Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Drum Majorette

One of my favorite examples of scholarship gone horribly wrong is the drum majorette, discussed by Hervey Cleckley in his masterful study of the psychopath, The Mask of Sanity (pdf).  Therein, on page 408, we find a reference to a "prominent psychiatrist," who, following Freud's methods, provides an appraisal of the attraction of the drum majorette.

No one, male or female, should have to think terribly hard about this perplexing dilemma.  Drum majorettes are, in general, young, hot, scantily clad, and prancing about.  I should think the means of her attraction to be the very last problem we need to solve in human behavior, right after why we are compelled to breathe.

But this "prominent psychologist" provided their own interpretation.  The drum majorette protrudes from the band the way they erect penis protrudes from the body.  Thus, our attraction to her represents our latent homosexuality.

This is the among the stupidest things I've ever heard.

Yet, stupid or not, it was treated seriously, and accorded serious consideration.  And ever since I first read Cleckley's volume some 15 years or so ago it has served as a constant reminder to me of the dangers of unchecked interpretation.

The last time I mentioned the drum majorette I noted that I would not suggest that there were not a few drum majorette quality papers circulating in Biblical Studies.  The scholar I had in mind with that was Dennis MacDonald.

Those who are familiar with both MacDonald and recent discussion in the biblioblogosphere know exactly where this going.  For those who don't, you might see Vridar, where over the past few weeks we've been treated to a discussion of Brodie's odyssey toward mythicism.

In turn, you might turn to James McGrath's satire, and my satirical engagement with his satire.  Then McGrath's further comments.  This inspired some comment on It's All Random...Mostly.  Rounding out our background reading, Ian on Irreducible Complexity pointed out the difficulty with addressing "Parallelomania."  My sentiments, to be expressed shortly, are very much in keeping with Ian's, though given his background in math he no doubt has a significantly better idea than I do how it could (at least in principle) be resolved.

Over on Vridar, there's been some interesting discussion in the comments to his post containing a chapter of Brodie's work .  One comment in particular has compelled me to move here, from Neil (snipped a bit as it was contextually dependent on earlier posts--one can read the thread to get the details.  I have not removed anything germane to what I'm addressing):

...when one gets down to the structural and detailed verbal analysis of literature, I think that’s where we are doing more than cloud-shape-spotting. I think, in fact, that we can all at least “see” the parallels that Brodie, for example, points out. The question is not seeing them, but explaining them.

There are two problems I have with this.  Working from the bottom.  The question actually isn't explaining them, unless we share Brodie's conviction that they are sufficiently significant as to require explaining.  And that is the shape in the cloud--that the parallels are significant, not simply that they exist.  That they are real parallels, and not false positives.

But the more important point is the preceding one, and what inspired me to move here, since I've seen it a couple times.  Brodie isn't doing an analysis except by the most liberal use of the word.  What he's doing is literary criticism.  The distinction isn't terribly subtle.

Brodie makes an implicit claim about probability.  That the most probable explanation for the parallels is dependence.  But he makes this claim with no data, and therefore has no response to the person who says "No it isn't."  And that's how these discussions always go.

See, we could, at least in principle, do a meaningful analysis.  We could compare sources we know Luke used (Mark, Q/Matthew), sources we know he was at least familiar with (eg the LXX) and sources we know he didn't know (eg later Christian documents).  This would, by necessity, be mostly linguistically based.  But if the linguistic analysis held up we could move on to thematic considerations.

We could tally up the number of parallels, we could determine at least a rough idea of false positives and so on.  We could produce real data.  It would take a lot of work, a lot of time, and some enterprising academic would need a lot of grad students, but it could be done.

But Brodie hasn't done anything like this.  He hasn't given us any real data with which to assess his implied probability, it is based only on his intuitive sense that it is likely.  If I don't share that sense, the discussion has gone as far as it possibly can, until he produces real data.  With data he produces something the critic can grapple with directly.  Without he only produces the drum majorette.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, I don't understand the comparison between MacDonald and Brodie's textual analysis and a Freudian psychoanalyst detecting signs of "latent homosexuality" everywhere. No one is disputing that the NT authors knew and used the LXX extensively. No one is disputing that mimesis existed as a literary style in NT times. Your comparison would only be applicable if there were no perceivable use of the LXX, or if mimesis did not exist at all as a literary style.

Rick Sumner said...

Sorry, analogies tend to break down when it's not clear what's being compared, so my fault for not articulating it more specifically. It also breaks down in that Brodie's claims can, in principle, be subjected to probabilistic treatment, and the drum majorette, at least by our current understandings, cannot.

It is not that their argument is similarly reasoned--it isn't. It's that their argument is contingent on their own interpretation, without any external controls. There are no objective, author independent "walls" to stop them from meandering aimlessly.