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Hello reader! Welcome to the final post in the Divisions series!  Today is where we bring it all together, from my academic journal to the assertion of powerful cultural meaning in myths, from the way humans create their world to the struggle of creating fairness in an inherently imbalanced, dynamic universe.

This semester I am taking a course entitled Reflexivity.  This course (and the instructor) are more than a little responsible for this recent flurry of blog activity.   I hold him entirely responsible for any further blog posts in the next 16 weeks or so.  Yes, it’s your fault.

Reflexivity is an anthropology course.  And a history course.  And a writing course.  It is at its most basic a study of the way that the author’s views influence the work they produce; in other words, a course focused on asking the question “How am I part of what I write?”

It’s a worthy question.  It is well known that we write what we know.  In fiction, we’re likely to write characters who remind us of us, someone whose brain we can get inside.  In nonfiction, we’ll pick topics we’re familiar with.  It sounds obvious.  After all, how could you write about something you know nothing about?  Even science fiction writers draw from what is known.  We write what we know, and we know  what we notice.

Let’s slow that point down.

Think back to the last time you remember being at a party.  It doesn’t matter what kind of party.  Think about when you walked into the area and took your first look around.  What did you notice?   You certainly didn’t notice everything, because  the sheer quantity of sensory information would have fried your frontal lobe like a particularly wrinkled cruller doughnut.  And you didn’t notice nothing, because you have some memory of the party (remember remembering that?).  So you chose something between everything and nothing; in other words, you or your brain somehow decided what information you needed to see.  Once you saw it, your brain made another decision, creating a kind of sensory-input American Idol process where judges narrowed down a field of possible contestant observations until there was a manageable number left.

Just chilling with my friends

Did you look at the people? What were the light fixtures like? What was the dress code, and how well was it followed? Did you see what the floor looked like, or what the food was like?   If you are a party planner or a chef or just a foodie, you might have noticed the refreshments and the decor.  If you work in retail for a clothing company, you might have noticed what everyone was wearing.  If you once had a traumatic experience with a poodle, you might have noticed the dog.  An anthropologist trained in the United States is likely to notice different things from a sociologist trained in France, or a Jungian analyst trained in Zurich–whether they’re interpreting text or simply observing people at a party.  This is not a new fact to anthropologists.  For a few decades now, the big trend in anthropology has been one of reflexivity.*

*the other trend in anthropology has been the manufacture of an increasingly isolating nomenclature, including a number of words that just look made-up. “Positionality?” Seriously?

In sum: we are part of the words we set down when we write.  And before our fingers even touch the keyboard or the pen or the pencil, the impression we have of our subject has been influenced by our brain, our upbringing, and our history.  Writing is about more than just cramming the outside world into a funnel, or holding up a mirror to reality; the writer becomes a prism, a lens through which the world is filtered into experience.

Even ‘objective’ information is subject to this filtration effect–this kind of cultural/subjective reverse osmosis.  This article about human anatomy contains a prime example (in not-especially-obfuscatory language) of the way that “objective” scientific information is changed by our cultural perspective.

The universe has a lot of information to take in.  We don’t even come close to noticing everything, seeing everything–basically, we don’t experience everything that we experience.  So we break it down.  We divide our time into sacred and profane, using the moments of great importance to anchor ourselves in our life and identity. We divide our spaces in the same way–hell, we divide our brain spatially!

What does this mean?

On the one hand, on the downside, the bad news; we aren’t objective.  Not even close.  Trying to disconnect your intellect from your cognitive landscape would be like drawing a four-sided triangle.  Because the world is so interconnected, we break it down into segments; sacred and profane, house and outdoors. We thrive on dichotomies, and so we make dichotomies.

“But writer,” you might say, not knowing my name, “What about science? The much-reviewed, lab-tested pursuit of truth?  I can be objective when I describe the state of a cloud of interstellar gas! It’s not as though we’re making value judgments when we measure carbon dioxide levels!”

Well, dear reader, my question is this: How are you measuring your cloud of gas?  Are you measuring its temperature? Why? When you’re monitoring carbon dioxide levels, do you measure its level in cubic inches? No? Why not?

Because that’s not the right unit of measurement.  Before we even input the data, we’ve made a judgment about what kind of information it is.  And before we’ve made that decision, we’ve looked at our research subject and decided the right way to measure it.  In other words, before we even get started, we’re already halfway through a huge maze of value judgments.

Objective? We can’t even be objective about a math problem.  So where does that leave us?

In a very interesting place.

My semesters often have themes.   Last semester, the overarching theme to the semester was statistics, the way that numbers and their interpretation can sway every aspect of science and social science.  This semester, the theme seems to be reflexivity.  This semester, the world is a dynamic system powered by inequalities and disagreements, where the only fixed points are the ones we all agree on.   We are constantly being pounded by various stimuli and phenomena–and it’s up to us to interpret them, to find the point of balance between our sensory input and our oh-so-subjective  response.

That’s it; that’s the semester.

Have a nice day.


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