Caution Flag

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The first thing to go when you turn your back on philosophy is your Ancient Greek. The next is your formal logic. Then you lose your ability to masturbate in good conscience, which tends to dwindle in direct proportion to your ability to read German.

So I’m still reading Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow here and there between several other works. One of the things I’m enjoying about the book is the significance he attributes to what he calls (rather cumbersomely) WYSIATI – or ‘What You See Is All There Is.’

For years I’ve referred to it as the Invisibility of Ignorance, or the ‘unknown unknown’ (of Donald Rumsfield fame), but lately I’ve started to call it ‘sufficiency.’ I’m also beginning to think it’s the most profound and pervasive cognitive illusion of them all.

Consider the following one sentence story about Johnny:

S1: Johnny went to the corner store, grabbed some milk, then came home to watch Bill Maher.

This is innocuous enough in isolation, until you begin packing in some modifiers:

S2: Johnny went to the corner store, stepped over the blood running into the aisle, grabbed some milk, then came home to smoke a joint and watch that idiot Bill Maher.

Pack in some more:

S3: Rather than take his medication, Johnny went to the corner store, shot the guy at the till in the face, stepped over the blood running into the aisle, grabbed some milk, then came home to smoke a joint and watch that liberal scumbag idiot Bill Maher with his neighbour’s corpse.

Oof. That Johnny’s fucking crazy, man.

The point here has nothing to do with ‘what really happened’ with Johnny. The extra modifiers are additions, not revelations. The lesson lies in the way each formulation strikes us as complete – or in other words, sufficient. This is one of those hard won nuggets of wisdom that most writers, I think, learn without realizing: reading fiction is pretty much a long-drawn out exercise in sufficiency (WYSIATI). What they don’t know about your story and your world literally does not exist for them, not even as an absence. Going back to Johnny, you can see this quite clearly: It wasn’t as if anything in the meaning of the prior sentences required anything whatsoever from the subsequent ones…

Well, not quite. S2, you might have noticed, contained an incongruous detail, ‘the blood running into the aisle,’ that pointed to the existence of something more, something crucial that had been left unsaid. Let’s call this a flag.

A flag is simply information that cuts against the invisibility of ignorance, a detail that explicitly begs other details. You might say that the key to effective writing lies in balancing sufficiency against ‘flag play.’ One of my biggest weaknesses as a young writer was to turn everything into a flag. I made the mistake of thinking the relationship between the reader’s intrigue was directly related to the quantity of flags in my prose, not realizing that the fine line between narrative confusion and mystery was a much more complicated matter of balancing sufficiency against the strategic deployment of flags. Roger’s piece, I think, can be used as a case study in just how well it can be done.

Flags also help us understand the first problem I mentioned, the way novice writers often have difficulty trusting the sufficiency of their prose, and so think they need to exhaust scenes with detail that readers already assume, such as the fact that rooms have walls, homes have windows, and so on. The fact is, the apparent sufficiency of anything can always be flagged. All you have to do is ask the right questions, and what seems sufficient will suddenly sport gaping holes. This why learning to write requires learning to anticipate the kinds of questions the bulk of your readers will be prone to ask, the kinds of things they may gloss while reading, but flag when reflecting on the story in retrospect.

This, by the way, explains why stories that strike some as pitch perfect will strike others as ridiculously flawed: different expectations means different flags means different estimations of sufficiency.

This also explains why criticism is such a delicate art, and why writers have to be exceedingly critical of the critiques they receive: since anything can be flagged, so much depends on the mindset of the reader. So many critiques you encounter as a writer turn on individual readers asking atypical questions. ‘Finding’ problems in a text is literally indistinguishable from ‘making’ problems for a text, so when you read looking for problems, you will invariably find them. Anything can be flagged. All you have to do is find the right question.

This also explains the ‘poisoning the well’ effect, the way simply broadcasting certain questions can have the effect ruining the illusion of sufficiency (for as should be apparent, sufficiency is always an illusion) for other readers. You could say that fiction is like religion this way: it requires that some questions go unasked to maintain its sufficiency. In other words, ignorance underwrites narrative bliss as much as spiritual.

And this explains how it is different books sort readers in different ways, and why so many people are inclined to judge the intelligence and character of other people on the basis of what they read: pretentious, stupid, what have you. You can tell as much about a person by the things they’re prone to find sufficient as you can by the things they’re prone to flag.

Moreover, since we seem to be hardwired to flag the other guy, we generally (mistakenly) assume that our judgments are sufficient. One of the things that makes Johnny crazy, you might assume, is the fact that he thinks S1 is an honest characterization of S3. We literally have systems in our brain dedicated to editing S3, the ugly truth of our character as others see it, into the streamlined and blameless S1, which then becomes the very gospel of sufficiency. Our memories are edited and rewritten. Our attention is prone to overlook potential flags, and cherry-pick anything that coheres with whatever ‘sufficiency hypothesis’ we happen to need.

There’s a reason you bristle every time your spouse flags something you do.

And things go deeper still. Wank deep.

You could say, for instance, that sufficiency lies at the heart of what Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida call the ‘Metaphysics of Presence,’ and that deconstruction, for example, is simply a regimented way to flag apparently sufficient texts.

You could also say the same about ‘essentialism,’ the philosophical whipping boy of pragmatism and contextualism more generally. Or Adorno’s ‘Identity Thinking.’

In fact, so much of contemporary philosophy and cultural critique can be seen as attempts to read S3 into S1, crazy into innocuous – raising all the same flag finding/making problems pertaining to reader critiques I mentioned above. What does wholesale cultural critique mean when it’s so bloody easy? All you have to do is begin inserting the right modifiers or asking the right questions.

And deeper still, you have science, whose claims we take as sufficient, often despite the best efforts of its flag-waving critics, primarily because nuclear explosions, cell phones, and octogenarian life-expectancies are so damn impressive.

Science, as it turns out, is the greatest flag machine in human history. Only those claims that survive its interpolative and interrogative digestive tract are taken as sufficient. And now, after centuries of development and refinement, it finally possesses the tools and techniques required to read the brain into S1, to show that innocuous Johnny, when viewed through the same lens that make nuclear explosions, cell phones, and octogenarian life-expectancies possible, is in fact a crazy ass biomechanism. Just a more complicated version of his neighbour’s corpse.

A bundle of flags, pretending to be sufficient.