Explain yourself! Or Don’t: Understanding and Teaching Truth in the Modern Age

I have spent a great deal of time these past four months in the School wandering in and out of the realm of theory and criticism; at one moment immersing myself in an examination of life’s purpose and in the next immersing strands of pasta into a boiling pot of water for dinner. My own absence from these interwebs may be explained by the sign over my door, “out for an existential break”. But, I have returned from one term of theory and am eager to share my thoughts on the greatest project of our person, a person who is currently mortal. This is the project of explaining life to one another and ourselves: the project of pedagogy.

The Government of Canada holds citizens who participate in literary surveys to a standard of literacy defined by how their ability to read and write in English contributes to the gross domestic product. In our ordinary understanding, literature represents life. But this ordinary understanding, that arose from our understanding of the ancient Greek thinkers Plato and Aristotle, was first challenged by the originality and imagination of the nineteenth-century romantics and is today challenged by cultural critiques of objectivity and ideology. What literature actually is is a subject of life; it is a thing (in the most generally vague term) that is discussed, described, and dealt with both explicitly, by those of us who love literary studies, and implicitly through governments, business owners, families, and anyone who reads and writes.

First, I should address the issue of language, primarily that of meaning, which readers and writers alike gather from literature. There are brains and there are ways in which brains communicate. There are brains and there are the ways brains look. These two statements acknowledge the existence of several ways but they flow from one general way. Just as the Higgs field in particle theory takes a non-zero constant value everywhere and allows fundamental particles to have mass, every person at least chooses a course of action in order to exist. We act, we think (often in that order), and language is one way we explain these thoughts and actions. The problem is that words are not the actual actions or thoughts that they describe or explain. This gap between words and things renders the truthfulness and reliability of language undecidable. But, the process of thinking and acting is about making decisions and, therefore, we need truth.

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What is this truth? There are many truths today and these create both conflict and unity. For people who want unity, the search for A truth is of utmost importance. For those who want conflict, the destruction of A truth is of utmost importance. The New Critics, particularly Cleanth Brooks, developed the most currently influential mode of reading. To read and interpret as a New Critic is to demonstrate complex artistic forms. Meaning is not in mere statements about the text, but in carefully orchestrated and unified textual elements (for example, images, tropes, tones, and symbols). The text is an artifact separate from the life of the author and the reader. It avoids moral matters in order to restrict interpretations to the intrinsic artistic acts of the text. Because there are so many different truths, with each truth producing a different understanding of what the text says, people who study literature do not agree on meaning.

There are people who walk the earth seeking to create or contribute to conflict because there are many material gains from it; particularly financial gains. The acts of creation and destruction are what drive financial gain in the economic system today. In order for the system to continue, we must eventually throw out each new product. A human baby once born will contribute more money to the economy with each age increase up until the moment of her death. Abram’s heuristic device places literary works at the center of a triangular structure and designates the outer three points to the universe, the artist, and the audience. It is useful but has limitations because it predates the recent move to cultural critique; structuralism, post-structuralism, feminism, queer theory, post-colonial theory, and cultural studies. All of these are truths to the extent that upon them we make decisions concerning others and ourselves. Scientifically, our thoughts and actions have consequences and are, in fact, interrelated. Truth is a matter of belief and is important only when we believe that unity is important. If I assume that a match between experience and conclusion is truth, and I want truth, then I will try to live accordingly; I will make sure that I experience before making conclusions, and when presented with a conclusion I will seek an experience that matches it. But our experiences of reality are finite and therefore there is a conclusion that this reality, and this conclusion, is the source of the importance of explaining life to one another and ourselves.

Everything is at once accepted and rejected. This allows us to examine things closely, but also to act. All who think critically have an opportunity to engage various theories of reading and to define their own views but our standards, and the understanding that form and content are inextricable linked, all flow from a desire for unity. But to believe is to love, and the fascinating thing about love is that it is an experience that does not match its conclusion. If you love, you want to be united even if that which you love creates conflict. This strongest argument against these previous statements is one that negates the logic of yes and no, one that says love is not universal. Conflict scientifically concludes in falsity and negative judgements, but when we say “I love to study theory and criticism,” and when we experience conflict we don’t conclude by saying “theory and criticism is false”. We might say, “I hate theory and criticism,” but as Elie Wiesel famously says, the opposite of love is apathy, not hate. Apathy is the result of not thinking or acting. Explain yourself! Or don’t. That at least is a fundamental decision we all make when entering the realm of pedagogy.

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