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

The four positions are mapped onto a modified semiotic square as shown

(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)

implication/separation overlap

(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

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 presented here.

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 scientific language 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 meaning.


Endnotes *
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 guidance.

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) 106.

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).


N. Katherine Hayles
Department of English
University of California
405 Hilgard Avenue
Los Angeles CA 90024-12530

e- mail: Hayles@humnet.ucla.edu

Current Research: 

  Virtual Bodies: Evolving Materiality in Cybernetics, Literature, and
Information. Book-length manuscript tracing history of cybernetics from
1945-present and relating it to poststructural critical theory and
  Riding the Cusp: The Interplay between Narrative and Formalisms,
under contract to Routledge Press. An essay collection focused on showing
the importance of narrative in a series of scientific sites, from game
theory to sociobiology and artificial life. 

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