Dialectical Thinking (part 2)

Both analytic and dialectic knowledge practices are necessary to make insightful decisions and take committed action. With an overemphasis on the practice of analysis comes the stress and brittle violence of continuous attempts to wrestle reality into static boxes for prediction and control.  In addition, there is the harm caused by using lazy dialectics to dismiss, ignore, or assign inaccurate overarching schemas that promote ecological, economic and social systems of oppression. The key to genuine dialectic is found in one’s own vulnerability, which is often embarrassing and messy.

The analytic approach

Under the influence of western thought traditions, a contemporary person largely relies on using differentiation and formal logic to understand themselves and their world.  This understanding relies on discrete stable identities and linear causal relationships; there cannot be contradictions, and there is no middle state between this and that, good and bad, true and false. Like mathematics, this is a very coherent way of representing and manipulating a symbolic reality to achieve prediction and control.  But it is an abstraction.  If some part of the flesh and stone of experience is not fitting into this logical understanding, then this is generally assumed to be a problem of incomplete knowledge or reasoning, and as such, must be resolved, usually by a process of isolating and de-contextualizing information, forming polarizing contradictory perspectives in an effort to determine which identity, fact or explanation is correct.  Unfortunately, isolating, polarizing and differentiating have a variety of pitfalls from the political to the personal. There is violence to the project of prediction and control, often directed inwards.  The internal human landscape is replete with contradiction, paradox, and nuance.

The dialectic approach

As I described in a recent post, a variety of cultural, philosophical and critical thought traditions propose a different model of knowledge which sees transient, contradictory and emergent qualities of existence as valid and important.  These include 21st century critical theory, “eastern” philosophical and spiritual traditions, and the science of complex systems. These traditions acknowledge knowledge as:

  • Transient, dynamic, changing, nuanced, continuously escaping definition
  • Complex, contradictory, in tension, paradoxical
  • Emergent, associative, networked, contextual

This all sounds all well and good, but in experience, these aspects of life are usually deeply embarrassing and painful.  It may be easy to think, “I’m a creative innovator / active in social justice / freethinking po-mo intellectual – I’m at home with all of this.” But engaging with dialectic cuts deeper than diplomacy and social critique, brainstorming and thought mapping.

When we find paradoxical desires unresolved in us; when we confront our own grief and loss; when one’s own experience doesn’t fit into stable identities, expected consequences or explanation, it provokes strong emotions of anger, shame, embarrassment, hopelessness, fear.  Which in turn provoke strong defensive responses: numbness, denial, aggression, rumination.  So strong is the social and internalized pressure to resolve contradiction and ambiguity that most of us are waging continual war against our own experience.

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In Praise of Monsters

“We are going to have to slow down, reorient and regulate the proliferation of monsters by representing their existence officially.”ii

 

In the above quote, Bruno Latour muses on the tension between two ways of relating to information, which he calls “purification” and “translation.” Purification is the separation and specialization of knowledge. It distills, reduces and creates partitions, separating knowledge into distinct and exclusive realms.

 

Purification

 

Translation is hybrid and continuous knowledge, stitching together disparate fields and perspectives into networks.

 

Translation

 

Purification is the acknowledged project of modernity, and it is what generally passes for knowledge in the contemporary world. We go to scientists and mathematicians for facts, priests and philosophers for morality, artists and sociologists for a critical examination of the discourse itself. Generally, the more purified information is, the more “true” it feels to the modern person.

Hybrid knowledge on the other hand feels “uncanny, unthinkable, unseemly”: think creationist museums, a doctor doing energy healing, a politician admitting uncertainty. It is taboo to cross the lines, we are uneasy with these monsters.

 I’ve always been a fan of monsters.

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