Relativism in English Classrooms
by M. Dottore
The universe, as a whole, is relative. There exists no definitive, overarching quality, or structure, or god, behind and beneath the world we experience. And we each experience the world in a unique way. "Wait a minute," you might say, "isn't the very statement that the universe is relative, in fact, a discrete statement-- a statement that is itself not relative at all." That's a good point. However, I must point out one of the great ironies of the universe: its overall relativity is actually constructed from a number of definitive, discrete bits. None of these bits is actually more or less important - in the grand scheme of things - than any of the other bits. But the bits are how we navigate. Much of our lives consists of jumping from one discrete bit to another, and this is useful to us on two crucial levels.
In the first place, using definable data in a relativistic universe helps us communicate with each other. In an overall sense, my opening statement is completely relative. It could be seen as, say, a certain number of dots of a certain size on a sheet of paper, or as a group of morphemes being produced in my mouth, or as unintelligible to a speaker of Russian, or as a joke. This statement could be viewed as very elegant, or very doubtful, or very green. Some meanings are more commonly agreed upon than others, of course. For instance, if we asked a number of people to describe the universe, many of them might call it "big." A few people might deem it "confusing." Perhaps only once in a century would someone term it "buttery." None of these connotations is incorrect (just ask an astronomer snacking on popcorn!), but some of them are more commonly agreed upon (and therefore more convenient to use) than others. The range of meaning is infinite, but the given meaning in most limited contexts is predictable. So, to finally answer your question, my opening statement is a discrete statement presented as fact. The statement is discrete, but the universe in which it exists (and which it indicates) is relative. Because the universe is relative, this doesn't constitute a contradiction. A rigidly ordered universe might chafe against relative structures, but a relative universe can easily contain any number of orderly bits.
It's at this point that you might sigh and ask, "But does this mean we have to live without meaning?" Certainly not. It just means that the meaning isn't external. It means that we are responsible for constructing meaning. This leads me to my second point: that, above and beyond just communicating, our experiences in this relativistic universe are actually encoded using discrete knowledge, perceptions, and values. Let's consider an example of this. In general, and therefore in relative terms, all art is of equal worth. That's right - the universe puts that ridiculous Andy Warhol soup can on the same slate as the breathtaking illustrations of the talented Arthur Rackham; however, as I think you can tell, I don't. I'm sorry, but in my book the typical Cubist painting looks like the accidental creation of a first-grader with an Etch-a-Sketch being chased by bees. Unless my son asks me what I think of it while I bandage his stings, I doubt I'll be impressed. And why should I be? I'm entitled to my opinion - and, in a relative universe, so is everyone else. If it wasn't for all the opinions the universe would be as dull as... well, as a creative writing class.
"What?" you ask. "Why such a comparison?" Well, I've taken a lot of literature courses and a lot of creative writing courses. There's an apt metaphor in comparing the two. Most of the literature classes I've taken are like the universe of relativity-from-discrete-bits - like the universes we each construct and bring to the community of minds. In fact, in my experience, literature professors are much more likely to say, "Well, I suppose that's also true," than "There's no way that could work." Still, the general atmosphere of relativity that you find in a good literature class is made up of each discrete comment. The professor has you read something. Then everyone offers conflicting viewpoints about it. Someone reads the piece and interprets it based on biographical data about the author. Someone else reads it based on Marx, or Shakespeare, or Freud. It reminds someone else of their dead cat, Psycho III. Every interpretation is valid, but no more valid than the others. The atmosphere is relative, but the information is discrete, even when this raises contradictions. Such an environment can accept - and even validate and encourage - such contradictions.
Why can't we use a similar method to conduct a creative writing class? It seems reasonable to me. After all, creative writing students are producing literature. Sometimes we find a creative writing professor who actually tries to construct a relative atmosphere based on relative bits. In other words, no one really expresses any sort of opinion about a writer's work and the student remembers the class in years to come as little more than a blur - not a catalyst for improving his or her writing. We've all been in this class. Someone writes, "I'm stood in tha mitel of th steet and luked at the cars gowin bay." Someone else writes, "Johnny Gothix looked at his reflection in the bloody dagger. The village was full of death and blacker death. The houses were dead and the people were dead. Gothix sighed with a deathly sigh. He read 'Green Eggs and Ham' and thought of death..." Someone else copies the preface to the 1855 edition of "Leaves of Grass" in purple pen. At the end of the semester, everyone receives an A- and a "Good try!" Let's start taking our opinions to creative writing class, just as we bring them to literature class! As writers, we'll just have to be prepared for criticism. (You should have seen the early draft of this paper - no, really, is was worse!) So, instead of the anything-goes approach, the creative writing teacher needs to ask each student to read and write using multiple approaches. One assignment might ask for a science fiction story, another for a story in the style of Hemingway, another for a retelling of a fairy tale. When the piece is workshopped, we should consider it from points of view that are deconstructionist, or economic, or Platonic. Just anything does not go. If creative writing classes would borrow some techniques from the instruction of literature, I feel they would surely benefit.
I'm not saying all of my creative writing classes have been this boring and blurred. That's far from true. Nonetheless, I have encountered an atmosphere of apathy that springs from an attempt to value every piece equally all of the time. The creative writing class is much like the universe where no discrete bits are allowed. While somewhat less ironic, this universe is certainly not as interesting as the bits-in-context universe. That's precisely because we can seize upon facts and use them to inform our lives and make them meaningful. Facts are fundamentally untrue, to be sure. They are, nevertheless, useful. Without them, the map remains blank. With them, we construct and traverse beautiful, ever-shifting landscapes.