I’m a little tired of the whole negative review debate, and this piece in The Ringer is all over the place, though it has some good one-liners, mainly from Jeff Weiss. Here’s the deal: a critic should be interesting—even entertaining—and that means torching a book or a writer occasionally. But a critic should also (i.e., at the same time) torch a book or a writer because the critic cares about style—about the truth of style and the morality of style. Today, we only care about the morality of style—if we care about it at all—as it relates to “identity” and power. This is incredibly narrow. And writing about negative reviews in terms of power and, to a lesser degree, identity is, too. 

Pushing buttons: Rachel Plotnick examines a modern metaphor: “At their best, early pushbuttons made light instantly appear, preventing falls in the dark. They warned of emergencies such as fires, putting help in closer reach. They honked automobile horns, and called for service in hotels and well-to-do dining rooms; they made elevators appear at a whim, and put photography within reach of the masses. Prefiguring the present-day internet age, one author in 1895 imagined an ‘ideal future when life shall consist of sitting in a chair and pressing buttons’. The act of pushing a button signified comfort, convenience and control, the heady values of industrialisation, much as it could also represent slothfulness, deskilling or alienation.” 

Originalism’s new critics: Ilan Wurman responds to two arguments against originalism in Claremont Review of Books: “Yesterday I critiqued Jonathan Gienapp’s new book, The Second Creation, in which he makes an innovative criticism of an old variety: originalism is self-refuting because it was unclear at the founding what the exact nature of the Constitution was, and whether it would be confined merely to its words. Georgia State law professor Eric Segall’s new book, Originalism as Faith, makes a more conventional—and for that reason more powerful—attack on originalism. The Constitution is written in such broad generalities—generalities like ‘due process,’ ‘equal protection,’ ‘cruel and unusual,’ ‘unreasonable searches and seizures,’ and ‘free exercise of religion’—that, Segall argues, even originalists must deploy personal policy preferences and value judgments in most contested constitutional cases. We’re all living constitutionalists, even if most of us pretend to be restrained by the Constitution’s text. The criticism that originalism is merely a rationalization for conservative political results is not new. But in making his criticism, Segall is refreshingly honest about nonoriginalism. Most nonoriginalists claim they simply interpret the same text originalists interpret, but draw different conclusions based on their examination of contemporary understandings and practices. Only a few nonoriginalists—like Andrew Coan at the University of Arizona—acknowledge that nonoriginalism is about changing the Constitution over time. Segall, I take it, would agree with that characterization of nonoriginalism. More nonoriginalists should openly embrace that view; after all, that’s what they’re actually advocating.”

A novelist accuses her husband of attempting to poison her.

Michael Dirda reviews Ernst Jünger’s war journals: “Always intended for eventual publication, the journal eschews soul-searching and avoids anything overtly confessional. In its entries, Jünger records his dreams, migraines and depressions, describes his interaction with Parisian artists and aristocrats sympathetic to the Germans, closely inspects every flower and insect he encounters and obsessively reflects on the human condition. ‘The goal of life,’ he decides, ‘is to gain an idea of what life is. In the absolute sense, of course, that changes nothing . . . but it helps our journey.’”

Essay of the Day:

The Robber’s Cave Experiment, designed by Muzafer Sherif, supposedly explains how conflict arises within groups and hostility is expressed towards outsiders. But Sherif’s results can’t be reproduced, and, as Gina Perry discovered, a first attempt to prove his theory about conflict failed miserably. This is just one of a number of examples of bad social psychology, Andrew Scull writes in The Times Literary Supplement:

“Psychologists continue to embrace Sherif’s findings, giving them the label of ‘realistic conflict theory’. His first study, undertaken just outside Middle Grove in New York State, is the one that has hitherto been buried and forgotten. Sherif spoke little about it, and published less, probably because his first effort to ‘prove’ his theory ended in chaos and disappointment. He had gathered together a group of eleven-year-old boys in what purported to be a summer camp, allowed them to make friends, split them into two groups, the ‘Eagles’ and the ‘Rattlers’, that ripped apart nascent friendships, and then had them compete for prizes. The result, he hoped, would be to create enmities and savage conflicts, which he then would show resolved themselves when the two groups faced common danger: a forest fire he planned to set.

“Mercifully, the fire never happened, because the experiment collapsed long before that. For example, the baseball team that benefited from obviously biased umpiring responded by calling out ‘kill the umpire’. And when the men in charge deliberately damaged the possessions of one group, the supposed offenders swore on the Bible that they had nothing to do with it, and were believed. ‘The only enduring resentment among [the losing group in the staged competition] was against the staff.’ The boys resolutely refused to follow the script, and Sherif was forced to retire from the fray and lick his wounds. But there was a problem: the Rockefeller Foundation had invested the equivalent of a quarter of a million pounds in Sherif’s work, and would eventually expect him to report on what he had done with the money. When the Foundation enquired about his results, Sherif prevaricated. But eventually, he knew, there would be a reckoning. So the following summer, with the small amount of funding he had left, Sherif repaired to the wilds of Oklahoma and set about creating the findings he needed to satisfy his sponsors.”

The Lost Boys thoroughly undermines the study’s claims to advance our knowledge. Sherif knew exactly what he wanted to find, and, together with a handful of assistants, he made sure that the young boys he had recruited on this second occasion performed according to his wishes. Or rather, he reported in his published findings that they had behaved in the ways his ‘theory’ predicted, taking care to airbrush out the ways he had sought to manipulate their responses. But in reality, the boys called their adult supervisors out: ‘One of Sherif’s major predictions, and the one that has made the Robbers Cave famous, is the apparently spontaneous mistrust and hostility that erupted between the groups during the tournament, and the apparently inevitable fighting that broke out when the Eagles won the prize. But rather than the competition causing conflict at Robbers Cave, it was the intervention of the men setting the groups against one another that added fuel to the fire . . . what happened at Robbers Cave wasn’t a test of a theory so much as a choreographed enactment, with the boys as unwitting actors in someone else’s script.’

“That this sort of thing has been taught as established psychological science to generations of undergraduates is, of course, scandalous. Sherif’s work had been started before the appearance of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies in 1954, and the fact that academic findings appeared to chime with the novelist’s imagination undoubtedly contributed to the positive reception of the Robbers Cave experiment, as well as to its longevity. Like its successors, the Milgram experiments and the Zimbardo and Rosenhan capers, the ‘findings’ brought Sherif attention and acclaim. And like those studies, its purported results were largely bogus.”

Read the rest.

Poem: Patrick Duddy, “Office Devotions”    

Photos: Dakar Rally  

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