Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Reality, Evidence, Language, Social Construction, Darwin

I have been thinking and reading lately a good deal about the social construct of the social construct and trying to parse out what of our perceived reality is more or less repeatable, verifiable, universally experienced, and what is more or less constructed by individual and group abstraction, personal or social narratives, conscious or unconscious leaving out or foregrounding. The ubiquitous phrase, "that's just a social construct" has become a sort of a joke around the house as we tell someone who has stubbed her toe or who has a headache or who thinks she is in love or who believes she has succeeded that her perception is little more than a delusion brought on by her own or more probably her society's way of framing and describing reality. The assumption is that her pain, her pleasure, her ideas of success could just as easily be different feelings or be inspired by utterly different causes if only....The assumption is that our ways of looking at the world are randomly constructed (that they have been randomly constructed at some time in the past by some people who constructed them for no particular reasons or perhaps in order to benefit themselves and make others suffer). This concept is, of course, grounded in the philosophical realization that it is impossible to experience, see, know " the thing in itself". We see only phenomena and not realities, and our seeing is determined by filters or structures in our brains that direct the ways in which we see. This realization has been transformed, however, to mean that what we see is necessarily either wrong or extremely different from what is, an assumption that was not present in Kant's analysis. The Modernist appropriation of Kant also exaggerated the differences between what one brain and another is likely to see. While Kant did note that each person sees a different shade of red, he did not suggest that we each see entirely different colors, or that colors themselves did not exist. While our seeing is determined by all sorts of things, both biological and experiential, there is no reason to assume that two human brains will necessarily see something radically differently all the time.
     Nietzsche, inaugurating the "linguistic turn," made us aware of the way language conceptualizes reality by creating names or descriptions of things (terms) that leave out as much as they contain. Words are inexact figures and metaphors, inaccurate and incommensurate attempts to describe reality. We group similar things that nevertheless exhibit many differences under categories; and this process induces a sort of simplification of seeing. We come to see dogs, trees, men, women, instead of individual creatures and entities. This eventually leads us to create concepts and reifications, such as love, good, bad, noble, moral, money, which are more and more removed from physical reality and experience. While many theorists after Nietzsche came to see this use of language as a treacherous crime committed by language upon reality, he tended to see it in a more creatively joyous light: just as long as we do not come to be the slaves of ossified constructs and concepts, just as long as the  "creative subject" continues to make new terms, new words, new metaphors, new figures to describe a changing reality from his own shifting perspective, just as long as individuals stoke the flame of a living language, language can be a prod and a stimulus to new seeing.
     Social construction theory has tried to moralistically discredit this joyous aesthetic and existential world- and word-making  activity and replaced it with an imperative to strip every word and every concept of its given meaning by calling all designations and conceptualizations into question. This leaves us with strictly nothing but experience itself, unsung, unquestioned, unnamed. They would discredit myth, historic narrative, fairy tales, religious legends, songs, poems, paintings, totems, talismans as random and treacherous social constructions. They would have us scoff at any product of the human imagination as a product with some abstract non-human author, as something necessarily imposed upon from some force that would have to be extra-terrestrial, not ouselves, not natural. They would insist that a human is not capable of experiencing his or her reality without being blind-sided by the already constructed way of seeing determined in his or her society. Of course our visions and perspectives are colored by our social context and these visions do vary from one culture to another, often extremely; but these variations do not come randomly out of nowhere. The variations between cultures must be the product of many different influences, from climate to landscape to the requirement for survival of a particular place and a particular people. Originary group social experiences are passed down from generation to generation, and are altered or not over time. Certainly old customs can be kept longer than necessary and humans on the whole may act according to originary evolutionary necessities that are no longer useful and even sometimes harmful in our current context. But these ways of seeing and ways of acting are not random. In other words, while there certainly are many social constructs, there is no such thing as "just" a social construct (a phrase that suggests that the construct has appeared out of nowhere and that it has no validity whatsoever). Social constructs, including language, are the product of human interaction with nature, the physical world, social groups, experience. They must always be questioned and often must be challenged, and each creative subject has the power and responsibility to create new ones which must interact with those created by others. Influence, interaction, discourse, criticism, the scientific method, testing of assumptions, positing of hypotheses and theories, gathering of facts and evidence to support the hypotheses and theories, foregrounding certain facts over others, selecting out and focusing on one or another aspect, evaluating based on differing values and differing relative needs of the moment. While many things may be true and verifiable, everything is not. Anything does not go, though many things might.
    I have been reading a biography of Darwin (The Survival of Charles Darwin by Ronald Clark) and thinking about these questions within the context of evolution. Is evolution a social consruct? No better than the one it replaced? Darwin's critics accused him of gathering data to support his hypothesis, as if such a process was manipulative and dishonest. Clark writes:  "Darwin himself had written years earlier in the third of his 'Species' notebooks: 'The line of argument often pursued throughout my theory is to establish a point as a probability by induction & to apply it as hypotheses to other points & see whether it will solve them.' And after publication of The Origin, he commented: 'How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!'"(140). In the twenty years of gathering and testing evidence from the natural world leading up to his writing of The Origin of Species, Darwin actually worked from observation toward hypothesis in a remarkably innocent way, not expecting to find (to borrow Nietzsche's wonderful image in "On Truth and Lying in a Supramoral Sense") the truth he had himself hidden behind a bush. He actually discovered data that disproved the socially constructed truth of his society, proving that individuals are not such dupes as social construction theory makes us out to be. We are capable of overturning the constructions created by our predecessors, challenging, criticizing, or revising the constructs and narratives of other humans throughout time and across space, following errors to new truths or old truths to new errors. We can continue to do this, or we can decide, with the social constructionist theorists and their deconstructionist progeny that no way in which anyone has ever described the world, no poem, no theory, no evaluation or re-evaluation of values is reality-relevant (except of course the social construction of social construction theory or deconstructionist skepticism), that language is a crime against nature, and the history of ideas and the idealistic pursuit of education is an Enlightenment plot to impose random (or are they actually based on the preferences of the people in power, which then, would actually be natural and thus not a construction?) ideas of good and bad on a beknighted populace? We can just do away with our libraries and our picture galleries, our approximate meanings and our attempts to understand what cannot ever be completely mastered, our mythologies and our delightful misprisions, and smugly, certainly, moralistically and accurately, resort to grunting and sneezing. No misleading words, no oppressive influences, no images to teach us that one thing or person is more beautiful or more valuable than another, no theories, no ideas at all, only an honest gaping silent void.


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Excerpt from "Portals: Cabinets of Curiosity, Collections, Reliquaries, Colonialism"

This essay won the Jeffrey E. Smith Editor's Prize for Non-Fiction from The Missouri Review and will be published in its entirety in Spring, 2015.

Cabinets of Curiosity, Collections, Reliquaries, Colonialism, and the Complexity of Human Life
le souvenir de ces maisons s’est deposĂ© dans mon
            et court aux points cardinaux de mon corps
            Il leva le bras. Une petite troupe de chevaliers
            et d’assassins encercla le bourg comme une barrique
            cerclĂ©e de fer
            -Francine Y. Prevost
At the Maison Gai Saber, where I am trying to collect my thoughts about Schatzkammer, reliquaries, ornament, crime, and civilization and its discontents, all the matter has history: all of the earth, all the rocks, going back to the Paleolithic age, and the land, worked and harvested for centuries, the grape vines, the fig trees (which yield montagnes de figes), the old stone houses with cellars and attics. Yesterday I worked in the garden with Francine, my hostess at this special artists’ residency in the Loire valley of France, removing ten years of ground cover and vines from an area outside the pressoire (a house built by Francine’s father, a master carpenter, which is so called because of a beautiful gigantic old wooden cask-press for grapes sitting on its porch). While we worked we uncovered wild garlic and snails and small new prodding flowers. Every material thing here is bound or connected to the past via blood lines, via deep ruts in the fields, etchings on the surface of earth’s memory, that reach deep down under the soil to places we cannot see, but surely feel.  Francine herself was born here, in this house, and her family goes back for generations. Thus the earth we were working was worked by her forefathers and foremothers, over and over again, hands like her hands in the same moist, rich dirt.  In the Maison library (where other vines go back to other roots, bifurcating out over vast geographic areas and times to ancient Greece, medieval France, 20th Century German history and philosophy, Japanese courtly poetry, Arabian-Andalusian melodies), I picked up Civilization and Its Discontents, wherein Freud writes about the way our childhood selves are carried within our grown bodies, just as the ancient foundations of old cities may still somehow exist beneath the new structure.  I also rediscovered Marcel Mauss’s wonderful book, The Gift, about ancient and primitive gift exchange, called the potlatch in some traditions, and about the ‘mana’ of objects, and a world wherein objects are not reduced to commodities bought and sold between strangers without any emotional, social, or spiritual bonds. The mana that lives in an object once owned by someone is passed on to the recipient. And as it is farther passed on, its power and value increases. This reminded me of the sense we have of the powers inherent in old things, and old places, and in the late offspring of old families, with their mingled lines of influence and geography, of ethnicities and languages. The tragedy is that these braids of meaning can be cut off, diminished, denigrated when the objects, persons, and places they form are used and abused in merely mercenary ways.  When an object, a place, or a person is cut off from the circulating energy of community, history, nature, and the life blood of heritage and exchange, it becomes sterile and loses its mana. Severed from the forces that made it, the craftsperson who formed it, the animal and natural materials of which it was constructed, a relic becomes a mere thing, with no meaning.   
A person, too, can become an object, when alienated from her surroundings, her history, and her roots, although occasional spiritual and physical journeys  away from home are instructive and refreshing; and there seem to be some people—travelers and expatriates—who find their homes or perhaps their anti-selves in constant transition or in far-off lands. But even these wanderers are tracing lines of contact, walking paths and touching artifacts which seem somehow to be calling to them. Even they are treasuring places and the objects and people who have been either born or created there or which have arrived there via circuitous, surprising routes—routes which are stories and heritages in themselves. And a home or a land is robbed of its ancient magic insofar as its ancient trees, ancient houses, ancient foundations, ancient tales, myths, and songs are cut down and forgotten. These sorts of considerations compel us to reconsider certain modern-day prejudices against materiality and to work to rediscover old ways to understand why many of us continue to love objects no matter how implicated they may be in things we ostensibly don’t love.
It is so difficult to imagine a time when humans were not driven by merely economic ends (“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” as Wordsworth had it). But the roots of such a time are still traceable, and we may uncover them, reanimate them, and cultivate them today if we choose. But in another, more popular book on the gift, by Lewis Hyde, it is suggested that, since gift exchange is a complex and fraught relationship, often dangerous and messy, some modern people may actually prefer the commodification of objects and life because it gives them a sense of freedom from the group, from the commonality, the family, the tribe. Thus, the “free society” may be not so much about political freedoms as about the freedom of individual determination, the freedom to leave the group and fend for one’s self, the sense of anonymity and of not being beholden to anyone of capitalist commodity exchange.  This explains why one may prefer a sterile cold hotel to the awkwardness of staying in a warm home with strangers, who may become friends.  While cleaning up after dinner, Francine and I agree that this sort of anonymity does have its charms too, for a poet or artist who escapes for a while from everyone she knows to live in a foreign city, unwatched, unbound.  And of course in our modern world, we often stray very far from our homes and our people, abandoning native languages, customs, and the obligations of kinship that go along with them. There are, of course, often good reasons why a person would want to be cut off from his family or his national heritage and culture, but such a separation can probably only be achieved by a truncating and repression of parts of ourselves, parts that it might be better to bring up to the surface in all their messy material complexity. At best, we adopt new families, learn new languages, invent new customs, putting down new roots, and creating and collecting new keepsakes; and at worst, we float amid shallow connections without identity, without meaningful possessions or mementos to hold us down, without a place to call home, without attachments.