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Re: Re: VMs: postmodern cryptography: Foucault, Panopticon, and Voynich MS

Milo Velimirovic <milov@xxxxxxxxx> schrieb am 09.10.2004, 21:00:36:

> Only in the artificial world that is the socio-linguistic construct 
> of postmodernists.

I'd like to make two terminological points here. Firstly, Foucault and
Derrida pioneered different styles of deconstruction in an approach
usually referred to as "post-structuralist". This distinction is
important to my second point: the post-modernist approach is very hard
to quantify, in that we're using a label which is used to cover a vast
variety of research philosophies. Please, therefore, be careful with
labels - otherwise you're just making the perfect paper tiger for
shotting down.  

> >  Many events
> > fit better a postmodern explanation than a
> > functionalist/structuralist explanation.
> When one gets to steal, er, invent new terminology and define a 
> methodology to suit ones ends is this any surprise?

Would you care to argue why a structuralist approach would be valid?

For example, when reading a sentence, you are reading your own meaning
into it. You are interpreting it. It is hard to claim that you can know
exactly what went on in the author's head (an interesting philosophical
question: we might agree that an apple is red, but how do I know that
what you see as red is not what I see as green?). Furthermore, we
experience the relativity of language every day: different groups of
people use a given language differently (grammar, vocabulary,
intonation) to convey meaning; such groups, their language and their
meanings, change socially, geographically, and over time. 

Thus a post-structuralist approach brings such an act of deductive logic
and argumentation centre stage. A post-structuralist might say that the
meaning of our sentence - a reading of the text - is a joint project
between the reader and the originator. Thus a post-structuralist
prefers to speak of "exploring" a text instead of "analysing" it in
order to make this utterly clear: that the reader is aware that there
are multiple possible interpretations and that the reader is equally
aware that they have to consider and argue their way through these in
order to justify an interpretation that *they are making*. 

Whilst we are doing this, a post-structuralist in the style of Foucault
and Derrida would be asking some difficult questions: 

- *What* is the text saying? (meanings we can explore) 
- *How* is this being said? (choice of words, style)
- *Who* is saying this? (how is it emplaced within wider discourse?)
- What is *not* being said? (missing, marginalised voices)
- *Why* is the author saying this? (try turning the argument around)

Furthermore, a frequent aim here is break down the barriers between
disciplines: using methodologies from elsewhere (anthropology,
evolutionary biology, particle physics) is to be encouraged if they can
shed light on our problem. For example, what can evolutionary biology
teach a linguist? 

In a structuralist reading, the assumptions would be that there is only
a single, universal, and fixed way of understanding the text. Our
interpreter can get away with saying "the author means so-and-so",
effectively pretending that this isn't an interpretation *he/she has
made for themselves*. 

> "The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the 
> idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and 
> perspectives is-second only to American political campaigns-the most 
> prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in 
> our time." Larry Laudan, Science and Relativism (1990)

"The danger is that a concern for method can overwhelm a concern for
relevance, surprise, challenge, and discovery. The appearance in
scientific texts is then misleading, because science does not hold a
mirror up to nature... Rather, scientific work takes place in contexts
of interpretation involving rhetorical conventions and
taken-for-granted assumptions." Kilduff and Mehra (1997:464)

Scientific method, if we wish to be blunt, is a philosophical approach
in itself. I would further argue that it is, in its purest form, not
too dissimilar to the post-structuralist approach. For example, in
science, you are weaving together argument and deduction: the 'common
sense' view of the world breaks down under a questioning logic.
Multiple interpretations - that is to say, descriptive theories, - are
thus commonplace. 

For example, there are two dominant models of chemical bonding: both
make useful predictions, both are supported by a web of experimental
evidence and deductive logic, and both are mutually exclusive. It is
taken for granted by chemists that future understand (driven by
experiment, theory, or deduction) will undermine and replace both with
newer theories, as indeed has happened numerous times already. Such is
the nature of science. 

However, we are now deviating somewhat off topic. My point is merely
that there is nothing wrong with taking what you call a "postmodernist"
approach when seeking meaning in the Voynich Manuscript. Rather, I
would argue that to solely treat it as a code-solving operation is too
limiting: were we dealing with a straightforward problem of solving a
cipher, I would find it striking that some of the most brilliant minds
in cryptology have made little headway in the last six decades. Nor
have we even been able to 'prove' conclusively that there is, perhaps
disappointingly, nothing there to solve. 

As such, I am heartened to see an ever-widening body of scholarship and
investigation growing around the Voynich: the interdisciplinary
approach we are seeing here is, more than anything else, serving to
raise new perspectives and ask new questions, not least of which "is
there a cipher in the first place?". Already we have graphologists and
medievalists involved alongside historians and cryptographers. Thus
another question, "is there meaning in the Voynich?", is proving to be
not only difficult to answer, but of endless fascination. 

Drawing on the post-modernist ('post-structuralist' may be a better
term) critique, that has already revolutionised the social sciences and
humanities, concerns itself with the problems of interpretation, of
meaning, of uncovering and exploring that which is hidden, of
challenging ossified modes of thought and of breaking down the
artificial barriers between disciplines, we are opening up our
investigation - our exploration - to fresh ideas and new voices. 

To claim that a single methodology is the only valid approach is
dangerous, let alone ones (such as positivism or structralism) that
have become untenable in mainstream academic research after the last
two decades. 

With best regards,

Russ Sadd
(Heidelberg, Germany)

Kilduff, M. and Mehra, A. (1997) "Postmodernism and Organizational
Research", Academy of Management Review, 22 (2), pp. 453-481
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