Monday, August 10, 2009

Truths, Real and Otherwise

At Salty Current, run by Pharyngula regular and Order of the Molly recipient "SC," I was reading some quotes from Alan Sokal, most notable for hoaxing one of the preeminent journals of literary-critical bullshit out there. (I say this with a substantial background in lit-crit -- most of it is bullshit, and about the only literary theorists you should actually even think about trusting about anything are Mark Turner and Stephen King.)

Some of Sokal's meditations on the notions of factualness and truthfulness, as well as Alan Ryan's assertion (quoted in the same essay) " Once you read Foucault as saying that truth is simply an effect of power, you've had it." I'm personally with Sokal in thinking this is a mischaracterisation of what Foucault actually said, but the notion that truth is an effect of power is an interesting one, and I think factual in some cases, for some definitions of "truth."

I'm going to say that in this case, I'm drawing a distinction between factual and true, in that there are a multitude of "truths" in this culture that have absolutely nothing to do with their factual status. In fact, most of them don't even have the saving grace of a kernel of truth lurking in their cores. These "truths" are things that "everyone knows," as the stock phrase goes, received wisdom in the service of power:

There are many more, of course. (I could do an entire book on "Things the Culture Says are True About Women, But Aren't," for example.) A lot of people have been doing good work in trying to combat these "truths," but a lot of them have entrenched themselves firmly in the mainstream discourse, to the point where a lot of the time it goes without saying that these things are just true. My advice is maybe to pay a little bit of attention to things people say are true, and rely instead on things that people know are factual...


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