Wednesday, 10 October 2007

In Defence of Sweeping Statements & Anecdotal Evidence

Still thinking about Berger, I came across an interesting post from a reader who has just discovered him. Kevin Breathnach writes:

John Berger writes beautifully. Of that, there is no doubting. But he writes out of fashion, form and age. These are not essays like any I'm familiar with. At their worst, they resemble the writings of a class-conscious mind-body-spirit author; at their best, they are the work of the what Berger himself, referring to Giorgio Bassani, names the half-poet, half-historian. But poets are granted an artistic license we would not want within our historians grasp. Hold Everything Dear brims with sweeping statements and anecdotal evidence.

I responded in his comments thread, at slightly greater length than seems polite. But since I haven't had time to post anything here for a couple of days, I thought I'd reproduce my response here.

First, a quote from Mike Dibb's account of his collaboration with Berger (on a famous 1970s TV series):

Although Ways of Seeing may appear to be a succession of statements, these statements are really questions. When John speaks in conversation his sentences often end with an interrogative. "No?" he says, inviting a response, not automatic assent.

The same, I think, applies to those sweeping statements Kevin refers to. They are not made (as is conventional) from an assumed position of universal authority. (The convention of hedging one's statements in cautious terms is not a relinquishing of such authority, but a polite way of retaining it.) Rather, Berger is constantly aware of his thinking and writing as a work in progress, made from a specific, physical location, and based on what can be seen from there. (In the case of 'Hold Everything Dear', several of the essays were written from occupied Palestine and this shapes them.)

How is this different to the most strident sort of universalism? Only (I think) in that the statements truly are intended as questions. Other, contradictory statements may be made from elsewhere - and the assumption is that this should lead to a conversation, rather than a conflict over who is right. (Clearly, in the one-way medium of a book, this must be taken on trust - though accounts of his many collaborations appear to bear it out.)

Secondly, concerning the reliance on "anecdotal evidence", this is not a weakness but fundamental to his method. Berger's writing returns again and again to the theme of "incommensurability" - the claim that things cannot be measured satisfactorily against each other, except in certain limited domains, without losing what matters. The inadmissibility of "anecdotal evidence" is a tenet of a worldview in which everything that matters is capable of being reduced to statistical representation (in terms of money, or in terms of SI units) - a worldview whose limitations he seeks to challenge. But if we baulk at this, it may at least be entered in his defence that he describes himself first and foremost as a storyteller.

The first episode of that TV series ended with Berger addressing his audience: "Consider what I say," he told them, "but be sceptical..."

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