Newmedia on Fri, 18 Apr 1997 20:53:01 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> The English Ideology and N. Catherine Hayles


In the interest of explicating why the epistemology adopted by Hayles and her
fellow "social constructionists" is, in fact, just the Yin to WIRED
magazine's Yang (i.e. the "left" side of the same techno-utopian movement to
which WIRED is the "right" side), I'd like to refer to some interesting
passages in Leibniz' commentary on Hobbes and Locke.  

As you recall from my earlier essay, "The English Ideology and WIRED
Magazine", Hobbes and Locke represent two of the more important constructors
of the view which seeks to use technology to fundamentally reshape human
affairs by re-defining humanity itself.  This effort, which I have previously
identified with the Enlightenment, reflected an ongoing factional battle
within the oligarchy for control of future imperial ventures -- i.e. those
which we now refer to as the Global/Tribal Information Age.  

What we have come to know as "liberal" is this Enlightenment-launched effort
to champion "reason" over "faith" and, ultimately, to use "reason" to create
technologies which would permit widescale social engineering -- i.e. the
technocrats.  Likewise, what we generally refer to as historically
"conservative" is their opponents, those who gravitated to the "faith" side
of this artificial split, the other principle oligarchist faction -- i.e. the
aristocrats.  Today, the conservatives are represented by fundamentalists of
all stripes and the liberals are represented by techno-utopians of all
stripes.   Both are the oligarchist children of the Enlightenment, as I'm
sure that you are all aware.

In contemporary terms, "left" techno-utopians are the likes of George Soros
(and his LSE mentor Karl Popper) and "right" techno-utopians are the likes of
Louis Rossetto (and his LSE mentor Fred. von Hayek).  As I have been
cautioning, however, a technocrat is a liberal oligarchist and a
fundamentalist is merely a conservative oligarchist -- both being none other
than oligarchists in all essentials.   And, as I have been suggesting,
strategic thinking requires understanding the various forms that oligarchist
politics (liberal/conservative and "left"/"right") takes shape -- lest we
find ourselves merely choosing sides amongst oligarchist factions as we
ourselves move into battle.

Leibniz represents one of the principle anti-Enlightenment philosophers and
therefore serves as a powerful foundation for understanding the origins of
our present crisis while pointing the way towards solutions to the artificial
split between reason and faith which has dominated Western history since
roughly the 17th century.  In this regard, a full-blown Leibniz revival is
long over due.

But, to the specifics of Hayles epistemology and it's association with Hobbes
and Locke.  "Social Constructionism" seems to hold that meaning is contingent
on social conventions -- particularly on the highly variable use of language
throughout history.  As Hayles states, 

"A model of representation that declines the leap to abstraction figures
itself as species-specific, culturally determined, and context-dependent."

"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 to the abstraction?  The implications become
clear when we look at what it leaves out of the 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." And,

"Recognizing that scientific theories operate within the theater of
representation, it emphasizes that meaning production is socially and
linquistically constructed."

I am suggesting that this identification of meaning with cultural context and
conventions of language usage is, at root, Hobbesian.  Hobbes, as you recall,
in addition to his view of life as "war of all against all", is specifically
remembered for his doctrine that, insofar as all truth depends on
definitions, and definitions are arbitrary, so is truth: "True and false
belong to speech, and not to things . . . The first truths are arbitrarily
made by those that first of all imposed names upon things"(Body, Man and
Citizen, pp. 48-49).  Hobbes would no doubt have approved Hayles' semiotic
squares in which the position Truth is designated (unoccupied).

In 1677, Leibniz composed a "Dialogue" which deals with this issue, from
which the following excerpt is instructive (A: is Leibniz and B: is a
student, while the "learned men" refers to Hobbes and his followers):

"A: Certain learned men think that truth arises from decisions people make,
and from names or characters.
B: This view is quite paradoxical.
A: But they prove it this way: Isn't a definition the starting place for a
. . .
B: But what follows?  There can be thoughts without words.
A: But not without some other signs.  See whether you can do any arithmetic
calculation without numerical signs, I ask.
B: I am very disturbed, for I didn't think that characters or signs were so
necessary for reasoning.
A: Therefore, the truths of arithmetic presuppose certain signs or
B: That must be admitted.
A: Therefore, they depend on human decision.
B: You seem to have trapped me through trickery, as it were.
A: These views are not mine, but belong to quite an ingenous writer.
. . .
(After considerable careful work which involves the arbitrary substitution of
various "signs" in a series of quadratic equations, Leibniz shows that the
results do *not* depend on the "signs" which are choosen, and concludes by
refuting Hobbes thusly:)
. . .
You see that, by whatever decision the characters are chosen, as long as a
certain order and measure is observed in their use, everything will always
agree.  Therefore, although truths necessarily presuppose some characters,
indeed, sometimes they deal with the characters themselves (as with the
theorems about casting off of nines), truths don't consist in what is
arbitrary in the characters, but in what is invariant in them, namely, in the
relation they have to things."
. . .
(Leibniz, "Philosophical Essays" trans. Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber, pp.

I am further suggesting that Hayles' notion's that "we can only come in touch
with the universe through particular sets of sensory apparatus" is, at root,
a reformulation of Locke's notion of the "tabula rosa."  Regarding Locke's
formulation of the "tabula rosa" in his "Essay Concerning Human
Understanding", Leibniz wrote a rebutal called "New Essays on the
Understanding" which includes this excerpt in its Preface:

"Our differences are about subjects of some importance. There is the question
about whether the soul in itself is completely empty like tablets upon which
nothing has been written (tabula rosa), as Aristotle and the author of the
"Essay" maintain, and whether everything inscribed on it comes solely from
the senses and from experience, or whether the soul contains from the
beginning the source of several notions and doctrines, which external objects
awaken only on certain occasions, as I believe with Plato . . ."

(op. cit. pp. 292)

It should be obvious that if one wished to re-program humanity, then the
Hobbesian notion of language would be very helpful (perhaps as Chomsky
offered, there really is a built-in "programming language") and the Lockean
idea that people are born with an empty slate to be filled in by social
conditioners would be very helpful for eager brainwashers.  And, now perhaps,
upon some reflection, it is a little more obvious what we are up against.

(I expressly forbid Bruce Sterling or any other H.G. Wells accolade from
cross-posting this note to the WELL or any other related electronic hottub.
 All others should feel free to x-post as they see fit.)

Mark Stahlman
New Media Associates
New York City
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