ON SCIENTISM AS UNSAVOURY POLITICS: shutting people’s mouths with a phantasm of science

Zizek has given an interesting perspective to frame current discussions on the dangers of relativism in terms of a struggle for cultural hegemony:

“We are witnessing today the struggle for intellectual hegemony — for who will occupy the universal place of the “public intellectual” — between postmodern-deconstructionist cultural studies and the cognitivist popularizers of “hard” sciences” (Zizek, “Lacan Between Cultural Studies And Cognitivism”).

Deleuze talks about this struggle for intellectual hegemony in terms of the aspiration of various discipines to become “the official language of a Pure State” (DIALOGUES, 13). The ancient supremacy of philosophy has been superseded by new contenders: psychoanalysis, linguistics, and cognitive science, but the favorite is an even vaguer stereotype, “Science”, associated with an equally vague materialist-cum-naturalist hermeneutics. In each case we have a new “interiority”, i.e. the very opposite of the transversality that Deleuze and others call for, that combines various disciplines on an equal footing to produce new ideas and new explanations. Instead we have the same form of an autonomous discipline (interiority) staking a claim for explanatory primacy over its fellow disciplines.

But this self-promotion to hegemony in the name of universality, certainty, and efficacity is accompanied by a desperate endeavour to formalise and unify the hegemonic discipline, to give it explicit and coherent structure, canonical method, apodictic force. From a fruitful heuristic messiness and multiplicity (diverse partially incompatible hypotheses producing only partially overlapping results) the hegemonic will imposes a unified paradigm. This unificatory interiorisation then functions as what Deleuze calls a “repressor of thought”, a rulebook for producing (politically) correct ideas.

This is not just a question of ideological dominance, but of poltical and economic hegemony. No wonder Sokal-type physicists resent the incursions of pluralist thought – they are too comfortable with their supposed intellectual primacy and academic prestige. Behind the “Science Wars” and the epistemological babble about realism, disinterested research and objectivity as a bulwark against “subjectivism”, “irrationalism” and “relativism”, there is a combat for power, posts, resources, status and funding.

An amusing offshoot of this political struggle is the promotion of an ancillary philosophical worldview trying to attain authoritative status by extrapolating a crude materialist and naturalist interpretation of scientific practice into an overarching epistemology and an underlying ontology. The aim is to be able to silence discussion and controversy, and to reduce the number of contending views to one. Bruno Latour emphasises that this is a political manoeuvre, and that the pluralist’s goal is to protect the sciences from such political exploitation: “I want to depoliticize the sciences so that they can’t be used in this unsavory way as a tool for silencing political discussion”.

The unsavory or indecent use of science is to reduce alternative views to silence by claiming that science is one one’s side, and that it has already pronounced judgement and designated the way of truth. The only decent response is not to be silenced: “We have to fight against those who want to shut our mouths” (ibid).

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4 Responses to ON SCIENTISM AS UNSAVOURY POLITICS: shutting people’s mouths with a phantasm of science

  1. Depolitization (Latour) is not the answer. Marcuse made a similar analysis in One Dimensional Man with respect to analytic philosophy. Once having become aware of the politics in certain currents of philosophy, one should answer politically, I think.

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  2. You can also watch scientists fight amongst themselves, for the funding and credence that attach themselves to this auspicious, vague word.

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  3. Reblogged this on Critical Fantasies and commented:
    Well said from Terrance Blake at Agent Swarm

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