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The Construction of Truth

Levi Bryant has a great post up today riffing off of an forthcoming book by Adam Miller called Speculative Grace.  In particular, Bryant is interested in the conception of truth put forward by Miller drawing upon Latour.  The first part of the post is an explanation of Plato’s conception of truth – that truth is a property of things rather than of propositions.  That is, it’s not that propositions are true relative to things, but that things are true relative to their ideal forms.  This is a bit of a tangent, but relevant in that, for Latour and Miller, truth is a property of things as well.  Where Latour and Miller differ from Plato is that, rather than being a relation between a thing and its ideal form, truth is a construction – an assemblage of entities that stands.  This means that all of the entities – human and non – must be engaged in the construction (Bryant says that they must be “persuaded”), and it is only through this engagement (through their collective work, I would say) that they are able to stand (i.e. resist entropy).  The post is excellent, and this is just a schematic description, so go read it for yourselves.  The real reason I’m writing this is to lend an example from some of my own work.

Cave Lake State Park, Ely, NevadaI’m currently in the process of finalizing a paper on the work I did in Ely, Nevada two summers ago.  For this work, I studied traditional cultural properties (TCPs) for the bureau of land management (BLM) and area Shoshone tribes.  Through this research I became acquainted with the many issues and debates in the field of cultural resource management (CRM – I know, so many acronyms… it’s what I get for living in DC…).  What I realized (partially as a result of having read Latour) is that the typical approach to cultural resources is that they are objective facts (though they may have been constructed in the past, they now simply exist) that we as anthropologists attempt to “validate” – that is, assess their truth.  Generally, this involves doing ethnographic research and/or archaeological research on the sites to find out if the propositions said about them are “true” or if the people are just making it up to get in the way of development (in this case a water pipeline to pump water from the desert to Las Vegas).  So for the general practice of CRM research, we are trying to assess the “truth” of propositions about the site.  I think this is problematic for all sorts of reasons: 1) it assumes that sites are “not true” until proven otherwise, 2) it assumes that sites are homogeneous and that their protection is a uniform practice, 3) it recognizes no voice to the communities (tribes, etc.) except to tell stories which may or may not be “true”, 4) it grants no role to anthropologists except communicating (translating) information about the sites from one group (tribes) to another (BLM staff), 5) it doesn’t account for the process of CRM itself as a process of construction, 6) it suggests that the only thing that needs to be done to fix the problems with CRM is to change laws … and so on – for more see my forthcoming paper.

What I’m arguing in my paper – what I’ve argued elsewhere – is that cultural resources do not simply exist; that they must be constructed, and that it is through CRM that this is done.  This is, furthermore, a heterogeneous process of assembling heterogeneous entities (laws, artefacts, stories, regulations, individuals, communities, landscapes, plants, animals, ethnographic reports, historical accounts, …) into an assemblage that can “stand.”  In this case, to “stand” means to resist the onslaught of development.

By changing our conception of cultural resources, we can begin to see different roles for communities – they actually practice CRM themselves, not just by trying to get sites on the National Register, but by engaging in lawsuits, by protesting, through direct action, through alliance building, etc.  We also see, for the Federal Agency staff, that CRM is not simply a matter of putting things on the National Register – that these sites must be composed, and recomposed continually.  Furthermore, it’s not sufficient to simply change the laws and be done with it – because the laws are only one part of the process and product of the assemblage and not always determining factors.  For anthropologists, we see a role beyond translation: the construction of relationships between different entities.  This may be between the sites and the National Register, or between agency staff and ethnographic research, but it may also involve building relationships between agency staff and the communities, or between two disparate communities, or between developers and communities.  This brings in my conception (drawing upon John Law) of methods as interventions, but I’ll not go into that here.  Suffice it to say that Latour and Miller’s conception of truth applies here, because the truth of a resource is its ability to stand up to development through a heterogeneous assemblage – not in the ability of propositions about the site to match up with the data about the site (though that may be part of the assemblage…).

Note: The conception of truth outlined by Bryant, Miller, and Latour is similar to pragmatist notions of truth – i.e. William James‘.  I believe Latour draws on James – at least in his later work – but it would be interesting to explore this relationship more.

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