Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Musings on cultural transformation and philosophy

Again building off our topic and discussion from last week, I want to pick up on the theme of philosophy and cultural transformation. I want to open with a quote from a philosopher writing on the theme of cultural transformation with which we have been concerned. She says, "Social justice cannot be achieved without a cultural transformation, the nature of which we can barely conceive."

Luce Irigaray (for that is the philosopher in question, writing in her book Je, tu, nous) hits on something important here: justice can't happen without cultural transformation, and the transformation required is so far-reaching that we can only "barely conceive" it. Whether or not one agrees with the specifics of what transformation Irigaray believes is needed, one can sense the appropriateness of her comment. Social justice is irrevocably linked to culture and cultural norms (among other things) and therefore in order to be able to "achieve" it where it does not exist or has gone awry, we must effect a cultural transformation.

And yet notions of social justice don't appear out of nowhere. Rather, they are born out of the matrix of culture and cultural norms, legal structures, and history as we tell it. So it seems to me that we have a circle of sorts here: ideas of what is "socially just" arise out of our context and are articulated by us in ways that we think fit with society's present needs. Of course there are competing understandings because the societal context is not unified. And the "present" doesn't last, so we are always, it seems, stuck playing catch-up. The ideas of social justice that came out of our cultural context don't fit what we need--transformation is called for.

Irigaray uses the phrase "we can barely conceive" the cultural change necessary, but "barely" is better than "can't". How do we do it, though? Philosophy as a field and a practice is only one contributing voice (albeit hopefully an important one) to notions of social justice, as we discussed last week. But social justice relies on other conceptions that philosophy and philosophers have spent a good deal of time and energy trying to address--ideas like justice, the good, and increasingly, truth. And so, thinking about such conceptions I was reminded of a second quote from philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty's preface to the Phenomenology of Perception: "philosophy is not the reflection of a pre-existing truth, but, like art, the act of bringing truth into being."

Now there's a conception--no pun intended! Bringing truth into being! Philosophy doesn't have a "corner" on truth, but it can and does offer several important perspectives on truth that help "bring it into being"--that is, help make it come alive as a defining and important concept in our lives and contexts and politics and actions. And if I had to make a wager as to what might spark the kind of "barely conceivable" cultural transformation for social justice Irigaray and others hope and work for, it would be a new and deeper understanding of truth and how truth matters, what impact truth has in our particular societal contexts today. Truth can seem like an abstract concept without much import, until one begins to notice a lack of it. Increasingly it seems, people are beginning to make the connection between untruth and injustice. Much of the deep political and social unrest that has swept the globe in the last year was set off by a desire to end social oppression or injustice in various forms, but again and again as the revolutions and protests and battles have ensued, the issue of truth becomes louder. Protesters in many different areas protesting many different things have claimed that in order to maintain unjust circumstances, a veil of lies is used by those with the power (whether through governmental or economic means) to do so. They are calling for the "ugly truth" to come out, but they are also calling for a new social truth to redefine the culture and cultural norms that allowed such a level of injustice to flourish in the first place.

That's also, incidentally, exactly why I find it very striking that Merleau-Ponty draws a connection between philosophy's ability to bring truth into being and art's ability to do so analogously. (I would love to write more on that, but it would be another post entirely.) On the perspective he offers, both philosophy and art are understood of as creative processes that bring something vital to society into being. Perhaps viewing philosophy as a creative process undertaken to continually bring concepts vital for cultural transformation into being is a good place to start when we look at the question, what can philosophy do to contribute to social justice?


  1. One of the strengths of contemporary continental philosophy is its attention to the process whereby cultural and historical factors condition and are reconditioned in turn by creative thinking. So thought is never just transformative, or rather it can only be at all in submission to the active possibilities at play in the cultural and historical present, and those possibilities come overwhelmingly from past layerings so constitutive of culture and history. In other words all thinking is both an active and a passive principle. It must receive much in order to be, but once it exists it can act upon the world it has received so to speak in such a way as to change it going forward. It is the latter scenario, I suppose, that Merleau-Ponty points or is sensitive to in his notion of philosophy bringing the truth into being. Of course to effect change, when as agent thought is made to a very large degree by what it has received from what already was and is, is not necessarily to bring in the new; it is far more likely that that recycles the old, the same old; in ever new configurations, to be sure, but in ways that are recognizably tied to what has been or what is present already right here and now. It is this intuition, I imagine, that Irigaray acknowledges in saying that something truly new, as yet non-existent, is barely conceivable.

    There is however a conceptual opening to the new. Irigaray thinks so if I read you correctly Allyson. The philosopher is called (along with other culture makers) to attend to that opening. This attention and its cultivation might be seen to be Irigaray's great project. It might also fit Merleau-Ponty's bringing truth into being.

    You have treated us to two wonderful turns of phrase and I can imagine ways in which they do illumine things helpfully, but it seems to me that they miss something in our experience of the new; it comes to us before we move toward it. There is something about the new that resists our construction, or perhaps that stands outside of it. By that resistance and exteriority it is hard to know how to speak of this clearly, especially in a theoretical vein. Nevertheless, there is more to culture and history than our human agency and I am minded to say thank goodness, we human beings are cock ups. I myself speak of this mysteriousness of the new as being called, or better gifted for and called into the future (with thanks to Jim Olthuis of course). This is not a new way to talk; it too is a reshuffling of what I have received. I acknowledge the conundrum. Still, I would go on, we are accompanied one could say, and that means even our most driven agency must be and is an opening toward, an availability to one who calls. One could I suppose put this otherwise and speak of something like an historical consciousness that contains within it heterogenous traces that cannot be reduced to the set of things that are or have ever been thinkable or extant, traces that cannot quite be surpressed or folded in without remainder, traces one must hold oneself open to the future, to a future reception of meaning in order to interpret. Whatever. My point all along is this: it is as true to say that we receive the truth as it is to say that we bring the truth into being. The two claims are coeval in the sense that they emerge with equal validity from the same human experience. How else to account for our capacity to act and transform, and our inability to be masters of the transformation, to bring history to an end as it were. We are always thrust(ing ourselves) forward, in process, as if moving toward a voice calling just around our constructed corners. Or so I imagine it.

  2. Surely, whether one is bringing a "barely conceivable" new thing into being or responding to possibilities at play in the present, one chooses what to research, think, and write about. And surely, even if theory -- philosophy -- has transformative effects that can largely only be recognised once transformations have taken place, transformative intent is not merely wishful shooting in the darkness.

  3. My point was not to impugn transformative intent, nor to say that such intent will not have a justifiable direction. I was trying to say that all human culture makers are in the same boat so to speak; we are all moved movers to pick a medieval metaphor. The idealist origins of the continental tradition tended to think of human subjects or perhaps The Human Subject in which we all participate as unmoved mover. To think that however is in my view to leave the world as we experience it for wishful shooting in the darkness. It is possible to interpret Merleau-Ponty's "bringing truth into being" as containing vestiges of that wishful shooting". Just because one acknowledges history as the context of thoughts and actions does not mean one cannot still hold a place for some human unmoved mover, even while dancing on Kant's grave.

    1. Dancing on Kant's grave? Ah, I hope that people will be able and willing to affectionately dance on mine when the time comes. We could all do with more dancing.

      I take your point from earlier, Bob, and I think that both Irigaray and Merleau-Ponty could be read as not seeing the human subject as an unmoved mover--Irigaray would view humans as being situated historically, and I think Merleau-Ponty too, depending on how one reads him. I certainly acknowledge us crazy humans as having history (I would call it tradition, but I think we are speaking about similar things) as the context of thoughts and action, even while still allowing for (relatively) self-sparked human movement. We are "made" in our contexts, but as we grow and learn to reflect on those contexts and our thoughts and actions, we begin to have a greater ability to shape our own thoughts, actions, selves, and--I would argue--our contexts too.

    2. Well, I think I was reacting more to Allyson's original post than to your reply, but as a consequence of having read your reply.

      Allyson used the phrasing "a new social truth to redefine the culture and cultural norms", and that kind of stuck with me like a bur on my sweater. I wonder how one gets from talk of movers and truth and dead philosophers to this: some degree of intentional direction in philosophy aimed at the change we need.

  4. I am all for practical philosophy as it used to be called by dead philosophers interested in movers and truth. The sort of work that Lambert is doing on understanding the macrostructures of contemporary Western societies (bureaucratic state, market economy, civil society) has real practical implications as he showed in Art in Public (it completely transforms the debate about public funding of the arts and restarts it on dramatically different ground). Surely this is an example of the sort of effect or at least potential effect you are speaking of Daryl. The theoretical work that he does to conceptualize the three macrostructures and the norms to which they respond is slow and patient. He is arriving at this work as the culmination of many years thought and writing. Moreover, that theoretical work is not being done on the streets but in libraries and a lovely and well appointed study. If I think about where I do my philosophical work it is in the cultural lumber room of western societies. My relationship to cultural change is at a further remove. I spend my career trying to understand dead philosophers when they talk about truth and movers and I do that because they are often worth understanding both to understand why we have ended up in one or another cultural cul-de-sac and to discover within our own cultural DNA modes and trajectories of thought that speak of other possibilities even within our cultural "domain" than the one's we have actually realized in the course of time. This very act of bringing to light hidden moments of difference within our cultural same (identity) reacquaints ourselves with the mystery suffusing even what we most take for granted because we think we already know, our own identity. In so doing it makes a contribution however small to creating cultural availability for the advent of a new enchantment by which we terribly disenchanted westerners learn to live again in gratitude and wonder. Just two examples. Their effect is not immediate but they do intentionally work at change and arguably the sorts of change that "we" need.