19 October 2005

Wow, where to begin?

Birnbaum's interview with Jonathan Lethem has reignited many thoughts. To begin with, I'm inspired enough to dust off a post I never quite finished. So here goes...

I think there is a parallel between the false dichotomy of "realist" vs. "anti-realist" fiction and the status-quo mindset that sets the sciences above the humanities.

Lethem says,
Fiction is a gigantic construction, a bauble. A novel is not life. That’s why it’s so pointless that this relentless baiting goes on, where ‘realist’ fiction is pitted against ‘anti-realist’ fiction as though one of the two has made some kind of commitment of integrity to be real, a responsibility the other has abdicated. [...] Fiction, like language, is innately artificial and innately fabulous. It’s made of metaphor. Language itself is a fantastic element. It’s not possible to plant words in the ground and have seeds grow up and feed on the results. It’s not part of the biological or mechanical world.
The same Lombardi article that provoked my earlier response also contained the following:
We lose influence on campus to the sciences on one side because they appear and act as if they know exactly what they are doing, how they do it, and for what purpose they do it. We lose influence on campus to the professionally oriented disciplines on the other side because they have a purpose and a method anchored directly in the center of the real world their disciplines address.

We in the humanities, and very frequently as well in the social sciences, often do not know and do not agree on what we think we are doing. We have few common standards and we ask little of our students who have time for non-academically related campus activities. We wonder why our voices carry such little weight when our culture seems to need us so desperately to sort out fundamental issues of values and judgment.
He's on to something, but doesn't take it far enough. My question is, "What exactly is the 'real world'?"

In Living by Fiction, Annie Dillard relates:
Science, that product of skepticism born of cultural diversity, is meant to deal in certainties, in data which anyone anywhere could verify. And for the most part it has. Our self-referential mathematics and wiggly yardsticks got us to the moon. I think science works the way a tightrope walker works: by not looking at its feet. As soon as it looks at its feet, it realizes it is operating in midair. At any rate, the sciences are wondering, again, as the earliest skeptics did, what could be a firm basis for knowledge. People in many of the sciences are looking at their feet. First Einstein, then Heisenberg, then Gödel, made a shambles of our hope (a hope which Kant shared) for a purely natural science which actually and certainly connects at base with things as they are. [...]

Physicists have been saying for sixty years that (according to the Principle of Indeterminacy) they cannot study nature, but only their own perception of nature: “method and object can no longer be separated” (Heisenberg). Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, British Astronomer Royal, said in 1927: “The physical world is entirely abstract and without ‘actuality’ apart from its linkage to consciousness.” It is one thing when Berkeley says this; when a twentieth-century astronomer says this, it is a bit of another thing. Similarly (and this is more familiar), Eddington’s successor Sir James Jeans wrote, summarizing a series of findings in physics: “The world begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” The world could be, then, in Eddington’s phrase, “mind-stuff.” And even the mind, anthropologists keep telling us, is not so much a cognitive instrument as a cultural artifact. The mind is itself an art object. It is a Mondrian canvas onto whose homemade grids it fits its own preselected products. Our knowledge is contextual and only contextual. Ordering and inventing coincide: we call their collaboration “knowledge.” The mind is a blue guitar on which we improvise the song of the world.
In other words,
The world is caught in a crossfire between necessity and possibility; the world is the fabrication of a billion imaginations all inventing it at once.
Lombardi concludes his piece by asking,
What to do? I am not sure, but the first thing would be to pay close attention to what people are reading, what they are seeing, and how they do engage the common culture. The message of “Reading At Risk” is that something other than literature in print form engages more and more of our fellow citizens, and we might want to try to learn how to speak to them in the voices they want to hear.
This latter idea sets off all sorts of alarm bells in my brain. Why must people be spoken to “in the voices they want to hear”? How can people change and grow if they are given what they want? What ever happened to the notion of expanding the capacity of the individual to embrace what was formerly thought as “difficult”? Isn’t enlarging understanding one of the goals of education? How can the "status quo" ever be effectively challenged this way?

Towards the end of the book, Dillard analyzes "Kubla Kahn," demonstrating how "the poem is a form of knowledge":
But what is knowledge if we cannot state it? If art objects quit the bounds of the known and make blurry feints at the unknown, can they truly add to knowledge or understanding? I think they can; for although we may never exhaust or locate precisely the phenomena they signify, we may nevertheless approximate them--and this, of course, is our position in relation to all knowledge and understanding. All our knowledge is partial and approximate; if we are to know electrons and chimpanzees less than perfectly, and call it good enough, we may as well understand phenomena like love and death, or art and freedom, imperfectly also.
All that to say that when the Rake declares "woe to those who confuse truth and fact," I can only add my own hearty "AMEN!"

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