Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Hassan, Ihab. "The Way We Have Become: a Surfeit of Seeming." GEORGIA REVIEW (Summer 2009).

Truth, trust, and mind can be weasel words. Some clarification of them, as they apply to this essay, is due before we start fingering the beads. Philosophers have long puzzled trust as they have puzzled truth. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and Glaucon debate whether trust depends on fear of detection, as in the case of the shepherd Gyges, who found a gold, magic ring in the Lydian wilderness and considered keeping it. This perspective, rooted in rank self-interest, informs subsequent discussions, through Machiavelli and Hobbes and on down to John Nash’s solution—yes, think Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind—of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in game theory. Another perspective, developed by Locke, Hume, Kant, and Rousseau, takes a more benevolent view of human nature, locating trust in love, sympathy, moral responsibility. Then there’s the leap of faith, Kierkegaardian or otherwise, that finds truth and trust—now fused—in a spiritual impulse that overwhelms doubt, defies the weight of the world. And now? We perceive a crisis of trust, a dearth of veracity, everywhere. (This is not an American dilemma only, as Onora O’Neill’s Reith Lectures of 2002, in Britain, suggest.) Still, I am not wholly persuaded that America has become a culture of mistrust. Yes, hermeneutics of suspicion abound in academe. And yes, public scandals—in church and state, in sports and entertainment, in the very media that report all the scandals—seem unremitting, indeed cataclysmic, as we can now see. But have Americans really lost the will to trust, to believe in trust? More than a century ago, William James wrote in The Will to Believe:
Our faith is faith in some one else’s faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case. Our belief in truth itself, for instance, that there is a truth, and that our minds and it are made for each other, —what is it but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up?
Has that desire disappeared? Is “cognitive dissonance” now our common fate? I think there is an urge called truth, a longing called trust, which our natures seem unable to quell despite the chameleon in us all. Paradoxically, that urge and that longing find fulfillment in self-abnegation, self-bracketing at least, and at best self-dispossession. Thus we tend to credit what demands nothing from us and trust those who have emptied themselves of their needs. Perhaps that is the mysterious call of our destiny, the secret lure of all our religions and philosophies. Perhaps that was the primogenial impulse of mind, after all. As to mind, its road has been long and anfractuous. Some say the journey began with the big bang. Some say it started with a stray asteroid rich in iridium, smashing into present-day Mexico, exterminating the monsters of the earth, and tearing a hole into evolution so that our ancestors could squeeze through. To this accident or event—maverick scientists ascribe to it the so-called Anthropic Principle, enabling sentience on planet Earth—we owe not only our existence but also our awareness of existence, and even the capacity to name and explain the event itself. In short, the gift of language. That’s reaching far back, back to the origins of our flawed consciousness. But in a self-conscious age that considers representations supreme—signs, symbols, images, simulacra—the reminder is apt. These semiotic shards and shavings of mind, slowly displacing nature as our environment, now largely constitute our world. And so we live among superabundant signifiers—but where’s the signified? We have perceptions without substance. We lull ourselves with the mantra “appearances are everything.” This mantra echoes throughout American politics, economics, private lives, even the arts. How live with this surfeit of seeming? Let’s finger the beads, not wring our hands. . . . Read the rest here:

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