This Beltane, I will try to organize my immediate intentions around the symmetries that motivate them.
“Intersubjectivity” brings humility in like oxygen to any encounter, no matter how foamy. Ever since we were introduced, intersubjectivity has encouraged me to limit the rhetorical scope of promising devices like “the facts”, “consensus”, “reality”, etc. I have learned to nurture and cherish “I statements”. But what about “I know” — how does this work in a deeply relative framework? This pirouette gets me to rethink “knowing” as more of an experience or activity than a state or characteristic. What does it feel like to “know” something? How do I “know”?
When I imagine “what I know”, most ready to hand are simple objects, materials arranged around me, this leaf, this lamp, this bowl of stone fruits. I know them because they are straightforward and persuasive as to their own “factualness” — I can touch them, feel them, they continuously prove themselves to me by a protocol of contact. They don’t mean anything but to be themselves. I am not confused about what it feels like to know them — although I still have questions about how knowing them suits me.
I also know — in exactly the same way — certain things that are typically scripted as abstractions, too culturally circumstantial as such to be facts of the same caliber. Countable numbers are a key example — if I handle two peaches, maybe all I know is peaches. But then I handle two eggplants and I know eggplants, peaches, and concretely a new thing, I know their two-ness. Circles, tensegrity structures, and other geometries are proved in the same way.
riding a bike,
the next beat,
my own name.
How do I sense (sensation) the difference between “believing” and “knowing”? To this end, I’ve been playing with gnosis . (I’m not calling the demiurge my daddy, yet, though. footnote this?) I gno that trust is a feeling or behavior, too. (Such hygiene. Wow.) I wonder now if facts are things we have that feeling towards.
I am discouraged from (and provoked to) this exploration by various discursive conventions of the Cartesian left, like “disinformation”. Though typically propagated from historical narratives of subjections of power, these elaborations increasingly ring with a presumptuous claim to knowledge in some general and not-so-“I-statement”-y form as they are removed from context and naturalized to rationalist traditions. Despite going to all the same parties as “intersubjectivity” the two motifs seem quite incompatible. (We are all been here often enough before — why doesn’t someone say something?) Maybe there is a EULA attached to this word that is long enough to capture all the caveats I’d need to reconcile them. I must have installed a spam blocker for that…
This appears to be a common problem with the Cartesian left — which generally prides itself on not resorting to the degenerate tactics of the right (“WE only use WMDs on sub-humans like bacteria and centaurs” and shit) and yet seem quite comfortable with applying force at scale to the constitution of other peoples' inward or private record of reality or history.
How is this not a consent problem? It’s not obviously avoidable (sharing is hard) and I don’t mean to condemn anyone for participating — but my lifetime contribution to this project makes me squirm and squeak and at inopportune moments this can be quite awkward. I’ve had to develop a roleplay habit to cover it. I have not yet wrapped my fingers around my stake in what other people know (only how they share).
I am talking in this way only about the left because that is my garden to tend, and my audience. I grew up under the Cartesian flag. I called myself rational once (would have called myself a rationalist, if I had been so well read). I thought I knew things like: the senses are five in number, humans have a peculiar intelligence, and that is why we care about us (I learned to look for reasons for this caring); the world is made of atoms (which it turns out aren’t atomic); the human archive is incomplete (but the observable one isn’t).
Historically, I have trusted these facts because they were vouched for by my mother, who I trust and who gave me myself. I received them again from a normative elite socioeconomic environment that offered a contract bona fide, which has rewarded my loyalty in kind. But the Cartesian doctrines which organize this faith claim peculiar generality. They are systematic and organized around politically proactive conventions of proof and standards of evidence. These conventions depend on logics of scale that are inherently exclusionary, inherently racist and classist. I don’t anymore think this is avoidable, as scalability depends on structures of power to preserve the project characteristics that are being scaled in the first place.
Now that we are aware of the mundane finitude of the outward world we all must share (and survive), that desire for scale is ever more insistent. I struggle to flex political and environmental desires without relying on scalable tissues.
What are political systems that don’t have this characteristic scale-reliance? Here is, I think, my underlying search that has got me out of my comforting pothos-infested mattress-cave this morning to write to you. It may require me to let go of / exhale some preconceptions that my political musculature can be systematic at all. I may be looking for a spiritupolitical thing, an anti-system.
Maybe my sensemaking tradition is now primed to learn from that deep capability which it has so far been parenting. Is the “sensation of knowing”, that abdominal motion, just the contractions of an increasingly overlooked but integral, muscular organ? This transfiguration of “knowing” into a somatic activity performed by knowers has complicated my view of the relationship between power and sense-making. This kind of knowing molds well to intersubjective frameworks for operating reality and truthiness, and is largely incompatible with authoritarian sense-making. It even seems to scoff at logics of scalability of any variety.
How can we desire a controlled, scalable consensus reality and also desire everyone exercise of the lithe proving apparatus?
But still, I feel these desires. I know what you are talking about when you name both of these desires. And where there is desire, even (or especially) where there is a paradox, there is opportunity for nuance in which to get up to some good-ish clean-ish fun. What is it like, the kind of raggedy-fucking† where these wants come to know each other?
This brings me to my first question, or paradox. I yearn for humility’s answer to the loneliness of an otherwise convex universe. I also fiercely cling to my queered and mangled, mingled life, precariously staked as it is on survivability of said universe. Who has time for this kind of balance? Who has time?
So I don’t mean to condemn anyone. I’m not talking about any rights to discretion over reality and facts, or wrongs, or shoulds of any sort. In this context maybe all such rights are property rights, and neurotic rights. What I am looking for is not so cumbersome as that. I am talking about the provenance (the oh-look-here-where-did-you-come-from-and-who-made-you) of the little fibers of our social tissue. It just appears that forceful approaches for managing “alternative facts” (fact gradients? trust gradients?) have failed and continue to fail with aplomb (or should I say, aplunge), and after a step back, I am not surprised. I don’t see survivability in any tapestry made up of these parts. What is it like, the kind of collaboration and sharing whose structural tensors are children of desire, and not of property? In coming years I’m interested in following the thread of Saidiya Hartmann’s critical fabulation, a relationship with archives which is exerted in the act of narration rather than the accountability of the history itself to an estated authority of some kind.
I one had a fifteen minute conversation with a Southern Baptist pastor that reached homophobia at minute two. He was still really interested in helping me come to Jesus, and I let him try his hardest. He and I disagree on this point but that is fucking if I ever saw it. Preciado’s “orgasmic force” was present here — urges, neu-erotic, extended beyond the chemical, another thread to pull on.
I now intend to unravel the sweater with more sustained exertion.
I work best with referents (show, don’t tell) — they prove themselves. Among other things, what I would like is a glass house for my “I statements”, where they are as ergonomic, and as natural, as either rationale and desire. I would like to express my desire in relation to nonverbal I-statements as portably as abstractions entrapped in words. If I have anything more general to say (“we-statements”?), I would like the invitation to be (sensationally) clear. I would like it to be impractical to throw stones.
I have come to believe that scale anxiety is a powerful influence on the evolutionary loop of our communicative systems and protocols (from the analog on up). Rational machines can provide leverage to the knowing/proving organelle, but what happens when they nominally replace it? I see efforts to force consensus through this leverage as predictably causing either dualism and resentment (when “unsuccessful”) or atrophy (when “successful”). I can feel the atrophy myself, every time I subject my desire, love and hurt, to systematization and justification. Why do you want this future? Why would this be a good thing? I want everyone to exercise this muscle chain, I want to see what spiritual work our amalgamated body can do with it.
This prompts me to look at how one medium more than another might have the forceful tendency built into the structure of its messages. I am interested in histories of media, theories of protocols and the structural tendencies of media, how these media and their message-structures relate to the motion/sensation of knowing, and how a medium’s trappings of knowledge (including representation, truthiness, argument, and proof) can be transported into or out of a prescriptively human model of a “knower” or thing which can perform this motion. Friends, where to next?
Writing is a medium that supports both narration and non-narrative rhetoric (and, of course, many more means of contact). Some narration is of the “I statements” form, which speak for themselves as to the author’s stake or investment in their reception. What are the different forms of forcefulness in rhetoric? As in economics, the free-market model of persuasion is a disproportionately popular among my most well-resourced friends. This is not an area I have too well theorized. I am curious however as to whether these modes are more natural and more ergonomic uses of writing than are, say, documentary modes. What I call the documentary mode of writing is an effort to capture extraverbal events, either just to transport them or in order that they can be arranged and manipulated by verbal tools. Some narrative modes are documentary.
Documentary filmmaking for a while has been an even more ergonomic medium for this proof-by-construction. It has been diminished in this regard by the tradition of editorial selectivity and the increasingly convenient possibility of artificial such documents (culminating in deepfakes), which erodes their trustworthiness (worse, their significance, their signification or tendency to signify).
Hal Abelson gave the entertaining and instructive lesson that computation “is not about computers the way geometry is not about surveying tools”. (Apocryphally — does anyone have the reference? — I recall that from PARC we got the adaptation, “computation is not about computers the way writing is not about the printing press”). This comparison between a computational medium and other media prompts interesting questions for me because there is a stronger formalism of “proof” in computation than in writing. And yet, the green check mark in my browser indicating that a cryptographic verification has occurred is itself verified by non-cryptographic, embodied-social mechanisms of trust. You may have heard the old aphorism: the Demiurge Exists Between Keyboard And Chair…
This will not be my first exploration of the superpower of trust and how it works online, but this turns out to be a game with high replay value. This time I am much more focused on motion, on what is happening inside your body, and what the boundaries of your body can be.
So far, I am inclined to work towards a design that accounts for:
- attribution of “I statements” (Maybe “narration” is a generalization of this. Also, this provokes some interesting questions about names.)
- native certification of computable analyses (i.e., data and functions expressed as native types)
- minimally transformative entrapment of other media and their messages
- low or high density of arguments in a neighborhood of messages
- attributional distance
- arguments of arguments of all of those varieties
By “accounts for”, I mean that these contextual markers of messages would be challenging to avoid — e.g., it would be uneconomical to publish a data summary that is not natively computable. Messages and their rhetorical/subjective context should be discoverable in relation to each other. Here I imagine a convex or content-addressable message space, which is quite enough of a hard technical problem to keep me busy between the time I hit “publish” in this granny flat and that breath, now, that you’re holding (sshh, I might vainly imagine) as you read. This is also one rare reason why I feel Turing machines are a punctul necessity for this medium to exist.
I know of, and respect, a variety of instincts to doubt this work. Some of them are:
- I am overly focused on knowledge that maps to colloquial “facts”
- The role of “knowing” may play a lesser role in sharing than my exploration suggests
- I am trying to use devices of power to diminish power structures
- The relationship between thinking and scale may be too deep to circumvent in this way
Please consider helping me find more complications, and understand the contours of the ones I’ve given.
I don’t expect my description of the “proof of two” to convince you. It’s a knowing protocol that you have to perform yourself. But if you strongly identify as a visual learner:
🍑 🍑 🍆 🍆