Saturday, December 23

stories and truths of many sizes

I was just barely thinking about Jean ­Francois Lyotard, and then about Clay Shirky, and then about blogging, and when I opened up all my draft blogposts I found this one. what an odd little coincidence, it seemed.

this post began as notes copied from a reading response I must have written and turned in for my Postmodernism course several semesters ago. I'm going to revisit it and see what happens.

that semester, I wrote rather candidly that I'd thought I would tiredly skim Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition. it is a short treatise, but nonetheless skimming is fairly expected in graduate school. however, apparently I almost couldn’t put Lyotard down that week. something about his little exploration of The Postmodern Condition sparked against my jumbly thoughts and I just had to finish it. and I wanted more.

my reading response post for the class eventually congealed around two main topics: technology and money. I'm going to reverse the order for this post, and put money first. mostly this is because I'm smiling at the memory of the Megan I met on a train, and I want that very small story to exist here on my blog.

the other reason is that the technology thoughts seem to loop back nicely into the current and future trajectories of my scholarship, and ending with them will perhaps as more light and insight to that trajectory as it continues unfolding for me and my brain.

in his section 11, "Research and Its Legitimation through Performativity," Lyotard leads us, his readers, around to a (by now fairly obvious) perspective on power and truth:
“A new problem appears: devices that optimize the performance of the human body for the purpose of producing proof require additional expenditures. No money, no proof—and that means no verification of statements and no truth. The games of scientific language become the games of the rich, in which whoever is wealthiest has the best chance of being right. An equation between wealth, efficiency, and truth is thus established.” (44-45)
I found this obvious then because I'd read various other bits and pieces about the construction of proofs and the materialities of epistemology. I would go on to read more, too. Barad's Meeting the Universe Halfway gets at many of the same conundrums. what it means to know something, to make known something, to verify and prove to others that you have verified it-- these are huge questions. Lyotard says that money makes it easier. money is very persuasive stuff. material. rhetorical. powerful.

and Lyotard puts this thought to us in such a clear, direct way. resigned, almost, but thoughtfully so. I was reminded by this section of a conversation I had with a medical student named Megan on a train from Dundee to Oxford this summer. she sat across the table from me and offered to share her gummy sweets, and eventually we both looked up from our studying and fell into a gloriously fluid conversation about who knows how many interesting thoughts.

one of our many topics was medical research, and Megan explained how unfortunate she found it that most useful, successful medical research is driven by capitalist, consumerist ideals. developing nations don’t have the resources to carry out their own research, nor the resources to pay for research on any of the diseases or treatments that make the most difference to them. the citizens of developing nations won't have the resources to pay for such treatments, so why should medical researchers invest their time there? no money, no science. no truth. and on the other hand, in developed countries, we have plenty of time and money with which to worry about cancers and heart diseases and such, and those are the things that get studied.

I’d never really thought about that manifestation of privilege. and it is just one example of what Lyotard points out about how power and proof and rationality and funding and research are all tied very tightly together. I have been lucky to have funding and support from handfuls of institutions, and having that has allowed all the thinking and making that I've been doing as an adult. so far I think I can count on that support remaining, in some form or another, as long as I can make myself useful in some way to the institutions providing it.

anyway-- I think the “no money, no truth” slogan, paraphrased from Lyotard, should go on an ironic t-shirt or something. somebody make one.

in an earlier section of the book, Lyotard makes a bewilderingly simple (to me) claim about technology-- that it only has two principal purposes. the line appears in section 1 in the context of the sciences/technologies of language and communication, where he says this: “Its two principal functions— research and the transmission of acquired learning—are already feeling the effect, or will in the future” (4). I had to stop there, puzzled and frozen and what? The vague pronoun and the bold claim both held me up for several minutes.

in the margin, I added this note: what?

I wondered and puzzled over this claim. technology is principally for gaining knowledge and sharing knowledge? who says? since when? in what arena?

I wasn't sure, that semester, why I was so skeptical here. (husband dearest would say it's because such a stance is my habit, and I can't help myself. maybe he is right.) mainly it seemed to be because I hadn't thought about the idea before. it was new. while I reveled in the puzzlingness of it, I questioned myself too. if Lyotard means communicative technologies, not all of them, does his claim make more sense then? but then again, which technologies aren’t at least a tiny bit communicative? really? as a rhetorician I take a position that everything sends some kind of message. are those messages always based in "acquired learning" somehow? perhaps they are. everything around us is teaching us, even if we aren't paying attention. perhaps especially then.

as a rhetorician, it is my habit and my training to notice what the everything is teaching us, and then to try analyzing how it does so. right now with my dissertation work I'm pondering what the crowdsourcing work of LibriVoxers may have to teach us, and trying to connect that to professional/technical writing scholarship and practice generally. the ideals and methods of LibriVox are inspiring, I think. every voice is welcome. every tiny contribution valued alongside the tiny (and not so tiny) contributions of thousands of others.

one of Lyotard's more memorable contributions (at least as far as my brain is concerned) is the idea of the petit récit or 'small story' in contrast to the grand narratives of epic myths and stereotypes that sometimes dominate our ways of thinking about ourselves as humans. that idea--many small stories bubbling around, opening up many new perspectives, adding difference and color to places that looked old and flat before--seems important. right now, in this early 21st-century digitally networked time, we have space for millions of small stories. millions of different voices. it can seem an overwhelming abundance sometimes. what do we do with it? how do we handle the abundance? is this a chorus of voices or a chaos of noise? these questions seem worth asking. one person's chaos may be another's chorus, I imagine.

I may need to go reread Lyotard, and this time I might skim.

{ photos taken by Dr. Michael Salvo, over a year ago, in room 306 of Heavilon Hall, where I defended my dissertation prospectus using my voice and some words and chalk } 

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