GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

June 11, 2020

Recirculating the Center

Filed under: GA — adam @ 5:08 am

The ether is replaced by the constancy of the speed of light; phlogiston is replaced by oxygen; and, of course, geocentrism is replaced by heliocentrism. In each case, critical experimental results effected the scientific revolution, but what I’m interested in here is how the logic of scientific revolution can be applied to the revolution in the human sciences I take the originary hypothesis to initiate—a scientific revolution that is qualitatively different because the scientist is part of the phenomenon under study, and must study that phenomenon by acting within and therefore changing it. Scientific revolution is not only a valid, but an essential model here, because what both levels of inquiry have in common is what Gaston Bachelard called “epistemological obstacles,” which is to say, concepts grounding a process of inquiry that are themselves ungrounded in anything other than inherited institutional and what we could call “mythical” imperatives. The theological and therefore moral implications of the displacement of geocentrism by heliocentrism are well known, as is the “trauma” of Darwin’s hypothesis regarding the origin of species. I don’t know of any equivalent investments in phlogiston and the ether, but there were certainly intellectual and perhaps aesthetic investments—such concepts presumably provided a kind of apparent coherence that would have been lacking otherwise. Meanwhile, moralized resentments against the decentering of the conscious, self-centered human subject brought about by modern theorists like Marx, Nietzsche and Freud were also for quite a while grist for highbrow ruminations. The continuity between the natural and human sciences, then, is that the replacement of one disciplinary center by another requires the reordering of an entire constellation organized around that center, and such an event is always consequential.

As in my previous post, I want to bring the model of scientific revolution, or center replacement, from the level of the one or two in a lifetime event to our day to day thinking or “signifying” (or “sampling”). In a way, the problem gets much more interesting on this level. Once astronomy rejects geocentrism, or chemistry phlogiston, those paradigms are gone because inquiry now proceeds on the transformed terrain; but everyday discourse throws up new epistemological obstacles regularly, because ongoing events always need to be thought through on terms that can’t be completely given in advance. There are always assumptions in place that make it possible to see some things and impossible to see others. Moreover, in human affairs, not everything can be made explicit—indeed, with everything we do make explicit, more implicit assumptions are generated. There is always what Hannah Arendt called a “necessary appearance.” (Her example was that, however up to date my cosmology, the sun still looks like it is rising in the morning.) On the originary scene, it “appears” that the central object is holding the assembled in place. The same is true every time we attend to something—I’m already looking at something or thinking about something before I can ask why I’m doing so. I’m always being “held” in some way before “reflection” kicks in and, in fact, reflection tightens the grip of whatever holds me because my reflections find it to be necessary, or motivated, or rooted in something “deeper” that holds me, or an entry point into some network that encloses me, or a malevolent spirit that must be combatted, etc.

The structure of a scientific experiment is similar to that of a sacred ritual insofar as in both cases we have a closed space on which external effects are excluded, we have a precisely organized practice aimed at generating an event with a specific range of expected effects, as a result of which something will be revealed. “Scientific” thinking, in the sense of a practice organized so as to produce a revelatory event, was obviously “applied” to the human community well before it was applied to things. In that case, all human practices must have this structure—we are always assembling our body as a system of signs, conjoined with the mediatory and technological signs across which our attention and its effects are distributed, in order to reveal something: this something will always be some center, which will tell us what we need to do to be “held” by it. When a practice fails, which is to say that the center does not extend us an answer we can “process,” we draw upon our relation to the center as a model for a narrative that will re-position us in relation to the center. We can then translate that narrative into new practices, aimed at revelation. Of course, this process, taken on its own, is just as likely to lead to further obfuscation as clarification. And that’s really the question—how do we distinguish one from the other, and generate practices, narratives and translations that allow us to make this distinction regularly and in a controlled manner? Without the controlled scientific space, we must ourselves be both subjects and objects of virtual experiments that never leave the realm of the hypothetical. So, what makes for a “good,” or “generative,” hypothesis in the human realm?

It’s one that makes the practice generating it more of a practice. The simplest way to think about a practice is that as a result of some performance, something comes into existence that wouldn’t have come into existence without that performance, and this emergence produces a new scene onto which a performer of practice could enter and perform anew. Games provide good examples of this kind of thing—a good move in chess sets up a subsequent move, etc.—but we could think in terms of asking someone a question. A good question is one that elicits a statement that wouldn’t have been made without that question, and that will now enable a new question that itself wouldn’t be possible without the previous question-answer sequence—that allows the questioner to continue as questioner in an unanticipated way that the previous sequence nevertheless prepared him for. So, you could think in terms of continually becoming a better questioner, or interviewer, as a practice. As this happens, you will discover that both you as the questioner, and the one being questioned, however important or interesting, recede into the background of the event of questioning itself. The more you focus on specific things you yourself would want to know, or imagine a reader or hearer would want to know, the less perfect your practice; the same with a focus on the interviewee as the center—you and the interviewee are nothing but the preconditions of this particular practice of questioning. Let’s say you have to keep the focus on the interviewee, and the specific things people want to hear from him, because those conditions are what made the questioning possible in the first place—in that case, those would have to become further preconditions of a more constrained but still potentially excellent practice of questioning. (Of course, the constraints could become such as to make anything approaching a genuine practice impossible, in which case one might be ethically obliged to decline the assignment.)

What we see here is an act of decentering and then recentering: from the interviewer or interviewee being the center, which in a sense is the natural situation in a conversation, the process of questioning itself becomes the center, which the individuals involved merely serve. With one of the individuals as the center, the oscillations of desire and resentment generate the scene—the interview humbly defers to the great man, but also hopes to catch him out in some remark that will diminish him, so he projects onto the great man the intentions and qualities corresponding to his own imperfect practice—the great man is arrogant, or insincere, or indeed great beyond all comprehension, etc.—all the narratives of a failed practice. The perfection of the practice purges such narratives and translations—insofar as both are being constructed and constituted in this space, through this event, as figures or subjects of this singular line of questioning, all those projections are dispersed. If you think about, or come to narrate, your life as a sequence of practices, and your life as a whole as a practice of practices, within a social order in which those practices are situated and is continually reconstituted by and as those practices, then the problem of the continual replacement of the center comes into focus.

The mythical narrative interferes with the perfection of practice. It keeps in place a failed practice. This happens because a failed practice at one point must have been successful, or at least seemed more likely to be successful than alternatives. It relies on a narrative whose exhaustion has not been acknowledged, and a relation to some center that seems to have no alternative other than “chaos.” The only way out of a mythical narrative and a center that can no longer keep its “satellites” in “orbit” is to continue in the path of perfection of that practice. First, though, you need to understand that what you’re doing is a practice, even if only the decaying remains of one. This means directing your attention to whatever you are doing that you are not incorporating into some practice. When faced with some problem, or encounter, or confrontation, there is probably something in your engagement that you can’t situate within a practice—something that indicates the remains of some gesture that, you imagine, once “worked.” There might be many such things; perhaps there’s nothing you can see in what you do that is the product of a practice. What you are noticing are many at least partially failed practices, and the corresponding narratives and translations of narratives into new practices will to that extent deserve to be called “mythical.” There is some event with a center that you are faithful to but, rather than constructing a practice that allows for continual recenterings of the center of that event, you resist anything that interferes with attempts at reconstituting the entire scene that seems inseparable from the event. The mythical narrative and its practical translations are essentially cargo-culting.

Even more: whatever in your own doings and thinking you can’t represent as a practice is by virtue of your inability a part of others’ practices. If you’re thinking of yourself as an individual, with a conscience and consciousness, with character traits, a personality, beliefs, likes and dislikes, and so on, without being able to represent all of this within your practice of your life as a practice of practices, then there can’t be any doubt that all of these things are the results of practices of education, public relations, propaganda, entertainment, the social sciences, and so on that others have constructed for you. The perfection of practices always involves inhabiting all these practices produced for you, decentering the desire for recognition, the fear of public rejection, the immersion in thoughtless narratives and all the other centers created by those disseminated practices which provide prepared scripts for the repetition of familiar revelations—and recentering the composition of practices shared by others that treat the practices circulating through as practices rather than pre-given scenes. The good hypothesis, then, is the one that proposes a possible structure as a practice for some experiential given that has been revealed as an indication of a failed practice. Say you feel impotent rage at some failure or humiliation, or betrayal at what has turned out to be misplaced trust. Bound up in these feelings is a narrative involving characters with certain rights, possibilities and responsibilities, and somewhere in that you placed yourself on a scene just because it conformed to a model of experience of some other scene. There’s something in there that hasn’t been constructed as a practice, some form of mediation between you and others that just seemed inherent in the scene. That experience indicative of a failed practice and pointing to the need to incorporate hitherto unnoticed practices into your own is the moral equivalent of the scientific “anomaly” that calls for a new “paradigm”—a paradigm in which others would be invited to co-construct practices with you, rather than re-inforce a relation of “co-dependency.”

I approached, in this post, a very similar question as the one I approached in a very different way in the previous post. They’re in different languages, you might say, and we should all be multilingual. I think they are completely mutually translatable into each other without loss, but I’ll think about it. If a practice is fundamentally making oneself over as a “sample,” then I think the crossover becomes easy.

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