Search results for "epistemology "

Genes and inter-disciplinarity

Author: joe

Friday, 11 November, 2011 - 00:13

The 'gene' is an example of a concept which means something to everyone, but different things to different interests. To mainstream geneticists it is supposed to be the 'molecular unit of heredity'; to lay people the gene is the brute fact that makes us what we are; some sociologists argue that the gene is a social construct; meanwhile a few molecular biologists might also argue that the gene is a convenient shorthand which is otherwise inadequate for the functions we expect it to fulfil.

Each of these different domains brings different conceptions of the gene, often based on disciplinary ontologies which are incompatible, using criteria for factual legitimacy which conflict with each other. The shared use of vocabulary only serves as a mask for the competing accounts of the gene's form, provenance and function. The various morphologies of the gene as they appear in the respective disciplinary approaches often reflect those domains' practices, values and self-preserving interests.

The pursuit of the basic unit of heredity during the 20th century inflected the gene with the pervasive attitudes of the times. As part of the effort to find an explanatory mechanism for heredity as articulated by Gregor Mendel, Wilhem Johannsen's coining of the word in 1909 formed part of the search for a unitary, invariant, material, autonomous and causal 'master molecule' which directed inherited characteristics, phenotypic development and evolutionary variation, which could play the same role in biology that the atom played in physics. As more was understood about the action and dynamism of DNA encoding, the scientific emphasis moved onto 'programming', in which the metaphor of contemporary technological and cultural forms were drafted in to provide a model for the gene's function. By the end of the century, even as the first sketch of the human genome was published, the very notion of a sequence of DNA which had discoverable boundaries, independent causal properties and sufficient reach to account for inheritance, development and variation, was approaching collapse.

At the same time that scientific disciplines intimately concerned with governing the definition and analysis of the gene were gradually developing their ever evolving and nuanced conceptions of its formal properties, the dominant model of genetic determinism was leaking out of the laboratories and journals and into common public understanding. Even if the scientific establishment were to publicly pronounce on the dissolution of the gene in favour of more complex, non-linear, pan-genomic and epigenetic biological development in which a dynamic network of distributed causal processes intertwine with environmental factors to influence individual morphology and heritability, such an epistemic break would be unlikely to reverse the folk-wisdom that can be mobilised to play nature against nurture, account for idiosyncratic behaviour, or even justify dogma and prejudice, by a simple explanatory abstraction which at best appeals to fate and the hand which we are dealt, and at worst ascribes contingent and malleable factors to apparently blind and deterministic forces.

What would it look like to develop shared or non-exclusive ontologies between these competing domains? How might people from each discipline negotiate models that can include different worldviews through accommodation, rather than exclude them through competition? Evelyn Fox Keller's work both as scientist and as a historian of science is instructive. Following her experiences as a woman working within the male-dominated field of science, she contributed to the analysis of the gender-related cultural and social relations that were encoded in scientific approaches that valorised 'master molecules', 'founder cells' and other causal agents in molecular biology, and thus brought into view the way that sciences, because they are caught up in the social order, often discover 'in nature' what they have already put there. However, once her work was championed in the critical field of science and technology studies, she nevertheless maintained that the choice to be either a scientist, or a historian of science, was a false one: it is not necessary to reject all of the accomplishments and affordances of a particular discipline in order to provide a constructive critique of its blind spots or weaknesses. Fox Keller's contribution is salient precisely because she engages with her discipline both as a practitioner and as an observer and critic, rather than merely as an apostate.

The lesson here then is that the bridging between different disciplinary perspectives can't depend on critique alone but must also work by engagement. For example, the partisanship that exists between scientific communities and sociologists of science has little effect on the practice of science as such by its proponents, nor on the engagement with social scientists with empirical problems. Even in multi-disciplinary approaches, such as scientists and artists collaborating in specific research fields, the participants often work in parallel isolation, with non-overlapping methods and dissemination, remaining hermetically sealed from each other's worlds. The challenge of genuine inter-disciplinarity is to bypass 'either/or' choices, and to consider 'both/and' possibilities. How does - or how could - a folk-psychology worldview map onto a scientistic worldview; how might a phenomenological and a positivist approach accommodate each other? What are the consequences for ontology and epistemology in such cases if pursued faithfully?

Categories: inter-disciplinarity, genes, science, ontology, epistemology, Evelyn Fox Keller,
Comments: 0

The Internet as a public arena for research: how do we balance the pursuit of knowledge with care for those we want to know?

Author: joe

Wednesday, 12 January, 2011 - 14:13

Today I presented a brief paper to Bournemouth University's Postgraduate Research Conference. Not trusting myself to say off-the-cuff what I wanted to say inside the 12 minute allocation, I read this pre-written piece. I have obfuscated the sources I critique, for reasons which will become clear.

My presentation is about the ethics of Internet research, especially with regard to vulnerable people, and the problems that arise from the models we use to conceptualise the environment in which we carry out our work.

It seems easy to grant that aside from some edge considerations, there is a sort of equivalence between face-to-face and online interactions, between physical and virtual spaces - particularly in academia, where our textual outputs are intended to be sufficient for the advancement of our work. The trade-offs seem to be marginal: some loss of informal face-to-face contact is off-set by the advantages of efficiency, speed, cost-saving, and maybe even innovation.

Indeed, the fact that we successfully import metaphors from the real world into the online world is what enables many different walks of life to achieve in digital environments what they would also normally manage in the real world. These are metaphors that aren't necessary properties of the web, but that we use to make it manageable: models from the material world such as pages and buttons, activities like surfing and networking, and concepts like sites and spaces. We call it cyberspace, and it can feel very like the other spaces we inhabit with our bodies.

I want to suggest that the easy equivalence we make between online and offline, and physical and virtual space, is much more problematic. This issue has arisen for me through considering some of the ethical problems that arise from using the ever-expanding wealth of raw material on the web as evidence in research.

I'm interested in how people use the online world when they are bereaved. As time goes by, more of us are exposed to death on the web - what to do with the Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles of loved ones who have died, online commemorative websites, and so on. How do people who are mourning loved ones use online spaces to express their grief, or seek out support from others? Photo-sharing sites have groups dedicated to expressing grief through images; fashion sites find themselves hosting users who repurpose the site tools to discuss their loss; and forums dedicated to supporting bereavement through both informal support and professionalised services proliferate.

These phenomena raise questions about how seeking out online support might be helpful, perhaps through the chance to memorialise loved ones, or perhaps because sometimes the ambiguity of anonymous strangers on the web makes disclosure easier. Mourning is often a difficult subject to deal with in day-to-day life - we expect the grief-stricken to absent themselves from the office or social occasions until they are competent to cope with them. Unwelcome expressions of grief can be embarrassing or even seen as pathological. Do these questions of etiquette and emotion prevail online much as they do offline? Do online spaces provide therapeutic opportunities which might be more scarce in the fleshy world? Does the availability and peculiar permanence of online talk make mourning problematic - perhaps by extending the grieving period, or by exposing people to the trolls?

My research therefore is partly an investigation into the differences and similarities between virtual and real spaces. There are many comparable studies which ask this question through the lens of some specific issue, and there are guidelines as to how to deal with the ethics of this kind of research. After some reflection on some of those other studies, I have taken a somewhat hardline approach, and placed rather more burdensome ethical constraints on my research project than I might otherwise have done.

To explain these constraints, I'm going to mention a study from 2009 of an online space which is dedicated to the subject of gynecomastia - or the 'moob-job'. Men who are considering the procedure, undergoing it, or who are post-operative, regularly contribute to the site, which was studied by a group of psychologists in 2007, using interpretive phenomenological analysis to understand the experiences of these men. I wish to show that the ethical approaches and arguments they used, quite legitimately, are flawed in ways that force me to rethink the priorities at work in this sort of academic exercise. Perhaps even more than the bereaved, men with concerns about body image are a group who should not lightly be objectified by an academic project.

The authors cite the guidelines drawn up by the British Psychological Society for conducting research online. One might summarise them by saying that participants in Internet Mediated Research (IMR)

"can be identifiable or anonymous; they can explicitly consent to participate, or they can be invisibly observed without their knowledge."

The guidelines go on to state that strong justifications should be provided for covert non-participant observation - what we might in this context call "lurking" - and that consent should be sought unless the environment is such that "people would 'reasonably expect to be observed by strangers'."

Exactly what criteria qualify public spaces as those in which people would reasonably expect to be observed is not specified in the BPS guidelines, but left to be established in the body of work which grows around the discipline.

The authors of the gynecomastia support group study note that it is the contributors' expectation of their messages being visible to other anonymous users of the web which brings their content into the public domain. Content accessible without registration or password barriers effectively passes into public ownership. They also cite an earlier paper reporting about a website supporting anorexia nervosa which argued that study of content in the public domain is akin to "naturalistic observation in a public space" and that the openness of the web therefore "does not raise concerns of invading privacy."

The gynecomastia study also notes the possible disruption that disclosing the investigators' presence might cause to the integrity of the environment that they are studying. It is evident that they are trying to ensure that their work is ethically sound and demonstrates a care towards their subjects, and I don't wish to imply otherwise. But I do want to suggest that this implementation of research guidelines is flawed because it wants to accept certain equivalences between the open internet and public space (such as a supposed ability to undertake naturalistic observation without disturbing the phenomenon being observed), but ignore non-equivalences (such as the fact that covert observation of such intimate communications is ordinarily impossible in public spaces, not least because open discussion of sensitive topics is very rare).

The study in question makes further trouble for itself where it creditably seeks to anonymise sources. Obfuscating quotes is generally thought to be a sound tactic in protecting the individuals who may have made their own efforts to conceal their 'real-world' identity in their online profiles, but may have done so inexpertly. They may, for example, have chosen an obscure 'handle' or login-name, but have nevertheless signed off posts with their actual forenames. To avoid these individuals being found via search engines, the authors state that they performed identifiability testing by searching for direct quotes from individual posts were in Google, which did not retrieve the site in question or the messages that had been appropriated.

This test sadly demonstrates a poor understanding of the operation of Google's index: that it does not find sources at any given moment does not preclude the index being updated to include them at a subsequent date. Indeed when I searched Google for the quotations presented in the article, direct links to the original sources were listed. Again, this error does not show unethical behaviour: merely that an ethical guideline has been followed in letter but not necessarily understood in practice.

These critiques of the ethical approach take just some of the more obvious problems with abstract guidelines as they are implemented; and doesn't even start to address other problems with lurking and appropriation, such as the hit counts, visible to site-admins, that researchers contribute to sites; or the eye-balls they bring which may in some cases contribute to advertising revenue; or the general tacit deceptions they must engage in simply to carry out observation.

I want to suggest that importing the metaphor of "public space" into an intimate online discussion is problematic because it buys the researcher the ethical justification they require, but largely ignores the epistemological and ethical non-equivalences. I'd argue that people simply don't go online and talk to each other as though their words are being recorded and broadcast, and the permanent visibility of online discourse is a side-effect, rather than a primary concern, when it comes to a user's motivation to participate in online discussions or contribute their creative work to a community. I'd prefer to argue that the actual space that the user occupies when contributing to an online forum plays a much more crucial role in determining the level of disclosure they are willing to engage in, not to mention the level of trust and intimacy that the visible community creates. This may often actually be the workplace, or bedroom, rather than a public space.

Even where forum users are in public spaces, there may be a huge mismatch between what they will willingly write in the context of a post from a mobile phone, and what they will say to the person sitting next to them. To discard these sorts of considerations is, I would argue, to make epistemological errors, as well as ethical mistakes, and ultimately is a consequence of prioritising the academic generation of knowledge over the well-being of subjects.

The consequence of these concerns for me is to adopt an alternative approach, which does not solve the problems raised, but swaps one set of challenges which I find ethically unjustifiable for another set which I am more willing to defend. So I will be making full disclosure in any online spaces I enter before I undertake any observation; I will not be using material without the full informed consent of the original contributor; and in the event that any community feels my presence as a researcher to be intrusive enough to ask me to leave, I will promise to do so. This strategy at least offers the hope that the research process will be a consensual collaboration with participants, rather than a deceptive objectification of them: when dealing with communities of people we might class as vulnerable, this must surely be the preferable option.

So the project is now such that it makes no claim to be objective in a positivist sense, but rather is a fully-blown form of participative and ethnographic phenomenology. This brings another set of epistemological challenges and ethical quandaries, but I'd also suggest that Internet research which does choose to use covert observation may need to find alternative justifications.


Categories: research, paper, grief, bereavement, academia, knowledge, epistemology, ethics, online, internet,
Comments: 0

Who I Am and Where I Am

Author: joe

Tuesday, 14 December, 2010 - 22:00

I like the regular synopsis Warren Ellis posts every month or so, in which he sums up his working identity in a short blog. I want to do the same, as I'm now planning to formally move my PhD research into the public arena. The academic name for what I'm starting soon is 'data-collection' or 'data-gathering', as though there are data just out there, lying around waiting for a naive researcher to come and stumble over them. However, research is not neutral, it is an intervention. Data are made, not found.

So my working identity is a marker, outlining my research and the ethical approach I promise to stick to. If I am going to make some data, this outline will be the public statement as to how I shall go about it. It is a first draft, needing amendment, and I'll need to make a shorter, bullet version, which I can use as a signature or profile description. I'll also need a longer version explaining in more depth the code of conduct I'll be guaranteeing, and the support or counselling I can arrange or facilitate for anyone who finds themselves affected by my work. And I am also presenting a short paper in the new year in a postgrad conference at BU, in which I'll outline how the priority of ethics over knowledge works epistemologically. I'll post that too, and anyone who needs to check up on me and my academic provenance will be able to do so easily. If you have any comments, suggestions or insults, I'll be very glad to hear them.

My name is Joe Flintham. I am a lecturer and researcher at Bournemouth University. I teach Interactive Media in The Media School, and am working towards a PhD in the School of Health and Social Care. The subject I'm researching is how people who are bereaved use online spaces. I'd like to understand how virtual communities offer support for people who are mourning, and what it means to them to be able to memorialise their loved ones, in words or pictures, in online spaces.
 
I would like to understand more about these online environments by entering them and becoming one of the people who participate in them, in order to learn more about how support for the grieving process can be found online; I'd also like to ask any individuals who are willing to do so, to talk to me in depth about their online lives, so that I can learn more about their experiences and draw on this knowledge for my academic work.
 
I will make every effort not to intrude in an unwelcome way on the grief of any individuals, or abuse the hospitality of any community. I guarantee that I will not quote or appropriate anything that anyone writes or submits to any online space without their express consent. I also understand that individuals or communities may feel my presence interrupts or interferes with the trust and support that their environment provides, and in such cases I promise to withdraw if asked to do so.
 
I hope that the research work I do might contribute to the life of online communities and the support they offer to people who are bereaved, and I undertake to share all of the outcomes of the work with all who contribute to it. My aim is to try to ensure that my work is guided by a duty of care to people who are involved in it and any others whom it touches. As such, my first priority will be an ethical concern for people's well-being, and that concern will then guide the direction of the research.

Categories: research, ethics, conduct, care, epistemology, Warren Ellis,
Comments: 0

Wikipedian Palimpsest

Author: joe

Tuesday, 17 February, 2009 - 22:19

Only those of us who like to live our lives inspecting the inner workings of the sphincters of camels will have failed to notice the sudden kerfuffle around Wikipedia Art - a project which is soon going to be so citable, the wikipedian deletionists will explode with reverberating feedback loops of infinitely regressing thought, their heads bursting as though they were apoplectic Victorian fathers confronted with Daguerreotypes of themselves masturbating.

I found the abundant discussions most interesting when they addressed questions about authenticity: did the artists mean to arouse delicate questions regarding epistemology and truth? Or was it a knowing, cynical ploy to generate buzz and 'notability' either to raise their commercial earning potential in other work, or to support tenure track academic careers? Did it matter if the latter was the case if the former ensued anyway? Does a work of art require an authentically artistic intention on the part of the creator in order to be an authentic piece of art?

On rhizome curt cloninger said something clever: "We are "policing" the "art-worthiness" of the piece here at rhizome the same way the wikipedians were policing its "encyclopedia-worthiness" there at wikipedia." We all work the work with our own discourses, our own knowledge practices, our own epistemes; we will always talk past each other.

Categories: wikipedia, art, net-art, authenticity, epistemology, truth, authorship,
Comments: 0

Three things

Author: joe

Friday, 15 February, 2008 - 10:44

Three things

Firstly: having pack removed from nose redefined pain in ways I had not anticipated. Since I seem to be doomed to an eternity of pain in the head, I should at least give my head a reason to hurt. Therefore reading Heidegger, Gadamer and Habermas.

Secondly: so, yesterday, I began by reading about the divisions between Gadamer and Habermas on the co-extensivity of truth and method, and our relationship to 'authority and tradition'. For what it is worth, Gadamer seems to think that there are positive ways to view the inheritance of authority and tradition as a positive way of constituting truth. Meanwhile, Habermas seems to take a harder - 'strong-Enlightenment' line which says that anything 'handed down', as it were, from authority, is necessarily dogmatic and therefore should be rejected. In the maze of epistemology (empiricism over-assumes the ability to produce correspondence-to-reality statements from induction, while hermeneutics asserts the situatedness of any observation) perhaps the performance of the role of 'detached' observer should be rejected and (contrary to intuition) a fuller observational potential can be approached by more participation in the observed situation. Know by 'being-in', not know by 'looking-in' - immanence not transcendence (because the former is simply more honest).

A detour here led to Arthur Danto, who describes "the last historian". Of course the historian constructs a narrative out of the stuff of meaning, and the stuff of meaning is necessarily over-determined by the historian's present. Retelling the past is meta-retelling of the present. So much, so good. But consider what it would require for the adequate telling of 'truth' regarding histories (and here I suppose is where I do need to investigate Heidegger on time): the future will have historicity which is constituted in part by the present I create now from my own historicity. The only way to ensure that I responsibly pass on a historicity to the future which is consistent with the future's ability to act freely is to tell every possible history, or as Scheibler puts it "to give a complete description, historian would have to be able to see into the future, encompassing all possible future perspectives". And it is repeatedly observed by others, I see, that all historians must see themselves as this last historian (otherwise they would not feel any compulsion to write histories, surely?) but I would also add that we all therefore consider ourselves to be the last historians, telling ourselves the versions of the past we need to tell in order to construct the futures we wish to see.

And Danto seems also to help with the co-extensivity of truth and method. On representation, he emphasises what we might call the pre-semantic stage of the 'sign' (useless word). Consider the evolution of semantic codes. Something is given as a representation of something else - an idol represents a god, for instance. Danto dwells on the the fact that this is a two-stage process. Before we recognise the idol as 'representing' the god, we must first interpret the idol as identical to the god - the sign is the meaning. Only later do we bifurcate the sign into metonymy and synecdoche, and allow the possibility that the sign might be a lie - give it a semantic dimension, recognise the difference between sign and referent, and even signifier and signified. Truth is first constituted by the representation. Prohibition of the idolatry of the graven image by a jealous god for good reason, then, if you are a god.

Of course, when I say Danto helps with the co-extensivity of truth and method, I mean helps in the loosest sense of the word.

So anyway, yes I went on a huge detour, and at some point in the future, when I have to write something sensible about my methodology for my PhD thesis, I'll be grateful to myself for having written this loosely connected synopsis of a day's reading, which records in roughly chronological order the digressions I took. I still, of course need a proper bibliography to go with this, so I can retread my steps. So here it is:

Scheibler, I., 2000, Gadamer : Between Heidegger and Habermas, Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham
Ankersmit, F. R., 2003, 'Danto, History, and the Tragedy of Human Existence', in History and Theory, Vol 42, No. 3
Hesse, M., 1978, 'Habermas' Consensus Theory of Truth' in PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol 1978, Vol 2
McCarthy, T., 1978, 'History and Evolution: On the Changing Relation of Theory to Practice in the Work of Jurgen Habermas' in PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol 1978, Vol 2
Wachterhauser, B. R., 1986, Hermeneutics and Modern Philosophy, SUNY: Albany
Danto, A. C., 1965, Analytical Philosophy of History, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
Danto, A. C., 1997, Connections to the World: The Basic Concepts of Philosophy, UCP: Berkeley
Ormiston, G. L., & Schrift, A. D., 1989, Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Riceour, SUNY: Albany
Dallmayr, F. R., & McCarthy, T. A., 1977, Understandinf and Social Inquiry, UNDP: Notre Dame, Ind.

Now, the third and final thing: I want a way to access the information here in different ways. I want to be able to pull it around, and mesh it into other things. Biblipedia was designed to do some of the things I want to be able to do here - notes about books which can be grouped thematically. The use of the folksonomy creates a powerful tool that creates (heuristically and algorithmically, or what I want to call 'bottom-up') connections between notes and books. But I also want some top-down control too. I want to drag things together on the spur of the moment, as though they were index cards in my hands. Biblipedia can be susceptible to such manipulation (you can 'invent' tags for specific purposes, for instance).

But I want something with more power. The account I've given of my readings yesterday is clunky, because it is isolated here, on this web page. Sure I can grab it out via RSS, but that won't retain any of the semantic or chronological connections within it. Sure, I could sketch it on paper, because that could show the progression and map-like structure of the reflection, but it's made of atoms, and I still want the heuristic, crunching power that computerised meta-data provides.

So here's the kernel of my next project: a way of aggregating content like that in Biblipedia, (or any other webservice, for that matter) which, on top of the 'bottom-up' ability to analyse meta-data such as tags and produce expected and unexpected connections and groupings, also has a 'top-down' ability to sketch relationships in terms of time, theme, order, digression, space... a way to easily denote relatedness explicitly, rather than merely implicitly.

So that's summer 2008 sorted then. Hopefully my head will have stopped hurting then.

Categories: working-through, PhD, phenomenology, Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, truth, method, epistemology, ontology, Danto, history,
Comments: 0

A History of Madness... ii

Author: joe

Monday, 21 May, 2007 - 22:27

The incommensurability of epistemes [a History of Madness... i] and some moot questions: is the past not only a foreign country, but the story of what might as well be another species? And in any case, how would we know?

The thesis is: as societies develop new ways of knowing the world - such as Enlightenment principles, rationalism and science - new epistemes arise which mark a profound break with the past. This throws into chaos the Whig theory of history, and any sense of teleological progress - whether Hegelian or Marxian. It also implicitly renders such rationalism and scienticity equally subject to future overhaul and justified revolt. It forces us to confront the rise of 'ways of knowing' as manifestations of the 'will to power', if not merely the 'will to will'. And it opens all humanities types who inherit this intellectual hinterland to the criticism that they are postmodern relativists and, therefore, cowards.

I don't quite understand this criticism myself. Today I heard Clive James offering up a precis of his latest book on Start the Week, Cultural Amnesia (the 'fate' of liberal democracies). He described Jean-Paul Sartre as 'the villain of the piece', saying that as an intellectual, his ideas offered comfort to extremists on both the right and the left, Nazis and Stalinists, in the middle of the 20th century; but he also offered the disclaimer that he picked on Sartre because, of all the relevant intellectuals, he hadn't been vilified as much as others. Quite apart from wondering why appropriations of Sartre's version of existentialism are necessarily to be laid at his door, it does imply the vilification is simply a case of it being 'his turn'.

James' book looks worth reading, but his off-the-cuff remarks point at a common tendency to ravage intellectuals of the last half of the 20th century for the flimsiest of reasons. In any case, no-one I've ever come across has persuaded me that any anti-foundationalist argument, whether based on Foucault, Sartre or Derrida, inevitably leads to the collapse of anything at all. Actually it seems to me that to rely on some 'universal principle' - whether God, morality or evolutionary imperative - is intellectually bankrupt, since it ultimately requires argument from authority - faith in something beyond comprehension.

The attacks on Foucault's ideas, however, are based this time on less flimsy reasons, and it requires some sophistry to argue the case for or against. The argument is that Foucault's historiography is flawed, lazy, incompetent and ultimately inaccurate. His example of the ship of fools, which was supposed to be a floating asylum, sailing up and down the rivers of central Europe, and which Foucault claimed was much more than a mere symbolic notion dreamed up in art and story, was in fact precisely an allegory rather than a fact, and no such loony vessel ever hove into any medieval port.

It is claimed, then, that such oversights, or incompetencies if you prefer, render the other claims Foucault makes redundant. If the man couldn't even manage the basic task of accurate historical research, why should we pay any mind to the conclusions which he bases on such inadequate foundations?

It is a very good question: if we want to understand the functions and mechanisms of history and of knowledge, surely we should at least start by getting the facts right? But then, if Foucault is right, then perhaps our demand for methodological coherence, evidence and facts is just another symptom of the episteme we found ourselves operating in. Perhaps the attack on Foucault is exemplary of the competition between kinds of knowledge, an expression of the will to power of those who come after.

And perhaps my distrust of argument from authority is just a symptom of my existence at a point in time? The question is, how could we tell? What is my method?

Categories: michel-foucault, knowledge, episteme, epistemology, history-of-madness, enlightenment, postmodernism, whig-interpretation-of-history,
Comments: 4

A History of Madness... i

Author: joe

Monday, 14 May, 2007 - 23:34

A new edition of Foucault's A History of Madness (previously translated as Madness and Civilisation) was published earlier in the year, and there has been some notable turbulence in its wake. Foucault, (along with Derrida, Baudrillard, Lacan, Latour, Deleuze, Kristeva) seems often to be a lightning rod for the different sections of the left who were split in the culture wars in the US in the 90s, and more recently for the scientific disciplines' criticisms of contemporary humanities - the lack of rigour, and indeed, the lack of attention to 'reality' itself. Meanwhile those same critics are often referred to by Foucauldian sympathisers, rather disparagingly, as members of 'the reality based community', as though anchoring oneself in an objective world were naive and unintellectual, rather than an obvious choice.

I don't intend to attempt to resolve any of the antipathies here, or even to single out the likeliest candidate for 'correspondence to truth'. This piece of reflection is simply a working through. Much of my time is, besides, spent explaining the relevance of Foucault to undergraduate media students, a task which is itself not without some irony. More to the point, I'm currently embarking on a (currently nebulous) research project, which will involve attempting to unite various domains of knowledge which range from rhetoric, hermeneutics and creativity to health and physiology. As part of my search for and resolution of an appropriate research methodology, it seems a good idea to grasp what it is about Foucault that polarises scholars and their disciplines so much.

In order to complete my bachelor's degree in Eng Lit, I sat, amongst interminable others, an exam on medieval literature, for which I later discovered I scored a distinction. I remember distinctly one of the essays I wrote was a response to a question along the lines of: what is the relevance of medieval literature (I think it referred specifically to Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls) to contemporary society?

I responded confidently with my assertion that the nature of human experience is no different today than it was in the 14th century. While the complexity and number of cultural 'things' may have increased, and there may be more 'units of meaning' in the world today than there were then, though many social values may have changed, though the way society is structured may have evolved - nevertheless, what it means to be a human being has not. We still are born into a world as humans, experience it as only humans can, and die a human death as an unavoidable symptom of living. While there may be worlds of nurture and convention between me, Chaucer, Plato and Ugh the caveman, if we all somehow came together in some timeless place, we would look at each other with recognition.

We are defined, I argued, by our species. The challenges, both philosophical and sociological, involved in living together as creatures with will and freedom, desires and sympathies, have not permuted. The compromises of rule and negotiation are constant; the paradoxes of society and the individual are immutable; the human instinct to compete, and our propsensity towards altruism, do not alter from one generation to the next. Humanity, while it may be a temporary phenomenon on the face of the earth, is in itself an eternal thing. Hence, (I argued with reference to some talking birds), the challenges of Chaucer's protagonists are the challenges of our own brothers and sisters, and therefore of ourselves.

At the time I imagined I got the distinction because my argument was sound. Now I think I got it because my argument was conservative, and met with approval. It was a British answer, sound in the face, back in the early nineties, of French post-structuralists. I remember it must have been 1992 when I got my first lecture on deconstruction, delivered by a young turk of a lecturer, rather than any of the old grandees who prefered to keep their fragrant noses in Shakespeare and Hardy.

It seemed to me that this view was unassailable; and of course, I will now problematise it, though I may still leave it unassailable: the question is not simply, what if I were wrong, but also, how would we know? And even if humanity at base were the same, if we say that social values have changed, how can we dissociate those changed values from measuring whether our nature were the same? What does it mean for two human beings to have a similar nature, but see the world in entirely different ways? Mightn't we just as well be members of different species? If our values and hence ways of apprehending the world metaphysically are incommensurably altered, what can we possibly share, except a physiology, which we're unlikely to bring together, unless by force, since we clearly have no common values through which to court?

In the other, Borges tells the story of how he, as an old man in his 70s, finds himself sitting on a bench with a young man who turns out to be himself, 50 years earlier. As we may think, the child is father to the man, but whether we consider the youth or the elder as the leading edge of a man moving into the transdimensionality of potential, it turns out that nowhere can they commune, or establish a point of common recognition - even with oneself there can be no intersubjectivity:

"Half a century does not pass in vain. Beneath our conversation about people and random reading and our different tastes, I realized that we were unable to understand each other. We were too similar and too unalike... Either to offer advice or to argue was pointless..." (Borges, 1979, p9)


Borges, J. L., 1979, 'the other' in The Book of Sand, (London: Penguin)

Categories: michel-foucault, epistemology, knowledge, human-nature, jorge-luis-borges, history-of-madness, working-through, endlessly self-similar universe,
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