Friday, June 4, 2010

Confusion about Reproduction

No, this is not going to be a provocative position statement about birth control, although it may well be provocative and it deals with theories about the social world. I found myself revisiting my copy of The Constitution of Society by Anthony Giddens this morning. I discovered that I had underlined the following passage:

Rather than becoming preoccupied with epistemological disputes and with the question of whether or not anything like ‘epistemology’ in its time-honoured sense can be formulated at all, those working in social theory, I suggest, should be concerned first and foremost with reworking conceptions of human being and human doing, social reproduction and social transformation.

While I support Giddens' skepticism about epistemology, I realized that I also worry about some of his particular word choices (which, of course, have to do with the epistemology of his own acts of expression). I first read the book when that phrase "social reproduction" was very much in fashion. Many regarded it as a lens for viewing the "knowledge management" problem: When one of your best experts retires, how do you "reproduce the knowledge" behind his/her expertise? When your sales office in San Diego consistently turns in the best numbers, how to you "reproduce the knowledge" behind their success in your other divisions? The reductio ad absurdum was probably a question no longer asked because of the vagaries of economic conditions: How do you "reproduce Silicon Valley" in other geographical settings?

The fallacy behind the word "reproduction" is the connotation of "copying." If something works, make lots of copies and distribute them throughout the world. Even in biology there remains reckless talk about clones, as if the development of the individual depended entirely on heredity to the exclusion of environment. Never mind that the fallacy of the identical copy has been with us (at least) since Heraclitus, we are as obsessed with the perfect copy as alchemists were with their philosopher's stone. Ultimately, that fallacy has supported our efforts to model living systems (including social systems) on a foundation of what pioneering cyberneticist Ross Ashby called "the determinate machine."

The one escape from such fallacious reasoning is provided by our language. Our noun phrases may be able to support thinking in terms of static couplings of objects and their attributes, but our verb grammar has always been far more elusive. This is why I recently celebrated Lydia Davis' use of the future perfect infinitive, describing such constructs as "products of prior generations trying to come to grips with the complexity of their own thoughts in such a way that others could effectively understand those thoughts." Determinate machine-based descriptions are constrained to descriptive language about state; and the language of any dynamic properties is reduced to accounting for what happens in transitions between states. This presumes a latter-day philosopher's stone that will eventually provide us with all the state variables we need and a fine enough division of temporal intervals that any description of transitions will be secondary, if not even less significant.

However, will that utopian state description capture the semantics of the Lydia Davis sentence that provoked my celebrating the future perfect infinitive?

At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.

For that matter, will our capacity for state description allow us to represent the second measure of Ludwig van Beethoven's third ("Eroica") symphony as something more than a copy of the first measure "displaced along the time axis?" (I have to credit David Lewin for taking on this latter question with an approach that continues to fascinate me while still leaving me wondering if it would have any impact on the communication that takes place between conductor and orchestra when this symphony is rehearsed or performed.) Why should we continue to go boldly into more and more refined efforts to describe state for the sake of abstracting away all of the complexities of how we act when we have a verb grammar that can take on those complexities?

Perhaps the real problem is that we have embraced a theory of logic that is grounded on a language restricted to noun phrases. From this we then deduce that what cannot be expressed through that language cannot be "logical." However, we may do better to put aside our study of Bertrand Russell (who saw logic as the necessary opposition to mysticism) and turn again to that sentence in Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn: "Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood." The order in the "blooming, buzzing confusion" described in Chapter XIII of William James' The Principles of Psychology may reveal itself better through the language used by Miller and Davis than through even the most sophisticated formula in one of Russell's logical calculi. This is the approach that Kenneth Burke advocated in his dramatistic approach to human behavior, and it is likely to be the most effective strategy for exercising the expressiveness of verb grammar to its fullest capacity.

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