I. The Theater of Representation*
One of the important developments in science studies has been the increased
awareness that scientific inquiries are social and ideological constructions.
Donna Haraway's explorations of primatology, Shapin and Schaffer's investigations
into the sociology of Boyle's laboratory, and Bruno Latour's study of "black
boxes" in science are only a few of the seminal analyses that have
challenged accounts of how science is done (1). So extensive and successful
have these critiques been that it now seems the aspect of science most in
need of explanation is its power to arrive at apparently ahistorical and
transcultural generalizations. Given that science is socially constructed,
how can we explain, as Michel Serres puts it, that "entropy increases
in a closed system, regardless of the latitude and whatever the ruling class."
A clue can be found in a curious lacuna that occurs when this question is
discussed within the philosophy of science. There the debate has been constructed
as a division between the realists and the anti-realists. Both sides grant
that there is something called observables, and that these observables have
an instrumental efficacy in the world. You tighten a loose battery cable,
and the car starts where it would not before. The difference comes in whether
or not the observables relate to entities that exist in reality as such.
The realists say there really is an electrical current that flows, while
the anti-realists want to weaken or deny this claim. The lacuna occurs in
the anthropomorphic grounding that underlies the idea of observables. Without
being explicit about it, both sides mean observable from a human perspective.
This assumption has important implications.
Consider a frog's visual cortex. Studies indicate that objects at rest elict
little or no neural response in a frog's brain. (3) Maximum response is
elicted by small objects in rapid, erratic motion--say, a fly buzzing by.
Large objects evoke a qualitatively different response than small ones.
This arrangement makes sense from a frog's perspective, because it allows
the frog to identity prey from non-prey, and prey from predators that want
to eat it. Now imagine that a frog is presented with Newton's laws of motion.
The first law, you recall, says that an object at rest remains so unless
acted upon by a force. Encoded into the formulation is theassumption that
the object stays the same; the new element is the force. This presupposition,
so obvious from a human point of view, would be almost unthinkable from
a frog's perspective, since for the frog moving objects are processed in
an entirely different way than stationary ones. Newton's first law further
states, as a corollary, that an object moving in a straight line continues
to move so unless compelled to change by forces acting upon it. The proposition
would certainly not follow as a corollary for the frog, for variation of
motion rather than continuation counts in his perceptual scheme. Moreover,
it ignores the size of the object, which from a frog's point of view is
crucial to how information about movement is processed.
My point is not that humans know what frogs cannot fathom. The scientists
who did the frog research put it well: their work "shows that the [frog's]
eye speaks to the brain in a language already highly organized and interpreted
instead of transmitting some more or less accurate copy of the distribution
of light upon the receptors" (Lettvin et al., 1950). This and other
studies conclusively demonstrate that there can be no perception without
a perceiver.(4) Our so-called observables are permeated at every level by
assumptions located specifically in how humans process information from
Observing with instruments rather than unaided human perception does not
rescue us from our anthropomorphism, for the instruments we design and build
are just those that would be conceptualized by someone with our sensory
equipment. Instruments extend and refine human perceptions, but they do
not escape the assumptions encoded within the human sensorium. Add the profound
influence of acculturation upon cognitive processing, and it becomes clear
that observables really mean observations made by humans located at specific
times and places and living in specific cultures. In short, we are always
already within the theater of representation. Everything we perceive, think,
or do is always already a representation, not reality as such.
Yet representation may be too passive a concept to account for the complexities
involved. Research by Walter Freeman and Christine Skarda on the olfactory
bulb of rabbits indicates that perceptual processing is context-dependent
as well as species-specific.(5) Rabbits continually sniff; these sniffs
take in molecules of odorants that fall on the cilia of receptor cells in
the nose, which in turn are connected to mitral cells in the olfactory bulb
of the cortex. When the odors are neutral, oscillatory bursts of neural
activity appear that can be reliably identified as characteristic of a given
animal. When the animal sniffs an odor that he has been conditioned to recognize
as significant, a different pattern appears. Then the burst is amplified
in a cascading effect that brings together selectively co-activated neurons
in a nerve cell assembly. This amplification happens very fast, within milliseconds.
At certain critical thresholds, further changes take place that affect the
entire global area of the olfactory bulb. The data demonstrate that perception
is not a passive response to stimuli but an active process of self-organization
that depends on prior learning and specific contexts. "Perception begins
within the organism with internally generated neural activity," Skarda
writes (p. 52). "What happens within the brain is about interaction"
(p. 53). Although the data vary with individual animals and between species,
additional experiments on the visual cortex of the monkey and the somatosensory
cortex of a human subject indicate that the active, self-organizing nature
of perception applies in these cases as well.(6) On this basis, Skarda and
Freeman have argued that neuroscience should give up the concept of representation
(which Skarda calls "representationalism"), because it encourages
the fallacy that perception passively mirrors the external world. Representation
in this sense happens only when an observer enters the scene. It is the
experimenter's viewpoint, Skarda writes, which "requires that
conclusions be drawn about what the observed activity patterns represent
to the subject" (p. 57). From this vantage,our anthropomorphism has
not only led us to universalize our species-specific perspective into a
vision of an autonomously existing reality but also to falsify the nature
of our own perceptual processing.
The point is telling. I am not willing, however, to relinquish a term as
central to literary discourse as representation. I want to introduce another
way of formulating it that will make representation a dynamic process rather
than a static mirroring. Suppose we think about the reality "out there"
as an unmediated flux. The term emphasizes that it does not exist in any
of the usual conceptual terms we might construct (such as reality, the universe,
the world, etc.) until it is processed by an observer. It interacts with
and comes into consciousness through self-organizing, transformative processes
that include sensory and cognitive components. These processes I will call
the cusp. On one side of the cusp is the flux, inherently unknowable and
unreachable by any sentient being. On the other side are the constructed
concepts that for us comprise the world. Thinking only about the outside
of the cusp leads to the impression that we can access reality directly
and formulate its workings through abstract laws that are universally true.
Thinking only about the inside leads to solipsism and radical subjectivism.
The hardest thing in the world is to ride the cusp, to keep in the foreground
of consciousness both the active transformations through which we experience
the world and the flux that interacts with and helps to shape those transformations.
For as soon as the thought forms, we become aware of the paradox: what we
imagine is not the cusp itself, but the representation of it that is in
our conceptual realm.
The reflexive mirroring that enfolds cusp into concept shows how we can
be trapped within the prison house of language. This inherent reflexivity
was part of what Derrida had in mind when he famously proclaimed "There
is no outside to the text."(7) As long as positive assertions are made,
there is indeed no way out of the reflexive loop, no way to conceptualize
the cusp without always already falling short of what the conceptualization
attempts to represent. Negation, however, is a more complex and ambiguous
function. In negation, possibilities for articulation exist that can elude
the reflexive mirroring that would encapsulate us within textuality and
nothing but textuality. This elusive negativity authorizes a position that
grants the full weight of the constructivist argument but draws back from
saying anything goes.
Such a position is necessary if science is to retain its distinctive characteristic
as an inquiry into the nature of the physical world, while also rightfully
being recognized as an arena of social discourse and cultural practice.
Central to it are contexts, consistency, and constraints. Their interaction
allows the cusp to be posited and its relation to elusive negativity explored.
II. Riding the Cusp: What We Remember, What We Forget
This afternoon Hunter and I went for a walk. Hunter is a handsome, medium-sized
dog, half beagle and half hound. Hunting rabbits is bred into his genes,
and there are a lot of rabbits where we live. It is not uncommon for a rabbit
to run across the road in front of us. He sees it, I see that he sees it,
he sees that I see he sees it. Having lived with Hunter for over ten years,
I know that I have about two seconds to convince him to remain at heel rather
than run after the rabbit. I also know that the outcome will depend in part
on how authoritative my voice is, how close the rabbit, how intense the
scent and how bad his arthritis. Most of the time I succeed in convincing
him not to run; occasionally I fail. In either case, complex communications
take place between us about an external reality that we both perceive and
that affects our actions. How does this happen?
No doubt Hunter processes the world in a very different way than I do, from
the limited color range he experiences to the vastly richer role scent plays
in his universe. Despite these differences, we are able to communicate because
we share a context that remains largely consistent from day to day. I do
not perceive the world as he does, but my perception of his perception stays
relatively constant. I know the kinds of things that excite his attention
and what his probable responses will be, just as he knows mine. When the
rabbit runs across our path, we each react within our different sensory
realms to a stimulus that catalyzes our responses, which are also conditioned
by past experiences with the world and each other. This consistency allows
for the shorthand "Hunter sees the rabbit," although on reflection
I am aware that "rabbit" is an anthropomorphic concept that Hunter
does not share with me in anything like the same sense another human being
could. The unmediated flux impinges on him, impinges on me; I see the rabbit
and Hunter's response in my way, he sees the rabbit and my response in his.
We both know that we are responding to an event we hold in common, as well
as to a context that includes memories of similar events we have shared.
The temptation to forget the complexities of this account and abstract to
the shorthand is very strong. From such abstraction comes the belief that
nature operates according to laws that are universally and impartially true.
What is the harm in moving tothe abstraction? The implications become clear
when we look at what it leaves out of account. Gone from view are the species-specific
position and processing of the observer; the context that conditions observation,
even before conscious thought forms; and the dynamic, interactive nature
of the encounter. In such a pared-down account, it is easy to believe that
reality is static and directly accessible, chance and unpredictability are
aberrations, and interaction is nothing more than an additive combination
of individual factors, each of which can be articulated and analyzed separate
from the others.
This is, of course, the world of classical physics. It continues to have
a vigorous existence in popular culture as well as in the presuppositions
of many practicing scientists. When the TV camera, accompanied by Carl Sagen's
voice-over, zooms through the galaxy to explore the latest advances in cosmology,
these presuppositions are visually and verbally encoded into an implied
viewpoint that seems to be unfettered by limitations of context and free
from any particular mode of sensory processing. As a representation, this
simulacrum figures representation itself as an inert mirroring of a timeless,
Perhaps its most pernicious aspect is the implicit denial of itself as a
representation. The denial is all the more troubling because of the ideological
implications encoded within it. Among those who have explored these implications
are Evelyn Fox Keller, who points out the relation between an "objective"
attitude, the masculine orientation of science, and the construction of
the world as an object for domination and control; Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle
Stenger, who relate the appeal of a timeless realm to a fear of emotional
involvement and death; Nancy Cartwright, who demonstrates that the idea
of scientific "laws" always derives from the act of analysis and
never intrinsically from the situation itself; and Michel Serres, who reminds
us that deviations from idealized, abstract forms are not exceptions but
the noise that constitutes the world.(8) These critiques can be seen as
acts of recovery, attempts to excavate from an abstracted shorthand the
complexities that unite subject and object in a dynamic, interactive, on-going
process of perception and social construction.
A model of representation that declines the leap to abstraction figures
itself as species-specific, culturally determined, and context-dependent.
Emphasizing instrumental efficacy rather than precision, it assumes local
interactions rather than positive correspondences that hold universally.
It engages in a rhetoric of "good enough," indexing its conclusions
to the context in which implied judgments about adequacy are made. Yet it
also recognizes that within the domains specified by these parameters, enough
consistencies obtain in the processing and in the flux to make recognition
reliable and relatively stable.
Since the claim for consistency separates this position from strict social
construction, it is worth exploring more fully. Central to this claim is
the idea of constraints. By ruling out some possibilities--by negating articulations--constraints
enable scientific inquiry to tell us something about reality and not only
about ourselves. Consider how conceptions of gravity have changed over the
last three hundred years. In the Newtonian paradigm, gravity is conceived
very differently than in the general theory of relativity. For Newton, gravity
resulted from the mutual attraction between masses; for Einstein, from the
curvature of space. One might imagine still other kinds of explanations,
for example a Native American belief that objects fall to earth because
the spirit of Mother Earth calls out to kindred spirits in other bodies.
No matter how gravity is conceived, no viable model could predict that when
someone steps off a cliff on earth, she will remain spontaneously suspended
in mid-air. This possibility is ruled out by the nature of physical reality.
Although the constraints that lead to this result are interpreted differently
in different paradigms, they operate universally to eliminate certain configurations
from the range of possible answers. Gravity, like any other concept, is
always and inevitably a representation. Yet within the representations we
construct, some are ruled out by constraints, others are not.
The power of constraints to enable these distinctions depends upon a certain
invariability in their operation. For example, the present limit on silicon
technology is a function of how fast electrons move through the semiconductor.
One could argue that "electron" is a social construction, as are
"semiconductor" and "silicon." Nevertheless, there is
an unavoidable limit inherent in this constraint, and it will manifest itself
in whatever representation is used, provided it is relevant to the representational
construct. Suppose that the first atomic theories had developed using the
concept of waves rather than particles. Then we would probably talk not
about electrons and semiconductors, but indices of resistance and patterns
of refraction. There would still be a limit, however, on how fast messages
could be conveyed using silicon materials. If both sets of representations
were available, one could demonstrate that the limit expressed through one
representation is isomorphic with the limit expressed in the other.
Note that I am not saying constraints tell us what reality is. This they
cannot do. But they can tell us which representations are consistent with
reality, and which are not. By enabling this distinction, constraints play
an extremely significant role in scientific research, especially when the
representations presented for disconfirmation are constrained so strongly
that only one is possible. The art of scientific experimentation consists
largely of arranging situations so the relevant constraints operate in this
fashion. No doubt there are always other representations, unknown and perhaps
for us unimaginable, that are also consistent with reality. The representations
we present for falsification are limited by what we can imagine, which is
to say, by the prevailing modes of representation within our culture, history,
and species. But within this range, constraints can operate to select some
as consistent with reality, others as not. We cannot see reality in its
positivity. We can only feel it through isomorphic constraints operating
upon competing local representations.
The term I propose for the position I have been urging is constrained constructivism.
The positive identities of our concepts derive from representation, which
gives them form and content. Constraints delineate ranges of possibility
within which representations are viable. Constrained constructivism points
to the interplay between representation and constraints. Neither cut free
from reality not existing independent of human perception, the world as
constrained constructivism sees it is the result of active and complex engagements
between reality and human beings. Constrained constructivism invites--indeed
cries out for--cultural readings of science, since the representations presented
for disconfirmation have everything to do with prevailing cultural and disciplinary
assumptions. At the same time, not all representations will be viable. It
is possible to distinguish between them on the basis of what is really there.
Are constraints not themselves representations? If so, how is the claim
for their invariability justified? With thesequestions, the distance between
articulation and cusp threatens to collapse, cutting off the connections
that interactively put us in touch with the unmediated flux. To answer them
and elaborate the dynamic figure of representation, I return to the crucial
difference between congruence and consistency. Congruence
implies one-to-one correspondence. In Euclidean geometry, one can test for
congruence by putting one triangle on top of another and seeing whether
they match. If the area and shape of one exactly fits the other, congruence
is achieved; any deviation indicates that they are not congruent. Congruency
thus falls within the binary logic of true/false. Consistency, by contrast,
cannot adequately be accounted for in a two-valued logic. In addition to
true and false, two other positions--let us call them not-true and not-false--are
necessary. The introduction of these two values reveals an important asymmetry
between affirmation and negation. From this asymmetry emerges a sense of
the relation between language and representation that steps outside the
reductive dichotomies of the realist/anti-realist debate.
III. The Semiotic Square and Elusive Negativity
Mapping the four positions mentioned above onto a semiotic square will make
explicit the multiple connections and disjunctions that constitute their
interactions. A. J. Greimas introduced the semiotic square as a way to represent
the possibilities for signification in any semiotic system.(9) These possibilities,
although very rich, are not infinite. They are created through the interaction
of what Greimas called "semiotic constraints"--deep structures
that enable meaning to emerge by restricting articulations to certain axes
of signification. Ronald Schleifer has interpreted and expanded on Greimas's
construction of the semiotic square, and the discussion that follows is
indebted to his work as well as to Greimas. (10 )
If we grant that we are always already within the theater of representation,
it follows that no unambiguous or necessary connection can be forged between
reality and our representations. Whatever the unmediated flux is, it remains
unknowable by the finite subject. Representations arise in response to such
historically specific factors as prevailing disciplinary paradigms and cultural
assumptions, as well as such species-specific factors as the human sensorium
and neurophysiology. Observations are culturally conditioned and anthropomorphically
determined. We can never know how our representations coincide with the
flux, for we can never achieve a standpoint outside them. Consequently,
the true position cannot be occupied because we cannot verify congruence.
The false position, however, can be occupied. Within therange of representations
available at a given time we can ask,"Is this representation consistent
with the aspects of reality under interrogation?" If the answer is
affirmative, we still know only our representations, not the flux itself.
But if it is negative, we know that the representation does not adequately
account for our interaction with the flux in a way that is meaningful to
us in that context. The asymmetry revealed by this analysis should not be
confused with Popper's doctrine of falsification. (11) Understanding that
theories could not be verified, Popper nevertheless maintained congruence
as a conceptual possibility. The problem for him was that congruence was
empirically based and so always liable to exceptions that might appear in
the future. In the scheme articulated here, future exceptions do not play
a privileged role in explaining why congruence cannot be achieved. Even
if by some fiat we could be sure that no future exceptions would exist,
the most we could say is that a model is consistent with reality as it is
experienced by someone with our sensory equipment and previous contextual
experience. Congruence cannot be achieved because it implies perception
without a perceiver.
The four positions are mapped onto a modified semiotic square as shown below.
(inconsistent) False --------------- True (unoccupied)
(unknown) Not-True ---------------- Not-False (consistent)
The horizontal relation between the two top positions, false and true, is
constructed through a contrary relation that makes them mutually exclusive
alternatives. What is true cannot be false, and what is false cannot be
true. The bottom two positions, not-true and not-false, are in a more complex
relation. Not-false, designated as the more restrictive, is occupied by
models found to be consistent with the flux as it is interactively experienced.
Not-true is occupied by models which have been imperfectly tested or not
tested at all; these I call unknown. Between the negated categories of not-false
and not-true, two kinds of oppositions are in play. One is a polarity between
negation and affirmation (false/true), the other between indefinite and
definite (unknown/consistent). This ambiguity folds together the ability
to negate with the ability to specify. In doing so, it opens an escape hatch
from the prison house of language.
The entanglement of negation with specificity can be explored through the
linguistic concepts of modality and marking. Traditionally defined, a modality
is a statement containing a predicate that is affirmed or denied by other
qualifications. The modern definition expands a modality into any statement
about another statement. Non-modal articulations appear as mere statements
of fact. In this sense they are unmarked, allowing for a reading that does
not take the speaker's position into account. In general unmarked terms
arethose which have been naturalized by cultural assumptions and so rendered
transparent. "Man" is an unmarked noun, "woman" a marked
one; "as old as" is an unmarked phrase, "as young as"
a marked one. In modality the marking is accomplished by the qualifying
phrase that calls attention to the statement's swerve from facticity. Affirmation
and negation are non-modal; denial and assertion are modal. When the President's
press secretary says, "The rumor is false [or true]," he has negated
[or affirmed] it. When he says "I say that the rumor is false [or true],"
he has denied [or asserted] it. Denial implies negation while subtly differing
from it, just as assertion implies affirmation without exactly being affirmation.
As their compound form signals, not-true and not-false are markedterms.
Realism tends to elide the differences indicated by these markings, assimilating
not-false into true and not-true into false.When a scientific textbook states
"All the matter in the universe was once contracted to a very small
area," the difference between the model and the reality tends to disappear,
as do the position and processing of the observer for whom the statement
makes sense. Far from eliding markings, the semiotic square displays them
along the vertical axis. Expanding the binary dichotomy of realism to the
quadrangle of semiotics, this distance-as-difference reminds us that articulations
emerge from particular people speaking at specific times and places, with
all of the species-specific processing and culturally-conditioned expectations
that implies. The vertical axis thus separates as well as implicates, as
shown in the schematic below.
(inconsistent) False --------------- True (unoccupied)
(unknown) Not-true -------------- Not-false (consistent)
Beyond the marking that not-true and not-false share is the additional negativity
inhering in not-true. Located at the lower left corner of the square, it
occupies the space that on a Cartesian grid represents the negative of both
axes. The negative of a negative, it is the position most resistant to assimilation
into the transparencies of non-modal statements. Fredric Jameson calls it
"the place of novelty and of paradoxical emergence," noting that
it is "the most critical position and the one that remains open or
empty for the longest time." (12)
The implications of its excess negativity can be unpacked by again referring
to modality. It is possible to negate a modality, creating as it were a
double marking. The press secretary may say "I cannot say that the
rumor is false [or true]," in which case the status of the rumor remains
indeterminate. This situation corresponds to a residue within the not-true
position that cannot be articulated--models that we cannot conceive because
they are alien to our mode of processing the world. Not coincidentally,
it also points to the reason why we cannot say a model is congruent with
reality. Because we can never achieve a viewpoint outside our viewpoint,
"unknown" overlaps with and implies "unknowable."
Schleifer has argued that this kind of ambiguous negation is characteristic
of scientific theories and art forms that elude either/or categorization,
particularly quantum mechanics and literary modernism. (13) Shoshana Felman
has called it "radical negativity," which "belongs neither
to negation, nor to opposition, nor to correction . . . --it belongs precisely
to scandal." (14) Calling this scandal the "outside of the alternative"
because it emerges from a "negativity that is neither negative or positive"
(p. 141-2), she suggests that it opens the way to reconceive referentiality
(p. 76-77). In my terms, it allows the question of reference to be re-introduced
without giving up the insights won by the new sociology of science when
it bracketed reference.
The relation of constraints to representation can now be articulated more
precisely. When constraints become representations, they necessarily assume
a positive cognitive content that moves them from the cusp into the theater.
When I say "The total entropy of a closed system never decreases,"
I am expressing a representation of a constraint. Representations of this
kind operate along the diagonal that connects inconsistent and consistent
models. At the cusp, the interactions expressed by these representations
have no positive content. The inability of language to specify these interactions
as such is itself expressed by the elusive negativity that exists within
the not-true position. The diagonal connecting true and not-true reveals
their common concern with the limits of representation. At the positive
("true") end of the diagonal, the limits imply that we cannot
speak the truth. At the negative ("not-true") end, they paradoxically
perform the positive function of gesturing toward that which cannot be spoken.
Elusive negativity, precisely because of its doubly negative position, opens
onto the flux that cannot be represented initself.
The complete semiotic square can now be given.
exclusion (inconsistent) False ------------ True (unoccupied)
(unknown) Not-True ------------ Not-False (consistent)
It is no accident that the semiotic constraints generating the semiotic
square bring the not-true position into view. Language structures how we
conceptualize any representation, including mathematical and scientific
ones. But language is not all there is. Elusive negativity reveals a synergy
between physical and semiotic constraints that brings language in touch
with the world. Physical constraints, by their consistency, allude to a
reality beyond themselves that they cannot speak; semiotic constraints,
by generating excess negativity, encode this allusion into language. There
is a correspondence between language and our world, but it is not the mysterious
harmony Einstein posited when he said that the mystery of the universe is
that it is understandable. Neither is it the self-reflexivity of a world
created through language and nothing but language. Our interactions with
the flux are always richer and more ambiguous than language can represent.
Elusive negativity, acknowledging this gap, gestures toward this richness
and so provides a place within semiotic systems to signify the unspeakable--to
signify the cusp.
IV. Making Connections: The Language of Metaphorics
To posit a model for scientific inquiry is to presupposeor evoke a correlative
view of language. A realistic model calls for and is reinforced by the assumption
that language is a transparent medium transmitting ideas directly from one
mind to another; a positivist model produces and is produced by attempts
to formalize language into theory and observation components; a social constructivist
model is associated with a non-referential view of language that sees discourse
operating through relations of sameness and difference. These correspondences
are not accidental. They must obtain in any coherent account of scientific
inquiry, for inquiry is constituted as such only when it enters the social
arena of discourse. Like other representations of scientific inquiry, constrained
constructivism corresponds to a particular view of language. The view of
language correlative with it can be found within the emerging field of metaphorics.
The difference between a representation consistent with reality and one
that depicts reality is the difference between a metaphor and a description.
Constrained constructivism thus implies that all theories are metaphoric,
just as all language is. Metaphorics, defined as the systematic study of
metaphoric networks as constitutive of meaning production, presents a view
of scientific inquiry that enriches and implies the figure of representation
Since Max Black's influential analysis of metaphor, it has become customary
to emphasize the power of metaphor to create new understanding. (15) According
to this argument, metaphors not only express similarities between disparate
concepts; they also set up complex currents of interaction that change how
the terms brought into relation are understood. (16) A similar argument
is adopted by Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By. (17) Like Black,
Lakoff and Johnson are concerned with systems of associated commonplaces
that infuse into each other when two terms are brought into metaphoric interplay.
Their emphasis falls on ordinary metaphors which, precisely because they
do not surprise, reveal presuppositions deeply embedded within the culture.
In Arbib and Hesse's The Construction of Reality, metaphorics is
explicitly connected with scientific inquiry. (18) They argue that perception
takes place through schema which operate through relational similarities
and differences. The category "dog" has as its reference not some
Platonic idea that captures the essence of dog, but a network of individual
perceptions that form a group, albeit one fuzzy at the edges. In their account,
the tension between similarity and difference characteristic of metaphor,
farfrom being a special subset of language usage, is fundamental to how
language works. The "loose bagginess" of the metaphoric relation
allows for constantly changing configurations within metaphoric networks;
these changes in turn correlate in a systematic fashion with shifts in paradigms.
"Scientific revolutions," Arbib and Hesse write, "are, in
fact, metaphoric revolutions, and theoretical explanation should be seen
as metaphoric redescription of the domain of phenomena" (p. 156).
In James J. Bono's account, metaphorics allows cultural presuppositions
to be articulated together with scientific discourse systems. (19) Bono
argues that metaphor functions "as both the site and means for exchanges
among not only words or phrases, but also theories, frameworks, and most
significantly, discourses" (p. 73). He envisions interactive, synchronic
networks of metaphors that span disciplinary boundaries, in which traces
of metaphors inherited diachronically from disciplinary traditions interfere
and intersect with other metaphoric systems within the culture. Meaning
production in this account can never be contained within a scientific field
alone. Rather, it depends upon and emerges from resonances and interferences
between inter- and extra-scientific networks of metaphors that engage one
another at highly specific sites.
Constrained constructivism matches these views of scientificlanguage with
an interactive, dynamic, locally situated model of representation. Recognizing
that scientific theories operate within the theater of representation, it
emphasizes that meaning production is socially and linguistically constructed.
The elusive negativity that is a consequence of taking consistency rather
than congruence as a standard for correctness reveals ambiguities intrinsic
to any account of scientific models. These ambiguities ensure fluidity in
language, thus reinforcing the claim that scientific revolutions are effected
through metaphoric redescription. Finally, the transformative nature of
interactions at the cusp makes the model context-dependent as well as species-specific,
encouraging the idea that specific exchanges take place at local sites.
Constrained constructivism thus presents a figure of representation that
itself can be a metaphor for the inquiries of metaphorics.
V. Situated Knowledge: No Outside But A Boundary
Constrained constructivism puts limits on Derrida's aphorism that there
is no outside to the text. Although there may be no outside that we can
know, there is a boundary. The consequences that flow from positing a boundary
or cusp rescue scientific inquiry from solipsism and radical subjectivism.
At the same time, constrained constructivism acknowledges that we cannot
have direct, unmediated access to reality. There is much to be said on why
this acknowledgment is felt as an intolerable limitation by some realists.
In "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege
of Partial Perspective," Donna Haraway alludes to the ideology embedded
within an omniscient viewpoint when she calls t a "god trick."
(20) Objectivity is associated with a view from everywhere, and hence from
nowhere--a view with no limitations and hence no connections to humans located
at specific places and times. (21) That it is a power trip is undeniable.
That this power has frequently been misused is also undeniable. The illusion
that one can achieve an omniscient vantage point, and the coercive practices
associated with this illusion, have been so thoroughly deconstructed that
they do not need further comment here. The liberatory spirit with which
the critiques of objectivity were undertaken has been realized in the valuable
contributions they have made to our understanding of how ideology and scientific
objectivity mutually reinforce each other.
But in the process, objectivity of any kind has gotten a bad name. I think
this is a mistake, for the possibility of distinguishing a theory consistent
with reality from one that is not can also be liberating. If there is no
way to tell whether the claim that blacks and women have inferior brains
is a less accurate account of reality than the claim that they do not, we
have lost a valuable asset in the fight for liberation. George Levine eloquently
made this point when he argued for the need to break out of coterie politics
and strive for a faithful account of reality. (22) Donna Haraway also recognizes
this possibility when she calls for a paradoxical, non-innocent stance that
will recognize limited objectivity at the same time that it continues to
deconstruct all claims to omniscient knowledge. The problem she wrestles
with is underscored by Levine as the central issue of the contemporary sociology
of knowledge: "how to have simultaneously an account of radical historical
contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice
for recognizing our own 'semiotic technologies' for making meanings, and
a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a 'real' world, one that
can be partially shared and that is friendly to earthwide projects of finite
freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited
happiness" ("Situated Knowledges" p. 579).
Haraway's solution is to emphasize that every perspective is partial, all
knowledges situated. She tackles the difficult task she sets herself by
continuing the vision metaphor but insisting that it is partial and contingent
rather than full and unlimited. I am fully in sympathy with her project,
and I think that she has articulated the central problem that a feminist
sociology of knowledge faces. I am concerned, however, that the idea of
partial vision can be easily misconstrued. It can be taken to suggest that
part of our vision sees things as they really are, while only part is obscured.
Whatever our vision is, this is not the case; we see things whole, not in
parts. An alternative approach is to follow the lead of Merleau-Ponty when
he suggests that situatedness, far from being a barrier to knowledge, enables
it. (23) Given that we are not God, we can only come in touch with the universe
through particular sets of sensory apparatus located within specific cultures
and times. Constrained constructivism has this double edge: while it implies
relativism, it also indicates an active construction of a reality that is
meaningful to us through the dynamic interplay between us and the world.
Renouncing omniscience and coercive power, it gains connectedness and human
In writing this essay, I have benefited from conversations and correspondence
with F. C. McGrath, Ronald Schleifer, Walter Freeman, Evelyn Keller, and
James Bono. George Levine and Gillian Beer gave helpful encouragement and
1. Donna Haraway, "Animal Sociology and a Natural Economyof the Body
Politic, I and II," Signs 4 (1978): 21-60; Steven Shapin and
Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes,Boyle, and the Experimental
Life (Princeton: Princeton Univ, Press,1985); Bruno Latour, Science
in Action: How to Follow ScientistsEngineers through Society (Milton
Keynes: Open Univ. Press, 1987).
2. Michel Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy,ed. Josué
V. Harari and David F. Bell (Baltimore: Johns HopkinsUniv. Press, 1982)
3. "What the Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain," J. Y. Lettvin,H.
R. Maturana, W. S. McCulloch, and W. H. Pitts, Proceedings of the Institute
for Radio Engineers, 47 (1959): 1940-51.
4. For a summary of visual mechanisms in different species, see Models
of the Visual Cortex, eds. David Rose and Vernon G. Dobson (New York:
John Wiley and Sons, 1985).
5. Christine A. Skarda, "Understanding Perception: Self-Organizing
Neural Dynamics," La Nuova Critica 9-10 (1989): 49-60. See also
Walter Freeman and Christine Skarda, "Mind/Body Science: Neuroscience
on Philosophy of Mind," John Searle and His Critics,eds. E.
LePore and R. van Gulick (London: Blackwell, 1988);and "Representations:
Who Needs Them?" Proceedings 3rd Conference on the Neurobiology
of Learning and Memory (forthcoming).
6. Walter Freeman, private communication.
7. Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson Chicago:
Chicago Univ. Press, 1981).
8. Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven:
Yale Univ. Press, 1985); Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order
Out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature (New York: Bantam, 1984);
Nancy Cartwright, How the Laws of Physics Lie (New York: Oxford Univ.
Press, 1983); and Michel Serres, Hermes (1982).
9. A. J. Greimas, "The Interaction of Semiotic Constraints," On
Meaning: Selected Writings in Semiotic Theory, trans. Paul J. Perron
and Frank H. Collins (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1987) 48-62.
10. Ronald Schleifer, A. J. Greimas and the Nature of Meaning:Linguistics,
Semiotics and Discourse Theory (London: Croom Helm,1987) 22-55.
11. Karl L. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growthof Scientific
Knowledge, 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1965).
12. Fredric Jameson, "Foreword," On Meaning (xvi).
13. Ronald Schleifer, "Analogy and Example: Heisenberg, Negation, and
the Language of Quantum Mechanics,". ms. See also Ronald Schleifer,
Rhetoric and Death: The Language of Modernism and Postmodern Discourse
Theory (Champaign: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1990).
14. Shoshana Felman, The Literary Speech Act: Don Juan with J. L. Austin,
or Seduction in Two Languages, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell
Univ. Press, 1983) 141-2.
15. Max Black, Models and Metaphors (Ithaca: Cornell Univ.Press,
1962). See also "More About Metaphor," Metaphor and Thought,
ed. Andrew Ortony (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979) 19-43.
16. Paul Ricoeur emphasizes the torque that metaphors put on terms in Interpretation
Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian
Univ. Press, 1976).
17. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago:
Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980).
18. Michael A. Arbib and Mary B. Hesse, The Construction of Reality
(Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986) 147-70.
19. James J. Bono, "Science, Discourse, and Literature: The Role/Rule
of Metaphor in Science," Literature and Science: Theory and Practice,
ed. Stuart Peterfreund (Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press, 1990) 59-89.
20. Donna Haraway, "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism
as a Site of Discourse on the Privilege of Partial Perspective," Feminist
Studies 14 (1988): 575-99.
21. For a different (and more realist) position on how subjectivity and
objectivity can be integrated, see Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
22. George Levine, Plenary Address at the Society for Literature and
Science Society Conference, September 1988.
23. Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge
and Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1962).
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