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The Post-Marxist Social History of Science of Morris Berman, Pt. 2 April 19, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, EWP Book Club.
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This post continues Pt. 1 without re-introduction

What I like to call the “cult of invisibility” was a staple of Marxist analysis, with its constraining socio-economic structures and its psychology of false consciousness.  Invisible constraints of this sort are taken to render certain classes of actors in some sense powerless and ineffectual — their invisibility or silence or inability to articulate or perhaps even feel their own plight explains a failure of something to happen, such as the ascendancy of the working class.

In addition, historians often connect such invisible constraints to a historiographical prejudice, whereby the persistence of psychological and intellectual constraints through history restricts present ideas about what sorts of things constitute proper history, which renders certain aspects of the past systematically invisible to historical memory.   This second, historiographical form of invisibility establishes a social need for the services of the critically trained historian who can identify invisible prejudices, recover systematically concealed aspects of history, and make them more generally known, possibly helping to overcome the forces of invisibility in our own time.  E. P. Thompson’s (1924-1993) The Making of the English Working Class (1963) is probably the key work in this tradition.

The cult of invisibility not only survives, but thrives in the transition to post-Marxist historiographical analysis — a transition in which Thompson’s work was arguably instrumental.  In Morris Berman’s book on the Royal Institution (RI), the role of science as a cultural force that creates invisibility is emphasized. His major demonstration of this point comes in his extended analysis of Michael Faraday’s (and, incidentally, Charles Lyell‘s) role in the investigation verdict that there was no fault in the 1844 Haswell coal mine explosion, which had killed 94 mine workers including young boys (pp. 179-180):

Faraday’s role in this affair amounted to giving the decision the status of scientific respectability.  He not only agreed with the verdict, but with the supposed cause of the accident, which had been stated as a matter of opinion by [coal mine experts Nicholas] Wood, [George] Hunter, and [Samuel] Scutchbury, and which had no scientific basis whatsoever.  Nor was the Home Secretary unaware of what role Faraday’s imprimatur would play.  In the midst of the trial, his assistant wrote to the coroner at Haswell that as a result of that imprimatur, ‘to the Public (particularly to the relations of the Deceased) the verdict would be delivered under the best possible recommendation and with the highest sanction’.  It is a rather grim comment.  Even if science could not produce any answers, it would silence embarrassing questions.

Berman does not claim the invisibility created by science concealed the owners’ actual legal culpability in this particular mine disaster: what it concealed was the need for widespread political and social change, which would consistently privilege worker safety over expanded coal production:

What is perhaps most frightening about it was that the officials involved (not to say Faraday himself) did not regard the exclusion of dissenting testimony, or the almost immediate exoneration of the mine owners, as a whitewash, because the particular definition of science being used blocked the possibility of seeing the colliery disaster as a political problem with a political solution.

Indeed, the “legal ideology of science” not only conceals alternatives to its approach to social problems, it conceals its ideological character from itself.  “In many ways, the legal ideology of science marks the final stage of the modernizing process, because it bestows the aura of objectivity on a very biased status quo” (189).

Berman continually emphasizes the unconscious and unintended quality of the rise of the Utilitarian agenda: “I am not trying to argue that the RI was wilfully seized by a Benthamite ‘conspiracy’, and science deliberately bent to a theoretical programme.  Rather, what we have in the [RI’s] governorship is a large proportion of men possessing a common pattern to their lives that falls under a Utilitarian rubric” (120-123).  Faraday in particular “was oblivious to Utilitarian politics or any politics.  He naively regarded science as something that inevitably led to harmony,” certainly in contrast to the more cunning William Thomas Brande (143).

Berman reconciles his portrait of the ascendancy of a science-grounded Utilitarian polity with the lack of any ideological intent by positing the historical existence of a communal, but undetectable psycho-cultural mentality, which permits ideological prejudice to inhabit the reasoning informing everyday thought and action.  He appeals to the psychology of Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) and the historical psychology of Erik Erikson’s (1902-1994) Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958).  He also appeals to the “sociology of knowledge” of Karl Mannheim (1893-1947) and the “strain theory” of cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), wherein a mental adherence to an ideology corrects “social/psychological imbalance” (“Ideology as a Cultural System”, 1964) (xxiii).  Berman quotes Geertz: “‘Whatever else ideologies may be … they are, most distinctively, maps of problematic social reality and matrices for the creation of collective conscience.’  Surely,” Berman writes, “this definition fits the various conceptions of science at the RI perfectly” (189).

The illumination of an otherwise invisible psycho-cultural condition is the ultimate objective of Berman’s history.  While the RI did not create the ideological culture of Utilitarianism, he avers that his investigation of the socio-ideological history of the RI “reveals the mechanics of how this change came about” (186).

The change Berman seeks to explain is a defined state of polity, which is characterized mainly by its ability to use science and technology to preclude the existence of a radically different, but ultimately much more sensible form of polity.  However, in terms of generating historical explanations, I do not believe the sensibility of the (ill-defined) alternative was so obvious that seeking a special psycho-cultural explanation for why it failed to come to pass can be considered a productive analytical approach.

I believe the sense underlying Berman’s approach is that he believes the failures of nineteenth-century British polity are clearly linked to the political failures of our own times.  And the diagnosis of our own failures is taken to be established.  The idea that we are burdened by a narrow notion of rationality, which is supported by a certain view of science, was a common theme among intellectuals after World War II.  From a wide pool of thinkers he could cite, Berman chooses radical historian Theodore Roszak’s Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (1969), and artist Oskar Kokoschka’s (1886-1980) criticism of the reduction of “twentieth century reason” to a “metaphysic of mechanization”.  He cites the Frankfurt School intellectual Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) and his work One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964), arguing that Western civilization was dominated by “a ‘technical reason’ that exalts expediency as a value at the very time that it claims to be value-free.”  In this way, Berman writes, “means and ends have become completely scrambled” (xviii).  A diagnosis at hand, it only makes sense to seek the source of the disease.

In broad strokes, I believe Berman’s history of the RI is correct: I am reasonably convinced that the RI was established as part of an enthusiasm for agricultural improvement, and that it was later supported and governed by a new generation of political reformers.

As to the larger argument, I think we can securely say that the concepts of “science” and “reason” were important cultural touchstones (among others) in 19th-century Britain.  However, I believe one would have to be already convinced by the arch-narrative linking 19th-century British polity to our own polity in order to find convincing Berman’s portrait of how these conceptual touchstones functioned in 19th-century British society.

This post continues tomorrow in Pt. 3.

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