Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Negotiating the World

Having taken Chris Hedges to task for an elitist perspective on human nature in his "America the Illiterate" column for Truthdig, I would now like to take my argument up a notch. I think that, beyond any problems with the ways in which he made and tried to justify his points, the key flaw in his approach was that he tried to peg everything on the single concept of literacy. If one seriously wants to make a case for the ills of our current culture, I believe one needs a broader perspective than such quantitative metrics as the grade level at which we can read.

My search for such a perspective was guided by a sentence that Truthdig reader "Shenonymous" submitted in one of her comments:

Ignorance and illiteracy reduces everybody to the lowest common denominator and unable to negotiate the world that has grown megamiles ahead.

I like this concept of negotiating the world and would even deem it more constructive (and pragmatic) than Heidegger's focus on "being in the world." At the end of the day, we negotiate the world in terms of how we perceive it; and what is often critically overlooked is that the act of perception is fundamentally an act of interpretation. We have to interpret all sorts of things, including the signals we acquire through our sense organs, the kinesthetic sensations of our own bodies, and, of course, all those signs that confront us, which form the basis for semiotic theory. If we want to invoke the noun "literacy," we should invoke it in terms of "reading the world," rather than just reading all the many sign-based artifacts (otherwise known as "texts") of semiotics.

I would thus put forth the modest proposal that, if we have failed as a culture, it is because our educational system has failed to cultivate an effective capacity for such interpretation. I would further argue that several factors figure in that failure. The most important is that not all interpretations arrive at unchanging (analytical, if you want Kant-speak) truths. Similarly, it is often the case that two individuals will not interpret the same inputs in the same way. This is why I like that word "negotiating." The only way to deal with conflicting interpretations is to negotiate over them; and the only way to negotiate effectively is through conversation. (Jürgen Habermas preferred the phrase "communicative action" as a way of distancing himself from both formal theories of argumentation, such as that of Stephen Toulmin, and John Austin's speech act theory.) We also need to cultivate the recognition that negotiation does not always end in agreement; sometimes the only agreement is recognizing that the proponents of opposing interpretations can agree to disagree.

There is nothing new in this modest proposal. Those who invoke critical thinking will probably recognize at least parts of the items I introduced. I avoid the phrase only because I have encountered too many situations in which it has been abused to invoke its very opposite, the uncritical embrace of some ideology. When a phrase like "critical thinking" suffers that kind of a vulnerability, we are better off to discard it and invoke new language.

The greater problem behind this modest proposal is that it is not supported with a cut-and-dried curriculum. My guess is that such a curriculum would defeat the very spirit behind the proposal itself. So it may be that a consequence of my proposal would be the undermining of existing educational institutions. As a product of those institutions, I am not sure I like that consequence. On the other hand I have long believed in Brian Eno's "oblique strategy" of taking an extreme position and then coming "part way back." At the very least I am hoping that, by putting such a proposal on the table, I can encourage the formulation of alternative proposals, one of which may be more effective!

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