Monday, April 17, 2006

Red Lights, White Eggs, and Blue Scarves


An art instructor decided to test the basic observation skills of the new group of students for his Introduction to Painting class. For the initial lesson the teacher chose a still life composition, consisting primarily of white styrofoam cut-outs of various geometric shapes; placed in the center of the shapes, however, was an open carton of fresh white eggs.

The entire still life set-up was bathed in a soft red glow, courtesy of floodlights off to the side, giving white styrofoam and white eggs a temporary crimson hue.
The painting students were left to interpret the set-up unguided by their teacher for this early exercise, since the point was for the instructor to gage the starting skill level of his new painting class.

To his surprise, while each student had chosen to reproduce the styrofoam in the appropriate red, the eggs remained white! When the art teacher attempted to point out the seeming irony to his group, he was surprised yet again, this time by the strong protests of his students: “but these eggs are white!” “Eggs are white, not red”; their belief became their perception, unadaptable.

Despite what they were clearly looking at, the students chose to see something that wasn’t there, such was the unassailable strength of their pre-conceived notions.

Today, most of academia reverses the roles expressed in the previous scenario, as students who are just beginning to learn how to see, are confronted by sophists dogmatically asserting that eggs turned red are still white. The potential chasm of understanding between looking and seeing, is dismissed with a tyrant’s wave of the hand, forbidding scrupulous measurement, vigorous analysis and (horrors!) the admission of error.

The better teachers, announce "I need you" to their students, confessing the limits of their knowledge, and establishing a worthy goal for the students to rise to: teaching the teacher.

The worst teachers declare: "you need me!", blinding themselves to any change to their academic point of view. "You only look, it is I who sees; who are you to challenge me?"

The best teachers are themselves still students, energized by an eagerness to keep learning, humbled by regular testing of their accumulated knowledge, and re-invigorated by placing themselves in a public arena where they can find themselves facing others with the mutual goal of self-betterment.

Every week, in numerous encounters across Canada and the United States, such students gather publicly to learn. Online, we acknowledge each other through our blogs, in person we identify ourselves through the shared symbol of a blue scarf. Inspired by a new movement begun late last year in France, La Revolution Bleue, we meet publicly to discuss the topics we blog about, to learn, to compare, so that we may humbly yet assuredly verify that what we believe we look at, is in fact what others are seeing as well.

This Thursday, 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm, we will be meeting yet again, in the Atrium of the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library.

Where will you be?

8 comments:

dag said...

I will be there, Charles. That was inspiring. I'm always excited about our meetings, and your post puts it in a clearer and more interesting light, even after all this time. I'm really looking forward to it again. It keeps getting better.

See you then.

truepeers said...

Thanks Charles,

Meetings are so useful. The verification that one's fellows provide is so important to understanding what is changing now, taking us beyond our shared vision of the old order that was made long ago and we learned about in schools and books. I may see or think something new but how do I really know what it is, what i see, what i've done, until others see it too? Confirmation is essential, nothing stands alone.

Anonymous said...

"Today, most of academia reverses the roles expressed in the previous scenario, as students who are just beginning to learn how to see, are confronted by sophists dogmatically asserting that eggs turned red are still white. The potential chasm of understanding between looking and seeing, is dismissed with a tyrant’s wave of the hand, forbidding scrupulous measurement, vigorous analysis and (horrors!) the admission of error."

Depends on the field. This is obviously not true in the natural sciences. Some of the social sciences are quite rigorous in their methods of investigation as well. It wouldn't hurt to be specific. [Exluding Ed-schools. Beating up on them is like flogging a dead baby.]

na

truepeers said...

Some of the social sciences are quite rigorous in their methods of investigation as well.

-i would be cautious with such beliefs, Anon. The idea of method in the human sciences inevitably becomes antithetical to true intellectual rigor, in the sense that method implies an attempt to stabilize one's chosen disciplinary forms against the erosion of the form's hold on us over time, an erosion that is an inevitable part of human existence (hence the formal progression in all arts, some if not all of which exhaust their formal possibilities in time). Any human science that shows us something new, and thus increases human self-understanding, only makes society more complex and in doing so the object of study - society - grows in a way that undermines the method that, in its first incarnation, allowed for an advance in human self-understanding.

Society always outgrows the methodolgies with which it is temporarily grasped by the vain scientist/fetishist who would find in method reality itself. Method, taken too seriously, is the mark of the utopian, an attempt to preserve one's chosen forms from what would be, in any truly free market, their timely discounting.

The only real rigor possible in the human sciences is one that begins with the question of what is absolutely minimal, original, or common to all form and then, once this is hypothesized, tests the hypothesis by becoming rigorous in the historical exploration of specific formal revelations (into the possibilities inherent in human origins), their erosion, and the emergence of new form and content over time. Such rigor cannot be methodological, in the same sense that poetry does not evolve according to rigorous application of methodology.

Anonymous said...

Truepeers

-Charles wrote: “The potential chasm of understanding between looking and seeing, is dismissed with a tyrant’s wave of the hand, forbidding scrupulous measurement, vigorous analysis and (horrors!) the admission of error."
-I countered that some branches of the social sciences take methods very seriously. I thought Charles was painting a caricature of the academy that doesn’t reflect the reality in some fields of social science. Scrupulous measurement, vigorous analysis and admission of errors are part of the game.
-You warn that methods can be confining (well, that’s what I took from the response).

I agree. Dogmatism with one approach should be avoided. A concern for change over time is also important.

Aren’t you just agreeing with my first point though? I don’t see how one can charge the academy with both a harmful methods obsession and a disdain for measurement/analysis/etc.

truepeers said...

Anon. this is a big question. My short answer would be that I am all for rigour and discipline, and we desperately need an academy with these values and a committment to intellectual freedom (but instead we constantly read about stories like this). If you are in the academy, I would encourage you in this respect and say that nothing I think is to deny our need for universities or for proper human sciences; but I would challenge many established patterns of social scientific thought.

As I say, i am all for rigour and discipline but am much more suspicious of method, which I would distinguish from the other two. Method, as I see it, implies a desire for control and that is where it gets into trouble with us who believe less in experts and more in democratic self-rule.

You can have all the careful measurements you want, and you can have free and open debate with your collegues about what you are doing, but if entrance into the debate depends on sharing the same methods and theoretical assumptions, and the same desire for control (and what are academic hierarchies, however necessary for various reasons, but means of control?), then there will be forbidden questions and politically incorrect attitudes, and answers that the scientists will attempt to expel in order to preserve their method. In this sense, academic social scientists are not much like, say, stock market analysts. BUt maybe they should be more in this vein...

Having said this, I realize I am thinking about method more in terms of theories and questions asked, or not asked. In a simpler sense, what most fundamentally distinguishes each of the social sciences - considering they ultimately all have the same object of study: man in society - is the method by which they collect their data. And in this respect, each science obviously gives much attention to mastering the arts of data collection that distinguish it, as they should. Still, at the end of the day, their data collection must be tied to questions and theories that are justified as method.

I have no great beef, for example, with economics, as long as economics does not become the domain of control theories, like Marxism. As long as economists remain humble, disciplined recorders of what has happened in the marketplace, and what kind of government policies have fostered growth in the past, then i have no great qualms with them. I would note that economists don't generally have any more access to get rich quick ideas than anyone else in the marketplace; that is to say that while they have explanations and laws for what goes on in the market, they can't predict what will succeed in future any better than anyone else. FOlly is to forget this: science should help us to maximize our participation in political and economic markets, but should not seek to shape them.

As I say, if you say "Marxist economist" i start to think negatively.
How many social sciences justify themselves in terms of controlling social change or providing therapies for people suffering, ostensibly, from social violence? In other words, don't most social sciences still see society as essentially a question of power structures that are ultimately underwritten by violence, or its threat? The social scientists question established authority (always making sure to appear that they are not established authority, but rather that guys like, say, Dick Cheney are) on precisely this ground - undue violence - and assume their own authority in the name of bringing about some better future where more equitable relations will be established via the controlling hand of science. Indeed, aren't most social scientists today obsessed with questions of victimary politics for just this reason?

But what if all the methods that turn on the assumptions I have just outlined are based on a false methodological assumption about the nature of society? What if the nature of society is such that it is not best served by controlling or therapeutic methodologies? What if society isn't based on violence, but rather - and this is an all too brief outline of my beliefs - on the participatory, eventful means (the more participatory, the more democratic, the more covenantal, the better) by which we share in deferring potential violence, by our exchange of signs and things? If the political and economic markets are both an integral part of both our creation and salvation, and the historical necessity we face is to make our political and economic markets ever more free, then the social sciences as they have been heretofore practiced - as methods of controlling change in the name of controlling violence supposedly caused by too much freedom for the bad guys they would expel - need to be radically redesigned.

As Charles notes, we will be meeting to discuss many such questions this THursday at the downtown library. All are encouraged to join us.

Anonymous said...

Truepeers

I agree that we need to distinguish between social science methods and approaches. A method has more to do with how the researcher should answer the question. What evidence do we need to test a hypothesis? How should the evidence be collected? Roughly, approaches are the set assumptions that lie behind a question or research design. There are a variety of approaches in each field.

“don't most social sciences still see society as essentially a question of power structures that are ultimately underwritten by violence, or its threat?”
-Most ideal definitions of the state include some mention of the state’s monopoly on legitimate coercion. Can you honestly define the state without making reference to it? It’s a difficult issue to conceive but it has to be addressed. I wouldn’t say everybody gets hung up on it though. As for the obsession with power relations, again, not all social scientists are interested in power structures. Sociologists address the issue more than others. My impression is that the ‘history from above’ and ‘history from below’ conflict has faded as well (historians can correct me if I’m wrong).

I’ll readily acknowledge that there are some pretty lame stories that come out of the academy. Also, surveys show that most social scientists are left-of-centre. That’s enough for some people to write off academics. While I wouldn’t deny that political orientations have some impact on the questions that are asked I’m generally impressed with the range of topics covered and the diversity that exists in most fields. Most disciplines are not so insular that conservative scholars are shut out of the debate. If the theory is provocative and the evidence is compelling then people tend to get a hearing.

[As a side not, if you like literature on covenantal societies then be sure to check out the Daniel Elazar archives: http://www.jcpa.org/djeindex.htm. The guy was so prolific I think he must have written some articles while sleeping]

truepeers said...

Most ideal definitions of the state include some mention of the state’s monopoly on legitimate coercion. Can you honestly define the state without making reference to it?

-No, my question is not whether the state attempts to monopolize violence, but whether the state is itself founded on the attempt to monopolize violence. Everyone knows who pays for the police and the army. But everyone does not know why or for what an army will fight, whether the freest societies also tend to be the most successful at war, or what makes a cop good or bad. In other words, what is at issue in all social science is how to characterize the relationship between ethics or social organization and our ideas, esthetics, morality, etc.

My previous criticism of the academic focus on power relations was not very precise, sorry. The question I was trying to identify is how we should best conceive the fundamental underpinnings of language or culture and hence of politics and power. A lot of academic thinking in recent years - no doubt more in the humanities than in the harder (more quantitative) social sciences - has developed the post-structuralist argument (after the likes of Nietzsche, Derrida and Foucault, but also continuing the tradition of Rousseau and Marx) that language itself - the most fundamental institution of culture or society - is founded on a will to power, that authority always must hide the fact that it first emerges from some arbitrary linguistic assertion, developing a victimizing mythology that makes it seem as if one's authority is grounded in a reality that precedes the act by which authority is asserted. (When I say "everyone knows", the postmodern thinker says, really, how does everyone know?) Those who would liberate us from authority are out to identify and deconstruct such foundational myths in every act of language.

I think this is a tragic misunderstanding of the nature of language and culture that has led to an academy that endlessly (or has this era ended?) deconstructs "discourses of power", and such like.

But language is not itself something violent (real authority need not waste time with words); language, or representation more generally, is rather the fundamental means by which we defer our potential violence. The state is not founded on violence, but rather on the exchange of opinion and on acts of faith, a fact which I believe is well understood in the covenantal tradition.

Similarly, in arguing for covenantal thinking, i'd argue that society does not begin with a "social contract" in which a sovereign is nominated to save us from the war of all against all; the first language-using humans could not have used a specifically human form of reason - contracting - in order to first become human. No, language and human society must first have emerged (and must still today emerge) in an act of faith, encouraged by some pressing necessity, a leap of faith towards the sacred and transcendent, one whose "logic" was at first beyond anyone's grasp.

There is of course so much to say to defend this argument, and now is not the time or place. I would just leave you with the question of whether it is possible to talk freely on campus today without any fear of being denounced or otherwise coerced by the forces of victimary politics and white guilt? It is people who see victimization as the fundamental human relationship who are my primary target when i criticize an undue focus on power relations.

Thank-you very much for the link to a thinker with whom I am not yet familiar; I think it will be a site to which I will often return.