Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Placeholding thoughts on science and philosophy and politics, etc

A few things have been on my mind, jostling for position amidst the fog, angling for inclusion in essays. A longer post or two may come out of these, but no promises or threats.

1. I may have missed the best time to acquaint myself with the language of philosophy, but this is not altogether a bad thing. My perspective on things is different for not having already immersed myself in it. For example, in reading blogs such as Levi Bryant's Larval Subjects and Graham Harman's Object-Oriented Philosophy, I have learned that being a realist means that one holds that the world exists--objects exist--independent of man's relation to them (but not necessarily those traits that we perceive); I have further learned that this runs counter to the main currents of continental philosophy. I find this astonishing (assuming I understand things correctly). In the deleted iteration of his blog, Harman suggested that "this results from the combined fear & boredom with which most humanities types face the natural sciences". No doubt this is true. I find myself more interested, by far, in continental than in analytic philosophy, yet it would never occur to me to doubt the independent existence of external objects. (This Larval Subjects post helps clarify the realism thing for me. His casual use--not at all unique to him--of the word knowledge bothers me. Something else to return to here.)

2. Science, it follows, is very important. This sounds like a ridiculous thing to say, but I say it to make it clear that I personally value science very highly and am aware that some of my posts in recent months might give one the impression that I do not. I come out of that utilitarian, empirical, Anglo-American mode which I have elsewhere decried. Part of that is a strong devotion to science (which is not to say that I have been specifically trained in any of the natural sciences). So science is unquestionably important, but I have some political, philosophical, and ethical questions for it, some which I've always had, if largely unarticulated, some of which have come to mind more recently. In my view, science is too often seen as this pure mode of inquiry, independent of political and economic concerns, untainted by prejudice or point of view or money, unrelated, in its historical development, to other historical arcs. Of course it is not. Worse, the history of science and of technological change is seen as inexorable, inevitable, as if it were not heavily implicated in the history of capitalism (which, recall, requires continual technological and organizational change in order to maintain the rate of accumulation).

3. Allow me, then, to use this theme as an excuse to once again refer to Graham Harman and two posts he wrote (one, two) reporting on a lecture he attended in Ireland given by James Lovelock. The topic, of course, is climate change and how we're basically fucked. Harman makes the lectures and Lovelock's books sound both fascinating and frightening (there is nothing about climate change that is not finally frightening, if one pays the least attention to the science and isn't simply trying to make excuses in order to avoid massive change), but there is one thing in particular I want to highlight here. Among the points Lovelock makes, according to Harman, is this:
Guilt is unhelpful. We got to this point because we all naturally struggled to survive and flourish, farming and industrializing for this reason. Anger at energy companies is misplaced. They only produce so much carbon dioxide because we all demand energy in our own lives.
Similarly, in this article at TomDispatch, Chip Ward, while arguing correctly that perhaps we should not be trying to "recover" the economy as it was because of its inherent ecological untenability, says this:
Believing that we are unbounded by nature's limits or rules, we built an economy where faster, cheaper, bigger, and more added up to the winning hand. Then -- until the recent global meltdown at least -- we acted as if our eventual triumph over anything from resource scarcity to those melting icebergs was a foregone conclusion.

He goes on for a bit longer in this vein. Who is this "we" of whom he and Lovelock speak? We did not build the economy. While we do certainly all naturally struggle to survive and flourish, there is absolutely no reason to believe that industrialization was necessary to that struggle--meaning both that there is no reason to assume that industrialization necessarily occurs out of that struggle, nor that industrialization has aided us, for humanity as a whole, in that struggle. And in no sense can it be said that we merely "got to this point" because of decisions we made. Capitalism was imposed and resisted. Industrialization was imposed and resisted. This imposition and resistance continues.

4. This post at Voyou Désœuvré, on Andrea Dworkin and Joan of Arc and Machiavelli and constructions of masculinity, reminds me, yet again, that I've been wanting to read Dworkin and other radical feminists for some time. To my mind, the way forward must be radically feminist, which to me means that at minimum change must be woman-focused, which itself inevitably means focusing on issues surrounding pregnancy and birth and childcare and other things of immediate importance to mothers. That is, the larger conception of feminist politics should focused less on "the workplace" (the right to work being on the one hand largely redundant, since most women have no choice, and on the other hand normalizing highly dysfunctional male work values) than on childcare work and on health issues for women and children--i.e., issues affecting most women. Anyway, Voyou isn't talking about this here but ends by making use of Wendy Brown's criticisms of Catherine MacKinnon and "the doomed attempt by some feminists to achieve feminist ends solely by appealing to the very liberal legal structure they themselves recognize as irredeemably patriarchal". Good stuff.

5. More science pointers, to finish up. I have found a few more recent Larval Subjects posts about neurology utterly fascinating, full of all kinds of stuff that I know is absolutely right, but which also raise in me the germ of objection at a certain basic level. This one has me wanting to read books by neuroscientist Gerald Edelman, for example his A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, discussed in the post. Late in the entry, LS makes this crucial observation: "philosophers all too often privilege the standpoint of the adult and the 'healthy', ignoring childhood development". And this post about the "bidirectionality of causal relations between different levels" of different kinds of systems, such as DNA and the environment, has me nodding along, yes, yes, yes, yes. A longer quote to spell more of it out (since I have not described it at all):

[Biologist Gilbert] Gottleib is pointing out the manner in which the environment (not to mention RNA, cells, networks of cells, and organs) can actualize and activate DNA in a variety of ways producing very different outcomes. Pause and consider that for a moment. Rather than an inexorable unilateral development from DNA to structure and function, we instead get bidirectional feeding forward and backward producing an aleatory outcome that can only be described as a genuine creation. Factors such as environmental temperature, light and darkness, the presence or absence of particular nutrients and chemical substances, the presence or absence of dampness, the presence of various predators, altitude, caregivers, etc., all make important differences in the final actualized individual or phenotypical outcome. But to speak of a phenotypical outcome is already to speak poorly, for ontogenesis is a lifelong process for the organism that doesn’t simply end with maturity. But in addition to all of this, all things being equal, cultural formations, social relations, social encounters, etc., as environmental factors, feed back all the way to the genetic level as well. I am not simply a product of my culture at the level of my mentality, my subjectivity, but at the level of my cells and my DNA as well. Were I born in the 18th century, my DNA and my cells would be actualized differently as a result of a variety of different environmental factors ranging from diet to how I am brought up. My phenotype, my mature organism, would not be the same.

It's nice to see the adaptationists (who, as LS notes, end up "naturalizing and essentializing human practices, social organizations, and forms of subjectivity in ways that can only be described as reactionary") taken to task, and those steeped in cultural studies and social sciences should indeed be chided for ignoring out of hand neuroscience and evolutionary biology (as they have also been chided by, for example, Marxist anthropologist Chris Knight, who in his brilliant and important book Blood Relations, recall, called the general leftwing response to modern evolutionary theory a disgrace). To my mind this is all blindingly obvious (note, also, that in my post about patterning texts I effectively make part of the same argument). Or, more charitably, it's a more detailed version of the nature and nurture argument. Anyone who has a child, or indeed as ever watched children with any attention, can see that the child both has its own personality, distinct from those of his or her parents, and is always learning, always figuring things out. Nature versus nurture has always been a false dichotomy, one that's always bothered me, since before I understood the first thing about evolution.

This post was going to be even longer and include stuff about literary and more explicitly political stuff on my mind of late--including Blanchot's communism, Heidegger, the bourgeois novel, genre--but they'll have to wait as it's time to close this one out.

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