The other book that I got at the bookstore in the art deco theater is The Soul of an Octopus. I bought it because I'd read author Sy Montgomery's "Deep Intellect" at some point. It's truly a phenomenal piece. It contains sentences like "Athena [an octopus] rises up from her lair like steam from a pot." There's a really lovely scene in which Montgomery feeds an octopus -- rich with details and what could only be described as sensuality. The tale has a surprising ending, but the question it spawns -- in this case: "What is it like to be an octopus?" -- is what launches the rest of the book. This is what's known as the inciting incident. The story is the answer.
Filtering by Tag: SCIENCE
I don't care much for most science writing. I can be stiff, unwieldy, heavy, dead. Oftentimes, it looks more backwards than forwards, or it looks so far forwards so as to leave the reader unmoored, or it's so preoccupied with some micro-entity that the bigger picture is lost. But when you find yourself in a bookstore -- a Barnes & Noble, no less -- that's housed in a 1930s Art Deco theater in the San Fernando Valley, what are you going to do ... not buy something? I bought a copy of The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2017 and a copy of Sy Montgomery's The Soul of An Octopus. I didn't have high hopes; the anthology was edited by Hope Jahren, whose science memoir Lab Girl I deeply disliked. Jahren exhibits the problem most scientists-as-writers have; they can analyze, but they cannot express. I figured if I liked one piece in the collection, that would suffice. As it turned out, I liked two: one that I'd read previously and one that I hadn't. If you haven't read Elizabeth Kolbert's "Greenland Is Melting," do. (In the anthology, it's entitled "A Song of Ice.") It's the kind of science writing I like: person goes off on adventure to discover something astonishing, told in a somewhat outsider way, with a bit of head shaking disconcert at the great unknowability of the world. The one I hadn't read previously that I liked was David Epstein's "The DIY Scientist, the Olympian, and the Mutated Gene." Everything in the story is as it shouldn't be: the scientist isn't a scientist, the story itself arises from happenstance, and the scientific advance far out sprints its convoluted, humble start. So much science writing seems like snobbery, like an exercise in exclusion, like an homage to the superiority of the author. But the good ones, it seems to me, are probably what people tell you science writing shouldn't be: subjective, inexplicable, magical. They make it less esoteric, more human.
Yesterday, a Twitter account called New Real Peer Review tweeted a thread about a research article entitled "On Sex in Fieldwork: Notes on the Methodology Involved in the Ethnographic Study of Anonymous Sex." The research had been conducted by Jose Antonio Langarita Adiego, who is a Doctor en Antropologia Social per la Universitat de Barcelona.
Simply put, Adiego had sex with his research subjects.
As the article's abstract states:
"This article addresses the use of sexual relations with research informants in fieldwork for the purpose of gathering information. The analysis is based on the research that the author himself carried out between 2009 and 2014 on anonymous sexual encounters between men in public places in Catalonia. The article aims to demonstrate that sexual interaction with informants – notwithstanding appeals to scientific objectivity and professional ethics – can be a useful tool for gaining a better understanding of social reality. This study on anonymous sex shows that participating in sexual activity can provide the researcher with a great deal of information which would not be accessible via other relationships with research informants. However, the article also addresses certain limitations – which cannot be ignored – in fieldwork of this sort and in the interpretation of the data obtained."
In other words, Adiego takes the concept of scientific objectivity and explodes it.
On Twitter, New Real Peer Review tweeted a series of screen grabs from the original article (which is available for purchase), highlighting sections and lampooning Adiego's argument.
Indeed Adiego's postulations regarding his having sex with those whom he was researching are as hyperbolic as most academese: "We could resolve the problem by accepting the Foucauldian proposal that sees sex as a social construct," "the practice of anonymous sex is simply one more form of culturally mediated sexual interaction," "Why do anthropologists not experience sex with the groups they are studying?"
Lacking for provocative positioning, Adiego's approach is not.
Shifting to a more intimate analysis, he investigates his own body politic. In the midst of his investigations, he notes: "I could see how the social meanings of cock were constructed in a way that was different with respect to ass." It is only by putting his cock, presumably his balls, and his ass on the front line of his immersive work that he can experience the ways in which this culture works.
His body is "a key factor in understanding"; physical and emotional distance is not only too far from the action but a position of utter blindness: "[being] a spectator was not enough, especially as it was often too dark to see anything." His "bodily experience [...] becomes a source of knowledge in itself which contributes to the ethnographic production." In his conclusion, he asserts: "Sex is a key contributor to the regulation of our culture fabric; we should therefore be able to incorporate sex into fieldwork -- as a technique that helps to maintain a particular mode of relationship between the researcher and the object of study -- without thereby sacrificing objectivity or professional ethics."
This is a true embed, in every sense of the word.
New Real Peer Review doesn't seem to think much of this new, eroticized form of ethnographic study. "Let's make cruising scientific now," one tweet sneers. "Seems legit, bro." Later: "Can't make this shit up."
But is Adeigo's suggestion so absurd, after all? Or is it symbolically and practically intuitively brilliant? If one simply considered this methodology as if it were a thought experiment, what can we learn? To tear out one's hair that this sexualized approach causes a cataclysmic breakdown between researcher and subject is to perpetuate the fantasy that objectivity exists at all between the scientist and that which he studies.
Surely, any scientist -- or any investigator, for that matter -- brings to bear a constellation of biases, presumptions, and agendas. How could he not? He is human. The idea that it is sex, of all things, that betrays the scientific code is possibly a pure fallacy, when, in fact, the reverse may well be true. How can we know something if we know it only in the mind, and not the body?
(Thanks to Lawyer Dog for pointing out the thread.)
The New York Times has an interesting profile of the CEO of HIV.
"To his many critics in AIDS activism, Weinstein is the Koch brothers of public health: a mastermind driven by ideology, accountable to no one, with bottomless funds and an agenda marked by financial opportunism and puritanical extremes. It doesn’t help that A.H.F. has been the subject of near-constant litigation and complaints for questionable business practices, including union-busting, giving kickbacks to patients, overbilling government insurers and bullying funders into denying grants to institutional rivals. (A.H.F. has denied these accusations.)"
There's a really amazing story in the New Yorker about how Albert Woodfox survived solitary confinement:
"Woodfox often woke up gasping. He felt that the walls of the cell were squeezing him to death, a sensation that he began to experience the day after his mother’s funeral, in 1994. He had planned to go to the burial—prisoners at Angola are permitted to attend the funerals of immediate family—but at the last minute his request was denied. For three years, he slept sitting up, because he felt less panicked when he was vertical. 'It takes so much out of you just to try to make these walls, you know, go back to the normal place they belong,' he told a psychologist. 'Someday I’m not going to be able to deal with it. I’m not going to be able to pull those walls apart.'" --
Relatedly, if you haven't read Shane Bauer's expose of life as a prison guard, do.
Sickness is grammar. The needle inserted, one may adopt the position of a comma (curled on chair, legs as tail, head as dot). Over time, one may reconfigure as a question mark (spine curved, head tucked, question unanswered). If prognosis proves dire, one may assume the exclamation point (rigor mortis body, death the full stop point). Semicolons are loved ones (disjointed reactions, blind third eyes, space between items mirroring fractured relationships). See also: ampersands (problematic reworkings of memory post-separation form Gordian knots).
Time: 15 minutes
Word count: 82
After the virus, we nailed the doors shut and waited. Once, we pulled aside the wool blankets we'd hung over the windows, and across the street, they were breaking down the Havvington's door. Eventually, the TV stopped working, and the internet went dead, leaving us with no idea as to what was happening, other than what we could imagine in our heads. We retreated to the basement and played games that involved counting and recounting rations. Sometimes, late at night, the dog growled at shapes moving past like shades, and we petted him until he stopped.
Time: 15 minutes
Word count: 96
Meghan Daum has an interesting piece in the New York Times: "I Nearly Died. So What?" Several years ago, she ended up in the hospital and, as the title states, nearly died. The piece focuses on what comes after she nearly died, particularly the expectation of what comes after. Generally, the narrative that a survivor is supposed to tell is fraught with lies and bullshit. I became a better person. I live in the present moment. I never take anything for granted. Of course, none of that is true; at best, you let yourself believe that it is. In theory, the sickness makes the bad thing that happened worth it, as if happiness and self-betterment are the only acceptable profits one may earn from struggling with the body's strong tendency to almost off itself. Daum's piece echoed my experiences post-breast cancer. In a few days, it will be three years since I was diagnosed. After a year and a half of treatment, I was cancer-free and not particularly a better person. And, oh, what a failure this is considered to be! I do not live in the present moment. I take things for granted daily. I am no more or less kind, patient, or generous. Something terrible happened, and then -- not because of my will or some miracle but due to science -- I got better. No one even really understands why, and no one can say for sure if the no-cancer status will stick. In the end, something will get me; there is no happy ending in life, only death. Still, online, women who have survived breast cancer prattle on endlessly about how improved they are, about how wonderful their lives are now, about how today is the only thing that matters. As if cancer is some thoughtful neighbor who brought by homemade cookies. It reminds me of the profiles I used to see before I got married when I perused online dating sites. Most of the men claimed to be "living life to the fullest." In their photos, they held up dead fish they'd caught. In their profiles, they referenced failed marriages and boring jobs. No one, it seemed, was living life to the fullest. How could they? It would probably kill them.
A visit to Thomas Edison's estate in Fort Myers, Florida, the lab in particular, is of interest to the average writer. The lab is chockablock with things: test tubes, a darkroom, straps and wheels, desks and work spaces, burners and corks. Looking at the orderly mess of it, the writer is jealous. Here, the inventor makes manifest what only exists in the writer's mind. This is a place that says, I am working. It indicates, Serious things are happening here. It reminds, This is mine and not yours. The writer's lab resides within, and so, invisible to others, its boundaries are crossed, its time squandered, its experiments foiled. Oh, but to have an Edison lab in the head.
CJR has an interesting piece on journalism-acquired PTSD and the reasons behind it:
"Earlier studies of reporters in war zones have suggested already that journalists are at higher risk for stress symptoms than other conflict-adjacent workers such as safety officers or medical technicians. Unlike other first responders, Idas points out, journalists 'are not there to help anyone,' a circumstance that 'runs against ethical and moral norms as a human being.' It’s a similar concept to the growing study of 'moral injury' in the military, where soldiers seem to experience stress symptoms when ordered to partake in actions that run contrary to their own personal moral code."
"'Sex is coveted by men,' she said. 'Accordingly, women limit access as a way of maintaining advantage in the negotiation of this resource. Women who make sex too readily available compromise the power-holding position of the group, which is why many women are particularly intolerant of women who are, or seem to be, promiscuous.'"
Dr. Jason Winters, a professor at the University of British Columbia, teaches the very popular, sex-focused PSYCH 350: "The Psychological Aspects of Human Sexuality."
His past research includes a "'boner-measuring' phase," during which "[I measured] sex response in sex offenders."
How much does sex have to do with politics? A lot, apparently. According to a longitudinal study of men begun with a group of 268 Harvard undergrads in 1938, the aging liberal male has a great deal more sex than the aging conservative male.
"With regards to income, there was no noticeable difference in maximum income earned by men with IQs in the 110-115 range vs. men with IQs above 150. With regards to sex lives, one of the most fascinating discoveries is that aging liberals have way more sex. Political ideology had no bearing on overall life satisfaction, but the most conservative men on average shut down their sex lives around age 68, while the most liberal men had healthy sex lives well into their 80s. Vaillant writes, 'I have consulted urologists about this, they have no idea why it might be so.'"
"What is different about this new slug, an unknown species in the genus Siphopteron, is that it injects the fluid, which researchers believe is rich in hormones, into the forehead of the other slug."