Monday, March 10, 2008

Rehabilitate the notion of truth

The thrust of my recent posts has reminded me of an essay by Christina Nehring from last November, at Truthdig. In it, she discusses the state of the essay, decrying the entrenched personal essay, with its fixation on the autobiographical, the small. She argues that we need a return to the truth-seeking essay, as exemplified by Seneca, Montaigne, Emerson:
Today's essayists need to be emboldened, and to embolden one another, to move away from timid autobiographical anecdote and to embrace—as their predecessors did—big theories, useful verities, daring pronouncements. We need to destigmatize generalization, aphorism and what used to be called wisdom. We must rehabilitate the notion of truth—however provisional it might be.
I agree with her, though one could be forgiven for thinking that my unclear earlier post might imply that I do not. With respect to the focus on the personal, she writes:
. . . here lies the problem with essayists today: not that they speak of themselves, but that they do so with no effort to make their experience relevant or useful to anyone else, with no effort to extract from it any generalizeable insight into the human condition. It is as though they were unthinking stenographers—"recording secretaries," as indeed the most self-conscious 20th-century essayist, E.B. White, called them—pedantically taking down their own experience simply because it is their own.

The problem, of course, is not merely our essayists; it's our culture. We have grown terribly—if somewhat hypocritically—weary of larger truths. The smarter and more intellectual we count ourselves, the more adamantly we insist that there is no such thing as truth, no such thing as general human experience, that everything is plural and relative and therefore undiscussable. Of course, everything is plural, everything is arguable, and there are limits to what we can know about other persons, other cultures, other genders. But there is also a limit to such humility; there is a point at which it becomes narcissism of a most myopic sort, a simple excuse to talk only about one’s own case, only about one’s own small area of specialization. Montaigne thought it the essayist’s duty to cross boundaries, to write not as a specialist (even in himself) but as a generalist, to speak out of turn, to assume, to presume, to provoke. "Where I have least knowledge," said the blithe Montaigne, "there do I use my judgment most readily." And how salutary the result; how enjoyable to read—and to spar with—Montaigne's by turns outrageous and incisive conclusions about humankind. That everything is arguable goes right to the heart of the matter.

I think she's quite right to observe that we have a problem with big claims. It is only through making big claims that we can get anywhere, but any such attempt is openly attacked as in itself suspect, as too ambitious (the same is true in literature and music). We want to know the writer's credentials for making any claim. Is he or she a trained expert in the field? If not, why should we listen? Certainly there is valuable training that can be brought to bear, and there are cranks eager to expound on any subject. But surely the writer's credentials should be found in the writing? Perhaps, collectively, we've lost the ability to discern. At the same time, we feel strongly that we are each entitled to our own opinion, no matter how ridiculous. What has gone into forming this opinion, mind you, is of no consequence; one's considered, informed opinion is equivalent to another's ignorant, spittle-flecked reaction.

As an aside to finish up: I quoted from Jodi Dean in my last post, and here I wanted to make reference to some of her earlier posts about this idea, that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, that all opinions are made equal, but I couldn't find the posts I had in mind. . . there was this post from last month, which engages with Guy Debord's Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. There she refers to "a decreasing ability to distinguish between truth and lies, a decline in a politics wherein truth matters" and later, where Debord says "the spectator is supposed to know nothing", she says that now "the opposite is the case: everyone has a right to her own opinion." (Jodi is always blogging about writers and thinkers with whom I have little to no contact--mostly no--but in ways that make the ideas seem accessible and relevant. And yet I am still all too often overwhelmed into silence, given my ignorance of the actual texts in question.) There was also this post from December about the stupidity of student papers, though it seems to me that her remarks are broadly applicable. Her students refuse to discern differences:
Their mindset is something like this: what is important is what any individual truly feels is important; that's all that matters, the intensity and authenticity of a certain affective attachment. This intensity means that individuals can define words, issues, concepts, etc, any way they want, as long as they "truly believe it." But, and here is the catch, the students tend to combine this intense subjectivism (or subjectivism of intensity) with an underlying universalism: if everyone truly believes in something that they affectively feel and know, then there is peace, harmony, and social justice. It's like they are committed to an underlying ontology of unity that renders all affective difference and discord into rapturous accord.
Neither of these posts are quite the ones I had in mind, but they're well worth checking out anyway. . .

(A final aside: I note that my second references above to Nehring and Debord are to their last names, yet I refer to Jodi Dean as "Jodi". In an earlier draft of the previous post, I noted that I wrote "Hitchens" and "Jodi" and I worried about seeming to "respect" the former more than the latter, especially in that case, with the gender difference. But I do not respect Christopher Hitchens at all, and I do respect Jodi Dean. This post tells me that the difference is that Jodi Dean writes a blog, and I know her primarily through that blog. For example, it's always weird for me to see myself referred to as "Crary" rather than "Richard" when others link to me. The blog implies some sort of personal relationship, perhaps, an informality of expression, certainly. So even if I had read one of Jodi Dean's books prior to having encountered the excellent I Cite, the blog nevertheless invites me to call her "Jodi", though I've never met her.)

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