Saturday, December 30, 2017

Wokeness and Myth on Campus

Crying “free exchange of ideas!” misses the cultural meaning of protest in a society coming apart.

The recent wave of protests at American colleges — in which students express their anger at the presence on their campuses of ideas and speakers that they believe to lie outside the boundaries of acceptable discourse — has elicited endless commentary, but little of that commentary has been helpful. To some observers, the students are admirably alert to institutional racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, and are courageous in resisting those forces. To others, the students’ responses merely mark them as “special snowflakes” unable to cope with real-world diversity of opinions. These opposed interpretations of the protests are themselves laid out, fortified, and held with commendable firmness or lamentable rigidity, depending on your point of view. In any case, they lead nowhere and leave no minds changed.
The problem lies in a failure to grasp the true nature of the students’ position. If we are going to understand that position, we will need to draw on intellectual sources quite other than those typically invoked. What is required of us is the study of myth — and not in any pejorative or dismissive sense, but in the sense of an ineradicable element of human consciousness.
The Technological Core and the Mythical Core
In his book The Presence of Myth, first published in English translation in 1989, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski divides our civilization into two “cores.” This is his term for two cognitive, social, and ethical networks, “two different sources of energy active in man’s conscious relation to the world.” One of these cores is “technological,” the other “mythical.”
The term “technological core” is potentially misleading. Kołakowski is speaking of something broader than what we usually mean by “technological,” something influenced by Martin Heidegger’s understanding. To Heidegger, and therefore I think to Kołakowski, technology is not the product of science; rather, science is the product of a “technological enframing.” Technology, on this view, is not a set of methods or inventions but a stance toward the world that is instrumental and manipulative, in relatively neutral senses of those words. The technological core is analytical, sequential, and empirical. Another way to put this is to say that what belongs to the technological core is what we find to hand: whatever occupies the lifeworld we share, and is therefore subject to our manipulation and control, and to debates about what it is and what might be done with it. To this core belong instrumental and discursive reason, including all the sciences and most forms of philosophy — everything that reckons with the possible uses of human power to shape ourselves and our environment. The technological core undergirds and produces the phenomena we typically refer to as technological.
The “mythical core” of civilization, by contrast, describes that aspect of our experience “not revealed by scientific questions and beliefs.” It encompasses the “nonempirical unconditioned reality” of our experience, that which is not amenable to confirmation or disconfirmation. As will become clearer below, the mythical core describes our most fundamental relation to the world. It is our metaphysical background, the elements prior to our manipulation and control. For Kołakowski, the failure to distinguish between the mythical and technological cores leads to a failure to understand many social trends and events.
Kołakowski brackets the question of whether “nonempirical unconditioned reality” actually exists — that is, of whether metaphysics is fictional. He is interested, rather, in the impulse toward connecting with such a reality, which he says is persistent in human civilization, though it takes many forms.
He also wants to understand this mythical core on its own terms. But this understanding can be difficult, for our society “wishes to include myth in the technological order, that is ... it seeks justification for myth.” And the only way to seek justification for myth is to analyze it into components and reassemble them in a logical sequence. That is to say, myth can only be justified by ceasing to be myth:
The Gospel phrase, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” appears to an eye accustomed to rudimentary logical distinctions a jumble of words justified at best as metaphor translatable into several distinct utterances: “I am offering you proper directives,” “I proclaim the truth,” and “If you obey me I guarantee that you shall have eternal life,” and so on. In fact, these sorts of conjectured metaphors are literal, do not demand to be understood and to be translated into the separate languages of values and information. One can participate in mythical experience only with the fullness of one’s personality, in which the acquisition of information and the absorption of directives are inseparable. All names which participators in myths have given to their participation — “illumination” or “awakening” or such like — refer to the complete acts of entry into the mythical order; all distinctions of desire, understanding, and will in relation to these global acts is a derivative intellectual reconstruction.
This description is deeply insightful, useful to reflection on many cultural phenomena. But here we need only observe that it helps to explain a great deal of what’s happening on certain American college campuses these days.
Wokeness as Myth . . .


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