Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Literally, Loss of Meaning

Kudos are due to Zoë Heller for her treatment of Naomi Wolf's Vagina: A New Biography in the latest issue of The New York Review. It is not just that the book is fraught with logical errors of misconceptions and specious reasoning. Too much of it is just plain bad writing.

Heller could not have picked a better sentence to make her point:
Serotonin literally subdues the female voice, and dopamine literally raises it.
Heller goes after Wolf in the best possible way:
Wolf literally does not understand the meaning of "literally" and her grasp of the scientific research she has read is pretty shaky too.
Having drawn blood on the rhetorical front, she can then move in for the kill on the logical one:
By repeatedly confusing correlates with causes, she grossly exaggerates what neuroscience can reliably tell us about the functions of individual brain chemicals.
My only criticism is that Heller did not go far enough. If Wolf's book is representative of how Ecco edits its authors, then Heller's targets should be taken as evidence to discredit the entire publishing line, or at least the state of that publishing house in the recent past! If ever there were literal evidence of Max Weber's cautionary remarks about the danger of "loss of meaning" as a result of market-based thinking, Wolf's book definitely provides it, perhaps even to the point of reinforcing the market-based focus of Ecco's management.

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