Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Talking the Sherlock Holmes-General George A. Custer Blues (conclusion)

Talking the Sherlock Holmes-General George A. Custer Blues

(AKA Women and Indians at the Limits of Induction)

Part Three (Conclusion)

(Parts one and two can be found at the blog posts on June 3 and June 7)

It might seem therefore that the Sherlock Holmes-General George A. Custer blues all adds up to one lesson: letting cultural stereotypes stand in the way of careful inductive reasoning is a mistake, sometimes a fatal one.

It turns out that the lesson isn’t that simple.

In fact Custer’s thinking about Indians was in many ways not one-dimensional. Politically, Custer opposed Grant’s policies of 1876 requiring the Lakotas and Cheyennes to report to reservations or be attacked. Custer testified on behalf of the idea that Indians were being abused on the reservations and that the policy was unfair, a political stand that further earned Grant’s enmity and nearly cost Custer the chance to die at the Little Big Horn. He was, that is, a fairly thoughtful observer of Indian life on reservations. He could see that reservation life was exploitative and awful, and he was willing to say so publicly in a way that risked his military career.

It was just that as a man finally most devoted to making a name for himself through the military, one used to acting under orders even if he didn’t agree with them, Custer was willing to fight the Indians if that’s what the military required. In fact he was eager to do so because he believed it would improve his public image, the thing which to him mattered most.

It’s possible to be a careful inductive reasoner who sees through the ideologies and stereotypes of others and still be full of your own unexamined stereotypes.

The case of Holmes, and Doyle who created him, is maybe even more complex, yet it too reveals a similar problem.

In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” it’s important to note that Holmes, referring to Irene Adler as “the woman,” defines her as unique. Her existence disproves Holmes’ theories about women and even shows her to be a superior inductive thinker. Yet there is no indication that Holmes believes she is one of many such women. As the exception that disproves the rule, she is also the exception that proves that the rule remains true in most cases. It’s crucial to remember that in the story, even she behaves as Holmes expects women to do. What Holmes misses is that she herself realizes that she has been caught acting as women do, and can respond by not acting that way. This realization and response leads to her success. She still behaves like a woman but is capable of rising above it when the situation demands.

Holmes, of course, is a fictional character who may not may not reflect the attitudes of the author. Given the lesson Holmes learns in “A Scandal In Bohemia,” it’s fair to say that Doyle’s attitude was not that of Holmes. And in fact the Holmes stories are full of brave, tough, intelligent, steadfast women of firm moral convictions, women who under the laws of England often find themselves at the mercy of corrupt, mercenary men but who are willing to fight back for their own liberty and lives as well as for those they love.

Of course the stories also feature women who are dangerous villains, or who are weak, cowardly, stupid or vacillating. Women are hardly idolized in the Holmes stories.

Still, by all accounts Doyle seems to have greatly admired and respected women.

Doyle was also, later in life, firmly opposed to the idea that the women he so admired should have the right to vote. In an interview of his daughter Dame Jean Conan Doyle, she suggests about her father’s often discussed attitudes towards women that Doyle believed that the division of men and women into public and domestic spheres was proper, that women should have political power but only by exercising good influences upon their husbands.

Like many Victorian men, that is, Doyle believed both in admiring women and that their proper place was the home. Dame Doyle also suggests that her father was appalled by what he considered the lengths to which the woman’s suffrage movement had gone, and particularly deplored any incidents of violence with which it was associated. In fact in some Holmes stories the women’s suffrage movement appears as another of the many dangerous political conspiracies that he personally abhorred and that made for exciting fiction: the Mormons, the Italian Mafia, and Russian Communists primarily.

And while Doyle’s portrayal of women is complex, his portrayal of cultural others is full of the standard stereotypes common in British culture of the era. Members of other cultures are frequently portrayed as passionate, vengeful, duplicitous and scheming, although some are portrayed as passionate, loving, and honest in their scheming.

It turns out, that is, that it’s possible to believe in the value of inductive reasoning and the authority of data, to reject stereotypes and write a story showing the problems of the limits of stereotypes, and even to understand how induction is often limited by ideology, and still be deeply committed to common ideological limitations and stereotypes from a given era. It’s possible to criticize stereotypes and simultaneously believe in or at least frequently portray stereotypes as the truth about people’s behavior.

It’s possible, that is, to write a literature and live a life in the belief that inductive thinking can critique ideology, and is a way of getting beyond ideology, and even to know how often inductive thinking is mired in ideology, while still revealing that ideology—that complicated nexus of beliefs, some articulated, some not, some individual, some group-oriented and historical—remains far more powerful than we know in shaping how we see the world.

One conclusion here could be that inductive reasoning needs to be even more cautious and thorough, that it needs to be more relentless than ever in its dismantling of pre-determined beliefs and ideologies and theories. In so doing, it could enable us to live a life free of ideological bias, a claim, it seems, that a number of our own contemporary poets and critics are making.

But the other conclusion is that this previous conclusion is a fantasy, an ideological limitation masquerading as its opposite. In this view, a rational induction-based pragmatism can never free itself entirely of other kinds of ideological baggage. There’s no value free, neutral objectivity to be had even when one is a careful inductionist. Further, pragmatic inductionism cannot get beyond ideology because it is itself an ideology, one full of its own beliefs and methodologies based on those beliefs.

The problem with Holmes’ statement that one should never theorize without facts and therefore avoid all bias in theorizing is that the idea of being able to do so is not only already a theory, but probably also a fantasy. Inductive reading of the facts suggests that the likelihood of maintaining such a point of view in a person’s actual behavior is microscopically slim at best.

A good inductive reasoner should never believe in something that can be shown inductively to be a fantasy.

Still, the notion of a radically pure pragmatic inductionism is a theory which despite its limitations has worthwhile applications. As “A Scandal In Bohemia” shows, insisting on a pragmatic examination of our beliefs is profoundly necessary. But denying that we have values because we believe only in practicality is a conclusion that induction itself cannot support.

That said, what this story of Holmes and Doyle and Custer and induction finally shows is not simply the old point (though still necessary, it seems, given many recent discussions of poetry) that it’s impossible to escape ideology. It’s not simply that pragmatic method and an understanding of how ideology functions are useful counterbalances, in that pragmatic method can sometimes successfully critique ideology and that understanding the power of ideology can provide a useful critique of pragmatism. In fact, it shows that we can know all this and still not understand the ways in which ideology is shaping our thinking. An understanding of how ideology functions is not the same as understanding our own ideological investments.

As it turns out, what Holmes and Doyle and Custer also show us is that the ideology whose limits we may be least likely to recognize is our own.


Ann_Bogle said...

I enjoyed this profitably weird excursion in induction!

Art Durkee said...

I dunno.

If you define absolutely every worldview a priori as an ideology, I suppose you have a point. It seems as if you define even what you call pragmatic method a priori as an ideology, which ends up as a tautology: How can one possibly break free of ideology when everything is an ideology. It goes in circles with no escape.

I think your terms need clarification. It seems to me that you're conflating attitude with ideology, and furthermore conflating these with the culturally-determined filters that when unexamined add up to prejudice. There is a raft of psychological literature examining the assumptions we make about reality that are things we learned in the cradle from our birth-clans—tribal knowledge, if you will—and that the process of unlearning those tribal attitudes is the process of individuation and self-overcoming. Obviously for some this is a lifelong process of unlearning, since the tribal attitudes go very deep.

But for others, not so much. When you grow up already an outsider to the tribe, the various sub-tribes of family, schooling, sexual interest, spiritual attitude, and/or religious tradition, one thing you learn at any early to do is spot the underlying assumptions. Your own as well as others.

The attitude of self-examination (which is fundamentally Socratic: "Know thyself") is a very proper attitude to take towards life, I agree. I also agree that there will always be more in oneself to uncover: that what we don't know about ourselves is greater than what we do. But at the same time, that is the whole point of going into one's shadow, to find what's there, and integrate as much as one can into one's conscious awareness—the Jungian project of individuation—because the more you know about your own underlying assumptions and prejudices the less likely they are to rule you.

In that spirit, I would suggest your own assumptions that all cultural thought-forms and approaches to life are a priori ideologies. I think you have a confusion of terms going on.

For example, I grew up around doctors and engineers, and as much as one might label their approach to practical problem-solving as "pragmatism," and conflate with the Jamesian philosophy of Pragmatism—which is really a shaky conflation, to be honest—the bottom line is, engineers and doctors are interested in practical solutions that help people, regardless of whether or not they agree with them about anything, on any level. When you label a problem-solving approach to life's problems an ideology, it is true that it is an attitude and possibly even a thought-form, but it's certainly not an "ideology" as defined and used in political or literary-critical discourse. Then again, most engineers and poets of my experience don't talk to each other much, or really understand each other. Again, that's often a lack of clarity about defining exactly what they're trying to talk about.

I guess what I'm suggesting is that one of your own ideologies that you may or may not be recognizing is to assume that every thought or idea is an ideology. It strikes as an ideology to argue that everything is an ideology. You end up with a lot of tautologies that way.

verification word: expoxyz

mark wallace said...

Thanks for these comments.

Ann, I'm glad you noticed how weird it all was.

Art, there's more to be said later perhaps about your thoughtful comments, but for now, the term ideology doesn't really mean more than "system of belief" or "set of values," and yes, we all have them. Some of us have them more actively and consciously and some more unconsciously. The difference is that the term "ideology" tends to highlight that a system of belief has by definition social and political implications, and that's why I think it's a better term. "Set of values" seems more neutral, but it isn't.

Without claiming that I know, is it possible that you grew up with what I think of as a peculiarly American definition of ideology?--which is something more defined as a "narrow minded and dangerous political plan," a definition of the term which grew popular in American culture in the 30s, 40s, and 50s as a way of critiquing fascism and communism and making American capitalism seem natural, that is, not ideological. It's also a definition of the term that continues to be used by people suspicious of innovation in poetry.

Art Durkee said...

Since I grew up in India, surrounded by Indians, Canadians, and British, and only my own family was American, it's not likely that I grew up with that definition. It's more likely that I acquired it in school, or from being a political activist in my teens and 20s, which I was, for several worthy causes, not least of them LGBT rights.

But so what?

I might say in rebuttal that your own definition of ideology as a neutral/technical dynamic contains its own ideological assumptions. Specifically, assumptions of normative definitions are themselves ideological by your own definition of ideology. You see how recursive that can get.

Paradoxically from my own viewpoint—since at this point this is largely word-games trying to clarify definitions—I could also point out that in general usage, in this day and age, your usage of "ideology" as you describe it is a minority usage, while the usage of "ideology" in the political sense is the more normative usage. If you want a neutral technical term, there are others that are indeed more value-neutral; I offered some of those already.

But this gets to intention and agenda. As you say, you might want to use "ideology" precisely because it pushes buttons. Fair enough—but no complaints afterwards about buttons getting pushed that one didn't like. :) That's all perfectly fine with me as long as people are (relatively consciously) aware of what they're doing, and don't demand a non-reactive outcome to whichever buttons got pushed. (Just to be clear, I view that as a value-neutral technical way of describing a familiar psychological dynamic of stimulus-response.)

Where I have difficulty with your definition is that you also seem to be using "ideology" across the board, in more than one value-state, in more than one normative association. Again, if you label every thought-form, etc., as an ideology, you go in circles. Furthermore, one denatures the power of the term in those arenas in which one DOES want to provoke.

This is about precision in usage, I guess. Sorry to be a stickler about it—I;m trying to figure this all out as we go—yet I do think that it's an issue that can undercut your larger arguments in these essays, if left unclarified.

And this is why:

I'm all for innovation in poetry. But what poet Octavio Paz called avant-gardism (which is sometimes manifested as newness for its own sake, all other issues aside) falls under my (more political?) definition of ideology as well as your (technical?) definition. Anything that's driven by ideology, be it poetry criticism or politics or the intersection of both of these (which Silliman has admitted to, as have others, some more openly than others), can become problematic when the ideology clouds observation. In simple poetry terms, for example, poetry that is driven by ideology tends to be topical and local rather than timeless and universal. It's usually forgettable.

In Zen training they talk about seeing what's actually there instead of what we THINK is there—which I view as anti-ideological precisely because it seeks to rid the viewer of the filters that prejudices and thought-forms and expectations place between ourselves and direct perception. Saying that even that is an ideology, which you could do I suppose, places those filters right back in place, and creates another circle that can't be escaped from. At some point you have to stop thinking about it (poetry, meditation, politics) and just do it. LOL

Don Zirilli said...

I wonder about "induction." Facts will never create theories (just like Things never create poems). No matter how many facts you collect, there will be a gap (a synapse?) between facts and the theory you put upon them. The spark, the creative leap, is still required.

What makes induction attractive is that it's like the observant poet. The reader enjoys the benefits of something bigger than the poet contributing to the poem, instead of a mind-made-up endlessly providing examples of what it already knows is true.

So, the induced theory and the induced poem are an exciting collaboration between mind and world.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for these further comments.

Don, I especially like in your second paragraph the point about how observation can stretch the boundaries of the poem. What I'm less sure about is the "mind already made up" part--that is, I'm not in favor of that either, but at some point (not necessarily here, of course) I'd be interested to know where you see that tendency in recent poetry, and when you do or don't think it's justified.

Just to take a non-recent example, the poems of Audre Lorde are pretty convinced of what they're trying to say about racism, sexism, and homophobia. I wonder about what kinds of difficulties would be raised if we said she needed to take herself out of what she already knows.

That's not quite the right example for what you're talking about here, but it would be interesting to explore what example would be the right one.

Don Zirilli said...

I think it happens in confessional poetry a lot. After all, people are talking about themselves and their own feelings, so they think they know what they're talking about. But the exciting confessional poem is the one that is still exploring self and feeling as it is being written.

Sorry, I'm not one for spotting trends. Consider me safely in the realm of the 95% of poetry that will always be crap, no matter what the trend is.

But I will say that I think this danger of mind-made-up is most prevalent among the poetry stratoshpere, the Billy Collinses, the Robert Blys, the Mark Dotys, the Dodgers. Don't get me wrong, I'm not condemning them. I think any poet or poetry has its potential pitfalls. But when this particular crowd falls into a pit, that's often why. Ahh... the poison of success... may I have some?