Refounding the Humanities on the Sciences
Let us admit that our field is in trouble. Its chief problem is a loss of contact with reality. We are a nation of laws; as citizens we subscribe to the legal system. Reality is legally defined as what is scientifically verifiable; hence we teach evolution in high-school biology, not scientific creationism. The humanities, however, are now teaching that reality is entirely relative to the culture and gender of the knower, and are thus as far removed from fact as the most “biblical literalist” sect. That loss of contact with reality is also a loss of contact with the public–a failure to perform the mandate, bought and paid for fair and square by the people of our states and nation, of educating and civilizing the young, and acting as the repository and conduit of the cultural heritage. If we wish to do something else, we should not take the public’s money, and it is actually dishonest and immoral to do so. In the process we have suffered a decay of standards and of the empirical and logical canons of scholarly proof; the average MLA paper is a tissue of non-sequiturs and assumptions of what it wishes to prove.
I propose that we refound the humanities on the sciences. There are various routes by which we might recover the connection. The first is the anthropological path, retracing the roots of human arts and other activities through the oral tradition, folklore, cross-cultural anthropology, performance theory, ethnodrama, the study of human and animal ritual, archeology and human evolution. The second is the neuroscience route, the study of the neurobiological foundations of esthetic experience, language, meaning, perception, experience, etc. The third is the chaos theory route: using the powerful new sciences of complexity and nonlinear dynamics, we might develop a general vocabulary of creative emergence. The fourth is the information theory and cybernetic route: learning from the extraordinary difficulties and successes of computer science in modeling the human mind, we might develop a deeper theory of literary meaning. This approach might include game theory, and the information theory of Claude Shannon and John von Neumann. The fifth is the ecoscience route: the study of the humanities as a complex ecological system, recently emergent upon the planet, in the context of other living organisms, especially domesticated plants and animals.
Of course such a refounding would be fraught with difficulties. Perhaps the greatest would be simply professional pride. It is hard to eat crow and acknowledge that Naturwissenschaft had a better path to the workings of the human spirit than did Geisteswissenschaft, that the study of the neurobiology of perception tells us more about our experience than does the humanistic field of phenomenology. But the rewards are enormous and we have little left to lose.
If we seek for scientific foundations, there are those who would raise theoretical and political objections to foundations and foundationalism. The answer is that all contemporary antifoundationalisms, however poststructuralist, are already foundationalisms in disguise–often good enough to fool themselves. It is part of the orthodoxy of contemporary avant-garde thought that one should claim to be “anti-foundationalist.” Antifoundationalism is the claim that there is no prior presence or authority or transcendental signified to base our ideas and actions on–and that one can therefore think and do what one likes. The postmodern humanities have tolerated, under the broad umbrella of antifoundationalism, a variety of positions whose radical contradictions are starkly revealed when we consider them together.
Let us briefly list some antifoundationalist positions. One maintains that since everything we can know depends on how we see it, there is no fundamental reality (phenomenology). A second reminds us of Wittgenstein’s dicta: “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent” and “the limits of my language are the limits of the world,” ignoring the subtle and deliberate self-contradictions in both aphorisms, and maintains therefore that since everything we say depends on how we say it, there is no fundamental reality (linguistic philosophy, deconstruction). A third points out that because everything is dependent on its context within a structure, there is no fundamental reality (structuralism). A fourth sardonically points out that whenever anyone says anything, they are naturally following their socioeconomic interests, partly crystallized into the form of cultural values, and that therefore there is no fundamental reality (Foucauldian discourse analysis, neomarxism). A fifth reminds us that everything that is said is said in a determining historical context, and thus there is no fundamental reality (the new historicism). A sixth insists that the psyche that says anything is an illusory construction anyway, and that therefore there is no fundamental reality (the neofreudianisms of Lacan, Deleuze, and Guattari). A seventh denies the objectivity of science, because science is made up of a society of persons with ideological and economic interests, and therefore there is no fundamental reality (the scientific antifoundationalism of Kuhn, Feyerabend, and Habermas). An eighth points out that whoever says anything has a sex and a gender, usually male, that irremediably distorts what is said, and therefore there is no fundamental reality (feminist epistemology). And so on; and we can now add a ninth, that maintains that all human views of reality are only human views, and that since we cannot know how Nature sees things, there is no fundamental reality: the view of the radical Greens and Deep Ecologists, such as Arne Naess and George Sessions.
Of course the secret of all these antifoundationalisms is that they are really foundationalisms in disguise. Number one really says: sensation is the foundation. Number two says: language is the foundation. Number three says: the logic of structure is the foundation. Number four says: economic power backed up by coercion is the foundation. Number five says: history is the foundation. Number six says: psychological development is the foundation. Number seven says: the sociology of legitimation is the foundation. Number eight says: sex is the foundation. Number nine says: nature (excluding human beings) is the foundation.
Once we see the unspoken foundationalist assertion in each position, two things become immediately obvious. One is that a sort of competition is going on between specialized disciplines, conducted in rather peculiar terms: each delegitimizes the others by asserting the groundlessness of all assertion, while tacitly excepting its own point of view. It is is like contemporary political election campaigns, which do not so much assert the virtues of the candidate as the dishonesty of his or her opponent. A cynic might speculate that the motivations are not dissimilar, and that what is really at stake are tenured chairs, graduate fellowships, and full-time faculty lines; but this would be to fall into the neomarxist view. . . .
The other obvious conclusion is that stated in their positive form these positions do not particularly contradict each other. In theory, if the candidates did not impugn each other’s honesty, they might all be honest! And this conclusion might lead us, by an odd but perfectly legitimate turn of logic, to the positive assertion that all these implied foundations are indeed foundational–sensation, language, structure, power, history, psychology, legitimation, sex, and nature, and that probably there are dozens of other foundations as well. Foundations, then, need not be mutually exclusive; and the interesting thing might be to work out how all these foundations are related to each other. A universe crammed with partial foundations, that have not ceased to interact, and that thus leave open a huge future space where they are unpredictably going next–this is what we see if we escape the feverish loyalties of a particular ideological camp.
We might as well declare ourselves foundationalists, since we cannot avoid being so. But this does not answer the political objections to foundationalism–that it is authoritarian, restrictive, totalizing, etc. Is it really, though? Consider a view of the world which is anchored, relatively fixed, and unitary at one end, and open-ended, changeable and multiple at the other–a tree structure. This would give us the benefit of a common deep language and a protean and creative surface language. This is what I propose–a past that is relatively fixed and knowable, though never absolutely, and a future that can grow in whatever direction we and all other desiring and imagining beings may desire or imagine. Such a world is free enough for me; perhaps it is not free enough for you.
Let us briefly explore one example of how one might solve a problem in the humanities through the use of scientific concepts. The issue is the vexed one of the nature of meaning.
One of our most subtly paralyzing dualisms is the apparently harmless one between order and disorder. The idea of artistic liberation, under which we have labored for so many years, is especially prone to the corruptions of this dualism. For instance, if order means predictability, and predictability means predetermination, and predetermination means compulsion, and compulsion means unfreedom, the only way we can be free is if we are disordered. Thus art would only be authentic if it were literally meaningless. The failed artistic hopes of the last two centuries have been founded upon a deep discomfort with the idea of order and meaning, and what are taken to be its close relatives: hierarchy, foundationalism, norms, and essences–even with value itself, if value is conceived of as being anything other than momentary individual preference.
We have found ourselves forced by the logic of the duality to choose the random, the disordered, the arbitrary, the acte gratuit, the unconditioned, the weightless, the unfurrowed–over the ordered, the intelligible, the shapely, the traditional. What, after all, were the alternatives? We could submit ourselves to the Transcendental Signified, the old man with the white beard, Nobodaddy Himself, the ancestral authority figure who bars the doors against our franchise, our potential for achievement, our free play of art, our sexuality, our political identity and self-expression. Or we could accept that the world was a dead machine and we were merely parts of that machine, linear and deterministic. We would thus be fated to some kind of mechanistic social order determined by our genes, by the physics of our energy economy, by economic necessity or psychological drives.
The postmodernist solution was to make meaning and value completely arbitrary, imposed at the whim of the individual. But then, the knots and toils we tied ourselves into when we tried to profess views such as these! We had discovered a new sin: involuntary hypocrisy–hypocrisy when we were most desperately trying to avoid it. When we opted for simple disorder and randomness, we were faced with the problems of how to mean the destruction of meaning? how to publish the discrediting of publication and public? how to achieve institutional recognition, like Jenny Holzer in the Whitney, when institutions are the legacy of the past and thus based on sadistic repression? how to attack hierarchy in a language with a syntactical tree and grammatical subordination? how to critique a work of art as good or bad? how to get paid for paintings or sculpture where payment must be in the coin of “mimetic desire,” and private ownership of art is the quintessence of commodification? how, even, to act with a body possessed of an immune system of quite military rigor, and a nervous system strikingly unified under central control?
And can freedom, seriously, be the same as random or disordered behavior? According to classical thermodynamics the universe becomes more disordered over time, that is, less intelligible and less able to do work. Is freedom just our little contribution to the universal process of increasing entropy? Is it our job as free beings to assist in the destruction of this beautiful ordered universe about us? Intention takes a highly organized brain; can the only free intention be that which would tend to disorganize that brain and disable intention itself? What becomes of responsibility if freedom is randomness? Can we take credit for what we do that is good, if there is no responsibility? Can there be such a thing as justice if we cannot be held responsible for our actions?
Nobody wants either a random universe or a deterministic one, for freedom and value and meaning appear impossible within them–though great philosophers in the tradition of Nietzsche have struggled to assert them nevertheless. The dualism of order and disorder has been coming under increasing strain. But within the arts and humanities the traditional avant-garde hatred of any kind of essentializing, hierarchizing, (biologically-) determinist, transcendentally significant and totalizing Order was so ingrained that the more shaky that dualism became, the more passionately it was asserted. The problem the avant garde was honestly trying to solve was that the only alternative to repressive order that seemed to be offered was random disorder, or on the psychological level, whim.
Suppose we were to try to specify what an escape from this predicament might look like philosophically. We would have to distinguish between two kinds of order, a repressive, deterministic kind, and some other kind that would not have these disadvantages. We would also have to distinguish between two kinds of chaos, one which was simply random, null, and unintelligible, and another that could bear the seeds of creativity and freedom. If we were really lucky, the second kind of order might turn out not to be the antithesis of the second kind of chaos; they might even be able to coexist in the same universe; best of all, they might even be the same thing!
The extraordinary thing that has happened–an astonishing stroke of good luck, an earnest of hope for the future–is that there really does seem to be the second kind of order, the second kind of chaos. And they do seem to be the same thing.
In order to understand the deeply liberating point of chaos and complexity theory, we will need to go into the differences between deterministic linear order and chaotic emergent order, and between mere randomness and creative chaos. Let us begin by considering an odd little thought experiment.
Suppose we were trying to arrange a sonnet of Shakespeare in the most thermodynamically ordered way, with the least entropy–the way in which the sonnet could be used to exert causal power, in the the Foucauldian sense. The first thing we would do–which is the only sort of thing a strict thermodynamicist could do–is write the words out in alphabetical order: “a compare day I Shall summer’s thee to ?”. As far as thermodynamics is concerned, such an arrangement would be more ordered than the arrangement “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? . . . ” as composed by Shakespeare. If literary art is an expression of power relations, it is so only in this thermodynamic sense. Here, in a capsule, is the difference between deterministic linear order and nonlinear emergent order.
But though we have distinguished between the two kinds of order, it is equally necessary to distinguish between the two kinds of chaos. Otherwise we would be in the predicament of someone like Stanley Fish, the “reader response” theorist, who has been forced by the “order-disorder” dualism into asserting that any random sequence of words, chosen perhaps by flipping the pages of a dictionary, would possess a richness of interpretive potential equal to that of the sonnet; and thus that the very idea of text is either meaningless or extensible to everything in the universe.
If reader response theorists understood information theory, it would be enough to show that their mistake is to confuse “white noise” with “flicker noise.” White noise is made up of random amounts of energy at all frequencies. One could certainly imagine that one was listening to the sea when one heard acoustic white noise; there are even devices that make white noise to soothe people to sleep. But there is nothing there to understand or interpret. On the other hand, flicker noise, which does not at first sound very different, is the “sound” that a system makes that is ordered in itself and at the same time highly unstable and going through continuous internal adjustments by means of feedback: a good example is a pile of sand onto whose apex new grains of sand are being dropped one by one. There are many one-grain avalanches, fewer multi-grain avalanches, fewer still mass avalanches, and only the occasional collapse of a whole slope. The sequence and size of these avalanches obey laws and form an elegant fractal pattern when plotted on a graph, a pattern known as a “strange attractor”. What one hears when one hears flicker noise is the combination of these events; and if one analysed it carefully, one might be able to work out the shape of the attractor that underlies it. There is real meaning to be extracted. Our reader-response theorist refuses to extract it.
Flicker noise is not just the “sound” made by piles of sand. It is also what we get when we “listen” in a crude way to highly complex organic systems. For instance, suppose we take the temperature of an animal: that reading is flicker noise. The temperature is made up of a combination of fantastically organized and intricate metabolic processes; yet it is indistinguishable from the “same” temperature taken of a simple chemical reaction, or of a random mixture of unrelated processes, which would be white noise. The problem is that a thermometer is a very crude instrument. What makes it a crude instrument is precisely that it makes no allowance for the nature of what it is measuring. Another example of flicker noise is what you would “hear” from a set of electrodes applied to someone’s skull if the electrical signal were translated into sound. I would argue that much contemporary text analysis is exactly like trying to read someone’s thoughts with such electrodes, and that the crude measures of gender or ethnic interest are like the crude measure of temperature. The only solution is to renew our traditional search for meaning.
Meaning itself can be redefined in terms of the relationship of strange attractors to the physical processes they describe. Any nonlinear dynamical system, when triggered by a stimulus, will generate a sequence of unpredictable events, but those events will nevertheless be limited to their attractor, and further iteration will fill out the attractor in more and more detail. The brain itself holds memories in the form of such attractors, the dynamical feedback system in this case being Hebbian circuits of brain cells. Thus we can picture the relationship of a word to its meaning as the relationship of a given trigger to the attractor that is traced out by the feedback process it initiates.
Thus the represented, the representation, and the experiencer of the representation are all part of the same physical system. The concept of the chaotic attractor holds out the promise of an intelligible physical description of meaning. One way of putting this is that the issue of reflexiveness, of self-reference or self-inclusion, has been transferred from the metaphysical level where it can only be interpreted as a barren infinite regress or reductio ad absurdum, to the physical realm where it can be studied as we study turbulences of other kinds, with their own emergent properties and self-generated orderliness. The reflexiveness, we feel intuitively, should be there in any account of meaning; the trick is to keep it from messing up our own thinking about it, and place it where it belongs, in the operation of the brain itself! Such might be the rudiments of a new, evolutionary poetics and a new nonlinear theory of meaning and representation.
And there are practical implications of this model of meaning. If the words of a poet can induce in one brain the same strange attractor that they proceeded from in the poet’s brain, an extraordinary possibility presents itself. This possibility is that when those harmonics are in our heads we are actually sharing the thoughts, and indeed the subjectivity, of the poet, even if he or she is dead. The poet lives again when his or her attractors arise in another brain. Poetry, then, is a kind of artificial intelligence program, that springs into being when booted correctly into any good human meat-computer.
Perhaps values themselves, such as goodness, truth, and beauty, are the strange attractors of certain complex systems, especially human ones. This idea rather neatly solves many of the problems thinkers in various disciplines have had in identifying the nature of values–problems so severe that many have denied the existence of values altogether. Biological evolution, with its iterative algorithm of variation, selection, and genetic inheritance, and its massively nonlinear ecological arena of selection, is a fecund womb of strange attractors. Among these, values might well be among the most complex and sophisticated, since they arise out of the further interplay of biological and cultural evolution.
If this identification of values as strange attractors can be upheld, the implications for the discipline of literary study are enormous. In seeking the key principles of historical change, literary structure, and narrative in forces or drives that force and push society and individuals, we may have been deeply neglecting these mysterious, yet increasingly intelligible, attractors that invite and draw society and individuals. It may turn out that the real reason why human beings do things is not that they are compelled into them by socio-economic causes or political and cultural norms, but that they are attracted to them by their goodness and their beauty.