Tuesday, October 02, 2007

If you're into evil, you're a friend of mine

Back in August, I read Christian Jungerson's The Exception in one sitting because I was so caught up in it. I think the plot and character development go off the rails in the last part of the book, but that's part of the fun of reading it all at once--the crazy stuff wouldn't be tolerable in more reasonable doses.

The book is about four women who work at the Danish Center for Genocide Studies, an organization that collects and publishes information about historical and current genocides. Two of the women, Iben and Malene, are close friends from college. Camilla, the administrative assistant, has a hidden past. Anne-Lise, the librarian, is jealous of the three other women for getting to sit together in one room of the office, and she feels that Malene and Iben actively exclude her from the workday conversations. When two of the employees receive personalized death threats, the office relationships begin to unravel. The book is really good at showing the small jealousies in friendships and the way that people can unconsciously misinterpret interactions in order to believe the worst about someone. What started as personal slights--both real and imagined--snowball into vicious rumor-mongering, paranoia, violence, and mental breakdown. The novel sets up a loaded question about the comparison between large-scale evil and smaller, interpersonal acts of evil. The problem of comparing those two scales is resolved in some questionable plot twists, and the author resorts to an overused trick to explain some character development problems. So I think it's an excellent book for two-thirds, and it's clumsier at the end. (Here's a compendium of reviews from the Complete Review.)

For its sinister office setting and its character development, the book reminded me of Shirley Jackson's neglected novel The Bird's Nest, which, though a little silly and dated in some parts, is still a cool book. The novel's set-up also reminded me of Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, my favorite book when I was a teenager. That book is a marvel for its subtle details that point toward a terrifying resolution. Here's an early description of the main character of The Bird's Nest:
Elizabeth Richmond had a corner of an office on the third floor; it was the section of the museum closest, as it were, to the surface, that section where correspondence with the large world outside was carried on freely, where least shelter was offered to cringing scholarly souls. At Elizabeth's desk on the highest floor of the building, in the most western corner of the office, she sat daily answering letters offering the museum collections of pressed flowers, or old sea-chests brought back from Cathay. It is not proven that Elizabeth's personal equilibrium was set off balance by the slant of the office floor, nor could it be proven that it was Elizabeth who pushed the building off its foundations, but it is undeniable that they began to slip at about the same time.

Back to The Exception: you don't read 500+-page novels all at once without some sort of speed-reading method. Or at least I don't. I skim parts that don't interest me, and I don't tend to read every word on a page unless the writing is striking for some reason. I've been speed-reading since I was little, so sometimes I don't notice what I'm skimming. For some reason, The Exception brought those skimming practices into high relief.

In the novel, Iben writes articles for the Center's journal about topics relating to genocide. The articles, it seems at first, are rather conventional. That is, the subject matter is gravely serious, but Iben, at least to my mind, is a dry writer who relies mostly on summary, generalization, and rhetorical questions. Some reviewers on Amazon have praised these articles, but I had a difficult time believing that they were supposed to be original, groundbreaking work about Serbia, the Milgram experiment, and the psychology of evil. So I started skimming them, especially the Milgram one--more on that later in the post.

I don't think it will give too much away to say that I started to pay much more attention to the articles later in the book, and when I finished it I realized that there were some valuable clues and hints there. I was interested in how the articles at first seem to have a sort of reifying effect in establishing the novel's themes, but they become increasingly unreliable and destabilizing as all of the characters become implicated in the breakdown of sanity and order.

I got really frustrated with the novel's article about the Milgram experiments because it seemed to take those experiments at face value, and I remain skeptical about some of the ways that work gets used as an uncomplicated lens on too many subjects. (Here's Ben's entry about new thoughts on the experiments.) I mentioned this concern to a friend who was also reading Jungerson's novel, and she pointed me to an interesting article from Granta (2000) about reconsiderations of Milgram. Here's an excerpt from Ian Parker's "Obedience," which wonders whether the experiments have had a single meaning superimposed onto them, when there may be more than one way to consider how the participants responded to their instructions:
And there is Milgram's problem: he devised an intensely powerful piece of tragicomic laboratory theatre, and then had to smuggle it into the faculty of social science. His most famous work--which had something to say about trust, embarrassment, low-level sadism, willingness to please, exaggerated post-war respect for scientific research, the sleepy, heavy-lidded pleasure of being asked to take part, and perhaps, too, the desire of a rather awkward young academic to secure attention and respect--had to pass itself off as an event with a single, steady meaning. And that disguise has not always been convincing. It's odd to hear Arthur G. Miller--one of the world's leading Milgram scholars--acknowledge that there have been times when he has wondered, just for a moment, if the experiments perhaps mean nothing at all.

But the faculty of social psychology is not ready to let Milgram go. And there may be a new way to rescue the experiments from their ungainly ambiguity. This is the route taken by Professors Lee Ross and Richard E. Nisbett (at Stanford and the University of Michigan, respectively), whose recent synthesis of social psychological thinking aims to give the subject new power. According to Professor Ross, the experiments may be 'performance,' but they still have social psychological news to deliver. If that is true, then we can do something that the late professor was not always able to do himself: we can make a kind of reconciliation between the artist and the scientist in Stanley Milgram.

Ross and Nisbett find a seat for Stanley Milgram at social psychology's high table. They do this slyly, by taking the idea of obedience--Milgram's big idea--and putting it quietly to one side. When Ross teaches Milgram at Stanford, he makes a point of giving his students detailed instructions on how to prepare for the classes--instructions he knows will be thoroughly ignored. He is then able to stand in front of his students and examine their disobedience. 'I asked you to do something that's good for you rather than bad for you,' he tells them. 'And I'm a legitimate authority rather than an illegitimate one, and I actually have power that the Milgram experimenter doesn't have. And yet you didn't obey. So the study can't just be about obedience.' What it is primarily about, Ross tells his students--and it may be about other things too--is the extreme power of a situation that has been built without obvious escape routes.
According to Ross and Nisbett (who are saying something that Milgram surely knew, but something he allowed to become obscured), the Obedience Experiments point us towards a great social psychological truth, perhaps the great truth, which is this: people tend to do things because of where they are, not who they are, and we are slow to see it. We look for character traits to explain a person's actions--he is clever, shy, generous, arrogant--and we stubbornly underestimate the influence of the situation, the way things happened to be at that moment. So, if circumstances had been even only subtly different (if she hadn't been running late; if he'd been told the film was a comedy), the behaviour would have been radically different. Under certain controlled circumstances, then, people can be induced to behave unkindly: to that extent, Milgram may have something to say about a kind of destructive obedience. ...