The Only Truth is Narrative Truth


Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)

In his essay on ‘The Fallibility of Memory‘ Oliver Sacks offers us an insight into why discussions about the importance of ‘knowledge’ in education are often superficial, and at times futile. While we debate the relative importance of skills and knowledge, we might be more productively engaged in discussing the elusive nature of knowledge itself:

‘We, as human beings, are landed with memories which have fallibilities, frailties and imperfections – but also great flexibility and creativity. Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength: if we could tag the sources of all our knowledge, we would be overwhelmed with often irrelevant information. Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say, and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. Memory arises not only from experience but from the intercourse of many minds.’

The connection between memory and knowledge is a vital one, and Sacks seems to be suggesting that the most reliable knowledge is that which has been ‘contributed to’, a notion which would chime particularly well with the idea of ‘wiki-learning’, where everyone has a contribution to make, however small (for further reading on the use of Wikis for learning follow this link).

In discussing the fallibility of memory, and (again) on the importance of narrative, he has something important to teach us when it comes to understanding the human brain and how it records and analyses what it sees:

‘Christopher Isherwood starts “A Berlin Diary” with an extended photographic metaphor: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”

But we deceive ourselves if we imagine that we can ever be passive, impartial observers. Every perception, every scene, is shaped by us, whether we intend it or know it, or not. We are the directors of the film we are making – but we are its subjects too: every frame, every moment, is us, is ours.’

‘There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves – the stories we continually recategorise and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the brains we have. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare and that for the most part our memories are so solid and reliable.’

Our only truth is narrative truth. Now there is something to contemplate.





Redefining The Human #edcmooc


Creative Commons Image by digitalbob8.

From ‘reasserting the human’, this week we move on to looking at ‘redefining the human’ in the final block of the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC. Last week I wrote about how current educational theories and practices are largely based on differing versions of humanist philosophy. Now we are being asked to consider a rather different perspective on ‘being human’ in the digital age: the notion that we are already posthuman, and that ‘human being’ is a variously constructed social category, not a pre-determined and fixed entity with universal characteristics. Instrumental posthumanists, for example, treat the human body and human life as things that can and ought to be optimised by technologies. Pacemakers, cosmetic surgery, prostheses, exercise equipment that provides biofeedback data, genetically modified food, diet supplements and Google glass, for example, are all posthuman technologies that are already widely used in the ‘developed’ world, which begs the question, to what extent can we continue to enhance the human body and mind before we redefine what it is to be ‘human’, and what are the implications for education?

At the same time, where instrumental posthumanism is merely the integration of post-industrial technologies with humanist values, critical posthumanist theories challenge the very values and assumptions on which humanism is based, and though varied in nature, share the view that humanism is a limiting and most often oppressive ideology that needs careful examination. Humanism often includes the belief that ‘technology’ is the opposite of ‘natural humanity.’ Critical posthumanists do not see these as opposed: the human body is just as ‘technological’ or ‘mechanical’ as the digital device on which you’re reading this post. The brain and the heart rely on electricity, just as DNA is a kind of programming. Critical posthumanism holds that technology is itself neither good nor bad, helpful nor hurtful. It is the contexts in which it is used, the conditions under which it is produced, etc., that make it a positive or negative thing.

In True Skin, this short science-fiction film by Stephan Zlotescu, synthetic enhancement has become the norm, and the boundary between human and machine has been erased (think Pop-On Body Spares for humans). At the end of the film, the protagonist, when facing death – at least the death of his current body – takes advantage of an internet service which backs up all of his memories, which can then be inserted into his future (new) self. Sound familiar? It’s that old two-way ‘computer as human brain, human brain as computer’ metaphor (see previous post MOOCs and Metaphors).

What this notion says about the nature of mind, memory and learning, and the ways in which technological mediation is positioned in relation to it, is a theme which is also picked up in this week’s reading assignments, in particular in an article in Atlantic magazine in 2008 by Nicholas Carr, entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid?,  a defining polemic which became the water cooler around which critics of the internet gathered to bemoan the demise of critical thinking;-