1 jun. 2011

Bullshit Fields (3)

The third bullshit field I'd like to examine is literary criticism. Since this is my own field, you might be surprised by this, but I have to admit that literary criticism has large tendency toward "making things up" and little if any protection against confirmation bias. Basically, it is a tradition of hermeneutics, or interpretation, in which the rules are set by those within the community. What makes a conclusion valid is whether it conforms, more or less, to the norms of the community. Even the theory that is supposed to lend some intellectual authority to our discipline is mostly just eclectic borrowing from fields seen, somehow, as more based on in some kind of empirical reality or theoretical rigor. Unfortunately, a lot of the theory underlying criticism has no more validity than literary criticism itself. Take psychoanalysis. Please, take it. Critics continue to use this branch of theory even when it is pretty clear that Freud invented the whole enterprise out of whole cloth. Even his famed case studies were manipulated to arrive at pre-ordained conclusions. Most literary theory is heuristic, at best, anti-heuristic, at worst.

You could probably justify literary criticism by using Gadamer's theory of hermeneutics, in which the vicious circle of self-confirming biases becomes a productive circle of increasing insight. You could also just say that literary reading is just a worthwhile human activity even if it has no validity that can be demonstrated external to itself. At least we're not as bad as theology, because we are judging a figure-skating contest in which there are actual skaters. We also aren't as bad as evolutionary psychology.

22 comentarios:

Elisa dijo...

I think "little if any protection against confirmation bias" and "What makes a conclusion valid is whether it conforms, more or less, to the norms of the community" are true of many scientific fields as well, or semi-scientific stuff like nutrition and medicine.

Jonathan dijo...

Some of my bullshit fields, in fact, will be nutrition and other such scientific fields.

Elisa dijo...

Ah, good good!

Andrew Shields dijo...

The utter fallaciousness of psychoanalysis is one of the primary reasons I found myself losing interest in the field of literary criticism as it stands today.

Jonathan dijo...

Then I'm sure you'll like my post tomorrow on psychoanalysis.

Clarissa dijo...

I agree that applying psychoanalysis to literary criticism is a very silly thing to do. But how can anybody debate the validity of psychoanalysis as a branch of medical practice? In my opinion, it's somewhere right there with saying that evolution is "just a theory."

I love this series of posts. I am now envious that I didn't think of it first. :-)

Jonathan dijo...

I don't think most people today in medicine think of psychoanalysis as valid at all. There's been a vast literature debunking it, in fact. Fred Crews mopped up the defenders of it in the New York Review of Books 10 years ago. See tomorrow's post.

Clarissa dijo...

Most people in American medicine. Other medical traditions have the opposite approach. The reason why that happened is because in the US pharmaceutical companies pay huge amounts of money to convince people that the only way of solving psychological problems is by gulping down pills.

I have been helped by psychoanalysis in really dramatic ways. No pills were necessary and it didn't involve a decade of paying a therapist to hear how everything is good.

Jordan dijo...

Sign at the strip mall this morning: Nutrition Pit -- now open!

I take issue in advance with out-of-hand trashings of psychotherapy. Literary criticism deserves it, of course, and I cannot BELIEVE Goldman Sachs or whoever hasn't shorted the bejesus out of poetry's stock. But I think a lot of people owe a good percentage of their, um, equanimity to having collaborated in analysis.

Jonathan dijo...

Yes, I'm sure there are good analysts who've helped people. The intellectual edifice behind the therapy, however, is largely gone. That means therapy helps people because it's good to have someone to talk to in that setting, or because therapy is a good thing even if analysis in the classical sense is dated.

Professor Zero dijo...

It'll be fun to see the post and I do realize psychoanalysis is not in fashion but I actually think there's a lot of good in Freud's method. For example: actually listening to what people say, listening for nuance. I think there's a lot in dreams and in core memories; I think images and sentences that come up again and again are worth listening to and looking at.

Jonathan dijo...

Too bad Freud didn't really listen, then. His method was imposing his views on his patients, bullying them into confirming what he already thought. Have you read independent accounts of his case studies? They are absolutely chilling.

Jonathan dijo...

It's funny that psychoanalysis is more popular than religion, and that everyone is willing to agree that lit crit is bullshit, but not the secular religion of Freud.

Andrew Shields dijo...

Crews, FC (1995). The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute. The New York Review of Books.

Raymond Tallis, Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory. (London: Macmillan, 1988; 2nd ed. Macmillan, 1995).

Those were the two particular works that helped me recognize the fallacies of Freudian psychology. There are many others.

I also put capital-T theory behind me with a book by John Needham called "The Departure Lounge." I am still interested in lower-case-t theory, though!

Jordan dijo...

Baby/bathwaterism is just as defensive as slavish devotion to a tyrant.

Lacan's writings and talks are quite silly, but people who studied with him testify that there was in fact an object of study beyond Freud.

She's not in much favor these days, but Karen Horney's books still provide insight. And maybe I'm a softie but I continue to find a lot in Erich Fromm's work, D.H. Winnicott's...

Adam Phillips's books...

Jonathan dijo...

That's what I mean. You have to take it on someone's word that there was something there in Lacan, but what?

Object-relations theory is something I can be sympathetic to. Adam P's work seems never to get to the point, in my reading, but maybe I should give him another try now that's I'm older.

Jordan dijo...

That's exactly how I feel about the Seminars.

I don't get much from AP's pop books (monogamy/kissing, tickling, being bored) but the misc. essays hey wait a minute. Does Emerson ever seem to get to the point? Does Ashbery?

Jonathan dijo...

I didn't now he had any books aside from those pop ones, so I guess I have been missing something. I wouldn't put his writing style up there with Emerson's, from what I remember.

Jordan dijo...

I'm probably making too much of them. He's competent, and he's trained in that tradition, and I've been reading him lately. CUM GRANO SALIS

Clarissa dijo...

Rejecting psychoanalysis because Freud didn't treat his patients right is like rejecting the entire field of philosophy because Plato was often a jerk. Many things have been done since Freud in the field. Freud is important inasmuch as he was among the first people who turned away from traditional psychotherapy of the moment and started looking at the structure of the people's subconscious. Of course, as anybody who is the first in a field, he was often wrong. The first time chemotherapy or radiation were applied to cure cancer it was also done in ways that were often extremely damaging. Since then, many things have improved.

Psychoanalysis works not because there are "good therapists" or it's good to talk. It is definitely a very painful and unpleasant think to talk in a psychoanalytic session. The personality of the analyst has absolutely no relevance. Just like the personality of a person administering one's chemotherapy. The method works, not an individual therapist.

Jonathan dijo...

I'm very familiar with all these arguments, but I've done my research and have concluded that Freud seriously distorted the case studies that form the basis of his system. It is not just a matter of mistreatment. He actually didn't cure all those famous patients, Dora, the Wolfman, etc... If you look at the historical record I don't see any other conclusion.

Vance Maverick dijo...

Clarissa and Jonathan, aren't you talking past each other? It seems to me that C is speaking of a therapeutic tradition, and J of an intellectual one.

(I'll admit that my ideas of the therapeutic tradition come from reading about e.g. Masud Khan, not from any direct or indirect experience of therapy and its benefits. But I'm at least open to the idea that there might be a valid tradition of practice only genealogically related to the writings of Freud and Jung.)