‘Higher Superstition’ part 3: Verbal Tinsel

Insofar as it mostly fails to grapple with the best of what STS tries to do, Higher Superstition is a deeply frustrating book. We get brief flashes of something conciliatory, perhaps the opening of dialogue…

We can accept… that science is, in some sense, a cultural construct. It would be idle to pretend that the projects taken on by science, the questions that it asks at any given period, do not reflect the interests, beliefs, and even the prejudices of the ambient culture. [p. 43]

… but such moments don’t last long, and soon we’re cast back into our divided common room, with Gross and Levitt battling ‘eco-feminist harangue[s] from the Goddess-worshipping camp’ and ‘covert appeals to emotions and prejudices’.

That said, you don’t have to like the way GL tend to personalize things in their critique to appreciate that their frustrations may have a genuine source.

Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984): prime example of an over-quoted French intellectual - who would probably have enjoyed GL's critique of boilerplate scholarship

Indeed, where Higher Superstition really hits home is not so much in successfully discrediting STS but in exposing the ways in which perfectly sound intellectual concerns all too easily collapse into narcissism, absurdity, and lazy or obsequious boilerplate scholarship.

Take, for example, the (not uniquely) postmodern concern with the power of language to create the reality in which we live – such as the profound influence exerted by new mental health concepts and theories on the way that we think about who we are and why we behave as we do.

As GL see it, some academics blur this insight with a very different and rather more grandiose notion: that simply by recognising the influence of language in the world we gain some kind of mysterious power over that world.

This gives rise, according to GL, to the sort of armchair politicos and desk-bound revolutionaries that drive them up their laboratory walls:

The idea that close attention to the words… and rhetorical postures of a culture gives one transmutative power over that culture… shifts the game of politics to the home turf of those who by inclination and training are clever with words.

It allows scholars of a certain stamp to construe the pursuit of their most arcane interests as a defiantly political act. This is exhilarating: it is radicalism without risk… its calls to arms generally result in nothing more menacing than aphorisms lodged in obscure periodicals.

Ouch. Although I think GL are wrong to imagine that many academics really mistake their analyses for the direct wielding of actual power this is still a useful critique of the outer reaches of academic self-regard, for any Humanities types who find themselves in penitential mood. GL seem to be offering two cautions in particular.

Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905: not fondly remembered in Indian nationalist and anti-colonial traditions. A garlanded portrait on your office wall would be the wrong sort of statement

First, there’s no excuse for allowing politics covert entry into academic debates to the extent that some things become unsayable, some positions on difficult topics like colonialism, gender, or cultural psychology are banned rather than opened up to exploration and assessment.

A shortcut favoured by the occasional History undergrad is to gauge the currently influential position on, say, why India ended up partitioned into two countries in 1947, and to argue for that in their essay without weighing any of the evidence. Disappointing for their teacher (assuming he or she realises what’s going on), but now and again par for the course. Yet for people who choose academia as their profession, to operate in a similar way is a disaster.

GL claim they’ve been ostracised for just such reasons, since the first edition of Higher Superstition came out. Although there may be an element of special pleading here many of us will have been in seminars where people are shouted down or squeezed out of the discussion for expressing a particular view – as though the point of such events is merely to trace and retrace the contours of acceptable theories.

Second, there’s no excuse for the kind of scholarship that the postmodernism generator satirises: a banal or old idea concealed in a thicket of complex phraseology, with copious name-dropping of the right authors (French colleagues of mine find American and British reverence for French writers highly amusing). Again, GL level this charge too often and too indiscriminately when they write about STS, but the basic criticism is not without fair grounds. The great coup for the GL camp came when a physics and mathematics professor, Alan Sokal, pitched a deliberately nonsensical parody of this kind of writing – under the title of ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity‘ – to a prominent journal… which promptly published it.

GL are deliciously snooty about all this. Scientists could, if pressed, they say, step in and deliver Humanities courses if university teachers are so totally away with the postmodern fairies that they can no longer communicate rationally with their students. But GL would really rather we just cleaned up our act, and at the very least avoided befouling science’s hallowed lexicon – could we please cease, for example, borrowing physics concepts like (Einstein’s general/special) ‘relativity’ or (Heisenberg’s) ‘uncertainty principle’ and using them to waffle purposelessly about cultural relativism or existential doubt.

So, Higher Superstitionnil points for serious engagement with STS, plenty of gratitude for an exuberantly caustic piece of prose (some of the more ad hominem passages notwithstanding), and rather more grudging thanks for holding up a mirror to the less flattering parts of the Humanities, and helping to keep us honest.

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