The Crisis of Representation

Whether it’s student demonstrations or failed replications, academic discourse seems to be in a lot of trouble these days. My view is that it can be traced back to the 1960s and what is sometimes called “the crisis of representation”, or what Gilles Deleuze called “the indignity of speaking of others”.  This has steadily eroded the institutions we needed to maintain our composure, if you will, in the face of conflicting claims. Though he meant it in a somewhat more technical sense, Wittgenstein was onto something when he said that “the civil status of a contradiction” is the philosophical problem. The crisis is that we don’t know how to react when someone (or someone’s data) contradicts us (or our theories). It terrifies us. Even an election result traumatizes us.

For some time now, my working hypothesis is that the quality of our discourse depends on the strength of our prose. We have to learn to approach experience as something that can be articulated in an orderly sequence of paragraphs, each stating and supporting a claim. In that form, opinions should not appear at all threatening (as they certainly might on a placard in an angry mob). I think we have failed to maintain our universities as sites of rigorously “prosaic” experience, places where even poetry is read, not to carry us off into ecstasies, but to bring about a reorganization of our emotions, a reordering of the prose of the world.

For a re-ordering to make sense, of course, there has to be some order to begin with. And this, it seems to me, has been lost. I need to think some more about this. I think it is very important. We need to cultivate, once again, “the prose of world”, and this will require us to establish some decorum. Deleuze to the contrary, we need to learn how to speak for others with dignity. Otherwise, it seems, we can’t even speak with each other.

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