High on a rocky promontory sat an Electric Monk on a bored horse. From under its rough woven cowl the Monk gazed unblinkingly down into another valley, with which it was having a problem.Carl links to this essay by Bruno Latour, wherein Latour splutters in hysterical alarm at the fact that the great unwashed--conservative!!!--masses might have also learned to heft the obsidian hand-axes of the hermeneutics of suspicion. Since the guiding principle for him is obviously the need to be more clever and up-to-date than the Right, he seems to suggest that "we" must outmaneuver "them" by embracing facts again. Blatantly opportunistic as the move is, it does reveal certain things about theory that "we" have up till now carefully avoided facing.
The day was hot, the sun stood in an empty hazy sky and beat down upon the gray rocks and the scrubby, parched grass. Nothing moved, not even the Monk. The horse's tail moved a little, swishing slightly to try and move a little air, but that was all. Otherwise, nothing moved.
The Electric Monk was a labor-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.
Unfortunately this Electric Monk had developed a fault, and had started to believe all kinds of things, more or less at random. It was even beginning to believe things they'd have difficulty believing in Salt Lake City. It had never heard of Salt Lake City, of course. Nor had it even heard of a quingigillion, which was roughly the number of miles between this valley and the Great Salt Lake of Utah.
- Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
I'll get there by way of Douglas Adams and his "Electric Monks." Dirk Gently is not Adams's best book (its sequel The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, for one, is superior). But the Electric Monk is probably the most insightful science-fictional concept out of a whole career filled with such concepts. In the simplest terms, as Adams describes it, the Electric Monk is a device to which you assign the responsibility for your beliefs. Of course, if a physical version were to be invented, it would be immensely popular--but in the meantime, we've got plenty of surrogate Monks already. The best such surrogate is the media ecosystem. In the contemporary 24-hour full-spectrum news world, every Internet user inhabits a carefully filtered universe of discourse designed to reinforce the viewpoints she already holds and hide the ones which alarm her. (Some people stage occasional excursions outside this preserve, but this only confirms what they already thought.) Since this universe is precisely tuned--via RSS subscriptions, reading patterns, selective memory, and so forth--to coincide with the user's beliefs, "beliefs" become unnecessary. They are facts, as cold and hard as Karl Rove's heart, and all the angst and uncertainty of belief melts away when it confronts them. That's an Electric Monk. The scientific pseudo-controversy over global warming? Also an Electric Monk, of course. It is not I who believes that global warming is still unproven; it's the scientists who say so.
"Critique" is just another form of Electric Monk--but it is a topsy-turvy one: it enables us to reassign our responsibility for not believing in something. Oh dear, I'd love to sign up for your metanarrative, but it's just, you see, I've got this critique, and it's telling me I should be skeptical of it, so no can do. Science, you say? Well, if it were up to me, you know I would of course agree completely, no question about it, but the Strong Programme keeps getting on my back about it, and I can't very well tell it no, can I? Sorry, good luck, let me know how things work out! We end up with a convenient little world in which our labor-saving intellectual devices have successfully turned our beliefs into irresistible critical realities.
And now, of course, even the uninitiated have stumbled into the shrine. What we're faced with now is the same predicament that struck Adams's Monk: we've started believing things more or less at random. After all, if we've got an inexhaustible array of devices to believe for us, and an equally inexhaustible supply of ones to disbelieve, we can more or less configure them in any way we want. But is there even much to object to here? It is hard to think of the massive Electric Monk mainframe known in the '60s as "public opinion," and then of its myriad differentiated successors, without feeling a sense of progress. May a thousand flowers bloom.
In any case, Latour's solution is saved from total impracticability only by its vagueness. It's too late now: like the Gutenberg revolution, the Electric Monk revolution has taken the responsibility for belief away from the clergy forever--and from the laity, too. We've only really got two options. The first is to multiply our Electric Monks until we achieve collective transcendence as a species and end up floating idly in a nihilistic void, like Bazarov without his frogs. The second is to abandon Electric Monks completely, and hence to embrace an entirely different form of nihilism: systems of beliefs for which we would hold ourselves unswervingly responsible. We'd have to do without any appeals to extrasubjective epistemological claims--except to the extent that these can be reintegrated into the subject. (Here's my evidence; where's yours?) In the end, both solutions sound tolerable--and neither is quite as craven as Latour's.