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.

Thursday 24 April 2014

Cornwall recognised by EU

Cornwall has been granted national minority status by the European Framework Convention for the protection of national minorities. Though by no means a nationalist of any sort I am Cornish by birth and most of my family still live there; I have been an émigré since I was 18 (I say that very much tongue-in-cheek; I live all of 150 miles away from where I grew up!). It's good news for the county, which is one of the poorest regions in Europe and should have a louder voice politically as well as qualifying for more EU funds.

I sometimes identify as Cornish rather than English, British or even European though not because of any deep-rooted atavism. I suppose it's because all those alternative labels have such awful historical affiliations while 'Cornish' seems fairly benign by comparison. There is a Cornish nationalist movement and I'm sure that it has its share of reactionaries but, all things considered, there's not a lot of mud that will stick to it.

But it's not just that; there's a stronger element to the identification. I do feel at home when I'm in Cornwall; there is an atmosphere and a sensibility that is particular to it and that'll never leave me. I don't necessarily always like that atmosphere and sensibility—it can suffocating—and I have no desire to go back there any time soon but it does feel like home. Yes, proud to be Cornish—why not? I'd rather be that than a citizen of 'the world'—that vainglorious, superficially benignant motto of cosmopolitan transcendence. No one is from nowhere. The trick is to not make where you're from such a big deal.

Physics, common sense and habit

Terence Blake writes about Latour's take on physics versus common sense appearances:
[Latour] does not allow himself the facility of such a traditional metaphysical move, which costs nothing to advance, a labour-saving philosophy for the intellectually indigent. No, he claims that the “popularizer” of quantum complexity believed in the simplicity of our common-sense world because “it cost him nothing to believe that the microphone into which he was speaking, the rostrum from which he was pontificating, his own body, his genes, the walls of the room, the assembly that he was carrying along in his frenzy, all that too was bathed in a Euclidean space”. It costs him nothing to believe this simple fable because he does not do the work necessary to explore the contours of the common sense world, to investigate its multiple dimensions.
The important thing left unspoken here, I think, is the crossing with which [ref]erence is engaged. Is it [ref·dc] or [ref·hab]? Latour is clear that: 'Appearances are not shams'; on the contrary, appearances and [hab]its are what make the word 'habitable' (AIME: 268-270).

There's nothing necessarily wrong with habits or simplifications as such. High school physics classes needn’t descend into detailed exegeses of the infrastructural history of physics (although students might well benefit from some sociology of science mixed into their curriculum!). Most of the time the fact that we cannot speak of the objects made known by science except through the networks of science is trivial and needn’t be given a second thought. However, this is not true in instances of contestation, of disputation (scientific or political). In these cases the networks do have to be made explicit—morally, politically and epistemologically. At these points the test of a good versus a bad [hab]it is raised: does it retain the memory of what 'launched' it? can it switch back to the other modes of action necessary to unravel networks and comprehend indecision without undue confusion?

To go down the road of [ref·dc] (double click), on the other hand, is to embrace dogmatism, to make the ineradicable necessity of referential, mediative circuits only a 'matter of fact'; to hold out on the possibility of 'in principle' knowing without mediation; to make science a content provider rather than a constituent producer.

Another way of putting it might be that not all representational thinking necessarily leads to the "dogmatic image of thought," as Deleuze put it. Such dogmatism is the result of bad habits that are unable to shift back into other modes that allow the unravelling of networks. They create an illusion of transcendence and thus power but in fact radically weaken because they leave existents lost and alone, unable to shift out of a single register.