Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Chaos versus Contingency Theory: Epistemological Issues in Orwell's '1984.'

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Chaos versus Contingency Theory: Epistemological Issues in Orwell's '1984.'

Article excerpt

There is a consensus in contemporary theory that globalizing claims are inherently suspect. The association of totalization with terror has gained such currency that it is nearly impossible to use the verb "to globalize" in any but a sarcastic or aggressive fashion. Moreover, a complex nexus of institutional pressures generated by some of our most influential departments of literary studies and certain key journals, plus the kinds of papers that tend to be read at colloquia such as the MLA, channelize critical discourse in such a way that only studies which are designed to have local applicability are deemed acceptable. It would seem that in a world where radical anti-foundationalism has become naturalized into an ethical imperative the only common ground is to be found in the often unspoken but for that very reason unshakable faith that a global perspective is intellectually and politically oppressive.

Among the most commanding contemporary voices in support of the position that all knowledge is radically contingent on local contexts is that of Richard Rorty. Fundamentally, Rorty's stance is based on his conviction that all axiomatic systems are arbitrary. Although once in place they have real and at times pervasive effects, all "regimes of truth," to use Foucault's formulation, are ballasted by nothing more fundamental than chance. For Rorty, truth can never be gauged by a correspondence between linguistic claims and an extralinguistic reality. Although Rorty believes in the existence of a world outside of language, he argues that since this world can be represented in an infinite number of ways, none of which can be judged to be superior to any other by an appeal to nature, the truth value of a claim resides totally in its adherence to institutionally determined criteria for truthfulness.

This Rortian epistemology is so hegemonic that appeals to a correspondence theory of truth, to realism, and to the desirability of globalizing theories are typically dismissed as naive or reactionary. To counter this tendency, I would like to argue that Rorty's epistemology is itself fundamentally flawed. Specifically, I will make three claims: 1) all axiomatic systems are not arbitrary--i.e., lumps and texts differ inherently, not merely because of different sets of truth criteria established by consensus groups; 2) globalizing or universalizing claims are not intrinsically undesirable; 3) a modified correspondence theory of truth is not only possible, but can serve as a beneficent constraint against the possible terror practiced by evil local interpretative communities.

My critique of Rorty's epistemology focuses in part on his reading of George Orwell's 1984 in his recent book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, and my strategy involves the use of an epistemology informed by a number of recent scientific theories, specifically those concerned with chaos and emergent evolution. My use of science in criticizing Rorty is both rhetorical and programmatic: it is rhetorical insofar as I believe, along with Winston Smith, that the empirical frame of mind needs to be defended if a discourse criticizing the baneful effects of relativism can be mounted; it is programmatic because I contend that it is only through an interdisciplinary perspective in which the otherness of scientific discourse is respected and not reduced to a linguistic practice epistemologically commensurate with other language games that the veiled Cartesianism informing much contemporary theory can be replaced by a non-dualistic view of the relation between the cultural and natural worlds, what Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers call, in the subtitle of their book, "man's new dialogue with nature."

Rorty interprets Orwell's 1984 not as a revelation of the truth of modern civilization but as the staging of an alternative future. For Rorty, the power of 1984 does not reside in its correspondence with some state of affairs presumed to lie outside of its textual field, but in its ability to play off descriptions against redescriptions: "It was not its relation to reality, but its relation to the most popular alternative description of recent events, that gave it its power. …

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