Untying Knots: Suspicion in the 21st Century
Problems cannot be
Resolved at once.
Slowly untie knots
Divide to conquer.
– Deng Ming-Dao
When parsing the sometimes erudite musings of the meta-rational internet, you must give the gamut of ideas cool consideration, weighing post-modern, modern, and medieval alike; refusing to give in to the demands of systems that are too quick to declare truth, too fixed in their understanding, and, from these initial shortcomings, too unwilling to engage in solutions. From the flexibility in its own ideology stems a general unease with the state of things– the unwillingness to talk, the obstructionism, the ad hominem nature of nearly all argument at the national level, the constant poisoning of the well, and the tendency of the internet to amplify these features as commentators sit miles away, safe behind their computer screens, with virtually no chance of consequences for behavior that would be absolutely abhorrent if executed in the IRL. Couple this with an intellectual milieu that is both combative and elitist, and it's clear that the global conversation leaves much to be desired. What's the problem?
In recent months, it appears to me that the internet's brightest thinkers have been circling the drain, attempting to converge on a common enemy. It also seems to me that they've come to an informal conclusion: the enemy in academia is critique's election to its current status as knowledge's best excavator – privileged among tools to unearth true meaning, shatter the facade of previous knowledges, and expose artifice.
From Heather MacDonald in the Spring 2017 issue of City Journal, to Fuck Thought's Syllabus for the End of Times, to the endless critique of critique I see in the wild, it's become clear that if we go for a dive in the tepid water that is drowning modern academia, we'll find wads of lackluster critical practices stuffed–enthusiastically–into the drain. It seems inescapable. Rita Felski hit the nail on the head in her 2012 essay "Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion":
Critique is contagious and charismatic, drawing everything around it into its field of force, marking the boundaries of what counts as serious thought. For many scholars in the humanities, it is not just one good thing but the only conceivable thing. Who would want to be associated with the bad smell of the uncritical?
To be uncritical is to be unthinking, and the unthinking is the stooge of social consensus. Critique is how we get better, so we better keep doing it.
It's more than that. As Hanzi Freinacht has noted, the reflex to critique, through critique's own negative affect, becomes a reflex to dismiss: "a proposal dismissed is a job well done," and this reflex to dismiss is pan-political and self-escalating. A strong critical reading looks and feels like paranoia: it looks to root out what has not been said, who was implicitly or tacitly targeted or erased by the work, and who any co-conspirators might be. Who benefits? Who profits? Why are they doing this? Maybe the reason is the establishment of a New World Order, or maybe it's the buttressing of the Old. Maybe the dichotomy between the two must be examined critically for better understanding. Whatever way, critical contextual analysis is the name of the game.
Things dismissed tend to dismiss in turn. Urbanites dismiss country folk as bumpkins and those same bumpkins will not hesitate to dismiss urbanites as city-slickers. In rural senate races representatives are raked over the coals for spending too much time in the city. Anyone so comfortable with the concrete and at ease with the constant noise of the city must have an agenda that dismisses country-folk and belittles their needs, common rhetoric would indicate.
Eventually dismissal out of hand becomes a relegation to taboo, and soon those ideas gain a certain dark psychic power, a counter-cultural veneer.
Who can say whether short-circuiting an idea with taboo or allowing it to vanish (through audience) into banality is more effective? There are probably other options. Who knows? With few sociological tools equipped to handle such inquisitions, the temptation always remains to critique and dismiss, taboo and censor.
So here I will attempt to array the constituent parts of critique with some accuracy, make merry in the mechanisms themselves, and slide like oil between the gears, happy for the tooth-edged gap in which I play. The joy of the meta-critical.
Postmodernism and the privileging of the paranoid process
At some point postmodernity gave up. Critiquing the fundamental logic that underpinned the world's meta-narratives gave way to critiques of the logic of the dominant meta-narratives, with diminishing recognition that we have little reason to assume that any narrative is more correct than the next. The postmodern got a little less crazy in its eternal september. A certain moral contamination began to work against the deconstructive impulse, rendering deconstruction itself nearly unable to introspect.
Under these new rules, instead of attempting to understand what has been said, drawing from spatio-temporal clues to create dialogue between texts and situate words in the historical conversation, we must instead use those same clues to determine why something is being said, with a suspicious eye turned towards the biases and regimes of truth that fascistically ensnare the modern thinker. In this new regime context finds itself transformed into subtext, a new, fertile ground for paranoia.
These contemporary readings, in their search to justify their paranoia, read implicit bias unless explicitly noted, and throw into question the validity of modern ways of knowing, occasionally including the thoroughly vanilla epistemologies of modern post-positivism (the tl;dr of post-positivism being that scientific truths are statistical and conjectural in nature, and that human biases pollute the search for truth). This even exactly the point. The more vanilla and everyday our knowledge seems, the more likely it is to be polluted, these methods proclaim.
With no hold on the truth, and the pure, fertile land of paranoia stretching out to the edges of our vision, it now, in a deconstruct-y ouvre-of-the-modern-times critique-y sort of way, seems our hegemonically imposed duty to find the fault in whatever we are doing and throw the grain of truth away with the bath water. Or something like that. Read this:
The man of suspicion double-bluffing the man of guile: in the hands of thinkers after Freud, paranoia has by now candidly become less a diagnosis than a prescription. In a world where no one need be delusional to find evidence of systemic oppression, to theorize out of anything but a paranoid critical stance has come to seem naive, pious, or complaisant.
–Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading
Written in 2003, Sedgwick's work seems prescient in a world that now seems absolutely overrun by the critical. Not even the critical, the pop-critical. Even the un-paranoid that lay mercifully outside of the academy now seem naive and ignorant. Paranoia escaped academia and infected the masses. Maybe.
Unfortunately, this isn't where paranoia's reach ends. Paranoia continues to be self-propagating, a property of the affect that is also explored in detail by Sedgwick.
[P]aranoia tends to be contagious; more specifically, paranoia is drawn toward and tends to construct symmetrical relations, in particular, symmetrical epistemologies.
–Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading
The brutal truth that paranoia is only truly understood by being paranoid, a process that, once engaged, limits recourse for its object such that there's very little option but for it to conduct itself in a paranoid manner as well.
I don't even disagree(do even agree?) with the prescription of greater imagination and new ways of thinking that much of post-modernism revolves around. And that's the point. It's the suspicious modes and mimetic mechanisms of paranoia that are not well suited for a world where every idiot with a computer can type words and transmit half-formed ideas at the speed of light. We need ways of thinking that can deal effectively with the information firehose, and unfortunately postmodern critical methods don't seem up to the task.
Fascism and politics empowered by paranoia
We can hardly get through a sentence of an opposing partisan's view without identifying them as a bad actor. With any inspection at all it seems as though our governors are engaged in myriad conspiracies to maintain the global oligarchy and undermine the working people. How you imagine that's being done, and which oligarchs you think are being aided, is probably what defines your politic.
With that, do our political (narrative?) preferences manifest themselves as tribes of paranoia(the other way aroud?)? Is it the stories we tell ourselves about causality and the direction present therein that define our fears, worries, and preferences? Are the mimetic forces of paranoia what drive our insane in-group preferences and out-group banishment?
Given how strong the forces are that deem to divide us, it seems unlikely that the explanation is mere serendipity. It even, increasingly, seems unlikely that divisions are drawn up along the borders of race, religion, or language. From my vantage point it looks most likely that tribal lines are drawn along the lines of shared suspicion– now empowered by narrative and promulgated by academically mandated critique.
Journalism, Punditry, Blog Post, Narrative
There is an intelligensial subculture, born from new paths to fame and notoriety, justified through calls to the truth, financed by persuasion made monetary, and tasked with creating narrative from mere fact. Situated in this, pundits are a particular type of commentator whose sole job it is to find speculation, take it for a swim with what they "know", and spit it back out. Journalists and bloggers may not accept the pundit identity, but will engage in punditry nonetheless.
Professionals like these have become adept at simultaneously thinking paranoiacally and fitting facts into ideology – explicitly at a 12th grade reading level. Their status as both accessible and "correct" has sequestered them in a class of their own. The paranoid class. Purveyors of narrative. Unwitting(or witting) shapers of reality.
This class writes (or speaks) a lot. It's their job. The more opinions that they can get out of their head and into the air the better. I bet you could correlate global warming and pundit word counts.
To willing subjects consuming punditry or journalism (perhaps what they're reading signaled all of the right values before they've even begun), the sparse nature of text allows the reader to project themselves into the gaps, taking only emotional cues, leaving only agreement. To unwilling readers, the gaps in the text seem to be filled with the writer, allowing paranoid interpretive reflexes to kick in, and dispelling all possibility of consensus.
It's in this space that the paranoid class can breed. Bloggers about bloggers and journalists about journalists and pundits about pundits have found their home criticizing their tribal counterparts. Narrative can always be news, and news is always narrative.
In most professions, journeymen(journeypersons?) are expected to be the keepers of craft, for they alone possess the profound understanding it takes to be an effective practicioner of their trade. They might inhabit a feeling for the material–the mechanic's touch–or a respect for time-honored processes; either of which are hard-won by years of practice, inquiry, defeat, and persistence. Journeypersons have honed their tools, and dug well below the surface to discover the parts of chunks that thinkers and journeymen before them buried there long ago.
As far as journalists, pundits, bloggers, and other storytellers are concerned, their medium, their material, their massage is the narrative. The fibers that they bend are the fibers of reality, and the tapestry that they weave must be consistent, the rows of fiber even and orderly, the story compelling.
Even as the paranoid hone their craft and become more and more convincing, the pressure to publish quickly limits the quality of the exploration, which in turn makes even the (supposed) inherent power of the narrative shallow and uninteresting.
[O]ne understands paranoia only by oneself practicing paranoid knowing, and … the way paranoia has of understanding anything is by imitating and embodying it.
– Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading
Just like paranoia, narrative compels narrativization in order to be understood. Stories are best understood in terms of other stories. Archetypes and tropes are the language of understanding in this domain. Of course, since narrative is not an affect(??) I cannot say that it "tries to understand" anything, except in the most trivial sense.
This makes intuitive sense, though. Like their predecessors, historians, poets, and other tellers of tales, the new journo caste has only one job: post-hoc narrativization of otherwise disparate events.
A journeyperson of the narrative art does not, necessarily, understand the true, deep reality of whatever it is that they write about, since they are mathematically unable to spend as much time in any situation as their subjects–instead they possess greater and greater understanding of what makes narrative compelling. What forces a reader to engage and sympathize, to build connections and trust. The journalist's instinct to distill and simplify is predominantly good for two things– instilling the illusion of understanding in laypeople, and insuring that they trust that understanding.
Following the golden thread
Occasionally I've felt as though my life has had a guiding force, a golden thread that I could pick up and follow, a pulsating golden light laid out before me as if guiding me towards my next objective in some sort of reality based video game.
This, probably, is hypomania. Or maybe it's a flow-state. Or maybe it's just the illusion of control creeping in. Control: that necessary human illusion that imbues us with purpose and staves off hopelessness.
The string metaphor for purpose and control crops up elsewhere. Businesses or organizations that seem to miss the mark (as if there were a target) can also be said to have lost the thread, as though there is only one correct path through the labyrinth, out of the cave, and back into the light.
Even in my day to day, though not imbued with the same inspiring light, there is a sense that I am following a thread from place to place. The interplay of consciousness and time coalesce into this illusion– a string of sense and meaning connecting events.
The trick, of course, is that sometimes we're following the thread and sometimes we're laying the thread down behind us. Some of our faculties work more like reflexes than consciousness, and the interplay of those with the outside world can sometimes not be avoided. Sometimes the world is configured with such weight that our own inputs can contribute very little. But sometimes we can make an effect. Sometimes our input is meaningful. Sometimes we possess actual control.
Understanding those moments in situ is difficult, but important. Using these control moments wisely is how we make personal progress, and mis-categorizing these moments is one of our greatest sources of personal fallacy. The difference between reality and narcissism is in our Locus of Control, the difference between reality and conspiracy located somewhere near the Fundamental Attribution Error.
Narrative Reward / Conjunctive Maths
Narrative feels good. The right narremes in the right places tickle our intuition and inspire sympathetic responses in our brain and body. We are transported into the head space of the characters, where our overactive empathy works to make sure that our emotions reflect theirs exactly.
I think (and many others think at this distinct juncture in time) that narrative feels so good that we tend to view everything in terms of narrative, even if the evidence is sparse that such causal explanations are factual. Especially as our access to stories begins to border on unlimited, and our forays into the neuroscience of storytelling push us towards a perfected affectual control, we will become more susceptible to this failure.
The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan
It's a hard problem to have. Even adding details to "flesh out" a narrative does nothing for its validity. Details interpolated, extrapolated, any detail except those actually recorded from reality (a difficult thing to do, indeed), actually reduce a narrative's chance at reflecting reality.
This isn't some rhetorical slight of hand. This is a mathematical truth of the universe: as you add conditions that a model, a narrative, or a story must obey, it becomes vanishingly likely. Is it more likely that a given terrorist is a conservative? Or a conservative with mental health issues and a gun? What about an Islamist? What about an Islamist with mental health issues and a bomb? Think about it for more than a second and you'll quickly come to understand how deficient narrative, any narrative, is as a predictive model.
That is, of course, not to say that there aren't constructed narratives out there that are mostly correct– there are. Unfortunately, even post-hoc analysis of the events has a hard time determining what past correctness means when attempting to predict future events. Human beings are liable to assign causality when in fact there is only chance, and recommend chance when the mechanisms seem too obscure or complex to comprehend. Single, one-off events end up meaning everything, while the predictive realm of symbols and certainty breaks down when it encounters something new.
Narrative as abstraction / model
At the heart of it, storytelling is an essentialization of events. It is a paring back of the human experience to its most salient components: for every detail included we must leave out infinitely more.
Reality, by contrast, tends to fractal off into the distance: processes within processes, coves within coves, an infinite shoreline if measured with enough detail. The statistical tricks that make our consciousness work paper over some of that detail, failing to account for abnormal variations, one off events, and unexpected synchronicities.
The fundamental purpose of abstraction is to reduce complexity. To pre-brain reality. To do some braining for us. Using chunks that capture more area but with fewer details in a way that reduces the barrier to entry for ideas. We "black box" components, machines, processes, and other complex mechanisms, in order that we may use them for their explicit inputs and outputs without thinking about their inner workings.
In this same way we can view graphs, pictures, and other graphics as purposeful simplifications. They contain a programmed output (trend line, circle size, arrow direction) that represents a thought process working on a programmed input (variables chosen, data gathered, processes designed). The image becomes a model of reality, complexity abstracted away, what's left now simple and workable enough for higher level enjoyment.
What do they say, a picture is worth a thousand words? In these words I've got four charts worth of abstraction alone. Words are abstractions too. Whatever we, as authors choose to write, there are uncountably many more words that haven't been written about the same subject. The choice of words is statistically a matter of exclusion, not inclusion. Words become models for concepts and stories become a sort of meta-model, over-arching concept, order of display.
The narratives that we write become black box operators for classifying future events. Events (inputs) are inserted into the narrative, and out the other side come interpretations of those events. With some preparation the inner workings of narratives can now be forgotten to reduce cognitive load.
The so-called "scientific view of the world" based on this can hardly be anything more than a psychologically biased partial view which misses out [on] all those by no means unimportant aspects that cannot be grasped statistically.
– C. G. Jung, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle
Similarly, reality can be measured however you'd like. Correlations can be found wherever you look, and coincidence is not far behind.
A single human being's conception of the world, this accidental narrativization, is as one giant Texas Sharpshooter fallacy. The bullets fired, the barn hit, and nothing yet left but to draw a target. As Nicholas Taleb and other financiers are wont to say, you have to be drunk or blind not to find a pattern in randomness.
Donald Hoffman has been making the rounds, claiming to know that reality is nothing close to how we perceive it. I don't know that this is quite right. I think a more compelling case can be made that reality is nothing close to how we interpret it. Maybe this is just sophistry, but it's worth the typing.
In one of his talks, Donald Hoffman knowingly flashes us a picture of some beetles swarming a bottle, confused by its shiny, dimpled brown surface, and believing that the bottle is an incredibly large, fit mate. Donald quips that we humans have somewhat more discerning taste in women, that at least we wouldn't be duped by such a simple ruse.
We don't swarm bottles accidentally, but aren't we turned on by animated depictions of anatomy? It's clear that a two-dimensional representation of sex characteristics can send our mating instinct into a frenzy. It's clear that what we're not so much attracted to viable mates, but to the characteristics that signify viable mates; the symbols that cause us to load our mating chunk.
Is video, from a complexity standpoint, so much more different than a bottle that we can claim to be immune to such tricks? Doesn't makeup fool one's brain into believing that certain sex characteristics are present when they are not? I even bet we'll find sex robots (or virtual reality sex as in the just-alright movie The Zero Theorem) more universally satisfying in the future, as their symbology moves out of the uncanny valley.
Human beings are aware, consciously, that these things are facsimile, but subconsciously fall for the same tricks. Can we say that it is our perception that is broken? Doesn't perception happen in the conscious realm? What about our subconscious taints our interpretation such that it's clear we interpret exactly nothing about the world entirely correctly? If hermeneutics and criticism are attempts at moving our interpretive mechanisms into the conscious realm, how can we make sure we do so effectively? How do we avoid the attribution errors and other biases that taint so much?
If it's our interpretation, our analysis, our narrative that's broken, inherently, evolutionarily, then we must be ever more vigilant against the creep of grand narratives that might sweep us up and into fervor. It's not the dimples that deceive us, and it's not the shiny brown, but all of life is its signifiers, fit into our narrative – our understanding of the way things are.
In light of this, I can't be convinced that all scientists that "P-hack" understand that they are doing something wrong. They're only messing with the fundamental constituent parts of reality, anyhow. They're only tripping face first into the gaping chasm that lies between perception and interpretation.
The reality is that if you ask enough questions and gather enough data you will be able to find a pattern. You will be able to draw your target and announce your conclusion.
Good science(confirmatory and disconfirmatory science) can only be done when the target is drawn before the data is collected. It would be better to regard studies with many measurements as reality surveys, and analyze them with the eye of the financier, because if a narrative is given the data reality will have no choice but to conform.
Of course, drawing a target is a matter of philosophy ("what does a measurement mean?"), so confusion is understandable. Maybe this just means that we should tinker and refuse to worry about it. I don't know.
Statistics are counter-intuitive enough that they can beguile even the educated, and they frequently allow bias to fester.
Paranoia as defense
A cruel world demands justification. "Senseless" world explanations are inherently unsatisfying. The paranoid reading of reality, one rife with grand intentions and even grander conspiracies, appeals to the sensual nature of existence.
We spend our entire lives trying to tell stories about ourselves– they're the essence of memory. They're how we make living in this unfeeling accidental universe tolerable. That we call such a tendency "the narrative fallacy" doesn't mean it doesn't also touch upon some aspect of the truth.
Some stories simply literalize their metaphors a bit more explicitly.
–Ken Liu, Preface to The Paper Menagerie
Paranoia, as Eve Sedgwick says, is the most ascetic form of love. It demands little from its object, but grants it much attention and affection.
The first imperative of paranoia is There must be no bad surprises, and indeed, the aversion to surprise seems to be what cements the intimacy between paranoia and knowledge per se, including both epistemophilia and skepticism. … No time could be too early for one's having-already-known, for its having-already-been-inevitable, that something bad would happen. And no loss could be too far in the future to need to be preemptively discounted.
– Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading
Eliminating surprises works well when you have a relatively finite number of worries.
My intuition is that such paranoia in the modern world is self-defeating. It pays to fear and to protect yourself from wild animals or other small tribes. Not so much from giant governmental mechanisms that can kill or silence you in a thousand ways. Not so much from the perceived threat of 8 billions of other humans connected to each other via the series of wires and tubes we call the internet.
So please, by all means, fantasize about conspiracies for fun. Love the drama of life a little bit. But understand that putting money or effort into such things is gambling – playing a lottery you're unlikely to win.
Paranoia without identity groups?
I don't know who you direct your paranoia at if you don't have a sense of tribal identity. Our collective identities serve as the objects in our narratives, the agents and injured parties, all. I don't know how you have tribal identity without paranoia.
I also don't know if paranoia exists without tribal identity. Who do you fear? What must you uncover?
How do we decide what parties to trust? Not in a an "honesty" sort of way, because we can still ultimately trust many of those that are dishonest to us, but existentially. What other agents do we put our trust in without the aid of identity?
Even the simple matters of context and subtext are rooted in identity. How do we even understand other people if we don't have groups to fit them into?
I don't like to be prescriptive. I don't think that there's any one thing or few things that can be done to fix the state of discourse. Still, I'd like to offer suggestions from my own brain. A few of my own interpretive tools for building understanding from diverse source materials, including materials from those people that you would generally be disinclined to believe. It's tricky.
The vocabulary for articulating any reader's reparative motive toward a text or a culture has long been so sappy, aestheticizing, defensive, anti-intellectual, or reactionary that it's no wonder few critics are willing to describe their acquaintance with such motives.
– Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading
The simplest technique is to simply ignore the bad bits of academic text. Most people ignore irrelevant words almost constantly, and extending the favor to our philosophical enemies is the least we can do. Ignoring items you disagree with opens you up to the possibility of finding some text that speaks to you, and allows you to focus on the ways that you are alike, rather than different.
This is your least effort option, but it's not practical for many situations. Mostly our differences are important and must be addressed.
The next step, then, is to engage in dialectic. The assumption that discussion carries mutual benefit is foundational to many reparative methodologies (family counseling, anarchist micro-government, etc), and is easily applied to our reading habits. Dialectic moves shared reality, debate encourages us to pit ideologies in some sort of winner-takes-all gladiator battle. Is ideology a slave in this metaphor? Couldn't tell you.
Regardless of our adoption of ideas from any person or text that we engage in dialectic, we can learn something nonetheless. We can learn the what's and why's of other ideologies. We can understand the possible of other internally consistent narratives. Maybe by understanding the fractures and breakdowns of other ideologies we can more accurately pinpoint the fractures and breakdowns of our own– places where we can ultimately choose to employ other systems of thinking that are more situationally effective.
These unintended consequences are the side effects of ideas. Just like in medicine (a purely Talebian example), in philosophy progress in made most often by tinkering and finding the unexpected. Like Viagra (invented for cardiological disorders), the side effects of ideas we invent or encounter may be the primary effects we seek in another domain.
Even acting's time-tested method for keeping a scene going, the classic "yes, and?" allows for more ideas rather than fewer, and could be considered a reparative technology. I don't know.
How often do you read something interesting and then go searching around for the political leaning of the author before deciding whether the text should be taken seriously? Is it worth it? What signals have to be present before you'll trust something?
Sometimes I think the real alternative to narrative is to communicate entirely through the visceral emotional impressions of non-verbal sound and aesthetic imagery in the way that Andrei Tarkovsky mastered. Sounds cool at least.