Against Meaningful Science

Here follows my most recent attempt to distinguish Ideology from Science.  It failed.  Nonetheless, I’ll post it, because its critique of previous definitions of science is valuable, and because my more recent attempts grow out of this one…

Any meaningful definition of ideology must allow for something like a truth covered over (1).  Thus ideology reveals itself as the negative of science, (2) and the task of its clarification becomes nothing less than that of properly uncovering the status and structure of scientific truth.  Appeals to foundations in experimental reproducibility, besides relying on their own ungrounded “ideological” kernels, fall flat outside the natural (“hard”) sciences.  Nonetheless, dogmatic rejections of science as impossible and cynical accommodations to the inevitability of ideology annul the basis of their own enunciation.

A tentative solution may, so to speak, take the derivative.  What distinguishes science from ideology is not that only one has access to truth or reality, but that only one questions its own access to truth and reality.  Where ideology—to play on Marx—only sets itself such tasks as it can accomplish, polishing the surface of its world to a broad, clear mirror, science measures the force of its novelty on the unintelligibility of its findings, which it articulates not in models drawn from its world but in an inhuman calculus.  Ideology makes familiar, and gazes upon the wholeness of its body; science estranges, tearing away its scaffolding faster than it can regenerate.  In short, where ideology is static, science is ecstatic, outside-itself, rending its wholeness in the ahead-of-itself of an always-unfinished, inhuman truth.

Such a dynamic model, however, relies upon a reification of the abstract concept of science—while ostensibly grounding that concept’s meaning.  Reflexive verbs conceal a fallacy: science negates itself.  This Hegelian gloss relies on the subsumption of negative moments of critique under the same positive totality as the negated.  Whereas, speaking concretely: Relativity negated Newtonianism.  To restate this as “science negated itself” requires a subtle appeal to Hegel’s “cunning of reason”: perhaps Relativity qua particular negated Newtonianism qua particular, but Relativity really represented the universal, and negated only insofar as it positively realized the universal’s self-negation.  And if there’s no such thing as Science, but only discrete acts of negation, nothing distinguishes these critiques from ideologically-grounded critiques.  The scientific critique of religion and the fundamentalist critique of science become indistinguishable without reference to a cunning universal which, for whatever reason, isn’t equally at work in reactionary ideology.

However, the dynamic model exposes something essential about science.  Negation will not rest within the self-simultaneity of the One.  Science is essentially grounded not in the objective validity of its monologue, but in the reflexive structure of its meta-discourse.  Manifestly, so is religion, as the Talmud or Islamic scholarship attests.  But in what language is this meta-discourse conducted?  Here, the utter inhumanity of calculus breaks with the intelligibility of religious myths (3). Where, for religion, nationalism, or the ideology of common sense, metalanguage (4) rests within the human imaginary, scientific metalanguage aspires to a locus of truth beyond the world of the living.  This locus outside life is not the wherein of metadiscursive enunciation, but the whence of scientific metalanguage. (5). Science, qua metalanguage (6), is the death-drive.

Substituting, for the old axis of ideology-science, these new questions—about the locus, intelligibility and accessibility of metalanguage, the loci of the metadiscursive enunciation, and the libidinal quilting of these enunciative loci in an ideological field—will afford subtler accounts of ideology and its efficacy. Far from being an inhuman silence, or a totalitarian absence of critique, ideology structures fields of metadiscursive possibility in meaningful, human terms (7).

1. I’ve thus clarified, right off, that ideology as I understand it is not a question of serving power.  Neither “counterpublic” nor “deterritorializing” thrust raises a discourse or signifying node above ideology.
2. Explicitly, in the case of Althusser, whose Lire le Capital develops the most sophisticated formulation of the science/ideology axis.  The following paragraph is an elaboration of Althusser’s work.
3. Of course, within the definition I am developing I cannot assume immediately that all religious discourse belongs with ideology—thereby ignoring religion’s great non-ideological contributions to metaphysics and politics, for example.  But the task of untangling when and where an inhuman language was introduced into religious discourse is well beyond the scope of even this excursus…
4. An unfortunate and ambiguous term, by which I mean “a language that supports a metadiscourse”—not a language about language or a language about itself, since, anyway, it’s not clear how a language could be “about” anything except through discourse.  Nonetheless, not every language can equally support a metadiscourse, so to some extent the metalanguage itself still partakes of the metadiscourse’s critical function, albeit mediately.
5. Readers familiar with Lacan will accuse me of confusing “metadiscourse” with the “symbolic” in general, but the inhuman metadiscourse in question could exist only radically purged of vestiges of the imaginary.  Thus, if meaning occurs at the intersection of the imaginary and symbolic, scientific metalanguage would occupy the intersection of the symbolic and the real.
6. The fact that, according to the Lacanians, there’s no such metalanguage cannot concern me here.  I’m not convinced that their definition of “metalanguage” is identical with mine (see footnote 4 above); I suspect a closer analogy to what I call inhuman or unintelligible metalanguage.  Whether a metalanguage beyond life and humanity exists, and in what branches of science, is not an important question for the understanding of ideology.
7. I’m not setting up some postmodern celebration of ideology here.  On the contrary, I mistrust meaningfulness and humanism.


One Response to “Against Meaningful Science”

  1. Just read Wilfredo’s latest posting about ideology v. science, but I have to confess I basically didn’t understand it at all. Maybe because I haven’t read the right texts. The one more-or-less lecture that I remember from Sidney Morgenbesser (my favorite professor in the Columbia philosophy department) was one where he began with a claim from Habermas’s “Knowledge and Human Interests,” which may have something to do with what Wilfredo was talking about in the posting. He then wrote on the board a sentence from that book expressing the claim, something about how objective knowledge is an illusion, because knowledge is always infected with human interests — or something like that. In his own inimitable way, he then spent the next hour or so exploring what that sentence could mean, and, under each meaning, whether it was (a) true and (b) non-trivial. He ended up with about eight or nine meanings, but none of them in the true and non-trivial category. Whether or not you agreed with him, however, (and I think I did), it was a real tour de force just to watch, as proven by the fact that I remember it 35 or so years later.

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