Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Crabby Post on Hating teh Internets

Anglo-Saxon Aloud is going to be hiatus for a couple of days as I rehab my voice. Yes, the dread upper respiratory infection that has been patiently marching through my family finally got me--we managed to cover 2.5 weeks with at least one person sick with this stupid germ but never two people sick. Fun. So I've got to get over my laryngitis before I get back to recording the Meters of Boethius.

And because I'm sick, I'm crabby. Also because a stupid internet-based phenomenon is in the process of ruining ANSAX-NET (the Anglo-Saxonists' listerv) for the second time (and it really hasn't recovered from the first time). People who don't participate in ANSAX-NET will have no idea of this, but there is a small and completely logorrheaic group of individuals who have what I can only describe as crackpot theories about the secret messages hidden in Beowulf and other poems through various means involving either scribal practice or numerology. No, I am not making this up, and it caused the decay of ANSAX-NET from an incredible resource in which many of the giants of the field engaged in really interesting discussions of matters Anglo-Saxon to today's relatively simple mechanism for making announcements.

Around the MLA that was held in Chicago when I was a grad student there, so probably around 1995 or 1996, I was at the Anglo-Saxonist open bar talking to several giants of the field. I mentioned ANSAX. "I decided to un-subscribe," whispered one extremely senior professor at a glamorous midwestern university. "Oh, me too," said someone from the southwestern part of the US. It turned out that half of the senior Anglo-Saxonists were no longer subscribed to ANSAX net. I was quite upset, because I had seen ANSAX as an incredibly valuable resource. Now it turned out that a lot of the people who knew most were not contributing. Why?

Letter counting for secret messages in Beowulf. Seriously. One Oxford-based scholar wrote (and I not exaggerating) hundreds and hundreds of messages purporting to demonstrate that if you counted up the words and letters in Beowulf, imposed ratios, did calculations, fixed all the errors that the scribe wrote, etc., you would find the key messages of the poem and the author's hidden name. When many of us tried the calculations and found that they would work just as well for a flight manual, the yellow pages, or a book about cabbage, simply more logorrhea about the letter- and word-counting poured forth.

Other people got into the act. There was the idea that the spacing between letters held clues to deep meaning. Others suggested that by carefully measuring the heights of all the letters, you got a sonogram that told you how to pronounce them. Every time someone pointed out a flaw in the argument, you got back page after page of explanation that never addressed the central questions of:

a) if you fish in the pond of random numbers, you will catch something
b) the argument is circular if you are trying to show these patterns but then emend due to "incompetent scribe" every time something doesn't fit your argument.

I have decided that the "counters" are the Anglo-Saxon studies equivalent of 911 "Truthers," "Thimersol causes autism" cranks, and "Ron Pauls says the Federal Reserve is ruining our lives" people. Similarities: simple questions never get simple answers but instead generate massive core dumps of material. Circular arguments are not rejected for being circular and the circularity is never addressed. Stacks of links to other websites or projects rather than citations of published material are used for support. There is some kind of "establishment" that is keeping the truth from getting out there. Serious scholars who have worked on, say, paleography, have no idea what they've been looking at. No piece of evidence, no argument will actually change these peoples' minds. And worst of all, they never stop talking and soon every sane person who is interested in other topics backs slowly away and unsubscribes.

It drives me crazy that this has happened to Anglo-Saxon once and is now in the process of happening again. Even if any of the counting theories were right (I've actually looked into them; I'm sure they are wrong), they never have anything but the most banal things to say: the central message of a poem is that "God is great" or "Christ redeemed us" or some utterly tedious and predictable Christian commonplace. Let me try to express better how I feel about this:

There are thousands of things to discuss and debate about Beowulf (I just spent a week of classes doing this and having amazing fun with it). The numbers of letters, words, spaces, heights or lines or even numbers of lines are the most boring things possible to talk about! This latest flurry started just as an interesting discussion about orality and literacy was getting going and when Adam Brooke Davis had made a really remarkable post that I thought showed exactly how meme theory could help show that the oral/literate debate can be resolved. Then boom! we're back to how many letters, words, spaces are in various lines. Argh!!!

I am not going to unsubscribe from ANSAX (yet), but I hope that we can talk about, well, interesting things (and there are so many of them) and not this stuff, yet again.

P.S.: A colleague I really respect, who knows more real philology than I'll ever learn, makes some provocative arguments about the overall number of lines in the poem and the certain things that happen at key points. I am still not at all convinced by the numerology. I think instead that what we have is a critic intuitively sensing key moments in the structure (the narratology) of the poem) and then finding a set of numbers that matches that intuition. Yvette Kisor's brilliant article in ASE, where she shows how many, many scholars, working from very different premises, have found the same structural patterns in the poem, shows how some pattern might be there (and almost certainly is), but I think that the numerology used to describe it is not convincing, because if things had been shifted by any number of lines, a smart enough critic (and the person working on this is certainly smart enough) could still get some kind of numerology to work. It's just--to use English lit jargon--an overdetermined system.


John Cowan said...

Well, for once the Jargon (I prefer that term to Theory) actually matches its engineering origins -- it is indeed an overdetermined system.

These Beowulf-code loons sound like an offshoot of the Bible-code loons; the root of it all is apparently Ignatius Donnelley's Baconian pseudo-ciphers from the 1880s. (He attributed Marlowe and even Montaigne to Bacon too.)

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

Here I just thought AnSaxNet had gone silent -- apparently I've been automatically unsubscribed again. AnSaxNet likes to auto-unsubscribe me occasionally, claiming that my e-mail address isn't working, and furthermore insisting in the automatic e-mail that it's my fault, not theirs. Funny, but AnSaxNet is the *only* list I subscribe to where that happens.

Given your report on the quality of talk there nowadays, maybe I should be thankful.

Dr. Virago said...

OK, this is kind of funny to me, because I don't think I knew about it -- though maybe someone once told me something about it?? -- but when I'm teaching students about how to judge sources, especially electronic ones, and teaching them the difference between an intranet (say, JSTOR) and the internet, I say, "A given intranet is vetted in some way by librarians, scholars or other researchers who know what they're doing. The internet might have some of those people contributing to it, but it also has Joe's crazy uncle who thinks the number of words in Beowulf is a secret clue to the meaning of life"

No really, I say that!

And when you wrote this --

I have decided that the "counters" are the Anglo-Saxon studies equivalent of 911 "Truthers," "Thimersol causes autism" cranks, and "Ron Pauls says the Federal Reserve is ruining our lives" people.

-- it occurred to me that these Beowulf numerologist must hang out in the same pub as the anti-Stratfordians who point to the supposed anagrams of Francis Bacon's name in the line of Hamlet that also signifies Bacon's birthday. And then when you tell them that's loony (never mind "which version of Hamlet?"), they claim that the Man, er Academia (becuase, like The Church, it is a monolith) just doesn't want The Truth to be known. OK, first, like you point out, Michael, for a truth, it's awfully boring (seriously, who *cares* who the man was!!), and second...OMG, if a scholar had actual *real* proof that Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare it would make his/her freakin' career!!! Duh!

Clearly, Michael, you are expending your energies in the wrong place. Start counting, man, and the truth will set you free!! :)

Prof. de Breeze said...

My favorite part of the discussion so far was when one of the "crackpots" posted a link to an image "clearly showing" that "The Wanderer" was written by two different scribes. Now I'm no expert paleographer, but the image sure looked to me like the work of a single scribe. Certainly it didn't "clearly" show anything like what the author claimed. I was gratified when other, more knowledgeable scholars said "Gee, that sure looks like one hand."

Just goes to show what happens when you become a true believer.

Liz Ditz said...

Teresa Nielsen Hayden, among other things, online moderation expert, wrote this two years ago:

Some things I know about moderating conversations in virtual space:

1. There can be no ongoing discourse without some degree of moderation, if only to kill off the hardcore trolls. It takes rather more moderation than that to create a complex, nuanced, civil discourse. If you want that to happen, you have to give of yourself. Providing the space but not tending the conversation is like expecting that your front yard will automatically turn itself into a garden.

The list goes on for an additional twelve points. Do read it and share it with the folks in charge of AnSaxNet.

It is almost Nielsen Hayden's Law: Unmoderated Online Discussions Degrade.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I always wondered what the Great Blowup was about. And even though my first impulse is to say, "You're taking the piss, aren't you, Mike?" I know that you aren't.

It's things like this that make me really want an afterlife where we can go up and ask folks what they meant (providing the Beowulf poet has some kind of name tag ...).

I once got in a fight with some trolls at the wikipedia over a quote they'd taken out of one of LDW's books and used entirely out of context to support a theory that Baigent and Brown would have liked. When I met LDW, a few years later, it was so nice to be able to confirm that they were crazy.

theswain said...

Perhaps we should encourage Bill to call a halt or at least a hiatus to the thread....

Rym Rytr said...

There are those places where the moderator forces off-topic items to the proper "room". Thus, a closed system is open to proper usage. Violaters are then banned, if they refuse to play by the rules. There are a lot of us (Lurkers) who read and never post. We too, eventually, wonder away, due to the over abundance of self-important individuals, whose only desire is to "hear" their own voice at the exclusion of all else.

Close the system to authorized posters and let the others be "read only". Don't give up on the rest of us!

By the bye...
what would they make of the secrets hidden in the "word verification" I was given, at this, my first post?


:o) Rym Rytr rym=rhyme rytr=writer