Sunday, January 12, 2014

good-bye grad school, part ad nauseum

So the take-home message of the Theory I learned in grad school is that all the things that we think are set in stone, aren't. That has been truly useful to me. I have a number of situations in my head that are entrenched--situations with a long history that I have told myself over and over again until I see it from my own little rut as if it were "real." But the whole point (if you ask me) of theory is that nothing is "real" in any ultimate sense. It's always just a way of thinking, a way of starting from assumptions that I've never examined, a way of framing the questions. If I change the way I think, re-frame the questions, turn the situation sideways or upside down-- the whole thing changes. And that has been really useful.

In Theory, all these entrenched ways we have of thinking about things are called "constructs," because they are ways of thinking or looking at the world that we have created, sometimes individually, sometimes as a society. There is nothing intrinsically "true" about the way we think, it's all learned, acquired, constructed habits of thought. For example, the idea that women are "naturally" maternal, and that we all have a deep longing to be mothers, that we will experience fulfillment by raising children, that if we don't have children we will not experience the full extent of womanhood-- all of that is a construct, and the way we can tell is because none of those things are always true. There are plenty of women who have no desire to be mothers, who are mothers but don't find fulfillment in it, who are mothers but shouldn't be, or who are physically unable to have children and yet live full, happy lives.

Maybe it seems a bit finicky to be insistent about this point, because after all, even if there are exceptions, plenty of times those ideas are true, so what's the harm? But that misses the enormous pressure that is put on the people who don't fit the construct, the blatant and destructive power that these ideas hold over people who don't fit in. It is important to be clear that gender roles, racial profiling, biases about orientation, ideas about art and literature and education, and all sorts of assumptions that we make every day, are not set in stone. They don't come from some universal reality.

Sometimes even theorists get caught on this. It seems to me that one of the most pervasive constructs in art these days is that the social self, the self that we present to others, is not "real." What is real, according to this construct, is the beast beneath. So Joe Perfect, who works hard, goes to church, has been married for 25 years, shows up for his kids' basketball games and dance recitals, and generally behaves in a socially acceptable way, is really a secret addict, or he has a mistress on the side, or next week he's suddenly going to explode in a violent rage and murder his children in their beds. And according to this construct, the purpose of art is to peel back the social persona and examine the seething mass of neuroses underneath.

And it's true often enough that we just accept it. How many publicly exemplary people have turned out to be fakes? And even on a personal level, who doesn't know the feeling of disconnect between the social persona that we are more-or-less required to wear in public and the person we feel we really are underneath? We all know the pressure of having to speak or behave falsely at work or at a party in order to fit in to social expectations. It's not that far off of the "reality" most of us experience.

But there's also something constructed here. The idea that the social person isn't real and that the seething mass of neuroses underneath is real is a construct, just like so many other constructs. Like all binaries, the seeds of the opposite half exist in the first half. Human beings are social creatures. We have always existed in social groups, from the earliest archaeological records. If anything is real, that is.

There are exceptions, of course, and I've already said that exceptions are what prove that something is a construct. But this is a sort of reverse construct, where we assume that the social self is unhealthy and that only by digging down to the mass of conflicting desires beneath the social mask do we reach what is "real." It's not necessarily true. And —I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record here— freeing us up from that assumption would free art up from having to always concentrate on revealing what is the very worst about human beings. What is the very worst about us is no more real than what we are at our very best.

(This next bit should probably be a separate post but I'm trying to make this the last grad school post, so it gets crammed in here.) Awhile back in the grad school posts I mentioned that the word "meaning" is problematic these days. A good theorist doesn't want there to be any meaning at all anywhere, because "meaning" is a construct, the same as gender bias or the role of art. According to this way of thinking, there is no ultimate reality, so there is no ultimate meaning or purpose or truth. All we are is dust in the wind. (It did occur to me while listening to "Dust in the Wind" on the radio a few weeks ago that the entire corpus of theoretical work from the last 30 years is possibly the result of too many late nights listening to inane Kansas lyrics. That song was endlessly ubiquitous back in my high school days. Aaalll we dooooo crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see, all we are is dust in the wind... all we are is dust in the wind. blecch.)

To say that there is no such thing as universal, absolute meaning is-- of course-- to make a universal, absolute statement of meaning. It's self-contradictory. Most of the time I believe that the only meaning is meaning that we create ourselves (first person plural used advisedly, although individual creation of meaning must exist, too). But here's the thing: created meaning is not the same thing as no meaning--unless you're going to make some universal statement about what the word "meaning" has to mean, so that you can then say it doesn't exist. And how ridiculous is that? We make our own meaning. Maybe it's localized, maybe it's personal, but created meaning is still meaning.

But honestly, in my heart of hearts, I do believe in absolute, universal meaning. It's just that I think it's so huge that is far, far beyond our puny human brains. We can get a glimpse of it, or maybe understand a small bit of it. But it's so far out there that really it's irrelevant to everyday life. Which is why it is important be humble when stating anything of, um, meaning. Wow, this is really tricky to word.

And that is in the end why I disagree so much with a literalist interpretation of the Bible. It makes the Bible more important than God. (What I think of as God.) If God exists, God is a being far too big, far, far too vast to be encompassed by human thinking, and most especially God is too big to be imprisoned in words written in a book. Words written by human beings (including me) can only ever be a limited statement of what we tentatively understand at any particular moment. If God exists, s/he is far beyond our understanding and any statements we make about that being/entity/divinity/deity can only encompass a small part of what/who God is. And any self-righteous platform of "truth" that we construct so that we can draw lines between whose theology is correct and whose isn't are..... you knew this was coming.... just so much dust in the wind.

I really should stop because I'm getting punchy. Cheers, and we can all pray this is the end of the grad school posts.

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