Bell Philip (2010)
Confronting Theory. The Psychology of Cultural Studies
Intellect, Bristol (UK), Chicago (USA)
Review: © Patrick Cattrysse (15 -12-2010)
In Confronting Theory Philip Bell offers eight essays dealing with the theoretical question whether human experience, culture, communication, and ‘life’ itself can be meaningfully understood without reference to ‘human nature’. As the subtitle indicates, Confronting Theory examines its concepts from the perspective of Psychology.
By way of introduction, Bell argues that systematic empirical knowledge about people, their biology and their psychology, is relevant to the domains of the humanities and social sciences and that it is possible to know objective (sic) things about why and how people behave and feel as they do in particular cultural and social circumstances. With this statement, the author reacts against a trend he notices since the 1970’s in some European philosophical writings. This trend competes increasingly with ‘empirico-realist epistemologies in Anglo-American humanities and social science curricula’ (p.8), and it questions the assumed objectivity of any knowledge, including scientific knowledge. Through the essays, Bell contends that humanities students today are very likely to leave university equipped with an armory of arguments against science’s claim to objectivity, whether or not they have attained even rudimentary knowledge of any particular science during their own studies.
In a first essay called ‘Cultural Studies and Capital-T Theory’ Bell specifies what he means by ‘Theory with Capital-T’. The concept refers to Anglophone interdisciplinary writings in the humanities and the social sciences which adhere to an anti-realist epistemology, arbitrary relativisms and the assumption of ‘new realities’. Bell traces its roots back to European philosophical traditions such as Spinoza’s and Bergson’s thinking, and more recently to the work of 1960’s and 1970’s French, post-structuralist writers such as Deleuze, Guattari, Derrida and Foucault. Translations into English, by Brian Massumi and others, spread these ideas into what Bell calls ‘Anglophone universities’. Its purpose: rewrite the nature of meaning and epistemology in the nonphysical as well as the physical sciences, reject the possibility of objective knowledge. When in 1996 and 1998 the Sokal hoax and the Sokal-Bricmont’s successor more than ridiculed this type of ‘theorizing’, the targeted Cultural Studies writers ignored these attacks and went about their business as if nothing had happened.
The second essay called ‘What Theory is about’ continues on this theme. Quotes from commentators such as Greg Hainge, William Bogard and others illustrate how new words are created, based on elusive definitions or no definitions at all. Whereas the use of the ontological verb ‘to be’ is omnipresent and suggests factual propositions, the words do not refer to factual referents, only to personally experienced abstractions. References are made to quantum physics and to mathematics, even though there is no way to support any claim in a positivistic way. What is more, these references are not meant to be understood as metaphorical but as literal. However, as long as no one knows anything about quantum physics or mathematics, everything is ok.
A third essay is called ‘Different Things’. In a paragraph called ‘Language problems’, Bell criticizes the ironic paradox between the radical skepticism of Capital-T Theorists who claim that language is an unreliable tool to convey knowledge, but then produce their ‘grandiose metaphysical and pseudo-scientific writing the principal function of which is to exploit for no more than literary effect the very ambiguity that could be avoided by the simple expedient of explicit definition’ (p.44). If one is to take care of ambiguity and equivocation, the whole community of scientists working on the one set of problems should be speaking ‘the same language’ about ‘the same thing’: ‘inter-subjective reliability is encouraged by explicit definition of ‘low level’ (observable) and ‘higher level’ (abstract) concepts alike’ (ibid.).
Bell further discusses ‘reductionism’ and ‘essentialism’. Non realist theories want to avoid essentialism which they consider as reductionist. Questions refer to whether race and racism or moral sense pertain to nature or to nurture. Bell further discusses contradictions between Deleuzian and Derridean concepts which too often remain ignored as long as they remain antagonistic to the same enemies, namely ‘realism’, ‘empiricism’ and ‘positivism’.
Chapter four opens with a short outline of how academic Psychology came under the increasing attack of 1980’s French post-structuralists, Marxist feminists, ‘Radical’ psychologists and ‘anti-psychiatrists’. As Cultural Studies developed as a discipline, it gravitated towards humanities rather than social or biological science traditions, preferring phenomenological and hermeneutic concepts for describing the nuances of cultural experience. Psychology postulates a more or less coherent human ‘subject’ or identity, centered on memory and agency. The discipline assumes that ‘people’ can be described in terms of actual, unique identities, and as ‘objects’ with certain qualities or characteristics. The Cultural Studies texts Bell criticizes reject these notions. They claim that psychological phenomena such as perception, emotional responses, personal identity or subjectivity are explained by or as semiological phenomena. In the following paragraphs, Bell cautions against too-ready and uncritical acceptance of these semiotic accounts. To speak of people as ‘semiotic subjects’ suggests that there are no actual, real persons to study and to explain; merely ever changing discourses about subjects, or discursive subjects or ever changing subject positions in a network of ever-changing sign systems and meanings. Bell mentions and discusses among other critics Judith Butler, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Terry Eagleton, Chris Barker, Tony Schirato and Susan Yell.
A fifth essay is called ‘Post-Human’ Theory and Cultural Studies. It deals with the concept of the ‘post-human’, and how it threatens the very bases of humanistic scholarship and undermines post-Enlightenment epistemological, ethical and ontological certainties (sic). Humanism is linked to actual techno-cultural conditions, and seen as a historically-grounded ideology or world-view. Thus, it is a contingent episteme or paradigm, and will fade away as its supporting conditions change. The debate thus reiterates the discussion between ‘beings’ or ‘entities’ (Humanism) versus Deleuzian ‘becomings’ (Post-Humanism). Interestingly, Bell argues that many of these post-humanist writings are linked with a utopian futuristic world view. Again, different quotes illustrate how difficult it is to disentangle empirical/realist claims from predictive, metaphorical and wishful ones. Also, one must believe these claims, not test them on their truth value. Vague language use clouds again the debates: ‘entities’ are discarded as essentialized fictions and replaced with ‘becomings’, even though the word ‘becomings’ reifies the process just as much. What is more, the term ‘becoming’ becomes rather mystifying when it does not refer to the transition of one entity to another but must be considered in and by itself.
Chapter six discusses the many uses of the word ‘affect’. In (mostly Deleuzian) Cultural Studies, the term describes a multitude of reactions works of art produce upon an audience. Bell argues that the term does not only indicate effects produced by phenomena upon people, but that ‘affect’ is also used to refer to characteristics of the material world itself. This practice is called ‘vitalism’: predicates assigned by subjects to objects are seen as properties of those same objects. This is how non realist analysts avoid reducing the world to ‘dumb matter’. Furthermore, Bell shows that Deleuze’s verbal inventiveness may be fun and appear serious but that it does not describe new phenomena nor help to describe or explain commonly known effects of say movies or TV programs upon specific audiences. Once the word ‘affect’ passes through the hands of Deleuzian epigones, it really turns into an umbrella term, a word which is used by many in as many different ways.
Bell reiterates that known concepts and entities in ‘human sciences’ are rejected for being essentialist and replaced by equally reified concepts such as ‘affect’, ‘quasi-causality’ or ‘excess’. Realist critics may argue that these concepts do not refer to observable or potentially observable phenomena, but non realist commentators such as Brian Massumi, Nigel Thrift, Daniel Dennett, and others consider them as ‘infra-empirical’. Other illustrative cases such as Lisa Blackman’s 2008 treatment of Clever Hans, ‑ the horse that seemed to be able to do mental arithmetic ‑ show how Deleuzian verbiage and its ‘bastard siblings’ offer at best complicated ways of describing simple phenomena without providing new insights, and at worst mere gibberish.
The seventh essay continues the discussion about how some Cultural Studies commentators attempt to rewrite biological and psychological science. To illustrate this, Bell presents more quotes from Lisa’s Blackman’s 2008 textbook on The Body and Brian Massumi’s 2002 Parables for the Virtual. Bell shows how Blackman’s textbook mixes phenomenological with empirical description, ignoring the ontological consequences of this conflation. Again, postulates which have no referent in an outside real world (e.g. ‘vitality’, ‘liveness’, ‘affect’, …) are recontextualized into a ‘process ontology’ and a social constructivist epistemology. Again, these writers do not present their findings as a complement to scientific biology or academic psychology but as a replacement, an improvement even. Blackman discusses for example medical conditions (e.g. dementia praecox, hypoglycaemia, …) which according to her cannot be adequately described in physiological terms.
In a paragraph called ‘Vital Phenomenology’, Bell illustrates how Brian Massumi’s 2002 Parables of the Virtual relates to Bergson’s phenomenology and to the postwar French philosophy of Deleuze, Guattari, and Foucault. He illustrates at the same time how Massumi also practices what is called ‘vitalism’ (see above). I repeat one quote which rather speaks for itself: ‘When a color is interrogated by language it displays a self-insistent dynamic that commands itself to the instituted context, into which it breaks and enters, delivering itself to the questioning’ (Massumi 2002:211 quoted on page 117).
The eighth and last essay concludes with some ethical reflections about ‘Theory and Education’. Bell warns against a ‘Cultural Studies’ version of Psychology that wants to ‘colonize discursively’ what used to be Psychology’s field of study as a science modeled on biology. The solutions he proposes fit into a wider approach which could be labeled ‘critical realism’: observation-based theorization producing ‘statements which refer unambiguously to states of affairs’ (p.129), that is statements the truth value of which can be verified or falsified. As an alternative to the Deleuze’s, the Massumi’s, etc., Bell offers a reading list and a questionnaire. They deal with educational issues where students should be trained to be critical and not just to believe anything they read. According to Bell, humanities and post-humanities are fast becoming educationally irrelevant and the ‘new’ Theory-speak merely intimidates students without offering useful insights. Theory, as Bell calls it, has become an end in itself; or rather it has, according to some, become a means to a left-critical political end.
Philip Bell addresses his Confronting Theory to students in Cultural Studies. Hence, as a newcomer to the field, I feel I fit very well in Bell’s implied audience. Furthermore, I admit that his criticisms on ‘theories only dogs can hear’ sound very refreshing. I am certain that with me, a lot of apprentice readers in Cultural Studies, who have also tried for years to make sense out of nonsense, will be happy to hear an expert explain that much of this writing is just gibberish. Many of the examples Bell offers speak for themselves. Others are well explained. The gist of the argument is described in a very comprehensible way: discourse that produces words without precise or consistent definition creates confusion. Discourse that spawns words only to describe very personally experienced abstractions pertains to a religious ‘believe versus disbelieve’ mode of interpretation, whereas discourse that aspires to a scientific status requires a ‘true versus false’ mode of interpretation. Such a ‘true versus false’ mode of interpretation or communication can only be applied if words can be checked to match the world.
If I have to make suggestions for improvement, I would say that maybe one disadvantage of this book might be its structure which consists of eight ‘overlapping’ essays. It seems as if the essays were written separately and for a different purpose. True, the author inserts cross-references and repeats that the essays ‘overlap’. But the consequence is that sometimes information is scattered over several essays. At other times, information is needlessly repeated. A more consistent restructuring of the topics would probably allow for more time/space to deal with more topics or with the same topics in a more thorough, less redundant way. For example, it takes more than one essay to get a clear understanding of the type of writing Bell is objecting to in Cultural Studies. Across the essays, descriptions of what is understood by ‘Theory with Capital-T’ vary from very vague to more specific. In one essay, Bell refers to Spinoza, Bergson, and 1960’s and 1970’s French and European philosophers such as Deleuze, Derrida, including English translators and epigones such as Massumi and Blackman. Yet elsewhere assertions seem to refer to Cultural Studies in general; for example when the author criticizes ‘Cultural Studies’ complacent disregard of any technically precise methodology from the fields it cannibalizes and rewrites’ (p.9). Still elsewhere the scope varies from Australia and the UK only (p.126), to ‘writers who have been influential in recent Anglophone Cultural Studies’ (p.31), to ‘Theory that underpins much of Cultural Studies’ (p.61), or ‘European metaphysics’ (p.125), or ‘English versions of European metaphysics’ (p.131). Occasionally, the author even admits that he has been ‘citing Theory as though it constituted one coherent body of conceptualizations and metaphysical assumptions (…) clearly an oversimplification’ (p.20), and he adds that in fact what he has labeled ‘Theory with a capital-T’ is ‘impossible to summarize’ (p.31). If scientific discourse is meant to be empirical, descriptive, and induction based, it matters to establish first a precise and explicit corpus of occurrences to be investigated. The more precise and the more explicit the chosen population of examined occurrences can be made, the better statements about these occurrences can be verified to be true of false. True, criticisms and explanations are generally based on specific quotes and examples. But how these quotes and singular cases relate exactly to the global field of Cultural Studies remains unclear: they must be seen as ‘typical of an increasingly popular way of writing’ (p.20), typical also of ‘writers who have been influential in recent Anglophone Cultural Studies’ (p.31). I am skeptical when conclusions are drawn that can be taken to apply to the whole field of Cultural Studies. Bell is more careful when he specifies that he criticizes one particular type of discourse which can be found in specific writings of specific commentators such as Deleuze, Guattari, Massumi, Blackman, and Murphie. What is more, if ‘Theory with Capital-T’ is identified in a more precise way, its position within the larger field of global Cultural Studies can also be investigated and described in a more precise way. I realize that it is one task to study, and criticize thoroughly the features of one specific type of discourse found in a specific list of Cultural Studies writers, and another task to describe the relative position and importance of these thoughts and these specific writers in the whole field of Cultural Studies. To try and do both might be too much indeed within the space of one hundred and forty pages.
Another point of discussion might be the fact that Bell’s arguments to compete Capital T Theory’s writings may not always be consistent. Especially in cases where the apprentice reader is not very familiar with the texts under investigation, it may be difficult to adequately judge the pro’s and con’s that are used to support or attack this or that argument. I hereafter discuss a few examples. They all appear to be linked with one common topic: the distinction between description and evaluation or to put it in a more philosophical way, the distinction between statements of fact and statements of value. The ‘fact-value’ debate also emerges during the Enlightenment. Whereas statements of fact are meant to say something about reality as it exists independently of human perception and existence, statements of value refer to a value expressed by a subject or subjects as assigned to an object. Statements of fact may be verified to be true or false. Statements of value are not true or false. The addresser may be sincere or not and the addressee may believe or disbelieve, agree or disagree depending on their taste. Put this way, the distinction seems quite simple. However appearances deceive and today’s philosophical discussions show that both facts and values are entangled in many complex ways (see e.g. Putnam 2002). The fact-value debate reminds Max Weber’s postulate of a science that would be freed from value judgments (see Lorenz 1987:241). Followers of Weber’s postulate state that science should focus on statements of fact, even though these statements should not stop at the description of facts, but also explain and interpret them. Some would even claim that science should also predict facts. They would also contend that prescription, as opposed to description, should be left to education and politics. However it is important to understand that this division of labor remains controversial among academics as well as educators and politicians. Some academics claim that the notion of a value free science could be immoral (see Lorenz 1987:245).
When reading Bell’s realist account on Cultural Studies, one could expect him to adhere to a neat distinction between fact and value: for example when he distinguishes between the cultural and political understanding of facts and the scientific description and deterministic explanation of them (p.21), or when he criticizes commentators for mixing apparently empirical propositions with stipulative definitions (pp.19, 37, 78, etc.) or when he repeatedly stresses the importance for scientific discourse to produce statements that can be checked to be true or false. Yet Bell’s argumentation is not always that consistent: scientific statements, whether true or false, may be dismissed because they are ‘unlikely to incite student’s interest’ (p.121), or because the assertions are ‘self-defeating and politically disempowering’ (p.56), or because the epistemology they are based on is ‘despairing’ (p.84). These arguments combine (or confuse?) description and prescription. Of course description (or science) entertains multiple and complex interrelationships with prescription (either in education or politics), but how they interact exactly is under-investigated, and in order to examine the complex interrelationships between science, education and politics, one needs to distinguish the concepts of description and prescription first in a more clear way. When I claim that ‘this car has three wheels’, students cannot dismiss this statement as not valid or false on the basis that they find it unmotivating. However, it is also true that theories only dogs can hear defeat their purpose: what is the point indeed of developing a research program or a theory no practitioner can understand, let alone apply? To discard statements, whether true or false, because they are ‘politically disempowering’ also combines or confuses description and prescription though in a different way: here, science merges with politics. Contrary to the academics mentioned above in Lorenz (1987:245), Bell never mentions explicitly if he feels science should be involved with politics. Occasionally, one can maybe read different positions in between the lines. Finally, when Bell discards Colebrook’s epistemology as ‘despairing’ because ‘in it, all knowable entities, including the human species, simply evaporate’, one may reply: ‘Despairing? But what if it is true?’ Both realists and non realists agree that reality is in a constant flux and that the way for humans to make sense out of change and difference is to freeze-frame perspectivized parts of that complete and ever changing reality. If differences and change are what ‘is’ and similarities and structure are what humans make of them to be able to understand them and communicate about them, must one not conclude that change and differences are more real than similarities because the former exist without perception and the latter do not? And if so, does it not follow that non realists are more realist than realists when they focus on processes and constant change? I leave aside here the different language problems and the circuitous nonsensical rhetorics Bell mentions repeatedly to focus only the change/difference versus stasis/similarity problem now. Must we not conclude that we ‘register’ or ‘discover’ differences but ‘construct’ similarities? On the other hand, experientially, ignoring changes and differences as ‘irrelevant’, ‑ which is a value (see below) ‑, does not cause conflicts in terms of extinction of the species. As a matter of fact, we actually must ignore many changes and differences in order to be able to function and to survive in this world. In a way, this is how I interpret ‘Making sense of difference’ (p.54). If after a long day’s work, I go home to sleep, I know I have changed since the morning I left, and I may also know that according to a thing called the second law of Thermodynamics, my house has suffered some increased entropy, although I hope not too much, and I dare not to think about the thousands of millions of kilometers it must have been displaced in space since that morning, because the universe is expanding at a continuously increasing speed. Yet it is only because I ignore all those changes and differences as ‘not relevant’, that I do manage to find back myself, my house and my bed to sleep in it. However real these changes and differences, I need to ignore them in order ‘to get things done’, or put more generally: in order to survive. The fact that ignoring these differences and changes as ‘irrelevant’ does not cause major conflicts between myself and the world I am interacting with may suggest that this type of perceiving, ‑ freeze-framing only parts of a complete and permanently changing reality ‑, does not totally alienate me from reality. And maybe I may conclude that therefore, these perceived similarities, ‑ patterns, ‘Gestalts’, schemata, scripts, causes, … ‑, ‘are’ somehow also part of reality, despite the fact that they only emerge after perception? However, here is where, as an apprentice philosopher, I must make room for the pro’s. Maybe Bell could have dealt with the topic more thoroughly if the structure of the eight essays had been arranged more economically. For it is an important question if realists are to response in a convincing way to the non realist claim that scientific, or positivist or empiricist discourse has lost its legitimacy, and other subjects Bell discusses in his book depend on it, but remain under-investigated as a consequence. I mention two: 1. the non realist claim that it could replace scientific discourse because it is essentialist and reductionist and 2., the question whether a moral sense is an innate part of human nature or not. I could have added the fascinating but equally muddled discussion about race and racism (p.54ff.), but I must leave that one for another time.
1. Bell discusses many contradictions in the non realist writings he criticizes, ‑ I mentioned the inconsistent, often contradictory usage of words such as ‘affect. A far more fundamental contradiction concerns Derrida’s et al. notion of ‘deconstruction’ presupposing ‘meta-theories of language that contradicted most of the assumptions they themselves routinely made about language and representation in their less self-reflexive moments’ (p.47). I remember someone years ago ‘deconstructing’ Derrida’s own writings. Derrida was not amused. This poor reader did not deconstruct; he had misunderstood… The contradiction is more fundamental than Derrida’s ego however. Non realists cannot criticize science because its discourse is essentialist and reductionist, for the only way to convey that criticism is to essentialize and to be reductionist. To essentialize and to reduce reality is proper to human perception and knowledge. It is therefore not an exclusive prerequisite of science. As soon as non realists become conscious of one notion or utter one word to convey a meaning, they proceed in exactly the same way as all humans do, including scientists: they freeze-frame perspectivized parts of a complete and ever changing reality, and if they want to make sense at all, they also attach fixed forms of content with fixed forms of expression, counting on their successful transfer from addresser to addressee, if only for the one ad hoc communication situation at hand. As Bell explains repeatedly, that does not change if one replaces ‘beings’ with ‘becomings’ or ‘entities’ with ‘processes’.
2. The foregoing discussion about registering differences and constructing similarities also involves implications with respect to the discussion about the innateness of ‘moral sense’. According to Bell (p.45), Stephen Pinker defends the claim that ‘the moral sense is an innate part of human nature’ by saying that this is ‘not far-fetched’. Agreed, from the quote, it would appear that Pinker’s argument could have been stronger. However, Bell’s counter-argument is hardly more elaborate. The author replies that ‘counterexamples to the notion of an evolution-based universal morality are easy to find’ (p.46). As an example, he mentions his two year old granddaughter who, ‑ Bell’s words, not mine ‑, would not even have a rudimentary innate moral sense. What’s in a word? I have not read Pinker’s original text but on the basis of the quotes, I would not contend that an ‘innate moral sense’ equals ‘an evolution-based universal morality’. I understand ‘innate moral sense’ as a competence, comparable to the linguistic competence humans have. The presence of an innate linguistic or moral competence does not mean that all people learn to speak the same language or develop the same universal morals. However the very fact that all people do learn their own language or do develop their proper morals pre-supposes a competence to do so. The foregoing discussion about differences being ‘more real’ than similarities may also confirm this hypothesis: the way all living creatures on this planet seem to be able to make sense of differences and changes, that is to ‘decide’ to acknowledge or discard differences and changes as ‘relevant’ or ‘irrelevant’, ‑ a value which requires the competence to perceive and distinguish values ‑, could suggest, indeed, that moral sense understood as that capacity is innate and required even to survive in this world. To deny this innate capacity to this two year old girl would suggest that she cannot and will never distinguish between values that matter to her. Not only would this be a very cruel thing to say, something I am sure Bell never intended to say, but more to the point here, the statement would be false. Something else entirely would be to claim that a two year old girl does not yet know how to distinguish and appreciate the same values we grownups, or we, her parents, value. And that, one hopes, could come with years of education.
Another example where the confusion between fact and value or between description and prescription muddles the argumentation can be found in the rather funny case of the Belgian psycho-analyst Luce Irigaray’s claiming that Einstein’s statement that ‘E=mc²’ is masculinist. The example illustrates at the same time, again, how the lack of background information may hinder an apprentice reader in interpreting Bell’s thinking correctly. In their 2002 study called Contemporary Cultural Theory, Andrew Milner and Jeffrey Browitt seek to defend Deleuze against Sokal and Bricqmont’s charges by distinguishing scientific from nonscientific discourse (p.25). As an example, they call Irigaray’s statement that Einstein’s claim is masculinist non scientific. For the record, Irigaray considers Einstein’s utterance masculinist because he seems to be interested in what goes the fastest. The statement presupposes that interest in speed is a boy’s thing rather than a girl’s thing. Milner and Browitt argue that what they call the ‘social genealogy of a proposition has no logical bearing on its truth value’ (ibid.). I would tend to agree: Irigaray’s rather judgmental opinion about Einstein’s interest in speed has no impact whatsoever on the accuracy (or falsity) of Einstein’s claim. Whereas Einstein’s claim refers to reality understood as existing independently of human existence and perception, Irigaray’s statement refers to an (inter-)subjective evaluation of hers concerning Einstein’s interest in speed and his claim about it. I assume that it is in this sense that ‘Milner and Browitt defend Irigaray’s interpretation or ‘reading’ by saying that it is ‘political’ rather than ‘scientific’: in short, Sokal and Bricmont simply disagree with Irigaray’s version of radical feminist politics’ (p.26). I would say: so far so good. I understand ‘political’ to mean judgmental (see above) and ‘scientific’ to mean descriptive. Since the question about truth value does not apply to statements of value, there is nothing else one can do but to agree or disagree. However Bell calls this statement ‘tendentious’: ‘clearly, it is not with Irigaray’s version of feminist politics that Sokal and Bricmont disagree’. And here follows a fragment where the reader who is not familiar with the exact formulation of Sokal and Bricmont’s criticisms, may have difficulties figuring out whom to believe, or better still deciding who is right and who is wrong. Bell contends that Sokal and Bricmont disagree with ‘the meaning of the equation’. To write ‘the meaning’ using the singular suggests that the scientists are not familiar with Pragmatics, ‑ and this should not surprise for it is hardly a course that would be taught in physics or in chemistry ‑, and it presumes that Einstein’s utterance could only have one meaning. However, I am afraid that today’s pragmaticians and speech act experts would loudly protest. For I understand the word ‘utterance’ in a pragmatic or speech-act sense. What signifies is not only what an addresser says, ‑ the additional meanings of the respective words as they can be found in a dictionary so to speak ‑, but also the actual act of speaking, to be considered in one specific hic et nunc semio-pragmatic communicational situation. Taken as such, even the simplest utterance like: ‘It is seven o’clock’ may produce a zillion different meanings, ‑ maybe the word ‘connotation’ may help here to understand? ‑, depending on the ad hoc situation where the expression is uttered and heard. It may convey an order to hurry and get out if the addressee has already missed an appointment at six. Or it may on the contrary convey a request to stay and to take it easy because the evening has only started. Or it may mean that the postman is late again, etc., etc. Bell adds that ‘this is not merely a textual matter’. I am not sure what this means, but if this is not textual matter (understood as semio-pragmatic), I do not know what is. Bell calls this a ‘typical counter-argument (which) avoids the point at issue and certainly does not justify as equally legitimate, ad hoc interpretations of physical science’ (ibid.). I guess that the point at issue is that knowledge claims made in the language of the experts are not unmediated representations of reality (p.25). Whether they are ‘avoiding’ that point or simply not interested in it, I cannot say. However, I do wonder if anyone is pretending Irigaray’s claim interprets physical science. Rather it seems to refer to a version of radical feminist politics, an idea radical feminists agree upon I guess. In that sense, the label ‘masculinist’ refers to a value which is shared intersubjectively by a more or less specific group of people and which is assigned to Einstein uttering ‘E=mc²’. According to Bell, this ‘leaves open the question whether political interpretations such as Irigaray’s can themselves be evaluated in terms of their truth or falsity, even as they admit that it can be so judged by allowing that ‘the equation might indeed be masculinist’’. If the word ‘masculinist’ is taken as a value, the question about its truth value is indeed not relevant. Note the typical use of the ontological verb ‘to be’ in ‘the equation might indeed be masculinist’. It is commonly used to essentialize values. Instead of claiming ‘I like this car’, one says: ‘This is a nice car’. Whereas the sentence may appear to represent a statement of fact, it is and remains a statement of value and in that case, one can only agree or disagree with the judgmental statement. If however a group of users agrees intersubjectively to a stipulative definition of the word ‘masculinist’, ‑ e.g. as something boys are statistically more likely to do than girls in one particular time-space context yet to be tested ‑, the question about the truth value of a claim may become valid to those users who agreed a priori upon the use of that word. In that case, the apparently nonsensical utterances Bell gives as examples, such as ‘Newton’s First Law of Motion is protestant’ or ‘Boyle’s Law is pale blue’, may have to be considered on a case by case basis. Although at first sight, the last statement may seem the most absurd, it actually represents a simple factual assertion the truth value of which is perfectly verifiable. The word ‘blue’ refers to a range of electromagnetic wavelengths expressed in nanometers (approximately 475 nm.). That range may be stretched a little but not ad infinitum. Ergo, not surprisingly, the statement is false. The word ‘protestant’ on the other hand is much more poly-interpretable and it will probably depend on the stipulative definition of that word whether a users group may make something sensible out of that utterance.
By way of conclusion, I recommend Bell’s Confronting Theory to everyone who is seriously interested in Cultural Studies and in the Philosophy of science. Whether it is the best introduction for the ‘hapless undergraduate’ (p.16) in Cultural Studies remains to be seen. Bell seems to address his peers more often than his students. However, I do hope that among the colleagues, researchers as well as teachers, Confronting Theory will stir a vivid debate and above all give some competition to writings which indeed rely often on religious veneration and mystified mumbo jumbo. Bell’s study illustrates that with an increased input of the philosophy of science, discourse in Cultural Studies may raise the quality of its arguments in response to the so-called ‘postmodern’ adversaries.
Lorenz, Chris (1987), De Contructie van het Verleden. Een Inleiding in de Theorie van de Geschiedenis, Amsterdam, BoomMeppel.
Putnam, Hilary (2002), The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays, London, Harvard University Press.