Identity Signaling as Part of Normal Science/Art in the Arts and Sciences

The idea of paradigm shifts, as developed for the sciences by Thomas Kuhn, has prompted a great deal of research into that idea in the historical development of the sciences. However, few have considered the fact that not only the sciences, but the arts (and other areas of human knowledge-production) can be understood using this model. Also, more ink has been spilled over the idea of paradigm shifts themselves than over Kuhn’s other, complementary idea of periods of “normal science,” to which one could add “normal art.” As in the yin-yang icon, the seeds of normal knowledge production are planted in the paradigm shift, and the seeds of the next paradigm shift are planted in the periods of normal knowledge production.

If we understand different areas of knowledge production as epistemological ecosystems (spontaneous orders, self-organizing network processes), we can understand the complex dynamics that give rise to cycles of stability, breakdown, emergence/paradigm shift, stability. With the paradigm shift in the sciences, new ideas are proposed until a theory (or two) come to dominate as the best way(s) to produce testable hypotheses. People keep using the theory(s) until they run out of phenomena that fit. As diminishing returns sets in, science goes through a period of crisis — creating the conditions for a new paradigm shift to take place.

Something similar happens in the arts and humanities. New ideas, new artistic forms emerge and sweep away old ideas and forms, then there is a generation or two of people who thoroughly investigate those ideas and forms until diminishing returns sets in, then everyone declares everything crap (except the establishment whose livings are made off of things staying the same), and there is a paradigm shift of new ideas and new artistic forms. Modernism (paradigm shift) gives rise to postmodernism (normal artistic production); various forms of literary theory in the 1950s-1960s (paradigm shift in understanding art and literature) give rise to critical theory (normal literary/artistic analysis) saying the same things about everything in sight.

One thing that should be clear in each and every epistemological ecosystem is that during paradigm shifts there are a great many conflicts, rivalries, and so on. This isn’t a bad thing, overall, since it is through great rivalries over great ideas that new ways of doing things or seeing things or understanding things is made. The personalities during these times are huge — Einstein, Dirac, Heisenberg, Feynman, Schrodinger, Bohr, Plank, etc. — Monet, Manet, Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Mondrian, Degas, van Gogh, Dali, etc. — Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, Pound, Stevens, Beckett, Kafka, etc. — and out of these conflicting personalities come new ideas, new ways of understanding the world, new ways of knowing.

But once the idea space is filled with the main tributaries of thought, all that is left to investigate are the much smaller spaces in between. Contemporary “avant-garde” theater is described as “surrealist,” “Dadaist,” and/or “theater of the absurd,” which were all developed almost 100 years ago, during the great paradigm shift in the arts. If it seems like it’s all been done, it’s because it has all been done — during the period of High Modernism. Faulkner gave us Cormac McCarthy, Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Llosa, Walker Percy, and Toni Morrison (who denies stylistic influence from Faulkner, but whose denial anyone who has read both absolutely must reject). Which isn’t to say that these aren’t writers oftentimes as great as Faulkner, but that Faulkner gave us a way of seeing the world each of these writers continued to investigate in earnest. Periods of normal art can of course give us great works of art, just as periods of normal science can create great scientists. But the greatness comes about in the distillation of what is already known and understood rather than in the discovery of something new.

As normal art, normal science, normal humanities get established, institutions get established around them and people’s identities get completely wrapped up in what is normal in their respective fields. This only acts to reinforce those norms. But that also means that new ideas are deeply threatening. If your identity is wrapped up in a particular way to write, to do science, to think, then you will violently resist anything that challenges those ways and your identity.

We are seeing precisely these things taking place in a variety of areas. The social sciences are still resisting the lessons of sociobiology, though the most violent (literally) reactions to it were in the 70s and 80s, shortly E.O. Wilson’s book, Sociobiology, came out. It didn’t help that he followed it up with a book titled, On Human Nature. In the aftermath, though, came further developments of his thesis, the development of antitheses, and eventually some syntheses. Still, much work still needs to be done, since there are still too many in the social sciences and the humanities who outright reject the notion that there is a human nature, that there are human instincts, and that there are laws of society in the same way as there are laws of nature. Wilson planted the seeds, but the paradigm shift has still not yet taken place.

At present, we are seeing various challenges to established/establishment critical studies. Not necessarily the kinds I would like to see — Darwinian approaches, Hayekian/spontaneous orders approaches, etc. — but challenges all the same. It seems, though, that among those influenced by critical theory, the very presence of even the tiniest opinion in opposition to what they believe is violently threatening — so violently threatening that violence itself is considered an appropriate response. Critical theory is a clear case of something which has reached truly pathological levels and is therefore in the rapidest decay. Unfortunately, critical theory is now tied in with the identities of a great many young people and their political ideologies. This creates a highly volatile situation, since young people have more of a tendency to resort to violence when threatened.

Critical theory also seems to be the final holdout of Marxism. Marxism is a fascinating case study of paradigms vs. normal knowledge production. When Marx was writing, he was using the labor theory of value, which was the theory of value used in the normal science economics of the time. However, Marx used it to come to revolutionary conclusions, thus creating a paradigm shift in the social sciences. At the same time, economics was undergoing a paradigm shift through the development of the subjective theory of economic value, which completely replaced the labor theory of value among economists. Unfortunately, paradigm shifts in one field doesn’t mean that the new way of doing/understanding things is transferred to other fields. Either that, or the paradigm is completely misunderstood by other fields. The theory of relativity and quantum physics are both grossly misunderstood and misused outside the field of physics. And it seems neither sociology nor the humanities got the memo that there was a new theory of economic value that made much more sense and explained a great deal more about economics than did the labor theory of value. And to the extent that anyone heard about it, they misunderstood it to mean that all values are subjective rather than that each person’s subjective valuations of things are what affect prices and that economic value comes out of those subjective preferences rather than from “value” being “put in” through labor.

The irony is that while the labor theory of value means that cutting down trees is always more valuable than letting trees grow — which explains the terrible environmental records of all of the Marxist states — most environmentalists are fundamentally Marxists; meanwhile, it is the subjective theory of value of the free market economists which allows one to make an argument for the preservation of trees over increasing their value through cutting them down and using them to build things. Most of the neo-Marxists could never achieve any of their goals using the logic of Marxism — but could achieve them with the current understanding of the subjective nature of economic value.

It is precisely when there is such a wide disconnect between one’s intended goals using the old paradigm and the actual outcomes that the soil is set for the sprouting of new paradigms. Marxism should be particularly susceptible given the fact that it’s a paradigm shift founded on an idea discredited by another paradigm shift; the fact that it hasn’t been so far can be attributed in no small part to the fact that he was never an economist, but rather a philosopher. Had he been an economist, nobody would have ever heard of him, because he would have been completely swept away by the subjective theory of value paradigm shift in economics. But his being a philosopher meant he could be adopted in philosophy, sociology, and the humanities, where economic ignorance unfortunately reigns to this very day. Discredited paradigms can find their homes in fields outside the one that shifted.

From these observations, one can come to see why the humanities are in such a mess. There was once some hope in them with the development of close reading, structuralism, and poststructuralism, but with the introduction of sociological methods through critical theory, the entire project became derailed into a great deal of nonsense. People who had never taken an economics class, a sociology class, an anthropology class were reading Marxists, sociologists, and anthropologists and misunderstanding what they read and misused their misunderstandings to analyze texts. Since they were only ever talking to each other, and nobody within those fields knew that everybody was as wrong as they were in their interpretations, error simply promulgated error — and this became “normal humanities scholarship” in the postmodernist cultural criticism field.

Can such a field, where error promulgates error, without anyone understanding why everyone is wrong about practically everything, undergo a paradigm shift? Not every field can. Some, like alchemy, simple slip away to become historical curiosities. But neither did alchemy go easy into the good night. But even as it raged, a few moved on and became, instead of alchemists, chemists and physicists and created the paradigm shift of all paradigm shifts in the creation of modern science itself.

As an interdisciplinary scholar whose interests are not just wide but deep, I see the collapse of normal knowledge creation taking place in practically every epistemological ecosystem. That makes these dangerous times to live in, since so many of our institutions are founded on these normal systems. Only during periods of normal science can we actually hear such nonsense as “settled science” out of scientists. They don’t know better, because during normal periods of science, they are simply investigating the edges of the known, of the settled. But science is never settled. The moment scientists think it is, science is in a crisis. And equally, the attitude that “it’s all been done” in the arts is nonsense — and a sign that “normal art” is at an end.

But equally, I see the seeds of change in each field. Self-organization, networks, complexity, chaos, bios, evolution — these have all been out there for a while, but they haven’t really taken root. They are the rising paradigm set to replace all the normal knowledge creation systems currently in place. A humanities based on these ideas, a sociology based on these idea, an economics based on these ideas, a physics based on these ideas, a biology based on these ideas, a psychology based on these ideas, an art based on these ideas is going to be something which most will find difficult to recognize. Those who in the past declared, “I don’t believe in spontaneous orders” will be seen as fools, though in fact they were simply defenders of the dying faith, while institutions that established programs around these ideas will rise in prominence.

In the meantime, reactionary elements are resisting. The political left and right are both resisting, Marxists and critical theorists are resisting, scientists and social scientists are resisting — and yet, they resist a superior explanatory model in order to retain power, prestige, and income. Those are enough to drive a person to violently oppose the new paradigm, no matter how superior it may be. And violent opposition is precisely what we’re seeing and will continue to see over the next several years.

But the new paradigm will prevail.

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