Critical Literacy Article (Pre-final Version)
Post on 18-Jan-2016
When Truth Is at Stake: The Case of Contemporary Legends
Carlos Renato Lopes
Paulista University, Brazil
Unsuspicious moviegoers and pay phone users are being stung by HIV-tainted needles strategically planted as a means of revenge or out of sheer cruelty. Club scene habitus are getting doped at parties and waking up the next morning immersed in a bathtub surrounded by ice just to find that their kidneys have been snatched for the purpose of international body parts trafficking. Innocent fast food diners are being exposed to the risk of contamination from all sorts of unthinkable ingredients deliberately added to their happy meals. Schoolgirls (and boys) are terrified of going to the school bathroom alone in case they bump into the ghost of the bloody bathroom blonde (in Brazil, the loira do banheiro): an ex-student whose unreturned love for a teacher led her to suicide in the premises. All-too-frequent cell phone users are suddenly fearing for their brains, which might well be exposed to the risk of long-term damage, or even cancer. Are any of these stories true? Are we justified in dreading them?
Just a whole bunch of myths, some will say. Contemporary legends, or more popularly named, urban legends. That is all this is about. A (not so) modern form of mythology which, at most, serves the purpose of symbolically recycling the same old fears and apprehensions involving contamination, violence, death But is that all there is to it? Are contemporary legends simply a matter of believe it at your own will?In this article I wish to argue that contemporary legends are texts just as worth bringing into the language class as other semi-fictional, semi-factual narratives that have become staple didactic genres. My experience with students of English as a foreign language particularly those with a greater familiarity with Internet pop culture shows that these narratives elicit a great deal of controversy and debate. However, these hardly take place in a critical manner, since the discussions often get polarized into a dispute of whether the facts do or do not actually occur. I believe that a Critical Literacy perspective would have a lot to contribute to these discussions in the sense that it would provide both teachers and students with a practice through which they would be able to question their own naturalized conceptions of culture and truth. It would help us think of the power relations, discourses, and identities being constructed and reinforced through these texts (Shor 1999). It would eventually help us see those texts as embedded in broader meaning-making practices in which the fear of Others in our social relations can take on many forms, and that contemporary legends is just one of those forms (a potent one, I would say) whereby received interpretations and stereotypes of alterity are enacted. We might then be able to recognize that since texts are constructed representations of reality and of identities, we as critical readers have a greater opportunity to take a more powerful position with respect to those texts to reject them or construct them in ways that are more consistent with [our] own experiences in the world (Cervetti et al. 2001: 8).
In order to shed a light on and begin to question the assumptions that underlie the commonplace discussions on contemporary legends such as I have been able to observe in my own teaching practice, I draw here upon some philosophical and critical theory grounding on the problem of truth that should allow us to understand why such debate is so pervasive. It is my hypothesis that by critically looking into this moving force of the debate we may be able to better understand how and why those stories keep being reinvented, then sent and re-transmitted, over and over, whether or not they are perceived as having actually taken place somewhere, at some point in time. My focus will be, then, on this powerful if elusive thing called truth.
When one looks at contemporary legends one cannot actually avoid the issue of truth that surrounds them. It may appear explicitly in the very proposition of the narrative, in which the narrator claims she will tell something that really happened not to herself but, typically, to someone known by someone else she knows. It may also be read into the reactions of listeners or readers of such narratives in the form of incredulity, doubt or perhaps straightforward belief. And it may, of course, be detected in the struggle of commentators who aim at establishing the scientifically, technically attested falsity or at least, implausibility of such reports. No matter how plausible these might seem.
I would join Foucault (1971/1996; 1976/1999) on the belief that every discursive practice has the capacity to generate effects of truth which are more or less potent and enduring. Such possibility of the creation of truth effects in and through discourse is due to an inescapable element to the subjects of this discourse: the will to truth. It would seem that the question of whether contemporary legends are true or false cannot be answered adequately or at least not beyond a mere factual investigation in terms of this one actually took place versus this one actually did not unless we consider the fact that legends are transmitted within socially and historically situated practices in which certain programs of truth are at stake.
Speaking of programs of truth implies letting go of a traditional conception of truth according to which a cognoscent subject, free from power relations, can accede to a truth that is rational and universally validated. In the history of philosophy, we could trace the climax of that belief back to Enlightenment with Descartes at the forefront. It is only in the late 18th century that this view will begin to be seriously questioned; and later with Nietzsche, and throughout the 20th century, systematically challenged. A short genealogy of this reviewed approach to truth in philosophy is what I set out to do in the following sections. For that task, and to back my claim on the relevance of reading contemporary legends, I turn to three major currents of critical thinking themselves discontinuous regimes of (philosophical) truth which share the aim of deconstructing the belief that truth is one and unique. The three currents are, namely: Heideggers theory of truth as non-truth (errancy), Nietzsches and Foucaults view of truth as will to power (and hence will to truth), and the pragmatist conception of truth as a language tool, proposed more recently by Rorty. Finally, we relate these three currents to the concept of programs of truth employed by Veyne in connection to his analysis of the different approaches towards myth.
Heideggers Ontological Truth Versus the Metaphysical Tradition
The search for truth is, to a certain extent, co-extensive to the very history of Western philosophy, or at least to a long established metaphysical tradition of doing philosophy. From Plato to the 20th century American pragmatists, we will hardly find a school or current of philosophical thought which has not, to a higher or lesser degree, examined this issue.
Let us begin to unravel this web by drawing on one of its many possible threads: Heideggers view of being and truth. In Time and Being (1927/1995), Heidegger starts off by proposing the concept of Dasein (the being there) to account for his project of describing the mode of existence of the being-in-the-world. The Dasein is a construct which projects itself, so to speak, towards the understanding of the Being in its totality. For the German philosopher, the metaphysical inclination of an entire philosophical tradition beginning with Platonism led to a gradual abandonment of the specificity of the Being (in capital letters), favoring a split between entity and being and the eventual erasure of the latter. From Plato to Nietzsche with Aristotle, the Romans, Descartes and Kant in between philosophical thought would posit one form of metaphysics which gradually constructed the entity as an essence, or the only category by which existence and truth could be measured, be it in an idealistic or rational-scientific sense.
Plato, the father of all metaphysics, set the ground for the tradition that places the being in a world of ideas, favoring it over the concrete living entity. Aristotle, in his turn, apparently a materialist unlike Plato, also needed to take that supposed divide for granted. It was the time when the idea of truth was established as one of correspondence to things an adjustment of the eye to the object, that is, of the way of seeing to the nature of things. In the Roman period, characterized by the rise of the concept of empire, Platonism began to give way to the notion of correction. Being truthful meant having the correct, fair view of reality. From modernity, fundamentally with Descartes, the entity was hoisted up to the condition of cognoscent subject, the supreme being to whom all knowledge and all truth were conditioned. Truth then became a subject-object relation, a central one in our very conception of epistemology. Finally, Nietzsche, by categorically denying any essence to the being the entity being all that was left from metaphysics stood out as the last of the metaphysicians, according to Heideggers reading.
Looking retrospectively at this tradition, without leaving himself outside it, however, Heidegger proposes a sort of step back in the direction of the pre-Socratics, with whom an initial understanding of the non-separation between being and entity came to place. Heidegger does that not for nostalgia, but rather as a sort of revelation of the aborted fate of the understanding of Being as the fundament of existence a fate which metaphysics set out to obscure to the full, forgetting that it forgot the Being. In sum, metaphysics abandoned the being as there is (a spark, a force, a revelation) and embraced the being as is. Hence the paradox: the entity is, but the being is not.In order to recover the Being in its specificity, that is, the ontological nature of existence, we must let go of the most immediate perception we hold of ourselves, a perception which is grounded on dichotomies such as subjectivity and objectivity, mind and world, empiricism and idealism. As Jonathan Re (1999: 2) points out, the view that Heidegger wishes to distance himself from is woven into the very fabric of Western philosophy, throughout its history, and is enmeshed into our quotidian self-knowledge.
Man is so absorbed by everydayness that he tends to abstract things as lost in an impersonal collectivity, acting as a mere being-among-things and moving away from authenticity. And when man is immersed in this everydayness (and this is a point which more closely interests us here), he engages in inauthentic activities, such as curiosity, ambiguity and idle talk (rumors included), which are, according to Heidegger, modes of corrupted discourse, common sense forms of evading the self-knowledge of Dasein. The attachment to those forms reinforces the trivial impersonality of the being-among-others mundane world. When everything becomes accessible to all, in an indifferent and shapeless factuality, the things-at-hand become more and more instrumental, which leads to an opacity in the relation between the entity and its beliefs.
But what does being authentic actually mean for Heidegger? It is certainly not a question of searching for an essential, subjectivized, isolated Being face to face with its own individuality. Rather, it is a question of comprehending the authentically incomplete and fragmented nature of the Being in its totality, since the Being is marked by a constitutive flaw of the very being-in-the-world. To be authentic, the being needs to open up to the freedom of letting-be, letting things reveal themselves as they are. The being needs, paradoxically, to find itself as inescapably inauthentic, living immersed in an universe of ready-at-hand things. Thus, inauthenticity is not merely an error or moral flaw, but an integral part of authentic existence.
It is actually in the opening towards revelation as discovery, unveiling that the question of truth comes to place. To Heidegger, truth is inseparable from the Being that unveils it. It exists necessarily as a function of Dasein, for once man searches for self-understanding, he opens himself up to the unveiling of truth.
But Heidegger goes deeper into the problematic of truth when he talks about non-truth and errancy as inseparable from truth, and not merely as its logical opposites. If, as we have seen, truth is unveiling, it is because it is already born as veiling its totality. The fact that we are all invariably subject to this veiling (or dissimulation) makes it a presupposition and fundament to the very unfolding of the being-in-the-world an unveiling which is always partial, always particular.
Such a conception has clear implications for mans attempt to impose himself as the measure of all things, since he is blind to that forgetting. As Ernildo Stein points out, in the modern tradition, the subject has always been the measure of truth a condition of possibility and as such, the human being presents him/herself as the yardstick for all propositions referring to contingent situations where there is truth or falsity (Stein 1993: 191, my translation). In fact, for Heidegger, it is in technology and in the modern knowledge of science that the zenith of that metaphysics occurs, whereby the entity is taken to be the reference for all things.
It is thus that the entity errs. And it has always done so. In other words, it is condemned to errancy understood not as the mere accidental or isolated mistake, but rather the domain of the history of those entanglements in which all types or errors get caught (Heidegger 1930/1961, section 7). And this errancy and the dissimulation of the dissimulation or forgetting constitute the anti-essence of man, something that, from within the original essence of truth, and belonging to that essence, is opposed to it.
We may then conclude that truth, at its root, is always-already non-truth not in the sense of a logical opposite to truth, but rather in the sense of deprivation, an incompleteness, since it operates dialectically, through historical mans errancy that is, through the manifestation of the veiling of its totality in the errancy of everyday life.
Even then, in one more demonstration of this dialectical thinking which looks to eliminate the facility of binary logics, Heidegger reminds us that if man can experience this errancy as errancy, and not simply let himself be absorbed by it, he may guide himself towards essential truth.
Nietzsche and Foucault: Truth as Will One of the hallmarks of Nietzsches philosophy is the idea that there is no truth as knowledge of the world as it is. He was opposed to the idea of a possible apprehension of reality by means of language, since there would not be a pre-existing delimited universe of things to know. In fact, the German philosopher proposed that we abandon once and for all any attempt of knowing the truth. For him, we should give up on the idea that language is capable of covering and representing the whole of reality a reality that is supposedly determinable and whose truth we could unveil.
How does knowledge work, then? Nietzsche tells us that knowledge is mans invention, that is, it is not something which is absolutely inscribed in human nature just waiting for a revelation. At its root, knowledge, rather than arising as the result of an impulse towards identification, an affection or passion for its object, is the fruit of a will to power which mines its object and seeks to annihilate it in all its menacing potential. It is as if one needed first to reject the object only then to bring it back to ones domain, already tamed, already molded. This implies that each and every form of knowledge, including science and technology, becomes necessarily perspective, partial and oblique.
Thus, if this knowledge, which is the outcome of a historical will, leads to what we call truth, truth is, according to this reasoning, nothing more than the result of contingent human relations to which we seek to ascribe universal status by means of a will to truth. Nietzsches classical definition, proposed in the essay On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, perfectly synthesizes this thought:
What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms -- in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. (Nietzsche 1873/1977: 46-7)For Nietzsche, then, truth is interested knowledge, the brainchild of a will which creates its own opposition between true and false: its own effect of truth. It appears in the fashion of arbitrary metaphors, which are nonetheless made to become literal, taking on a conventional and naturalized form throughout history. The original intuitive metaphors are therefore taken for the things themselves.
But man forgets it. He forgets that he has created his own truths, since he has built himself and things within a paradigm of rationality. He believes that he builds up from an essence and that language serves merely as a transparent conduit for that essence. He believes that he can look into the real from the outside. And that is what allows him to think of science and philosophy in terms of discovery of truths. As Arrojo well observes, the perspective proposed by Nietzsche leads us to the conclusion that man does not discover truths independently from his will to power or his survival instinct; he rather produces meanings and hence knowledge which is established through the conventions that discipline man in social groups (Arrojo 1992: 54, my translation).
The production of solid and naturalized meanings, however, does not take place in a rational dimension only; it also occurs in mans relation with myth and art. Man allows himself to be tricked by the illusion of finding an ever-reinvented, particular form of relating to the world of dreams. As long as it does not cause him any visible harm, he will be charmed when he listens to epic tales be told as true, when he sees an actor play a king more regally than the king himself and, why not say it adding an example to the ones Nietzsche proposes , when receiving and transmitting urban legends over the Internet.
The Nietzschean notion that truth does not exist as a pre-existing absolute fact of reality, but that it may exist as an effect even if necessarily illusory points to the utilitarian nature of truth. Nietzsche claims that knowledge, inasmuch as it presents itself as a set of truthful and reliable beliefs, may serve certain purposes, but not others, and that certain things can be described as useful to certain kinds of people but not to others. Which only reinforces the authors refusal of the idea of truth as correspondence. That is, instead of corresponding to a factual reality that is independent from human beings, truth is proposed by Nietzsche as a way of meeting human desires, needs and uncertainties. It is a value among values.If for Nietzsche, then, every form of knowledge and, consequently, every form of truth is necessarily perspective, it becomes impossible to aspire to an absolute and definite apprehension of reality. As Mos summarizes: by affirming that truth is a value, Nietzsche wishes to desacralize this evaluative principle, revealing its condition as a human invention: truth is an idea, a construct of thought, it has a history (Mos 2005: 31). It is, therefore, inescapably partial.
Directly influenced by Nietzsche, Foucault finds here the inspiration for one of his most fundamental themes: the relation of interdependence between power and knowledge. Let us examine how this interdependence is viewed in connection to Foucaults approach to truth.
According to Foucault (1971/1996: 13-21), truth is an important external exclusion procedure in the order of discourse which operates by means of the true/false opposition. When one looks into a discourse, at the level of the sentence or proposition, such opposition is neither arbitrary nor violent. It does not vary, either: the proposition is always true or always false. But when it comes to identifying what has been, historically, the will to truth that pervades our discourses and what sort of separation rules it, then truth presents itself as a historical and institutionally sustained system of exclusion. Great transformations which our societies have undergone over the centuries, including scientific discoveries, can, to a certain extent, be interpreted as being the result of always new wills to truth which were gradually imposed on a number of institutional practices, such as pedagogy, empirical research, or the exploitation of technological resources.
But something very peculiar occurs with true discourse: by presenting itself as freed from desire and power, it simply cannot recognize the will to truth that pervades it; that is, in order to establish itself as true, discourse cannot help but disguise itself as a product of that will. Thus, what we are allowed to see is a truth that would be rich and fertile, a sweet and insidiously universal force, and not the prodigious machinery designed to exclude all those who, time after time in our history, have tried to evade that will to truth and to question it against truth (Foucault 1971/1996: 20, my translation).
It can already be noted that truth is not produced as an autonomous mistake-free organism, hovering over human errancy, independent from the institutional mechanisms of social action and control, or from human desire. Truth is definitely attached to those mechanisms and, therefore, to power. Foucault reminds us that in any society the multiple power relations which characterize the social body cannot be established or function outside a regime of truth, that is, without being sustained by true discourses. In the authors words: There is no exerting of power without a certain economy of true discourses which function in, from, and through that power. We are subject by power to the production of truth, and we can only exert power by producing truth. (...) After all, we are judged, condemned, classified, obliged to duties, destined to a certain way of living or to a certain way of dying as a result of true discourses that carry with them specific power effects, truth effects. (Foucault 1976/1999: 28-9, my translation)
Foucault concludes that the will to truth, originated from the historically constructed division between right and wrong, or true and false, is nothing more than the excluding will to power. True discourse is no more than a necessary illusion for subjects to struggle for power. And it is important to understand that this struggle takes place from inside the very discursive practice: we cannot reach the truth, for we are always-already assigned a circumscribed subject position the moment we enter discourse.
The author proposes that in order to analyze the will to power (and knowledge) in discourse we must gradually build and define our analytical tools in a practice he calls genealogical. That is done in keeping with demands and possibilities designed by concrete, contextualized studies (Foucault 1997). Bringing our object of study into that perspective, I believe we ought to better investigate and understand how the discursive practices around contemporary legends often point to the issue of veracity vs. falsehood of the stories as being the key to those legends as if the accounts depended exclusively on scientific-objective verdicts for permanence. Such investigation would imply the analysis of discursive practices in their local knowledge dimension.
On Internet discussion lists dedicated to the transmission and discussion of contemporary legends, a great number of posts refer specifically to the issue of truth in/of/around the legends. We can often observe how the different interlocutors struggle, by means of argumentation and supposedly legitimate scientific references, to debunk the rumors or proto-legends, and re-establish the factual order as soon as those texts hit their e-mail boxes. It is as if proving the stories false were the raison dtre of the discursive practices the moving force of the debate, as I suggested earlier. Indeed, one must carefully examine how those narratives build on the tension between the local, discontinuous (in Foucaults terms) and unverified knowledge, on the one side, and the hierarchical force of true knowledge on the other true knowledge that, once available to all by means of the rational-logical apparatus of science, is taken for something revealed or explained by the discourse of those select few who possess it. But, at this point, we had better not lose track of Foucaults reminder that there does not exist a mere division between admitted and excluded discourse, or between dominant and dominated discourse. There is no discourse of power on the one side, and discourse against power on the other. Rather, in a given discursive practice, we often observe a co-relation of forces, a multiplicity of different power/knowledge strategies that co-exist. And it is that distribution of forces which we are to detect in the analysis: the play between the things that are said and those that are unsaid or banned from discourse; the variables and distinct effects depending on whoever speaks, when, from which subjective/power position, and within which institutional context; the relocation and reformulations of identical forms for opposite reasons.
Rorty and the Pragmatist Approach to Truth
We move now to our next stop on our journey through the realm of philosophical truth: pragmatism. Pragmaticians are philosophers of a predominantly Anglo-Saxon tradition to whom knowledge is a tool, an instrument that must be put to the service of the conditions of experience. One of the basic principles of pragmatism shared by its major representatives, from William James to Richard Rorty, with John Dewey and Donald Davidson in between is antirepresentationalism: the idea that there is not a world out there, a reality independent from thought which might be represented by language in a relation of correspondence or correctness. An idea which, as has been pointed out, was already present in Nietzsche.
The same holds for the notion of truth, which, already with the first pragmaticians, appears as dissociated from the idea of representation of things of reality. The focus here is on experience, the way people relate to reality. According to this line of thought, truth cannot be correspondence to reality, but rather the contingent product of relations that humans establish with each other through usage or, in Wittgensteinian terms, language games. In other words, being true is not a property which is external to language, a predicate of things in the world out there, but rather a fundamentally linguistic device, a predicate of phrases, sentences or propositions.
Richard Rorty, the most outstanding name in current pragmatist philosophy, formulates the questions in the following terms: To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences, there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations. Truth cannot be out there cannot exist independently of the human mind because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own unaided by the describing activities of human beings cannot. (Rorty 1989: 5)This reflection leads Rorty to wonder whether truth even deserves philosophical inquiry as a relevant and unquestionable concept in itself. He questions the utility for human society of insisting on formulating a theory of truth, a consistent body of thought that might account for a concept which, after all, pervades all the transcendental-metaphysical-epistemological problematic, from Plato to Heidegger, and which continues to confound and obscure philosophers. Instead, Rorty claims, philosophical thought should set out to describe the conditions in which the true presents itself in linguistic behaviors, that is, in contingent practices where people do things with language.
What Rorty values the most in the pragmatist tradition is his precursors vocation notwithstanding their differences and divergences to shift the focus away from questions like What in the world is true to questions like How is the word true used? (Rorty 1991: 132) or, simply, to consider the issue of truth in language in performative terms, highlighting the necessarily public and hence social nature of language.
In a sort of radical minimalism, what Rorty claims that everything that can be said about X is what X is, there not being to X an occult or intrinsic side which eludes the relational apprehension of X through language. For Rorty, truth cannot be discovered, for that would be admitting that truth depends on what the world is like in the sense of causal relations rather than descriptive acts.
Broadening this view towards a more specifically political formulation, Rorty argues that, in an ideally liberal and democratic society, the notion of truth as correspondence to reality should be replaced by an idea of truth as what one comes to believe over free and open encounters. For the American philosopher, truth appears as a historical contingency, and not as a convergence or a rational and universally valid (even if uncoerced) communicative consensus, such as defended by the likes of Habermas (Hoy 1994). But does that mean one should take Rortys view as reducing truth to a mere pact, a fragile and capricious agreement between language players?
In this connection, the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman could be called on to our aid. He aligns himself with the pragmatist view whereby truth, rather than symbolizing the relation between what is said and a determined non-verbal reality, stands in our usage for a certain attitude we take, but above all wish or expect others to take, to what is said or believed (Bauman 1997: 112). Still, according to Bauman, there is no sense in speaking of truth if not in a situation of dissent. Truth only comes up as an issue when different people hold on to different beliefs, making it the object of dispute on who is right and who is wrong. Truth comes up when one claims the right to speak with authority, or when it becomes particularly important for an adversary to prove that the other side of the dispute is wrong. The struggle for truth represents, then, the struggle for establishing certain beliefs as systematically superior, under the excuse that they have been reached at through a reliable procedure, or one that is vouched for by the kind of people who may be trusted to follow it (Bauman op. cit.: 113).
The way I read him, Rorty would put this issue in other, maybe less ideological, terms. By explaining the relation between truth and justification related to the cautionary use of truth discussed above the philosopher claims that the need to justify our beliefs and desires to others and to ourselves subjects us to certain norms, the obedience to which produces a behavioral pattern which we must detect in others before we can confidently attribute beliefs to them (Rorty 1998: 26).
In other words, we enter the language game with certain beliefs, and we know that those we play with possess, on their side, their own beliefs. But we must attest to the existence of those beliefs performatively, from within the linguistic exchanges, and not take them as givens. What Rorty does not believe, perhaps unlike Bauman, is that the rules of the linguistic game necessarily imply obeying an additional norm the commandment to seek a [final] truth (Rorty op. cit.: op. cit.).
Reading Legends, Reading Myths: The Lessons Theory Teaches UsBringing our contemporary legends back into focus, we could but only begin, in a tentative exercise of critical reading, to reassess the issue of truth as it manifests itself in the practice of transmitting and commenting those narratives. Rather than taking to the facile opposition between veracity versus falsehood, which would imply a view of truth as correspondence to a self-standing order of reality (i.e. the facts, the truth out there), we would do best by using the lessons our philosophers have offered us and eventually applying them in our language classes in an attempt to reassess our common sense interpretations and view the discursive practice with different eyes.
We could perhaps appreciate Heideggers lesson that everydayness or rather, situatedness is the only social space we can be inhabit. If we live inauthentically, negotiating our meanings through idle talk, ambiguity and curiosity, that is the only site from within which we may eventually open ourselves up to a different, more democratic, truth. Becoming aware of the very space we speak from sounds like a basic move, but it is definitely a first step (sometimes a very difficult one) that we as mere entities can take towards critically reading our cultures artifacts legends, rumors, fictions, and objective truths all included. We could certainly retain Foucaults critique of truth, particularly as it is formulated in the following passage by Barry Allen, one of his commentators: [f]or truth-value (and associated values like reference, translation, relevance, implication, identity, and objectivity) to be determinate in any case depends on the effectiveness of historically contingent practices of evaluation, and on nothing else (Allen 1995: 110-1). This amounts to claiming that the difference between true and false cannot be established by external, context-free parameters. It does not exist apart from a local practice, in which these values are produced and evaluated, and statements circulate as true, presenting themselves in the form of facts, news, legends (legenda, i.e. what is to be read). Allen continues: Only here have statements currency, the capacity to circulate, to penetrate practical reasoning, to be taken seriously, to pass for the truth. These practical conditions situate truth amid all the major asymmetries of social power, undermining its status as a common good (Allen op. cit.: 4). Common good it is not, then. Rather, it is a space for potential dissent, in which power relations will battle their way towards either debunking or reaffirming the different stakes of the game.
Contemporary legends, more particularly the practical conditions in which they are perpetuated, function as the stage where a number of partial truths gain their currency. In other words, they are the space where different regimes, or programs of truth, are enacted. Believing or not in certain accounts in this or that version of a specific contemporary legend implies more than a one-track pursuit of factual truth. It more likely involves a permanent shift between modes of belief a shift that is not unlike the one Paul Veyne (1983) identifies in the complex relation the Greeks held with their myths.
Belonging to a time long gone, in all its wonders, its accounts of gods and men and fantastic creatures that one does not come across walking on the streets, at least not in the present , myth offered itself to the Greeks as an integrally truthful reality, one that transmitted collective memories which could not have been simply invented lies. As Veyne points out, believing in that body of narrative as a plausible one means still being within the true, but in analogical terms. Myth is inherited information. It is an accepted tradition. And it is respected. Once the story is over, we can shift to another mode of truth that of real life and then back and forth, in an analogical operation.
One may criticize myth from within a historians program of truth rejecting the chronological incoherences and the improbable cause-and-effect propositions but one may also be compelled to read allegorical truths into it. To the rationalist condemnation of the imaginary as false, the apologetic of the imaginary replies that it conforms to a hidden reason. For it is not possible to lie (Veyne 1983: 62). By claiming that truth and interest which I equate with (ever-partial) interpretation are inseparable concepts, Veyne echoes Foucault. Both would agree that in the process of attempting to fix the meanings of a practice in a regime/program of truth, contingency becomes a necessity that keeps justifying itself. And, as we have seen with Rorty, justifying is one more language game one plays with truth. In that sense, could contemporary legends be some sort of modern-day myth, as has been hinted at in our Introduction? I would argue that just as it is impossible to lie about myth, it may be impossible to lie about urban legends. The resonance that a legend may have in a certain interpretive community tends to be higher than the evidence that contests its veracity. Whether or not the narrative is trustworthy, the impact that the force of its message may cause is not necessarily greater or smaller. As Whatley and Henken well point out:
[T]he evidence countering the veracity of a legend rarely carries the weight that the legend does. (...) The impact a legend has on those telling or hearing it may have little to do with whether the story is believed. () What may be more important is the truth that folklore conveys about the attitudes, fears, and beliefs of a group, which in turn shape and maintain the identity of that group. (Whatley and Henken 2001: 4-5)
So, our students may not believe, for example, that someone could have planted an HIV-infected needle on their theater seats, but this will not necessarily stop them from double-checking before sitting. Equally, they may not believe that the long-lasting use of their cell phones poses any risk of explosion, but still they will turn off their devices when pulling into a service station. That is to say, the most relevant aspect to this kind of narrative may not be its objectively attested implausibility, but rather the truth it reveals about the beliefs and values of the communities in which it circulates.
Finally, we might stick with a lesson that Veyne indirectly teaches us about the myths of our present time, and that somehow paves the way toward a more critical understanding of our object in point. What he says about myth serves just as well for contemporary legends: in order to engage those narratives we would do well by sorting through the heterogeneous programs of truth that constitute our imagination programs that tell us what we are or are not allowed to believe at different moments in history; programs that intersect or even contradict each other in our everyday, ever-shifting contingent practices of being in the true. And so, at each moment, nothing exists or acts outside these [space-defining] palaces of the imagination... They are the only space available (Veyne 1983: 121). This Elusive Thing Called Truth
By now, agents and advocates of Critical Literacy will surely have identified in all those discussions one of the tenets of their own belief system, summarized by Cervetti et al. (2001: 10) in these terms: Reality cannot be know definitely, and cannot be captured by language; decisions about truth, therefore, cannot be based on a theory of correspondence with reality, but must instead be made locally. Locally in the different interpretive communities we claim membership to; locally in our classrooms, as we and our students learn to rethink the often deeply ingrained assumptions we hold on the meaning of truth, and on what can or cannot be true about the stories we are told.
To conclude our journey, then, we might just add that in view of our theoretical (and practical!) grounding the search for the truth of/in contemporary legends leads us along the routes of two intersecting tracks. The first one shows us that we cannot possibly learn all the facts and hence all the truth narrated in these stories. That is, we cannot know with absolute certainty what is a technically, scientifically attested (or even plausible) fact and what is merely an insisting rumor or piece of misinformation and I think here particularly of the abundant narratives surrounding the mysterious powers of (not so) new technologies, or the risks of (as of yet) uncontrollable diseases. We simply err; we cling to our most essential and mundane truths: that we are all exposed to too-close-to-home risk, and that someday we will all die. The second track teaches us that, albeit incomplete, controversial or merely plausible, facts only make sense insofar as they belong to an itinerary of truth. They are mediated by a regime of discursive practices that have narrative as a privileged form of manifestation narratives of a particular type, dispersed and mutable, such as contemporary legends, but also other narratives of a particular type, those claimed by the legitimized institutions of power/knowledge that go by the name of science, politics, education, the media, etc. In short, all those narratives that make up the fabric of our everyday engagement with reality.
So as to make the most out of these reflections in a critical stance towards contemporary legends, we could perhaps draw the map of those two tracks in the form of a dialectic sway: one by which the will to truth in legends simultaneously constitutes a form of social regulation and fictional reinvention, via narrative, of the fears and anxieties of daily life. Positioning ourselves as teachers and learners who can perceive and critically read this dialectics will hopefully have been the result of a dialogic practice: a continual, ever-transitory but not a bit elusive exercise in critical literacy. REFERENCES:ALLEN, Barry (1995) Truth in Philosophy. Cambridge and London: Harvard
ARROJO, Rosemary (1992) A desconstruo do signo e a iluso da trama, in: ARROJO, Rosemary (org.) O Signo Desconstrudo. Campinas: Pontes.
BAUMAN, Zygmunt (1997) Postmodernity and Its Discontents. Cambridge and Oxford: Polity Press.
CERVETTI, Gina; PARDALES, Michael J.; DAMICO, James S. (2001) A Tale of Differences: Comparing the Traditions, Perspectives, and Educational Goals of Critical Reading and Critical Literacy, in: Reading Online, 4(9). http://www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=/articles/cervetti/index.html
ELLIS, Bill (2001) Aliens, Ghosts, and Rituals Legends We Live. Jackson: University Press of Mississsippi.
FINE, Gary Alan (1992) Manufacturing Tales Sex and Money in Contemporary Legends. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press.
FOUCAULT, Michel (1971/1996) A Ordem do Discurso. So Paulo: Loyola.
_________________ (1976/1999) Em Defesa da Sociedade. So Paulo: Martins Fontes.
_________________ (1997) Resumo dos Cursos do Collge de France (1970-1982). Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Editor.
HEIDEGGER, Martin (1927/1995) Ser e Tempo Parte I. Petrpolis: Vozes.
__________________(1930/1961) On the Essence of Truth, 4th edition translated by John Sallis, in: http://foucault.info/links/related-heidegger.
HOY, David Couzens (1994) The Contingency of Universality: Critical Theory as Genealogical Hermeneutics, in: HOY, David Couzens and McCARTHY, Thomas. Critical Theory. Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell.MOS, Viviane (2005) Nietzsche e a Grande Poltica da Linguagem. Rio de Janeiro: Civilizao Brasileira.
NIETZSCHE, Friedrich (1873/1977) On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, in: The Portable Nietzsche. London: Penguin Books.RE, Jonathan (1999) Heidegger. New York: Routledge.
RORTY, Richard (1989) Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
_______________ (1991) Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
________________(1998) Truth and Progress. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
SHOR, Ira (1999) What is Critical Literacy?, in: Journal for Pedagogy, Pluralism & Practice, issue 4, vol. 1, http://www.lesley.edu/journals/jppp/4/shor.html.
VEYNE, Paul (1983) Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination, translated by Paula Wissing. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. WHATLEY, Mariamne H. and HENKEN, Elissa R. (2000) Did you Hear About the Girl Who...? Contemporary Legends, Folklore, and Human Sexuality. New York & London: New York University Press. The terms urban and contemporary are both commonly used in folklore bibliography. But they both present problems. The former has become popular partly due to the American scholar Jan Harold Brunvands collections and encyclopedias published since the early 1980s. Some authors, however, reject the term claiming that the stories are not restricted to an urban context. In turn, contemporary, the term preferred by authors such as Bill Ellis and Gillian Bennett and ratified by the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research which was created in the early 1990s (Fine 1992: 1) , could lead to the false impression that the stories are always recent, when actually many of them are rooted in long-lasting traditions. Still, in favor of this latter term there is the idea that any narrative is perceived as contemporary in the time it circulates (Ellis 2001: xiii). I use both alternatives along this article but I privilege the latter, despite its limitations.
I am considering here, in particular, the discussion forum hosted by the site HYPERLINK "http://www.snopes.com" www.snopes.com, which provided most of the corpus of my doctoral thesis on contemporary legends (unpublished).