Friday, February 7, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: Comfortable Deceptions

What do you know about ancient Greek history? Dinosaurs? The Great Depression? Living in Belarus (unless you actually do live in Belarus; then replace this with a different example)? Slavery? The human brain (unless you're a brain surgeon; then replace this with something else)? Women's Suffrage?

Chances are that most of your experiences surrounding these (and most other things you "know") are received through mediated sources. We are in the Age of Information because we have more and more of these mediated sources available to us with greater and greater ease, but that means that fewer and fewer of the things we "know" are things we experience firsthand.

This is a good thing. I would hate to only have knowledge of what I could experience firsthand. It would make it really difficult to make, say, informed decisions about what medication to take when I'm sick or even something as simple as which toe stops to buy for my roller skates. I depend on the mediated writings of people who have had firsthand experience to help me make those decisions (doctors and Amazon reviewers, respectively). 

But when so much of our knowledge comes from these mediated sources, it's worthwhile--necessary, even--to remind ourselves of the gaps that can come between the narrative put forth for simplicity's sake and the potential narratives that could form if we broadened the scope of the voices we'd allow to come forward. 

It is this very exploration that informs Cheryl Glenn's book Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity through the Renaissance. Glenn found that women rhetors were simply not a part of the accepted history of rhetoric, and when she aimed to question this long-standing version of historical events, she was discouraged, told that her work would amount to "negative" research. What she found, though, was that she could include the remnants of several erased female rhetors (most notably Aphasia) using the exact same standards of credibility extended to figures as omnipresent as Socrates in the history of rhetoric. 

She explains that those who had previously erased these women from the history were doing so because the connection between historical account and actual events is never perfect: 
The text of history writing, then, initiates a play between the object under study and the discourse performing the analysis. . . even the most seemingly objective historical records are stories. And even these stories are selected and arranged according to the selector's frame of reference.
Why keep doing it, then? If history is so flawed as to never get it right, what's the point of telling the history at all? Glenn explains "It is too late to do otherwise":
Historiographic practices are now so firmly situated in the postmodern critique of rhetoric that we already take for granted that histories do (or should do) something, that they fulfill our needs at a particular time and place, including our need for those familiar constructs referred to as historical periods.  
Friedrich Nietzsche takes this one step further, insisting that everything we know (even the things we do experience firsthand) amount to nothing more (but also nothing less) than metaphors we use to make sense of things.

He explains in "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense" that we are driven by our need to be deceived:
But man has an invincible inclination to allow himself to be deceived and is, as it were, enchanted with happiness when the rhapsodist tells him epic fables as if they were true, or when the actor in the theater acts more royally than any real king.
The stories that we tell ourselves (or allow others to tell us) help us make sense of the world. It's how we do something manageable with all of that information that we take in, but it also means that we are loathe to accept evidence that our stories are stories. Knowing that our perceptions are always incomplete at best, downright fabricated at worst, and flawed pretty much always puts our sense of empirical certainty into doubt.

To put this into some more tangible perspective, let's take a look at this article by Alexander Hoffman at Cracked.  It examines six historical things that everyone pictures wrong.

Example number three is Greek statues. Quick! Picture a Greek statue! Did you picture something like this:

The shiny white marble is understated and classy, right? Well, that's not what it looked like when it was created. New technologies involving ultraviolet lights have shown that the statues were created with very vivid colors (follow that link to see some recreations). 

We often construct mediated realities based on our best guess at the time, but if too much time has passed and our best guess has been recreated too often, we're not very likely to accept a change when new knowledge suggests otherwise. Just imagine a movie set in ancient Greece with sculptures painted in bright, vibrant colors. Almost all of the articles I read about the new technology voiced their opinion that the colorful sculptures were "ugly" in comparison to the all-white ones we typically show. Chances are we'd denounce that movie as gaudy, ugly, or just plain wrong. It doesn't matter that evidence now suggests it would be more accurate. We like our own version of history more than we like this "new" version of history. 

Some of the other examples from Hoffman's article include dinosaurs with feathers and the way people dressed in the past. 

But perhaps most telling of all is his discussion of our image of Jesus. The chances that Jesus looked like this are virtually nil: 

But that doesn't stop Fox News' Megyn Kelly from angrily declaring Jesus (and Santa who--spoiler alert--isn't even real) to be white and those suggesting otherwise to be delusional. She's maintaining a narrative that's invested in white hegemony and xenophobia. (Even though she later admitted that Jesus "might" not be white, it was clearly a tough pill to swallow.)

What does this gap between historical narrative and historical events mean for those of us who don't have our own time slot on Fox News? Well, a lot. In a culture that puts so much value on "proof" and "truth," we have a very hard time admitting when we got something wrong--or even just not fully right. 

As Glenn showed us when she went back through the remnants of rhetorical history and found several women who had been pushed out of the picture, there is often (or, more likely, always) more to the story than what we've been told. 

This is a scary place to stand, knowing that you'll never really know, but it's also an important realization if we are to use any of that scientific inquiry we value so much in our actual culture. What good are archaeologists examining dinosaur bones if we can't then change our mental image of dinosaurs to include feathers? What good is ultraviolet paint detection if we can't now re-imagine Greek sculptures in Mardi Gras-parade shades? What are we doing with all of this technology and investigation if we won't let it penetrate into the places where we spend most of our time: mediated realities?

Photo: Horia Varlan, Bliss Photo Co., angelofsweetbitter2009


  1. This was an excellent post. The six things were fun to learn about, and your closing point was really good: What good is all our scientific inquiry if we don't let it change our minds?

    ...which leads me to wonder: if you're writing a dissertation in rhetoric, are the standards for the rhetoric in your writing kind of higher than in other fields?? Inquiring minds want to know. :)

  2. You would think that they would be, but some of our most famous authors in the field are notorious for their confusing and obscure writing style.

    I guess it's kind of like sports commentating and athleticism. Sometimes they overlap, but not all that often. :)