Wednesday, January 20, 2016

An Irrepressible Mess

"I came of age intellectually during the apogee of Derrida in the American academy, so I know this theory better than you. If you try this argument with me I will crush you." (Jonathan Mayhew)

John Law's "Making a Mess with Method" begins with an empirical example that he admits is neither "coherent" nor "consistent". In fact, he openly wonders whether he and his collaborator were "up to scratch" when they did the work that informs his reflections. Perhaps they were even "shoddy researchers", he feared for a time. On the other hand, he suggests, maybe it's not his fault, maybe the sociology of alcoholic liver disease is always going to be vague because its object is "dancing like a flame". Next, he announces that, though he has "neither the time nor the patience, nor indeed the expertise" to do the subject philosophical justice, he's going to undertake a "pragmatic" critique of realism in social science. And when he's done with that he takes us on an "obligatory" "detour" (that turns out not to be a detour after all, because, it seems, "a post-structuralist detour is not a detour") through the subject of "the metaphysics of presence", or at least the "so-called" metaphysics of presence, which was famously critiqued by Derrida, of course, who he is "not going to follow to closely" because, he tells us, he doesn't need to. What he needs, instead, is an "embarrassingly" simple argument, which, he promises, will have likewise embarrassingly simple consequences for social science.

I hope my annoyance with this rhetoric is coming through. It says something about my state of mind while reading him. One gets the sense that the author is actually much smarter than this, but that he is here just playing around, striking a pose, being glib. It doesn't feel like he's making much of an effort, and it's like he thinks it doesn't really matter. There's a weird sanguine sort of nihilism in this way of talking about method. It's like the people who don't bother to read Feyerabend but use him as an authority when they tell us that "anything goes" in science. (This is actually more annoying than the people who dismiss Feyerabend because, they say, he said "anything goes".) That, indeed, is an embarrassingly simple argument, and Feyerabend never made it. Likewise, Derrida's critique of metaphysics is not best imagined "simply" as a "coach-and-horses" driven through common-sense realism shouting "Presence implies absence! Presence implies absence!"

My view is that, if you are not going to do the work, if you're not going to master the craft of deconstruction, then, I'm sorry to say, you are going to have to be a "common-sense realist" about society and learn some solid empirical methods by means of which you can know the knowable and represent the representable. You can't just make hand-waving gestures at "post-structuralism" and then finally throw up your hands (in celebration?) at how messy the world is, declaring that your messy understanding of it is therefore all we can ask for. Maybe in your living room that's true, but not in the scholarly literature.

In fact, have you noticed the irony of Law's paper? It was, in a sense, suggested already by Julia when she said that Law's paper is trying to be as "as true to its signified as is possible". He wants to drive a horse-and-carriage through the orderly world of common-sense realism. But what is his argument? It is that "reality" is "really" messy, so our knowledge of it will need to be messy too. Who other than a desperate (i.e., despairing) realist would conclude such a thing? Law is not acknowledging absence as the "Other" of presence. He is so completely horrified by the vacuum of everything he is forced to leave out of his representation of social reality that he represses it completely and presents (!) himself as always already absent, incapable, inexpert, shoddy, ignorant, anxious ... and, it seems, utterly irrepressible. He's making an altogether real mess of things.

I best leave it there for today and take this up again on Friday.

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