Posts Tagged ‘Epistemology’

Once in a while, a comment sticks with me and requires additional response, typically in the form of a new post. This is one of those comments. I wasn’t glib in my initial reply, but I thought it was inadequate. When looking for something more specific about Neil Postman, I found Janet Sternberg’s presentation called Neil Postman’s Advice on How to Live the Rest of Your Life (link to PDF). The 22 recommendations that form Postman’s final lecture given to his students read like aphorisms and the supporting paragraphs are largely comical, but they nonetheless suggest ways of coping with the post-truth world. Postman developed this list before Stephen Colbert had coined the term truthiness. I am listing only the recommendations and withholding additional comment, though there is plenty to reinforce or dispute. See what you think.

  1. Do not go to live in California.
  2. Do not watch TV news shows or read any tabloid newspapers.
  3. Do not read any books by people who think of themselves as “futurists,”
    such as Alvin Toffler.
  4. Do not become a jogger. If you are one, stop immediately.
  5. If you are married, stay married.
  6. If you are a man, get married as soon as possible. If you are a woman,
    you need not be in a hurry.
  7. Establish as many regular routines as possible.
  8. Avoid multiple and simultaneous changes in your personal life.
  9. Remember: It is more likely than not that as you get older you will get
    dumber.
  10. Keep your opinions to a minimum.
  11. Carefully limit the information input you will allow.
  12. Seek significance in your work, friends, and family, where potency and
    output are still possible.
  13. Read’s Law: Do not trust any group larger than a squad, that is, about
    a dozen.
  14. With exceptions to be noted further ahead, avoid whenever possible
    reading anything written after 1900.
  15. Confine yourself, wherever possible, to music written prior to 1850.
  16. Weingartner’s Law: 95% of everything is nonsense.
  17. Truman’s Law: Under no circumstances ever vote for a Republican.
  18. Take religion more seriously than you have.
  19. Divest yourself of your belief in the magical powers of numbers.
  20. Once a year, read a book by authors like George Orwell, E.B. White, or
    Bertrand Russell.
  21. Santha Rama Rau’s Law: Patriotism is a squalid emotion.
  22. Josephson’s Law: New is rotten.

Continuing from my previous post, Brian Phillips has an article, writing for MTV News, entitled “Shirtless Trump Saves Drowning Kitten: Facebook’s fake-news problem and the rise of the postmodern right.” (Funny title, that.) I navigated to the article via Alan Jacob’s post at Text Patterns (on my blogroll). Let me consider each in turn.

After chuckling that Phillips is directing his analysis to the wrong audience, an admittedly elitist response on my part, I must further admit that the article is awfully well-written and nails the blithe attitude accompanying epistemological destruction carried out, perhaps unwittingly but too well-established now to ignore, by developers of social media as distinguished from traditional news media. Which would be considered more mainstream today is up for debate. Maybe Phillips has the right audience after all. He certainly gets the importance of controlling the narrative:

Confusion is an authoritarian tool; life under a strongman means not simply being lied to but being beset by contradiction and uncertainty until the line between truth and falsehood blurs and a kind of exhaustion settles over questions of fact. Politically speaking, precision is freedom. It’s telling, in that regard, that Trump supporters, the voters most furiously suspicious of journalism, also proved to be the most receptive audience for fictions that looked journalism-like. Authoritarianism doesn’t really want to convince its supporters that their fantasies are true, because truth claims are subject to verification, and thus to the possible discrediting of authority. Authoritarianism wants to convince its supporters that nothing is true, that the whole machinery of truth is an intolerable imposition on their psyches, and thus that they might as well give free rein to their fantasies.

But Phillips is too clever by half, burying the issue in scholarly style that speaks successfully only to a narrow class of academics and intellectuals, much like the language and memes employed by the alt-right are said to be dog whistles perceptible only to rabid, mouth-breathing bigots. Both charges are probably unfair reductions, though with kernels of truth. Here’s some of Phillips overripe language:

Often the battleground for this idea [virtue and respect] was the integrity of language itself. The conservative idea, at that time [20 years ago], was that liberalism had gone insane for political correctness and continental theory, and that the way to resist the encroachment of Derrida was through fortifying summaries of Emerson … What had really happened was that the left had become sensitized to the ways in which conventional moral language tended to shore up existing privilege and power, and had embarked on a critique of this tendency that the right interpreted, with some justification, as an attack on the very concept of meaning.

More plainly, Phillips’ suggestion is that the radical right learned the lessons of Postmodernism (PoMo) even better than did the avant-garde left, the latter having outwitted themselves by giving the right subtle tools used later to outmaneuver everyone. Like other mildly irritating analyses I have read, it’s a statement of inversion: an idea bringing into existence its antithesis that unironically proves and undermines the original, though with a dose of Schadenfreude. This was (partially) the subject of a 4-part blog I wrote called “Dissolving Reality” back in Aug. and Sept. 2015. (Maybe half a dozen read the series; almost no one commented.)

So what does Alan Jacobs add to the discussion? He exhibits his own scholarly flourishes. Indeed, I admire the writing but find myself distracted by the writerly nature, which ejects readers from the flow of ideas to contemplate the writing itself. For instance, this:

It turns out that the children of the ruling classes learned their lessons well, so when they inherited positions in their fathers’ law firms they had some extra, and very useful, weapons in their rhetorical armory.

In precisely the same way, when, somewhat later, academic leftists preached that race and gender were the determinative categories of social analysis, members of the future alt-right were slouching in the back rows of their classrooms, baseball caps pulled down over their eyes, making no external motions but in their dark little hearts twitching with fervent agreement.

Terrific capture of the classroom culture in which teachers are steeped. Drawing identity politics more manifestly into the mix is a fairly obvious extrapolation over Phillips and may reflect the results of the presidential election, where pundits, wheeling around to reinterpret results that should not have so surprised them, now suggest Republican victories are a repudiation of leftist moral instruction. The depth of Phillips’ and Jacobs’ remarks is not so typical of most pundits, however, and their follow-up analysis at some point becomes just more PoMo flagellation. Here, Jacobs is even more clearly having some fun:

No longer did we have to fear being brought before the bar of Rational Evidence, that hanging judge of the Enlightenment who had sent so many believers to the gallows! You have your constructs and we have our constructs, and who’s to say which are better, right? O brave new world that hath such a sociology of knowledge in it!

This goes back to the heart of the issue, our epistemological crisis, but I dispute that race and gender are the determinative categories of social analysis, no matter how fashionable they may be in the academy. A simpler and more obvious big picture controls: it’s about life and death. My previous post was about geopolitics, where death is rained down upon foreign peoples and justifying rhetoric is spread domestically. Motivations may be complex and varied, but the destruction of people and truth affects everyone, albeit unevenly, without regard to race, gender, religion, nationality, etc. All are caught in the dragnet.

Moreover, with the advent of Western civilization, intellectuals have always been sensitive to the sociology of knowledge. It’s a foundation of philosophy. That it’s grown sclerotic long precedes PoMo theory. In fact, gradual breaking apart and dismantling of meaning is visible across all expressive genres, not just literature. In painting, it was Impressionism, Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. In architecture, it was Art Deco, the International Style, Modernism, Brutalism, and Deconstructivism. In music, it was the Post-Romantic, the Second Viennese School, Modernism, Serialism, and Minimalism. In scientific paradigms, it was electromagnetism, relativity, quantum mechanics, the Nuclear Era, and semiconductors. The most essential characteristics in each case are increasingly dogmatic abstraction and drilling down to minutia that betray meaningful essences. Factoring in economic and political perversions, we arrive at our current epistemological phase where truth and consequences matter little (though death and destruction still do) so long as deceits, projections, and distractions hold minds in thrall. In effect, gravity is turned off and historical narratives levitate until reality finally, inevitably comes crashing down in a monstrous Jenga pile, as it does periodically.

In the meantime, I suppose Phillips and Jacobs can issue more gaseous noise into the fog bank the information environment has become. They can’t get much traction (nor can I) considering how most of the affluent West thinks at the level of a TV sitcom. In addition, steps being considered to rein in the worst excesses of fake news would have corporations and traditional news media appointed as watchers and censors. Beyond any free speech objections, which are significant, expecting culprits to police themselves only awards them greater power to dominate, much like bailouts rewarded the banks. More fog, more lies, more levitation.

I watched John Pilger’s excellent documentary film The War You Don’t See (2010), which deals with perpetual and immoral wars, obfuscations of the governments prosecuting them, and the journalistic media’s failure to question effectively the lies and justifications that got us into war and keeps us there. The documentary reminded me of The Fog of War (2003), Robert McNamara’s rueful rethinking of his activities as Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (thus, the Vietnam War). Seems that lessons a normal, sane person might draw from experience at war fail to find their way into the minds of decision makers, who must somehow believe themselves to be masters of the universe with immense power at their disposal but are really just war criminals overseeing genocides. One telling detail from Pilger’s film is that civilian deaths (euphemistically retermed collateral damage in the Vietnam era) as a percentage of all deaths (including combatants) have increased from 10% (WWI) to 50% (WWII) to 70% (Vietnam) to 90% (Afghanistan and Iraq). That’s one of the reasons why I call them war criminals: we’re depopulating the theaters of war in which we operate.

After viewing the Pilger film, the person sitting next to me asked, “How do you know what he’s saying is true?” More fog. I’m ill-equipped to handle such direct epistemological challenge; it felt to me like a non sequitur. Ultimately, I was relieved to hear that the question was mere devil’s advocacy, but it’s related to the epistemological crisis I’ve blogged about before. Since the date of that blog post, the crisis has only worsened, which is what I expect as legitimate authority is undermined, expertise erodes, and the public sphere devolves into gamification and gotchas (or a series of ongoing cons). If late-stage capitalism has become a nest of corruption, the same is true — with unexpected rapidity — of the computer era and the Information Superhighway (a term no one uses anymore). One early expectation was that enhanced (24/7/365) access to information would yield impressive educational gains, as though the only thing missing were more information, but human nature being what it is, the first valuable innovations resulted from commercializing erotica and porn. Later debate and hand-wringing over the inaccuracy of Wikipedia and the slanted results of Google searches disappeared as everyone simply got used to not being able to trust those sources any too much, just as everyone got used to forfeiting their privacy online.

Today, everything coughed up in our media-saturated information environment is understood either with a grain of salt mountain of skepticism and held in abeyance until solid confirmation can be had (which often never comes) or simply run with because, well, what the hell? Journalists, the well-trained ones possessing integrity anyway, used to be in the first camp, but market forces and the near instantaneity of (faulty, spun) information, given how the Internet has lowered the bar to publication, have pushed journalists into the second camp. As Pilger notes, they have become echo chambers and amplifiers of the utterances of press agents of warmongering governments. Sure, fact checking still occurs, when it’s easy (such as on the campaign trail), but with war reporting in particular, which poses significant hurdles to information gathering, too many reporters simply repeat what they’re told or believe the staging they’re shown.

I was initially intrigued by an article called The Ascendance of Psychotic Knowledge until the jarring mention of (space?) aliens in para. 3, which was far too early to be completely sidetracked. The writers at Reality Sandwich are often more than a little flaky, but I still want to consider the nature of the author’s term “psychotic knowledge.” Here is para. 1 in its entirety:

We have entered a period of epistemological chaos. The true condition of our world, indeed the very nature of our phenomenal reality, including agreement regarding the meaning of knowledge itself, is completely up for grabs. Not only are we witnessing rapid paradigm shifts and schisms within mainstream science, but also, and more dangerously, the politically motivated suppression of authentic discoveries and insights has led to epistemological blowback on every front. Every established authority has been de-legitimized. This has led to the rise of a new and unprecedented kind of discourse, which can be categorized as psychotic knowledge.

The author argues that erosion of religious and scientific authority was the result of secret hegemonic factions, operating within legitimate governments, that sought to suppress truth and eventually install a surveillance/security/propaganda state. But in a bit of juicy irony, use of the Internet as a surveillance tool has allowed the paradoxical emergence of a style of consciousness rooted in hyperreality or virtual reality and enabled by the democratic effect of value relativism:

We have gone from Nietzsche’s axiom that God is dead, to the postmodern claim that Man is dead, and now we can say that reality is dead. Reality has been overcome, not by any single alternative worldview, but by a burgeoning legion of otherworldly messengers. And who is to say that they are false or demonic? Who has the credibility to say anything authoritative any more? Who will listen? By suppressing authentic information and feeding the public too much flavorless and undigestible [sic] disinformation, the merely mortal authorities with their clearly fallible forms of knowledge have given birth to a disinformational universe, in which they are the first victims of their own bad karma.

The author then veers off into a series of pronouncements about the coming of a new consciousness beyond today’s psychotic knowledge. I’m unconvinced by and unconcerned about such florid argument, but I observe that, like so many prophets, philosophers, and spiritual leaders of the past, the author essentially hopes that humanity can be rescued from “mere phenomenal reality,” a fate apparently worse than false consciousness. Making meaning in the world has been one of man’s principal preoccupations for millennia, whether via religion, mythology, shamanic practice, the arts, or the simple biological impulse to preserve one’s genes. We’re currently in a profoundly self-destructive phase, but unlike the author, I don’t see relinquishing the self as the seed of spiritual rebirth.