How much responsibility should postmodern academics assume for America’s pervasive anti-science and conspiracy culture?
A helpful route into thinking about this question is Bruno Latour’s 2003 essay, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” (2003). In it, he worries about the “truth-is-relative-and-constructed-by-power” intellectual atmosphere in universities, and its impact on the culture at large.
Exhibit A for Latour is human-caused global warming. He cites a New York Times article from March of 2003 in which a Republican political strategist, Frank Luntz, acknowledges that “the scientific debate is closing against us” even as he continues to advise reactionary politicians “to emphasize that the evidence is not complete” and to “make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue.”
Of course, a decade later, the far right continues to play this game.
In response, Latour does some soul-searching, writing that “I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show ‘the lack of scientific certainty’ inherent in the construction of facts,” and noting that colleges and universities across the globe are graduating students who believe “that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, …”
Latour is also troubled by the resonances between academic critical theorists and Internet purveyors of conspiracy theories, such as those who deny that 9-11 was accomplished by Islamic extremists, but was instead the work of the Mossad or the U.S. government. He sees both left-leaning critical theorists and conspiracy theorists as promoting cultures of suspicion and paranoia that posit people living “in the thralls of a complete illusio of their real motives” with “powerful agents hidden in the dark” and “acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly.”
Part of the problem here, in Latour’s estimation, is that contemporary academics in the humanities have taught their students how to win arguments in a dubious way. Instead of making traditional appeals to critical thinking and evidence, academics have become over-reliant on the framing gestures of critical theory.
Critical theory, on Latour’s account, double-binds one’s opponents in argument, making reasoned dialogue difficult. How does it do this? By attributing belief to one of two forms of false consciousness: either misapplied determinism or misapplied free will. To misapply either of these, it is triumphantly declared by those deploying critical theory, makes one a naive idolater; a fetishist (regardless of your appeals to reason or evidence). Being an idolater or fetishist is, of course, bad; no one wants to be labelled in such a manner.
Here’s a specific example. Let’s say that a person expresses the belief that biology, not culture, largely determines male-female gender differences, and you don’t agree. To set your opponent in a double bind, simply remind the person that her belief is actually a form of idolatry or fetishism, a projection of her own power onto an inert object: that nature does not speak, we speak; that no is makes an ought; that there are no devils that make us do things; that biology is not destiny.
The power, you assure the person, is really in her own hands. If this does not discredit the credibility or upend the confidence of the person making the claim, then you can simply move to Plan B: deploying determinism in a form you actually support. In other words, you can tell the person that her belief in biologically determined gender differences is actually a product of false consciousness—a result, not of a choice based in the reasons that she has provided, but of, say, growing up in a culture where stereotypical gender differences are reinforced almost everywhere and treated as natural.
And so, Latour writes ironically, “You, ordinary fetishist, believe you are free [in your choice of beliefs] but, in reality, you are acted on by forces you are not conscious of. Look at them, look, you blind idiot…”
Put differently: heads I win, tails you lose.
From this advantageous framing position, you are then free to place yet some other deterministic structure of explanation over your opponent’s belief, whether it be “economic infrastructure,” “neurobiology,” “evolutionary psychology,” etc., and so avoid any actual engagement with more traditional deployments of critical thinking and evidence. One’s framing gestures become all.
Latour, in other words, is deconstructing the genetic and ad hominem fallacies at the heart of critical theory: instead of dealing with the merits of an argument directly–through appeals to induction, deduction, and evidence–the blue pipe smoke of the historical or motivational circumstances surrounding an argument are brought to bear upon the discussion prematurely. Not that observations about the origin of arguments and the motivations of believers should be avoided–one thinks of Nietzsche’s Geneology of Morals as an example of this type of analysis–but they should not function to abort traditional appeals to critical thinking and evidence.
Short of abandoning postmodern modes of analysis altogether, is there a way out of this sort of double-binding? Latour, as one sympathetic to postmodernism, suggests that there is. It involves academics coming to think about science in terms associated with Martin Heidegger.
Latour’s idea is this: scientific theories like evolution by natural selection and global warming by human generated carbon dioxide are established among scientists by complicated and traditional appeals to evidence and specialist argumentation that the general public is largely incompetent to follow. But that shouldn’t make the sciences fair game for second-guessing by academics outside the sciences. Instead, a discovery of science should be treated, after the scientific community reaches consensus, as a given; as a real achievement by the human mind; as an organic unity; as Heidegger’s celebrated Thing.
For Heidegger, a Thing (with a capital T) is something that makes other insights and things (with a small t) possible. Heidegger’s example is a handmade jug’s organic unity. The beauty of its organic wholeness is discovered by the potter’s hand and becomes an object for the gathering of admiring eyes and grapes from the vine (in the form of wine). It is a beautiful thing that draws an orbit.
A scientific discovery–such as that of the Higgs boson, for example–is more complicated than a jug, obviously, but for Latour the idea is the same: its recent discovery now forms physicists’ thoughts about other things and directs future inquiry; it is not formed by things. In Hegelian terms, it is a master, not a slave; it is a fact around which other facts must now gather around and find orbit. As such, it should be treated as something more than a mere transitory object (a moving cog in service to some other system).
In short, Heidegger’s handmade jug and the Higgs boson are both akin to a star with gravity, capable of getting people and objects to dance around it. The potter’s hand and minds in the scientific community sometimes land upon a beautiful Thing that changes the orientation of everything else. And so Latour writes, “What would happen, I wonder, if we tried to talk about the object of science and technology, the Gegenstand, as if it had the rich and complicated qualities of the celebrated Thing?”
Though not mentioned by Latour, the poet Wallace Stevens’ short poem, “Anecdote of the Jar” (1919), suggests an answer:
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
In other words, people and objects gather around the Thing; they do not deconstruct it or treat it glibly. It becomes the right kind of centering idol; something true; a quantum of power and interest; a fetish (if you must have one). And so Latour is suggesting that postmodern critics should become less glib and more adept at distinguishing the constructed and organic Thing that requires no justification beyond itself from the transient objects that swirl around it: “[I]f something is constructed, then it means it is fragile, and thus in great need of care and caution.”
Bruno Latour’s essay can be located in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Second Edition, 2010).