Essay: That’s exactly what they want you to think.

(Formerly posted as “Report from the Workshop: 04/29/2022,” but I decided it’s much too long for a report and should stand on its own.)

Semesters are like volcanoes: they simmer and simmer for a long time without anyone thinking much of it, and then they decide one morning to violently explode.

Yesterday I submitted an outline that resulted from a semester-long independent study on Heidegger’s thinking of ontological “death” and its ramifications for education. I started with education, but somehow ended up creating a pretty ambitious research project involving existential death, conspiracy theories, and the epistemological necessity of vulnerability.

I say I started with education because, to be honest, I’ve grown tired of thinking about education. Problems in education increasingly strike me as consequences of more general (and therefore more invisible) social, technological, and epistemic limitations. Talking about “education” on its own seems more and more like missing the forest for the trees.

Of course, as a (sometime, amateur) Marxist, I shouldn’t find this surprising. The depredations of capital flow affect all aspects of social life, although differentially in different domains. I’m finding myself gravitating more and more toward what Heidegger calls Gelassenheit, “releasement,” a term he cribs from the German mystic Meister Eckhart and reappropriates for his own use. Where Eckhart would advocate “releasement toward God,” Heidegger would advocate “releasement to the things (in the world).” This allows one to “return to oneself” and see one’s existential situation anew and (potentially) with greater clarity. It’s also the exact opposite of the way that networked digital media platforms want people to behave. Thoughtful, meditative behavior doesn’t play well on platforms that run on a fuel of “engagement.”

[Upon reflection, it strikes me that one could read Gelasssnheit as a kind of “blissed out” disconnection from the world. I don’t think Heidegger intends this reading, although it’s not difficult to see how one could make this mistake. Rather, and I think this is important, releasement” for Heidegger is releasement to the world and how it shows itself to us. That is, one’s usual and unthinking apprehension of the the world is “broken” and then “reset.” I hurt my knee about a month ago, and though it’s much better now, it still feels different than it did before – I actually have to think about walking and pay attention to where I set my foot. I’m imagining releasement as occasioning something similar.]

For a while now I’ve been mulling over the idea that we humans, especially but not exclusively those of us in the Global North, have been “domesticated” by a product of our own invention. Networked digital technologies are “pharmacological” in that, on their own, they don’t have a positive or negative valence. Two aspirin help a headache. A bottle of aspirin, however, will kill you. It isn’t exactly a question of quantity, but rather of distribution and following impulses. Every time you get mad at something you see on Twitter and “clap back,” Twitter is literally (and I mean this in the dictionary sense, not for emphasis) making ad revenue from the reflexive operation of your neural pathways and fight-or-flight reflex because the more you stay online, the more angry and invested you get, the more fucking ads you are exposed to. It’s like if you “worked” in a factory where every time the doctor made your knee twitch with that weird hammer the hospital administrator got money from the hammer manufacturer. (Maybe that is how doctors work, I don’t know.) But that’s an essay for another time. Right now I want to talk about serendipity.

As I was typing up my outline to turn in I realized that several of the books I’ve read “for fun” this semester have borne direct relevance to the social epistemological questions I’m beginning to pose. This happens to me pretty regularly, actually, and it’s probably just a case of apophenia, seeing patterns where there aren’t any. Of course, if the universe is one unified thing and any individual and their sensory apparatus is a distinguishable part of it that, nonetheless, follows similar rules as elements of the universe at much larger and much smaller scales, then who is anyone to say that there aren’t patterns? Maybe we just need a different point of view.

{The sentence starting with “of course” in the above paragraph is dangerous. The astute reader will understand why. If you don’t understand why, just recognize that I was, and again literally, fucking around up there.}

Let’s talk about books. First, I started reading a collection of Philip K. Dick’s short stories in January. I keep the volume by my bed for nighttime reading, so I haven’t made a ton of progress through it. But even Dick’s weaker offerings bear the distinctly clammy and metallic odor of paranoia. His VALIS trilogy, written after a kind of mystical experience he underwent and then tried to work through in his Exegesis, features a millennia-long conspiracy in which the Roman empire never died and continues to enslave humanity. Wild. In Dick’s fiction, nothing is as it seems, and there is often no way out. (Incidentally, I appreciated the most recent Matrix movie for driving this point home. I’m a congenital contrarian, so I love that film because everyone else seems to hate it, but I also love it because Lana Wachowski strikes me as dedicated to not infantilizing her audience with a clearly spelled out “message.” Just like the previous installments in the series, the “moral” of the story is: “take a minute to think, you philistines!”)

I also began Robert Shea’s and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy, a send-up of acid-trip political paranoia from the 60s and 70s. The narrative structure is experi-mental (see what I did there?) with point of view changes galore and makes reference to a wide variety of very specific conspiratorial schemas. The intention is clearly to satirize paranoia, but the novel does so in a way that leaves the reader unsure of just what the “real story” might be. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that this uncertainty regarding the “real story” is good. Since Descartes, philosophers have looked for “absolute knowledge,” knowledge we could know without a shadow of a doubt that we knew. Personally, having read the bit of Descartes’ Meditations where he gets to his famous cogito, I think he may have been trolling. In any case, the spectre of “absolute knowledge” looms large and nastily. For a Biblical literalist, any challenge to a truth claim made by the Bible potentially throws the whole thing in question. Hence the literalist’s jumping through ever-more-spurious hoops to save the phenomenon. But here’s the problem: this kind of face- and phenomenon-saving behavior is now characteristic of everyone. Why can’t things be “true enough?” Or, saints preserve us, fucking metaphors?

Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which I just finished the other day, actually makes that last point explicit. It’s the story of three editors at a publishing house who basically use a computer program (named after a medieval Kabbalist) to invent a global Knights Templar-themed conspiracy after encountering a strange Colonel with what he claims is a decoded Templar message. At first it’s a joke, designed to poke fun at the spurious dot-connecting done by the “Diabolicals,” enthusiasts of the esoteric who constantly submit manuscripts “revealing” hermetic and conspiratorial secrets. The editors are hard-headed skeptics, with what Eco describes as a kind of hard-headedness apparently congenital to the Piedmont region where they come from. Over time, however, that all starts to change. As the Plan becomes more and more real to them, and the stakes start getting higher, the narrator Casaubon reflects that he and the others have, precisely, lost the ability to think metaphorically or figuratively. The novel is deeply tragic, even though it is, like Illuminatus, intended as satire.

I’ve often thought that fiction is a better vehicle for some ideas across than non-fiction (especially in philosophy). Genre fiction like sci-fi or thrillers seems especially useful to me, and partially because it isn’t (or hasn’t historically) been taken seriously. Crichton’s Jurassic Park, for example, makes what seems like a pretty persuasive argument for at least some amount of caution in biological engineering, but when Jeff Goldblum’s lines get turned into memes, the thrust of the argument gets obfuscated.

Foucault’s Pendulum has been described as “the thinking [person’s] Da Vinci Code,” and I think that’s right. The point of the novel is to show that the logic of conspiracism leads to an abyss. When everything can in principle be connected but there is no nuance, no sense of when and which kinds of connections are appropriate, one falls into the trap of having no choice but to try and become omniscient. This is impossible (for a human being, anyway), and so omniscience comes to mean imprisonment in a miasma of one’s own epistemological overindulgences. It doesn’t even make sense to call it a “web” of connections anymore because a web has a particular valence – it isn’t arbitrary. While Eco could have probably made this point quite clearly in an essay (or, haha, a blog post), the novel’s form, that of an upper-level airport thriller, gets the reader in the guts in a way that making claims and articulating arguments does not.

“Interesting,” the reader has by now mumbled to themself a few times. “So you just happened to read several books that all had to do with paranoia and conspiracism, and then decided to do more research on this phenomenon? Seems pretty straightforward to me.”

I agree, actually. I’m not trying to argue otherwise. Rather, I’m trying to demonstrate that there doesn’t need to be a straight line from point A to point B in all cases, and even where such a line does in fact exist, one might not be able to perceive it until after the fact because, wait for it, the line itself might not exist until after the fact. (Hegel, whom I haven’t read, calls this Nachtreglichkeit, “retroactivity.”) That is, there’s a difference between conspiracy and serendipity, but sometimes this difference is hard to perceive. Either way, one should wonder, “does there need to be a reason?”

The final book I want to talk about, William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, deals with a kind of serendipity of perception and offers a potential corrective for the pathological drive to omniscience. Probably best known for his earlier Neuromancer, Gibson basically invented the cyberpunk genre. Pattern Recognition, however, doesn’t exactly fit that mold. There are computers, of course. The plot actually comes to revolve around a series of film fragments of unknown provenance unearthed on the (2002) internet but the digital technologies and the world of the setting are all “real” and recognizable. The novel also has to do with, as the title suggests, pattern recognition, and seeing patterns where there aren’t any. But over the course of the novel the reader watches protagonists who don’t gain victory over the world of networked technologies and final, full understanding, but rather find a kind of catharsis in not knowing for sure.

The protagonist, Cayce Pollard (pronounced “case,” though she was named after the American mystic Edward Cayce (pronouned “casey”)), works as a freelance “cool-hunter,” roaming urban streets on the lookout for the Next Big Thing in fashion. She has a strange and somewhat uncomfortable ability to “sense” whether a logo will “work” on the market or not, as well as a complete intolerance for brand names and logos which she describes as a kind of “allergy.” Gibson makes a fair bit of hay over, for example, Cayce’s clothing – tags carefully cut out, the pseudo-brand of a “casio clone” watch sanded off. (Many of these descriptions read like museum copy twenty years on, which I think adds to the novel’s interest.) Cayce doesn’t know how she does what she does, only that it works. When she is hired by Hubertus Bigend, a Belgian businessman in the mold of a proto-Elon Musk, Cayce finds herself connecting her business of evaluating logos with her passion for finding whoever is making the mysterious online footage. Think Indiana Jones but it’s a black-clad woman from New York who does Pilates in the early 2000s. (Just to be clear, this description is intended as a positive appraisal of the book.)

While parts of the novel now feel dated (no smartphones, people communicate by calling and emailing rather than DM’ing, etc.), it nonetheless remains eerily resonant. The reader learns, about halfway through the novel, that Cayce’s father, Wingrove Pollard, worked as a security contractor for American intelligence services securing embassies. Win disappeared on the morning of 9/11/2001, but there has been no proof positive if he is dead or not. The novel takes place soon after 9/11, and the trouble with Win’s undeath has to do with his estate – Cayce and her estranged mother, who lives in a kind of hippy commune dedicated to scanning rolls of tape for so-called “electric voice phenomena” (EVP), cannot claim Win’s inheritance until he can be proven to be dead. But that isn’t really concerning to Cayce. Rather, the really concerning thing is not knowing.

There’s a lot of not knowing in this novel, and I would argue that the catharsis Cayce eventually reaches (which I won’t spoil) serves as a useful model for how we ought to live now. 9/11 has faded into the background of the American psyche over the last twenty-plus years (although not from American politics, unfortunately), but we still find ourselves living in a world beset by bad things happening for reasons opaque to us. The rush to claim that covid-19 was a Chinese-developed viral weapon, for example, tries to find an “explanation” for something that, insofar as it posed a threat to global health, at least initially simply had to be dealt with. I think it likely that scientists will know for certain where and how covid came from in my lifetime, but I don’t think we know now. That doesn’t stop speculation, though, driven by the pain of not knowing, of feeling the rope slip through our fingers as we hang over the abyss, unsure whether anyone will come and save us.

Pattern Recognition presents the reader with two questions that eventually merge into one for the protagonist: “who makes the mysterious videos?” And, “what happened to my father?” One of these questions is, eventually, answered. The other, however, is not. Or not completely. Not beyond a shadow of a doubt. But even with this possibility of doubt, Cayce finds a way to live. To “pollard,” in horticultural terminology, means to cut down a tree, leaving a stump from which new, straight branches will sprout. It’s a means of sustainable forestry because a few pollarded trees can produce lots of wood for quite a long time, rendering cutting down other mature trees unnecessary. One could read Cayce’s last name as reflective of the myriad possible coulds she encounters. There isn’t a main trunk to speak of – the postmodern “proliferation” has replaced the late-modern “grand narrative.” Coming from the position of Descartes, or later of Kant’s sapere aude!, “dare to know!,” the only choice in a world of massive complexity and scale seems to many of us to try, like the editors in Foucault’s Pendulum, to make sense of it all. The desire to become omniscient, to become God, to become identical to the universe itself, is a desire not for immortality and certainty, but for un-death and the constantly grinding need to continue suspecting. Either it all makes sense, or none of it does, says the inheritor of an Enlightenment grown malignant, and the abyss calls louder, louder.

What saves us from the abyss? Well, at least from my perspective, certainly not God. Neither will History, Justice, The Next Generation. The arc of history only bends toward justice if it is made to bend. The universe on its own seems supremely unconcerned with the whole thing, like a dandelion blowing in the breeze. We’re on our own and, like Cayce Pollard, unsure of what’s what. But also like Cayce Pollard, we’re not each of us all alone. Pollards produce myriad new growths from a single stump. We can still help each other, even if no one person finally “knows the score.” And we can also keep each other honest. Not necessarily by arguing, but simply by wryly asking, like the skeptical Piedmontese editors in Foucault’s Pendulum before they succumb to their own game, “you really think so?”

It would be all too easy for me to look at my reading this semester and think, “oh wow, I guess it’s my destiny to write about conspiracy theories since I read these books without realizing it!” But then, when I hear myself say this out loud, the other me that is identical to me but from further along the timeline, grins and says, “you really think so?”

New poem published

I’ve recently had a new poem of mine accepted by Plum Tree Tavern. The piece is a haiku called “Wind Stirs.”

I appreciate Plum Tree Tavern and its editor for accepting my work again. I’ve enjoyed many of the pieces I’ve seen there, and I particularly appreciate the Tavern’s dedication to non-anthropocentric and ecological visions.

Anyway, you can read the poem here.

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