Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Visible strings

I saw Avenue Q over the weekend, which was pretty fun. It's a basically a Sesame Street parody where puppets and humans play a bunch of characters living in an outer borough of New York and having real-world problems like shitty jobs, not getting laid, etc. The puppet characters are controlled by on-stage puppeteers who dress in black and enact their puppet's voice, singing and facial gestures alongside the puppet, which creates a strange doubling effect. It's not immediately obvious to my overly rational mind why you need puppets for something like this, but not quite getting it is part of the fun. Some great songs too, I think Schadenfreude and Everyone's a Little Bit Racist were the standouts.



Anyway, by an amazing coincidence I just came across this passage in What is Iconoclash? by Bruno Latour, an introduction to an exhibit he curated and which has just been reprinted in On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods:
Is this made or is this real? You have to choose! What has rendered constructivism impossible in the Western tradition? It is a tradiion that, on the other hand, has constructed and deconstructed so much, but without being able to confess how it managed to do it. If westerners had really believed they had to choose between construction and reality...they would never have had religion, art, science, or politics. Mediations are necessary everywhere. If you forbid them, you may become mad, fanatic, but there is no way to obey the command and choose between the two polar opposites: either it is made or it is real. That is a structural impossibility, and impasse, a double bind, a frenzy. It is as impossible as to request a Bunraku player to have to choose, from now on, either to show his puppet or show himself on the stage.
Latour's project in this exhbit is to conflate the role of mediating representations in religion, sciecnce, and art, and attack the despised role of icons that's been part of Westend culture since the second commandment's prohibition of graven images. Latour wants to rehabilitate icons, fetishes, and other items which are both constructed by humans and yet are channels of something greater -- divinities, or truth.

That reminded me of album cover, which my parents had and made an impression on me at an early age:


Which in turn reminded me of how Gerry Sussman dedicated his doctoral thesis in artificial intelligence to Rabbi Löwe of Prague (of golem fame), because he was the first to recognize that "God created man in his own image" is recursive.

And as it happens, Latour opens his latest book with a cousin of the Pygmalion story, about a sculptor who creates a statue of Jupiter so convincing that he trembles before it. His point is that this is a mocking fable, and in reality the people who build fetishes -- figures that are then worshipped -- are not so naive, they know exactly what they are doing, they are not fools. Rather it's the act of construction that makes feteshes authentic receptacles of the divine. Moderns, on the other hand, want to split the world into what is constructed and what is natural, and deny that anything constructed can be godlike. It is one thing for god to make man, but allowing man to make god is firmly disallowed. Latour's world picture is more networklike, construction does not move strictly in one direction from god to man to puppet, but is something more pervasive. Recursion does not emanate downwards from a single point, but is the active process by which all things reflect one another.

Hm, in my attempt to mirror Latour's style I'm getting far too fancy for myself. Really, what he's up to is very simple, and intersects directly with what I do for a living. He wants to expose the machinery of construction that underlies science (and in this new book, religion). But where he and other constructivists are misunderstood is that this exposure is not meant to destroy or undermine science, but to ground it more firmly in reality. Reality and construction are not enemies, and examining the machinery of construction won't ruin science any more than seeing the puppeteers on stage ruins the show.

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