That’s a very good question. You know, Egginton and I are Cervantes specialist, first and foremost. So going back to the time of Cervantes, certain beliefs were deemed to be true on account of their origin. So if those notions came from official sources, such as the church, or monarchical authorities, or a combination of the two, that was the kind of authorized framing of the world that would come with fortified versions of the truth. Cervantes was not particularly inclined to accept those notions. Instead, his fiction worked in such a way as to show us how the media of his time, including the kinds of authorized sources and vehicles, can edit, frame, and construct the world, and show the tools that are used for that editing of the world. And in the act of showing you that, he didn’t tell you, “Okay, so this is what you need to believe in. This is the truth.” He didn’t do that. He didn’t give us that easy way out, to say, “Okay. They are editing the world, they are framing the world in this way, using these particular framing devices, but the truth is here.” No, he didn’t do that. Instead, he essentially called his readers, his forewarned readers or discerning readers, and asked those readers to make up their own mind. And that’s really the key. It’s not really to fight a version of the truth, the fortified version of the truth, with my own fortified version of the truth, but rather to show how that fortified version of the truth was produced, and that can give us the freedom to make up our own minds with the information we have.
With that, I would like to ask you one question right now: Do you think that everything that we consider as truth should be open to question, and we should not have any source of truth at all that would deserve to be fortified?
I do believe that every notion needs to be open for examination. Now, that doesn’t mean to have a negative default position. Right? What it means is every notion ought to be open to our own judgment calls. That doesn’t also mean everything is relative. This is something that Egginton and I discuss in ‘Medialogies’. We also talk about this in our recently released book ‘What Would Cervantes Do?’. When we place ourselves in the position of the other, we have to be very careful to not usurp that position. So that also requires a sort of understanding of the truth at situation. But again, it doesn’t mean that everything is relative. The opposite. We talk about this. We say that the problem that we have with the truth right now is not a problem that comes with the truism, that everything is relative; but rather with this notion of the ineffability of my own beliefs. So it’s not really a problem of relativism, but a problem of what we call modern fundamentalism.
Okay, that’s actually a very good prelude to my next question, which was about modern forms of fundamentalism. What are their dangers? I know you partly answered this question, but I would like to be more explicit here: What are the dangers of this kind of modern fundamentalism that you talk about?
Again, a very good question. How about increased isolation, inability to work together and with common goals, in general weakening our communities? A lack or an inability to be able to respond to emerging crisis? If we think of the pandemic we just experienced or are still experiencing, this is a perfect example. All kinds of anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories have been filling the airwaves and making it difficult for us to develop and follow commonsense strategies to protect ourselves and our communities. Another example would be our inability to change course to address the climate change emergency. Again, with the caveat that climate change denialism is often amplified by interest groups tied to corporations, for whom climate change is clearly an inconvenient truth.
Yeah, the “inconvenient truth.” Okay. You talked about the problem, and partly offered your view on Cervantes framing the frame, or trying to find the frame as a first step. Here I would like a bit more detail: You seem to offer a critical humanist thought that can help us survive and get out of our current situation. What’s that?
So this is I think where much of our both implicit and explicit thread of argument can be located, in both ‘Medialogies’ and this new book, ‘What Would Cervantes Do?’
So, our argument is that the set of distinct disciplines from fields of knowledge that we call “the humanities” can help us by allowing a deeper, more nuanced understanding of our predicament today. The long view of history, for example, can be very valuable, to the extent that many of our current problems are the result of a sort of collective amnesia about our own past. Also, because we have faced some of the problems in the past, we have found some possible answers in that past. And we need to make sure we don’t forget those possible solutions. Art and literature can help by putting things literally in perspective. A particularly apt illustration would be the body of modern dystopias, sci-fi dystopias of warning, like, you know, the masterpieces, ‘1984’, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, and I would add ‘The Brave New World’ to it. We can say that these works of 20th century literature are still sounding the alarm today. Their warnings feel just as timely in our historical moment, as they do at the time of their production. We can certainly relate to the dangers of authoritarian powers presented with such pointed clarity in ‘1984’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. But at the same time as Neil Postman wrote in his prescient ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’, and this is from 1985. The dystopian horizon of Aldous Huxley in his 1930s masterpiece, ‘The Brave New World’, may be just as prescient as ‘1984’. And I’m going to quote now, if I may, from Neil Postman’s 1985 book again, ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’. So Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and negativism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
Beyond these masterful dystopias of the 20th century, Egginton and I argue in ‘Medialogies’, and also in this other more recent book, ‘What Would Cervantes Do?’, that the fictional works published at the dawn of modernity, in another age of inflationary media, can also help us put things in perspective in our own time. A primary example here, as you know, and as the title of our second book indicates, is the work of Miguel de Cervantes: The inventor of modern fiction was particularly concerned about the effects of the emergent mass media with its awesome power to influence our thinking and behavior through their framing of the world. Of course, in the early modern period, we’re talking about print culture and the emerging mass spectacles that we associate with a modern theater, with its appeal to raw emotions, rather than to our minds.
But we argue that Cervantes’ works, slow things down so that we can actually see the sleight of hand at work.
You know, we professors often talk about the importance of teaching our students to think outside the box. Cervantes’ point to make was that to think outside the box, we actually have to see the box first. The fictional awareness strategies that we attribute to the work of Miguel de Cervantes can help us hone our interpretive skills today, so that we can understand better our own inflationary media, its framing, their framing of editing, and ultimately their construction of our reality. And this is actually what we call in our books, “reality literacy”.
Okay, I would like to ask a final question. You said that to think outside of the box, we have to actually be able to see the box itself. What if we are part of the box?
This actually is a great question and a great insight. The point to make here is that Cervantes understood very well that we are, in one way or another, defined as either inside or outside the box. So what he does in his work is he shows us how we are being defined as part of the frame and how our beliefs are actually, as you say, part of that frame. So that the point of seeing the box is also the point of seeing ourselves, as, say, part of the scaffolding of the box, in a way our very desires, our impulses, our emotions, are hooked together with the framing. And that’s the ultimate realization that Cervantes invites us to entertain, that we may very well be part of that frame. And that understanding where the potential for autonomous action is, comes with the understanding of our own place in the framing devices that name me and name the world.
Ok. That was great. If there are any other points you would like to mention, I’d be happy to share with our viewers.
No, that’s great. Really great talking to you