Thursday, 2 June 2011

Science and Truth

(On an unconscious that isn’t one, but something of the one)

The apparent contradiction in the UK government’s decision to cut all funding to Arts, Humanities and Social Science subjects at University in order to open them to market forces while protecting Maths, Engineering and Science betrays something more interesting than the limits of pure competition theory or ultimate market failure. This decision shows that neoliberalism is an art of government, of course, as much as a mechanism of economic growth (as Foucault anticipated in the late 1970s), but perhaps more profoundly, it shows that in the UK at least, science is now the official bearer of truth. The decision concurs with Steven Hawking’s view that science is all we need to answer the big questions of philosophy, and the latter can fight for its survival among the other idols of the marketplace. Science has even superseded literature, Darwin having displaced Shakespeare as the touchstone of National Genius.

Scientific truth is not, of course, an effect of individual genius, but is grounded in scientific method and in the production of a number of (mathematical) correspondences that appear to cohere with certain regularities generated by nature or the real. Science does not speak the truth since these regularities are not found in language but in numbers or formulae. What or where is a truth that no longer speaks – not even of itself in the guise of a metalanguage? Is it a truth that counts, or is counted, or that counts itself (as truth)? For science to tell the truth, numbers would have to speak, a goal that the psychotic mathematician John F Nash Jr. set for himself (Nasar, 2001: 336), the same Nash whose famous ‘equilibrium’ is supposed to justify both the economic efficiency and the social benefits of neoliberalism. Naturally, the Browne Reports’ prioritisation of Science and Technology is not just recognition of the burden of truth and destiny that these subjects now seem to bear, but about generating another set of numbers that will reproduce and sustain the current system of social and economic relations.

For those of us brought up under the shadow of Matthew Arnold in the tradition of literary and cultural studies this decision shows that the governing class in the UK has finally given up on the idea that liberal culture has an essential ‘social mission’ or ideological function, as Althusserians used to say. Of course this has been evident for a long time. Even as some of us were busy deconstructing the ‘Shakespeare Myth’ back in the 1980s the governing idea of the University was already moving away from Culture to Excellence, an essentially vacuous term under which the University was transformed from a pedagogical institution to a mechanism for the exchange of information whose governing structure, if not metaphor, is the networked computer. Disciplines became stripped down to a set of equivalent ‘key skills’ to be cashed into the service economy. As we all know, the ability to savour poetic ambiguity, where it occurs, is a fringe benefit relative to a student’s aptitude for ppt presentations.

The neoliberal experiment in government has sought to construct a very different kind of subject to the subject of liberal culture, leaving the latter to withdraw to centres of privilege and heritage sites. As with other state institutions, the ‘privatization’ of Universities has been steadily achieved through the introduction of internal markets and mechanisms such as KPIs and PRP that formally assume a subject of pure self-interest that needs to be governed by the imposition of goals and targets that are continually assessed in the running commentary of internal audit, the latter having no external rationale or reference other than the economic efficiency or ‘value for money’ that is calculated on the basis of the same imaginary interests. This process reinforces and locks-in competition as a formal principle. The ultimate biopolitical aim, or effect, is to produce (economic) life according to mathematizable models. In this way governance manufactures the kind of data-producing subjects it wants even as it justifies itself scientifically in the name of economic reason.

Alongside the credence given to Hawking’s and others view that science has rendered philosophy pointless, another symptom of the belief that science bears the burden of truth is the rise of quasi-scientific approaches to the Humanities. And here I do not just mean sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and so on, but the work of a new generation of academics producing varieties of, for example, ‘cognitive literary criticism’ and ‘evolutionary literary theory’ which look ‘to the cognitive neurosciences for finer-grained descriptions of the workings of language, consciousness and subject-formation than those supplied by influential but inadequate post-structuralist theories’ (Richardson, 2007: 553).

But if the idea is to save the Humanities by imitating scientific methods, it is doomed from the start because its object, the manifest image of the conscious, language-defined human being, is itself unscientific. Ever since the post-linguistic turn of the 1980s and the rapid development of cognitive neuroscience, scientists have become increasingly sceptical about the utility and even ‘reality’ of ‘top-down concepts, such as thinking, consciousness, motivation, emotion, and similar terms’, doubting that they ‘can be mapped onto corresponding brain mechanisms with similar boundaries as in our language’ (Buzáki, 2006: 19). The once notorious eliminative materialism of Paul and Patricia Churchland that famously denounced and rejected the ‘folk psychological’ mysticism of conventional concepts ‘such as belief, desire, pain, pleasure, love, hate, joy, fear, suspicion, memory, recognition, anger, sympathy, intention and so forth’ (Churchland, 1998: 3), has become standard. Everything that goes on in the Arts and Humanities is essentially delusional, a tissue of semblance.

At their most provocative, the Churchlands claim not only that the folk psychology model that informs Humanities and Social Science is empirically false, but it is also damaging, chronically defective (12). Cognitive neuroscience knows very well that brains are not simply hard-wired, but need to develop. They must become subject to processes of learning in order to function appropriately and efficiently. Trillions of new synaptic connections need to be made between neurons ‘so that incoming sensory vectors are automatically and almost instantaneously transformed into appropriate “prototype” vectors at the higher populations of cortical neurons’ (14). This is ‘learning’. What learning is not, however, is ‘assembling a vast mass of sentences’ because the ‘basic unit of occurrent cognition is not language-based, but rather the high-dimensional neuronal activation vector (that is, a pattern of excitation levels across a large population of neurons)’. And ‘the basic unit of cognitive processing is apparently not the inference from sentence to sentence, but rather the synapse-induced transformation of large activation vectors into other such vectors’ (10). Since human languages are pre-eminently the accumulated archive of ancient folk psychologies, superstitions, misconceptions, misperceptions, myth, narratives reproducing basic cognitive errors, they are hopeless vehicles for learning, incapable of producing appropriate neuronal activation vectors and need to be eliminated. Folk psychology is simply bad theory that results in the bad human behaviour we see all around us and should be replaced by a theory based in the grey matter of the brain, an eliminative materialist ‘successor theory’ (35). The excitement of the Churchlands concerns their promise of a ‘superior social practice’ that will come with the displacement of FP by a theory based in a properly scientific account of ‘human cognition and mental activity’ (35). The disappointment is always that their social imagining falls back on a kind of liberal pragmatism expressing a pious hope that ‘a deeper understanding of the springs of human behaviour may thus permit a deeper level of cognitive interaction, moral insight, and mutual care’ (35), without explaining why the former should imply the latter. As Freud might have noted, one could just as well recoil in horror.

It is not, I would think, in the direction of moral pragmatism that the utopia promised by the faith in science lies. Far from diverting the techno-scientific drive, the financial crisis of 2008 has of course further entrenched the attempt by the forces of neoliberal governance to account for and speculate upon the economic effects of human cognitive processes both individual and collective. The hope is that the market mechanism can be enhanced through the elimination of irrational human impulses (greed, fear, panic etc.) that are based on the manifest image of human motives and behaviour based in language. Rather, through being reconstituted within the conceptual framework of completed neuroscience, economic theories can become much more powerful and more substantially integrated within physical science generally. The promise appeals to the demand for increased economic performance, as brains directly interact with each other via screens and scanners for the satisfaction of the numbers.

Given that consciousness is now regarded as too ‘top-down’ a concept to be scientifically operative and too inefficient in matters of optimal performance (as sports people know, the ‘zombie’ brain is the key to high achievement, Ramachandran, 2005: 83), there would not seem much potential for an unconscious, political or otherwise. For psychoanalysis, of course, the unconscious is the seat of truth, at least insofar as it articulates the truth that the subject doesn’t know that it knows. ‘“I, truth, speak ...”’, wrote Lacan, evoking ‘the unnameable thing that, by virtue of its ability to pronounce these words, would go right to the being of language – if we are to hear them as they are to be pronounced: in horror’ (Lacan, 2006: 736). The unconscious can no longer be defined simply against the (self) consciousness of speaking beings, but also the functional nonconsciousness calculated by numbers. ‘I, truth, speak’, but the prosopopeia now addresses a prosopagnosia that can no longer perceive in a face anything other than an abstract form correlated to the oscillations of neuronal assemblies that might be mapped onto ever-shifting profiles, markers of nodal points of data predicated on an empty mediating space for the exchange of biometric and economic information. Truth shimmers in every upgrade of Facebook ...

While the stream of numbers slide over the real, or the ‘noumenon that, for as long as pure reason can remember, has always kept its mouth shut’ (Lacan, 737), those speaking beings still on the language side of things might ask: what numberless horror is produced or encountered in the slippage, the something of the one (1+) that foams in excess of formulae? Fortunately, it seems, while the noumenon does not speak, it bites, or at least according to some, even as its fangs hook into the ‘technocosm’.

The Browne Report’s indifference to the fate of Arts and Humanities relative to the economic imperative demanded of Science and Technology is something I assume that Nick Land and his acolytes are gleefully cheering in technoecstasy. ‘We no longer judge such technical developments from without, we no longer judge at all, we function: machined/ machining in eccentric orbits about the technocosm. Humanity recedes like a loathsome dream’. (Land, 1992: 223). LOL.

György Buzáki (2006), Rhythms of the Brain OUP.
Patricia & Paul Churchland (1998), On the Contrary, MIT.
Jacques Lacan (2006), Écrits, Norton.
Nick Land (1992), ‘Circuitries’, PLI, 217-235.
Sylvia Nasar (2001), A Beautiful Mind, Touchstone.
V.S. Ramachandran (2005), Phantoms in the Brain. Harper Collins.
Alan Richardson (2007), Literary Theory and Criticism: An Oxford Guide, OUP.