- Realism and Representation: Essays on the Problem of Realism in Relation to Science, Literature, and Culture
A collection of essays that begins by confronting the possibility that it may be boring is extraordinary per se. George Levine, the organizer of a conference of literary critics, philosophers of science, and historians of science whose issue is this volume, has run a variety of risks, not the least of which is the boredom he wishes to forestall at the outset. For another thing, the essays—as the incommensurabilities of the title and subtitle suggest—are all over the lot. Levine, here as in a previous collection, One Culture, is admirably willing to risk, or even indulge, messiness; he does not instigate dialogues so much as (what Joyceans call) polylogues. The best outcome of bringing critics, philosophers, and historians together is an energizing tumult; the worst is that audiences and readers, aware that they are being talked down to but nonetheless lost (the inevitable consequence of interdisciplinarity for the interdisciplined), will feel all the frustration and self-doubt that force them to boredom in self-defense.
That is not, however, what Richard Rorty, at the center of the boredom excitement, means; Rorty’s charisma derives from the wittiness of his refusal to be interested in what Richard Miller calls “hot topics” of realism, which leave Rorty “cold.” At one point, Rorty, instead of making an argument himself, threatens “to round up all the usual arguments (drawn from Derrida, Stanley Fish, et al.)” (130). J. Hillis Miller is not as visibly ennuyé, but he appears implicitly to know that he might have made Rorty’s list. “Is literary theory, then, a science?” he wonders. The query might have seemed to suggest labyrinths. But immediately, almost as if automatically, Miller answers “a wary ‘yes, of course’” (157). He says he is “wary” not “weary,” but which adjective is more appropriate to “of course”?
On one side is “positivism,” on the other is “post-structuralism” or “deconstruction”; or say that the opposition is “realism” versus “anti-realism.” Well, no one is going to be uplifted by polarities as stultifying as these; the solution, so general at the conference as to prove that a revolution is now in the hands of conservators, is that language, scientific or literary, is active rather than reflective—the names of the solution are “pragmatism” (in Rorty or Scholes), “speech act theory” (in J. Hillis Miller), or “Foucault” (in Simon [End Page 155] Schaffer). I confess to finding the solutions inadequate. However, they have exciting practical consequences, to which I should pay tribute before explaining why I am not in favor of them.
The pragmatic turn of the conference had two results. One was to smother the life out of its epistemological controversies. On the other hand, a lot of participants at the conference, pragmatically willing to conceive of science as a mode of persuasion among others—fully inside of culture and nowhere else—presented exceedingly lively research: Gillian Beer on wave theory and modernism; Harriet Ritvo on zoological taxonomy and Enlightenment preconceptions; Simon Schaffer on Newton and the issues of class, status, and religion that were manipulated to give Newtonianism its victory.
Nevertheless, the conference, Levine reports, still needed a jolt, and got one, when Bruce Robbins rose to argue that the pragmatic solution, despite its promotion of all this good work, was unfair to “realism” and was, in addition, politically suspect. I would add that the conference was (largely) unfair to science as well; because of space considerations, I would like to float a series of propositions to this effect that will have to be indefensible:
(1) It is a paralogism to infer that science is only another cultural phenomenon from proofs that it is overwhelmingly a cultural phenomenon. Schaffer brilliantly shows that it is the latter. But when he proclaims that “a good way of damaging realism is to withdraw legitimacy from representatives who purport to speak for an autonomous realm...