In some classroom, at some point twenty or thirty years ago, undoubtedly with the catalytic aid of some students, I invented the concept of the ego condom. Things like that happen when your classroom is relaxed and free flowing. For instance, in a similar way in a similar setting (with the aid (goading) of Amy and Janelle, as I remember) the concept of the sexual outyowindow emerged. Amy: “Was that a sexual innuendo? Reply: “No, that was a sexual outyowindow.” Far too gross and blatant to be an inyowindow — however unintended. Not very profound, but I’ll get back to it later. Meanwhile back to the ego condom.
An ego condom is a device for protecting a vulnerable ego from socially engendered damage. When fully understood, and generalized, it turns out that ego condoms are so plural and so ubiquitous that the concept spins off into virtual vacuity. In fact, they’re major staples of human personality. However, the concept was invented in the context of the philosophy of science, and in that context the concept can do some work. That is, the concept fits a particular sort of situation — such as the following:
Carl and I are currently reading Nick Lane, The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life. Without going into the details, the book is a work of advocacy. It proposes to insert chemiosmosis, Peter Mitchell’s theory of bioenergetics, into the core of evolutionary theory, now dominated by replication and information. Mitchell received a (1973) Nobel for the theory, but it has never gained the general ascendancy of the post-Watson and Crick lines of thought. Now, I first ran into Mitchell’s theory in the ’80’s. Bruce Weber, a friend, writing colleague, and biochemist, was a strong advocate for Mitchell. A group of us talked a lot about how Mitchell’s discoveries might find a central place in evolutionary thinking. I remember it being pretty hard going, especially for me at that particular stage of my ignorance. At any rate, at the time, and for a long time, Mitchell’s views remained essentially unnoticed in evolutionary discourse. In reading Lane’s book I thought again, for the first time in a long time, about how and why Mitchell’s views could be ignored.
That sort of question always leads to a plurality of intersecting hypotheses, some subset of which eventually stand as a sort of answer. Within the subset ego condoms insinuate themselves. My own advocacy here is to urge that when confronted with such questions, ego condoms are a profitable component of the search for answers. Hunt for them, and you get a long way toward understanding the dialectical structure of science. They never by a long shot ever give you a full answer, but they help “deconvolute” the tangle of answers you end up with. And it almost always is a tangle, since ego condoms are never orthogonal to more “scientific” factors, but live in these factors like viruses. In Cosmopolitics Isabel Stengers works out these issues very elegantly with respect to the fate of Prigogine’s theories.
Well, then, give us an example of an ego condom.
I’ve hoped that you might have thought of some candidates of your own, by now, but I’ll take a look at one of the most obvious and ubiquitous: dick waving. Of course in these days we’ll have to find another identifying phrase, what with the emergence of more and more high quality women at the forefront of science; and ego condoms turn out to be unisex. (The image of Leslie Nielsen keeps flashing, as it were, into my mind.) “Dick waving”, incidentally, is an obvious example — at least in this context — of a sexual outyowindow. As I said, we’ll get back to that. Meanwhile, one of the most common formulae of dick waving is “We scientists …”. I’m pretty sure that the ego condom first emerged in my Cosmology class, and with respect to Brian Greene, a chronic dick waver. The issue is the reversibility or irreversibility of cosmological dynamical equations — a central issue for Prigogine and Stengers, of course. Greene is a champion of reversibility. He has lots of company. He also is aware of the sensitivity and instability of his position. So in one of his books (one of the many versions of his book, all re-titled) he defends reversibility by a “We scientists …”.
As Tonto once said to the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean “we”, white man?” Greene is cuddling his ego in an orthodoxy that he deems or hopes is strong enough to protect him in his position; but in my “Prigoginian”view, he’s succeeded in making the instability, hence his vulnerability, more obvious. If you want to understand current cosmological theory, it’s good to see that. It opens questions and problematizes issues that might otherwise be swept under the rug.
Now, as tacitly promised, political correctness: the hegemony of the Puritan constabulary. I think that’s a disease we could all die from. Recent politics confirms me in that judgment. The attempt to sterilize social and political discourse is the ultimate ego condom. The establishment of mutual respect and understanding is a, if not the, major problem we face. I don’t think that mutual understanding and respect can live very long in the face of the sterilization of our available discursive space. I know for a fact that any education that conduces to mutual understanding and respect can’t live under that regime. It may sound trivial to say that we need classroom climates where “sexual outyowindow”, and “ego condom”, and “dick waving as a rhetorical strategy” can emerge, but intellectual freedom and productive pathways to answers depend on exactly that climate. If you think that some people are hurt, and many others made uncomfortable, in that climate, you’re right. In fact, it’s traditional; and the reason the tradition must be promoted and defended, for the alternative is not only painful, but deadly. Ironically, Donald and the millions he has captured show us just that. Matched against a gutless, self-protective alternative, they showed us the result of generations of denial and self-sanctimony that have denied space for converting festering disagreement and resentment into any sort of mutual project of understanding and respect. The prime minister of Malaysia epitomized the election as the rebellion of those who were left behind. Obviously they weren’t just left behind, but also actively excluded by those with a deep grained sense of their own superiority. But that sense of superiority among the educated while elite is hard to defend in the world that’s emerged from colonialisms internal and external, so default to preventive sterilization — intellectual eugenics. Intellectual space has more and more been taken over by ego condoms. As in the case of the sciences, the recognition of these protective devices, and especially their fragility, can be helpful.