«re.press Melbourne 2013 re.press PO Box 40, Prahran, 3181, Melbourne, Australia © the individual contributors and re.press ...»
the “naturalization of culture” (market, society, and so on as living organisms) overlaps here with the “culturalization of nature” (life itself is conceived as a set of self-reproducing information—“genes are memes”). This new notion of life is thus neutral with respect to the distinction between natural and cultural (or “artificial”) processes—the Earth (as Gaia) as well as the global market both appear as gigantic self-regulated living systems whose basic structure is defined in terms of the process of coding and decoding, of passing information, and so on. So, while cyberspace ideologists can dream about the next step of evolution in which we will no longer be mechanically interacting “Cartesian” individuals, in which individuals will cut their substantial links to their bodies and conceive of themselves as part of the new holistic mind that lives and acts through them, what is obfuscated in such direct “naturalization” of the Internet or market is the set of power relations—of political decisions, of institutional conditions—within which “organisms” like the Internet 64 Penumbra (or the market, or capitalism) can only thrive.
The standard counter-argument cultural studies’ proponents make to third culture criticism is that the loss of the public intellectual bemoaned in these complaints is effectively the loss of the traditional type (usually white and male) of modernist intellectual. In our postmodernist era, that intellectual was replaced by the proliferation of theoreticians who operate in a different mode (replacing concern with one big issue with a series of localized strategic interventions) and who effectively do address issues that concern the public at large (racism and multiculturalism, sexism, how to overcome the Eurocentrist curriculum, and so on) and thus trigger public debates (like the “political correctness” or sexual harassment controversies). Although this answer is all too easy, the fact remains that themes addressed by cultural studies do stand at the center of public politico-ideological debates (hybrid multiculturalism versus the need for a close community identification, abortion and queer rights versus Moral Majority fundamentalism, and so on), while the first thing that strikes one apropos of the third culture is how their proponents, busy as they are clarifying the ultimate enigmas (“reading the mind of God,” as Hawking was once designated), silently pass over the burning questions that effectively occupy the center stage of current politico-ideological debates.
Finally, one should note that, in spite of the necessary distinction between science and ideology, the obscurantist New Age ideology is an immanent outgrowth of modern science itself —from David Bohm to Fritjof Capra, examples abound of different versions of “dancing Wu Li masters,” teaching us about the Tao of physics, the “end of the Cartesian paradigm,” the significance of the anthropic principle and holistic approach, and so on.4 To avoid any misunderstanding, as an old-fashioned dialectical materialist, I am ferociously opposed to these obscurantist appropriations of quantum physics and astronomy. These obscurantist sprouts, I believe, are not simply imposed from outside, but function as what Louis Althusser would have called a “spontaneous ideology” among scientists themselves, as a kind of spiritualist supplement to the predominant reductionist-proceduralist attitude of “only what can be precisely defined and measured counts.” What is much more worrying than cultural studies’ “excesses” are the New Age obscurantist appropriations of today’s “hard” sciences that, in order to legitimize their position, invoke the authority of science itself (“today’s science has outgrown the mechanistic materialism and points toward a new spiritual holistic stance…”). Significantly, the defenders of scientific realism (like Bricmont and Sokal) only briefly refer Lacan between Cultural Studies and Cognitivism to some “subjectivist” formulations of Heisenberg and Bohr that can give rise to relativist/historicist misappropriations, qualifying them as the expression of their author’s philosophy, not part of the scientific edifice of quantum physics itself. Here, however, problems begin: Bohr’s and Heisenberg’s “subjectivist” formulations are not a marginal phenomenon, but were canonized as “Copenhagen orthodoxy,” that is, as the “official” interpretation of the ontological consequences of quantum physics. The fact is, the moment one wants to provide an ontological account of quantum physics (which notion of reality fits its results), paradoxes emerge that undermine standard common sense scientistic objectivism. This fact is constantly emphasized by scientists themselves, who oscillate between the simple suspension of the ontological question (quantum physics functions, so do not try to understand it, just do the calculations …) and different ways out of the deadlock (Copenhagen orthodoxy, the Many Worlds Interpretation, some version of the “hidden variable” theory that would save the notion of a singular and unique objective reality, like the one proposed by David Bohm, which nonetheless involves paradoxes of its own, like the notion of causality that runs backwards in time).
The more fundamental problem beneath these perplexities is: can we simply renounce the ontological question and limit ourselves to the mere functioning of the scientific apparatus, its calculations and measurements?
A further impasse concerns the necessity to somehow relate scientific discoveries to everyday language, to translate them into it. It can be argued that problems emerge only when we try to translate the results of quantum physics back into our common sense notions of reality. But is it possible to resist this temptation? All these topics are widely discussed in the literature on quantum physics, so they have nothing to do with cultural studies’ (mis) appropriation of sciences. It was Richard Feynman himself who, in his famous statement, claimed that “nobody really understands quantum physics,” implying that one can no longer translate its mathematical-theoretical edifice
into the terms of our everyday notions of reality. The impact of modern physics was the shattering of the traditional naïve-realist epistemological edifice:
sciences themselves opened up a gap in which obscurantist sprouts were able to grow. So, instead of putting all the scorn on poor cultural studies, it would be much more productive to approach anew the old topic of the precise epistemological and ontological implications of the shifts in the “hard” sciences themselves.
The Impasse of Historicism On the other hand, the problem with cultural studies, at least in its predominant form, is that it does involve a kind of cognitive suspension (the abandonment of the consideration of the inherent truth-value of the theory under consideration) characteristic of historicist relativism. When a typical cultural theorist deals with a philosophical or psychoanalytic edifice, the analysis 66 Penumbra focuses exclusively on unearthing its hidden patriarchal, Eurocentrist, identitarian “bias,” without even asking the naïve, but nonetheless necessary questions: “OK, but what is the structure of the universe? How is the human psyche “really” working?” Such questions are not even taken seriously in cultural studies, since it simply tends to reduce them to the historicist reflection upon conditions in which certain notions emerged as the result of historically specific power relations. Furthermore, in a typically rhetorical move, cultural studies denounces the very attempt to draw a clear line of distinction between, say, true science and pre-scientific mythology, as part of the Eurocentrist procedure to impose its own hegemony by devaluating the Other as not-yet-scientific. In this way, we end up arranging and analyzing science proper, premodern “wisdom,” and other forms of knowledge as different discursive formations evaluated not with regard to their inherent truth-value, but with regard to their socio-political status and impact (a native “holistic” wisdom can thus be considered much more “progressive” than the “mechanistic” Western science responsible for the forms of modern domination). The problem with such a procedure of historicist relativism is that it continues to rely on a set of silent (non-thematized) ontological and epistemological presuppositions about the nature of human knowledge and reality—usually a proto-Nietzschean notion that knowledge is not only embedded in, but also generated by, a complex set of discursive strategies of power (re)production. So it is crucial to emphasize that, at this point, Lacan parts with cultural studies’ historicism. For Lacan, modern science is resolutely not one of the “narratives” comparable in principle to other modes of “cognitive mapping.” Modern science touches the real in a way totally absent in premodern discourses.
Cultural studies here needs to be put in its proper context. After the demise of the great philosophical schools in the late ’70s, European academic philosophy itself, with its basic hermeneutical-historical stance, paradoxically shares with cultural studies the stance of cognitive suspension. Excellent studies have recently been produced on great past authors, yet they focus on the correct reading of the author in question, while mostly ignoring the naïve, but unavoidable question of truth-value—not only questions such as “Is this the right reading of Descartes’ notion of the body? Is this what Descartes’ notion of the body has to repress in order to retain its consistency?” and so on, but also “Which, then, is the true status of the body? How do we stand towards Descartes’ notion of the body?” And it seems as if these prohibited “ontological” questions are returning with a vengeance in today’s third culture. What signals the recent rise of quantum physics and cosmology if not a violent and aggressive rehabilitation of the most fundamental metaphysical questions (e.g., what is the origin and putative end of the universe)? The explicit goal of people like Hawking is a version of TOE (Theory Of Everything), that is, the endeavor to discover the basic formula of the structure of the universe that Lacan between Cultural Studies and Cognitivism one could print and wear on a T-shirt (or, for a human being, the genome that identifies what I objectively am). So, in clear contrast to cultural studies’ strict prohibition of direct “ontological” questions, third culture proponents unabashedly approach the most fundamental pre-Kantian metaphysical issues—the ultimate constituents of reality, the origins and end of the universe, what consciousness is, how life emerged, and so on—as if the old dream, which died with the demise of Hegelianism, of a large synthesis of metaphysics and science, the dream of a global theory of all grounded in exact scientific insights, is coming alive again.
In contrast to these two versions of cognitive suspension, the cognitivist approach opts for a naïve, direct inquiry into “the nature of things” (What is perception? How did language emerge?). However, to use a worn-out phrase, by throwing out the bath water, it also loses the baby, that is, the dimension of proper philosophico-transcendental reflection. That is to say, is historicist relativism (which ultimately leads to the untenable position of solipsism) really the only alternative to the naïve scientific realism (according to which, in sciences and in our knowledge in general, we are gradually approaching the proper image of the way things really are out there, independently of our consciousness of them)? From the standpoint of a proper philosophical reflection, it can easily be shown that both of these positions miss the properly transcendental-hermeneutical level. Where does this level reside? Let us take the classical line of realist reasoning, which claims that the passage from premodern mythical thought to the modern scientific approach to reality cannot simply be interpreted as the replacement of one predominant “narrative” with another, in that the modern scientific approach definitely brings us closer to what “reality” (the “hard” reality existing independently of the scientific researcher) effectively is. A hermeneutic philosopher’s basic response to this stance would be to insist that, with the passage from the premodern mythic universe to the universe of modern science, the very notion of what “reality” (or “effectively to exist”) means or what “counts” as reality has also changed, so that we cannot simply presuppose a neutral external measure that allows us to judge that, with modern science, we come closer to the “same” reality as that with which premodern mythology was dealing. As Hegel would have put it, with the passage from the premodern mythical universe to the modern scientific universe, the measure, the standard that we implicitly use or apply in order to measure how “real” what we are dealing with is, has itself undergone a fundamental change. The modern scientific outlook involves a series of distinctions (between “objective” reality and “subjective” ideas/impressions of it;