Category Archives: epistemic closure

Rebecca Solnit on Trump’s Maddening Solitude

This is the best “sermon” I’ve read yet about Trump and his minions.  Rebecca Solnit spares no punches and delivers a prophetic word, not just about Trump, but about our whole culture.  As they say, “Read it and weep.”  And weeping is in order as this is a very sad moment in our history and could get even sadder at any moment.

My use of words like “sermon” and “prophetic” bely my rage at the church culture of my origins.  Yes, “me doeth protest too much.”  I still think that “truth” can be found in spiritual traditions but very often spiritual traditions ossify and become merely “well-worn words and ready phrases that build walls against the wilderness.”  That leaves it to artists, writers, and even comedians to “speak truth to power” and Ms. Solnit here “knocks it out of the park.”

http://lithub.com/rebecca-solnit-the-loneliness-of-donald-trump/

******************************

Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Epistemic Closure in Poetry

The political impasse in my country with the hijacking of the Republican Party by hyper-conservative voices has brought to my focus the topic of epistemic closure.  This is the idea of an idea, or group of ideas, that so captivates a group that any disagreement is forbidden as it would threaten their unconscious need for certainty.  Carried to an extreme this phenomenon always produces a figure head, someone extremely immune from feedback from external reality like Donald Trump.

This morning I ran across a beautiful poem in the Times Literary Supplement which illustrates this phenomenon.  It then brought to my mind two other poems, all three of which I will now share:

Sleeping Dogs by Stephen Dobyns

The satisfied are always chewing something;
like eternal daybreak their smiles remain constant.
They think they travelled far to get here. In fact,
it was two or three steps. Their definitions
surround them like a kennel contains a hound.
Let’s say you rattle their gate. Let’s say you became
a flea nibbling the delicate skin of their belief.
One eye rolls up, a raised lip reveals a tooth.

Like a thrown stone imagining it will not fall
their explanations work to keep the world fixed.
And here you’ve come with your trumpet. Did you
think they would like your music? Your accusers
are blameless. They press their paws to their soft ears.
Why share their kennel if you won’t let them sleep?

And here is one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson who uses vivid, concrete language to describe the emphatic closing of a mind against any feedback from one’s private frame of reference:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

And finally here is an excerpt from “New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden who poignantly captures the duplicity of the social contract and the courage it takes to explore beneath its facade:

…only “despair

Can shape the hero who will dare

The desperate databases

Into the snarl of the abyss

That always lies just underneath

Our jolly picnic on the heath

Of the agreeable, where we bask,

Agreed on what we will not ask,

Bland, sunny, and adjusted by

The light of the accepted lie?

 

“The Moon is Made Out of Cheese”

The following is a facetious reverie I utilize socially on occasion to illustrate the lunacy that we all wallow in occasionally.  Bear with me.  There is a point to it.

Wow, I woke up this morning and I suddenly realized that the moon is made out of cheese!  Furthermore, I knew that this insight was profound and relevant to the entire world so I immediately began to formulate a plan whereby I could spread this very important insight.

I started by canvassing my neighborhood and though many refused to open the door, some laughed at me, there were a handful of people who, knowing how special and gifted I was to begin with, immediately said, “Hey, you have a point there!  I’ve always had thoughts like that myself but didn’t have the courage to speak of them.”

So we began to meet regularly and started each meeting with an assessment of those in the neighborhood who had not “seen the light” and had so rudely refused the good news that we had brought.  We took great comfort in the realization that most people cannot handle the truth, stubbornly keep their minds and hearts in the darkness, and refuse to allow enlightenment to enter.  Often, as these meetings ended, we would be in tears as we lamented the fate of those who had stubbornly refused to acknowledge the truth that we offered.

I must make a long story short and summarize.  This initial group did grow and at some point our initial band of seven faithful souls expanded to twenty-three.  We formally organized and, of course, since I was the source of this inspiration I announced that I was the leader of the group…and also the treasurer…and that I was the final authority on some of the fine points about the moon being made out of cheese.

At this point, trouble started.  One gentleman brought up the question, “Well, what kind of cheese is it?”  I was a bit taken aback as I knew without a doubt that it was American cheese but another dared to suggest, “No, it is cheddar.”  Still another affirmed that it was American cheese but argued that it was Velveeta.  It took a lot of argument, and at times intense anger, but I managed to convince the second gentleman that the Velveeta notion was heresy and he agreed with me.  But the cheddar proponent was adamant about his viewpoint, and convinced three others he was right, and they separated from our group and focused on developing a belief system around the moon being made out of cheddar cheese.

My point here with this lunacy is, once again, “Don’t believe everything you think.”  Those who do, lacking the capacity to think critically, are subject to easily being influenced by a seductive and/or intimidating person.  Whatever our “pet” thoughts are, it does not hurt in the least to subject them to a bit of critical thinking.  I like T.S. Eliot’s observation on this note, encouraging us to, “live in the breakage, in the collapse of what was believed in as most certain and therefore the fittest for renunciation.”  “Pet” thoughts that have value can withstand this type of scrutiny and even flourish as a result.  This makes me think of something I read decades ago about how to make a poem, “Grab a word and pull on it.”  Grabbing a word or a thought and “pulling on it” with critical thinking can help ferret out the value…if any…if the thinking.  The less value in the vein of thought that grips one’s soul, the less likelihood that any critical thinking will be brought to bear upon it.

Each of us have passing thoughts.  That is good.  But we can be selective about which one’s we give any energy to and if it is something that tends to promote isolation, we might take pause.  We might ask, “Do I really believe this?”

Negative Capability, Humility, & Politics

For 40 years I’ve been keenly tuned into literary wisdom, often memorizing tons of poetry and prose, some remnants of which remain today but only those which resonated with the deepest recesses of my mind/heart.  Facebook offered me one gem yesterday that will stick with me, from Gore Vidal, “The unfed mind devours itself.”  That took only seconds before it fluttered down into the inner-most depths of my being and I understood what he was saying.  All of us have a mind and it is always incorporating “stuff” from our world but by nature this “stuff” is then incorporated into our reality by our ego’s self-serving grasp and thus we skew it to merely reassure ourselves of our premises.  For example, when the earth was assumed to be flat, any “rational” intellectual of the day took this as an unquestioned assumption just as when I was a youth in the South I never doubted my culture’s wisdom that blacks were inferior to whites and should “get back in their place.”  This does not make practitioners of conservative tradition “bad”; it just makes them human and therefore capable of “badness.”

But Vidal was challenging us to consider that a mind trapped within the premises that constitute its “reality” can metastasize, and slowly eat away at its very core, devouring itself, or as Shakespeare put it, “feeding even on the pith of life.”  A mind imprisoned in this dark world has not ventured to explore its parameters, its boundaries, and to tippy-toe into the world of the liminal where “what is ‘out there’” and “what is ‘in here’” is not so clear and distinct.  This is the very heart of spirituality but when “spirituality” consists of dogma (“well-worn and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness”–Conrad Aiken), even spirituality has drifted into the domain of the ersatz and is the very antithesis of the teachings of persons like Jesus Christ.

This is the “willful ignorance” spoken of in the New Testament (2nd Peter).  Terry Eagleton, reviewing “The Limits of Critique” by Rita Felski in the current edition of London Review of Books declared, “The closest one can come to the truth is a knowledge of one’s self-deception.” This knowledge is the awareness of a penchant to be “wrong,” that one “sees through a glass darkly” and inevitably will lead to inevitably to the pain of disillusionment occasionally as the flicker of light burns through some of our ego’s obfuscation.  This is related to poet John Keats’ term negative capability which is the ability of some individuals, usually writers or artists, who can delve into the realm of ambiguity and uncertainty and not live enslaved by religious or philosophical certainty.

But the willful ignorance noted by St. Peter is an unconscious blindness to even the possibility of knowing that one might be deceived.  One cannot handle even the notion of being wrong. This problem is relevant to the Dunning-Kruger effect though I’m hesitant to use this that term because it refers to “stupid people” and my focus here is people that are often very bright and not stupid in the least.  These are merely people who lack some version of “negative capability,” their “non-literary” version being my recognition that negative capability is not for everyone and that in fact the world could not with function with too much of it!

But when “negative capability” is squashed to the extent that all vestiges of it are obliterated, the result will always be an arrogant certainty which will be some version of, “Let’s Make America Great Again.”  And when this ego need metastasizes to some point, some version of Isis will appear on the stage be it Nazi Germany or the extremism of the hinterlands of modern day evangelical Christianity.

I want to include a brilliant observation by Hannah Arendt from her book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism.”

Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men* as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Thinking “Deeply” Out of the Box

One of my followers on this blog, and a personal friend, shed interesting light on this notion of “thinking outside of the box.”

“It seems likely to me that thinking outside the box is impossible without then thinking from inside a larger box which contains that previous box. So what we encounter is a collection of telescoping boxes. The most we can hope for is that with each escape from a box that holds us captive, we are then held captive in a more liberating box.”

This gentleman’s observation and the subject matter I’ve put on the table here brought to my mind the Christian notion of “the fall” and the resulting fate of being able to only “see through a glass darkly.”  For, this “fall”, if one deigns to approach it from a metaphorical/mythical dimension, was our expulsion from the blissful of unity with all things, i.e. the Garden of Eden, into the realm of symbolic form.  That Divine spark with which we are born, that “Christ child,” needs to enter into the world of form so that we can experience the joy, and the frustration, of the human enterprise.  Aesychlus, thousands of years ago, referred to this event as “having been banished thought-ward” as he began his heroic journey.

But becoming a “thinking human being” is both a joy and a curse.  We can have the joy of human consciousness as we revel in the incredible mystery of our brief sojourn through this time-space continuum.  But the “curse” is always a temptation, that mistake of taking our thoughts too seriously and falling into the delusion that with them we have captured reality.  This makes me think of a bumper sticker I saw recently, “Don’t believe everything you are thinking.”

My reader is very astute.  We never can escape “the box” but with awareness of our confinement to human form for this brief moment we can allow our reality to be more fluid and can be less obnoxious about our view point.  And, alas and alack, this even applies to me as I discourse here and even, occasionally in real time!

This makes me think of a verse from W. H. Auden:

In the desert of my heart,

Let the healing fountain start.

In this prison of my days,

Teach this poor man how to praise.

 

Danger of “Thinking Outside of the Box”

As one who “thinks outside of the box,” I must admit that it is not necessarily a virtue.  I’ve had that aptitude since early youth and since my late teens I’ve been exploring its riches.  So, in a way, it is my “comfy zone” and at times I demonstrate my obnoxiousness and arrogance, those very qualities which I see residing in “box dwellers.”  As one dares to venture “outside of the box,” it is always very tempting to ensconce oneself in still another “box’ and there demonstrate the same arrogance that one is deriding with great contempt from his/her “comfy zone” outside of the box.

For, “the box” that I’m referring to is not merely a conceptual formulation but it is the gut-level orientation to take one’s view of the world as primary to the exclusion of others.  And those of us with “enlightened” and “noble” ideas are often the ones who pose the greatest challenges for civilization, witness The Crusades and Isis.  In each of these instances, they are whole-heartedly intoxicated with their world view and are willing to bring to those who disagree with them great displeasure, even death.  That is because those who are “intoxicated” with this delectable nectar of the gods (even though they are dark gods) cannot see beyond their limited perspective.  They have taken an “idea” and run it into the ground even to the point where they are willing to kill for it and to die for it themselves.  When you have reached this point, you are approaching the dark, demonic depths of being an “ideologue” regardless of how noble your idea might appear to be.

And ideologue always seeks to escape his own emptiness by glomming onto some “idea” which he naively thinks is “the answer.”  Been there, done that.  Now I realize that this obsession, even with an idea as noble as Jesus Christ, was just an escape from reality and an escape from my own spiritual depths just to hang on desperately to my illusion of reality and my illusion of myself.  As Jesus, and many other spiritually enlightened men and women have tried to teach us, there is a “spiritual” dimension to life which lies beyond the grasp of our finite, conscious mind.  But that “finite, conscious mind,” being an ego contrivance, resists this awareness and insists that we hang onto the world of appearance, the shadow world of Plato’s famous cave analogy.  And Jesus provided us a vivid example of just how gut-wrenchingly painful it is to give up this world of illusions and “climb the rugged cross of the moment and let our illusions die.” (Leonard Cohen)

Thinking “Outside of the Box”

“Thinking outside of the box” is popular rhetoric for looking at things differently.  But, the task asks for more than is often realized–realizing that you are “boxed” already and have a built-in, ego based aversion for escaping that narrow view of the world.  And though you might bounce around the notion of “thinking outside of the box,” just be aware that you are not likely to do it beyond a comfort zone and that getting beyond that “comfort zone” is where the action is.  Getting beyond one’s comfort zone is the essence of “spirituality,” a term I use to refer to getting down into the “foul and ragged bone shop of the heart” where we actually live.  I will readily admit that the spirituality of my life has usually been designed to avoid this “catastrophe”;  and it is “catastrophic” when we begin to step outside of the comfort zone our box has provided us and begin to delve into the heart.

Another way to approach “thinking outside of the box” is paradigm shifting.  But, once again, you can’t begin to “paradigm shift” until you have the honesty and self-awareness to acknowledge that you are confined by a paradigm.  And we all are.  It is called “being human.”  But I’ve spent my life avoiding my human-ness, remaining in the comfort zone of my preconceptions and biases, i.e. my “box.”  And my Christian faith has been the most important dimension of my “box” and I am only now beginning to explore this matter.  And this is not to diminish the teachings of Jesus but merely to recognize that His teachings always come to an individual in a cultural context; and, try as we may, we cannot fail to consider the impact of the cultural context on our interpretations of His teachings and on the interpretation of every dimension of life.

The particular cultural context that I was born into offered me a spirituality that solved this “dilemma” by teaching that “cultural context” did not have any role in spirituality, that it came to us directly from on high without any interference by little difficulties like preconceptions and biases.  And that “solution” was the very heart of the problems which I’m beginning to explore and is very relevant to the lunacy so very apparent today in evangelical Christianity in my country.

A closing thought from the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, “You can’t have a perspective on your perspective without somehow escaping it.”