading protocols" is essentially fifteenth-century theology that doesn't stand up to further examination based on what we've since learned — both in the fiction itself and in reading it. Going through the phase of "protocols" (or, as Ms Walton puts — with greater validity, but still missing soundness and a compelling warrant — "reading skillsets") was critically important in developing the basic structure of evaluating speculative fiction. The concept of a "protocol", however, bears even less resemblance to reality than did that of the ether by the time of the Michaelson-Morley experiment.

    The main difficulty with the concept of a "protocol" for reading is that it fails so spectacularly in boundary conditions that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. One of those failures — Le Guin's The Dispossessed — gets some treatment in both the main entry and several of the comments. Others of those failures are, perhaps, more obvious: 1984, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Galatea 2.2, The Sparrow, and the Hyperion quartet come to mind immediately. To put it another way: Particle physics may be quantized, but literature is not... and understanding and appreciating literature requires use of the full "skillset" (or the full panoply of "protocols") for every work. Some particular skills/protocols can be discarded as unhelpful for particular works... but only after reading them.

    It's long past time to consign the concept of restrictive reading (or writing) protocols to the same dustbin in which chemists have placed the Bohr atom, with its rigid concentric orbits. In both instances, we've developed and assimilated much better descriptions of reality that work at both the boundary conditions and in "simpler" cases, so there really isn't a good reason to continue restricting our view of reality with descriptions that don't work. None of this, of course, is really the "fault" (if "fault" is part of the right metaphor) of nonscholars who continue to use the restrictive reading metaphor; it is, instead, the fault of two groups of really, really bad writers: The literary scholars of the mid-1950s through the early 1990s who were unable to communicate the worthwhile parts of the theories being developed at that time (and successfully communicated the worthless parts to people who twisted them to irrelevant purposes, but that's another story entirely), and education policymakers who imposed numeric measurability upon literature without ever explaining that the only proper measure was a binary skilled/unskilled distinction, and not relative worth within the skilled group. (One look at the stochastic math behind standardized-test scoring scales demonstrates that it's merely a shifting set of binary comparisons.)

    I'm not proposing that Damon Knight and/or Samuel R. Delany be consigned to the dustbin of history — just those particular aspects of their theoretical constructs that have not withstood testing. After all, there's a lot of chemistry that still depends upon, and is well illustrated at the basic level in the laboratory through, the Bohr atom. That the Bohr atom does not work in the real world does not mean it should be discarded as a developmental teaching device. As one scholar explained a quarter of a century ago:

    The rigidity of the monists, however, is as unacceptable as the nihilism of the radical relativists. Neither position can account for the paradox that characterizes the actual practice of [literary scholarship and criticism]: we have legitimate disagreements about what literary works mean, but we are also able to say that some readings are wrong, not simply different.

    Paul B. Armstrong, The Conflict of Interpretations and the Limits of Pluralism, 98 PMLA 341 (1983). The "protocols"/"skillsets" metaphor/interpretation/model is recursively wrong: It produces a great many "wrong" readings (particularly in boundary works) and its rigidity prevents recognition of its very flaws.