social science gets weird (or has it always been)

Quantum Mind and Social Science by Alexander Wendt

note: i was not kind to wendt, so skip to the next section if you’re a fan

Wendt’s suggestion that the quantum mind plays an important role in framing social science ends up reading quite a bit pseudoscientific for me. I’m no quantum physics expert but when metaphysical issues that have been missing solutions for eons are magically resolved by emerging scientific models in completely unrelated fields, I question before I embrace.

Quantum physics is based on models that match observations. We are still a long way from deciding whether these models are realistic descriptions of how particles behave or whether they are good models describing outcomes but have no basis in empirical reality. The only thing we can say about these models with confidence is that they’re good at predicting experiments.

My fundamental problem with Wendt is that he frames the quantum mind and its role in social science as a reality and then traces the implications to human behavior based on that premise. Were Wendt applying the quantum mind more “weakly,” in other words, as a metaphor (like Haraway’s cyborg) I’d be more open to accept this notion. However, Wendt’s treatment of quantum brain theory and panpsychic unity are “strongly” applied, quantum effects are observable in the social and suggest a means to unifying the subject/object, mind/body, wave/particle divide. Wendt states:

Quantum brain theory takes known effects at the sub-atomic level and scales them upward to the macroscopic level of the brain. However, by itself this would not explain consciousness, since it does not tell us why any physical system, even one as mind-bogglingly complex as a quantum computer, would be conscious. This question is addressed by the ontology of panpsychism. Panpsychism takes a known effect at the macroscopic level - that we are conscious - and scales it downward to the sub-atomic level, meaning that matter is intrinsically minded.

There’s nothing wrong with demanding a leap of faith from one’s readers, especially when the framing of the problem shrinks the faith chasm to a few inches. Butler did an excellent job doing this when she presented her resignification premise; through the genealogies of power she outlined it wasn’t difficult to accept her premise of fluidity of signifiers as resistance. The chasm Butler presented was more of a skip than a leap. When Wendt describes the quantum brain and panpsychic in earnest and uses it to explain individual and group subjectivities and unite them within theoretical objects, I can’t help but feel like a social science Wile E. Coyote running towards the edge of the Grand Canyon with an Acme-branded Quantum-mind rocket strapped on my back.

Furthermore, Wendt’s subjective-quantum provocations, that the subjective is unobservable, can be entangled at a distance, lives in infinite states until it suddenly converges on the “correct state” doesn’t require quantum physics to be enacted as a metaphysical theory. Take for example Jung’s collective unconscious; this concept ticks off every quantum check box without the need for particle physics. My suspicion is that Wendt is looking to legitimize unfalsifiable political theorizing through an appeal to the scientific and deploys the trendiest, most unfalsifiable scientific model to accomplish this. Let’s leave that type of posturing to the self-help aisle.

Action Network Theory by Bruno Latour

Latour’s approach is much more plausible than Wendt’s, even if they overlap in the breadth of their goals and implications of their explanations. Latour warns against theorizing based on a preconceived idea of the social and instead suggests that sociology’s focus should be situated among the interactions of living and non-living actors and their networks. This process, rather than a sociology of the social, presents a sociology of associations. Latour elaborates:

Whereas, in the first approach, every activity—law, science, technology, religion, organization, politics, management, etc.—could be related to and explained by the same social aggregates behind all of them, in the second version of sociology there exists nothing behind those activities even though they might be linked in a way that does produce a society—or doesn’t produce one.

Latour calls this sociology of associations Action Network Theory (ANT). ANT challenges traditional theory-building in sociology that attempts to provide universal insight about the social world. ANT instead posits that there is no social world. Instead, ANT suggests that infinite social worlds exist, each with its own, locally determined knowledge system and purpose. Rather than finding the “right” system of knowledge, Latour insists that the role of the social scientist is instead to explore this multiverse, document what is happening in each world as its actors do and not as the observer judges should be, and theory-build based on these hyper-local observations, acknowledging that by engaging in this process the researcher is affecting that which they observe. Though Latour frames ANT as a radical break from sociological tradition, he also acknowledges that all he’s suggesting is an alternative methodology. He avoids the term, however, to prevent preconceptions from invading ANT before the project is fully operationalized.

Relativity is the operating principle in the exploratory world of ANT. Controversy isn’t something to resolve as much as it is something to understand. Rather than asking “what is right?” or “what is better?” ANT demands that the researcher simply describe the world they are observing, decoupled from any preconceived notions of that which it is they’re observing. The full book describes five sources of controversy but we only were assigned the first three.

ANT posits that groups don’t exist, only group builders. Therefore, traditional sociologists spend much of their time creating and destroying categories rather than describing them. ANT instead suggests that researchers study the process of group building as it occurs. Similarly, ANT posits that agency of things, individuals, or groups is often taken for granted for the sake of observations fitting theories. As such, external effects like things, individuals, or other networks are often ignored in the service of theory building. ANT suggests that these agencies be followed to the bitter end to best describe the process the researcher is studying. Lastly (at least in these readings) is the idea that objects, too, have agency and that this agency shouldn’t be taken for granted by researchers. The agency of objects isn’t necessarily action-based (after all they’re inanimate for the most part) but the influence of things like money or infrastructures stabilize actors and encourage particular types of behaviors. It is the duty of the ANT researcher to identify these inanimate agents and document their influence.

I like ANT. It aligns with a perspective I’ve had throughout this class whenever we encountered a paradigm-destroying concept that made engaging in social science seem impossible and worst of all pointless. ANT suggests a new method for continuing valuable social science, one actor at a time. 

A Theory of Aspects by Davide Panagia

Should a gut feeling be necessarily “wrong”? Through his theory of aspects, Panagia suggests that political theory can be founded on aspects, associations of media free of evaluative criteria that demands a correct (and therefore incorrect) interpretation. Panagia begins with the orthodox perspective and its reliance on “the textual treatise” as the “archetype of the complete and coherent work.” These media, through their structure, demand a “continuity, coherence, and completion” to a theoretical piece, suggesting that these arguments must contain a beginning, middle, and end to remain valid. Panagia ends his introduction by encouraging his readers to engage in an intervention with the various forms of media political theorists found their theories on, to “think about the nature of media themselves, their archaeologies, and their agential partaking with the practices of theorizing.”

This piece is divided into three sections. The first section discusses Taylor, Skinner, and Tully’s insights on interpretation. Panagia notes the importance of Taylor and Skinner’s insights about hermeneutic cycles but ultimately frames them as evaluative in how either author “treats meaning and understanding as identifiable in the same way that the positivist treats data as identifiable.” Tully, in relief to Taylor and Skinner and committed to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, asserts that understanding and interpretation are different processes, that understanding is immediate, and that interpretation only follows when understanding fails. The immediacy of understanding (“grasping”) then frees it from epistemic verification or evaluative criteria.

The second section engages with three fragments from Barthes, Cavell, and Derrida to illustrate the “domain of experience that operates fluently with the unverifiable.” At first glance, the fragments are obviously connected in their commitment to describe knowledge that is not “legitimately” earned. However, as Panagia identifies the fragments the source texts and contexts are seemingly unrelated; Barthes is discussing photography, Cavell literature, and Derrida painting. On one level, Panagia deploys these three seemingly “fleeting impressions” that nonetheless posit robust theoretical points as examples of aspects. On another level, Panagia’s collection of these three impressions is itself an exercise in aspect-based theorizing, since no heuristic but Panagia’s own could have resulted in this collection of examples and interpretations.

Lastly, the third section deploys the agency of communicative tools like the file cabinet, newspaper clippings, and slide projectors “for the extracting, arranging, and presentation of aspects.” If section two dealt with human agents confronting aspect-based modes of theory building, then the last section discusses the agency mediatic tools for building aspect-based arguments exhibit. Further, this agency shapes how human agents deploy and understand meaning. For example, the conception of the “papered subject,” a Foucauldian vision of the individual collated, catalogued, and codified within a state bureaucracy would be impossible without the humble filing cabinet and the structure inherent in its use. Newspaper clippings and slide projectors, on the other hand, deploy new avenues for semantic associations by aggregating similar subjects chronologically (in the case of newspapers) or spatially (in the case of slide projectors).

Panagia continues, “the ambition of a theory of aspects is to show how organization may occur without a pre-articulated common measure.” The social science stakes of this stance is similar to ANT, in that aspect theory grants actors (whether alive or not) the power of theory building and not the other way around. Panagia’s conclusion is an ideal way to end this set of writing on political philosophy: “a theory of aspects is fundamentally concerned with the nature of living together in the absence of a standard of living.”

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