Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sorting out the past and envisioning the present

I am reading a book on the mistakes made in Afghanistan in the last two decades -- a fecund source of outrage for those of us who want to find folks to blame for the mess our world is in. That was a time when obtuse, obdurate ignorance seems to have overcome those who were in command of the greatest economy and military force in history: they believed they could shape the world the way they wanted. In 2004 Ron Suskind of the New York Times interviewed a “high-level” official in the White House, who said to him, “guys like me were ‘in the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ “I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism,” Suskind wrote. “He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” {Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004, quoted in Fitzgerald and Gould, Afghanistan’s Untold Story, 2009. San Francisco: Citylights.}

In a way, he was right: They did create a reality but it was not a reality that they intended.

It’s easy now, in retrospect, to regard this remark as arrogant, foolhardy. What is worth noting here is what the remark tells us about the human condition. This official was living, and clearly epitomizing, the postmodern trend of his times. He epitomized it in the sense that he understood, as the postmodernists emphasized, that human beings live in meaningful “worlds” that are possible because of the rich imaginative capability of the human mind. This suggested that better worlds could be imagined and so created; and astride such a powerful engine of change as the American empire they were going to create a new world, one in which -- I think as they truly imagined -- that would be more free, more open, more just. In those times I met students who had come to believe that the worlds we live in are just “made up.” This official thought that it would possible to “make up” a better world for all.

What he seems to have forgotten, and certainly the postmodernist gave no help on this score, was that he and all of us have to live in a world that may not be as we imagine it. The world as it is, has properties of its own; it operates according to its own laws, whatever we think about it. It is wise to assume that we only know it imperfectly. Always, whatever we think about it, it exists outside our imaginations. As humans our way of apprehending it is through the intersubjective forms of language and gesture, but it has conditions, relations, qualities that we must seek to understand better if we are to live in it, for our knowledge is imperfect. Such were the "enlightenment principles" that Suskind took for granted.

The fact is, of course, is that the imaginative worlds we “make up” have to be deployed in a world whose properties may not conform to what we think about it. Marshall Sahlins has said in many places that in real life human beings are always putting their suppositions about the world “at risk”, for the imaginative frames they use so as to encompass their reality may fail to do so; their suppositions may insufficiently grasp the world as it is, with consequences that will necessarily be unforeseen. Sahlins’ point is that human beings are thus forced constantly to revise and reconfigure their images of the world around them, if they are to live in the real world, which is a way of saying that social thought and social life is always changing as human beings revise their imaginative images of the world so as to encompass it better in the next encounter.

But there can be even more serious implications to one’s mis-reading of one’s setting, especially if one is astride a great empire. The tragedy in this instance is that rather than leaving behind a set of worldly marvels for us to “sort out,” his administration left behind a world whose wreckage defies “sorting out”.

It is easy to be self-righteous when we look back at the folly of administrations in earlier times – indeed, some of us have fed our egos on the blunders of the GW Bush administration for several years now. The problem is, like the official we also have to confront a world in our own time whose properties we only imperfectly understand. What bewilders us now will continue to bewilder. Will the next generation do better? I doubt it.

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