Questioning My Brain’s Products

A little bit earlier than the year 2013, my first term at grad school ended. In only a few days from now, I will be showing prospective grad students around, having lunch with them, and telling them that there is no need to be overly nervous on their interview day. Wow. I remember mine like it was a few weeks ago, not 50.5. The time since I arrived at Penn seems to have been flying in particular. It feels like we were swallowed in one piece in August and spit out the end of December. The increasing number of grey hair on my head and marked up books on my shelf seem to be sole solid evidences that I have really existed during these four months.

One more proof seems to be the hard copy of my “Seminar in the History and Sociology of Science” paper (or isn’t it? I don’t remember anybody touching it—apart from myself). It was due some December day at midnight, and I emailed it at 11.47 pm. Obviously, I did not have the time to let it sit for a day or two, and then to revise it thoroughly. In rereading it after handing it in, I discovered that it would most likely not be comprehensible for anyone who doesn’t have my brain in their head.

Before I tell you about the mental leaps and non sequiturs, see the title and abstract first, and read the story of this paper’s genesis:

Continuous Classification?
Making Normal Sexuality

In 1948 and 1953, A.C. Kinsey et al. published their reports on human sexual behavior. One result of their statistical evaluation of sex histories of more than 18,000 American citizens was the so-called Kinsey Scale: The researchers claimed that homo- and heterosexuality are non-dichotomous categories, and that human sexuality can be measured on a continuous scale, graded from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual). This paper assesses Kinsey’s classification of human sexuality with regard to G. Canguilhem’s concept of the normal and I. Hacking’s framework of making up people, and lays out what part of Kinsey’s work these theories do or do not account for.1 Furthermore, in consideration of Kinsey’s personal interests I propose a discussion of the impact of personal interests on the part of norm setters and other desirable features of an extended theory of normalization.

The idea of my writing this paper, obviously, occurred to me during my work on the research paper on the Kinsey Report’s methodological evaluation by a group of three statisticians in the early 1950s. Reading James Jones’ Kinsey biography, I suddenly realized that there was much more involved in the review than some mathematicians’ assessing a committed sexologist’s methods: More and more, it seemed to me that a trio of young scientists threatened a practitioner of bisexuality and masochism who was obsessed with his research because he tried to justify his own diverse sexual expressions against moral and political repressions.

The very same researcher claimed to be totally unbiased in his research, and only to report empirical findings, to let nature speak through the numbers he compiled statistically on the basis of a several thousand sex histories given to him in interviews by white (!) American citizens. The most popular of Kinsey’s published findings were (i) that more than one in three interviewees had been engaged in homosexual intercourse at least once in their life, (ii) that pre- and extramarital intercourse were widespread in American society—including contacts with prostitutes—, and (iii) that homo- and heterosexuality are non-binary categories. This last finding led Kinsey and his team to propose a graded scale which was meant to account for a person’s changing sexual preferences within the course of their life.

One of Kinsey and his team’s goals was to make pansexuality the new normal, and to eliminate the perceived vacuum between hetero- and homosexuality.—There are certainly more balanced views on Kinsey’s personality than the picture Jones drew in his biography, but the fact that Kinsey had a huge hidden agenda that was closely linked to a highly intimate part of his life, struck me. Waiting for a friend and a delicious happy meat dinner,2 I texted myself to make sure I would not forget what was going on in my head after reading Jones’ interpretation of Kinsey’s intention. I would love you to share all my typos (my fingers were already frozen!) and private codes:

1) Does it matter who sets the norm co only people who already have issues about sth choose it as their fiekd if study. This is legitimate bc evry field should be studied by so. Illegitimate bc people are biased. Often in the same directiin.

2) Investugate it twofolded. Legit fior workung on a topic and leg for setting norms. Are or should or cozld they be separatef?

3) Every setting norms is born of an agenda. Is average as well? Or woulfd research without prtsonal intrtrst be the only posdibikity for average remaining measure instead of becoming norm and setting standards?

4) And what does it tell me that i am interested in these sex studies. Or this hypithesis might reflect back on the author of this paper

5) Is he making up so or only investigating himself? Doesv this give him more rights for setting nirms bc they reflect back on him and so he fulfills kants imperative?

6) Are people in a discipline equally biaded and that is why they gather thrte or are they filled with thought stylr as soon as they enter? Ie every norm needs disciplinary norms and standards before it can be created
Also average?

7) Investigate norm vs stand vs av

8) And legitimacy. I dont think cang elaborated on how important the norm setters are. Dif he?

Obviously, 1), 2), 4), 5) 8) and 3), 6), 7) are very closely related to each other respectively. I particularly like point 4); it is a self-assaulting question I haven’t elaborated on in my paper. Maybe you have some thoughts on what it tells me and the world that I ended up pursuing this project.

The other important issue I could not write as much about as I wished is the question of the relationship between norm and average. Is an average more “objective”? How does the number become a norm? Who makes it a norm? Or does the norm precede the number, and the average is only its extension?

Canguilhem does tell us that an average is simply a partial measure, because it only accounts for one distinct human characteristic. As if they wanted to prove Canguilhem right, Kinsey and his team had no agenda for racial diversity, social mobility or even improving the standing of people with asexual behavior, for instance. Kinsey’s intention seems to have been to liberate only homo- and bisexuality, and not even a wider realm of human behavior: He believed that certain stereotypical gestures or social occupations were the outcome of a learning process, and that individuals should get rid of these visible attributes commonly associated with their sexual preferences.

The question if Kinsey’s partial partiality delayed or promoted the use of his results to the diametrical opposite of his intention during McCarthy’s witch hunts remains open. This concern of mine leads me directly to the following part of my conclusion for which I would love my instructor to borrow my brain when he is reading (and grading) it:

The absence of intersectionality in the Kinsey Report conceals the want for a theory of intercategorial normalization only slightly: Canguilhem despises the average for its partiality, but he does not offer an analytical framework for how to do better. Leaving the decision to the individual or a rather vague notion of dynamic functionality is not entirely suitable for assessing large-scale normalizing endeavors. A useful concept of norms should be able to account for interdependent categories and multi-level norms, answer the question whether it would be helpful to organize the former strictly hierarchical and the latter transitive, why we might even in theory be unable to create such a structure and if this meticulously ordered system would lead to a static and despotic society.

Wow. Did you get that? If I were to grade my paper, I would put “Unpack!!” on the margins. My brain thought slightly mathematically for a moment, I believe. I conceptualized norms as some sort of relationship or order: like X is less than Y or something is normal and the other is pathological or abnormal. Making these world ordering mechanisms—norms—, transitive, would mean that if X, Y and Z are part of a set of certain individuals, and if X is less than Y and Y is less than Z, we can conclude that X is less than Z as well.

It sounds pretty reasonable that norms should function like this; e.g., if John Tukey was younger than William Cochran and Cochran was younger than Kinsey, then Tukey was younger than Kinsey, too. But it is not always that easy: Several people prefer bananas over apples, apples over pears, but pears over bananas. So their preference is a non-transitive order of the fruit subset of the universe.

As for hierarchical categories, I was thinking of a scale of sets in which each set is entirely included as subset in the next larger set. I have to admit that it is not as easy to find a fruitful example for this mathematical abstraction. If we constructed categories like health or sexuality hierarchically, however, whatever order we introduced for the superset would as well hold for any subset it contains. For instance, if we decided that health dominates sexuality, being normal health-wise would always indicate sexual normality as well, and abnormal health would designate abnormality in health and any other categorial subset of health.

Combining hierarchical categories with transitive norms could make intersectionality way easier to handle: All individuals in a certain set could be aligned neatly regarding one characteristic that would be succeeded by another categorization, but the order of individuals would remain the same. For calculating the average of people, one would merely have to measure the aligned superset elements, and do simple arithmetic.

My question was if we were able to construct such an average for more than only one distinct human characteristic, and if this could pave the way for non-judgmental categorizations of humans. To be honest, I don’t believe that this will ever be the case; consequently, I was trying to suggest that we should find out why a world parceled out like this would be impossible or even undesirable. And since I could not come up with an answer so shortly before midnight, I was also challenging Canguilhem, this great thinker, to share more of his thoughts on this very topic.

What a pity that he is not with us anymore.

1 If you are not familiar with Canguilhem’s On the Normal and the Pathological or Hacking’s “Making Up People,” I suggest you change that as soon as you find the time (maybe start with Hacking, since it’s a very short and readable article; Canguilhem is not only slightly longer but also a little bit more complex—and yet definitely worth reading).

2 I have to admit that it does not really make sense to eat dead organic animals which used to be happy during their life time. Cage-kept hormone-injected antibiotics-fed creatures would most likely be more willing to die and be eaten. But this discussion should probably be left to another weblog.

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