7 November 2013

Novel Zero

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:42 pm

This morning at four I woke up from a dream. I was getting ready to defend my dissertation but, as often happens in dreams, I was running late and I couldn’t find the room. I hadn’t really prepared for the defense, mostly because I had already become bored of the topic and the work I had done on it. Do I know my stuff well enough to do the defense without reviewing and rehearsing? I thought that I did. For the first time I realized that it was actually conceivable that I might fail the defense. I found myself walking along the corridor on the third floor of the psych building at the University of Virginia, where I did my doctorate. My old advisor was looking for a different stairway down to the ground floor because the main stairways were impassible, being completely clogged with countless loose sheets of paper.

So I figure: this dream is a reminder from the unconscious that, even before the first novel in the seven-piece ensemble, I’d written another book for which I might want to revisit the making-of.


If we take in our hands any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and evidence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.  – David Hume

Good to do this to Puccini. Relaxing. I wish I were paid… I guess I am paid to do this. What a way to go.  – Subject 36

This is the frontispiece of my dissertation, Expert-Novice Differences in Scientific Journal Scanning. Unlike my dream-self, I was well-prepared for the defense, fully engaged in the process, interested in my work and in the committee members’ responses to it. The defense was great fun. I had reserved a room in the historic Rotunda building, wore my tuxedo, recruited a fellow grad student to serve refreshments before the event. Following a lively discussion all of the committee members signed off. I had attained my merit badge, the Ph.D.

Here is another way of looking at physics: the physicists are men looking for new interpretations of the Book of Nature. After each pedestrian period of normal science, they dream up a new model, a new picture, a new vocabulary, and then announce that the true meaning of the Book had been discovered. But of course, it never is, any more than is the true meaning of Coriolanus or the Dunciad or the Phenomenology of Spirit or the Philosophical Investigations. What makes them physicists is that their writings are commentaries on the writings of earlier interpreters of Nature, not that they all are somehow “talking about the same thing,” the invisibilia Dei sive naturae toward which their inquiries steadily converge.  – Richard Rorty

Rorty was a Professor in the English Department at UVA while I was a grad student there. I went across campus to hear him deliver a lecture on Freud — the only Freud I heard during my years pursuing doctoral work in psychology. I attended Rorty’s colloquium in the Psych Department, a presentation met mostly by the blank-stared indifference of my profs and colleagues. But I had read his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature; I was aware that Rorty regarded science not as an “accumulation of truths about the world” but as a kind of writing, a collection of artifacts made of words, not so different from fiction.

Subsequently I discovered that Rorty’s view is snugly embedded in  “normal” continental philosophy of science, but as a science student I deemed his ideas about science worthy of empirical investigation. I gravitated toward the scientific study of scientific writing, conducting a series of studies investigating citation patterns in scientific journal articles. And of scientific reading. I had read Fish and Culler and Iser on “the reader in the text,” I subscribed to social  studies of science journals, I even read some Derrida. My dissertation chronicled observations of and interviews with doctoral students and professors in Ecology, Physiology, and Microbiology as they read new research articles in their fields. While there might be good reasons to consign the volume to the flames, my diss would pass Hume’s test: the Results and Appendix sections contain precisely 148 pages of instruments and measures, data tables and inferential statistics,  eigenvalues and eigenvectors, Monte Carlo simulations and multivariate canonical predictive models.

But let’s skip the quantities and numbers and jump straight to the sophistry, consigned per long tradition to the concluding Discussion section of the research report. Here’s the last inference from the empirical findings recorded in my Discussion, before it moves on to implications for future work:

In the discussion of Hypothesis 9 it was proposed that moderately experienced subjects would be more interested than the most experienced subjects in working on and reading about the “hot” topics in their fields. Perhaps scientists from the softer disciplines are likewise more oriented toward hot topics than their hard science colleagues. Hagstrom (1964), in his article on “anomy” in science, proposed a thesis which could explain why this might be the case. According to Hagstrom, the continuing growth of hard sciences is threatened from within primarily because of a tendency to restrict attention to only a few heavily-researched topics. Soft sciences, on the other hand, are more prone to the threat of anomy, or normless alienation, among their practitioners. Anomy occurs when the legitimate topics for scientific exploration become so diffuse that no one’s work is relevant to anyone else’s.

The solutions, said Hagstrom, are clear. Hard scientists must branch out into new topics, while soft scientists must concentrate their efforts on relatively fewer topics. Perhaps the subjects in the present study were implicitly following Hagstrom’s advice. Hot topics, shunned as growth-inhibiting by the hard scientists, were being sought out as growth-enhancing by the soft scientists.

The Hagstrom thesis may also be applicable to the expert-novice differences in reference list characteristics discussed in Hypothesis 9. Less experienced subjects, overwhelmed by the endless diversity of legitimate avenues of inquiry open to them, may become engulfed in scientific anomy. The cure: find a topic that many of one’s colleagues agree is important and get involved. Experienced scientists, having worked for years on the same old topics, may be expected to become bored with their work. The antidote: find a new topic that nobody else is working on and take a shot at it.

And here are the concluding two sentences of the text:

It has been argued here that scientific creativity is contingent upon scientific tradition. Those most likely to generate creative science may be those best able to recognize the traditions of science as they evolve in the scientific literature.


It’s been many years since I last looked at my dissertation. Certainly I hadn’t consulted it while envisioning my practice of différance or my cluster of novels. But now, after giving it a quick scan, I find that my dream-double was more bored with it than is my waking self. A number of themes integral to the research program are woven into the later novels. The relationships between external reality and imagination, between truth and text, between science and fiction. The interactions between writer and reader, between individual and collective, between innovation and tradition, between creative passion and group popularity. Anomy and its cure; boredom and its antidote.

If I listen to Rorty then I can regard my dissertation as a kind of fiction. If I listen to myself then I regard my novels as a kind of science, a series of thought experiments conducted on imaginary subjects. For present purposes I’ll call my dissertation Novel Zero in the ongoing series.



  1. “I find that my dream-double was more bored with it than is my waking self. ”

    This is probably pretty universal, although I always think if if doesn’t work in the dream, it hasn’t worked for me. You’ve got it turned the other way around, which is probably just as healthy for different kinds of things. Maybe would be what one was focussing on as important. I had a dream last night that I couldn’t repeat, even given the salacious material I write, but it represented an advance for me. I’ve had similar dreams in the past that would be repeated for years, maybe even decades, until I finally ‘accomplished’ something in the dream. It would always have as figures people (and myself) with whom it would not be possible, or was no longer possible, to interact with, in real life. But it would then let got as such, even though I would have this similar dream last night that represented something from those same old dreams (the ones which I’m thinking about that were related.) If I am unable to ‘succeed’ in having this kind of dream in which I’ve managed something I thought too difficult to do in waking double, it always does mean I am not advancing in related realms in real life. If I do have it in real life, and then have it backed up by the dream in which there was not a sense of failure, it boosts me more in real life, because it’s probably true that we never think there is quite enough one can do to perfect something, probably doesn’t matter what. But if there was been a dream in which I finally do accomplish something to my satisfaction, that always seems a kind of proof to me. I feel it as something I’ve succeeded at or accomplished, rather than just say to myself that I probably have, or may have.

    i don’t think I have that particular sensation of a different perception by my dream double, as you’ve so interestingly phrased it. Although I think I do sometimes think something has gone well in waking life that the dream than ‘proves’ by being a ‘failure dream’ or even a nightmare as not having been successful. I’ll sometimes be ‘in good times’ and have bad dreams that force me to rethink something I’m doing. Or I’ll just sleep very badly, which is worse than bad dreams, as far as I’m concerned.


    Comment by Patrick — 7 November 2013 @ 9:05 pm

    • The actual dissertation excerpts I read thoroughly and they’re mostly outside my reach, over my head. But while reading them I did think there was something of the same kind of arcane nature to them that I put in IDNYC, almost the whole way through, but obviously with vast differences, since yours doesn’t involve any whimsy and there are Hume’s admonitions against sophistry. I don’t know about Hume, but I definitely think that for many who decry sophistry as a kind of ‘obvious bad thing’, they then proceed to use it all over the place when necessary, in form of propaganda, rhetoric, politics, anything really, and say that it’s the ‘real thing’, and not sophistry, so maybe you’re just supposed to be anti-sophistry as you’re supposed to be anti-racism and the other things, according to where you find yourself. In science, I wouldn’t have any idea, and there’s never going to be time to explore it in research of my own, so I just read it and listened to it.


      Comment by Patrick — 7 November 2013 @ 9:13 pm

    • “Arcane” nails it. I did research in an area that was personally interesting to me but not a hot topic in my field. And so I used that last bit of sophistry to decry the likelihood that what I’d found out, though methodologically sound and statistically significant, would likely die the death of indifference to which most arcana is destined. It’s one of the main reasons I didn’t pursue an academic career: in order to succeed you couldn’t just follow your own vision and do exceptional work; you had to follow the crowd and work on the popular topics. If that was the case I figured I might as well go work for the money in industry. As I understand it this emphasis on academic hot topics has gotten even more extreme since then, with popularity increasingly determined by pragmatic financial considerations.


      Comment by ktismatics — 7 November 2013 @ 10:50 pm

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