Labour shenanigans and metric power

David Beer opens Metric Power by recalling that, in the mid‑1990s, he ‘worked in a panopticon of sorts’, a call centre; Foucault ‘would have had a field day’ observing what must now seem quite primitive methods of surveillance as employers started using workplace networks to track what employees were doing.[1] Well, one imagines Foucault would also have taken more than a passing interest in recent stories about the leaked Labour Party report, The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014-2019 (hereafter LPGLU, first covered in the news media here). For this report is a fascinating case study of an organisation becoming more effectively neoliberal, more securely bound by the logics of metric power: what we might now call ‘new’ Labour here has discovered the virtues of number-crunching to distance itself from what we might call ‘old’ Labour. LPGLU constructs this version of old Labour as an organisation where those disgruntled Blairites who make up the bureaucracy can safely subvert the party’s aim to elect a Labour government because no one is tracking their behaviour. On TyskySour (here) Aaron Bastani suggested that revelations concerning secret WhatsApp conversations, far and away the most interesting part of the story at that point, must have been downloaded to one of the participants’ work email account, an observation echoed subsequently by Shehab Khan for ITV (here). So – if we do know what happened, it’s because someone transferred data from a medium that allows actors to evade employer scrutiny (WhatsApp) to one that gives ownership to the employer (email). The workplace has come a long way since the 1990s.

There are two aspects to be discussed here: firstly, the management (and self‑management) of workplace performance and, secondly, the trusting faith placed in metrics to measuring something supposedly worth measuring. Unfortunately, Labour is no closer to a strategy for dealing with the propaganda offensive that has sought to discredit it as an electoral force.

Guerrilla warfare in the workplace

Thinking about the management of workplace performance in the WhatsApp age first brought me to this example of the kind of legal advice solicitors might give to employers, not least problems arising from the private nature of WhatsApp communications: can employers intervene to moderate or even prevent the use of this technology? Clearly there’s a tension between employees hoping to evade surveillance and the employers looking to exert workplace control, as also discussed in a somewhat prescient Financial Times story from 2017 (here). According to LPGLU, Labour’s WhatsAppers, at the time of the June 2017 election, thought they could evade scrutiny; a few months later, in October, the Financial Times was pointing out that workplace cultures should take on board the dangers of technology that, promising privacy, might encourage ‘gossiping and bitching’ or even ‘bullying’.

Understandably, revelations of anti-Corbyn factionalism drew a lot of attention.[2] Also of interest is the way this story has exposed good, old-fashioned workplace resistance as an example of what, borrowing from the sociology of education, might be called guerrilla warfare, doing what you can get away with, doing it because you can get away with it. Notwithstanding the puerile humour on display, if LPGLU is anything to go by, Labour HQ’s anti-Corbyn brigade cannot pretend they were naughty schoolkids subverting classroom authority, but their group identity was based on doing what they did in order to get away with it. An Independent story (here) includes, as an example of anti-Corbyn factionalism, ‘hostile staff creat[ing] a chat so they could pretend to work while actually speaking to each other, with one participant stating that “tap tap tapping away will make us look v busy”’. Well yes – you do it, and then you record what you have done for someone else to read later. A message relayed in a helpful episode of Panorama, Is Labour Anti-Semitic? (July 2019), is that they were ‘trying to do the job properly’ but were handicapped by the leader’s office.

Media reports of factionalism and a canteen culture among party bureaucrats that can only be described as unsavoury, even evidence that officials attempted to sabotage Labour’s 2017 general election campaign – there is little here that should come as a surprise to anyone following Labour politics since 2015; but the content reported is, at times shocking. One might compare the Independent story already mentioned with one in The Guardian (here); the former is rather more sensitive in redacting names, while the latter, having noted Len McClusky’s call for a redacted version of the report to be published, goes on, a few lines down, to share with its readers quotations about people who are, indeed, named. In the quotation above from the Independent story, note the reference to ‘one participant’: even the accused should remain anonymous.

But we’re so much better now – and we have the numbers to prove it

It is unfortunate that LPGLU has come into the public domain in the way it has. Nonetheless, it is the way new Labour has focused on the measurement of difference that might continue to make it vulnerable to attack, even when it boasts of improvement. A gleeful Guardian attack on the Labour leadership (here), ahead of the Panorama broadcast in July, ends with a spokesperson saying: ‘Our records show that after these officials left and after Jennie Formby became general secretary, the rate at which antisemitism cases have been dealt with, increased fourfold.’ This programme now functions as an introduction to LPGLU, and there is nothing in the leaked report that does not corroborate the party’s earlier statement regarding performance. Labour wants to be able to say the GLU has upped its game; criticisms you might have made a year or two years ago are no longer valid because we are now working so much harder, so much more effectively. However, implicit in this defence, is the assumption that there has always been a serious problem, defined in quantitative terms, to be addressed; and yes, Labour is institutionally racist, only now starting to put its house in order. Ignored is the possibility that, considering the size of the party membership, there has been an increase in cases and expulsions from one small number to another slightly less-small number, and what we have witnessed is, as demonstrated many times, a propaganda offensive based on the weaponisation of antisemitism.[3]

What Beer calls ‘the data imaginary’ is those processes exposing what has been hidden: perhaps, depending on your point of view, evidence of antisemitism within Labour’s membership or evidence of GLU performance.[4] This is the way the neoliberal organisation works, all is reduced to the kind of data analysis that claims omniscience. In LPGLU the language of data analytics has been adopted to imply modernity and rigor. One might just as easily argue that what should be visible, anything but hidden, has been obscured. It is difficult to see how new Labour expects to benefit in the immediate future.

Back to metric power

The validity of statistics is easily challenged: do they measure what they set out to measure? What is measured is either the number of members punished for antisemitism, or the party’s increased efforts from April 2018 onwards, not necessarily the same thing. Understandably, Labour wishes to be able to show it is doing something, it is conforming to expectations; that is, not just acting but being seen to act. However, that strategy means accepting as given the scale of the problem to be addressed; and the impression of a party ‘taken over’ by antisemitism, after all, has been reinforced by media story after media story.

Beer makes the point that what is measured (for example the performance of Labour’s GLU before and after Formby replaced McNicol) is only part of the story, metric power ‘is also reliant on certain pathways of circulation and how these metrics become part of everyday and organisational lives’.[5] For example, Labour’s erstwhile not-schoolboys, their attempt at guerrilla warfare rumbled, have discovered they are now data, that is, evidence. That first Sky report quotes Iain McNicol hoping to mock the idea of someone ‘trawling 10,000 emails’, to which the simplest response is – why wouldn’t they? The party is being investigated by the EHRC, and any serious investigation is going to laugh at the idea that individuals can opt out, decide what to share and what not to share. An email you cannot remember sending has now become part of the you being scrutinised.[6] The logic of McNicol’s criticism, however, lies in the juxtaposition of the number (big!) and the items studied (emails are trivial), a value judgement; not so long ago Labour HQ was busy trawling social media to find evidence that would justify the suspension and/or expulsion of Corbyn supporters, producing another big number you might approve or disapprove of, find meaningful or scoff at.

The concept of metric power, then, reinforced by an understanding of the data imaginary, is one way of understanding why new Labour, having allowed itself to be backed into a corner by complaint-as-measurement, will struggle to extricate itself from this mess by playing the case-as-measurement card.

Old and new Labour – really?

To speak in this way of a transition from old to new is quite flippant, and I ought to apologise (I won’t, of course). What I am left with is the thought that changes to the way the party as a bureaucratic organisation goes about its business, surely recognisable to people in most workplaces, remind me of the ‘data-driven’ reform of education, begun by Thatcherite league tables, happily embraced by Blair and Blunkett in 1997, carried on by Gove when he emerged to trash state education after 2010. Doubtless other areas (one thinks straightaway of the NHS) could tell a similar story. And now, given that we always do something because we can, we might even anticipate, as an example of affective measures, league tables comparing CLPs …

[1] Metric Power (2016, 1). Chapter 3, Circulation, begins by suggesting that ‘[a]ny mention of [this book] on Twitter or in a blog post will potentially contribute to its almetric score and its relative impact ranking’ (77). Well, if anyone bothers reading this blog post – unlikely, I know – it has been a pleasure.

[2] A good example of the left’s early response to the report is Bastani’s account for Novara Media (here).

[3] In the light of LPGLU, Jonathan Cook (here) and MediaLens (here) provide important summaries of the political context for this propaganda offensive. See also an earlier MediaLens article dated just ahead of the 2019 general election (here). And there is no shortage of important texts tracking the recent weaponisation of antisemitism against Corbyn’s Labour Party – those published in 2019 include: Bad News For Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief (Philo, Berry, Schlosberg, Lerman and Miller), Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality (Edwards and Cromwell), and Antisemitism and the Labour Party (Stern‑Weiner, ed).

[4] The Data Gaze (2018).

[5] Metric Power, 71-72.

[6] Metric Power ends (210-212) with a brief discussion of affective measures (a topic picked up in The Data Gaze) – the way in which individuals are encouraged to improve their performance. As already indicated, Panorama and LPGLU are linked by the way they focus on individual – that is, not just party – performance. The engaged worker, after all, is central to the functioning of neoliberal organisations. But more on that later.

And so it has come to pass, the UK Government has been forced – or persuaded, perhaps nudged – into what the Telegraph (here) calls ‘measures … [going] far beyond anything seen in wartime’, which, conceivably turns Johnson into some kind of uber-Churchill. What has been interesting in the last few days is the extent to which the Government has been told to get on with it, maybe ‘get it done’; we the British public want martial law, but don’t call it that, not yet. And yes, one might agree that martial law is a tad extreme, an over‑reaction of sorts; the police might be empowered to hand out fines if they suspect someone of dodgy behaviour, but we don’t yet have tanks on the street.

The Government has, repeatedly, been accused of inaction; we are way behind what other countries have done to confront the ongoing crisis. It might be better to say such commentators need to learn how to read the activities of ministers. Jonathan Cook puts it well when he points out (here) that ‘so many major countries – meaning major economies – are today run by the very men least equipped ideologically, emotionally and spiritually to deal with the virus’. Whether or not Dominic Cummings said anything even remotely resembling the ‘defamatory’ remarks attributed to him over the weekend, one can easily see that ‘inaction’ is the default position for politicians who think activity obscene. You might do it in private, but not in public. It’s an oft‑repeated mistake to claim that neoliberal governments are non‑interventionist and prefer a small state; they happily intervene to legislate against, for example, workers and trade unions. As the past days have shown, Johnson and Sunak will support businesses and landlords, while remaining reluctant to do anything that might benefit workers and tenants. To do the latter, they fear, would set the wrong kind of precedent.

Remember Cameron (here) arguing for the so-called ‘deregulation agenda’? He later said (here) he wanted to ‘kill off the health and safety culture for good’; his Government was  ‘waging war against the excessive health and safety culture that has become an albatross around the neck of British businesses; and he wanted ‘2012 to go down in history not just as Olympics year or Diamond Jubilee year, but the year we get a lot of this pointless time-wasting out of the British economy and British life once and for all’. Given that we could use some health and safety at the moment, those comments haven’t aged well. For an earlier stage in the development of this kind of government, one can go back to the 1980s and Thatcher’s anti-union legislation, a blatant attempt to intervene on behalf of capital at a time of overt class conflict;[1] but the Cameron Government, with the helpful assistance of Liberal Democrats, went further by seeking to disguise government intervention. William Davies in the London Review of Books last week (here) suggests that an over‑dependence on the ‘nudge unit’ meant the Johnson Government adopted a ‘comparatively relaxed approach’ to dealing with coronavirus; if the crisis requires the kind of intervention associated with a war economy,[2] then, one might infer the Keynesianism of World War 2 was both anathema to the current Government and also an approach they were unable to adopt, even had they wanted to (unlikely – pretty much the point made by Cook).

And yet: one should at least pause to contemplate the unintended – or not really intended, not intentionally intended – consequences of any act. Those of us on the left who think it a good idea to recognise the importance of essential workers (many of whom would have been derided, not that long ago, as unskilled or, at best, low‑skilled) might be encouraged to think that the old Clause 4 is on its way back. However, we ought to better understand how the current Government might be able to exploit the situation. If World War 2 supposedly educated the nation in the need for some kind of social democracy (hardly socialism), one should not infer a straightforward rerun. Marx, of course, began (here) by quoting Hegel, ‘all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice’ and then added ‘the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce’. He continued: ‘Men (sic) make their own history, but they do not make it as they please,’ a reminder of the role played by unintended consequences. It might, indeed, be tempting to ‘anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to [our] service’ and think some kind of Corbynesque government will soon be elected when voters, as in 1945, learn the lesson of co-operation, casting off decades of training in selfishness; yet the ongoing rerun of ‘the war’ might well see us, not just stuck with Johnson, voters rejecting Attleeism this time round. A Johnson, moreover, who represents a kind of fascism we think ourselves too civilised for. Writing this time in The Guardian, Davies (here) rightly emphasises that we ‘inhabit a world that is temporarily up for grabs’; and he goes on to say that the current crisis is less to do with ideology than with capitalism per se. Arguably the crisis is always to do with capitalism, and capitalism means crisis, and always has, but the point is well made: it is possible that what is ‘up for grabs’ is the nature of the world, or global society, rather than the best way of managing capitalism within the nation state (and that, after all, is what Conservative and Labour parties have always contested).

Thatcher famously benefited from the 1982 Falkland’s War; she became a Prime Minister people took seriously, even if that doesn’t mean we should forget the ongoing opposition to her politics.[3] Similarly, one can see Johnson coming out of this crisis smelling of roses. He might well be disinclined to the kind of gravitas that, supposedly, characterises the ‘serious’ politician; he and his Government might nonetheless benefit from the calls for authoritarianism. In recent days the news has reminded me of what Hobbes wrote in the seventeenth century; living in a state of nature that sees us likely to destroy each other because we can’t co‑operate, we’re prepared to concede power to a strong leader. This isn’t, I hasten to add, an argument that Hobbes ‘was right’; or that Johnson is the chap Hobbes had in mind; it is simply to say that public discourse has tapped into the Hobbesian.

In conclusion I return to the list of approved activities. Apparently, I’m allowed to leave home once a day for exercise. Will anyone be spying on me to count the number of times per day, or week, I go out running? If I vary my route, how long might I expect to get away with it? Time to read some Foucault, methinks; we’ve plenty of spare time on our hands.

[1] See, eg: James Fulcher, 1995. British Capitalism in the 1980s: Old Times or New Times? British Journal of Sociology, 46, 2, 326-338.

[2] Misleadingly so. See James Meadway’s recent article in Tribune (here).

[3] An interesting contemporary article is Ralph Miliband’s, linking the new concern, perhaps obsession, with identity politics to the idea that Thatcherism had won over the working class. Not least, his view that ‘what the Left confronts is not a surge to Conservatism and reaction but a very marked alienation of workers from the Labour Party’ (18) is perhaps pertinent in the months after the 2019 General Election. See: Ralph Miliband, 1985. The New Revisionism in Britain. New Left Review, March‑April, 5-26.

One might now be wondering what examinations are for. On Wednesday 18 March, the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson managed to say little of substance in his House of Commons announcement regarding the fate of this year’s public GCSE and A-level examinations, so one wouldn’t have expected him to attempt to explain their function at any time, pandemic or no pandemic. The Prime Minister had already declared (here) that examinations scheduled for May/June wouldn’t take place (‘we will make sure that pupils get the qualifications they need and deserve’) and Williamson, blagging like his master, was allowed to evade the issue time and again because no one there in the House managed to ask questions that might have forced him to give a straight answer. Accountability, anyone?

On the Parliament website (here), a brief summary of Williamson’s announcement emphasises Angela Rayner’s gratitude (‘The steps that have finally been taken today are welcome …’) as though one might already speak of Blatcherism 2.0. However, we must go to Hansard (here) to do justice to both Williamson’s performance and the lamentable state of the questions asked in Parliament on this occasion.

Williamson claimed: ‘We are working closely with Ofqual on a detailed set of measures that make sure that no child is unfairly penalised.’ One might have asked – no one did – why he had come to the Commons without details of these ‘measures’, unless discussions, like those with manufacturers (here), were at best an afterthought and even, in part at least, a figment of the ministerial imagination, something they’ll get round to eventually. Later he added: ‘We will also be looking to ensure that those who do not feel that the result is truly reflective of their work have a proper and substantive appeal mechanism.’ When, later still, he repeated the line about no exams taking place this year, he might have been asked if a new exam session might be scheduled for the autumn – September, say, or even November – with university courses starting, as some do already, in the new year. No one in Parliament asked this question. And then: ‘We are looking at putting in place additional measures, such as enabling a child rapidly to take a fresh set of tests or exams.’ Is this what ‘working closely with Ofqual’ means? Again – if this is the case, why were no details available to be included in this statement to Parliament? I hold in my hand a sheet of paper; I’ll let you know what’s on it when I’ve decided – or when Dominic has decided – what to write. Does ‘additional measures’ refer to a one-off exam session in the autumn or a kind of retake system for exams that hadn’t been taken, presumably on the basis that the ‘detailed set of measures to make sure that no child is unfairly penalised’ meant students could opt for exams if they didn’t like the grade they were given, aka the ‘substantive appeal mechanism’?

None of this was clarified, meaning that schools would close on Friday with no one knowing if exams would, indeed, take place, eventually. Williamson did promise ‘to publish further advice on A-levels next week’, but then slipped out a press release Friday afternoon (here), one overshadowed by the Johnson/Sunak press conference at 5 pm. At some point ‘more detailed guidance was published (here). It is extraordinary to think that any of the information contained in either the press release or the guidance couldn’t have been included on Wednesday. Moreover, it was interesting that a Guardian report (here) published at 5.40 led with and concentrated on the possibility that some schools might go for alternative exams, those not yet cancelled (an option closed off in the DfE’s guidance). A reference to the press release was tacked on the end as an afterthought.

All of this has been frustrating, to say the least, and that was doubtless always the intention. As elsewhere in the current crisis, the careful organisation of what is said and when fits the profile of a government committed to a model of disaster capitalism, a government that cares little for the impact on people generally, one that seeks only to increase anxiety. We’re told (here) that herd immunity is the way forward, and then (here) told it was never part of the plan after all; all they have ever wanted to do, apparently, is ‘protect life’. Since the December election – and opinion polls have helpfully appeared (here) and (here) to confirm that voters don’t regret producing a Johnson government, far from it – there has been a series of stunts orchestrated by Dominic Cummings, most obviously the decision to offer a job to Andrew Sabisky (here), all designed to see what can be said and how, and what the response will be. The handling of the coronavirus epidemic hasn’t been shambolic, far from it; and the way changes to assessment have been announced this week, fit the pattern. On Wednesday, when he wasn’t cancelling exams, Johnson was allowing pubs and restaurants to stay open but telling people not to go there. It was only on Friday, in the announcement that included nothing on education, that pubs and restaurants were finally told to close. In this report published just after the Friday press conference, The Guardian (here) went with ‘the latest example of the government scrambling to catch up with events’ because, well, The Guardian is still in denial.

So what, after all, are examinations for? One might suggest there is no longer a reason for GCSEs at 16 (here): do public examinations, then, serve no purpose other than to allow the Government to produce league tables and manufacture both ‘success’ and ‘failure’? As regards A-levels, in the last few years, there has been a steady increase in the number of unconditional offers made to students applying to university (here), leading to the possibility of a higher drop-out rate (here). Do universities even care any longer (here)? One might also ask what the purpose of A‑levels has ever been, but that is a step too far, I suppose. Universities might well insist that unconditional offers still account for but a small number of the total offers made; but The Telegraph (here) indicates the level of concern within a Conservative Party always horrified by the prospect of falling standards, and there are indications (here) that this is one aspect of the free market a Conservative government would hope to eliminate. In conclusion, one might dwell, therefore, on a contradiction contained in this week’s announcements. Williamson has insisted ‘the work [students] have done [will be] properly reflected’ in the grades awarded; if so, and he expects the validity of grades to be maintained, why won’t league (‘performance’) tables be published this year?

My last post outlined the work done by Cahalan’s The Great Pretender to expose Rosenhan’s deceits in On Being Sane in Insane Places. Highlighted was the question of misdiagnosis and the emergent conflict between Rosenhan and Spitzer.

Before continuing, it should be clear that, as regards pseudopatients being admitted to hospital, diagnosis was reliable; the system did work here, and doctors had no option (see the description of Rosenhan’s own committal, 184‑186).[1] Later, of course, the system didn’t work as well, exposed by Rosenhan’s subterfuge in telling hospitals to expect pseudopatients (120‑121). One can infer that diagnosis was likely a hit‑and‑miss affair; and even Spitzer, recognising a good career opportunity when he sees it, no misdiagnosis on his part there, is quoted as praising Rosenhan’s contribution to an important debate (193).[2] On 125 Cahalan has already commented on the impact Rosenhan’s revelations had, at a time (‘[i]t was no coincidence’) when the status of homosexuality as a mental disorder was finally being challenged, and this aspect of Rosenhan’s research readily lent itself to quantification, that is, the measurement of misdiagnosis.

He had reasons, then, to favour the experimental side of the study at the expense, perhaps, of those non-experimental aspects that might have proven more rewarding. In a short paper, he could get away with inflating the number of pseudopatients, for example (if that is what he did, The Great Pretender inconclusive here); however, when faced with the need to produce a book‑length study, mere number-crunching was never going to suffice.

Consequently, in The Great Pretender, the pages devoted to the experiences of pseudopatients in hospital – Rosenhan himself (86-105), Bill (142-147, 156‑161, and Harry (222-233) – are easily the most interesting, even though Cahalan, having concluded Rosenhan can only be untrustworthy, often misreads or ignores their significance.

The hole Rosenhan dug for himself

The Great Pretender is at its best when it offers a sometimes detailed description of Rosenhan’s own writing, fieldnotes from his time as the first pseudopatient, or draft versions of various chapters in the unfinished book‑length study his publisher would subsequently sue him for not completing. As published, the original paper is slight, presenting evidence that fits in with contemporary concerns, and perhaps its author failed to predict the impact it would have. Moreover, Rosenhan would not be the first researcher who undertook and published research to further his career (which is not to say others have necessarily served up bogus data). Cahalan alludes to the difficulties he might have had, and been aware of, in gaining a tenured post (268). For whatever reason, this expert on abnormality wanted to be a normal – that is, mainstream – experimental researcher. A wasted opportunity.

The road not taken – because it would have taken far too long?

So where did Rosenhan go wrong? The 1960s had opened with the publications of Goffman’s Asylums, Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness, Becker’s Outsiders, and Laing’s The Divided Self, all major texts referenced at the beginning of Rosenhan’s paper; he clearly wanted to signal straightaway the context for his own modest empirical study. However, given his selection, it’s striking that none of those texts would have claimed to be experimental. Goffman, for example, makes it quite clear at the beginning of Asylums that his approach was the precise opposite of Rosenhan’s: he was not committed as a patient and he prioritised ‘ethnographic detail regarding selected aspects of patient social life’, ignoring the ‘usual kinds of measurements and controls’; going after ‘statistical evidence for a few statements would preclude my gathering data on the tissue and fabric of patient life’.[3] Did Rosenhan read and think about that opening methodological statement?

Rosenhan does use the phrase ‘total institution’ in passing,[4] but appears less interested in basing his research on Goffman’s insights. Throughout, even when attempting to describe interactions, findings have to be presented reductively in statistical form – see, for example, the comparison of interactions as experienced by pseudopatients and the ‘young lady’ at Stanford;[5] or the passage, ‘[a]verage daily contact with psychiatrists, psychologists, residents, and physicians combined ranged from 3.9 to 25.1 minutes, with an overall mean of 6.8’.[6] Beyond the broadest of generalisations (‘not much time’), any attempt to ‘objectively’ measure the time nurses spent with patients is ridiculous: even were it possible to use a stop-watch and time the action reliably, such measures would still have no meaning (other than that some are so foolish as to think presentation of statistical data alone signals scientific rigour).

Goffman, by way of contrast, explains in detail how space is divided to reinforce the way patients interact with staff and with each other, the careful delineation of off-limits space from surveillance space, where patients might expect to have no or little freedom; or those spaces from free places, which are, in turn, not the same as group territories, which might, again, be distinguished from personal territories.[7] The meanings attached to space are inseparable from status and identity; as such, these meanings cannot be quantified in the way Rosenhan’s statistical data would have us believe. One simple illustration of personal territories will underscore their precarious nature:

… a few patients would carry their blankets around with them during the day and, in an act thought to be highly regressive, each would curl up on the floor with his blanket completely covering him; within this covered space each had some margin of control.[8]

This demonstration of the way ethnographic research might unfold has been chosen for two reasons. Firstly, it takes time. Secondly, this passage in Goffman’s book can be likened to the way, in Doing the Business, Hobbs divides the pub (a ‘rigidly stratified institution’) into four different sections, all as a prelude to the story of Keith, whose career as a failed entrepreneur begins and ends in the least prestigious part of the pub, section 4.[9] These examples, from Goffman and Hobbs, illustrate clearly what the sociologist means by the social construction of reality, or the subjective meanings actors attach to behaviour: whatever Rosenhan himself might have understood, and both his published and unpublished writing makes it clear he does get the sociology here, none of it is comprehensible to his critic Spitzer. So fixated is Spitzer on Rosenhan’s erroneous use of ‘in remission’, he ignores the more obviously bogus data.

What might have been – Rosenhan on the tissue and fabric of patient life

When looking at the parts of The Great Pretender that do offer tantalising glimpses into what an ethnographic version of Rosenhan’s published study might have looked like, it is possible to highlight passages that would provide substance.[10]

Rosenhan’s first impression comes with the, as reported, criticism of Szasz and the anti-psychiatry movement, when he notes: ‘They [patients] really are different from me’ (89). If his hypothesis, going in, is that hospitals cannot detect pseudopatients, he remains, nonetheless, committed to his belief in something, here called ‘sanity’, as distinct from something else, here called ‘insanity’. This observation would then help explain his reaction to Harris, who first offers an ‘unexpected intimacy’ (96) when treating Rosenhan as ‘a person, not a leper’ (97); and then rejects him.[11] On 99 Rosenhan, as quoted, ‘behaved like a patient’.

Think about it for a moment: if the confident, charismatic, middle-class professional Rosenhan can be so affected, a good example of what depersonalisation feels like, what might it be like for others, less confident, less assured in their social status?

From here it is easy to see how, over-compensating, Rosenhan would then ‘ham it up’ at the party described by Staub: ‘mesmerising the crowd with his dramatic tale’ (188). That he claimed to have worn a wig that did more than just change his appearance, which Cahalan finds ‘bewildering’ (189), makes perfect sense for someone who wants to live off the experience while, simultaneously, distancing himself from the shame he evidently felt when letting Harris put him in his place (and an understanding of what Goffman had written about space would have come in handy here, of course).

It also becomes easier to see the missed opportunity provided by Harry’s story. By this stage of the book, Rosenhan is a lost cause for Cahalan, who can only see how he has trashed poor Harry’s experience because it doesn’t fit in with what he wants to say. Yet, on 224, Harry is reminded that he is still a patient, and his response when the psychiatrist says, ‘It’s up to you’ – ‘Having that thrown back at me wasn’t entirely pleasant’ – is remarkably similar to Rosenhan’s feeling when Harris turns on him.

See also, in this vein, Bill’s account of the attendant, ‘as if seeing Bill as a human being for the first time’ (159). All three pseudopatients, then, provide compelling evidence of depersonalisation.

For Harry, there is also the moment a nurse gives him his own file: Cahalan can say this is ‘an unusual moment in any hospital, let alone a psychiatric one’ (224-225), while ignoring its similarity to Rosenhan’s description of the nurse unbuttoning her uniform to adjust her bra (95).[12] In each case, it matters little what the patient, a non-person, thinks.

Later, Harry, who has done all he can to ingratiate himself, is refused a pass: the unintentional irony of the older Harry’s recollection (‘… the most surreal experience. Here I am, I’m in a psychiatric institution and I can’t convince them that it’s safe to let me go’) is, of course, missed by Cahalan (225). Rosenhan’s take on Harry (‘HE LIKES IT’) is, supposedly, incredible: Cahalan seems to think Rosenhan is saying he cannot understand why anyone would not hate being in a hospital (224). But perhaps Rosenhan has seen the extent to which Harry, in embracing the role of patient, has failed to understand what is happening to him.

Conclusion – still defending Rosenhan

Rereading On Being Sane in Insane Places alongside The Great Pretender, I have been reminded of long-time reservations but one can only be impressed by how much Rosenhan did include about labelling, power relations, and depersonalisation. The experiences of Rosenhan himself, Bill, and Harry – that is what’s important, and the few examples given above will have to suffice as indicators of how much better a full-length sociological account might have been.

As for Cahalan – it’s clear, in so many places, that she cannot see beyond the label: stickiness, anyone?

Finally, this review has been an attempt to defend Rosenhan against the likely onslaught that will follow publication of The Great Pretender. In particular, to defend him as someone on the brink of producing a major research study when all people will want to talk about now are the lies. It’s only just, then, to end with a quotation from The Divided Self, Laing noting that ‘one frequently encounters “merely” before subjective, whereas it is almost inconceivable to speak of anyone being “merely” objective’.[13] Indeed.

[1] And don’t forget Rosenhan’s own regard, as published, for medical staff: ‘… our overwhelming impression of them was of people who really cared, who were committed and who were uncommonly intelligent. Where they failed, as they sometimes did painfully, it would be more accurate to attribute those failures to the environment in which they, too, found themselves than to personal callousness’ (On Being Sane, 399).

[2] One should also consider Rosenhan’s own career prospects at Stanford, as outlined, 117ff.

[3] Erving Goffman, 1991. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situations of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (first published 1961), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 7-8.

[4] On Being Sane, 399.

[5] Ibid, 393-394.

[6] Ibid, 396.

[7] Asylums, 203-220.

[8] Ibid, 219.

[9] Dick Hobbs, 1988. Doing the Business: Entrepreneurship, the Working Class, and Detectives in the East End of London, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 142-147.

[10] It’s important to note here that the gloss provided by Cahalan’s text is never an adequate substitute for Rosenhan’s own version, no matter how ‘faithful’ she has been to the ‘original’.

[11] In On Being Sane, Rosenhan writes: ‘The mentally ill are society’s lepers’ (390).

[12] A scene included in On Being Sane (395).

[13] RD Laing, 1965. The Divided Self (first published 1960), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 25.


I have always had reservations about David Rosenhan’s On Being Sane in Insane Places; its inferiority to the way a (qualitative) sociologist might have approached the same topic is evident.[1] And now Susannah Cahalan’s The Great Pretender has exposed Rosenhan as a fake: he made it all up (well – some of it).[2] However, reading her account of Rosenhan’s unpublished writing, fieldnotes in particular, has been more interesting. He should have had the courage to follow through his insights into power relations and produce a rich ethnographic account of life in a mental hospital. His inability to do so, and what that tells us about the doing of research, rather than any dishonesty on Rosenhan’s part is what we might more usefully take away from this sorry tale.

There’s at least one good review out there (if you ignore the headline)

I discovered this new book when reading a Guardian review, one that, predictably, failed even to summarise the case accurately.[3] Rosenhan describes the experience of pseudopatients, a small group of people admitted to hospital as schizophrenics when they claimed to be hearing voices. However, in its first paragraph, the Guardian review says they were institutionalised against their will, an odd mistake for even the most careless reader to make. A bit later we’re told Rosenhan’s study led to the first edition of the DSM, the classification system still used in the United States for diagnosing disorders. However, the first edition dates back to the 1950s; and so it’s left to a far better review in The Spectator to indicate the damage done by DSM-III. According to Andrew Scull, there is now a ‘rigidly biologically reductionist psychiatry, one that (falsely) claimed that the “diseases” the DSM identified and listed were akin to those that mainstream medicine diagnosed and treated’. Scull calls the case ‘a fraud whose real-world consequences still resonate today’, a conclusion the magazine then distorts for its misleading headline – ‘How a fraudulent experiment set psychiatry back decades’.[4]

If Rosenhan did set out to highlight misdiagnosis, such errors remain problematic today, and one might do better than blame the messenger whose message remains valid.[5]

Further, it’s worth pointing out here that Rosenhan’s modest little paper would have had a lesser impact had it not seemed to reinforce criticisms going back a decade or more.

Rosenhan’s nemesis?

On Being Sane in Insane Places was clearly of its time, the anti-psychiatry movement boldly dismissive of the pretensions of mainstream mental healthcare (summarised by Cahalan, 56-61). Nonetheless, Rosenhan’s study was rejected by the research community, ‘a chorus of hostile voices’ (175). By now Cahalan has anointed Robert Spitzer her hero and Rosenhan’s nemesis:[6] pouncing on Rosenhan’s claim that pseudopatients were released ‘in remission’, Spitzer points out that this term is seldom used – to do so would imply no symptoms of schizophrenia were being displayed.[7] Hence, the conclusion that, if pseudopatients were judged to be in remission, it must have been ‘a function of [their] behaviors and not of the setting (psychiatric hospital) in which the diagnoses were made’.[8] Rosenhan claims that, once the person has been labelled, all behaviours will be interpreted as evidence of their illness; Spitzer, pointing out that this cannot be so, questions the logic of Rosenhan’s argument – hence the sneering refrain, ‘logic in remission’.[9]

So far it is a conventional case of one professional researcher challenging the work of another, policing disciplinary boundaries, what Spitzer must have thought he was doing. However, he remains blissfully unaware that he has, inadvertently, done Rosenhan a favour. Cahalan makes the same mistake. When she starts to outline ‘sloppiness that seemed unprofessional and possibly unethical’ (173), she refers to pseudopatient Bill’s doubt that he had been released ‘in remission’ (see also Bill’s hospital record, reproduced on 160). On 231 another pseudopatient, Harry, also denies that he left hospital ‘in remission’, Cahalan again drawing attention to Rosenhan’s ‘outright fabrications’. Well, untruthful he might have been, but the absence of any ‘in remission’ statements here undermines, at the very least, Spitzer’s line of attack and suggests Rosenhan was right after all. If this is the case, why he chose to lie about it remains a matter for speculation (to be discussed later).

With the dismantling of Rosenhan’s study and reputation now underway, Cahalan appears to side with Spitzer when Rosenhan refuses to identify the hospitals pseudopatients had been admitted to (179). Spitzer can do little wrong.[10] However, one might pause here for thought. Ethical considerations would have to ensure that no participants were identifiable; it’s puzzling that anyone would expect Rosenhan to freely surrender such details, and this same reservation would cover some if not all ‘outright fabrications’. When Harry is quoted as saying ‘there are some basic factual inaccuracies that, I mean, don’t advance anything’ (231), one again wonders if, or how far, such ‘inaccuracies’ might legitimately be claimed as an attempt to maintain confidentiality. If a statement ‘doesn’t advance anything’, can it be said to be a significant distortion of research findings? At the very least, this is a question worth asking.

It’s certainly reasonable to ask for evidence that a researcher hasn’t lied – if legitimate suspicions have been raised. But is it also reasonable for the researcher to change details that don’t matter? With a strong emphasis on details that don’t matter – perhaps, if that means participants are protected. Cahalan says Rosenhan lied about the safeguards put in place to help pseudopatients if they were unable to get themselves released from hospital (145, 249). That would indeed be serious.[11] Changing details here and there might well be a lesser crime. I began by saying I have always had reservations about Rosenhan’s claim that his research could be called an experiment; and this, I suspect, the adherence to conventional methodological procedure, even when it means playing fast and loose with ‘the facts’, when he might have chosen a quite different route, is where Rosenhan got himself deeper into trouble.

To be concluded.

[1] David Rosenhan, 1973. Symposium: On Being Sane In Insane Places, Santa Clara Lawyer, 13/3, 379-399. Online:

[2] Susannah Cahalan, 2020. The Great Pretender, Edinburgh: Canongate Books. On the ‘replication crisis’ see 270-274.

[3] Stephen Poole, 2020. The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan review – psychiatry’s dubious past, The Guardian, 10 January. Online:

[4] Andrew Scull, 2020. How a fraudulent experiment set psychiatry back decades, The Spectator, 25 January. Online:

[5] Since the 1970s research has continued to appear highlighting the problems of misdiagnosis and the role played by different kinds of bias; the problem isn’t going away. See:

Maureen R. Ford and Thomas A. Widiger, 1989. Sex bias in the diagnosis of histrionic and antisocial personality disorders, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57/2, 301-305.

Rebecca Pinto, Mark Ashworth and Roger Jones, 2008. Schizophrenia in black Caribbeans living in the UK: an exploration of underlying causes of the high incidence rate, British Journal of General Practice, June, 429-434.

Jolynn L. Haney, 2016. Autism, females, and the DSM-5: Gender bias in autism diagnosis, Social Work in Mental Health, 14/4, 396-407.

Michael A. Gara, Shula Minsky, Steven M Silverstein, Theresa Miskimen, and Stephen M. Strakowski, 2019. A Naturalistic Study of Racial Disparities in Diagnoses at an Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic, Psychiatric Services, 70/2,: 130-134.

On gender bias one might also note that the only pseudopatient (supposedly) diagnosed as manic depressive was a female painter, Laura.

[6] Robert L Spitzer, 1975. On Pseudoscience in Science, Logic in Remission, and Psychiatric Diagnosis: A Critique of Rosenhan’s ‘On Being Sane in Insane Places’, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 84/5, 442-452.

[7] Ibid, 444.

[8] Ibid, 445.

[9] On 200 an erstwhile colleague is found quoting Spitzer, basking in reflected glory. One wonders how long Spitzer himself dined out on his own recycled witticism. As I point out below, blinded by his own methodological assumptions, he missed a more obvious opportunity to put the boot in. Hubris, indeed.

[10] See for example the passage at the bottom of 178: ‘the drollest piece of academic literature I’ve ever read’ etc. Really?

[11] Rosenhan’s own take: ‘I was not sensitive to these difficulties at the outset of the project, nor to the personal and situational emergencies that can arise, but later a writ of habeas corpus was prepared for each of the entering pseudopatients and an attorney was kept “on call” during every hospitalization. I am grateful to John Kaplan and Robert Bartels for legal advice and assistance in these matters’ (On Being Insane, 382, fn6). According to Cahalan, when she spoke to him, ‘Bartels [Kaplan’s assistant] was a bit hazy on details’ (145); and there is nothing from Kaplan. Sometimes Cahalan’s witnesses readily recall events in detail; sometimes they just don’t remember.

M&D Chapter 7

If the novel, thus far, has found a range of ways to invoke elsewhere – Cherrycoke’s storytelling, throughout; a stereotyped Other (London and Durham, 14ff; the Indies, 21); the juxtaposition of Emerson’s telescope (17) to ‘Gate-ways to Futurity (19) – it has also seen Mason and Dixon venturing forth from here on the Seahorse. In this chapter, then, they finally land elsewhere, in Cape Town, witnessing colonialism’s need to discipline a native population, as well as the rivalry between European powers represented (Chapter 4) in terms of military power at sea. Earlier, relations between states were framed in terms of warfare; here, another kind of conflict is displayed. As I suggested at the outset, the context for the novel at the time of publication includes the construction, after 1989, of humanitarian intervention as a key feature of international relations; so the writing of subjection here must surely be related to the emergent world order of the 1990s.[1] Moreover, it is significant that, at different times, Mason/Dixon and the native population will be described as innocent, a way of constructing naivety and a lack of experience, but also dependency justifying the exercise of power. Cf earlier descriptions of ‘Savages’ as childlike (21); or the reference to sailors’ ‘ancient Beliefs’ (37).

In earlier chapters the relationship between Mason and Dixon has foregrounded the way they constantly bicker (Chapters 3 and 5); here, for the first time, they are seen apart from each other, their experiences of this elsewhere markedly different, before they come back together to compare notes.

[7.1] A certain Bonk, 58-59

From ‘a sort of spoken Map of the island’ (57) at the end of the previous chapter to ‘the unreadable Map-scape of Africa’ (58) opening the new chapter: it is, in each case, a question of interpretation, of putting into words, what must, what can only, be represented – here, ‘this haunted and other half of ev’rything known’. Which of course begs the question: how is the known known? Moreover, what they see is colonialism, the imposition (‘a precarious Hold upon the Continent, planted as upon another World’) of a power relation.

Further, the introduction of the VOC is of an alternative to traditional state power. Previously, the narrative has featured Anglo-French hostility; here there is a first mention of the kind of global governance Pynchon’s readership is more familiar with.[2] In the opening paragraph, the narrative offers the relationship between what is seen (‘Cape Town’s fortifications’) and what must be inferred (‘the Continent’). If reading is inseparable from fortifications, consciousness is inseparable from the rivalry between states. The defensive measures on display are less to do with defence against an outer world, an external threat, than with ongoing political conflicts between competing outsides.

There is then the introduction of ‘a Functionary …, whose task it is to convey to them an assortment of Visitors’ Rules, or warnings’. Note the way in which ‘Rules’ become ‘warnings’. On 51 Grant is confronted by ‘an Admiralty fopling’ with a ‘young Phiz’ etc; his youthfulness emphasises the power delegated to him and, as seen by Grant, it must appear somewhat humiliating. Here, Bonk offers a kind of paternalism masking the implied threat: with ‘nowhere to escape to, best to do as the Captain and Officers request’ (59).[3] Mason and Dixon have to be disciplined (a process that continues throughout the chapter); the rules have been designed to integrate them and neutralise any threat they might present. Note that Bonk is jealously protective of ‘Our Fortifications, Our Slaves’. He then mocks ‘English Whiggery’, the notion of an irresistible progress, when Mason (‘no master but Him …’ etc) hopelessly invokes common ground with a fellow Christian. In the section that follows, Mason, having failed in this attempt, will be made strange to himself.

[7.2.1] Passion knows me not … alas (60-66)

This long central section organises the narrative round passion and the need for discipline; at different times the Vroom daughters and Mason will be used to discuss innocence as something that must either be lost or taken away (due to the requirements of a disciplinary society).

The first part of the section covers a couple of days in which Mason is confronted by five women, the mother and three daughters, and then, eventually, Austra, ‘the only one in the House [he’ll] be allowed to touch’ (65). When Mason finds her in his bed (bottom of 64) he recognises her as someone ‘[h]e recalls having seen in the company of various Vroom Girls’ (top of 65). On previous pages, then, whenever Jet/Greet/Els have been encountered, Austra might have been present yet invisible: now visible, she speaks, confronting Mason with an unwelcome truth about ‘English Marriage’ and gender inequalities.[4]

If Austra is retrospectively revealed as having been there-but-invisible, the section begins with ‘the sudden defection of half the Zeeman kitchen Slaves’ (60), their absence signified by work that will not be done. The Cape Dutch, as outsiders, are therefore introduced in relation to both problems faced – ‘Company Prices, collaps’d Roofs, sand in the Soup’ – and the fact of slavery, here ‘just one more Domestick Calamity’. The kitchen slaves enter the text by marking the power of resistance; and this passage will conclude a few pages later with Austra’s resourcefulness: her power to manipulate others (‘I’ll tell them I couldn’t wake you up’, 66) being what distinguishes her from the Vroom women. In positioning herself between Mason and the Vrooms, she recalls Greet’s ‘Rôle as Eternal Mediatrix’ (62): Austra is a slave and therefore exploited by the women of the colonial power as by the men. On 65 she explains the business – the logic of exchange value – as characterised by, in Mason’s words, ‘no Sentiment, no Love’. Mason wishes to claim the superiority of English values, but Austra (‘how is English Marriage any different from the Service I’m already in?’) is having none of it: cf both Mason’s earlier speculative reference to the shared values of European religion (59) and his subsequent description ‘of this place as another Planet whither we have journey’d’ (69). Along the way, Dixon has been scrutinised and found wanting, ‘his unconceal’d attraction to the Malays and the Black slaves …’ etc helping to justify Mason’s designation as ‘another story’ (61). Considering Johanna’s interest in him, Mason is bemused, wondering how far he might have changed ‘[b]etween Greenwich and the Cape’ to merit the label ‘exotic’; his awareness of his own qualities (‘in any mirror he’s consulted’, 62) is thus brought into question. Dixon, of course, will experience no such doubt: ‘rude, disobedient …’ etc, he appears to make little attempt to ingratiate himself, perhaps aided by the suspicions provoked – inspired? – by his religion: ‘the English Quaker’ is not to be trusted (61).

In the first instance, Mason/Dixon’s unanticipated move from the Zeemanns’ home to ‘the house behind’ for food (60), the Vroom home initially hidden, exposes them to ‘a strange combination of unredeemably wretched food and exuberantly charming Company’; different kinds of desire will, therefore, be both acknowledged and denied, the satisfaction of food and sexual desires associated with the untrustworthy native population.

Cornelius the patriarch is a storyteller, ‘a bottomless archive of epic adventures’ who perhaps echoes, or even parodies, Cherrycoke’s own role. Given that Cherrycoke remains the narrator, however distant, one might see Cornelius here introduced as a narrating Other, an ‘Arm-chair Commando’ who tells stories he cannot have personal experience of. Similarly, if Chapter 1 introduces Cherrycoke as the means by which children will be disciplined, one might now consider the disruptiveness of the three daughters, as Jemima, Kezia and Kerenhappuch, perhaps demonstrating limits to patriarchal power, quickly become Jet, Greet and Els. At the bottom of 62 Cornelius is ‘anxious as others in the House upon the Topick of Nubility and its unforeseen Woes …’ etc; on 63 ‘he has known it [Lust] to appear’ etc; but then, on 66, seemingly ignorant, perhaps wilfully so, of the farce concerning Mason and his wife/daughters, Cornelius spends his time ‘screaming at the Slaves’, reaffirming his authority, as Mason must ‘[pop] in and out of doors …’ etc.

[7.2.2] He but happens to have stumbl’d into it (66-70)

The long central section can be conveniently divided with the new morning on 66, ‘Dixon wolf[ing] down griddle cakes and Orange-Juice, whilst Mason glumly concentrates upon the Coffee and its Rituals,’ confirming the divergent paths taken by the two characters here. And: ‘There is knowledge that must be suppressed.’ Mason-the-Other now thinks ‘he but happens to have stumbl’d into [the common Life of the House] as some colourful Figure from the Fringes of the World’ – he is both central to ‘some fiendish Asian parlour-game’ and curiously marginal, ‘here for a while and then gone, just enough time for ev’ryone … to make use of him’. His erection ‘is more or less visible to the Publick’ – but how much of this matter does Cornelius know? Is it something the women are able to keep from him?

At this point, the narrative shifts to Dixon and his ‘assortment of Companions native to the Dutch Indies’ (67): his advice to Mason (‘get out of thah House’) is to do what he himself has done. When they meet in Chapter 3, Mason is on home territory, so to speak, Dixon the traveller/outsider; here, it is Mason who must learn to accept outsider status. When Mason asks Dixon for help it marks another shift in their changing relationship, and any illusions he might have here (what ‘unhappy grown Englishmen’ are supposed to believe in) recalls the self-image challenged earlier: on 61 he is the scientist attempting empirical observation, whereas now he finds Dixon mocking beliefs based on ideology. Dixon’s denial of native ‘Innocence’ recalls the reference to Cherrycoke’s storytelling in Chapter 1, when he shifts from the fantastical to the (supposed) realism of ‘a Tale about America’ (7); he brings to the fore a ‘world of Sorcery’ (67) that Mason, desperate, is prepared to consider. If his ‘inflexible Object’ (66) recalls Slothrop, the undermining (or stripping) of scientific certainty he undergoes here might also recall that earlier protagonist’s periodic loss of clothing. Referring to the Learned Dog passage in Chapter 3, Burns suggests that ‘Mason struggles to hold onto the magical, even as Enlightenment thought was calling for its extinction’;[5] a similar point can be made here as Mason finds the science that would confirm his professional status wanting. However, on 68, the native magic that Mason thinks he wants is exposed as just another capitalist enterprise, ‘a lively Market’ where ‘Imitations and Counterfeits abound’.

Earlier in this chapter Dixon is deemed untrustworthy for political reasons (61); Mason, however, is ‘the widower with the Melancholic look …’ etc, a reference to his dead wife, an absence he will continue to struggle with. Here, whatever happens later in the novel, it is the invisible-made-visible Austra who has appeared in his bed: ‘Mason is awakened …’ etc (64). If sexual desire has, indeed, reminded him of Rebekah, it is the not-Rebekah who offers herself to him, Mason telling Austra she ‘must marry an Englishman’ to see how free English wives are (65).[6] In Chapter 3, it is suggested that Mason is trying to escape Rebekah (25), which point informs his request here to Dixon: ‘Emphatickally not a Love-Potion … quite the contrary’ (67). As Dixon then ‘search[es] the Malay Quarter for an Elixir to meet Mason’s specifications’ he encounters cockfights that return the narrative to Chapter 3, the same passage where Rebekah and Mason’s melancholy are introduced.

It transpires that the ‘Indifference-Draught’ Mason has requested (67) is intended for ‘the Soup-Bowl of his Hostess’ (68). However, interactions earlier between Mason and the four Vroom women make it clear they have no interest beyond making it impossible for him to resist Austra; who should be rendered indifferent, then, remains in doubt, unless he supposes Austra will eat the same food. He fails to see, as Dixon does, ‘’tis the Slavery, not any form of Desire, that is of the essence’ – and cf Mason’s reference, a page later, to ‘another Planet … where these Dutch-speaking white natives are as alien to the civilisation we know as the very strangest of Pygmies’, 69); while, on 71, there is no difference between the ‘other villagers’ who populate the real world and those ‘fantastical beings and events’ found in dreams.

If Mason, despairing, insists ‘the Dutch Company … is ev’rywhere, and Ev’rything’ (and cf his dreams on 71), Dixon points to the limit of the VOC’s hegemony, citing popular resistance, ‘routes of Escape, pockets of Safety’. On 67 Mason says Dixon is ‘out rollicking’ etc; here he asserts his own joyless regime (70). As they are, then, reunited, Dixon refers to ‘too much Sand in the Air tonight’, a reminder that, thus far, ‘there [has been] plenty of time for Mischief to shake her Curls …’ etc (62). Bottom of 60, there is, perhaps, an allusion to observation when ‘the Clock having misinform’d him of the Hour … Mason only just avoids a collision with Johanna’ – all of which sets the tone for the following pages. Top of 61: the ‘Melancholickally‑smok’d Lenses’ and subsequent reference to Mason’s observation (and measurement) of himself in mirrors confirms the shift to subjectivity. Mason meets Austra when ‘the Sky [is] too cloudy for Work’ (bottom of 64) and then ‘prays for clear nights’ (66). Dixon then reasserts himself when Mason needs him: ‘For an instant both feel, identically, too far from anyplace …’ etc (70). A little later, they will ‘agree to share the Data of their Dreams …’ etc (71).

[7.2.3] One of us must provide a Datum-Line of Sanity (70-75)

Out ‘in search of Lustful Adventure’ (70) Mason proves ‘a difficult carousing partner’, so one might think of Portsmouth in Chapter 3, Dixon ‘increasingly desperate for a Drink’ (24). On 70, ‘this side of Sumatra’ recalls The Pearl of Sumatra in Portsmouth (24). Here, Mason is ‘a Curiosity of Nature’; earlier he was ‘some colorful Figure from the Fringes of the World’ (66). Again cf: ‘you have been observing me in a strange … way’ (16). Mason is on display, to be scrutinised. Dreaming, ‘wak[ing] up screaming, repeatedly’ (70), he must be disciplined. If he hoped, earlier, for a native potion to control others, he must now be ‘sen[t] … to talk with a certain Toko …’ etc. As on 64 Austra is here associated with his waking from sleep, returning to the narrative to manage Mason on behalf of ‘both Houses’ (70). One might also note the ambivalence regarding native belief systems that might be exploited, even while native cultures are, elsewhere, deemed beyond the Pale.

The new phase of their relationship sees a renewal of the bickering that has gone before as Mason declares himself ‘the Master’ and Dixon ‘his own sly ʼPrentice’ (72); he advises Dixon to ‘take Notes’ in anticipation of, ‘someday … bearing all the weight of Leadership’. If the chapter, thus far, has seen little in the way of scientific observation, and consequently a distance of sorts between Mason and Dixon, this passage confirms a coming together while Mason accepts tuition from Toko. Professional insecurity is undeniable as they discuss the possibility that they are pawns in someone else’s scheme. Mason insists he has ‘earn’d’ his ‘Station’ (73); whereas Dixon, ‘[a] collier’s son, – a land-sale collier at that’ must have been the beneficiary of some kind of advocacy, ‘the decisive word’.

Squabbling here is based on class differences that Mason at least remains sensitive to, replacing the earlier concern for local cultures, both Dutch and native – Mason, having defeated ‘the tall figure with the wavy Blade’ of his nightmares (71), can now confront the ‘snarl’d and soil’d web of favors, sales, and purchases’ he hopes Dixon ‘may ever remain innocent of’ (74). Earlier, innocence was associated with either the Vroom girls (less innocent than they should be) or the native who, generically, will forever provide local colour. The narrative comes back to the tension between Mason and Dixon as though they have yet to leave England and its class system: Dixon can now be designated foreign, ‘the mystery’ one of ‘a different sort’ (74).

There follows a parenthesis (‘As Maskelyne will later tell Mason …’ etc) that exposes Cherrycoke as the hidden narrator. And then, Mason and Dixon no longer squabbling but trying to work out what is happening, they feel as though, in Dixon’s words, they are ‘Lodgers inside someone else’s Fate …’ etc (75). This line, coming after Mason’s ‘not a Dream, yet …’ hints at an alternative reality that sees Mason and Dixon ‘[h]aunting this place, waiting to materialize’.

[7.3] Simple folk (75-76)

In a brief concluding section the narrative returns to Cherrycoke as narrator. He suggests Mason and Dixon appear ‘disingenuous’; not only are they ‘innocent’, they are unaware that they might appear otherwise. He goes on to point out (‘As Savages commemorate their great Hunts …’ etc) that cultural practices might differ, the necessity of such practices cannot be denied. On 76 LeSpark claims innocence (‘we are simple folk’) to deny Ethelmer’s ‘millions of lives, the seas of blood’ – cf the opening of Chapter 4, Ethelmer’s self-censorship and LeSpark’s ‘Fortune’ (30-31). That Christ might now be invoked to justify foreign policy has morphed, in the 1990s, into humanitarian intervention, ‘God on our side’ now the assertion of universal values that have been challenged throughout the chapter.

[1] In the first instance one might note the liberal triumphalism of Fukayama’s ‘end of History’, followed a few short years later by Huntingdon’s somewhat hysterical ‘clash of civilisations’. See: Francis Fukayama, The End of History and the Last Man, first published in 1993; and Samuel L Huntington, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order, first published in 1996 (after essays first published by Fukayama in 1989 and Huntington in 1993). See also Edward Said, The Clash of Ignorance, in The Nation, 4 October 2001. For brief mentions in Pynchon scholarship, see: Christy L Burns, Postmodern Historiography: Politics and the Parallactic Method in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, in Postmodern Culture, 14, 1, 2003; and Samuel Cohen, Mason & Dixon & the Ampersand, in Twentieth Century Literature, 48, 3, 2003. Pynchon’s novel invokes a time when global politics was dominated by European colonial powers, a time well before the bipolar world that followed World War 2; yet its emergence at a time when ‘the West’ was in desperate need of a new enemy should not go unremarked.

[2] Stacey Olster, A ‘Patch of England, at a three-thousand-Mile Off-set’? Representing America in Mason & Dixon, in Modern Fiction Studies, 50, 2, 2004; Ian Baucom, Globalit, Inc; or, The Cultural Logic of Global Literary Studies, in PMLA, 116, 1, 2001.

[3] If paternalism is a key feature of colonial rule, one can see here the way in which Bonk – ‘I know what is best for you’ – implicitly links Mason and Dixon to colonial subjects and, specifically, the slavery mentioned here in passing. Not least, Mason’s volubility undermines any membership that might be supposed of ‘us’. See Edward Said, Orientalism (first published 1978); and Descola and Pálsson, eds, Nature and Society, 1996.

[4] On Austra’s ‘voice’, see: Deborah Madsen, Captivity without Redemption: Pynchon’s Allegories of Empire in Mason & Dixon (online).

[5] Burns, Postmodern Historiography, para 4.

[6] Beginning with Mason’s bereavement/melancholy, Wallhead discusses connections between Mason and Shakespeare’s Hamlet; however, she doesn’t consider the role played, in this chapter, by his melancholy. See: Celia Wallhead, Mason & Dixon and Hamlet, in Orbit, 2, 2, 2014. Online:

M&D Chapter 6

[6.1] Leaving things dirtier than they were before, 47-48

The chapter opens with Cherrycoke and Brae discussing the Royal Society’s instructions to Mason and Dixon. They are interrupted when speech introduces another family member, Uncle Lomax. The first half of this brief section, then, deals with a contract that cannot be broken (‘the Royal S. … threatening legal action …’ etc, 47); while the second half of the section deals with a contract broken, soap ‘of low Quality’ that ‘often leaves things dirtier than they were before its application’. There have already been significant references to contracts – chapter 5 opens with Cherrycoke’s ‘spiritual Contract with the World as given’ (30), perhaps a reminder of Mason’s ‘Contract between the City and oneself’ (14); one might note here the absence of capitalisation in a reference that is more prosaic.

It is also interesting that Cherrycoke refers to ‘more Earthly Certainties’ (47) when he means, contra science, ‘a warning … from Beyond’. Cf Captain Smith’s juxtaposition of ‘Scientifick’ to ‘ancient Beliefs’ (37). If science is defined by, and depends on, empirical evidence that can be scrutinised objectively, this ‘warning’ is more of a gut feeling to do with fear. The Royal Society, meanwhile invokes a system based on legality and the need to compensate those who judged to be injured parties; while those consumers buying soap from Uncle Lomax have no such safeguards. On the Seahorse, hierarchical relations are informed by an imagined community that is rendered ineffective, or untrustworthy, when relations must be regulated by the law and the market.[1]

[6.2.1] Rebellion and immoderate desires, 48-50

If Captain Smith desires the right kind of company and conversation (32-35), Cherrycoke here demonstrates the downside of being ‘quarter’d with … a rattle‑head’ (48). Aboard the Seahorse characters are confined in a closed world that emphasises status and the importance of knowing, so to speak, your place. One might think back to the passage describing the ship’s motto and the ‘Code as strict as that of any ancient Knight’ (36). Cf Grant’s ‘feckless Youth, a Source of pre‑civiliz’d Sentiment’ (51).

Previously, Unchleigh was singled out as one of the ‘boil-brain’d subordinates’ Captain Smith would like to distance himself from (36). Unchleigh’s reappearance on 48, then, sharply contrasts the closed society of the Seahorse and the open society governed by contract law. Subsequently, impromptu signalling between ships (49) is followed by ‘a mysterious seal’d Dispatch’ (50): the former as transient as speech, the latter a record that has legal status.

Unchleigh’s antipathy to ‘Print’ (48) is to modernity, of course, as well as a reminder of Cherrycoke’s introduction in chapter 1, and his role here as a narrator, in association with oral traditions of preliteracy – cf the legal system that confines Mason and Dixon (47) precisely because agreements have been recorded. In chapter 1 Cherrycoke is interrupted by the first adult to join his audience, Uncle Ives ‘lately return’d from a Coffee-House Meeting’ (9) – his interruption is to ask what Cherrycoke was found guilty of, ‘strictly professional interest, of course’ and Unchleigh, here, fears ‘Civil Unrest’ as the consequence of discussion, the promotion of thinking, and quite unacceptable in a closed society. The ‘mysterious seal’d Dispatch, handed to the Captain at Plymouth just before they cast off’ (50; or ‘seal’d Sheaf of Papers’, 51) requires, of course, no thinking or discussion.

The interaction between Cherrycoke and Unchleigh is followed that between the two ships (and their respective captains), again raising the question of personal space, or ‘Standard Interval’ (49). This brief passage provides a bridge to Mason/Dixon, whose bickering seems ongoing. Not least, the reference to beer and wine returns the narrative to their first meeting (17-18).

[6.2.2] Your first damn’d fool’s errand, 50-54

The introduction to Grant’s thoughts (‘well, almost any Ship’, 50) might recall the similar introduction to Smith, ‘oblig’d at last to accept the remote scruffy Sixth Rate …’ etc (35). Each man expects more. However, reference here to ‘the Immortality of Ships’ (50) through constant transformation would appear to include crew and, specifically, its captain, given the replacement of Smith by Grant: another way of thinking about the imagined community as an abstract notion. Nonetheless, given his orders in writing (‘a seal’d Sheaf of Papers’, 51), Grant must confirm delivery by signing ‘an instrument of Receipt’ – making him personally responsible, of course.

Odd behaviour, as observed, links Grant and Mason (51-52). However, ‘Madness at Sea’ (52) is hardly worrisome (cf Unchleigh’s concerns earlier on 48);[2] and the crew now comes to the fore. Half way down 52 the paragraph beginning ‘This ship’s history …’ etc introduces ‘[t]he Frigate life’. The loss of musicians here follows the earlier description of ‘the Immortality of Ships’ (50). If the rebuilding of ships suggests one kind of tradition, musicianship suggests another, ‘Slowcombe … having learn’d the Art of his Instrument from the fam’d Hanoverian Fifer Johann Ulrich …’ etc (53). The ship is ‘a Village’ (52; repeated, 53) marked by the ability of its inhabitants to coexist peacefully: Soames’ solitude, followed by Veevle’s sleepfulness (54), undisturbed by noise that would awaken others. This passage provides another take on the ship as a closed society, following earlier descriptions of rank. Officers – and the claustrophobia indicated by their interactions – are absent; and authority is represented by the intrusion of the reward offered to anyone who can wake Veevle. Cf the way in which Grant and Mason/Dixon have earlier been disciplined from afar by written orders and a contract enforceable by law, respectively.[3]

[6.3] A Royal Museum of Work, 54-56

The new section begins with Grant’s introduction (kind of) into ‘the shipboard routine’ (54), speaking, then identified by a response. Similarly, on the next page, it appears to be Grant asking after Bodine (55), although he is not identified by name here either. In this section, then, with the emphasis on work, Grant is marginal to the action. Down the page on 54, Higgs is ‘an ideal Subject to practise being insane upon’; but this opening statement comes to nothing, succeeded here by a detailed account of Higgs’ ‘Obsessedness’ (55). A further connection between ship and society is identified with ‘the Project of tidying up the work of the Riggers at Plymouth …’ etc. Hence: ‘a Thousand details, each nearly invisible, all working together …’ etc, a succinct description of the division of labour, one that quickly morphs into national pride expressed as a job done well.[4] Again, as with the description of the sea battle in 4.4 (37-38), work is war-related: regarding, that is, the ship that will most impress the enemy (55). Cf the earlier passage on ‘the Immortality of Ships’ (50), where the work in question is that which Higgs is here so critical of.

Nonetheless, work is here fetishised, promoted as an empty ritual. Higgs’ fastidiousness is a distraction, one of the ‘alternatives to Ennui’ (55) that include Bodine’s ‘Penis in the Jewel Block’. The section deals with boredom as the obvious alternative to battle, and ‘the Prospect of crossing the Equatorial Line’ is also obsessed over, ‘grow[ing] unnaturally magnified’. Cf the earlier ‘ancient Beliefs’ (37).

[6.4] But imagine, 56-57

The previous section ends with an allusion to ‘the Ceremony of Initiation plann’d for those new to this Crossing’ (55), that is Mason, Dixon and Cherrycoke, the first time they have appeared here – and the new section begins with the twins’ response to the version of events Cherrycoke has offered them (56). At a distance they are unable to appreciate the role played by distraction, perhaps ironic, given that, in chapter 1, Cherrycoke’s story began as just that. In this section he alludes to another aspect of storytelling, ‘the part that no one ever tells you about’. One might wonder what kind of account the twins have just heard of, for example, Bodine ‘quite enjoying the Friction’ (55), or ‘Posterior Assault’. Uncle Ives has tried to stifle any curiosity the twins might have – ‘ignoring ʼem’s best’ (56) – to avoid embarrassment, one imagines. This attempt at censorship recalls the earlier scene opening chapter 4 (30-31). Here, the detail revealing unspeakable horrors has become Spotted Dick up the nose (56); and the twins are silenced in contemplation of horrors they think they can appreciate (57).

[6.5] A game, 57

The previous section begins, then, with the twins’ curiosity, their desire for knowledge; and ends with their silence. Job done. Above the break, ‘the Lull’; below it, ‘the Seahorse gallops’, phrasing that, following the graphic description of Spotted Dick effects, draws attention to Cherrycoke as a creator of the stories he tells. He has escaped the interrogation the twins intended and, this goal achieved, the second paragraph returns him to being a character: from I to ‘the Rev’d’. Here, Mason and Dixon become the narrative focus: if their ‘game’, as a ritual dependent on the power of repetition, recalls ‘the Ceremony of Initiation’ (55), the reference to children here (‘consol[ing] themselves when something is denied them’, 57) recalls the twins but, more generally, the need for distraction. The ‘spoken Map of the Island they have been kept from and will never see’ is a forceful imagining of that which is absent, all of which serves the purpose of making Mason/Dixon absent from the ship that, currently, confines them (as well as invoking the storyteller telling the story).

[1] Again one thinks of Thompson’s writing of resistance and a moral economy based on a consensus regarding some notion of ‘fairness’ that, in a pre- or early-modern context, has widespread currency. Against that, there is the way in which legality is seen to supplement and confirm state power. For example, Weber’s view that the state is defined in relation to the legitimate use of violence might be set against Foucault’s description of governmentality and docile bodies. If Mason and Dixon might be sued by the Royal Society, for example, they would come up against state power in the form of a legal system allowed to punish them. This is the first reference in the novel to this kind of coercion – earlier references to ‘a Contract between the City and oneself’ (14) or a ‘spiritual Contract’ (30) invoke learned behaviour and docile bodies; but Cherrycoke’s employment, so to speak, rests on kinship.

[2] Another indication, perhaps, that the ship’s community is a throwback. Cf the way in which definitions of madness (that is,medicalisation) have signalled modernity. See, for example, Michel Foucault, History of Madness, Routledge, 2006 (first French publication 1961); and Roy Porter, Mind-Forg’d Manacles, Penguin, 1990 (first published 1987). See also Thomas Szasz, The Manufacture of Madness, First Syracuse University Press, 1997 (first published 1960); and then Szasz, The myth of mental illness: 50 years later, The Psychiatrist, 2011.

[3] Veevle is policed informally by his peers rather than threatened with punishment. See Foucault on governmentality and docile bodies. Moreover, in a village where people can easily ignore each other … If the urban community that requires a Contract etc is marked by organic solidarity, the village is marked by mechanical solidarity.

[4] The writing here of ‘a Thousand details, each nearly invisible’ recalls Adam Smith’s invisible hand, the almost magical co-ordination of independent factors. See: Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations. Currently, of course, the Adam Smith Institute exists to persuade us that Smith was an advocate of neoliberalism, which view might be contested. See Emma Rothschild, 1994, Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand, The American Economic Review, 84, 2, 319-322; and Gavin Kennedy, Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: From Metaphor to Myth, Econ Journal Watch, 6, 2, 2009, 239‑263. Of more interest is the way in which Smith’s invisible hand relates to Durkheim’s division of labour within the writing of modernity.