Playpen

Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 16:00 on 14-03-2014, Arthur B
Spoiler:
nobody with any reasonable level of self-knowledge ever feels Legitimate, no matter how qualified.

But happily you do learn to fake it better. :D
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at 15:25 on 14-03-2014, Kit
Surely the fact that your studies are interminable makes you a scholar already? ;)

Ah, dammit - I just spent a lot of time in a Japanese research institute, where they tend to use "scholar" in the sense of researcher or at least PhD student, and since English isn't my native language it tends to pick whatever local flavour it happens to come into contact with :) I meant that in the sense of Very Serious and Learned and Legitimate Professor (even though I'm slowly - and at last! - entering the space where studies and research start to blur into each other, I don't feel very Legitimate yet, and doubt I will ever be Learned)

Moral psychology is enjoying something of a renaissance along these lines, isn't it?

I'm not very familiar with it, but do tell us more!
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at 14:15 on 14-03-2014, Daniel F
That's what I'd like to do, and which most philosophers with a modicum of work ethics are already doing - some of them are trained in a particular scientific field (Stengers, Haraway, Barad), some go into laboratories, research sites, or do fieldwork (Traweek, Latour, Lestel), some collaborate with scientists, and so forth.


Moral psychology is enjoying something of a renaissance along these lines, isn't it?
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at 14:11 on 14-03-2014, Arthur B
@Janne:
It might well be a mixture of both. Although, at least with the peer reviewing thing, Social Text didn't peer review anything, to encourage creativity, so at least in that respect Sokal's point doesn't stand.

I'm not making myself very clear: I knew and Sokal knew that there was no peer review at Social Affairs. In "waving through without peer review" the "without peer review" point was known - the issue is the waving through. Even non-peer reviewed journals have editors who have the responsibility of accepting or rejecting articles; in the case of non-peer reviewed journals, an even bigger responsibility falls on the editors precisely because they're the only ones seeing the papers before they get published.

The point of the Sokal Hoax wasn't to embarrass the peer review process, it was specifically to see if the editors of Social Affairs would bother to ask probing questions of the paper in the absence of a peer review process. (Arguably, this is a weakness of Sokal's point - spotlighting damaging competence gaps in a discipline's peer review community arguably being more significant than demonstrating the not-exactly-obscure premise that non-peer reviewed journals don't hold themselves to as high a standard as those which do have peer review.)

@Kit:
Well, that is, if I should one day manage to bring my interminable studies to a close and become a scholar myself.

Surely the fact that your studies are interminable makes you a scholar already? ;)
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at 13:54 on 14-03-2014, Kit
@Arthur B:
Collaborate with a sympathetic scientist, maybe? Or at least have someone to look over your paper once you've done it and point out any glaring traps you're wandering into.

That's what I'd like to do, and which most philosophers with a modicum of work ethics are already doing - some of them are trained in a particular scientific field (Stengers, Haraway, Barad), some go into laboratories, research sites, or do fieldwork (Traweek, Latour, Lestel), some collaborate with scientists, and so forth. There will of course always be people who will loftily expostulate about some half-baked idea they have about "science" in general, but I'd never dream of not trying to know as much as possible about a given topic, not checking my references and not actually trying my hand at it at least once. Well, that is, if I should one day manage to bring my interminable studies to a close and become a scholar myself.

This can be part of peer review, of course; it occurs to me that if people do want to write interdisciplinary academic papers, this screams out for similarly interdisciplinary peer review process.

Now you've got me wondering if there are any journals that have that kind of interdisciplinary review process. I'll have to check if I can find anything about some of the journals I occasionally read, because that would be awesome.

@Janne:
Seconding everything you said in your last post.
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at 13:48 on 14-03-2014, Janne Kirjasniemi
@Arthur
Waving through the article without peer review was, at least according to Sokal and his supporters, an indication that the editors of Social Affairs either hadn't even bothered to read the article (because then they'd have seen it butchered their own discipline even if they didn't catch the ways in which it subverted science), or if they had read it they allowed their deference to and ignorance of science blind them to its deficiencies.

It might well be a mixture of both. Although, at least with the peer reviewing thing, Social Text didn't peer review anything, to encourage creativity, so at least in that respect Sokal's point doesn't stand. It might very well be that they didn't read the paper. Teaches them to trust tricky phycisists.

A thing to consider I think for inter-disclipinary research is to study some of the disciplines that are used by all sciences. Mathematics and especially statistics and how statistics are interpreted would be invaluable and would help the philosopher or arts scholar to better understand the research in the field, especially with some insider to guide them along. This should perhaps be of some interest to the arts faculties as well. They force philosophers back here to study formal logic, surely some maths added to the mix wouldn't be too bad, especially if one's interests laid in the philosophy of some science.
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at 13:23 on 14-03-2014, Arthur B
@Kit:
I'm not saying philosophers should get a free pass and say whatever they like about a theory they once vaguely heard about (and the gratuitously sophisticated use of, for example, mathematical terms in psychoanalytic of philosophical papers would annoy me too), but there must be *some* way of allowing them to speak about science and its intersections with social and political qestions.

Collaborate with a sympathetic scientist, maybe? Or at least have someone to look over your paper once you've done it and point out any glaring traps you're wandering into.

This can be part of peer review, of course; it occurs to me that if people do want to write interdisciplinary academic papers, this screams out for similarly interdisciplinary peer review process.

@Janne:
As it is, he wrote a hoax to a journal who published it in good faith. Kind of like a physicist giving a guest lecture to a bunch of social scientists and then mocking them for not recognizing the lecture as nonsense.

I don't think the Sokal hoax was quite the same thing though; rather than showing up and giving a physics presentation with nonsense slipped in, Sokal offered up a paper which paid some lip service to science but spent most of its energy offering up a pseudophilosophical argument based on pseudoscientific premises, littered with references deliberately chosen to be familiar to the editors of Social Affairs and which would confirm their prejudices. So it's more like a physicist walking into a social sciences lecture theatre, presenting a mixture of real and fake science in the first 10 minutes, and then spending 50 minutes asserting stuff about the social sciences on the basis of that, and nobody calling them on it.

Except actually, it was meant as a test of "editorial laziness", so it isn't even like that: it's more like presenting the talk to a social sciences faculty boss and having the boss say "yes, I see nothing wrong with this, I'll book you in to talk to the department" without thinking through what's just been said. Waving through the article without peer review was, at least according to Sokal and his supporters, an indication that the editors of Social Affairs either hadn't even bothered to read the article (because then they'd have seen it butchered their own discipline even if they didn't catch the ways in which it subverted science), or if they had read it they allowed their deference to and ignorance of science blind them to its deficiencies.
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at 13:03 on 14-03-2014, Janne Kirjasniemi
One disturbing aspect of this thing(and which has nothing to do Munroe, to be clear) from people who are not scientists, are the men's rights people, who quote-pick from Judith Butler for example, frame it as ridiculous and anti-science and anti-whatever. Then they generalize this to apply to feminism in general. And conclude that feminism is anti-science anti-whatever and that it should be aggressively opposed because Science says so. Which is sort of a reflection of the argument in the general world. It is very sad. Quite often it just seems that arts and sciences are actually having both talking about a different thing, or at least a different aspect of the same thing, but they do not share a language and can't understand each other.
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at 12:56 on 14-03-2014, Kit
People who tend to see science as a great cause appear to respond to post-modernism as to a heretic sect or something that is trying to usurp and cast down Science. Well, I may exaggerate, but the perspectives are frustratingly far apart at times.

Yeah, this frustrates me a lot too - as I said, poststructuralist philosophers are not trying to dismiss science or to hold up some sort of "aaah but if everything is constructed inside and by certain socio-economic contexts then nothing is true or everything is as true as everything else aaaah" relativism. Are they that scary?

I like Foucault myself a lot, but from a historian's point of view, his work's greatest contribution is the concepts and questions raised, since often he overreaches in his interpretations.

I agree with that. It is true that his concepts have survived better than his historical analyses per se...

The "discovery" that human institutions and many social phenomena are in many ways constructions and not deterministic natural laws is in many ways one of the greatest things done in the social sciences. It is a pity that the weak version of social constructivism is seen as such an obvious thing, while at the same time, people are blind to the constructs in their own lives and societies.

God, yes. Tell me about it.

I'm reminded of the Sokal's Intellectual Impostures (put out in the wake of the Sokal Hoax), which seems to be a gripe motivated mainly by philosophers latching onto scientific principles to construct metaphors which then don't actually make any sense because they didn't understand the principles they were borrowing in the first place.

And also a criticism, I believe, of what the two authors see as a kind of "absolute relativism" going on in postmodern thought. In a way, it exemplifies the sort of double bind contemporary philosophers are in (well, at least it's how studying philosophy often makes me feel): if they don't write about science, and technology, and whatever is considered serious and valuable (or value-producing), they get dismissed as rambling dreamers whose work is completely theoretical and worthless. But when they try to write about science, be it mathematics, physics, or primatology - trying to work as well as they can with a discipline in which they are interested, but which is not always originally their own - they do of course leave themselves wide open to criticism about accuracy. I'm not saying philosophers should get a free pass and say whatever they like about a theory they once vaguely heard about (and the gratuitously sophisticated use of, for example, mathematical terms in psychoanalytic of philosophical papers would annoy me too), but there must be *some* way of allowing them to speak about science and its intersections with social and political qestions.
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at 12:44 on 14-03-2014, Daniel F
In that light I would understand it, as just another front of the eternal war between arts faculties and science faculties. I remember writing in support of scientific anti-realism during my BA and the very idea just appals every science student I've ever met. Philosophy and science have a rocky relationship at the best of times: my experience is that both sides love to imagine that they're experts on the other, with embarrassingly ignorant results.

Randall Munroe is a mathematician, as I recall, so it makes sense that he would fit into that trajectory and be quite dismissive of less 'objective' fields. Not that I wish to overly stereotype students of science or mathematics, of course. My sense is that postmodernism is resented by more than just scientists, though, and at a somewhat higher level than just 'we wish you'd stop pretending you knew a damn thing about our field'. (I mean, ask a philosopher of mind about neuroscientists one day. Hell, ask a theologian about certain books.)

In the back of my mind is the thought that postmodernism isn't just subjective and arts-y and apropriating-of-science: it's also very counter-intuitive. So it's easy for laypeople to think the whole enterprise is nonsense. Going around questioning things assumed to be common sense is a good way to make people grumpy, and ridicule is an easy response.
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at 12:34 on 14-03-2014, Janne Kirjasniemi
Yeah. The Sokal thing was an interesting one and honestly, it is a problem, when people get inter-disciplinary without the required knowledge and understanding. But in Social Affairs defense, the fact that they had no peer-review process was widely known, it was not a paper that focused on physics and Sokal was an established physicists, whom the editors decided to trust to give their readers a view from a scientist. So perhaps the point Sokal was trying to make would have been clearer, if he had tried to publish his article in a post modern journal that actually was peer-reviewed and seen what would have happened. As it is, he wrote a hoax to a journal who published it in good faith. Kind of like a physicist giving a guest lecture to a bunch of social scientists and then mocking them for not recognizing the lecture as nonsense.

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at 12:06 on 14-03-2014, Arthur B
I'm reminded of Sokal's Intellectual Impostures (put out in the wake of the Sokal Hoax), which seems to be a gripe motivated mainly by philosophers latching onto scientific principles to construct metaphors which then don't actually make any sense because they didn't understand the principles they were borrowing in the first place.
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at 11:54 on 14-03-2014, Janne Kirjasniemi
Well, scientifically minded people at least. People who tend to see science as a great cause appear to respond to post-modernism as to a heretic sect or something that is trying to usurp and cast down Science. Well, I may exaggerate, but the perspectives are frustratingly far apart at times.

And sorry, I did not mean methodological doubt in the precise sense, rather that often the point of post-modernism is to find the meanings and justifications of the concepts used in, for example, psychiatry, and try to show that the foundation of how we think of sanity and insanity might not be so strong. So I meant it generally as doubting foundations instead of trying to construct a cartesian structure.

On Foucault, I used Madness as an example since it is what I'm most familiar with. I would say that Foucault might start as a structuralist, but it does seem that his thinking becomes more post-modern at the end of the 60s and forward. Discipline and Punish might be a turning point. The development of the concept of discourse and the concept of savoir/pouvoir are a development, I think, away from structuralism. I like Foucault myself a lot, but from a historian's point of view, his work's greatest contribution is the concepts and questions raised, since often he overreaches in his interpretations.

Many critics of post-modernity seem to think that social constructivism and strong social constructivism are the same thing, which is very frustrating. The "discovery" that human institutions and many social phenomena are in many ways constructions and not deterministic natural laws is in many ways one of the greatest things done in the social sciences. It is a pity that the weak version of social constructivism is seen as such an obvious thing, while at the same time, people are blind to the constructs in their own lives and societies.
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at 10:28 on 14-03-2014, Kit
Ah, yes - I tend to forget that most people commenting on postmodernism that way might be actual scientists. The gap between them and philosophers is just so incredibly wide nowadays, compared to when philosophy and science were actually one. I guess you're right in saying that many scientists just view postmodernism as silly theories they don't have any time for.

I myself tend towards a form of constructivism, for example (though not the "strong" variant you mentioned); but - and that's something that might get lost in translation between the philosophy seminar and the laboratory - that is not a view incompatible with holding up the possibilty and validity of scientific work, quite the contrary. Contemporary philosophy of that ilk is not about going around tearing down things just for the sake of feeling smug and sophisticated, and things like constructivism are not, I repeat NOT, relativism. I'd say that, as you put it, it's about asking questions about situatedness, responsibility, unacknowledged systems of repression and so forth.
Just one thing, though: I'm not entirely sure the point here is "methodical doubt" at all. The purely cartesian process aims at reconstructing a world based on complete and utter certainties, and nothing but those certainties. "Postmodernism" (sorry, I just don't like the word, because it doesn't actually mean very much) tries to deconstruct social, political, or moral assumptions critically, but not in order to achieve a new, sanitised worldview based on a higher and purer truth; the idea, I think, is to understand under which conditions certain systems of representation and of practice emerge, what happes to whom when they do, and to have a clearer idea of one's own position and the conditions of one's own discourse. Once you've done that, there is a possibility of answering the questions asked, but in a situated, cautious - humble? - way.

As for Michel Foucault (who, postmodernist though he might have been called, was actually more of a structuralist...it just goes to show how impossible it is to actually define what "postmodernism" is), his History of Madness is indeeed flawed in certain ways, but then again it was his first piece of work (and his PhD thesis to boot), and he did go on to refine it a bit. I'd say that the later works contain a wealth of incredibly useful philosophical, historical and social concepts that can and have been used to articulate both critical positions and political activism (like his analysis of the modern state as a conjuction of an anatomo-politics of the body and a biopolitics of the population - an analysis which has since then been tweaked and updated, but which was truly revolutionary when it was first articulated).

Anyway, I just presented a poster on philosophy of science to a room full of biologists, and they responded well, so I'm pretty hopeful that there are actual points of contact and of dialogue. And I hope I demonstrated that contemporary philosophy is not all jargon and neologisms and spectacular but hollow arguments, and can be used in an interesting way to think about science and scientific practice. We *do* want to talk to scientists and work with them, we really do, but I guess we need to make ourselves accessible in order for that to happen...
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at 08:45 on 14-03-2014, Janne Kirjasniemi
Post-Modernism is such a large movement and it is not in any ways concise or well defined beyond the general tendency to question all assumed definitions and this does not mean much. It is also easy to pick and choose things to mock about it and admittedly, there is a lot to choose from. Strong social constructionism, claims that mathematics and associated abstract concepts are just human constructs. That medicine has actually changed the human body through observation(as in, when the theory of medicine was based on the humors, the human body when observed was a collection of bladders and humors and changed by the action of anatomists and their tools to fit the new physiological theories) and has not actually discovered anything. And so on. So for your basic scientific realist working with physics, for example, this is all nonsense. Weirdly though, I know many judgmental mathematicians as well, although they are known to mess with nonsensical concepts just for the fun of it and to see what happens.

So these extreme and sometimes overly political "attacks" on natural sciences is often assumed to represent post-modernism as a whole, as if such an easy definition is possible. When we add to this the sheer volume of scholarship recognized as post-modern and the abundance of unfamiliar terms and neologisms, it is not really so surprising that many are dismissive of it.

But I myself have always felt that the real contribution of post-modernism is in asking hard questions, for example about how we define sanity, gender, religion and ethics. And quite often post-modernist thinkers fail to answer their own questions, since the methodical doubt used to question the doxa as it were is equally valid criticism for the new constructs as well. Michel Foucault is a good example. The way he challenges the positivistic view of psychiatry in his History of Madness os great, but his own description of the historical process is based on bad sources, generalizations from other sources and reductive in its assumption, that the history of insanity in the 17th to the 18th century is merely an exercise of control of deviants.

I like to compare this good questions thing to some other fields. For example, Bertrand Russel gave us Russel's Paradox, which was enough to challenge set theory in a way that was truly valuable. While post-modernism can not be as precise as mathematics or logics, its value is similar to this.
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at 08:36 on 14-03-2014, Kit
As a philosophy student mostly gravitating around the sort of thinkers that have been called "postmodern" (even though many of them have rejected that label), I've got to say it's a lot less convoluted and a great deal more interesting than most people give it credit for. I'm sure the general attitude towards "postmodernism" (or poststructuralism, or whatever you want to call it) comes from a certain subpar postmodernist posturing for posturing's sake that might be found in some places, but still, it's a pity ("misunderstood academics, unite!").
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at 23:31 on 13-03-2014, Tamara
No one is quite sure what it means but we all know it isn't anything nice?
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at 22:47 on 13-03-2014, Daniel F
That old comic was better, though the mouse-over text is a trifle irritating. Why is postmodernism such an easy target, anyway?
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at 19:17 on 13-03-2014, Dan H
Grats Alasdair!

On that particular XKCD, it low key annoyed me for most of the same reasons it didn't work for James D, it relies on a deeply contrived setup which doesn't, to me, feel like the way people would naturally actually use that line.

Plus, as a couple of people have pointed out, "you know what [BLAH]" as a construction is not a statement of fact, and therefore it does not constitute an assumption *at all*.

It makes me particularly sad because I remember that the guy who wrote this comic now writes comics in which he pretends it is clever to deliberately misunderstand people.
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at 17:30 on 11-03-2014, Robinson L
Oh, I've been meaning to say - haven't had any problems with the website for well over a week.

Thanks Rami for fixing whatever-it-was.
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at 08:19 on 11-03-2014, Arthur B
Also with film there is at least a central focus of the creative work - namely, what's going on in front of the cameras - whereas in games the creative work is going on at dozens and dozens of different workstations, and in the voice acting/motion capture studio, and so on.
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at 06:21 on 11-03-2014, Janne Kirjasniemi
I've played precious few plot oriented games in recent times, but one could say that with movies, the figure head of a director seems to result in a singular vision or at least something which can easily be interpreted as a singular vision. But could games achieve that and on the other hand, is this even desirable, taking into account that railroading and such stuff is something people complain about.
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at 22:00 on 10-03-2014, Arthur B
His argument was that these days the figure of the "celebrity game developer" is essentially a relic.

The argument as you outline it seems fairly compelling to me.

To be honest, there's an extent to which the idea of the auteur movie director is sort of a myth for similar reasons, simply because of the sheer number of people who all need to competently do their job in order to complete all but the indiest of indie projects; even guys like David Lynch and the Coens and Ridley Scott and so on tend to work with a tight cabal of like-minded regular collaborators, for instance. But I guess AAA games are several steps more diffuse than that these days.
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at 18:56 on 10-03-2014, Alasdair Czyrnyj
Thanks everyone. It means a lot to me. Hopefully this'll be the start of something bigger.

IN OTHER NEWS...

I was reading a forum thread about the closure of Irrational Games the other day, and I found someone making an interesting argument. His argument was that these days the figure of the "celebrity game developer" is essentially a relic. Most of the people we associate with that label, the Carmacks, the Romeros, the Meiers, the Molyneuxes, the Cages, made their names back in the '90s, and nowadays most of them are either retired, making games for mobile devices, or coasting on reiterations of past successes. His opinion was that something like a superstar designer really only worked when the majority of developers were guys working in 12-man teams in someone's garage, and that development has really grown too elaborate to be dominated by one personality. The proof of this could be seen in the fates of these guys, a majority of whom came to grief on some overly-elaborate project that was intended to revolutionize gaming, only to burn through a ton of money and goodwill and result in a mediocre game.

This same fellow also made the most apt summation of Bioshock Infinite I have seen anywhere: B:I is what Daikatana would have been had it worked.
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