Sometimes the world is turned upside down.
Don’t believe that for a moment. It’s about half the time. We’re all walking around with our heads passing in the middle, trying to figure out who is on solid ground and who is hanging the wrong way and bound to land on his noggin. Often, remarkably, the upsidedownerss manage to remain suspended that way. They live their lives. They pass on into inverted balloon heaven, their string bodies, like a comet tail on a path away from the sun, preceding them, tugging them toward the beyond.
Or were they right side up?
In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the mass of people are conceived of as cave dwellers shackled by unreason, condemned to watching a parade of shadows on the wall and confusing it for reality. An individual who breaks free of his shackles and escapes the cave is at first blinded by the sun of reality, but then sees the light.
But a lot of people see the light, in a lot of different ways not necessarily to be trusted. Plato’s was reason, but he was an idealist, and ideas can be a little like balloons. Aristotle chose to be more empirical, to take those ideas and tie them to a stake in the ground, or as the poet William Carlos Williams wrote more than two thousand years later, “No ideas but in things.”
A couple of weeks ago, a twitter friend and reader of this blog sent me a link to a video of John Lennon, at his post Beatles height, singing the anti-politically minded “Mind Games” as he cavorted and walked among adoring fans in New York’s Central Park. This was part of his response to my postings on Afghanistan.
How John Lennon loved Central Park. How I do. The week after he was murdered a memorial was held for him at the band shell in the park, where he dances in the video. With one of my oldest friends, I joined hundreds of thousands in the park. I got there very early – I adored John Lennon – and was close to the shell. By then, 1980, I was a businessman, and when the time came at the end for some minutes of silence, while all else stood still around me, I removed from a bag the Mexican vest I had worn all through my teens, so many days and nights of a difficult hippie youth, donned it one last time, and sat cross-legged on the ground.
I have the vest still, stored in a box in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles right now, with other memories of those days. I imagine I’ll take it out and look at it at least one more time before I die.
There are the people who believe that the CIA conspired to import cocaine into the United States with the specific purpose of producing a scourge in the African-American community. There are those who claim HIV is human made, devised to destroy the African population. Some people believe the moon landings were faked. Others – of some remarkable reputation – claim that the Cambodian Killing Fields are exaggerated in magnitude. They likewise argue that the massacre at Srebrenica is a hoax – some of them, too, that the Rwandan genocide did not occur. There are 9/11 Truthers, and Obama Birthers, and, of course, there are Holocaust deniers.
The truth can be like a Möbius mirror, with the faces of many Mad Hatters staring out.
One of the ideological developments of the twentieth century’s second half is sometimes referred to as perspectivism. It is, for us now, a simple idea: everything in the world, in life, is seen, or perceived, from a perspective. I can only stand in one place at a time, and I can only see things from where I stand. Perspective is fundamental to the development of Western art; Cubism was an explosion of the limitations of perspective in art. Perspectivism has particular meaning, too, in the realms of philosophy, cognitive science, and political or any kind of theory. There is, with consideration, some very clear truth to the perspectivist idea. If one is a close adherent to perspectivism in all things, then one is a relativist: everything is relative (to one’s perspective), there is no such thing as “the truth,” and objectivity is a fraud – sort of the like the massacre at Srebrenica, even though DNA analysis (what one might call an Aristotelian stake in the ground) has identified the remains of over 6100 people.
Perspectivism has another level of complexity. As I’ve discussed it so far, you might call it – to steal a term from physics, which, in fact, influences all this thinking – classical. So far the presupposition is that there is a completely observable – knowable – object of reality, and that each of us, in a variety of ways, is limited in how much of that object we can perceive from our perspective. It is a whole object, but I’m standing at a ninety degree angle off its right front, so that’s the perspective I get. If I move to another position, or if I can’t, but someone else, who can do so, stands in that other position, then we can get another perspective on this thing that is really there, independent of either one of us. Ultimately, we could add up and synthesize all the perspectives, all the sides of this object of reality, and arrive at something like the truth of it.
Let us say, though, that there is a phenomenon called – as it is in physics – the observer effect. In physics, with the observer effect, the instruments of observation alter in some way the state of what they observe: they impinge upon it, touch it, change it. What is observed is not completely independent of the act of observation. Rather than an absolute truth of the object, we get the object in the process of observation. On a simple level, we might say we see what we want to see, like that infatuated lover who, heating up the cooler vision of Shakespeare’s sonneteer, declares, “My mistress’s eyes are everything like the sun.”
It isn’t always that simple, though. Often we know that our love clouds our vision, that we see a level of beauty in the object of our love not seen by others. But what if we can’t step outside ourselves? What if we aren’t able to think, privately, “Lord, I love her crooked nose – but it is a crooked nose.” What we have then, to alter physicist Walter Heisenberg to my purpose, is a system (an object of perception or thought) that is described only in terms of an observer’s ability to know the system. If there are ten dimensions, but I am cognitively and sensorially outfitted only to perceive three, that is all I am going to see. If I am a man conditioned by upbringing and culture to view women as subservient and forbidden objects of desire only, that way of knowing may influence all of my perceptions of women. If I am a woman who has been the victim of sexual battery, and I have an overlay of sexually political ideology to accompany that history, I may not be able to see a man’s behavior toward me outside of that system.
Notice that I have moved from a real object that can only be perceived from a perspective, to an object the reality of which is influenced by the perspective, to an object that is once again, potentially, real outside of perspective, but the perception of which, for the observer, is shaped by the observer’s way of perceiving.
Add to this, finally, a way of perceiving – a philosophy, an ideology, a theoretical framework – that in its own tenets asserts the limitations and influences of perspective, and that claims to analyze phenomena, the world, political circumstance and events out of that system.
Does such a system stand outside of itself in the act of analysis? How could it? If it does not, then what significance do we find in its claims of ideological influence made from an ideological stance that does? or does not? acknowledge and take into account its own ideological influence?
Or as physicist Erwin Schrödinger put it,
There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.
Tomorrow: some real world political application