Room 237 and Some Post-Modern Problems

I think everyone involved in academia should see Room 237 but for some strange reasons. The movie is a fascinating look at some people who, to put it mildly, are obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining. They’ve developed all sorts of theories about hidden messages in the film. Is it secretly a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans? Is it secretly about the Holocaust? Is it Kubrick trying to tell us he faked the moon landing for the government? Is it a subliminal message that Danny was abused by his father and then he kills him for it? Is it meant to tell us the entirety of human history and how to surpass it? Is it a retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur?

I recommend you watch the movie with suspended disbelief to really try to get inside the heads of these people. It will make the movie much more fun. Once it is over you should then pop on over to David Segal’s New York Times article on it for a healthy dose of skepticism. But here’s the point. The movie should be used as discussion starter in academia on some issues that get swept under the rug, but used to keep me up at night (and now they do again after seeing this movie and it all came rushing back).

I’ll say up front that I’m going to open a big can of worms and not offer any sort of solution. If this is going to frustrate you, then you can stop reading now. To explain the issues, I’ll start in academic fields that are easiest to pick on like the fine arts and more specifically “critical theory.” Let it be known that since these issues are actually discussed there, I actually think they are in better shape for facing them. We’ll then discuss how they arise in “objective” subjects like math. Here it is much more dangerous because people will outright deny these same issues exist. I personally think these are issues that cut across every discipline in the university (except maybe the experimental hard sciences).

For the purposes of this post I’ll define post-modernism as the philosophical position that an interpretation of something is valid as long as it can be supported by a sound argument involving some type of evidence from the work being interpreted. Two things immediately spring to my mind with this definition. First, this idea is the bread-and-butter (at least at the undergraduate level) of what is taught in universities. We actually reward papers that take risks with original and maybe even controversial interpretations as long as the paper that gets turned in uses sound logic, is well-written, and supports its arguments with evidence. It is like we are training our students to make connections where none exist and become future conspiracy theorists.

This brings us to the second point. Even though on the surface post-modernism seems like a totally reasonable idea (again, all of academics seems based on it), Room 237 really brings to light why we might want to be a bit more cautious. Post-modernism tells us that every single one of those interpretations in the movie are valid. Just think about some student writing down the fake moon landing interpretation for an intro to film studies class. That student will get an A+ on that paper. As the New York Times article points out, basically all of the symbols and details that support that theory were mere accidents or conveniences.

Since this is a theoretical discussion, let’s do a thought experiment where we know beyond any reasonable doubt that Kubrick did not intend in the slightest to allow this interpretation. In what sense then is that interpretation “valid?” To put the problem much more bluntly, let’s take any work of art that is reasonably robust. If you have enough time, are well-versed in symbolism, and are fairly clever, then you can probably take any bizarre theory you want and connect the dots of the work to argue convincingly for that interpretation.

More specifically, if a work can mean anything, then the work means nothing. Someone might try to get out of this problem by saying that an interpretation is valid if in addition to the evidence from within the work some evidence from outside the work is provided to show some sort of plausibility that the interpretation could have been intended by the artist.

I think even pre-modern theorists probably rejected this “fix” as too narrow, because a work of art can’t have no valid meaning outside of the intent of the artist. Anyway, I think the problem in the fine arts departments has been addressed and I promised to point out how this cuts across all academic disciplines, so we’ll move on.

If we phrase the problem slightly differently it becomes clear how the problem translates. We’ll rephrase post-modernism to mean that a connection between two things is meaningful if a sound argument can be made showing how they are connected. We recover the art version of the definition by saying the two things are the work and the interpretation. When talking about math, the phrase “sound argument” should just be read as a proof that the two mathematical objects/theorems/ideas/theories/whatever are related.

I know at this point some mathematicians are scoffing. If you prove they are related, then of course they are related. Why care about such value judgments as whether or not it is “meaningful.” I don’t want to say whether or not we ought to care about such things, but the fact is that in current mathematical culture we do care about such things. Also, we could change the word meaningful back to valid to try to avoid value judgments, and I think the problem still exists. Here’s an example.

Mathematicians often use the term “deep.” This means roughly that the connection is both meaningful and difficult to establish. The term cannot merely mean difficult to establish, because with very little thought one can come up with an extreme example of a difficult to establish connection that would be written off as ridiculous and frivolous. For example, the proof might be exceedingly long and include steps that are totally arbitrary like adding 1 to every coefficient of some Fourier series to get a new function and taking the value of the function at 12 to get 145926144000 and noting that there is only one simple group of that order whose double cover is related to the Gaussian integers and so on.

Of course this is an extreme example, but now let’s just pare back the arbitrariness of this example or extend the length and number of somewhat unrelated steps of the “deep” theorem to get to a middle ground. It becomes much less obvious where the line should be drawn between something that is hard to establish and deep versus something that is hard to establish because it involves some arbitrary steps that cause it to lose being a meaningful connection. Arguably a lot of math (and other disciplines as well) do publish these papers establishing these tenuous connections. The publish or perish stress and threat I think exacerbate the problem.

Overall, here’s why I want people to watch Room 237. I hope that it opens up some much needed discussions in academia about these issues. The summary question is as follows. Suppose you notice some pattern or think there might be some connection in what you’re studying. You need another paper, so you over-analyze the situation until you see a way to force an argument for the relationship. You publish a paper on it. In what sense is this legitimate academic work and the moon landing theory is not? How can we tell the difference? I’m not saying there isn’t a good answer, but I think the lack of admitting that this could be a problem allows moon landing style theories to exist without any criticism about legitimacy from the university.


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