Between Unknowing and Conviction
Queequeg's Coffin, the power of this metaphor lies in the unpredictability of its particulars, but it's important not to be paralyzed by that necessary state of unknowing. There are ways to "steer" our activities along paths that lead to a meaningful life, whether or not circumstances allow for ultimate fulfillment. This is vital. We cannot wait for guarantees!
The hard work comes in sorting out from the jumble of habit and assumption, instinct and reason, which of our impulses are toxic – the result of our reactions to bad situations – and which are life-affirming aspirations that are our responsibility to fulfill. If we are undisciplined in this task, just waiting for perfection or some guarantee that we will attain a certain result before time runs out – either individually or collectively – we have allowed ourselves to commit a pitiful abdication of that responsibility.
Illich's Tools for Conviviality makes an astonishingly well formulated assessment of our historical situation, how we got here, and almost more importantly, the trade-offs and decisions that were made along the way. He states that what we can now see as preferable was never a possibility before. We are not talking of a return to any previous state! This has long been a guiding insight for me, it's nice having his confirmation!
Stripping away the panic, and the stereotypical responses we compulsively turn to under its influence, goes a long way towards not only preparing us for whatever is coming, but also opening up the possibility of having a life! Coming out from under the panic frees us to make judgments that strip away layers of accumulated dysfunction to arrive at touchstones to a life worth living. This I equate with Neal Stephenson's take on the concept of Emergence.
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It is relatively easy to see an obsession or compulsion in others, especially if it is removed from our particular propensities. It's much more valuable to find the commonalities between all of them, including our own, and unmasking them across the board. In return, we need to uncover life-affirming aspirations and find ways to propitiate their fulfillment. At this point of realization we stand at the edge of the world as a dizzying array, as if looking onto a giddy crazy carousel spinning and bobbing, noisy, all flashing lights between us and its calm quiet center, where its "machinery" hums away in a dark stillness. We cannot affect how it will be run without "jumping in." Its greatest disturbance is at its rim, precisely in front of us. As we make our way through it we reach progressively calmer states and its ability to distract us or defend itself against our challenge diminishes.
As heirs to the Twentieth Century we are uniquely positioned by the lessons amassed during that eventful time in pain and suffering. They wrestled with the same difficulties, but lacked our perspective. Our most telling gain, if we take it seriously enough, is an awareness that any perspective is partial and all hard-won insight must be tempered with an awareness of its "shelf-life." They saw the difficulties of the human condition and codified their responses. They problematized the human condition and fit their actions into preconceived plans. Ideologies were systematically developed and then applied programmatically. When these efforts failed – as they must, as reality outstrips them – they redoubled their efforts, driving failure ahead of them like snow before a plow.
At any point, release, instead of further pressure, might have made things better. But they were blind to this possibility. Our current leaders, institutions, mental constructs, are the moribund remnants of this effort – the UnDead. They are dangerous, but ineffectual. They have passed the point when they're no longer able to "cook the books" fast enough to hide even from their own blinkered sight the enormity of their failure. The greatest threat from the UnDead is that they infect us so that we fall into their unseeing habits no matter how "different" we might think our proposals might be. Every age has its unintended consequences, traps for the wary as well as the simply well-intentioned. Armed with this awareness, an awareness of humility, we won't avoid these traps, but just might be able to dampen their effects.
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We need places to stand, not just figuratively as in this earlier post, but literally. To be agents and not subjects means we need to carve out spaces in which we can act with autonomy. As soon as this claim is made however, the forces of reaction come out, internal as well as external. Externally we are seen as Pilgrims looking for a Garden of Eden before finding our Alamo. Internally we raise up such a jumble of instinct and accumulated habit that it is very hard to keep from fulfilling such a destiny the outside world seeks to impose. We jump from discovering a basic truth right into a fantasy fulfillment. We "get in line" with every other group that's ever come before or is playing out this tragedy today.
Is this avoidable? Must we join the long line of "settlers" and conquistadors, peregrines in search of salvation at the expense of those who were there before them?
Whenever questions of "space" arise, the space to act as one sees fit, we approach the question of Liberty. We open, on the one hand, a drive towards some Utopia – away from realities and into the realm of projected fantasy – and on the other, we open up the possibility of conflict.
If we avoid the question of space, we atrophy. We cannot carve out meaning and generate our own experiences without a space of liberty. On the other hand, if we confront this need directly, it can easily derail us, taking us down paths we already know to be dead-ends. This appears to be the central dilemma we face individually and collectivly – to act makes us complicit, to avoid action makes us just as complicit in the continuing failure. The most aggressive and dangerous elements around us gain all the available space through hegemon, empire and even by the efforts of empire's enemies. Between these "competing forces," really just two sides of one pernicious dynamic, we find ourselves trapped.
All of the "struggles" of the Twentieth Century jumped into conflict maintaining that right was on their side. Is this a confusion of ends and means? The continued toll this choice has inflicted on the world, as each element insists on its self-justification and the willful trampling of any competing claims to justice, makes it hard to embrace this same choice today. What are the alternatives? Even limiting ourselves to chiefly mental constructs, creating works of imagination, attempting to carve out new forms of thought, rehearsals for action re-cast, requires a certain "space." Not only room, as in that "room of one's own," but also room to make a living, room for even the most rudimentary community in which to interact and develop an engagement without which no forms can be developed that will not be still-born for lack of vitality.
Perhaps this only requires nooks and crannies. – The little tunnels and burrows of warm-blooded ancestors somewhere under foot as thrashing behemoths stamp about in their doomed conspicuancy. – Even if this is the case, there needs to be a certain visibility, opportunities for communication and interaction across distances, to make up for local scarcity of opportunity as the dominant forms chew through what little remains of past abundance.
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Jump to conclusions! As I see it, this is our greatest danger. The alternative is not inaction. That's a false choice, the one that's led to failure again and again. The alternative is an opening up to a continual wrestling with conditions and contingencies so that we can learn to remain on that edge between unknowing and conviction. If we only see this as a linear path going from a situation of lacking to one of having, then we are doomed to reel from paralysis to self-inflicted catastrophe. Unknowing is not a lack, it's a relationship to reality. It's the opposite of Know Nothing, that perennial reactionary stance so popular today. Unknowing is the realization that the most we can do is "salvage reality," to use Berger's terminology, extracting bits of reality from out of the surrounding mysteries.
Alone, unknowing keeps us on the edge, but it does not provide a platform for action. Conviction is the feeling of certainty. As the distillation of a momentary insight it can show us intersections opening up between our condition of unknowing and the foment of reality at that moment. This is the opportunity for Emergence. Conviction held is a fossilized insight which becomes more and more at odds with ongoing reality the more closely it is embraced. While too close an adherence to unknowing can make us passive, too close an adherence to conviction makes us dangerous!
Between unknowing and conviction should lie the dynamic state of Emergence. It's easiest to see this as the natural state of the surfer or skier in action, facing the powers of dynamic nature within the flow of the moment. That's a good image, but unless we can find room within our sense of Emergence for a concept of Home, Community, space for the slow and the vulnerable aspects of life, then our concept of Emergence will remain partial and ultimately self-defeating.