Pomo Agonistes and Dada Anti-Science

The pushback to my CounterPunch piece “The Two Cultures: Can the Left Bridge the Gap?” reminded me of what is often said about Dada- that each generation discovers it for itself and imagines that it is discovering something new. What flooded over my social media transom in reaction to it amounted to a flash back to the academic dadaism of my early college years.  All of the buzzwords which defined the early 80s came rushing back: paradigm shift, Thomas Kuhn, normal science, Feyerabend, the penetrability of cognition by perception, social constructivism, Husserl, the inference/observation distinction, etc.

These notions were now being circulated by fresh faced twenty somethings, as I was when I was hyping them back then. Of course, I was running with a herd, and so are they now. It was not until a few years later that lingering doubts that I only dimly understood what I was reading became impossible to ignore and were later confirmed.

Of course, post modernism had always been in the cross hairs of reactionaries, dead set on destroying all manifestations of sixties radicalism from the moment it appeared. Included among these were bad faith critiques of postmodernism emanating from Hilton Kramer, Roger Scruton and George H.W. Bush whose 1988 University of Michigan speech (where I was a student at the time) kicked off the right wing backlash against academic “political correctness”-all these were easily dismissed.

The criticism which mattered came from within-from who those who saw post-modernism as a perversion of the left’s roots in the enlightenment and in rationality and rational discourse.

Chomsky’s seminal 1995 paper Science/Rationality/ was foremost among these and so it was natural to return to the positions which Chomsky felt it necessary to argue against then.  Among these was the view of science as

thoroughly embedded in capitalist colonialism, . . . used to create new forms of control … screening out feeling, recreating the Other as object to be manipulated . . . the subjective is described as irrelevant or un-scientific (by those for whom) to feel was to be anti-science … There is something inherently wrong with science (which is) used for astoundingly destructive purposes…to create new forms of control mediated through political and economic power. (While) claim(ing) to a monopoly of knowledge . . . (its conclusions are grounded in) superstition, belief, prejudice. . . (offering no better guidance than) the world of story and myth creation.

Chomsky, as noted, made short work of these and other related absurdities. Given that he did so almost two decades ago, it seemed reasonable in my piece to follow up by asking whether Chomsky’s concerns had been addressed.

These appeared to me to be relatively important matters-now more than ever for reasons I will allude to later. So it was disappointing to find that in the response to the piece very few expressed much interest. Rather, as it turned out, almost all were concerned with defending the anti-science attitudes Chomsky catalogs.

In so doing, they effectively answered the main question: left anti-science is not only alive, it is thriving.

Also, as I had suspected, they gave little indication of any awareness of Chomsky’s arguments. Rather than challenge Chomsky’s understanding of the anti-science, anti-rationalist positions cited by him, their approach was to dress what Chomsky takes to be the absurdities of postmodernism in scholarly garb conferring on them a veneer of respectability and authority.

Among those doing so was a moderately well known British Trotskyite (hereafter BT) who appealed to the “elementary concept of theory ladenness of perception” claiming that this provided a basis for a fundamental suspicion of the empirical basis of science and hypotheses which derive from it.

With this BT invoked the Kuhnian correlate familiar from my undergraduate years: any scientific conclusion can be subject to revision at any time, arbitrarily withdrawn or replaced due to the fashions of the moment. Thus, to take the example BT cites, we can have no confidence that the DNA molecule serves as a mechanism for genetic inheritance. That’s because subsequent work has demonstrated that additional biochemical structures, most notably, RNA have also been shown to play a crucial role in the transmission of genetic information. Another anti-science leftist chimed in at that point to propose that we need to reconsider the very notion of Darwinian inheritance itself, asserting that recent work in developmental biology provides evidence for the long discredited Lamarckian view of evolution.

At this point we have reached the orbit of right wing creation science and its close cousin climate change denial. The latter connection was confirmed by BT, who in response to a query as to his opinions on climate change denying Senator James Inhofe noted that there is “no doubt he and I would concur on many things.”

Also taking issue with the piece was another self-described leftist albeit one who has made clear his abiding hostility to socialism, especially the brand of revolutionary socialism associated with BT. While taking a similarly skeptical view of science, he rejects “briefly fashionable” Gallic inspired postmodernism, preferring the Teutonic anti-science variant of Frankfurt School luminaries having antecedents in Husserl and Heidegger.  For HL the “scientific-technological juggernaut of the past two hundred years is not an objective bedrock of truth about anything but a self-fulfilling quest to vanquish a world it always already presupposes at mere dead externality.” Continuing along these lines he locates the roots of science within “a historically conditioned impulse to construct nature and man as ‘objects’ to be manipulated and dominated by technique–a subjective urge to vanquish what it presupposes as mere object.”

While HL’s characterization here appears to recall Chomsky’s left allies’ view of science as “recreating the Other as object to be manipulated” the impression that HL’s critique is based on a familiarity with Chomsky’s essay is quickly refuted by his claim that science assumes itself to be “a self-sufficient domain of unassailable truth.” Indeed, Chomsky states the exact opposite, repeatedly stressing, as do all responsible scientists, the provisional nature of any scientific hypothesis: not only are they not unassailable they are constantly, by the very nature of scientific inquiry, under assault by scientists themselves.

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Another anti-science assumption uniting BT and HL and other critics of the piece mirrors those referred to by Chomsky as condemning science for embodying “hidden political, social and economic purposes . . . thoroughly embedded in capitalist colonialism.” BT appears to concur that science is embedded within a political agenda, finding it “very strange . . . . that scientific practice is somehow exempt from political overdetermination, unlike any other form of human activity.”

Leaving aside the dubious notion that all other human activities are “politically overdetermined”, the assumption of science as inherently politicized is refuted by numerous instances of scientific results achieved by scientists of radically differing political commitments under dramatically different political conditions. If science were an expression of a politicized world view it would be impossible to explain the for example, the solutions to the brachistichrome problem, derived more or less simultaneously by four noted natural scientists (l’Hopital, Newton, Huygens and Leibniz) one living under a repressive monarchy, two others under nascent parliamentary democracies and the last then in a minor outpost of the feudal aristocracy. The same applies to the development of fundamental ideas in genetics initially devised by Mendel, an Augustinian monk in Moravia, soon advanced by de Vries, von Tschermak and Correns (Austrian, Dutch and German researchers) and William James Spillman, an agricultural economist from Missouri then teaching at Washington State University. Subsequent foundational work in genetics by the left icon Salvatore Luria (referred to in the previous piece) was developed by his now notoriously reactionary student James Watson. Twentieth century advances in physics, as can be seen by consulting the list of Nobel Prize winners, have been similarly international and cross political, as reflected, for example, in the 1965 Nobel for the laser, being awarded, during the peak of the cold war, to Charles Townes a hawkish American physicist building on the published work of two Soviet scientists Nikolay Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov. All this is sufficient to dispense with the idea that scientific practice can in any way read into the political sympathies of its practitioners or even the political systems within which it is practiced.

HL would go further than BT viewing science not only as inherently politicized, but as directly responsible for “unimaginable catastrophes–among them Hiroshima and impending mass extinctions from global warming”. These examples give the game away, because it is not science which bears responsibility but the state institutions and the political classes controlling them who apply science to serve their ends. When science, and the institutions surrounding it are under the control of corporate and financial elites, it will, needless to say, reflect their agenda. But insofar as science is exercised “in the public interest” or deployed “for the people” (to borrow the names of two venerable, and it would seem, largely forgotten, left organizations) it not only has the potential to benefit the vast majority, it is now likely our only hope for maintaining conditions on the planet in anything like those “in which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted,” in the words of James Hansen.

Indeed, we would not know that this is the case without science, namely, climate science, and specifically the empirical observations and theoretical models compiled and advanced by researchers in the field. Furthermore, any response to this grim reality will necessarily involve a transformation to a carbon neutral society, one which will be impossible without an all hands on deck approach combining, most prominently, the energies of theoretical and applied scientists from a range of disciplines necessary to construct the required infrastructure. By assuming a priori that science can only be in the service of repression, anti-science not only is incapable of diagnosing the problem but denies the society access to the only mechanism through which a decent future can be secured.

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Of course, within a broader context, the significance of left anti-science of the sort purveyed by BT and HL should not be exaggerated. The left itself having by now become almost entirely marginal, the pseudo and junk science promoted by right wing sources such as the Heartland Institute has become far more influential on state policy than anti-science tracts having their roots in academic post-modernism.

But observing this begs the question as to whether there is a connection between the left’s abandonment of the enlightenment traditions which Chomsky takes as fundamental to its identity and its failure to communicate its message to a broad public and advance its agenda within state institutions.  This is the issue which Derek Ides in a perceptive discussion identifies as “left-wing academics’ language and every-day, small scale interactions sublimat(ing) material reality and large-scale, institutional structures.” Ides takes as representative the field of subaltern studies which, as Vivek Chibber has recently noted, has focussed “on the irredeemable flaws of . . . . the Enlightenment — how (it is) implicated in imperialism, (its) reductionism, essentialism, etc.” characterizations virtually identical to those which Chomsky criticized two decades ago. According to Chibber, all this served as “a palliative, a balm, to soothe their nerves” to “allay any anxieties followers might have about the foundations of (the subaltern studies) project”, which has repeatedly failed to offer the means for combatting the neoliberal development model and the savage austerity regimes imposed on much of the third world.

Also in this category, as Ides notes, is Michel Foucault who, as Daniel Zamora has recently observed, is similarly hostile to enlightenment conceptions, in particular his perspective which situates power not as “originat(ing) in either the economy or politics or economics” but rather within an “infinitely complex network of ‘micro-powers,’ of power relations that permeate every aspect of social life”. The view of our ultimate target not as a system operated by real people with names and addresses but as abstract, intangible and mysterious has, not surprisingly, according to Zamora, ended up “disorienting the left . . . actively contributing to its destruction . . . in a way that was entirely in step with the neoliberal critiques of the moment.”

According to Ides, what has replaced the enlightenment tradition and its engagement with the world of tangible facts and logic is the “linguistic turn” in which language and discourse are viewed as the main field of contention, objective institutional power having been for several generations ceded to increasingly repressive and predatory elites against whom the left intellectuals have consistently failed to advance a critique capable of resonating with and finding its place within a mass oppositional movement.

Now, as Naomi Klein has compellingly argued, it is time for the left to recognize that everything has changed: the domain where the left has the most to offer is precisely in the realm of applying logic, reason and rational discourse to the conduct of “large scale institutional structures”. Indeed, if the left, does not take control of these institutions from those who are now completing their endgame of planetary degradation, it now seems almost certain that there will little future to be worth arguing about.

Chomsky recognized these tendencies two decades ago. Rather than genuflecting before him, we should listen to, understand and act based on what Chomsky has to say about the enlightenment, rationality, science and the left.

John Halle blogs at Outrages and Interludes

John Halle blogs at Outrages and Interludes. He tweets at: jghalle.