“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The McLaughlin Rorschach


I really like watching The McLaughlin Group Friday nights on PBS because I'm always curious about how the two sides are going to incorporate the week's events into their partisan narratives. But every once in a while I sit and think about how much political philosophies resemble literary theories.
To wit, you can apply psychoanalytic theories to any literary text. In fact, you can apply any number of psychoanalytic theories in any number of ways to any literary text. Think of the famous phallic symbol. The critic predicts it'll be there and then he scours the pages until he finds it. He then comes away convinced that he's somehow tested and proven his theory. But if you look at the infinite range of items in literature that have been called phallic symbols the so-called test looks pretty pathetic: cars, buildings, shoes, hairstyles.
To appreciate this, imagine I hold up an entire deck of cards and tell you to pick one. You pull out the three of hearts and show it to me. I say, "I knew you were going to pick that card," and to prove it, I pull another three of hearts out of my shoe, suggesting I placed it there so as to be able to prove I'd predicted which card you'd picked. It's magic! Except in reality I have all fifty-two cards stashed somewhere on my person, in my pockets, in each shoe, under my shirt, etc. So no matter what you'd picked I was prepared to "prove" I'd predicted it before hand. Now, literary critics probably aren't aware they're playing a trick like this, adjusting their predictions and perceptions to make their theories fit the texts; in fact, they're very likely tricking themselves more than anyone else.

Watching the various panel members on McLaughlin--Monica Crowley is by far my favorite for obvious reasons--it's clear they're playing pretty much the same game. For the conservatives, the Deepwater Horizon shows the dangers of regulation, as big businesses capture the regulatory bodies and form "cozy" relationships with them. For liberals, the oil spill shows the dangers of deregulation, as businesses are allowed to cut corners and endanger everyone.
Political philosophy is not science. There is more involved in it than simply arriving at the truth--itself never a simple endeavor, especially when thousands of people are involved. But there seems to me to be an astonishing flippancy in politics when it comes to epistemology. People get initiated into this or that tradition, and from that point on their views are decided. It's not only like literary theories; it's also a lot like religions. Now you can make the argument that religion is an entirely personal matter--but politics affects everyone. Why isn't there a greater push to inject epistemic rigor into policy discussions? Why are we content to allow the postmodern state of affairs in which every view is taken to be as worthy as another?
Social sciences are notoriously complex, and there's a limit to their practical implementation. But to go from that to throwing up your hands and saying anything goes--or its functional equivalent, throwing up your hands and hoping the free market fixes everything--is to embrace a false dichotomy. We still have to use the evidence we have. We still should be trying to get more. We can't let our politics be determined as randomly as our preferences for fast food or hair styles.

1 comment:

Dennis said...

Why is it that when I use pictures in my blog posts the spaces between paragraphs disappear?