Fundamental Paradox of Later Twentieth-Century Thought

[excerpt from part 4, Fundamental Paradox of Twentieth-century Thought] 

I’ll close this consideration of language by simply relating a story told by a high-ranking member of JFK’s cabinet. It will serve as a little parable, an illustration given to provoke thought. The story’s about a dinner at a swanky
Washington DC restaurant in the early 1960s, where the cabinet sat with President Kennedy for hours, discussing the question: “What do black voters want?” It wasn’t until years later that the cabinet member who told this story realized there were as many African-American men in that room as cabinet members. But they were serving as waiters and filling wine glasses and carrying dishes in and out, while the white men one by one gave their opinions about what blacks really wanted. While the African-Americans in that room were physically present, they were as good as invisible, because they didn’t signify. They didn’t “make a difference,” even when they themselves were the topic on the agenda. Now that’s conditioned perception! And future generations will look back on us with the same sense of shock and incredulity over what we aren’t seeing right now.

So there is always more in the linguistic flow of sound and more in the world around us than what we are conditioned to perceive and “count” as being significant. This is how our language – like our disciplinary discourse and like our culture as a whole – conditions our perceptions of everything, even while enabling us to share and preserve and enhance our perceptions. Without such sets of limiting conditions, no human community could ever achieve any shared knowledge of their world, or have a communal “world” to share. Nonetheless, these are still limiting conditions.

It seems to me that this is the fundamental paradox of later twentieth-century thought. I am so drawn personally to Derrida and Kristeva because they are always trying to work out ways to negotiate this paradox faithfully and honestly. Here again, though, I must note that this state of affairs – one that psychoanalysis and literary theory have opened up for us as late-moderns – was familiar territory to earlier Westerners. But we’ll consider that more appropriately later, as when we leave Plato and Aristole get to Boethius, Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante, for example.   [click on Pages to the right for more]

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