A Third Culture

A Third Culture

1996-09-01

De Witt Douglas Kilgore reviews Technoscience and Cyberculture.

Almost forty years ago C.P. Snow set the terms for a struggle between science and the humanities which yet shows little sign of resolution. In the mid-1950s Snow found that scientific and literary intellectuals lived in two cultures, watching each other with either “frozen smiles” or “hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding.” By 1963 he discerned the emergence of a third culture in the universities of the United States as American academies strove to bring together the disarticulated halves of the intellectual culture. Subsequent events suggest that his optimism may have been premature.

The most recent hue and cry between the sciences on one side and the humanities and social sciences on the other is popularly known as the Sokal affair. In the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text, Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University, published “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Mechanics,” an article which was revealed to be a parody of studies of science informed by contemporary literary and critical theories. In “A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies,” published in the May/June 1996 issue of Lingua Franca, he informed his readers that his intention was to test the “standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities.” Specifically, Sokal accuses the humanists and social scientists who populate the burgeoning field of science studies - scholars who tend to be critical of contemporary technoscience and its effects - of ignorance masked by the jargon of fashionable theories. He claims that this ignorance allowed his original article, filled with obviously erroneous scientific claims, to be passed unchecked into the pages of Social Text. Stung by his criticisms, the editors of Social Text, Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross, responded swiftly with a broadside questioning Sokal’s change of heart, his ethics, and his understanding of his target.

One gets a certain illicit pleasure from watching the marines flock to one or the other banner, hearing the generals harangue each other in print, on the radio, and through the Net. I doubt, however, that all of this activity bodes well for the ability of science studies to break down the disciplinary blockade between science and the rest of us. Sokal’s parody, however it was intended and whatever its effect, indicates that in some precincts of the scientific community it is the fashion to be implacably hostile to the political and research agendas clustered within cultural studies. Unfortunately, it is also a failure as a parody, because it misrepresents what it hopes to ridicule, muddying the waters rather bringing his target into the clear light of day. Sokal could have done better, for example, than assume that Derrida is, of all things, a relativist.

Sokal understands science to be a discipline which is, by and large, unavailable to the literary intellectual or social scientist. As such it cannot be evaluated by rules other than its own, nor by scholars other than those trained within its confines. In his view, science also arrogates to itself the only values (objectivity, truth, progress) and tools that we need to solve the problems of our world. Snow held a similar position, posing an inherently progressive science against a tradition-bound literary culture that had produced too many “reactionary,” ludditish philosophies (Snow, 14, 82-83). While it seems that Sokal is driven by similar hopes and fears, particularly when he surveys the complexities of postmodern theory as it moves to consider contemporary science, he seeks no serious engagement with contemporary literary or historical culture. Snow offered his critique as part of a vital conversation with the writers and historians of his time. The evidence he produced to support his claims reflects the richness of that interaction. By comparison Sokal’s parody is a rude club designed to damage rather than to create any real dialogue.

Sokal would find much reason for alarm in Technoscience and Cyberculture, some of whose writers and editors are also involved in the “Science Wars” (Spring/Summer 1996) issue of Social Text. Since the interdisciplinary impulse of this volume arises from within the cultural studies movement, many of its essays critique the production of scientific knowledge. As such this work is a challenge to the “great people, great ideas” model of more traditional studies in science, technology, and society. Indeed, its central problematic is the politically determined, technocratic bias which mistakes science for religion and the study of science as a country club for the like-minded. Samuel R. Delany provides a way of breaking down this dogmatism in his description of science “as a series of narratives: linear, systematic, more or less rational, more or less negotiable. Technology itself is one conceptual area that is easily represented as a set of highly operationalized narratives about materiality. The operations are called science. Their material fallout is the artifacts of technology” (262). This description summarizes the determination evident throughout this volume to allow for some interplay between technoscience and the rest of our culture, without reducing that reciprocity to trite machine age aphorisms such as “form follows function.” Technoscience, in other words, is a product of human cognition, of our propensity for telling stories about our reality. Thus it is as open to critical judgement and analysis as is any other aspect of human activity.

The material in this anthology presents a cultural studies of science that has developed as a reaction against the notion that the production of knowledge is only about the continual discovery of the truth (we use it to make kitchen appliances and weapons as well), and that true science transcends the murky, human world of power, politics, and cultural interest. Instead, the picture of science that evolves here is people-driven rather that God- or nature-given. Emily Martin notes that this understanding of science disturbs purists within expert culture because it implies that scientists are like the rest of us, natives who share in the creation of what counts as scientific knowledge (102).

The various essays in Technoscience and Cyberculture are bound together by a method that analyzes or “reads” science as a story, as a narrative that can be communicated through anecdote and metaphor. Sharon Traweek’s fieldwork among high-energy physicists yields tales of her interactions with them while she observes her subjects at work. Betina Zolkower presents her fieldwork as an episodic play. Barbara Martinson’s photographic interpretations emerge from the familiar scenes of her own life. John Broughton’s reading of the body as missile gains its potency by evoking shared memories of the movies we have seen. And William DiFazio allows working men and women to speak for themselves. In each case the point is to provide a view of technoscience from the bottom up rather than from the top down. The complexity and indeterminacy that, according to Menser and Aronowitz, marks the interplay between science and culture thus arises from discrete individuals and particular locations.

The anthology’s presentation of science studies also gives us a tense juxtaposition between optimism and pessimism. While most of the essays are cool to any unreflective scientism or technophilia this does not mean that the prevalent mood is one of hostility to technoscience and its works. Instead we find a range of opinion from extreme pessimism about the effects of particular technologies to a proposal for an oppositional future emerging from found technologies. The pessimistic strain within the book is best represented by John Broughton, Arthur Kroker, and Peter Lamborn Wilson. These scholars condemn the desire to transcend or modify the body that one finds in many avenues of (post)modern technoculture. Broughton’s, “The Bomb’s-Eye View: Smart Weapons and Military TV,” for example, questions the evaporative cyborg slipperiness heralded by Haraway’s famous manifesto and instead draws our attention to the cyborg in its role as the superhuman body hardened for war. Broughton tells the story of how the “smart bomb” deployed in the Gulf War became emblematic of our national hopes and expectations. He argues that the visual representation of the war fostered a narrative empty of people. As a result the only possible point of identification for the American audience was that of the bomb as it swooped toward its targets. The bomb not only carried a message of American supremacy, but also invited American civilians along for the ride, imagining themselves as the bomb as it communicated with Iraqi citizens.

Broughton’s mix of psychoanalytic theory with media criticism makes for compelling treatment of his subject. He reminds us that the cyborg which lies at the center of our popular imagination in movies, television, and techno-thrillers is a figure of steel rather than the transcendent spirit. It is the unrelenting juggernaut of the Terminator movies, a robotic creature whose humanity is literally only skin deep. The world that this cyborg inhabits is one in which violence is inevitable, apocalyptic, and highly profitable. For Broughton, any narrative that would edit out organic human bodies and replace them with hardened facsimiles betokens a loss of self that can only mean “oblivion.” Broughton is concerned about nationalistic narratives that glorify suicidal, patriotic cyborgs. His reading is shaped by Stanley Kubrick’s classic, Dr. Strangelove, or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Bomb.” (1963) He refers particularly to the famous scene in which an American aviator, played by Slim Pickens, rides a nuclear bomb to ground zero (152). This technocultural convention continues to find expression in American film. In the recently released Independence Day (aka ID4, 1996), a whiskey-soaked Vietnam veteran finds a more explicit moment of redemption by flying his bomb into the open underbelly of an alien ship. By doing so he saves the day. As a piece of filmmaking it borrows from Strangelove, erasing the original’s satiric intent. He argues that being “excited out” of oneself into “new identities is not necessarily good or subversive because it most often leads to an imaginative regeneration through imperial violence (150).

Apocalypse also hovers in the background of Jody Berland’s account of the opportunities Canada has found in the creation of commercially exploitable images from space. Andrew Ross raises concerns about the “Christian Armaggedonism” that informs Al Gore’s influential brand of environmentalism, on-line and in the natural world. However, the most forthright in following the downside of our obsession with new technological spaces and their occupants is political scientist Arthur Kroker.

In “Virtual Capitalism” Kroker borrows heavily from the B-movie classics of yesteryear to condemn what he calls the virtual class. His characterization of the brat pack of virtual capitalists and on-line impresarios as “the living dead: body vivisectionists and early (mind) abandoners surfing the Net on a road trip to the virtual inferno,” is hilariously provocative (169). Kroker’s colorful use of schlock-horror rhetoric drives home his central points: the virtual class is against economic justice, democratic discourse, and the human body; their promotion of electronic property rights will shut down the here-to-fore hopeful anarchy of the Net (170); a nasty synergy exists between technocratic elites and right-wing governments which makes the elimination of “the working class, the homeless and the powerless” a “necessity” (174); and the state is being transformed into a prison for the non-VR classes (176). Kroker presents us a future in which the perversities of technological liberalism and its desire to download itself into post(“sub”)human bodies (a la Hans Moravec) produces a world in which “slave nations” are in service to virtual “mutants” (174) who feed off the bodies for their “virtualized populations” for labor and parts (177).

Our knowledge of the history of eugenics, the Tuskegee Experiment, and the testing of contraceptives on poor women, forces us to recognize the validity of Kroker’s concerns about the anti-democratic uses of technoscience. His presentation, however, violates the framework of complexity and indeterminacy established by the editors. Kroker would give little credence to suggestions that technoscience may be deployed in the name of resistance or even by a coherently radical political agenda. Hence, while his argument is an effective warning, its totalizing vision offers little hope for constructive engagement with contemporary technoculture or the potentials of cyberspace.

Peter Lamborn Wilson’s “Boundary Violations” makes explicit the logical binary that informs the pessimism expressed by Broughton and Kroker. The central fear motivating Wilson’s essay is that of evaporation: that the body will disappear and we will lose our connection to the physical world. He shares Kroker’s mistrust of the virtual class and the instruments of their power. While he does not accept the fashionable notion that the Net is some sort of disease (for more on this see Andrew Ross), Wilson also finds incredible the idea that it could foster the same level of communication that obtains when physical bodies touch. For him the Internet is a “distracted” space that can never satisfy basic human drives. By taking this stand Wilson privileges a traditionalist reading of the biological: he argues that only through biology, the power of living organic material, are the most informative and fulfilling connections made (227). His argument directly opposes the claims of modern telecommunications to the “juice and slime” of the organic. For Wilson cyberspace and the “mesosphere” (the biosphere) are distinct environments which operate through fundamentally different systems. His concern with reasserting the priority of the body and the physical spaces in which it exists is coupled to a critique of the disembodied cyberia of capitalism. Cyberspace, a computer based electronic assemblage of privately owned public spaces, stands condemned as only the latest medium into which capitalism can alienate wealth, power, and identity. In his most striking image Wilson describes cyberculture as an empty room containing a television policed by Robocop (226).

Wilson contrasts the “antiarchitecture” represented by Robocop and his milieu to the folksy comforts of Gothic and Baroque architecture. In Wilson’s hands these familiar architectural styles share a positive investment in an organic aesthetic. They mimic biological forms and, by doing so, provide spaces which encourage “permeable boundaries,” and thereby create environments which allow bodies to stay in touch.

The tone here is intensely nostalgic, harking back as it does to a socialism theorized during the first sixty years of this century. Wilson’s antecedents include this century’s Garden City Movement as represented by Lewis Mumford and the Regional Planning Association of America. They too looked toward the folk and found little hope for radical renewal in the heavily privatized, carceral space of modern industrial cities such as New York and London. Wilson shares their intuition that a progressive politics cannot happen anywhere but in a pastoral landscape far beyond the concrete canyons of capital’s delight. In the context of this collection an unhistoricized reliance on this philosophical and aesthetic tradition seems a bit odd. It comes close to erasing all those resistances, rebellions, and riots which have happened within the great cities of New York, Paris, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, and Moscow.

Broughton, Kroker, and Wilson are primarily interested in evaluating the negative impact of new technologies on existent social and economic arrangements, particularly on the disposition of bodies. These scholars bring us tidings of a grim future in which the issues that trouble us today are further exasperated. By separating the world into good organic and bad inorganic phyla the more pessimistic of them replicate Sokal’s assumption that science and nature are separate and unique entities. Where Sokal tends to see science as intrinsically good, they see trouble. They flip the hierarchical arrangement of the binary division of the world, but they do not question the division itself. Interestingly, the more optimistic contributors to this anthology see greater room for maneuver within technoscience, precisely because they do not accept the neat separation of the organic from the inorganic, or the scientist from the folk. The most compelling essays in this vein are Sharon Traweek’s, “When Eliza Doolittle Studies ‘enry ‘iggins,” Emily Martin’s “Citadels, Rhizomes, and String Figures,” and Lebbeus Woods’ “The Question of Space.”

Traweek’s anthropological account of the high-energy physics community is interwoven with a reading of the 1964 film musical, My Fair Lady. She uses the familiar characters of Eliza Doolittle, Professor Henry Higgins, and Colonel Pickering as signs of the personalities and relationships she encounters in her fieldwork. This device allows her to illuminate the power-filled nature of the relationship between high energy physicists doing basic research, their vexed involvement with a militarized capitalism, and her own position as a woman and anthropologist whose work, according to her subjects, is impossible because it is not “objective” (39-40).

Traweek is interested in how knowledge is produced, and in the ideologies, personalities, and machines which combine to make “world class” physical knowledge. What she finds is a discipline deeply implicated in the military-industrial complex despite its ethic of political and professional disinterest. It is a discipline in which knowledge production is fostered by hierarchical divisions of labor (which find their analogs in the gender and class relationships of My Fair Lady) and which benefits from the division of the (post)imperial globe into the rich, knowledge-producing nations (Europe, America, Japan), who consume raw materials and cheap labor (both manual and intellectual), and the poor, knowledge-consuming nations.

Traweek’s story is not one that many scientists inside or outside of high-energy physics would recognize comfortably. The ethos of academic science, particularly as represented by prominent spokespeople such as Carl Sagan, cleaves to a liberal, at times radical, political philosophy of openness, international affinity, and the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. Traweek’s physicists might agree with these sentiments, and she points out that many of them pride themselves on being uninvolved in applied research, particularly that which requires working for the military. Yet her examination of the career paths of both former and prominent high-energy physicists demonstrates that it is the rare individual who can avoid selling his or her research abilities to commercial or military interests. >>–> thREAD on Selling Out. Traweek’s revelations about the wash-out rate of post-docs who must leave the academy and find work in other areas and the tremendous economic and professional benefits that accrue to members of JASON, a high-flying organization that “evaluate[s] scientific and technological projects for the U.S. government,” constitutes the public airing of some embarrassingly dirty laundry (45-46).

The picture that Traweek paints of science as a social ideal is, therefore, less than ideal. Scientists are revealed as human beings immersed in a militarized consumer capitalism that rewards particular ethical, class- and gender-based biases. Her comparisons of the high-energy physics communities in the U.S. and Japan provides a clear sketch of how the international brotherhood of science behaves in practice rather than in theory. Her stories lead to the inevitable conclusion that to be positioned at the American node of science is to be heir, willy-nilly, to the colonialism of the past two centuries.

It would be a mistake, however, to read Traweek’s essay as a dyspeptic and wrong-headed effort to “bash” science or to cast doubt on the worth of the scientific enterprise. She takes seriously the claims of high-energy physics as a privileged discourse on what we know about the world. Her concern is to correct what is false in the perception of this knowledge: that it is disinterested and uninvolved in the human world that produces it. By approaching physics as a culture she opens up the discipline to analysis in ways that would be ruled out by any unquestioning faith.

A concern with cultural change is also fundamental to Traweek’s method. She is attentive to the changes currently transforming international high-energy physics. She points, specifically, to the changing demographics of the discipline as its doors creak open to admit “once marginalized groups (Japanese women, American minorities, including women),” as she puts it, and to the impact that new members have had or will have on “the next physics questions and the next machines to be built” (51). The time that she has spent in the laboratories of physicists who must do their work as Japanese women is instructive in this regard. Amid the stuffed animals and flower vases (items, we assume, not commonly found in the laboratories of men) she sees the growth of a high-energy physics with little connection to “all the usual ways” (42-43).

Emily Martin’s “Citadels, Rhizomes, and String Figures” constitutes a comment on and an extension of Traweek’s work. Martin notes that Traweek’s analysis of the culture of high-energy physics demonstrates the “historically contingent nature” of that culture’s “fundamental presuppositions.” Martin acknowledges that Traweek’s studies are “groundbreaking” but finds that, as a participant-observer, she never wanders far beyond the walls of the physics community. This means that Traweek, as an ethnographer, does not consider that which Martin finds most interesting: the connection between the professional culture of science and the world that lies beyond its walls.

According to Martin, a proper analysis of this connection requires a reevaluation of the metaphors that we use to think about science. The metaphor she finds most objectionable is that of the citadel, an image akin to that of the academic ivory tower. Through it the qualities of abstraction and immutability are conferred on science. She champions usages, through terms such as rhizomes and string figures, that focus on the porous qualities of the force fields that we would establish between science and society. If, she implies, science does not dominate our world like a medieval castle or cathedral, if it is neither a faith nor an overwhelmingly dominant power, then it becomes possible to ask, without apology, some appropriate and quite sensible questions. How do people take up science and its artifacts? How do non-scientists participate with scientists in making both the commonplaces and the speculative fringes of science? Such questions lead us to consider the complexity of scientific endeavors which, because arising from a political world, are also available for appropriation by actors of any political persuasion.

The most speculatively optimistic contributor to Technoscience and Cyberculture, architectural theorist Lebbeus Woods, goes beyond the epistolary maps that we have seen so far to suggest a radical future that could be built with the aid of contemporary science. In the book’s penultimate article, “The Question of Space,” Woods inveighs against the old modernist clich´ of “form follows function” and (post)modern architecture’s slavish commitment to producing monuments for privileged capitalists. In the stead of these discredited aesthetics Woods argues for what he calls an anarchitecture. As he makes clear in his valuable project survey, OneFiveFour (1989), Woods’ design philosophy seeks a grand synthesis of the sciences (particularly physics and geology), technology, and the arts with the aim of creating a new culture (Woods, 1989: 1-11). As he evolves the formal vocabulary through which this vision is represented, Woods embraces instruments that others find troubling. The world that he would make contains, as Michael Menser notes, “both organic and inorganic” individuals, heterarchs inventing themselves in “freespaces” abstracted from the rigid usages of the state.

As Woods describes it, the Berlin Free-Zone project (BFZ), like his Underground Berlin and Centricity projects of the eighties, would have been impossible to imagine before the industrial revolution. He renders it as a series of discontinuous spaces, a “hidden city” linked by the technologies of speed-of-light communications:

This hidden city is called a free-zone, because it provides unlimited free access to communications and to other, more esoteric, networks at present reserved for the major institutions of government and commerce - but also because interaction and dialogue are unrestricted by conventions of behavior enforced by these institutions. (286)

This is an architecture made possible by the cybernetic potentials suggested by modern telecommunications and the computer. The architect corresponds with, rather than reacts against, the changes implied by new science and technology.

Woods’ aesthetic shares its historical, political, and theoretical grounding with Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (1972) and those classics of the mid-seventies architectural left, Other Homes and Garbage (1975) and Nomadic Furniture (1973). Yet even in this history the aggressiveness of Woods’ interventions below, above, and through (post)modern space stand out. The liberal/socialist visions of earlier theorists negotiated with the built environment and the systems on which it depends (what Menser calls the arch), inventing appropriate spaces and technologies - collapsible and low-tech anodynes to homelessness, poverty, and the (post)colonial condition. Woods, on the other hand, renders a freespace materialized by squatter/heterarchs who project themselves onto spaces and identities undreamt of in the Cartesian spaces of capitalism.

In his commentary on Woods, Michael Menser appreciatively notes the architectural theorist’s commitment to an aesthetic and an architecture that is produced by its users (305). Woods’ anararchitecture must be created from the ground up. Its creators will not be members of the comfortable middle classes who, we presume, can afford and would prefer to consume ready-made spaces, but “illegal immigrants, squatters, the homeless,” and young ravers who would “produce space, rather than simply plug into the hieros edifice of architecture entrenched in the striated metric of state space” (305). What we have here, in other words, is a bold attempt to imagine the creation of living rooms that are outside the domain of consumer capitalism and which actually produce difference. Menser makes it clear that there is nothing easy about Woods’ anarchitecture. It resists commodification in a way that mainstream architectural postmodernism has not. This does not mean, however, that one should believe that Woods’ vision is completely closed to appropriation or commodification by elites. A clue to how this might happen may be garnered from Philip Johnson’s recent statement that he is now “in love” with curves. He plans to work on a curvilinear architecture well into the next century. If this is so we may see designs reminiscent of a Woodsian aesthetic much sooner than we might think and these structures will not be erected in the service of heterarchy.

It is hard to imagine either comfort or luxury in Woods’ illustrated spaces. They punch their way through our familiar boxes, sculpting angles and corners that seem unusable. They blur the distinction between the organic (juice and slime) and inorganic, and call up an underworld that seems either occult or illegal. The heterarchs of this world are Harawaian cyborgs or, more aptly, updated iterations of Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, creating eccentric spaces lit by stolen energy. Within the context of Technoscience and Cyberculture Woods is also important for his willing engagement with the radical rather than the reactionary implications of contemporary physics and cybernetics. He eschews nostalgic reenactment of past rebellions or communitarian experiments, preferring to use the materials we have on hand rather than simply bemoaning their existence.

Woods and Menser’s evocation of a science that is useful to the left is not the same as a return to the worship of science as an end in itself. They avoid a recapitulation of Sokal’s notion that science is inherently progressive because of its adherence to enlightenment-inspired metanarratives of truth, progress, and reason. What they offer instead is a vision of a third culture in which scientists and non-scientists work together, sharing each other’s work, in ways not grounded in disciplinary rationales founded on notions of fundamental difference. The heterarchs of this future could not function if they were to replicate the expert culture to which we are accustomed.

Technoscience and Cyberculture forces us to contemplate the parameters of that third culture, it does not, however, evaluate the significance of science fiction and popular science writing in constructing that culture. While, writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Neil Stephenson, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson serve as points of reference for some of the scholars represented here, there is no full dress consideration of the often very direct connection that science fiction makes between science and the narratives we use to place knowledge and technics in our world. Given the anthology’s concern with breaking down the artificial distance between science and the rest of us, its silence regarding popular science writing is even more puzzling. It is wrong to assume that science or, at least, individual scientists have been unwilling to open castle doors for the sake of interested villagers. A short list of scientists and engineers who have written for the public must also include Albert Einstein, Wernher von Braun, George Gamow, Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, Lyn Margolis, and Stephen Jay Gould. And the most well known of contemporary popularizers is, of course, Carl Sagan. Attention to the ways in which these writers represent both their own disciplines and the relationship between science and society could provide valuable insight as we continue to develop cultural studies of science.

Works Cited

Hennessey, James and Victor J. Papanek. Nomadic Furniture New York: Pantheon, 1973.

Leckie, James O. Other Homes and Garbage: Designs for Self-Sufficient Living. San Francisco, Sierra Club Books, 1975.

Papanek, Victor. Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1972.

Snow, C.P. The Two Cultures: and A Second Look. New York: Mentor/The New American Library, 1963.

Woods, Lebbeus. OneFiveFour. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1989.

Notes