epistemic seismology

The always insightful Ryan Oakley wrestles with reality:

Some stories may seem more true than others, some more pleasing, and others more dangerous, but no matter how true, beautiful or deadly, they are stories. Our reality is woven from stories –tales invented by readers just as much as authors– and our personalities are only stories we knit into a theme and give a name. There may well be some some hard base of facts at the bottom of all these lies but, if we ever find it, it will be through stories.

Right now, though, I feel like the theme is in tatters. On a societal as well as a personal level, it feels like the stories are moving at cross purposes completely disconnected from each other and any base of facts. Reality itself feels strange, stretched, and strained. The contradictions are immense. Reality has a web of stress fractures. The cracks in order may be how the light gets in but it’s also how the weird leaks into the world. At night, in the dark, the light itself is weird. Blindingly odd. The full moon stands out against black space.


I can understand why some people just throw their hands up, declare the whole thing some sort of nefarious prank, and say “fuck it.” I don’t agree with them at all, and it’s bleakly hilarious to hear people who compare free medicine to the Holocaust claim other people are under mind control from Big Pharma. (Like, friend, if you think cheap medicine or anything that might even slightly reduce the grotesque profit margins of the medical industry can be compared to genocide, maybe, just maybe, you’re the one under the fucking spell.) But I can understand the urge to scream FAKE. It would simplify matters.

Oakley notes at the top of that post that we who write are perhaps better equipped to understand reality as a braid of stories, and he quotes postmodernity’s prophet Philip K Dick to illustrate the point. I’m inclined to agree, not least because I was saying something similar to myself in my morning pages today… but at the same time, I am obliged by conditioned instinct to factor in the bias inherent in that way of understanding things. It’s a bit like the old everything-looks-like-a-nail problem: if you have trained yourself to see the world as stories, then story will be your first port of call to provide a model for any given phenomenon. Same reason economists see everything as a case of supply and demand, or evangelists see everything as the struggle between the cartoonishly-drawn forces of Good and Evil… and it bears noting that we are all conditioned by multiple narrative templates at once. (Hell knows there’s a big ol’ fandom a-squat on the intersection of neoclassical economics and fundamentalist Xtian evangelism.)

Of course, as a trained social scientist with an (un)healthy amount of theoretical reading under my belt, I’m also conditioned to be reflective about my own thinking, and hence to look at it and think “yep, I’m probably being shaped by structural forces here”. Though sometimes that mostly feels like I’m cut off from the comfort of simplistic conspiracy-centric thinking that Oakley mentions in the excerpt above. I certainly have nowadays a much more visceral appreciation for how things like the witch trails managed to roll on for so long; the hunger for a tangible enemy or scapegoat is a real thing.

Anyway, mostly clipping this because it feels like a really good example of someone describing the experience of living through an epistemic collapse without using five-dollar academic terms like “epistemic collapse”. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going on, here. The pandemic, as a sociopolitical phenomenon as well as an epidemiological one, torpedoed a major bulkhead in the structure of the hegemonic narrative (which we might label with various other five-dollar terms, e.g. capitalist realism, neoliberalism, late-capitalist modernity, take your pick); a lot of implicit promises about life as a middle-class person in a ‘developed’ country have been shown to be contingent at best, and outright fictional at worst. Perhaps the most terrifying has been the implicit promise that “no one dies before their time any more”—which, to be clear, was always already a fiction, the belief in which could only be sustained by limiting your view of the situation to people in the same situation as you. People die “before their time” all the time; you just don’t hear about it, because they’re not on your social radar.

What’s interesting about this situation—and I mean interesting here in an admittedly somewhat ghoulishly academic-on-the-bridge-of-the-Titanic sense, mixed in with that writerly sense that Oakley describes, in as much as they can be considered two different senses at all—is that while there have been epistemic tremors before, they’ve tended to be corrected by the positive feedback mechanisms of networked capital. (Even capitalism’s supporters would likely concede that it’s something of an autopoietic system, even if they wouldn’t use that term, Adam Smith’s much misparsed invisible hand is a pre-systems-theory attempt to describe the autopoiesis of a market system.) But as smarter and better-read people than me are pointing out, that system is currently quaking itself apart in its attempts to accommodate this sudden new perturbation… the contradictions are hanging out for all to see, like a drunk economist’s junk at the faculty Xmas party.

Even if the economic system can be restabilised, the sociopolitical contortions and contradictions necessary to achieving that end have tipped over and scrambled the prevailing logics of the hegemonic plot. To return to writerly metaphors: the collectively-written-in-realtime novel in which we have been living has strained our suspension of disbelief beyond breaking point. Seen from that perspective, it’s perhaps no wonder that everyone is reaching for their standard-issue epistemic author(ity)-figure fallback as something to have faith in.

(As a parting aside, returning to the rest of Oakley’s post: they sure as shit look like cats to me. But that’s the point, I think; interpretation is always a matter of context, and telling people that they’re wrong in a period of epistemic collapse is counterproductive. In a way, it doesn’t matter what those critters in his photo “really” are. They presented as inexplicable, and that emotional truth will never be conquered by any amount of factual argument that refuses to engage with the affect of the experience. There’s a lesson here for all of us, I think, though it comes at a time when it is least easy to absorb.)

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