Thursday, August 24, 2006

The end is nigh

My research leave is nearly at an end. I can tell that by the dramatic upsurge in responsibilities related to on-campus life that I've been feeling for the last few weeks: preparing and copying syllabi; orientation sessions; meetings with colleagues and students; prepping for classes; and more. I'm at once anxious for the school year to start and sad to bid farewell to what's been a remarkably peaceful and productive time for research and writing.

That's not really why I'm writing, though. I'm writing to draw D&R readers' attention to a hilarious and brilliant skit called "Wikiality" that ran recently on Comedy Central's mock news program, The Colbert Report. You can access the piece on You Tube.

For those of you who haven't seen it, Colbert pokes fun at the online Encyclopedia, Wikipedia. The site, I'm sure most of you know, allows people like you and me to author entries, thereby participating actively in the constitution of knowledge. Wikipedia's been both praised and condemned for this kind of openness: praised, because it facilitates collaborative, more or less democratic knowledge production; and condemned, because, as Colbert and others have noted, if enough contributors agree on something as true, then it becomes true on Wikipedia.

What's remarkable to me about the Colbert piece, and about the debates over Wikipedia more generally, is how in part they reflect debates about the usefulness of "social constructionism"--that is, the doctrine that humans produce meanings, values, and institutions (realities) that we then come to inhabit as though they were necessary and given. The left's embraced social constructionism and put the idea to use in quite critical, politically efficacious ways. What the Colbert piece shows clearly, though, is how the politics of social constructionism are not inherent to social constructionism. He jokingly suggests, for example, that people should access Wikipedia and insist that Africa's elephant population is increasing. (Some, apparently, have followed through on the gag.)

"Wikiality"--both the skit and the notion--underscore how the left needs to do better. It can't simply continue pointing out how knowledge (and what follows from it) is constituted socially, or how people come to inhabit specific regimes of truth. The question--and I'm hardly the first to pose it--is, If devolving into an untenable relativism is undesirable, then what's the alternative to social constructionism?

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