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Science is often claimed as the triumph of materialism over idealism, superstition, opinion, etc. For a long time, science was considered to be nothing more than the straightforward, progressive uncovering of facts. Newton famously wrote that he “made no hypotheses” (hypotheses non fingo), he simply observed and explained. This model of science found it difficult to account for fundamental changes in worldview (e.g. the Copernican revolution) and was thrown into crisis by the shift from Newtonian to Relativistic physics. This crisis produced new ways of thinking about science itself, and the arguments and debates of Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend (among others) make fascinating reading - but the main outcome of this development in the philosophy of science was the recognition that science is never purely empirical and deductive; it is at least in part a) social and b) probabilistic. What this means is that there are never settled material facts or realities in science; everything is subject to revision. Put another way, there is always a gap between the material universe (what Bhaskar calls the real) and what we know about the world (the empirical). Philosophers differ as to whether this gap can be bridged or not, but very few philosophers of science hold to a view of empirical knowledge as an unmediated relationship to material reality.

The misguided reliance on a pre-relativistic Epicurean distinction between the material and social worlds lies at the heart of “The Decolonized Librarian’s” recent blog post on “Gender, Intellectual Freedom, and Public Policy: Framing the Action: Boundaries and Rules”. This is the seventh - and concluding - part of a long essay written in response to the events surrounding transphobic speakers at Vancouver and Toronto Public Libraries (and now at Seattle Public Library), the doubling down on the absolute priority of “intellectual freedom” over other values by library administrations, and the serious divide within the profession over all these things. My friend Jane Schmidt has started the #timetotalkaboutIF campaign in an attempt to counter the hegemony of intellectual freedom absolutism at our conferences and in our organization.

Amongst the various “rules” set out by “The Decolonized Librarian” (and readers of this blog will know how I feel about rules and deontological ethics) is the following:

One’s ideation of self and gender expression should not preclude an open acknowledgement of the material reality of our sexed bodies in terms of our lived experience and how we are treated by society.

This “rule” adheres to an out of date understanding of the ways in which we understand, know, and relate to “the material world”. The gap between reality and knowledge is such that there is no “material reality” that is not socially constructed and socially understood and that is not subject to ichallenge and revision. Recent scientific work has called into question the settled understanding of the “material realities” of “sexed bodies”. But more than that, it is dangerous to settled on a fixed “material reality” as the foundation of an ethical, political, or policy position. The “material reality” of skull size and shape formed the basis of the discredited pseudoscience of phrenology; the “material reality” of racial inferiority underpinned (and still underpins) the racism of colonial violence; the “material reality” of the primacy of procreation is used to justify homophobia;the “material reality” of difference continues to support bias and discrimination towards disabled people; the “material reality” of capitalist economics justifies the state violence currently being meted out at the Wet’suwet’en blockade. Any reliance on a settled “material reality” can only be at best conservative and at worst supports, justifies, and maintains hidden or open structures of oppression, domination, and violence. The “material reality” used to justify transphobia is the latest in a long line of such justifications.

In part 6 of the essay series, The “Decolonized Librarian” - which appears less and less an appropriate moniker - states that:

More broadly, since free speech and intellectual freedom lie at the heart of the ethics of librarianship, the widespread refusal to warrant these as relevant seems to me to be highly reckless.

The idea that “free speech and intellectual freedom lie at the heart of the ethics of librarianship” is presented as yet another settled, unquestionable, unchallenged fact, a “material reality”. And yet, as both the history of the profession and its current state show, this is far from being the case: not only do many librarians challenge the idea that IF and nothing else should lie at the heart of the profession, but the historical record shows that free speech and IF never occupied such a position. What in fact lies at the heart of the profession, and what many of us would like to see replaced, is a liberal justification for colonial, capitalist, and state violence, hierarchy, authoritarianism, patriarchy, and - ironically, unfortunately - the ignorance on which capitalism relies. One of the main tools in the maintenance of such ignorance, as Marx argued time and again, is mistaking social constructtions for unchanging natural law. This runs counter to “The Decolonized Librarian’s” characterization of the importance of Epicureanism. But we have to ask ourselves which positions lends itself more to equality and social justice. My own view is that the Marxist tendency towards a radical recognition of the social and political elements in every so-called “material reality” gets us further down that road.

Finally, the theory of a “material reality” can always be used to justify an abstraction over lived experience, because the gap between reality and our knowledge of it means that “material reality” is always already an abstraction. As I’ve written before, it is these abstractions that obscure the social and political realities we are trying to deal with, and the lives of people we are trying to support.

The thing for me is that for those of us who remember the virulent, unquestioned homophobia of, say, the 1980s, and who see the (still incomplete) gains won by gay rights activists, and the adjustment of what used to be claimed as the “material reality” of perversion, etc; those of us who remember with shame the unquestioned and unchallengeable bigotry and cruelty of those years - especially growing up in a relatively conservative prairie city - should be familiar with the ways in which transphobia tries to protect itself, justify itself, maintain itself. How many people have to die before we collectively adjust the “material reality” (i.e. our own prejudices) to make life better for the most vulnerable among us?


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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