Monday, August 04, 2008

Thought Experiment

'In the end, I write about personal stuff because I can't write with the same accuracy about anything else.' William Leith in the FT.
This is an interesting -  though, in some forms, dangerous - idea. It hinges, first, on what Leith means by 'personal stuff'. If he were to say 'I have a pain', then his accuracy would be unchallengeable by any authority, even though, as Wittgenstein pointed out, the grammar of the sentence is wrong; it should be something like, 'There is a pain in the room.' But if he were to give his side of a row with a friend, then it would probably be no more accurate than his account of the Arab-Israeli conflict; a personal account is just that, a personal account But I can see how he arrived at the idea that it was safest and most honest to stick with what he knows best, his own experience. As I have said before, journalism lures one into an illusion of knowledge which, as the years go by, is increasingly undermined by one's increasing awareness of great ignorance. Most either aren't aware of their ignorance or they just decide to discount it. Others acquire academic envy - 'If only I could spend so much time on one subject.' - or they resort to the first person singular. (Leith, I should say, is the best in the business when it comes to this latter gambit, largely because he is so genuinely self-deprecatory; any criticism I have of the form is not directed at him.) The first person singular works in the market because it is also an editor's gambit. These days, newspapers and magazines love the personal confession. I tend to avoid this - out of embarrassment mainly - though I have been drawn in quite often. On the other hand, this blog is as outrageously personal as I have ever been. One reason for this is I haven't got time to engage in the research and fact-checking involved in my full-blooded journalism. So, whatever I write about, it's just how I see it at that particular moment; it is, therefore, whether I like it or not, about me. (Calling the blog Thought Experiments is, of course, a disclaimer, signalling the semi-detached nature of the ideas.) But I said this is dangerous, and it is. Believing solely in the accuracy of personal reportage amounts to a rejection of the accuracy of public reportage. It may be true that we can never be fully accurate about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but to start from the position that accuracy is impossible renders whatever you say or do next dubious. It is necessary to act as if truth is possible. This is a form of faith and, I suspect, the reason the personal has become so fashionable is because people find such faith increasingly hard or unacceptable. The personal, in short, is the secular. Or that's what I think at this moment without making any phone calls or looking anything up. It's just about me - okay?


  1. But acting "as if truth is possible" is not the same as it's actually BEING possible. Tom Wolfe ushered in the "I" voice in journalism because it's ridiculous to assume we can witness something without its being subjective. It IS filtered through the writer. This is true in journalism and, sadly, it's even true in science.

    You have only to read those scientific accounts of phrenology from the 19th and early 20th century -- blacks, Jews, and gypsies, these scientists swore, certain they were being objective, had smaller heads and therefore smaller IQs. They could not even SEE the evidence they had because of their bias. Or, better yet, all the (male) gynecologists who thought women would be less crazy and demanding if they had their clitorises removed. The last clitoredectomy was performed in this country in the middle of the 20th century, for just that reason.

    So you can make as many research & fact-checking calls you want, but if you have a belief, a subjective interest in the topic, you will unconsciously weigh in on the side that fits your belief.

    To find objectivity, you need to be disinterested. The people who could probably write most accurately about the Arab-Israeli conflict would be those who are remote from it (i.e., not Arabs or Jews). THEY might be able to sift the facts and come to some closer approximation of what is really happening. If you want truth, you must have impartiality. This is why we have a legal system with judges and juries.

    Man, do you think I've had enough caffeine yet?

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  3. 'I have a pain', and 'There is a pain in the room.'

    Why can't they both be true? Why only one and not the other. Well, presuming that I am in the room?

    I agree with Susan. Subjectivity is always involved even if we don't want it to be (though research and fact checking can restrain its worst excesses, no doubt).

    I think there may be a difference of relevance here between the inevitability of subjective perspective on the one hand, and the reality of an objective world on the other. The faith Bryan has in truth seems to me to be in the reality of such a world...and I would share that faith. But it's just that we're unlikely to be able to grasp it alone, given our perspectives (let alone our agendas). And if we think we have grasped it, it may be because we have just depersonalised our perceptions in a somewhat 'deadening' scientific way that puts the world we know at a distant clinical remove.

    So group work, then, and consensus (but not one imposed from above by dictat- the Marxist error). Not possibly a clarion call of much popularity in such a self-assertive and competitive age.

  4. I'm not sure a confession is required - is the reader not aware it is the author's viewpoint whether it's about something real or made-up.

    I prefer conceit in journalism, it's more entertaining, money well spent! '''s a fact that..'' He he he.

  5. William Leith 'genuinely self-deprecating'? You sure about that, Bryan?

  6. If the notion of subjectivity is to be meaningful, then there needs to be some notion of objectivity with which it is contrasted. One can then imagine at least two different approaches to defining the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity:

    (i) Start by postulating an objective world, and then understand and derive the conditions which create different subjective perspectives upon that objective world.

    (ii) Start with the plurality of subjective perspectives, and construct a notion of the objective from those subjective perspectives. For example, one might define the objective to be that which is invariant under a change of subjective perspective. Alternatively, one might define the objective to be that which is obtained from a subjective perspective by the application of certain special methods only (logical and scientific, perhaps).

    Perhaps it is only when the notion of the objective obtained from (i) and (ii) agree, that one can be said to have a satisfactory grasp of the objective.

  7. i think this statement is potentially useful, but one must look at it in a slightly different way. instead of looking at my own personal experience as NECESSARILY the subject about which i can speak most clearly, we can recognize that we must -- as you point to -- become aware of our own experience in order to dispel the distortions, rooted in ignorance, that make our "personal stuff" questionable/erroneous in the first place. (for example: just why is it that we're so unreliable about our own experience? is it truly just the nature of experience to be wishy-washy?)

    there's a contradiction in the way that we treat experience. when it is convenient we say, "well this is what i'm feeling, and that's that." and then when our feelings are frightening or confusing or unclear, we prefer to say, "the feelings make no sense, i'll have to be logical." suddenly it is some set of rules from the outside that we believe best determines what decisions there are to make, etc. this sort of inconsistency with regard to our own experience is quite telling; we're out of touch.

    what i feel is what i feel -- but: am i aware of what i am feeling? generally it is, unfortunately, safe to assume not. we are quite disconnected from our own feelings (and thus from our own needs), and must remember, so to speak. but direct experience is indeed the most reliable source, because it comes from within. this is the difference between (my terms) discovery -- which is limited to external things -- and uncovery -- which is revelation of self, from within. (what i like best -- and perhaps this will interest you -- is that uncovery can be evoked by discovery, such as when you come across a piece of writing that expresses something you've been unable to express but have been feeling for some time, and suddenly you become clearer to yourself and more confident in your own experience, thanks to the discovery of this beautiful articulation.)

    but to simply throw direct experience to the wind as unreliable and purely subjective seems just as dangerous and misguided as assuming that we already have enough access to our own direct experience to use it as a reliable source, in fact the most accurate and reliable source -- does this source meet journalistic needs? perhaps, perhaps not -- a more fruitful investigation would be necessary to determine that.

  8. What is truth?

    P. Pilate

    People can take everything away from you
    But they can never take away your truth
    But the question is..
    Can you handle mine?

    B. Spears, My Prerogative

    Generally speaking discussions as to whether truth is possible or not are a luxury afforded to those living in societies where they don't need to worry about the answer. Mind you, maybe we should see what Ed 'Furry' Balls thinks. I hear he's got quite a brain on him.

  9. Why do we read the great non-fiction writers of the past? I'd suggest it is because first they were great writers and second they tell us something that's as interesting about what it is to be human as it was the day they wrote it. They were open-minded, curious, inquiring and scrupulously honest. And all they can do, through their writing, is offer those qualities to us.

    Truth can be overrated. It is only the truth as we see it, with the blinkers of the age we live in. We have a real problem, for example, with things that are both true and untrue at the same time. Myth is an obvious example, in which some folks would include the stories in the New Testament. No journos around then to impale themselves on the dilemma of truth and fiction in, say, the feeding of the 5000 or to get down and dirty with the subjective angle by gate-crashing the marriage at Canaan. But then the writer of the Gospel of St Mark was someone of extraordinary talent.

    In the long run we're all proved wrong. But great writing of any kind doesn't last because it is right or wrong in the brief span of just one lifetime.

  10. 'In the end, I write about personal stuff because I can't write with the same accuracy about anything else.'

    Interesting but I would think the opposite would be true. Personally, I would be much more accurate writing about things I know nothing about then I ever could writing about personal stuff. Or maybe not.

  11. Gordon McCabe's suggestions are good ones, but I could see perils:

    (i) Start by postulating an objective world, and then understand and derive the conditions which create different subjective perspectives upon that objective world.

    Here, one could end up, because of the notion one had of the nature of the objective world, deciding that only certain renderings of subjectivity were valid, and real. You could therefore 'unpeople' quite alot of people. No?

    Tom P:

    'Personally, I would be much more accurate writing about things I know nothing about then I ever could writing about personal stuff.'

    I guess it might depend on what standard of accuracy you are wanting. An expressive, existential one, or a detached, objective scientific one?