Complex ambiguities

Rebecca Solnit from Ploughshares, May 2016: “We live in a time when …purveyors of conventional wisdom like to report on the future more than the past. They draw on polls and false analogies to announce what is going to happen next, and their frequent errors… don’t seem to impede their habit of prophecy or our willingness to abide them. ‘We don’t actually know’ is their least favorite thing to report.” [My italics.]

I am the sort of reader who loves to hear experts announce “We don’t actually know.” But I recognize I am in the minority–in this respect–in my culture. That most Americans are willing to abide such speculative prophecies worries me a bit, and I do what I can in the classroom to waken my students to the possibility of erroneous thinking, even on the part of supposed experts and aggregate sources.

Yes, once again I am teaching argument to freshmen…the classic example of what Solnit calls naïve cynics:

Non-pundits, too, use bad data and worse analysis to pronounce with great certainty on future inevitabilities, present impossibilities, and past failures. The mind-set behind these statements is what I call naïve cynicism. It bleeds the sense of possibility and maybe the sense of responsibility out of people.

Maybe it also says something about the tendency to oversimplify. If simplification means reducing things to their essentials, oversimplification tosses aside the essential as well. It is a relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world that generally offers neither, a desire to shove nuances and complexities into clear-cut binaries. Naïve cynicism concerns me because it flattens out the past and the future, and because it reduces the motivation to participate in public life, public discourse, and even intelligent conversation that distinguishes shades of gray, ambiguities and ambivalences, uncertainties, unknowns, and opportunities.

Scholarly argument should ideally create discourse, not embattled absolutism on things that cannot ever be “proven.” In fact, I have forbidden my students to employ the word “prove” (or any of its conjugations) in their argument papers. They know my rationale for this lexical excision; I also warn them away from “always,” “never,” and “everyone.” But they are not yet experienced enough critical thinkers to recognize that my practice is also to encourage research and nuance, to shove them (gently) out of their naïve cynicism into the world of no-easy-answers, no-slippery-slope-thinking; a world of wonderfully complex ambiguities waiting to be more fully explored.

I think of my oldest child who, many years ago, was insistent on knowing ahead of time how everything was going to turn out: “Does the movie have a happy ending?” “Does the Little Red Hen get anyone to help make her bread?” “Can I win this game?”photo ann e. michael

Raising a child who is temperamentally anxious requires a form of parenting that offers comfort but admits to unknowingness. (Next up on my reading list: America the Anxious, by Ruth Whippman!) Solnit says the alternative to naïve cynicism is “an active response to what arises, a recognition that we often don’t know what is going to happen ahead of time, and an acceptance that whatever takes place will usually be a mixture of blessings and curses.”

I don’t think I have ever heard a more accurate description of what being a human entails.

Words others have written

I’m still feeling a bit alexithymic. The epilogue of Canetti’s Crowds and Power seems so prescient to me,* though that may be because of the cognitive state I am in…trying to decide whether or not to dissociate myself somehow from society at a time when that approach seems appealing but irresponsible. Thoughts about consciousness, what it is, and whether it matters. Thoughts about the value (and what do we mean by value?) of poetry and the arts.

~

My sister’s family, and my husband, were in New York City during the 2003 blackout; my husband was at home on September 11, 2001, but my sister and her family–who are long-time Manhattan residents–went through that experience. Some thoughts from Rebecca Solnit (see link below for a lengthier essay from which these words were excerpted).825px-eso_-_the_milky_way_panorama_by

Rebecca Solnit:

On the warm night of August 15, 2003, the Milky Way could be seen in New York City, a heavenly realm long lost to view until the blackout that hit the northeast late that afternoon. You can think of the current social order as something akin to this artificial light: another kind of power that fails in disaster. In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society. However beautiful the stars of a suddenly visible night sky, few nowadays could find their way by them, but the constellations of solidarity, altruism and improvisation are within most of us and reappear at these times. People know what to do in a disaster. The loss of power, the disaster in the modern sense, is an affliction, but the reappearance of these old heavens is its opposite. This is the paradise entered through hell.

http://lithub.com/rebecca-solnit-how-to-survive-a-disaster/#

~night

*I may get to this in a future post.

Landscape, personal place

I’ve been enjoying Rachel Solnit’s prose lately, most recently her book As Eve Said to the Serpent, some of which derives from art criticism but which is also the kind of multidisciplinary approach to observing the relationships between things that intrigues me. What she notices about the environment, about art that engages with or alters place/landscape, and about environmentalists themselves piques my own inquisitiveness and gets me asking questions I might not otherwise have come up with. Place, particularly the personal “environment” that shelters, inspires, or calms me, is something I consider frequently.

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[one of my happy places]

Perhaps that’s because I am by nature an introvert; perhaps it has to do with being a poet. The personal aesthetics of place–a room or a landscape–exert significant effects upon my frame of mind and mode of thinking.

Why is that?

Maybe there is an evolutionary reason for the need to find a favorite spot, a hide-away, a happy place. We may still possess that ancient urge for security, the cave or treehouse we can use to hide from predators or from the weather.

And landscape itself can be a secret place, or a sacred place. A wide expanse of openness means it is easier to observe predators prowling in the distance, giving the prey animal time to flee. Or to explore, to survey, to run embracing what is far away and only imaginable.

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Neolithic stone circle, Castlerigg, Cumbria, UK

~

C.D. Wright: “What landscape is: not a closed space, not in fact capable of closure. With each survey the corners shift. Distance is the goal; groping the means.”

Responses

The semester is over, and the juncos have returned to my back yard. One thing I have trouble assessing after teaching my class is whether the students have made any inroads into learning the difference between a fact and an opinion, and argument and a disagreement, an interpretation and an analysis. But a response can be any of these things.

Recently I have been entertained by Rebecca Solnit’s responses (as opinion). She’s made a bit of an earnest-minded internet buzz with her brief essay concerning Esquire magazine’s “80 Books All Men Should Read.” [As an aside, I really enjoyed her early book Wanderlust: A History of Walking.] Her opinion piece on Lithub is smart and funny, and she irked many readers; yet I do not see how anyone can argue with her final paragraph:

…that list would have you learn about women from James M. Cain and Philip Roth, who just aren’t the experts you should go to, not when the great oeuvres of Doris Lessing and Louise Erdrich and Elena Ferrante exist. I look over at my hero shelf and see Philip Levine, Rainer Maria Rilke, Virginia Woolf, Shunryu Suzuki, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Subcomandante Marcos, Eduardo Galeano, Li Young Lee, Gary Snyder, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez. These books are, if they are instructions at all, instructions in extending our identities out into the world, human and nonhuman, in imagination as a great act of empathy that lifts you out of yourself, not locks you down into your gender.

Roth, Caine, Miller– “just aren’t the experts you should go to” if you want to understand half the human species; I love that tongue in cheek understatement. I also love her list of “heroes,” although it doesn’t hurt that she names among them many of my own heroes. She says she reads and re-reads work that she has opinions about–and admits her opinions may not align with the generally-accepted opinions. Which is fine, since she reminds us, quoting Arthur Danto, art can be dangerous, risky, uncomfortable, as long as it means something.

She does raise the point that “[y]ou read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you. Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us.” In this way, she reminds us that readers are people who may have perspectives that vary from one another, particularly as to the social, psychological, or artistic merit of a piece of literature. Lolita, for example. That’s one book she mentions that evoked considerable response from Lithub commenters.

Rebecca Solnit’s response to her detractors–or “volunteer instructors,” as she calls them at one point–and her willingness to walk around the Himalayas with a medical team (recounted in a recent New Yorker piece) count as reasons her work has moved to the top of my to-read pile of books. I think I will start with Men Explain Things to Me and A Field Guide to Getting Lost.