Scientists are impatient; theorist will “cut language at the joints”

Okay, the scientists are impatient with the theorist and want her to quit stalling and explain her thing. So, remember back when we talked about how we determine that physics is “cutting nature at the joints”? (And remember how it was pointed out to me, by one of you scientists, that this phraseology comes from a Platonic dialogue? Surely you haven’t forgotten THAT!)

Well, you remember how you know you’re on the right track in physics because of plank’s constant turning out to be a fundamental unit or “step” in the structure of things? (And those “energy steps” happen in all waves, we just can’t see it on the macro scale? That is really fascinating.) And so, you also know, because the maths keep turning out elegant and the formulas reduce themselves so neatly and niftily — and of course you have your experimental verifications….

Ahem, some of us, not to mention anyone by name, should take a look at the debate between Carnap and Popper over “verification” as the ultimate standard in “truth-statements.” It isn’t, Popper argued, and won, because great theories in physics, for instance, are too often bold new reconceptions that convince other physicists through their elegant formalisms and cannot be verified until much later on. That’s why Popper argued instead for “refutability” instead of “verification.” A statement is meaningful and non-trivial if it can be refuted, according to Popper — at least in principle, even if not in actuality. A statement is not meaningful only if it can be verified, because too often important scientific statements can’t be, when they are made.

Well, here’s the deal with my field of theory. Since Saussure, we poststructuralists have been pretty sure we are cutting nature at the joints, based on the new paradigm Saussure came up with for his “new linguistic science.” In about 1906-1909, he pronounced in his lectures — does this sound familiar? — that current so-called linguistics was not yet a science (not an ike or episteme), because it had failed to identify a single formal kind-of-thing as its own peculiar object. (This in spite of the great advances in historical linguistics during the 19th century, in which Saussure had been an extraordinarily precocious doctoral student and professor.)

So to show you where we poststructuralists “cut nature at the joints,” I will need to show you a Saussurean-inspired speech diagram and lay out for you all of its component elements.

Now therefore, I’m going to try to do what David and Gavin did — explain an extremely complex field in which decades of advanced work has gone on in a way understandable to non-specialists. First, two qualifications.

1) Your typical humanities person could not, I suspect, follow Gavin and David’s expositions. I could BARELY follow them, after going through a physics course for five years in a row as a team-teacher. (I was the one who made the social and historical connections as we proceeded through the development of physics, and the one who helped the humanities and arts majors, because I knew what was hardest for them — when it was hardest for me!) And since then, I’ve been reviewing the 60 pages of QM that David and Gavin gave us and reading Penrose and other sources. (I will get back to you physicists with some “advanced” (I hope) questions when I have gotten them all clear in my mind.) So, I think this is a very hard task I am undertaking, and I don’t know if it can succeed.

2) Poststructuralism in the United States had a huge hey-day in the 1970s and 80s and is now widely regarded as passe. I do not think it is passe, of course. Just as I do not think it was understood deeply enough over here. (There were some notable exceptions, Geoffrey Hartman and Barbara Herrnstein Smith come readily to mind, and Paul DeMann, who sort of did his own thing with it, and others). This however is forgivable because we have not had a structuralist movement here or a truly structuralist linguistics (a Saussurean linguistics). So again, this makes the effort I’m undertaking even more difficult and unlikely to succeed.

But I have had something of a revelation.

The reason poststructuralism is not “dead and gone” and the reason that it still has a long future ahead of it, is precisely because of the way poststructuralism speaks to the inveterate “two cultures” divide that has been such a persistent problem for us in the Anglo-American world.

In other words, I think that poststructuralism speaks directly to the problem of “social construction” vis-a-vis the “objective” reality of an external world, and that it may well be the major resource that is available to us that can do so. (Phenomenology is another candidate, and hermeneutics/Habermas has something to say….)

The rest of my revelation is that I don’t think people are reading poststructuralism this way, at least not nearly enough (but I must say that I had the advantage of a great teacher of my own, who died too young). The key to threading our way through the problem of observer-observed is right here in an everywhere implicit Saussurean prinicple: that of SELECTION AND COMBINATION. Formal selection and combination. So we’ll work on this together. (No, I’m not giving up on Plato’s Ion, btw.)

The fundamental explanatory models or paradigms, the ones every poststructuralist has always in mind, are the ones Saussure introduced over those three years of lectures that he never planned to write up into a book (because it was too daunting and the times weren’t ready for it). In the eight decades since then that linguists and theorists and semioticians have had to monkey around with those lecture notes, we’ve probably made every possible mistake and every possible reductive reading that can be imagined — all the things that Saussure knew were going to happen, have happened.

So we’d better start reading him better, hadn’t we? And we can, partly because we have had all this history (though most of it not in the U. S. or Great Britain), and therefore we can better avoid some of the pitfalls that have occurred. (History is an unending series of thought-experiments that actually happened! You can quote me on that.)

One of Saussure’s more recent expositors, Roy Harris, remarks that one cannot read the Course in General Linguistics, or spend time with this posthumously published book over several years as he did, and not come away with the lasting impression of a truly great mind at work, behind those interpolated student notes. I agree with Roy Harris 100%, and I think that we have scarcely begun to read Saussure as an epistemologist — a philosopher and theorist of how humans come to know. Nor have we yet begun to interpret his brilliant construct called the “phoneme” anywhere nearly as flexibly and fluidly and philosophically as we need to do. (The phoneme is the crux of everything.)

Derrida was Saussure’s best reader, I believe, and much of what Derrida has done, I think, is already implicit in Saussure’s new paradigms for thinking about how language as a semiotic system can throw light upon the structuring of human perception. Taking the work of these two together, Saussure and Derrida, and then adding in the work of the psycho-analytical poststructuralists, we have what we need in order to understand ourselves and our violent world. (Then, as always, we have to choose.)

But what we have here, what I will be explaining, is not to be taken as a Positive Truth, because this kind of strong positivity involves such rigid negations. (I’ll show you this.) Rather, it is a way of working with positivities. (A way that keeps them more honest and introduces into them some tolerance and play. This is what some of us have to learn to do with regard to ourselves, in psychotherapy, if we have emerged into adulthood with rigidly non-adaptive personality structures that no longer serve us well….)

We cannot avoid positivities (along with their negations), nor should we wish to, given the human condition, because we are who we are by being made out of them, but knowing that, we can find ways to make limited and modest interventions that may (or may not) point toward health, that may point toward responsibility, that may point toward joy and juissance (to use a well-earned Kristevan term).

Okay, so it now seems to me, after my revelation, quite natural that a trendy and fashionable French poststructuralism (but shallowly understood) was swept up and appropriated in a hit or miss manner by new movements (such as that in the social sciences) over here, movements that are widely viewed as introducing cultural “relativism” and undermining the objectivity and credibility of scientific methodology and results.

Hence our “Science Wars.” Hence the tragic renewal of the wars of science and religion. Hence, I’d better get to work and speak to all of this myself, a more ambitious project than simply teaching the history of literary theory….

So I’ll explain Saussure, the way I see him, as meaningful and signifcant for our future. Meanwhile, bear in mind that poststructuralists, as one specific strand within the wider phenomenon called “postmodernism,” themselves never had any reason to deny scientific method and results — and they didn’t.

If anything, Sokal’s book shows that they were all too eager to (mis)appropriate science to broaden the implications of their own work. (By the way, notice that Sokal and Bricmont found nothing to hang on Derrida at all. I’m still not sure that Lacan was as off-base as they think, because he did have physicists and mathematicians in his seminars, but he was a one-man circus and ego-show. But a magnificent thinker. On Kristeva, okay, she got it wrong, but mostly, it seems, in her very early work, which she seems to have repudiated.)

Btw, while we’re on this subject, yes, Sokal & Bricmont say they have no intention of impugning the non-scientific work of these theorists, and yet they do precisely that nonetheless, over and over again. (Ah well, I tend to agree with Derrida, who simply sighed and said: “pauvre Sokal.”) However, keep pressing me on this issue. If I’m not facing up to the problems of postmodernism enough for you, keep asking questions.

I work best that way, I’m afraid.

Coming soon, Saussure’s speech diagram and “cutting language at the joints.”

(For that niftly little course-module on Saussure, click here.)

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