winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)

Citation is a necessary practice for any sort of intellectual engagement, whether formal or colloquial, and whether academic or activistic. It is crucial to give credit to the originators of ideas— for ethical honesty: to acknowledge those who've enlightened you; for professional honesty: to make clear where your contributions begin; and for intellectual honesty: to allow others to read the sources for themselves and to follow up on other extensions and criticisms of that work.

When encountering a new idea or text, I often engage in a practice I call "encitation". In order to more thoroughly understand and ingrain a text's intellectual content, I try (temporarily) to view all other ideas and arguments through its lens. This is why when I was reading Whipping Girl I was citing it left and right, just as when I was reading Killing Rage I quoted it incessantly. To understand structuralism, I embraced the structuralist theory and viewed all things in structuralist terms; to understand functionalism, or Marxism, or Freudianism, or performativity, I did the same. Of course, every framework is incomplete and emphasizes certain things to the exclusion of observing others; so viewing the world entirely from within any single framework distorts your perception of reality. The point of the exercise is not to embrace the framework per se, it's to roleplay the embracing of it. The point of this roleplay is to come to understand the emphases and limitations of the framework— not abstractly but specifically. This is especially important for trying to understand frameworks you disagree with. When we disagree with things, the instinct is to discount everything they say. But it's intellectually dishonest to refuse to understand why you disagree. And it's counterproductive, since you cannot debunk the theory nor convince people to change their minds without knowing and addressing where they're coming from.

I engage in encitation not only for anthropological or philosophical ideas, I also do it for mathematical ideas. By trying to view all of mathematics through a particular idea or framework, you come to understand both what it's good at and what it cannot handle. That's one of the things I really love about the way Jason Eisner teaches NLP and declarative methods. While it's brutal to give people a framework (like PCFGs or SAT solving) and then ask them to solve a problem just barely outside of what that framework can handle, it gives you a deep understanding of exactly where and why the framework fails. This is the sort of knowledge you usually have to go out into industry and beat your head against for a while before you see it. But certain fields, like anthropology and writing, do try to teach encitation as a practice for improving oneself. I wonder how much of Jason's technique comes from his background in psychology. Regardless, this practice is one which should, imo, be used (and taught explicitly) more often in mathematics and computer science. A lot of the arguing over OO vs FP would go away if people did this. Instead, we only teach people hybridized approaches, and they fail to internalize the core philosophical goals of notions like objects, functions, types, and so on. These philosophical goals can be at odds, and even irreconcilable, but that does not make one or the other "wrong". The problem with teaching only hybridized approaches is that this irreconcilability means necessarily compromising on the full philosophical commitment to these goals. Without understanding the full philosophical goals of these different approaches, we cannot accurately discuss why sometimes one philosophy is more expedient or practical than another, and yet why that philosophy is not universally superior to others.

The thing to watch out for, whether engaging in the roleplay of encitation or giving citations for actual work, is when you start reciting quotes and texts like catechisms. Once things become a reflexive response, that's a sign that you are no longer thinking. Mantras may be good for meditation, but they are not good critical praxis. This is, no doubt, what Aoife is referring to when she castigates playing Serano says. This is also why it's so dangerous to engage with standardized narratives. The more people engage in recitations of The Narrative, the more it becomes conventionalized and stripped of whatever humanity it may once have had. Moreover, reiterating The Narrative to everyone you meet is the surest way to drive off anyone who doesn't believe in that narrative, or who believes the content but disagrees with the message. Even if I was "born this way", saying so doesn't make it any more true or any more acceptable to those who who would like Jesus to save me from myself. More to the point, saying so places undue emphasis on one very tiny aspect of the whole. I'd much rather convince people of the violent nature of gender enculturation, and get them to recognize the psychological damage that abuse causes, than get them to believe that transgender has a natal origin.

As time goes on, we ask different questions. Consequently, we end up discarding old theories and embracing new ones when the old theory cannot handle our new questions. In our tireless pursuit of the "truth", educators are often reticent to teach defunct theories because we "know" they are "wrong". The new theory is "superior" in being able to address our new questions, but we often lose track of the crucial insights of the old theory along the way. For this reason, it's often important to revive old theories in order to re-highlight those insights and to refocus on old questions which may have become relevant once more. In a way, this revitalization is similar to encitation: the goal is not to say that the old theory is "right", the goal is to understand what the theory is saying and why it's important to say those things.

But again, one must be careful. When new theories arise, practitioners of the immediately-old theory often try to derail the asking of new questions by overemphasizing the questions which gave rise to the preceding theory. This attempt to keep moribund theories on life support often fuels generational divides: the new theoreticians cannot admit to any positives of the old theory lest they undermine their own work, while the old theoreticians feel like they must defend their work against the unrelenting tide lest it be lost forever. I think this is part of why radfems have been spewing such vitriol lately. The theoretical framework of radical feminism has always excluded and marginalized trans women, sex workers, and countless others; but the framework does not justify doxxing, stalking, and harassing those women who dare refute the tenets of The Doctrine. This reactionary violence bears a striking resemblance to the violence of religious fundamentalists1. And as with the religious fundamentalists, I think the reactionary violence of radfems stems from living in a world they can no longer relate to or make sense of.

Major changes in mathematics often result in similar conflicts, though they are seldom so violent. The embracing/rejection of constructivism as a successor to classical mathematics. The embracing/rejection of category theory as an alternative to ZFC set theory. Both of these are radical changes to the philosophical foundations of mathematical thought, and both of these are highly politicized, with advocates on both sides who refuse to hear what the other side is saying. Bob Harper's ranting and railing against Haskell and lazy evaluation is much the same. Yes, having simple cost models and allowing benign side effects is important; but so is having simple semantic models and referential transparency. From where we stand now, those philosophical goals seem to be at odds. But before we can make any progress on reconciling them, we must be willing to embrace both positions long enough to understand their crucial insights and to objectively recognize where and how both fail.

[1] To be clear: I do not draw this analogy as a way of insulting radfems; only to try and make sense of their behavior. There are many religious people (even among those who follow literalist interpretations of their religious texts) who are not terrorists; so too, there are women who believe in the radfem ideology and don't support the behavior of TERFs, SWERFs, etc. It is important to recognize both halves of each community in order to make sense of either side's reactions; and it's important to try to understand the mechanism that leads to these sorts of splits. But exploring this analogy any further is off-topic for this post. Perhaps another time.

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June 2017

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