Critical Literacy Article (Pre-final Version)

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<p>When Truth Is at Stake: The Case of Contemporary Legends</p> <p>Carlos Renato Lopes</p> <p>Paulista University, Brazil</p> <p>Introduction</p> <p>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? </p> <p>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).</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>Heideggers Ontological Truth Versus the Metaphysical Tradition</p> <p>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. </p> <p>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. </p> <p>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. </p> <p>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.</p> <p>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. </p> <p>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. </p> <p>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. </p> <p>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. </p> <p>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. </p> <p>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. </p> <p>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. </p> <p>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.</p> <p>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...</p>