Epistemic status: I only write to hear myself talk; please read in a tone of bafflement and not condescension.
I’m gearing up to read Whistling in the Dark, a collection of 21 interviews with Indian men in various homosexual and homosexual-adjacent behaviour patterns collected by R. Raj Yao and Dibyajyoti Sharma. Here are some things its first bit reminded me of that it’s easy to forget going to an upper-class university with a rainbow-painted crosswalk (and not even the slick six-color, I’m talking the original Baker Eight, magenta sex included, you better believe).
A. Shit is really bad for some of us out there and no matter how life-and-death Internet baby fights feel sometimes, we Westerners owe at least, at least to our faraway sibs the respect of giving a thought to their stories sometimes, and that doesn’t mean using them as a rhetorical tool to bash other WEIRD Internet gays, and yes I recognize that I’m sounding real smug for a person who just read three chapters of one book, but it’s much more a reminder to myself (drowned recently in the old Discourse Spiral) than a subtweet at anyone else in particular.
B. Queer is the map, not the territory. Lesbian is the map, bisexual is the map, trans is the map. Are we still conducting ourselves like we’ve uncovered some secret truth present in all the world and named and defined only by us and taxonomied like plant life? I’m asking, does it make any more sense to call hijra “Indian trans women” than to call trans women “Western hijra?” I feel like there’s this sense that there are “cultural genders and sexualities” and then there’s, you know, the scientifically proven LGBT rights which we need to Educate everyone about. Or maybe this is just something I filtered myself because it’s not like I’m in any position of enlightenment, I just thought of this like two weeks ago. I’m just saying we’re still out here beating each other up over fuzzy sets with definitions we invented ourselves. I’m just thinking even the most expansive term we have, “queer,” like, queer is also a cultural sexual orientation. Where is our shared territory? Gender dysphoria and crossdressing and same-sex sexual/romantic behaviour? Or is that list itself influenced by what seems queer to me?
Man I don’t know I’m asking you.
Here’s the R. Raj Rao list of who’s represented in the interviews: gay, bi, MSM, hijra, koti. MSM is what gets to the heart of what I mean I think. Even when it comes to rural Westerners, there’s men who have sex with men but would never consider themselves gay or bi. Are we really going to be out here enthusiastically telling them that their definition of gay is wrong and they’re wrong about their sex identities? That they’re gay whether they like it or not? Guys! We made it up! Just like we made up everything in our hoarder’s closet of a semantic collection of concepts loosely linked by association! Just like everyone did!
I have been managing to get some reading done in the last month or so and to build up a record for myself of having actually finished things, I’m dumping some rambling thoughts on Adam Cohen’s book Imbecileshere. Warning: This post talks a lot about eugenics based on IQ.
This book is very very very effective at getting you to mistrust authority if, like me, you tend to put your faith in edifices that are supposed to trend toward justice. I hadn’t heard of a lot of the Supreme Court cases that Cohen brings up where the Court made a straight-up evil decision, and I guess I should have, but we hear a lot about cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia (evidence–these were the only two Supreme Court cases I could name off the top of my head) and less about say Lum v. Rice, 30 years prior to Brown v. Board, which the Court ruled that it was totally fine to disallow a Chinese girl from going to high school with whites, which is itself a fascinating and horrifying case in terms of horizontal relations between people of colour in early-20th-c America because apparently the defense was essentially “Okay, but she’s not Black, so what’s your problem?”
I also gather from talking to others about this book that other people had a better sense of the scale of eugenics around this time period, but I definitely was not aware that, for instance, Harvard and Stanford taught classes on eugenics, or that for a time eugenics was scientific consensus even though it seemed like the science was really really fudged. Eventually truth won out and other scientists started interrogating data more carefully, but the bad science was sufficient to convince a generation of lawmakers that America was being dragged down by “feebleminded” individuals reproducing at a disproportionate rate, even when it seems so clear in retrospect that a) it makes no sense that should have suddenly started happening in 1920 to lead to the apocalypse that the proponents envisioned and b) something is wrong with your test if you can judge as huge a population of the States as they did “feebleminded” when nobody had ever, like, noticed before that apparently a third of the population or something had the mental age of a 9-year-old. You’d think we would have noticed.
I’m a person who tends to trust in scientific consensus where I can find it, and this really concerned me! I don’t know how early the rumbles of “this is bad science though?” started coming from people who understood genetics, but Cohen writes as though there was a period of about a decade where the foremost people in the relevant discipline all thought this super unethical thing was totally necessary for the greater good. And as consequentialists we have to sort of trust in what experts tell us will be the consequences, sometimes; when it comes to large-scale decisions it’s impossible for each of us to individually make the choice that will lead to the best consequence without the input of people who have intimate knowledge of what the different options entail. But the experts can be wrong, too, especially the “experts” who write extremely popular books and prosecute court cases.
And there’s a maddening, farcical, pathetic story near the centre of this case–the prosecutor, Audrey Strode, who Cohen describes as the most infuriatingly Lawful Neutral person in the whole mess. Basically, this guy drafted the legislation to permit doctors to sterilize the “unfit”, at the request of the doctor (Priddy) who wanted this to be allowed in Virginia. But it’s really, really bad legislation, in ways that he absolutely knew would break the law if somebody really wanted it to be broken. Cohen argues that he was essentially building the exhaust port into the Death Star. Cohen thinks he didn’t really believe in eugenics. And then he prosecuted the case, because Priddy asked him to. And then they went to the Supreme Court. And then they legalized eugenics in Virginia. And then they forcibly sterilized hundreds of women. It’s just really stunning to think that somebody might have started out the case thinking “I’ll break this from the inside” or even “there’s no way this will get too far,” and ended up being a part of something so terrible, and never really dared to take a stand and divorce himself from it, maybe because It Was His Job, or he liked the doctor, or he wanted to argue in front of the Supreme Court.
What I took away from this book is that allowing yourself to believe things that don’t make sense because they suit your sense of what should be right can be really, really dangerous. Something to remember when I’m tempted to keep defending something that sounds good and right which I think in my heart may not be true, which has happened more than I am proud to admit as I poke my head outside the ethics cyberbubble I was in in my teens. I feel like if everyone in this case had looked really hard at their evidence they would have been unable to avoid seeing that it was straight-up-and-down false. The central quote of the case–“Three generations of imbeciles is enough,” from the decision in this case written by the unbelievably Lawful Evil judge Oliver Wendell Holmes–is literally based on a lie, because the “third generation” he’s talking about was like a six-month-old baby and their evidence for her being an “imbecile” was a nurse saying she seemed, like, oh, I don’t know, somehow lethargic. That’s pretty goddamn scary.
A while back I was kindly tagged in a tumblr post where somebody was saying that they found my babbling about conlanging interesting. (Thanks, person! I’m really sorry I’m about to make an example of one of your opinions.) In that same post, on a different conversation topic, they mentioned that they found it really annoying when people in historical fantasy said “Okay” because it was anachronistic.
This is a hard pill to swallow for me, I said as I defensively covered all the times in my first draft that “Okay” appears because I didn’t think about it much and wrote the first thing that came into my head. To start off, language is not constructed such that you can easily tell what words are actually anachronistic. Some people are devoted enough to get serious about anachronism in their prose–Mary Robinette Kowal said on Writing Excuses one time back in the day that she has a database of Regency-era words and in her later drafts she coldly eliminates all anachronistic language based on earliest etymological attestations like some kind of “okay” executioner. But many people who will complain about “okay” are probably not that serious! They may well have used words such as “mesmerize,” “magnolia,” and “masochism,” which are not only first attested well after 1700, but are based on the names of specific human beings; your conworld may have foxes as we’ve all accepted that we have to take some shortcuts, but I doubt it had the author of Venus in Furs.
And more importantly to this post, Kowal is writing about English. Kowal has a specific year in which the novel takes place. I am not writing about English! I am writing about Sobonese. “Okay” is exactly as anachronistic to Sobonese as “satire”, “palm tree,” and “the.” None of these words exist in the novel! English doesn’t exist! There is no “corresponding year” to compare etymologies against to even begin to lead words to the guillotine. I guess we can try to compare technology levels, but that gets so hopelessly granular and painful so quickly. Carts never really came to West Africa, even though they had some animals that could pull carts, and the wheel, and trading empires, but there’s carts in my novel right now because otherwise everything would be too bloody inconvenient. (Upcoming: An agonized post about whether my book should have carts?) So do I cut from the fourteenth or fifteenth century?
I don’t want to take away “mesmerize,” “magnolia,” or “masochism,” or indeed “okay.” That’s my point! Words are the keys to very, very specific locks. I am willing to put a flag in the ground that says there is nothing in the English language you could write to replace, in one word, the sweet-scented, milk-petaled, silky-smooth luxury and decadence of “magnolia.” “Magnolia” is a beautiful word and you should be allowed to use it. Words are technologies; they didn’t have camera dollies in ancient Scandanavia but nobody’s suggested Vikings should be told entirely through roving storytellers in stripey pants.
I mean, the actual reason is that for some people “okay” just ruins the atmosphere, and I take atmosphere very seriously; if you can pick every word, you may as well pick words that motion at things you want the viewer to look at. Which is why even though there’s no Polynesia to bring yams from, Akoro (the West African – inspired plane in Geometry of Ashes) has yams. I could make up a convegetable for them to have instead, but that throws away the valuable sentence real estate that could have pointed to West Africa to point instead to I’m really into ecology and have made up a whole vegetable ecosystem. That could also be cool, but it’s not this book. I think this is worth thinking about, because you get to pick whether you value what each “okay” is doing more than its alternative; whether you need to unlock okay and all right just won’t do. Because the meaning of “okay” is all bundled up with every social distinction ever layered on top of “okay.” It’s young and casual and carefree. There’s certainly people in your conworld who, if they were raised in Ontario, would say “okay” rather than “all right.” So why should they say “all right”, since they aren’t saying anything in English in the first place and you only have so much page space to make people understand who they are?
And in general I feel like there are books that you might want to allow to overbalance toward easiness and sacrifice atmosphere. I’ve thought I’d do this with a book about a hunter-gatherer society because people are so reluctant to think, what if I lived in a family band and travelled across a desert my whole life? My hunter-gatherers would shamelessly say “cool” and “okay”. Because you say “cool” and “okay” and we need a little extra wedge to get open a shell we aren’t familiar with and squeeze inside.
And, anyways, that’s like the fifth metaphor I’ve mixed in this post, so my credibility on prose writing is, I recognize, not excellent.
I went to MoA just for fun when I was in Vancouver this weekend and not for a specific research purpose, but, as I should have expected, they had some really beautiful objects from my area of research! (INT, MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY, DAY: Meg stands in front of the ibeji statues, looking sidelong at other visitors and wondering how much they would mind if she suddenly interrupted their conversations to infodump about the statues’ missing penises.) Now that their online collections are back up, I had to go digging a little further.
The statues were particularly interesting because many of the males are missing their dicks, not to mince words. In Abiodun’s Yoruba Art and Language, he says that the penis and breasts of ibeji statues (these are statues created in memory of twins if one or both die) are considered to be the parts that really show a person is a master carver, because they protrude from the body and require a pleasing shape. I have to remember I’m no art historian and one source isn’t a scholarship, but I did immediately wonder whether the carvers of these statues were just not willing to risk messing up the part that would make people judge them, like an early artist on devArt who always draws figures with their hands clasped behind their backs, or if some faint-of-heart art collector had just chopped them off at some point, because heaven forfend there be a penis in the home of a respectable white art collector. This is obviously the story that gets my grit up, and I’m even tempted to email the collections people to ask if they know about the history of these particular objects, but I also can’t assume too hard that this isn’t the way they originally were made! Regional and personal styles are definitely a thing. But still…I mean, take a look at these poor babies.
These are male figures according to the MoA. Since I saw them I’ve been going crazy with Google Search trying to figure out if their whole groinal area was how the carver made it, normal wear (perhaps because ibeji statues are often handled lovingly over many years) or an act of vandalism of some kind. The more innocent theories are looking more and more plausible, but I also don’t know what might have happened to the other figures in major art collections which turn up in cursory searches! A resort to some scholarship specifically about ibeji statues is probably going to be necessary. Add it to the pile.
At my university there’s a little gallery of materials that our art history professors have used to teach. Among the displays of potsherds and fabrics there’s also a couple of sets of cutlery.
(I feel bad skimming over the fabrics–they’re astonishing ikat blankets from fieldwork in Borneo. Weaving is called the “women’s warpath” in the area the cloths are from and cloth and wood are contrasted as feminine and masculine materials. Women dye the threads before they’re woven, thread by thread, and we’re talking cloths that would cover your wall. Then they can be used for lots of sacred purposes, including, lest one think that “warpath” is a cutesy euphemism, cradling the decapitated heads of enemies brought back by male warriors.)
But this is about cutlery. When I write, “Baron von Past picked up a fork,” I would assume that fork looks much like a fork I have in my house, except maybe it’s rougher and made out of wood. My mental image is actually one of those soft-tined, cutesy camping forks like maybe you could see laid beside a quinoa bowl in a lifestyle magazine. It definitely has three tines.
Nope. And why should it? Why shouldn’t it have four tines? Just because all my forks have three tines means nothing. Where did we even get that extra tine?
This seems like a big problem for writing historical fantasy. And especially writing historical fantasy for an era that’s never been in your cultural orbit, since odds get better and better that your assumptions are wrong the farther you stray from England circa 1800. I’m sure historians have written extensively about this but I’m no historian; I’ll hope to read some words from them later and respond to my own post with takeaways from the papers I review. But in the meantime, this comes up often enough to make a poor amateur stress about describing anything. For instance, I learned that hand fans are one of the objects associated with the òrìṣà Ọ̀ṣun (a spirit/goddess/entity/facet of the universe), and thoughtlessly started to doodle a paper folding fan. Nope!
“Why is it metal?” I thought. Then, “….Why not?”
I’m focusing a lot on objects because it’s so easy to contrast the assumption with the reality, but of course, the knottiest examples of this problem concern much more intangible things.When I write about Baron von Past’s marriage, I’ll probably be sharp enough to catch that “bride is dressed in white dress” is an assumption imposed by my understanding of marriage and have them exchange bracelets or something instead of rings. But this isn’t enough. The fantasy marriages I would write in this framework are just reskins of modern Western marriage. I may still carry a lot of assumptions about Western marriage into Baron von Past’s attitudes toward his marriage and his wife; about his wife’s attitudes toward him and their marriage; about what is acceptable within their marriage to their community and what isn’t; what they’ll do together, what they’ll do apart. When I started writing about marriage in Geometry of Ashes, I really didn’t recognize the extent to which marriage means something different in different cultures. And because nobody ever creates semantic networks of what they mean by “marriage” in books where they briefly discuss marriage, I’m still only scratching the surface and it’s difficult to articulate. Here’s two anecdotes from Igbo books I found very striking:
In Things Fall Apart, of course, Ekwefi remembers running away from her first husband to join Okonkwo. I’ll just repeat the passage; it’s on page 99.
She had married Anene because Okonkwo was too poor then to marry. Two years after her marriage to Anene she could bear it no longer and she ran away to Okonkwo. It had been early in the morning. The moon was shining. She was going to the stream to fetch water. Okonkwo’s house was on the way to the stream. She went in and knocked at his door and he came out. Even in those days he was not a man of many words. He just carried her into his bed and in the darkness began to feel around her waist for the loose end of her cloth.
I still haven’t close-read Things Fall Apart, so if there’s something I’m about to say that contradicts the wealth of scholarship, let me know. But here’s some assumptions I had made about marriage that this passage shows us are not true for Ekwefi:
Marriage is either forever or it takes a lot of work to break. I presume that Ekwefi went through some kind of divorce proceedings after this but apparently they weren’t arduous enough to make it into the text. (Imagine me writing the word “presume”, then looking back over my writing, sighing and putting my face in my hands.)
You wouldn’t marry somebody just to be married. Clearly there’s economic incentive for Ekwefi to marry Anene, but I think our Western assumption is that you would marry a rich man for his riches, not because you have to be married and he’s the best option. Marriage is something you opt into–even though implicit cultural pressure might suggest otherwise–not something you must have, like a job.
Taking a lover outside marriage demands secrecy. It’s not like women elsewhere in the book aren’t judged for supposedly having lovers outside their marriage, but at the same time, it doesn’t seem like Ekwefi is planning to have Okonkwo be her side guy. The pattern of extramarital sexual relations we’re used to in the West is of, like, an executive who’s banging his secretary and stringing his wife along. Rather than keeping a lover in secret, she just leaves her husband.
Here’s a second one: I don’t currently have a copy of Male Daughters, Female Husbands on me, but in it, Imi Amadiume explains that in the language under discussion (Nnobi Igbo dialect), the female slaves of a woman are called her “wives.” She clarifies that this relationship is probably not sexual. This is an interesting one because I actually suspect this ends up at pure synonymy, so I don’t want to draw strong conclusions from it. (Imagine if an Igbo blogger studying English-speaking cultures declared that because English men call their penises “cocks” they must have subliminal connections between penises and roosters that suggest they think their penis wakes people up at the break of day.) But, this case isn’t so absurd as that, and “wife” and “female slave” are at least the same category of thing (human women). So, similarly, although I assumed the following things, we can maybe think that for Nnobi Igbo speakers they are not necessarily intrinsic to marriage or at least for “wifehood”:
Marriage is an equal economic exchange between two families or an equal emotional exchange between two people. Elephant in the room: we can construe this synonymy as suggesting that wives are in a position of servitude to their husbands. This is anathema to any Westerner, but I keep coming back to thinking of marriage as labour. Maybe you have a boss who expects certain things from you, but in return, you expect certain things from him. You can be friendly with your boss, but he’s still your boss. You might think your boss is the best boss on earth, and sing his praises to all your friends, but he’s still your boss. In this case, your boss doesn’t pay you, but has responsibility to care for your well-being. And (coincidentally or not?) this is also the arrangement as far as I can tell in most West African traditional slavery. This isn’t to say any of that isn’t unjust, but boss-employee relations are still accepted by the majority of Westerners and really how just can we judge the average boss-employee relationship to be?
Marriage is a specific relationship, not a type of relationship. It doesn’t mean “a love relationship to another person.” It means this specific love relationship to another person. You wouldn’t say “I married my dog” even though you have a love relationship with your dog, live with your dog, and sleep in the same bed with your dog. But if we believe that the word for “female slave of a woman” and “wife” have a meaningful semantic relationship, which remember we aren’t convinced of, that means that “being a wife” is a category of relationships in this translation; “wife” is a category of people at one end of a power relationship.
Now imagine going through this process for every word and concept in your book and you start to understand why people might slap a new skin on Western marriage and call it a day. But maybe, like me, you’re insufferably pedantic, I said as I realized Ekwefi also calls a pre-dawn time morning, dragged my nails down my face, and highlighted each instance of “morning” over the last 200 pages of novel.
We believe pretty much anything we’re told, which was great in a time when we were only ever told things by our close family and friends (who probably saw those things firsthand) but not so great now that we’re constantly being told things by strangers. Lots of people, including me, like to think of themselves as not so credible; but there’s so many things I’ve just accepted because my friends told me they were true, and so many things I’ve relayed from some random on the Internet–usually with enough epistemic honesty at least to mention my source and say “take this with a grain of salt”–without knowing whether they were backed up by evidence.
I’m thinking about this for two reasons. One is the election we’ve all already thought too much about–but at the same time can’t safely stop thinking about, like, the second I wanted to stop thinking about it Trump named Steve Bannon chief strategist. As a person who regularly reads Slate Star Codex + a smug liberal I was used to thinking of the Breitbart people as ideological enemies of about the same calibre as 4channers, so this is almost more surreal than the presidency. Facebook fake news and blatant untruths in the far-right media were the subject of a lot of journalism leading up to the election. Leftists like to think we read the true media, but how much can we really pat ourselves on the back? We can think: I hear and believe things that are also heard and believed by NPR. But what are my reasons for believing NPR is a good source, and are those reasons any different or any more objectively rational than the reasons of somebody who trusted a Facebook news item about how Hillary went in as a commando to kill American personnel in Benghazi with nothing but a combat knife and a can of hairspray?
The other reason is that I’ve been reading about Yoruba epistemology in Knowledge, Belief and Witchcraft by Hallen and Sodipo. It so happens this is actually my first introduction to formal epistemological philosophy outside a semantics classroom, so I’m sure to some extent the stuff I’m astonished by is old hat–the Quine chapter completely blew my mind right out of the gate and there’s another blog post to be written about that. The writers complicate the traditional translations of mo (translated as “knowing”) and gbagbo (translated as “believing”). Mo ideally is seeing with one’s eyes. Gbagbo they translate as agreeing to accept what you have heard. And of course there are many other languages where the speaker marks propositions to tell the hearer how they came by the information–hearsay, seeing with your own eyes, inferring from context, heard it on Facebook.
Once in an anthropology intro class my TA tried to explain the point of view of some Indigenous opposition to the Land Bridge Theory: “There’s different ways of knowing than just the scientific one.” The snide white jokester she was talking to was like “You mean the truth?” I believe in the scientific project and in objective knowledge but, I mean, come on. That guy doesn’t mo that people moved from Siberia to America tens of thousands of years ago, he just gbagbos it. (From what I’ve read, I gbagbo it too, but what the hell, I wasn’t there.) Just accepting what you were taught by one person as opposed to what you would have been taught by a different person if you had been born in 1200 in a Kwakwaka’wakw settlement doesn’t necessarily make your thing true and their thing fake. Believing this seems to be the root of a lot of unnecessary smugness–yeah, yeah, including my liberal smugness. Either way you’re just accepting what you hear unless you’re willing to start digging much deeper, and digging deep on everything you hear isn’t really feasible. (Or is it? Note to self: Run an epistemology project for a year where I fact-check everything I hear, ???, profit.)
At the same time, it’s hard to dislodge your ego and take material seriously that contradicts your ideology. You have to kind of virtualize your belief set and run their OS alongside yours so you can safely delete it when you want to go back to normal. And I don’t think I’d want it any other way–I don’t want to internalize material I believe to be false–but are my reasons for not wanting that even valid? How would I know if my belief was false and the OS I installed just to try out a few programs was true?
I feel glumly Sapir-Whorf about the idea that maybe languages with evidential markers encourage their speakers to avoid categorizing material we hear in the same bin as material we experienced firsthand. That’s definitely a topic for further research, though, not a real theory. Don’t quote me. Definitely don’t think of that as something you know.