Search This Blog

Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Review: Neil Levy Bad Beliefs. Why They Happen to Good People

 





This is a very interesting, very readable book not least because the author, though presenting himself as a professional philosopher, draw on a range of theories and data culled from contemporary cognitive and behavioural sciences. His leading idea is that we live in an epistemic [knowledge] environment which is now heavily polluted by poor research, fake news, conspiracy theories, and so on, but where understandable concerns about free speech and poorly thought through notions of “balance” have so far prevented any serious clean up. This is important because self-help strategies alone cannot rescue individuals from forming false beliefs and making unfounded claims to knowledge. Indeed, it is the very fact that we are rational animals deploying our efforts in scarce real time that often enough leads us to false beliefs. We are reliant on those around us and society’s institutions for our sense of what is true and what is false and they ain’t making it easy. Reform is needed.

These problems are not as contemporary as Levy presents them; there is a long back story of concern about the power of charlatans, demagogues, and revolutionaries to lead even the thoughtful astray. That concern, in a recognisably modern form, dates at least from the eighteenth century. For example, when the charlatan Anton Mesmer started to make a big hit in pre-1789 France, the leaders of institutionalised French science and philosophy sought to articulate ways in which an ordinary non-expert person might see that he was a charlatan even without detailed understanding of his theories, such as they were[1].  True, in retrospect Mesmer clearly had some prescient understanding of aspects of the human mind which were then little understood. But this was incidental: Mesmer was running a (literal) theatre for the sake of fame and money. Something similar might be said of Jacques Lacan in the latter part of his life[2].

It would be easy to suppose that the institutional leaders were only concerned to keep outsiders outside but, as it happens, the most intellectually powerful figure among them - the Marquis de Condorcet - was not only a democrat who believed in a wide franchise (which would include women) but was responsible for a 1785 work in the theory of probabilities which showed that there is, as far as knowledge is concerned, strength in numbers: if certain conditions are met, it is rational to defer to majority opinion because the majority is more likely to be right than wrong and the bigger the absolute gap between majority and minority, the greater the reliability. Condorcet and his followers took  juries as a prime location for application of his probability work for it leads to the  conclusion that - conditions met -  larger juries are better than smaller ones and a requirement of unanimity or near unanimity much, much better than simple majority vote. What Condorcet could not anticipate was the TV programme Who Wants to Be A Millionaire which demonstrates the truth of his claims in near-perfect form.

Condorcet showed that majority voting is a good guide to truth:


(1) the more enlightened (knowledgeable) is each individual voter, with a minimum requirement that they be more likely to be right than wrong on any one occasion (p = greater than 0.5)

(2) provided that when voting, voters are trying to give the right answer
(3) and provided that they vote independently of each other - if one voter follows the lead of another, that simply reduces the effective number of voters

If these conditions are met, then in a majority vote the probability of the majority being right increases (and quite dramatically, heading towards p = 1 [certainty] ) the larger the absolute vote gap between majority and minority.

In the TV quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? contestants have the right to ask the large audience for help with a question to which they don’t know the answer. Audience members are then offered four possible answers to the question and asked to select the right answer from among them. It’s rational for the contestant to confirm the audience’s majority answer as their own - and for these reasons:

(1) the Audience is likely to be quite knowledgeable. Quiz show live audiences are likely to contain a high proportion of people good at quizzes, so p is likely to be greater than 0.5.
(2) members of the audience have no motive to give answers they believe to be untrue (they enjoy giving right answers!)
(3) they vote independently of each other using push-button consoles with little or no time to consult the person sitting next to them and explicit instructions not to.

Hey Presto, the audience's choice of right answer will, almost certainly, BE the right answer. If some researcher checked back over Ask the Audience choices, I think they would rarely find that the Audience got it wrong. Ask the Audience is a No Brainer if you don't know the answer yourself[3].

In nineteenth century England, progressive thinkers who wanted to see a more democratic society with a wider franchise always met with objections which insisted that the masses were too ignorant and too liable to be seduced by charlatans for it to be safe to entrust them with the vote. To this, progressive thinkers - most obviously the Utilitarians - responded with proposals for extending education to all, but also with a defence of the desirability of deference  to scientific authority. Deference is a key term in Levy’s book and his criteria for identifying those people and theories worthy of deference map very closely onto criteria proposed by Utilitarian thinkers. Thus Levy writes,

“A scientific consensus is reliable when it has been stress-tested, by all the disciplines relevant to the topic, for an extended period of time” (page 109)

Compare this passage from a book published in England in 1849:

“With respect to the subjects of speculation and science, the existence of an agreement of the persons having the above qualifications [natural ability, long study, personal honesty] is the most important matter. If all the able and honest men who have diligently studied the subject, or most of them, concur, and if this consent extends over several successive generations, at an enlightened period, and in all or most civilised countries, then the authority is at its greatest” (page 42) as it is in astronomy (page 43).

This passage is taken from An Essay on the Influence of Authority in Matters of Opinion by Sir George Cornewall Lewis, usually reckoned a minor Utilitarian thinker. One of his major themes is that when it comes to forming rational beliefs and opinions we have to rely on others; we cannot do it alone. This is the theme to which Levy devotes chapter 4 of his book, starting with a critique of the individualism of traditional epistemology and its impossible reliance on a chimera of “unaided individual cognition”. Sir George Cornewall Lewis provides the basic argument against this view:

“I firmly believe…that the earth moves round the sun; though I know not a tittle of the evidence from which the conclusion is inferred. And my belief is perfectly rational, though it rests upon mere authority….” (page 63).

That’s the way it is: we rely on authority much more than we imagine, we have to do so, and it is fully rational to do so IF the epistemic environment is not degraded. Unlike Levy, Lewis simply asserts that the environment is a healthy one for the passage I have just quoted continues:

“….all who have scrutinised the evidence concur in confirming the fact; and have no conceivable motive to assert and diffuse the conclusion, but the liberal and beneficent desire of maintaining and propagating truth” (p 63)[4]

Were that it was ever thus! A substantial  part of Neil Levy’s book tells the depressing story of the many ways in which it ain’t like that. I will not summarise the various stories which extend well beyond the obvious ones: denying the Holocaust, denying climate change, denying the efficacy of vaccines. Levy’s central proposal is that we need to clean up the epistemic environment on which we have to rely and he looks to nudge theory for inspiration, arguing in chapter 6 (“Nudging Well”) that nudges can support our personal rationality and autonomy, not manipulatively undermine them as is often enough alleged.

I can think of just one alternative that has ever been proposed: Auguste Comte reckoned that the intellectual environment of his time was pretty polluted; he thought the solution was to quarantine himself from it. He called this “mental hygiene”. I am sure he would have recommended disconnection from Facebook, Twitter, and much more besides.

 

 



[1] Robert Darnton, Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (1968)

[2] Trevor Pateman, https://www.academia.edu/43059186/Jacques_Lacan_in_the_text_of_Elisabeth_Geblesco

[3] Trevor Pateman, https://www.academia.edu/43058086/Majoritarianism_An_argument_from_Rousseau_and_Condorcet

[4] https://www.academia.edu/43045987/Liberty_Authority_and_the_Negative_Dialectics_of_J_S_Mill

This paper, along with that on Majoritarianism previously cited,  is based on my  M Phil thesis How Is Political Knowledge Possible? (University of Sussex, submitted 1977, awarded 1978)


Tuesday, 18 January 2022

Review: Michael Morris Real Likenesses

 


 

Back in 1975 a philosopher, Colin Radford, presented a paper to the Aristotelian Society in London with the title, “How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?” The paper has since been much discussed. There are at least two ways of hearing/reading the title, one of which invites us to think of an explanation for a remarkable phenomenon and the other invites us to pause and seek to explain this hitherto taken-for-granted common phenomenon.

My guess is that most adults are much more frequently moved by the fate of characters in novels, plays, and films than they are by the fate of people in “real” life, exception perhaps made for those who work in settings like hospital intensive care units. Equally, this being moved in “unreal” situations - to tears, laughter, or orgasm [tragedy, comedy, pornography] - is almost entirely occasioned by the narrative arts. To put it bluntly, you do not see people leaving art galleries in tears.

The capacity to be moved by narratives appears early. Many years ago, I had begun reading very short book-at-bedtime stories to my younger daughter, using illustrated books and (as you do) pointing my finger as I read. I got to the point in one story where a young girl who has been entrusted with carrying a basket of eggs to market drops them and all the eggs break, a drawing  - to which I pointed - illustrating that fact. Oh dear! At this point my daughter, aged two and a bit and until this moment listening quietly, burst into tears.

That sort of reaction is unlearnt. It is a primitive or, as I would say, it is a natural reaction. Nothing to see there, no special explanation required.

True, there is a larger adaptive-evolutionary story which can be connected to this unremarkable fact. I tell it first in relation to vision. Seeing is not something of which human beings are capable; it is something to which, unless blind, they are liable. That is thanks to a remarkably powerful vision module which goes into action at birth and rapidly achieves its more or less final state, though much later affected by the physical decline of our bodies. The vision module works very fast and very reliably which is hugely adaptive; it saves us from many accidents and other catastrophes. True, it can be fooled as it is by the very recently invented  Müller-Lyer illusion, Escher’s drawings, and trompe l’oeil paintings. But this is a small price to pay for the many benefits which accrue from the fast operation of an encapsulated system which does not generally tolerate interference from our thinking. There are exceptions: someone may guide us towards seeing something which we don't see spontaneously, often a resemblance which we didn't catch - a resemblance which was not transparent  but whose translucence could be seen through by means of a verbal hint..

Similarly, in my view, human beings are natural believers - they are credulous. That does mean that they are easily fooled but being a believer is more adaptive, on balance, than being a natural sceptic. When I go hunting with my tribe, it is really not a good idea to play the sceptic when I hear one of my fellow-hunters shout, “Watch out! Snakes in the grass!” My natural credulity leads me to do the sensible thing; I watch out, promptly and without question. As it happens, this priority of credulity can also be given some kind of philosophical justification; you cannot even get going in life - even solitary life - unless you take things on trust. Things just have to be taken as they appear if you are to get started; doubt comes later and it’s a second-order ability (or, for some people, liability).

So it’s not surprising that we are fooled by fictions. There is no need for “willing suspension of disbelief” because there is simply no disbelief to be suspended. There is a part of the brain - a module if you like - which simply does not discriminate fact and fiction. We know this in a common sense way when we complain that horror films frighten us, romantic novels make us cry, and pornographic films arouse us sexually even when we don’t want them to. Well, as in the rest of life, want doesn’t mean get.

The story can be continued. When philosophers think about the use of language, they usually have in mind acts of speaking or reading, which are thought of as voluntary acts. They should more often think about hearing. If someone says something to you, audibly, in a language you understand, you have no choice about understanding the words even if you may not understand their import. Someone says, “I like your hat” and that may be compliment or sarcasm and you may not be sure which; but it is not a voluntary act or decision to hear the words, “I like your hat”. You just hear them and understand them, at least at some basic/literal level. You may really, really dislike hearing and understanding certain words but you really, really can’t avoid it. That’s why you often press people to not use (or mention) them at all.

From that I derive the conclusion that the human capacity for language is not originally an ability; it begins as a liability - we are liable to language. That’s why children learn their mother tongue more or less effortlessly as they hear it being addressed to them and, more generally, spoken all around them. Language “acquisition” is something that happens to them, more like a viral infection than a property deal.

As a final example: the capacity to recognise objects depicted in a photograph or representational drawing is also a liability; it’s unlearnt and untaught. Deprivation experiments have been conducted to show that that is true: withhold all pictures from a child until the child can speak, and the child can name, unprompted, the objects in the photographs or drawings now revealed to them.

In his book Real Likenesses Michael Morris adopts the approach of the analytical philosopher, rather than that of the naturalist / psychologist, and seeks to characterise the formal status (ontological, epistemological, logical) of those artist-representations of things which affect us - in paintings, photographs and novels - rather as if they were real things. So a painted face is the  real likeness of a face and  a photographed face the real likeness of a face; and likewise a fictional/novelistic character is a real likeness of a character.  The argument is lucid but highly technical and I am not going to go into detail in this little review/essay. As an analytical philosopher, Morris aims for completeness, absence of contradiction, absence of falsifying examples, and no unresolved paradoxes. In philosophy, that’s always a tall order.

Towards the end of the book, Morris has a section (pp. 204-214 ) which discusses how proper names work in novels and he quotes the opening sentence of Muriel Spark's novel Memento Mori:

“Dame Lettie Colston re-filled her fountain pen and continued her letter”

The problem with this - as he partly acknowledges (p.207) - is that “Dame Lettie Colston” is not a good example of a proper name. At its very first appearance, it is much more than a proper name; it’s loaded with descriptive content. I open the novel, perhaps knowing nothing about it, but three words in I already know a lot. I now know that the novel is likely to feature prominently - unless I am being tricked by an unreliable narrator - a woman ( that takes out fifty percent of the world’s population) whose British /English title of “Dame” takes out about 99.9999% percent of the remaining fifty percent. The British/English probably resolves to English with the “Lettie Colston”, taking out the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish. We are now down to a few thousand and possibly just a few hundred members of a class (“English Dames”) of whom Lettie Colston is going to be presented as a fictional member, either typical or untypical. We will have to continue reading in order to discover which. Proceed to the words “fountain pen” and with a novel published in 1959 when the battle between fountain pen and biro was fully joined, we also have to read on to discover if this shows Lettie taking sides or whether it shows that the time setting of the novel is that past in which biros did not exist. It is part of the novelist's skill to know how to keep us reading; in that first sentence, Spark tells us quite a bit about one character  - but not quite enough. So we have to read on.

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, 15 January 2022

Review: Abigail Dean, Girl A

 


I nearly didn’t buy this book from the Waterstones table. It was suffering from Sandwich Board failure. If one shopkeeper puts out a sandwich board on the pavement, they may gain some advantage from being better noticed. But if all shopkeepers put out sandwich boards, as they now do, pedestrians ignore them because they are too busy dodging around what has become a frustrating obstacle course.

The manic sandwich board department at Harper Collins has decorated this book with fifty eight very short puffs on four sides of covers and two inside pages. Advertising 101 would have taught them that this is unlikely to convince, as recognised by one meta-puff which implores me to Believe the Hype.

It’s a pity because it’s a good novel which doesn’t need to be shoe-horned into the genre of “mystery thriller”. It’s well-crafted and structured through consistent use of alternation between Time Present and Time Past; it has a credible narrator and a credible story line developed towards a concluding revelation. The story line picks up on the known fact that the families of religious fundamentalists are often enough sites of awful child abuse of one kind or another. In the less grave cases, survivor memoirs can be found: in the recent past Tara Westover’s Educated and Rebecca Stott’s In the Days of Rain are examples which have literary as well as documentary value. Then there are the related novels, like those of Jeanette Winterson.

What I particularly admired in this novel was the way in which Abigail Dean successfully imagines very different and complex later outcomes for children who have been removed from a traumatically abusive home and placed with adoptive parents, their natural father now dead and mother in prison - not least because two of their children had died in the House of Horrors, of violence and neglect.

I’d like to rescue the book from the hype. Let me put it this way: my impression is that Abigail Dean is a better writer than, say, Bernardine Evaristo whose flat prose and happy-clappy themes I find tiring. But because she has written a “Genre Novel” then - rather like John le Carré - Abigail Dean’s book has been  put into a parallel world where it won’t be given serious attention, reckoned suitable only for sandwich board treatment. But I think it stands up to careful reading and, hopefully, it will not be a one-off achievement.

Friday, 24 December 2021

Review: Damon Galgut The Promise

 





It felt like the triumph of hope over experience when I picked up this Booker Prize winner from the Waterstones table. After the disappointments of Bernardine Evaristo (Girl, Woman, Other reviewed on this Blog 20 March 2020  ) and Douglas Stuart (Shuggie Bain, 21 January 2021 ) the odds were surely stacked against a really good novel. But, as it turns out, this one is and I recommend it.

It’s probably a commonplace that deaths and funerals and wills reveal the fault lines in family relationships; rather than creating the solidarity you might expect, they seem to do the opposite. People fall out with each other, vow never to speak again - at least until the next death if it’s not their own. Damon Galgut has seized the potential of these familiar thoughts and builds his novel around deaths in the family, adding in for good measure excruciating bit parts played by funeral parlours, ministers of religion, and lawyers who draw up the wills. Though the deaths are spread over decades, the thematic focus on how family members respond holds the novel tightly together with a relatively small (and diminishing) cast of characters.

At the same time, Galgut quite subtly provides a background of South Africa’s passage from apartheid to black majority rule and the ways it affects -and doesn’t affect - life in a farmstead-based family in rural Afrikaans-speaking Transvaal. The Promise of the title is a real promise held out to a black family servant but the fulfillment of which is avoided for decades and not achieved until the end of the story. Nations are rarely one big family - and if they are, then like ordinary families they are sure to have their fault lines.

The prose is tight and the dialogue spare and sharp at the same time. There’s not a lot of laugh-out loud humour nor is there really any invitation to grief when characters die. It’s not a book in which there is sunrise and sunset; more a long saga with no obvious resolution but a great deal of very thoughtfully presented story.

Saturday, 18 December 2021

Review: The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes by Zoe Playdon.

 


 



This book is like a novel with an unreliable narrator. Zoë  Playdon assembles a great deal of interesting and important material but she has an agenda which leads her into various kinds of prolepsis: we get the verdict before the evidence  and - like the headline writers at Pink News  - Playdon can never resist a judgmental adjective, as if she fears readers will reach incorrect conclusions without them. The trouble with such intrusive prolepsis is that some readers will conclude that you protest too much, that you are less confident of your conclusions than you would like us to believe.

The larger narrative of the book offers a background survey of a hundred years’ worth of medical and legal theory and practice around questions of intersex and trans sex, much of which was new to me and which is interesting in its own right.  But the core narrative is the story of a Scottish aristocrat and medical doctor, Ewan Forbes, born Elisabeth Forbes in 1912 and who became 11th Baronet of Forbes but only after a 1966 legal challenge to his claim, brought on the grounds that he was female not male and thus disqualified from the baronetcy by laws of primogeniture.

I will try to focus what I think is the main issue. Birth certificates, universally so, at least until recently, require that all newborns be classified by sex as either Male or Female. It’s also known, not least by midwives, that some babies show sexually ambiguous characteristics which may or may not tend to resolve (and then, more or less) into Male or Female over time. But there is no category on the birth certificate (such as “To be confirmed”) to allow for this - a fact which has proved very acceptable to nearly all parents, the great upholders of binary life, who simply want an uncomplicated Boy or Girl. It’s also known that there are invisible sexual ambiguities which will only show up on later and more thorough examination. The standard birth certificate inevitably forces a small number of square pegs into round holes, and vice versa, really quite unnecessarily.

It’s also known that there are communities without benefit of sex clinics, gender identity theorists, education, money, or friends in high places, where there is a higher than average incidence of ambiguity which then partially resolves itself at puberty without the intervention of anything except the passage of time. The best-known case is that of a community in the Dominican Republic where some (provisionally) F children become anatomically much more like M children in the course of puberty. This is a sufficiently common occurrence for there to be a name for those affected: guevedoces which means penises at (age) twelve: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guevedoce.  It’s true, these F to M children retain some distinctive characteristics: they never go bald and they do not suffer from the common M problem of enlarged prostates - they do have prostates, but small ones. Both of those facts attracted the attention of Big Pharma which has developed hormone treatments for baldness and prostate enlargement based on genetic profiles of these rural children. They most commonly go under the name of the drug Finasteride which can have unpleasant psychological side-effects.

So here we have a well-studied case of spontaneous transition without chemical or surgical intervention in relation to individuals who would, in consequence, generally be classed as intersex (the old hermaphrodite). The original research was done in the 1970s by Dr Julianne Imperato-McGinley.  Playdon does not mention it anywhere in her book though it strikes me as very pertinent to the earlier part of her discussion.

Ewan Forbes, the subject of the book, was classified as F on the original 1912 birth certificate and named Elisabeth but very early in life showed tomboyish gender characteristics which were very noticeable. When Elisabeth’s mother examined her child at the age of six she satisfied herself that the child “had a normal female anatomy, and later, she warned him that he might menstruate” (p 18) - though at that time the onset of menstruation would normally occur much later than it now does. As it turned out, at the age of sixteen  Ewan “began to have erections and emissions” (his words, p. 23).

When he was fifteen, his educated , wealthy and well-connected mother had taken him on a tour of 1920s European sex clinics where he was treated with hormone injections (p.23), presumably of testosterone or something similar. All the medical records have been lost. Playdon later comments that this treatment “meant that he did not go through the wrong puberty” (p.46).

Put baldly like that, it looks to me like a case of the fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc (After that, therefore because of that). Are we supposed to believe that between the ages of fifteen and sixteen Ewan acquired something capable of “erections” as a result of hormone injections? And “emissions” which would imply the presence of prostate and testes unless the emissions were what would now be called female ejaculation? (Playdon thinks they were and she seems obviously right: see p 185).

Is it not much more likely that mother and son were aware of (belated? continuing?) pubertal changes of an M character occurring before they set off for the sex clinics and that the injections aided a development that had already begun rather than caused it? If so, Ewan would have a lot in common with the Dominican Republic intersex children.

However, later in the book Ewan’s sister Margaret is reported as writing of Ewan that “She had her periods regularly just like every other girl” (p 132) but this was written in a context of personal hostility and is almost certainly untrue. (Upper class people have no problems about lying when it suits them and there is more to come).

When in the context of the contested baronetcy Ewan is medically examined by Edinburgh university Professor Strong at the end of 1966, he is found to have a vagina and a urethra separate from and behind what the medical report describes as a “virilised clitoris” (phallus) which would be regarded as “greatly enlarged” if thought of as a clitoris and “abnormally small” as a penis. Breast development “more resembled the female pattern than the male” - all this at pages 150-151. On this basis, Strong diagnoses a case of female pseudo-hermaphroditism, then a standard category which explained male characteristics by the presence of masculinising hormones in the womb. Ewan is a person who did not really fit into the birth certificate M and F boxes and so the original box ticked was an instance of deeming rather than simple categorisation. Ewan had successfully applied for a retrospective change to the box back in 1950, using medical reports kindly supplied by friends and colleagues and quite possibly suspect as simple favours. But without a great deal of difficulty, he became Ewan not Elisabeth, M not F, and announced the fact with a small ad. in the local newspaper.

Playdon objects to Strong’s diagnosis on the basis that Ewan had begun taking testosterone as a teenager and continued to take it into adult life, it seems regularly.  As a result, Playdon reckons that his 1966 male characteristics are more likely to have arisen from long use of testosterone than from womb facts. In other words, Playdon thinks Ewan is trans in the modern sense rather than intersex. He had set out, originally in the 1920s, with the help of his mother and long before these things were fully theorised, to fit his female body to his sense of male self. In the 1966 legal and medical context, that story would have been less helpful to his claim to maleness than the intersex story, and thus a reason not to advance it. Ewan insisted on his physical and not just psychological maleness, now additionally evidenced by the  sudden and miraculous appearance of a testicle - he faked the evidence. 

*

When I read the word “testosterone” I always recall that I have a small bit of skin in the game and I will tell the story because it is also about cause and effect.

A feature of schools in my childhood was the annual medical examination by the School Doctor. Either in 1958 or 1959, when I was eleven or twelve (I think eleven), the School Doctor discovered that I had an undescended testicle. My mother, relaying the news to me, said that this had to be dealt with because it could cause problems later - she did not name them, but when much later I looked them up they were identified as cancer and infertility. The treatment would be a course of injections and, if that failed, then an operation. So once or twice a week, my mother took me on the bus to our local GP surgery where a very large syringe equipped with a long needle was pushed deep into my thigh; on one occasion the needle could not take the strain and broke.

A first course of injections partly worked and so it was decided to give me a second course, at the end of which it was deemed that my testicle had sufficiently descended. No one told me that these testosterone injections might have side-effects and so I lived a miserable pre-teen existence believing that my semi-permanent state of erection - permanent on bus rides - signified something wrong with me. I was troubled rather earlier in life than Ewan by erections and emissions.

Many years later, I had this thought: I was eleven or twelve. I was undersized and underweight and maybe a slow developer. Perhaps that testicle would have eventually descended of its own accord. Maybe the injections just helped it along. 

Maybe something like that  happened to Ewan Forbes who had begun some physical transition, involving the development of a phallus from a clitoris, before being helped along by testosterone or some other hormone used in 1920s  Austrian and German sex clinics. They did not cause the transition; they assisted it.

This is important because Playdon wants to blur the distinction between inter sex and trans sex and subsume both into a single trans category.This seems a disservice to the small but important group of intersex-born people whose life trajectories are rather different to those of other trans people who often go through the “wrong” puberty with permanent consequences which means that they are not intersex in the traditional sense and that they have a more obvious quantum of characteristics which derive from long residence in their unambiguous birth sex - for example, in terms of bone, muscle and height.

*

Playdon believes and as an activist has committed herself to the view that the right way to proceed in all cases, intersex and trans sex, is from the individual’s own self-identification. Medical access to hormones and surgery should follow from that, where sought. This may well be the best way of looking at things, since several of the alternatives have proved pretty awful in their consequences, as Playdon elaborates. Doctors have their own weaknesses, and ambitious ones sometimes most of all.

However, it does not follow that self-identification  is all that should be needed in the wider society. There are at least some grounds for thinking that some kind of regulation is necessary, which may vary according to context and so on. Playdon disagrees:

“…the only information about themselves that trans people - or anyone - are obliged to give in a social setting is their name and perhaps their pronouns” (page 308)

Well, at present name and pronoun won’t get you into a pub if you look sixteen; it won’t get you a free bus ride even if you look sixty five; it won’t get you access over the telephone to the state of your bank account; and so on. Unthinking maximalist demands,  accompanied in the recent past by some fairly unpleasant behaviour, seem to express not so much a desire for equality as an excessive sense of entitlement. They have weakened the case transgender activists have been making and must be reckoned part cause of the more recent backlash: see, for example,  Kathleen Stock's Material Girls, reviewed on this site on 24 October 2021.

Thursday, 9 December 2021

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Review Jack Kerouac On the Road

 



I can see how this book might have been a publishing sensation in 1957 just because it depicts a very different post-War American world to that represented in the dominant culture of magazines, TV, and political discourse. Sol, the narrator, and his buddies criss-cross America for the hell of it and everywhere they encounter their likes and a world of bars, jazz clubs, flop houses and whorehouses which cater to the needs of young white ex-GI males who live for kicks heightened by alcohol in excess, dope, dangerous driving, and access to girls (preferably teenage) who come free or, at least, cheap. They steal, they leave wives and babies behind, they beg and borrow. They are bums, just one grade above the hobos thanks to background Aunts, Uncles, and GI payouts. But they aren’t gun-toting and whatever racism they express is contradicted by their openness to Black cultures and non-white sexual partners which in 1957 would also have been unusual - remember that in World War Two the US army operated in racially segregated units.

But, No, because the structure and style is wearying. The novel has no plot, it’s structured as And then…and then…and then and in case you don’t get the message it repeats itself as journeys are repeated - there is no final destination despite a sort of belated attempt in the closing pages ( 280-81 in my edition). Even Kerouac’s editors queried this, reckoning that the book should at least be shorter. As for themes, it would be a very dutiful, sober reader who sought to extract a coherent Beat philosophy from the words and actions of the central figure of Dean Moriarty whose manic search for beatific moments of ecstasy and revelation drive the narrative rather as he drives the cars, which are also thematically central.

The novel itself was written at great speed on a single roll of paper (Kerouac glued sheets together as he fed them into the typewriter), so its method of production was part of the manic world it depicts. But as with surrealist “automatic writing”, writing at speed (or on speed: Benzedrine in Kerouac’s case - see  Introduction xix) does not guarantee inspiration; it may produce no more than perspiration. As one critic observed of the hagiographic claim for the speed at which On the Road was written, That’s typing, not writing. It’s true, Kerouac did re-type and revise the book as it struggled towards belated publication, but much of that seems to have been with the aim of removing potentially libellous material about characters who may have been re-named but were based on real people.

I only had one encounter with any of Kerouac's cast of real-life characters: at the 1967 London Dialectics of Liberation congress, held in the capacious Roundhouse, I chanted Om..... on the instructions of Allen Ginsberg, Carlo Marx in the novel.