Monday, August 29, 2011

Ronell's Deconstruction of Popper

In the first chapter, "Proving Grounds," Avital Ronell takes on one of the canonical philosopher's of science: Karl Popper.  She is not 'against' the spirit of Popper or science per se.  In fact, Ronell seems convinced that the 'test drive' if channeled in a productive fashion helps to "undermine dogma" (25). What she objects to in Popper is his narrow definition of a 'testable' (or falsifiable) theory, arguing that the line Popper draws  metaphysics and science is extremely thin: 
Popper offered that science cannot be distinguished from metaphysics or pseudo-science in terms of confirmation by experience or observations. "Rather, Popper claimed that the hallmark of a metaphysical theory--such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, or Adlerian psychology--is that it leaves its adherents free to transmute any seemingly refuting observation into a confirming instance. Popper, who equated "falsifiability" with "refutability" or "testability," claimed that "not the verifiability but the falsifiability of a system is to be taken as a criterion of demarcation. It must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience. (Ronell 28)
 The first quotation is drawn from an essay by Schwartz, interpreting Popper's own inquiry in a tradition more consonant with Ronell. We should notice that Ronell claims before this quotation that the line between metaphysics and pseudo-science cannot be confirmed by "experience or observations." However, the second quotation (from Popper himself), which says directly that an empirical scientific system must be able to be "refuted by experience," refutes Ronell's claim. While this confused me as an initial reader, Ronell will back up her arguments by referring to the problem of "experience" later on.

For now, let us assume that the major claim is the one made by Schwarz--that we can turn a refutable observation into a confirming instance. Ronell argues later that one of the opponents--psychoanalysis--actually depended on such testability. In a close reading of Freud's own case studies, Ronell shows that Freud took into account evidence that refutes his theory ("Freud admits this case into evidence as 'a refuting instance of the aetiology he had postulated for that disorder" (65)). But two points need to be made about the relation between this Freudian example and Popper's theory.

1.) Ronell argues that in the case of "The Rat Man" the analysis's "failure was its success" (67). Is this not an instance of Ronell turning the "refuting" position into a confirmation? "Freud complains that his cure came about too quickly, the lessons too quickly learned" (67).

2.) How are the theories of Freud enacted differently in the clinical setting and in literary (or philosophical) criticism. Are not Freud's actual clinical successes a different thing entirely from the success of a literary interpretation? If we begin from Freudian theories and go on to interpret a text through the lens of Freud, will we not find Freud in the text? Perhaps this is why literary interpretation is always "outside" the distinction true/false; or, at the very least, outside the possibility of "proof"?

This is neither a new or surprising claim. Ronell's surprising claim comes when she draws a parallel between the uncertain status of literature and the uncertain referential status of laboratory experiments. Ronell's arguments  depend on a difficult assertion to swallow: She makes a parallel between laboratory culture and other 'texts' or semiotic systems, arguing in both cases that reference is suspended. Nature cannot even be a reference point:
That means 'Nature' itself only becomes 'real,' in scientific and technical perspective as a model. And so also 'in vivo experiments' are model systems. There is no absolute point of reference for what becomes involved in the game of representation. The very necessity of representation implies that any possibility of any immediate evidence is excluded.(49)
 Essentially, lab culture is a self-contained, representational system. She then moves on to discuss the "rhetorical dimension of the experimental elaboration, the levels of fictioning, allegorization, and noncoincidence of sign and signified that lab culture can tolerate" (49).

The intrusion of fiction/poetry/'the literary' is the way Ronell gets at a deconstruction of Popper, later claiming that science and art have more common ground than we usually think: "Science and art continue to share a knowledge of the unreliability of the referent [. . .] both understand experiment as a freedom from the constraints of referential truth" (228).

However, art is the primary term. For Ronell, as for Nietzsche, art has prepared the way for science: "If art was invented for us, it was in order to heal us from the persistent wounding of necessary error and delusion. Art cooperates at a level of inoculation by administering general untruth in order to immunize us against untruth" (212). Without art, we would have been terrified by, say, the death of God and the unstable ground of scientific experiment. This is a fascinating and, I think, useful way to think about the function of art.

Let us return to Popper's essay. Ronell shows how Popper's language undermines his own claims. She begins by citing the opening of one Popper's books, which includes a quotation from the Romantic poet, Novalis: "Hypotheses are nets: only he who casts will catch" (32). Even though we can just chalk this up to the convention of a poetic epigraph is books, Ronell seriously considers what follows from "the most important scientific axioms" as "cosigned by poetic insight" (33).

If we do not buy this argument, Ronell provides more evidence for her further deconstruction of Popper's argument. Ronell summarizes the scientific stance as one involving "the strength to try to overthrow rather than to establish the solution at which thought arrives" (34). In other words, science has to invite critique from others within a community ("to communicate is to be prepared to be overthrown). Ronell does not disagree with this fundamental attitude. However, she notes that Popper himself relies on unquestioned metaphysical propositions: "The above argument, he writes, 'expresses the metaphysical faith in the existence of regularities in our world (a faith which I share, and without which practical action is hardly conceivable)" (37). The "argument" referred to is that an "old theory" retains its validity as a "limiting case of the new theory" (37). For Ronell, this comes off as Popper trying to "safeguard the law" (37). I think Popper may be right though that a lot of practical action would not be possible without the belief in some regularity. Still, this is probably a matter of degree than a hard and fast rule or metaphysical truth.

For Popper, everything rests on the test: "The test is posed as the answer to the answer, as meta-answer, and is never considered from the angle of a possible collapse" (42). For Popper, the "test" is a ground for science; for Nietzsche, the test is a performative activity that endlessly throws the scientist for a loop. Ronell's task for the rest of the book is to put the "test" to the "test." Ronell objects that for popper science is on a firm ground such that it can proceed without further justification.

In contrast, Ronell will show the slipperiness of the 'test', deconstructing it in the manner of Derrida's deconstruction of the promise (see pg 242 for "experience"). Furthermore, she will link "test" and "testimony," drawing on historical and literary examples of the master/slave relationship implied in a concept of 'true' testimony (a term deconstructed by Derrida in his analysis of Blanchot's Instant of My Death).

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