Steven Pinker and the Perfectibility of Man…

05/08/2003

There’s fragments of a paper in my head. I need to find ways of noting this stuff down that doesn’t collide with my writing on this site. It goes back before Clay, to a place of darkness that is somewhere around the edges of some work I did in classics about a million years ago around constructivist and essentialist views of human nature and history (of which there is much written). Arts disciplines normally concentrate on that which makes the past a different place – alien and weird. Science concentrates on what is permanent and unyielding. The questions are always relational – is science skeletal to humanities meat (or meat to skin maybe)? Are the bones of science demonstrated to be brittle by philosophical poststructuralist critiques? Or are the relativisms of cultural studies shed like the masquerading shell of a scientific Terminator?

So this is the point where I talk about Freud and my interest in models of the mind at that abstracted level – that it’s maybe ‘unscientific’, but it’s still essentialising (just at a different level). I delivered a paper on anachronism and identification in Aristotle and Freud a million years ago at a conference in New York. I can’t remember what I said – and I finished it on sheets of hotel stationary while inhaling the minibar, so I’ll probably never find a useful copy of it anywhere either… Maybe there’s stuff that’s permanent – maybe we just accept that. I believed that then and I think I believe it now… Interesting, but not obvious questions these – whatever you may wish to believe…

So Steven Pinker’s on TV and he’s talking about the perfectibility of man and that sense of a “Blank Slate” that he writes about in his latest book of the same name. And he’s talking about stuff I already knew, but I don’t know where from – the association of the political left with ideologies that deny human nature as something fixed and permanent (which explains to me the resistance that feminism always had to Freud and reminds me of an incredibly brief and nerve-wracking conversation that I had with Alan Sinfield [profile] back when I was an intellectual before I became an artisan). He said that Freud was “bad for gay people”. Same thing. Is essentialising philosophy bad for the left? Anyway – and Pinker is also talking about the right’s acceptance of natural humanity – that the right operates on assumptions that society works around and in concert with fundamental humanity (greed, acquisition, ambition, competition) while the left abstracts out – tries to find ways to make the world more fair by denying or suggesting we change human nature… [cf Juliet Mitchell's earlier work]. That this ideology of human perfectibility can be considered to lie behind China’s revolution and communist ideology (for example) which considered people malleable enough to be transformed into good non-competitive, collaborative citizens.

And anyway – so I’m back to thinking about Clay again and how much my personal ideologies of community development and the value of social software coincide with his, but that at the same time the statements that he made at ETCon (that I missed, but which were extensions of comments that I’ve heard him say before) are not obvious – “groups act against their own interests” is a statement that needs contextualising. And that although we may feel comfortable asserting it, the ways in which studies of this kind are phrased and the fact that they are based on statements of limited cultural or historical difference between individuals – of an essentialised abstracted almost timeless humanity – might be correct, but are also implicated in much larger battles about the nature of identity and what it means to be human, and what is permanent and what can change. That difference between human groups is obvious and pronounced in many areas of hierarchy and interaction – as obvious as the similarities and that the line between what is human nature and what is acculturation or interpolation/relationships with language is not and may never be entirely clear. Which is not to say that it’s not appropriate to use research of this kind as the basis for social software work – simply that the very principle that we balance out inbuilt human limitations with prostheses and band aids (this is very much core to one of the senses of social software that I’m most comfortable with) is potentially wrapped up in a much larger and scarier and less morally or politically obvious debate than we tend to acknowledge…

This may make no sense to people who aren’t me. It’s messy enough to be only vaguely useful for me – gestural vocabularies, messy arguments and references are all I can offer… But maybe it’ll help me feel less uncomfortable with some of the collisions between my current and previous occupations…