John Higgs's Octannual Manual #34
In Praise of Context
About ten years ago, I did a number of talks about the American writer Robert Anton Wilson. For these, I made a point of learning a specific quote of his by heart, so that I could rattle it off at will.
From memory, it was this: ‘Every statement is true in some sense, false in some sense, meaningless in some sense, true and false in some sense, true and meaningless in some sense, false and meaningless in some sense, and true, false and meaningless in some sense.’ Or, words to that effect anyway.
The point of the quote was to highlight how badly language maps onto the real world. Wilson was a student of Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics, and he was forever trying not to be tricked by language. The word ‘is’ makes a good example here – the idea that one thing ‘is’ some other thing is a logical horror, but when that concept is baked deeply into our language we just accept it.
Since I learnt that quote, the rise of Twitter and social media in general now makes the same point much better. Should a statement on Twitter get sufficient attention, it will attract countless responses confirming that the statement is indeed true in some sense, and countless responses explaining why it is false in some sense, and countless more responses pointing out that it is in entirely meaningless in some sense. Much of the endless ‘culture wars’ squabbles, when you get down to it, are the consequence of not seeing the gulf between language and reality.
There’s not a huge amount we can do about this, unless we want to start conversing in a more precise language like mathematics. It raises the question of what good is any statement, if it can be perceived from so many contradictory perspectives. As someone who makes a living writing books, the knowledge that any of the tens of thousands of sentences I write could be singled out, torn to shreds and rejected can keep you up at night. It makes you admire even more the sort of writer who, like Lewis Carrol, Douglas Adams or Flann O’Brien, can play with this situation and use it to their advantage.
Fortunately, there is something that saves us from this problem, and that is context. It is not usually in the nature of statements to be single, isolated things. It can help to think of them like notes in a song. By themselves they are a meaningless honk, but arranged in the right way they become a most worthwhile thing. In context, even the most iffy statement can be building up to something profound.
All this is lost, alas, in headlines and on Twitter, the territory in which single isolated context-free statements run wild. Hugely successful female writers suffer particularly here. You know that whenever people like Sally Rooney, Hilary Mantel or Margaret Atwood agree to be interviewed, the mother of all kickings will follow, regardless of what they say. A single sentence will be pulled out of its home - the context of what the author was saying - and find itself at the centre of a war.
We have probably all had the experience of being mortified by the news that a person we admire has said an appalling thing, only to read the actual article and realise that they were not talking about that appalling thing at all. Instead, they were using that sentence in the context of a wider argument about something else that was, annoyingly, fairly reasonable. And conversely, there are many single statements that seem admirable and empowering, but which in context are being used to seduce you into terrible worldviews. Everyone from crypto grifters to white supremacists know how this works.
So - it’s worth being aware of this, because it is something that politicians, tech giants and media companies will use against you. When you see a lost statement, try and return it home to its original context. Even the most appalling headline you encounter will be true in some sense, false in some sense, meaningless in some sense, true and false in some sense, true and meaningless in some sense, false and meaningless in some sense, and true, false and meaningless in some sense. It may also, if you’re lucky, be part of something more.
How are you all doing? I am just a few days away from finishing the rewrite on Love And Let Die, and as a result am severely brainmashed. In part this is because the book is about 40% per cent longer most of my other books - not my fault, the book insisted - so if nothing else it will be good value for money.
Here’s something you might like - a lengthy podcast conversation about education I did with James Mannion. I really enjoyed this one. Sometimes on podcasts you’re asked familiar questions and fall into rote answers to plug your books, and this starts in that way with my usual blather. But sometimes a conversation develops in interesting and unpredicted ways, and those are always the ones worth listening to. This is long but, I think, worth your time.
Here’s a concept that you might find interesting, if you’re interested in organisations and how people with similar aims and purposes work together. Here’s Yancey Strickler defining the term ‘Metalabels’.
If you’re waiting for William Blake Vs The World to come out in paperback - know that it’s not long now. It will be with you on May 5th. It is available to pre-order from all good evil megacorps and elsewhere.
Until next time!