Pathologic 2is a tight-knit confluence of many strange ideas–about bodies and disease, about acting and theater, about community and society, about individual and state, about children and grown-ups, about utopia and transcendence, and (of course) about life and death. Separating the strands is difficult and probably useless; the resulting game is something you accept as a whole, flaws and all, or reject.
And it’s easy to reject. Responses to the game have already divided into those who appreciate the game’s sheer uncanniness but find it hostile and difficult to the point of unplayability, and those who defend those decisions to the hilt as being the very essence of the game.
This dispute isn’t resolvable. A simple description of the game is likely to put off most people, while those who are entranced by it (including myself) can only shrug when presented with its faults, because those faults are what you put up with to get something you can’t get elsewhere—assuming you want that something. I can honestly say I enjoyed it a lot more than Nier: Automata, but I can’t convince you that you will. If it’s something that will appeal to you, you’ll probably know within the next few paragraphs. If it is, I think it’s worth the effort.
Richard Biernacki’s book, cursed with the unwieldy title Reinventing Evidence in Social Inquiry: Decoding Facts and Variables, is frequently incisive, sometimes inspirational, and sometimes frustrating. Biernacki vigorously attacks the use of quantitative methods in social science, particularly as applied to texts. He finds their usage to be slapdash, prejudiced, and dependent on lumping disparate phenomena under a single label, often in whatever way happens to serve the researcher’s pre-ordained goal.
I have to cheer when he cites Erving Goffman and Clifford Geertz as spiritual guardians:
“Whatever it is that generates sureness,” Goffman intimated darkly, “is precisely what will be employed by those who want to mislead us.” Goffman left it to us to discern how the riddle of cognitive framing applies to sociological practice and to one’s framing of one’s own results. Geertz expressed a similar kind of caution more cheerfully: “Keeping the reasoning wary, thus useful, thus true, is, as we say, the name of the game.” The only intellectual building material is self-vigilance, not the reified ingredients “theory” or “method.”
Biernacki’s points are very well-taken, and his individual critiques are devastating. He has little trouble justifying his main charge:
If you reconstruct how sociologists mix quantitative and text-interpretive methods, combining what is intrinsically uncombinable, you discover leg-pulling of several kinds: from the quantitative perspective, massaging of the raw data to identify more clearly the meanings one “knows” are important or, again, standardized causal interpretations of unique semiotic processes; to zigzagging between quantitative and interpretive logic to generate whatever meanings the investigator supposes should be there.
Each study was narrated as a tale of discovery, yet each primary finding was guaranteed a priori.
Where I have a problem is his suggested retreat to a “humanist” mode of inquiry, which, while extremely attractive to people like myself, does not necessarily solve the underlying problem. I will explain this later.
Biernacki has a huge range of reading behind him and he quotes a number of people of whom I’m very fond: Robert Musil (who gets the last word in the book), Erving Goffman, Flaubert (Dictionary of Received Ideas), Michael Frede, Ronald Giere, Barrington Moore, William Empson, Jeanne Fahnestock, Wilfrid Sellars, Kenneth Burke, Samuel Beckett, Mary Douglas, Novalis, Cosma Shalizi, Eleanor Rosch, Valerio Valeri, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Andrea Wilson Nightingale, Erwin Panofsky, and Erich Auerbach. (Bibliography available online here.) Now that I’ve written it out, let me go further: that’s an amazing list.
I’m not particularly keen on most of his targets either, so we overlap sufficiently that I’m baffled at his elevation of Giorgio Agamben, whose attack on quantitative sampling is needlessly overwrought and jargony. Biernacki’s prose, unfortunately, tends toward the same. His thinking is in fact quite clear and rigorous, but the overlay of sociological jargon gets quite dense at times and needlessly prolongs things. (I’ll offer paraphrases of less transparent passages below.)
This applies to the general terms as well. Biernacki defines the social science term “coding” as such:
Coding, a word that may introduce an aura of scientism, is just the sorting of texts, or of subunits such as paragraphs, according to a classificatory framework.
What the social sciences deem “coding”–the application of a common typological label to variable individual cases–would better be simply called “labeling” or perhaps “classification.” I prefer “labeling” because it is the simplest and the most informal. As Biernacki demonstrates, the research being carried out is anything but formal, and so building a fence around a particular textual method is misleading. While it may make it easier to delegitimize that particular method, it also limits the scope of his critique. It also makes it seem as though this process is distinct from the labeling we do every day of objects and actions, when I think any difference is one of degree and not of kind.
To make the broadness of the critique clear, my article The Stupidity of Computers describes very similar methods, except applied to people and objects as well as texts. I used “ontology” instead of “classificatory framework” and “labeling” instead of “coding,” but they’re fundamentally analogous. Or as I put it:
Who decided on these categories? Humans. And who assigned individual blogs to each category? Again humans. So the humans decided on the categories and assigned the data to the individual categories—then told the computers to confirm their judgments. Naturally the computers obliged.
If anything, things seem worse in academic sociology, which is the field Biernacki treats. I am not familiar with the subfields Biernacki investigates and after his dip into those waters, I don’t have much desire to become familiar with them. Here is Biernacki’s brief:
Ironically, researchers who visualize a pattern in the “facts” often assert it symbolizes an incorrigible theory for which no data were required anyway.
They would turn meaningful texts into unit facts for the sake of converting these units back into meanings. What are the epistemological functions of the curious process of decontextualizing for the sake of recontextualizing? Cumulating the coding outputs purchases generality only if we know the codes rest on justifiable equivalencies of meaning, which is to return us to the original verbal settings that may vary incommensurably.
Paraphrase: sociologists are engaging in circular reading of texts. The squeeze a corpus into their frameworks and then reapply the frameworks onto specific examples to produce pre-ordained results.
My thesis is that coding procedures in contemporary sociology, the beachhead for coding texts that is spreading into history and literature, follow the rites by which religious believers relabel portions of the universe in a sacred arena for deep play. As in fundamentalist religious regimes, rejecting the enchantment of coding “facts” is nothing less than blasphemy.
Paraphrase: precisely because of their lack of any more fundamental support, the frameworks are sufficiently shaky that they are protected by hierarchical social structures that emerge around vulnerable belief systems, shutting down critics and elevating allies/toadies/grad students. For less opaque examples, see the conservative movement’s classification of “liberal” bias, or much of the talk that constitutes privilege-checking. Both utilize postulated frameworks supported by mantric rhetoric and repetition to obscure the lack of conceptual support. (And yes, I know the former is far more harmful, but today’s Right doesn’t have a monopoly on all forms of stupidity, since a large number of people have not realized that this chart is a joke.)
The ultimate point of this book is to stand social “science” on its head as less rigorous than humanist approaches. The social “scientists” of culture, those claiming a kind of epistemological advantage via their coding apparatuses, are instead intuitive cultists without openly sharable procedure. Opposite much orthodoxy, humanist craft workers who footnote and who convey symptomatically the wondrous in their readings are truer to the ideals of so-called hard science conventionally understood. As I endeavor to show, the nonsystematizing humanists still appreciate the obstacles to induction, the gift of an acute trial, the insurance of shared documentation, and the transformative power of anomalies. My brief is not the cliché that humanist interpretation aims at insight different in kind. More subversively, I insist such interpretation better fulfills the consecrated standards to which social “scientists” ostensibly subscribe.
Paraphrase: the use of quantitative metrics in social science is usually decorative frosting utilized in order to make preconceived notions seem more objective. In actuality they’re rigged games. A thoughtful, passionate, genuinely humanist approach is more scientific than vacuous tables.
It is more transparent, therefore more faithful to inquiry, to assume radical difference in a population than to rush toward aggregating modern “facts” out of corpuses whose members are artificially assumed to have homologous structures.
He’s talking about texts here, but this would apply to any grouping of anything. How to put this into practice is a much thornier question.
Biernacki then presents three case studies of prominent papers in recent sociology. He has done the legwork of looking through the original sources to see how “objective” the classification process was. The results are disastrous. All three are not just littered with slanted interpretations, selective omissions, and poor fits, but outright errors and holes in logic. The demolition is extremely thorough, and the time required to do the research might have boosted Biernacki’s ire further. Here are representative examples from the three cases.
All the network data were extracted from a single Nazi story, but it was not an actual autobiography from Abel’s collection. Help from Peter Bearman together with detective hunting established that the researchers coded instead from “The Story of a Middle-Class Youth,” a condensation published in an appendix to Abel’s book in 1938. Although the intact story was at hand for Bearman and Stovel, and although they had secured English translations of complete stories from the Abel collection, they coded instead from an adaptation that indicated with ellipses where connecting segments had been deleted.
Bearman and Stovel adopt the same vocabulary to describe their own scientific outlook as they apply to a Nazi. They feature “abstraction” for converging on the essential: “Comparison within and across narratives necessitates abstraction . . . This is accomplished by grouping elements into equivalency classes” [83; see also 20]. When the researchers present the Nazi cognitive style, “abstraction” is again the key feature, but now using it to “order experience” is a character defect . It is not we as network reductionists who have a rigid response in analyzing qualitatively incomparable situations, it is the Nazis with a “master identity” who do. [NB: They also complain about another researcher’s “abstraction”: “Real lives are lost in the process, and real process is lost in the movement away from narrative by this abstraction.”]
This presentation, which appeared in 1987 in sociology’s most exacting journal, was greeted far and wide as offering confirmable and generalizable results. It remains probably the most broadly circulated classic whose findings rest on systematic coding of text contents.
Griswold combined the reviews from each of her three regions—the United States, Great Britain, and the West Indies—to see if she could explain why some of George Lamming’s novels resonated more powerfully than others in her sample of reviews of his six novels in all. She guessed that “ambiguity” would not only engross readers in disambiguating the novels, but doing so would stimulate appreciative reviews. This just-so account presumes we can know what ambiguity is according to its function rather than by its verbal expression in a review. How exactly does creative engagement by the critics appear when articulated on the page of a book review? What is ambiguity on site? The blurring of appealing scientific hypothesis-testing with exegesis of highly compacted reviews produced a baffling gap: Griswold did not offer an example from her evidence to concretize this entity called “ambiguity,” yet social scientists propagated news about the abstraction in every direction.
When I took reviews in hand, it astonished me to find that at the individual level ambiguity is “specifically mentioned” (to my mind) primarily when the reviewer expresses frustration and disappointment. This dislike of ambiguity more often pushed a review over to a mixed or negative appraisal of a novel, reverse from Griswold’s report of correlations at the aggregate level…. Consider how baffling it is to identify “ambiguity” and “positive appraisal” on the ground.
If a resonant review, like a seminal novel, is multidimensional, and if the reviewer therefore does not try to locate the book on a metric of approval, the overall categories “positive,” and “mixed/negative” are not there in the text ready for translation. The summary is only a fabrication of the social “scientist.”
More subtly, by introducing the binary of colonialism as present or absent, the ritual cordons off the reality that it was daunting for British critics to avoid incorporating the relations of a concept as permeating as colonialism. Griswold never illustrates what counts as mention of colonialism or of any other theme.
To launch the sampling and coding ritual, we have to take up a schizophrenic consciousness between the quantitative-scientific and the humanistic-interpretive perspectives. We cannot acknowledge in one frame what we do in the other. Evans wrote that “the two foremost proponents of the form of argumentation in the bioethics profession as I have defined it,” Beauchamp and Childress, are not among authors charted as statistically influential. Indubitable knowledge from the humanist frame does not impinge on the “scientific” procedure for equating influence with citations.
Evans in the 2002 book Playing God produced importantly different diagrams out of the same data inputs as in the 1998 dissertation “Playing God.” How did this change transpire? For the 1992–1995 interval of debate, Evans raised the threshold for inclusion as an influential author in the cluster diagram from nine citations in the dissertation to ten in the book. This chart trimming changed the storyline significantly. For instance, the sociologist Troy Duster, whose work seems to run contrary to Evans’s thesis for the final period, 1992–1995, is among several other authors who dropped out of the diagram.
For a self-fulfilling prophecy Playing God filters out the epistles most pertinently aimed at the public. “If an item did not contain four or more citations, it was not included in the sample, because the primary technology of a citation study is measures of association between citations. I examined 765 randomly selected items from the universe. Of these, 345 fit the parameters for inclusion” [G 208].
“In my research,” Evans wrote, “the question was which top-cited authors were most similar to each other based on the texts that cited them” [G 209]. Similar how? Decades ago the analytic philosopher Nelson Goodman convincingly showed “similarity” lacks sense beyond particular and incommensurable practices of contrast and comparison. Whatever might we be talking about when we demonstrate what relative “influence” means by frequency citations and when we have no operative concept of influence outside this arbitrary measurement? As with ritual process, the models of citation counts merely bring to life a visual experience of a symbol’s use and substitute for the symbol’s conceptual definition.
Evans quotes Jonathan Glover as follows: “What he [Glover] envisions is a ‘genetic supermarket,’ which would meet ‘the individual specifications (within certain moral limits) of prospective parents’” [G 161]. Here again, findings appear to emerge by mischance. The words Evans attributed to Glover occur in a passage of Robert Nozick’s libertarian Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which Glover happened to quote before advancing toward a different position.
The kicker comes with a particularly noxious passage from Evans’ book, revealing the deep-seated self-justifying elitism at work in Evans’ a priori theorizing. Biernacki writes:
If my framing of Playing God as a ritual affirmation were plausible, we would predict that the policy recommendations with which the book concludes, while impracticably “utopian” [G 198], would impart an essential verity. That happens when Evans dismisses the need for real-world brakes on how elites would match particular means to an array of ends, once those ends were chosen by the public:
“If an ends commission decided that its ends to forward in genetic research were beneficence, nonmaleficence, and maintenance of the current specificity of genetic change as possible in the reproductive act, I have no doubt that bioethicists could determine which, if any, forms of HGE [human genetic engineering] advanced these ends. [G 203]”
As you might suspect given the abstractness of “ends in themselves,” it seems unlikely their implementation is a neutral technical job entrustable to specialist intellectuals. The experts in deciding how to pursue a mandated goal would, by concretizing it, subject it to reinterpretation. Would not the means that elites chose to institutionalize populist HGE policy have ramifying implications for practice, and thus values, in other spheres of life, short-circuiting public deliberation? Dealing with these practical issues in ritual is beside the point of affirming the transhistorical message that deliberation over ends should be protected from instrumental degradation.
The quote Biernacki cites here is incredibly damning, evoking images of a bioethical Comintern insisting that its ends are right and proper. Evans is the sort of powerless person you do not want in power.1
More generally, all three come off as tendentious, obfuscatory, and disingenuous, using numbers as a smokescreen for their unjustified suppositions. Biernacki is dead-on in stating that with more classical humanist criticism, you get to see upfront what sort of conceptual abstractions are taking place, subjective and case-based as they may be. Here, they hide behind the guise of objective abstractions plugged into a computational framework. (Shades of Ann Coulter’s Lexis-Nexis searches.)
I don’t doubt that these three works are representative. And Biernacki’s most fascinating point is that this misuse of science plays directly into theories of cultural determinism that have become very common across the humanities and social sciences:
The same problem of mixing scientific controls with texts occurs in demonstrating the theory of cultural power. That proposed theory starts firmly within the interpretive perspective, because it makes categories of understanding the “variable” that interacts with the novel to produce an engrossing experience. As Kenneth Burke emphasized, in an ideology-saturated society, readers deal with a plethora of contradictory schemas from which they choose how to interpret a text. Alternatively, much important literature, such as Beckett’s plays in the 1950s, from inside its own lines blatantly models unprecedented schemas from which a reader may learn to decipher the work as a whole—“the absurd.” To probe the fabrication of meaning, the reading process might be analyzed more fruitfully as a rhetorical operation rather than as a social one. Kenneth Burke intimated that inquiry into the schemas for reading might include syllogistic progression (step-by-step appreciation of a kind of argument pressing forward via the narrative), qualitative progression (the appreciation of feelings post-hoc from narrative action), antecedent categorical forms (such as “the sonnet”), or technical schemas (such as chiasmus and reversal). In any event, by underspecifying the cultural workings of the literary experience, we arrive at “society” as the default explanation of differences in the received meanings of the novels. The more you attend to the critics’ professional know-how and to the generative schemas with which they read, the weaker the rationale for leaping to a generally shared “percipience” to explain coding outputs. Sociologists since the nineteenth century have invested so much energy in solidifying “society” as a “cause,” they can invoke it without asking whether more tangible but less spirit-like forces may be operating.
Paraphrase: by reducing texts to a handful of ostensibly constituent effects and declaring them to constitute the text, researchers rob the texts of any power they might really have, using them as interchangeable totems for empty confirmation of unsubstantiated theories of cultural domination. Everything feeds back into a giant phantom of “culture” (or “capitalism” or “modernity” or “secularism” or take-your-pick) that ensures the identical outcome. Hence Biernacki’s point:
Ironically, researchers who visualize a pattern in the “facts” often assert it symbolizes an incorrigible theory for which no data were required anyway.
This is not only true, but even if they do not assert such, this is what’s going on anyway. There has to be some underlying theory conditioning the coding/labeling in the first place.
This complements Hans Blumenberg’s observations about the nature of generalized maladies. While Blumenberg emphasized the vagueness and generality of such overarching theories of discontent, Biernacki completes the thought by demonstrating that when the incorrigible theory is reapplied to specific cases, the specific cases become interchangeable.
In considering the prevalent openness to theories of ‘capitalism,’ one cannot fail to notice not only that there always seems to be a need for a causal formula of maximum generality to account for people’s discontent with the state of the world but that there also seems to be a constant need on the part of the ‘bourgeois’ theorist to participate in the historical guilt of not having been one of the victims. Whether people’s readiness to entertain assertions of objective guilt derives from an existential guiltiness of Dasein vis-a-vis its possibilities, as Heidegger suggested in Being and Time, or from the “societal delusion system” of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, in any case it is the high degree of indefiniteness of the complexes that are described in these ways that equips them to accept a variety of specific forms. Discontent is given retrospective self-evidence. This is not what gives rise to or stabilizes a theorem like that of secularization, but it certainly does serve to explain its success.
Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age
Biernacki’s point is that these theories not only accept a wide variety of specific forms, but that they also homogenize these forms. Cultural theory commodifies its subject matter.
Yet at this point the particular issue of quantification has fallen by the wayside in favor of the problem of incorrigible theories. For quantification per se, Biernacki’s evidence is less than ideal, because all three case studies contain such elementary errors in reportage and logic that they would be poor even if the quantitative aspects of the papers were removed. That is, I have no doubt that were Griswold or Evans to write a qualitative assessment of the texts they treated, they would not produce very good work either.
Biernacki is right to say that the scientific frosting obscures the poor quality of their work and exacerbates reductionistic tendencies toward cultural determinism, but the question of “coding” gets into problems that come up even in the absence of quantitative metrics, because coding is labeling, and labeling is what we do all the time.
Though Biernacki limits the scope of his critique to labeling applied to texts, the arguments go through for ontologies applied to any phenomena. I think Biernacki gets into a muddle in trying to specify texts as specifically exempt from classification, contrasting words like “novel” with words like “dog”:
The intensional definition of “dog” is historically closed, whereas newly discovered literary works and financial instruments stretch and revise the anterior category of “novel” or of “a hedge-fund practice.” A previously unconsidered novel that stretches the distinctions between biography and fiction, for example, can remake the denotation of the label “novel.”
Intensions are dangerous things, and I think you could find that even seemingly clear concepts like “dog” can prove slippery in themselves. You would find more agreement among people, certainly, but who’s to say it’s enough? Labels are inherently unstable things. I think the very point of Beirnacki’s book makes it impossible for him to draw such a clear-cut line. Biernacki sometimes seems to assume that a stable “code” label is being assigned to unstable and ambiguous “data,” but there’s no reason to suppose the label is in general that much more stable than in the specific text.This is to enter philosophy of language issues that would derail this post entirely, so I will just leave matters at that unless someone wants to debate the point.
Consequently, the ultimate effect of Biernacki’s critique is to make the remaining space for quantitative science very small indeed. In this he is similar to Rudolf Carnap, whose requirements for science were so rigorous and unattainable that many philosophers of science (Popper among them) complained that he would put scientists out of a job. Certainly Griswold, Evans, and Bearman/Stovel come off much closer to Carnap’s idea of bad poetry (e.g., Heidegger) than science.
Contrariwise, I don’t see why the inclusion of quantitative measures in and of itself is a bad thing as long as the labeling is done in a sufficiently responsible way. Are interpretive reading and quantitative analysis “intrinsically uncombinable,” as Biernacki says? I admit that “sufficiently responsible” is a very high bar to clear. But while I agree that so-called “raw data,” is a misnomer, there is a difference between medium-rare and well-done. I would like to see Biernacki apply his methods to far more intelligent usages of corpus linguistics, such as those performed by Martin Mueller, Eleanor Dickey, Ian Lancashire, or Brian Vickers. All work at a far lower lexical level than Biernacki’s subjects, and all are better scholars. (And none is a sociologist. Biernacki does take a few swipes at Franco Moretti for following Griswold’s bad tendencies, but mostly leaves literature alone.)
But I want to push in the opposite direction as well against Biernacki’s elevation of what he loosely terms humanist interpretation (much as I love it). It is interesting that Biernacki makes a claim of rigor for his humanistic methodology. This is very tricky. When I read Auerbach and Spitzer and Fahnestock, I certainly get the impression of intense intellectual rigor, but rigor applied both to the careful reading of texts and to the holistic grasp of the whole. That is, because of the great difficulties in labeling, rigor must be accomplished by having both
a heuristic, intuitive feel for the whole of one’s field and beyond, stemming from vast reading and reflection, and
a complementary sense of where one’s knowledge is incomplete, where variations might occur, and what should be left open and tentative.
The blunt use of statistics can cover up the need for either of these time-consuming and tenure-threatening processes. Punch a corpus into a computer and analyze it and your work “seems” complete without your brain needing to process all the ambiguities and elisions. Clearly that is unacceptable. But ruling out quantitative measures is not necessarily more rigorous. Biernacki thinks very highly of Weber, and I do as well, to a point. But Weber’s theory of secularization and disenchantment has ultimately been overadopted by less imaginative minds than his. I think and hope that Weber intended his theses to be provisional, to be reassessed and revised (just as scientific theories should be) with the passage of time and research, not mindlessly parroted by crypto-conservative postmodernists looking to smuggle religion back into intellectual discourse under the guise of “reenchantment.”
To put it another way: is the generalized, reductive application of Freud’s theories any better than the generalized, reductive application of the DSM-IV?
This is not a complaint against Weber as much as it is frustration with general intellectual incompetence. What I mean to stress here is that I’m not so sure that this intellectual incompetence is so different in kind from the sort of intellectual incompetence Biernacki exposes in his subjects. Both stem from sloppiness, laziness, and a sheer lack of creativity. So while Biernacki rightly praises Panofsky:
The historian Robert Marichal followed Panofsky’s thesis to explain why the style of breaks in Gothic letters on parchment appeared simultaneously with the same breaks in stone, intersecting ribs in Gothic vaults. Both shifts expressed an analysis of whole lines to cut them down and regroup them into clearer, hierarchically ordered parts of parts. Compare this depth of analysis to a quantitative argument about net trends in abstract codes. Such blurred social “science” is less stringent about the patterning required for confirmation and too indefinite to isolate productive anomalies. Again the humanist focus on precise designs draws it closer to the rigor of the “hard” sciences.
I still think he overstates his case somewhat, because the “codes” at work here are just as subject to dispute. They are, however, more explicit, and this is a good thing, as Biernacki says. The issue, however, is that such great humanist works as he identifies are by their very nature exceptions, works of prodigious and unique minds that cannot be replicated en masse. The weaker philological work of years past is, alas, very nearly as formulaic as some of the scholarship Biernacki condemns (though far less sloppy).
As a prescription for better work, the humanist traditions provide little help in the mass production of research other than to set the bar so high for work that most people should immediately drop out of the field. (Not that this would be a bad thing, necessarily.) But it makes his prescriptions very difficult to imagine practically, unless academia is to return to being a elite, cordoned-off field as it was prior to the postwar higher education boom. (Though that may well happen.)
I am being speculative here, and none of this dampens the force of Biernacki’s critique. It just steers his critique more in the direction of “Don’t use numbers to cover up your incompetence” rather than “Don’t ever use quantitative measures on texts.”2
Science, ideally speaking, provides a workable means for adjudication of disputes, and even occasionally consensus, that is less dependent on the most powerful person around dictating what’s right. To a point, Biernacki employed science, in tandem with humanistic close reading, in his book to undermine the very bad “science” of the works he examined. That, I think, is the best model going forward that we have.
Perhaps not so powerless. Only after writing this entry did I discover that John Evans was involved in a UCSD scandal to attempt to prevent Biernacki from investigating Evans’ work. In 2009, UCSD’s Social Sciences Dean Jeffrey Elman threatened to censure and dismiss Biernacki on the grounds that Biernacki’s research “may damage the reputation of a colleague and therefore may be considered harassment.” Full story here.IHE article here. It is appalling that Jeffrey Elman has retained his position as Dean after sending such a letter. Needless to say, my support for Biernacki’s pursuit of this research is total. ↩
The sociological establishment is having an easier time attacking the second thesis, however, judging by Andrew Perrin’s nasty review. Perrin adopts a ridiculous “They aren’t trying to be scientific” defense, which leaves you wondering what all those charts are doing in the papers, as well as wondering what the point of such sociology is. Perrin also didn’t disclose that he is friends with John Evans until pressed in the comments. ↩
In The Stupidity of Computers, I discussed how computers require rigidly defined ontologies, which are then enforced on us. What happens in the collision between slippery life and a fixed ontology? Here is a case study. Here the fixed ontology is that of video games, and the “life” is the Christian religion.
The Binding of Isaac is an indie game by Edmund McMillen (art and design) and Florian Himsl (programming) about a boy, Isaac, with an insane fundamentalist Christian mother. When she hears the voice of God telling her to kill Isaac (as seen in the opening cutscene), Isaac flees into the basement and fights the terrible creatures therein, going deeper and deeper into the basement until confronting Mom herself (and, later in the game, Satan). You, as Isaac, shoot tears at the enemies to kill them. The enemies, which include all manner of biological horrors (fistulae, fetuses, pinworms, blastocysts, and lots of bugs), all try to kill you.
Bosses include Mom, Satan, Pin, Chub, Fistula, Blastocyst, the Blighted Ovum, Scolex, Loki, the Seven Deadly Sins, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (image c/o Binding of Isaac Wiki)
The game itself is firmly neo-classicist. It is a top-down 2D action game that will look familiar to people who played Legend of Zelda. The basic mechanics are the same: you control a character moving from room to room in a maze and killing enemies. There are multiple levels, with difficult bosses at the end of each level. You pick up power-up items that increase your character’s skills in one way or another: speed, damage, health, etc. (Some items hurt you, some are a mixed bag.)
The game is extraordinarily difficult, requiring way more coordination and reflexes than I possess, and it is unforgiving: death sets you back to the beginning every time. But for the dextrous it is prodigious, and because of the randomly generated levels and a plethora of unlockable items, secrets, and endings, the game has picked up a well-deserved diehard following. While traditional, the game is far more elaborate and skillful than the norm–McMillen clearly has spent a great deal of time thinking about gameplay construction and balance. (McMillen did the similarly neo-classical Super Meat Boy, a punishing platformer requiring utterly precise split-second timing.)
But the story and the symbols are what concern me, and specifically the mapping of the game’s symbols to the game’s functional roles.
Courtesy of the Binding of Isaac Wiki, which has an exhaustive list of items, enemies, and everything else in the game, consider a few game items (that is to say, symbols) and their functional roles in the game :
Wire Coat Hanger
Increases Tears by 2.
Found in the Boss Room.
Isaac gets a coat hanger through his head.
+1 heart container. It also heals a half heart.
A fetus grows on the side of Isaac’s face.
Increases speed by 2.
Found in the Boss Room.
Isaac has beat marks from a spoon.
These power-up items have perfectly traditional functions, making Isaac faster, giving him more health points, or increasing his tear firepower. What’s left for the player to infer is why the items have the functional effects they do. This knowledge is irrelevant to the game’s function but contributes to the underlying “story.” So the Wooden Spoon, as well as another item, the Belt, increase speed because Isaac was beaten and he runs from them. Stem cells are both anti-Christian and associated with health. The Wire Coat Hanger, a reminder of abortion, would make a good Christian boy cry.
(Sometime the notable inferences are not between symbol and functional role but between name and image. Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Dessert all increase health, but the item images are of dog food and spoiled milk.)
But some links are left vague or underdetermined. Why does the Wire Coat Hanger go through Isaac’s head after you pick it up? Maybe just for gross-out purposes, or maybe because Isaac’s mother wanted to abort him? Very little exposition is explicitly given in the brief story cut-scenes, leaving ambiguous the extent to which all these horrible things actually happened to Isaac.
Also, the symbolism does not seem to be especially organized: Judeo-Christianity is the dominant note, but bits and pieces appear from other mythologies such as an ankh, a tarot deck, Polyphemus, the Necronomicon, and many references to other games. In addition to Isaac, you can play as Judas, Cain, Eve, Magdalene, or Samson. (References to Jesus in the game, however, are exceedingly rare.) These characters are ultimately just Isaac’s alter ego, with Eve and Magdalene contributing to a strong implication that Isaac likes to cross-dress.
So the mappings from symbol to functional role are fairly piecemeal, constructed with an eye toward gameplay rather than a perfectly coherent story per se. For example, Isaac is able to use “holy” and “Satanic” items alike and in combination with little incident:
Transforms the player into an angel, allowing him or her to fly over obstacles for the current room only.
Satan or Isaac will instantly kill you for using it, even after death (unless you have The Wafer).
The Book Of Belial
Doubles damage until you exit the room, just like The Devil tarot card. It also gives Isaac an angry face with empty eye sockets with blood running down his face until he exits the room.
Unlocked by beating the full game.Can rarely be found in secret rooms and the devil room.Judas starts the game with this item.
Increases Faith by adding 3 Soul Hearts and increases the chance for a Bible to appear in the subsequent levels of the playthrough.
Found in Item Room and Shop.
Isaac has a cross amulet.
Increases Damage by 1 and rate of fire by 2. The player also gains 2 soul hearts.
If you have Transcendence when you pick up The Pact, you will have a body again, but with demon wings like the Lord of the Pit item grants.
Available by defeating ‘The Fallen‘ or traded in a Devil Room.
Turns the player’s body black, gives him small horns, and makes him seem more aggressive.
While using the Bible on Satan (or the final final boss, who is Isaac him/yourself) will kill you, this is more the exception than the rule. I’m not sure to what extent it was intended that possessing the Wafer prevents you from dying if you use the Bible to fight Satan, or even what the symbolic import of it is. There are so many items that the interactions between them (such as Transcendence and The Pact, another baffling combination) were probably determined ad hoc, especially as many items were added in several updates after the game’s initial release.
I don’t mean to say that the symbolism is a meaningless mishmash. The story and content are deeply significant to McMillen: in an interview he discussed his oppressive born-again upbringing, as well as the disappointment he felt upon realizing that the entire world of the Bible was not real. The links between games and religion are very real to him: “I think Catholicism is quite interesting. It’s very close to D&D.”
But I’m not sure that aside from memorably grotesque dark humor, the specific symbol set has contributed that much to the game’s popularity. When you are dodging 15 enemies while shooting explosive projectiles at them, it doesn’t matter whether the enemies are spaceships or aborted fetuses, or whether the projectiles are missiles or your own vomit/tears/urine.
Sets the player’s tears to their maximum rate of fire and minimum range.
Combining Number One with Technology causes the fire rate to increase significantly and turns the beam yellow.
Bug: Collecting The Mark (and maybe other tear-changing items) before collecting Number One increases your rate of fire to max, but doesn’t decrease your range.
Isaac stops crying and smiles while yellow colored projectiles (urine) come from his lower body rather than his face.
Green projectiles fired from the mouth causing poison/explosive damage. Shots are fired in an arc, so they will fly over enemies unless extremely close (close enough to take damage from the explosion).
Isaac gets very sick and he spits his projectiles.
The symbolism is not irrelevant to the gameplay, however. Seemingly incidental details make a difference to how various pieces of the game interact functionally. For example: Cain only has one eye, so if you play as Cain and he picks up the weapon Technology (an eye laser), he can no longer shoot tears out of his other eye. The other characters still can. Here the symbol dictated part of the functional role.
But the symbolism only inconsistently has such functional impact. One can make deals with the Devil himself (before fighting him later in the game), and while you won’t be able to purchase holy items from him, items like Guppy’s Head and A Quarter lack a certain Satanic elan possessed by other Deal with the Devil items like the Pact, Lord of the Pit, and Whore of Babylon.
Spawns 2-4 Blue Flies to damage enemies. Flies won’t spawn if entering a door while using it.
Found in Devil Room for 2 hearts, Red Chests, Challenge Room or as a drop from fight with The Fallen.
If you collect any three of the Guppy’s items (Guppy’s Head, Guppy’s Tail, Guppy’s Paw, Dead Cat), Isaac will becomes Guppy. If it’s Guppy’s Paw or Guppy’s Head, you only need to use it once (you can drop it afterward) to make the game counts you as “carrying” the item.
Whore of Babylon
If you have half a heart, a message reading “What a horrible night to have a curse…” appears on the screen and the player becomes the Whore of Babylon. This increases their damage by 3 and speed by 2 and they will stay in that form until leaving a room with more than half a heart.Eve starts the game with this item.
Found in the Devil Room, Item Room or after defeating The Fallen. Might appear in the shop for 2 hearts or 15 coins as well.
When activated while the player has Fate, the Holy Grail, or the Bible activated, the wings turn black.
Isaac becomes a spawn of Satan.
Increases Damage by 2 and adds one soul heart.
Will kill you if you have 2 or less hearts when you make the devil deal despite giving you one soul heart.
Available by defeating The Fallen or traded in a Devil Room.
Isaac sports three 6’s in a circular pattern.
We are very close, then, to a world of allegory, except that in relation to Christian allegory, the terms have been reversed. Instead of mapping a world of secular symbols onto a common and uniform religious conceptual scheme, religious symbols are mapped, somewhat haphazardly, onto the firmly fixed conceptual vocabulary of a video game.
Allegory is only possible (and popular) within a community in which there is a shared conceptual vocabulary to allegorize. Religion is ideal for this purpose, providing such an overarching unity of conceptual arrangement that most members of that religious community stand a good chance of decoding the allegory. Mapping the plot and symbols of William Langland’s medieval allegory Piers Plowman onto Christian concepts may not be blatantly obvious, but it is a process firmly enmeshed in the dominant religious conceptual arrangement of the period.
In the absence of a complex religious vocabulary, certain cultural universals like beauty, sex, and death are also manageable for allegorical purposes, but anything more specific, such as politics, poses a problem. If the reader does not feel the allegorical basis of the story, the allegory may just appear empty and contrived, or even incomprehensible.
In a restricted conceptual vocabulary, such as that of a top down 2D game, the problem of a lack of shared vocabulary disappears. Every player knows the conceptual vocabulary of health, shots, power ups, enemies, and bosses. Their significance within the game is indisputable: they amount to how you play and win the game. They form the ontology of a video game.
As for decoding the allegory, the symbolic mapping is made explicit, even if the meaning of the mapping is not. The Belt and the Wooden Spoon increase Isaac’s speed, but one must then infer that they do so because Isaac has been beaten with them. Having the Whore of Babylon item gives you far more firepower, but only if you’re very low on health. And so players begin to use a Judeo-Christian symbology in a very particular and peculiar way because The Binding of Isaac makes use of them in a rigidly allegorical context.
McMillen clearly feels this allegory quite deeply. But what about players, to whom these symbols may have much less powerful associations? The game must have an influence, however small, on how players will think of those symbols. The computer doesn’t care whether the damaging projectiles are bullets, tears, or urine, but because these terms are used in other contexts, their binding to the conceptual realm of the video game has some impact.
This impact was not calculated, nor is it easily grasped. The symbology is based on the Judeo-Christian mythos while not being beholden to it. The Binding of Isaac is striking because it is such an extreme case and uses a symbology that has rarely (if ever) been put to such use in a video game before. But in participating in a mapping from symbols to an ontology, we participate in the mutation of the meaning of those symbols. The individual functional roles of video games bleed into the symbols they use and stay with us every time we see a wafer, a fistula, or a Bible thereafter.
David Golumbia does not like computers. Toward the end of The Cultural Logic of Computation, after lumping computers and the atom bomb into a single “Pandora’s Box” of doom, he observes:
The Germans relied on early computers and computational methods provided by IBM and some of its predecessor companies to expedite their extermination program; while there is no doubt that genocide, racial and otherwise, can be carried out in the absence of computers, it is nevertheless provocative that one of our history’s most potent programs for genocide was also a locus for an intensification of computing power.
This sort of guilt by association is typical of The Cultural Logic of Computation. The book is so problematic and so wrong-headed as to be shocking, and as philosophical and cultural excursions into technological analysis are still comparatively rare, the book merits what programmers would term a postmortem.
Throughout the book, Golumbia, an English and Media Studies professor who worked for ten years as a product manager in software at Dow Jones, insists that computers are creating and enforcing a socio-political hegemony that reduces human beings to servile automatons. They aren’t just the tools of oppression, they oppress by their very nature. Golumbia attacks the encroachment by “computation” on human life. He defines “computation” as the rationalist, symbolic approach of computers and logic.
Or at least he seems to sometimes. Other times “computation” stands in for an amorphous mass of cultural issues that just happen to involve computers. Much of the the book focuses on political issues that don’t bear on “computation” in the least, such as a tired attack on Thomas Friedman and globalization that adds nothing new to Friedman’s already-long rap sheet. Golumbia spends ten pages criticizing real-time strategy games like Age of Empires, complaining:
There is no question of representing the Mongolian minority that exists in the non-Mongolian part of China, or of politically problematic minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, or of the other non-Han Chinese minorities (e.g., Li, Yi, Miao).
A true Hobbesian Prince, the user of Age of Empires allows his subjects no interiority whatsoever, and has no sympathy for their blood sacrifices or their endless toil; the only sympathy is for the affairs of state, the accumulation of wealth and of property, and the growth of his or her power.
The critique could apply just as easily to Monopoly, Diplomacy, Stratego, or chess.
Golumbia gives away the game, so to speak, when he implies that connectionism (a non-symbolic artificial intelligence approach used in neural networks) is somehow less politically suspect than the symbolic AI approaches he attacks. In fact, non-symbolic approaches like Bayes networks and neural networks are themselves used ubiquitously in the data mining he (rightly) worries about. Golumbia has confused science with scientism, and computers’ uses with their structure.
Without a critique of the technical side of computers, Golumbia’s book would be just another tired retread of Chomsky, Hardt/Negri, Spivak, Thomas Frank, and the like. Unfortunately, his actual excursions into technical issues are woefully uninformed. A surreal attack on XML as a “top-down” standard ends with him praising Microsoft Word as an alternative, confusing platform and application. He hates object-oriented programming because…well, I’m honestly not quite sure.
Because the computer is so focused on “objective” reality—meaning the world of objects that can be precisely defined—it seemed a natural development for programmers to orient their tools exactly toward the manipulation of objects. Today, OOP is the dominant mode in programming, for reasons that have much more to do with engineering presumptions and ideologies than with computational efficiency (some OOP languages like Java have historically performed less well than other languages, but are preferred by engineers because of how closely they mirror the engineering idealization about how the world is put together).
The lack of citation, pervasive throughout the book, makes it impossible even to pinpoint what this objection means. I’d be curious as to how he feels about functional languages like Lisp, ML, and Haskell, but Golumbia shows no signs of even having heard of them. Unfortunately, XML and object-oriented programming are pretty much his two main points of technical attack, which indicates a lack of technical depth.
Yet Golumbia’s greatest anger is reserved for Noam Chomsky. Golumbia devotes a quarter of the book to him, with Jerry Fodor serving as assistant villain. Somehow, Chomsky’s computational linguistics become far more than just a synecdoche for modern corporatism and materialism; Chomsky is actually one of the main culprits.
To Golumbia, Chomsky is “fundamentally libertarian”; he is a Ayn Randian “primal conservative” who accepted military funding. He has “authoritarian” institutional politics which require strict adherence to his “religious” doctrine:
Chomsky’s institutional politics are often described exactly as authoritarian.
[His work] tends to attract white men (and also men from notably imperial cultures, such as those of Korea or Japan).
The scholars who pursue Chomskyanism and Chomsky himself with near-religious fervor are, almost without exception, straight white men who might be taken by nonlinguists to be ‘computer geeks.’
Golumbia is evidently fond of the ad hominem. Golumbia also associates “geeks” with “straight, white men,” insulting 19th century programmer Ada Lovelace, gay theoretician Alan Turing, and the vast population of queer and non-white programmers, linguists, and geeks that exists today (many not even Korean or Japanese).
Yet Golumbia finds time to praise Wikipedia, founded and run by fundamentally libertarian Ayn Rand acolyte Jimmy Wales. It’s strange for Golumbia to call Wikipedia a salutary effort to demote expert opinion when Wales himself says it should not be cited in academic papers. And strange for Golumbia to see Wikipedia as progressive when many of its entries still come from that well-known bastion of hegemonic opinion, the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. (The explicitly racist ones have been scrubbed.)
Beyond the technological confusions, Golumbia’s philosophical background is notably defective. The book is plagued by factual errors; Voltaire is bizarrely labeled a “counter-Enlightenment” thinker, while logicians Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege somehow end up on opposite sides: Russell is a good anti-rationalist (despite having written “Why I Am a Rationalist”), Frege is a bad rationalist. (He also enlists Quine and Wittgenstein to his leftist cause, which I suspect neither would have appreciated.) He thinks Leibniz preceded Descartes. He misappropriates Kant’s ideas of the noumenal and mere reason.
Here is a typically confused passage, revealing Golumbia’s fondness for incoherent Manicheistic dichotomies:
In Western intellectual history at its most overt, mechanist views typically cluster on one side of political history to which we have usually attached the term conservative. In some historical epochs it is clear who tends to endorse such views and who tends to emphasize other aspects of human existence in whatever the theoretical realm. There are strong intellectual and social associations between Hobbes’s theories and those of Machiavelli and Descartes, especially when seen from the state perspective. These philosophers and their views have often been invoked by conservative leaders at times of consolidation of power in iconic or imperial leaders, who will use such doctrines overtly as a policy base.
This contrasts with ascendant liberal power and its philosophy, whose conceptual and political tendencies follow different lines altogether: Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Dewey, James, etc. These are two profoundly different views of what the State itself means, what the citizen’s engagement with the State is, and where State power itself arises. Resistance to the view that the mind is mechanical is often found in philosophers we associate with liberal or radical views—Locke, Hume, Nietzsche, Marx.
So it is not simply the technological material that is the problem. The quality of even the academic, philosophical portions of the book is dismaying, and the general lack of evidence and citation is egregious. Harvard University Press, who published the book, have a fine track record in the general areas that Golumbia inhabits. I am not certain how The Cultural Logic of Computation slipped through, nor how many of its blatant errors were not caught. It is an embarrassment and will only confirm the prejudices of those who feel that the humanities have nothing to offer the sciences but spite and ignorance.
For contrast, Samir Chopra’s Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software (Routledge) is an excellent and rigorous examination of some of the political and social issues around software and software development, strong on both the technical and philosophical fronts. I would urge anyone looking at Golumbia’s book to read it instead.