Social Constructivism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

In ‘Life Serial’ (season 6, episode 5) Buffy suffers a series of mishaps which the episode strongly hints should be interpreted as examples of social constructivism.

‘Social Constructivism’ is explained in a sociology class at UC Sunnydale. Buffy is auditing with Willow and Tara while deciding how to plan her life. A charismatic teacher, Mike, gets the clads to participate in a fast moving question and answer session in which he asks class members to explain how reality is socially constructed. Willow herself has clearly gasped the issue and makes a good intervention.

The points that emerge in class include: reality is not independent of our point of view, there are multiple social realities, reality is not neutral.

These kind of points tend to get philosophers working metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of science steamed up about the alleged threat to truth, reality, knowledge and all that is good and decent. Maybe they should relax a bit and think about how the points made by constructivists can be taken up. I’m taking Buffy as a paradigm.

What happens in the episode to illustrate constructivism?

Buffy is seeking a life plan. Three very adolescent young men, who are absurdly obsessed with super hero and science fiction popular culture, are plotting to take over Sunnydale and are trying to track and weaken Buffy. The Trio are clearly a parody of Joss Whedon and the other writers on Buffy, this is confirmed on the DVD commentaries.

The trio find three ways to disrupt Buffy’s life and monitor her reactions.

1. Buffy is auditing at college. Warren puts a micro transmitter on Buffy which speeds up her perception time. Time rushes past, punctuated by short episodes of normal time. At first Buffy thinks she is passing, which the audience can take as the naturalistic explanation of what happens. She is stressed in general and is stressed by her return to college. Because of this her perception of time changes.

2. Buffy starts working at Xander’s building site. The construction workers are bemused and hostile when they meet this small thin girl, but her super hero strength enable her to do the heavy lifting. Her work is interrupted by the Trio. Andrew calls up demons who attack the male workers. Buffy fights them off and kills them. The workers deny seeing the demons and perceive what has happened as Buffy freaking out, it must be ‘her time of the month’. Their response is crass but again gives the naturalistic reading, Buffy is unstable and violent because of the stross of being a Slayer.

3. Buffy starts working at the Magic Box co-owned by her Watcher (trainer and mentor) Giles and by fellow Scooby (demon fighter) Anya. The Trio is monitoring the Magic Box through a camera, significantly hidden in a skull. Jonathan uses magic to create a time loop, that can only be broken by satisfying a customer with a difficult request. The customer wants a live Mummy’s Hand, but the hand is aggressive and dangerous. Either she gets a deadly hand or she gets a dead hand. Time keeps looping as Buffy realises, and she becomes more and more frustrated. She does eventually fşind the solution, but has a disagreement with Anya and hands back her staff badge. The naturalistic explanation is that Buffy is unbearably bored by retail.

All these misadventures put Buffy in situations where she is not the hero-Slayer-leader. At university Tara and Willow are more in command. At the building site, Xander is the boss not the loyal friend. At the shop, Buffy is the badly treated employee of Anya who is often inclined towards rudeness.

These misadventures leads to Buffy spending an evening with Spike, the semi-reformed vampire who is in love with her. She drinks more whiskey than she can handle and Spike wastes her time taking her to a demon poker game when she asks for his help. That aspect of the episode continues the theme that Buffy is alienated from her friends and from her younger sister Dawn. Spike’s evil past and shadowy life make him more able to understand her alienated tendencies resulting from the burden of her mission as a the Slayer, constantly dealing with evil and death (think of that skull in the Magic Box).

Buffy’s shifting sense of reality, could be seen as episodes of alienation from reality, rather than shifts of reality itself. However, reality is our sense of reality. The three incidents or reality shift deal with the following
1. Subjective experience is variable
2. Stress can lead to extreme shifts in the sense of reality, to the point where the supernatural becomes real.
3. The alienated experience of the supernatural is also a form of hyper reality, where the experience of some aspect of reality becomes extreme: the passing of time becomes an incomprehensible rush; the boredom of waiting for moments to pass becomes a repeating loop in time; anger with boorish male colleagues resting on restrained violence becomes a violent struggle with demons.

In one way the episode undermines social constructivism, because it makes a distinction between normal reality and alienated experience. However, it also suggests that the sense of reality is extremely variable according to mood, and that fantasy is a way of bringing attention to aspects of reality. The social constructivism is more moderate than Mike suggests. There are different realities according to relations with other people, as Mike suggests, but the variations in Buffy’s experience are more about her subjective sense of reality and the changing social context rather than in turning reality into something that is constructed.

Michel Foucault and Discursive Reality

This is inspired by current reading and online conversation with a friend. Unlike my friend, and many commentators, the more I read Foucault the less I see what he is often believed to do. That would be to understand reality in terms of discourse, which would be a form of social constructionism or constructivism. His account of sexuality in particular does not, as far as I can see, understand sexuality as constructed by discourse. ıt looks at the discourse surrounding sexuality, including science. The difference is important. Foucault sees medical, psychiatric, moral, religious, and philosophical discussions of sexuality as belonging to discourse, discourse which cuts across all subject divisions. Saying our knowledge of sexuality is discursive is not saying that sexuality is discursive. It does not deny that discourse is conditioned by observation and physical reality. Who would deny that our sexuality is affected by ideas about limits and the excitement of passing limits. However, despite popular mythology, Foucault does not say that sexuality is constructed by prohibitions. Sexuality is a reality labelled in many ways in different contexts. My friend correctly refers to this as Nominalism. Nomianlism does not deny physical realities though. Nominalism is not constructivism. The constructivist looking parts of Foucault are just as much about the eruption of physical reality in discourse as the definition of reality by discourse. That is why there is no master universal discourse in Foucault. He follows a materialism in which discourse emerges in the attmetps to control physical reality. I’ll ask my friend for citations and then I may have more to say.

Intuitionist Engineering Students. What Engineers Really Think about Philosophy of Maths

The issue of Philosophy of maths came up in a course on ‘Knowledge, language and Logic’ I gave at the technical university where I am based to a group of mostly engineering students. In that course I alternated between Analytic and Continental Philosophy, looking at 14 texts from Frege to Derrida. On one of the Analytic weeks, we were looking at Quine‘s ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ (in From a Logical Point of View) and I got onto the topic of ontological relativity in Quine, with reference to philosophy of maths. In ‘On What there Is’ (also in From a Logical Point of View), Quine mentions three basic position in philosophy of maths as ontological position. Formalism in maths corresponds with Nominalism about names and generalities; Logicism in maths corresponds with Realism about names and generalities; Intuitionism in maths corresponds with Conceptualism about names and generalities.

The question in philosophy of maths is whether numbers, sets, and other abstract mathematical entities exist separately from symbols and from mental concepts. For the Formalist, numbers etc. only exist as symbols manipulated by rules, which corresponds with Nominalist ontology according to which general names group individual things together and do not name any kind of abstract general thing. For the mathematical Logicist, numbers etc. exist outside symbolisation and outside the mind as real abstract things, which corresponds with the Realist ontology according to which general names name an abstraction uniting the individual things coming under that abstraction. For the mathematical Intuitionist, numbers etc. exist as mental constructs, which corresponds with the Conceptualist ontology aaccoring to which general names name a mental construct that unites many individual things.

I presented the three options and asked for a vote from the students. Intutionism/Conceptualism came out first by a long way, with Formalism/Nominalism clearly preferred to Logicism/Realism which was not at all popular. I was surprised because I assumed that they would be knee jerk Realists. I get the impression that the common sense ideology of scientists, including engineers is that scientific laws are true and refer to real objects; and that mathematical laws are true and are about real objects. From what the students said, maths academics may well have that attitude towards maths. They felt it’s an inevitable consequence of being a mathematician, that you believe in the reality of mathematical objects. The engineering students had a much more instrumental attitude towards maths.

I didn’t get onto Instrumentalism, Realism and Conceptualism in science However, we did get onto Thomas Kuhn‘s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Michel Foucault‘s Archaeology of Knowledge, which clearly question Realism about scientific laws and theories, and even Realism about the objects of science. Students were much more sympathetic to both than I expected. The relationship with Nominalism and Constructionism, is too big to discuss here. I will just take the opportunity to suggest that we should be careful about assuming that either Kuhn or Foucault were representatives of a branch of Constructionism, know as Social Constructivism, which is how they are often taken. That is they are often taken to believe that scientific laws are social constructs. We might be better off thinking of them as
Nominalists. Foucault’s position over many stages of thought consistently includes a concern with the artifciality of categorisation, as compared with the pure physicality, or certainly unique individuality, of individual things.

Foucault and the Body; or Why Foucault is not a Post-Modern Social Constructionist

I’m following up the last post on Derrida and Nietzsche with a briefer post on Foucault. As I emphasised in the last post, neither Foucault nor Derrida can be reduced to a cliché of ‘Post-Modern’ social constructionism which excludes the body as natural object.

Like Derrida, Foucault never sailed under the flag of ‘Post-Modernism’, or post-ism of any kind. They are rather different cases, and though Derrida was Foucault’s student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, they appear to have had a long term falling out. This seems to have been more on Foucault’s side than Derrida’s. Despite Foucault’s expemplary qualities as thinker and libertarian social activist (future posts will return to the topic of Foucault and Libertarianism), he does seem to have been more prickly than Derrida. The prickliness seems to go all the way back to Derrida’s 1963 paper, ‘Cogito and Madness’ (collected in Writing and Difference), which is a critical but appreciative discussion of Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation.

The stereotypical view of Foucault circulated by his ‘Analytical’ philosophical critics and his ‘Post-Modern’ fans (more typically to be found in humanities and social science departments other than philosophy) is that he was a relativist who denied the existence of truth or objective, knowledge, and that he had a related assumption according to which reality only exists as a discursive social construction serving power interests of some kind. Something similar to that ‘Post-Modern’ interpretation of Foucault is also widespread in interpretation of Thomas Kuhn, a leaidng figure in Philosophy of Science in the Analytic tradition. Again very different cases, but there is no more reason to think of Foucault as a Post-Modernist than there is to think of Kuhn in that way.

There are many issues to be explored in future, but just one for today. Just a remark that one of Foucault’s most widely read books, Discipline and Punish, does refer to the discourses of power/knowledge, but it also refers to discourse as what affects the body. There is something pre-discursive in Foucault, the body. There is no ‘body’ or ‘nature’ we can identify from outside discourse for Foucault, but physicality and natural forces are there. His view of power/knowledge is just as much an attempt to think of social relations in terms of natural forces, as a discourse centred theory. The body is experienced in social and discursive contexts, but is not eliminated as a body. It is the body where there is resistance to power.