Thursday, July 30, 2009

Black boxes

If Marconi says something about ultra-short waves it MEANS something. Its meaning can only be properly estimated by someone who KNOWS.

     --Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading 25.

One of the reasons I find the history and philosophy of science (HPS) so useful in my work is its concern with the conditions of factuality. Bruno Latour calls facts "black boxes"; we don't worry about how they came to be determined; they're axiomatic.

HPS doesn't just open black boxes; it looks at how black boxes are made. I've seen a dictum floating around lately that strikes me as apt: "You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts." Usually this dictum invokes the intractable reality of the fact, but to me it has more to do with social consensus. Latour argues that no statement, no matter how well it matches with data, can be a fact unless a community comes to a consensus about it, turning it into a black box. A fact can never be "your own."

To dispute a fact is to reopen the black box, inviting critique of the process by which the fact was established. Reopening a black box by definition has a destabilizing effect, because the fact is no longer being taken as a given. This is why science studies are so often caricatured as "debunking" science. And yet it is possible to examine the social and discursive conditions under which ideas become facts, and to understand where Hobbes was coming from, and still believe that there is such a thing as air pressure (to give one prominent example).

I was literally a child during the so-called "science wars"; the Sokal hoax transpired when I was about fourteen. They turned on the necessity of black boxes to get anything done.

Some things need to be black boxes, because all arguments require premises. Imagine teaching a course on twentieth-century history and having your students decide to debate whether there really was a Holocaust. It's not only inefficient; in this case it's morally repugnant. (And here we get into serious science studies territory: the intimate relationship between fact-making and morality.)

We hear from certain vocal factions that by making certain things into black boxes, we are shutting down debate. This is quite true. In my classroom, certain things are not up for debate: whether the Holocaust happened; whether women or people of color are capable of intellection or autonomy; whether there is such a thing as air pressure. If we entertained these questions, we would get nowhere.

This is exactly what Latour worries about in a 2004 essay: a tendency to open black boxes can be salutary, but can also lead to paranoid conspiracy theories (Obama's birth certificate, anyone?).
Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes -- society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism -- while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and, then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep dark below.

To put it in literary terms, there was always something a little Gothic about Foucault.

And here is where I think literary criticism becomes useful to science studies: there was always something a little Gothic about science, too, whose residues emerge in culture (one prominent example would be Shelley's Frankenstein, directly inspired by the distinctly Gothic research of Luigi Galvani).

That's why the French physiologist Claude Bernard could write in 1865,

If I had to give an analogy to express my opinion about the science of life [the life sciences], I would say that it is a beautiful salon filled with light, which cannot be approached except by passing through a long and frightful kitchen. (28)
This remarkable quotation is about black boxes, cast in domestic terms. Teatime in the salon only happens by virtue of the messier labor occurring in the kitchen, and a humanities scholar would say that if we are interested in tea then we are also interested in the kitchen. Notice Bernard's language about the kitchen, however -- the space of labor and inquiry. We have feelings about it. It is "long and frightful."

Opening a black box is dangerous, yes, because in allowing disciplined scholars to examine the conditions of fact-production, we also invite less disciplined investigators to declare that facts are not facts and to argue for the legitimacy of theories legitimized by the consensus of the uninformed. (This is what leads Lorraine Daston to make a somewhat invidious distinction between a highly disciplinary and disciplined History of Science and a wilder and woollier, and less rigorous, Science Studies.)

Indeed, Latour seems to anticipate this when he titles the first chapter of Science in Action "Opening Pandora's Black Box," registering how science studies invites a world of trouble. As he puts it in the 2004 essay, "What social scientists do to our favorite objects is so horrific that certainly we don't want them to come any nearer. 'Please,' we exclaim, 'don't touch them at all! Don't try to explain them!" (240). Such a long and frightful kitchen.

Latour goes on to suggest that what's needed is a shift in focus from "matters of fact" to "matters of concern." I don't disagree, although I'm not sure Latour is so much pointing out a new direction as dividing good science studies from bad science studies (his footnotes seem to indicate the latter).

But what's more interesting to me is that feeling of fright. The upshot of Latour's 2004 essay is not that we must stop opening black boxes but that the fright must be removed and replaced by a feeling of warmth and security in our facts.

But there is a key difference between the fright mentioned by Bernard and that diagnosed by Latour, which is that for Bernard the fright is experienced by the investigator, for Latour by the believer in facts who is about to be pwned by a smug philosopher of science. For Latour, the (barbaric) critic experiences only the pleasure of domination, never the fear of uncertainty.

But can this be right? Doesn't any thoroughly sure-footed, smug critique amount to something less than critique? And perhaps the history of science can be forgiven for a overcorrecting a bit, after a tendency toward teleological just-so stories had made us so comfortable in our facts.

To open black boxes is to register the strange complexity of reality. This is a frightening pleasure: frightening because the danger is genuine, pleasurable because thinking people like a good scare.

As Jane Austen phrases it:

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all of Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; -- I remember finishing it in two days -- my hair standing on end the whole time." (121)

Austen recognizes as well as anyone how necessary it is to distinguish between critique and paranoid fantasies; Catherine Morland repeatedly tries literally to open black boxes only to find that they contain thoroughly banal items. When she is later confronted with a very material mystery -- that of General Tilney's sudden inhospitality -- her equally mystified mother counsels, "depend upon it, it is something not at all worth understanding" (232).

Her mother is mistaken, of course.

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. 1818; New York: Penguin, 1988. Print.

Bernard, Claude. Introduction à l'étude de la médécine expérimentale. Paris: Baillière, 1865.

Daston, Lorraine. "Science Studies and the History of Science." Critical Inquiry 35.4 (January 2009): 798-813. Chicago Journals. 17 July 2009. Web.

Latour, Bruno. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987. Print.

---. "Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern." Critical Inquiry 30.2 (Winter 2004): 225-48. Print.

Pound, Ezra. A B C of Reading. 1934; New York: New Directions, 1960. Print.

Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer. Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985.


Neil Verma said...

I appreciate your assessment of Latour's "matter of fact" vs. "matter of concern" shell game, which is surely an attempt to admit the overreach of science studies but rescue the field anyway. I remember when that paper came out, it was a shock. Everyone said it was a total reversal, a "what have I done" moment (more echoes of Shelley), although I don't quite see it that way.

I also agree that it's the fright that is so interesting: to be frightened by the ramifications of our intellectual commitments only means that our commitments are ambitious enough to have ramifications, and we are owning them.

Great post! nv

Natalia said...

Thanks, Neil. I'll take it further: it's the fright that makes it research.