Questions

Sun Sep 25, 2016

The Object Lessons series, edited by Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost, comprises small, attractive books on everyday things like dust and silence. I suppose that such movements as “object-oriented philosophy,” “thing theory,” and “no ideas but in things” lurk somewhere in the motivating background. But it’s a pragmatic, exploratory series as far as I can tell from reading one volume: Evan Kindley’s Questionnaire. I should go ahead and disclose that my pitches on the following objects were summarily rejected:

  • corncobs
  • crakes
  • xerotherms
  • affect
  • Pausanias
  • gently used copy of Lorraine Daston’s Objectivity
  • deadlift

(I bear no grudge.) I decided to read Kindley’s book because I knew that it contained some material on Francis Galton, as I’ve been writing about him myself. No shortage of things to read about Galton, of course, but I was intrigued by Kindley’s focus on Galton’s evidence. Early in his career, Galton decided that he wanted to quantify the extent to which genius was hereditary. He did much genealogical research to that end and supplemented it with querulous letters. The results can be seen in Hereditary Genius, specifically in that book’s many appendices. Kindley focuses his attention on the more formal questionnaire that Galton circulated about twenty years later to the Royal Society while he was researching English Men of Science. As Kindley notes, Galton disdained environmentalist explanations of how scientific genius arose (10). Galton’s questions were obviously leading. One was “How far do your scientific gifts appear to have been innate?” (English Men of Science 202) He also, curiously enough, asks if there were notable symmetries in their figure, which might be the origin of evolutionary psychological explanation of beauty (physical attractiveness) being nothing but unusual symmetry, despite the long aesthetic tradition of ascribing beauty precisely to striking asymmetries in body or mind.

Questionnaire moves quickly from Galton’s scientific prospectus to the more literary and autobiographical forms of the document, which quickly became associated with Marcel Proust. The afterlife of the Proust questionnaire, with its influence on French television and James Lipton, makes for lively reading. Hugh Trevor-Roper notes in one his many wonderful letters that actors have no thoughts, only memory and poses, which I suppose explains why the format worked as well as it did. The second chapter discusses testing of mental attributes, such as intelligence and personality. The history of intelligence testing is familiar from Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, among many other works; but I am less familiar with histories of personality testing. Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction, which I recently reviewed, has a chapter on the increasing use of personality tests to disqualify applicants for entry-level jobs. I remember telling someone in high school who aspired to join the state troopers that he couldn’t try to game the personality test. That had ways of detecting that, you see. Deception is much easier to track in the era of the big-data personality inventory, of course, and the tests are also prone to far more false positives. And then there’s the larger issue of how valid personality psychology is: both as an academic subject and a tool in industrial relations.

We must not try to resolve these issues here. Galton, despite his many issues, was an intrepid explorer and inspired Kindley to take risks in the name of science. The third chapter describes his thrilling visit to an institute known for its reliance on psychology testing: Scientology of Los Angeles. Kindley discovers that he is nervous, irresponsible, and heartless—qualities virtually unknown among humanities academics. He is also quite cynical, as the possibility that these results were doctored to make him seek more therapy is quickly raised. Some people blame science fiction for all of this. Others occultism (Jack Parsons—look it up.) But we know now that the Myers-Briggs test played its part. Think about that the next time you list “INTP” in your twitter bio.

An axiom of academic life is that everyone can identify an f-type, but no one has actually read Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality. Kindley, ever intrepid, has. He quotes from the hilarious survey designed to quantify fascist potential: “The sexual orgies of the old Greeks and Romans are nursery-school stuff compared to some of the goings-on in this country today, even in circles where people might least expect it” (68). Sexual compatibility also figures in the next two chapters, about dating services and marital satisfaction surveys, respectively. Galton probably would have thought that dating sites that match couples based on bigger data than he could have imagined aligned with his eugenical principles, though very few people who use them see it that way. The last chapter reminds us that viral quizzes have a Deleuzian origin. This elegant fact ends the book’s argument with a deferred finality.

I may have sounded flippant earlier in describing the Object Lessons books, but I very much appreciate them as a publishing initiative. Evan Kindley’s Questionnaire is not the only one of these that I plan to read. There is a market for shorter works that bring academic knowledge and expertise to bear on broader subjects than monographs usually treat, especially when they are written in a more informal style. Or at least there should be, though I suspect that the sales figures for Bloomsbury’s series are more robust than their more conventional academic monographs. It wouldn’t be a review without some honest, searching criticism, so here goes: I would have liked a bit more discussion of the questionnaire in literature. The collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which I understand that not everyone should be expected to read, has some particularly useful examples.