Monday, April 27, 2009

The modern, the postmodern and the possibly post-postmodern: two or three ways of looking at the truth

Perhaps you remember the story of Ariadne, who saved Theseus's bacon when he went into the labyrinth to search for the Minotaur. She stood outside with a ball of thread and handed him one end of it so he could find his way out again. It's essentially the same sort of story as the Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs. And I often wish, when I start chasing down something or other online, that I had a thread with a loving heart at the other end of it guiding me back to where I started, or had had the foresight to leave a trail of breadcrumbs in the deep dark hypertext forest, one that would eventually take me back to the work I'm supposed to be doing.

What brought this on, I hear you cry. It's work, she said piteously; I have here for review a rather funny book called The Coronation, one in a series about a sort of Late Victorian Russian Sherlock Holmes called Fandorin, by Russian writer Boris Akunin. And when I sat down to start writing the review (always a challenging moment), I thought that since the coronation in question is that of Tsar Nicolas II, the last of the Romanovs, I'd better just Google the era first to get a firmer grasp on the Imperial family and its names and dates.

Younguns already look at me uncomprehendingly when I tell them not to trust Wikipedia to be necessarily telling them the truth, so it's only a matter of time before our understanding of what the truth is really does change -- at grassroots level, not just in the staffrooms of besieged Schools of Humanities -- forever. On the other hand, then Wikipedia tells me a story like this about discovering the truth:

Decades later his body was disinterred from the grave in the Cathedral of St.Peter and Paul in St. Petersburg so that a sample of DNA could be taken from the remains to see whether skeletal remains allegedly belonging to his older brother, the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, were legitimate or not. The DNA sample obtained from the remains was an exact match with those obtained from the remains of Nicholas II. Beyond the grave, George had once again proved to be of service to his brother. After the completion of DNA testing, the remains of Grand Duke George Alexandrovich was once again laid to rest not far from those of his older brother and family.

If the story is true, there's something peculiarly satisfying about the neatness of its ironies. Both Wikipedia and DNA testing are extremely recent inventions, both allegedly dedicated to the cause of truth albeit by different, perhaps even opposite, means. DNA testing is a product of modernity's narrative of science and progress, and so is the internet itself. But Wikipedia is a postmodern phenomenon, one whose essence is the idea of a challenge to authority, and in which constant change is the norm. Being brought the one by the other raises questions about both that take me a long way away from the book review I'm supposed to be writing. (Although I suppose the coronation of Nicolas II was the beginning of the end of pre-modern Russia and its ramifications for world history.)

And in the meantime, there's a curly question of grammar in that quotation. Is it 'his remains was' or 'his remains were'?


Armagny said...

Now is the time for a post-posmodern, or postcritical, reconstruction and progression so that the freedom embodied by critical method can be extended to some acceptance of principles extracted from more positivist theories that may sustain some merit, for example the notion of seeking the objective, or of a shared role with biological determinism.

Jeezz I just became that which I fear!!

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Oh well, it comes to us all.

Mindy said...

I would have thought that if the DNA was an 'exact match' that meant they were the same person? The mitchondrial DNA would have shown that they came from the same female line and were therefore related. They may have been able to get DNA to show that they had the same father and were brothers, but it shouldn't have been an 'exact' match.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Yes, I wondered about that too.

Wikipedia, what are you gonna do.

Peter said...

Wot Mindy said.

I noticed similar claim of an 'exact match' in a previous case report. One hopes the people actually doing the test know what they are talking about.


Ann ODyne said...

I think other people like Mindy/with Mindy's knowledge cause the wiki to be constantly evolving and adjusting. But for veracity, every researcher knows to find 2 or 3 sources which don't lean on the other.

Did the British King turn his back when his Russians cousins asked for asylum?

and re Coronations: d'ya think the present Arch of Canterbury prays each night for Her Maj's continued good health?
I think he sees himself crowning Charles and hopes she allows him to soon.

Is a coronation a bigger moment for The Crowner or The Crownee?
We have only Her Maj's day as a visual reference, and the archbishops huge robe completely obscures her, so we do not in fact, actually see her crowned, just his clowny outfit.

ThirdCat said...

Our remains are less singular than we might like to believe they are.

cristy said...

Were. Was just sounds yucky.

On the exact match thing, I thought that it was going to go on to speculate that they were twins or one body split between two graves. When it didn't I just felt confused.

Anonymous said...

I believe the sentence reads "The DNA sample obtained from the remains was...", so the "was" refers to the "DNA sample" (singular) rather than "the remains" (plural). I'd change the sentence to add a few commas as follows "The DNA sample, obtained from the remains, was...".

The note you quote from Wikipedia sounds like it needs a tag attached explaining that it needs a re-write. The general rule is that all facts need to be referenced. If in doubt, check the reference. If no reference, then remain in doubt.

Perry Middlemiss

M-H said...

Fascinating. Agree about the identical DNA. Confusing. And part of my brain thinks that 'remains' is a collective noun for the bits that remain, so should be singular, but it sounds wrong. "His remains is being removed..." So maybe it's just plural for the bits that remain. I'd rewrite the sentence to avoid having to decide.

And wikipedia is usually as accurate as most sources, as long as it is an article with proper references.

JahTeh said...

I don't have a link but I believe that Prince Phillip also had his DNA taken for comparison.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Perry, I think you might be conflating two sentences there. I was referring to the last sentence in the quotation, the one that begins 'After the completion ...', in which the 'was' unambiguously references the 'remains'.

'And wikipedia is usually as accurate as most sources, as long as it is an article with proper references.'

M-H, don't underestimate the amount of spite and rat cunning in the world. Among other things it's very easy to quote stuff from articles wildly out of context, trusting that the reader won't look any further, and few people read footnotes. Have you read the texts of any of the edit wars? They are very enlightening about what can find its way onto Wikipedia at the hands of whom, and not in a good way! Perry will be all too familiar with the kind of thing I mean.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Oh I see, different sentence altogether.

Anonymous said...

Muphry's Law ( strikes again!

Perry Middlemiss

M-H said...

I'm sure you're right about wikipedia. But of course, boring old fart that I am, with clearly too much time on my hands and being experienced at practising PhD avoidance, I often do follow the linked references. So far I haven't uncovered any spite or rat cunning - maybe I'm not looking for very controversial information.

I did recently encounter a long argument linked from the entry on danah boyd, who never capitalises her name, and whether it should have capitals in wikipedia. Even though I'm experienced in the ways of pedantry and general time-wasting (see above) I ran screaming from the room.