Re: Myth & Ideology & Truth-look

Richard G. Calo (rgcalo@EDEN.RUTGERS.EDU)
Wed, 17 Apr 1996 01:12:59 EDT

I have been away for a few days, and the discussion has moved on, old
threads have ended, and new ones arisen. But I do wish to comment on
old ground.

> I take Calo's usage of "very extreme" as a betrayal
> of his repulsion from "this kind of postmodernist argument." In any case, I
> don't think there ever, at any time or place, is a "version [that] gets to
> be `it'." This is the point of this kind of argument: pluralism is
> everywhere. "Versions" are forever competing, especially in our own socio-
> cultural environment

No, not repulsion, actually, but admiration-- at least for Foucault, whose
material I worked with closely for years (and still do, and still enjoy
immensely). But in any case, the point of my last post was exactly that,
that there is never at any time or place a version that gets to be 'it.' At
most, there may be only the drive to make it be so, along with whatever
corresponds to partial fulfillment of that drive (and the length of duration
of this partial fulfillment of that drive). My reference to how extreme this
kind of postmodern argument is was meant as an indication that, if we
follow such an argument to its conclusion (its extreme form), then there is
also nothing left to say, since anything one does say must inevitably be
reduced to a function of the system (of practices) that makes it's saying
practicable, as well as to the clamoring demand to be heard. The study of
power and power relations therefore, takes its place in tracing out the lines
of connection between these two domains, viz., the system that makes the
saying practicable, and the demand ("desire") to be heard which infuses
the former. But there is also nothing left to say, because there is no sayer.
In Foucault's terms: it is always already language that was speaking-- and
here language can certainly be taken in a sense wider than that linguistic.
There is no sayer, because the sayer is speech itself, a by-product of whose
utterance appears to be the illusion of the sayer, while the reference to
power is the reference to the channels along which speech is canalized.
As he writes in his inaugural lecture at the College de France, "Here then
is the hypothesis I want to advance, tonight, in order to fix the terrain--or
perhaps the very provisional theater-- within which I shall be working. I am
supposing that in every society the production of discourse is at once
controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain
number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and its dangers, to
cope with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality."

My original analogy of the anthro-list, and metaphor of the self-weaving
sweater, therefore, and perhaps contrary (although I'm not really sure) to
Marcus Aurin's analysis of it as "a variant of the progress paradigm" was
intended as an attempt to present a graphic image of these "procedures."
(John Pastore's April 13 post concerning the usenet newsgroup could be
built up into an example of the process/progress I described by analogy--
not a progress toward 'truth' obviously, but toward control)

In any case, foucault calls these procedures "systems of exclusion, "
and proposes to trace these out. He also posits a third system, which
may interest some on this list at the moment, since it concerns the
opposition between true and false. Foucault is convinced (and, for the
record, I agree with him) of the historical constitution of this opposition,
(a conviction he must now formulate in an appropriate way): "It is
perhaps a little risky to speak of the opposition between true and
false as a third system of exclusion.... How could one reasonably
compare the constraints of truth with those other divisions, arbitrary in
origin if not developing out of historical contingency.... Certainly,
as a proposition, the division between true and false is neither arbitrary,
nor modifiable, nor institutional, nor violent. Putting the question
in different terms, however-- asking what has been, what still is,
throughout our discourse, this will to truth which has survived
throughout so many centuries of our history; or if we ask what is, in
its very general form, the kind of division governing our will to
knowledge-- then we may well distinguish something like a system of
exclusion (historical, modifiable, institutionally constraining) in
the process of development.
"It is undoubtedly a historically constituted division."

But why is Foucault one of the "twin bogeymen from whom
anthropologists increasingly shrink"? Because, the extreme form of the
postmodernist argument also leaves nothing to say, although in a different,
and more immediate sense; namely-- and from the extreme point of view--
there can be no consideration of 'other' cultures given the "massive fact"
that, as per Foucault's argument (systems of exclusion/historical
constitution), 'we' construct these cultures-- not only what will be isolated
for inclusion in fieldnotes and later analysis, but what this will mean,
etc.-- every step of the way. And this, certainly, is a big bogey.

I once had this professor who, it seems, came of age in the heyday of
kinship studies. He produced an analysis of the kinship system of
an Arhemland group of which he said, "it will, I hope, be of interest
to all those concerned with the foundations of human society."
Around the same time, Mircea Eliade, who was not an anthropologist,
wrote "Indeed, as is well known, the main interest of Western scholars has
been the study of material cultures and the analysis of family structure,
social organization, tribal law, and so on. These are problems, one may
say, important and even urgent for Western scholarship, but of secondary
importance for the understanding of the _meaning of a particular culture,
as it was understood and assumed _by its own members_. Those in charge
of the new African states, for example, might decide rather to engage
Western scholars to study and interpret their great _spiritual creations_
-- their religious systems, mythologies and folklores, their plastic arts,
their dances-- instead of a particular and minor aspect of their society or
technology. They will also demand to be judged on the basis of these
oeuvres, and not on the basis of their family structures, social organization,
or superstitions. Exactly, they might add, as French culture must be
approached and judged on its masterperpieces-- the cathedral of
Chartres, the works of Racine, Pascal, and all other great works of the
mind-- and not, for example, on the study of village versus urban economy,
or fluctuations of the birthrate, or the rise of anticlericalism inthe 19th
century, or the growth of the yellow novel, or many other problems of the
same type. The latter are certainly part of French social and cultural
history, but are neither representative nor illustrative of French genius.
"Besides, we must also expect a reaction against the traditional
academic usage, allowing an investigator, after a longer or a shorter
period of 'field work,' to publish a monograph on the culture or religion
of that particular population. We may well imagine how the efforts of an
Asian or African investigator will be received if he knows almost nothing
of the history of Christianity, studies the religious life in a village of
southern France for a year or two, and then writes a monograph
entitled _The Religion of France_" (Italics in original).

Today,the 'truth' of Eliade's observation is closer to us than my professor's.
Indeed, we cannot read the latter's work without becoming alarmed
to a certain degree (or at least me, since I was _repulsed_ by it when I
first encountered it, and am even more repulsed by it today,
given that I keep imagining I've learned a little since then).

So if we can't 'get outside,' what sorts of questions can we ask? Marcus'
questions seem a fine enough starting point: "how do we come to know
what we know, and how do we know it is true (in a broad, lower case
sense)? How do we adjust what we know to changing circumstances?
What types of circumstances prompt such adjustments? Is there a limit
to such adjustments, or what are the parameters of knowlege plasticity?"


P.S. For all those who read the subject heading to my friday post "the look
of truth" as a statement that the content of the post was meant to be the
look of truth _itself_-- no, that wasn't it. I was only enjoying the 'play'
afforded by alliterating Daniel Foss' subject heading in his post "the book
of ruth" into "the look of truth"-- nothing more. Indeed, for a while it wasa
toss up between "the cook of ruth," "the cook of truth," and "the look of
truth." I chose the latter because I thought the 'l's and 't's and
'r's sounded well together.