A Better Grasp

I suppose this is just over-simplified for a mass audience? Or perhaps the editor simplified it? Because it is a tad misleading. A classic example of what Susan Haack calls the passes-for fallacy.

But for many contemporary academics, especially those who bought into postmodern theory in the last few decades, the idea of the “real” raises serious problems. Reality depends on those who are perceiving it, on social forces that have conditioned their thinking, and on whoever controls the flow of information that influences them…Both sides have a point here. No one could survive for a day if he or she really tried to live by the relentless relativism and skepticism preached by postmodernists, in which everything is shadowed by uncertainty or exposed as ideology. But it is also true that the media revolutions of the last century, while they hugely expanded our access to knowledge, created far more effective tools by which that knowledge could be manipulated.

But reality is one thing, and knowledge is another; reality is one thing, and our perception of it is another. Yes, of course, the mass media have created immense new possibilities for manipulation, distortion, opinion-shaping, subtle influencing, and so on; and that’s a hugely important fact; I’ve been obsessed with it myself for years; my shelves groan with the weight of books on PR, advertising, the media, and related subjects; but – but that does not mean that the mass media have done something to reality in general. They’ve done a lot to various particular realities, such as the popular understanding of a lot of things; but much of reality itself is impervious to media manipulations.

Which is not to say that there are no serious problems with ‘the idea of the “real”‘ – but that passage doesn’t state them very clearly. It conflates a problem with knowledge with a problem with the idea of the real. I’m sure Dickstein is well aware of that – probably the editor made him simplify for the purposes of a newspaper piece. But that just creates another problem of knowledge…Ironic, isn’t it. But I kind of like his last paragraph. It’s not unlike the way we end Why Truth Matters.

This is how most readers have always read novels, not simply for escape, and certainly not mainly for art, but to get a better grasp of the world around them and the world inside them. Now that the overload of theory, like a mental fog, has begun to lift, perhaps professional readers will catch up with them.

That’s it, you see. I think we all (or almost all) want a better grasp of the world around us and the world inside us. We also want things that fight with that – consolation, hope, relief – but we want that too. It’s a desire that ought not to be sneered at or patronized or called unsophisticated. It’s the most sophisticated thing about us.

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