Defending reductionism, then not so much (Part I)

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Paris in the winter of 1995/96 — the city was chaos because of strikes prompted by a set of neoliberal “reforms.” I am a little embarrassed, in retrospect, by how little I engaged with or understood the enormity of what was going on around me. Part of it was that the “plan Juppé” actually seemed like a very tiny step toward the way things already were in the US, where Clinton was cheerfully advocating NAFTA and defunding welfare, all from what passed for the Left chez nous.

The main impact the strikes had on me was that I did most of my socializing in a one mile radius around my apartment, because the Métro was shut down, and as a native New Yorker, the prospect of hitchhiking scared the crap out of me. Luckily, this radius included Le Tambour, a brasserie on Rue Montorgeuil that never seemed to close, had an informal lending library, and, toward four in the morning, would fill up with butchers from the surrounding markets, sipping calvados in their bloody aprons. It was like hanging out in a Jacques Dutronc song, especially since, in those hazy, silvery days, you could still smoke indoors.

I was in Paris for a critical studies program. Instead of a junior year abroad, I’d opted to take the year off from school and do a not-for-credit program of classes in literature, philosophy, and film studies. This was the late heyday of Derrida — I saw him give a talk, surrounded by artists’ portraits of himself, at the Theatre de l’Odéon, for example. Conversations that stretched late into the night revolved around foundational texts that I found entirely impenetrable. I was lost. Eventually, I gravitated toward film classes, and spent long hours taking advantage of my internship at the Vidéothèque de Paris. I spent a few hours a week at their Cybercafé, showing French people how to use the internet, in exchange for a free membership and some “lunch tickets.”

This turned out not to be a bad deal. The Vidéothèque had a huge library of films. Their goal was to have everything that had ever been shot in Paris available for consultation, and to serve as the “visual memory of the city.” At the time, the ability to run a quick search and find early shorts by Chantal Ackerman (“J’ai faim, j’ai froid” was a favorite) or Wim Wenders’ “Un jour, Pina a demandé,” or, really anything by Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, Renoir — it was a kind of magic. This was tragically just a few years before it became routine to store and feed video on demand digitally, so that they had invested in an elaborate system involving a Minitel network (France’s pre-internet national 1200 baud nationwide BBS, which was only discontinued just last month), and a robotic arm that would retrieve any requested betamax cassette, and pop it into a player attached to your terminal. There is something heartbreaking about how rapidly this technological marvel must have obsolesced. I think about those dutiful, determined robot arms sometimes when I use streaming services, such as just now finding this while waiting to change planes in an airport lounge.

Despite somehow managing to avoid reading Walter Benjamin, I was doing a fair job of flânerie. I think it helped that I was pretty certain after the first few weeks of my time there that I was not going to have a career in critical studies. An anthropologist friend recently put the issue in a way that made sense of this whole year for me: The scientist’s impulse is to simplify, reduce, isolate causes and dispel mystery, whereas the humanist’s impulse is to complicate, problematize, and appreciate it. Those first few weeks of intrepidly trying to make my way through the first fifty pages of Milles Plateaux taught me that in my gut I’m a scientist.

This led to some interesting conversations, because for a particular strand of postmodernist thought, science, especially social science, was viewed as a suspicious, potentially hegemonic force. Psychology was particularly problematic, because it seemed to have filtered into people’s consciousnesses largely through systems of behavioral control and the marginalization of the less powerful, as in Discipline and Punish. So the idea that there was anything to understand about humans that could be learned by observing their behavior in laboratory experiments stirred up some intense reactions.

One night at Le Tambour, I got into a long discussion with Benjamin Bratton who was working on a research project related to  May ’68. He was insisting, if I remember correctly, that it doesn’t make any sense to study “word recognition,” because that’s not actually a thing people do. People read, and recognizing words is part of that, but it’s not likely you’ll be able to use the techniques of laboratory psychology to say much about what’s happening in someone’s brain as they read, much less understand anything important about what that behavior means to them.

I defended the position that it was sensible to try and reduce reading to something like a set of component processes. As evidence that this was a productive mode of practice, I pointed to highly replicable laboratory phenomena, having to do with the relative speed with which people are able to read different words aloud, for example. Before I left for Paris, I had just started working in a lab where I was helping out with a number of such experiments. My job was to round up other undergraduates, and have them sit in front of a computer reading words aloud as they were presented on the screen. I was pretty impressed with the whole inductive process, and the quantifiable results you could produce if you could find the right things to measure.

At the same time, it was hard not to see the gulf between what goes on in the psychology lab, and what happens during reading as I experienced it. I’m pretty sure I was in the midst of reading Maurice Blanchot’s Thomas l’Obscur at the time. I seem to have been reading it the whole time I was living in Paris; it’s about a hundred pages long, but is structured a bit like a Moebius strip and I was never quite sure whether I had already read a particular passage, and had to keep retracing my steps. This experience, admittedly, bore little relationship to the timed reading aloud of single words as they appear one by one in the center of the screen…


Image from Daily Photo Stream

One Comment

  1. James
    Posted July 24, 2012 at 9:56 AM | Permalink

    ok, get to work on part II already…sorry it took so long for me to get around to reading everything.

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