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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Engine trouble

Today’s my contribution-to-the-Valve day, which means—lucky you!—another really, really long post on the debate over “Theory” in literary and cultural studies.  This post won’t appear on the Valve’s site, but it is Valve-related nonetheless.  So just for today, I’m renaming this blog “the Carburetor.”

I haven’t finished reading Theory’s Empire, so I can’t attempt anything like a review of the whole; besides, I’ve agreed to review the thing as a whole later this year for The Common Review, one of those “print” journals.  I told John Holbo that I could offer a few remarks on one essay, Mark Bauerlein’s “Social Constructionism: Philosophy for the Academic Workplace.” But some time after I made that promise, an essay by Bauerlein appeared on Butterflies and Wheels, and then I replied to that; in effect, then, July 6-13 has been transformed into Criticize Mark Bauerlein Week on this persnickety blog.  It’s good to see that Ophelia Benson has taken the blame for all this (and for the record, Ophelia, it was both an intervention and a transgression!  for this you get extra bonus cultural studies points, if you want them).

Tomorrow, by the way, John McGowan will pick up the baton; he’s also written a fine post on Theory’s Empire, and will likely do a followup here.  So for now, I suppose, John and I are agreeing to serve as the Agents of Empire.  Cue scary Darth Vader music.

First, though, I’d like to chime in on John Holbo’s initial post on the Valve.  After all, this is supposed to be something like a conversation—and I can hardly pass by a sentence that tells me that one of my claims “is wrong for a reason so simple it is hard to take seriously,” now, can I?

The claim in question is this (it comes from one of my comments on last week’s post):

No doubt a future edition of the Norton will include some Theory’s Empire contributors; at the same time, I have to remark that TE – and Bauerlein’s essay about it – practically invites that response. What’s more, some of the contributors, like Anthony Appiah, are already considered to be people who helped to build the theoretical edifice.

John H responds (btw, I’m on a first-name basis with John, but will call him John H here so as distinguish him from John McGowan):

Michael’s sense is that, at the end of the day, it is absurd to posture as if you are ‘outside theory’—let alone part of a small band of scrappy rebels, darting nimbly past the rigid defenses of some sinister monolith. Whatever is intellectually valuable in a book like Theory’s Empire will eventually be acknowledged and taken up, and not in some nightmarish ‘you-will-be-assimilated’ way either.

This is wrong for a reason so simple it is hard to take seriously. But it should be taken seriously.

But John, that is not what I meant at all.  That is not it, at all.  I wasn’t saying that it’s absurd to posture as if you’re “outside theory”; most of the contributors to TE are quite clearly outside, against, opposed to, and even underneath (and trying to topple) “Theory.”

John H confuses my remark with a bit from Terry Eagleton, which he quotes later on (“The economist J. M. Keynes once remarked that those economists who disliked theory, or claimed to get along better without it, were simply in the grip of an older theory. This is also true of literary students and critics.” From the introduction to Literary Theory: An Introduction.) Rather, I was picking up on the conclusion of Bauerlein’s essay, in which he writes, “some of Theory’s premises will be expelled, some names discredited, but others will be strengthened. That is the natural and healthy evolution of a discipline, and Theory has been able to resist it for too long.” If that happens, then it is only natural and healthy that a future edition of the Norton Anthology (or a similar volume) would include some of the arguments made against Theory-with-a-capital-T in TE.  Simple as that.  John H’s resistance to this claim puts TE’s critics in a strange bind: after all, one of the premises of the anthology is that its arguments and contributors have gone unheard for too long.  I was merely suggesting that some of them might eventually be heard more widely as informed critics of theory.  I hope the anthology’s fans are not now going to indulge in the cultural politics of marginality—you know, the dynamic that stretches from the Romantics to Kurt Cobain, in which the success of an “intervention” or “transgression” is inversely proportional to the number of people who know about it.

Second, my point about Appiah was a slightly different (and more suspicious) point.  John cuts off my original sentence after its semicolon, but after the semicolon, there’s this:

What’s more, some of the contributors, like Anthony Appiah, are already considered to be people who helped to build the theoretical edifice; but then, TE excerpts Appiah only for his (generous and well-aimed) complaint about the bien-pensant mode of criticism, and doesn’t provide any excerpts from In My Father’s House.  So there’s a bit of cherrypicking going on in that respect.

My point here is simply that you’d never know, from reading TE, that Appiah is also the author of one of the most widely-cited essays of the 1990s, “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” And this kind of thing goes on throughout the volume.  Why, in Richard Levin’s essay, you can find an approving citation of a theorist named John McGowan (!), for his claim that some political critics “blithely claim political and material consequences for [their] theorizing that they never try to justify.” So yeah, you could say that John McGowan and I are somewhat skeptical of the idea that Theory is an Empire, and that it’s insufficiently self-critical.  When McGowan and Appiah are adduced by Theory’s critics, you know that the house of Theory, far from being the house of cards depicted on the book’s cover, is in fact a house of many mansions.

OK, now to Bauerlein’s essay.  Even when I try to read it as crabbily as possible, I find that I can’t disagree with everything in it, or even half of everything in it.  Between my characterization of Terry Eagleton’s book as “so glib and unreliable that I would not inflict it on any serious student” and Mark’s characterization of it as “a textbook case of commentary by genetic fallacy and ethical consequence,” there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference.  (Eagleton is especially bad on Heidegger, and we’ll come back to Heidegger.) Likewise, Bauerlein is right to remark on the speed-up of academic research in the humanities and the overextension of the book-for-tenure criterion.  But I’m not convinced of his link between the academic publishing-production line and the espousal of social constructionist beliefs.  In his concluding paragraph, Bauerlein writes:

This is the bare and banal advantage of social constructionism: it saves time. Truth, facts, objectivity—those require too much reading, too many library visits, too much time soliciting interlibrary loan materials, scrolling through microfilm records, double-checking sources, and looking beyond academic trends that come and go. A philosophy that discredits the foundations of such time-consuming research is a professional blessing. It is the belief-system of inquirers who need an alibi for not reading the extra book, traveling to the other archives, or listening to the other point of view. This is why constructionism is the prevailing creed in the humanities today. It is the epistemology of scholarship in haste, of professors under the gun.

OK, social constructionists are either lazy sods or lazy careerist sods.  Very well.  There are two ways to reply to this, and I see that Sean McCann has already taken one of them in his Valve post:

There are two weak points to this argument as Mark frames it, I think.  One is that his prime example, the need for young scholars to publish a book within six years to earn tenure, doesn’t really suggest overwhelming pressure. . . .  The other is that professional burdens alone can’t fully explain why any particular set of reductive ideas becomes more attractive than any other.  As Nagel jokingly suggests in an offhand conclusion, evolutionary psychology would provide the same simple gratifications (big theory, easily applied to an endless range of material, gratifyingly counterintuitive results arrived at via circular argument, no particular need for evidence or careful reasoning) that Mark sees in social constructionism.

Indeed, one can imagine an entire profession of lazy anti-constructionists, publishing tome after tome in which they simply assume that X, Y and Z have always been the case.  Which brings me to point two: done well, the making of social constructionist arguments does involve work.  (Of course it’s possible to make social constructionist arguments badly.  It’s possible to do anything badly.) So if anyone wants to argue that X is socially constructed (historically variable, culturally contingent, etc.), he or she is not actually exempt from going to the library and scrolling through those microfilm records.  If you’re going to argue that cultural practice X, which some people think of as natural and unchanging, is in fact socially constructed, historically variable, or culturally contingent, the burden is on you to demonstrate that it can be and has been otherwise.  When Bauerlein argues that most social constructionists do not do this, but, rather, simply assume that it has already been proven that everything is socially constructed, he’s got a point.  And when he says,

The most obvious advantage constructionism provides lies in its territorial nature, for by undermining truth and objectivity, constructionism bolsters the humanities as an academic whole, carving out a space in the university for practices of interpretation and subjectivity. One can witness this turf function in critiques by literary and cultural theorists of their institutional competitors – the scientists.

– he’s got another point.  Some other time on this longwinded blog, perhaps, I will join Theory-critics in lamenting the sloppy appropriations of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the humanities (quick question: how many “Kuhnian” humanists have an account of the production of anomalies in their fields?  for Kuhn, of course, mature paradigms produce anomalies, and without anomalies, you don’t have paradigm shifts).  For now, I’ll object only to Bauerlein’s claim that constructionism “undermines truth and objectivity,” for, of course, the definition of “truth” is precisely what’s at stake here.  The question is whether truths about human affairs, as opposed to truths about physics, should be understood according to the “correspondence theory of truth” (in which our beliefs correspond to the reality of the world out there) or the “coherence theory of truth” (in which truth is a matter of human deliberation).  As I remarked in an earlier post, there are philosophers like Sam Harris who believe that “To be an ethical realist is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered – and thus we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them,” and then there are people like me who think that this ethics-is-just-like-physics model is not only misleading but dangerous.  People like me prefer to believe that humans invent ethical truths, and that such truths are not waiting silently out there in the ether for us to discover them, like Neptune or something.

Which brings me to Martin Heidegger.  Early in the essay, Mark adduces Heidegger as an example of social constructionism gone haywire.  I apologize for the length of this quotation, but the point is a critical one, so please bear with me.

Constructionists extend the fact that knowledge materializes in cognitive and linguistic structures which have social determinants into the belief that knowledge has no claim to transcend them. That knowledge cannot transcend the conditions of its origination stems from the notion that cognition is never innocent, that cognition has designs and desires shaping its knowledge-building process, that knowing always has an instrumental purpose. This human dimension is local and situational, constructionists argue, a historical context for knowledge outside of which the knowledge has no general warrant. Even the most ahistorical kinds of knowledge, the principles of logic, mathematics, and science, have a social basis, one obscured by thinkers who have abstracted that knowledge from its rightful setting and used it for purposes of their own. Thus Martin Heidegger claims in a well-known illustration, “Before Newton’s laws were discovered, they were not ‘true’. . . .Through Newton the laws became true” (Being and Time). We only think the laws preceded Newton’s conception because, Heidegger explains, that is how entities “show themselves.”

But even though Newton’s laws arose at a particular historical moment, in one man’s mind, why assume that the laws are inextricable from that moment? There is abundant evidence for believing that the truth of Newton’s laws is independent of Newton’s mind, language, class, education, etc. The simple fact that persons of different languages and cultures implement those laws effectively implies their transhistorical and cross-cultural capacity. Engineers and physicists confirm the laws daily without any knowledge of Newton’s circumstances. Three hundred years of experimentation and theory have altered Newton’s laws only by restricting their physical purview. In short, Newton’s laws have been justified in vastly different times and places. Yes, scientists and engineers have de-historicized Newtonian knowledge, pared it down to a few set principles (nobody actually reads the Principia). But though abstract and expedient, the laws of Newtonian physics still have a truth-value, and that value is related not to Newton’s world, but to how well the laws predict outcomes, how reliably they stand up to testing, how useful they are in physical domains.

To think otherwise is to deny the distinction between the contents of knowledge and the context of their emergence.

This is a severe misreading of ¶¶ 43 and 44 of Being and Time.  What Heidegger actually says, in those concluding sections of Part I of the book, is this (and for those of you who aren’t Heidegger devotees, “Dasein,” or “Being-there,” is Heidegger’s neologism for human consciousness):

Newton’s laws, the principle of contradiction, any truth whatever—these are true only so long as Dasein is.  Before there was any Dasein, there was no truth; nor will there be any after Dasein is no more. . . .  Before Newton’s laws were discovered, they were not “true”; it does not follow that they were false, or even that they would become false if ontically no discoveredness were any longer possible. . . .

To say that before Newton his laws were neither true nor false, cannot signify that before him there were no such entities as have been uncovered and pointed out by those laws.  Through Newton the laws became true; and with them, entities became accessible in themselves to Dasein.  Once entities have been uncovered, they show themselves precisely as entities which beforehand already were.  Such uncovering is the kind of Being which belongs to “truth.” (I.6 ¶ 44(c), 269).

Once again: to say that before Newton his laws were neither true nor false cannot signify that before him there were no such entities as have been uncovered and pointed out by those laws. And: once entities have been uncovered, they show themselves precisely as entities which beforehand already were. Heidegger is emphatically not saying that “Newton’s laws arose at a particular historical moment, in one man’s mind” and that therefore they are “inextricable from that moment.”

Now, I apologize for Heidegger’s highly convoluted and neologistic prose.  (I imagine that some readers are already thinking, “come back, Derrida, all is forgiven.”) But here’s what he’s saying, and here’s why it matters. 

In Heidegger’s reading, we could say that the discovery of Neptune in 1846 could plausibly be described, from a strictly human vantage point, as the “invention” of Neptune.  I choose Neptune for two reasons: first, because it was the first planet for which humans actively searched, applying Newtonian principles to try to account for “distortions” in the orbit of Uranus (which had been discovered by accident in 1781), and its discovery was a matter of some controversy.  Second, because I believe it makes no damn sense to say, “Neptune is socially constructed.” But before we began to look for it, the planet “Neptune” simply did not exist in any human consciousness, just as “gravity” had never meant “a universal force of nature” until Newton enunciated its principles (which turn out to hold only for entities traveling less than four-tenths the speed of light, but let it go for now).  And yet once humans had invented (from their standpoint) the concept of gravity and the existence of Neptune, they understood these things precisely as things that were not susceptible to mere human invention.

This is the critical insight to bring to bear on any post-Sokal discussion of social constructionist shilly-shallying and fashionable nonsense.  The basic physical processes of the universe precede us; they have literally constructed us; they do not depend on our understanding or belief.  And yet, there are two final points to be made here, one trivial, one not: first, our knowledge of those processes is a social phenomenon.  A whole mess of social and historical processes have to be in place before anyone goes around troubling him or herself with the alleged perturbations of the planet Uranus (for which, tellingly, the discovery of Neptune did not entirely account) rather than, say, quoting Aristotle or Scripture on the subject.  That’s the trivial point.  The more important point, Heidegger’s point, is that all perceptions, understandings, misunderstandings, and debates about such matters take place in human consciousness, and it is absolutely crucial to understand which matters involve entities that are independent of human consciousness (like planets) and which matter involve entities that are not (like philosophies).  For Heidegger, this insight is but a stepping-stone on the road to the larger argument that mere assertions (including this one) are not the delivery vehicles of Truth, but, rather, simple “present-to-hand” ways of dealing with “ready-to-hand” entities.  That is, for Heidegger, the sentence “Neptune is the next planet after Uranus” is no more important a statement of Truth than “the hammer is too heavy for the job”; such assertions, he thinks, are little more than tools about tools.  Truth, Heidegger argues, resides instead in what he calls “disclosure” or “uncovering” (according to his reading of the Greek word aletheia), and he uses Newton’s “dis-covering” of gravity as his primary example.  But because (Heidegger claims) we have forgotten the question of Being, and neglected to ask what kind of entity it is that goes around asking questions about Being, we have mistakenly believed that assertions are the loci of truth when in fact it is a more “primordial” form of dis-closure that makes factual assertions possible in the first place.

Make of it what you will, but that’s Heidegger for you.  Twenty years ago I wrote a seminar paper about what happens to Heidegger’s work once he realizes the performative self-contradiction involved in arguing that assertions are not the vehicles of truth, but that’s kind of beside the point.  The point, for now, is that the planet Neptune is not socially constructed, and neither is gravity—and that Heidegger’s compelling yet deeply idiosyncratic way of making this point is far more complex than Bauerlein lets on, and gives quite a bit of latitude to the domain of “social construction” in its insistence that Dasein lives and argues in a world of its own making.

Posted by Michael on 07/13 at 01:27 PM
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