Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Difference comes through your senses

I recently listened to an interesting CBC podcast featuring David Abram, an anthropologist and philosopher, author of the 1997 book The Spell of the Sensuous. Abram argues that we live in a society which has 'shaped' us (some conditioning work, but also a lot of self-internalization and also resistance) to see the world through an abstraction, science, at the expenses of our direct senses.

I found myself thinking about how we become trained to see difference and the role of science in this. Cynthia Eller made the point that the general social consensus is that science should not be used to prove the existence of race, because society as a whole has decided that this is racist in itself and much of a dead-end precisely because of the politics of race (even if individuals themselves might still be caught into this, see for instance the latest discussion around James Watson's claims).

Yet, Eller says, this is not the case of gender: people still use science to prove that gender exists - and surprisingly it seems like it succeeds in doing so.
The problem for Eller - and for Abram too - is that science is an abstraction, and a self-circular one. It is not outside the social realm - and if you are embarking on the road of proving the existence of social categories with scientific means, chances are you'll construct the method and the results in accordance to your goals.

Science makes us see the world as a mechanic device and prompts us to distrust our senses. For Abram, science is only a pair of lenses we choose to wear to see the world. And in so doing, we forget to see the world's complexity and creativity, its power to self-create itself and its interconnectedness. We think we are the only holders of truth, the only ones speaking and the only ones with agency. I wonder how we would construct difference in people if we would live in a world of the sensuous, rather than the scientific. Not that I think a sensuous world would be necessarily a more just one; but I'm just wondering.

Photo credits: woodleywonderworks

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