All our lives, every day, we constantly remake ourselves, reinvent ourselves, layer after layer, mask after mask. Maybe when finally we peel off all the masks there’s nothing left.
— James Sallis, Eye of the Cricket
The moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for that eye, and nothing we do is truthful. Having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies.
— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
No matter how far we travel along the path of truth, we will never arrive at a pure truth independent of falsity and error.
— Todd McGowan, The Fictional Christopher Nolan
Oedipus. The first great detective of Western culture. Like the ratiocinative detectives made popular in the 19th century, he used logic to solve the Sphinx’s riddle. But like the world-weary sleuths of the hardboiled tradition that followed, he found himself implicit in the mysteries he unravelled. The new knowledge he acquired became unbearable, resulting in him striking out his eyes in an attempt to dull one of his senses. In doing so he signified his intent to disconnect from the world around him, to deny himself one source of data to process and digest.
The truth revealed to Oedipus in his transition from a state of not knowing to one of knowledge filled him with horror. It induced in him an unrealisable desire to return to his former ignorant condition. But it also saw him take responsibility and accountability for his actions. New knowledge had to be confronted, assimilated and acted upon. He was unaware that the man he fought and killed was his father, or that the woman he subsequently married was his mother. When the mists of not knowing were burned away by the light of knowledge, he took ownership of his actions.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera uses his male protagonist, Tomas, to produce a treatise on the Oedipus narrative. Analogies drawn are unfavourable for the Communist leaders in 1960s Czechoslovakia whose actions are perceived to have removed national liberty at the expense of Soviet subservience. Their argument that they were blameless and did not know what the outcome of their actions would be are derided. This is the defence of those who abdicate responsibility, who use not knowing as a shelter rather than as the motivation to acquire learning and experience, to satisfy curiosity. It is the excuse of the War criminal, the self-interested CEO, the maligned politician.
There is a balancing act to be played with not knowing. On the one hand, there is a learning journey to be experienced as one acquires knowledge in a particular subject, following a breadcrumb trail of curiosity that forever leads to the boundaries of the unknown. On the other hand, there is a willingness to be comfortable with not knowing. An acceptance that no one individual can know everything, that there is no right answer. Marcelo Gleiser’s fascinating book The Island of Knowledge illustrates, particularly in relation to scientific progress, that what appears self-evident and obvious today can seem wholly inaccurate a few decades hence as we add to the vast pool of the known. Yesterday’s right answer is tomorrow’s monumental error.
When I wrote my first book, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls, on the evolution of film noir in the context of industrial, cultural and socio-political change, I deliberately opted not to include a proper conclusion. I was criticised for this in reviews, but my feeling then and now was that I was describing something that had not yet finished. There was no definitive answer to offer. Everything that had gone before in the previous pages was impressionistic, filtered through my subjective perspective. I offered it up as one view among many. The book was an invitation to conversation and further discussion, not the closure of a debate.
Perhaps my suspicion of the expert stems from that time and guides some of my research into neo-generalism. Having immersed myself in several industries and the endless streams of words and images that shape our social media, I am left with two reflections. First, that we live in a world of hypothesis and speculation. Second, that there is an overriding tendency among experts to impose their own preferences, to shape concrete opinions from them with which they seek to indoctrinate others. I can never know to what extent they delude themselves, firmly believing in the rightness of their convictions. However, when I see their platitudes and artful self-marketing shared online I am reminded of the line from James Sallis’s poem ‘Manumissions’: ‘Each morning they tell us eloquent, beautiful lies’.
Words and images deceive. Yet all gets amplified in this era defined by constant sharing and the fear of missing out. We have to remember, too, that the culture that surrounds us is often one of performance and masks. As Kundera suggests, being observed, having awareness of it, affects our behaviour and actions. While I have advocated the notion of working out loud, there are times when I wonder to what extent this becomes performance instead, self-limited and self-directed. Does the power of observation, awareness of our place on the stage, affect what we do, the filters we deploy, the stories we tell, how and what we share? In Unbearable Lightness, Kundera offers an interesting perspective on openness and transparency too, through the figure of Sabina. For her, the willing surrender of one’s privacy is monstrous. She is highly selective, therefore, about what she reveals about herself and to whom.
As individuals, there is something about straddling both the known and the not-known, balancing the open and the private. In recent weeks, I have been rethinking my own presence on the internet, what I am happy to share, what I want to withhold, where I want to hang out with friends and colleagues online, and where I feel wholly uncomfortable. It has led me to withdraw from certain platforms and communities, to re-visit how I filter, to be more selective about what I share and where. This is motivated by a desire to find more meaningful connections with fellow travellers, the curious and adventurous, who accept that the knowledge they acquire is ephemeral, soon to be displaced or expanded upon.
For people like them, the neatly packaged, the ribbon-tied, is to be treated with suspicion. They muddle through, making it up as they go along. More Lebowski than the computer-like Sherlock Holmes. Their mysteries never entirely resolve themselves, forever morphing into yet another fog of the not-known. But that is the lure. Ever expanding knowledge horizons, new questions to ponder, new opportunities in abundance. Endless possibility. But no right answer. Like Oedipus, these are liminal figures always traversing the ground between the known and the unknown.
The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.
— Marcelo Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge
How can we hold doubt and be truthful about the limits of knowledge on the one hand, whilst meeting other people’s expectations to be certain on the other?
— Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner, Not Knowing
But she had that thing most people don’t have: curiosity. She might not have always got the right answers but she wanted to ask the questions. I value that in a person.
— Zadie Smith, NW