Excerpt on history and myth

Every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will  modify the future.  – Jorge Luis Borges (1964)

In a post-modern, post-structuralist or relativistic frame of reference the foundations of knowledge are considered lost – historical origins, ranged against the infinite, are endlessly compromised through the regression of shallow meaning into random form and relation.  A traditional response is a constructivist philosophy – the belief in the construction of environments from socio-cultural elements – constituents without foundation.   But in such a cosmos, even if communication is possible, as the Sophistic school’s founder Gorgias asserted (Gorgias, Encomium to Helen), understanding is not.  If infinite possibility provides endless alternatives for the manifestation and interpretation of the world, and no structural or contextual common ground, then commonality of mind and meaning are also very rare or impossible events.

Although in a semiotic paradigm the number of potentially relevant texts is limitless and meaning open-ended, signs are cosmological elements of the first order, and not merely referential of more substantial planes of reality.    They are involved in physical, metaphysical and epistemological systems from which comprehension is constructed rather than merely descriptive of them.

As a result traditional modes of verification and proof (ineffective in any case in consideration of relativism) are abandoned.  The normative epistemological order is reliant on the symbols, grammar and lexicon of a clearly defined language for conceptualisation and expression of proof, and is therefore confounded by the dynamic involvement of aspects of the semiotic system with the physical and conceptual.  Traditionally, truth is derived from a process in which observation of ‘actual’ phenomena leads to conceptualisation of patterns, which are expressed, considered, disseminated and debated through language, or through mathematical symbols. But in a semiotic paradigm language and symbol are involved in the world as a mode of actuality rather than a distinct abstracted system for human expression.  Signs and objects are inter-related, effective of one another, and without clear sequence or absolute distinction.

The disappearance of history into myth at a time roughly concurrent with the Classical era can be seen in one sense as the merging of metaphysical levels denoting different modes of understanding in the distant mists of time – a process that again invites analogy with stars and dust.  At the edges of ‘known’ or ‘documented’ history discourse undergoes a paradigm shift. ‘Evidence’ gives way to speculation, written texts give way to oral tradition and science is preceded by myth.  In one sense this arrangement can be seen as the interpretation of the modern West of a critical historical moment of transition.

From the Aristotlean perspective – or a modern scientific perspective – this shift reflects the emergence of a dominant conception of truth that is a departure from the uncertainty of an indefinite theistic and mythic prehistory.

From a critical perspective, though, this is a particular interpretation of a historical moment of transition that is open to re-interpretation in a temporal and extra-temporal sense. The relegation of semiotic or narrative modes of truth to an epistemological and spatio-temporal fringe represents the historical displacement of one discursive, metaphysical, and ideological paradigm by another, suggesting that the advent of the classical era represents the disruption of the authenticity of narrative and semiotic modes.  In terms of a different mode of proximity, in which the spatio-temporal arrangement of the cosmos is determined by a primary order of ideological loci, the loss of scientific or evidential clarity in history represents the relocation of a de-privileged mode of discourse to a physical as well as conceptual periphery. Alternate modes of discourse, which proceed by the discovery of consonance and verisimilitude rather than certainty and fact and are represented in rhetorical tropes and styles distinct from those of the Aristotlean paradigm of definite understanding, are in this model deprivileged in that they are in all senses distant and not a part of an ordered present.

This disruption of the normative spatio-temporal structure of the material plane demonstrates that commonality between inquiry into ancient mythic discursive and ontological and mythic paradigms is revelatory of deeper orders of common culture and tradition that underpin the superficial symbolic relationship between two distant eras.   Common semiotic elements reflect ancient and modern political discourse around democracy, but are also indicative of deeper metaphysical divisions expressed through distinct political and rhetorical forms.   And in this case, the philosophical foundations of the Western State can also be seen as an important archaeological site of inquiry for semiotic research.

In the particular context of the current topic under inquiry, the coherence of these discursive and metaphysical themes in the historical moment of the inception of the modern state provides an ideal platform for research, since the absurd can be characterised as the most extreme expression of the collapse of the disparate discursive and metaphysical regions they describe.

The Aristotlean corpus, composed in the Fourth Century BCE, a century and a half after the time of Kleisthenes and the inception of democracy in Athens, is chronologically as well as conceptually proximate to the point of critical transition between dominant modes of discourse and understanding defined as the Classical era.  A critique of Aristotle’s theoretical architecture as a part of an inquiry into literary discourse, centred on his rigid categorisation of discursive and methodological disciplines, provides a point of departure from this normative perspective and contrast for the consideration of alternatives.

Aristotle’s divides between rhetoric and dialectic – between persuasion and investigation – and between rhetoric and poetic – between persuasive language and poetic language –  are relevant in literary, ontological, and epistemological contexts. His categorisation of discourse imposes limiting conceptual boundaries between ostensibly disparate fields of knowledge in the West and has contributed to the privileging of certain modes of inquiry and persuasion. These permanent categorical boundaries have stood for thousands of years and particularly infuse civilisation at the practical, applied level, where revolutions in metaphysics and cosmology have had a greatly reduced effect.

The Organon, the orthodox arrangement of the central texts of Aristotle, has been preserved, with other surviving works, for a millennia in Western libraries, after its ‘rediscovery’ via Arabic scholars.  In the East, another interpretation of classical philosophy, in which the works of Aristotle were also significant, had broad implications for the development of Moslem and particularly Sufi metaphysics and rhetorical theory. (Sheikh 1970)  But in the West Aristotle’s  divisions between rhetorical and dialectic, and rhetorical and poetic modes of discourse and inquiry have been preserved within political and cultural orthodoxy.

The critique of Aristotle’s theoretical architecture as a part of a discussion on the revitalisation of alternate epistemes, centred on his categorisation of discursive and methodological disciplines, is relevant in consideration of orthodox and heterodox narrative and rhetorical forms, and in the extension of these themes to consideration of the metaphysical that are associated with particular rhetorical paradigms.  But there is an additional dimension to this site of inquiry, in that the critique focuses the researcher on issues of epistemology and inquiry such as political alignment and intention, the political use of language, and the limitations imposed on research of origins in our own culture by the particular and exclusive nature of our cultural traditions.

The critical problems for the researcher of the influence of the essentially cohesive Aristotlean paradigm are firstly the influence of this paradigm on the researcher, through language, myth, and institution, and secondly Aristotle’s extrinsic influence on research itself through effect in a broader cultural and institutional context.

In one sense the tendency to accept any particular tradition or mode of inquiry as universally applicable might itself be described as Aristotlean.  From within a civilisation founded on the Aristotlean paradigm it is impossible to establish the extent of its universality.  Like the impact of Hellenic culture itself, this translated, powerful theoretical platform is infused with culture and civilisation in ways that are ancient as well as modern, oblique as well as transparent, and both formulaic and haphazard. Where the site of inquiry is the rhetorical manipulation of history and belief, a researcher’s involvement in the same epistemological systems distorts veracity.  An essential indeterminacy is inherent since clear comprehension is confounded by reliance for analysis on the systems of knowledge under analysis.

In this sense an etiological and hermeneutic compromise can be discerned that raises the possibility of intellectual colonisation – or at least inadvertent self-parody – and a glimpse of conceptual horizons.  Even at the level of choice of language, it is difficult to avoid a degree of self-parody when using words such as  ‘academia’, ‘hypotheses’, and  ‘analysis.’  One alternative is to refer to ‘The Academy’ when referring to modern research to denote awareness of the specific rather than universal nature of the orthodox Western tradition.  But given the influence of a particular mode of though on the conduct of research and inquiry, it can be assumed the efforts of a Western researcher to entirely exclude the paradigm would be ultimately self-defeating.

Although a narrative approach to rhetorical inquiry focuses on the absurd as device rather than genre, and concerns a rhetoric that purportedly subverts the Aristotlean paradigm, an immediate academic instinct is to devise a categorical hierarchy in which the absurd can be situated.

However, where the hermeneutic complexities of an ontological site of inquiry are invoked, problems of interpretation and ironic self-involvement in are reduced by the conscious apprehension of these limits. Rhetorical and discursive distortions that result from historical, linguistic, and political problems of interpretation are intimately related with the central topic of rhetorical inquiry.

If verisimilitude is found in the consonant relations of distinct frames of reference,  the consideration of the content of Aristotle’s works and the substance of his ideas can be substantiated by consideration of the effect, influence, character, and intention of Aristotle himself through biographical detail extant on his life and what can be interpreted from the style and form of his work.  Another and perhaps more substantial site of inquiry is in the historical treatment of his text. ( See Appendix – On the Organon)

One implication of these alternate lines of inquiry is a kind of humanisation of the theories under consideration.

The modern democratic state – and more generally Western civilisation – can be defined as a particular iteration of human culture underpinned by the specifics of its origins in Ancient Hellene, within which the Aristotlean episteme is a particular, recognisable political and metaphysical construct.

But that those Attic idealists or pragmatists that first brought the term democracy into common usage could conceive of the eventual influence of the symbol is barely conceivable.   The same applies in the case of Aristotle, who could hardly have imagined what his influence might be on a world two-and-a-half thousand years after his own.

The roots of reason and Western thought might be located variously in the works of different thinkers of different eras who can be seen as the principles of a particular dominant metaphysical paradigm. In this context rather than a definite defining work the Aristotlean corpus is properly interpreted one such philosophical pivot or prism.

The suggestion, though, that Aristotle is not himself entirely responsible for the influence of his own metaphysics begs the question raised by Borges in the quote that heads this chapter concerning the role of the researcher in the manipulation of history.

Pursuing this ancient site of inquiry through disparate contexts in which the ancient Hellenic and modern Western worlds coincide not only engenders an awareness of the tension between invention and discovery that accompanies all observation and inquiry, but mitigates against the possibility the invention of a straw Aristotle, or of the projection of a model of Athenian Democracy convenient as a political foil and for the purpose of subsequent deconstruction.


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