Monday, 30 July 2012

The most critical aspect of being critical... stuck in an infinite loop

So, inevitably, as with most meta-states of reasoning, I'm finding myself in a bit of an infinite loop (forgive the programmer-speak, but it really is just too appropriate here to forgo in favour of a less jargony term). And the infinite loop involves being critical of thinking critically. It goes something like this.

The basis of 'thinking critically' is to automatically problematize things. Your default 'mode' should be switched to asking the question: 'what's not being said here?'... to constantly calling unsaid assumptions into question, and seeking to invert that which is accepted as innate and 'normal' in any situation. Critical thinking is about analysing power asymmetries and trying to understand and, on a good day, undermine their effect.

The result is that you are persistently rummaging through cupboards, lifting rug corners, going 'hang on, what about..?' or, in the cases where you encounter a scene that you have already picked apart before for its unstated assumptions and power assymmetries, you tend to get rather grumpy rather quickly. Akin to a thought process that goes something like

"C'mon, we've already discussed ad nauseum why this is problematic! Haven't you sorted yourselves out yet? Get with the program!"

...because you honestly can't understand why the status quo has so much inertia when, to you, it is so blatantly problematic.

Many people find this understandably irritating, but often because they

a) haven't understood your original point or
b) don't want to understand it because it might involve bringing some of their basic assumptions about life, the universe and everything in it into question.

Ho hum... life of the fucking party, this one.

But it has its perks you know! For one thing, because everything is questionable, it means everything is changeable. And that's optimism for you. There are very few 'innate facts' about the social universe that just have to be accepted as crap and allowed to plague our lives... people do not have to be morons (as a general rule), life does not have to be unfair and cruel, and we do not have to take being treated poorly as a result of our gender/race/age/body-shape/language/you-name-it-here. It is the ultimate emancipation of the Archetypal Human Spirit in all of us.

Accepting that there is always room for improvement comes hand-in-hand with accepting that things are messy, but that this is not an excuse. Messiness is part of the human condition which, while the critical-discourse demands it be up for questioning, is certainly very persistent. And not always undesirable. Through allowing messiness and entropy, we can forgive ourselves our past faults and flaws and remake ourselves anew, accepting that we're fallible and complicated, and yet not carved in stone.

However, having this 'critical thinking' button wired into the ON position has some very distinct disadvantages (see! here I go again! Problems, problems, problems...)

Unfortunately many of the best critical thinkers I know suffer from depression, because let's be blunt: seeing the shit of the world in all its glorious colour is hardly cheery. Fighting to expose the injustices that you see, to try and get them recognised as problematic and not dismissed as the ranting of some fringe loony who sees things that aren't there (like racism, or misogyny)... it's hard work and often thankless. It's enough to wear all but the most battle-hardened down. Even for them, there's no telling.

So this is where the critical thinking becomes a snake that eats its own tail. What is it about the modus operandi of the critical thinking state that is problematic and encourages this form of pessimism that it is so often associated with? What are the power dynamics of the status quo that 'other' critically aware people, silencing their voices, reflecting their dissent back upon themselves to the point where they start to internalise the problems they see as a reflection of themselves (sounding familiar?) and not the biases of those who don't want to hear them? And how does one remain critical and yet keep 'a foot in' to the mainstream so as to allow legitimacy, so as not to be dismissed as 'a bit nuts' and, in doing so, potentially alter the course of the mother ship by a micro-degree (on a good day)?

This is the power of critical thinking: it can self-reflect. Some say this is the same power that is embedded in the fundamental principle of the scientific process. Douglas Hofstader went as far, in his rather hefty tome 'Godel-Escher-Bach' as to suggest that the self-reflective characteristic--what he calls 'the Strange Loop'--is the critical property that brings about sentience and intelligence. I suspect there is an element of truth to this idea...

But to be self-reflective--to be aware of one's strengths and flaws with a brutal clarity--and to NOT act... well that is worse than being ignorant of them in the first place. That is mediocrity by choice. And if that's what you choose, what's the point in having a choice? Some people would question the idea of 'free choice' at all, but the theory of deterministic automata from craddle to the grave does not explain human advancement. As for the John Stuart-Mill types, the idea of each choice being unbridled by circumstance and power, being independent of bias... well contact your most conservative economist who works on Choice Theory and even he will disagree with you.

There's no point in being human if we choose not to choose... for that is a choice in and of itself: the choice to be passive. It is a dangerous choice indeed (like the choice to be 'not political'... that's another blog post). We must act on this information we find about ourselves. We must assume agency where we recognise its potential for realisation. We must self-reflect... and then with our new-found knowledge, we must self-work.

Self-work is the bane and blessing of the critical consciousness: while truly freeing, it's also fucking hard. Perhaps the hardest thing you will ever try and do is to change who you are fundamentally, to reflect honestly--not in a self-deprecative depressed kind of way, but in a constructive way that identifies the sources of problems and attempts to rectify them. Constructive self-work is probably somewhere in a healthy tension between depression and narcissism. With some kind of self-regulating mechanism that prevents an alternative orbit to either extreme (a mechanism that often may not seem to exist in many of us... I certainly myself feel like I vascillate between the two inexcusably!).1 I

Much like surgery, it is rather painful and takes time to 'heal', but once you know it's there to be done, you will never be able to ignore it again. The job is forever incomplete, and yet all that you have done before is a part of the process. This is more than a lifestyle change... it's an entire perspective shift. 

You'll never see the world again the same way, nor yourself in it. You'll be accused of losing your sense of humour, which you may, but if you do, then you've still missed the point. You will be sidelined as a bit 'nuts' and if you ware, well you need to have a think about 'why'. And the carousel goes round again...

Sorry, you took the red pill.

Incubus summed it up nicely:

If I hadn't made me, I would've still been made somehow
If I hadn't assembled myself, I'd have fallen apart by now
If I hadn't made me, I'd be more inclined to bow

(The) powers that would be have swallowed me up

But that's more than I can allow

If you let them make you

They'll make you papier-mâché
At a distance you're strong
Until the wind comes
Then you crumble and blow away

If you let them fuck you

There will be no foreplay
But rest-assured
They'll screw you complete 'til your ass is blue and gray

You should make amends with you

If only for better health
But if you really want to live
Why not try and make yourself?

1: My husband likes to refer to this phenomenon by alluding to the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, when Zaphod Beeblebrox steps into the 'Total Perspective Vortex'. He is the first to ever step out alive. All who have gone before him imploded in a puff of irrelevancy as they realise how insignificant their existence in the Universe is. Zaphod's ego, however, is so great that he is unaffected.