The Myth of Progress

Among the more damaging myths embedded in the cultural milieu of the West is the myth of progress, and more specifically, the myth that some people are more advanced than others.  At it's broadest scope, this myth manifests itself as a criteria by which other nations are judged.  Western nations deploy the word democratic, which  stands in for advanced.  A non-democratic nation is referred to as tribal, it's rulers are a regime, and it's people are oppressed by tyranny.  All this rhetoric stands in for a lack of progress.  This rhetoric produces suggestions that a non-democratic nation is comprised of humans that aren't quite fully human yet, and are therefore subject to the exact same kind of discrimination produced by racism.  If the Occupy Wall Street movement suggests anything, it's that a supposedly democratic nation can be experienced by its citizens as oppressive.  Much has been written about the manifestation of the myth of progress at this broader level.  What has occupied my thinking tonight is about the way the myth manifests at a much more granular level.

You'd have to be living under a rock not to hear about the new iPhone.  Each subsequent release of Apple's device is greeted by an ever more fervent and global media frenzy.  There is no other phenomenon in human history that comes close to attracting such perennial attention.  If John Lennon came back from the dead and released a new Beatles album, it wouldn't come close.  Frankly, it's sickening to watch.  Steve Job has become a martyr for the iPhone 5, which hasn't even been announced by Apple as existing.  Something is wrong.  The American (and now global) consumer is obviously exhibiting dangerous addictive behavior.  Like a junky whose value judgments are grossly distorted by the object of their addiction, consumers have blown the importance of the late CEO of Apple way out of proportion, and even more insidiously, they have conflated his death with a magic and non-existent device.  The problem is that there's no one left to diagnose the patient.  Every psychologist in the country would have to excuse themselves for a moment while they check Facebook on their iPhone.  Even this blogger has one.

At its most granular level, the myth of progress manifests itself in the way we make value judgments of others based on the phone in their pocket.  The iPhone 3G toting business-woman is taken less seriously by her 4S toting peers.  This behavior is internalized, generating crowds of people who line up in the freezing cold outside Apple stores.  Humans, in effect, have become cyborgs, and the cyborg with the newest phone wins, and in increasingly less subtle ways.  The iPhone 4S equipped cyborg now has an artificially intelligent familiar, and its iPhone 4 equipped competitors are now inferior in tangible ways.

I'm calling it now:  there is a new kind of discrimination on the horizon, and it's name is techism.  It will replace classism, and will be no less oppressive.  The economically challenged will one day occupy Apple stores rather than Wall Street.  These devices are so expensive, we might as well start calling birthdays and Christmas "iPhone Day."  This is price gouging.  There's no other way to see it, once you realize that Apple has more cash than the U.S. government.  I'm not sure how to fix the problem.  All I know is that I'm not buying the iPhone 4S.  I'm sure Apple's OS upgrades will keep me from keeping my iPhone 4 in perpetuity, but I'll hold out as long as possible.  I will also make a concentrated effort to see people as people, not cyborgs, and to learn to cherish the outdated.  It's sad to think that holding on to your $500 purchase for *gasp* five years is rebellious behavior.  But such is the nature of the myth of progress.

Romantic Readings

Through a series of recent conversations I’ve had with a dear friend and mentor who happens to be a conservative theologian, I’ve learned that there is a stigma placed on liberal theologians; namely, that we are intellectually dishonest. It’s pretty easy to see how this stigma developed. Liberal theologians tend to have a “low” view of scripture, one that admits that the various works that comprise any religious canon come to us filtered through disparate cultures and personalities, leaving them full of claims that, when held up to a modern historical account (or a modern conception of ethics and morality), don’t necessarily line up.

To admit such a thing doesn’t seem like much of a problem to me. The problem, according to those with a “high” view of scripture (stereotypically seen as deeming scripture to be inerrant), is that liberal theologians shouldn’t be claiming that scripture has the power to reveal the truth or provide a moral framework for one’s life. Therefore, liberal preachers who tell entire congregations how the world works or how to act based off of a scripture they don’t actually consider to be “true” are engaging in intellectual dishonesty.

I’m not a preacher. I’m technically not a qualified theologian. That said, this controversy touches on something very dear to my heart: romantic readings. What is a romantic reading? The most iconic example of romantic reading is the way Don Quixote reads the world around him. He is obsessed with the chivalrous ideals touted in the books he has read, and believes with all his heart that he is a knight errant charged with the duty to defend the helpless and destroy the wicked. He sees a windmill and reads it as an evil giant he is duty-bound to slay. In the end, he is killed because of this belief. He was willing to die for a romantic reading of reality.

There is obvious danger in this kind of faith. Religious fanatics engage in bloody crusades motivated by this kind of faith, and I by no means condone such acts. On the other hand, Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer also had this kind of faith. He admits in his book The Quest of the Historical Jesus that Jesus believed the end of the world was coming within a generation. He admits that the Bible is probably not “true” in the literal sense of the word. Yet, he gave up all the celebrity and fame he’d acquired in Europe and moved to Africa in order to establish a world-class hospital, where he died.

The point is, you don’t have to believe something is actually true in order to give your life to it. You don’t have to empirically prove something before you consider it worth sharing. And even though I don’t think the Bible is literally true, that doesn’t preclude me from believing that it was divinely inspired, and it certainly doesn’t preclude me from reading it romantically, and in turn reading the world around me romantically. I believe in Jesus Christ and am willing to die for this belief. Does this make me intellectually dishonest?

The Poet Must Be Mistaken

I wrote the following as a creative response to Yeat's "The Second Coming:"

This is a story about the end of time. There are stories about how we got here. There’s the story about a forbidden apple hanging from a tree. About brothers murdering brothers, divine promises and descendents flung out over the earth like sand on the seashore. There’s the story about volcanic heat and seafloor proteins and the inauguration of a spark of life which catches and spreads like a wildfire, shifting and molding itself until it manifests in as many variations as there are stars in the sky. There are other stories, too.

Since the beginning, we have been a people of creation. We’ve created music and words, art and traditions, towering structures and beautiful ideologies. Most of all, we’ve created stories. Our greatest strength lies in our ability to realize these stories, to render them across the face of reality the way a muralist paints a fresco over a drab gray wall. All of our social institutions, all the shoes we grow up to fill, are nothing but stories in the process of becoming real.

Each of these accomplishments, however, has come at a staggering cost. Since the beginning, our hands have been stained with the blood of our brothers. We distinguished ourselves from the animals only to become more calculating in our destruction. We hammered bronze out of molten rock only to slice open each other’s bellies. We crafted wheels only to grind our families beneath them. We mastered fire only to set entire cities ablaze and to watch them burn. We established religion only to divide the world into the divine and the blasphemous, only to feed our hungry while we slaughter their soldiers. We have unlocked the secrets of energy and physics only to massacre entire races, defile entire continents with nuclear fallout and acid rain.

Here, at the end of time, we stand on our heap of rubble and stare backward, clutching our meager jewels, wishing we could trade it all to start over again knowing everything we know now. We’ve taken the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and have let it ferment into a fine vintage, enough wisdom to stay our killing hand. We’ve planted gardens, we’ve cured diseases, we’ve eradicated poverty, and we’ve managed to weave science and faith and culture and politics into a seamless, synergetic fabric. But it’s not enough. The cost was too high, there are too many unmarked graves pocking the cratered landscape of our memory.

This is a story about the end of time, but also about the beginning. We’ve started telling a new story, a story about building a machine capable of throwing us backward, of skipping us like a stone over the surface of the waters of time, so that we might land on the shore of the first dawn. We hope to encounter our first ancestors and convince them that we are like Gods, and that they should walk with us in the cool of the evening as we tell them our tragic story. Our hope is to impart a cautionary tale, to give them the meat of wisdom along with the knowledge they’ll inevitably cultivate.

Has this been the first time? Is our idea of God nothing but the wisdom of a future race, a desperate attempt to keep us from destroying ourselves all over again? If so, then we must believe that, as the coral shell folds back in on itself, so with human beings and time. Though we will circle and gyre back to where we started, the poet must be mistaken, the center must hold. It must be a beacon for our upward spiral, our outward shine, as we reflect ever increasing glory back to the heavens. Maybe we’ll shine bright enough to turn God’s head; or at least become the God we never stopped dreaming about.

Religious Stuff

I've decided to keep my religious musings off of this blog, and make it more geared toward literary theory, Critical Realism, etc. If you're interested in the religious stuff, however, I've been writing some notes on Facebook you might be interested in (you'll have to befriend me on Facebook in order to read them):

Critical Realism in Literary Theory, pt 1.5: Transcendent Semiosis

This model I've been putting forth raises some questions. I can imagine someone accusing me of trying to bring about the death of meaning. This would be at once an overstatement and a misunderstanding. I thought of another analogy the other day which I find helpful. Think of a computer. It is designed by its "author" to perform a function, but that function is not realized until someone plugs it in, boots it up, and uses it. No one would point at a calculator and say "that plastic case contains calculation." Instead, you would say "that calculator can be used to calculate."

But why insist on such a subtle distinction? As I said earlier, the various moments which comprise the act of reading require various disciplines to fully determine the [most efficient] function of a text. But I think there's an even more important payoff. Think of Biblical hermeneuticists, who devote time and energy into interpreting a text because they believe what God intends for humanity is encoded into this collection of words. By thinking in terms of semiosis rather than inherent meaning, they are forced to acknowledge that this decoding will always be ongoing. At least until people unplug the computer, or stop reading the Bible.

Consider what Umberto Eco says about hermeneutics:
The problem with the actual world is that, since the dawn of time, humans have been wondering whether there is a message and, if so, whether this message makes sense. With fictional universes, we know without a doubt that they do have a message and that an authorial entity stands behind them as creator, as well as within them as a set of reading instructions.

Thus, our quest for the model author is an Ersatz for that other quest, in the course of which the Image of the Father fades into the Fog of the Infinity, and we never stop wondering why there is something rather than nothing.
So, if for Eco interpreting a text is an Ersatz for interpreting life itself, according to this model the meaning-making we engage in when we read a text is, in my opinion, more than just a substitution for the meaning-making we engage in as societies. Through semiosis, we as communities of readers cultivate our own ecology of meaning--something that is living rather than just in flux, something much more like the electrons pulsing through a computer than just the hard drive itself.

Critical Realism in Literary Theory, pt 1: Semiosis

This is an expansion on my last post, in which I gloss over why I think Critical Realism (CR) should break into literary theory.

From my friend Greg, whose opinions matter to me greatly:
Can the solution to the hermeneutical fixation *solely* on the meaning of the text be legitimately compensated by an assertion that meaning is *not* found in words [as signs]? It seems to me that it would be much more reasonable given the problem to say that meaning is not *only* found in the semiotic function but also in the performative function of words (to say nothing of the author's subjectivity).

Just to be sure I'm accurately representing Fairclough, Jessop, and Sayer's 2001 article "Critical Realism and Semiosis," let me make clear that what they prescribe is exactly what you suggest: that even-handed attention should be given to both the constantive (semiotic) and performative (extra-semiotic) functions of a text. I am going to differ with them, however, in suggesting that focusing on the constative (or denotative) function of a text reveals that we still believe that texts somehow hold meaning when no one is reading them. I'd like to debunk this notion. I don't believe that texts magically contain meaning within their margins. This misconception is similar to the misconception that people have about batteries, that somehow energy is coursing within the battery casing like a hamster on an exercise wheel.

In both cases (meaning in text and energy in battery), a process has been misidentified as an object. In the case of a battery, what one might mistake for "energy" is actually a process in which two chemicals interact with each other once the positive and negative terminals form a loop. This produces an electric current, which can then be used as energy. In the case of a text, a collection of signs lies there on the pages. Once read by a subject, the reading of each word sets off a kind of Pavlovian reflex in the mind of the reader, conjuring a meme that the reader associates with this word. This meme (or idea-gene) is shaped by the reader's experiences with those words (how the word has been used by others [social component] and how the word has been used successfully by the reader [human agency component]). Each of these memes are filtered through the reader's current mental/emotional milieu, and have a feedback effect, in which they in turn affect the reader's meme->word association and mental/emotional milieu. What I'm describing here is a series of events that form a process (semiosis, or the creation of meaning), not an object.

Critical Realism is helpful here, because it asserts that reality is comprised of objects (texts) that possess emergent powers (the power to catalyze semiosis in the mind of the reader) which interact to form processes (semiosis). But what does thinking in terms of semiosis instead of meaning buy us?

It helps debunk the idea that texts are a magical flagon of meaning to be poured out by English professors or theologians. Texts become more like a cultural artifact whose exhaustive study must also involve sociologists, historians, linguists, etc. I envision the text to be like a patient who interfaces with a wide variety of medical professionals (clerks, nurses, physicians, surgeons, x-ray technicians, anesthesiologists, etc). Except, instead of trying to cure the text of a disease (hermeneutics sees a text as a puzzle that needs solving, a patient that needs curing), the text becomes the cure--as a locus for interdisciplinary studies (involving all of the humanities). The text forces us to read humanity itself.

Critical Realism and Literary Theory

I've been busy. I've been after the in-breaking of Critical Realism in literary theory. Here's why:

In 1975, Roy Bhaskar, a philosopher of science, published A Realist Theory of Science, in which he affirms fallibism (he acknowledges that knowledge is socially constructed and relativistic). He maintains, however, that there exists an objective reality quite independent of our knowledge of it, and that this reality is stratified, with layers of depth that subjective knowledge can penetrate while never reaching the bottom. After subsequent publications, and after breaking into the field of sociology, Bhaskar's theories became known as Critical Realism. I contend that Critical Realism should also break into literature in order to provide a counter to the post-postmodern condition in three ways: By resurrecting the human agent from her burial under socialization, by providing a model for coping with the arbitrariness of signs, and by providing a method for provisionally evaluating truth propositions.

Margaret Archer, a prominent Critical Realist sociologist, terms the subject buried under socialization Society's Being: "Society's Being thus impoverishes humanity, by subtracting from our human powers and accrediting all of them--selfhood, reflexivity, thought, memory, emotionality and belief--to society's discourse." And yet, Archer argues that “Society's being requires [a] sense of self in order for a social agent to know that social obligations pertain to her.” This self is what prioritizes between physical wellbeing, performative skill in the workplace, and social self-worth. The self is not subsumed by social identity; they are placed in a dialectical relationship. Archer would no doubt prescribe that we turn off the television long enough to spend some time thinking for ourselves instead of being blinded by a flood of images.

Norman Fairclough, Bob Jessop, and Andrew Sayer have embarked on a project to integrate semiosis (the creation of meaning) into Critical Realism's account of social structure. They would argue that the arbitrary nature of signs has been so problematic because hermeneutics has focused solely on determining the meaning of a text. Their solution is to give even-handed attention to the effects of words by considering them more like chemicals in a complex reaction, to validate the extra-semiotic dimension of reading, and realize that meaning is not found in words but the subjects who read them. They would advise us to quit fixating on words as symbols which may or may not point to objects in the world, and to instead realize that words are more like events which take place in socially situated contexts.

Ruth Groff is a Critical Realist whose most recent monograph expounds upon a theory of truth which posits that propositions are true if and only if what they claim is actually the case. Because all knowledge is theory-laden and therefore fallible, propositions can never be said to be definitively true. Groff believes, however, that we can be reasonably justified in believing a proposition is true when any opposing propositions that can be falsified have been eliminated, when any remaining propositions wield less explanatory power, and when an interdisciplinary consensus has been reached that belief in a given proposition is justified. She might advise us to quit opting out of passing provisional judgment on things.

I recently presented this in the context of a paper at the South Central MLA.