The fantasies and limits of experts and elites

I went to see Arrival last night. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it fits into the subgenre of science fiction where scientists save the world in the face of aliens, panicked citizens, paranoid politicians, and trigger-happy soldiers. To be sure there are other kinds of contact movies (E.T. for example) where friendly aliens are met by kids or everyday folks, who protect them from scientists and government types, but the idea of scientists, engineers, and related experts coming to the rescue is a common sci-fi theme. One could say Star Trek is founded on that notion both as a setting (in a near utopian society founded on technoscientific solutions) and as a plot device (problems and solutions are articulated in pseudo-technical and scientific ways).

However, I’m not so much interested in talking about science fiction here as one of the aspects of our current political situation: the role of experts and elites, particularly those who might fall within the pejorative moniker of “liberal elites.” I would call liberal elite a category but I don’t think it really hangs together that well. The term is applied to people from many disciplines who have both disciplinary and political differences among them. And, as I increasingly tend to these days, I am interested in understanding this issue in a kind of Latourian, new materialist rhetorical way, which has the added benefit of pissing off almost everyone. But really what that means here in this most preliminary gesture is taking people at their own word when they account for how they were made to act.

So take, for example, this article in Politico, which is basically a series of interviews with folks in rural PA who voted for Trump. Really any cultural critic could make quick work of these folks, demonstrating the racist, sexist, homophobic (etc.) ideological foundations of their views. One could unveil how they misunderstand the nature of the problems they face and how they need to be solved (e.g., why environmental regulations are important for them even though it means they can’t work in the coal mine or why nationalized health care and regulated global markets are a benefit to them). One might even make appeals to history and the Constitution to show why we should be moving toward a more open and diverse society, even though doing so makes permanent cultural changes to the places where they have lived. Fundamentally it would be an argument about how government is best directed by the advice and knowledge of experts.

I’m not doing any of those things here. There are plenty of places to find such arguments. I’m also not saying that I don’t find many of those arguments convincing myself. But that’s not the point. Furthermore, to make this clear. One could equally go into black, Hispanic, Muslim, and LGBT communities and gain a parallel understanding of their own accounts for how they were made to act. And one could also do the same among liberal, college-educated whites. One could undertake the same critical moves, and there’s also plenty of evidence of people doing just that, as the various intersectional tensions of the coalition on the left burst at the seams. And just with the critiques of Trump voters, I find many of these critiques of Clinton, Bernie, and Green Party supporters equally convincing.

But what do I mean by convincing? Fundamentally I mean that I acknowledge that they conform to the rhetorical and discursive requirements of a genre that I recognize as having value in describing our experience. But what’s the limit of that?

Let me take a slightly less inflammatory part of this: climate change. I don’t want to get into this issue, but for basics, this wikipedia article cites a number of studies regarding the number of climate scientists who believe the human impact on climate change is “significant.” There are a number of polls out there about the varying attitudes of Americans. I don’t really want to talk about whether or not climate change is real or significant. I want to talk about the shape of the discourse. It’s perhaps understandable that disagreements over the particular policies and actions the government should take regarding climate change would be organized around the primary ideological poles in our nation. What is strange though is that acceptance of the scientific conclusions about climate change should also mirror the same ideological commitments. In part what’s odd about that is that in many other instances, my generally liberal-left colleagues in the humanities are skeptical and critical about the claims of science but not so when it comes to climate change. Similarly, people on the right are happy to endorse scientific methods when they are building our military-technological infrastructure or helping oil companies drill and frack but reject science as conspiracy when it comes to the climate.

Putting a rhetorical twist on a Latourian insight, part of the challenge for experts is convincing multiple, diverse audiences that the processes of scientific and academic knowledge-making result in constructions that have value. In a new materialist rhetorical perspective, this would include building human-nonhuman spaces that can facilitate this communication. I.e., it’s not just a matter of words. And it can’t just be unidirectional. That is, expert, academic-scientific discourses must contend with other discourses in this space and cannot expect to be able to demand recognition as truth. Clearly that has not worked in these communities, not only in terms of climate change but perhaps more importantly in terms of social policy and justice.

I have little optimism in the prospect of such things happening soon. We are far too divided not only on what the effects of proposed right-wing policies will be and the goals we should be seeking to accomplish but even fundamentally on the nature of the reality in which we are living. We can barely agree on the color of the sky, and we certainly cannot agree on why it is that color. Furthermore, I can’t even argue that we should be trying to overcome our divisions. This may very well be a situation of class-ideological struggle were one side is going to win out rather than there being anything like a compromise. It would probably take some singular event on the order of aliens showing up to unite us.

Really all I want to keep in mind is the limits of the expert discourses whose repudiation is one of the many apparent outcomes of the election.

  • craniac

    “which has the added benefit of pissing off almost everyone” <–this seems to me to be the only sane, ethical stance to take at this perilous point in time.