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“We make claims,” I used to tell students writing essays, “because somehow something prompts us.” In the spirit of the best constructivists, I encouraged my students to build and rebuild not just what they knew, but how and why they knew it.
A common pitfall in essay writing is that claims without evidence just mean you spin and spin. “So,” I suggested to students (… paraphrasing here), “cite the evidence that prompted the claim, then write an explanation. There’s your essay.”
Sample: “I think ‘X’, and it was ‘Y’ that made me think so. Explain, explain, explain.”
* * *
Some years later, and my return to the land of academia… I’m facing the exact opposite prescription: all knowledge is provisional. Lay claim at your peril. Abandon all certainty, ye who enter here. Just deserts! my students might say… well, I have been feeling their pain, if not their well-wishes.
Generally, people won’t doubt themselves without good reason, or they will as long as they have a lot of faith in the person asking. Yet if (… that’s “if”) we can only note what matters to us from a reference point, then we also bring to bear only what we decide is most relevant to the moment. And since (… that’s “since”) nothing occurs in a vacuum, any detail might be informative. So let’s not ask, “In what ways do I already know what I’m looking at?” That kind of certainty yields self-fulfilling prophecy. Academically, I get the admonishment of certainty.
By definition, “evidence” is only useful because it’s meaningful; something is chosen to be evidence for a reason: we’ll know it when we see it. In other words, we can make shit up. So, to be more responsible, let’s ask, “In what ways do I not know what I am looking at?” Asking this, I feel I’m more academically willing to abandon “certainty” because I can fill the vacuum with a different kind of certainty, what I’ve called a kind of faith.
I don’t define what I’m looking at, yet I also don’t abandon myself – it’s more like I study the overlap between the two. Where do I end, and this other thing begin? Somewhere in between is a claim waiting to be made.
If certainty makes evidence possible in support of a claim – which is induction – then faith makes claims possible that require supporting evidence – which is deduction. In either case, however, I suppose you can see what you wish to see.
* * *
Where it comes to knowledge, we all land somewhere: we all believe something, no matter what the most die-hard postmodernist might *ahem* claim. In fact, our claims to know [something particular] are rampant. And I suppose that’s the problem (… if all this is a problem). It seems to me there’s no learning without prior certainty, some departure point, “Here’s what I know,” even if that simply means, “I’m certain I don’t know.” That said, it’s the rare Socrates in this day and age, even on campus – some might say especially on campus.
To start with certainty is induction, and starting this way is the pitfall of induction because, unless claims come first, i.e. deduction, any evidence might seem self-serving. To lay claims first instead, then support them with evidence, i.e. to deduce, is helpful if only because, then, we have a measure for where to go next. But, as I caution above, there is a chicken-egg conundrum to all this.
I’m pretty– well, er, certain that there’s no problematizing without prior learning, by which I mean certainty. We all land somewhere. (As I gather, problematizing is identifying and questioning these taken-for-granted landed assumptions, a step toward assessing whether we ought to renovate what we know, i.e. whether we ought to learn.) As I say, I think I get why the academic embrace of uncertainty is worthwhile. By all means, let the academy embrace uncertainty: societal dynamics are varied and vast, as complementary and collaborative as confrontational and competitive. In fact, if it weren’t for the intervention of others, we’d be forever fated to know just one sole perspective, and it’s the very, very few – not the many – whose lives are that alone. You can ask Alcibiades: Socrates was no strict loner.
Let me be as Hegelian as I can, and it isn’t much. I believe our world is holistic, by which I mean all the pushing and pulling from its cultural edges, all the polarisation and extremism… as I see it, what all this outer pressure does is help everyone to steer a steadier moderate middle course. To think we don’t need these outer fringes, to wish them begone, it may be more accurate to say we simply don’t want them: how many dwell in The Land of Should, where the way things are is certain in deed. How many, indeed, if not every single one of us?
For my part, I wonder, albeit somewhat perversely, whether we do need those outer pressures because they help to impel us someplace, by showing us where to avoid – that is, as long as they’re not popular so much as just noisy. One squeaky wheel, annoying yet tolerable; all four wheels is a call for repair. Luckily, a car only has four wheels although, not so luckily, two each are found on only one side. Luckily, there’s a steering column.
Of course, our world has more than two sides, and the more crowded it gets on the outer edges, well… at least may our course corrections steer us with most predictable stability rather than surprise. As such, again in the best spirit of Socratic humility, let the academy or anyone else ponder to their heart’s content, as uncertain as they want to be, just as more certain folks shall also cast due influence – it takes all kinds, as the saying goes, although even in those Student Driver cars, really only one person at a time can be the driver. So let’s beware any (… that’s “any”) dominance, if we claim to be making room for all, because something else available to all is hypocrisy. And yes, the whole car-thing has kind of broken down here, hasn’t it?
I’m unable to say just now who’s less likely to heed this post: those who are certain they know and will tell you why they’re right, or those who are certain they don’t know and will tell you why you’re wrong. And if that’s not perverse or hypocritical, let’s still say it’s ironic, and a little comical.
Just as likely, I’ll luck out as no one at all will care. Or it could be some will care just enough to send this viral: be it an essay, a blog post or, God help us, a Tweet, some claims we stake pay off beyond all expectation while some go unpardonably bust – and believe me, for all I’ve laboured to get this post written just-so, I’m still unsatisfied. So why even publish it? Why claim anything at all, including uncertainty?
For complementarity, for a certain worldview, for those loudest who know best… I wonder whether the one who makes the claim is nearly so key as the one for whom the claim is made – which leaves out to whom, but that’s fine. And I wonder how insidiously our ends and our means grow conflated and confused.
10 thoughts on “We Make Claims”
These lines of yours – 𝐼 𝑑𝑜𝑛’𝑡 𝑑𝑒𝑓𝑖𝑛𝑒 𝑤ℎ𝑎𝑡 𝐼’𝑚 𝑙𝑜𝑜𝑘𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑎𝑡, 𝑦𝑒𝑡 𝐼 𝑎𝑙𝑠𝑜 𝑑𝑜𝑛’𝑡 𝑎𝑏𝑎𝑛𝑑𝑜𝑛 𝑚𝑦𝑠𝑒𝑙𝑓 – 𝑖𝑡’𝑠 𝑚𝑜𝑟𝑒 𝑙𝑖𝑘𝑒 𝐼 𝑠𝑡𝑢𝑑𝑦 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑜𝑣𝑒𝑟𝑙𝑎𝑝 𝑏𝑒𝑡𝑤𝑒𝑒𝑛 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑡𝑤𝑜. 𝑊ℎ𝑒𝑟𝑒 𝑑𝑜 𝐼 𝑒𝑛𝑑, 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑡ℎ𝑖𝑠 𝑜𝑡ℎ𝑒𝑟 𝑡ℎ𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑏𝑒𝑔𝑖𝑛? 𝑆𝑜𝑚𝑒𝑤ℎ𝑒𝑟𝑒 𝑖𝑛 𝑏𝑒𝑡𝑤𝑒𝑒𝑛 𝑖𝑠 𝑎 𝑐𝑙𝑎𝑖𝑚 𝑤𝑎𝑖𝑡𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑡𝑜 𝑏𝑒 𝑚𝑎𝑑𝑒 – reminded me of my introduction to the work of Foucault and subjectivity that I undertook as my 601 assignment. I thought I’d share the analogy/metaphor with you as you may be able to make something more of it that I could.
Through the 601 class, I was exposed to Judith Butler and, eventually, I found my way back to Bill Pinar’s chapter in The Unaddressed “I” of Ideology Critique where he quote’s Butler:
𝘗𝘰𝘸𝘦𝘳 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘰𝘯𝘭𝘺 𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘴 𝘰𝘯 𝘢 𝘴𝘶𝘣𝘫𝘦𝘤𝘵 𝘣𝘶𝘵, 𝘪𝘯 𝘢 𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘴𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘴𝘦𝘯𝘴𝘦, 𝘦𝘯𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘶𝘣𝘫𝘦𝘤𝘵 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘦𝘪𝘯𝘨. 𝘈𝘴 𝘢 𝘤𝘰𝘯𝘥𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯, 𝘱𝘰𝘸𝘦𝘳 𝘱𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘦𝘥𝘦𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘶𝘣𝘫𝘦𝘤𝘵. 𝘗𝘰𝘸𝘦𝘳 𝘭𝘰𝘴𝘦𝘴 𝘪𝘵𝘴 𝘢𝘱𝘱𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘤𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘱𝘳𝘪𝘰𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘺, 𝘩𝘰𝘸𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳, 𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘯 𝘪𝘵 𝘪𝘴 𝘸𝘪𝘦𝘭𝘥𝘦𝘥 𝘣𝘺 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘶𝘣𝘫𝘦𝘤𝘵, 𝘢 𝘴𝘪𝘵𝘶𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘨𝘪𝘷𝘦𝘴 𝘳𝘪𝘴𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘦 𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘱𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘱𝘰𝘸𝘦𝘳 𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘦𝘧𝘧𝘦𝘤𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘶𝘣𝘫𝘦𝘤𝘵, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘱𝘰𝘸𝘦𝘳 𝘪𝘴 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘶𝘣𝘫𝘦𝘤𝘵 𝘦𝘧𝘧𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘴.
Pinar follows this by remarking “𝑆𝑖𝑚𝑢𝑙𝑡𝑎𝑛𝑒𝑜𝑢𝑠𝑙𝑦 𝑖𝑛𝑡𝑒𝑟𝑝𝑒𝑙𝑙𝑎𝑡𝑒𝑑 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑠𝑒𝑙𝑓- 𝑐𝑜𝑛𝑠𝑡𝑖𝑡𝑢𝑡𝑖𝑛𝑔, 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑠𝑢𝑏𝑗𝑒𝑐𝑡 𝑎𝑐𝑡𝑠 𝑎𝑓𝑡𝑒𝑟— 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑖𝑛 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑚𝑖𝑑𝑠𝑡 𝑜𝑓— 𝑏𝑒𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑎𝑐𝑡𝑒𝑑 𝑢𝑝𝑜𝑛.”
I found my exploration of Foucault and subjectivity to be extremely challenging. In order to make sense of what I read, I worked with this helpful metaphor that I may be able to expand upon as I continue to explore the area of subjectivity. Specifically, I have found 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗯𝗶𝗼𝗹𝗼𝗴𝗶𝗰𝗮𝗹 𝗰𝗼𝗻𝗰𝗲𝗽𝘁𝘀 𝗶𝗻𝘃𝗼𝗹𝘃𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗽𝗲𝗿𝗶𝗽𝗵𝗲𝗿𝗮𝗹 𝘃𝗶𝘀𝗶𝗼𝗻 to be most useful.
We know that under low-light levels, 𝗳𝗼𝘃𝗲𝗮𝗹 𝘃𝗶𝘀𝗶𝗼𝗻 (that is, looking directly at an object) is relatively weak because the photoreceptors in our eye that react best to dim light (rod cells) are primarily located in our retina’s periphery. Because of this, when trying to look at something in low-light conditions, we need to use our peripheral vision in order to more clearly see what is before us. This technique of 𝗮𝘃𝗲𝗿𝘁𝗲𝗱 𝘃𝗶𝘀𝗶𝗼𝗻 is commonly used by astronomers, pilots, soldiers and others who often need to see in low light conditions. Under these circumstances, the best way to see what is ahead in not to look 𝑑𝑖𝑟𝑒𝑐𝑡𝑙𝑦 ahead, but to trust our less focused, but more sensitive, averted vision. This kind of counterintuitive explanation fits well with my understanding of Butler’s conception of the emergence of the subject.
In order to move toward mastery – as I see it, an agentic subjective formation – it is necessary to “avert our gaze” and approach our object obliquely in submission to the requirements which seem to run counter to our purpose. In essence, in order to make our way through the “darkness” of our formation, we must submit to the disciplinary power that directs our gaze and “face forward” as required, as it is only by doing so that we can, through our averted vision, see and navigate our own path. There is a symbiosis in this dual-vision that allows for 𝗮 𝗰𝗼-𝗰𝗿𝗲𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗼𝗳 𝘀𝘂𝗯𝗷𝗲𝗰𝘁𝗶𝘃𝗶𝘁𝘆 𝘁𝗵𝗿𝗼𝘂𝗴𝗵 𝗮 𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗱 𝗼𝗳 𝘀𝘂𝗯𝘃𝗲𝗿𝘀𝗶𝘃𝗲 𝘀𝗶𝗱𝗲-𝗲𝗳𝗳𝗲𝗰𝘁 𝗼𝗳 𝘀𝘂𝗯𝗺𝗶𝘀𝘀𝗶𝗼𝗻.
Another interesting point about the physiology of the eye is that, because there are few cone cells (those that detect color) in the periphery of the retina, the color that we “see” in our peripheral vision is actually provided by our brains filling in the gaps between these dispersed cone cells. In essence, our peripheral vision is “colored” by what is in front of us but only represents a “best guess” rather than a focused and clear color representation. In this way, I think of our subjectivity being colored, to a degree, by the powers we face but in the periphery our understanding and formation. The central power merely gives the impression of color – as if the canvas were already covered – whereas, in fact, these colors are only 𝗽𝗹𝗮𝗰𝗲𝗵𝗼𝗹𝗱𝗲𝗿𝘀 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗱𝗼 𝗻𝗼𝘁 𝗿𝗲𝗽𝗿𝗲𝘀𝗲𝗻𝘁 𝗼𝗿 𝗹𝗶𝗺𝗶𝘁 𝗼𝗿 𝗼𝘄𝗻 𝘀𝘂𝗯𝗷𝗲𝗰𝘁𝗶𝘃𝗶𝘁𝘆.
In addition, I also think of how we avert our gaze in other situations out of respect, fear, or deference. As well as being more sensitive to light and dark changes, our rod cells are more sensitive to movement. In a situation where it might be more prudent/polite to avert our gaze (from, say, an elder, a bear, or a king (or a God!)), we do so in the knowledge that “avoiding direct eye contact” may offer protection by way of allowing us to see what the object before us is 𝑑𝑜𝑖𝑛𝑔 rather than how it looks.
Finally, I am conscious my use of the word 𝗺𝗮𝘀𝘁𝗲𝗿𝘆 above might be problematic. I use it intentionally as it was the duality of mystery/mastery that was the focus on my writing for Pinar’s class on George Grant. For me, it seems that there is a similarity here with my understanding of Butler’s view of subjectivity. I believe humility to be a pre-condition for teaching and learning. Deference to an authority figure (teacher/parent) might have some similarities to humility, but it is extrinsic in nature and represents a submission 𝗼𝗳 the self. In contrast, though true humility is also a submission, it is intrinsic in nature (a submission 𝘁𝗼 the self) as it requires that we recognise our own humanity and, at least, the possibility that a higher power (an order beyond ourselves) exists. Living in humility with the mystery of the higher power, coupled with self-work involved in moving toward (but never reaching) mastery, seems to be similar to this subjective formation that comes about through 𝗮 𝘀𝗶𝗺𝘂𝗹𝘁𝗮𝗻𝗲𝗼𝘂𝘀 𝘀𝘂𝗯𝗺𝗶𝘀𝘀𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝘁𝗼 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗿𝗲𝘀𝗶𝘀𝘁𝗮𝗻𝗰𝗲 𝗼𝗳 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗽𝗼𝘄𝗲𝗿 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗮𝗰𝘁𝘀 𝘂𝗽𝗼𝗻 𝘂𝘀 𝗮𝘀 𝘀𝘂𝗯𝗷𝗲𝗰𝘁𝘀.
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Wow, level of discourse officially raised. Thanks so much for offering your comment – I feel like it should feature in a post of your own!
You’re right, we do seem to have some similar thinking underway. I immediately took to your metaphor of eyes and vision, that peripheral awareness – super idea. As far as making some sense of it, myself, I was reminded of two other things I posted.
One is “Whose the Forest of Them All…” from 2019, a short thought experiment on mirrors and self-perception. That one, I think, is the closest response I have to what you raise here from Butler. I agree, subjectivity’s a topic I face with some difficulty.
The other post is 2018, a reflection on Derrida’s différance, for which I found myself at the time reading about Rancière’s axiom of equality… we can only consider something “unequal” if, beforehand, we’d already assumed that everyone was “equal,” hence, something’s now amiss. It was a quotation from Bill’s “Unaddressed ‘I’” paper (indirectly referring to Foucault) that caught my attention: “… practices of exclusion… produced the norm, reducing reality to a set of impugned binaries” (p. 192). I hadn’t thought the two ideas (Rancière and Foucault) themselves were synonymous – in fact, they seem maybe opposite, in detail. But they were both examples that shared a similar dynamic or mechanism, i.e. something heretofore undefined is declared into recognition and voila! a new issue for people to tackle. Here I have in mind ‘power’ as that transitive enactment upon yet a wielded effect by a subject.
For a couple years now, in these posts and my program papers, too, I keep writing into some recurring ideas and dynamics… mutuality, in-between, simultaneity, inverse relations. That last one is something like Newton’s third law, equal and opposite reactions, though maybe insert “considerations” for “relations” because I don’t really have people in mind (relationships) but simply something ‘X’ being inversely relative to something else ‘Y’. This is the idea I have in mind in this post, above, invoking hypocrisy – something said inverse to something done. In fact, what I think I mean by ‘inverse considerations’ is something more like chiasmus, which is a literary device that reverses pattern using opposite word pairings, e.g. by day the frolic, the dance by night.
I’ve spent a little time reading the Butler and Pinar articles you mention and also came across this quotation in a chapter from Anne Phelan, on how Teacher Ed sets teachers into existing patterns of belief and behaviour, which then transmit into wider life by way of their students…
“One wonders, then, about the impact of narrow attention on an educators’ ability to engender a broader view in students toward a kind of imaginative thinking… Bateson cautions us that living in narrow channels can be dangerous, and she reminds us that ‘there are many reasons why less narrow attention, more peripheral vision, offers richer and more responsible living’ (p. 100).”
(Bateson, 1994 in Phelan, 2015, p. 70)
I think the idea of periphery, here, isn’t exactly the same… seems more like a ‘broaden your horizons’ idea than specifically ‘navigation’. But the sense remains of augmenting vision that we’d otherwise take for granted. In that same passage, a little earlier, she also credits Bateson this idea: a specialist knows where to focus; an expert knows what to ignore. Here again, I spot chiasmus / inverse considerations.
The next post I’ve been writing will (I hope) follow-up the chiasmus description of hypocrisy by posing a challenge to would-be culture heroes… defeating one oppression risks inaugurating its replacement since it may favour those now in control, i.e. winners not only write history but then shape the future.
Thanks again, I really appreciate you taking the time to put your thoughts together in such detail.