Friday, January 25, 2008

You can't handle the truth

I recently read an insightful if flawed analysis of the Iraq War and post 9-11 deployment of power in what the book suggests we still need to call “The Society of the Spectacle.” Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle In A New Age of War also talks very specifically about the condition of contemporary American power.

But as the book went on, I felt increasingly sick of the truth. I don’t mean sick of the facts, though the facts are sickening, even as they’re fascinating. I mean, instead, sick of the concept of the truth and how it gets used in the world.

The Society of the Spectacle, of course, and the U.S. and international corporate and government leaders who are temporarily in charge of it, claims constantly to speak the truth. The militant Islamist vanguard, which is at war with the western spectacle and does so significantly by trying to create a spectacle of its own, according to Afflicted Powers, claims constantly to speak the truth. And the authors of the book, brilliant leftist political analysts, are also themselves invested in speaking the truth. But at least their book is a genuine attempt to understand rather than a claim about truth that doesn’t wish to understand and purposely violates understanding.

Those who think of themselves as The Left have in recent years developed a new debate about the truth. Some of them, Terry Eagleton for instance, claim that in giving up the insistence on truth, the Left lost a chance to gain more genuine authority in the world. They criticize writers like Foucault and Derrida for criticizing the concept of truth. Foucault argued that human societies don’t move forward in the direction of greater truth or an always more benevolent progress, but use the concept of the truth in order to establish and develop disciplinary systems. Derrida criticized the concept of the “center elsewhere,” which is to say all claims about truth that insist that those who make the claims aren’t the source of the truth but have seen the truth already out there (often beyond the world) and are simply relaying it to us. Both Foucault and Derrida therefore appear to reject rhetoric that claims the truth for itself. And this position seems, lately, to some on the left, an abdication of the responsibility to describe how things actually are happening in the world.

Both Foucault and Derrida are still arguing and trying to establish points, however, and in so doing there is still a claim to truth in their work (as there is in mine here). But it is another kind of claim to truth, one that critiques the rhetoric of truth.

Of course, Foucault and Derrida described a great deal about how things happen in the world. And they did it very well, although of course they were wrong sometimes, perhaps even often.

Those on the Left who criticize them often describe very well a great deal that goes on in the world, but of course they are also wrong sometimes, and perhaps even often.

Whether you feel a need to reclaim the power of the truth or to undermine the very notion of truth, you will be wrong sometimes. Which means that you don’t speak the truth.

Anymore than I do.

There are claims to truth that are transparently false, and there are claims to truth that are genuine attempts to understand, and that difference matters a great deal. Some genuine attempts to understand understand more than other genuine attempts to understand, and that difference also matters a great deal.

It’s hard to live in a world dominated by organized murder and robbery. It makes it no easier to have people constantly coming into the room, on televison, the internet, or in person, telling a truth about the world that isn’t true. A world of liars, con men, information junkies, misinformation junkies, the self-deluded, the self-serving, the judgmentally earnest, the pious, the mindless, the vicious, the kind, the wonderful, and the brilliant, all rushing around madly, trying to force everyone to listen to their mad, lying truths.

Much too frequently, belief in the truth manifests itself as a kind of insanity.

If the Left needs to reclaim the power of truth, that’s not because they are necessarily speaking the truth, as indeed they cannot purely be, but because the concept of the truth is a lie so powerful at this time that no one can do without it and succeed.

But seizing the power of a lie in order to do good is a little too much like seizing on dark magic in a fairy tale to do the same. It may give power to those who seize it, but the chance of it doing good seems much slimmer. Since it’s a lie, in the long run it’s most likely to be deadly.

(Black magic and a white lie)

There will never be a time when the truth reigns on earth. Anyone who wants to live a live worth living should celebrate that fact, since the idea of any kind of pure truth is fundamentally anti-life. But there may be a time when less lies are told in the name of truth, and less lives destroyed through its misuse.

Many will say, but how can we deal with lies, distortions, misperceptions, half-truths and much else if we have no standard of truth against which to measure and expose what’s false? A crucial question, since while there may be no absolute truth, that hardly rids the world of lies.

What we need, it seems, is a notion of truth as partial rather than absolute, as insight rather than obfuscation. Insight allows us to understand more clearly, but not absolutely and certainly not finally.

A concept of truth, then, as fundamentally situational. Not beyond conditions, but lodged in them. Not the answer to conditions, but as something that allows us to understand the sources of conditions, and where those conditions are tending.

But for what purpose?

What if we defined Truth as an insight that, were people able to act on it, social conditions would improve. Falsity would then become an insight that, were people able to act on it, social conditions would worsen. Truth would then be no more than an insight with the potential to make the world better.

But for whom, and in what way? The status of “better” remains open to question.

No matter how sick one may become of it, it seems that the problem of the truth is one we haven’t yet learned to do without. But maybe we should.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

What do poems do in the world?

Occasionally brilliant, more often not so much, Stanley Fish has written a recent article claiming that “it is not the job of the humanities to save us” and that the humanities “don’t do anything, if by ‘do’ is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.” You can find his comments on his original article, his original article, and the comments by 484 others on his comments here:

At least he seems to understand the value of thinking again.

Now, I’m not so interested in what the humanities, understood as some kind of singular whole, do in the world. Probably there is no such whole and probably a lot of people are doing a lot of different things with the idea of the humanities. Probably different uses of the humanities do different things for different people.

But I am interested in what people think poems do, either in the world or in some small portion of it. And I don’t mean poems generally, but what this or that poem specifically does or doesn’t do, to whom or to what. My sense is, that if one was being specific, one could reach some literal conclusions about what this or that poem has done, and one would find that there are some ways in which it is impossible to know what a given poem does or doesn’t do. And we’d probably find that some poems have done this, some that, some a lot of this and nothing of that, and etc.

Have any comments or stories about what a specific poem or poems have done in the world, or any small portion of it?

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Leaning Golden Virgin at Albert

It’s not so much that people forget the past as that they’ve never known about it in the first place.

Of course, the past can never demand that we remember it, since it’s no longer there. Only from the vantage of the present can anyone insist on the value of the past.

Still, social institutions, and the common social attitudes and behaviors related to those institutions, form the ground from which most activity and thinking in the present takes place, and because those institutions come from the past, the past greatly shapes not only what we think but even what we can imagine. The past is the only point of comparison we have for anything taking place in the present. In some cases the past remains literally active, in the way for instance outdated laws remain enforceable or landmines can remain deadly in a field long after a war has ended. Anything that we experience or believe we know will always be connected to what others we have encountered have experienced or believe they know, which is to say, connected to the past.

But there is very little in the past that requires us to recognize this connection. It’s easy to know little or nothing about anything that has happened to anybody else at any time. The insistence of many people on the moral significance of the past (from whatever perspective) hardly means that the significance they insist upon will be recognized by others.

There’s also nothing about the past that requires we remember it in the way people in the past remembered the past. There’s nothing that automatically determines what our connection to the past must mean in the present. In the present, one can choose to think about the past or not, and one can choose to think about it in the way one chooses. And although even the possible range of choices is greatly shaped by the past, it’s not controlled by it.

Still, there are certain features of the past more likely to impress themselves upon the present, simply because more people in the present feel a connection to that feature of the past, or because a few people feel that connection very strongly and make it known. Connections of this kind can also include a powerful need to reject some particular idea or moment from the past, although such rejection often calls simultaneously for remembering. The most obvious examples are genocides, which we are often called to remember so that they never happen again.

Two common social tendencies now are for people to believe in the values they claim the past represents or to judge the past’s limitations. Both use the past as a ground for assertions about the present. It’s only a truism to say that we can tell a lot about a given society from how people in it think about the past. Nonetheless, mainly, at this time, the past is treated as something to believe in or to critique. As, that is, progress, which can only be positive or negative, something to be for or against, in various ways and degrees.

What seems easiest to neglect about the past is therefore not the dominant paradigms of how people understood themselves in some particular place in time, or how the past looks from the vantage of the most commonly shared paradigms in the present for judging the failures of the past. The first is true because many people still understand themselves in a way close to those past dominant paradigms, and the second because people’s desire to imagine a future different from the past leads them to highlight what seems the past’s greatest shortcomings.

Instead, it is the subtle shifts in how the past becomes the present, or how a part of the past fails to survive into the present, thus making the present irretrievably different from the past, that today are easiest to know nothing about, since such instances may not constitute either a support of past values or a critique of them.

What often gets lost therefore is the strangeness of the past and the strangeness of the present and how the strangeness of the past changes into the strangeness of the present. Believing in the past, or critiquing it, often become ways of normalizing the strangeness of past and present. Often there is a particularity and oddity about the past that resists human paradigms for understanding it. Our concepts of history can never fully reclaim the past, but instead shape what we choose to think of as significant about it. The rest vanishes, until a time when someone thinks of it as significant again.

I’ve been considering the strangeness of the past, and how it becomes the strangeness of the present, and how easy it is not to know about any of that, while reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (thanks to Clint Burnham for suggesting it to me). The book explores changes in behavior and thinking caused by World War I, mainly but not exclusively those changes that occurred in British life. Here are some of the strange elements of the past that Fussell mentions that I had not forgotten but never known, although now that I do know them they seem telling more than surprising. All of them have in them something of the strangeness of the past, although none are too strange to be understood.

“Now volunteers were no longer sufficient to fill the ranks. In October Lord Derby’s ‘scheme’—a genteel form of conscription—was promulgated, and at the beginning of 1916, with the passing of the Military Service Act, England began to train her first conscript army, an event which could be said to mark the beginning of the modern world.” (11)

“Another index of the prevailing innocence” [before WWI] “is a curious prophylaxis of language. One could use with security words which a few years later, after the war, would constitute obvious double entendres. One could say intercourse, or erection, or ejaculation without any risk of evoking a smile or a leer. Henry James’ innocent employment of the word tool is as well known as Browning’s artless misapprehension about the word twat. Even the official order transmitted from British headquarters to the armies at 6:50 on the morning of November 11 1918, warned that ‘there will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy.’” (23)

“As these examples suggest, there were ‘national styles’ in trenches as in other things. The French trenches were nasty, cynical, efficient, and temporary. Kipling remembered the smell of delicious cooking emanating from some in Alsace. The English were amateur, vague, ad hoc, and temporary. The German were efficient, clean, pedantic, and permanent.” (45)

“The 1916 image of never-ending war has about it, to be sure, a trace of the consciously whimsical and the witty hyperbolic. But there is nothing but the literal in this headline from the New York Times for September 1, 1972: U.S. AIDES IN VIETNAM/SEE AN UNENDING WAR. Thus the drift of modern history domesticates the fantastic and normalizes the unspeakable. And the catastrophe that begins it is the Grear War.” (74)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Ixnay Reader #3 now available

Volume three of the ixnay reader, featuring new work by Christophe Casamassima, Stan Mir, Susana Gardner, Noah Eli Gordon, Jules Boykoff, Jen Hofer, Mark Wallace, Divya Victor, Harold Abramowitz, & Graham Foust is hot off the press & available for order. $6 includes shipping -- please email to order.