Anamorphosis and the Academic Industrial Complex

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from realtors – and we can learn so much from realtors – it’s the three most important qualities of a property: location, location, location. The same can be said, in a general sense, about research and knowledge production: the answers we find to our questions depend heavily on the location we occupy when go looking. In academic jargon, this is called “positionality.” Positionality (not to be confused with Wessonality, that certain je ne sais quoi that cooking oil gives chicken) is a term used by certain scholars to label the not-so-very complex idea that we all see the world differently, our position primarily and fundamentally being informed by our race, our class and our gender, or raceclassgender, for those that see a common enemy in the white male but are in a hurry to get to the co-op. The core idea of positionality is this: your reality is yours and mine is mine because we see the world from different positions. The core implication of positionality is this: who died and made you king?

Positionality is popular in the social sciences where certain subjective methods in knowledge production are not only tolerated, but are encouraged. If we look sharply enough, we can even detect the stealth presence of positionality in the “hard” sciences. Feminist scholar/activist (a term that steps on its own toes) Michelle Fine admits, “…some of us still smuggle our knowledge of social injustice into a discourse of science that fundamentally contains, and painfully undermines, the powerful politics of activist feminism. As is often the case with moments of social containment, feminists in the social sciences carry weighty evidence for a passionately disruptive transformation of our disciplines. And yet…we also carry domesticating responsibilities to keep this social science appearing dispassionately detached.” I won’t argue with Ms. Fine because first, she is carrying a lot of really heavy luggage, but second, because I appreciate her honesty regarding her dishonesty. I understand, though for different reasons, why she feels the need to be dishonest in order to be allowed into the scientific debate. Any perspective that challenges the current establishment will be met with suspicion, resistance and probably exclusion. That doesn’t mean the perspective is invalid, but it doesn’t it make it valid either. The critical challenge of positionality is the same as the critical challenge of anamorphosis: in order to come as close to “truth” as possible, it is vitally important to be in the correct position.

In her piece, Reveal Codes: Hypertext and Performance, Rita Raley discusses the anamorphic nature of hypertext (those blue web links that take you from one cyber location to another) and explains, “Anamorphosis is a matter of correcting or adjusting one’s spectatorial position so as to locate the correct perspective.” I would add that we have to double check our position in both space and time, as it may not just be our physical position that blocks the view, but also the fact that we’re, quite literally, “not there yet.” The key point Raley makes though, is that there is such a thing as a correct perspective. In our relativistic, post-modern culture, this is quite a statement. Here, in a discussion about software programming, we readily accept the idea of “correct” perspective and “incorrect” perspective because nobody, not even the most hardcore science-ist, contends that there is no such thing as a software engineer. Once we step into the natural world, or rather out of the natural world and into the supernatural world, we have a lot more trouble coming to terms with this. But at least in this tech-centric world, we will acknowledge that sometimes we simply cannot see something unless we are correctly aligned in space and time. Which leads me to grammar.

As a former English teacher, I admit to having a rather long list of grammatical pet peeves. For example, few people pronounce the word “mischievous” correctly. They say “miss-cheev-ee-us” rather than “miss-chiv-us.” This annoys me, but at least I’m annoyed that it annoys me. I say this to set up another, more literary, pet peeve: the personification of Science, as if it were a monolithic proper noun. “Science has proven…” people say, when science has done no such thing. People prove things. Or don’t. But for the sake of brevity I will be magnanimous. Science operates on the premise that it has nothing in common with Religion, another monolithically personified entity. Science is the path to knowledge, its priests proclaim. Religion is not science (don’t be fooled by the “physics” in metaphysics). Ergo, we cannot ask – moreover, we cannot trust – Religion to participate in the critical modern task of knowledge production or dissemination. In fact, because of its myriad empirical deficiencies, we must work hard to prevent Religion from even trying. This is all part of the philosophical school of logical positivism that clings tightly to the tenet that we cannot know something unless we can observe it. In other words seeing is believing.

Interestingly, this approach absolutely precludes the possibility of non-empirical truth, i.e., that something might be true even if you can’t prove it empirically, and therefore sets up its own empirical deficiencies by disallowing certain “positions” from the debate. But we can always find an audience among the philosophical, including the poet Robert Frost, who, in essence, called BS on the seeing-is-believing trope. He claimed that the best work comes about by, “believing the thing into existence, saying as you go more than you even hoped you were going to be able to say, and coming with surprise to an end that you foreknew only with some sort of emotion.” In other words, believing is seeing.

The premise of Science is that we cannot believe until we see. The paradox of anamorphosis – and of faith – is that we cannot see until we believe. In truth, we must be open to both premise and paradox to achieve the kind of insight – or sight – necessary for truly understanding the world. To be continued…

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