“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Getting Gabriel Wrong: Part 3 of 3




From a SMVA perspective, then, readers seek out signals of Gabriel’s propensity for altruism and cooperation, and, once they receive them, are compelled to volunteer affect on his behalf. In other words, they are anxious for the plot to unfold in a way that favors and vindicates him. According to Flesch, this dynamic is the basis of “narrative interest,” which he defines as “anxiety on behalf of and about the motives, actions, and experiences of fictional characters” (7). Having detected Gabriel’s “difficult-to-fake” signal of his genuine concern for the caretaker’s daughter, readers can be counted on to sympathize with him. Immediately after he insists that Lily accept a coin and leaves her presence, he begins brooding over whether to include the lines from Browning in his speech. Here readers become privy to the tension underlying his self-consciousness: “he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers” (179). His thoughts continue:

"their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry" (179).


Gabriel’s mother, through whom he is related to the hosts of the party, turns out to have “married T.J. Conroy of the Port and Docks” (179). In other words, “the brains carrier of the Morkan family” (186), as Aunt Kate calls Gabriel’s mother, married into money. Leonard contends that “the Browning quote is there to invite from [Gabriel’s] audience authorization for his viewing of himself as someone with refined tastes and a superior education” (460). But that Gabriel is more educated is not a boast he wants to convince everyone of; it is rather a fact he goes out of his way not to lord over them, as is the higher grade of culture his mother married into. Leonard also charges Gabriel with having “contempt for them as peers” (460), but if that were the case he would not bother himself about appearing “ridiculous” before them. The Lacanian is treating the reality Gabriel is trying to mitigate as a fantasy he is trying to propagate.

The predicament Gabriel faces that readers hope to see him through is that he really differs from the people at the party in important ways. His sense of not belonging is real, and yet he cares about them. To this day, anyone who has left a small town to go to college is faced with a similar dilemma whenever he or she returns home and realizes how vast the gulf is separating the educated from the uneducated. And, far from using his books as props for some delusion of grandeur, Gabriel genuinely loves them, so much so that when one arrives for him to review it is “almost more welcome than the paltry cheque” (188). It turns out that the Browning quote Leonard fails to credit him for not including in his speech came from one of these books he has reviewed. Gabriel originally applies the phrase “thought-tormented” to the “music” (192) of the Browning poem in his review. The phrase turns up again in his speech, but this time, in an act of creativity inspired by his confrontation with Miss Ivors, he has turned it into a charge against “a thought-tormented age… educated or hypereducated as it is,” which he also claims to fear is lacking in “humanity,” “hospitality,” and “kindly humour” (203)—this from the man who was mortified earlier lest the assembled audience “think that he was airing his superior education” (179). Rather than risk that verdict, Gabriel makes a complete concession to the sensibility of Miss Ivors, believing it to be more closely aligned with that of his audience than his own.

He is in this scene inhibiting his impulse to hold forth on the poetry he genuinely loves and the principles in which he genuinely believes because he recognizes that they will not only go unappreciated but will even be offensive to many in his audience. This is intelligence keeping passion in check, something Gabriel alone in the story is capable of. But this is also intelligence in the service of dishonesty; Gabriel is being disingenuous. His thoughts really are tormenting him throughout the story with greater self-consciousness. Lacanian critics may see this as a form of narcissism, but it is remarkable how reliably self-sacrificing Gabriel is. Indeed, the epiphany he experiences is that he is too self-sacrificing, a “pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians” (220). Hearing his wife Gretta tell the story of Michael Furey, the boy who braved the weather for her in a condition of ill-health and who died as a result, he recognizes a quality he himself lacks. What he finds so threatening and at the same time so admirable about Furey is his unchecked impulsivity, his passion untempered by intelligence. “Better pass boldly into that other world,” he thinks, “in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age” (223). Much like the eponymous Eveline in an earlier Dubliners story, Gabriel is at risk of being paralyzed by his duties to his family and to his culture.

That Gabriel is in a sense too altruistic does not imply that his epiphany is a repudiation of altruism; what Gabriel calls into question are the dishonesty his good nature leads him to and the provincialism that necessitates it. It is ironic that his realization is prompted by a former inhabitant of Galway, an Irish territory Miss Ivors had tried to persuade him to acquaint himself with earlier. But it must be noted that for Furey to be true to himself there meant he had to die. And yet there is a nostalgic note in the enigmatic line, written by an expatriate from Ireland now living on the continent: “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward” (223). Gretta is of course also from Galway, and when Gabriel tells her of Miss Ivors suggestion she responds, “I’d love to see Galway again” (191). When Kelley argues that Gabriel’s vision of snow falling all over Ireland symbolizes how “Mutuality replaces mastery” (206) in his consciousness, he is only half-wrong. Gabriel has felt horribly alone all night. He has even felt alone throughout his marriage; when Gretta falls asleep after telling him the story of Michael Furey, “He watched her while she slept as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife” (222). But he has learned Gretta is just like him in that she keeps her true thoughts and feelings to herself: “He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes” (223). Mutuality is not replacing mastery; it is replacing isolation.

The central premise of Joyce’s story, that Gabriel needs to escape the close-minded nationalism of his Irish culture, or at least find a way to be true to himself within it, simply fails if Gabriel is not a character worth saving. Though Flesch insists one of his goals in Comeuppance “is to assert the reconcilability of a Darwinian perspective, one that accepts evolutionary origins and constraints on human mental processing, with the best of European philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literary theory” (207), it is difficult not to see the various Lacanian readings of “The Dead” as bestowing their views on the story rather than discovering them in it. In a bit of irony Lacan himself might have appreciated, it is the Lacanians who are the true narcissists, looking as they do into the story and seeing only their own principles reflected back at them. There is also an element of self-righteousness in their negative characterization of Gabriel, since naturally these critics are claiming to know better than to be so controlling and to put on such superior airs. But in imposing their self-consciously esoteric views they are doing a disservice to readers—and themselves—by making the story far less enjoyable.

Works Cited

Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge: Belknap,

2009. Print.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Anniversary Ed. Minneapolis: U of

Minnesota P, 2008. Print.
Flesch, William. Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological
Components of Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.
Joyce, James. “The Dead.” Dubliners. Eds. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York:

Penguin, 1996. 175-224. Print.
Kelley, James. “Mirrored Selves and Princely Failings: A Lacanian Approach to James Joyce’s

‘The Dead.’” In-Between: Essays & Studies in Literary Criticism 12.1-2 (2003):

201-09. Print.
Leonard, Gary. “Joyce and Lacan: ‘The Woman’ as a Symptom of ‘Masculinity’ in ‘The Dead.’”

James Joyce Quarterly 28.2 (1991): 451-72. Print.
Trujillo, Ivan E. “Perversion as the Jouissance of The Woman in ‘The Dead’: Joyce, Lacan and

Fucking the Other.” Other Voices 1.3 (1999): 1-11. Web. 30 Mar. 2010.
Wynn, Karen, J. Kiley Hamlin, and Paul Bloom. “Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants.” Nature
450.22 (2007): 557-560. Web. 30 Mar. 2010.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Getting Gabriel Wrong: Part 2 of 3

Part 1.
It may be argued, however, that Flesch’s is just another theory; that it calls for a reading of Joyce’s story that contradicts the way Lacanians read it hardly justifies dismissing one theory in favor of the other. The Marxist critic Terry Eagleton, in his Literary Theory: an Introduction, answers the protest that theories get in between readers and stories by arguing that “Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people’s theories and an oblivion of one’s own” (xii). Far from being oblivious to his own theory, though, Flesch marshals copious evidence to support the idea that people respond to characters in fiction the same way they do to people in real life, and that they therefore require no literary theory to appreciate literature. The evidence he cites comes mainly from experiments based on Game Theory scenarios designed to explore the circumstances under which people act either for their own selfish gain or for the mutual gain of groups to which they belong. But some experimenters have shown that even children too young to speak, certainly too young to be conversant in psychological or literary theories, tend to respond to the very type of signals to which Lacanian readers of “The Dead” are most oblivious.

Yale psychologist Karen Wynn published her research on children’s social cognition around the same time as Comeuppance was released, but even though Flesch’s book has no mention of Wynn’s findings they nonetheless demonstrate both how important the processes of social monitoring and volunteered affect are and how early they develop. Wynn’s team presented children as young as three months with a puppet show featuring a cat who wanted to play ball and two rabbits, one who rudely stole away with the ball when it was rolled to it and another who playfully rolled it back to the cat. The children watched the various exchanges with rapt attention, and when presented afterward with a choice of which rabbit to play with themselves almost invariably chose the more cooperative, demonstrating that “preverbal infants assess individuals on the basis of their behavior toward others” (557). This tendency emerges even when the show features no puppets, but only wooden blocks with crude eyes. Game Theorists call this behavior “strong reciprocity,” which Flesch explains “means the strong reciprocator punishes and rewards others for their behavior toward any member of the group, and not just or primarily for their individual interactions with the reciprocator” (22). So, the question regarding Gabriel Conroy becomes what aspects of his behavior signal to strongly reciprocal readers how prone to cooperation he is?

Joyce deliberately broadcasts a costly signal by exposing his protagonist’s private thoughts, risking the misunderstanding of readers unfamiliar with this style of close narration (and apparently that of Lacanians); he therefore strewed helpful signals throughout the story. In the sentence directly following the first mention of Gabriel—“it was long after ten o’clock and yet there was no sign of Gabriel and his wife”—a character named Freddy Malins is introduced. While the arrival of Gabriel and his wife is eagerly anticipated by his aunts and his cousin, “they were dreadfully afraid that Freddy Malins might turn up screwed” (176). Joyce may as well be Karen Wynn here, presenting one cooperator and one selfish actor to readers, who find out shortly thereafter that “Gabriel’s solicitude was a standing joke” (180) among his wife and his aunts. “It’s such a relief,” Aunt Kate says to Grabriel’s wife after he has gone to check on the state of Freddy, “that Gabriel is here” (182). Her relief can be compared not just to her feelings toward Freddy, but also toward another character, Mr. Browne, who she complains “is everywhere” in an aside to her niece. “He has been laid on here like the gas” (206). Gabriel himself neither participates in nor is in earshot of any of these character assessments. So readers can conclude that, the nature of his inner thoughts notwithstanding, he is thought highly of by his aunts.

There is one character, however, to whom Lacanians can point as having a less than favorable opinion of Gabriel. Molly Ivors, the second woman in the story to make Gabriel blush, provides a key to understanding the central tension of the plot. For Leonard, the story consists of “three attempts by Gabriel Conroy, with three different women, to confirm the fictional unity of his masculine subjectivity” (451). This is an arch and murky way of saying that Gabriel wants the women he encounters to think he is a good man so that he can believe it himself. It is therefore noteworthy to Leonard that Miss Ivors “did not wear a low-cut bodice” (187), which he insists “announces that Miss Ivors does not dress in accordance with what she imagines the male viewer wishes to see” (461). But how Joyce is really trying to characterize her can be seen in the second part of the sentence about what she is wearing: “and the large brooch which was fixed in front of her collar bore on it an Irish device” (187), which Leonard can only fumblingly dismiss as having “a signification for her that is not meant to signify anything to him” (461). But it clearly does signify something to him—that she is a nationalist. As does her dress. Décolletage is, after all, a French style.

What makes Gabriel blush is not Miss Ivors’s refusal to play to his conception of proper female behavior but her revealing to him her knowledge that he has been writing for a newspaper unsympathetic to her political leanings, as well as to the political leanings of the hosts and the guests at the party. Gabriel’s initial impulse in response and his reason for inhibiting it are telling:


"He wanted to say that literature was above politics. But they were friends of many years’ standing and their careers had been parallel, first at the University and then as teachers: he could not risk a grandiose phrase with her" (188).


That she is a peer Leonard chalks up as further upsetting feminine expectations, “a fact as awkward and threatening as the absence of a low-cut bodice” (462). The more significant detail here, though, is that even as she threatens to expose him as an outsider Gabriel is concerned not to offend her. And that he is capable of recognizing her as a peer belies the suggestion that all she is to him is a symptom of his insecure manhood. The blush in this scene signals Gabriel’s genuine anxiety lest his anti-nationalistic political orientation and his cosmopolitan tastes offend everyone at the party.

“The Dead” is replete with moments in which Gabriel inhibits his own plans and checks his own desires out of consideration for others. His thinking better of “a grandiose phrase” with Miss Ivors is one case in point, though she does manage to provoke him to reveal his true feelings (perhaps the only instance of him doing so in the whole story): “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” (189). Two other instances of him reconsidering his plans are when he performs his postprandial speech with nary a mention of Browning, some lines of whose non-Irish poetry he has been vacillating over quoting, and when he restrains himself from initiating a sexual encounter with his wife Gretta in their hotel room after the party because she is in a “strange mood” and “To take her as she was would be brutal” (217)—this despite the fact that he is in “a fever of rage and desire” (217). Kelley cites this line along with one that says, “He longed to be master of her strange mood,” and yet another that says, “He longed to cry to her from his soul, to crush her body against his, to overmaster her” (217), to support his claim that Gabriel has “infantile tendencies toward domination,” which manifest in his “narcissistic desire and aggression” (204). This could hardly be more wrong. If he were narcissistic, Gretta’s thoughts and feelings would go unregistered in his consciousness. If he were aggressive, he would treat her violently—he would certainly not be worried about being brutal just by coming on to her. The Lacanians are mistaking thoughts and impulses for actions when it is precisely the discrepancy between Gabriel’s desires and his behavior that proves his altruism.

Gabriel’s thoughtfulness is placed into stark relief by several other characters who show neither the inclination nor the capacity to filter their speech to protect other people’s feelings. Boyd explains: “The inhibition of automatic responses is essential to higher intelligence. It is also essential to morality, to overcoming instinctive but unwise responses to, for instance, anger” (264). The main function Gabriel’s blushing plays in the story is to let readers know something about his real feelings because they quickly discover that he is uniquely capable of acting against them. In this, he can be compared to Freddy Malins and Mr. Browne, who in one scene seem to be vying for the prize of who can be the most insulting to the singer Bartell D’Arcy. “Those were the days,” Browne says at one point, “when there was something like singing to be heard in Dublin” (199), presumably oblivious to or unconcerned with the fact that there is a singer among his interlocutors. Even Gabriel’s Aunt Kate joins the pile-on, asserting that “there was only one tenor. To please me, I mean” (199). Mr. D’Arcy, readers have been told and amply reminded, happens to be a tenor himself. And both Lily and Miss Ivors, based on their rudeness toward Gabriel, can be added to this list of those who fail to inhibit their automatic responses.
read part 3

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Getting Gabriel Wrong: Part 1 of 3


Soon after arriving with his wife at his aunts’ annual celebration of Christmas, Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” has an awkward encounter. Lily, “the caretaker’s daughter” (175), has gone with Gabriel into a pantry near the entrance to help him off with his coat. They exchange a few polite words before Gabriel broaches the topic of whether Lily might be engaged, eliciting from her a bitter remark about the nature of men, which in turn causes him to blush. After nervously adjusting his attire, Gabriel gives her a coin and rushes away to join the party. How readers interpret this initial scene, how they assess Gabriel’s handling of it, has much bearing on how they will experience the entire story. Many psychoanalytic critics, particularly followers of Jacques Lacan, read the encounter as evidence of Gabriel’s need to control others, especially women. According to this approach, the rest of the story consists of Gabriel’s further frustrations at the hands of women until he ultimately succumbs and adopts a more realistic understanding of himself. But the Lacanian reading is cast into severe doubt by an emerging field of narrative studies based on a more scientific view of human psychology. The theories put forth by these evolutionary critics, particularly the Social Monitoring and Volunteered Affect Theory formulated by William Flesch, highlight textual evidence that undermines readings by prominent Lacanians—evidence which has likely led generations of readers to a much more favorable view of Joyce’s protagonist.

At a glance, two disparate assessments of Gabriel seem equally plausible. Is he solicitous or overbearing? Fastidious or overweening? Self-conscious or narcissistic? While chatting with Lily, he smiles “at the three syllables she had given his surname” (177). He subsequently realizes that he “had known her when she was a child and used to sit on the lowest step nursing a rag doll” (177). Lacanian critic James Kelley asserts that these lines describe Gabriel “reveling in his position of superiority” (202). When Gabriel goes on to inquire about Lily’s schooling and, upon learning that she is no longer a student, whether he can expect to be attending her wedding sometime soon, she “glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness: / —The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you” (177). Joyce leaves unanswered two questions in this scene: why does Lily respond “with great bitterness”? And why does Gabriel lose his composure over it? Kelley suggests that Lily is responding to Gabriel’s “attitude of superiority” (202). Gary Leonard, another Lacanian, sees the encounter similarly, charging Gabriel with the offense of “asking a real woman a question better asked of a little girl in a fairy tale (of course she is that unreal to him)” (458). But Leonard is holding Gabriel to a feminist standard that had not come into existence yet. And Gabriel’s smiling and reminiscing are just as likely reflective of a fatherly as they are of a patriarchal attitude.

One of the appeals of Flesch’s Social Monitoring and Volunteered Affect (SMVA) theory, which views the experience of fiction as a process of tracking characters for signals of altruism and favoring those who emit them, is that it relies on no notional story between the lines of the actual story. When encountering the scene in which Lily responds bitterly to Gabriel’s small talk, readers need not, for instance, be looking at a symbol of class conflict (Marxism) or gender oppression (Feminism) or one consciousness trying to wrest psychic unity from another (Lacanianism). Evidence can be culled from the scene to support the importance of these symbols and dynamics, along with countless others. But their importance rests solely in the mind of the critic serving as advocate for this or that theory. As Flesch’s fellow evolutionary critic Brian Boyd explains in his book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, “Such critics assume that if they can ‘apply’ the theory, if they can read a work in its light, they thereby somehow ‘prove’ it, even if the criteria of application and evidence are loose” (387).Unfortunately, those trained in the application of one of these theories can become so preoccupied with the task of sifting between the lines that their experience—to say nothing of their enjoyment—of the lines themselves gets short shrift. And, as Boyd points out, “We learn more when evidence against a reading surfaces, since it forces us to account for a richer stock of information” (387, emphasis in original).

The distorting effect of theory can be seen in the Lacanian critics’ obliviousness toward several aspects of “The Dead” Joyce is trying to draw their attention to. Why, for instance, would Gabriel be embarrassed by Lily’s bitter response when there are no witnesses? She is just a lowly caretaker’s daughter; that he would be at all concerned with what she says or how she says it tells readers something about him. Joyce makes a point of suggesting that Gabriel’s blush is not borne of embarrassment, but rather of his shame at offending Lily, accidental though the offence may have been. He “coloured as if he felt he had made a mistake” (178), and that mistake was supposing Lily would be getting married soon. That Lily’s bitterness at this supposition has anything to do with Gabriel as opposed to the one or more men who have frustrated her in love is unlikely (unless she has a crush on him). Concerning her “three mistresses,” she knows, for instance, that “the only thing they would not stand was back answers” (176), implying that she has ventured some in the past and been chastised for them. Aunt Kate even complains later about Lily’s recent behavior: “I’m sure I don’t know what has come over her lately. She’s not the girl she was at all” (181). This may or may not be enough evidence to support the idea that Lily’s recent transformation resulted from a courtship with one of those men who is all palaver, but it certainly goes a long way toward undermining readings like Kelley’s and Leonard’s.


When Gabriel thrusts a coin into Lily’s hand, his purpose may be “to reestablish his superiority” (202), as Kelley argues, but that assumes both that he has a sense of his own superiority and that he is eager to maintain it. If Gabriel feels so superior, though, why would he respond charitably rather than getting angry? Why, when Aunt Kate references Lily’s recent change, does he make ready “to ask his aunt some questions on this point” (181) instead of making a complaint or insisting on a punishment? A simpler and much more obvious motivation for the thrusting of the coin is to make amends for the accidental offence. But, astonishingly, Leonard concludes solely from Joyce’s use of the word “thrusting” that Lily and Gabriel’s “social intercourse is terminated in a manner that mimics sexual intercourse” (458). Yet another Lacanian, Ivan Trujillo, takes this idea a step further: having equated Gabriel’s blush with an orgasm, he sees the coin as the culmination of an act of prostitution, as paying her back “for his orgasmic feeling of shame” (3).

From the perspective of SMVA theory, laid out in Flesch’s Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, Gabriel’s blushing, which recurs later in the story in his encounter with Molly Ivors, suggests something quite distantly removed from sexual arousal. “Blushing is an honest signal of how one feels,” Flesch writes. “It is honest because we would suppress it if we could” (103). But what feeling might Gabriel be signaling? Flesch offers a clue when he explains

"Being known through hard-to-fake or costly or honest signaling to have the emotional propensity to act against our own rational interests helps those who receive our signals to solve the problem of whether they can trust us. Blushing, weeping, flushing with rage, going livid with shock: all these are reliable signals, not only of how we feel in a certain situation but of the fact that we generally emit reliable signals. It pays to be fathomable. People tend to trust those who blush" (106, emphasis in original).


The most obvious information readers of “The Dead” can glean from Gabriel’s blushing at Lily’s response to his questions is that he is genuinely concerned that he may have offended her. Lacanians might counter that his real concern is with the authentication of his own sense of superiority, but again if he really felt so superior why would he care about offending the lowly caretaker’s daughter in an exchange with no witnesses? In fact, Lily’s back is turned, so even she misses the blush. It can be read as a signal from Joyce to readers to let them know a little about what kind of character Gabriel is.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Review of Us and Them: The Science of Identity

Us and Them: the Science of Identity doesn’t answer the question of what we know about human kinds, as author David Berreby refers to them; it tries rather to answer the more fundamental question of how we should think about them. This alone would make the book almost unique among works by science writers. But it has many other unusual and some downright odd features. We should think about human kinds scientifically, he proposes in the introduction. This suggestion, along with the apologetics that accompany it, might come across as condescending or preachy to anyone apt to read a book with science in the subtitle, but the intention seems to be a return to first principles. In a preface written sometime after the book was originally published, Berreby sums up his argument:

“grouping people is an inborn, automatic, involuntary activity of the mind. It’s like learning to walk, or talk, or recognize faces. It can’t be shut off. It’s not evil. It’s not good. It’s just there, a mental faculty we can’t help using, with rules different from the ones used by other parts” (xiii).

The best evidence for this automatic and unconscious process comes from the Implicit Association Test, which has participants match words with either names or pictures on a computer and measures the time it takes them to do so. The names or pictures suggest that the person being matched with the word, all of which are for positive or negative qualities, belong to one or another group. “Almost invariably,” Berreby writes, “American students find they have an unconscious favoritism for white over black and often for male over female” (137). This preference is inferred from the relative speediness with which participants match good qualities with names common among white males and the relative slowness with which they matched them to other groups. And the trend holds even for those whose consciously held beliefs contradict it, much to their dismay.

But why does the best evidence for Berreby’s argument show up nearly halfway through the book? The Robbers Cave experiment, a classic in social psychology and the touchstone for any discussion of tribalism, justifiably has an entire chapter to itself—but it’s chapter eight of fifteen. What’s going on here is that Berreby realizes he faces a big challenge overcoming people’s natural and automatic thinking about human kinds, and his strategy is to take a deep breath, shake out his arms, and roll his neck before delving into the haunted forest of kind cognition. The early chapters are devoted not to research with direct bearing on tribalism, but to looking at the various subfields of social, cognitive, and neurological psychology through the lens, and at the same time toward the quarry, of tribalism. He’s not just telling us to think differently; he’s trying to show us point-by-point, painstakingly, how it’s done. Whether he’s successful or not, this method is bound to make many readers impatient, especially since he concludes by asserting that the best way to think about the matter is as yet unknown.

Berreby’s central argument is that we should think of human kinds not as objective entities we can measure differences among—the position of “race realists,” who are something of a bête noire for Berreby—nor as purely constructed, á la all reality as understood by deconstructionists. Kinds are rather a function of the interaction between mind and world. Taking them out of economic, political, or historical context renders them meaningless, as does trying to treat them as stable entities. However, treating them as if they were pure fantasy, believing you can simply decide not to recognize and accept them, is just as absurd. Berreby may have arrived at this position by way of analogy with the now established truism that nature versus nurture is a misguided question because nature has to interact with nurture, genes with environments, for any product or process to emerge. But three hundred and thirty-one pages later I’m still not sure whether this insight about human kinds really helps to explain anything.

Berreby’s beef with race realists, among whose ranks he includes Steven Pinker, is in keeping with a subtle tendency toward noble savage romanticism. This implicit position in what Frans de Waal calls in The Ape and the Sushi Master “a perennial controversy” (340) between those who believe people are basically good but get corrupted by society and those who think they’re bad but for education (I’m afraid my beliefs align better with this side), makes Berreby’s thinking about tribalism elliptical. He argues convincingly that recognizing human kinds was a crucial ability for the development of civilizations, pointing out that if primatologist Robin Dunbar “is right, and our capacity to track individuals tops out at 150, then this code of human kinds must have been a powerful amplifier. Instead of knowing 150 people, our ancestors could know thousands, by knowing their kinds” (221). But his thinking about tribalism’s dark side is less compelling, and at times even confusing.

William Graham Sumner coined the terms in group and out group in his 1906 book Folkways, in which he writes, “Loyalty to the ingroup, sacrifice for it, hatred and contempt for outsiders, brotherhood within, warlikeness without—all group together, common products of the same situation.” But, according to Berreby, “Much of this is dead wrong” (211). To support his claim, he cites Elizabeth Cashdan, who found through searching a database of 186 traditional societies that out-group hostility does not correlate with in-group harmony. Rather, in-group hostility correlates with out-group hostility. Otto Adang arrived at a similar conclusion when he analyzed the behavior of soccer fans in Europe. Those most prone to inciting violence weren’t the ones with the most team spirit but the ones who beat their wives and kids—i.e. those who were violent in general. Berreby doesn’t see any reason to explain how this jives with his earlier criticism of Theodore Adorno’s theory that certain individuals have “authoritarian personalities.” Adorno’s book, he complains, “made no allowance for the way a person’s behavior depends on his surroundings and his goals” (160). Might the tribal surroundings of a soccer match nudge a man who is more violent on average toward hooliganism?

But Berreby, citing Walter Mischel, discounts stable personalities as readily as he dismisses reliable group categories. Mischel’s argument, however, was not that individual differences don’t exist but merely that they are often given far too much weight as explanations for behavior. “It would be a complete misinterpretation,” he wrote in his 1968 book Personality and Assessment, “to conclude that individual differences are unimportant” (quoted in Pieces of the Personality Puzzle: Readings in Theory and Research). Berreby exaggerates the fundamental attribution error, which itself is a topic of debate because some argue the “error” is correct more often than not, and holds that it applies with equal validity to explanations about the behavior of groups. He’s mostly right, but this may be putting just as excessive an emphasis on mutability as we are naturally given to put on stability.

Berreby accuses Pinker and his ilk of having an “original sin” view of nature, in keeping with the supposedly Freudian idea (actually Hobbesian, or, if de Waal is right, traceable to a much earlier philosopher) that people are innately bad. They place too much evidence on “tribal violence” (173). Berreby’s own idea about the downside of group thinking is that it results from a stigma being placed on a particular group. Were it not for leaders or authorities or “stigmatizing practices” (280), whose place in the tribal dynamic is conveniently left out of the discussion, people would let their concepts of “human kinds pass kaleidoscopically through” (323) their minds. He has a lot of support for how different contexts mean different group thinking, but he simply fails to demonstrate that, left to themselves—whatever that means—people don’t tend more toward disfavoring out-groups. Berreby suggests Pinker neglects the third week of the Robbers Cave experiment because it demonstrates how easily the researchers managed to undo the tribalism they’d manufactured. Admittedly, it’s been a long time since I’ve read the primary source, and I was first introduced to it by Pinker, but even reading about it in Us and Them I have to say it seems to have been much easier to get the boys at the camp to hate each other than it was to get them to forget that hate. The results of the Implicit Association Test go a long way toward proving this. Why would college students sitting at a computer have a hard time seeing good qualities in minorities if their negative stereotypes were completely situational?

Berreby has a similar view of hierarchy: “People’s pecking orders have to be imposed” (267), again begging the question of who’s doing the imposing. His evidence for this idea comes from Christopher Boehm, who found that hunter-gatherers tend to have social mechanisms to maintain egalitarianism. It seems almost disingenuous of Berreby to put forth this argument—isn’t it likely that in another context, say, one without those social mechanisms, pecking orders might establish themselves? This position is especially unfortunate because Judith Rich Harris’s ideas about how tribalism interacts with hierarchy are much more compelling. Berreby lumps Harris in with Pinker, even though he allows she “has many interesting things to say about groupishness” (173).

I’m harping on one thread in Us and Them I found frustrating, but the work is really a remarkable accomplishment. I feel my thinking about tribalism really is more subtle after having read it. And the book introduced me to several studies I’d never heard of, which I hope to be tracking down soon. Still, I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone who isn’t especially keen on learning about the topic. The ratio of good reporting to philosophizing I’m not sure how to assess is off-putting. What, for instance, is to be made of this problem Berreby hopes science will sort out in the future:

“the difference between a human kind as a cause and a human kind as an explanation. Explanations come to mind after an event, as when we say, ‘Ethnic hatred was one of the reasons that Yugoslavia fell apart.’ Explanations are in our minds. On the other hand, causes are forces that really exist the world, whether we know it or not. To say that ‘ethnic hatred’ caused Yugoslavia to fall apart is to claim that ethnic hatred really made something happen. Though it’s obvious that these are different ways of thinking about human kinds [obvious?], most people slip from one to the other without noticing. And so we’re susceptible to thinking that after-the-fact explanations are before-the-fact causes.” (325)

So Berreby hopes scientists will figure out why people think the explanations they believe to be valid are valid? Much of the book has this sort of feel. It’s like being high (I’ve heard) and having a thought that seems really profound and original—or is it completely mundane? Or is it a jumble?

Friday, May 7, 2010

First Impression of Ian McEwan's Solar

Ian McEwan may have been living out a fantasy in Solar, one that had him playing the part of a very different type of man, a natural. Michael Beard, though intelligent, is not at all self-conscious, and nothing resembling guilt exists in his mind. The glaring detail is not that Beard, as the novel opens, has cheated on his fifth wife eleven times, but that such an overweight, slovenly, and inconsiderate man could find eleven women to cheat with in the span of just a few years. McEwan, I imagine, is more like Saturday's Henry Perowne, so monogamously tied to his wife that he worries about the implications for his manhood.

Ah, but Beard isn’t the typical simple-minded lout. He’s a Nobel Laureate. To me this was difficult to square—wouldn’t such a smart man have better impulse control, not eat to excess, drink to excess, fornicate to excess. But of course intelligence isn’t such a straight-forward issue, and we’re to take Beard as more than a little narcissistic, i.e. entitled. Plus, he usually manages to evade the severest of the consequences he has rightly coming to him. It’s the consequences he doesn’t deserve that plague him the most.

There’s a touch of Coetzee’s Disgrace to Solar: the academic who does and says the wrong things but continues to say, "What of it? Take me as I am." He’s put upon in all the ways well-to-do white men from privileged countries tend to be. I can’t help but sympathize. And since the narration is so close to him, and his own malfeasances and deceptions have such little importance to his mind, I’m never sure how much weight I should be giving them. I see trouble brewing for him but I take no joy in anticipating it. I even wonder if maybe he’ll weasel out of it all somehow—wouldn’t that be something?

On the surface this is a story about comeuppance—which never fully occurs—but really it’s about the tricky nature of sympathy. Beard is all too human, prideful, vengeful, at times almost loving, but not quite. You want to hate him. But you recognize at least of little of him in you.