Thursday, February 25, 2010

"All the World is but a Stage" Performative Theory and its Actors.

Barry Barnes, a founding member of the Strong Programme out of the University of Edinburgh has argued that societies can be be conceived of as groups who who share "self-referring knowledge substantially confirmed by the practice that it sustains."
Then there is this from GMU economist Donald Boudreax discussing what we might call economic ontology."Oil in the Earth's crust that is out of reach with existing technology is no more of a resource today than is oil on Pluto. But if and when human creativity discovers cost-effective techniques for extracting that oil, it then -- and only then -- becomes a resource. In effect, more of the resource "oil" is created."

And finally take this exchange from Bruno Latour's Science in Action, between a skeptic trying to assess the validity of a scientist's claim that: "Biological activity of endorphin was found essentially in two zones with the activity of zone 2 being totally reversible, or statistically so, by naloxone." and a related figure/diagram that claims to illustrate this assertion.

"'You doubt what I wrote? Let me show you.' [says the Scientist and]... refers to an image slowly produced by one of these devices. 'OK. This is the base line; now, I am going to inject endorphin, what is going to happen? See?!' Immediately the line drops dramatically. 'And now watch naloxone. See?! Back to base line levels. It is fully reversible.' [The skeptic] now understands that what the Scientist is asking him to watch is related to the figure in the text of the sentence. He thus realises where this figure comes from. It has been extracted from the instruments in this room, cleaned, redrawn, and displayed. He now seems to have reached the source of all these images that he saw arrayed in the text as the final proof of... the arguments in [the sentence]. He also realises, however, that the [figure/diagram] that were the last layer in the text, are the end result of a long process in the laboratory that we are now starting to observe. Watching the graph paper slowly emerging out of the physiograph, he understands that he is at the junction of two worlds: a paper world that he has just left, and one of instruments that he is just entering. A hybrid is produced at the interface: a raw image, to be used later in an article, that is emerging from an instrument."

The common link between these three excerpts is an approach to epistemological inquiry that seeks to unpack and clarify the significant semantic difficulties we encounter in creating, representing, and perpetuating, knowledge.

When we encounter assertions like "We won't run out of Oil" or "Our dependence on oil is environmentally unsustainable." it is not a trivial question to ask what they actually mean. Is "oil" here referring to a semiotic economic construct, a specific arrangement of chemical elements, or a unit of energy? Or has the term become a pejorative that references a larger set of practices regarded by some as environmentally unsustainable and morally dubious? Which societies will privilege and sustain which semiotic variation of "oil" and what role, if any, can science play in arbitrating between them? Could "oil as resource" cease to exist if "oil as environmentally unsustainable substance" out-performs it? Can knowledge, once created, ever be destroyed?

Food for thought.


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