Thursday, October 20, 2011


In last week's NYT Book Review's back page Essay, writer Steven Johnson tells of his mid-1980s undergraduate years in Brown University's semiotics program. This is from a student paper he wrote at the time:
The predicament of any tropological analysis of narrative always lies in its own effaced and circuitous recourse to a metaphoric mode of apprehending its object; the rigidity and insistence of its taxonomies and the facility with which it relegates each vagabond utterance to a strict regimen of possible enunciative formations testifies to a constitutive faith that its own interpretive meta-language will approximate or comply with the linguistic form it examines.
Yeah, that sounds familiar. I was a physical science prof in the mid-1980s, but we were a smallish faculty and semiotics/post-modernism swirled all around us. Since many of my colleagues were all atwitter, I gave it my best crack, reading Foucault, Derrida, and as many of the rest as I could stomach. I figured I must lack some mental facility since so much of it seemed gibberish to me. Meanwhile, I was trying to catch up on a background that was seriously deficient in literature. Thank god for poets.

In his essay, Johnson confesses to moving away from the post-modern paradigm. "I now spend more time learning from the insights of science than deconstructing its truth claims," he writes. And with his new interest in science came a corresponding clarity of prose. Or maybe it was the other way around.

A lot of ink was spilt in the '80s and '90s deconstructing the truth claims of science. I suppose there is nothing wrong with that, if that's the way one gets one's jollies, but it takes all the fun out of being a science spectator, and did nothing to slow down the dazzling progress of science and science-based technology. Science could always counter the deconstructors with the old Rheingold beer slogan: "We must be doing something right."

Take a look at the cover of the October 7 issue of Science. What is it? A scanning electron microscope image of the jagged end of a strand of human hair. Not just any human hair, but a strand from a lock donated a century ago by an Aboriginal Australian. Moreover, as described in a report inside the magazine, DNA from the hair was sequenced and used to show that Aboriginal Australians are descendents of an early human dispersal into eastern Asia about 62,000 to 75,000 years ago, a dispersal that was separate from the one that gave rise to modern Asians 25,000 to 38,000 years ago. Aboriginal Australians are one of the oldest continuous populations outside of Africa. All this from a 100-year-old strand of hair.

Deconstruct that! Must be doing something right, indeed.

(I'll be away tomorrow. Back Saturday.)