the look of truth

Richard G. Calo (rgcalo@EDEN.RUTGERS.EDU)
Fri, 12 Apr 1996 19:52:30 EDT

Marcus Aurin wrote/ spliced together:

> I think I detected a thread running through Wednesday's discussion about
> myth/ideology/religion that's been stringing us along. Here are some of the
> points where I noticed it surfacing:
> Richard Calo wrote-
> "I have referred to the mind in several of my postings. My concern has not
> been with whether a religion is true but a mythology false, but with the
> nature of the mind that determines which is which."
> Douglass St.Christian added-
> " i do not see how any definition which distinguishes between some category
> of things we know and things we believe [ things we think we know??? ] can
> avoid reproducing and universalizing our own epistemological and
> philosophical peculiarities...."
> And-
> " i can't think my way around an altered definition [of belief] that would
> make it work in any generalized way...which is not to say that beliefs
> don't happen outside the tradition from which we draw the concept...only
> that any definition needs to be based on demonstrating their presence,
>rather than assuming their universality...."
> Jana Fortier wrote-
> " haven't you guys ever heard of multiple truths? how do you think we all
> teach anthro when there's a million origin stories out there? of course
> they're all true, because they're all subjectively defined truths."
> Brian Michael Howell opined-
> "if the notion of "correctness" is thrown out the window then you do not
> have "multiple truths" you have no truth at all."
>And John Pastore responded-
> "Truth, whether singular or plural, ethnocentric, ethnoeccentric, or
> even ethnomorphic, is still (as I think it always has been and always
> will be) a semantic blank --and that's the only truth I have ever been
> able to come up with."

And Marcus Aurin summed up and moved past:

> I wonder if all of these aren't premised on our own mythical conception of
> truth itself. All of us seem to believe unquestionably in the existence of
> truth even though none of us has ever isolated it. Is this our religion (or
> "epistemological and philosophical peculiarities")? Do other cultures
> believe in truth such that they anguish over whether what they or their
> associates know/believe is empirically true? Why do so many people not of
> northern European descent seem to have no problem believing in, say, Legba,
> penicillin, Jesus Christ *and* spiritists? Does such a believer categorize
> his or her beliefs according to which are true and which false?
> I wonder if, as John Pastore suggests, truth were just a "semantic blank"
> it would have quite the vigor it seems to. I suspect that it is somewhat
> less ethereal than this, and that it does operate according to identifiable
> "myth models," which is to say that this operation is culturally rather
> than biologically or universally determined."

[and I in turn feel the need-- need?-- to sum up and move past]

I wonder if in this process (detect a thread, thread goes like this, this is
the sum up, this moves past) we can see the operation of what Daniel
Foss wrote of as unsystematic, doubting "that anything so systematic
was even considered, much less institutionalized." But let me attempt
to describe the process a little, in order to avoid a confusion which may
be only terminological (or thereby further contribute to a confusion which
may not be only terminological). Let me do it by analogy, and then by
Analogy: this list. It is a kind of site, I suppose; and it meets certain
initial conditions that make it the anthro-l list and not a physics or
chemistry or fine arts list. Those of us on it, moreover, make our
contributions, or not-- as we see fit, or are moved to. None of this is
systematic, certainly, although the process may be described.
Sometimes, the contributions take on the character of an extended
argument, as they have for the past week concerning the religions
(or whatever) topic-- a topic which has mutated a good deal, to say
the least. This extended argument also is not systematic, but it is
constrained (by the nature of the site, the contributors, and any other
number of parameters I cannot at present think of). Moreover, as the
argument progresses, it starts to become streamlined, as it were. From
any number of competing posts, each encapsulating a point of
view/perspective/take/etc., several more solid or substantial threads
or strings start to emerge (witness Marcus Aurin above, followed by me)--
these soon appear as competing versions or sides (I wonder if we have
gotten to that point yet-- probably); and soon enough, maybe even a
conclusion looms in the very near distance. Arriving at this conclusion,
or very near to it-- since in all probability its attainment is asymptotic--
it starts getting easier to turn back, look over the shoulder, and "see"
the point of origin [but we must not forget that point of origin and
conclusion are simultaneous projections, forward and backward, a
kind of anchor of consistency in a field of change; and that they are
therefore a part of the field of change, and change along with the field].
Metaphor (if I hadn't slipped into one already): the (?) weaves 'itself'
out of an indefinite number of differently sized (length and width) pieces
of thread. At some point in the weaving, it starts to look like a 'sweater';
at a 'further' point, it is easy to see that it was always going to be
a 'sweater'; and at a final point (but when can the sweater ever be
complete since it's always possible to enter another thread, or double
weave this one or that [until so many threads have gone into it that
again, it is no longer a sweater but something else, say, an
indeterminately dense ball of varying threads-- from which yet another
universe may emerge in yet another Big Sweater Bang]), at a final point,
then, how can one doubt it was ever going to be anything other than
a *sweater*?
Now, I don't know if this process can be called historical, or even
how we can account for its historicity, but it does produce 'something'--
even if this 'something' is nothing more than the "as if" quality attributable
to "myth models." In the case of the anthro-list analogy, it produces what
retrospectively looks like an extended argument which has moved
successively in the direction of clearing up this or that issue, refuting this
or that point, and (perhaps) arriving at a relatively satisfactory conclusion
about something or other-- even if, in this case, the conclusion is that
[the argument cannot be had, even if we would like to have it].
In the case of the sweater metaphor, the sweater may be self-weaving
simultaneously with its coming into being as a sweater (a total
impossibility), but it is now a sweater (a further total impossibility).

With respect to the concepts, frameworks, etc., that we use (following
their production as per the preceding analogy/metaphor), these would
have to be restricted to this side of our culture-- since they are our
culture-- and therefore are inapplicable elsewhere. With respect to
the ethnographic 'reality' of other cultures, which is presumably what
an ethnography or case study would set out to recuperate, here too
there is nothing beyond our culture, and beyond our culture of the moment.
This kind of postmodernist argument is very extreme: it leaves room
only for one other argument: that of power-- i.e., which of the cohering,
accreting, and constantly developing/coming into being versions
gets to be 'it.' Justifiably Foucault (I think it was Marcus Aurin who
mentioned him somewhere) set about, or suggested we set about,
examining 'power,' its relations, the channels along which it distributes
itself, the forms in which it lodges itself, and so forth.