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.