Rorty’s wonderful omissions

One of the great pleasures of reading Richard Rorty is experiencing his precise neglect of nonhuman actors. The man lived in a wordworld of free-floating humans whose sole purpose was conversation. It helps make what I learned from Bruno Latour extra tangible, that what we converse about is rooted as much in our tacit interactions with things and people as it is in the explicit content of our language.

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I think Latour made (somewhat) immediate sense to me because his own thinking was formed on his experiences doing ethnography in biology laboratories, and that happens to be my own sole exposure to scientific activity, which, fortuitously was 1) participatory, and 2) frustratingly contrary to my positivistic expectations.

One thing I have discovered about myself over the decades is I am a highly concrete thinker. Anyone who thinks I’m “abstract” is just too psychologically removed to realize how concretely immediate philosophical problems are for me. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, philosophical problems are “how do I think out this mess?” problems. If you are one of those unfortunate souls who must be supplied with a defined problem and a mature vocabulary to think, you’ll never experience philosophy, only its conclusions. One of my greatest worries about our times is this: I fear most students who could be philosophical are fed such philosophical conclusions (what x believed and argued) and never encounter the perplexities that motivate philosophical activity, driven by the “stick” of intense anxiety and the “carrot” of faith that something potentially knowable in principle but as-yet-unknowable in fact is uncannily right there. This awe-ful experience is what a religious soul should follow, not bliss. Following bliss turns you into yet another insufferable meditating narcissist with nothing better to do but to cultivate inner peace and emit positive vibes, in the manner of that expensive bronze buddha statue you ordered from dharmacraft.com, the one that looks just perfect sitting in the center of that zen garden you made meditatively, raking rocks, carrying water, inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, exhaling, really being present in the moment, and contemplating the superiority of doing the work instead of wasting your time conceptualizing. Fuck that so much. I am about to discuss misnorms of science, but this religion as seeking peace is a common misnorm of religion, and I detest it. But now I’m two self-indulgent digressions deep.

Back to being concrete. I have discovered working as a human-centered designer that when people talk semi-abstractly about concrete stuff of business — processes, technologies, budgets, etc. — until I’ve seen the people interacting with the systems, following processes, I do not get any of it at all. My mind just rejects it. It connects with nothing, and it all evaporates like a routine dream. I have to go stand on the rough ground, talk to people, ask questions, get confused and then unconfused and try to converse with people about what I’ve learned to develop the kind of working knowledge I need to design well. It’s mostly a disability, but like so many disabilities it produces compensatory alternative capabilities, and makes me “differently abled”. My differently-abled superpower is knowing exactly what I’m talking about, and even better, projecting my mastery of the materials to folks too dull or lazy to process the content of my talking. This applies to design, to philosophy, to religion, and happily, thanks to my brief immersion in laboratory life, to how science actually works.

I was hired to work part-time in a lab for a medical university. Mostly, I did a lot of boring basic IT stuff, but I did get to do one legit scientific task. My job was to use my limited PASCAL programming skills to make a program to measure the twitching of mouse heart cells.

I think I’ve described this before, but this time I want to describe it explicitly expanding that pat “measure the twitching of mouse heart cells” into the kind of actor-network Latour delights in tracing out.

First, let’s expand mouse heart cells. Unfortunately, I was not there to observe how labs work, so I never found out how the lab mice were procured, shipped, stored, etc. All I know is when it was time to do this experiment, lots of mice were brought into the laboratory and situated at the end of the lab benches, along with big vats full of liquid nitrogen. The lab benches were equipped with specially designed rodent guillotines. The lab techs would behead a large number of mice, cut out their still-beating hearts and plop the hearts into the liquid nitrogen. The frozen hearts were then somehow pulverized. I always avoided seeing these activities, so I cannot describe the specifics. The pulverized hearts were placed in a centrifuge, I believe to separate out the various kinds of heart cells. Some particular kind of heart cell (which was the focus of the study) was extracted. The extracted cells were placed in a dish with a collagen ring (no idea how these were produced, but a good ANT researcher would find out that, too) and I’m guessing they were placed in some controlled environment where the heart cells could grow together onto the collagen rings. And, disgustingly, and for biologists, fascinatingly, they would twitch.

Now, let’s expand “measure the twitching”. The heart-coated collagen rings were put onto an electronic caliper. This caliper would return some raw number between zero and some large binary-convenient number, probably 65,535. No constriction is zero, full constriction is 65,535. My program would, when told to start, would capture all these numbers at some interval of time I can’t remember, until it was told to stop, at which time it spat out the average twitch, converted to some unit which I also cannot remember, by a formula which I believe might have originated with the manufacturer of the caliper, but which was handed down to me by a series of forwarded emails. And just to give a sense of time, I checked my email by telnetting to a mainframe operated through command line. I hope this makes my forgetting of details more forgivable.

The problem for me was that these twitches were all over the place. The data seemed ludicrously messy. So being a 20-something smart ass I provided a list of averages calculated a number of different ways (mean, median, and other basic math known even to liberal arts students). I thought I was part of some pretty lame science. Science was supposed to be far more orderly and elevated. I’m not sure which number they used, or even if they used it as written. It had to have been enraging to use. I cannot believe I made it through my youth without being beaten up by an angry mob of reasonable people, but I continue to feel grateful I was spared what I deserved.

Presumably the numbers were recorded, visualized, situated in a paper, submitted journals, juried, and hopefully published, widely cited and used as evidence supporting more research funding, and increasing the prestige and salaries of my bosses. I learned this part only years later reading Latour. Back then I was just trying to earn $5/hour so I could pay my part of the rent for the ratty roach-infested un-air conditioned mansion I inhabited with six other classic late-80s era slackers.

But the more important thing I learned from Latour and other ANT people is that this was real, legitimate science! All these tenuous connected physical linkages, translations from movements to numbers to units to averages to graphs to inferences to arguments to papers to prestige to dollars, these bizarre supplies all converging in one place for obscure purposes — this is science as it is normally done. So many non-human actors — not only mice and instruments and programs, but concepts, procedures, aspirations — were in play here to produce something scientists could discuss. My standards of “good science” were misnorms, causing me to condemn science as it really works on the basis of standards that would condemn all science if viewed close-up.

And I believe Richard Rorty, through sheer practical ignorance, never heard the babble of the nonhuman actors in the human-language conversations among scientists.

I wouldn’t either if it weren’t for my random part-time job at the med school lab.

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The reason I still adore Richard Rorty’s writing, despite the key omission I just described, is how precise it is and how well his ideas hold if you insert the omitted considerations the right way. I always read him with “what about the non-human interlocutors?” at the ready. And when I plug in my answer, the thoughts work correctly.

And this helps me grasp the importance of Actor-Network Theory as the talented heir to Pragmatism — a basically wonderful way to think that functions even with incomplete parts. And Pragmatism is the philosophical champion of Liberal Democracy, which is the political vision I love. And then I remember that the United States of America, the first nation founded on philosophical argument, was also the nation where Pragmatism was discovered-created-instaurated and then I get to feel intense patriotism like a normal person.

I need to replace my American flag bumper sticker on my car. It was lost when my bumper was repaired.

Maybe I’ll make some PRAGMATISM flag stickers. Text me if you made it to the end of this wildly rambling post, and I’ll get one printed for you, too.

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We are going to work this crisis of American politics out, in our characteristic American way. Back to Liberalism. Let’s deepen and strengthen Liberalism in our return, by recognizing our fellow non-human citizens, given voice through science.

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