DRMacIver's Notebook

Truth and the Ghost Library

Truth and the Ghost Library

Ritual and its Consequences, p. 162:

[Fundamentalism] equates truth, which is nonindividual and supraindividual, with its interpretation, which is invariably personal and conditional.

I think this claim is interesting and mostly true, but also mostly false. That might be because of my interpretation of it, which is invariably personal and conditional.

I'm reading James C. Scott's "Domination and the Arts of Resistance" at the moment.

The book, as with most of Scott's work, looks at an aspect of how people behave in response to power imbalances. In societies when one group dominates another, such as caste societies, or historical slavery in North America, the way those groups talk among themselves is very different from the way they talk in public.

This leads to the idea of hidden transcripts. The idea is that there is a public transcript, which is the record (usually implicit) of what goes on in public, and the hidden transcripts, which record how the groups talk among themselves. Both the oppressed and the oppressor have hidden transcripts that are very different from the public transcript, which can be thought of an elaborate ritual to maintain order, in which the oppressors perform strength and the oppressed perform deference.

Hidden transcripts are a key part of the ghost knowledge that pervades society - knowledge that is built and widely shared inside a community of discourse, but is never written down and is not widely known outside of that community. Unlike much ghost knowledge, which is merely not shared, the hidden transcripts are actively kept from those outside of the community as a protective measure.

You can think of knowledge about the world as being a kind of infinite ghost library, with different groups occupying (with varying degrees of jealousy) their territories within the library.

This is a key part my objection to the quoted passage I opened with: Interpretation is not just personal, it's very much driven by what you know, and who you talk to. People interpret in groups, and those interpretations become hidden transcripts within the ghost library.

Scott is careful to point out that these hidden transcripts also don't necessarily represent any sort of "true selves" of the oppressed, but are instead another social order, which may have its own barriers to authenticity, but I do think though that there is a gradient where the more hidden a transcript it is, the more sincere it is:

Scott, on page 26, lists the following under "Hypothetical Discursive Sites, Arranged by Audience, under Slavery":

  1. Harsh master/overseer
  2. Indulgent master or overseer
  3. Whites having no direct authority
  4. Slaves and free blacks
  5. Slaves of same master
  6. Closest slave friends
  7. Immediate family

With the first three being part of the public transcripts, the last three being part of the hidden ones, and the 4th straddling the two. In the public transcripts you are very much participating in the ritual order of society, but in the private ones you can break character into sincerity and talk about what's actually going on.

From this point of view, fundamentalist social orders can be thought of as access control in the ghost library: The idea that this secret body of knowledge is in some sense immoral, and that that which cannot be discussed in public should not be discussed at all.