Science Studies In The Small Hours

A post I read over at Jussi Parikkas blog today resonated with me in light of a debate which I found myself embroiled in over the weekend. Admittedly this argument did occur between the phantom hour and 6am and 7am, an hour where the finer graces of reasoned debate never venture.

A conversation which began with me cautioning against the dismissal of the chakra system as nonsense quickly escalated to the point where I found myself holding my own against two scientists, with myself cast as the wacky humanities student who holds stock in alternative health therapies.

From personal experience there are a few alternative therapies (if acupuncture, osteopathy and reiki can be deemed as such) which I have little trouble defending, but that wasn’t what I set out to defend. The fact that Chakra’s and the knowledge system that goes with that tradition is easily conflated with ‘alternative’ (read: hippy) therapies is as much the fault of ill informed healers who hide (or worse still, scam) behind an appeal to unknown energies with as much basis as the aether of yesteryear as it is of blinkered scientists who pedal a belief that the scientific method is the only way to make sense of our world.

I don’t think I really held my own all that well in the argument, not least because I have only a passing familiarity with the science studies literature which would have been very useful in diffusing the rhetoric of science that seeks to dismantle and atomise social systems and practices in the belief that they can be improved.

Worse again is that I am not anti scientific, I am someone with a voracious appetite for science literature, who makes efforts to keep up with whats happening in that world and who until very recently probably would have been arguing on the other side of the fence, meaning that I could completely understand my opponents stance. What should have been a useful means to better negotiate their position simply made me feel like I was on shifting sand and wasn’t certain where to let my arguments lie. All in all it was a rather dispiriting encounter all around, so it was quite timely (and cheering) to read Jussi Parikka quoting Bruno Latour on black boxes today

That was enough for me to dig out a quote to comfort me in the wake of all of this. It’s from my favourite tome of late, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. In “Brief Lives” Chapter 4 Dream and Destruction are taking a walk through 17th Century England, before happening across Isaac Newton dissecting an Orangutan.

Destruction remarks: “They are using reason as a tool. Reason! It is no more reliable a tool than instinct, myth or dream. But it has the potential to be far more dangerous, for them”.

And while I appreciate the irony of an interactive media graduate flirting with what could be deemed primitivist sympathies, but it’s not primitivism I want to celebrate. Just that the systems which science seems to look upon as requiring greater scientific understanding in order to improve them (such as yoga, meditation) really need no such honing or refinement. They were systems around which lives and societies were organised, quite successfully, for milennia. I’ll concede those times are passed, and that those systems can be accommodated into our age of science. But the potential for the narrative of progress, of optimisation and endless improvement through greater application of the scientific method to be dangerous is one that at least both my contenders conceded that evening. And perhaps that is enough for now.

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~ by Stephen Fortune on December 20, 2010.

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