Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Literature's Humble Uniform

We might take the problem of contemporary literary fiction back just one step further, to Plato's teacher, Socrates, and his famous statement of the merits of knowing you don't know. Socrates seems, by this, to name a kind of humility as essential to human knowledge, presumably because mere humans, by contrast with their gods, are never capable of more than partial insight; to give proper expression to this limitation, it is necessary, so Socrates teaches, to build into any and all of our pursuits the acknowledgement that they are undertaken in merely human style.

But there is no longer any humility about this Socratic move - perhaps there never was. Why not, is a matter of logic: if not knowing is an essential aspect of all human knowing, then not knowing is also an essential aspect of knowing you don't know; it is not a case, then, of knowing you don't know but also of not knowing you don't know. This kind of logic is rather dreary, of course, seeming bent on being so clever as to efface the spirit of Socrates' claim. But it is precisely the spirit of Socrates' claim that is at issue. For the truth is, that knowing you don't know can only be the superior mode of knowing that Socrates claims it to be, if it is characterized by an inhuman certainty, which, for Socrates, comes from the juxtaposition of human knowing with godly knowing. In other words, as a perpetually present "humility," knowing you don't know is really a piece of hubris, always relativizing of human achievement as a means of rising to a godly one.

The fact is that we do know. Not in a godly way (what might that be?) but in a human way. The idea that this, the fact that we humans know in a human way, ought to be perpetually made present in our knowing implies that there could be another way. If we relinquish that final piece of hankering after divine truth, then we can launch ourselves into our human ways, without having to show contempt for them, or remove from them, unless, that is, they come into conflict with other human ways that we might value more.

Shuffle off this mortal humility, then, and our writers might be free again, to launch themselves into their projects without having to posture at a contempt for them even as they pursue them, without having to sacrifice their human talents to appease the gods they no longer believe in.

But why now, for Socrates' saying to have become the style? Why now, for the so-called "humility" of not knowing to be in vogue? Because we live in a condition that is premised upon the quiet suppression of any kind of launching in, any kind of knowing that might be considered to merit being acted upon; and it is a condition for which the "not-knowing" intellectual classes, too knowing to feel that anything is really justified, are the perfect embedded army.

Contemporary literary fiction is one division of this troupe: a very loyal one, whose "new clothes" are the uniform of the obedience it fosters in the "hearts and minds" of its target population.

No comments:

Post a Comment