• Esmé L. K. Partridge

Detraditionalization and the Internet

Published in Genealogies of Modernity.

The dialectical climate of Athens in the 5th Century BCE was not unlike that of today. It was characterised by a will for democratic representation; a skepticism towards absolute truth and the authorities claiming to speak on its behalf; and a general leaning towards relativism—the belief that “what is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me.” Protagoras, who famously uttered these words, was perhaps the most well-known of the sophists, a group of Presocratic thinkers who argued that truth was an illusion of subjectivity and not, as Plato later contended, a trans-empirical category existing outside the human mind. Their anthropocentric relativism can be summed up in yet another of Protagoras’ maxims: “man is the measure of all things.”

In his dialogues Protagoras and Theaetetus, Plato refutes the sophist position. Through his famous “recoil argument,” he demonstrates the fallacy inherent in the positive assertion that truth is relative. If all truth is relative, then the sophist truth claim of relativism must itself be relative. Indeed, Plato—through Socrates—points out that there are many people who do not believe that truth is relative. Relativity is relative, and so, on the basis of its own postulates, the relativist argument cannot be taken as positively true. Primarily, however, Plato’s rebuttal of relativism derives from a concern that the sophist argument subverts the existence of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. By denying these objective realities, relativism betrays the very essence of philosophy—that is, the ascertainment of knowledge pertaining to ideals—and also destabilizes norms and customs which draw people towards them, leading to anarchy and tyranny.

In what context, it ought to be asked, do relativist convictions such as those of the sophists emerge? A clue can be found in the setting of Theaetetus: a busy marketplace in Athens. The locus of an increasingly multicultural Greece, the marketplace can be taken to represent the exchanges of variegated commodities and “styles” of living; a forerunner, perhaps, of the conceptual “marketplace of ideas” associated with postmodern thought. It is plausible to assume that the sophists, faced with the apparent differences of an increasingly pluralistic or multivocal culture, were led to doubt the existence of absolute truth. How, they may have wondered, could any absolute truth account for the vast differences between individuals and cultures? It was likely as a result of this that the sophists came to prefigure the relativist worldview of the present day.

If the heterogeneity of the metaphorical marketplace sets the scene for relativism, then it follows that the opposite conditions—those of a more homogenous nature, broadly conceived—can be thought to constitute a social climate that is more receptive to absolutes. The maintenance of tradition is central to this. Tradition, among other things, brings people together over a set of shared ideals, therefore upholding positive conceptions of truth. In its regulation of a given community’s beliefs and behaviors, tradition enables the realization of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty and yet, somewhat paradoxically, does so in ways which are relative to that community. This view can be found richly articulated in the political philosophies of Neoplatonic thinkers such as the Muslim polymath al-Fārābī. For al-Fārābī, traditions—particularly of the didactic kind (that is, folklore and storytelling)—rely on some degree of relativism in order for the eternal principles contained within them to become perceptible.

According to al-Fārābī, this is because every given community possesses a linguistic and aesthetic disposition which tradition (and indeed religion) ought to correspond to. “These things,” he says, should be “imitated for each group or nation through the matters that are best known to them, and it may very well be that what is best known to the one may not be the best known to the other.” It was precisely on this basis that al-Fārābī implies in his treatises “The Political Regime” and “The Book of Letters” that caution should be taken towards marketplace-like environments; that is, settings where cultural and ideological differences appear to exist in conflict with each other. This is not because those cultures and ideologies actually indicate conflicting truths. Truth, al-Fārābī holds, is universal. However, when the idiolects and appearances representing that truth are to be found alongside each other, unnecessary attention may be paid to their superficial differences, giving the impression that nothing is shared between them.

Language is a good illustration of this point. The words for “apple” in, say, Arabic and English, bear no phonetic resemblance to one another, and yet they share the same objective referent. Those unacquainted with one of either languages would assume that the words “apple” and “tufāḥ” are unrelated and thus that, perhaps, their respective cultures must operate within completely different paradigms of reality (a logical conclusion of which being relativism). Drawing out this example, al-Fārābī prescribes that:

One should seek out the people who live in the middle of their land; for those who live on the borders are more likely to associate with neighboring nations, so that their idioms become jumbled with the idioms of the latter . . . when they do business with their neighbors, the latter will need to converse in an idiom strange to their own tongues, their tongues will not yield to many of its letters, and so they will resort to expressing the letters that come easily to them, leaving aside what they find difficult.

Here, he says that where two or more distinct “tongues” appear alongside each other or even become hybridized, what they convey will cease to make sense. Hence, living “in the middle of the land”—as opposed to on the borders—ensures a given community’s clarity of understanding. When different communities and their respective traditions are juxtaposed alongside each other, their ability to communicate truth and meaning loses potency. Appropriately relativized forms of tradition are thus needed to facilitate the apprehension of absolutes. Without these particularities, truth is incomprehensible; where these particularities become subverted in the face of others, the very principle of truth becomes itself incomprehensible.

al-Fārābī’s hypotheses appear to hold true with regard to both the multivocal marketplace of Athens and the postmodern “marketplace of ideas,” with the latter being especially influenced by the rise of the internet. The internet is, among other things, the ultimate land “on the borders.” In fact, it is tantamount to the dissolution of borders altogether. In his comments on technology as the harbinger of “liquid modernity,” Zygmunt Bauman writes that the internet has melted away all natural boundaries between societies with speeds of communication that defy the limits of human wetware. “The space projected by modern technology,” he says, “is radically different: engineered, not God-given; artificial, not natural; mediated by hardware, not immediate to wetware; rationalized, not communalized; national, not local.” It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the internet has also been conducive to detraditionalization, the phenomena which the sociologist Paul Heelas defined as the “processes which undermine the authoritative or ‘sacred’ properties of cultural meta-narratives.” The nature of social media represents the total dissolution of organic communal bonds, forming a multivocal culture which, as Heelas himself writes, “serves to confuse. Differentiation serves to undermine the exclusivistic claims and credibility of what was previously homogenous.”

This multivocal culture corresponds to al-Fārābī’s borderlands of “jumbled” tongues and conflicting idioms, aesthetics and semantic paradigms, recalling the conditions of pre-Socratic Athens. The internet and specifically social media, however—which, to quote Heelas once again, present “a fragmented, variegated range of beliefs and values—appear to exaggerate these conditions even further. They overwhelm the user with a flurry of fragmentary images and ideologies, subsequently inducing a sense of chaos that might be better described as a cacophony than as a polyphony. In doing so, they undermine and eventually erase culturally relative traditions and, simultaneously, collective convictions of absolute truth. Such goes hand in hand with postmodernity as a general skepticism towards narratives that claim to represent truth, which can again be seen as a consequence of the Baumanian “liquefaction” of modernity and its metanarratives. Though these processes have arguably been building up since the industrial revolution and the onset of globalization, technology has created an unprecedentedly heightened awareness of difference and, subsequently, unprecedentedly heightened doubts towards objective truth.

And yet, could we now be witnessing a shift? In the midst of a technologically exacerbated polyphony (or indeed cacophony) of ideologies and an “incredulity toward metanarratives” that seems to surpass even conventional postmodernism, it would appear that a small number of disembedded subjects on social media are becoming increasingly drawn once again to eternal values. Be this in the form of Christian, Muslim, and other religious communities re-establishing themselves (however tenuously) across cyberspace, it would appear that not everyone has been deceived by illusions of difference presented by the digital incarnation of the “jumbled” borderlands. One even wonders if, perhaps, the synthesis of postmodern thought and internet technology has created such a climate of uncertainty that it has itself inadvertently inspired a yearning to revive metaphysical absolutes and authorities speaking on their behalf. After all, Plato’s own school of thought itself emerged out of the relativist climate of opinion.

In light of this, we may ponder the prospect of “redtraditionalization.” To extend Plato’s “recoil argument” somewhat creatively, if all is relative—and each individual is free to actualize their relativity—then those individuals aspiring towards absolute truth may indeed utilize this freedom to advocate for its revival. They may yet “return to tradition,” as it were—even in a land so detraditionalizing and antithetical to objective truth as the marketplace or the digital “borderlands.”