The Battle for the Dialectic Rages On…
I’ve been thinking about the truth quite a bit for the last little while and I dug up this old college essay I wrote on the subject:
The Literary is Personal, is Socio-political, a Monochrome Triptych in Shades of Grey: YO Mitilda, Crank Up the Barbie it’s Time to Roast Some Holy Cows!
At first glance “from across the gallery” this work may seem to blend in with the surrounding off white of the walls. However, as you get “closer” you may see subtle shades of Grey that are at first glance missed. The frame of this work, colored in a slightly darker shade of Grey, is clearly stated in the title. The Literary is Personal is Socio-political. That is primarily of what this paper speaks. How does it do so? Simple, as a written work it is a work of literature. As my work, it is personal. As a shared work meant to inform others who read it, it is a socio-political work. As you “see” the above mentioned shades of Grey within the work you will begin to find other issues and meanings in this paper. If these other issues and meanings speak to you, think of how they relate to you and your thinking on such matters. If you find them unrelated to your frame of reference, ignore them and only concentrate on the frame. In this way, we complete the Triptych. Adding your own thoughts while you read is what turns this paper into a personal socio-political act.
Left Panel: The literary
The literary, in my opinion, is anything written, such as essays, books etc. I also include as literary anything that has a written component such as movies, music, websites, and even the HTML code which makes websites work. Some may say my definition is too broad, especially when I include computer programs. To them, I say, plays are written to be read and performed by actors. Computer programs are written to be read and performed by computers. If you go to any of the Disney theme parks you can attend, plays performed by machines using a technology Walt Disney called “Animatronics.” Because these plays are performed by machines, does this make these plays not literature? On now to what passes for literature in some academic circles.
A Small Square of Gray on the Left Panel: The Form
I read the essay, “If the Emperor is Naked, Then He is Naked: The Problem with Post-Modernist Thought”, by William J. Matthews, Ph.D. I offer it as an example of the kind of literature that is produced by the professional academic intelligentsia, and is the kind of work students are compelled to view as scholarly and correct in form. I have quoted it, in part, below and added my thoughts concerning the issues raised in an effort to show how prescribed literary form often interferes with the function called pragmatism. All words in italics are quotes of someone else.
Radical social constructivism and its equivalences of cultural constructivism, deconstructivism, feminist discourse, post-structuralism, post-modernism and the like have become, in my opinion, a serious blight on the American intellectual landscape. The argument, which I will refer to in general terms as post-modernism, is, as I will show, logically fallacious and with only reasonably close inspection falls under its own nihilistic weight. (Matthews)
I view “Radical social constructivism and its equivalencies of cultural constructivism, deconstructivism, feminist discourse, post-structuralism, post-modernism and the like” as simply tools of analysis. As such they are, like all tools, subject to misuse. A hammer can be used to build a house, or to crack someone’s skull. Although a tool is subject to misuse, that doesn’t mean we should condemn the tool. In this context, what I agree to “refer to in general terms as post-modernism”, is far from the “blight” the above terms it. It is, instead, a lens useful for seeing things in a different light. In my opinion, conservatism is just as subject to misuse as postmodernism. I still find conservative analysis informative and useful even though I disagree with its conclusions. I want to hear the broadest possible opinions, followed by discussion on any issue I take an interest in.
As I will show after his next paragraph, Professor Matthews doesn’t know enough about logic to fill a thimble. As to what definition of nihilism he’s using, I don’t know. My dictionary defines nihilism as the rejection of all religious and moral principles. He certainly provides no proof in the rest of his reactionary little paper that postmodernism has rejected all religious and moral principles. I think he heard someone use the word nihilism at a faculty cocktail party and now uses it as an insulting buzzword.
In essence, the post-modernist position is that truth is only relative and has no general application given that said truth is a mere construction created by a given social context. As Fox (1996) points out, such a statement even under the most cursory inspection is paradoxical and falls prey to the same problem as that of our ancient Cretan friend (whom you will remember told us that all Cretans are liars). Since truth is only relative and subject to various prejudices, the statement that “all truths are relative and have no generalizability” is itself simultaneously relative and absolute. (Matthews)
I wish the professor had been a little more careful and had included an APA cite to go along with his parenthetical note Fox (1996). The copy of his essay I read included no such reference, so I have no idea what is connected to the parenthetical note. For instance is the quote “all truths are relative and have no generalizability” from Fox (1996) or elsewhere? I believe that this was unintentional and if the professor knew, he would correct it. Further, if we had just kept citing the name of the work and author in the body of the work instead of using formats such as MLA and APA, this would not have been a problem.
In general, I dislike the use of the suffix “ist”. It is even worse when used in the plural “ist’s”. Get any two people who consider themselves any kind of “ist” together and the discussion will become dogmatic and sterile. I find it far better to use our analytical tools to inform each other of our thinking on a matter. The “ist’s” will always form armed camps and go to war. I will take part in what I’ve heard described as “the battle of the dialectic”, but I will not choose a side.
Now on to the truth about the truth, as I see it. In the stated example of our Cretan friend, I would have to ask for an exact definition of liar. I mean by this, does a person have to always lie to be termed a liar, or does one proven previous lie condemn a person to being a liar and therefore leaves the possibility that the person told the truth at least once? If you take the first definition, the example is indeed a paradox because always is a universal quantifier and that leaves no possibility of the person ever telling the truth and makes the statement both true and false at the same time. If on the other hand, you accept the second definition, at least once is an existential quantifier, there is left the possibility that the person has indeed told the truth, the statement is either true or false and there is no paradox. There is your relativism. The truth of the stated example is dependent on the relative meaning of the word liar.
Logic in this case and I believe in general is subject to a huge loophole in reasoning. That loophole is that all written and spoken words are defined not by some absolute meaning, but by consensus. As an example, I will use the following sentence. The sky is blue. Any first grade student can tell you that the sky is blue. A deeper structural semantical analysis reveals that the four symbols, the letters B L U E, are but a code. The first grader who tells you the sky is blue does so because he/she was taught that the meaning of those four letters, in that sequence, refers to the color of the sky and other things which have the same visual value we call color. The first grader was not born with the meaning of the agreed upon (consensual) value of the code blue. This value is learned. To test this hypothesis, the next time you come across a newborn infant ask she/he what color the sky is. You can ask until you are blue in the face, no answer will be forthcoming. The education a child receives is also dependent on the culture the child was born into. The symbols used to indicate the color we call blue in English are not the same as the consensual symbols used in another culture. Since education is part of the process of socialization and culture is a determinant of what kind of socialization said child will receive, there is your social context.
As such it offers us no reason to accept it. Relativism makes no distinction (because for such folks there is none) between objective verifiable knowledge and superstition (astrology, creationism, “flat-earthers,” to name but a few) . It is deeply flawed as an epistemology. It is, by definition, a direct attack on science, scientific method, and critical rationality. This view would offer us no way to distinguish between superstition and verifiable knowledge and as such is both nonsensical and intellectually dangerous…(Matthews)
The only danger I see, intellectual or otherwise, from the likes of the creationists, comes when they take an absolutist view. The problem with them is that they claim that the bible is the holder of the absolute truth. That book is the word of the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of everything. You can’t get more absolute then that for my money. In the past when such absolutists came to political power, wars, murderous persecutions, and dark ages have followed. For the most part, I use the tool of cultural relativism to soften my impulses to rip such people new bodily orifices. I explain that my beliefs differ from theirs, and so long as they find joy in their beliefs and don’t try to impose them on others, they will have no trouble with me. If that fails, I rip ’em new bodily orifices.
The Rest of the Left Panel: The Function
I will spare you any further reading of this stuff. I offer Professor Matthew’s work as an example of a research paper and my answers as an example of literary criticism. If I had a choice, I would write neither type of paper, but as a student I am forced to do so. This is the prescribed form I mentioned earlier in this paper. The reason I dislike this type of writing is simple. A close examination of the cited text and my responses reveals for me the major problem with literary discourse. It requires jargon to be used in such a way as to remove all possibility of consensual definition. This has the effect of making the meaning of words and phrases a matter of opinion. The only pitiful consensus is that of the “ists”. Armed with their secondary group’s defined analytical tools the battle is enjoined. Holy cows are roasted and eaten, the heaping plates of Bar-B-Q, in the end, become what all eaten food becomes. Out of this dung heap comes the next trendy “ist”. The process then continues the same as the last. There is no progress in this. If there is pragmatism here, it’s what Barthes refers to as stupid pragmatism. The “problems” solved have meaning only in academic circles.
Roland Barthes, in “The Pleasure of the Text” wrote:
Society of the friends of the text: it’s members would have nothing in common (for there is no necessary agreement on the texts of pleasure) but their enemies: fools of all kinds, who decree foreclosure of the text and of its pleasure, either by cultural conformism or by intransigent rationalism (suspecting a “mystique” of literature) or by political moralism or by criticism of the signifier or by stupid pragmatism or by snide vacuity or by destruction of discourse, loss of verbal desire. Such a society would have no site, could function in total atopia; yet it would be a kind of phalanstery, for in it contradictions would be acknowledged (and the risks ideological imposture thereby restricted), difference would be observed, and conflict rendered insignificant (being unproductive of pleasure). (14-15)
In my view, academic literary discourse is now controlled by what Barthes refers to as “fools of all kinds”. What now passes for discourse is a never-ending ballet of the bizarre. It’s a concentric circle paradigm. Each circle is a battlement of an “ist” secondary group bent on destroying the circle battlement of every other “ist” secondary group. Sometimes a battlement is weakened enough to be assimilated into another “ist” battlement or a strategic alliance is formed between two or more “ist” groups. No matter, the battle rages on. The really damning part of all this is how this separates us. Who is in the circles? The intelligencia, the brain trust class, is inside kept busy with their battles. Who’s left out? The mass of humanity whose daily battle consists of the procurement of subsistence. There is a direct link between the literary and the sociopolitical. Instead of using the literary and other resources at their disposal to solve some of the pressing problems of our time, the intellectuals “fiddle while Rome burns”. They war with each other for the intellectual high ground. While most of humanity lives down below where the trash of their battles is thrown.
To cite one example, such problems as homelessness and hunger at home and worldwide are given little attention. I know of what I speak. I am the poor. At any moment, I can become homeless again, as I have been in the past. Not once during the several times I’ve been homeless has a member of the intelligentsia offered a paper that made the least bit of difference to the plight I then shared with an untold number of other homeless people. For those that believe in “the rugged individual myth” and that homelessness is the fault of the homeless, I offer my paper “”Sociological Imagination” 40 years of issues vs. troubles (1959 – 1999)” as an exploration of the issues surrounding belief in such myth. Since this is a corollary issue in this paper and I am not quoting from my other work, I will simply place a URL where the paper can be found for any that are interested in reading it. http://www.geocities.com/javissato/essays/socimag.html
The political oligarchy in Washington, which is corrupted by the corporate dollars that flow into it’s coffers and allows the above mentioned problems to go on in the name of profit is well served by the “ist battle” paradigm. The intellectuals are kept busy in battle and therefore have less time to scrutinize the economic and political system. My uncle Funzi once told me I was a nice kid, until I fell in with a bad crowd…Intellectuals. I’m beginning to understand what he meant. Instead of using the power of intellect to inform us on how these and other pressing problems are to be solved. The intelligencia, for the most part, sits in their ivory towers churning out papers which are printed in scholarly journals and which are read only by them and we poor students who are forced to look on such work as what we aspire to produce in the future.
One of the most proscribed requirements of the prescribed form is MLA documentation. I’m running an online survey “The MLA Blues survey” that will end on July 6, 2000. The preliminary results are as follows:
MLA Blues Survey
“Do you agree that MLA (Modern Language Association) documentation conventions are a useless, over complicated fetish that interferes with the free expression of ideas?”
Strongly Disagree 0%
No Opinion/Neutral 43%
Strongly Agree 43%
It should be noted that 95% of the respondents who answered No Opinion/Neutral stated that they had no direct experience with MLA documentation. All the rest had direct experience. (Avissato)
Center Panel: The Personal
The personal is directly linked to the literary because reading, and writing are, primarily, activities we do as individuals. The literary is further linked to the personal because as we read we shape the meaning of what we are reading at the same time that what we are reading shapes us. You will notice how I speak of how the writers below effect me. The literary is the personal.
I have been shaped by many writers. The following is just the short list. Robert A. Heinlein, whose characters are so fully written I “grok” them as well as any old friend. Philip K. Dick, whose lifelong struggle with mental illness is as much of an inspiration to me as the struggles of his “Film Noir” anti-heroes. Anne McAfferty, whose strong woman characters portray the fullest hopes of feminism, and oh those dragons! Arthur C. Clark, whose insights into the spiritual effects of technological evolution are a comfort in a world more and more, measured in nanoseconds and bits. Ursula K. LeGuin, whose aliens are so alien, they seem human, and whose worlds are so poetic they speak. William Gibson, whose cyberpunk not so distant future is a dark reminder of who has power and what they might bring about if we let them. Kurt Vonnagut, whose cynical sarcasm and sense of irony is matched only by my own. Stephen King, who’s characters suffer abuse at the hands of others and then either rise up in rightousness, or sink to the level of their attackers in revenge. Issac Asimov, whose robots ironically teach us what it means to be human. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who packs more socio-political commentary into mundane day to day activities like ordering a fish plate then many poets do in a lifetime of work. Allan Ginsberg, who managed an incredible slight of hand trick by being a hedonist while reporting on tragedy, and a member of the establishment while being a revolutionary. I will always remember him fondly. Samuel Beckett, whose Vladamir and Estragon are still waiting by the side of the road, as am I. Billy Bragg, whose songs speak to me and for me. I’m trying to mix pop and politics too. Mozart, whose music is the last sound I want to hear before I die. Enrico Fellini, whose films taught me about the country of my ancestors, and what it means to be Italian. C. Wright Mills whose concept, the sociological imagination, is the framework I use for all my work. Most of all these writers are the teachers I’ve studied with, and who have had to put up with me over the years. They wrote the words that shaped me most of all, lesson plans.
We shape our thinking by writing as our writing shapes our thinking. The kind of thinking that takes place when I’m writing is different then the kind of thinking that takes place when I’m engaged in any other activity. When writing, I must focus on the past, present and future all at the same time. The words I’m writing now are dependent for meaning on the words that I wrote before them and the words that I write after them. This type of cognitive time warp is difficult to master. Add to this the insistence on prescribed form and you wind up with the stifling of debate. If the only way our personal literature, our own writing, can be communicated is in a framework of required form, there is a loss of emotional and artistic freedom. This, and the threat of being charged with plagiarism, is what stifles debate. The personal is socio-political.
Right Panel: The Socio-political
That some within our society believe they can decide the “correct” way to write, speak or otherwise communicate is a symptom of the “scientififacation” of the world in which we now live. Everything is now subject to quantification and categorization. Even an art like writing now has to be done in a “scientific” manner. I see this as the way professions become professions. Take simple tasks such as communicating; add unneeded and complicated form. Create a jargon, which feigns to describe the form. Make most people believe that the resulting mess is somehow “advanced” and you can then create a profession to administer such a “science”. In the end what I have been talking about in this paper is writing, the literary. I have been speaking from my perspective, the personal. Now I link the socio-political.
The answers to the problems we humans face lies within us. If we can use such powerful tools as our literature to analyze what separates us, we can move on to form a worldwide super-community. Such a community, linked by the instant literary communication provided by the world wide web, could then discuss how to go about dismantling the various oligarchies which by definition serve the few, at the expense of the many. First, we must look into the face of the terror our “sciences” have created. Look deeply at what is presented as truth. If you believe that our global economy is good enough, while millions die of starvation every year. You suffer from empathic starvation. If you believe that you can be one of the few that reach the top, you have fallen for “the rugged individual myth” and will in all likelihood realize too late that the odds are very much against you. If you believe that it is important to put the period in the right place, I hope you find it just as important the put the homeless in the right place, in homes. I offer this essay as a literary work that is also personal and socio-political.
Read, think, speak, write, be!
Avissato, Jerry “MLA Blues Survey.”
Barthes, Roland. “The Pleasure of the Text” New York: Hill and Wang 1975.
Matthews, William J. “If the Emperor is Naked, Then He is Naked: The Problem with Post-Modernist Thought” Goinside Aug. 1998. (goinside.com/98/8/emperor.html).
The telepathic crickets dig BBQ too! Holy Cow is yummy!
The scientifically impossible I do right away
The spiritually miraculous takes a bit longer