Clichés and Practices

January 3, 2008

At my dissertation defense one of the committee members asked me what the relationship was between a cultural prohibition such as, “Thou shalt not kill” and that culture’s actual practices of killing and conspicuously not killing. This led to what my friend Robert Shields calls a “shot in the head moment.” I froze, then finally babbled something. After a couple of years studying the relationship between words and practices, I knew just enough to know not only that I had no good answer for that question, but that it would take me years to come up with one.

I still don’t have one, but I have some more ideas now. (So, thanks teach.  That was an inspiring question.) One example struck me this morning. For no particular reason the phrase, “The customer is always right” popped into my head.

It’s very easy and common to move back and forth between a catch phrase like this and a facile analysis of the culture to which it belongs. One time at a local Chinese restaurant I overheard a white patron giving to his family what I understood to be a rendition of the sermon he had just heard, the gist of which was a condemnation of a contemporary youth culture whose members like to mouth the phrase, “It’s all good.” There followed a semi-elaborate genealogy of that phrase intended to show that someone inclined to say, “It’s all good” surely has no moral standards, i.e. has no real conception of good vs. evil. I’ve found that it’s not considered good manners to argue with the table next to you at Chinese restaurants, so I didn’t speak up. I wanted to ask some questions, though, as my initial reaction was to find this whole bit rather racist, if fairly subtly. In any case, this instance comes to my mind when I try to remember that the links between phrases and practices can be more difficult to discern than we typically think.

With that said, “The customer is always right” really wonderfully captures at least the stereotyped version of American consumer culture. It’s great to imagine the apochryphal origin of this phrase: an employee has had a disagreement with a customer, and appeals to the boss to settle who is right; the boss responds, “The customer is always right.” How evocative! To say this another way: the boss is saying, “We will not play that game. In your other relationships it may matter who is right and who is wrong. But in these practices, we do not determine whether the customer is justified in his wishes or even his purported facts. Qua customer he transcends those categories. Now go put the butter on his milk duds.” [This is a Simpsons reference I have made. “Swim, my pretties.]

It is so easy to wax grand sociological about such a phrase. What could better capture the rule of money said to drive the American ethos? Why does the customer transcend rightness and wrongness? Not because he shops by divine right, but because he has money, which he is willing to give to the business if his desires, however ridiculous, are met. Contrast this with French and German stores in which “the customer is always ignored,” in whose countries the cultural legacy of a different sort of class structure is often said to linger. Such insights, though they charm me, too, are clearly the making of yet another lame article in some political periodical.

The thing is, I think phrases such as, “The customer is always right” are important, and do have effects. And understanding this cliché/praxis relationship could be helpful in working out some of the hermeneutic issues we’ve been pondering. But how to sort this out?


Two Stories Integrating Explanation and Interpretation

January 3, 2008

An English professor friend told me this story a few years ago. He was teaching Hamlet for the fifth day in a row, when a Nursing student declared with considerable conviction that she had determined that Hamlet was suffering from a vitamin deficiency. This seems to me a fairly humerous example of causal explanation intruding on hermeneutic engagement (but perhaps not illegitimately so — though I can’t really see what vitamins add to our understanding of Hamlet).

For a quite different case: at the Collaboration conference I attended last November in the Twin Cities, Vanderbilt Nursing professor Jeanette Norden spoke compellingly about some of her efforts to promote personal (i.e. ethical) development in her students. Among other approaches, she typically requires her neurobiology students to read a text that does not obviously apply to the subject matter, leaving it up to the students to discover meaning in the text’s conjunction with the class. One such book was by a medical professional who survived a Nazi concentration camp. Her book detailed the dietary intake of the inmates and catalogued their suffering. Norden’s students eventually saw a connection between this suffering and the neurobiological consequences of the inmates’ extremely restricted diets, which in turn led these students to consider (a) the horrible consequences of starvation in many poor countries in Africa and (b) some concrete steps that they as Vanderbilt students might take to do something about (a).

Norden’s story has no direct relevance to the naturalist vs. normativist debate, and yet I think the way that human stories and concerns mix with causal explanation here might serve as an example of the way we might integrate these divergent accounts of ourselves so as to make ourselves more human in the process.

The Hermeneutics of T-Shirts

January 3, 2008

I don’t have Continental Philosophy of Social Science with me, but Sherrat mentions a critic of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz who charged that Geertz’s method was not a true hermeneutics because he was “interpreting” practices, not texts, and only actual texts allow legitimate hermeneutic treatment. This is a crucial issue, of course. If only texts can be interpreted, then Being and Time and its intellectual descendents (Geertz among them) are wrong in claiming that everyday behavior is always already interpreted. Obviously where one stands on the relationship between praxis, texts, and interpretation will go a long way in determining how one takes the struggle between interpretation and explanation in the social sciences, which itself is one facet of the naturalists vs. normativists debate we’ve been discussing here. In particular, restricting hermeneutics to texts in a strict sense would disallow the much broader use of hermeneutics I would like to advocate as a synthesizer of interpretive and explanatory accounts of human life.

To give some substance to that suggested use, I’ll offer an example I encountered at the YMCA yesterday. A young woman had on a shirt that said, “Fondy ain’t afraid of no ghosts.” I can come up with some reasonable interpretations pretty fast, and so can you, I would assume. Who among us has forgotten how good bustin’ makes us feel? I suspect that even those not familiar with Fond du Lac, Wisconsin might guess that “Fondy” refers to a school. As for “ghosts,” I’m not sure of the reference. I would guess another local sports team, though I can’t think of one pertinent.

In any case, though, the question is whether this T-shirt is the proper object of intepretation. I would say it is. Does that commit me to the claim that it’s a text? Well, that leads to the question of what a text is. Two ideas: textuality is linked to explicitness (i.e. articulation in language) and to complex organization (with the book as a paradigm example).

For the record, I don’t think one can only (legitimately) interpret texts; I don’t think texts have to have complex organization (in order to merit being interpreted as texts); and I think that paradigm texts (the sort that, say, Gadamer seems to have primarily in mind) nevertheless merit rather different sorts of interpretation than other sorts of texts and non-texts (typically, practices).

A Quiz

January 1, 2008

From Albert-Lásló Barabási’s Linked (a fascinating book on network theory that I probably shouldn’t be reading…but it’s still vacation, and I can’t seem to help myself), a quote from the Hungarian mathematician and early network theorist Paul Erdös (quoting fellow Hungarian network theorist Alfréd Rényi):”A mathematician is a machine that turns coffee into theorems.”

So finish this sentence: “A philosopher is a machine that turns _____ into _____.”