Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives
This review appeared in Volume 4 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
Testing Testing: Social Consequences of the Examined Life. By F. Allan Hanson. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993. x, 378 pp. lSBN 0-520-08060-2.
An excessive reliance on formal testing has often been viewed as a determining feature of American bureaucratic, educational, and social system. This unquestioned confidence in the truth-value of testing is usually understood to have arisen hand in hand with ideologies linking rationalist progress and positivistic science. Yet most analyses thus far have limited their scope to sociological claims about the human effects of one kind of testing or another. What makes Testing Testing: Social Consequences of the Examined Life a timely and important contribution to the contemporary analysis of culture is that it theorizes the social and political implications of diverse, but ultimately related, forms of testing in American culture. Hanson's ambitious plan is supported by a theoretical framework that owes much to the work of Michel Foucault, whose thesis in Discipline and Punish is adapted to show how the explosion of, and public acquiescence to, multiple forms of testing can be considered a mode of disciplinary power.
Foucault leads us to the compelling if paradoxical conclusion that the concept ot the individual, on which is erected our civilization's particular construction of human freedom and dignity, is itself partly built on testing -- perhaps the most pervasive and efficient technique for the application of power and domination to have evolved so far (119-120)
In order to elaborate this line of thought, Hanson focuses his inquiry on instructional modes of testing, in particular, the detection, drug testing, and aptitude and intelligence tests. Diagnostic, exploratory, and informal tests are excluded from his examination because they do not satisfy his definition of a test, namely, a "mode of representation applied by an agency to an individual with the intention of gathering information." The first clause is crucial because, as Hanson shows with numerous examples, the essence of testing lies in the production of a representation that has no necessary connection with what it is intended to represent. "Thus one does not give a screen test to see how well an aspiring actress will do in a screen test but to ascertain how she might come across in motion pictures" (18). Tests occur in lieu of the possibility of direct access to the facts or in situations where there might not exist facts as such. Accordingly, they lend themselves to abuse, to the point that they not only control and dominate individuals, but also construct social persons, rather than merely describing or evaluating them.
The coercive effectiveness of testing is perhaps best illustrated by the history of lie detection. Before the Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 curtained their use in the private sector, lie detector machines provided a cheap and portable method of surveillance that avoided the prohibitive costs of special security systems or guards. The mere threat of their use serves as a deterrent to employee dishonesty. Moreover, the polygraph is loaded with the tremendous theological and philosophical weight of an infallible machine capable of probing the mysteries, fabrications and even self-deceptions concealed in the self:
Their power to elicit confessions and revelations may be analyzed in terms of the framework of communication established by the test. A polygraph test replaces the normal pattern of dialogue between two persons witha matrix of communication involving four parties: the polygraph machine, the examiner, and the subject, who is bisected, Cartesian-like, into physical and mental substance, body and mind. The synapse of information transfer occurs between the two physical objects as machines... (which) commune together as the polygraph reaches out to embrace the subject's body with bands, tubes, and clips... The subject as mind, powerless to chaperone the affair, watches helplessly as the carnal entwining of machines produces its undoing. (93)
Hanson documents the psychological impact of lie detection methods by means of statistical tables and interviews conducted with examiners and examinees, as well as amusing and sometimes frightening descriptions of apparatuses (such as the Psychological Stress Evaluator, developed in the Vietnam War to analyze voice fluctuations) and ploys designed to thwart polygraphs (including the widespread rumour, no doubt linked to the experience of writing, that swallowing a bottleful of White-Out or other typewriter correction fluid will confound the machine!).
On the basis of several detailed cases, Hanson argues that the final stage of the insidiousness of disciplinary authority occurs when subjects (employees) begin to request implementation of such surveillance, ostensibly in order to clear their names should they be accused of dishonesty or wrongdoing. As Hanson points out with some irony, when Anita Hill demanded and took a polygraph test to lend support to her charges against Clarence Thomas before the Senate Judiciary Committee, no one mentioned that Congress itself had passed a law against polygraph use in the private sector some three years before with the Employee Polygraph Protection Act. Even with this law in force, written integrity tests have proven to be an effective and equally intimidating substitute for polygraph machines.
Hanson turns next to the related form of authenticity testing used in the current war on drugs. "Drug abuse, it seems, currently plays a role in American thinking similar to witchcraft a few centuries ago; it is insidious, pervasive, but not easily recognizable, an evil that infuses social life and is responsible for many of the the ills that beset us" (123). Testing is crucial here because, as in the case of lying, drug use cannot always be identified simply by looking at a person. This suspected concealment legitimates the establishment of various "random" or "voluntary" testing systems whose default mode, Hanson observes, is to "observe employee behaviour." What most worries Hanson, again taking a lead from Foucault, is not so much the threat of punishment the system places on innocent people as the "automatic docility" it engenders in them, their disciplined and routine compliance with demands for evaluation. Authenticity tests "open the self to scrutiny and investigation in ways the self is powerless to control... This transforms the self from autonomous subject to passive object" (179) by eroding the "artfulness and concealment that are the basis of social life." Even the confidentiality of such tests, Hanson argues, contributes to the anonymous isolation of test takers from one another so that, in the end, they face authoritarian power on their own and without solidarity.
These conclusions may sound dramatic, but they are convincingly supported by Hanson's faultless prose, entertaining anecdotes, and detailed scholarship. In the final section of the book, he turns his attention to intelligence testing. A valuable section on the historical development of attempts to measure intelligence likens the strategies of the nineteenth-century pseudo-science of phrenology to the standardized tests used for college admissions today, insofar as both claim to measure a central faculty called aptitude, indexing a human being's potential to achieve rather than any past achievement. Not only do such tests damage the self-esteem of those who must necessarily fail in order to guarantee that there are winners, but such testing is also responsible for producing the widespread and entrenched belief that intelligence is a single thing that is both quantifiable and, if not hereditary, at least fixed for life in every person.
This view, Hanson believes, is responsible for a significant number of confusing and destructive social policies regarding opportunity, affirmative action, and related issues.
In the concluding chapter, "Man the Measured," Hanson proposes some theories and remedies for the ills he has up to this point critiqued. He applies Baudrillard's conceptualizations of the difference between seduction and pornography, the real and the "hyperreal." Test results belong to the realm of the hyperreal to the extent that they place concrete, unequivocal signifiers on human properties that are essentially elusive and variable. And, according to Hanson, because these representations are not simply static, but "actionable," that is, crucial decisions are made on the basis of them, the kind of inspection they permit is nothing less than pornographic, insofar as the mystery of the person, with its subtle nuancing, is exposed to the inspection of a gaze which considers the person as merely a coincidence of scores.
Several pragmatic measures are proposed to bring the explosion of testing under control. The Employee Polygraph Protection Act should, in Hanson's opinion, be extended to cover the public sector. Drug tests should be performed only in "for cause" situations, in order to protect people from testing in situations where there is no evidence of wrongdoing. Concerning educational testing, however, which is perhaps most problematic because of the bureaucratic difficulty of finding substitute methods of evaluation, Hanson offers few concrete initiatives.
It would be intriguing to bring Hanson's thoughts into relation with contemporary scientific testing, which is no longer simply diagnostic or falsifying of a hypothesis, but deeply involved in ethical problems where more is at stake than institutional surveillance and power. With AIDS, for example, at least three types of tests have become, at various times, the center of intense debate: the testing of humans for exposure to the virus, which brings up matters of privacy, public testing, confidentiality, and international policy; the scientific testing of cures and vaccines; and, finally the testing of possible remedies on human subjects, an issue which carries with it all the moral and legal dilemmas of human experimentation. Given the fusion of science, politics, and ethics here, testing may no longer simply be about positivism or sociology, but finds itself on an epistemologically uncertain threshold. Hanson mentions amniocentesis as a test that carries ethical ramifications even prior to the origination of free subjects. We are now at a time when it may no longer be possible rigorously to separate formal institutional tests from the complex kinds of provisionality and probation to which human institutions as well as human beings are subjected. It will perhaps become more important to carefully determine the interrelations of such modes, and the role they play in the formation of institutions, before reflecting on their political consequences for free, autonomous citizens.
Albert Liu is doing researchon intersections between science and literary theory in the humanities Enter, Johns hopkins University. He has published in Lusitania and Modern Language Notes, and has an article forthcoming in Genders on computer culture.