Thursday, February 26, 2015

Baudrillard - J'accuse! (again)

The Radio 3 The Verb programme, in which I discuss pseudo-profundity (with some analytic vs continental philosophy discussion), is repeated tomorrow night at 10pm GMT on Radio 3. It will be availabe for a week on bbc radio iplayer. Below is my old post concerning that programme. Link to programme website here.

Here is a quote from Baudrillard that Prof Paul Taylor chose for the Radio 3 programme we recorded to be broadcast tonite at 10pm (I am talking about pseudo-profundity and bullshit and pointing a finger at some post-modern thinkers - listen here for a week [I am on from about 14mins30]):

For ethnology to live, its object must die. But the latter revenges itself by dying for having been "discovered", and defies by its death the science that wants to take hold of it. Doesn't every science live on this paradoxical slope to which it is doomed by the evanescence of its object in the very process of its apprehension, and by the pitiless reversal this dead object exerts on it? Like Orpheus it always turns around too soon, and its object, like Eurydice, falls back into Hades ... the logical evolution of a science is to distance itself ever further from its object until it dispenses with it entirely: its autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form.

Paul thought this quote encapsulated some deep insight about science (which he illustrated with an example of an actual remote tribe, the Tasaday indians, who had to retreat further into the forest in order to remain an uncontacted tribe [PS correction, I am muddling two tribes here - Tasaday are Phillipino; the tribe that had to retreat were Brazillian], whom people nevertheless then tried to photograph from a plane [Paul has a paper on this here]).

My view is: this quotation appears as it stands to be a combination of a banal observation and a ludicrous falsehood, puffed up into an impressive linguistic souffle and pretentiously topped off with a reference to Greek mythology.


Well, it is true that ethnology, the study of cultures, can sometimes end up destroying (or at the very least changing) the cultures it studies, if e.g. the culture of a remote rainforest tribe.

But this simple point that science sometimes destroys what it studies, by studying it, is not new. William Wordsworth, back in 1798, said:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things
We murder to dissect
Yes, we do sometimes murder to dissect. I might kill an individual insect in order to study its anatomy.

That we sometimes destroy what we study (in the process of studying it) is true, but it's a rather banal, humdrum point that, as I say, Wordsworth made well over a hundred years before Baudrillard. It's an uncontroversial observation with which we can and no doubt will all agree.

But of course this is not to say that to investigate something scientifically always involves destroying what's being investigated. That's obviously false. Indeed it's a ludicrous suggestion. Someone who studies galaxies does not thereby destroy them. Nor, by dissecting an insect, do I destroy the species knowledge of which I acquire by my dissection.

Yet Baudrillard goes on to suggests every science does ultimately do precisely that - it cuts itself off from and destroys its own subject matter.

However, such is the high falutin, flowery way in which Baudrillard makes the slide from banal observation to ludicrous falsehood that many of us will fail to spot his sleight of hand - that a banality has indeed been replaced by a falsehood. We'll be too distracted by the seductive analogy drawn with Orpheus and Eurypides to spot the conjurer's switcheroo.

By the time we reach the end of the Baudrillard quotation, he's combining words so cryptically it's hard to know what he is talking about. Science's "autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form" Eh? Try translating that back into plain English.

But by this stage it doesn't matter that Baudrillard is drifting into gibberish. In fact it's very much to his advantage. For, once Baudrillard has got you to come as far as accepting the obviously false but nevertheless terrifically exciting skeptical conclusion: "Oh Wow! Yes science does always destroy, cuts itself off from, what it seeks to know, doesn't it?" you are likely to think there must be some still deeper insight contained within his parting gibberish (only it's really, really deep and that's why Baudrillard needs to resort to such convoluted and baffling prose to try to articulate it).

At this point, it's job done for Baudrillard. He can sit back, adopt a sage like expression, and let you start doing the intellectual labour for him.

Of course there may be great insight contained elsewhere in the work of Baudrillard. But I cannot detect anything terribly impressive in the brief quote presented above.

P.S. Notice that the above quotation, unpacked, turns out to be very close to what Daniel Dennett calls a deepity: a deepity has (at least) two meanings; one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false or meaningless and would be "earth-shattering" if true.

Thanks to John Tillson for the following....


Philolinguist said...

From what I've seen, most of what passes for 'postmodern theory' proceeds by 1) stating the obvious, 2) exaggerating the trivial, and if all else fails, 3) obfuscation. However, the main problem with postmodern theory is not that it's postmodern, but that it's (purely) theoretical.

Hence 'analytic' philosophy in general suffers from the same semantic indeterminacy, but this is masked by the fact that analytic philosophers tend to write more plainly. So we are lured into thinking that because they're using plain language, the words used must carry their plain meanings.

As I've argued elsewhere, much of analytic philosophy is probably as semantically indeterminate as the postmodern stuff. But in order to realize that, we have to step back from the trees, the minutiae of philosophical arguments; and look at the woods, the socio-psychological flaws of any purely theoretical discipline; where peer-review is the sole arbiter of whether the discourse is making sense. Such an arrangement has a tendency to degenerate into a mutual admiration society (notwithstanding some, largely arbitrary, internal disagreements on what is admirable).

It's not the same with the sciences (apart from purely theoretical fringes like string theory), because they have to make predictions that the non-expert can often easily test (e.g. that an eclipse will occur at a certain time), and to some extent, understand the theory behind. The applied sciences also have to produce artifacts (radios, etc) that demonstrate they're not just playing with words.

So the non-expert public is actually heavily involved in keeping nonsense out of the sciences, effectively acting as a second layer of intellectual scrutiny after peer review. Not so in philosophy, where you have to be an 'expert' (i.e, a member of the mutual admiration society) for your opinion to count.

There are genuine philosophical problems, but despite peer-review, philosophers are largely in the dark as to whether they're making sense. So I don't think philosophy can be called a body of 'knowledge' (except a very slim one). I think it is an activity that some people feel compelled to engage in, but like another such activity, art, there's no methodology for measuring 'progress', for converting 'theories' into 'knowledge'.

That's important to realize, because it means that a philosopher cannot be a moral 'expert', someone that the lay public ought to defer to on ethical questions because he has a qualification in philosophy (in the same way that we might defer to a doctor on our medical problems).

Philolinguist said...

Further to my comment above, fresh off Scientia Salon:

'Metaphysics and (Lack of) Grounding'
Massimo Pigliucci

Commenter said...

In response to Phonolinguist:
I think you're completely right, and most of what you say is the exact standard postmodern criticism of analytic philosophy and pretences to "clarity": I.e clarity is simply yet another paradigm, another ideological platform. All semantics are indeterminate, except in relation to a framework of meaning, which is ITSELF indeterminate. Hence, there is no ultimate truth, only a multitude of culturally and historically determined truths. Even this last statement is just another claim which is only substantiable in relation to postmodern discourse... which acts as a sort of "negative" proof of postmodernism.

Once we reject foundationalism (which has largely been done long ago, in the analytic tradition) there isn't a heck of a lot dividing potsmodernism/structuralism from its English-speaking counterpart, verbiage aside. I think it's important to recognise that you are largely making the same (correct) postmodern point, here.

On the other hand, I feel it is unfair of you to criticise certain types of theory for being "(purely) theoretical". Insofar as we can claim to know anything, there is already a theory working in the background. So, I would argue that no knowledge is non-theoretical, whether we choose to acknowledge this or not. Science does not get let off the hook on account of it being somehow closer to reality than a supposed ivory tower discipline, because scientific knowledge is still entirely theoretical (I mean, even the doctrine of the scientific method/empiricism is nothing more than a theoretical construct, however useful it may be to us).

"despite peer-review, philosophers are largely in the dark as to whether they're making sense." How is this not true of any science? How does any discourse (religion, science, philosophy, politics etc..) make sense outside of a community of people who speak and understand on the same terms?