Last year, we addressed the idea of us, noble scholars, reduced to asinine drudgery and suggested that behind our mild-mannered veneers we have a cornucopia of fruitful intellectual possibilities. We posed the question, is truth itself impossible? Education means philosophical inquiry, even if it’s only to realize that each act we engage in and each thought we express is the product of underlying ideologies and belief systems that we either realize as concrete or leave in a mist of mysticism known as intuition. Wielding a metaphorical mop of knowledge, here’s something that we aren’t automatically taught to recite out of our education: truth is a production rather than an outcome.
To maximize our intellectual selves may mean to raise new topics of concern rather than give the same old, tired answers to the same old, mundane questions. Fundamentally we tend to assume that every question has an answer but, as with the phrase every picture tells a story, the winding path towards truth itself leads us onward toward something assumed to be present: non-negotiable finality.
Michel Foucault considers the dangers of taking the prevalent truths of our time as central to our ability to think and speak critically. Discourse is not about things as they are but instead constructs our conceptual modes of understanding. Although it appears that “things are already murmuring meaning which our language has only to pick up; and this language, right from its most rudimentary project, was already speaking to us of a being of which it is like the skeleton” nothing could be further from the truth (Foucault 64). We have what Foucault calls a will to truth that runs our desiring selves such that everywhere we look we find truth and meaning. The only problem is that when many people converse and agree on a particular meaning it becomes dominant and runs over all others. Thus, to speak is to drown out; discourse erases opposition and proclaims its particular significance as sovereign over all others.
Whether within online fandoms or among cultural expectations, a certain feudalism sets in; think of the famous poem ‘The Hockey Jersey’ where the kid with the Canadiens jersey becomes a pariah because hockey for his peers only speaks the vernacular of being a Maple Leafs’ fan. The Canadiens certainly exist, but only as an opposition or Other and not as something to be identified with. To be, symbolically, a Canadien, as in to wear the jersey of one, is essentially unthinkable. It’d be akin to wearing a T-Shirt with Bible scripture to a meeting of Neil deGrasse Tyson fans.
As academics, we have to consider not only the limited parameters of our disciplines (battling it out in perpetual rivalry with other disciplines across bloody fields of contested terrain) but also the fact that underlying all of our academic discourse lies a shared, David Duchovnian faith that the truth is out there awaiting discovery.
Foucault acidly notes that we naturalize our dominant ways of thinking:
“It seems that Western thought has taken care to ensure that discourse should occupy the smallest possible space between thought and speech. Western thought seems to have made sure that the act of discoursing should appear to be no more than a certain bridging between thinking and speaking” (Foucault, 64).
When we speak, we feel that the objects of our discourse are true by virtue of us speaking of them with certainty; in reality, we are speaking these truths into existence, and this conjuring makes truths appear more stable than they actually are. Until it is struck, for instance, a bell could well be a cup. Yet when we share a belief that the cup hanging upside down in a church tower is, in fact, a bell, then the bell must, in truth, be what we think it is. In this sense a sentence spoken represents all other hidden thoughts that were repressed or discounted so that a singular, momentary, truth could reach the discursive light of day. Discourse is in this way masked by our personal interpretations which we naturalize as common sense. Even as common sense changes through history, discursive regimes tend to mask just how fluid and susceptible to re-imagining our landscapes of thought and existence really are. Yet we take truth as a goal and often its particular manifestations seem to make our dreams of understanding come true. We do this, claims Foucault, because our will to truth demands that we find evidence for what we are seeking. Anything less would, to quote the 90s Charles Barkley commercial for deodorant, be uncivilized. We naturally desire order and understanding not chaos and confusion.
“We must”, says Foucault, “call into question our will to truth, restore to discourse its character as an event, and finally throw off the sovereignty of the signifier” (Foucault, 64). Relativism seems to lurk behind critiques of the will to truth; how can something be many things at once, there must be a truth to the matter! Many a physicist has table-pounded about the inflexible domain of matter as such but it is indeed the as such that matters most: the Foucaldian realization here is that each truth is the creation of a particular discursive regime. To a physicist matter is what matters and to a carpenter the type of wood constituting the table is of interest. Academically and professionally we are supposed to fall in line and scrub stains of uncertainty by deploying truths we have learned except for, perhaps, the truth that truth itself is open to interrogation.
Jean Baudrillard exposes that both our will to truth and our doleful acquiescence to our academic role as its dispensers is based on a downright theological assertion: that there is a final, everlasting, capital ‘T’, Truth. Because this truth is discursive, it comes in words and, as John 1:1 states, “the Word was with God.” So, in a real sense, every significant discursive statement is and has always been a statement backed up by the gold standard of truth-dispensation: God. In our times, however, the reality of final answers comes into perpetual question. So much so that people feel the constant need to engage in arguments about whose truth is true-er without necessarily realizing that such a debate implies a deep and thoroughgoing doubt in the legitimacy of truth itself as an absolute insoluble force. Baudrillard notes:
“All of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange: God, of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence? Then the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference” (Baudrillard, online).
He goes on to state that we only ever simulate truth and that we do so by masking the reality that we can only re-present truth in images and facts rather than ever apprehend its existence outside of the symbols we take as signs of truths existence. Like a ghost, truth can neither be killed nor brought to life for the simple reason that it exists not as a concrete entity but as an idea and an ideal. The truth for Baudrillard is that
“ultimately there has never been any God; that only simulacra exist; indeed that God himself has only ever been his own simulacrum . . . One can live with the idea of a distorted truth. But their metaphysical despair came from the idea that the images concealed nothing at all, and that in fact they were not images, such as the original model would have made them, but actually perfect simulacra forever radiant with their own fascination. But this death of the divine referential has to be exorcised at all cost.” (Baudrillard).
Our academic role need not be to mouth truths that we are expected to believe in; we can go further and critique the very certainties that underlie such facile assertions that truths are always final and unquestionable. Few things may bring more danger than a citizenry’s’ desire for liberation from the ambiguity of reality; authoritarianism, no matter how benign or even scientific it may seem at first, can easily ensue. To this end perhaps the only reasonable thing we can do as free-thinking students, empowered and armed as we are with knowledge gained at our wonderful institutions of higher learning, is to wield our mops of knowledge to merely bring a sheen of order and cleanliness to that which is already there in the world around us.