critique of pomofem critique of science

Gessler, Nicholas (gessler@ANTHRO.SSCNET.UCLA.EDU)
Mon, 6 Jun 1994 16:13:00 PDT

I don't mean to belabor the point, but since I inserted myself into a
critique of "pomofem," I will at least conclude my "naive" observations of
that component (there were other things presented) of the two conferences I
previously mentioned. The first was 4CYBERCONF in Banff, Alberta, the second
was "Biology, Computers, and Society: at the Intersection of the 'Real' and
the 'Virtual'" (first title) "Vital Signs: Cultural Perspectives on Coding
Life and Vitalizing Code" (second title) in Stanford, California.

I will not repeat my comments on Banff other than to say that it was not
strictly an academic conference as was the one at Stanford, yet my original
views were largely reinforced. My comments are "naive" in the sense that I
have accepted at 'face value' the statements made by speakers who identified
themselves as simultaneously applying both "feminist" and "post-modern"
"theories." Those wanting to influence science and technology should expect
to be taken at 'face value.'

Selections from the "pomofem" agenda: "The fundamental political struggle...
(is to find) opportunities for disruption in the engine-rooms of
technological development." Later qualified as "reconstructive disruption"
without any hint of what that reconstruction might entail. Or "sustaining
practice while inside the belly of the monster." "What is it that we're
trying to proselytize?" "This is exactly where we are: We're dithering."
"We're all positioned in relation to this thing that we're trying to
understand and trying to change." What is this thing? "Is what we're doing
futile, or is it productive in some ways?" (How do you reconcile) "the
experience of trying to be helpful, but being found unhelpful?" "Science and
Technology -- so easy to teach, and along with it (the teaching) comes
credibility." Could it seem "easy" because it is overly oversimplified? The
tenor of the critique of science was often derisive.

Suggestions from other attendees: At one point a participant operating the
audio-visual equipment politely pointed out that he could be quite
"disruptive" by switching it off, asking what the discussants would then wish
to replace it with. "The moral tone at this conference is disrespectful of
the variety of thought in the sciences." (The pertinent question is) "how do
you steer the ship, rather than disrupt it?" "Constructivism is part of the
problem (i.e.) in conflating the external world with discourse."

Again, what I saw as an enormous problem was an attempt to arrive at
a questionable "truth about non-truths" without any of the rigor
traditionally imposed on science's attempts to arrive at truths. Starting
from non-dualistic scientific statements, I saw analysts construct from them
dualisms (which they attributed to science, not to themselves) so that they
could then de-construct them (as straw men). And in the conflation of the
external world with discourse, I find it puzzling how a repeated
objective of 'materiality' in discussion about 'computer worlds' can ignore
the non-discursive and material external world.

Notions of reflexivity, positionality, relativity, recursion, and the
permeability of boundaries are not new to science, and I acknowledge a
commonality between science and post-modernism in that regard. However, I do
think post-modernism could benefit from more scientific modes of
accountability. There is no need to invent a new language in looking for
higher truths (which is what both are after). Whether science is correct 99%
of the time or only 1% of the time (depending upon your view), it is the
possibility of being correct that drives research. The object of science
includes not just the discursive and cognitive worlds, but a physical world
which drives them. Although we all engage in cognitive constructions, very
few of us believe there is nothing else 'out there.' Perhaps cultural
criticism should pay more attention to what's 'out there' and how to make
more correct 'constructions' of it.

Nick Gessler