Disciplining Disciplines

A recent essay in The New Atlantis, “Saving Science,” by Daniel Sarewitz, makes the important argument that the goals of scientific disciplines cannot be set by the disciplines themselves, which therefore inevitably meet some externally determined need. The most obvious examples are state sponsored weapons, infrastructural and space-oriented projects, but campaigns for developing vaccines and cures also apply. The free play of inquiry itself, scientists just following the most intriguing and challenging questions raised in the course of inquiry itself would lead, Sarewtiz notes… nowhere. This is obviously true for softer disciplines, like the human sciences as well, which generally meet some less precisely defined imperative to improve modes of civilizational maintenance, social control and surveillance.

The disciplines have their deepest origins in ritual, myth, priestcraft, magic, and the traditional arts, crafts and labor techniques. We could distinguish between these practices within a still largely undifferentiated society in terms of their respective distance from the sacred center. Indeed, different distances from the center, which involve the creation of new, mediating centers, seems a likely origin for social differentiation itself. In Originary Thinking, Eric Gans, in distinguishing between morality (grounded in the equality of those spread around the center) and ethics (norms specific to some practice), hypothesizes that the origin of freedom is away from the center, for example in those hunting or gathering for food. For now, I’m more interested in the differing distances from the center than the specific question Gans deals with here. It’s a very interesting question, after all: if language was originally a strictly ritual affair, serving to mediate the relations between the group on what is ultimately a scene of distribution and consumption, what would be going on elsewhere, in particular in the more “productive” activities? We could easily imagine that for a while, at least, such activities would proceed as before, without the intervention of language.

At a certain point, sign use would enter the productive sphere, for the same reason it entered the human group in the first place: to defer violence. In this case, though, we can assume the forms of potential violence deferred would be lower stakes than those commemorated on the originary scene: say, a challenge not so much to the leader of the expedition himself but to a particular decision—he is leading the group in one way, an underling sees more potential in a different direction. This might ultimately come to blows, or worse, but in a fairly coherent group with shared goals, that’s unlikely—still, the availability of language would be a useful way to settle the dispute. Gans also suggests in The Origin of Language, in examining the succession of speech forms, that innovation is more likely at the margins than at the center, and this would be a confirmation of that intuition. For hunters out for days, chasing dangerous and elusive prey, a high degree of improvisation must be allowed for, far more than would ever be permissible on the ritual scene, and so communicative capacities would improve correspondingly. Still, once these hunters brought their kill back to the community and placed it at the center, they would bow down, intone the requisite chant and follow the established process of distribution and consumption like anyone else.

All disciplinary activity, then, no matter how seemingly impractical, unsupervised and free, is at bottom aware that something needs to be brought back to the center. We should see this constraint as a condition of disciplinary activity, not a restriction imposed on what would otherwise be a “purer” form of activity. Let’s say the hunters forget that they need to bring back food for the rest, or decide not to care—their “study” of their prey leads them to get interested in other, non-prey animals, then in the prey of those animals, whose migratory habits then become interesting, and so the band decides to follow them for a while, and so on. They would really be following one distraction after another, rather than being engaged in any sort of inquiry. In fact, the surrounding environmental penumbra of the prey animal does become “interesting” in all kinds of ways, but always in ways related to the primary task of understanding that animal’s habits and its relation to the community. The more curious hunters might in fact be the ones contributing most to the mythical center emanating from the sacrificial center, supplying reports of the animal in its natural habitat that in turn become stories of the animal as progenitor and creator of the human group itself, which stories in turn might be made more practical use of in subsequent hunts.

The very fact that an inquiry is an inquiry into something, that is to say, it has a center, is a mark of its reliance upon an external center. The inquiry then does, indeed, take on its own dynamics: Sarewitz, hoping that the dependence of science on externally produced needs and institutions will make science more “democratically” accountable describes at great length the pressure brought to bear on cancer researchers by cancer survival activist groups; it doesn’t seem to me, though, that these specific vectors of pressure contributed much to actually finding a cure (which, needless to say, we still don’t have, regardless of the constant setting of “deadlines” for one). How, exactly, external agencies are to assess the progress of the disciplines is itself a disciplinary question, one that the most powerful and aggressive interest group is no more likely to have an answer to than anyone else. Of course, JFK’s imperative to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade turned out to be remarkably precise—but how many other examples of this kind are there? Maybe JFK’s was just a lucky guess. Under the pressures of wartime, when those setting the goals have powerful incentives to set realistic ones, such mandates and initiatives (like the  Manhattan Project) can succeed, while once the setting of mandates gets opened up to the democratic process it becomes a way of grabbing for resources and elbowing out competitors. And strictly technical projects are more likely to succeed than more vaguely defined social engineering ones, etc. It may be that most, it may be that all, of the art or science of governing is learning how to set, assess and enforce constraints on the disciplines. This provides yet another reason for the placement of skunkworkers within the disciplines.

Work within the disciplines, then, must oscillate between distancing from and approaching the constraint set by the center. A new discovery regarding DNA transmission in cell reproduction might be pursued, not knowing where it will lead, and you might put together a new team of people fascinated by the problem of DNA transmission, even if they’re utterly uninterested in curing cancer, on the job; in the end, though, a decision must be made regarding whether this particular path is leading anywhere, “anywhere” as defined by the originating mission of that disciplinary space. Of course, promising, but aborted work done in this discipline might turn out to be highly useful for some other discipline, addressing some other problem. At each point along the way decisions have to made, decisions often productive of much resentment, as those utterly fascinated by that form of DNA transmission and furious at the philistine SOB who squashed the project, or those in the general public imagining that this was the way to a miracle cure can attest. (A healthy society would be one that generated primarily these kinds of resentment.) Within each disciplinary space there is a primus, and the sovereign center must generate within itself disciplinary spaces for assessing the decisions made within the disciplines.

There is only one political principle or axiom worth anything, and that’s because it is converted into an anti-political axiom when adhered to: if you give someone the responsibility to carry out some task or function, you must give them the power they need to do it. It’s difficult, but possible to imagine forms of democracy that accord with this insistence, at least for a while; it’s impossible to imagine any form of liberalism that does. Liberalism compulsively undercuts any form of delegated responsibility—even one as simple as “maintain public order” must be subject to “checks and balances,” “oversight,” “review,” etc., at every level and at every moment. That liberal societies function at all is due to the fact that most of any social order is run non-liberally, liberalism being wholly parasitic on established civilizational forms. (The question of the survivability of liberal societies therefore comes down to the question of whether the parasitosis can be kept at merely chronic levels)

The converse of the axiom, that someone with power must be loaded up with corresponding responsibilities, while true, is not as primary a principle. Power may have to accede to its responsibilities, it may precede and discover them, power precedes any delegation, and is always at least somewhat in excess of any responsibilities. Fixing power with its responsibilities is a result of the apotropaic tendency of subjects at least as much as the acceptance of responsibility by power. But whether it’s a superior delegating power or an inferior requesting uses of that power, built into the delegation or request is a responsibility to supply the power needed to see it through. The establishment of the commensurability of responsibility and power is the constraint establishing the disciplines of the human sciences. That’s what those of us doing sociology, theology, anthropology, psychology, literary studies, etc., are all engaged in: finding ways to “read,” in practical terms, the gap between the social center and that center’s embedment in in attentional centers throughout the social order. And to read it in such a way as to close it. This means reading the center in terms of centrality; and the relation between center and centrality is in the ways of thinking, speaking and acting amongst the subjects needed to establish commensurability. Inquiring into the practices that would streamline the imperative exchange (orders and requests) between ruler and subjects is transcendental inquiry. Even in the physical sciences, some project set by the center, whether it be creating a new weapons system or curing a disease, is the enabling background of disciplinary work.

When you study something human, the purpose is to see something in what people are doing that they themselves don’t see. They are actors, you are a spectator; they embarked on a trajectory in their action that can retrospectively be constructed narratively—the spectator can see the beginning in terms of the end, which the actor couldn’t have known, the spectator can try out different beginnings and ends so as to see different events and actors in a different light, the spectator can move back and forth between macro and micro levels in a way the actor couldn’t, and so on. You can construct a narrative that would be recognizable to the actor as a richer account of what he took himself to be doing; or, you can construct a narrative that would represent the actor to himself in alienating terms. How you approach the task will depend upon how the actors and events you are studying serves as a center from which you hope to extract imperatives. The disciplinary space is where we argue over these questions and construct such a center, and you have a disciplinary space when enough of these decisions have been made so that those within the discipline can readily generate new questions while those outside of the discipline would essentially be guessing if they tried.

What the disciplinary space brings into view is the relation between margin and center—a strong theory enables us to oscillate between the actions taking place on the margin (actors engaging one another) and the center that is apparent only through the interactions of those seeking to protect or usurp it. Ultimately, even the most self-aware and intelligent actor—even the analyst himself if he were the actor—must allow his mimetic engagements with other actors to obscure the relation to the center revealed in their interaction. Here, disciplinary inquiry must be ruthless: all words and gestures and other signs that direct the actors’ attention toward one another must be replaced with a discourse that systematically reads the interactions as signs of the center, as an iteration of the originary scene that simultaneously iterates previous iterations after which there was no turning back. After your inquiry there should also be no turning back, because the center will have revealed a new imperative to introduce a new gradient of deferral, replacing some potential future resentment with a sign pointing out something new in the world.

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