In Holland, the fantastic Sjoerd van Tuinen and I got into an interesting discussion about constructivism. Sjoerd insisted that constructivism is an anti-realist position, while I insisted that constructivism, at it’s best, ought to be a realist position. In other words, I’m prepared to make the claim that everything is a construction and that all constructions are real. Of course, this requires us to significantly revise our concept of what constructivism is about (in ways, I think, that return us to more common connotations of the term).
In the humanities, the discourse of constructivism arose out of a critical framework based on the nature/cultural binary. Reactionary twerps (this should be a technical term, abbreviated as RT’s) would claim that such and such a thing is natural. For example, they would claim that there is a natural place for women in society and that women innately have certain desires such that if they violate them– e.g., get a job outside the home –they will suffer severe psychological disorders, unhappiness, and society will collapse. We see similar arguments in debates about homosexuality. The story goes that men and women naturally desire the other sex and are therefore violating the order of things by desiring the same sex. “Time is out of joint”. Looking at these sorts of claims– and we find too many remnants of it among evolutionary sociologists and psychologists who are ignorant of ethology and history, it seems –we can infer that by nature the RT’s mean “unchanging”, “originating from within the thing as an essence”, and/or divinely ordained/designed.
The greatness of <em>social</em> constructivism– and something that we need to preserve –was to show that far from being unchanging and originating from within the essence of the thing itself, these identities and “natures” are historical and constructed through discourse, power, and all sorts of techniques reigning in society at any given time. The constructivists were able to show, through a technique of genealogy (Foucault) and ethnography, that people have done things differently, that ways of doing things are dated or emerged at a particular point in history, and therefore that it is possible to do things differently today. Queer theorists showed, for example, how the concept of homosexuality as an exclusive orientation is relatively new (originating in the 19th century) and ethnographers have shown that sexual orientation has been anything but “natural” in the RT’s sense of the term through forays into studies of Aztec men that could elect to live as women and take a husband, bisexual practices of Japanese Shogun warriors, Greek Spartans, and tribes like the Kaluhli of Papua New Guinea that practice homoerotic adult initiation rituals.
Deeply indebted to Hume, no doubt, and his theory of the body as a system of habits, the point was that far from being unchanging, are “natures” are “built” or “formed” by the socio-historical milieu in which we develop. They are “constructed”. Of course, the moment that these immanently sensible demonstrations– and they were demonstrations –were made, the phallusophers came along and mucked everything up. Suddenly a debate about whether or not human “natures” are eternal and unchanging or whether they’re formed through a social milieu became a debate about whether beings are “real” or whether beings are “unreal”. To say something is or that it is “natural” was treated as saying that it is “real”, while to say that something is “constructed” was treated as saying that it was “unreal”. In the meantime, the phallusophers completely divorced the debate from the concreteness of the issues out of which it arose– gender identities, “racial” identities, practices and ways of doing things –and instead made it a thoroughly abstract debate about whether or not one is a “realist” (i.e., someone who thinks there are real things “out there”) or an “anti-realist” (someone who thinks that everything is just an invention of the imagination out of mind, language, power, etc). Things were thoroughly muddled from the get-go as the concrete sociological, ethnographic, and political issues were abandoned for a nice Fox News for/against debate. And here, I cannot but hasten to add, that I’ve been extremely disappointed to see some of my speculative realist comrades advancing debate in precisely these terms… As if points about development were entirely irrelevant. Way to go White Male Philosophers! I can hear the cries now, because I’ve heard them over the last few years, “fuck you very much, new realists!” Like Dawkins in last year’s dust-up about the treatment of women in the secular-atheist community, too many speculative realists have completely managed to miss the point of the realist/constructivism debate, turning it into an abstract issue that ignores the genesis of forms of life. What’s worse, is that rather than integrating these critiques and learning from them, too many SR’s have dug in their heels, insisted on keeping the debate abstract (ignoring points about the reality of development and context), and have been haughtily dismissive of these issues. Hmmmm, what a wonderful realist perspective (one would imagine that realism would imply empiricism and a desire “to go to the things themselves”).
Yet as frustrated as I am with how I see SR developing (sadly all the worst cliches and worries seem to be coming home to roost), this is not the point I want to make. The point I want to make is that the very co-ordinates of the debate between RT realists and constructivists have been mistaken from the get-go. The constructivists should have never conceded the thesis that nature means “unchanging” and “arising from the essence of things themselves”. We should have never permitted the debate to be framed in these terms and we certainly should have never permitted the term “construction” to be treated as a synonym for “unreal”. As I argued in a previous post, if Darwin has shown us anything, it’s that all beings are constructed. Darwin showed that species, what we took as one of the most enduring natural kinds, have, in fact, to be built. There is no form, as the Whiteheadians, who cannot love the world for itself and who therefore seek transcendental supplements, would like to say, that “ingresses” into individuals given their forms. Rather, “species” are, to use Deleuze-DeLanda’s terminology, are “statistical aggregates”; resemblances among individuals resulting from natural selection, heritability, and random variation. A similar thesis has subsequently been confirmed in physics with respect to atoms, showing how the different elements that exist result from stellar processes at the heart of stars. Finally, the developmental systems theorists (DST) have shown us, in biology, how genes are not a blueprint of what the developed organism will become, but rather that there are aleatory developmental processes that arise at every level of development (protein replication, cell formation, relations to environmental niches, etc) that play a role in what the phenotype will be like and that can’t be reduced to one causal factor alone. What the organism will become, the “agental constructivists” argue, will be a function of spatio-temporal relations across all these domains. And here the constructed niche is every bit as much a factor in the destiny of the developing organism as the genes. For example, what type of ant an ant larvae will become is a result not of genes but of hormones in the ant nest surrounding the developing organism. The ant larvae is constructed by these factors.
What we need is not anti-realism, but an ontological constructivism. As any builder of damns, space shuttles, and homes knows, constructions are not unreal, nor are they merely discursive. Space shuttles blow up if they’re not constructed properly. It’s important that the materials out of which entities are constructed co-operate. We can’t make things however we might like. The problem with social constructivism is that all too often it took “construction” as being merely linguistic, mental, or power construction, ignoring the role that bodies play in the whole affair. It treated texts– which are also real as if they were all that is involved in a construction. But constructions involve boards, genes, lungs, metals, food, internet connections, televisions, sunlight, and a host of other matters besides. Us constructivists need to avoid our reflexive knee jerk tendency to treat “construction” as a synonym for <em>artificial</em> because all of nature is a constructive becoming. Yes, we must militantly undermine those conceptions of being and nature that treat nature as the non-historical, the abiding, the identical, and unchanging– Darwin taught us otherwise –but we need to do this in the name of a conception of nature and being that is differential, constructive, creative, and changing. And above all, we must find the means to think a constructivism without a constructor (again, Darwin showed us the way here; design without a designer).
All of this begs the question of whether the term “construction”– like other execrable terms like “vitalism” –has outlived its usefulness. Do we yet have the ear to hear in the term “construction” the idea of “co-struction”, or a structuration that takes place without any single agency directing the entire process? Do we yet have the ear to hear in the term “construction” what takes place at the site of building a house, the development of an ant, and the formation of an iron atom, or have we been so contaminated by the idealist connotations of this term that we cannot but hear “artificial”, “unreal”, “linguistic”, “subjective”, when we hear the term construction? If this is the sad state of affairs we find ourselves in, if we can no longer hear in the term “construction” the connotations that ought to be there– connotations that thinkers like Latour have been fighting for for decades –what other terms might we use? What will give us back our materialism and will allow us to think a building without a sovereign architect behind the process?