0451: "Impostor"

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Aurora Firestorm
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Aurora Firestorm » Fri Jul 18, 2008 6:07 pm UTC

The reason all those silly diagrams are there is because no one has a clue what actually goes on in the brain when dealing with language, with a few exceptions. We know about Broca's and Wernicke's areas, and a few other basic ideas, but honestly, the brain is for the most part one big blank. We don't know what the entire mechanisms are for language, and the ins and outs of how they work. There are many areas of linguistics that are definitely Serious Business and contain researchers that know what they're doing. (I know one of these people, in fact.)


So, a lot of people have popped on complaining that XKCD shouldn't diss the humanities. While this may or may not be true (and being an engineer with humanities friends, I enjoy ribbing them about it all the time), I guess I have to take the side of XKCD here. Don't get me wrong; the humanities are fine. They're fun sometimes. However, there have been many points in my life when I just have to stop and say, "What is it for?"

One of these was high school lit. No, seriously, why do I need to read these things? I'm not illiterate, nor do I hate to read -- I just love books that don't get taught in there. I think the 'literary' books are dull and a drag. Steinbeck in particular made me want to stab my eyes out. I'm a sci-fi person. Give me Ender's Game, or something by Lois Bujold. I don't like Asimov -- he's dry and boring to me (Foundation was the dullest book I've read in a long time.). Let's say you have Ann and Jill, who are two college students. Ann reads a lot of genres and especially old literary stuff; she takes a wide variety of lit, philosophy, etc. classes; she's one of those people that really like all that. For a bonus, let's say she's also a physics major or something. Just a math type who really likes lit as well. Now we have Jill, also a physics major. Jill doesn't really go for the old stuff. She likes contemporary fantasy -- maybe she read Tolkien, but that's about as far as it goes in the past -- and is just sort of a person who sits around in the library with her physics book and a copy of her new favorite fantasy series's latest book. She does her best to dodge her college humanities classes; she only takes the requirement, and even then, it's stuff like Writing Science Fiction or whatever (we have this at MIT, yep!). She comes out having really no experience in the areas Ann saw -- literary criticism, reading these old, theme-heavy, "meaningful" books, doing all this philosophy stuff, so forth.

I firmly believe that Jill is no worse a human being, no less learned, no less well-rounded than Ann. As someone who went to a very math-science high school to learn math and science, and an engineering college so that I can learn engineering, I don't appreciate the system beating me over the head with humanities. I like some of them. I like art especially -- in fact, I'm a passionate digital artist who does from-scratch work with a tablet. (As slow as it is to get stuff done, with school and work). I can appreciate a good piece of music, although I'm a fan of modern instrumental (see: soundtracks and such) rather than classical. But I really don't feel like having someone force me to take classes in something I just find boring. Just because I can't talk about themes in a book doesn't mean it wasn't totally awesome when X did that and Y then totally outfoxed him and then Z comes in and X teams up and they figure out this thing that the entire time, we hadn't even seen coming, and...

Now that's how I like to read a book.

What is the _reason_ that we should all take humanities classes? Why should we care, if we don't like it to start with? If it's your thing, that's wonderful. Do it. Do what you love. But this doesn't mean the rest of us will like it, should like it, or should be forced to try it. In all seriousness, what universal purpose do they serve? I'm not trying to troll -- it's what I really think. I am no worse a person if I can't criticize a literary piece. (In fact, taking it apart ruins it for me. It turns reading, which is fun, into a chore.) Math is pretty necessary, at least arithmetic. You should know how to calculate a tip on the fly, just because it's useful and applicable and very few people have a calculator at all times. But lit? What does lit really do? I know how to read, and that's all that counts, right? I can now go read whatever I want, and enjoy it. I can be well-rounded without these classes. What about the businessman who taught himself to play the violin and enjoys a good round of tennis in his spare time? Or the nerdy computer science student who goes off on the weekends to hike around in the middle of nowhere and can turn that chunk of log over there into a really cool carving? Or the psychology major who can kick your butt with some good old Jiu Jitsu and also shakes it to the beat on the dance floor? No one taught them those in a formal class. Chances are they did all this before college.

If you like humanities, take the classes. If you don't, I think that schools shouldn't treat that like a bad thing. Let people do what they like. They'll enjoy it more if they chose to try it themselves, instead of have to suffer through it. (I took a philosophy class once. It taught me that I was right -- I hate the stuff and never want to see it again.) There are very few people that do One Thing, and that One Thing is their life. And if it is, that's okay, too. Forget being 'well-rounded.' Chances are, you probably were well-rounded without those classes.



(With regards to the comic, even if it isn't true most of the time, it totally applies to high school lit.)

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Belial
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Belial » Fri Jul 18, 2008 6:13 pm UTC

One of these was high school lit. No, seriously, why do I need to read these things? I'm not illiterate, nor do I hate to read -- I just love books that don't get taught in there. I think the 'literary' books are dull and a drag. Steinbeck in particular made me want to stab my eyes out. I'm a sci-fi person. Give me Ender's Game, or something by Lois Bujold.


For the record?

My English 308 course (which is where they first went heavily into Deconstruction) was based heavily around "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep"

What is the _reason_ that we should all take humanities classes?


To give you some idea what you're talking about when it comes to culture? The same reason we should all take basic math courses? That said, don't do much of it if it's not your thing. You won't catch me dead in an engineering course either.
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Izawwlgood
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Izawwlgood » Fri Jul 18, 2008 6:18 pm UTC

For those who discredit 'old, heavily themed books' (I'm looking at your post Aurora!) I question what makes your field of study significant enough that it can discredit hundreds of years of history and social influence/commentary.

And for those of you who believe that science is pure and not political, I say get your head out of the sand! The scientist is one of the most powerful political figures!
... with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.

ElAleph
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby ElAleph » Fri Jul 18, 2008 6:27 pm UTC

I firmly believe that Jill is no worse a human being, no less learned, no less well-rounded than Ann.


And the relativists come out to play! No surprise to me that it comes from a non-humanities person, I see this thinking much more often across the academic divide.

The reasons Jill is much less-educated than Ann is that Jill is reading the same 2-3 books over and over again, and that the difficulty of those books is low. Her reading ability will be quite low (although much higher than most people's). She has never/rarely had to challenge her own preconceptions about what literature really is, or been confronted with a full-on critique of one of her own belief systems.

Really what it comes down to is that Jill is easily entertained. Ann wants something more from her books.

ElAleph
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby ElAleph » Fri Jul 18, 2008 6:36 pm UTC

Let's turn the tables a bit. I have added a final panel to the comic:

Physics:

Man says: String Theory predicts 11 dimensions!

25 years

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Quixotess
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Quixotess » Fri Jul 18, 2008 6:50 pm UTC

Belial wrote:
Quixotess wrote:
PhilSandifer wrote:Sorry. The arrogant denunciations of my field from people who don't actually understand it can get a bit wearing sometimes, and seeing it in what's usually one of my favorite comic strips has me in a less than happy mood.

No no no. It's like Belial said: the joke is on grad students, not their field


Umm. That's what the joke is to me, because it's the only way I find it funny. I have no idea what Randy was thinking. And, as we can see, the math and science types will be taking it as a condemnation of the field, regardless.

Needless to say, like Phil, I am also frustrated.

Gah, don't destroy my fragile happiness. It was such a *good* denial.
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toasted-lemming
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby toasted-lemming » Fri Jul 18, 2008 7:04 pm UTC

Aurora Firestorm wrote:What is the _reason_ that we should all take humanities classes? Why should we care, if we don't like it to start with? If it's your thing, that's wonderful. Do it. Do what you love. But this doesn't mean the rest of us will like it, should like it, or should be forced to try it. In all seriousness, what universal purpose do they serve? I'm not trying to troll -- it's what I really think. I am no worse a person if I can't criticize a literary piece. (In fact, taking it apart ruins it for me. It turns reading, which is fun, into a chore.) Math is pretty necessary, at least arithmetic. You should know how to calculate a tip on the fly, just because it's useful and applicable and very few people have a calculator at all times. But lit? What does lit really do? I know how to read, and that's all that counts, right? I can now go read whatever I want, and enjoy it. I can be well-rounded without these classes. What about the businessman who taught himself to play the violin and enjoys a good round of tennis in his spare time? Or the nerdy computer science student who goes off on the weekends to hike around in the middle of nowhere and can turn that chunk of log over there into a really cool carving? Or the psychology major who can kick your butt with some good old Jiu Jitsu and also shakes it to the beat on the dance floor? No one taught them those in a formal class. Chances are they did all this before college.

If you like humanities, take the classes. If you don't, I think that schools shouldn't treat that like a bad thing. Let people do what they like. They'll enjoy it more if they chose to try it themselves, instead of have to suffer through it. (I took a philosophy class once. It taught me that I was right -- I hate the stuff and never want to see it again.) There are very few people that do One Thing, and that One Thing is their life. And if it is, that's okay, too. Forget being 'well-rounded.' Chances are, you probably were well-rounded without those classes.


I don't think you HAVE to be able to 'criticise' a literary piece, but your argument definitely shows that a) you've been involved in the sciences for a long time, and b) your English teaching at you self confessed math-science high school was terrible. Of course maths is necessary for everyday life, but I knew the arithmetic I needed to get me through life by the end of primary school (grade school I think, my knowledge of the US school system isn't great), so your argument suggests that I shouldn't have had to learn any more at secondary (high) school. Unfortunately, you'd then have told me that this made me an un-rounded person as I would have had no knowledge of basic physics, chemistry and biology. It's purely a matter of what society expects you to know - 100 years ago we'd both be considered horribly under-educated as neither of us (I assume) can and have read Plato in the original Greek, now it's seen as a failing not to have a passing knowledge of evolutionary theory and the big bang (see any online religious discussion if you take issue with this). I think that it is important to know what's been written before to avoid the arts stagnating, and I also think that everyone should be just as aware of what is possible with language as they are what has been achieved through science.

To summarise, your argument suggests that to be "rounded", one should have a far more detailed knowledge of the sciences than the arts, as I'd rate 'being able to read' and 'being able to do basic arithmetic' as comparable skills within the same field. I do think that it's important to have a knowledge of both, and I genuinely enjoyed both the sciences and the humanities that I studied.

thebandit
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby thebandit » Fri Jul 18, 2008 7:21 pm UTC

Hey guys, what's up? I'm back.

Now then. I'm somewhat surprised at all the humanities types here. After all, it DOES kind of ward us off in the disclaimer.

However. "LOLZ my 8th grade English teacher was an idiot!" isn't a point. Middle school papers are to literary criticism as cute little algebra tiles are to advanced calculus.

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Syphon
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Syphon » Fri Jul 18, 2008 7:53 pm UTC

ElAleph wrote:Let's turn the tables a bit. I have added a final panel to the comic:

Physics:

Man says: String Theory predicts 11 dimensions!

25 years


Mathematics

Man looks very self important, says: "Physics is just applied mathematics."

Ongoing

eternality
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby eternality » Fri Jul 18, 2008 7:56 pm UTC

I wonder how long an impostor would last in one of the professional fields like Law, Medicine, Accounting, or Public Policy...

ElAleph
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby ElAleph » Fri Jul 18, 2008 8:10 pm UTC

eternality wrote:I wonder how long an impostor would last in one of the professional fields like Law, Medicine, Accounting, or Public Policy...


Haven't you heard of Enron? Malpractice suits? etc.?

Apparently the answer is forever.

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Izawwlgood
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Izawwlgood » Fri Jul 18, 2008 8:20 pm UTC

Those people weren't impostors. You could argue they were in fact better then anyone else.
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ElAleph
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby ElAleph » Fri Jul 18, 2008 8:37 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:Those people weren't impostors. You could argue they were in fact better then anyone else.


Doctors who accidentally remove the wrong leg from a diabetic are better? I see what you are saying about Enron's accountants, though.

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Sykotic1189
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Sykotic1189 » Fri Jul 18, 2008 8:46 pm UTC

I agree with the people here who all hate old stuffy books. I do actually like many of these books and bought some like Fahrenheit 451, but I don't think shoving classic literature down the throats of the unthinking masses will cause them to change their lives. Instead, the ones who are connected or know a smart kid basically get a photocopy paper with their name written on it, and those without these resources flunk out.

I'm not a pessimist, I'm just a realist. Since the 5th grade I've been testing on a 12.9+ level and I go comatose through a lot of those books they make us read and usually just crap out some C grade paper. I can read 3 different books at a time and did so for most of my junior and senior year. I love books, I have a 2x4x2.5 trunk full of good books, and I can't get through the first chapter of many "great literary works".
Good times?


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drc500free
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby drc500free » Fri Jul 18, 2008 9:01 pm UTC

scarletmanuka wrote:Randall said to try reading the Wikipedia article on deconstruction. And I did, I really did.

Until I had gotten about half way through it and realised that although the words all seemed to fit together, the sentences didn't seem to be conveying any meaning. Then I gave up. :)
I used to tell my friends that they had made themselves permanantly stupider by smoking too much weed, and gave them passages from chomskybot to prove it. It's randomly constructed gibberish that dances on the edge of reality even when you're sober.

Chomskybot wrote:This assumption is not correct, since a case of semigrammaticalness of a different sort does not readily tolerate a stipulation to place the constructions into these various categories. Furthermore, this analysis of a formative as a pair of sets of features is unspecified with respect to the requirement that branching is not tolerated within the dominance scope of a complex symbol. Nevertheless, most of the methodological work in modern linguistics is not quite equivalent to the ultimate standard that determines the accuracy of any proposed grammar. We will bring evidence in favor of the following thesis: an important property of these three types of EC may remedy and, at the same time, eliminate a descriptive fact. Note that this selectionally introduced contextual feature cannot be arbitrary in the system of base rules exclusive of the lexicon.

Conversely, the fundamental error of regarding functional notions as categorial is not subject to the requirement that branching is not tolerated within the dominance scope of a complex symbol. By combining adjunctions and certain deformations, the earlier discussion of deviance is to be regarded as a descriptive fact. I suggested that these results would follow from the assumption that a descriptively adequate grammar can be defined in such a way as to impose the traditional practice of grammarians. For one thing, the speaker-hearer's linguistic intuition cannot be arbitrary in a parasitic gap construction. Presumably, the notion of level of grammaticalness is, apparently, determined by an important distinction in language use.

Thus the systematic use of complex symbols is to be regarded as the levels of acceptability from fairly high (eg (99a)) to virtual gibberish (eg (98d)). For one thing, the appearance of parasitic gaps in domains relatively inaccessible to ordinary extraction is, apparently, determined by the extended c-command discussed in connection with (34). We have already seen that the natural general principle that will subsume this case does not affect the structure of the system of base rules exclusive of the lexicon. Let us continue to suppose that this analysis of a formative as a pair of sets of features is not quite equivalent to irrelevant intervening contexts in selectional rules. It appears that relational information is unspecified with respect to the strong generative capacity of the theory.

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby ElAleph » Fri Jul 18, 2008 9:10 pm UTC

Sykotic, you sound like the racist who ends his tirade with - "I love black people. Some of my favorite friends are black people. It's just..."

Also, those of you who complain about both PoMo and the so-called "stuffy" canon are having their cake and eating it too. PoMo actively seeks to change the canon and replace the "stuffy" stuff.

And what, exactly, is stuffy about the "classics"? Pardon my skepticism and slight snobbishness, but after reading some of your posts I am inclined to equate "stuffy" with "difficult."

Remember, reading books does not make you intelligent, only reading smart books can do that.

BUT!!!
To reverse my direction completely, you should not read something you do not like. It won't do anyone any good. However, keep in mind most of your teachers have been ignorant of most classics. Is there anything remotely stuffy about Whitman, Joyce, O'Brien, Pynchon, Dante, Chaucer, Keats, Coetzee, Rushdie, Borges, Sterne, Stoppard, Wilde, Coleridge, Twain, Plath, Calvino, Fielding and, of course, Shakespeare?

Actually, the only "stuffy" literature I can think of are a few of the huge Victorian novels. And, with the exception of Dickens, those never get taught in high school and rarely in undergraduate. So could you please elaborate of the assumed "stuffiness" of literature?

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Ezbez » Fri Jul 18, 2008 9:45 pm UTC

skyo wrote:Sounds like a very Feynman-inspired hobby. Reminds me of this story.


Thanks for the link. That's a good read.

As for the comic, I, too, agree with the last panel. I've just been doing summer work for AP English, and this has certainly applied to my work. I'm given a book of short stories, and I must find connections between all the stories and another one, regardless of whether or not those connections really should exist. My English teacher last year basically stated that all this was, to use my new term, apophenia. She one time said that when she met the author of one book she had studied in college, she told him of her interpretations and whatnot, his response was that he hadn't thought of that before and that it was a good interpretation. This is the author of the book, mind you. Maybe he was being polite, but I don't know.

Feawen
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Feawen » Fri Jul 18, 2008 9:56 pm UTC

I'm glad I checked the thread - I was another who read it as uterary criticism. What's wrong with a uterus mr monroe?
Ah.

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby PhilSandifer » Fri Jul 18, 2008 10:00 pm UTC

space_raptor wrote:
PhilSandifer wrote:
"The strip works by beginning to constitute an Imaginary present and then suddenly trumping that Imaginary present with a hyper-present that erases both itself and the Imaginary present, disrupting the Imaginary momentscape and clearing the slate for the process to begin again, which it must because, as Zizek suggests, the register of the Real is fundamentally monstrous, necessitating an endless cycle of erasures,"

Yikes. If you'll forgive me for saying so, what a monstrosity. It seems ironic that on one hand we have authors writing these beautifully written works of literature, and then on the other we have literary critics discussing them with such dry and tedious analysis, precisely constructed though it may be.


To be fair, I picked the single most tedious sentence I could out of that paper. It's pretty fun in other spots. :)

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby cnoocy » Fri Jul 18, 2008 10:16 pm UTC

Ezbez wrote:She one time said that when she met the author of one book she had studied in college, she told him of her interpretations and whatnot, his response was that he hadn't thought of that before and that it was a good interpretation. This is the author of the book, mind you. Maybe he was being polite, but I don't know.


Sigh.

An interpretation can be a good interpretation without being the intent of the author. The task of literary analysis is not to figure out what the author is thinking. The task is to look at what a text does and how it works, much as the task of Physics is to discover how the universe works, not to figure out what the creator (whichever creator you may or may not believe in) intended.

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Doodle77 » Fri Jul 18, 2008 10:24 pm UTC

ElAleph wrote:BUT!!!
To reverse my direction completely, you should not read something you do not like. It won't do anyone any good. However, keep in mind most of your teachers have been ignorant of most classics. Is there anything remotely stuffy about Whitman, Joyce, O'Brien, Pynchon, Dante, Chaucer, Keats, Coetzee, Rushdie, Borges, Sterne, Stoppard, Wilde, Coleridge, Twain, Plath, Calvino, Fielding and, of course, Shakespeare?
Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, No, No, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes Yes,Yes, Yes, Yes Yes, Sometimes.

jk, I haven't read most of those authors, but I can say at the very least that Whitman, Keats, Wilde and Twain are all stuffy, and Dante isn't.

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Gadren » Fri Jul 18, 2008 10:28 pm UTC

But to what end do we seek these other interpretations of a work? You can't say, of course, that this new interpretation is something that the author advocates. You can use it as a way of citing the text in support of whatever ideas you want it to support -- which makes it meaningless. Certainly there's something to be said for studying out possible other interpretations in order to study how language can be interpreted differently, but if that knowledge isn't used for anything (like improving one's writing such that the reader is confined to the intended meaning), then it's done just to say "isn't that interesting?" and not do anything with it.

It's not the same as physics, because there is a single way the Universe works, and we're working to uncover it. Literary criticism that depends on finding multiple interpretations doesn't seek to find that final, singular concept of the meaning of a text -- it depends on there being no single concept. It establishes meaning in texts as inherently fluid.

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby philippe » Fri Jul 18, 2008 10:36 pm UTC

OK, I think some of the English majors have done a pretty good job at defending their field (whether their arguments have been considered with proper care is of course a different question).. But how come no one fights back? :D

I'm a computer science major and I have read so many papers so completely full of BS.. "Oh no", you will argue, "scientific papers are based on concrete results". Right. Well, the "concrete data" is very often obtained through very disputable measurement methods ("we ignored this competitive tool because it was slightly different on this irrelevant point", "measurements do not include the (insanely long) preprocessing time", etc.), and authors cannot resist making outrageous claims about "the large number of applications" their obscure research has, and how "future work" will solve all the problems anyone could ever face... Now if this is how "hard sciences" that "not anyone can do" work, it's hard for me to see where we're superior :wink:

At least people in the humanities don't claim their views are definitively or provably right :)

(I'm told by some life science PhD friends that Nature and Science for instance are apparently full of papers with debatable methodology and claims, but of course I can't judge.)

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Ferahgo » Fri Jul 18, 2008 10:40 pm UTC

I always love it when XKCD makes fun of English majors. :p

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Pinky's Brain » Fri Jul 18, 2008 11:14 pm UTC

cnoocy wrote:An interpretation can be a good interpretation without being the intent of the author. The task of literary analysis is not to figure out what the author is thinking. The task is to look at what a text does and how it works, much as the task of Physics is to discover how the universe works, not to figure out what the creator (whichever creator you may or may not believe in) intended.

The proof is in the pudding (or in the eating of said pudding for the nit pickers). Has for instance the correlation between the amount/quality of publications on literary criticism and the success of books written for lay folk by their authors ever been researched? Knowing the path is different from walking the path, but it should still help a little.

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby TheGrammarBolshevik » Sat Jul 19, 2008 1:19 am UTC

Gadren wrote:It's not the same as physics, because there is a single way the Universe works, and we're working to uncover it. Literary criticism that depends on finding multiple interpretations doesn't seek to find that final, singular concept of the meaning of a text -- it depends on there being no single concept. It establishes meaning in texts as inherently fluid.


And if we ignore these separate interpretations, will they go away? It would be convenient if there were an easily-discernible "correct" interpretation of a work of literature, but it is not the fault of literary critics if that is not the case.
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whomever1
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby whomever1 » Sat Jul 19, 2008 1:49 am UTC

This discussion reminds me of one of the biggest regrets of my life. I was a grad student in clinical psych working in a state institution for the criminally insane in the South. Residents were either people who had been judged "not guilty by reason of insanity" or "Not competant to stand trial". Anyway, I was assigned to work with one guy who had been recently arrested for sleeping nude on some grade-school campus. He'd been a newspaper proofreader, and much more intelligent than the average schizophrenic I was dealing with. He wrote a several-page paper that he showed my on why the U.S. should create an office of Pater-Guru, and that he should be elected to that position. I so much wish I had made a copy of that--it was deep poetry; No one sentence began and ended in the same reality. I couldn't really read more than a couple of pages before my head buzzed like I had consumed my favorite entheogen.
I can't really say I've read too much literary criticism, but art analysis has some of that same flavor. Dancing on the boundryline between order and chaos is where we should all spend our spare time. I personally think it's more rewarding when the payoff is an increase in one's ability to deal with reality, but that doesn't mean the focus of the experience has to be anchored in everyday reality. A nice Chomskybot fugue, or prank or insane rant, or Tarot reading or mushroom trip or religious experience each have enough theme in them for at least 8 papers and two books.

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Ozone » Sat Jul 19, 2008 2:03 am UTC

For all the math types who contend that the more modern fields of philosophy, deconstructionism and literary criticism are meaningless should read this paper:

http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo/

and tell me what they think then.

(note: I don't have any feelings about this debate, really.)
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Rysto » Sat Jul 19, 2008 2:10 am UTC

akirjazi wrote:Unless Randall himself denies it, I maintain that this comic, in fact, is deriding people that actually believe in what is depicted there.

I can't figure out if this guy is being serious or whether it's actual a very subtle shot at literary criticism.

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Ozone » Sat Jul 19, 2008 2:17 am UTC

akirjazi wrote:Unless Randall himself denies it, I maintain that this comic, in fact, is deriding people that actually believe in what is depicted there.


Unless akirjazi himself (I guess) denies it, I maintain that this post, in fact, is deriding people that actually believe in what is depicted there*
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Sonic# » Sat Jul 19, 2008 2:56 am UTC

Gadren wrote:But to what end do we seek these other interpretations of a work? You can't say, of course, that this new interpretation is something that the author advocates. You can use it as a way of citing the text in support of whatever ideas you want it to support -- which makes it meaningless. Certainly there's something to be said for studying out possible other interpretations in order to study how language can be interpreted differently, but if that knowledge isn't used for anything (like improving one's writing such that the reader is confined to the intended meaning), then it's done just to say "isn't that interesting?" and not do anything with it.

It's not the same as physics, because there is a single way the Universe works, and we're working to uncover it. Literary criticism that depends on finding multiple interpretations doesn't seek to find that final, singular concept of the meaning of a text -- it depends on there being no single concept. It establishes meaning in texts as inherently fluid.


Authorial approval of a certain interpretation is in many cases irrelevant. The easy case is when an author is dead (any book written over 100 years ago), has little primary documentation (Homer), or is anonymous (Beowulf); the interpretation of those works is not made more dubious. Why should the author's opinion matter when they are actually present? We are not fully aware of what we intend when we write or how it may be interpreted, and neither does the author when they write. If xkcd were to post explaining what his comic means, would that have to change all the interpretations that have already occurred? Only if it were better argued (or lacking that, made better sense) than interpretations before it.

So the idea we're dancing around is this: no, a single interpretation of a work of literature doesn't exist, which means that the author's interpretation is only one of many. But that's far from saying, "You can use it as a way of citing the text in support of whatever ideas you want it to support -- which makes it meaningless." It has a range of interpretations, but not every interpretation.

To use something I've written on recently, Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur has tons of material to study (if people here aren't familiar, read the Wikipedia article, or think about popularized Arthurian myth, which often draws from here). There's the process of nation-building and problems of ascension in both Arthur's rise and fall which can be said to resemble The Wars of the Roses. There's the tension between maintaining a worldly chivalry and otherworldly faith and piety in Lancelot, who is made to choose between his love for Gwenyvere and God. There's also tension between chivalry and family ties which eventually rend the round table apart, splitting between the Orkeneys and Launcelot's brethren. There's the tension between Launcelot and Gwenyvere's service to King and country and the steady spring of their extramarital love. There are tensions between marriage and chivalry (Gareth disappears from chivalric renown after he marries, and the two greatest knights, Tristram and Lancelot, both refuse marriage partly because of this). And I haven't even touched the many problems knights have in resolving their quests without feminine assistance, or tons and tons of other things. There are so many facets of study, so many questions that capture either popular preoccupations of the medieval period (chivalry, extramarital love, questing, faith, political struggle) or those of this time (proper behavior, self-definition, extramarital love, faith, political sturggle) that it might appear to be interpretable in every way. Fluidity! Yes! Many ranges of opinions can appear in such study. But fluid cannot easily be made to change its volume. Lancelot doesn't represent the repressed dreams of a mother goddess who acts through him because she is denied to inaction and has penis-envy.

What is the knowledge gained from such study used for? Understanding the ways that ideas in existence today were formed back then help us better understand today's analogues. Understanding yesterday's art is a way to understand what gets produced today. The people who teach composition, writing, and critical reading need to practice at a higher level than their students, just as elementary school math teachers should understand the underpinnings of what they teach. Some critics use their interpretations to demonstrate injustice and consistent patterns of thinking that work their way into literature (feminists, queer theorists, postcolonialists, Marxists, Ayn Rand, and others). This then moves them to political action. Other reasons have already been stated.

To shift gears a bit, I want to ask a question now that I ask out of ignorance. How do we know that the universe, physics-wise, works in a single way? If it's just that it's the simplest assumption that incorporates consistent rules, that's fine.
"Stars, I have seen them fall,
But when they drop and die
No star is lost at all
From all the star-sown sky.
The toil of all that be
Helps not the primal fault;
It rains into the sea
And still the sea is salt."
~A.E. Housman

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby reflion » Sat Jul 19, 2008 3:12 am UTC

See, this is completely hilarious to me--I'm doing summer work for my AP Literature class, and I'm reading the textbook, and the entire thing is talking about how one thing can be a bajillion different things and that he really has no idea.

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby cnoocy » Sat Jul 19, 2008 4:33 am UTC

Sonic# wrote:
Gadren wrote:It's not the same as physics, because there is a single way the Universe works, and we're working to uncover it.


To shift gears a bit, I want to ask a question now that I ask out of ignorance. How do we know that the universe, physics-wise, works in a single way? If it's just that it's the simplest assumption that incorporates consistent rules, that's fine.


We don't. In fact, there is some evidence to the contrary. There are properties of the universe that seem to depend on how they are measured, or, to put it differently, there are multiple interpretations that give correct answers.

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Belial » Sat Jul 19, 2008 4:54 am UTC

Gadren wrote:But to what end do we seek these other interpretations of a work?


I used to hate it when people answered like this, but....

...if you have to even ask that question, I doubt I could explain it to you.
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Oort » Sat Jul 19, 2008 4:56 am UTC

I wouldn't consider wave-particle duality evidence that the universe works in multiple ways, only that humans have limited understanding of the way it works.

As to the question prompting the response, there are two reasons I can think of for this belief. The first is a kind of Occam's razor thinking, in which one set of laws would be simpler/make more sense than two or more. It's also a matter of definitions. If the laws of physics were different in different locations, they wouldn't be laws. Instead there ought to be one set of laws that would at least determine what those other laws would be (if they exist), so everything could be described by a consistent set of laws of physics. Otherwise, how would the universe work at all?

Hopefully that was understandable. Keep in mind, this is my opinion, maybe experts would say otherwise.

Also, I think "interpretations" is the wrong word choice. "Theories" or "hypotheses" would probably fit better. "Inter[retations" has different connotations.

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Re: Books and Cats

Postby Eugo » Sat Jul 19, 2008 5:13 am UTC

larsh wrote:Not to say that we should leave literary criticism alone and not examine it -- far from it. Rather, we should not make the mistake of thinking that dissecting a work -- figuring out what it is made of -- will give us the true picture of what it is. Like the OP said.


Knowing that my feelings are based on chemistry, molecules, ... quantum physics and whatnot, or that the neat game I'm playing has to negotiate a contract with the security protocols on a network, doesn't diminish them in any way. Would I be happier not knowing all that? No, I never subscribed to "ignorance is bliss", and even less to its sibling "those intellectuals can't even make a joke" - nope. Ignorance is bliss only if you're scared of knowledge - find a shrink. If you don't get the joke which takes a hundred books to understand, well, too bad - but don't claim that it's not a good joke. I saw... have caused... cases when two or three people laughed, and I appreciated their laughter even more than the confusion of the rest.

Besides, I don't see deconstruction as dissection; such an image is a cheap shot, appropriate for early XX century (or was it XIX?) mechanicism, application of methods of science straight to humanities, without much concern about the applicability of the method. To me, deconstruction is more about what was left unspoken, what was taken for granted and omitted from the text, than about getting all the springs and sprockets out of the clockwork.

The dilemma that C.S. Lewis posits here is, IMO, false. Any deconstruction thereof available on the web? Link, anyone?
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby RaptorAttack » Sat Jul 19, 2008 5:38 am UTC

Aurora Firestorm wrote:So, a lot of people have popped on complaining that XKCD shouldn't diss the humanities. While this may or may not be true (and being an engineer with humanities friends, I enjoy ribbing them about it all the time), I guess I have to take the side of XKCD here. Don't get me wrong; the humanities are fine. They're fun sometimes. However, there have been many points in my life when I just have to stop and say, "What is it for?"


I think that question can be equally applied to more technical fields. The problem, I think, is that you are in a technical field of some kind or you're doing something involving math and science, so you feel like much of that humanities stuff that you've taken in the past was a waste of time. However, someone who is interested in a humanities-based field will feel like their technical classes were a waste of time.

I enjoy reading literature in general (not an English major though), but I also disliked high school lit. I felt like dissecting the books was somewhat unnecessary and often took away from their enjoyment, and that what makes a book a "classic" might be somewhat subjective and based on traditional placement in curricula.

At the same time though, I was continually asking "what is this for?" in my high school math and physics classes. I doubt I will ever use anything I learned in those classes, so other than helping me to be a more well-rounded person, they really had no use for me. The only kind of math that is used by the majority of people in real life is very basic arithmetic, which is comparable perhaps to basic literacy and being able to read a book. Beyond that, the answer to the question "what is it for?" really depends on what you are interested in and what you will focus on in your future.

I firmly believe that Jill is no worse a human being, no less learned, no less well-rounded than Ann. As someone who went to a very math-science high school to learn math and science, and an engineering college so that I can learn engineering, I don't appreciate the system beating me over the head with humanities.

What is the _reason_ that we should all take humanities classes? Why should we care, if we don't like it to start with? If it's your thing, that's wonderful. Do it. Do what you love. But this doesn't mean the rest of us will like it, should like it, or should be forced to try it. In all seriousness, what universal purpose do they serve?


I personally think that the humanities, in general, help people understand the world as a whole and become more well-rounded and functional in society. Some basic understanding of political science and history helps people understand why democracy is valuable, why authoritarianism is dangerous, how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past as a society, etc. English helps people be literate (surprise!) and perhaps be able to empathize with others and understand the human condition when it comes to literature (that's just a vague interpretation I made up right off the bat here). Sociology is similar... philosophy is more abstract, and I would say it helps people just plain think, always look for the big picture, approach things with a more rational and questioning mindset, etc.

All of these things can be achieved without majoring in the humanities or even taking any liberal arts courses, of course. They're more general and less specialized than technical fields involving math and science, so you don't necessarily need as much specific focus on them. But frankly, I think some basic grounding in the humanities is actually more useful in terms of required college courses than math/science requirements, simply because I'm not sure if people directly benefit from math/science requirements unless they are planning to actually do something technical as a career. The most useful "everyday life" kind of technical class I was required to take was statistics. Even though I've forgotten most of it, it seemed like it would be more widely applicable to everyday life than other kinds of math.

I'm not trying to troll -- it's what I really think. I am no worse a person if I can't criticize a literary piece. (In fact, taking it apart ruins it for me. It turns reading, which is fun, into a chore.) Math is pretty necessary, at least arithmetic. You should know how to calculate a tip on the fly, just because it's useful and applicable and very few people have a calculator at all times. But lit? What does lit really do? I know how to read, and that's all that counts, right?


Again, I think you're kind of applying some decent points to only one side here. Yes, you don't need to know how to criticize a literary piece, and you're no worse a person, but that doesn't make the field useless (although I'll admit I'm probably a lot more skeptical of literary criticism than most humanities fields). It depends on your interests. Besides basic arithmetic (which most people learn fairly early in life), math is about as necessary to the majority of people as literary criticism is.

If you like humanities, take the classes. If you don't, I think that schools shouldn't treat that like a bad thing. Let people do what they like. They'll enjoy it more if they chose to try it themselves, instead of have to suffer through it. (I took a philosophy class once. It taught me that I was right -- I hate the stuff and never want to see it again.)


See, at least where I went to college, math / chemistry / biology were also required, although liberal arts majors could take pretty dumbed down versions. It's a matter of what you don't want to suffer through, I guess.

Oh, I was a political science and philosophy major (I actually didn't really know what I wanted to do and chose those for lack of a better idea; in retrospect I kind of wish I had done something related to computers since I've recently started to become interested in them). I do think philosophy is useful in an abstract way, to change how you think about things, but I often found it hugely irritating and impractical as well. Thank God it's a money magnet though! :)

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby william » Sat Jul 19, 2008 6:32 am UTC

ATCG wrote:The Sokal hoax is the classic example of passing off random noise for profundity. It's easy to gloat over the gullibility of social scientists, but even hard scientists aren't immune to falling for nonsense.

That last bit on Bogdanov is bullshit. The actual scientists smelled it from a mile away. Even the string theorists.
akirjazi wrote:Unless Randall himself denies it, I maintain that this comic, in fact, is deriding people that actually believe in what is depicted there.

Randall doesn't need to play a joke on the field. That joke was already played by Derrida.

Personally, I do see the value in some literary criticism, but Derrida is proof that bullshit can lead a long and full life there.

However, for equal time, I'm gonna say that most engineering is based off of kiddy math and if I had recieved a good engineering book on my 12th birthday I could know it better than most engineers by my 13th. So there.
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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby Carnildo » Sat Jul 19, 2008 8:43 am UTC

Pinky's Brain wrote:
cnoocy wrote:An interpretation can be a good interpretation without being the intent of the author. The task of literary analysis is not to figure out what the author is thinking. The task is to look at what a text does and how it works, much as the task of Physics is to discover how the universe works, not to figure out what the creator (whichever creator you may or may not believe in) intended.

The proof is in the pudding (or in the eating of said pudding for the nit pickers). Has for instance the correlation between the amount/quality of publications on literary criticism and the success of books written for lay folk by their authors ever been researched? Knowing the path is different from walking the path, but it should still help a little.


Writing falls into two major groups: writing as storytelling, and writing as art. Literary criticism and university English departments are part of writing as art, while "books for lay folk" are usually part of writing as storytelling. Much of the dislike of "academic writing" comes from applying the techniques of one group to the other group: reading a "writing as art" book as if it were a story leads to the conclusion that the author is a stuffy bore, while applying the techniques of literary criticism to a "writing as storytelling" book destroys any entertainment value the book has.

High-school English usually makes both mistakes at the same time, causing people to hate reading.

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Re: "Impostor" Discussion

Postby greenblob » Sat Jul 19, 2008 8:52 am UTC

syckls wrote:
aeiss wrote:You can find many many things from anything.
For example, that candle. It symbolizes passion. That table. Stability.

woo .


Of course an untrained commoner such as yourself would "find" such mundane explanations. The candle on the table is an obvious symbol of the abusive but fleeting power of man over woman.

Joking aside, this is a well deserved smackdown of what I have always thought to be pure apophenia.

My favorite one: Sometimes a candle is just a candle.
Cue astonishment from the teacher/professor.

But then when Einstein published his first paper on special relativity, people thought he was BSing.


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