on approaching reality through signs: the responsibility of anthropology

One of the questions for the final exam in my class on “Technology and Culture” asks for a discussion of one of Bourdieu’s rant against “constructivism” particularly as it applies to the sociology of science.  Once, he singled Latour and Woolgar’s ethnography of a biological research lab for possibly “reducing scientific demonstrations to mere rhetorical exhibitions”  (1998 [1994]: 94).  Joseph Lim, one of the students in this June 2009 class, took this question on.  He started with Baudrillard’s discussion of simulacra where the “sign replaces the real.”  Then, of course, science-as-sign ceases to be “real.”  Lim argues against this—as indeed one should for Baudrillard altogether misunderstands that signs are the only way for human beings to approach reality.  And then Bourdieu joins Baudrillard without noticing that, arguably, what Latour has been doing is putting analytic teeth in his own emphasis on, precisely, practice.

This made me think further about what Latour and, of course, Garfinkel before him, had done.  In a way they moved science (and all other “it’s” [things, epistemes?]) from the realm of platonic ideas to the realms of human practical productions that transform human conditions.  In this move they did not quite demonstrated that there may not be essences that human beings cannot directly apprehend.  Rather, they demonstrated that human beings, in their metaphorical cave, do not simply contemplate the shadows and wonder what they might be shadows “of.”  Human beings, always, work hard together to figure out what to do with their actual conditions in the cave.  In the process, they transform their cave and indeed their methods for figuring out the things that may be making shadows.  In this process, as Merleau-Ponty had understood (1969), (Saussurian) signs are the only, as well as the most powerful, tools at the disposal of human beings.  Signs never substitutes themselves to reality.  As anthropologists had to learn, though they did it early on, no human beings, together, has ever mistaken a prayer for successful hunt with a successful hunt.  So, I am quite sure, no scientist will ever mistake a statement of fact (a sign), or an argumentation that a fact is factual, with the fact itself (the experience the sign cannot quite capture).  Or, more precisely, in the collective conversations scientists have with each other (and this is to bring in the pragmatist correction to Saussurian structuralism), whether a statement of fact is to be taken as a fact “for all intent and purposes” will be a practical achievement that will last until it is demonstrated that the semiotic process was somehow invalid.

Methodologically, this means that, to access what we have found out our current representations do not quite catch, one does not proceed from deduction and definition to observation.  Rather, one proceed through another look at the practices that have led to any “it” (taken-for-granted-so-far) and the new skepticism about its “it-ness.”  “Perhaps,” we can imagine men discussing, “this is not the way to hunt this beast… Perhaps another set of hunting practices might be more successful and, by the way, do you notice that, this other set, might also allow us to ……”  Having looked carefully at the practices, one can then propose new statements of (practical) fact: “this process is (dis-)abling in these specific ways.”

And so, approaching science (schooling, etc.) in a semiotic (interactional, conversational) way is not to critique the standing of science as a particular form of human knowledge, and probably a privileged one for certain human purposes.  It is, on the contrary, to participate in its further development as, precisely, “science.”  My favorite example is to be found in Jane Goodall  work on chimpanzees: By highlighting certain semiotic processes (men looking at males and privileging their activity), and then by shifting these (as a woman looking at females), our collectivity (polity, community of practice) was led to a more scientific view of chimpanzee social structure.

Thus the responsibility of anthropologists is to demonstrate just how signs-in-particular-conversation proceed, and to do so in such a way that scientists in other fields find their work useful for their own.

One thought on “on approaching reality through signs: the responsibility of anthropology”

  1. One of the criticisms that (natural) scientists have against (social) scientists is that social scientists tend to misunderstand their (natural) practice by interpreting it through their own theoretical (postmodern, feminist, Marxist, postfeminist, whatever that means) lens. While reading Latour, I was fascinated by the “Science Wars” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_wars), during which he himself was criticized, although perhaps unfairly.

    Latour’s book “Politics in Nature” takes on the Platonic cave head on, where he critiques, and then reinterprets, the metaphorical cave. In it, he discusses the paradoxical role that scientists play when it comes to who can talk about science. Like the Ph.D comic I sent you (http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1174), the cycle of scientific ideas through academic journals and through the mass media can be very different and frustrating.

    Perhaps Bourdieu and Baudrillard failed to take into account the diachronic aspect of scientific practice, and that, if you only take a snapshot of a semiotic domain, it can appear as if the sign has taken over the reality. But by taking a more historical view, the actual practice unfolds more clearly.

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