A long time ago, arguing about theory and practice, and specifically defending that you can’t say “practice of practice”, i got to the awful feeling that something was being left out. My friend and i were not getting any closer to agreement, and i was guessing that was because we were not really discussing the values that made us believe in our arguments.
So, i came up with another dilemma. Instead of theory VS practice…
MEANING vs POWER
Meaningful ideas are the ones that are important for us. No idea has any value except when it is part of the life of one real person. There are no beliefs without believers.
But that is not strong enough. You see, in fact it is meaning that makes things important! A family is not important if it doesn’t mean love, a house is not important if it does not mean safety, and a car is not important if it does not mean you’ll get a girl at the end of the night.
Meaningful is what is part of my life.
Now power, well, power is not what is contrary to all this. Power is what i cannot ignore. Power is what happens to me whether i want it or not, it is what does not give me a choice. Power is what you can’t run away from.
The archetypal idea of power — the corrupt cruel state-sponsored genocide — shows that power is something that changes your life without asking for permission.
Both power and meaning are personal subjective experiences. Both are a way to experience the world, and they are reflected in the attitudes you have towards the world. They are not things that exist, independent, concrete, out there. They are forms of living.
Just because an idea is meaningful, it does not mean that it is immune to power. Say the idea of «love», just because we make it part of our life does not mean we will be able to fulfil our passions. And we can use our power to pursue that love. And we can all sorts of complex (and sometimes bewildering) relationships between power and love, for example Romeo and Juliet, that are just too complicated for us to say that POWER is in one side of the road and MEANING on the other.
Or just because something is powerful it does not become meaningful. Some cultures pay more attention to mother ascendency, while others (like our own) do think that what is truly important is who is the father, despite both parents having the same power (that is, the same amount of chromosomes in the baby). The air pollution makes us sick, but 200 years ago no one gave a damn. The phase of the moon has a lot of power, but if you are not a sailor you do not care about it.
In this sense, meaning is sensitive and power desensitizing, meaning is hopeful and power is mechanistic, meaning is me in the world and power is the world against me.
My first impulse is to relate «theory» with MEANING.
(If someone is reading this besides Shimabukuro — the guy with whom i had this first conversation — let me say something. During the debate he called me a “theorist”. And i didn’t question this. But after thinking a lot about this i now think i want to.)
But no. Theory is a form of POWER.
Theory is the part of human activity that seeks to know what is true. But TRUTH is not what is MEANINGful.
TRUTH is that which you can’t question. TRUTH is, and if someone says the contrary he must be stupid or a liar. In fact, MEANING can many many times be our attempts to escape from TRUTH: it is true that we are alone in life, but we try to escape from this through love. It is true that society is only interested in money and greed, but we try to escape from this trough art.
TRUTH — and therefore THEORY — is only POWER that has infiltrated itself into the realm of ideas.
The consequence, obviously, is that theory ceases to be a great adventure to discover the world and see things wonderful and awesome (for that is what theory was to any great thinker), and theory becomes just a job, just another job, and in this case it is the job of small thinkers. Which is to say, it is the job of teachers and academics and, for a lucky few, researchers. This job depends forever on grants and sponsors to get enough money to buy big testing equipment that in turn prove beyond a doubt that the papers and mathematical formulas that the researchers mostly borrowed are true — and not-questionable.
That is why so-called post-modernists say “reason” is primarily an expression of the impulse to dominate nature. That is why “Enlightenment” is depicted as a totalitarian way of thinking — not because the people who created this form of thinking had any of those purposes. But at their time thinking was a form of confronting POWER — it was what went against the Church, for example, and even against Kings.
Now everything is different. If we allow ourselves to get trapped by THEORY we will be on the hands of POWER. We will be on the world of TCC advisers which make your life boring, we will be on the world of bureaucracy where we have to quote people just to augment their resumes, we have to abide by the “department’s policy” to be allowed to continue making our research, we are in the world where academia is just a mindless and boring routine of licking your superior’s boot just to be allowed to have an opinion.
Well, if that is so, please, i am no theorist. I am for MEANING and not for POWER.
It just so happens that i believe there are ways to hijack all this structure, and not in a personal way, not like “POWER rules the world but i do not allow it to command my heart and i make my art to fight this”, i believe we can really look it in the eye. I want to make it easier to people to see ways to make POWER and MEANING as just unrelated, two different things that simply have nothing to do with each other.
And i think THEORY is a pathway. That is why i didn’t budge when he called me a theorist. But i am no theorist. Not in any sense you can accept if you view the world as an opposition between POWER and MEANING. I am a philosopher, which is close but not the same thing.
[note: In writing this, i broke a personal rule of “stick with the precise and official definition of words” to use MEANING in a sense that is not correctly correlated to a communication process. This is a mistake in semiotics, and a bad one at that, and one that muddies the waters. It is not a good thing to talk about meaning in that overblown sense. And i certainly believe it is possible to talk about all those issues without resorting to imprecise terms. There is nothing so unique about MEANING-as-importance that impedes us to deal with it rigorously. But i chose those terms anyway, for i was trying to make a bridge from a feeling i have to a system of words i see people using. Such bridges are always falling down. But i believe it’s from them we acquire the POWER to make our lives MEANINGful.]