The more you read, the more you know how to read, and the harder it is to get lost in reading. When you’ve read only a few things, it is not possible to get very lost because each book, article, blog post or tweet stands in isolation. You are not very sensitized to how infinitely intertwingled everything is. But the more you read, the greater the chances that you will have developed a map that obscures the intertwingling. Even if you resist various subtle map-territory confusions, you will slowly grow blind to many things. Which can be a pleasant state, especially if it endures through the rest of your life.
But if you read a lot in a certain disorderly way, you can retain an ability get lost in your reading and prevent knowledge from turning into blindness. I call this approach taking your brain off-road. With a few exceptions, my brain has been off-road, and lost, for decades. You know when your brain is off-road because you are forced to navigate the world of ideas by gut-feel alone. I used to like the metaphor of the gyroscope for this, but now I like the metaphor of Pacific Islander wave navigation, which combines intrinsic and extrinsic, global and local, in interesting ways.
Pacific Islander wave pilots used self-made stick maps of swell patterns between islands (like the ones above) to navigate. One of my time-wasting projects is to actually understand how this was done, and perhaps learn to do it myself. Interestingly, this required literally using your gut: lying on your back at the bottom of the canoe to feel the swells through your body.
There is an opposed, more common way of reading a lot, which is much more orderly. Orderly readers unconsciously prioritize things that they know how to read, which means they never get lost. This is mainly because they are doers, and for doers, being lost is a bad thing. Because you don’t know what to do next, which means you are wasting your life.
To disorderly readers, being lost is not a bad thing, because many interesting things can only be seen nestled in disorder. And you can see disorder only when you don’t know how to read it.
Being a Lost Reader
I define being lost in reading as not knowing how to read whatever it is you are trying to read. How you read — with trust or skepticism, ironically or unironically, respectfully or disdainfully — determines what you will get out of the experience. So to know how to read something is to have already judged what you can get out of the experience. This means operating with either prejudice or received authority.
When you read without knowing how to read, you may not find out for years, or ever, whether what you read was true, false, or bullshit (suitably generalized for aesthetic truths). Or indeed, even what you just read. Do a twitter search for the phrase “what did I just read?” to get a sense of this state if you haven’t experienced it. It is the textual equivalent of “what exactly am I looking at here?” or “who is this for?” There are both epistemological and ontological components to being lost.
A friend of mine said Tempo got him wondering, “what did I just read?” That made my day.
Taking your brain off-road puts your mind into a slightly doubtful state that feels very similar to being physically lost. You are no longer ignorant of what you read, but you cannot say that you know what you have read either.
Some part of your mind goes into a sort of quantum superposition involving, in the simplest case, the state (true + i*false). There can be other states, like (funny+i*unfunny) and (serious+i*not serious), making up a whole quantum state vector. The part of your mind devoted to the memory of the reading experience is temporarily lost.
The more such things there are in your mind, the more lost you are. I tweeted a joke about this last week, “I think my superpower is half-believing everything.” Amusingly enough, several people misunderstood the original tweet to mean that I disbelieve half of everything, rather than half-believing everything. But other cats got the quantum joke I was making. I think.
If and when you finally figure out something you read without knowing how, the state of superposition will collapse into true, false, or not-even-wrong (or funny, unfunny, or not-even-unfunny, and so on). You will know whether you should have read it trustfully, skeptically, or not at all. You will experience regret, chagrin, or annoyance, based on the gap between how you did read it, and how you now think you should have read it.
If you are a particular kind of obsessive, you will go back and re-read it “right.” This time to know it. I almost never do.
Publics, Non-Publics, and Anti-Publics
I recently encountered the interesting thought, from Corey Robin, that intellectuals create a public through their writing, where the term “public” (noun) indicates a group with an awakened, cohesive, political consciousness. A group that can act collectively. A public in this sense can be understood as a group that shares a preference for a certain map of the idea territory.
By analogy, heavy readers in general, and disorderly readers in particular, create a territory through their reading that demands a map. These territories are more or less unique to individual readers, and do not naturally harmonize with the territories created by other readers, creating divergence. Orderly readers do not like divergence, so they tend to either join or leave the publics that specific writers, or groups of writers, are trying to create. When they are also writers, they tend to create publics.
The term “intellectual” really only applies to orderly readers and writers, and necessarily implies an associated public. Intellectuals with integrity set out to create maps that they at least sincerely hope represents the territory. Similarly, orderly readers with integrity try to use those maps with a certain principled discipline. The shared hope of the public is to create a shared consciousness anchored to a map that is relatively forgiving to those predisposed to map/territory confusions. Those without integrity actively set out to create false maps, and create associated publics defined by a false consciousness. Orderly readers without integrity actively set out to form delusional beliefs and acquire said false consciousness. Ironically enough, Marxist thought, where the term originated, seems to me to be among the better examples of a false consciousness. In general every consciousness is a false consciousness to some degree, but some are more deliberately crafted to mislead and control than others.
Disorderly readers and writers cannot, in general, be considered intellectuals. People sometimes call me an intellectual, sometimes to flatter me or express admiration, or because to them it is a loose term describing anyone who reads and write more than a certain amount, and beyond a certain depth of reference away from pop culture. Orderly writers and readers are sometimes offended that I don’t frequently and anxiously reject that label to show that I know my place in their universe. I can play intellectual on occasion when there’s fun to be had, and a living to be made, but it’s not a natural mode for me.
Orderly readers and writers sometimes consider disorderly readers and writers vandals. People who destroy with shallow sophistry what they set out to build with sincerity, but that is not true either.
Both disorderly writers and disorderly readers are best understood as bullshitters, not in the intellectual sense, but in relation to the social act of creating a public: they neither set out to create a public or not create one, but are just indifferent to whether or not publics form around their reading and writing, and whether or not any publics that happen to form share a true or false consciousness.
They certainly do not set out to create a non-public, defined as a fragmented group without a shared political consciousness. Neither do they set out to create an anti-public, which I suppose would be the objective of a troll: to foment fear-uncertainty and doubt (FUD) in order to fragment an existing public, and push it beyond fragmentation, into a state of internal Hobbesian conflict.
But both disorderly writers and readers do set out to see new territories. Whether or not those territories get mapped in the process, and whether or not refined-enough maps emerge to sustain a public, with a true or false consciousness, is a matter of indifference to the disorderlies.
If you are a light reader, each reading experience exists mainly in relation to your own life, rather than in relation to other reading experiences, others’ reading experiences, or other writings. But once you read above a certain rate — say 100,000 words a month, which is about 2 average sized books or 20 feature-length articles — for long enough, you begin to see all three kinds of intertwingling. This takes the form of relationships of similarity, harmony, dissonance, repetition, conflict, and overlap, among many other kinds.
Everybody can see the intertwingled. It is not a skill but mere accumulation. It is how the brain works. All you need to do is feed the brain enough stuff and it will begin to see intertwingling. Left in its wild state, the intertwingling represents off-road territory. It’s what you do next that defines your personality and skills.
The connections of the intertwingled idea wilderness are varied and illegible. They constitute the memetic equivalent of Darwin’s tangled bank.
“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”
To a certain kind of excitable, somewhat vain, and tasteless reader, the intertwingled bank is all “good.” They like to say things like, “wow, everything is so interconnected! I love to see the interconnections across disciplines! I am good at seeing interconnections! I want to connect with other interconnection seers!”
To a different kind of dour and humorless, but equally vain and tasteless reader, it’s all “bad” chaos. “You have to focus!” they declare with a certain self-righteousness. One imagines they would like to take a flamethrower to their piece of the tangled bank and replace it with a well-manicured garden growing only petunias.
To stop at awareness of the existence of the intertwingled bank is to be shallow in one of two ways: shallow like a weasel or shallow like a cactus. If you want to be deep, you have to go deep. Which means you either have to tame the intertwingling, or dive in and get lost in it. You have to be either a hedgehog or a fox. I explained my model of these four archetypes in an earlier post, but if you don’t like the weasel, cactus, hedgehog, and fox typology, think instead of drifters, settlers, colonizers, and explorers.
The temptation to become an orderly reader — a hedgehog or civilizer — appears when you realize that being either a cactus (settler) or a weasel (drifter) is a deeply limiting existence. But to the orderly reader, just diving in and getting lost seems inefficient at best, and perverse at worst. So civilizing the intertwingling becomes an imperative.
Orderly readers reject the variety of ambiguous ways things can be intertwingled, preferring instead to prune connections down to a few operationally useful categories like older versus newer, or supports versus contradicts. These categories immediately suggest things to do, such as backtrack, falsify or verify. Curiously enough, Ted Nelson, who coined the term “intertwingled,” appears to have thought about hypertext in these tame-the-wilderness terms. The fact that he was among the hypertext pioneers who saw that information could be organized via networks rather than hierarchies obscures the fact that he had a rather autocratic view of networks.
Incidentally, such actions, aimed at taming of intertwingling, constitute the micro-mechanics of authoritarian high-modernist imposition of legibility, a constant theme of this blog. They are also central to the process of turning smooth spaces into striated spaces in the Deleuze and Guattari sense. Those frames head in somewhat different directions though.
The difference between orderly and disorderly readers is that orderly readers want to use the territory, while disorderly readers want to see the territory. If you want to use territory (and deriving pleasure from territory is a kind of use) you will gravitate to territories that have already been mapped and paved by others, and focus on selecting accurate maps and proven worthwhile paths. Seeing is a costly behavior that has low return for doers unless what you see is pretty. Nothing is worse to a doer than going on a long, painful hike and discovering a crappy non-view at the end. The journey is not its own reward. To orderly readers, words themselves are ultimately the enemy. They only help you see, with no guarantee of prettiness, and when you want to do, you must clear them away, whether they reveal ugly or pretty views. An asymptotically extreme (but not necessarily wrong) version of this view is that every word is a false consciousness.
Orderly readers, in other words, are colonizers, civilizers, and consumers. If you are an orderly reader, you ideally want to arrange matters so you can never get lost, never lose your footing, and always return to known territory after safe forays into unknown territory. When you discover things, you discover them by going beyond good existing maps carefully, and adding them to those maps in orderly ways. When you look to see, you choose pretty views. Nassim Taleb is a good example of an orderly reader and writer.
An orderly reader tends to relate to the idea environment through a library metaphor, or better still, the Big Book (or God’s Book) metaphor. A library environment is something that you can organize in various obvious ways. Your library versus the global library. Your library versus your anti-library. Explored aisles versus unexplored aisles. Good books versus bad books. Trustworthy authors versus untrustworthy authors. Solid citations versus suspicious citations. Trustworthy readers whose opinions can be trusted versus untrustworthy readers whose opinions are suspect. The Big Book metaphor represents this thinking in extreme form. All trustworthy writers are absorbed into one God-writer. Everything is organized in the One True Way. All views get reconciled in the One True View. All words collapse into the One Word. In principle, if you get lucky, it is possible to start at the beginning and read the Big Book cover-to-cover.
One interesting sort of experience leading to a false consciousness, which orderly readers are especially prone to, is “enlightenment” through knowledge (rather than through meditation or drugs or other means about which I have little to say here). This happens when you are vaguely seeking “meaning” in a way that creates correlation (through your unconscious tastes) in your readings even if you don’t intend to be an orderly reader. So you end up with a lot of loosely correlated (metaphoric) quantum superposition states in your head that all collapse simultaneously towards an existing or new public when Mr. Miyagi hits you with a stick at the right time. This can create a state of extreme truthiness, a devastating sense of everything-is-false-ness, or extreme nothingness. For orderly types, this can be permanently life-altering. So extended, intensive, unconsciously orderly reading is a pathway to enlightenment.
Whether they are inside a notional universal library, inside a Big Book, or floating blissfully an inch above the ground, people who read in orderly ways tend to always know where they are in relation to what they’ve read, and how it all fits together.
The orderly reader is epistemological in his approach. The idea of dividing the intertwingled bank into the decidedly non-quantum Rumsfeld map of known-known, known-unknown, unknown-known and known-unknown reflects an epistemological orientation. I like this map, but have slowly realized over the years that very little of what I’ve read, and even less of what I value, is plottable on it. I now prefer this map, which was tweeted at me last month.
Inevitably, orderly readers end up being tribalized by their reading. Publics they have joined constitute home tribes. Publics they have left constitute enemy tribes. Opinions of enemy writers and publics are not just suspect, but marked as against all that is good and holy. Orderly readers resist Miller’s Law: “To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.”
And of course the shiftless, gray, disorderly non-tribals are the worst of all.
It’s tempting to manufacture a justification for taking your brain off-road, like connecting it to innovation, discovery, and new wealth. That’s a bit like justifying space exploration by connecting it to things like new kinds of materials and drugs. It seems better not to bother.
The first thing to realize about disorderly reading is that it is very easy to do. It’s the path of least effort and highest distractibility generally. Only occasionally do you have to have a short-term reading “plan,” and it is generally a good idea to get distracted and crash out of it. You just collect stuff (no need to be particularly diligent about that either; stick whatever wherever, or don’t, and trust you’ll run into it again). You pick stuff off in any old order, mixing parallel and serial readings, abandoning and picking things up again, reading some things instantly and greedily the moment you encounter them, and other things decades later. And perhaps most importantly, reading whether you know how to read or not.
If you like the geeky metaphor, it’s the Big Data/NoSQL approach to reading.
The second thing to realize about disorderly reading is that it is never just a consumption behavior. It is necessarily both a production and consumption behavior. But the production behavior is not necessarily a building behavior. You are producing primarily to consume right away, not to give or sell. All disorderly readers are necessarily nascent writers as well, whether or not they actually write. Because they are creating territory even if they are not creating maps.
Equally, a disorderly writer is necessarily a reader. There is no point at which you can conclude that you’ve read enough and that further reading is useless or detrimental to creativity. That idea makes sense only for orderly readers. A disorderly writer is necessarily a reader in part because everything is a remix, a transformation of the territory into different territory, whether or not you document the transformation in a map (which we call, on this blog, a refactoring).
By contrast, it is possible to be an orderly reader without being a writer at all, and it is possible to be a productive orderly writer even after you have stopped reading. There is a whole bunny-trail here involving Einstein and erudition that I wrote about just over 6 years ago, in a 2010 post. This post is in some ways a very elaborate unpacking and expansion of that post, with the benefit of 6 more years of being deeply lost.
To be a disorderly reader, you may have to hack away at stuff, build bridges, move logs out of the way, weave a net of creepers to tie back unstable rock formations that might collapse on you. You may need to make up your own rough maps, indecipherable to others, and carry some things along with you in working memory all the time.
But you probably won’t bother paving paths, putting up signposts, or creating maps marked “Here be basilisks!”, unless that’s the only way you can earn certain things.
Most importantly, you constantly need to be theorizing about your groping. Is it a plane? Is it a bird? Is it Superman? No! It’s an elephant!
This groping is the precursor to seeing. I was struggling to describe what it feels like, but then I discovered a great paper (apparently a classic) by Karl Weick that nails it: What Theory is Not, Theorizing Is. If you read it, be aware that you’re being dropped in the middle of a conversation, in the form of a response to a different paper. This bit is particularly germane to being lost, and gets at the key point that when something is in a state of superposition between truth and falsity, you can’t actually tell it apart from bullshit a priori, as some people wishfully hope they can:
So much for orderly and disorderly readers and writers, publics and consciousness. I want to wrap up with brief discussions of two pairs of big words. The first, which I’ve already used, is ontology versus epistemology.
Ontology versus Epistemology
To the practical doer, there is no difference between ontology and epistemology. To the impractical thinker, there is all the difference in the world. This article by Gene Weingarten gets at the sneaking suspicion, common to all doers, that there isn’t a difference. Like Weingarten, I too sometimes get confused by the subtleties of the terms, especially at the margins, and when I attempt to read papers by professional metaphysicians, which I sometimes do.
But for everyday reading, it’s not actually that complicated. Do I know what am I looking at? is an ontological question. Can I do something with it? (such as “test for truth” or “use to poke Superman”) is an epistemological question. What is kryptonite? Who knows. Can you poke Superman with it? Yes.
Knowledge, the state of having collapsed ambiguity around an X, but not necessarily uncertainty, is always an instrumental state. You don’t know what X means, but you have figured out some things you can do with or to X, and what else you need by way of data and Y’s and Z’s in order to do it.
I like to use the term ambiguity for unclear ontology and uncertainty for unclear epistemology. I got my definitions from this excellent 1993 paper, Choice Over Uncertainty and Ambiguity in Technical Problem Solving. It is a good paper to read by the way, if you’re looking for something useful from this post, as a prize for getting lost.
Not everybody uses the terms my way. This other paper, Ontological Uncertainty and Innovation, for instance, uses the terms truth uncertainty, ontological uncertainty and semantic uncertainty. In the language of this post, that would be uncertainty (epistemological), ambiguity (ontological), and map-map confusion (within or across publics).
The ambiguity versus uncertainty distinction helps you define a simpler, though more restricted, test for whether something is a matter of ontology or epistemology. When you are missing information, that’s uncertainty, and an epistemological matter. When you are lacking an interpretation, that’s ambiguity, and an ontological matter.
The distinction illuminates certain things very well. For example, unknown unknowns blindside you when you mistake uncertainty for ambiguity and “fix” maps in a certain way. Your interpretation of the data was not converging because something was missing, not because you didn’t have the right categories with which to think. So you made up some wrong categories to force convergence, setting yourself up to be bitten by a black swan that undermined the false categories you introduced. This is a special case of a map-territory confusion: thinking your map completely describes everything in the territory, and concluding you have everything you need to theorize.
In the familiar language of everyday decision-making, ambiguity means being unsure where to go, while uncertainty means being unsure how to get there. This is a somewhat degenerate doer usage, but consistent with how I think about these terms. Here is a 2×2, a cleaned-up version of the one in my previous post.
Poiesis and Praxis
The other pair of words I want to flag here is the stuffy Greek pair, poiesis and praxis. I am currently somewhere between shallowly and deeply lost about how to think with these terms, but not particularly inclined to collapse that superposition state anytime soon. Mainly because I suspect all thinking too closely anchored to classical Greek ideas to constitute a public with a specific false consciousness that I don’t entirely trust (the “Western mind” if you like. Other civilizations have their own versions).
My current tentative, working theory is that praxis is orderly reading/writing/doing, particularly in the shallowly lost quadrant, while poiesis is disorderly reading/writing/doing, particularly in the deeply lost quadrant.
There is a cloud of connotations around each. Praxis is also about doing as production, while poiesis is about making as play. Praxis civilizes according to a plan, poiesis experiments in a snowballing way. Praxis creates a public. Poiesis at best entertains one.
The poiesis concept seems to encompass play in all its forms. James Carse explores poiesis, in Finite and Infinite Games, in infinite game terms. Johan Huizenga, in Homo Ludens, explores it in finite game terms.
I am wary of praxtitioners. I suspect them of being in a hurry to disintertwingle things I’m not done with yet.
This post was actually meant to be about recent updates to my now reading page, but I got distracted. There’s a bunch of changes, movements, and new entries. There’s also a new category of papers.
I routinely get inquiries about whether I maintain a list of recommended books and such. Yes I do and this is that page. Apparently it’s hard to find, so I added it to the top menu.