Pit Schultz on Wed, 16 Apr 1997 23:08:44 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Constrained Constructivism by Katherine Hayles (1/2)

[this is one of a long series of textes within the nettime flow, one 
could call 'neo-classics'. Luckily you find some of them on the net
already, others have to get scanned from paper. These are textes
which have the status of little milestones or manifestos and which
are already payed for, so it is easy to get permission within a non-
commercial context of fair use. Such texts are often quoted and linked,
forming redundant trails and patterns of the fundament of what we call
'net critique'. A collection of those textes under the publishing right
of fair and noncommerical use is one of the many possible tasks of 
a pragmatic theory of a 'Free Content Coalition'. Join us! --
the following text is adding to the representation thread, i hope it helps
smooth out a certain common tendency to millenial paranoia and numb
confusion, maybe amplified by the ongoing changes onto the semiotic
planes of 'culture'. it's often easier to filter/post such constructive
textes then writing an own essay but it can have the same effects. -p]


N. Catherine Hayles 

Constrained Constructivism : Locating Scientific Inquiry in the Theater 
of Representation

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." (2)

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 their environments.

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

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, objective reality.

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

The false position, however, can be occupied. Within the range 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

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