Everything Bad Is Good For You

Steven Johnson is one of my favorite non-academic, nonfiction writers. (I’m sorry that seems like such a negative description; but one of the virtues of Johnson is precisely that it is difficult to pigeonhole him positively in terms of content, as he writes on the boundary between culture, science, technology, poststructuralist theory, etc…). I don’t always agree with Johnson, but he always makes me think, as well as being one of those writers who can convey complex ideas in prose of great clarity. (I wrote about his last book here). Johnson’s new book, Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, is as intelligently provocative as anything he’s written.

As its title and subtitle indicate, Everything Bad Is Good For You is a polemical defense of the value of contemporary popular culture. Johnson contests the all-too-often repeated claims that American popular culture is vile and debased, that it appeals to the lowest common denominator, that it is all about sensationalistic exploitation and dumbing down. He argues, instead, that popular culture is actually making us smarter, in ways that can even be quantified by intelligence tests and the like. Johnson’s method of analysis is basically McLuhanesque; that is to say, he pays attention to the medium rather than the message; or (in the Deleuze/Guattari terms that he cites briefly in an appendix) to what works of popular culture do rather than what they mean, what connections they make rather than what symbols they deploy, or what ideologies they express. Rather than lamenting any alleged decline from print/books/literature to the various multimedia modes in vogue today, he asks the McLuhanite question of how these new media engage us, what modes of perception, action, and thought they appeal to and incite, and how this makes for a qualitative difference from print/literary sensibilities.

Johnson focuses at greatest length on computer games and television. Games involve us actively in difficult tasks of multi-stranded and multiply hierarchized problem-solving; recent TV series involve us in tracking multiple plot strands (The Sopranos), mastering multiple forms of allusion and self-reference (The Simpsons, Seinfeld), comprehending elliptical, convoluted plots (24), and making sense of dense social networks (24, The Sopranos). (He especially stresses how much more complex, rich, and rewarding these shows are than the relatively linear, slow, and stolid shows of the 1970s(. At lesser length, Johnson also discusses multitasking and mastering different software paradigms in order to use the Internet, and the effects of challengingly non-linear movies like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the second half of the book, he then goes on to generalize about economic factors that have led to greater complexity in popular culture in the last 20 or 30 years, as well as speculations on collateral subjects ranging from neurobiology (the dopamine reward circuits in relation to gaming), to studies of IQ tests (scores have risen steadily over the last few generations).

As a polemic, Everything Bad Is Good For You is right on target and extremely welcome, and I hope people actually listen to it and get persuaded by it. (Of course, I was already on Johnson’s side before I started reading the book, so I may not be the best person to judge its success as rhetorical persuasion). I have no use for the high culture elitism that still exists in certain intellectual quarters; and I have no use for the nostalgia of all too many people my age (the baby boomer generation) who assert that the pop culture of our youth was somehow necessarily superior to what is going on now. When the late Susan Sontag, for instance, suggested in her otherwise very fine essay on Abu Ghraib that the culture of videogames could be blamed for the soldiers’ readiness to engage in torture: this was really no more than gross ignorance, and she needed to be called on it. (I don’t mean to pick on the recently dead; but this was the best example that came to me, honest). Hopefully Johnson’s book will make it more difficult for such assertions to pass muster in the future.

All that said, there was one aspect of Johnson’s approach and argument that I found disappointing and limiting. This was his almost exclusive focus on the cognitive aspects of how the popular media he was discussing work, and his nearly complete avoidance of any discussion of how they work affectively. (I should note that this has nothing to do with the focus on form instead of content, or medium instead of message; it’s the McLuhanesque effects of the new electronic media themselves that need to be formulated in affective terms as well as cognitive ones). This is a problem I’ve discussed many times in the course of this blog, and it’s something less specific to Johnson than it is a characteristic of our general contemporary scientific and intellectual culture. Despite the efforts of a few prominent neurobiologists (like Damasio and LeDoux, who to my mind raise crucial questions even if they don’t go far enough), the understanding of “the mind” in this post-Freudian age is almost exclusively through the lens of “cognitive science.”

How does this work out in Everything Bad Is Good For You? For Johnson, the important thing is how computer games train us in “participatory thinking and analysis,” how they “challenge the mind to make sense of an environment” (p.61); the fact that this works through the dopamine reward system, so that we feel a rush of pleasure when we overcome our frustration by solving a puzzle, is really only a secondary matter for him (it is part of the explanation of why and how it all works, but he doesn’t find it important in itself). This seems wrong to me; the emotional states that we experience through our participation in cultural forms are as important, perhaps more so, than the training skills we establish and sharpen. In any case, we need to question the subordination of the affective dimension to the cognitive one, the positioning of the former as just an instrument to aid in the latter; though (or precisely because) this seems to be one of the most central and unquestioned tenets of postmodern thought and culture.

So I want to know more about how games work affectively; even though it may well be that the whole point of games, the reason why they are so central a formation in our culture today, is precisely because, like the cognitive science Johnson uses to understand them, their whole point is to subordinate affect to cognition. As I’ve said before, I’m not much of a gamer; it may be that my anti-cognitive-centrism, like my boredom at the sort of problem-solving that goes on in games, is itself a symptom of my being still all-too-entrenched in print culture. But I don’t think so; I can make a stronger case for the importance of affect to other media that I know better than games, and that Johnson discusses in wholly cognitive terms: like television and movies (and comix, which Johnson says very little about, though in an endnote he quotes at length from Henry Jenkins, who rightly indicates that contemporary comix would fit very well into the argument, since in recent years they have become dazzlingly complex both narratively and visually). Buffy isn’t nearly as dense in terms of narrative threads as some of the shows Johnson discusses, but it is as dense in terms of allusiveness, self-referentiality, and the demands it makes on its audience to remember seeming minor details from past episodes, etc. Yet — as I said in my recent post on the show — its cognitive density serves its affective richness, rather than the reverse: and the ways that Buffy explores affect, together with the sorts of affect it displays, strike me as very different from anything you would find in traditional (or modernist) print culture. And I’d say the same for Charlie Kaufman films, and for the few gaming experiences I have tried (admittedly, mostly outdated ones at this point, like Myst and online role-playing in MUDs). Whatever cognitive abilities these works of popular culture instill or assume, their “payoff” has always been (for me) affective, with a wide variety of emotions ranging from ecstasy to fear and anxiety, and with a basic temporal orientation towards the future (in its openness and unknowability) — which is something beyond the reach of cognitive skills.

All of which brings me to the most crucial omission in Johnson’s book, which is that he says almost nothing about music. Now, there needn’t be a requirement for a commentator to master all genres. I can scarcely fault him for having as little to say about hip hop as I have to say about computer games. Still, music is arguably the one field of popular culture in which affect (as opposed to cognition) is most central, most foregrounded, and most powerful; and some theorists (Jacques Attali and Kodwo Eshun, among others) would argue that music is the most future-oriented of genres as well. The only time that Johnson discusses music (in a footnote on pp 225-226) he curiously says that his argument about how economic and technological factors have made games and television much more cognitively complex in the last twenty-five years or so doesn’t apply to music, because the analogous technological revolution happened in music much earlier, in the switch from “throwaway singles” to “albums designed to be heard hundreds of times” in the 1960s. He implies that music, unlike TV and games and movies, hasn’t gotten any more complex since that time (and may even have been dumbed down, to judge from his pejorative comments about MTV videos, whose elaborate fast editing styles he doesn’t consider to be an example of cognitively interesting complexity). He says nothing about how digital technologies (sampling, synthesizing, multiple tracks) have changed music; and he fails to consider how the rhythmic complexity of Top 40s hits today goes as far beyond the pop of the 60s and 70s, and the verbal dexterity of Wu Tang or Jay-Z or Eminem goes as far beyond that of The Sugarhill Gang or The Furious Five, as the narrative complexity of The Sopranos goes beyond the simple-minded linearity of shows like (one of his favorite negative examples) Starsky and Hutch.

Such musical examples entirely support Johnson’s polemical point about how popular culture today is in many ways richer and denser than that of thirty years ago. But the reasons for this happening in music are much more difficult to state in cognitive terms (and, let’s face it, much more difficult to render in language altogether) than is the case with things like problem-solving skills and narrative structures. (You could discuss it in relation to musical relationality — songs sampling or otherwise alluding to previous songs — but that would only be scratching the surface). Music remains for me, therefore, a privileged instance in which McLuhanesque change resists definition in cognitive-centered terms.

Steven Johnson is one of my favorite non-academic, nonfiction writers. (I’m sorry that seems like such a negative description; but one of the virtues of Johnson is precisely that it is difficult to pigeonhole him positively in terms of content, as he writes on the boundary between culture, science, technology, poststructuralist theory, etc…). I don’t always agree with Johnson, but he always makes me think, as well as being one of those writers who can convey complex ideas in prose of great clarity. (I wrote about his last book here). Johnson’s new book, Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, is as intelligently provocative as anything he’s written.

As its title and subtitle indicate, Everything Bad Is Good For You is a polemical defense of the value of contemporary popular culture. Johnson contests the all-too-often repeated claims that American popular culture is vile and debased, that it appeals to the lowest common denominator, that it is all about sensationalistic exploitation and dumbing down. He argues, instead, that popular culture is actually making us smarter, in ways that can even be quantified by intelligence tests and the like. Johnson’s method of analysis is basically McLuhanesque; that is to say, he pays attention to the medium rather than the message; or (in the Deleuze/Guattari terms that he cites briefly in an appendix) to what works of popular culture do rather than what they mean, what connections they make rather than what symbols they deploy, or what ideologies they express. Rather than lamenting any alleged decline from print/books/literature to the various multimedia modes in vogue today, he asks the McLuhanite question of how these new media engage us, what modes of perception, action, and thought they appeal to and incite, and how this makes for a qualitative difference from print/literary sensibilities.

Johnson focuses at greatest length on computer games and television. Games involve us actively in difficult tasks of multi-stranded and multiply hierarchized problem-solving; recent TV series involve us in tracking multiple plot strands (The Sopranos), mastering multiple forms of allusion and self-reference (The Simpsons, Seinfeld), comprehending elliptical, convoluted plots (24), and making sense of dense social networks (24, The Sopranos). (He especially stresses how much more complex, rich, and rewarding these shows are than the relatively linear, slow, and stolid shows of the 1970s(. At lesser length, Johnson also discusses multitasking and mastering different software paradigms in order to use the Internet, and the effects of challengingly non-linear movies like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the second half of the book, he then goes on to generalize about economic factors that have led to greater complexity in popular culture in the last 20 or 30 years, as well as speculations on collateral subjects ranging from neurobiology (the dopamine reward circuits in relation to gaming), to studies of IQ tests (scores have risen steadily over the last few generations).

As a polemic, Everything Bad Is Good For You is right on target and extremely welcome, and I hope people actually listen to it and get persuaded by it. (Of course, I was already on Johnson’s side before I started reading the book, so I may not be the best person to judge its success as rhetorical persuasion). I have no use for the high culture elitism that still exists in certain intellectual quarters; and I have no use for the nostalgia of all too many people my age (the baby boomer generation) who assert that the pop culture of our youth was somehow necessarily superior to what is going on now. When the late Susan Sontag, for instance, suggested in her otherwise very fine essay on Abu Ghraib that the culture of videogames could be blamed for the soldiers’ readiness to engage in torture: this was really no more than gross ignorance, and she needed to be called on it. (I don’t mean to pick on the recently dead; but this was the best example that came to me, honest). Hopefully Johnson’s book will make it more difficult for such assertions to pass muster in the future.

All that said, there was one aspect of Johnson’s approach and argument that I found disappointing and limiting. This was his almost exclusive focus on the cognitive aspects of how the popular media he was discussing work, and his nearly complete avoidance of any discussion of how they work affectively. (I should note that this has nothing to do with the focus on form instead of content, or medium instead of message; it’s the McLuhanesque effects of the new electronic media themselves that need to be formulated in affective terms as well as cognitive ones). This is a problem I’ve discussed many times in the course of this blog, and it’s something less specific to Johnson than it is a characteristic of our general contemporary scientific and intellectual culture. Despite the efforts of a few prominent neurobiologists (like Damasio and LeDoux, who to my mind raise crucial questions even if they don’t go far enough), the understanding of “the mind” in this post-Freudian age is almost exclusively through the lens of “cognitive science.”

How does this work out in Everything Bad Is Good For You? For Johnson, the important thing is how computer games train us in “participatory thinking and analysis,” how they “challenge the mind to make sense of an environment” (p.61); the fact that this works through the dopamine reward system, so that we feel a rush of pleasure when we overcome our frustration by solving a puzzle, is really only a secondary matter for him (it is part of the explanation of why and how it all works, but he doesn’t find it important in itself). This seems wrong to me; the emotional states that we experience through our participation in cultural forms are as important, perhaps more so, than the training skills we establish and sharpen. In any case, we need to question the subordination of the affective dimension to the cognitive one, the positioning of the former as just an instrument to aid in the latter; though (or precisely because) this seems to be one of the most central and unquestioned tenets of postmodern thought and culture.

So I want to know more about how games work affectively; even though it may well be that the whole point of games, the reason why they are so central a formation in our culture today, is precisely because, like the cognitive science Johnson uses to understand them, their whole point is to subordinate affect to cognition. As I’ve said before, I’m not much of a gamer; it may be that my anti-cognitive-centrism, like my boredom at the sort of problem-solving that goes on in games, is itself a symptom of my being still all-too-entrenched in print culture. But I don’t think so; I can make a stronger case for the importance of affect to other media that I know better than games, and that Johnson discusses in wholly cognitive terms: like television and movies (and comix, which Johnson says very little about, though in an endnote he quotes at length from Henry Jenkins, who rightly indicates that contemporary comix would fit very well into the argument, since in recent years they have become dazzlingly complex both narratively and visually). Buffy isn’t nearly as dense in terms of narrative threads as some of the shows Johnson discusses, but it is as dense in terms of allusiveness, self-referentiality, and the demands it makes on its audience to remember seeming minor details from past episodes, etc. Yet — as I said in my recent post on the show — its cognitive density serves its affective richness, rather than the reverse: and the ways that Buffy explores affect, together with the sorts of affect it displays, strike me as very different from anything you would find in traditional (or modernist) print culture. And I’d say the same for Charlie Kaufman films, and for the few gaming experiences I have tried (admittedly, mostly outdated ones at this point, like Myst and online role-playing in MUDs). Whatever cognitive abilities these works of popular culture instill or assume, their “payoff” has always been (for me) affective, with a wide variety of emotions ranging from ecstasy to fear and anxiety, and with a basic temporal orientation towards the future (in its openness and unknowability) — which is something beyond the reach of cognitive skills.

All of which brings me to the most crucial omission in Johnson’s book, which is that he says almost nothing about music. Now, there needn’t be a requirement for a commentator to master all genres. I can scarcely fault him for having as little to say about hip hop as I have to say about computer games. Still, music is arguably the one field of popular culture in which affect (as opposed to cognition) is most central, most foregrounded, and most powerful; and some theorists (Jacques Attali and Kodwo Eshun, among others) would argue that music is the most future-oriented of genres as well. The only time that Johnson discusses music (in a footnote on pp 225-226) he curiously says that his argument about how economic and technological factors have made games and television much more cognitively complex in the last twenty-five years or so doesn’t apply to music, because the analogous technological revolution happened in music much earlier, in the switch from “throwaway singles” to “albums designed to be heard hundreds of times” in the 1960s. He implies that music, unlike TV and games and movies, hasn’t gotten any more complex since that time (and may even have been dumbed down, to judge from his pejorative comments about MTV videos, whose elaborate fast editing styles he doesn’t consider to be an example of cognitively interesting complexity). He says nothing about how digital technologies (sampling, synthesizing, multiple tracks) have changed music; and he fails to consider how the rhythmic complexity of Top 40s hits today goes as far beyond the pop of the 60s and 70s, and the verbal dexterity of Wu Tang or Jay-Z or Eminem goes as far beyond that of The Sugarhill Gang or The Furious Five, as the narrative complexity of The Sopranos goes beyond the simple-minded linearity of shows like (one of his favorite negative examples) Starsky and Hutch.

Such musical examples entirely support Johnson’s polemical point about how popular culture today is in many ways richer and denser than that of thirty years ago. But the reasons for this happening in music are much more difficult to state in cognitive terms (and, let’s face it, much more difficult to render in language altogether) than is the case with things like problem-solving skills and narrative structures. (You could discuss it in relation to musical relationality — songs sampling or otherwise alluding to previous songs — but that would only be scratching the surface). Music remains for me, therefore, a privileged instance in which McLuhanesque change resists definition in cognitive-centered terms.

Teranesia

Greg Egan is one of the finest contemporary writers of “hard” SF, which is to say science fiction that strongly emphasizes the science, trying to keep the science coherent and to extrapolate plausibly (at least) from currently existing science and technology. Most of Egan’s books involve physics and computer science, speculating about such things as artificial intelligence and quantum mechanics. Teranesia is something of an exception in his work, as it deals with biology, takes place in the very near (instead of far distant) future, stresses character development and emotion — especially guilt and shame — more than his other novels, and has some directly political themes (Egan touches on religious and ethnic strife in Indonesia, with its heritage of both colonial exploitation and military misrule and corruption; as well as on Australia’s shameful mistreatment of asylum seekers — a matter on which he expands in his online Afterward to the novel). I read Teranesia mostly because I am looking at “bioaesthetics”, and at the “the biological imagination” (though I wish I had a better phrase for this); I was curious to see what Egan would do with biology.

The novel worked for the most part in terms of plot, characters, and emotion; but the biology was indeed the most interesting thing about it. The major conceit of Teranesia is the appearance of strange mutations, initially confined to one species of butterfly on one island in the Molucca Sea, but increasingly manifested across animal and plant species, and in a wider and wider area. These mutations seem to be too radical, too well-calibrated, and too quick, to be explicable by chance mutations plus the winnowing effect of natural selection. In the space of twenty years, entire animal and plant species develop altered body plans that allow them to feed (or to protect themselves from predation) much more easily, to squeeze out all competitors in the ecosystem, and to proliferate themselves from island to island.

It’s almost as if Egan had set himself as a task to envision a scenario of “biological exuberance“, a scenario that would seem to strongly imply some other evolutionary force than Darwinian natural selection — whether Christian “intelligent design,” some variant of Lamarckianism, Bergsonian elan vital, Richard Goldschmidt’s “hopeful monsters”, or the constraints of form championed by such non-mainstream biologists as Stuart Kauffman and Richard Goodwin — and yet to explain the scenario in terms that are entirely in accord with orthodox neodarwinism and Dawkins’ selfish gene theory. How could rapid and evidently purposive evolutionary change nonetheless result from the “blind watchmaker” of natural selection? All the scientists in Teranesia take the orthodox framework for granted; and in opposition to them, Egan sets religious fundamentalists on the one hand, and “postmodern cultural theorists” who celebrate the trickster mischievousness or irrational bounty of Nature on the other (Egan’s heavy-handed, Alan Sokal-esque satire of the latter group — the book came out at around the same time as the Sokal-vs.-Social Text incident — is the most lame and tiresome aspect of the novel).

[SPOILER ALERT] The way that Egan solves his puzzle is this. The mutations all turn out to be the result of the actions of a single gene, one that can jump from species to species, and that has the ability to rewrite/mutate the rest of the genome in which it finds itself by snipping out individual base pairs, and introducing transcription errors and replacements. Given a random DNA sequence to work with, the effect of the mutations is basically random. But given an actual genome to work with, the new gene enforces changes that are far from random, that in fact optimize the genome for survival and expansion. The new gene does this by, in effect, exploring the phase space of all possible mutations to a considerable depth. And it does this by a trick of quantum theory. Egan calls on the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. Mutations are correlated with the collapse of the quantum wave function. All the mutations that could have happened to a given genome, but did not, in fact have occurred in parallel universes. Over the course of a genome’s history, therefore, all the alternative universes generated by every mutation constitute a phase space of all the possible changes the organism could have undergone, and it is these “many universes” the new gene is able to explore, and “choose” the changes that, statistically speaking, were the most successful ones. In this way, the new gene is able to optimize the entire genome or organism; even though it itself is purely a “selfish gene,” driven only to maximize its own reproduction. Egan wryly notes that “most processes in molecular biology had analogies in computing, but it was rarely helpful to push them too far” (256); nonetheless, he extrapolates this logic by imagining a DNA “program” that works like a “quantum supercomputer” (289).

Egan’s solution to his own puzzle is elegant, economical, and shrewd. He’s really doing what hard SF does best: applying the rigor of scientific reasoning to an imaginary problem, and (especially) abiding by the initial conditions set forth by the problem. He successfully constructs a scenario in which even the most extreme instance of apparent design can be explained without recourse to teleology. Though Egan’s hypothesis is counterfactual and probably impossible — which is just a fancy way of saying he is writing fiction — it does in fact usefully illuminate the logic of biological explanation.

And it’s this logic to which I want to turn. Getting rid of teleology is in fact harder than it might seem. Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains how meaningful and functioning complex patterns can emerge from randomness, without there being a pre-existing plan. “Intelligent design” theory today, like the 18th-century “argument from design,” claims that a structure like the eye, or like the interwoven network of chemical pathways that function in every cell, are too complex to have arisen without planning. Darwinian theory argues, to the contrary — quite convincingly and cogently — not only that “selection” processes are able to account for the formation of these structures, but that these structures’ very complexity precludes their having been made by planning and foresight, or any other way. (For the most explicit statement of this argument, see Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins gives a reductionist, atomistic version of the argument. I would argue — though Dawkins himself would not agree — that this account is not inconsistent with the claims of Kauffman that natural selection rides piggyback on other sorts of spontaneous organization in natural systems).

But none of this stops Dawkins, or other hardcore Darwinians, from using the vocabulary of purpose on nearly all occasions. The eye is a structure whose purpose is seeing; genes are “selfish” because they “want” — i.e. their “purpose” is — to create more copies of themselves. Dawkins, at least, is aware that his use of purpose-language is metaphorical; but the metaphors you use affect your argument in powerful, structurally relevant ways, even though you may intend them “only,” and quite consciously, as “mere” metaphors. As Isabelle Stengers puts it, Dawkins is still describing life by comparing it to a watch — or to a computer — even if the “watchmaker” is “blind” and not purposeful or conscious. Kant’s pre-Darwinian observation, that we cannot help seeing life as “purposive,” even though we would be wrong to attribute explicit “purpose” to it — still holds true in evolutionary theory.

This is partly a question about adaptation. Hardcore neodarwinism assumes that every feature of an organism, no matter how minor, is adaptive — which is to say that it has a reproductive purpose, for which it was selected. And evolutionary theorists go through extraordinary contortions to explain how “features” like homosexuality, which evidently do not contribute to the production of more offspring, nonetheless must be “adaptive” — or reproductively selected for — in some way. In a case like homosexuality, it seems obvious to suggest that: a)it is not a well-defined category, but one that has a lot of blurry edges and culturally variable aspects, so it’s misguided in the first place to find a genetic correlate to it; and b)that to the extent that genes do play a role in same-sex object choice, it may well be that what was “selected for” was not homosexuality per se, but something more general (the sort of sexual disposition that is extremely plastic, i.e. capable of realizing itself in multiple forms).

More generally, adaptationism is problematic because defending it soon brings you to a point of reductio ad absurdum. Many features of organisms are evidently adaptive, but when you start to assert that everything must be, a priori, you are condemning yourself to a kind of interpretive paranoia that sees meanings, intentions, and purposes everywhere. You start out aware that (in Egan’s words) “evolution is senseless: the great dumb machine, grinding out microscopic improvements one end, spitting out a few billion corpses from the other ” (112). But you end up with a sort of argument from design, a paradoxical denial of contingency, chance, superfluity, and meaninglessness. Evolutionary theorists assume that every feature of every organism necessarily has a meaning and a purpose; which is what leads them to simply invent purposive explanations (what Stephen Jay Gould disparaged as “just-so stories”) when they cannot be discovered by empirical means.

All these difficulties crop up in the course of Teranesia. Egan’s protagonist, Prabir, is gay, and he supposes that his sexual orientation is like an “oxbow lake” produced by a river: something that’s “not part of the flow” of the river, but that the river keeps creating nonetheless (109). Conversely, he is (rightly) angered by the suggestion that homosexuality is adaptive because it has the evolutionary purpose of being “a kind of insurance policy — to look after the others if something happens to the parents” (110). Angry because such an explanation would suggest that his being as a person has no value in its own right, for itself. And this is picked up at the end of the novel, when the new gene crosses species and starts to metastasize in Prabir’s own body. As a ruthless and super-efficient machine for adaptation, it threatens to wipe out Prabir’s own “oxbow lake,” together with anything that might seem “superfluous” from the point of view of adaptive efficiency (310).

By the end of the novel, the new gene has to be contained, for it threatens to “optimize” Prabir, and through him the rest of humanity, into a monstrous reproductive machine. Teranesia suddenly turns, in its last thirty pages or so, into a horror novel; and the final plot twist that saves Prabir is (in contrast to everything that has come before) exceedingly unconvincing and unsatisfying, because it hinges on seeing the malignant gene as purpose-driven to an extent that simply (I mean in the context of Egan’s fiction itself) isn’t credible.

Teranesia thus ends up tracking and reproducing what I am tempted to call (in Kantian style) the antinomies of neodarwinian explanation. Starting from the basic assertion that “life is meaningless” (338 — the very last words of the novel), it nonetheless finds itself compelled to hypothesize a monstrous, totalizing purposiveness. The specter of biological exuberance is exorcized, but monstrosity is not thereby dispelled; it simply returns in an even more extreme form. Even Egan’s recourse to quantum mechanics is symptomatic: because quantum mechanics is so inherently paradoxical — because it is literally impossible to understand in anything like intuitive terms — it becomes the last recourse when you are trying to explain in rationalistic and reductive terms some aspect of reality (and of life especially) that turns out to be stubbornly mysterious. Quantum mechanics allows you to have it both ways: Egan’s use of it can be compared, for instance, to the way Roger Penrose has recourse to quantum effects in order to explain the mysteries of consciousness. In short, Teranesia is a good enough book that it runs up against, and inadvertently demonstrates, the aporias implicit within the scientific rationality to which Egan is committed.

Greg Egan is one of the finest contemporary writers of “hard” SF, which is to say science fiction that strongly emphasizes the science, trying to keep the science coherent and to extrapolate plausibly (at least) from currently existing science and technology. Most of Egan’s books involve physics and computer science, speculating about such things as artificial intelligence and quantum mechanics. Teranesia is something of an exception in his work, as it deals with biology, takes place in the very near (instead of far distant) future, stresses character development and emotion — especially guilt and shame — more than his other novels, and has some directly political themes (Egan touches on religious and ethnic strife in Indonesia, with its heritage of both colonial exploitation and military misrule and corruption; as well as on Australia’s shameful mistreatment of asylum seekers — a matter on which he expands in his online Afterward to the novel). I read Teranesia mostly because I am looking at “bioaesthetics”, and at the “the biological imagination” (though I wish I had a better phrase for this); I was curious to see what Egan would do with biology.

The novel worked for the most part in terms of plot, characters, and emotion; but the biology was indeed the most interesting thing about it. The major conceit of Teranesia is the appearance of strange mutations, initially confined to one species of butterfly on one island in the Molucca Sea, but increasingly manifested across animal and plant species, and in a wider and wider area. These mutations seem to be too radical, too well-calibrated, and too quick, to be explicable by chance mutations plus the winnowing effect of natural selection. In the space of twenty years, entire animal and plant species develop altered body plans that allow them to feed (or to protect themselves from predation) much more easily, to squeeze out all competitors in the ecosystem, and to proliferate themselves from island to island.

It’s almost as if Egan had set himself as a task to envision a scenario of “biological exuberance“, a scenario that would seem to strongly imply some other evolutionary force than Darwinian natural selection — whether Christian “intelligent design,” some variant of Lamarckianism, Bergsonian elan vital, Richard Goldschmidt’s “hopeful monsters”, or the constraints of form championed by such non-mainstream biologists as Stuart Kauffman and Brian Goodwin — and yet to explain the scenario in terms that are entirely in accord with orthodox neodarwinism and Dawkins’ selfish gene theory. How could rapid and evidently purposive evolutionary change nonetheless result from the “blind watchmaker” of natural selection? All the scientists in Teranesia take the orthodox framework for granted; and in opposition to them, Egan sets religious fundamentalists on the one hand, and “postmodern cultural theorists” who celebrate the trickster mischievousness or irrational bounty of Nature on the other (Egan’s heavy-handed, Alan Sokal-esque satire of the latter group — the book came out at around the same time as the Sokal-vs.-Social Text incident — is the most lame and tiresome aspect of the novel).

[SPOILER ALERT] The way that Egan solves his puzzle is this. The mutations all turn out to be the result of the actions of a single gene, one that can jump from species to species, and that has the ability to rewrite/mutate the rest of the genome in which it finds itself by snipping out individual base pairs, and introducing transcription errors and replacements. Given a random DNA sequence to work with, the effect of the mutations is basically random. But given an actual genome to work with, the new gene enforces changes that are far from random, that in fact optimize the genome for survival and expansion. The new gene does this by, in effect, exploring the phase space of all possible mutations to a considerable depth. And it does this by a trick of quantum theory. Egan calls on the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. Mutations are correlated with the collapse of the quantum wave function. All the mutations that could have happened to a given genome, but did not, in fact have occurred in parallel universes. Over the course of a genome’s history, therefore, all the alternative universes generated by every mutation constitute a phase space of all the possible changes the organism could have undergone, and it is these “many universes” the new gene is able to explore, and “choose” the changes that, statistically speaking, were the most successful ones. In this way, the new gene is able to optimize the entire genome or organism; even though it itself is purely a “selfish gene,” driven only to maximize its own reproduction. Egan wryly notes that “most processes in molecular biology had analogies in computing, but it was rarely helpful to push them too far” (256); nonetheless, he extrapolates this logic by imagining a DNA “program” that works like a “quantum supercomputer” (289).

Egan’s solution to his own puzzle is elegant, economical, and shrewd. He’s really doing what hard SF does best: applying the rigor of scientific reasoning to an imaginary problem, and (especially) abiding by the initial conditions set forth by the problem. He successfully constructs a scenario in which even the most extreme instance of apparent design can be explained without recourse to teleology. Though Egan’s hypothesis is counterfactual and probably impossible — which is just a fancy way of saying he is writing fiction — it does in fact usefully illuminate the logic of biological explanation.

And it’s this logic to which I want to turn. Getting rid of teleology is in fact harder than it might seem. Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains how meaningful and functioning complex patterns can emerge from randomness, without there being a pre-existing plan. “Intelligent design” theory today, like the 18th-century “argument from design,” claims that a structure like the eye, or like the interwoven network of chemical pathways that function in every cell, are too complex to have arisen without planning. Darwinian theory argues, to the contrary — quite convincingly and cogently — not only that “selection” processes are able to account for the formation of these structures, but that these structures’ very complexity precludes their having been made by planning and foresight, or any other way. (For the most explicit statement of this argument, see Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins gives a reductionist, atomistic version of the argument. I would argue — though Dawkins himself would not agree — that this account is not inconsistent with the claims of Kauffman that natural selection rides piggyback on other sorts of spontaneous organization in natural systems).

But none of this stops Dawkins, or other hardcore Darwinians, from using the vocabulary of purpose on nearly all occasions. The eye is a structure whose purpose is seeing; genes are “selfish” because they “want” — i.e. their “purpose” is — to create more copies of themselves. Dawkins, at least, is aware that his use of purpose-language is metaphorical; but the metaphors you use affect your argument in powerful, structurally relevant ways, even though you may intend them “only,” and quite consciously, as “mere” metaphors. As Isabelle Stengers puts it, Dawkins is still describing life by comparing it to a watch — or to a computer — even if the “watchmaker” is “blind” and not purposeful or conscious. Kant’s pre-Darwinian observation, that we cannot help seeing life as “purposive,” even though we would be wrong to attribute explicit “purpose” to it — still holds true in evolutionary theory.

This is partly a question about adaptation. Hardcore neodarwinism assumes that every feature of an organism, no matter how minor, is adaptive — which is to say that it has a reproductive purpose, for which it was selected. And evolutionary theorists go through extraordinary contortions to explain how “features” like homosexuality, which evidently do not contribute to the production of more offspring, nonetheless must be “adaptive” — or reproductively selected for — in some way. In a case like homosexuality, it seems obvious to suggest that: a)it is not a well-defined category, but one that has a lot of blurry edges and culturally variable aspects, so it’s misguided in the first place to find a genetic correlate to it; and b)that to the extent that genes do play a role in same-sex object choice, it may well be that what was “selected for” was not homosexuality per se, but something more general (the sort of sexual disposition that is extremely plastic, i.e. capable of realizing itself in multiple forms).

More generally, adaptationism is problematic because defending it soon brings you to a point of reductio ad absurdum. Many features of organisms are evidently adaptive, but when you start to assert that everything must be, a priori, you are condemning yourself to a kind of interpretive paranoia that sees meanings, intentions, and purposes everywhere. You start out aware that (in Egan’s words) “evolution is senseless: the great dumb machine, grinding out microscopic improvements one end, spitting out a few billion corpses from the other ” (112). But you end up with a sort of argument from design, a paradoxical denial of contingency, chance, superfluity, and meaninglessness. Evolutionary theorists assume that every feature of every organism necessarily has a meaning and a purpose; which is what leads them to simply invent purposive explanations (what Stephen Jay Gould disparaged as “just-so stories”) when they cannot be discovered by empirical means.

All these difficulties crop up in the course of Teranesia. Egan’s protagonist, Prabir, is gay, and he supposes that his sexual orientation is like an “oxbow lake” produced by a river: something that’s “not part of the flow” of the river, but that the river keeps creating nonetheless (109). Conversely, he is (rightly) angered by the suggestion that homosexuality is adaptive because it has the evolutionary purpose of being “a kind of insurance policy — to look after the others if something happens to the parents” (110). Angry because such an explanation would suggest that his being as a person has no value in its own right, for itself. And this is picked up at the end of the novel, when the new gene crosses species and starts to metastasize in Prabir’s own body. As a ruthless and super-efficient machine for adaptation, it threatens to wipe out Prabir’s own “oxbow lake,” together with anything that might seem “superfluous” from the point of view of adaptive efficiency (310).

By the end of the novel, the new gene has to be contained, for it threatens to “optimize” Prabir, and through him the rest of humanity, into a monstrous reproductive machine. Teranesia suddenly turns, in its last thirty pages or so, into a horror novel; and the final plot twist that saves Prabir is (in contrast to everything that has come before) exceedingly unconvincing and unsatisfying, because it hinges on seeing the malignant gene as purpose-driven to an extent that simply (I mean in the context of Egan’s fiction itself) isn’t credible.

Teranesia thus ends up tracking and reproducing what I am tempted to call (in Kantian style) the antinomies of neodarwinian explanation. Starting from the basic assertion that “life is meaningless” (338 — the very last words of the novel), it nonetheless finds itself compelled to hypothesize a monstrous, totalizing purposiveness. The specter of biological exuberance is exorcized, but monstrosity is not thereby dispelled; it simply returns in an even more extreme form. Even Egan’s recourse to quantum mechanics is symptomatic: because quantum mechanics is so inherently paradoxical — because it is literally impossible to understand in anything like intuitive terms — it becomes the last recourse when you are trying to explain in rationalistic and reductive terms some aspect of reality (and of life especially) that turns out to be stubbornly mysterious. Quantum mechanics allows you to have it both ways: Egan’s use of it can be compared, for instance, to the way Roger Penrose has recourse to quantum effects in order to explain the mysteries of consciousness. In short, Teranesia is a good enough book that it runs up against, and inadvertently demonstrates, the aporias implicit within the scientific rationality to which Egan is committed.

Save CBGBs!

Action is needed now, to save CBGB’s, the club on the Bowery in New York City where American punk music really got its start in the late 1970s. I won’t pontificate like an old geezer on the evenings I spent there in 1977-1979. I’ll just say that CBGBs is part of musical history, and doesn’t deserve to be destroyed by the forces of gentrification. Nightspore alerted me to this, and he has more information here; the official “Save CBGBs” page is here.

Once More With Feeling

So, I am continuing to work my way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, watching all the episodes in order, as I have been doing for quite some time. I am now about a third of the way through season 6. I’m getting there.

There are many reasons why I love Buffy. (This is a topic that I will not exhaust anytime soon). A lot of it, of course, has to do with the particulars of the characters, the changes they go through, their relationships, their transformations and growth. (By season 6, the teen angst of the first two years has been left behind, for other — equally heart-wrenching — difficulties). But rather than writing a dissertation on Willow, or Giles, or Spike (let alone Buffy herself), I want to work through something about the generic aspects of the show.

Buffy works for me largely because it’s melodrama: you know, like Douglas Sirk, or daytime TV soaps. Melodrama is a machine for producing and amplifying affect. It gets its “truth” by abandoning naturalism and verisimilitude in favor of a certain kind of artifice, in which emotions are frozen and held static, and magnified and intensified through a kind of collapsing of time and place. “Melodramatic” often means “exaggerated”: and melodramas get their power by exaggerating the fluctuations of feeling, by stretching everything out into a roller-coaster ride of extreme ups and downs, and especially by theatricalizing emotion, so that all the situations and relationships the characters are trapped in seem operatic, or — to give a more postmodern turn to it — are ostentatiously placed “in quotation marks.” This artifice is a sort of distancing, which is what often makes melodrama ridiculous; but at the same time, the melodramatic focus can be intense and devastating, in the way a more naturalistic treatment could never be. At the movies or on TV, I only cry when emotions and situations are placed “in quotation marks”; if they are presented naturalistically, I remain completely unmoved. (Think of the climactic scene in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, at the Club Silencio, when Betty and Rita are utterly moved to tears by the ostentatious fakery of Rebekah Del Rio’s lip-synching of her own over-the-top Spanish-language rendition of a Roy Orbison song).

Melodrama is not quite “psychological” in the way we usually understand this word. It’s at the opposite extreme from modernist or Freudian “depth psychology.” Psychology in melodrama is literally without depth, because the psyche and all its affects are externalized. Todd Haynes, commenting on Sirk’s melodramas, said that the characters are “pre-psychological.” But I’m not convinced they are any more “pre-” than “post-“. The characters in melodrama don’t have “inner lives,” because everything they feel is acted out, made overemphatic or “melodramatic”, and “sublimated into gesture, decor, color and music” (here I am inaccurately quoting Thomas Elsaesser, who has written the best account of 1950s Hollywood melodrama). Instead of cognition, we get passion: in the literal sense that the characters suffer what they do not understand. And instead of repression and symptom-formation we get expression and objectification, often in the form of character doublings, or episodes of hypnotic influence and of possession (Personality-changing possession, or occult influence, is of course a continual theme in Buffy; and there are lots of character doublings as well, literally in the episode when Xander gets split in half, more metaphorically in rivalrous pairings like that of Buffy vs. Faith, who actually exchange bodies in one episode).

It’s precisely because melodrama is not “psychological,” not oriented towards interiority, that it so often functions as social critique. Sirk’s 1950s melodramas, as is well known, work through the gaps between what women want (or emotionally need) and what they are actually able to get; as well as the gaps between the American promise of happiness, and the dissatisfying emptiness of material wealth or commodities. More generally, and still in social situations that differ as much as middle-class American life today differs from middle-class American life in the 1950s, melodrama is always about desire as unfulfillment (or what the Lacanians call “lack”): for even if it is a general psychological truth that desire always exceeds its objects, so that it is intrinsically unfulfilled, still the hole of this unfulfillment is always filled by the social, or (better) is where the social can be located within the psyche. Because melodrama exteriorizes everything, it is always social and political, often more so than other genres that have political themes as their more explicit subjects.

There is melodrama in books and plays and of course in the movies; but melodrama really finds its home on television. The intimacy of the small screen, and the serial structure of televisual narrative, are ideal conditions for melodrama. In daytime soaps, but also in weekly evening shows with a melodramatic tinge, character is iconic, conveyed by definite, recognizable gestures; devastating plot turns are frequent, multiple plot strands can be carried through at once, and narrative closure is almost never really attained (since there always has to be something to justify another episode). One might even argue that the continual transformations of melodrama, and the continual repetitions of the same configuration in sitcoms, are the two most basic televisual forms. In TV melodrama, there’s leisure for repetition and amplification, as well as for the characters’ gradual growth on the one hand, and sudden transformations on the other. A TV series also allows for multiple allusions (e.g. to other TV narratives and genres, and more general features of popular culture) as well as self-referential turns self-parody, and so on. Dramatic television series these days tend to alternate between self-contained episodes and ones that advance the overall “plot arc,” to include topical episodes now and then (like a Christmas episode — or in Buffy, a yearly Halloween episode), and occasionally to involve crossovers with other, related shows (especially with spinoffs: in the case of Buffy, this of course means Angel). One should also mention the ways in which TV series allow for a particularly intense sort of contact with the shows’ fans, who argue online in astonishingly minute detail about the pros and cons of every episode, as well as writing fan fiction and otherwise offering alternative directions in which the show and the characters might have proceeded, but did not. (This has to do with how television remains, as McLuhan said it was, a “cool” medium, one which therefore solicits its audience to project themselves into it, and participate in it in depth: the artifice and artificiality of melodrama are strongly consonant with the artifice and artificiality of the televisual medium itself).

Buffy, of course, is something of a closeted melodrama. Its official genre, I suppose, is horror, or more precisely the supernatural thriller. And we expect that every episode will contain at least one good fight scene, where Buffy kicks ass. And that there will be some comedy to leaven the prospect of apocalypse, or Buffy’s pain at always having to do what she does. Nonetheless, melodrama is never far from the surface. Buffy’s relationship with Angel in season 2, and the death of her mother in season 5, are perhaps the two most obvious examples of melodramatic plot lines. But melodrama is everywhere in the show: it’s all about impossible situations, unfulfillable desires, and people confronting passions that they didn’t know they had, or that feel to them as if they were coming from elsewhere. Relationships frayed, and yet inescapable. The supernatural elements of the show — the vampires, the demons, the multiple Hell realms outside our own, and always threatening to break in — these are all othernesses that yet seem all too close to us, intimately close, closer perhaps than what we take for granted in the everyday. In the course of the seven years of Buffy, vampires become everyday. And if horror as a genre is about our intimate contact with radical otherness, then melodrama is precisely its obverse, the genre that projects everything intimate into the outside, into otherness. Horror, and supernatural excess, become mundane, even as the mundane is the realm where the most unbearable things continually happen. And Buffy is all about this identity-by-inversion; indeed, it’s only through Buffy that I have come to understand it. This inversion is what grounds all the great, heart-wrenching moments of the show: Buffy’s having to kill Angel precisely at the moment when, after so much suffering, she has gotten him back; Buffy having to sacrifice herself to save Dawn; the tenderness of Faith’s daughter/father relationship with the Mayor, even as this relation has drawn her into the utmost abjection; Spike’s pained lust and crippling inhibition beneath his punk sneer; Willow’s moments of desperation and grim determination and rage…. The list could go on. What Buffy does is to linger on all these moments, to draw them out, to make them both painful and awkward (I mean both the awkwardness that the characters often feel, as well as the frequent awkwardness of the show itself, as if it were continually trying to express something that went beyond its means, and that it could not portray quite convincingly).

The thing that I find most fascinating about it all, however, is something that includes but goes beyond melodrama, or (better) something that Buffy shares, not with other melodramas, but with other examples of science fiction or speculative fiction. This is the need to take the show’s situations literally. By this I mean that the supernatural elements of the show’s melodramatic situations cannot be read as allegories of more familiar emotional states, but have to be taken precisely for what they are. When Buffy can’t have sex with Angel, because of a Gypsy curse that means such consummation will take away his soul and turn him back into an evil vampire; when Buffy, returned from the dead, cannot experience life with anything but pain and dread, because she has been riven away from Paradise: these do not symbolize or allegorize any actual or possible situations that you and I might really experience ourselves. They are impossible, strictly unimaginable situations; and their emotional intensity depends on the fact that we cannot really conceive of their possibility, and yet we have to accept them (in the “suspension of disbelief” — a formulation I am not at all happy with — of our immersion in the show) as being not only “real,” but even mundane. This is the part of the experience that I find it most difficult to “theorize,” or to make sense of in terms that satisfy me.

So, I am continuing to work my way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, watching all the episodes in order, as I have been doing for quite some time. I am now about a third of the way through season 6. I’m getting there.

There are many reasons why I love Buffy. (This is a topic that I will not exhaust anytime soon). A lot of it, of course, has to do with the particulars of the characters, the changes they go through, their relationships, their transformations and growth. (By season 6, the teen angst of the first two years has been left behind, for other — equally heart-wrenching — difficulties). But rather than writing a dissertation on Willow, or Giles, or Spike (let alone Buffy herself), I want to work through something about the generic aspects of the show.

Buffy works for me largely because it’s melodrama: you know, like Douglas Sirk, or daytime TV soaps. Melodrama is a machine for producing and amplifying affect. It gets its “truth” by abandoning naturalism and verisimilitude in favor of a certain kind of artifice, in which emotions are frozen and held static, and magnified and intensified through a kind of collapsing of time and place. “Melodramatic” often means “exaggerated”: and melodramas get their power by exaggerating the fluctuations of feeling, by stretching everything out into a roller-coaster ride of extreme ups and downs, and especially by theatricalizing emotion, so that all the situations and relationships the characters are trapped in seem operatic, or — to give a more postmodern turn to it — are ostentatiously placed “in quotation marks.” This artifice is a sort of distancing, which is what often makes melodrama ridiculous; but at the same time, the melodramatic focus can be intense and devastating, in the way a more naturalistic treatment could never be. At the movies or on TV, I only cry when emotions and situations are placed “in quotation marks”; if they are presented naturalistically, I remain completely unmoved. (Think of the climactic scene in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, at the Club Silencio, when Betty and Rita are utterly moved to tears by the ostentatious fakery of Rebekah Del Rio’s lip-synching of her own over-the-top Spanish-language rendition of a Roy Orbison song).

Melodrama is not quite “psychological” in the way we usually understand this word. It’s at the opposite extreme from modernist or Freudian “depth psychology.” Psychology in melodrama is literally without depth, because the psyche and all its affects are externalized. Todd Haynes, commenting on Sirk’s melodramas, said that the characters are “pre-psychological.” But I’m not convinced they are any more “pre-” than “post-“. The characters in melodrama don’t have “inner lives,” because everything they feel is acted out, made overemphatic or “melodramatic”, and “sublimated into gesture, decor, color and music” (here I am inaccurately quoting Thomas Elsaesser, who has written the best account of 1950s Hollywood melodrama). Instead of cognition, we get passion: in the literal sense that the characters suffer what they do not understand. And instead of repression and symptom-formation we get expression and objectification, often in the form of character doublings, or episodes of hypnotic influence and of possession (Personality-changing possession, or occult influence, is of course a continual theme in Buffy; and there are lots of character doublings as well, literally in the episode when Xander gets split in half, more metaphorically in rivalrous pairings like that of Buffy vs. Faith, who actually exchange bodies in one episode).

It’s precisely because melodrama is not “psychological,” not oriented towards interiority, that it so often functions as social critique. Sirk’s 1950s melodramas, as is well known, work through the gaps between what women want (or emotionally need) and what they are actually able to get; as well as the gaps between the American promise of happiness, and the dissatisfying emptiness of material wealth or commodities. More generally, and still in social situations that differ as much as middle-class American life today differs from middle-class American life in the 1950s, melodrama is always about desire as unfulfillment (or what the Lacanians call “lack”): for even if it is a general psychological truth that desire always exceeds its objects, so that it is intrinsically unfulfilled, still the hole of this unfulfillment is always filled by the social, or (better) is where the social can be located within the psyche. Because melodrama exteriorizes everything, it is always social and political, often more so than other genres that have political themes as their more explicit subjects.

There is melodrama in books and plays and of course in the movies; but melodrama really finds its home on television. The intimacy of the small screen, and the serial structure of televisual narrative, are ideal conditions for melodrama. In daytime soaps, but also in weekly evening shows with a melodramatic tinge, character is iconic, conveyed by definite, recognizable gestures; devastating plot turns are frequent, multiple plot strands can be carried through at once, and narrative closure is almost never really attained (since there always has to be something to justify another episode). One might even argue that the continual transformations of melodrama, and the continual repetitions of the same configuration in sitcoms, are the two most basic televisual forms. In TV melodrama, there’s leisure for repetition and amplification, as well as for the characters’ gradual growth on the one hand, and sudden transformations on the other. A TV series also allows for multiple allusions (e.g. to other TV narratives and genres, and more general features of popular culture) as well as self-referential turns self-parody, and so on. Dramatic television series these days tend to alternate between self-contained episodes and ones that advance the overall “plot arc,” to include topical episodes now and then (like a Christmas episode — or in Buffy, a yearly Halloween episode), and occasionally to involve crossovers with other, related shows (especially with spinoffs: in the case of Buffy, this of course means Angel). One should also mention the ways in which TV series allow for a particularly intense sort of contact with the shows’ fans, who argue online in astonishingly minute detail about the pros and cons of every episode, as well as writing fan fiction and otherwise offering alternative directions in which the show and the characters might have proceeded, but did not. (This has to do with how television remains, as McLuhan said it was, a “cool” medium, one which therefore solicits its audience to project themselves into it, and participate in it in depth: the artifice and artificiality of melodrama are strongly consonant with the artifice and artificiality of the televisual medium itself).

Buffy, of course, is something of a closeted melodrama. Its official genre, I suppose, is horror, or more precisely the supernatural thriller. And we expect that every episode will contain at least one good fight scene, where Buffy kicks ass. And that there will be some comedy to leaven the prospect of apocalypse, or Buffy’s pain at always having to do what she does. Nonetheless, melodrama is never far from the surface. Buffy’s relationship with Angel in season 2, and the death of her mother in season 5, are perhaps the two most obvious examples of melodramatic plot lines. But melodrama is everywhere in the show: it’s all about impossible situations, unfulfillable desires, and people confronting passions that they didn’t know they had, or that feel to them as if they were coming from elsewhere. Relationships frayed, and yet inescapable. The supernatural elements of the show — the vampires, the demons, the multiple Hell realms outside our own, and always threatening to break in — these are all othernesses that yet seem all too close to us, intimately close, closer perhaps than what we take for granted in the everyday. In the course of the seven years of Buffy, vampires become everyday. And if horror as a genre is about our intimate contact with radical otherness, then melodrama is precisely its obverse, the genre that projects everything intimate into the outside, into otherness. Horror, and supernatural excess, become mundane, even as the mundane is the realm where the most unbearable things continually happen. And Buffy is all about this identity-by-inversion; indeed, it’s only through Buffy that I have come to understand it. This inversion is what grounds all the great, heart-wrenching moments of the show: Buffy’s having to kill Angel precisely at the moment when, after so much suffering, she has gotten him back; Buffy having to sacrifice herself to save Dawn; the tenderness of Faith’s daughter/father relationship with the Mayor, even as this relation has drawn her into the utmost abjection; Spike’s pained lust and crippling inhibition beneath his punk sneer; Willow’s moments of desperation and grim determination and rage…. The list could go on. What Buffy does is to linger on all these moments, to draw them out, to make them both painful and awkward (I mean both the awkwardness that the characters often feel, as well as the frequent awkwardness of the show itself, as if it were continually trying to express something that went beyond its means, and that it could not portray quite convincingly). (This is also why the show’s bizarre juxtapositions, its invocations of the most unlikely and artificial genres — like the 1950s musical in the “Once More With Feeling” episode — work so brilliantly. There’s an arbitrariness that fits perfectly with the strained unnaturalness of melodrama itself).

The thing that I find most fascinating about it all, however, is something that includes but goes beyond melodrama, or (better) something that Buffy shares, not with other melodramas, but with other examples of science fiction or speculative fiction. This is the need to take the show’s situations literally. By this I mean that the supernatural elements of the show’s melodramatic situations cannot be read as allegories of more familiar emotional states, but have to be taken precisely for what they are. When Buffy can’t have sex with Angel, because of a Gypsy curse that means such consummation will take away his soul and turn him back into an evil vampire; when Buffy, returned from the dead, cannot experience life with anything but pain and dread, because she has been riven away from Paradise: these do not symbolize or allegorize any actual or possible situations that you and I might really experience ourselves. They are impossible, strictly unimaginable situations; and their emotional intensity depends on the fact that we cannot really conceive of their possibility, and yet we have to accept them (in the “suspension of disbelief” — a formulation I am not at all happy with — of our immersion in the show) as being not only “real,” but even mundane. This is the part of the experience that I find it most difficult to “theorize,” or to make sense of in terms that satisfy me.

On and On

“On and On,” the new Missy Elliott song from her forthcoming album Cookbook, is really amazing: gurgling synthesizer lines over a heavy booming beat, and the art of declamation honed sharp as a razor. Wow. Produced, not by Timbaland, but by the Neptunes, and one of their best tracks ever (enough to make you forget “Milkshake”or “Drop It Like It’s Hot”).

Cosmopolitics

I just finished reading Isabelle Stengers’ great book Cosmopolitiques (originally published in seven brief volumes, now available in two paperbacks; unfortunately, it has not yet been translated into English). It’s a dense and rich book, of something like 650 pages, and it’s forced me to rethink a lot of things. I’ve said before that I think Stengers is our best guide to the “science wars” of the last decade or two, and more generally, to the philosophy of science. In Cosmopolitiques, she massively extends and expands upon what she wrote in earlier books like The Invention of Modern Science.

Stengers, like Bruno Latour, wants us to give up the claim to absolute supremacy that is the greatest legacy of post-Enlightenment modernity. The point is not to abandon science, nor to see it (in cultural-relativist terms) as lacking objective validity. The problem is not with science’s actual, particular positive claims; but rather with its pretensions to universality, its need to deny the validity of all claims and practices other than its own. What Stengers, rightly, wants to take down is the “mobilization” of science as a war machine, which can only make its positive claims by destroying all other discourses and points of view: science presenting itself as rational and as objectively “true,” whereas all other discourses are denounced as superstitious, irrational, grounded in mere “belief,” etc. Stengers isn’t opposing genetics research, for instance, but she is opposing the claim that somehow the “truth” of “human nature” can be found in the genome and nowhere else. She’s opposing Edward O. Wilson’s “consilience” (with its at proclamation that positive science can and will replace psychology, literature, philosophy, religion, and all other “humanistic” forms of knowledge) and Steven Pinker’s reductive, naive and incredibly arrogant and pretentious account of “how the mind works”; not to mention the absurd efforts of “quantitative” social scientists (economists, political scientists, and sociologists) to imagine themselves as arriving at “truth” by writing equations that emulate those of physics.

Stengers wants to understand science in the specificity of its practices, and thereby to reject its transcendent claims, its claims to foundational status which are always made by detaching it from its actual, concrete practices. She defines her own approach as, philosophically, a “constructivist” one. Constructivism in philosophy is non-foundationalist: it denies that truth somehow comes first, denies that it is just there in the world or in the mind. Instead, constructivism looks at how truths are produced through various processes and practices. This does not mean that truth is merely a subjective, human enterprise, either: the practices and processes that produce truths are not just human ones. (Here, Stengers draws profitably upon Whitehead, about whom she has written extensively). For modern science, the constructivist question is to determine how this practice is able (unlike most other human practices, at least) to produce objects that have lives of their own, as it were, so that they remain “answerable” for their actions in the world independently of the laboratory conditions under which they were initially elucidated. This is what makes neutrinos and microbes, for instance, different from codes of justice, or from money, or from ancestral spirits that may be haunting someone. The point of the constructivist approach is to see how these differences work, without thereby asserting that scientific objects are therefore objective, and out there in the world, while all the other sorts of objects would be merely subjective or imaginary or irrational or just inside our heads. The point is not to say that scientific objects are “socially constructed” rather than “objectively true,” but precisely to get away from this binary alternative, when it comes to considering either scientific practices and objects, or (for instance) religious practices and objects.

The other pillar of Stengers’ approach is what she calls an “ecology of practices.” This means considering how particular practices — the practices of science, in particular — impinge upon and relate to other practices that simultaneously exist. This means that the question of what science discovers about the world cannot be separated from the question of how science impinges upon the world. For any particular practice — say, for genetics today — the “ecology of practices” asks what particular demands or requirements (exigences in French, which it’s difficult to translate precisely because the cognate English word, “exigency”, sound kind of weird) are made by the practice, and what particular obligations does the practice impose upon those who practice it, make use of it, or get affected by it.

Constructivism and the ecology of practices allow Stengers to distinguish between science as a creative enterprise, a practice of invention and discovery, and science’s modernist claim to invalidate all other discourses. Actually, such a statement is too broad — for Stengers also distinguishes among various sciences, which are not all alike. The assumptions and criteria, and hence the demands and obligations, of theoretical physics are quite different from those of ethology (the study of animal behavior, which has to take place in the wild, where there is little possibility of controlling for “variables,” as well as under laboratory conditions). The obligations one takes on when investigating chimpanzees, and all the more so human beings, are vastly different from the obligations one takes on when investigating neutrinos or chemical reactions. The demands made by scientific practices (such as the demand that the object discovered not be just an “artifact” of a particular experimental setup) also vary from one practice to another. Constructivism and the ecology of practices allow Stengers to situate the relevance and the limits of various scientific practices, without engaging in critique: that is to say, without asserting the privilege of a transcendent(al) perspective on the basis of which the varying practices are judged.

Much of Cosmopolitiques is concerned with a history of physics, from Galileo through quantum mechanics. Stengers focuses on the question of physical “laws.” She looks especially at the notion of equilibrium, and the modeling of dynamic systems. Starting with Galileo, going through Newton and Leibniz, and then continuing throughout the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, there is a continual growth in the power of mathematical idealizations to describe physical systems. Physicists construct models that work under simplified conditions — ignoring the presence of friction, for instance, when describing spheres rolling down a plane (Galileo) or more generally, motion through space. They then add the effects of “perturbations” like friction as minor modifications of the basic model. Gradually, more and more complex models were developed, which allowed for more and more factors to be incorporated within the models themselves, instead of having to be left outside as mere “perturbations.” These models all assume physical “states” that can be said to exist at an instant, independently of the historical development of the systems in question; and they assume a basic condition of equilibrium, often perturbed but always returned to.

Stengers suggests that we should celebrate these accomplishments as triumphs of scientific imagination and invention. At the same time, she points up the baleful effects of these accomplishments, in terms of how they got (metaphorically) transferred to other physical and scientific realms. The success of models, expressible as physical “laws,” has to do with the particular sorts of questions 19th-century dynamics addressed (having to do with the nature of forces in finite interactions that could be treated mathematically with linear equations). The success of dynamics, however, led physicists to expect that the same procedures would be valid in answering other questions. This extension of the dynamic model beyond the field of its experimental successes, and into other realms, led to the general assumption that all physical processes could similarly be modeled in terms of instantaneous “states” and time-invariant transformations of these states. That is to say, the assumption that all physical processes follow deterministic “laws.” When the “perturbations” that deviate from the ideal cannot be eliminated empirically, this is attributed to the mere limitations of our knowledge, with the assertion that the physical world “really” operates in accordance with the idealized model, which thereby takes precedence over merely empirical observations. This is how physics moved from empirical observation to a quasi-Platonic faith in an essence underlying mere appearances.

It’s because of this underlying idealism, this illicit transference of dynamic modelling into realms that are not suited to it, that the ideology of physics as describing the ultimate nature of “reality” has taken so strong a hold on us today. Thus physicists dismiss the apparent irreversibility of time, and the increase of entropy (disorder) in any closed system, as merely artifacts of our subjectivity, which is to say our ignorance (of the fact that we do not have access to perfect and total information about the physical state of every atom). But Stengers points out the arbitrariness of the generally accepted “statistical” interpretation of entropy; she argues that it is warranted only by physicists’ underlying assumption that the ideal situation of total knowability of every individual atom’s location and path, independent of the atoms’ history of interactions, must obtain everywhere. This ideal is invoked as how nature “really” behaves, even if there is no empirical possibility of obtaining the “knowledge” that the ideal assumes.

There are similar problems in quantum mechanics. Most physicists are not content with Bohr’s injunction not to ask what is “really” going on before the collapse of quantum indeterminacy; they can’t accept that total, deterministic knowledge is an impossibility, so they have recourse to all sorts of strange hypotheses, from multiple worlds to “hidden variables.” But following Nancy Cartwright among others, Stengers suggests that the whole problem of indeterminacy and measurement in quantum mechanics is a false one. Physicists don’t like the fact that quantum mechanics forbids us in principle from having exact knowledge of every particle, as it were independently of our interaction with the particles (since we have to choose, for instance, between knowing the position of an electron and knowing its momentum — we can’t have both, and it is our interaction with the electron that determines which we do find out). But Stengers points out that the limits of our knowledge in quantum mechanics are not really any greater than, say, the limits of my knowledge as to what somebody else is really feeling and thinking. It’s only the physicists’ idealizing assumption of the world’s total knowability and total determinability in accordance with “laws” that leads them to be frustrated and dissatisfied by the limits imposed by quantum mechanics.

Now, my summary of the last two paragraphs has actually done a disservice to Stengers. Because I have restated her analyses in a Kantian manner, as a reflection upon the limits of reason. But for Stengers, such an exercise in transcendental critique is precisely what she wants to get away from; since such a critique means that once again modernist rationality is legislating against practices whose claims differ from its own. She seeks, rather, through constructivism and the ecology of practices, to offer what might be called (following Deleuze) an entirely immanent critique, one that is situated within the very field of practices that it is seeking to change. Stengers exemplifies this with a detailed account of the work of Ilya Prigogine, with whom she collaborated in the 1980s. Prigogine sought, for most of his career, to get the “arrow of time” — the irreversibility of events in time — recognized as among the fundamentals of physics. We cultural studies types tend to adopt Prigogine wholeheartedly for our own critical purposes. But Stengers emphasizes the difficulties that result from the fact that Prigogine is not critiquing physics and chemistry, but seeking to point up the “arrow of time” in such a way that the physicists themselves will be compelled to acknowledge it. To the extent that he is still regarded as a fringe figure by most mainstream scientists, it cannot be said that he succeeded. Stengers points to recent developments in studies of emergence and complexity as possibly pointing to a renovation of scientific thought, but she warns against the new-agey or high-theoretical tendency many of us outside the sciences have to proclaim a new world-view by trumpeting these scientific results as evidence: which means both translating scientific research into “theory” way too uncritically, and engaging in a kind of Kantian critique, instead of remaining within the immanence of the ecology of actual practices, with the demands they make and the obligations they impose.

The biggest question Cosmopolitiques leaves me with is precisely the one of whether it is possible to approach all these questions immanently, without bringing some sort of Kantian critique back into the picture (as I find myself unavoidably tempted to do, even when I am just trying to summarize Stengers’ arguments). One could also pose this question in reverse: whether Kantian critique (in the sense I am using it, which goes back to the Transcendental Dialectic of the First Critique, where Kant tries to use rationality to limit the pretensions of reason itself) can be rescued from Stengers’ objections to the modernist/scientific condemnation of all claims other than its own. The modernist gesture par excellence, in Stengers’ account, would be David Hume’s consignment of theology and speculative philosophy to the flames, as containing “nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Are Kant’s Antinomies and Paralogisms making essentiallly the same gesture? I regard this as a crucial question, and as an open one, something I have only begun to think about.

I have another question about Stengers’ conclusions, one that (I think) follows from that about Kantian critique. Stengers urges us (in the last section of her book) “to have done with tolerance”; because “tolerance” is precisely the condescending attitude by which “we” (scientists, secular modernists in general) make allowances for other world-views which we nonetheless refuse to take seriously. Stengers’ vision, like Latour’s, is radically democratic: science is not a transcending “truth” but one of many “interests” which constantly need to negotiate with one another. This can only happen if all the competing interests are taken seriously (not merely “tolerated”), and actively able to intervene with and against one another. To give an example that Stengers herself doesn’t use: think of the recent disputes over “Kennewick Man” — a 9,000-year-old skull discovered in 1999 near the Columbia River in Washington State. Scientists want to study the remains; Native American groups want to give the remains a proper burial. For the most part, the American press presented the dispute as one between the rational desire to increase our store of knowledge and the irrational, archaic “beliefs” of the “tribes” claiming ownership of the skull. Stengers would have us realize that such an indivious distinction is precisely an instance of scientific imperialism, and that the claims of both the scientists and the native groups — the demands they make and the obligations they feel urged to fulfill — need to be negotiated on an equal basis, that both are particular interests, and both are political: the situation cannot be described as a battle between rationality and superstition, or between “knowledge” and “belief.”

In this way, Stengers (and Latour) are criticising, not just Big Science, but also (and perhaps even more significantly) the default assumptions of post-Enlightenment secular liberalism. Their criticism is quite different from that espoused by such thinkers as Zizek and Badiou; but there is a shared rejection of the way that liberal “tolerance” (the “human face,” you might say, of multinational captial) in fact prevents substantive questions from being asked, and substantive change from happening. This is another Big Issue that I am (again) only beginning to think through, and that I will have to return to in future posts. But as regards Stengers, my real question is this: Where do Stengers’ and Latour’s anti-modernist imperatives leave us, when it comes to dealing with the fundamentalist, evangelical Christians in the United States today? Does the need to deprivilege science’s claims to exclusive truth, and to democratically recognize other social/cultural/political claims, mean, for instance, that we need to give full respect to the claims of “intelligent design” or creationism, and let them negotiate on an equal footing with the claims of evolutionary theory? To say that we shouldn’t tolerate the fundamentalists because they themselves are intolerant is no answer. And I’m not sure that to say, as I have said before, that denying the evolution of species is akin to denying the Holocaust — since both are matters of historical events, rather than of (verifiable or falsifiable) theories — I’m not sure that this answer works either. I realize I am showing my own biases here: it’s one thing to uphold the claims of disenfranchised native peoples, another to uphold the claims of a group that I think is oppressing me as much as they think I and my like are oppressing them. But this is really where the aporia comes for me; where I am genuinely uncertain as to the merits of Stengers’ arguments in comparison to the liberal “tolerance” she so powerfully despises.

I just finished reading Isabelle Stengers’ great book Cosmopolitiques (originally published in seven brief volumes, now available in two paperbacks; unfortunately, it has not yet been translated into English). It’s a dense and rich book, of something like 650 pages, and it’s forced me to rethink a lot of things. I’ve said before that I think Stengers is our best guide to the “science wars” of the last decade or two, and more generally, to the philosophy of science. In Cosmopolitiques, she massively extends and expands upon what she wrote in earlier books like The Invention of Modern Science.

Stengers, like Bruno Latour, wants us to give up the claim to absolute supremacy that is the greatest legacy of post-Enlightenment modernity. The point is not to abandon science, nor to see it (in cultural-relativist terms) as lacking objective validity. The problem is not with science’s actual, particular positive claims; but rather with its pretensions to universality, its need to deny the validity of all claims and practices other than its own. What Stengers, rightly, wants to take down is the “mobilization” of science as a war machine, which can only make its positive claims by destroying all other discourses and points of view: science presenting itself as rational and as objectively “true,” whereas all other discourses are denounced as superstitious, irrational, grounded in mere “belief,” etc. Stengers isn’t opposing genetics research, for instance, but she is opposing the claim that somehow the “truth” of “human nature” can be found in the genome and nowhere else. She’s opposing Edward O. Wilson’s “consilience” (with its at proclamation that positive science can and will replace psychology, literature, philosophy, religion, and all other “humanistic” forms of knowledge) and Steven Pinker’s reductive, naive and incredibly arrogant and pretentious account of “how the mind works”; not to mention the absurd efforts of “quantitative” social scientists (economists, political scientists, and sociologists) to imagine themselves as arriving at “truth” by writing equations that emulate those of physics.

Stengers wants to understand science in the specificity of its practices, and thereby to reject its transcendent claims, its claims to foundational status which are always made by detaching it from its actual, concrete practices. She defines her own approach as, philosophically, a “constructivist” one. Constructivism in philosophy is non-foundationalist: it denies that truth somehow comes first, denies that it is just there in the world or in the mind. Instead, constructivism looks at how truths are produced through various processes and practices. This does not mean that truth is merely a subjective, human enterprise, either: the practices and processes that produce truths are not just human ones. (Here, Stengers draws profitably upon Whitehead, about whom she has written extensively). For modern science, the constructivist question is to determine how this practice is able (unlike most other human practices, at least) to produce objects that have lives of their own, as it were, so that they remain “answerable” for their actions in the world independently of the laboratory conditions under which they were initially elucidated. This is what makes neutrinos and microbes, for instance, different from codes of justice, or from money, or from ancestral spirits that may be haunting someone. The point of the constructivist approach is to see how these differences work, without thereby asserting that scientific objects are therefore objective, and out there in the world, while all the other sorts of objects would be merely subjective or imaginary or irrational or just inside our heads. The point is not to say that scientific objects are “socially constructed” rather than “objectively true,” but precisely to get away from this binary alternative, when it comes to considering either scientific practices and objects, or (for instance) religious practices and objects.

The other pillar of Stengers’ approach is what she calls an “ecology of practices.” This means considering how particular practices — the practices of science, in particular — impinge upon and relate to other practices that simultaneously exist. This means that the question of what science discovers about the world cannot be separated from the question of how science impinges upon the world. For any particular practice — say, for genetics today — the “ecology of practices” asks what particular demands or requirements (exigences in French, which it’s difficult to translate precisely because the cognate English word, “exigency”, sound kind of weird) are made by the practice, and what particular obligations does the practice impose upon those who practice it, make use of it, or get affected by it.

Constructivism and the ecology of practices allow Stengers to distinguish between science as a creative enterprise, a practice of invention and discovery, and science’s modernist claim to invalidate all other discourses. Actually, such a statement is too broad — for Stengers also distinguishes among various sciences, which are not all alike. The assumptions and criteria, and hence the demands and obligations, of theoretical physics are quite different from those of ethology (the study of animal behavior, which has to take place in the wild, where there is little possibility of controlling for “variables,” as well as under laboratory conditions). The obligations one takes on when investigating chimpanzees, and all the more so human beings, are vastly different from the obligations one takes on when investigating neutrinos or chemical reactions. The demands made by scientific practices (such as the demand that the object discovered not be just an “artifact” of a particular experimental setup) also vary from one practice to another. Constructivism and the ecology of practices allow Stengers to situate the relevance and the limits of various scientific practices, without engaging in critique: that is to say, without asserting the privilege of a transcendent(al) perspective on the basis of which the varying practices are judged.

Much of Cosmopolitiques is concerned with a history of physics, from Galileo through quantum mechanics. Stengers focuses on the question of physical “laws.” She looks especially at the notion of equilibrium, and the modeling of dynamic systems. Starting with Galileo, going through Newton and Leibniz, and then continuing throughout the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, there is a continual growth in the power of mathematical idealizations to describe physical systems. Physicists construct models that work under simplified conditions — ignoring the presence of friction, for instance, when describing spheres rolling down a plane (Galileo) or more generally, motion through space. They then add the effects of “perturbations” like friction as minor modifications of the basic model. Gradually, more and more complex models were developed, which allowed for more and more factors to be incorporated within the models themselves, instead of having to be left outside as mere “perturbations.” These models all assume physical “states” that can be said to exist at an instant, independently of the historical development of the systems in question; and they assume a basic condition of equilibrium, often perturbed but always returned to.

Stengers suggests that we should celebrate these accomplishments as triumphs of scientific imagination and invention. At the same time, she points up the baleful effects of these accomplishments, in terms of how they got (metaphorically) transferred to other physical and scientific realms. The success of models, expressible as physical “laws,” has to do with the particular sorts of questions 19th-century dynamics addressed (having to do with the nature of forces in finite interactions that could be treated mathematically with linear equations). The success of dynamics, however, led physicists to expect that the same procedures would be valid in answering other questions. This extension of the dynamic model beyond the field of its experimental successes, and into other realms, led to the general assumption that all physical processes could similarly be modeled in terms of instantaneous “states” and time-invariant transformations of these states. That is to say, the assumption that all physical processes follow deterministic “laws.” When the “perturbations” that deviate from the ideal cannot be eliminated empirically, this is attributed to the mere limitations of our knowledge, with the assertion that the physical world “really” operates in accordance with the idealized model, which thereby takes precedence over merely empirical observations. This is how physics moved from empirical observation to a quasi-Platonic faith in an essence underlying mere appearances.

It’s because of this underlying idealism, this illicit transference of dynamic modelling into realms that are not suited to it, that the ideology of physics as describing the ultimate nature of “reality” has taken so strong a hold on us today. Thus physicists dismiss the apparent irreversibility of time, and the increase of entropy (disorder) in any closed system, as merely artifacts of our subjectivity, which is to say our ignorance (of the fact that we do not have access to perfect and total information about the physical state of every atom). But Stengers points out the arbitrariness of the generally accepted “statistical” interpretation of entropy; she argues that it is warranted only by physicists’ underlying assumption that the ideal situation of total knowability of every individual atom’s location and path, independent of the atoms’ history of interactions, must obtain everywhere. This ideal is invoked as how nature “really” behaves, even if there is no empirical possibility of obtaining the “knowledge” that the ideal assumes.

There are similar problems in quantum mechanics. Most physicists are not content with Bohr’s injunction not to ask what is “really” going on before the collapse of quantum indeterminacy; they can’t accept that total, deterministic knowledge is an impossibility, so they have recourse to all sorts of strange hypotheses, from multiple worlds to “hidden variables.” But following Nancy Cartwright among others, Stengers suggests that the whole problem of indeterminacy and measurement in quantum mechanics is a false one. Physicists don’t like the fact that quantum mechanics forbids us in principle from having exact knowledge of every particle, as it were independently of our interaction with the particles (since we have to choose, for instance, between knowing the position of an electron and knowing its momentum — we can’t have both, and it is our interaction with the electron that determines which we do find out). But Stengers points out that the limits of our knowledge in quantum mechanics are not really any greater than, say, the limits of my knowledge as to what somebody else is really feeling and thinking. It’s only the physicists’ idealizing assumption of the world’s total knowability and total determinability in accordance with “laws” that leads them to be frustrated and dissatisfied by the limits imposed by quantum mechanics.

Now, my summary of the last two paragraphs has actually done a disservice to Stengers. Because I have restated her analyses in a Kantian manner, as a reflection upon the limits of reason. But for Stengers, such an exercise in transcendental critique is precisely what she wants to get away from; since such a critique means that once again modernist rationality is legislating against practices whose claims differ from its own. She seeks, rather, through constructivism and the ecology of practices, to offer what might be called (following Deleuze) an entirely immanent critique, one that is situated within the very field of practices that it is seeking to change. Stengers exemplifies this with a detailed account of the work of Ilya Prigogine, with whom she collaborated in the 1980s. Prigogine sought, for most of his career, to get the “arrow of time” — the irreversibility of events in time — recognized as among the fundamentals of physics. We cultural studies types tend to adopt Prigogine wholeheartedly for our own critical purposes. But Stengers emphasizes the difficulties that result from the fact that Prigogine is not critiquing physics and chemistry, but seeking to point up the “arrow of time” in such a way that the physicists themselves will be compelled to acknowledge it. To the extent that he is still regarded as a fringe figure by most mainstream scientists, it cannot be said that he succeeded. Stengers points to recent developments in studies of emergence and complexity as possibly pointing to a renovation of scientific thought, but she warns against the new-agey or high-theoretical tendency many of us outside the sciences have to proclaim a new world-view by trumpeting these scientific results as evidence: which means both translating scientific research into “theory” way too uncritically, and engaging in a kind of Kantian critique, instead of remaining within the immanence of the ecology of actual practices, with the demands they make and the obligations they impose.

The biggest question Cosmopolitiques leaves me with is precisely the one of whether it is possible to approach all these questions immanently, without bringing some sort of Kantian critique back into the picture (as I find myself unavoidably tempted to do, even when I am just trying to summarize Stengers’ arguments). One could also pose this question in reverse: whether Kantian critique (in the sense I am using it, which goes back to the Transcendental Dialectic of the First Critique, where Kant tries to use rationality to limit the pretensions of reason itself) can be rescued from Stengers’ objections to the modernist/scientific condemnation of all claims other than its own. The modernist gesture par excellence, in Stengers’ account, would be David Hume’s consignment of theology and speculative philosophy to the flames, as containing “nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Are Kant’s Antinomies and Paralogisms making essentiallly the same gesture? I regard this as a crucial question, and as an open one, something I have only begun to think about.

I have another question about Stengers’ conclusions, one that (I think) follows from that about Kantian critique. Stengers urges us (in the last section of her book) “to have done with tolerance”; because “tolerance” is precisely the condescending attitude by which “we” (scientists, secular modernists in general) make allowances for other world-views which we nonetheless refuse to take seriously. Stengers’ vision, like Latour’s, is radically democratic: science is not a transcending “truth” but one of many “interests” which constantly need to negotiate with one another. This can only happen if all the competing interests are taken seriously (not merely “tolerated”), and actively able to intervene with and against one another. To give an example that Stengers herself doesn’t use: think of the recent disputes over “Kennewick Man” — a 9,000-year-old skull discovered in 1999 near the Columbia River in Washington State. Scientists want to study the remains; Native American groups want to give the remains a proper burial. For the most part, the American press presented the dispute as one between the rational desire to increase our store of knowledge and the irrational, archaic “beliefs” of the “tribes” claiming ownership of the skull. Stengers would have us realize that such an indivious distinction is precisely an instance of scientific imperialism, and that the claims of both the scientists and the native groups — the demands they make and the obligations they feel urged to fulfill — need to be negotiated on an equal basis, that both are particular interests, and both are political: the situation cannot be described as a battle between rationality and superstition, or between “knowledge” and “belief.”

In this way, Stengers (and Latour) are criticising, not just Big Science, but also (and perhaps even more significantly) the default assumptions of post-Enlightenment secular liberalism. Their criticism is quite different from that espoused by such thinkers as Zizek and Badiou; but there is a shared rejection of the way that liberal “tolerance” (the “human face,” you might say, of multinational captial) in fact prevents substantive questions from being asked, and substantive change from happening. This is another Big Issue that I am (again) only beginning to think through, and that I will have to return to in future posts. But as regards Stengers, my real question is this: Where do Stengers’ and Latour’s anti-modernist imperatives leave us, when it comes to dealing with the fundamentalist, evangelical Christians in the United States today? Does the need to deprivilege science’s claims to exclusive truth, and to democratically recognize other social/cultural/political claims, mean, for instance, that we need to give full respect to the claims of “intelligent design” or creationism, and let them negotiate on an equal footing with the claims of evolutionary theory? To say that we shouldn’t tolerate the fundamentalists because they themselves are intolerant is no answer. And I’m not sure that to say, as I have said before, that denying the evolution of species is akin to denying the Holocaust — since both are matters of historical events, rather than of (verifiable or falsifiable) theories — I’m not sure that this answer works either. I realize I am showing my own biases here: it’s one thing to uphold the claims of disenfranchised native peoples, another to uphold the claims of a group that I think is oppressing me as much as they think I and my like are oppressing them. But this is really where the aporia comes for me; where I am genuinely uncertain as to the merits of Stengers’ arguments in comparison to the liberal “tolerance” she so powerfully despises.

Changes

The look of this blog has completely changed; I’ve decided to switch over from Movable Type to WordPress, which is much easier to use.
It was easy to import all the entries from the old blog, but the internal links (from one entry to another) are completely messed up, and some of the images are missing. Still, it should work for the most part.
Also, the RSS feed url is different, I hope this doesn’t screw up too many people.