How I got critically bit in my socially constructed ass
December 23, 2006 8:28 AM   Subscribe

Made in Criticalland. Sociologist Bruno Latour reflects upon the way social construction and social critique have been instrumentalised by lobbyists, conspiracy theorists, "instant revisionists" and other unsavory people: We, in the academy, like to use more elevated causes–society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism–while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and, then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep Dark below. This from the guy who, thanks to his Relativistic account of Einstein's relativity, was one of the targets of the Sokal hoax.
posted by elgilito (28 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

A good little read, thanks Elgilito...

I don't think I accept Latour's main premise though, i.e. that there is actually a connection between Foucaldian criticism and the politicized Skepticism of, say American conservatives and French conspiracy theorists. The difference seems to me to be a question of relative power; an energy industry lobbyist promoting (absurd) scientific skepticism is an entirely different beast than an academic critic criticising science... I'm not by the way much of a fan of post-posty lit crit types holding forth on quantum physics.
posted by jackbrown at 9:14 AM on December 23, 2006

Of all the left right wing gibberish and hypertextual writing of vaginal fluid dynamics, I respectfully submit Dawkins on Sokal as an evident appeal to popular authority[1][2][3], clearly a member of the obscure axe grinding left winging Metafilter Cabal, salted liberally(!) with Orwell.
posted by elpapacito at 9:19 AM on December 23, 2006 [3 favorites]

somewhat interesting, but its from 2003! given that the turnover between science and politics is so rapid as both fields expand astronomically, i would think that a stronger (and more concrete and relevant) post on the fascinating world of science studies would have included something more recent...
posted by yonation at 9:20 AM on December 23, 2006

"Should I reassure myself by simply saying that bad guys can use any weapon at hand, naturalized facts when it suits them and social construction when it suits them? Should we apologize for having been wrong all along?"

Should we natteringly blather about "throwing out the baby with the bathwater"?
posted by davy at 9:34 AM on December 23, 2006

I came away thinking Latour needn't be so hard on himself and critical theory. Good and worthwhile questions were raised and hidden processes brought to light.
The manipulative dishonesty of powerful vested interests and the ignorance of popular fantasy have their roots elsewhere. If they've picked up certain newly available critical tools to construct their edifices, it's still the workmen who are to blame.
posted by Abiezer at 9:46 AM on December 23, 2006

It is rampant narcissism to imagine that Critical Theory influences the average person in any way whatsoever.
posted by Falconetti at 10:05 AM on December 23, 2006

it is rampant narcissism to imagine that falconetti's statements influence the average person in any way whatsover; hence, he should never speak, right?
posted by yonation at 10:12 AM on December 23, 2006

You are missing the point. Falconetti. Critical theory is not meant to influence but to explain or to help understand that which has not been satisfactorilly explained. If understanding influences anything, then it can be called influential, but not in a direct, linear cause-effect way. The Sokhal hoax actually served, not to debunk but to widen the debate not to shut it down whatever its original intent.
posted by donfactor at 10:17 AM on December 23, 2006

Well, actually I think that critical theory does go a long way to explain how science is being used by public policy wonks. When they have support for their claims, the wonks tend to assert fact and obfuscate the uncertainty of that support. When they don't have support, they put the magnifying glass on the provisional nature of science and obfuscate the consensus behind a certain claim.

yonation: The publication process in many of the sciences is at least a year. So 2003 isn't that old. And one of the more frustrating aspects of academic research in general and science in specific is the tendency to focus on the last decade, ignoring the fact that some of these issues go back over a century.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:46 AM on December 23, 2006

I actually committed the cardinal sin of not fully R(ing)TFA. I just skimmed it and read the comments and assumed it was talking about the broad subjectivizing goal of theory (whatever you want to call it, I am not trying to make a solid claim on what the goal of theory is) being internalized by "bad men" and then thrown back in our faces in highly negative ways. After being chastized, I went back and actually gave the article my full attention and enjoyed it. As donfactor pointed out, the linear connection I assumed after perusal wasn't the point, which makes my previous statement unresponsive and worthless. When you're called out and are in the wrong, you might as well admit it.

Or perhaps I am deploying a deliberate critical misreading?
posted by Falconetti at 10:54 AM on December 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Isn't it really a tribute (or damning indictment) of success, especially when our own (supposedly anti-intellectual) administration speaks of "the reality-based community" and stuff?
posted by amberglow at 1:55 PM on December 23, 2006

I am the one now who naively believes in some facts because I am educated, while it is the other guys now who are too unsophisticated to be gullible anymore:

I don't see why he sees that as a negative--a suspicious, untrusting, and critical populace is essential for any kind of healthy democracy or un-totalitarian system. The reality of blatant and continual lying has educated us all, and he doesn't fully believe in every fact himself.
posted by amberglow at 2:06 PM on December 23, 2006

Bruno is taking his hijacked methods too seriously. It was always a matter of trust. If someone has the burden of proof, as the smokestack industry does concerning global warming, then we simply trust them without the proof. If there are reasons not to trust them, then we don't. It was always common sense.
posted by Brian B. at 2:41 PM on December 23, 2006

"conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents"

Hunh, imagine that. Just like people who write literature.

It's obvious they're all gone balmy. We're all pussycats, really.
posted by Twang at 3:51 PM on December 23, 2006

This is absolutely hilarious. Thank you elpapacito, thank you so much. Excerpt from the Dawkins piece:

Katherine Hayles made the mistake of re-expressing Irigaray's thoughts in (comparatively) clear language. For once, we get a reasonably unobstructed look at the emperor and, yes, he has no clothes:

The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids... From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.

So, a female scientist who studies turbulence what does she do? Masturbate? Erm, I personally have long known that!
posted by carmina at 4:28 PM on December 23, 2006

clearly a member of the obscure axe grinding left winging Metafilter Cabal, salted liberally(!) with Orwell

There is no cabal.
posted by IronLizard at 4:47 PM on December 23, 2006

I'm glad these guys are actually finally recognizing that science *is* and *should be* a priviliged form of knowledge in that it is simply the best way we have for knowing the world.

Is it influenced by social factors-- absolutely and profoundly-- but when you make claims that everything is socially constructed and the truths of biology and medicine and science are equally as faulty and equally as true as the truths of [insert religion or any individual belief here], it's hardly surprising that the other side will co-opt your arguments to say that "well, it's all made up anyway, power controls how it's made up, we'll make it up the way we want to."

The left lost a great deal of its legitimacy when it decided that science shouldn't be privileged-- because you can't make the case for global warming or the necessity of certain measures to fight HIV or any other policy if you argue that scientific truth is just made up to support power. Power can then make up all the science it wants-- and it is doing so, to all of our detriment.

Of course, we need checks on how science is done and peer review and debate and all manner of critiques-- but the baby went out with the bathwater when the left claimed that it's all so tainted by power that any belief you want to argue instead is equally valid. And the folks who promoted those ideas *should* be embarrassed about having done so.
posted by Maias at 5:42 PM on December 23, 2006

The left lost a great deal of its legitimacy when it decided that science shouldn't be privileged-- because you can't make the case for global warming or the necessity of certain measures to fight HIV or any other policy if you argue that scientific truth is just made up to support power.

I think Al Gore would disagree. The implication of the piece was to show that the right has embraced the most controversial elements of postmodernism, borrowing a page or two from feminism and cultural studies and using it effectively against AIDS initiatives, global warming, cigarette smoke and evolution.
posted by Brian B. at 6:34 PM on December 23, 2006

Brian B, the right embraced those elements of pomo *after* the left promoted them for decades and after the left spent years dissing science as "just another voice."

After claiming that science is just another voice that doesn't deserve its privileged status and moaning about science as just another vehicle for masculine power and imperialism, the left should hardly be surprised when the right *agrees* and turns that stuff back on them.

The left should have been allying itself with science and learning from it, rather than getting lost in a make-believe world where science and voodoo are equally valid ways of seeing the world. It should have been making sure that the science used by activists is methodologically as good as possible-- rather than arguing for "alternative" sciences and getting itself in bed with quacks.

The left would have been a heckuva a lot stronger if it hadn't fallen for that nonsense while the right used it to its advantage. After all, it's a lot easier to fight against bad science when you know what good science is and when you are making the case that science should be the arbiter.

When you are saying that science is just another tool of power, you weaken your position and you cannot make a decent argument because you've conceded that the truth doesn't matter.
posted by Maias at 7:11 PM on December 23, 2006

Maias, your argument is a fallacious in more ways than one. The American left has consistently been anti-intellectual, as both an American political instinct and as a failed populist strategy in a two-party state. It failed because it couldn't attract the religiously correct, patriarchal and racist vote (which led the right-wing to paint the left as academic elitist by default). This is why you can't explain Al Gore and your science theory and all the anti-science the right firmly believes in today. The American "left" didn't advanced postmodernism because their numbers were few, and it was the other way around: postmoderns advanced ideas associated with feminism and cultural identity in their journals. They did this after completely dismissing Marxism, by the way, which took away a handy criticism from the right towards the left, and caused the right to label them as politically correct instead. The main postmodern idea that human issues are beyond notions of pure objectivity or dogmatic truth is the postmodern legacy we are all living in.
posted by Brian B. at 7:53 PM on December 23, 2006

When you are saying that science is just another tool of power, you weaken your position and you cannot make a decent argument because you've conceded that the truth doesn't matter.

I never said this, by the way, but I've recently read the same sentence, used against evolutionists by a Christian apologist, almost word for word. This knee jerk of yours is rehearsed.
posted by Brian B. at 8:00 PM on December 23, 2006

In science studies, at least, what Latour identifies as the clash between "modernism" and "postmodernism" isn't right vs. left--it's more old left vs. new left. Sokal, for example, is a self-identified hardcore leftist of the classic variety, as are mathematician Norman Levitt (co-author of Higher Superstition) and English professor-turned-anti-psychoanalysis crusader Frederick Crews. A number of other prominent anti-science studies types are true-blue leftwingers as well. (Those on the right who tried to appropriate Sokal after the hoax may have had a nasty shock.)
posted by thomas j wise at 8:28 PM on December 23, 2006

On another occasion, a man came to me after a seminar and said, ‘Actually, I’m an atheist. Because I don’t believe in God, I don’t believe in absolutes, so I recognize that I can’t even be sure of reality.’ I responded, ‘Then how do you know you’re really here making this statement?’ ‘Good point,’ he replied. ‘What point?’ I asked. The man looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘Maybe I should go home.’ I stated, ‘Maybe it won’t be there.’ ‘Good point,’ the man said. ‘What point?’ I replied.

This man certainly got the message. If there is no God, ultimately, philosophically, how can one talk about reality? How can one even rationally believe that there is such a thing as truth, let alone decide what it is?

posted by Brian B. at 8:46 PM on December 23, 2006

All I'm saying is that it was a mistake for the academic left to embrace the anti-science position it took via "science studies" and that this made extra room for the right to do what it is doing now.

the right would likely have done so anyway-- but i believe the left would be stronger if it embraced science more fully. Gore is hardly an example of the academic left so again, I don't see the relevance.

and i don't know what knee you think i'm jerking but your final post doesn't make any sense: what possible bearing does an argument that God is necessary to reality have on whether a position that doesn't privilege science is good or bad for the left?
posted by Maias at 9:34 PM on December 23, 2006

The first thing that irritates me about Dawkins, Sokal, et al. is that they lump together academics of all stripes as "postmodern," and their definition of postmodernism very often seems to be "thought we disagree or are uncomfortable with." Lacan, Foucault... I wouldn't consider the nature of their thought to be postmodern. Deleuze & Guitarri I don't know as well, but I would probably also say that they are not really postmodern. These people do question the nature of many accepted truths by pointing out that they are a function of social, political, linguistic etc. structures, but they do not necessarily deny the possibility of absolute truth.

Secondly, they often engage in deliberate misreading or over-literalization of these (non)"postmodern" texts. In the Dawkins review he quotes some of Sokal's mockery of one of Lacan's "equations" as non-mathematical. However, as Bruce Fink points out in the last chapter of his excellent book Lacan to the Letter (an accompanying text to his translation of Lacan's Ecrits and essential reading for anyone trying to get a grasp on Lacan) Lacan was using the mathematical symbols as metaphors, as a kind of shorthand to lay out a linguistic/psychological process. He was not trying to make an actual mathematical equation that somehow gave a "solution" to the nature of the phallus (which is also not exactly a penis).

Or the Irigiray paraphrase. Besides the fact that they seem to base their criticism of her one one small selection of her work, they ignore the implications of what she is saying. She is not really intending to discuss scientific developments; she's instead using an example from the world of science to discuss how language, and therefore human thought, is inflected by our notions of gender. Now, we can debate about whether or not the particular scientific example she used was appropriate or correct or if she was misreading the situation, but again, IMO she's not really concerned with making a statement about physics.
posted by papakwanz at 8:26 AM on December 24, 2006

Maias: Well, the other side of the story is that science with all of its apolitical posturing hasn't always been friendly to what we tend to think of left-wing causes. Well within the sphere of science as a practice, you had eugenics, and the industrial modernism of scientific management.

The problem is that the distinctions between "good science" and "bad science" can't be separated from the messy political processes behind journals, conferences, grant funding, and academic departments.

When you are saying that science is just another tool of power, you weaken your position and you cannot make a decent argument because you've conceded that the truth doesn't matter.

Well, I would argue that the concept of "truth" has been the central problem of philosophy in the 20th century. At one end of the spectrum you have the people who invoke some mystical truth-detector behind science or theology. At the other spectrum you have radical cultural relativism. And in the vast middle, you have the people who will admit to the core problem, but use a variety of coping mechanisms to get through the day.

While most scientists of my acquaintance admit that there are thorny problems identifying the results of their work as TRUTH, most will agree that all explanations are NOT equal, and can be evaluated based on their relative quality.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:24 AM on December 24, 2006

I'll see your Sokal and raise you two Bogdanoffs.
posted by mobunited at 7:06 PM on December 24, 2006

Seiously, though, the global warming issue quoted by Latour isn't an example of postmodern critical theorists taking aim at science. It's politicians taking aim at science with the assistance of corrupt scientists.

The situation's somewhat reminiscent of postmodernism in that twits looking to score points in various debates have promoted fringe elements of the field in a way that misrepresents their importance, intentionally targeting venues where, despite the customs of most of the field, they are unlikely to be questioned. The reason anti-global warming advocates go to Fox News is the same reason Alan Sokal specifically chose a non-peer reviewed journal for the hoax.

Latour needn't worry, as we have a pretty good idea of the intellectual roots of this kind of nonsense with Strass, Alan Bloom, et al. Both thinkers left behind a casual contempt for empirical and analytical thinking along with a signature feature of right movements that's absent from the European stream: belief in a higher, unconstructed, morally truth that everything else should be subservient to. In essence, this is the intellectual basis of "truthiness."
posted by mobunited at 7:49 PM on December 24, 2006

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