Experts and the Public – a camera obscura?


In The German Ideology (1845), Marx makes the case that men exist under a, “false conception” of their political and social circumstances (Calhoun, 142). The circumstances within which a man lives and works is a fabrication of his brain – created both from within and from the dominant relationships of other men. Men go through their lives seeing as through a, “camera obscura” – an illusion (ibid., 143). This illusion comes mostly from ideas of the ruling class which when taken up by the working class is called “false consciousness” (Calhoun). Marx’s intent is to teach men to, “exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man” (ibid., 142).  Why did Marx use the metaphor of a camera obscura? Why does Marx extend the metaphor in his critique of idealism and development of historical materialism? And can this metaphor and historical materialism methodology be extended as a lens through which to examine STS concepts – specifically the relationship of experts and the public?

Why does Marx use the metaphor of the camera obscura? In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx details his observations of the inverse relationships of the worker and the capitalist.

“Labor produces wonderful things for the rich – but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty – but for the worker deformity. It produces intelligence – but for the worker, stupidity, cretinism” (ibid., 149).

One can understand from this repeating, rhythmic conception, how Marx began to view the differences between the worker and the capitalist as opposites. Marx sees this disparity and in order to express it as a phenomenon which workers can identify and potentially understand better, crafted his metaphor of a camera obscura. He extends the metaphor from the empirical observations of the extreme differences in circumstances between workers and capitalists, to a more esoteric critique of Hegal and idealism (Giddens, 18). “If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-processes as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process” (ibid., 144).

Marx extends the metaphor as a way to articulate and differentiate materialism from the contrasting idealism of Hegel. Marx argues that ideology creates a distorted, alienated consciousness in man. Man’s imagination of his circumstances arises from being taught history as a fulfillment of idealistic and universalistic goals. But these goals are socially constructed by the ruling class for the purpose of maintaining the normative power structure. Ideology may make it appear that man’s understanding of his circumstances is true, but what it is actually doing is flipping reality (the materialist understanding) on its head. According to Giddens, Marx flips his camera obscura using the methodology of historical materialism, “as a perspective for the analysis of social development”. (Giddens, 20). In short, historical materialism is a bottom up methodology which examines actual worker circumstances as empirical data. It portends to identify the root causes of conflict and does not allow ideological or normative assumptions to bias results.

Marx’s camera obscura metaphor and methodology of historical materialism would be an effective lens and framework from which to examine power relations among scientific experts and the public. Marx developed his methodology to help us empirically understand our world without the bias of ideology – to make reasoned, observed assessments of our circumstances without a road map created by the ruling class (experts) for the workers (public). As Marx’s workers did in 1845, does the public now also embrace an ideology where experts have the power to determine their circumstances (facts) as it relates to science and technology? Has the public been taught through ideology/idealism to assume the judgements of experts as facts and to alienate themselves from their role in helping to create knowledge? How can the public and experts flip their perceptions and approach using the framework of historical materialism?

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