29 July 2005

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - Brian Cantwell Smith - Re-enchantment

In which professor and philosopher not to mention FIS Dean Brian Cantwell Smith cleverly and sometimes profoundly contemplates the dysfunctions of the end of the 20th century through the long view of post-alchemic scientific and socio-cultural history via the rhetorical if not metaphorical device of the fable thereby providing him with a perfectly legitimate escape hatch for any inaccuracies, implausible and unsupportable leaps of logic, and his steadfast refusal to consider Marshall McLuhan beyond a freshman-level literal reading of McLuhan’s most famous aphorism that implicates Cantwell Smith in his own epithet in what turns out to be a delicious irony unless it was all a satire in the first place.

And so we begin...

Cantwell Smith asks his audience to consider the rise of the religious right, and fundamentalism around the world at the dawn of this new century. He observes that those proponents of a form of totalitarian thinking provide seemingly easy answers to a complex and confusing world, and queries what “our” – that is, those who hold to a more progressive and enlightened agenda – answers might be in response to both the simplicity offered by fundamentalism, and to the challenges of the world. His position: Our answers must “build on the very best of science” or the progressive movement will lose. He claims that he will take a McLuhan-style approach in drawing from a historical context to look forward, in order to see the significance of the answers that he will propose today.

He begins his fable. Return, he suggests, to the end of the age of alchemy and the coincident rise of mechanist philosophy. Return to the age of Descartes, the age of reason. The one who coined an aphorism perhaps more famous than the medium is the message – cognito, ergo sum, I think therefore I am – Descartes was responsible for the arithmetization of geometry and development of science. Science was not possible when the mind (spirit) and the body were considered as an inseparable unit. In proposing the separation of spirit from body, the body became objectified, enabling science the means to explore, investigate, and finally understand the body as a part of the natural world in general. This dualism that Descartes introduced, according to Cantwell Smith’s fable, was intended to be a temporary and interim (350 years and counting) measure, since the mind and body cannot exist one without the other.

The benefit of this “temporary” construct was the development of our vast scientific knowledge and the birth of modernism. The cost was equally significant: a profound disenchantment of nature in the 17th century. That fateful Cartesian split involved both epistemological and ontological implications. Fundamentally, (and epistemologically) society was forced to question what was worth knowing. The shift meant that the value of knowledge shifted from the stuff of divine insight, legitimacy and authority, to the supremacy of empirical observation. Such a shift meant society could shuck the authority of the church, and adopt its own secular authority of knowledge (that later, ironically, realigned itself with the church).

From the ontological ground, we were forced to consider What was it that was being understood? The Cartesian divide meant that the physical world became devoid of meaning, understanding and spirit. The world is “ripped apart,” with spirit (and meaningfulness) banished to the realm of the church, and all the rest being free of spirit and spirituality. Empiricism was valued above all, and the common conception was that all that was worth knowing could be known in time. The end of knowledge was in sight by the end of the 19th century; science would soon have a complete, objective, rational and true account of the world that meant the end of science as a discipline.

But then, the 20th century happened, and all hell broke loose (no pun intended).

Science couldn’t explain the scientist himself, and behaviours and minds of the scientists; nor could it explain the origin of mathematics. Empiricism meant that these did not come from God. But neither did they come from the physical world, since both mind/behaviour, as well as mathematics, are abstract, with a maddening self-legitimacy that seemed to defy the pure empiricists. Could, for instance, mathematics be derived from logic? This became The Major Project of 20th century philosophy.

Bertrand Russell, Gödel, Wittgenstein, and others all identified the problems of deriving mathematics from logic, and eventually ended this pursuit. But more damage was wrought on mechanical philosophy by modernism. Relativity destroyed the mechanical model; quantum mechanics destroyed the notion of objectivity and ability to measure anything accurately. Turing showed the limitations of computers; complexity theory showed the limits of determinism. The rational world and a Eurocentric hierarchy of knowledge came apart with the end of colonialism. Even religious traditions that were based on natural philosophy found themselves losing popularity in the face of science, discovery, and pragmatism.

“People panic” in response to the loss of surety in the world, and the tools with which they make sense of the world (as in a scientifically constructed worldview based on direct observation). As the tools “break,” it is a “natural” response to begin to look at the tools themselves through which we were examining the world. Meta examination of all the disciplines began – from looking at the world to looking at the signs and symbols that signify the world. This meta-examination birthed mid-to-late 20th century post-modernism.

The attempt to derive the mind (and significance and meaning) from empirical observations of the world itself, and the examination of the tools with which these examinations were performed, refocused attention on the physical, rather than on the meaning and significance we were supposed to be thinking about in the first place. As it turns out, an examination of the tools influences and changes what the tools are supposed to be working on. (Careful, Brian. You’re dangerously close to espousing the medium is the message!)

Cantwell Smith now frames what he proposes as the “current project” for complex, contemporary times: We must retrieve the content, semantics, meaning, and significance of the world, but not in a nostalgic way that hearkens to natural philosophy or a sentimental longing for “the good ol’ days.” Rather, we must retrieve the type of humanistic engagement that was lost in the anti-contextual, post-modernist navel-gazing of the 20th century. Cantwell Smith calls for a return of subjectivity AND objectivity AND truth in order to construct a metaphysical reclamation of the world that recognizes both the humility we must feel after the scientific discoveries of the 20th century, and the humanism we must deploy after the concomitant rise of critical cultural theory.

The challenge is, how to incorporate the classical humility of science – that there is more to understand than meets the (mind’s) eye, more to the world than you think, so go and look – with the humility of social constructivism, that recognizes that one’s social location affects one’s observations and interpretations of what it is we are looking at. He frames the problem this way: How do you tell a story that seeks to approach the truth that isn’t biased from the beginning, thereby rendering it suspect? The answer is that you don’t – multiple stories aren’t mutually exclusive, despite the reality that they well may be mutually paradoxical (which, of course, provides the basis for dialectics). Multiple stories can’t be held to account for prior fundamentals, but despite that, there are aspects of common grounding that exist, and are of value. To be grounded does not mean that one must be necessarily grounded in an (ideologically privileged) untenable ground. It does mean that we must seek and identify an appropriate ground.

To accomplish this, Cantwell Smith draws our attention to the issue of materiality. If the life you lead affects your understanding of what matters, then how do we consider materiality? He points out that “matter” is both noun and verb, signifying both the stuff of existence and its significance. Hearkening back to Descartes and his temporary schism, matter-the-noun is the body, while matter-the-verb is mind; likewise material(ity) . What we must do, according to Cantwell Smith, is retrieve the sense of materiality in what matters. A material object is something that matters in people’s lives, and thus the world is once again grounded in what is important.

The vernacular conception of (capitalistic) “materialism” is actually divorced from what matters in people’s lives. The solution to the ills of the post-20th century world lie in undoing Cartesian separation. This becomes the starting point for telling a story of the world that is grounded in importance and significance. The material world divorced from what matters is an unfortunate artefact of science; likewise religion, that separates the secular from the spiritual (matter from what matters) and focuses only on the latter. Reclaiming an integral experience of the world (what McLuhan might call “involvement in depth”) can give an account of the world that explains both cultural pluralism and observed scientific reality – understanding and theory that is grounded in physical experience. We must be honest in our treatment of scientific discovery, 20th century epistemology, and cultural theory. Such honest treatment means that reactionary nostalgia and foundationalism can be transcended, thereby doing justice to both science and social constructionism, and giving voice to mattering and meaningfulness, that answers the materialism and fundamentalism upon which predatory capitalism and religious fundamentalism are “preying.”

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