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.
I like your idea of flags popping up to challenge the sufficiency of a belief. Unfortunately, according to What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite by David DiSalvo, there is good evidence that we are quite proficient at either ignoring or explaining away flags. We resist evidence that seems to contradict current assumptions. However, I have the hope that all the noise being made by you and others about subjective biases and mental insufficiencies might be raising collective awareness concerning our unconscious cognitive tendencies and thereby mitigate their effects.
Ah, that was an argument I discussed with Erikson 🙂 I was talking of light/darkness (writing is about turning on the light, since everything not on the page does not exist), while Erikson used another example:
“I used to liken it to slapping clay onto an invisible rock as the perfect way of writing: it’s the clay that defines the unseen shape.”
Essentially the idea is that you can also play with what is not said, by defining a certain shape.
“And things go deeper still. Wank deep.”
I laughed. A lot.
For me, setting up scenes in fiction is freaking hard. I have a tough time figuring out when the level of sufficiency needs to change for audience, since I’ve gotten surprise complaints from the same readers about feeling like the characters were floating in a vacuum in one scene but then finding the background details for the next to be weirdly obsessive. Throw in the fact that adjusting for such discrepancies often requires disproportionate head banging effort while contributing little to plot development, and sometimes I have to wonder why I still keep doing this as a hobby.
And dialogue too. Why u no speech good? Straight up wanking is seldom so damn stressful.
Comic book artists exploit the effect, which in their terms is called “closure”… the capacity of the mind to fill in the space between panels with tremendous amounts of inferred information. (I got this from Scott McClouds “Understanding Comics” which deserves it’s reputation)
I like literature that is (or seems) flag-loaded.
For example, I recently lent a colleague TDTCB and TWP. He tells me today that he likes the character of Comphas. I say something like “Yeah, he’s the only one who can even TRY to keep up with Kellhus. Hm. I wonder if that means something deeper? He’s kind of implied it several times…” so I spent the next 15 minutes dissecting everything I knew about Ikurei Comphas, including what I know about him from The Four Revelations.
Or my favorite scene from TTT: Esmenet possesed. I can read like 1000 little flags into every sentence in that encounter, but I know that can’t all be true indicators. Or can they? *shrug*
So, science is a system that detects ‘unwarranted closure’ and sets out to tease apart the details… I like it. Specially since it encompasses the three fundamentals: observation, experimentation, and model refinement.
The fan-fic I wanted to submit was completed, but my GF was not very encouraging so it shall remain hidden in my hard-drive until I have the courage to go back and heavily edit it.
In the meantime, I have started doing a ‘fan translation’ of The False Sun into Spanish. If you have plans to have a professional do this in the future, I will cease and desist. Otherwise, I will continue…
You should post your fan-fic for sure. Readers can offer suggestions and you can always change it.
After all, we might have more merciful flags than your GF. 🙂
Exactly what I thought of with the S1, S2, S3, McCloud’s *Understanding Comics*. There’s a two-panel example expanded into a much longer one (chapter six, is it? “Show and tell”). Of someone walking and opening a door or similar. Insert taking key out of pocket, looking at it, unlocking door and the story is much longer.
And as Jorge said, with comics it’s about what’s in between the panels, what our brain fills in, places in those gaps. There’s also a famous old comic (before they could be quite so explicit) where an apparent kidnapper is about to do something awful (it seems) to his apparent hostage. Flip the page, time has clearly passed, they are enjoying a smoke in bed and smiling and you have to go back to reinterpret what was said on the previous page and realize that what we thought was anger and fear was in fact passion. They even used the page turn to set you up. You might be looking for the two missing pages (and “wham!”, the comic is asking you to ask yourself if you have a dirty mind… It knows, OOOOHHHHH, it knows… You do. 🙂 ).
McCloud’s book is about a lot more than comics, of course. Abstraction to representation (surely applicable here since we deal with abstractions), psychology of color, lines, text, etc. Really about art and communication and the psychology of it to some extent. And it’s a quick read because it’s largely pictures.
Now I’d like to see someone take McCloud’s example and add the murder and burying the body, getting rid of the weapon and then some surprise behind the door.
(Takes deep breath to pontificate further)
In fact, the “in between” the panels/pages is the most important part because if you screw that up, you’ve screwed up the story. They have to be able to follow and you don’t want to draw attention to that except for reasons like I just described above (humor, Zucker brothers style, OK to draw the audience out of the world).
In the same vein, but even more difficult to pull off (I imagine), is presenting a scene that is ‘sufficient’ through partial or total omniscient narration (e.g., a crime scene), and then have a character, perhaps much later, and in a believable way, discover some new detail in the scene that no other character could find before and that wasn’t covered in the narration of said scene.
I’d almost think it a mental condition if someone keeps darting to outside the story. For example, if your telling someone the story of the ant and the grasshopper, and that person keeps going “But what of the eifel tower? Or the himilayas?” and keeps leaping outside the description, it seems a mental failure to grasp what is a dash of good ol’ moralising on a particular topic. Mind you, if the other person has ceased to see it as a complicated version of moralising, then hmmm. Otherwise it reminds me of those two scenes in Sean of the Dead, where he goes to the milkbar, pre and post zombie apocalypse, in exactly the same way!
In terms of writing tips – well, I may seem bizarro, but why write the milkbar journey to begin with? Why does that leap out as a good direction to take it? Or does highlighting the murder come first and then the overall scene comes after that, so the situation (milkbar journey) isn’t planned at all in terms of any strategy, it’s just whatever happens to come to mind? Moral issue, splat, then like riverlets of blood flowing out from it, down cracks, whatever crack/scenario that comes, comes? I guess I’d feel weird if I was ever congratulated on that ‘whatever comes up’ stuff as if to the congratulating reader it mattered, because I can’t control it coming up and it’s not something that (atleast conciously) was important to me. It’d feel a bit of a sham to take congratulations/credit for that – I guess that’s why I’m so bent on strategic writing (and stuck in analysis paralysis, I guess), so I can feel I’ve earned what I get. Well, that’s the noble side of me – the other side just can’t be fucked putting in effort without some guarantee of profit – however, whatever scene just comes would be a page filler perhaps relatively low effort ratio to the apparent high page count needs of modern books. Hey, I said I may seem bizarro – I’ve got to live with the above thinking, not just read it!
Also is the ‘grabbed some milk’ and no apparent paying in S1 supposed to be a flag as well? Just askin’ to be clever!
[…] writing all this because I believe it brings out a certain thing. Read this blog post by Scott Bakker, I think it explains well why my reactions above were one-directional only (from reading Martin to […]
(they’re working on the brain interface now, this thing will have feedback so the user can actually fell through the prosthetic)
“…Maybe there are more than just ‘four cycles’ as Borges called them, but their number is definitely finite and they are all known. We invent nothing new. Why?
This is where we come to the third possible definition of a myth. If a mind is like a computer, perhaps myths are its shell programs: sets of rules that we follow in our world processing, mental matrices we project onto complex events to endow them with meaning.
People who work in computer programming say that to write code you have to be young. It seems that the same rule applies to the cultural code. Our programs were written when the human race was young – at a stage so remote and obscure we don’t understand the programming language anymore. Or, even worse, we understand it in so many different ways and on so many levels that the question ‘what does it mean?’ simply loses sense…”
-Victor Pelevin, introduces his own book The Helmet of Horror
Have you read Pelevin’s ‘Homo Zapiens?” I read that book as (among other things) sort of a soviet version of a Horatio Alger story, which is a neat twist on his point above.
Started Helmet of Horror right now, intermixed with 2666 (this novel is the awesome) and the SF novel Rook. Homo Zapiens is on the to read list, definitely want to get to it.
Might end up starting it without finishing these others, as it takes me months if not years to finish books and the Kindle editions not taking up space are only feeding my addiction. 🙂
Unrelated, but interesting reading:
We might actually be approaching endgame sooner than I thought.
I felt clear-headed and like myself, just sharper. Calmer. Without fear and without doubt. From there on, I just spent the time waiting for a problem to appear so that I could solve it.
It was only when they turned off the current that I grasped what had just happened. Relieved of the minefield of self-doubt that constitutes my basic personality, I was a hell of a shot. And I can’t tell you how stunning it was to suddenly understand just how much of a drag that inner cacophony is on my ability to navigate life and basic tasks.
Aww fuck! Why not say you used to worry about people in the shower, even…
Not a jot of ‘I trained in the use of a weapon specifically designed to murder humans and that didn’t register with me at all’ because that’s how fucking clear headed you were!
Gah, how do you comment there, dammit? I gotta go preach (lol) and recommend a certain book…
We can assume she had fired a gun previously and learned to deal with the implications of its use.
I fired my first weapon when I was about 11 years old. The first bullet is hard, specially when you’re not wearing ear protection. The kickback on a revolver immediately tells you what the weapon’s intent is. Fuck someone’s day up real good. If you’ve never fired a weapon, I suggest going to a shooting range sometime. It’s enlightening.
We can assume she had fired a gun previously and learned to deal with the implications of its use.
So much packed into one sentence, I’d guess. Surely when other people express a ‘everythings fine, move on’ phrase, you get leery, Jorge? Does this come up for you as “But this really is fine and we really can move on!”?
Just for yourself, is it something you’d get leery over if you heard it from another? That doesn’t mean any position you percieve me to have is right or anything, even if so.
PS: I don’t know how many digital firearms I’ve fired, or how many probably partially true gun trivia I learnt during my teen years. I’ve never fired an actual gun (no doubt partially to do with guns being essentially banned in Australia about a decade ago, after a psycho went nuts in Tasmania).
Well, I wasn’t trying to come across as Mr. Badass. I’m just pointing out that Guns Are Scary, but people learn to handle them confidently.
There must be some place where you can legally learn to shoot a hunting rifle in Australia. I mean, how else do you deal with all the poisonous animals and RAVENOUS KOALAS?????
(Seriously, it’s fun, and teaches you to respect firearms.)
Well, it’s the confidence I’m worried about. Look, everyone pushes their own angle and tries to embed it into others, including me – so I get a blocking off of my ‘prosecution’ so to speak, but atleast replace my prosecutor with one of your own choice/making, not just leaving your defender by himself in the court. Or if that sounds cwazy, well, it’s the right blog for it!
Anyway in terms of responsibile gun use I would atleast assume that involves not using drugs while using guns. Except who morally thinks tCDS is a drug? That’s how slow morality is to catch up with scientific innovation.
We don’t go outside. Ever. Those tourist adverts with all the beach shots? Lies. We live in concrete bunkers, a mole like dystopian existance. It’s a bit like 28 days latter, but Koalas. Rage Koalas.
Treating alcoholism with LSD:
“It’s time to take the idea of treating alcoholism with acid trips seriously, researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology argue in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.”
Also, can a pill cure racism:
A friend of mine works with tDCS and has agreed to send me blueprints! It’s a pretty simple device. They know it works as advertised though because when you use it, if you place the electrode close to your eyes, you’ll see a phosphene (bright light without light actually hitting the eye). I should be able to access the relevant literature through my institution.
Failing that, I might sign up to be a human guinea pig. They already sent me the sign up sheet.
I know, I know: neuropath was supposed to be a cautionary tale.
Keep calm and carry on!
Just wanted to post the link to the recent Orbit blog interview:
Thanks for the link Dharmakirti.
I too will continue my link spamming. This one is surreal.
And I though being able to write a name on a grain of rice was crazy…
A few years back, I remember seeing a program that I think was dealing with neuro-plasticity and they profiled a new device that allowed a man to see using his tongue, it was kinda crazy. A camera captures visual data and sends that data to a plate that the individual wears on his tongue and then the tongue sends the information to the brain, where it is processed and interpreted to form images.
I believe that that is Eric Weihenmayer, dharma. He’s apparently the first and only blind person to climb Mount Everest. I read about him most recently in Englemen’s Incognito though BrainPort’s founder Bach-y-Rita, a damned genius in the history of neuroscience, is mentioned in Doidge’s Brain That Changes Itself. I believe that book has been mentioned in Bakker’s comments not so long ago – double hits now.
I find it incredible that Rita originally pioneered this technology by first allowing his subjects to “see” using a bigger version of the BrainPort and tactile sensations on their backs, rather than their tongues.
Englemen also mentions that the BrainPort is being used to feed infrared or sonar data to military divers and allowing soldiers 360 degree vision, even in the night. Though, I would assume those are specifically Western Empire military.
Just wanted to mention, Bakker, that this post more-fully articulated many of the things I feel you were trying to communicate in class. Excellent read. Personally, I think I’ve had to remind myself of flags and sufficiency constantly, both in writing and life.
This really makes me think of the Consult.
What have we taken as sufficient for them?
What have the skin-spies really been doing for these three hundred years before Kellhus shows up? How, after almost two thousand years, does the Consult suddenly grasp the Tekne to make the skin-spies? What have they really been doing in Min Uroikas all these years? What else might they have made?
We really don’t have any information on any of it. The next book should be very interesting.