Recently, Yue-hong Zhang brought to the attention of the GAlist a controversy sparked by Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University, who submitted to the journal Social Text a parodically intended essay relating postmodernism to quantum mechanics. Unwittingly, the editors of Social Text accepted and published the paper, only to be subsequently humiliated by Sokal’s public disclosure that the entire piece was an elaborate ruse. Far from celebrating the demise of objectivity, truth, and the real world, Sokal believes strongly in these old-fashioned ideas. His essay was penned as a satirical attack on the incoherence of postmodern denials of fundamental scientific ontology. The editors’ inability to catch the irony was, he suggested, evidence of the superficiality of the postmodern stance itself. In the pages of the popular media, there followed something of a “debate” in which the two parties–the postmodern and the scientific–exchanged viewpoints via quips and barely concealed insults. In the excerpts posted to the GAlist by Yue-hong Zhang, Sokal represents the commonsense view of scientific realism. On the other side, Stanley Fish emerges as the principal defender of the radical postmodern intellectuals.
Though I have no wish to take sides in this debate, I would like to comment on the fundamental philosophical and anthropological question buried beneath all the fireworks. What I want to suggest is that the debate, which reflects a traditional opposition between realism and idealism, provides us with a particularly good opportunity for some originary analysis. By referring to the originary hypothesis, we can not only unravel some of the confusions that seem to lie at the heart of the debate, but also show the kernel of truth in both scientific realism and cultural idealism.
The trick is to avoid thinking of the debate as an ontological standoff or stalemate. As long as we assume that we must either become scientific realists or cultural idealists, i.e., as long as we believe we must accept the priority of the world or accept the priority of language, we remain in the presence of an ontological standoff. What is needed is an anthropological specification of the idealist’s too simple rejection of nature and the real world. The real motivation behind the postmodern denial of nature is the human need for culture.
Culture–humanity–begins where biology ends. In the moment where the urge for biological satisfaction–the desire to eat–endangers the very social configuration of the group, this configuration must itself be represented. Imposed on the biological scene between subject and (appetitive) object is the minimal linguistic triangle between self, other and world. This is the formal basis of all human culture. But this real anthropological and cultural insight is wasted when it is taken to imply that the cultural and the natural are on an ontological par. Postmodern critiques of science contribute little to the overall project of anthropological reflection. And as attacks on the scientific study of nature, they are utterly toothless.
How can this anthropological synthesis help us sort through some of the classical metaphysical oppositions so sensationally played out in Sokal’s parodic prank and the response it generated? To begin to answer this question, let us turn to the cultural theorist’s viewpoint. Since Stanley Fish is a key participant in the above mentioned debate, I’ll take him as a (generalizable) example.
Fish pins his argument on the statement that “it is no contradiction to say that something is socially constructed and also real.” He then provides us with an analogy much favoured by philosophers of social reality–the game. Baseball is clearly socially constructed, but it is also clearly real. Balls and strikes exist. Yet they only exist because we agree that they exist. So reality, Fish concludes, is socially constructed.
But the problem with this analogy is that it refers only to institutional facts. Baseball is a reality only so long as we agree that it is a meaningful sport to play and to watch. If overnight everyone decided that baseball was a pointless pastime, then baseball would drop out of our social reality. The concept of balls and strikes would not exist because they would be of no relevance to us.
But what about the real world? What about the stuff of natural science? Can we make the same analogy here as we did with the institution of baseball? If overnight everyone decided that H2O was a meaningless signifier, would water cease to exist? Clearly not. The labels and models that we give to the world of nature may change; models and labels are after all human constructions. But the worldly facts to which these models and labels refer do not themselves vanish out of existence. Water would continue to exist even if we did not call it “water” or “H2O” or whatever.
But then what is all the fuss about? Here’s where a little originary analysis can help us out. The ace up the culturalist’s sleeve (one that is flourished with alarming frequency as well as with mind-bogglingly unabashed confidence) is the fact that language itself is socially constructed. We can always deconstruct the metaphysics behind the realist’s perspective by showing that the realist must rely on (socially constructed) language to point toward indubitable nature. In itself, however, this is but a trivial truth. The more powerful perspective is to understand the nature of the relation between the human, the world, and language without suggesting that the three terms may be reduced to a more primary ontology involving only one of them. This is in fact the real source of the idealist-realist debate. The naturalistic temptation is to reduce humanity and language to the brute causality of functions that are intrinsic to the natural world. The opposite temptation–that of the cultural theorist–is to make the facts of the external world internal to the creative and intentional categories of human language and culture. These opposing tendencies–and the ontological dualism implied by them–underpin the debate that has generated the controversy surrounding Sokal’s recent “hoax.”
How then is the link forged between humanity, language, and the world? Different disciplines study different aspects of this triadic relationship. But they are all ultimately related. The kernel of truth in the perspective of culturalists such as Fish is the assertion that the general human project begins with trust and agreement before any other derivative project can get underway. Be it baseball on a Sunday afternoon, or nuclear physics at the particle accelerator in Geneva, these projects exist only insofar as human cooperation exists.
But this insight, which should lie at the core of a truly critical anthropology, evaporates wistfully into a mystical idealism when it is presented as a definitive rejection of the ontological assumptions of natural science. By demonstrating the observer-related objectivity of baseball, we have not levelled the playing field between natural science and sociology.
Nor should we accept the condescension implied by Fish’s passive and pragmatic conclusion that the cardinal rule is to uphold our professional academic boundaries. Thus, where scientists must believe in the real world in order to continue their research, we culturalists must study this belief and expose the ideological assumptions behind it. In scenarios such as this, it is hard not to applaud Sokal’s “transgression” into the culturalist’s territory. We must not reduce the debate to the smug superiority of the observer whose research must be protected from falling into the hands of the observed. The scientist is not some exotic species whose activities must be sheltered from the harmfully enlightening observations of the onlooking culturalist. If the scientist gets the last laugh in this anthropological charade, one hopes that the culturalist has learnt his anthropological lesson.
This lesson is that we are ultimately in this together. The crucial question is to explain why cultural critics and scientists alike can engage in a discussion about representation and truth at all. That is, it is a question about the general anthropological scope of all cultural reflection.
What makes humans cultural beings is the necessity for such reflection. The model proposed by the originary hypothesis is that representation emerges as the minimal institution of human agreement–the agreement to defer crisis by designating an appetitive object as sacred. The minimal condition for an awareness of sacrality is that we have a language in which to conceive it. Hence the originary sign indicates not merely the worldly presence of the appetitive object; it is also a designation of the sacred–the signifier of what is henceforth forbidden to precultural, or wholly biological, appetite.
The culturalists are thus correct in their assumption that language and human thought are coeval. But they err when they hypostatize this insight as complete in itself. The originary sign is never complete, it is but an opening onto the reality of the external world. The sign designates sacrality, but it also points to the preexisting appetitive object. By pointing beyond itself to the sacred presence of the object, the sign creates the transcendent locus of human “otherness.” This cultural construct is imposed on the worldly reality of the appetitive object. The object existed before and continues to exist after the sign has been created. Language originates as a transcendence of material reality, but it does not abolish it. The symbolic representation of the appetitive object leads to the reality of its eventual material distribution.
This double aspect of the sign–its designation of transcendental otherness and its indication of a materially present object–allows us to synthesize the twin perspectives of the culturalist and the scientist. In designating an object as other, the originary sign stands at the opening of the human project. The cultural spinoff from this minimal linguistic institution is infinite; there is no preset limit to the cultural objects that can be generated once the original act of symbolization has taken place. But it is a mistake to believe that the sign–representation–exists in itself like an a priori form devoid of all historical and worldly basis. The originary sign takes place on a concrete material scene. It does not merely create anthropological meaning–it also refers to a worldly object. It is the sign’s indicative quality, its reference to an independently existing reality, that is a precondition of all representation. The cultural world emerges within the space of “otherness” created by the sign that separates it from its referent. But the referent nevertheless exists, and modern science presents its models in context of this fact. Language is the origin of culture. But it is also the representation of a world existing prior to that representation. The current trend for “anthropologizing” science is best understood as an invitation to originary thinking. For it is here that human history truly begins, not in the ultimately fruitless deconstruction of the ontological assumptions of natural science.