1.28.2020

The Peculiar Nihilism of the Scientific Will to Abstraction, or Towards a Knowledge of What's There

Just look at tea and coffee in situ. Smell it, too. Are we sure can extract one element, caffeine, and draw conclusions about the drinks and their caffeine? They look so different, taste so different, feel so different. Aren't such things constitutive of knowledge, too? Whence this will to abstraction?
Tea, they tell us, has less caffeine than coffee. I have no reason to doubt this. The presumption of this fact is that if I want to feel the effects of caffeine less adamantly, I should drink tea. This makes perfect sense: have less of the thing. At the risk of articulating the painfully obvious, this assumes that it's the quantity of this one element — in this case, caffeine — that matters.

But when I, a coffee drinker, opt for black tea, I get jittery. My hands shake just a bit as I lean forward in my chair, tap my foot, get a bit nervous — all signs of too much caffeine. And yet when I drink a cup of coffee that has twice as much caffeine, I feel fine. No, I take that back: I feel good.

It's not just the caffeine, then, that's affecting me. It's this caffeine, not that caffeine. Which suggests that there is not just one caffeine. That caffeine, in fact, is an element within a calculus. That perhaps, just perhaps, there really is no such thing as caffeine per se. That caffeine is a form within a form — there's coffee-caffeine, tea-caffeine, NoDoz-caffeine. And it's its place, function, behavior within that form that matters.

Science is funny. We believe it heeds what's there. But its definition of what's there involves effacing and ignoring what is, in fact, there. Science is not empirical. It is not based in experience, in the actual doings of this life. It's dedicated to not heeding experience, to not heeding what's there, so that it can discover abstract truths that exceed and determine experience. To wit, it finds this certain shape and behavior of some form that's in tea, coffee, chocolate and declares it one thing — caffeine.

Such is the basis of its methodology. It creates a lab removed from experience, removed from the conditions of life, so as to discover the presumed truths of life. Science, I have to say, is nihilistic: it thinks truth is what happens in a vacuum, in a place that can't possibly exist anywhere in the world. To it, truth is the state of things stripped of life.

How did we ever come to believe that this is the place where we learn the truth of things? Where we learn about the respective experiences of coffee and tea?
This seems more like the proper place to understand coffee and tea.
What's particularly odd is that after establishing knowledge outside of life, we then draw conclusions about how we should behave in this life. Get jitters from coffee? Try tea instead; it's got less caffeine. But this advice about our worldly experience is based on an abstraction from the world, from behavior, based on a fact derived from a no place, a vacuum, from plants and beans sans their worldly accoutrements.

How could any empirical scientist make judgements about tea and coffee without talking about tea and coffee? Tea is so thin, astringent; coffee, so viscous, dark, and luscious. One comes from these impossibly delicate, tiny leaves; the other, from a hearty bean. But to the scientist, these facts are not facts that matter; they're in fact obstacles to knowledge. For science, to know the world is to remove the world from the equation as much as possible. That's an odd will — and even odder method to derive knowledge!





Just look! They're so different. How could any knowledge of these things ignore these differences?
Is there really such as a thing as caffeine? Sure, there seems to be something there; scientists didn't just make it up. And when I drink tea and coffee, I note a similar effect. But similarity isn't equivalence. It's a note within a symphony. Or, even more, the very way of caffeine is determined by its environments as much that environment is determined by caffeine. Which is to say, it's not just a note — A major — that can be plopped down in any song (of course, my A major, Miles Davis' A major, and Michael Stipe's A major are all different, as well — so perhaps there's no such thing per se as a note, either: every note is always expressed and, as such, is never an abstraction). Its very constitution, its very way of going, is how it goes here, now, in this way, with these things, in this situation, this environment.

And this difference, these differences, are constitutive of knowledge. The shape of the leaves, the texture of the beverage, the smell, intensity, feel: these are not ornaments. They're not clothes added to bodies nor bodies added to souls. They are constitutive of the experience, inflecting everything around them — and vice versa. They are the stuff of knowledge.

What makes them tricky is that they can't be so readily quantified. They are qualities, as sensuous as they are affective. And the reigning scientific method disdains the body, disdains experience, disdains quality. Bodies just get in the way.

Science, then, is not opposed to religion. On the contrary, as Nietzsche argues, science and religion share a certain ressentiment, a nihilist will to efface the flesh in order to reveal  truth. Science finds bodily experience icky. It wants elements it can measure and weigh. Once quality enters the equation, it's no longer a matter for science. It becomes the stuff of art, of poetry, of private reverie. And, just like that, droves of essential data are brushed aside as extraneous. Our systems of knowledge, like our religions, leave life out of their equations.

Of course, when we're talking about coffee and tea, such a will to abstraction seems relatively innocuous, a matter of a few jitters here and there. But unfortunately this will to abstraction has strange and unsettling effects that pervade our pedagogy and policy. One conspicuous area affected that I've written much about is the pedagogy of writing. Students learn the definitions of words and the rules of grammar but never the sense of either. Like scientists in their labs studying tea and coffee, writing teachers too often brush aside the affective particularity of words, grammatical structures, and punctuation. As Lohren Green, writer of Poetical Dictionary, writes: 

Rather than parsing sense from the word and uniformly imposing accuracy, clarity, concision, and simplicity, we sought to express each word’s unique sense, and to do so we relied on a different, more protean standard. Of course, here too (even especially here) there is room for error. Perhaps foreplay doesn’t go far enough; perhaps clumsy is too intentional, and poise leans, just slightly, forward. These are the things that keep the Editor of a Poetical Dictionary up at night. There is, after all, no privileged access to the being of words, but only sometimes a happy moment in which they can be found to declare themselves a very particular (or very universal) this.

As I write in my book, Reading the Way of Things, what's so powerful about Green's approach is that this sense is not an abandonment of knowing but, on the contrary, marks it embracing: But this is not an abandonment of knowledge claims, as if poetry were ornament that came after the fact, a trope upon the foundation of literal language. Green’s claim is at once supremely bold and absolutely humble. His book supersedes the traditional dictionary, tending to meaning but including the affect of the word. Affect, for Green, is knowledge that neither impedes nor adorns meaning. A word has a way of going that is simultaneously conceptual and affective. As Green embraces affect as knowledge, knowledge becomes uncertain, unprovable: there is room for error here. But this does not make it any less knowledge.

And then there's medicine. I've never had a doctor — an MD, that is — who heeded my symptoms as part and parcel of this body living this life. Any symptom I have is isolated from my living body and assessed next to other symptoms gathered from other people — which, as our data sets grow to include billions of people, makes the experience of this skinny hebe less and less relevant.

And so when I get the blood test results from my yearly physical, the software system of my health care provider — I use the term "health care" generously — automatically generates an email. Some number enters its system and I get: You are pre-diabetic. Read this PDF. Your have Stage 1 Chronic Kidney Disease. Read about ways you can change your behavior. You're due for an HIV test.

No doubt, a certain number on a blood test result may very well mean I have these diseases. And it may be time for an HIV test. Or it may just be some numbers on a screen and the better way to assess me is to put those numbers into a living system, namely, me-in-the-world. This guy, right here. See? 

My doctor never even touches me. I am a series of numbers on a screen to her; each number inaugurates a fork in a decision tree. This decision tree is on WebMD. So why am I paying $700 a month for health insurance? What does this doctor actually do? When medicine stops reading this body here, it ceases to be of much value to this body here. Sure, it has some value. But to understand that abstraction in relationship to this body here and now demands a skill that is simply not taught, is not privileged, is not even considered within the practice of medicine.


What do I want from doctor? I want the methodology Green deploys in his Poetical Dictionary: a reckoning of what's there — a there that's at once particular and general, affective and conceptual. I am not suggesting that knowledge only heed the moment as the moment, the body as a unique site from which all knowledge should be garnered. That'd be absurd. What I am saying is that each body is a particular way of metabolizing the world, a how and not just a what. And while this how can't be quantified, it does not mean it shouldn't be included in our knowledge base. 


I am not suggesting that knowledge of caffiene needs to begin with every cup of coffee or tea. I am suggesting, however, that the respective bodies of coffee  and tea — bean, leaf,  hue, texture, tone, taste, and tenor — are constitutive of the knowledge of caffeine. That, in fact, to ignore such things is bad science, bad knowledge, as it ignores what's there! And so it is with my body in the doctor's office.



Or take the THC in sativa and indica buds. The scientific community poo poos the anecdotal distinction — sativa is heady and up; indica is body and down — based on the fact that in the lab it all looks the same. And yet the plants grow differently, look different, taste different. Why is that not relevant? Why is the experience of millions of consumers not constitutive of knowledge? Why is what's there not considered?


Scientific abstraction, like the religious asceticism it echoes, wreaks havoc — on my nerves, my health, and my high, not to mention on the education, health, and high of the planet. This is all to say, that I'd like to imagine a different mode of scientific knowledge which involves different modes of knowing — poetic, shamanistic, gonzo — that reckon all that's there — the touch, tone, taste, tenor, timbre of things both visible and not.

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