There has recently appeared — in our newspapers, advertisements, public thought, and everyday conversations — an obsession with uncertainty. Given how this new wave of the pandemic has unfolded, suddenly and with a sea change in understanding of how the virus spreads (do cloth masks work or not?), it makes sense that uncertainty would have such a conceptual hold on us. This past week also marked the anniversary of the January 6th insurrection in the United States, an event that has spawned a thousand think pieces on the instability of American democracy, of a second Civil War, or the beginning of the ‘end.’ For our part in Canada, I read in Saturday’s Globe and Mail that young people have less faith in the government and in our future than ever — the writer referred to it as the ‘real cancel culture,’ wherein young people are preemptively cancelling or deferring their own dreams, too discouraged by rampant risk, inequality, and instability.
Framed in terms of these immense sociopolitical challenges, uncertainty is toxic — but it is also captivating, a great way to sell us on quick-fixes, quick answers, anything that will stifle the ache and do it immediately, without equivocating. Banks and credit card companies are advertising themselves with the language of ‘uncertain times’ to shore up their reliability (as if 2008 didn’t happen) and self-help books by unqualified (but terribly confident) ‘experts’ are flying from the shelves. And while unpredictability and skepticism imply a rampant lack of trust in institutions like the state, they also offer opportunities to make these institutions look strong — governments tend to respond to social anxiety and crisis not with practices of collective care and aid, but by bolstering violent carceral systems like police, prisons, and borders. Uncertainty has brought with it significant pain and disruption, but in another sense, efforts to overcome it as such are not entirely healthy either. The dominant impulse is to cover the fault lines, rather than examine or repair them.
In a more abstract sense, this question came into view for me as 2021 ended and I wrapped up my term papers for the fall semester. Writing these projects, it became apparent that I have suddenly become allergic to certainty — I was eager to collect research and quotations, to locate patterns and concepts that felt meaningful, but I lacked a clear argument or point of view as I put them all together. I could say that things felt ‘interesting’ to me and I could explain why, but beyond that lukewarm intervention, my own sense of opinion seemed absent. It was as though the more research that I did and the more that I learned, the clearer it was how little I ultimately knew, undermining my claim to, well, making claims. I have also spent a lot of time writing applications for grants and doctoral programs, meaning that I have been required to perform an absurd degree of confidence that my ideas are right and that they are needed, something I think that no one probably ever feels, or should feel, that strongly. (As a teenager, I was aggressively opinionated and felt so sure of everything that I knew, even when I was definitely, absolutely wrong and should have shut my mouth.) Today, as I have *matured* and done so during a particularly febrile era, certainty seems incredibly foolish to me. The capacity of so-called experts to predict, to resolve, and to be relied upon has not simply eroded, but it has become evident that there is so much that we simply cannot know, or never knew, in the first place.
This concept is simple enough and I’m sure it’s one that we all know well. And yet, being upfront about not knowing remains unfashionable. Social media, for instance, is constructed around the idea of a clear-cut sense of self, a definable image of who somebody is and what opinions they hold (whether about sports teams, TV shows, or major political topics). Performing our opinions is what these platforms are essentially built around and also how they function as the phantom limbs of advertising and capitalism; we need products to consolidate and secure who we are in the eyes of others (and arguably, to ourselves). Even the recent popularity of Instagram ‘infographics,’ wherein socially-engaged accounts compile and break down information about relevant political struggles, function to both expand our understanding, and to perform mastery of knowledge, to hold ownership over the truth, and add a period at the end of the sentence (that said, I’m not as put off by these infographics as some people are — I think that they can sometimes be genuinely educational).
As much as social media platforms are in theory open enough that one can use them in a less deterministic way, the Internet doesn’t really want you to do this — the concept of ‘Cunningham’s Law’ has been coined to describe the phenomenon wherein “the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question; it's to post the wrong answer” (this comes from the French idiom "prêcher le faux pour savoir le vrai" or “preach the falsehood to know the truth"). In other words, people are more inclined to correct you when you are wrong than they are to help you when you are curious — certainty, even when it is knowingly false, wins the day. Of course, Cunningham’s Law assumes that there is a ‘right’ answer, and for some questions there is, but we also need to live with the times when certitude is scarce — when the question is designed more like a door that is meant to stay open, rather than be shut right away.
In her book Fear of Breakdown: Psychoanalysis & Politics, political theorist Noëlle McAfee writes about our collective inability to deal with ambiguity, about “how troubles in the psyche show up in the public sphere.” Drawing on Freud’s concepts of mourning and melancholia, she contends that an inability to cope with change or difference — perceived by some as a potential breakdown — is in line with a melancholic mindset; rather, we need to exercise our ability to mourn, our ability to loosen our attachments to the status quo and to allow things to grow more complicated. A melancholic mindset is focussed on taming and tradition, on cleaving to stark, visible binaries of right/wrong, but also of in/out, male/female, and other hierarchical constructions of ‘essential’ difference. For McAfee, the terms of democracy require that we mourn our attachment to ‘what has always been’ — this can allow us to see the past and present as constructed rather than given, and therefore to constantly be posing new questions, experimenting, and imagining new ways of being in the world together, including those that deviate from systems bent on safeguarding normativity. My point is that, without sidelining its relationship to very real precarity, uncertainty can also be a creative position, one to work with and from rather than vanquish. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented responses (though the notion that the suffering experienced during the pandemic is somehow ‘new’ is itself a mirage forged by privilege).
What I had intended to be a matter of two or three paragraphs has now spun out into its own orbit — perhaps in the spirit of ambiguity and uncertainty, or perhaps because I need to wrap this up ASAP before you stop reading, I will end here. I want to close with a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves (a novel that is itself highly complex, evasive, and ambiguous), in which the character Louis watches the grass bend in the breeze and the clouds part and reform, remarking that nature:
…makes us aware that these attempts to say ‘I am this, I am that,’ which we make, coming together, like separated parts of one body and soul, are false. Something has been left out from fear. Something has been altered, from vanity. We have tried to accentuate our differences. From the desire to be separate we have laid stress upon our faults, and what is particular to us. But there is a chain whirling round, round, in a steel-blue circle beneath.
I read The Waves this summer and though I can’t quite remember what this chain or circle are meant to be, I will not rush to the shelf to check my copy; I will allow the possibilities to nourish my imagination.
I am grateful for your readership and subscriptions — thank you for the support and I look forward to hearing what you think.
Just read: Lauren Groff’s Matrix (2021) is a novel that is loosely about Marie de France, depicted as a 12th-century nun who is cast out of the royal court and sent to be an abbess. Marie reinvents the community of outcasted, unmarried women forced to be nuns, and in so doing, also alters the terms of spirituality and religious power. Groff’s book is incredibly detailed and thoroughly researched, written in a style totally of her own that subtly inflects the medieval. I anticipated that the novel would be about a feminist counter-culture, and that the conflict would mainly come from external forces, but Groff gives us something more complex and ambivalent: there are outside threats from the community and patriarchal religious leaders, but of course the women are also more than capable of reproducing greed, violence, and totalitarianism within their own ranks. Groff implicitly reminds us, through Marie, that feminism is not a politics of acquiring power, but dismantling it, and working against hierarchy and domination altogether.
Currently reading: To that end, I have turned to non-fiction with Emily L. Thuma’s account of 1970s and 80s feminist prison activism, All Our Trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence. While concepts like abolition and defunding the police have recently been represented as new ideas in mainstream discourse, these movements have long historical roots. Thuma gives a very, very detailed account of just some of the activism undertaken by U.S. feminist groups to draw connections between patriarchal violence and the state-sanctioned violence of incarceration. In brief: what makes abolitionist feminism so essential is perhaps the ways in which it requires us not to rely on existing systems, but to instead work toward better ones — to heal and transform harm, not to expand it. My copy of Angela Davis and Gina Dent’s new Abolition. Feminism. Now. finally arrived this week and I am excited to dive into it with Thuma’s book to refer back to as well.
Currently watching: HBO Max’s Search Party is back! I have been raving about this show — a dark comedy about deluded (yet not really so far-fetched) millennials — since 2017 and I will do so again now: this is one of the funniest, most unique, bizarre shows that exists, and I am so grateful that it has survived for five seasons despite the lack of mainstream attention that it has received. The brilliant cast is led by Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) and John Early (maybe the funniest person in the world), but if that isn’t enough for you, Jeff Goldblum and Julio Torres also have appearances this season. And if that still isn’t enough for you, my dear friend Maddie Weikel started watching this week and is already almost through the whole thing; she frantically texted me 25 times in one afternoon because of how ridiculous and great this show is. I welcome these messages from any of you who decide to catch up with Search Party now.
Currently listening to: BBC’s ‘Viewfinders: Ways of Seeing at 50’ series celebrates the half-centennial of John Berger’s famous Ways of Seeing, which if we attended undergrad together, I am fairly confident that you will have read (or watched — it was turned into a docu-series as well). If not, it is a generous and fascinating account of visual culture, spanning art history to advertising, and it was foundational to my own understanding of representational politics. In this series, various British critics have assembled to reflect on Berger’s work, and I particularly enjoyed Olivia Laing’s exquisite account of going to a gallery for the first time during COVID, something I’ve not yet done. “I walked past places where I had been happy, or miserable, or bored, and all of them felt exalted, because the world had been revealed as so frighteningly tenuous and unpredictable,” says Laing, while ambling through London. “…I kept bumping into ghosts.”
Afterword: I am struck by the realisation that my introduction could be misread as a diatribe against either so-called ‘cancel culture’ or vaccines. I hope that you know it is neither. Get your booster and wear a mask!!!!