Cri de coeur

Via Larval Subjects, Anodyne writes:

For example, strict social constructionists and anti-realist humanists accuse realists of valorizing science and cry “No Master Narratives!” when findings from science are invoked to support a viewpoint, while they themselves then go on to posit some other, alternative narrative that gets valorized and does all the heavy lifting in their epistemology (be it politics, the social, the “human”, language, etc.)

This is said by Larval Subjects to represent the fallacy of “special pleading” (I suppose with the cry, it’s somewhat literal). LS then cites Latour, and that’s all well and good. But I—-blame me!—-haven’t even heard the words “master” and “narrative” since I put together a panel six years ago on 25th anniversary of Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition—-a book that Lyotard in retrospect didn’t like because of the effect it had—-and before that, I can’t even remember. I raise this because working on certain figures, you get to see this sort of reaction too often, and I don’t want to see this go into the next decade.

Who, pray tell, is crying this? I smell hay from the straw man here, little more. And while I’m at it, I might as well say that this is not all it takes to knock over Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard and similarly lumped people. For example, it’s easy enough to find someone who wrote something rather silly and then somehow say it’s the influence of one of these three. Analytics have done this for some time. (Recent attacks on Arendt because of Heidegger have a similar wiff.) But just to take the first and most supposedly “social constructivist” of these three: First, in Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault spends some time going through the problems of “social construction” and suggests its something akin to a childish fantasy. I’m not going to reproduce his argument here, but if you’re going to suggest that social constructivism is bad, then fine. But if this is meant to hit others who never argued for such a thing, then that’s another. Foucault, for example, doesn’t argue against science, even when he’s talking about power/knowledge. What is he saying? Well, that science is not neutral, that its produced within a given field of power, and that what it seeks out is not somehow just in some rarified field outside societal power. That’s hardly controversial: it’s saying that if one looks at the history of psychology, one sees the importation of societal power structures, and then one sees those exported back to the society at large, with certain effects (the circuit of this, obviously, is more complicated in Foucault…). Does anyone deny this? Maybe the intricacies of Foucault’s account, but simply this? Does anyone deny, for example, that what interests scientists is part of what gets funding, what interests the society at large, and thus changes over a given time? Does anyone deny this, namely that’s there’s a relation between the two? Science funding obviously shapes what science finds and, for example, it’s obvious that the people in the Middles Ages did not invent the telescope because they were morons, but because the need and desire for such a thing never occurred.

And, frankly, I think given the history of which we are all aware, perhaps some pause should be taken before founding concepts on scientific research: political, sociological, and otherwise. As for onticology, the point is to find a way through the thicket of the social, the linguistic, etc., to speak to the “black box” of the real, taking account of the results of science, without thinking that pointing out what comes up frequently in phil of science discussions is somehow the result of painfully obtuse, whining “social constructivists.”


Besides, what is done in SR I take it is not performing a “grand narrative,” which would erase all the differences in terms of an ontotheology. That’s what I like about LS’s work.

One comment

  1. Larval Subjects: “Can someone refer me to those passages [in Foucault] where nonhuman objects are genuine actors and contributors and not simply props or vehicles for power and discourse?

    Kvond: One is never sure what an “objectologist” means when they are looking for objects to be “contributors” or letting objects genuinely “speak”, but perhaps LS should consider Foucault’s treatment of Bentham’s Panopticon which places great emphasis upon the actual configuration of the imagined prison (and thus so many of the actual prisons that have been inspired by it):

    “It is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up.”

    If you look at Foucault’s description closely [http://cartome.org/foucault.htm ], you see that the material instantiation, (axes, divisions, cells, light-affects, blinds, etc.), one might say that powers of the object itself as object, exercise great effect upon the entire “mechanism”. It would be wrong-headed, or as Whitehead might call it, an overstatement, to regard the “object” of the panopticon as a mere “prop” or “vehicle” for power. It is much more rich than that. The form of the prison and the mode of power are ultimately inseparable. Only someone who is LOOKING for a deficit in Foucault would regard the prison itself as mere mode. Each aspect of the prison has a determinative effect.

    But then again, I’m really unsure what it means for objects to “speak” other than to imagine them as fantasy actors.

    I am in agreement with your overall point here, that the social-power critiques of Science/s are those meant to uncover, not the essence of science AS merely constructed, but rather, the hidden and unassumed bias within the choice of objects for study, protocols, functioning metaphors and analogies, and in general the picture-making powers of scientific observation. It is to point TO the otherwise regarded as NEUTRAL ground, and expose its non-objective, quite invested nature (insofar as it is meaningful to do so). The purpose of this of course is to both correct scientific truth against its inborn biases, and also to show contemporary theory as not only an account of fact, but also a value laden narrative. Does any of this turn “objects” into second-class citizens? I don’t think so. It shows all objects, including ourselves, to be rife with power and valuation.

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