O I’ve mentioned already that I’m adoring my students this term, and for the most part, this is true. There’s a couple of points, though, at which I’m banging my head up against a brick wall with a couple of them. Now before this sounds like a straightforward bitch about students, I want to say that that’s not quite it. It’s actually that the whole experience is making me reflect on how tenacious a particular conception of ontology and epistemology is. It manifests itself in these particular students as a complete resistance to the idea that there might not really be such a thing as ‘the natural body’; or rather, that ‘the natural body’ is just as much a construction as anything else. It echoes through the week on disability (‘some people just are disabled’) and fatness (‘but some things just will make you fat, and fat is bad!’) and so on. But all of this is premised on a really particular understanding of the world: of the world as something out there, something at a distance. Something static, immoveable, unchangeable. Something which has been there, just less well comprehended, for those who came ‘before’ us in history. Something firm; something foundational; something to anchor the world.
This isn’t rare, not at all. And it’s a hard conception to shift. Our commonsense sense of representation works this way too: there’s the thing itself, and then there’s the word for the thing. It’s echoed by truth: truth is thought as the adequation of knowledge to the thing itself. The thing itself, though, is ‘out there,’ existing all by its lonesome, unchanging and forever just the way it is.
What’s intriguing, I think, is the hard work it takes to sustain an alternative conception, at least for a while. I have seen students grasp the complexity of, say, the idea that the body doesn’t exist prior to culture and then enter into it, but only becomes a ‘body’ within a given cultural context. Then, the next week, they’re back to arguing that this conception doesn’t make sense. Most often, these claims are premised on the assumption that in order for what I’m teaching to be ‘true’ (and it needs to be true, for them; some even stick with calling what we’re learning ‘objective’) it needs to cohere with what ‘science’ (and this, I think, has less to do with science itself, which is often much more circumspect about such claims, and more to do with the authorisation of what has become commonsense).
There’s also some funny stuff that happens about not just the idea of truth, but the comfort of the idea of truth. I’ve watched a few students get wider and wider of eye, and I can see what’s happening. They’re falling for what I call ‘dumb existentialism’ (which by the by the mainstream media seems to think postmodernism is all about) in which the moment we lose a big-t Truth, the world slowly starts to dwindle into chaos. Meaning is gone. The world is everything and nothing. It’s all very deep, and I remember those conversations over beer when I was an undergrad.
(Hilarious side point: I remember talking to one particular guy. He was hot, he knew it (but unfortunately the hot faded, potentially because of this conversation). We talked cultural studies and I was taken that he was taken with it. Then I suggested that ‘who I really am’ isn’t so much given by some essence, but by the people around me (my attempt at a less depersonalised sense of ‘context’). He suggested that this was because I felt the demands that other people made on me too much, and that what I needed to do was go off to a Buddhist retreat like he did. Coz he found himself. He really did; he found some core, deep deep down, you know, just himself, his real self… and I thought of Foucault… and I thought of Butler… and I thought…OMG. Pretty or not, it was so hard to hold my tongue, coz man it was going to be biting.)
But back to my existential crisising students. What they usually forget, of course, is that ‘discovering’ there’s no big-t Truth is not the same as losing big-t Truth. When they freak out, they freak out as if now there’s no meaning. But the same significances still exist for them, just as they always did, because they never did depend on a big outside Truth. All it shows is that truth is given within a context, by a set of shared discourses; not that it’s any less true. But you know, that’s kinda less sexy than the artistic soul’s pit of despair on discovering that nothing means anything.
In other words, there’s a semi-willingness to challenge ideas of Truth. But there’s a less sustained attention to how and why particular things are made to count as truth, or why we might live as if they are, and so on. It’s like the stories about postmodernism the mainstream media likes to tell: it just destroys everything. They miss the construct in deconstruct; and they miss that deconstruction is not about making things false, it’s about highlighting their contingency. This issue comes up a lot: it’s like deconstruction has to be set back within a world view in which it is possible for things to be true or false, and deconstruction will tell us which is which. Strange, but it happens a lot. In conversation with someone online a while ago, I suggested that there were strategic ways that one could attempt to tell big-t-style Truths as a way of negotiating with the political efficacy of big-t Truth, whilst at the same time critiquing and deconstructing both the ‘truth’ and what let it count as truth, and the fact that it was politically effective. My interlocutor commented that this was disingenuous: to claim things were true because it was politically efficacious, but not thinking them actually true was to be, in essence, false. This line has been kicking around in my head with all this other stuff for a while now, and it just intrigues me how notions of authenticity and truth seem to remain throughout a critical approach. My interlocutor was very far from foolish, and grasped much of poststructuralist theory. But nonetheless, this theory was implicitly, it seems, set back within an ontology and an epistemology: in which there was a world out there that we couldn’t really touch but could use words that were adequate to it, represent it, and that that adequation bore with it a political and moral responsibility.
I don’t have much of great profundity to say about this. It does, though, seem to point out how thoroughly our habitual styles of being-in-the-world are inflected by these ontologies. My students come to class, and for some of them at least, their perception is shaken up. Yet they leave, and go and order coffee, and sit with friends, and chat and read and catch the bus and sleep and cook and work… and when they come back to class, their perception has settled again. There are those, of course, for whom the shaking up is too exciting to leave alone. They prod the ideas, turn them over, return to them; maybe even do what I as an undergrad used to do, which is talk endlessly about them to my friends. For them, poking and prodding and turning their own assumptions, their own habits around in their hands becomes… fun, addictive, exciting, terrifying… There’s nothing quite like discovering that the world is not out there. It’s in always already here, intimate of intimates; and you’re out there, too, distant and dreamt-of.