In response to the increasing theoretical narcissism of my literary critic colleagues, I am suddenly tempted to give this topic another run over one more time. This post is pretty much Žižekian in nature, and you may have heard of it before, but I think it is one of those topics best to keep in mind if we are to maintain a good critical distance from the (rather unavoidable) temptations for the position of a pan-theory. So, what is our current state of knowledge today, compared to, say, half a century ago?
The first thing that comes to mind is obviously the standard one: the debate against capitalism. Half a century ago we are still doubting how society will be conducted in the future: we still have discussions of how communism or fascism may prevail instead. Today, event the majority of the Left does not even take the question seriously — instead, we hear all the shouts of how to make capitalism more human, and hardly ever any shout of subverting the ideology totally. We have all become Fukuyamaists, as Žižek would put it.
On the other hand, the exact opposite is going on in our biological and natural sciences. Today, we hear all the popular texts theorizing how we may end in the near future — sometimes shockingly near, as in the case of the infamous LHC, or perhaps half a century far, as in the case of global warming. What used to be a stable motherland of a generous, near-immortal planet has now become an object that is bound to give us fragile doom.
The same flip and opposition also happens in popular sciences. Half a century ago, the big topic was of course critical theory (in line with its subversive anti-capitalist political activism) — that of the so-called post-structuralism, deconstruction, French postmodern philosophy, and so on, are elevated to a level of some kind of pan-theory, an all-encompassing theory of theories and the full breadth of human epistemological experience. Today, such attitude does not prevail well beyond the all-too-often narcissistic boundaries of cultural studies and literary criticism, who, again all-too-often, engage in a pointless “deconstruction” of everything, fashionably reducing all to their historical relativity, and all the while absent from the real stage of global political activism.
Science, on the other hand, are becoming more and more popular, not only in the sense of better book sales, but also in playing the role of the pan-theorist, trusted to be able to explain human epistemology itself. I am of course talking about the increasing popularity of cognitive sciences and genetic research taken as the field that would be able to explain all nature of the human being, all their epistemological experience. Even quantum physics are now, with the likes of Fritjof Capra and films like What the Bleep series, taken as a jumping off point in the quest to legitimize science as philosophy itself — not the empirical proof of philosophy, but the transcendental return of science to ancient wisdoms, the leaving aside of the “Cartesian subject” by science.
It is indeed incredible how the entirety of our state of knowledge has progressed over the past half of the 20th century. It is never how science develops and how we gain better knowledge, closer to the truth, but how our entire notion of truth itself changes with time. Science and knowledge is not only never a neutral field, but also in itself stratified, split, and ideologically contested with one another of its parts in regards to which will play the role of the one-supposed-to-know.