Saturday, October 6, 2012

Solving the World's Great Mysteries, or Delusions of a Geratric Freshman, Part I

For all none of you reading this, I started work on a PhD in English at the University of Texas a couple of months ago. Unlike most people in English, I don't really "do" literature, but rather focus on rhetoric and composition studies. This is, as a rule, more in line with my self-image as a "generalist." I don't see myself as specializing in any particular field of knowledge, as theories of knowledge ("epistemology" in fancy philoso-talk),and how knowledge is created/found/shared/contested/negotiated within and across disciplines is actually what interests me. Rhet/comp, with its close historical love/hate relationship with "pure" philosophy, and more recently with linguistics, is much more about these things.

The "generalist" label fits me well for reasons that reflect my eclectic academic interests, but also for social reasons that have little to do with academia, or, put otherwise, are ways of me repeating my previous social experience on an academic stage. The generalist is  a floater, someone who studies many disciplines in the hopes of either saying relevant things in several or simply avoiding "drinking the Kool-Aid" of any one in particular, thus acquiring the occupational psychosis/trained incapacity combo that more or less approximates a religious conversion experience on a secular front: a way of coming to see the world within the confines of one's discipline that makes it nigh-impossible to "see" it any other way. To whatever extent it is possible, I either want to drink everyone's Kool-Aid or no one's, depending on how we wish to apply the metaphor. I want to either be able to look at any object/area of study from either several different disciplinary lenses simultaneously or any aggregate lens that resembles none of them in particular.

On a social level, this is, to clarify, high school all over again, a time in which I floated among several cliques without being in the inner circle of any of them. The generalist is accepted in several disciplines (mine being English, communications, philosophy, and linguistics) without really ever embracing or being embraced by any of them. The specialists sense (correctly) that what the generalist is doing is (to add to the disciplinary muddle) a kind of anthropology. I visit everywhere to learn not content but culture, not to pick sides in academic turf wars but to privately document how knowledge cultures are socially constructed, how groups come to accept the "rightness" of their particular orientations toward the world, often (or maybe always) in opposition to other ways that are by theory or method mutually excluded from the view to which one pledges allegiance. Those within a particular field or subfield view this as a kind of intelligence activity, and hence one is viewed as something of a friendly spy.

As one result, generalists (or this one, anyway) perceive right/wrong disputes between academic disciplines that are not actually differences of fact but rather argument over who has the right to name or describe something. The fact that these disputes, such as what to call descriptions of personality (Id? Mind? Behavior? Adjustment? Cognition?) exist at all is evidence of a phenomenon that I draw out of all this discipline-hopping called "linguistic realism": the idea that one's vocabulary exists in a one-to-one relationship with "the thing itself," the object being described, whereas all other vocabularies are abstractions or deceptions or both. From this perspective, disciplinary turf wars, like all turf wars, are not questions of truth but questions of power and influence--or  maybe those re two different ways of saying the same thing.

The physical  sciences, whose practitioners actually believe that they argue "neutrally" and that everyone else is peddling spin, are some of the biggest culprits here. "You thought that you were motivated by reasons," an FMRI-wielding theorist will say, "but in actuality your stated motivations were rationalizations for something else that only shows up on this graph." But there is no good reason to suggest that those "stated rationalizations" were anything other than a description of the thought process as the person herself understood it. The situation is analogous to me saying, "I like cake," and then someone with an EEG and a clipboard saying, "No, you're wrong, your body craves sugar." These are not mutually exclusive explanations; they are different ways of saying the same thing.

And of course they are. While sometimes human beings legitimately disagree about the existence of historical or actual phenomena, one party believing that something has happened or exists (like, say, evolution of species from common ancestry) that the other party does not, these make up, I suspect, the tiny minority of our disputes. We more usually agree in principle about the workings of the world (it is but one place, after all) but use such different sets of language to describe our interpretations that we grow instantly parochial about our semantic choices and subsequently "realize" them. I say, "Cars are like horseless carriages" and you say, "Cars are like four-wheeled motorcycles," and we fight over whose simile is the "correct" explanation.

But we might get past much of this were we to realize, following my new hero Kenneth Burke, that all language is a symbolic representation of reality. Some of it can lead one to better sensory understandings of physical and historical phenomena than others, it can be imprecise, misleading, or offensive, but, fundamentally, it is what it is. No matter how precisely or minutely one defines ones terms (although, in the sciences, this is useful and probably desirable), you are always engaging in a metaphor. Language is a division of reality into blocks that are convenient, illustrative, beautiful, hideous, murky, and sometimes all of these, but it is a division nevertheless. There is no "right" version of it, and the most we can hope to say is that some conventions are better adapted to some purposes than others. (It would make for a very different medicine, for instance, if medical journals were written in iambic pentameter verse, but, had we world enough and time, we might encounter exactly such a society.)

The startlingly common misconception about language--that it is something other than a metaphor, that there is somewhere at root of it a "correct" way to employ it that gets past all the ambiguities--is a species of implicit positivism that I term "linguistic realism." I have come to think that this idea that reality responds to our names for it as opposed to the other way around is one of the great impediments to communication in human societies. And it is everywhere, because all human cultures fall into the trap of constructing language and then attaching "hardness" to it, failing to realize that it is mostly a convention of accident, and that there are, following Burke again, as many ways to slice up reality as there are ways to slice a piece of cheese, and everyone finds everyone else's unsatisfactory.