Friday, November 30, 2012

Searle and Poststructuralist Theory: I'm Really Tired Edition

Last night in class I bitchily compared poststructural historical writing to John Searle's chinese room, then had to explain to the professor what I meant by that.  It was intended as a jab at the incomprehensibility of Dipesh Chakrabarty and Ann Stoler (among others), though I'm pretty sure I managed to imply that I just didn't understand any of the readings and that I was embarrassingly okay with this fact.  The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.  I am not a stupid person, nor do I have trouble understanding theoretical frameworks, but these authors have confused me greatly, and I'm as willing to blame them as myself.

In any case, now that I'm stone tired and trying to write a meaningful synthesis out of the stuff we've read this quarter, I'm starting to think that Searle's description is actually a *perfect* metaphor for the problems inherent in deep-end poststructuralist theory, and entirely relevant to conversation about academic writing in general, much less in historical application.

Searle's argument was written in response to Turing's assertion that a machine can be said to "think" if it is capable of manipulating symbols in a way that is indistinguishable from the way a "person" would manipulate those same symbols (it's more complicated than this, but go with it).

The metaphor: A man is sitting in a room with a giant book full of chinese symbols, which he does not understand.  The symbols are arranged in tables, so that when he is given a piece of paper with specific arrangements, he can copy out a response according to the tables in the book without ever knowing what information is being conveyed.  Similarly, a computer accomplishes tasks by manipulating symbols according to a set of rules (a computer language).  To call what a computer does "intelligence" is, to Searle, the same as claiming that the man in the room understands Chinese.  

When I first read this notion, my first response was to think that, while you wouldn't be able to claim that the man understands Chinese, you could argue that the entire room speaks Chinese.  The room is a black box; knowing the man is there isn't necessary for it to function.  Intelligence, similarly, can be said to exist even if its inner workings aren't yet known - that is, if you can define intelligence in the context of the use of language and communication.   These are not thoughts original to me, though I will claim to have had them prior to studying postmodernism: I attribute this to the idea that a lot of these theories are so ingrained in our culture that I had internalized a lot of it before ever reading any of this stuff.

In any case, once you have taken on the idea that intelligence is a function of communication and therefore linguistic in nature, that language is contingent and that meaning is immaterial, impermanent and non-transferable, is it really that much of a stretch to say that the act of writing (history or otherwise) is the mere shuffling of symbols with no clear indication that we really understand the words we are using, much less that we can communicate that understanding to someone else?

In challenging the nature of "artificial intelligence", isn't Searle challenging *all* intelligence that is predicated on communication if you take the poststructuralists seriously?  I mean, don't stop at rearranging the deck chairs of imperial power or gender dynamics or state control: everything becomes irreducibly contingent and nothing can be understood on an institutional level.  History implodes as an idea: it is things that happened, and a great pile of walking, breathing chinese rooms reacting to each other according to a set of linguistic rules than nobody wrote (or maybe did, if you are of an occult or theological bent).

Consciousness becomes ancillary to the discourse.  The historian is just a point of view.  The framework rests on itself.  Any time you mediate a thought by writing it down, you are removing it from its context and turning it into a symbol.  With no ontological basis (being a symbol and not the thing itself), the thought is relegated to the world of intricately and meticulously laid out fictions, the mere impression of intellectual exchange conveyed through elaborate epistemological sleight-of-hand.

Clearly, there must be some firmer ground to stand on.  Surely we can treat history as something more than a really well-corroborated set of fictions.  I don't have answers here, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the first person to ask this stuff.  So, what is the takeaway?  What happens to "power relations" when the colonist and the colonized are deconstructed into figments, and when male/female sex and gender divides are disembodied illusions, and experience can neither be defined as the product of narrative or the product of objective fact?

I will read this tomorrow, and hope that any of it made sense.  For now, it's 1 AM and I'm ready to roll into the sleeping receptacle.

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