Tuesday 28 August 2012

The Reductions of Irreduction

There's a little debate going on over at Installing (Social) Order with regard to irreduction: Hendrik argues that reduction is inevitable in order to explain, that irreduction is itself reductionist and asks what an irreductionist epistemology would look like.  In response Rowland asks "how do we reject (but not fully do away with) essentializing or reductive ideas?".

I think it's a misreading to take 'irreduction' to mean 'anti-reduction' or 'non-reduction.' It's a source of great error for proponents and critics, alike.

What's the first principle of that treatise? "Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else." It's important to note that this is, first and foremost, an ontological rather than an epistemological proposition.

Things exist insofar as they are irreducible to other things. If A is reducible to B then A cannot exist, only B can since A is literally nothing more than B. So, our bodies cannot be reduced to their constituent atoms, a painting cannot be reduced to the intentions and skills of the painter, etc. Everything is its own thing. Every thing is 'irreduced and set free' as Latour puts it.

But things are not hermetically sealed, eternal monads, transcending all else. Nothing is irreducible either. Nothing can be without something else, without something to translate and be translated by. Moreover, there are no categorical divisions in reality, cutting things off from one another -- , no nature, no ideality, no sociality, etc. Anything can be allied to anything else and any alliance is a reduction -- however, it is a partial one. If I eat an apple I have somehow reduced that apple to my being but not entirely since I do not control whether it makes me healthy or ill or whatever. I reduce it, it isn't irreducible, but I don't reduce it entirely, since that would make it, literally, a non-entity.

So what this means for inquiry is that preconceived, universal categories are wrong. You can't just pick up categories of nature, culture and so on and thereby exclude most of reality from your purview a priori. You don't ever know what is going to be important so you have to keep an open mind, or an open ontology at least.

But, furthermore, whatever actors, traces and trajectories you end up following you will never see them 'as they really are' because your own inquiry is itself reducing those things. A scientist isn't only an agent chopping up rat brains and pouring chemicals over neurons and so on. A scientist has a whole backstory, hopes and dreams and fears and ambitions; they had toast for breakfast, they've got a bad right knee -- but, so far as the study goes, that stuff only matters if it impacts upon the assay you are following. If you're interested in the chain of reductions or translations that the scientist is performing then you must set limits on what matters. You must yourself reduce.

So, of course, irreduction is a weapon against the kinds of reductionism that say either that life is reducible to DNA or physics to particles or human history to economics. Indeed, to 'perform an irreduction' means to 'escort things back inside their networks' and dispel their appearance of essential potency. Reductionisms point to one portion of reality and say that that is fully real and determinative and everything else is little more than an apparition emerging from what really matters. This is anathema to irreduction. But the point is emphatically not that we should therefore never reduce anything, that we must be anti- or non-reductionists. This is impossible. Every translation simplifies and misunderstands that which it translates -- and this is so because every translation is a reduction.

In this sense, irreduction doesn't end or dismiss reduction so much as it redefines it as something inherent in each and every translation, rather than something that occurs between two ontological realms, one real, the other derivative.