Patrice Riemens on Wed, 14 Jan 1998 01:30:30 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Max Dorra: Metaphors and Politics

subject:  Max Dorra: Metaphors and Politics

Most - if not all - French intellectuals were definitely not best pleased
when the translation of Alan Sokal's and Jean Bricmont's book on
'intellectual impostures' hit the bookshops last fall.  A vicious affray
followed in the grand tradition of the 'dialogue franco-francais' and
everybody could enjoy the wholesale mudd throwing at the expense of
various components of the 'gauche caviar', as well as those writers and
thinkers generally associated with what Anglo-saxons like to call 'french
fog'.  Here is one of the more measured (when not necessarilly more
readable) rejoinder in the debate, lifted from Le Monde dated November,
1997, which also carried an somewhat arkwardly phrased piece by Jacques
Derrida trying to make the best of the fact that he had, in the end, *not*
been trashed-up by the iconoclasts from the other side of the
Atlantic...or the Quievrain. 


Metaphors and Politics

by Max Dorra

In 1996, Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University,
managed to get  published in _Social Text_  an article which was as full
of scientific errors of fact as it was caricaturely replete with the kind
of 'post modernist' notions dear to the editors and readers that review.

Beyond the polemics wiped up by this 'affair' - now peddled again in a
book by the same author plus Jean Bricmont - three important points are,
at long last, being clearly brought to the fore.  One: is the very notion
of _Social Sciences_ (in French: 'Human Sciences', PJHR) adequate?
Two: Is it allowable, in certain realms of knowledge and enquiry, to make
use of metaphors tin he way the natural sciences doe with models?  Three:
What are the political issues clearly at stake behind the current
fetichisation of scienticity?

Everything points toward a negative answer to the first question, unless
one wishes to thread the slippery ground of distinguishing between 'hard'
and 'soft' (or even 'sweet'...) sciences, the very expression of which
implicitly carries an unacceptable value judgement.  Science is only one
aspect of human endeavour.  The part cannot account for everything.

Sokal accuses Lacan, Deleuze, and others, of using scientific concepts, in
a necessarily metaphorical way in philosophical and psycho-analytic texts,
and this, _without any rigour whatsoever_.  Here, we are coming to the
second issue at stake.  Nobody in his(her) right mind would think of
slighting Plato or Heraclitus for talking about caves and streams without
having bothered to check this out with data provided by speleology or the
dynamics of fluids.  Sokal would then also have to go on and blame
Keppler, whose initial models were undiluted fantasies.  Yet through the
ages, these metaphors about caves and flows were used in a ceaseless
confrontation with the unfathomable realities of human life, and an
endless stream of concepts and words, never totally satisfying, has come
out from the endeavour to account for something that appears to remain
ever so elusive. 

And here we reach the crux of the matter: a metaphor is a cross point of
fertility. ('carrefour germinatif').  A metaphor starts necessarily as an
association of ideas, that is a representation born out of an analogy, in
the singular mind of an individual.  Scientific models themselves are
usually recycled metaphors which are used within a cognitive process where
objectivity remains nonetheless the absolute rule. 

There is for instance (in biological research), a serie of going
back-and-forth between the double helix and the ADN structure, a game of
anticipation (of the structure one looks for) and of reshaping (of the
model that is supposed to describe it) which makes it possible to come in
stages to a full description of the nature of the phenomenon being
examined.  Thus a metaphor is at the cross-road of what may result  either
in a poem (if it remains a pure metaphor), or (if it is used as a model)
in a philosophic or scientific theory.

A third outcome is even possible when one 'lets the metaphor run its
course', and allows it to retake her place in the chain of associations.
Under certain conditions (for instance within a psychoanalysis) a metaphor
allows for an interpretative hypothesis.  A relief from distress will then
be the only tangible, lived, but non objective, and thus 'scientifically'
assailable, proof of the validity of this interpretation.

_Science is the ideology of the dismissal of the subject_ was Lacan's
perspicacious pronouncement.  Seen under this angle, models/metaphors
might well in some ways be the last remains of a subjectivity which the
various established scientific disciplines thought to have got rid of long

_Psychological subject_, yes, but also _social subject_.
 And there we encounter yet another burning issue.  Of a political nature
this time.

What is the main lesson that can be drawn from the history of scientific
discoveries?  It is that no successful theory fails to become a system. To
quote Claude Bernard: ' When a hypothesis is subjected to the experimental
method, it becomes a theory, whereas, when it is merely tested against
logic, it becomes a system (...).  Hence, a doctrine is a theory which is
regarded as being unchangeable, and which is then taken as point of
departure for further deductions which in their turn are deemed not to be
in further need of experimental verification.' It should be noted that
Bernard does not assign any author to this method.  This is because
theories and groups have a tendency to walk out of the confrontation with
reality, and then to leave the mainstream and start rambling on in
themselves.  A group closes up, and becomes an exclusive club, or at the
worst, a sect , at the same time as a theory buckle its own circle, and
becomes an ideology. 

Petrified theories and closed groups work along the lines of a hidden
order of things which can only be exposed through a movement of revolt.  A
movement that is able to say no against the prefab answers the tribe
proffers when some embarrassing detail crops up - as it is bound to be. A
'detail' that heralds something new, a not yet recognised future, the (re)
emergence of reality. 

_Ideologies are dead_ is the current motto.  Good riddance, since
our ideologies were petrified theories that had been recuperated by
bureaucracies   But theories remain essential in order to expose ever
reappearing ideologies, ever so many unsinkable one-idea-systems (1).

But what lurks behind the fetichisation of scienticity is the denial of
Politics.  Or phrased differently, the endeavour to get conflicts out of
view, and hence, the Other.  One then enters, this of course with Sokal's
inadvertent help, into a so-called neutral reality, a harmless construct
governed by 'specialists' who are 'in the know'.  For instance,
the big media will pretend put faith in 'the specialist's scientific
objectivity and will invite a 'political scientist' in order to
ascertain her/his views.  When the massive lay-offs at the Villevorde
Renault (automobile) plant hit the news, their dead seriously proffered
view was: 'we have is a communication problem here'.  This is the kind
of common explanation put forward in times of crisis in order to shoo away
the reality of conflict.

Yet a strike can very well function as the 'embarrassing detail' that
suddenly crops up.  In every strike, there is an open, visible aspect -
what the workers demands are about - and a latent, silent one.  A hidden
message of sorts.  One can for instance very well see that during a
strike, fear switches side.  At this juncture, the divide between subject
and object becomes glaring.  Its cruel reality is no longer given, but
becomes the bone of contention in (the) struggle.  And what the struggle
is about is not to be a mere object subjected to a (directing) glance.

All the authors being so disingenuously lambasted by Sokal and Bricmont,
from Deleuze to Virilio via Lacan, have in one way or another something in
common: they all have attempted to analyse power.  Power that in the end
amounts to the capacity to impress and instil fear.

Please reflect on who is being taken for a ride by whom in this

(1) 'La pensee unique' (The One-idea System), title of the January
1995 editorial in Le Monde Diplomatique by Ignacio Ramonet quickly
attained paradigma status in France to describe the victorious onslaught
of the 'ideology of the market', aka the 'End of History'.  (for the
English version , cf.  As things go, the concept has now
become next to completely debased, and is being freely used even in Front
National circles as catch all insult (PJHR).

Max Dorra is professor of medicine at Paris-V University
this article appeared in Le Monde (daily), Nov 20, 1997.
translated by Patrice Riemens

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