Biting My Own Bullets (Owich!)

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: A blog is what happens when hypocrisy gets knocked up by vanity, and decides to put the baby up on the Internet for adoption.

Make no mistake, I’m pimping a very specific world-view–and a controversial one at that. At the South Park end of the cartoon spectrum it comes down to: humans are too stupid to see their stupidity. At the Marvel end (because there’s no escaping cartoons): humans unconsciously game ambiguities both to affirm their mythical self-identities, and to confirm their various cognitive and social commitments.

The science, I think, leaves little room for doubt. I like to think that nothing more than a relatively short implicative hop separates my global theory from the specific empirical findings that motivate it. But I urge anyone unfortunate enough to encounter this discouraging thesis to investigate the matter themselves. My theory, after all, is a theory, another story about invisible and pernicious forces.

Another attempt to shed light on the darkness that comes before.

But just because I haven’t been able to find my way past this present position (for several years now–a record for me), doesn’t mean that others, most others, won’t see it all as a bunch of bullshit. You live with any set of ‘facts’ long enough and they will come to seem self-evident: I know I’ve been surprised on several occasions, sitting, having a beer with people who got quite irate at the suggestion that humans beings chronically and compulsively bullshit themselves. Some people have to be eased into the fact of their own self-serving stupidity.

Beyond that, there’s several arguments and complaints that I’ve resigned myself to facing over and over (and over) again:

1) The charge of hypocrisy, that I exemplify the very things I criticize. My answer to this is simply, “Yes. That’s my point.”

2) The charge of over-simplification. I actually have a dim view of this criticism, primarily because I came to think of it as a pseudo-critical crutch during my philosophy days, as well as–aside from equivocation–one of the best ways of building strawmen to knock down. Things are always more complicated, so saying as much, it seems to me, simply amounts to dressing the obvious in critical clothing. For this charge to have any force, you need to point out the factor that I’m missing, and argue what makes it relevant. (Having met a handful of ‘pro-fantasy professors,’ I’m afraid, doesn’t do the trick). Otherwise it devolves into, “You’re missing something,” an empty blandishment if there every was one.

3) The ‘human achievement’ counter-argument. How could we be so stupid when we have achieved so much? The answer: because we’ve stumbled across ways to structure our practices that have the effect of correcting for our myriad biases. If you think about it, the fact that we require the mangled social prosthetics of science to merely sometimes get things right is not at all flattering. Otherwise, outwitting pets and livestock simply makes you smarter than pets and livestock.

4) Scientism, and/or positivism. Trust me, few people want to see science knocked off the cognitive throne more than me. If you think scientific cognition is easy to bracket or dismiss, then show me how you have managed to find your way past your own set of cognitive disabilities–otherwise, I’m going to assume that, all thing being equal, you’re simply one more fool who thinks he’s won the Magical Belief Lottery–no different than me. As soon as you decide to stop listening to the guys in the white coats, the problem becomes one of distinguishing your brand of theory from the likes of new age inspirational theorists. At least they seem to make people happy.

The new one, the one that Mina references aside from (1) in her comment (so inspiring this post), I think can be summed up as 5) Anybody can criticize.

I actually think I’ve been pretty clear about my constructive inclinations–maybe not, but either way, I’m pretty sure this will be a recurring criticism simply because it isn’t realistic to assume that those coming to the blog for the first time will read much more than the About and the most current post.

What do I think we should do? Tear down our culture of self-congratulation, for one. Because of my profession and institutional affiliations I am primarily focussed on the literary and academic building blocks of that culture–the one’s most apt to proclaim their ‘criticality.’ And what should we replace this culture with? One less mythical, less manipulative, and a whole lot more dubious. How should we go about building this new culture? Convincing critically and creatively minded individuals to plug into popular culture, to reach out to dissenting audiences, for one.

For another, to begin rebuilding our educational institutions. In learning how stupid humans are, we have simultaneously learned that our educational institutions were developed to solve a problem that no one really understood–and as a result, got things wrong, horribly so, as in the case of the ‘college essay.’ How drastic this revision needs to be, I have no idea. The best we could do, it seems to me, is to start experimenting. In the meantime, we need to at least impart what we do know about our stupidity to our kids: particularly the ways they are continually primed and manipulated by the media, and the ways they will continually game local ambiguities to prosecute their global self-interests, cognitive or otherwise, all the while feeling they have been ‘fair and balanced.’ As well as the way all these things lead to problems as pedestrian as divorce and drug abuse, and as epic as wars between faiths and nations.

(As a postscript to Leon, I agree that considerations of value are presently unavoidable, but I’m not so optimistic as to think that value will not be either eliminated (explained away) or naturalized (given a functional explanation). Who knows? The sky is literally the limit, things are that crazy when it comes to scientific theories of consciousness. Either way, I’m guessing there will be a post-scientific humanities (I wouldn’t have called it such, otherwise), and I’m not sure where you got the contrary impression. The question, as mentioned above, is one of how drastic the revision will need to be. Given that the ‘manifest image,’ the way experience appears to us, seems to be at such drastic odds with what we are discovering, and given that this manifest image is what grounds the humanities as they stand, my guess is that the rupture will be fairly drastic.)

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