Darko Suvin VERSION 8, 2,950 WORDS (2012)
These are some reflections as keystones for a usable epistemology. They are initial and amendable. These presuppositions and positions are divided into general or methodological approaches, approaches to “science,” and a brief indication how to go on.
In both, a double cognitive movement is necessary: destruction (deconstruction) of old ways of thinking, focussing on useless interpretation of key terms; construction of dialectically flexible usable meanings of such terms, with a constant denotative core yet pulsating (expanding and shrinking) periphery of connotations. The rhythm and direction of the pulsations is historically contingent, it is subject to phronesis (Fingerspitzengefühl, practical wisdom) rather than theoria.
Our tools are no doubt notional, they are regulative ideas, but in any richer case they repose on a metaphor (in the widest sense of a trope). They are all initially located in the imagination, but “imagination becomes reality when it enters the belief of masses” (Marx, slightly tweaked).
A/ METHODOLOGICAL PRESUPPOSITIONS AND POSITIONS
Thesis 1: GOODBYE EXTRAPOLATION
Old futurology was based on a rudimentary proceeding of early Baconian-Cartesian science culminating in 19th C.: holding the state of affairs still while adding to it one variable and observing where its extrapolation would lead. At best it could play with a very few variables (Boyle-Mariotte’s law of gasses had pressure, temperature and volume). This is of no use in a rapidly changing, polymorphically perverse (Freud) or polyphonic (Bakhtin) world.
Thesis 2: DIALECTICAL TOTALITIES
Old totality was stable; it changed only slightly in the fashion of Lampedusa’s Gattopardo novel: “everything changes [in politics] in order to remain the same [in economics] .” It was then perverted by Gentile and Mussolini into the ideology of “totalitarianism”, meaning total organization of society by the State from above, fusing the politics and economics. Stalinism largely came to follow a kindred idea. Such totalities were centrally aspiring to religious perfection — which any sophisticated theology knows is a heresy — relevant to times before the Industrial revolution and its huge changes within one lifetime, such as the Napoleonic wars (not to speak about the following revolutions in technology and cognition). Shocked by these two politics, Arendt and the liberal doxa of Post-Modernism not only rightly refused them but also threw the baby out with the bathwater, logically ending in “weak thought.”
It is much more economical to wash the baby: i.e., to retain the concept of flexible and imperfect totalities as the only possible objects of cognitive acts. Flexible = changeable in extension and intension; imperfect = not only unfinished but in principle unfinishable; in one word = dialectical.
Dialectics centrally means that any totality has inbuilt contradictions which make for changes, glacially slow or explosively sudden. The art or phronesis of planning,. i.e. of being ready for the unforeseeable future, is to find the dominant contradiction (Mao).
Thesis 3: POSSIBLE WORLDS
A Possible World is a provisional totality with a defined spacetime and agents — all else is open. Rather than pertaining to logic (à la Kripke, or the Eco-type semiotics following logics) a useful Possible World is philosophical: modelled on our historical world (i.e., on dominant conceptions thereof or on its imaginary encyclopedia) yet significantly different from it. The possible cognitive increment lies in the difference and in its applicability, direct or very indirect, to our common world.
All art and all planning deals implicitly with Possible Worlds. This is foregrounded in e.g. Science Fiction or Five-Year Plans.
A Possible World contains in principle no guarantees of success — or failure — for the agents and actions in it: on s’engage et puis on voit (Napoleon). Some variants may have inbuilt felicific rules (e.g. fairy-tales or Sun-hero myths à la St. George, or official optimism about a plan); some may have inbuilt horrorific rules (e.g. Horror Fantasy after Poe and Lovecraft, or much Kafka, all apocalyptic pessimism), but these are protocols superadded to its fundamental neutrality. These protocols are therefore special cases very limited in epistemic relevance and spacetime applicability. What remains of the wholly rosy and wholly bleak horizons is a use, first, for extreme moments (when they may be extremely relevant), and second, a propedeutic use at various other moments.
Thesis 4: VALUE AS KEY HORIZON AND GROUND
- Homo sapiens, who knows s/he will die, is a value-bound creature: this defines his/her exit from the purely animal world of infinite contingency and instinctual reaction. What is it all for?
Our personal and collective lives are barks, or at best sailboats, buoyed by the ocean of values, with conflicting cold and warm currents traversing it and us (most fish are to be found at their meeting points). Even if they were transoceanic liners or super-aircraft carriers, a tsunami groundswell is stronger. Remember the Titanic, the USSR, and Lehman Brothers!
Since we must use the long wave-roll of values, let’s pick one main one wisely. Surf it.
- “If God and Communism are dead, anything is permitted” (extrapolation from Nietzsche and Dostoevsky).
Yet people either live with values of freedom and friendliness (solidarity), or with values of violent domination and exploitation — whether well articulated or not. They may be more conscious in intellectuals, but operate and act just as strongly in everybody else. In that sense, as Gramsci and Brecht argued, everybody is an (at least latent) intellectual.
Value is co-extensive with productivity or creativity in the widest sense, encompassing almost all human action. A mother cares for the child because she values it, and herself for it. A worker cares for its work insofar as it and s/he are not alienated. A learner (such as most of us all through most of our lives) cares for his learning because it multiplies his strengths and delights. A lover cares for her beloved because the love enriches her being.
Given that human nature abhors vacuum of value, there are after the Industrial Revolution, and with increasing insistence, two possible clusters of non-perverted value: traditional and new, known or unknown. Creativity may be rule-governed or rule-changing (Chomsky); often, both interpenetrate in different proportions. In the former case the status-quo may be changed, while in the latter cases it cannot. In good times rule-governed values are to be preferred, in bad times — such as ours — the rule-changing ones.
- Exactly contrary to Nietzsche’s proposition that value increases where there are “more favourable preconditions for more comprehensive forms of domination” (Will to Power, cited at second hand), my axiom and presupposition is that value gets formed and expands where there are more comprehensive chances for and experiments with self-determination. The locus of self-determination is in each individual personality but its actualization and form is only possible through collective actions of production, circulation, and/or use. A believable collective project always lurks in the background, shaping the horizons of one’s individual life (or we are in anomie and pathology). This constellation results in non-violent meanings, meaningfulness.
Domination or lording it means enjoying the loss of self-determination in others. This inevitably perverts one’s own self-determination. In today’s inverted world most people in power follow this Satanic dictum on relation to other people and our natural environment. This is why we have to find and favour the exact contrary.
Thesis 5: LOCUS, HORIZON, AND ORIENTATION
Locus is the place of the agent who is moving;
horizon is the furthest imaginatively visible goal toward which that agent is moving;
orientation is a vector that conjoins locus and horizon, the direction of the agent’s glance and movement.
Locus is where a single personal or collective body is pragmatically or contingently at; it is a given that must be understood as to its potentialities but cannot be argued away. It can, however, be subject to orientative projection.
It is characteristic of horizon that it moves with the location of the moving agent (as argued by Giordano Bruno); it can therefore never be attained. Obversely, it is characteristic of orientation that it can through all the changes of locus remain a constant vector of desire and cognition; e.g. “Eine Utopie ist aber kein Ziel, sondern eine Richtung” (Musil, The Man Without Qualities — a text that is itself emblematic for its intended signification of permanent movement through various loci in a fixed direction which is also a movable, expanding horizon).
In the ideal case of a dynamic utopia, locus constantly tends toward and yet never fuses with horizon (e.g. the end of Brecht’s Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis).
These are spatial metaphors. Caution and flexibility is much needed for their temporal use, with periodical reappraisals — confirmational or agonizing, as the case may require.
B/ PRESUPPOSITIONS AND POSITIONS ABOUT SCIENCE AS TWO-FACED JANUS
Thesis 6: SCIENCE IS HISTORICAL, NOT TRANSCENDENT
The religious quest for Truth is a point of rest for the weary: “simple, transparent, not contradicting itself, permanent, enduring as identical, with no crease, hidden sleight, curtain, form: a man conceives thus the world of Being as ‘God’ in his own image” (Nietzsche). It is an ideal impossible to fulfil, thus finally a lie, that leads to faking and skepticism.
If success is measured in terms of duration and proper balance with nature, there have been many successful civilizations either without an institutionalized science (such as the ancient Roman one) or with science based on radically different presuppositions (such as the Chinese and Arabic ones). Most important: all scientific paradigms are temporally finite: the productions, enunciations, and applications of knowledge begin and end in function of interests within their societies.
Thesis 7: THE HEGEMONY OF VIEWPOINT OR STANCE (Haltung)
“Is water necessarily H2O?” For some purposes — of separating H and O or reconstituting water, and all understanding pertaining to such possibilities — yes, but for other purposes no (Putnam, Gendlin). Purposes change according to the situation, which is only understood as being such-and-such by the interests of the subject defining it. Interests and judgments necessarily contain both evaluative and factual aspects; truth — or better, correctness — is context-dependent. All modes of knowing presuppose a point of view. Therefore, we should responsibly acknowledge our own viewpoints and look critically at our own and other opinions. (Levins, Gramsci)
Though repressed into “intuition,” factors such as suppositions of relevance and plausibility, selection of problems recognized as valid, concepts of “projectability” of facts and theories, and so on, play a major role in science (Einstein).
Scientific theories are “underdetermined” by facts: “Many, indeed infinitely many, different sets of hypotheses can be found from which statements describing the known facts can be deduced…” (Harré). Even more radically, the “facts” of scientific theories are not fully determined and univocal but always already conceptually elaborated (this also puts paid to Popperian falsification as an overriding criterion), and furthermore it is quite unclear how univocal are the prevailing philosophical categories used in science (Castoriadis). As a whole current of philosophers has maintained since Gassendi, theories are not true or false but good or bad instruments for research. Reality is in principle prior to human thought, yet it is co-created by human understanding, in a never-ending feedback.
Thesis 8: THE CENTRAL VALUE CRITERION OF LIFE ENHANCEMENT
The huge limitation that defines capitalist technoscience, as institution and ideology, is that science is life-blind. In Tolstoy’s words, “science is meaningless because it does not answer >what shall we do and how shall we live<” (cited by Weber; Nietzsche said similar things). The horizons of such a science have been indifferent to destruction of people and the planet, and its results increasingly deadly.
“Scientific management” comported centrally the progressive alienation of the process of production from the worker, and “progressed” into the alienation of brainwashed consumers as well as all those engaged in the specialized and esoteric knowledge of new clerisies. As a hierarchical institution devoted to manipulation, such technoscience was easily usable for “human resources” too: the Nazi doctors’ genocidal experiments were only an extremely overt and acute form of such Herrschaftswissen (Müller-Hill and Leiss).
Thesis 9: TWO SCIENCES: DOMINATION VS. CRITIQUE
In sum, I propose that our best strategy is to differentiate the institutionalized horizons of science-as-is fully from those of a potentially humanized science-as-wisdom, which would count its dead as precisely as the US armed forces do. I shall call the historically firstborn, good science “Science 1” (S1) and the present one, whose results are powerful but mixed and seem to be increasingly steeped in the blood and misery of millions of people, “Science 2” (S2). Aquinas would have called them sapientia vs. scientia.
These are ideal types only, intermixed in any actual effort in most varied proportions: also, the beginnings of S2 are in S1, and it retains certain of its liberatory birthmarks — centrally, the method of hypothesis plus verification. Nonetheless, the fixation on domination and the consubstantial occultation of the knowing subject in S2 render it too dangerous. In Marcuse’s summary, the “method and concepts” of S2 have projected and promoted a universe in which the domination of nature was indissolubly intertwined with the domination of a ruling class over the majority of people.
To the contrary (in S1), “sever[ing] this fatal link would also affect the very structure of science…. Its hypotheses, without losing their rational character, would develop in an essentially different experimental context (that of a pacified world); consequently, science would arrive at essentially different concepts of nature and establish essentially different facts.” (One-Dimensional) In other words, it would be a critical and self-critical science.
Thesis 10: TWO SCIENCES: CONFLICT VS. COMMONALTY
The adversarial methodology of S2 is opposed to the “communal” nature of S1, to the truths and the horizon all of its practitioners hold in common, as any true cognition does. Cognition or understanding is necessarily non-exclusive, shareable outside a conflictual stance and incompatible with a zero-sum game. True, in every economy of efforts priorities have to be determined, and in that sense a confrontation between opposed interests will be with us forever. But this is perverted when conflictuality or adversariness, the antagonistic and warlike subspecies of confrontation or opposition, is posited as the central methodology. To “have” an idea, an approach or technique, a software or any other byte of knowledge, means others can share it without my losing it, indeed I can thereby gain enrichment, stimulus, perhaps even fame. Cognition is communist: it resists being fenced in like a piece of land or locked away in a safe like a financial share.
Thesis 11: BODIES AND FREEDOM
Finally, the opposition S1-S2 is strangely, richly, and intimately interfused with the question of bodily freedom for one and for all, for our bodies personal and bodies politic. This would also deal with what was in religion called soul, with all its values and dead-ends, but subsumed, as in East Asia (cf. the Japanese kokoro), under the premise that behaviour and cognition are whole-body processes. This inquiry could be called “somatics,” and deal with a cluster of problems centering upon humanity’s vulnerable personal and collective bodies. Feminists and gay movements have foregrounded some of them (sex/gender orientation, birth/ abortion). However, a full discussion of — for example — drugging and prostitution remains to be done, for like Marx’s relation of worker to capitalist production each of these involves “the whole of human servitude” (“Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts”; cf. some hints in Suvin, “On Cognition as Art and Politics,” in Defined by a Hollow). It should advance from Marx, Nietzsche, Bakhtin, and Merleau-Ponty to Barthes and beyond, and could properly branch into all other mega-lesions of personal integrity, from war and other overt violence to hunger and alienation.
In the turbocapitalist age the body is being diverted from satisfaction of needs and enjoyment of glories to a double use. For the powerful and exploiters, it becomes a strategy for accumulation (Haraway): accumulation of capital, as a central model for possessions and domination (theoretically internalised even by Bourdieu). For the powerless and exploited — in war, toil, hunger, torture, and similar lesions or indignities — it becomes a site of pain (Scarry). For both, the body is the final perversely marketable commodity in horrible and obscene lives, also in horror and pornographic violence TV, movies, comics, novels. Inevitably, it becomes a supreme fetish. Somatics will become more and more neuralgic, for breathless capitalism is profoundly inimical to personal sovereignty and is working full out at new supertechnological means of ruthless somatic manipulation — biogenetics (in use) and nanophysics (coming fast). Yet it is humanity’s final “commons.”
Democritus’s atoms fell in a straight line from above to below; they come from a place of power not subject to human will, of whimsical Gods or blind Nature, and may break in upon any of us (Derrida). To this picture Marx preferred in his dissertation Epicurus, who scoffed at the anthropomorphic idea that in the infinite there is an up and down: the fixed destination of Destiny may be disturbed and deviated by some action. In Lucrece’s great poem De natura rerum (On the Nature of the Universe) the atoms swerve and break the chains of Fate; this sanctions “the free will of people living in the world /…By which we move wherever pleasure leads each of us” (II: 254-58). It opens a space for choice, for Being born from Non-Being, for a surplus of Being.
Much more needs to be gone into. What immediately comes to mind is Labour/Production/Producers; Capital (now Financial); Sex/Gender (Women); Nature (Ecology).
Whether I get to it depends on inner factors and outer response.
*/ I have grown increasingly dubious of the notion of respublica litterarum: not as an ideal but as a practical possibility today. Who reads footnotes and follows leads from bibliographies any more under turbocapitalism, which takes good care intellectuals should not have time for radical questioning?
Therefore I have avoided footnotes. Hardy souls can get a bibliography at firstname.lastname@example.org.