Culture Magazine

The Dissolution of a Comprehensive Epistemic Regime in America and the World [the Center Doesn't Hold]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

David Brooks has an interesting opinion piece, The Rotting of the Republican Mind, NYTimes, Nov. 26, 20. He declines to blame the internet, for "Why would the internet have corrupted Republicans so much more than Democrats, the global right more than the global left?" He goes on to note

... a remarkable essay that Jonathan Rauch wrote for National Affairs in 2018 called “The Constitution of Knowledge.” Rauch pointed out that every society has an epistemic regime, a marketplace of ideas where people collectively hammer out what’s real. In democratic, nontheocratic societies, this regime is a decentralized ecosystem of academics, clergy members, teachers, journalists and others who disagree about a lot but agree on a shared system of rules for weighing evidence and building knowledge.

This ecosystem, Rauch wrote, operates as a funnel. It allows a wide volume of ideas to get floated, but only a narrow group of ideas survive collective scrutiny. “We let alt-truth talk,” Rauch said, “but we don’t let it write textbooks, receive tenure, bypass peer review, set the research agenda, dominate the front pages, give expert testimony or dictate the flow of public dollars.”

That's the core of what I find interesting, simply that such an epistemic regime exists. He'll go on to argue that it has broken down. Note that, in acknowledging this regime, Brooks is deep in "the social construction of reality" territory.

Over the past decades the information age has created a lot more people who make their living working with ideas, who are professional members of this epistemic process. The information economy has increasingly rewarded them with money and status. It has increasingly concentrated them in ever more prosperous metro areas.

While these cities have been prospering, places where fewer people have college degrees have been spiraling down: flatter incomes, decimated families, dissolved communities. In 1972, people without college degrees were nearly as happy as those with college degrees. Now those without a degree are far more unhappy about their lives.

People need a secure order to feel safe. Deprived of that, people legitimately feel cynicism and distrust, alienation and anomie. This precarity has created, in nation after nation, intense populist backlashes against the highly educated folks who have migrated to the cities and accrued significant economic, cultural and political power.

And so, Brooks argues, new regimes arise, ones the oppose the dominant regime and provide alternative stories: "Paradoxically, conspiracy theories have become the most effective community bonding mechanisms of the 21st century."

Under Trump, the Republican identity is defined not by a set of policy beliefs but by a paranoid mind-set. He and his media allies simply ignore the rules of the epistemic regime and have set up a rival trolling regime. The internet is an ideal medium for untested information to get around traditional gatekeepers, but it is an accelerant of the paranoia, not its source. Distrust and precarity, caused by economic, cultural and spiritual threat, are the source.

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