Two Culture Redo

Once our authoritarian technics consolidates its powers, with the aid of new forms of mass control, its panoply of tranquilizers and sedatives and aphrodisiacs, could democracy in any form survive? -- Lewis Mumford

Interesting that Mumford finds in the "magnificent bribe" of technology the signifiers of therapeutic and illusory narcotics sufficient to either to numb or stimulate, but insufficient to sustain opposition to authority. Indeed, the compulsion to use diagnostic, therapeutic, disciplinary, or analytical approaches to electronic culture has come to represent a complex tension between the sciences generally and the evolving discourses of technoscience. Several recent events have highlighted what increasingly can be understood as a crisis reproachment between the spheres of science, art, psychoanalysis, sociology and cultural studies. The refusal to approach the stark social transitions of the end of the century as more than symptomatic of unsettlement seems a common theme. Even the much lauded link between science and art, as the twins of enlightenment, imagination has come under suspicion as the reciprocal goals they sustain eradicate the privileging of each as epistemologically, or creatively, self-sufficient.

Buttressing the normative ideology in which these conflicts grow is what seems like the winded gasps of the academy, the state, the social and hard sciences, and the arts to retain legitimacy within a system crumbling on its often regressive rhetoric and challenged beyond adaptation to the effects of the technology that outdistanced its reflective control. So rather than totalitarian science and technology (in all its guises) we find corporate-technology developing planetary initiatives whose effects defy mere materialist analysis or statutory regulatory control, no less the utopianisms of technophiles rapt in oz-like delusions of empowerment. Surely the marketing of the net as a kind of anarchistic collectivity has played into the hands of the cummunications industry but has also served resistance movements in convincing forms. Hence we can find that the political power of the Zapitistas, under siege by the repressive Mexican government, or the power of the student resistance in Serbia, catalyzed by the B92 and Radio 101 broadcasts, whose international effect extended beyond the scope of restricted reporters or limited broadcast signals because of the very real power of the network to subvert control of distribution or to limit access.

Yet while the immediacy of these examples may suggest an aspect of cybermedia that is liberatory and unregulated, the systems that surround them are in a shambles, routed by the 'destructive' post-modern theorists who undermined notions of authority and found themselves in a state of pathetic jurisdiction, by fundamentalism's (from the Christian Right and Militias to the resurgence of sectarian Muslims) sustenence in the free market and free speech protections of the web, by corporate dominance, whose "autonomy" from politics (witness the American stock market's meteoric rise against the drastic proposed cuts in social welfare or the frenzy generated by Chairman Alan Greenspan's remark that the world market was in a state of "irrational exuberance," a 'slip heard around the world' but whose hoped for effect backfired and the market continued to break records while corporate downsizing, massive layoffs, and mergermania progress unabated) marks one of the most potent signifiers of the separation of powers, or by the marketing of pseudo sciences as the logical step from the physical sciences that grounded phantasms of modernity's mastery of matter. This is wired's world, the one in which 'Being Digital' is more persuasive than Being and Nothingness, where the virtualization of authority is a two way street inhabited by the hucksters selling both 'silicon snake oil' and global operating systems, where, the epidemiology of artificiality can be ministered to with electronic prozac of satisfying ubiquity and the hip virtuality of insipid CEO visionaries.

But the 'solid-state' in which the electronic disciplines of biology, neurocognition, artificial life and/or intelligence, cyber-democracy, non-located power, electronic economics, rendered authenticity, or pervasive surveillance predominate, cannot be sustained by the reinvention of the simple dialectics nor by the analysis of it within traditional discourses of sociology, psychoanalysis, or critical theory. Instead, the seemingly provisional and fast changing sources of authority, masked behind the metaphors of open-systems, technical protocols, mystifications of cyber-democracy, and by a glaring lack of serious theorization, have developed a kind of nomadic management paradoxically legimated by its very lack of centrality and by its intransigent allegiance to the pinciple of technical reason. Yet the less capitalized disciplines of cultural studies, psychoanalysis, or sociology have found stable positions in the now retrenched institutions of academia, marginalized journals, self-referencing and seem unprepared to confront social, cultural, and individual transformations that have exploded the borders between reflection and experience, identity and singularity, the public sphere and the pseudo-spheres of electronic collectivity. Supplanted by notions of constant immediacy, mutable or schizoid selfhood, the noospheric illusions or increasingly regressive "publics" of the cybersphere, the challenge to the social sciences is as much to confront extant and emerging change as it is to abandon inert, rhetorical, and often essentialist observer-based models (whose effectiveness seems less and less relevant) to adaptable systems in which the shifting terrains of politics (as they are circumscribed by technology industries), subjectivities (as they are extended by communications, neuro and cognitive technologies), or "publics" (as the crumbling of the spheres of localized correspondence are de-spatialized into zones of contentious nationalism), emerge as signifiers of transformation in which instability itself is contingent and situational.

Fueling the tidal changes in these lingering modernist models are accelerating systems of comunications, scientific, representational, computational, and medical technologies. And while the collapsing boundaries between these domains problematizes any attempt to theorize a 'unified field' (as if it were ever possible), it is crucial to realize the affiliations and convergences that defy conventional assessments and whose assumptions cannot comprehend that culture in the late 20th century will not be understood in the management ideologies of disciplinary social theory. The crisis environment is as evident in the daily news as it is in the attempt to find common ground between biogenetics and psychoanalysis, chaos theory and creativity, the economy and social stability, scientific research and cultural studies, sociology and cybersapce, theology or epistemology.

In Spring/Summer of 1996, Social Text (URL) assembled a special issue called Science Wars, whose cover outlined its agenda: "As part of the campaign against 'political correctness,' the history and theory of science studies is increasingly subject to intense scrutiny. In this special issue ... many of the leading figures in the social and cultural study of science respond to recent debates in the field." More self-fulfilling than its editors might have suspected, the Science Wars issue did more than reflect on issues of the cultural effects of science, it focused attention on the issues in a form that still reveberates. Among its illustrious contributors (Sandra Harding, Hilary Rose, Langdon Winner, Stanley Aronowitz, et al) was a contibution by Alan Sokal, professor of physics at NYU. Sokal's text, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermenutics of Quantum Gravity," was revealed, in the May 1996 issue of Lingua Franca as a hoax, written, as Sokal writes, "to combat a currently fashionable postmodernist/poststructuralist/social-constructivist discourse -- and more generally a penchant for subjectivism -- which is, I believe, inimical to the values of the left."

The entire issue was filled with discussions of the "acrimonious disputes" (Winner), the portrayal of "science studies scholars as science bashers, ignorant alarmists, self -deluded ideologues, dogmatic feminists, or at best foolish, faddish, muddleheaded, murky, radical or left-wing." (Dorothy Nelkin) represented by a book chosen to focus the responses in the Science Wars debate, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). This book attacked the "muddleheaded" and "shifty" discourse of postmodern criticism as incapable of resolving the contadictions between its antiscience agenda and the usefulness of the concept of sheer scientific progress. The fallacies of Gross and Levitt's zealous and reactionary text hardly need addressed within the academic left so much as they need to be confronted and exposed as inaccurate and misleading in the wider field of cultural politics. In too many ways Social Text was an ideal target. Fueling an already clear conflict, the Sokal affair (as it is identified in a web site filled with the burgeoning responses to the event) has driven a far deeper wedge into the dispute, no less the assumptions of gullibility, that stand as the gulf between science and cultural theory. Indeed Sokal's original text is filled with the characterizations whose sophistic and parodic positioning is shamefully clear:
But deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility; and most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive concealed behind the facade of 'objectivity.' It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical 'reality,' no less than social 'reality,' is at bottom a social and linguistic construct...

And so it goes, suggesting, in a final section, "quantum gravity is in this respect an archetypal postmodern science," a science, he continues that "provides a powerful refutation of the authoritarianism and elitism inherent in traditional science." Alternating between references to "Derrida and general relativity," "Irigaray and quantum gravity," "string theory," or "Lacan and topology," Althusser, Aronowitz, Katherine Hayles, Ross, and others, Sokal's text is so glaringly ridiculous that any defense seems impossible. Sokal writes in the expose: "Having abolished reality as a constraint on science, I go on to suggest (once again without argument) that science, in order to be 'liberatory,' must be subordinated to political strategies." He asks: "Why did I do it?" and answers that "If all is rhetoric and 'language game,' then internal logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication seves well. Incompehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic."

The response (and continuing reverberations) from Andrew Ross and Bruce Robbins (editors of Social Text), is itself a fascinating rejoinder. They inculpate Sokal in several ways: "a change of heart, or a folding of his intellectual resolve," a "breach of ethics," and recount their initial responses: "From the first, we considered Sokal's unsolicited article to be a little hokey. It is not every day we receive a dense philosophical tract from a professional physicist....we read it more as an act of good faith of the sort that might be worth encouraging than as a set of arguments with which we agreed...Whether Sokal's article would have been declared substandard by a physicist peer reviewer is debatable (it is not, after all, a scholarly contribution to the discipline of physics) but not finally relevant to us, at least not according to the criteria we employed." And finally: "In sum, Sokal's assumption that his parody caught the woozy editors of Social Text sleeping on the job is ill-conceived. Its status as parody does not alter substantially our interest in the piece as a symtomatic document."

Pretty wiggly logic that is sure to heighten the skepticism of both the Right's jeering attacks on the pomo fields of social criticism and the scientific community's willingness to actively engage with cultural studies. Too much defensiveness only exacerbates the problem ("methinks thou dost protest too much") and has revealed a defensive and hackneyed 'refutation' of a glaring editorial failure. Indeed, the Science Wars issue has been released as an anthology with several additional essays -- but without the Sokal text! So while defending a position outlined in Higher Superstition as "irresolute and thin" the editors of Social Text, awash with accountability, refained from tackling the issues of credibility head on in utilizing the text as more than "symptomatic" but as a resolutely part of the problem. And to identify the essay as a "dense philosophial tract" seems either unproductively facetious or wholly incognizant of the history of the links between science and philosophy. Either way, a no win situation. Instead Ross considers the Sokal text (in a gratuitous note at the end of the introduction to the anthology), as a "faux version of science studies," that "may have been taken at face value by many who read no futher than his article or the press reports about it. The outcome was to distract attention from the bona fide voices in the field..." Wiggly logic meets pathetic reason.

Yet the skirmishes in the science wars are not limited to exposing the defalcations of academic cultural studies. In Tubingen, Otto and Reimara Roessler, have been under siege from the university and government for 'refusing' to accomodate seemingly illogical demands to shift and reorient their research. According to reports on The Chaos Network and on a site maintained by Gottfried Mayer-Kress "After losing a battle for his wife Reimara's lifetime work, Otto Roessler is currently fighting to maintain what little is left of his life's savings and his position at the University of Tubingen in Germany. The German physician turned theoretical chemist is the discoverer of the Roessler Attractor, one of the two most widely studied strange attractors in chaos studies. Members of the scientific community are organizing around Roessler, charging that the school and German government's actions violate academic freedom and are in retaliation for Roessler's efforts to defend his wife. ... the University also unilaterally changed Otto's teaching assignment from theoretical chemistry to chemistry - a field outside of his area of expertise. According to Otto's account, after answering a question in class about the situation, the University forbade him from teaching the course and required him to pay for a substitute instructor. At first, Otto continued to teach the class. He was then forcibly removed from the lecture hall three times, according to his report. He started teaching the course in the cold hallway outside the lecture hall, while the substitute taught the course inside the classroom. ... In late April, the University apparently tried to require that Otto submit to a psychiatric evaluation. However, as of the first week in May, and following a great deal of pressure from the international scientific community, the University back away from its demands."

Still in the German courts, the Rossler situation suggests that the intimidation of scientific work is itself of interest to the 'authorities' and makes the Sokal affair look like the rivalry between two spoiled disciplines spurning any productive dialogue while in Germany the Roessler's "fear that the Government will forcibly enter their apartment to obtain their possessions as payment" for five year's back salary of Reimara's 'outlawed' research.

Quite a gap between citics of "sophomoric skepticism" (as Gross and Levitt characterize Ross' work in science studies), reactionary modernists attempting to legitimate scientific priviledge, and police intevention, a gap that indicates the startling state of affairs in which effective criticism and theory are measured by the verificatory repetitions of scientific practice instead of their usefulness in generating ethical responses to the very real and often incalculable - no less veifiable -- misconceptions grounding the whole notion of the scientific enlightenment that created a science immune from criticism under the banner of the fallacy of progress.

©Timothy Druckrey