The Emperor's New Clothes

The Emperor's New Clothes

Diana Lobb
Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line
Paul Gilroy
Harvard UP, 2001, 460 pp.

Diana Lobb tackles the legacy of positivism and the politics of chaotics.

Auguste Comte and the followers of positivism would most likely disagree, but I think it’s fair to say that current consensus is that the discourse of the sciences can make no more persuasive claim to be the sole voice of the True or the Real than did the discourses of theology or metaphysics. As much as anyone’s critique of scientific positivism, Foucault’s archaeological and genealogical analyses of the history and philosophy of the sciences, particularly The Order of Things, effectively put an end to science’s claim to speak with a pure objectivity. Whether you agree with Foucault’s arbitrary approach to historical data or not, it is difficult to argue with his conclusions that the discourses and philosophies of the sciences operate in complex interconnectedness with every other discourse in a particular socio-historical moment. These “regimes of knowledge” affect and are affected by the “regimes of power” that orchestrate the place and time in which they operate, and together, the interaction of these “regimes” trace out an elaborate network of meaning-making processes.

Foucault is not the only contemporary philosopher to critique scientific positivism’s pose of objectivity, isolation and mastery. Michel Serres and Gilles Deleuze, amongst others, agree with what The Radical Academy proposes is the contribution of scientific positivism to the Western philosophical project: “None. In fact, Positivism destroys the very foundations of commonsense philosophical realism. Positivism has been one of the main contributors to today’s intellectual insanity” ( This being said, my question is why, in the humanities, do we not see the insights of Foucault, Serres, and Deleuze more often reflected in our contemplations of humanity, its creative potential, and its relationships to itself and its environments? The kind of humanities research I’m objecting to presents itself as pseudo-science, discovering “by a well-combined use of reasoning and observation, the actual laws of phenomena - that is to say their invariable relations of succession and likeness” (Positive Philosophy). Worse, I find, is analysis that breaks its back genuflecting to the Truth as revealed by the “master” scientific discourse.

There seems to be a deliberate refusal in areas of the humanities to recognize that the discourse of the sciences and the discourse of the humanities are equally valuable, mutually interactive parts of a bigger picture - be that bigger picture called discursive field, episteme or world view. In my more cynical moments, I wonder if this refusal exists, and persists, because tracing out the multiple and multivalent interconnections within and between discourses and the fields in which they operate requires slow, meticulous work that does not usually produce something slick and sexy and readily commodifiable.

In the disappointing field of texts that attempt to relate the humanities and the sciences, Paul Gilroy’s Against Race stands out as a welcome exception to what I see as the “normal” and normalizing approach. Perhaps because he explicitly locates his object of research, the concept of `race,’ as a historically situated and trans-disciplinary phenomenon, Gilroy is able to focus our attention on the connections between the discourse of the sciences and the discourse of the humanities that bring into destructive being both `race’ and racism. The discontinuous pattern of consolidations between the discourses of “the human” and “the nation” that Gilroy traces, effectively debunks the idea of the evolution of, well, “evolution.” Darwin did not reveal the Truth. The discourse of the sciences had not “evolved” to a sufficiently advanced state of wisdom and complexity to allow it to finally announce the Real. Instead, as Gilroy demonstrates, the discourse of the sciences adapted to incorporate new data within the framework of its moment and interpreted that data in a way consistent with the social truths of late Eighteenth Century Imperial Europe.

Advocating a careful and cautious engagement with the philosophical aspects of the complexity sciences and their elaboration in the development of post-Darwinian evolutionary hypotheses allows Gilroy to trace the formation of raciology. The map of raciology - Gilroy’s proposal of a large, complex discursive formation within the modern episteme - demonstrates that “survival of the fittest” did not emerge “naturally” from a continuous thread of increasingly sophisticated scientific discourse that incorporated Vesalius’ anatomy, Linneaus’ taxonomy and Lyell’s geology. Instead, the “science” of evolution was always already enmeshed with Locke’s notion of the human, Kant’s notion of the nation, and Malthus’ rather brutal ideas about population. The patterns of raciology make visible the notion of “evolution” as never purely a facet of scientific discourse or of the discourse of the humanities. It was always a “rational absurdity” (Against Race 14), a strategic synthesis of supposedly autonomous categories: logos and icon, rational and occult knowledges, the discourses of the sciences and the humanities.

Gilroy is not the first theorist of the “Human Sciences” to advocate a critical engagement with the implications of the complexity sciences for the humanities. However, his suggestion of a careful, deliberate translation of the complexity sciences from a “science” into a discursive formation differs from some of the more “transgressive” suggestions of theorists like N. Katherine Hayles. Hayles, who Matheson and Kirchoff refer to as “the most influential theorist in the area of chaos and literature” (“Chaos and Literature” 32), attempts, like Gilroy, to link the insights of the complexity sciences to French post-structuralist philosophy. However, her methodological approach to the question of how to relate the discourses provides a useful contrast to Gilroy, and in many ways exemplifies my complaints with how the humanities have attempted to incorporate the discourse of the sciences.

Hayles finds the transgressive “aura of mystery and excitement” that surrounds the “highly charged signifier” of chaos to provide an apparently irresistible strange attraction. She concedes that the discourse of the complexity sciences she appropriates does not appear to share her enthusiasm for the concept of “chaotics”: “chaos theory and the science of chaos are not phrases usually employed by researchers who work in these fields” (Chaos Bound 8-9). In Hayles’ analysis, complexity sciences offer not just “new methods of analysis for complex systems” but a metaphor for what she suggests is the divided and fragmentary nature of the postmodern moment. In other words, what Hayles proposes through her engagement with the complexity sciences is not a possible framework for the analysis of postmodern society but rather a “new” ontology to announce the (latest) Truth of a fractured and fragmented modern humanity.

Despite her own recognition of her misuse of disciplinary terminology, Hayles ironically suggests that an act of translation across disciplinary knowledge bases is not necessary when considering the relationship of complexity sciences to the humanities. Since “an interest in disorder and unpredictability in literature analogous to that in the sciences” (xii) occurred in a proximal moment, the convergence of interests must be evidence of a singular event which shifts the singular epistemic structure from which both disciplines are produced: “Different disciplines are drawn to similar problems because the concerns underlying them are highly charged within a prevailing cultural context” (xi). Because this trans-disciplinary interest in “chaos” is posited as the result of a “feedback cycle [which] connected theory with culture and culture with theory through the medium of technology.” Hayles suggests that it is possible to apply directly the methodologies and terminologies from one discipline to explain phenomena in another (xiv).

This interesting, if problematic, conflation of what even Hayles acknowledges are “isomorphic” (xiv) notions into assumptions of a uniform epistemic construction leads Hayles to make the assertion that “[t]he paradigm of orderly disorder may well prove to be as important to the second half of the [20th] century as the field concept was to the first half” (xii). Unlike Gilroy who engages complexity sciences in order to propose a utopian moment of rupture in raciological modernity, Hayles appears to suggest the moment of rupture has already occurred and has assumed the “always already” operation of a “chaotic” postmodern episteme.

However, it is in Hayles’ insistence on interpreting complexity as “chaos” and “disorder” that her application of complexity theories to the humanities diverges most widely from Gilroy’s proposed translation. In Hayles’ conception, the “chaotic” paradigm destabilizes a “dichotomy” of order/disorder in such a way as to make it possible to “draw parallels between post-structuralist philosophy and scientific attitudes to chaos” (176). While Matheson and Kirchoff raise persuasive doubts as to the validity of the comparison Hayles draws between complexity theories and her interpretation of post-structuralism, what is interesting in comparing Hayles to Gilroy is Hayles’ equation of the methodology of deconstruction with the scientific methodology of denaturing (266-69). To denature an organic molecule is not simply to “deconstruct” it. Given Derrida’s deliberate ambiguity in defining the methodology he employs in demonstrating the arbitrariness of categories and the permeability of their supposedly fixed boundaries, it is difficult to accept Hayles’ attempt to fix the meaning of deconstruction as an unambiguously liberating “violation” (283) that dismantles oppressive constructs in order to reinvent those constructs in ways that are more open to the expression of difference.

When Hayles’ understanding of “deconstruction” is conflated with the notion of “denaturing,” some disturbing (and unexpected) consequences arise. The input of heat or chemicals or extreme alterations of the pH of a biological system does result in the loss of organic molecules’ secondary and tertiary structure through the unfolding of the peptide chains of proteins. In Hayles’ terms, the molecule is “deconstructed.” However, Hayles’ analogy overlooks the result of the process: the reduction or destruction of the denatured molecule’s biological activity. The example that the Oxford Dictionary of Biology gives is particularly telling: boiling an egg effectively denatures the egg’s proteins and makes the egg consumable by humans. However, the same process effectively kills the embryo that was gestating in the egg. Denaturing is not unambiguously and universally positive and life affirming, as Hayles’ deployment suggests - definitely not to chickens!

All flippancy aside, Hayles’ argument that the paradigmatic shift to “chaos” results in the denaturing of language, context, time and the human renders language, context, time and the human biologically inert - in other words, dead. It is difficult to see how Hayles’ re-articulation of the Hegelian “being towards death” is postmodern in the sense Hayles’ implies or how is differs from what Gilroy argues is the modernist “discourse of differentiation that is struggling to supersede crude appeals to `race’ ” (Against Race 27). Gilroy proposes a possible discursive formation of complexity that overcomes the fragmentation of humanity produced by raciology and posits the possibility of a heterogeneous species unity. Hayles, however, appears to conceive of the advent of the complexity sciences as an opportunity to revel in the progressive dissolution of any humane, or even human, text.

Hayles’ appropriates the discourse of the complexity sciences in order to propose a “new” ontology for what she claims is a postmodern moment. Arguing that “disorder has become a focal point” within the episteme of modernity, Hayles proposes complexity theories as a way in which to both explain and contain the “convoluted ambiguities” that are “deeply characteristic” of what she calls cultural postmodernism (Chaos Bound 256). Through the logic of what she mis-names the “sciences of chaos,” Hayles claims both the being of postmodern and the being of the “posthuman” (284). Unfortunately, Hayles does not appear to consider that all humanity has not been incorporated within a notion of modernity’s “human” before she supplants the human with the cyborg. Unlike Gilroy’s “cautious” engagement with complexity to project the possibility of a post-racial postmodernity, Hayles’ enthusiasm for “chaotic” transgressions forecloses that possibility and reinscribes the orderly pattern of raciological modernity’s fragmented and fragmenting authority.

In terms of the arguments I have with the mode of humanities scholarship that Hayles exemplifies, it is not simply the case that I find the conclusions of her analysis questionable, and in terms of my personal politics, absolutely not liberating. What I take issue with is where and how she grounds her methodology: the singular epistemic event that produces an “interest in disorder and unpredictability in literature analogous to that in the sciences,” an event that forms the justification for her amalgamation of “chaos” and Derrida. As her analysis unfolds, her methodology is to observe the “facts” that visibly overlap the discourses of the sciences and the humanities in order to deduce the “new” and “actual” laws of the “feedback cycle” she claims to have identified. She attempts to describe the reality of “postmodernity” by establishing the connection “between different particular phenomena and some general facts” (Positive Philosophy). By disciplinary convention, Hayles’ analysis may be located in the discourse of the humanities, but structurally it reveals its unwavering allegiance to scientific positivism - and we’re back to where I began my complaint, with the humanities trying to borrow the credibility of the “master” discourse by shaping its discourse as pseudo-science.

If our goal in the humanities is to achieve, as Hayles’ would have it, a liberating “violation,” or to break through into a moment of post-modernity (assuming epistemic time can be quantified as such), or even to see how the “truth” of right now works to maintain an oppressive status quo, then we must find a way to reject the lure of scientific positivism and the seduction to participate in the “master” discourse. If what we want to do is rid ourselves of the authority we invested in the “master,” then Gilroy’s mode of analysis provides some essential signposts for us to follow: flatten the hierarchy of discourse; trace the map of interpenetration and mutual co-construction; stop trying to discover the “laws of a phenomenon” and instead, look for how the “True” has been constructed to manipulate the truth.

It’s the trans-disciplinary perspective that the notion of raciology affords, not just on the discourse of the sciences but on the whole Western Modern episteme, that makes Gilroy’s analysis so valuable. Arbitrarily establishing the idea of “race” as a node within the Western world-view, the idea of raciology facilitates an analysis of how networks of discourses and structures of power intersect, altering themselves and each other in unexpected ways. This is not simply a strategy of self-reflexivity that places the analyst, tacitly or not so tacitly at the centre of the study. Instead, it is a deliberately “counteranthopological and sometimes misanthropic” (Against Race 17) strategy that rejects the researcher’s authority to announce the Truth. But this is not a retreat into relativism. It is an attempt to trace the complex patterns that give language, concepts and ideas the effect of the Real - even the power to kill, as has been so efficiently demonstrated in Auschwitz, Rwanda and Serbia (not to leave out North America - Tuskegee and Davis Inlet).

The “rhizomorphic” (127) pattern of interconnected discourses and power structures made visible by a consideration of raciology maps both the archaeology and genealogy of the idea of “race” not simply to prove that “race” is a dangerous and deadly fiction, but to map out how the idea of “race” has been consolidated and propagated as a concrete historical object: a social construction that has left evidence of its mutagenic and mutated path through and across disciplinary boundaries. Dismantling the hierarchy of discourse and its arborescent pattern of meaning-making potential, the rhizomorphic map of raciology demonstrates that neither the discourse of the sciences nor the discourse of the humanities (or even the discourse of raciology) can authoritatively claim to be the “master” discourse.

Gilroy traces out his map of raciology by analyzing a temporal segment of the pattern of interconnections between “scientific” explanations of the being of “the human” and social and cultural thought, demonstrating how the various elements of “rational” and “absurd” knowledges consolidate to construct an ontology. This act of construction is not an objective deduction of the “actual laws of a phenomenon” but an articulation of a specific discursive formation that establishes an analytical stance through which the social text of human can be read, interpreted and given a particular meaning. It draws on a deliberately impure and hybridized methodology that blends a critical engagement with the complexity sciences with a critical engagement with French post-structuralist thought. The example of raciology demonstrates that it is possible to take possession of the profound transformations of thought made available by structural transformations in the discourses of the sciences and the humanities and “somehow set [them] to work against the tainted logic that produced [them]” (15). Refusing the logic of fragmentation that separates and isolates categories of knowledge in order to establish hierarchies of meaning, Gilroy demonstrates the value of instantiating in our thinking ” a `chaotic’ model in which shifting `strange attractors’ are the only visible points of fragile stability amid social and cultural turbulence” (128).

It is only by deliberately rejecting thinking rooted in the science and politics of “narcissism” (16) that Gilroy is able to enact his trans-disciplinary methodology without forcing either the discourse of the sciences or the discourse of the humanities to assume a subordinate position within the structure of his arguments. The flattened epistemic pattern that Gilroy assumes allows for both to co-exist at the same level of consideration; the same level as all other discourses and power structures in a given place and time. The critical engagement with complexity theories that Gilroy undertakes exposes the mutually transforming transactions between raciological thinking and its social, cultural and political manifestations. It opens an analytical space in which “racisms” can be re-considered within a history of the interaction and developments of co-evolving systems rather than as solely a history of the development of “man.”

Works Cited

“denature” A Dictionary of Biology. Oxford University Press, 2000. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Waterloo. 2 September 2004

“The Philosophy of Positivism.” Center for Applied Philosophy. The Radical Academy. 8 August 2004.

Comte, August. “Positive Philosophy.” Center for Applied Philosophy. The Radical Academy. 8 August 2004.

Gilroy, Paul. Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard UP, 2000.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. Ithica: Cornell UP, 1990.

Matheson, Carl and Evan Kirchoff. “Chaos and Literature.” Philosophy and Literature 21.1. (1997): 28-45.