Thursday, July 16, 2009

Meaninglessness Is The New Black. Why We Are Addicted To Ambiguity?

I was catching up on one of my online bookclubs this morning...and during a discussion of history...and "who writes it" "what is real or true" of the participants said the following and I thought it was something I had thought myself but never knew how to word it...

We've fallen in love with ambiguity. And part of the reason for that is simple, but damnable -- it permits laziness of thought. It allows people to retain their prejudices, and dismiss evidence that might contradict them. It is, all too often, a convenient dodge that vitiates the necessity to learn, to think, to analyze, and to judge.

It is possible that this attraction to ambiguity is a trickle down of theories adopted by philosophy from quantum mechanic theories. In quantum physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that certain pairs of physical properties, like position and momentum, cannot both be known to arbitrary precision. That is, the more precisely one property is known, the less precisely the other can be known. It is impossible to measure simultaneously both position and velocity of a microscopic particle with any degree of accuracy or certainty. This is not only a statement about the limitations of a researcher's ability to measure particular quantities of a system, following the tenets of logical positivism, it is a statement about the nature of the system itself.

Most of us don't walk around thinking about the history of physics and philosophy...but these ideas and attitudes do pass into our popular culture and consciousness. The uncertainty principle is valuable for unseen quantum particles but we live in the observable world. Not every thing nor every feeling is intangible.

I was trying to think...what is a good example of ambiguity being used in commercials? And of course I thought of the abundance of tv commericals in the United States for pharmaceuticals. (Canada doesn't make so many of these kinds of ads...the idea I suppose that medicine and health care is universal not commercial?)

So...thinking of these ads I began to search "the googles". Ah, here is a bit on a study regarding ambiguity in drug commercials. The study used discourse analysis to break down the commericals studied and here is from the study abstract This study was intended to illustrate how discourse analysis, a methodology for microanalysis of texts in context, can elucidate the workings and interplay of promotional, informational, and other functions of direct-to-consumer drug advertising, anticipating threats to “fair balance” and pinpointing textual phenomena and issues suited to empirical study.

The linguistic and rhetorical features include an intense switching and fusion of styles and modalities: the traditional advertising distinction between personal and impersonal, “company” and “consumer”, was ostentatiously flouted. The role of spokesperson was assigned to characters in a real or virtual narrative. The narrative portion of the text and images often struck an ironic or postmodern note, eg, by mixing science with science fiction. The overall functions of the commercials (promotional, informational, and aesthetic) were themselves frequently blended. The text deployed several linguistic or rhetorical strategies to send a double message for promotional advantage, including syntactic-semantic ambiguity, voice-over risk messages at odds with upbeat visuals, and a vagueness of certain words in particular contexts.

According to Daniel Gilbert, who wrote Stumbling On Happiness, he suggests that one of the defining differences between human and other animals is our ability to imagine the future.

Gilbert's central thesis is that, through perception and cognitive biases, people imagine the future poorly, in particular what will make them happy. He argues that imagination fails in three ways:

1) Imagination tends to add and remove details, but people do not realize that key details may be fabricated or missing from the imagined scenario.
2) Imagined futures (and pasts) are more like the present than they actually will be (or were).
3) Imagination fails to realize that things will feel differently once they actually happen -- most notably, the psychological immune system will make bad things feel not so bad as they are imagined to feel.

The advice Gilbert offers is to use other people's experiences to predict the future, instead of imagining it. It is surprising how similar people are in much of their experiences, he says. He does not expect too many people to heed this advice, as our culture, accompanied by various thinking tendencies, is against this method of decision making.
Also, Gilbert covers the topic of 'filling in' or the frequent use of patterns, by the mind, to connect events which we do actually recall with other events we expect or anticipate fit into the expected experience. This 'filling in' is also used by our eyes and optic nerves to remove our blind spot or scotoma, and instead substitute what our mind expects to be present in the blind spot.

We are addicted to ambiguity and see it all around us in discussion web boards, in television commercials, in contemporary visual arts, in corporate mangement (no job security...where in aboriginal societies we had apprenticeships and longevity in our handy-works) because it is a form of escapism every bit as powerful as heroin and carbs.

We are addicted to ambiguity because part of our ego extorts power over our spirit to stop us from living happy lives. We are afraid to give up and take a risk of not seeking happiness through material goods and behaviours. Part of our brain believes we can control our futures and can control our levels of happiness. But when most of us had have experienced peace of mind and was in situations where power and control were forgotten. Like mystical experiences or as Maslow would say peak experiences...perhaps at the beach, at a very funny movie, falling in love, doing something physically satisfying, like outdoor sports, hiking, like reading a book that suspended our disbelief.

Ambiguity can be a wonderful release from altered state even. Ambiguity can give one a sense of a paradigm shift even without substance. Meaninglessness is the new black. It is the drug of choice for nihlism. When I hear someone say something truly ambiguious or using ambiguity as an excuse to dismiss feelings or ideas...I think to myself "Ah what we have here is a depressed person." or, if you will, person with a depressive worldview. It's a seductive mindframe that ol' ambiguity. And like any altered state it may become a device for avoidance and for co-option by governments and commercial venues, or for controlling behaviour. In some ways ambiguity is the opposite of prejudice, so at first glance, it seems "cool". It attracts those who are afraid of being bigots like their parents or older generations. It seems hip to be "mysterious." Ambiguity also helps us come to grips with people doing terrible things. We believe human nature might be unknowable or mysterious. Ambiguity helps us say "The Lord works in mysterious ways" when something wonderful happens and when something horrible happens. The adage "the lord works in mysterious ways" is coined from a poet who suffered with depression.

Happiness is tangible. Wanting the best for our families and friends and communities is part of the human condition and a huge part of it's survival. So much of human history can leave us cynical, so many news stories can break our spirit that ambiguity allows us to keep dreaming and imagining a future where we'll be happy. Ambiguity helps us justify our doubts, helps us hide our lack of knowledge and helps us keep imagining a future rather than doing what it takes now to achieve peace of mind.

It's time to ask ourselves, elders we respect and other economic cultures what makes us happy...and use knowledge of real tangible feelings to help us wean from our addiction to ambiguity.


X. Dell said...

I see what you're saying here, and to a large extent agree with it. Saying, "we'll never know, will we," allows obvious (and presumably painful) ideas to escape from our minds, blissfully pushed out to the margins of our consciousness. Obviously, the belief that we annot know everything is a poor excuse not to look into things.

I wouldn't blame the phenomenon on quantum mechanics or post-modernism as some have done. Anti-intellectualism and incuriousity have deep roots in the Western Hemisphere, after all.

And there are some things that fall into massive gray areas, where people should either be ambivalent (not ambiguous) or accept a degree of incongruence. Such is the province of an intelligent and educated person. But what's really happening here is that some glom on to this ambivalence as a signifier of intelligence. It allows someone to feel (and appear to others as) well-studied and educated without having to put forth the effort to investigate and think about something in depth. And people always want to appear intelligent. Hell, they make glasses with no corrective power at all just so that people can look smarter.

What I find interesting, and somewhat frightening, in the acceptance of ambiguity, is that it runs counter to a natural pychological tendency people have, specifically what's known as the Zeigarnik Effect. In a nutshell, we have a natural desire not to leave things ambiguous by attempting to close open fields of knowledge. For example, if there's an old movie on TV, and it's really bad, you might turn it on, and say to yourself, "That's the worst movie I ever saw.: But if you watch it for any length of time, you'll be compelled to see it through to the end--because you have to find out what happens.

Assigning vast quantities of knowledge to a netherworld of ambiguity or ambialence runs counter to this principle. The only way I can see it making any sense at all is if it indicates the possibility that people are so overloaded with sensory, social, academic, trivial data that they grow fatigued at putting things together, and thus throw their hands up. If enough people do it, they can reinforce amongst themselves that doing so makes them hip or in the know.

Candy Minx said...


X.Dell, you gave me so much to think about this morning I really have to have my cup of tea and meditate for a few minutes before I even get to responding in full. I have never heard of the Zelgarnik Effect and it's really interesting. I found this:

We remember better that which is unfinished or incomplete.
Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik found in 1927 that waiters remembered orders only as long as the order was in the process of being served.
When we are holding things in short-term memory, we have to rehearse them otherwise they disappear, like a light going out. This requires cognitive effort, and the more things we are rehearsing the more effort. The waiter's trick is thus to keep spinning the plates of the open orders whilst letting those which are completed fall.
A similar effect also happens over a longer period as we worry about those things in which we have not achieve closure. Thus I might keep thinking about a problem at work over a whole weekend as it keeps coming back to haunt me."

This example was perfect for me because I have had that ery experience while working as a server.

I think your qualifying the attitude of ambivalence rather than ambiguity is brilliant. And it's totally that attitude of someone posing as "cool" or aloof to a topic that is so interesting (and off-putting) in some discussions or relationships that contributes to the feeling on many blogs that is often "negativity" or ranting.

I must ponder what you have said here more...and thinks so much for your perspective. Fascinating!

Andrew said...

Good post, Candy... I'm glad you fleshed out these ideas more here... Thanks for the encouragement over at CR, I'm still working up a post for over there, I got pretty riled up last week and put down some notes that I'm going to finish and post...

This bit about imagination makes me want to look into Gilbert's book... You've been mentioning it, but I've been hesitant... But I love learning about cognitive errors and weird things we do to trick ourselves, I think some of them are called cognitive errors...

Jason Messinger said...

This cinches it, you are my new philosopher queen! Long live Candy Minx, Philosopher Queen!

One thing to consider is some positive aspects of ambiguity. So many people have a hard-edged vision of what is 'right' and 'wrong' and this prevents them from valuing other people's perspectives. I'm thinking in particular of religious fanaticism, but there are many examples. Truth can be grey, in that it can be a multi-faceted thing, that has many sides, many planes.

In much of my artwork, the symbolic representation of images is left purposefully open to interpretation, this is meant to foster the viewer's involvement with the work, forcing their own vision of what it is to come into play, thus creating a dialogue between the artist and viewer. I hope that doesn't mean I am adding to the materialistic-loving happiness-eluding cynicism of our age!