From a Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method

The film Inception that took one on a wild ride through the architecture of the mind grossed over $820 million worldwide and continues to earn money on the secondary circuit of TV and Cable. The movie was nominated for eight Oscars and won four – for Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects, that is, for its tremendously brilliant pyrotechnics rather than its script, direction or acting. The visual dazzle and thematic ambition marked an almost equally successful follow-up of nomadic exploration, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. That film really took us on a very different nomadic journey into the desert of space and a pristine environment. This is relevant because a university is created as a sanctuary, as an anti-nomadic movement, as a place where individuals from all over can come together in one place and study.

One mission of that university is to teach us how to distinguish a real oasis from a mirage, objectivity from subjectivity. But that initially took second position to the development of character. To leap forward, how did the Sanctuary of Truth dedicated to instilling values and character and creating a culture that would not succumb to the attractions of the Golden Calf, and its modern successor, the Sanctuary of Method committed to rules and professionalism, become transformed into a core institution that defines objectivity in terms of subjectivity? Does the explanation reside in the incompatibility of the two very different types of sanctuary that necessitated the emergence of a third idea of the university and then a fourth?

The university as a Sanctuary of Method was dedicated to unpacking authentic memories rather than the heroic ones that characterized the Sanctuary of Truth.  The university as a Sanctuary of Method was created as a vehicle for escaping the myth of an absolute and binding moral code into a realm of rules to ensure discovery on the intellectual frontiers of knowledge. Truth was no longer an inherited given. Just as the university in Canada entered fully into that maturity of a Sanctuary of Method a century later from its roots in Berlin in 1810, the existence of a spacetime continuum was proclaimed as a four-dimensional frame of reference rather than a three-dimensional one of space only. In Einstein’s turn of the century (1905) theory of relativity, distances and times varied depending on the initial reference frame.

Both time and space were relativized with respect to one another. Further, instead of fostering character and virtues, the university turned into a place to explore one’s identity for there was no boundary to any pursuit, including the pursuit of the inner self. In other words, the university as a Sanctuary of Method undermined the core ideas and ideals of a Sanctuary of Truth, but in the process made discoveries that undermined its own essential idea of providing at least an absolute methodological frame.

Is there a cognitive dissonance when the university is in fact a place of intellectual and epistemological thrills in the search for certainty only to discover the uncertainty principle and that certainty itself is a chimera? Is this a world akin to Nolan’s labyrinths where the only end is the revelation of an illusion and Truth remains forever out of reach? For if we believe in the foundation of the Sanctuary of Method, then we have escaped the world of divine revelation and faith into a belief system in which all explanations are constructed solely in reference to physical processes. However, if the physical processes themselves have no constancy, not even the constancy of a reference in space, the framework for the university as a steady state providing a solid reference for society dissolves.

Hence the entry of corruption and the paranoia about conspiracies that creep into this Sanctuary. However, we need not go abroad to reveal the tensions. A close study of Canadian intellectual giants like Harold Innis more often than not revealed this contradiction. Innis, though he became an agnostic, never lost the strict set of values and missionary zeal instilled in him by his Baptist upbringing. However, when studying for his PhD at the University of Chicago, he fell under the sway of George Herbert Mead and absorbed the idea that communications did not just entail the transfer of information but were both broader (including railways, the subject of his thesis) and deeper since the form of communications was critical in shaping the frame by which you understood the world.

Einstein’s theories were offered a complementary economic and political frame. Innis would spend his career warring against “static economics.” At the same time, he put forth the thesis that technology itself framed the Canadian mind as the railway became a mode of spreading European civilization westward. Further, the content on which that technology focused, the “staples,” fur, fish, lumber, wheat, mining metals, potash, and extracting fossil fuels, shaped the political and economic history and culture of Canada.

If communications are, as Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan argued, that through which a culture is brought into existence, sustained over time and concretized through institutions, then Canada in its development had a unique culture, one antithetical to that of its southern imperial neighbour. Until the emergence of the Sanctuary of Method, history, that had been a tale of heroic adventurers as told by “scholars” in the Sanctuary of Truth, became an interplay of geography, technology and economics in consolidating a culture. Innis was a pioneer of Canadian intellectual nationalism. But then how do you reconcile this fixity with the propulsion towards alteration driven by technology and new forms of communication, ideas now accepted as standard in explicating change? For Harold Innis himself was central to consolidating the Sanctuary of Method as the ideal model for a university as a substitute for the Sanctuary of Truth, but emerged later in his career as an advocate of the university as a Social Service Station.

How were those cultural roots set down? Through the cultural routes used by Canadian nomads as they traversed the continent. However, the intersection of cultures, of European users of beaver pelts for hats, of Canadian traders and of First Nations trappers, itself wreaked havoc on the traditions and patterns of native peoples and eventually undermined the very institutions and values so basic to their cultures. What Innis did not see is that the same process was at work in undermining the character of the university which had become his intellectual domicile. His own pioneering studies of the cultural industry and the mode by which knowledge is developed and spread and which gave some groups the authority and the power they had, was itself being undermined in the changes wrought over the two decades of the forties and the fifties.

The crisis came in the sixties and out of that maelstrom emerged a new type of university for Canada, a Social Service Station, one pioneered in America about a century earlier. The university itself was not a sanctuary ensuring stability but was itself subject to the forces of change, by the technology by which knowledge was revealed and communicated. Harold Innis had been correct. There was an interplay between power and knowledge, between economic and cultural values and, more fundamentally, between primarily time-oriented cultures and ones that leaned more heavily on space in the spacetime continuum.

Let me illustrate with a story. In first year premedical studies, I took Ed Carpenter’s anthropology class. Carpenter was a close collaborator of Marshal McLuhan. In that course, he introduced me to the ideas of Clyde Kluckhohn and his studies of the different conceptions of time in each of the five cultures that constituted the mosaic of a part of Texas. I was inspired when I attended his lecture in Convocation Hall and his analysis of the different cultures of adjacent communities of Southwest Zuni, Navajo, Mormons, Mexican-Americans and Texas homesteaders, each with its own conception of time.

Based on my experience as a carnie in the summer, I submitted an essay comparing the understanding of time and space by the nomads who lived and thrived in a carnival. When they told stories, they interlaced tales of the riots in Windsor with those of a fight with gangs when playing Scarborough. In their oral tradition of narrative, disparate events were melded into a single story with no differentiation along a time line to distinguish various incidents. The unity was not provided by reference to time and place, but by the subjective experiences common to different incidents. Any effort to correct those tales by pointing out geographical and calendar reference points that differed, fell on deaf ears.

Carpenter gave me my first A++ for that essay. It had deeper roots than I understood at the time. I had been brought up in a strong time-binding culture, a culture of clay tablets and the dedication to preservation instantiated by that culture. That was why Moses’ shattering of the two tablets when he confronted his fellow tribesmen worshipping the Golden Calf was so traumatic. Even as I threw off the heritage of a Jewish orthodox upbringing, the quest for a durable foundation remained inherited from a nomadic culture in search of and involved in creating a sanctuary dedicated to Torah, dedicated to study. However, my nomadic carnies lived in what was primarily a space-oriented culture, a culture in which events are fleeting and ephemeral, a space more in tune with media which constantly stresses “breaking news” while telling the same old stories but with new twists.

It did not matter whether the communications media were radio, mass circulations newspapers, television or the internet, as they morphed into one another, they made irrelevant the possibility of a sanctuary as a source of stability altogether.  For Innis, entrenched mass communication monopolies undermined the “elements of permanence essential to cultural activity” that today might account for the widespread rise of populism and troglodyte philistines into positions of power. At the saMe time, Innis was a progenitor of that development as he proposed a shift in the university mission from a Sanctuary of Method to a Social Service Station dedicated to research on public problems.

The university as a Sanctuary of Method could not survive such an onslaught and it was itself formally transformed in Toronto in the seventies into a Social Service Station in which the problems and norms of society shaped the university rather than the norms and rules of a university shaping society. In the ancient world, in Greece and in Jerusalem, writing had displaced the oral traditions and reified them in a script. Rome had married that mode of inscription with power to forge an empire. The innovation of the printing press in Europe created another volcanic eruption that buried the mediaeval university in quaint practices, obsolete modes and social irrelevance except as a playground for the aristocratic class. Was this an adumbration of the destiny of the modern university? Is that what is happening to the university as a Social Service Station as it mutates once again from a Social Service Station to an intellectual supermarket for consumers rather than producers of knowledge?

It is the imaginative world that Nolan spent his whole career constructing. Instead of a set and established field, we find the material to be in flux and ever-changing. Instead of one standard set of tools guided by common principles, we find a realm of clashing ideologies so that the university undermines its own self-defined role as a guiding star for society.

In Nolan’s Inception, the characters do not escape time, but are entrapped in it, in a world of technical virtuosity. Without eternal verities, they are thrust into a search for the delusion of eternity, that time is not passing and content themselves with a multiplicity of simultaneous offerings rather than living within a singular and wholesome whole. It should not be a surprise that the university as a Sanctuary of Method will in turn be experienced as ether. The institution had been thrust into a conviction that its direction must be defined externally, thereby undermining the very notion of the autonomy of the university.

Thus, universities in escaping the repressive environment of religiously imposed rules for the world, one governed, not by an omnipotent spirit or a totemic animal, but a world in which thought and intention, became omnipotent and altered the world. But the universities existed in that world and they themselves were changed. The Sanctuary of Method was transformed into a Social Service Station.


To be continued: The Social Service Station


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