Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Now, that's a fact!

Photo: Brother and sister (India, July 2005)

I fell into a conversation with an internet stranger not long ago. The issue was our different conceptions of fact and bias. This other person felt that although history is written by the victors and such and therefore biased, there exist true facts, such as "Alexander the Great conquered some lands." I'm not comfortable with this idea. I think that the things we call facts have meanings that are socially produced and meaningful.

I'm posting my response here in hope of continuing this debate/exploration:

I’m just not sure that it is possible to divorce fact from the discourses that produced and relied upon those things we call facts. I’m not sure it is possible to isolate fact from the very messy social and political positions from which we use them, create them, find them, write about them, talk about them, make them valid or acceptable.

We may count as fact that combinations of methotrexate and misoprostol or mifepristone (RU 486) and misoprostol cause induced abortion, but the ways in which women's bodies have become understood, constructed and regulated create very different meanings of these allopathic medications that can not and are not separable from the pills or 'facts' themselves.

You write, "It is indisputable that Alexander the Great conquered the region and that the Caliphate and Ottoman Empire later occupied the region."

Could this not be rewritten as "Alexander, brutal murderer, or "the accursed Alexander", ravished the hereditary/previously conquered/disputed (?) territories of x,y,z...” and that his colonization of vast areas east of Europe has been glorified by western scholars and may be evidence of early Orientalist constructions of “the middle east’ and/or other (re)constructed places.

I must confess I know very little of the long time history of this region. But, to me the word 'conquered' is loaded with meanings that may glorify military might instead of say diplomatic measures and the idea of his ‘greatness’ is based on masculinist notions of strong heros, putting aside the fact that this man encouraged his troops to ‘mate’ with ‘the locals’. Is this another way of saying rape? Again, I don’t really know that much about this person and the histories written about him. I’m not just suggesting discourse analysis here but recognizing the epistemologies that produce these facts.

I just think that these objective, historical truths are actually subjective knowledges and open to reinterpretation and tied to ways of knowing. My point however is not that everything is false because objectivity is unattainable, but that if we recognize our subjectivity, and validate partial knowledges, we might have a better grasp on what we actually do know and why we know it and maybe more importantly, what we don’t know. The uncertainties that exist between my thinking and your thinking about say Alexander the Great, may actually produce or enable new ways of thinking about history, conquerors and so on. Gillian Rose (1997) “Situating Knowledges: positionality, reflexivities and other tactics” Progress in Human Geography 21(3): 305-20) has an excellent discussion of these issues.

While you present a fact- that this man called Alexander became ruler of certain lands- the ways in which this fact is presented, creates very different meanings and understandings of him, the lands, not to mention the construction of gender, race, political rule and place. Beyond the positioning of the historian the language s/he uses, the theories of knowledge used to produce and present that piece of fact are always present. I feel that fact and epistemology are inseparable.

As an add on, presenting Alexander's conquests as fact creates a false sense of exhaustive knowledge- that Alexander conquered and that was that, the only thing to happen, excluding all other events. Any resistances against him, the many people who helped him achieve his goals, or even the everday acts of people being born, getting married, eating dinner, inventing something or herding sheep all around him are excluded as unworthy 'facts'.

Check out Pete Mandik's website for an interesting philosophical and more in-depth look at debates around objectivity vs. subjectivity.

No comments: