Thursday, May 30, 2013

science, galileo and us


Notes on the First Two Paragraphs of Dialectic of Enlightenment

by Gene Ray

The two paragraphs that open Dialectic of Enlightenment (hereafter DoE) set out some key elements of the Frankfurt critique of modernist science. The text, based on transcribed discussions between Horkheimer and Adorno (H&A), was worked up in Los Angeles between 1941 and 1944. Toward the end of that period, Brecht, also in exile in LA, began the collaboration with Charles Laughton that would result in 1947 in the staging of a revised, post-Hiroshima Life of Galileo. In both DoE and Galileo, the problem of science and its broken promise is forcefully, if differently, inscribed. Now as then, the problem is an urgent one.

The following notes belong to a work-in-progress: Galileo in the Force Field reflects on the legacies of modernist science, still-unfolding in world facing biospheric meltdown. More notes and fragments will follow, on the way to book-form. Here, I re-read the remarkable opening of DoE; rereading it, I end up retranslating the first two paragraphs. These are offered, for better or worse, followed by a short commentary and some remarks on the standard translations. In this context (scurvy tunes), the gist of H&A’s paragraphs and their importance for a critical reorientation of science will, I trust, resonate helpfully.



[DoE, p. 1-2:]

“Enlightenment, in the broadest sense of advancing thought, has always aimed to relieve peoples’ fear and to set them up as masters. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates under the sign of triumphant disaster. The program of the Enlightenment was the disenchantment of the world. It wanted to dispel myths and by means of knowledge depose fantasy. Bacon, ‘the father of experimental philosophy,’ [1] had already gathered the motives. He despised the disciples of tradition, who ‘first [...] believe that others know that which they know not; and after, themselves know that which they know not. But indeed facility to believe, impatience to doubt, temerity to answer, glory to know, doubt to contradict, end to gain, sloth to search, seeking things in words, resting in part of nature; these and the like, have been the things which have forbidden the happy match between the mind of man and the nature of things; and in place thereof have married it to vain notions and blind experiments: and what the posterity and issue of so honourable a match may be, it is not hard to consider. Printing, a gross invention; artillery, a thing that lay not far out of the way; the needle, a thing partly known before: what a change have these three things made in the world in these times; the one in state of learning, the other in state of the war, the third in the state of treasure, commodities, and navigation! And those, I say, were but stumbled upon and lighted upon by chance. Therefore, no doubt, the sovereignty of man lieth hid in knowledge; wherein many things are reserved, which kings with their treasure cannot buy, nor with their force command; their spials and intelligencers can give no news of them, their seamen and discoverers cannot sail where they grow: now we govern nature in opinions, but we are thrall unto her in necessity; but if we would be led by her in invention, we should command her by action’.” [2]

“Despite his estrangement from mathematics, Bacon arrived at the basic orientation [Gesinnung] of the science that came after him. The happy marriage between human understanding and the nature of things, as he had it in mind, is patriarchal: the understanding that conquers superstition should have dominion over disenchanted nature. The knowledge that is power knows no bounds, neither in its enslavement of all creation nor in its submission to the masters of the world. Just as it is at the disposal of the bourgeois economy in the factory and on the battlefield, so it is ready to serve the entrepreneurs without regard to origins. Kings control technology no more directly than do the businessmen: it is just as democratic as the economic system by which it developed. Technology is the essence of this knowledge. It aims not at concepts or images, not at the joy of insight, but rather at method, exploitation of others’ labor, capital. The ‘many things’ that according to Bacon are ‘reserved’ are themselves but instruments: the radio as sublimated printing press, the dive bomber as more effective artillery, the remote control as a more reliable compass. What human beings want to learn from nature is how to make use of it, in order to achieve full dominance over it and human beings [um sie und die Menschen vollends zu beherrschen]. Nothing else counts. Ruthless toward itself, the Enlightenment even burned up the last remnants of its own self-consciousness. Only thinking that does violence to itself is hard enough to break up myth. Facing the triumph of the factual mindset today, Bacon’s nominalist credo, too, would have aroused suspicions of metaphysics and called down the same verdict of vanity that he pronounced on scholasticism. Power and knowledge are synonymous.[3] For Bacon as for Luther, the unfruitful joy of knowing is lascivious. What matters is not ‘satisfaction, which men call truth,’ but ‘operation,’ effective procedure; not in ‘plausible, delectable, reverend, or admired discourse, or any satisfactory arguments, but in effecting and working, and in discovery of particulars not revealed before, for the better endowment and help of man’s life’ lies ‘the true end, scope, or office of knowledge.’[4] There should be no mystery but also no wish to reveal mystery.

Notes (H&A’s)

[1] Voltaire, Lettres Philosophiques, XII, Oeuvres Complètes (Paris: Garnier, 1879), vol. 22, p. 118.
[2] Bacon, “In Praise of Knowledge,” in Miscellaneous Tracts upon Human Knowledge, The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. Basil Montagu (London, 1825), vol. 1, pp. 254-255.
[3] Bacon, Novum Organum, Works, ed. Basil Montagu (London, 1825), vol. 14, p. 31.
[4] Bacon, “Valerius Terminus: Of the Interpretation of Nature,” in Miscellaneous Tracts upon Human Knowledge, Works, ed. Basil Montagu (London, 1825), vol. 1, pp. 280-281.


Science, Galileo and Us

As the plot of Enlightenment’s suicide, DoE exposes capitalism’s theodicy – the myth of automatic progress. Leaping advances in forces of production without the abolition of domination in social relations: this is rather the template for ongoing catastrophe. This is the context in which H&A unfold their critique of science. Bacon is the early spokesman for the producers of techno-power; he calls for the reorientation of science toward knowledge that makes the facts obey, commanding nature “by action.” But the passage shows Bacon lying: this is a knowledge that can indeed be bought. The producers of techno-power serve princes, merchants and expansive maritime republics, as the careers of Bacon, Galileo and all the other hero-courtiers of early science confirm. As an historically produced form of producing knowledge, science is caught up in the social force field. The force field, favoring techno-power, pre-shaped the development of the new science. Promising the eventual abolition of terror, ignorance and misery, modernist science has eased many burdens but, crucially, has never ceased to empower the powerful. Pouring its data and cunning into the global social process along the channels and institutions established by the very logic of that process itself, science tightens the net of domination.


The corrupted reality of science qua force of production is critically measured against the blocked promise of what it could and should be. But if the gap between promise and reality matches that between forces and relations of production, the problem goes deeper than the division of labor and class domination. In H&A’s radical materialism, it is the primal fear of nature that kick-started the social machines of domination. Reason itself was the first technological innovation, but every gain in the domination of nature was quickly deployed in the domination of man by man. Modernity is the stage at which science discovered the force of math. Fortifying observation with mathematical models, the modernists began to crack the codes of physics and astronomy. New leaps in techno-knowledge were the spin-off. By the seventeenth century, the feedback loops with power were reorienting science in its methods, aims and self-understanding. H&A track the progress of domination (Herrschaft) on three levels: social (class domination of man by man), psychological (domination of internal nature), and biospheric (domination of external nature). The three are knotted together and each reinforces the others in a vicious spiral. The implications are clear: the hold of domination cannot be broken on any one level alone. No liberation of man without the liberation of nature. (This would be one point of divergence between the Frankfurt theorists and Brecht, whose dialectical realism remained unrealistically anthropocentric.)


But what can the “liberation of nature” mean in practice? The illumination of this blind spot is our urgency today, as the results of the domination of nature have emerged as gathering threat. That this domination is central to modernity and its myth of progress was already emphasized by Benjamin, who also indicated how it is entangled with the exploitation of the proletariat and capitalist conceptions of labor. Benjamin saw clearly that the liberation of oppressed and exploited humanity also entails a passage beyond the human domination of nature. He sent up some suggestive flares to suggest what could follow from labor-power reorganized to cooperate with, rather than exploit, the biosphere.(Read “To the Planetarium” from One-Way Street, 1928, together with Thesis XI from “On the Concept of History,” written in 1940 and first printed as a booklet for limited circulation by the Frankfurt Institute in 1942.) Following up on these cues and drawing in addition on Husserl’s critique of Galileo’s “mathematization of science” (from The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, 1936, which H&A cite later in DoE’s first chapter), H&A take the argument further: the domination of nature empowered by the vector of mathematics in early modernist science belongs to the logic of capitalist valorization. Just as expanding markets spread the principle of exchange and bring human subjects into the commodifying logic of equivalence and fungability, so do the equations of math and formal logic, with their symbolic substitutions and rigorous tautologies, model and impose their own systematic unities. These Adorno will later, in Negative Dialectics (1966), analyze as the principle of “identity thinking”: the conceptual exclusion of singularity and difference helps to prepare the way for the literal – and at the extreme genocidal - destruction of non-identicals. The long unfolding of this argument begins in DoE, chapter one: “Formal logic was the great school of unification. It offered Enlightenment thinkers a schema for making the world calculable [....] Number became Enlightenment’s canon. The same equations dominate [beherrschen] bourgeois justice and commodity exchange [....] Bourgeois society is dominated [beherrscht] by equivalence.” In this rewriting of Weber, the growing disenchantment and rationalization of the world feeds the power of social control and tends, perhaps terminally, toward “total administration” and “total integration.”


It is not just the capture of science by the institutions and paymasters of the dominating classes that is the problem, then. It is too easy merely to treat science as an unproblematically neutral form of knowledge production which, by magically switching its allegiance to the oppressed and exploited, would finally realize its promise. If domination – beginning with the domination of nature – secretly grips science in its very orientation (Gesinnung, its most basic attitudes and postures, its methods and operations, even its animating spirit and very self-image), then the problem and questions are more difficult: how far could science be re-orientated by a new and non-dominating relation to nature and still retain its rigorous commitment to Galileo’s “sensuous experience and necessary demonstration”? If knowledge as techno-power is the intellectual paradigm of domination, what are the alternatives? What are the forms of non-dominating thinking and reasoning, how can they be justified, and how can they hope to survive in a world already structured by the logic of competition and war? Brecht’s post-Hiroshima Galileo asks if science could be reoriented by its own version of a Hippocratic oath: to engage in no research and produce no knowledge or inventions that would enable new leaps in the domination of man by man. In accepting the Nobel Prize in 1995, Joseph Rotblat, the only physicist to leave the Manhattan Project in disgust and protest, made the same appeal. But how far can the precautionary principle be extended to the protection of the biosphere, as well as man, and how, within a powerfully corrupting social process, could the oath of Do No Harm take hold? Even more challengingly, what would a science look like that refuses domination at the level of method rather than professional ethos? Is another science – beyond the logic of capitalist modernity – possible at all? The signs of new emerging science wars in the debates around climate change and mass extinction indicate that the time is ripe to find out. The stakes could not be higher.


The Trouble with Bacon

For a decade now, English-language readers of DoE have had the benefit of two excellent translations. John Cumming’s 1972 rendering, long the standard familiar through many editions by Continuum and Verso, has been joined by Edmund Jephcott’s, brought out by Stanford in 2002. Working through the German original with the help of these two texts illuminates both DoE and the resistance it offers to translation. In rendering the crux moments of a text and its arguments, every translator helps certain meanings to emerge at the cost of obscuring others. Having two competent translations to consult, readers can follow this process more readily and can recover more of the possibilities the original German holds open. The richer reading that results is a stimulus to that active reflection Adorno called the “emphatic experience” of philosophical thinking. In the translation of complex critical theory, as in ecosystems, diversity is a virtue.

Take for a quick example this assertion from a sentence in the 1944/47 preface: “im gegenwärtigen Zusammenbruch der bürgerlichen Zivilation nich bloß der Betrieb sondern der Sinn von Wissenschaft fraglich geworden.” The syntax and verb of this clause pose no problem. The challenge is how to translate the two key nouns: “in the contemporary breakdown of bourgeois civilization, not only the Betrieb of science but also its Sinn have become questionable.” The semantic range of both is considerable. Betrieb connotes a business or enterprise, or the working, running and operation of it; it evokes images of a factory or a company headquarters. Sinn can indicate the sense or meaning of something; or the senses, mind or consciousness as such; or the feeling, spirit or aim that animates something. All these possibilities, which remain in play in the German, cannot come into English in two words. So Cumming translates: “not only the pursuit but the meaning of science has become problematical.” And Jephcott: “not only the operations but the purpose of science have become dubious.”


The first paragraph of DoE is largely taken up by H&A’s own translation of a long passage from "Mr. Bacon in Praise of Knowledge” (1592). While mildly estranging, Bacon’s Elizabethan English presents no serious readerly difficulties. However, both established translations of DoE show signs of worry and struggle. Cumming’s version reproduces the passage in full, word for word, from jurist Basil Montagu's 1825 edition of Bacon's Works. But he goes beyond what H&A have actually translated, inserting an additional phrase of Bacon’s just before the long passage begins. Bacon, H&A write, “despised the adepts of tradition, who ‘first believe that others know...” Cumming: “He looked down on the masters of tradition, the ‘great reputed authors’ who first ‘believe that others know...” The phrase as such does no violence to H&A’s argument, but to add it to their text without attribution takes some liberties. Did Cumming deem H&A’s reference to the keepers of traditional authority to be somehow inadequate? The ironic bite of the phrase he picks out perhaps demonstrates, or establishes more precisely, the measure of the early scientist’s contempt. But why not then flag this selection as his own? After all, readers who might be puzzled by Bacon’s words are already directed to the essay by the footnote H&A provide.

In fact there is a great deal more to be gleaned from Bacon’s text; enough certainly for a helpful translator’s note. Who are these adepts? Bacon: “All the philosophy of nature which is now received, is either the philosophy of the Grecians, or that other of the alchemists.” Since H&A begin their quotation mid-sentence, a diligent translator might, in a note of course, provide the omitted beginning or even go back a sentence further, for context: “Many of these men had greater wits, far above mine own, and so are many in the Universities of Europe at this day. But alas, they learn nothing there but to believe: first, to believe that others know...” Montagu provides no information on the context of the short text, but James Spedding dates it to 1592 and discusses it in his Letters and Life of Francis Bacon (1861). Not published in Bacon's lifetime, it may have been recited or performed, Spedding surmises, as a "device" at "some masque, or show," or other courtly "occasion of compliment, more or less fanciful." It is printed from a manuscript now in the British Museum (a fair copy "in an old hand," with the title as given, "but no further information"). Despite the possibly fictional framing, Spedding deems it to contain "the germ of the first book of the Novum Organum." If H&A's citation of this text, and the weight they give to it at the opening of DoE, rescue it from relative obscurity, their direct assimilation of these words to Bacon's "position" is, in all strictness, overhasty. That said, the view of the Baconian impulse suggested by their selections and readerly intuitions has not lacked support or supporters.


In his translation, Jephcott has inexplicably opted to substitute his own paraphrase for the first two-thirds of the Bacon passage. Where H&A cite Bacon directly, Jephcott summarizes in his own words, leaving intact only Bacon’s key phrase, “the happy match between the mind of man and the nature of things.” Already, on page one, despairing of the American reader? Such an intervention might be justified in editing a new text, but is surely heavy-handed in a new translation of an established classic. In an otherwise thoroughly annotated critical edition, these alterations are slipped in without any textual marker; nothing at all alerts us that this is Jephcott’s paraphrase and that we are reading neither Bacon’s original English nor a retranslation of H&A’s German version of Bacon. All translation, we know, actively interprets its base text. There is no pure and perfect passage from one language and context to another. Translators, unlike readers however, go on record with their decisions about how to balance the meanings of words (content) and their linguistic effects (form), and where to draw the line between text and context. Sometimes this record is printed in invisible ink.

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