Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Hidden World

Here’s an example of the illusion of the neutral perspective, where presentation is a misrepresentation. A world masquerading as what is.

I was reading the historian of ideas Martin Jay’s new book Songs of Experience where he describes differing modern theorists’ conceptions of experience. We get Jay’s clear, informed, fair-minded descriptions of other writers’ formulations of modern experience and the self. There are chapters on Adorno, Benjamin, Foucault, Barthes and others. The world evoked implicitly by this style of presentation is one of clarity, neutrality, a this-is-the-gist-of-what-the-theorist-says tone. While it gives the impression of being a transparent window onto the theorist’s world it actually assumes the existence of a world that is different from the one the theorist being presented creates.

You don’t enter the world of the theorist by reading a description of his work. You don’t experience the world they evoke. By reading secondary sources you remain in the world of secondary descriptions and implicitly assume that world’s posture. Like the articles in The New Yorker magazine. The non-fiction pieces have a distinctive style: clarity, neutral, inquisitiveness, good judgment; our eyes in a strange land. The specialists they write about are domesticated for public consumption. The secondary source is a world of detachment as opposed to the primary texts world of immersion. It gives the experience of a broad understanding of diverse worlds, but it is removed. It’s an uncommitted way of life, which one commits to. The magazine is highbrow recreation. It can’t be too demanding or people wouldn’t want to read it for pleasure during their leisure time. It feels reasonable, objective, moderate, balanced, fair-minded, decorous, not over zealous. Is it worse than the primary source?

It uses what is currently considered literal language instead of the metaphorical or figurative. But according to Rorty and Hayden White among others, these distinctions are historically contingent. Today’s metaphors can become tomorrow’s literality. Heidegger and others are vying to create our new literality. Freud already has. Their original insights have to become what’s obvious, taken-for-granted, what most don’t reflectively know, but everyone enacts.

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