Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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A prophet of uncertainty

Adam Tooze writes:

If it is true that we are now faced with pervasive risks generated and brought upon us by the forces of modernity and yet not accessible to our immediate senses, how do we cope? Until you start suffering from radiation poisoning, until your fetus suffers a horrific mutation, until you find your lungs flooding with pneumonia, the threat of the radiation or a mystery bug is unreal, inaccessible to the naked eye or immediate perception.

In risk society, [defined by a pervasive sense of undefined but omnipresent threat, described in Risk Society (1986), by German sociologist Ulrich Beck] we become radically dependent on specialized scientific knowledge to define what is and what is not dangerous in advance of encountering the dangers themselves. We become, as Beck puts it, “incompetent in matters” of our “own affliction.” Alienated from our faculties of assessment, we lose an essential part of our “cognitive sovereignty.” The harmful, the threatening, the inimical lies in wait everywhere, but whether it is inimical or friendly is “beyond one’s own power of judgment.” We thus face a double shock: a threat to our health and survival and a threat to our autonomy in gauging those threats. As we react and struggle to reassert control, we have no option but to “become small, private alternative experts in risks of modernization.” We take a crash course in epidemiology and educate ourselves about “R zero.” But that effort only sucks us deeper into the labyrinth.

The normal experiential logic of everyday thought is reversed. Rather than starting from immediate experience and abstracting from there to general claims about the world, the news of the day starts by reference to mathematical formula, chemical tests, and medical judgements. The more we rely on science, the more we find ourselves distanced from immediate reality. Every encounter with our fellow citizens as we go about our normal business is shadowed by a calculation of virtual risks and the probability of contamination. The result is paradoxical. The path of science leads us into a realm in which hidden forces, like the gods and demons of old, threaten our earthly lives. A strange mixture of fear and calculation pursues us into our “very dreams.” Whereas animistic religion once endowed nature with spirits, we now view the world through the lens of omnipresent, latent causalities. “Dangerous, hostile substances lie concealed behind the harmless façades. Everything must be viewed with a double gaze, and can only be correctly understood and judged through this doubling. The world of the visible must be investigated, relativized and evaluated with respect to a second reality, only existent in thought and yet concealed in the world.”

As we have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the main functions of a face mask is to remind oneself of invisible dangers and to signal to others that one is taking those risks seriously. In the United States they have become something like an article of faith, a way of indicating publicly that one belongs to those who take “the science” seriously.

“Like the gaze of the exorcist, the gaze of the pollution-plagued contemporary is directed at something invisible.” “Omnipresent pollutants and toxins” take the role of spirits. In our effort to cope we develop our “own evasion rituals, incantations, intuition, suspicions and certainties.” Of course, we insist, this isn’t exorcism. This is about science, medicine, engineering, technology. But references to those authorities don’t actually solve our problem. Because on most matters we care about, it turns out that science speaks with many voices. Science is, at best, a rowdy, self-willed choir with many people with different ideas of the tune they should be singing. As we have discovered to our horror in 2020, anyone who professes to believe that medicine, science, and public health expertise will by themselves tell us how to act is either naive or in bad faith. Though overwhelmed and underinformed, we cannot escape the responsibility of both personal and collective political judgment.

Furthermore, the more we know, the more we realize that we are not the only ones judging. Every interested party is picking and choosing its sources. It is an enlightening but also shocking exposure to how the sausage of modern knowledge is truly made. And as Beck reminds us, it “would not be so dramatic and could be easily ignored if only one were not dealing with very real and personal hazards.”

This is clearly a deeply modern world, saturated with technology and expertise. But it is not a cookie-cutter image of modernity in which scientific reason marches to victory over superstition and censorship. Would that it were so clear-cut. Instead we find ourselves in a world in which rationalism and skepticism are turning on themselves. Knowledge comes not neatly packaged in the form of clearly recognizable truth but in “admixtures” and “amalgams.” It is transported by “agents of knowledge in their combination and opposition, their foundations, their claims, their mistakes, their irrationalities,” all of which all too obviously go into defining the possibility of their knowing the things they claim to know.

As Beck remarks, “this is a development of great ambivalence. It contains the opportunity to emancipate social practice from science through science.” We gain a far more realistic understanding of how scientific results are generated and vaccines are produced. But the resulting disillusionment and skepticism also has the potential to immunize “prevailing ideologies and interested standpoints against enlightened scientific claims, and throws the door open to a feudalization of scientific knowledge practice through economic and political interests and ‘new dogmas.’”

So, not only is technological progress churning up nature and generating massive and dangerous blowback, but at the moment when we need it most to orient ourselves, science and the government’s decisions based on it forfeit their basis of legitimacy. And as the full extent of this shock sinks in, it unleashes a third process of destabilization: We begin to wonder about the broader narratives of progress and history within which we understand our present. [Continue reading…]

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