Saturday 26 April 2014

More on contents and constituents

I've been thinking a bit more about opposing science as a 'content provider' to science as a 'constituent producer.'

To encounter scientific knowledge as constituent rather than content is to encounter it as a problem. This is not to say that the knowledge in question is 'problematic' qua knowledge—indeed, it is the very objectivity of such knowledge that makes it a concern. No, to say that scientific knowledge is to be treated as a constituent, as a problem, does not necessarily mean that the knowledge is questionable or needs questioning in the register of knowledge—it means that these items of knowledge have an uncertain and not-yet-settled place in our world. What transformational demands does such knowledge make on us? How can it be accommodated within our collective in such a way that it is not destructive? What are the potential consequences of its non-accommodation? Such knowledge, having attained a powerful objectivity, must now be addressed in a political register; it is its very weight and durability as knowledge that makes it a problem for politics; its objectivity isn't what raises it outside the melee of politics but rather what plunges it into it.

This is the important point: the mere objective facticity of a knowledge-item does not result in its immediate, automatic accommodation within a collective—that would only follow if the real were rational and if politics were a mere pedagogical matter of knowledge dissemination. We cannot ignore the fragility of objective knowledge; the modernist war cry
“Burn them all; the Real will recognize its own!” (Latour AIME, 19)
is as cynically neglectful of the needs of objective knowledge as it is of difference and life.

'Content provider' and 'constituent producer' should not be thought of as a straightforward binary opposition. It would be more accurate to say that to address knowledge as constituent is to receive an added obligation, to be burdened with extra labour, to have to think more carefully, to have to reason further, to be more reasonable.

When contemporary philosophy takes science as a content provider in the sense that science provides the opportunity, alongside and continuous with art and literature, for creative, expressive thought, this is undoubtedly part of what makes for a healthy collective attitude towards science. It is part of the solution; however, it is not enough on its own. Such philosophy hasn't yet recognised its full obligations and, as such, remains a part of the problem at the same time.

When contemporary philosophy—and this does happen—takes science to be a content provider in the sense that it provides a list of entities that, thus certified, can be justly asserted dogmatically as the background reality within which our politics and ethics and so on operates: this is something else entirely; this is not part of what makes for a healthy collective attitude towards science since it blows up all roads and bridges between content provision and constituent production; it renders its own neglect permanent; worse, it surrenders objective knowledge to an unobserved, unpoliticised fate.

The real may, ultimately, recognise its own; but to believe that we are the real's chosen creed—that is a travesty of thought.