Thursday, December 31, 2009

Michael Berube: Discipline and Theory

Berube, Michael. “Discipline and Theory.” Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics. NY: Verso, 1994: 43-58.

In Bakhtin’s model {“Discourse in the Novel” from The Dialogic Imagination}, narrative isn’t a question of how much a narrator ‘knows’ or who sees what from what ‘point of view’. Bakhtin starts, instead, from the position that language is a profoundly social phenomenon, that our social lives are composed of myriad, competing dialects and idiolects, and that a language’s or a word’s meaning is radically dependent on its social context and social use—not on a presumably straightforward relation between ‘words’ and ‘reality’.

... he defined the novel—a genre notoriously resistant to ‘definition’—not in terms of the elements all novels have in common (for there are no such common elements), but in terms of the novel’s linguistic voraciousness, its very willingness to ‘raid’ other, more stable genres in the process of composing new and complex multigeneric molecules. (48)

... Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations ... position that genera of objects—novels, games, nations, races, genders, classes, tables, chairs—are constituted by ‘family resemblances’ rather than their common ‘essences’. Wittgenstein’s analogy is this: think of a cord of many overlapping fibers in which no one fiber runs the whole length of the cord. Now think of objects many of which have a number of significant features in common, but not all of which possess all the ‘significant features’ under discussion. That’s more or less what ‘family resemblances’ look like in Wittgenstein’s family. (48)

My second Bakhtinian liberation was this: Bakhtin’s emphasis on narrative discourse (as distinct from narrative epistemology) manages to combine narratology’s emphasis on narrative minutiae with a sophisticated account of the social contexts in which different forms of language operate. According to Bakhtin, then, the same word—oh, let’s take a good big one, like ‘liberty’—gets rearticulated, refashioned and redefined by diverse social groups, and these groups' struggles over the meaning of words (think of ‘peace through strength’) constitutes the social life of narrative forms. This position, too, I wound up glossing with the help of Wittgenstein, who maintains that ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’. Sounds commonsensical enough—until you realize how thoroughly anti-Platonic a position it is, how much it goes against our sense that words refer to something. But what do words like ‘however’ and ‘actually’ refer to? And why do we think that we can look up words’ meanings on a reference-table, absent the social context in which they are used? As for words like ‘table’, which are, as we know, less subject to social contestation than words like ‘terrorist’, their meaning, too, resides in their use in the language, not in any linguistic essence; it’s just that most people tend not to see any need to argue about their use. (48-49) {This leads to Berube’s anti-essentialist philosophy. It is a well-reasoned and supported stance that I am sympathetic to in regards to its fight against labeling and blanket-grouping—and thus its contestation of common sense. This is also a focus of Zygmunt Bauman’s Freedom and Richard Harvey Brown’s Society as Text. Also refer to Holloway/Kneale (1999).}

In my next close encounter of the 1980s, I came up against Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and ... Richard Rorty. From that point on I’ve been an ‘anti-foundationalist’ as well. Thanks to Kuhn’s refusal to believe that science ‘progresses’ in some linear, incremental way, and Rorty’s refusal to believe that philosophy is the ‘foundation’ of human knowledge, I’ve come to believe and argue that our social practices and identities are ‘contingent’ rather than ‘grounded’—that there are no final, universal, transhistorical standards for the production or value of human knowledge and understanding. (49)

It’s been a mild shock to me to discover how disturbing this position is to many traditionalists in the humanities. Scientists, by contrast, seem largely untroubled by it. Kuhn himself draws most of his examples from the ‘foundational’ sciences of chemistry and physics, both of which have taken stock of Kuhn’s account of ‘normal science’ and have kept right on conducting normal science as Kuhn understands it. In the fall of 1991, I presented the case for anti-foundationalism at an interdisciplinary conference at which I was asked to speak about ‘new directions in knowledge’ in my field. I talked mostly about the effects of ‘theory’ on the way we do literary history, and along the way I invoked the names of Kuhn and Wittgenstein, and Michel Foucault, too. To my surprise, I was met with questions from physicists and psychologist who demanded to know what was so ‘new’ about the propositions that humans perceive things through interpretive paradigms and that human knowledge, like all things human, is historically conditioned and socially constructed. ... physicists and mathematicians are unthreatened by ideas like ‘indeterminacy’, but that some of us in the humanities cannot contemplate the notion that meaning is indeterminate without declaring that the sky is falling; and many cognitive psychologists work well with the assumption that all perception is a form of interpretation, whereas in some ‘traditionalist’ circles, you still can’t say such a thing about literary texts without being accused of some horrid thing like moral relativism. (49-50)

{If presented correctly and bridged towards student everyday realities} deconstruction {can open up a space in which} students {will recognize} that meanings always have to be made and remade. (51)

I always thought that it was OK for universities to encourage skepticism—that is, to teach students to think critically and to interrogate received ideas, particularly the ideas they’ve received without knowing they’d accepted a delivery. (52)

No comments: