This is – in the vaugeest sense – a response to Martin Weller’s thoughts on “Open Education and the un-enlightenment” that I’m putting here just to stop people speculating that I’ve been replaced by a robot that only talks about citations and Yacht Rock. In deference to the post-fact world, I am not citing authorities in this post*.
Are we living in a “post-fact” world? And is this a new development, or a more prominent iteration of a previously identified trend?
From Brexit to Corbyn, Trump to Saunders, media commentators have been bashing us over the head with a half-brick labelled “post-fact” or “the new populism” as a way to give us a handle on a world in which the arbiters of information are continually under suspicion.
This itself represents a failure of higher education, as there already exists a theoretical toolkit to deal with this very state of affairs, and it has been widely taught at undergraduate level since at least the late 80s.
Post-modernism is what a group of academics in the latter half of the C20th decided to label our growing cultural distrust of the grand narrative, coupled with the cultural theory informed (and, to a lesser extent post-structuralist) approaches to analysing reality using techniques developed to discuss fiction.
What this has resulted in is a conspiracisation of reality – where explanations from those in positions of power are distrusted, and the tools and tropes of fiction are used to propose plausible alternate possibilities. If you like, it is the scientific method if you removed the basis in scholarly literature and abandoned the concept of falsifiablility.
I’m going to use the idea of the conspiracy theory as a way to understand what is going on, and I am using the term without an implict value judgement. To me, a conspiracy theory:
- Is a narrative of resistance – it implicitly distrusts received wisdom from any external source. It puts the case of a group party to hidden truth against a (postulated) far better resourced group that actively hides this truth, on behalf of an unaware mass population.
- Is non-falsifiable – counterfactuals are simply distrusted rather than incorporated, significant counterfactuals are seen as a means to “suppress the truth”. Attack or ridicule are seen as an admission of culpability.
- Is coherent – it sets up and positions itself with relation to dichotomous relationships, it attempts to explain a wide range of activity in a unified and non-contradictory way. (Conspiracy theories often use tools from fiction, such as plot structures, tropes, motivational fallacies and structural critiques of culture – in order to do this)
- Is evangelical – ideas are designed to be spread memetically, codes and systems of reference are used to identify others and cohere a group culture.
- Is plastic – the theory narrative will shift to encompass new ideas, or align with other theories. If a component of a theory is thoroughly repudiated, it is routed around.
Open Education itself is a conspiracy, if you like. Evil publishers are profiting from the unequal distribution of information, where they do take steps to address this they are “openwashing”. They do this because they hate learning where a profit is not made. If we attain a critical mass, open education will replace the textbook publishing industry.
If you are sitting there thinking “who, us?”, ask yourself what information would falsify your belief in open education. What information would falsify your other beliefs?
So I’m making a semiotic shift by proposing another way to think about the “post-factual” within work on post-modernity, cultural theory and (in particular) the study of conspiracy theories – and I’m suggesting we also examine our own practice and beliefs with these tools.
In essence, we live in a culture that loves to tell itself stories – comprised of similarly prolix sub-cultures. The sub-culture that constructs the most compelling narrative becomes the dominant culture, and then other sub-cultures attempt to develop narratives in opposition that attempt to displace this.
Stories can be compelling without being true. And the fact that people chose to base their lives around compelling stories is neither unusual nor concerning. As a sub-culture (which I’m going to go ahead and put all of us gathered here in, though not on an exclusive mono-cultural basis* – structuralism! wheeee!) “the elite” privileges certain forms of “truth” within a narrative based on a deliberately developed high standard of proof.
I like high standards of proof, because I like being confident that other members of the “elite” sub-culture (that’s you, dear reader) will validate my contribution to a narrative. This is why it is so horribly hard to write this post without using references or appeals to authority – I have to get over the idea that the esteemed Prof Weller is going to trash my contributions.
Others do not have to, or indeed intend to, appeal to the “elite” sub-culture in constructing or contributing to a narrative. This doesn’t mean that proof or authority isn’t used, just that these may not be in a form that we are used to dealing with or responding to.
If we want to understand why we keep losing arguments (getting to the nub of the matter) we need to get better at understanding how these arguments work and how strategies to win them work. Or we need to come up with another form of argument that works for us better than it does for other people. Or we need to get better at widening our little group to include other people.
* if you must, Frederick Jameson’s “Post-modernism, or, the cultural logic of late capitalism” is a useful starting point, David Aaranovich’s “Voodoo Histories” is good on the nature of the conspiracy theories, Helene Cixous’ “Le Rire de la Meduse” is an underpinning set of ideas on multiple cultural narratives that more people should read, and any decent UK Cultural Studies anthology would be worth a look for a grounding in the ideas of the field.
** cos I’m an articulate extroverted middle-class able-bodied white heterosexual cis male western European with a university education that participates on a well-paid basis in an information economy – although this makes me FUCKING AWESOME at being a member of the “elite” it does not describe everyone who may subscribe to “elite” values here. Which in itself is a pretty brutal critique of “elite” culture…