On the “theory/data” problem, the notion that more data diminishes the need for theorization. Let’s assume this is true for a second: now, instead of developing hypotheses and testing them à la the scientific method, we simply subject our curiosities to computational operations. Feeding more data into better algorithms equals better living (through science!). This vision sees all phenomena as capable of being expressed in continuous quantitative variables, that is, infinitely spliceable into smaller and smaller pieces. Here, all abstraction becomes a procedure of mystification.
But abstraction is how we make sense of the world. We don’t experience life as a diffuse flow of sensoria. We generalize our experiences into language categories, groupings to which we offer greater or lesser perceptual priority. (n natural language processing, they cal this “weights.” Not all features have the same weight, or importance to sensemaking. If they did it would be impossible to make sense of anything.
The man who fails to do this is Funes in “Funes The Memorious,” the short story by Jorge Luis Borges. Funes, he of perfect memory, stores so much sensory input that he loses the ability to discern or classify any of it, and falls into a state of utter psychological degradation — breakdown.
It’s also the situation of perfect memory in the Black Mirror episode The Entire History of You. (I know, I know it’s a cliché to reference Black Mirror, but it makes this point so well).
Regardless of what anyone thinks about the role theorization should play in the hard sciences, there’s a deep problem at the core of the “theory/data” problem that regards sense and meaning-making in everyday life.
I’ve thought a lot about magic, hypnosis, and the use of language in both of these practices. It seems to me that language acts as a bewitching technology between apparently distinctive phenomena; it makes This like That. Lead into gold. Language’s power is that it produce sameness. What if language-based hypnotherapy works because it serves the connective function that produces narrative, and thus meaning, from experiences that would otherwise seem senseless?
A hypnosis practitioner I knew once told me that a quick way to put someone in a trance was to offer suggestions that joined together different senses. Her skin was smooth and sweet: “smooth” references touch; “sweet,” taste. The water is cool and bright. The music is dark, fast and loud. Even if this is bogus, there’s something lyrical about these sentences. The synaesthesia is appealing.
Meanwhile, Byung Chul Han mourns the loss of narrativization in our information-saturated society:
Plato’s cave is a narrative world. No causal link joins the things that are there. A kind of dramaturgy or scenography connects the thing [or signs] with each other by narrative means. The light of truth denarrativizes the world. The sun annihilates mere appearance. The play of mimesis and metamorphosis yields to the working at truth [Arbeit an Wahrheit]. Plato condemns any hint of change in favor of rigid identity. His critique of mimesis specifically concerns appearances and play. Plato forbids any scenic representation, and he denies the poet entrance into his city of truth:
“If a man, it seems, who was capable by his cunning of assuming every kind of shape and imitating all things, should arrive in our city, looking to exhibit his work, we should worship him as a holy and wondrous being, but would tell him that we have no man of such a kind in our city, nor is it lawful for any such one to be there. And, having anointed him with myrrh and crowned him with garlands, we would send him away to another city, after pouring myrrh down over his head ad crowning him with fillets of wool.”
Likewise, the society of transparency is a society without poets, without seduction or metamorphosis. After all, it is the poet who produces scenic illusions, forms of appearance, and ritual and ceremonial signs; he sets artifacts and antifacts against hyperreal, naked evidence.
The metaphor of light, which dominates philosophical and theological discourse from antiquity over the Middle Ages up to the Enlightenment, offers strong referentiality. Light springs from a well or a source. It provides the medium for obligating, prohibiting, and promising instances such as God and Reason. Consequently, it gives rise to negativity, which has a polarizing effect and produces oppositions. Light and darkness are coeval. Light and shadow belong together. The Good has Evil as its corollary. The light of reason and the darkness of the irrational (or the merely sensory) bring each other forth.
In contrast to Plato’s world of truth, today’s society of transparency lacks divine light inhabited by metaphysical tension. Transparency has no transcendence. The society of transparency is see-through without light. It is not illuminated by light that streams from a transcendent source. Transparency does not come about through an illuminating source of light. The medium of transparency is not light, but rather lightless radiation; instead of illuminating, it suffuses everything and makes it see-through. Moreover, its effect is homogenizing and leveling, whereas metaphysical light generates hierarchies and distinctions; thereby, it creates order and points of orientation.
And Han also writes, in the same book: “time becomes transparent when it glides into a sequence of readily available present moments.” This is the perpetual now-time of the digital, written on by Douglas Rushkoff in Present Shock, theorized by less popular media and cultural philosophers — people we have to read in my degree program. (For what it’s worth, I should mention, I don’t think this is the same Now-Time of Eastern philosophy).
Narrative relies on occlusion, on what isn’t indexed in the Great Archive. Narrative can’t account for all of reality. There it becomes senseless. Epistemic inundation is an affront to narrative coherence, to meaning. Moon-worshippers need the Dark Side.
And maybe less explanation overall. Like how Susan Sontag wrote against interpretation.
Another hypnotist I knew once said:
“For those whose vision is ineluctably drawn to the mystery dimensions, life requires not explanation, but attention.”