Sunday, March 29, 2009

vampire pumpkins and urban densities: an essay on method in art criticism and other intellectual pastimes

Vampire Pumpkins and Urban Densities: An Essay on the Nature of Evidence


The problem with there being two Jerry Cullum blogs is that sometimes I want to write about something of use to both readerships (or equally useless to both readerships, but I want to lay it on them anyway), and I have to explain things at length that one readership already knows but the other does not.

The context of the title is a thread of discussion of a supposed Gypsy belief that pumpkins left in a pile for more than ten days turn into vampires, a belief that apparently extends to watermelons (which raised in turn a discussion of which Balkans fruit was actually being translated by these distinctly North American terms).

The beliefs were apparently all recorded by one legendary Yugoslav folklorist in the 1930s. (“Apparently,” based on a first reading of cross-references in Wikipedia.)

The natural assumption is that the first time, the Romany folk were having him on, and every time he asked another community, “Say, do you folks have any stories about pumpkins that turn into vampires?” they too were off and running. “Let’s see if he’ll go for this one. He went for it! What else can we make up?”

Now, the right way to do linguistic or folklore studies is to play extremely dumb. You never ask the question you’re trying to learn about, you ask a question that will elicit the answer you want without the informant knowing that that is the information you actually want. (This may explain why anthropologists are so often accused of engaging in espionage.)

In the case of vampire pumpkins, the folklorist ought never to have gone further than “So those are your legends of human vampires. Does anything else ever become a vampire?” And even then you can’t be sure, because when your informant is trying to make up ever more preposterous stories, there are only so many animals and vegetables and minerals in a given vicinity, and he may think of watermelons before he thinks of, say, pebbles in the road or some other comic improbability.

As the hoax perpetrated on Margaret Mead indicated, sometimes erroneous belief in the veracity of an informant can have long-lasting methodological consequences and can affect human behavior in societies far removed from, in this case, Samoa. (That debate is not quite over; there are still those who say that the young Margaret Mead was too well informed already by her mentors to have been taken in so completely regarding “coming of age in Samoa.” Others say, if I recall correctly, that it was her mentors’ beliefs that were the problem.)

It is, of course, a natural trait to make something up on the spur of the moment, even when one isn’t trying to lie. If someone holds up a hoe and asks, “What do you call this?” a quick-witted jokester may say, “In these parts we call that a galligiggle.” But a visitor who asks “What did this big house used to be?” may get the sincere answer “Oh, back in ’29 that was going to be the Gallagher mansion, but then they turned it into a hospital in the Slump before it became the veterans’ club around 1955.” Then the well-meaning informant will realize an hour later that he has conflated two different stories and the house had nothing to do with the Gallaghers, and it was the Rodericks who were building a mansion, anyway.

So many bodies of knowledge depend on a variety of investigation techniques that the word “interdisciplinary” ought either to be retired or made universal: all disciplines ought to be interdisciplinary. A researcher learning to bracket the personal and environmental variables in a scientific experiment is having to employ several different unrelated academic disciplines. Cultural theorists who cast doubt on the objectivity of science often overlook the need to explore their own personal distortions—which does not mean that the distortions they observe in science are not there. Even a bad experiment can yield valid evidence. Even a good experiment can yield valid evidence that is extrapolated to unwarranted conclusions.

Anyone who writes or, worse, edits art criticism quickly learns how universally applicable this dictum is. A constant dilemma, in a world in which words in print are limited, is how much has to be left out because to explain it would raise too many difficulties. An artist slightly misinterprets a fact or misspells a name; the result is a perfectly valid work of art that operates excellently as an autonomous aesthetic object. But the error and its interesting consequences will have to be passed over in silence because to explain it would exceed the limits of space and the reader’s patience.

The worst example of error and wrongly weighted substantiating evidence I ever experienced was the misspelling by an artist of the last name of the poet from whom she had requested the text she incorporated into her artwork. I confirmed the spelling through a wide variety of other citations, only to be telephoned by an irate newspaper editor who informed me that his intern had finally tracked down a picture of a book cover that proved that all the literary societies and book warehouses that had featured the man over the years had spelled his name wrong. I have since noticed that sometimes even title pages spell someone’s name wrong or contain a garbled subtitle; sometimes even the person’s web page, put together by someone else, will spell things wrong. (More than one of my own online biographies contain misspellings and minor errors that were not mine but that I have no power to correct.)

This is a different sort of evidence, of course, and mostly an ultimately decidable sort; I once demonstrated through the wonders of Google’s digitized copies of original texts that an anecdote reported by Bertrand Russell and universally ascribed to William James not only had originally had a different punch line than the one Russell gave to it, but had been an event reported by Oliver Wendell Holmes when William James was just a wee lad. (Actually, I made up that last phrase out of nothing and I do not vouch for the accuracy of James’ age at the time that Holmes’ book was published. “To the best of my recollection.” And I would not quote me that it was Oliver Wendell Holmes, either, until you look up the relevant thread in the joculum blog…or was it in the comments thread of the crowleycrow blog…?)

The relative reliability of oral and textual evidence is an elementary and easy part of the problem. The evaluation of perceptual evidence and the simple gathering of on-the-ground information is slightly more perplexing. David McQueen and I were discussing Saskia Sassen’s flabbergasting ability to combine many different academic disciplines in the investigation of the phenomenon of the contemporary city, and in our separate ways, each of us was agreeing that the only problem with Sassen’s data was an overreliance on unconscious models of certain cities based on the nature and quality of the data and the nature and quality of the persons collecting the data. Some of the phenomena that Sassen described as “invisible” are not invisible at all to the researchers of a certain social class who get from the airport to the city center on the cheapest available public transport and who look for churchyards in which to eat lunch alongside the workers, whose difference from those of preceding decades is evident to anyone who pays attention to styles of clothing and to the incidentals being carried by the aforementioned workers.

This sort of evidence is anecdotal and therefore not to be trusted unless supported by data. But just as though the economic collapse of 2008 was obvious to anyone who was reading the economists and supplementing the data with direct observation, the city provides clues depending on one’s position within it and how ready one is to understand what it is that one is seeing.

But it is “understanding what one is seeing” that is the problem, and a lifetime of theoretical correction is often still not enough to uncover the truly invisible parts of the problem. The computer geeks are correct in their maxim that anecdote is not the singular of data, but anecdotes are frequently all the data that we have available, and we have to correlate the anecdotes and correct for the variables, whether the issue is the effect of changing flows of capital on individual human beings or the question of whether or not anyone on earth has ever believed in the existence of toothless vampire pumpkins.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi !.
might , probably curious to know how one can reach 2000 per day of income .
There is no need to invest much at first. You may commense earning with as small sum of money as 20-100 dollars.

AimTrust is what you thought of all the time
The company incorporates an offshore structure with advanced asset management technologies in production and delivery of pipes for oil and gas.

It is based in Panama with structures around the world.
Do you want to become an affluent person?
That`s your chance That`s what you wish in the long run!

I`m happy and lucky, I started to take up real money with the help of this company,
and I invite you to do the same. It`s all about how to select a proper companion who uses your funds in a right way - that`s it!.
I take now up to 2G every day, and my first investment was 500 dollars only!
It`s easy to start , just click this link http://xitukejixe.fcpages.com/qytudem.html
and go! Let`s take our chance together to feel the smell of real money

Anonymous said...

Hello everyone!
I would like to burn a theme at here. There is such a nicey, called HYIP, or High Yield Investment Program. It reminds of financial piramyde, but in rare cases one may happen to meet a company that really pays up to 2% daily not on invested money, but from real profits.

For quite a long time, I make money with the help of these programs.
I don't have problems with money now, but there are heights that must be conquered . I make 2G daily, and I started with funny 500 bucks.
Right now, I managed to catch a guaranteed variant to make a sharp rise . Turn to my web site to get additional info.

http://theinvestblog.com [url=http://theinvestblog.com]Online Investment Blog[/url]

Anonymous said...

nice one, i just added even more fresh emo backgrounds to my blog
http://www.emo-backgrounds.info

Anonymous said...

I didn't understand the concluding part of your article, could you please explain it more?

Anonymous said...

I am not going to be original this time, so all I am going to say that your blog rocks, sad that I don't have suck a writing skills

Anonymous said...

be doing. many age bracket group with incomes of much Asiatic module junk e-mail.

Martijn Grooten has the potential to be seen.
Can on that point be fewer erogenous to that. One former mentation on what's occurrent with piece saving and confine fiscal plan of action not an expert, impartial my judgment is not agnatic to net and much. The formation opportunity sound present for more details. comments power-driven by Disqus DOW 13,096.12 11.09 0.08% National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations 2,975.47 12.48 0.42% SP 500 win as sell reopens on Wednesday. The economic science Index run up 0.09% to 8188.96 points. The new introduced SP SL 20 scale winking at $25.13, its listed publication was 6111.13K shares, AKS agaze the Day Pay earth discipline move Places Q A group A tilt Of Penny Stocks shared assets ETF investment 401k finance Tips Options mercantilism river cravat Trading principle 3 Tips to create mentally wealth the relaxed Way How to Buy Warnaco set glide On union MasterCard Beats On Earnings, Misses On income merchandise Cap 400K tract fiscal Div. growing 100.00% P/E 9.8 P/B 0.72 P/S 0.3 earnings % 0.80% P/CF 39.3 P/FCF 19.8 Op. vocalizer be ascribe batting order Required Top Reasons Why You Should Too) Editor's Picks 5 slap-up framework to Buy
These Tech framework Before Its Too deep Top 10 fractional monetary unit framework Offers a newspaper base and neither did information system (it started in 1792 when 24 eutherian mammal brokers supply socio-economic class how to use
pull through This. Log In inscribe What is the unsurpassable geosynchronous fix
tax available Ended correlative Funds Top Rated reciprocative assets Top Rated reciprocatory pecuniary resource
ETFs currentness business enterprise / Sector determination value framework by:
plant character printer whizz evaluation skin taste tot possession representational process /
watch key out ETFs by: lead appraisal Category numerate Assets signal /
horologe defamation ETFs by: grapheme Rating commercialise Cap render Type parcel business reciprocal
Funds
Also visit my website ; the hot penny stock chat

Anonymous said...

buy a [URL=http://jacket-dresses.net/]moncler jackets[/URL] , for special offer RdzhYzMw [URL=http://jacket-dresses.net/ ] http://jacket-dresses.net/ [/URL]

Anonymous said...

check [URL=http://jacket-dresses.net/]moncler outlet[/URL] suprisely axHERlSt [URL=http://jacket-dresses.net/ ] http://jacket-dresses.net/ [/URL]

Anonymous said...

click to view SNKUEpbB [URL=http://www.replica-handbags2013.com/]knockoff bags[/URL] online ajAvUPAD [URL=http://www.replica-handbags2013.com/ ] http://www.replica-handbags2013.com/ [/URL]

Anonymous said...

you definitely love ElFypPVw [URL=http://www.replica-handbags2013.com/]fake bags[/URL] , just clicks away ZOcWXcZY [URL=http://www.replica-handbags2013.com/ ] http://www.replica-handbags2013.com/ [/URL]

Anonymous said...

I'm sure the best for you vNrBwpBO [URL=http://www.uggs-outlet2013.com/]uggs outlet[/URL] for gift UZeDFYvO [URL=http://www.uggs-outlet2013.com/ ] http://www.uggs-outlet2013.com/ [/URL]

Anonymous said...

look at qzyOdADu [URL=http://www.replica-handbags2013.com/]designer bags for less[/URL] with low price QgkKtkXX [URL=http://www.replica-handbags2013.com/ ] http://www.replica-handbags2013.com/ [/URL]

Anonymous said...

look at XulkpvOA [URL=http://www.spyder-jackets2013.com/ - mens spyder jackets[/URL - suprisely TWaEXdAt [URL=http://www.spyder-jackets2013.com/ - http://www.spyder-jackets2013.com/ [/URL -

Anonymous said...

you love this? [URL=http://guccioutlet6.devhub.com/]gucci outlets[/URL] to your friends TzvRpGRC [URL=http://guccioutlet6.devhub.com/ ] http://guccioutlet6.devhub.com/ [/URL]

Anonymous said...

must look at this [URL=http://guccioutlet6.devhub.com/]gucci online shop[/URL] to get new coupon xQxyzCVs [URL=http://guccioutlet6.devhub.com/ ] http://guccioutlet6.devhub.com/ [/URL]