Anamorphosis and the Knowledge Problem

Warning: this blog contains graphic academic language, hypothetical religious proselytizing and scatological references. Some material may not be suitable for children or sociology professors.

Review: Anamorphosis is an artistic technique by which the artist presents viewers with an image that can only be properly interpreted from a particular perspective or vantage point. Viewers of anamorphic images must complete an anamorphic action (like standing in the correct position, holding up a special curved mirror, or using a secret decoder ring) in order to the see the image as it is intended to be seen.

It used to be that our main problem with knowledge was a lack of it. For example, we didn’t know, for WAY too long, that people didn’t get cholera from the smell of poop in the air; rather, they got it because they inadvertently drank a poop smoothie. It stinks either way, but that right there is an excellent example of some very useful knowledge.

Now, however, it seems it’s not so much our lack of knowledge but rather, the keeping track of our knowledge that is the problem. Knowledge management and knowledge retrieval are emerging as the primary knowledge issues of this century. Anymore, it’s not that you know stuff, but rather that you know how to go about knowing stuff – and what’s more, that you can find it once you know it – that matters. And to us, the denizens of the 21st century, to whom knowledge has become sacrosanct, it matters. And because it matters, we need to ask ourselves a very important question: Where is all this knowledge coming from?

Most of it comes from what I have referred to previously as The Academic Industrial Complex. This cabal (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) includes research universities, corporate research arms and any number of public or private research institutions. These organizations are in the business of knowledge production and we are their enthusiastic customers. How enthusiastic are we? A new study shows that 86% of Americans will not believe something is true unless they are told that a research study says it is true.

Not really. No study says that. But see how quickly you were inclined to believe me when I said those magic words, “a new study shows?”

But here’s the irony: despite the fact that, 1) we value knowledge highly, 2) we place a great deal of confidence in the researchers who produce it, and, 3) we eagerly embrace the results of research in an effort to improve our lives, we don’t actually believe any of it is true. In all the research papers you’re likely to read (and really, if you’re not required to, you’re not likely to), you will never, ever, read the words, “Well, that’s it. We’ve figured it all out. We can go home now.” Instead, researchers spend the bulk of the concluding sections of their reports making excuses for the limitations of their studies, spelling out the confounding variables, and peppering their reports with phrases like “the data seem to suggest…” and “participants tended to agree…” and “results may indicate…” In the end, researchers always end up oxymoronically concluding that the research is inconclusive. Even the most confident researcher – or the most ideologically committed – wouldn’t dream of suggesting that more research is not needed. After all, mama needs a new pair of shoes…

So, we’ve got all this knowledge produced by big-S Scientists who tell us that none of it is big-T True. Maybe little-t true, possibly big-R Revealing, definitely big-S Suggestive. But not big-T True. And yet. We cling to our knowledge and continue to collect it because we are all acting on the underlying assumption that the world sucks, and if we just had enough knowledge, we could fix the suckiness. As an interesting aside, isn’t it odd that none of our tier one superheroes are scholars? Tony Stark comes close, but he channels his genius too quickly into weapons production and capitalism to fit into tweeds and a cramped office.

No. Scholars are underdogs. Researchers are victims of what I would call Unconsummated Anamorphosis: they have taken up the search for the solutions to life’s biggest problems and the answers to life’s biggest questions by peering into the unfathomable with only one eye open: the physical eye. They have to. From the outset, big-S Science has summarily dismissed the other eye – the metaphysical eye – from the process.

To be sure, big-S Science has a well-articulated set of explanations as to why it must exclude the non-physical. But then, it should admit openly that small-s scientists will forever only be able to uncover and purport small-s truths. In short, they will ever only – by their own admission and definition – be asymptotically approaching conclusive evidence. Hence, the very conveniently inconclusive we-need-more-research conclusion.

At this point, I am compelled to paraphrase Pontius Pilate and ask, “Quid the heck est veritas?” Moreover, if big-T Truth is disqualified from the get-go, why do so many people spend all their lives, and as much of everyone else’s money as they possibly can, ferreting out and publishing their own small contributions to little-t truth? Is there any point in our imagined evolutionary future that we will be able to say, “This is True,” and mean it? Any point when Big Data becomes Enough Data?

It is here that I’d like to suggest an idea that is admittedly politically, scientifically and academically incorrect. But it’s worth discussing if we, particularly those of us in the social sciences, seriously want to crack the code on solving problems and answering questions. The idea is this: when we exclude an entire perspective or point of view from the outset of an investigation, we naturally decrease our chances of meaningful discovery. We should not do that.

What if the anamorphic position (or vantage point) necessary for a more complete understanding of the world went beyond scientific investigation alone? What if, as the writer of Proverbs asserts, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” was actually true? Knee-jerk alert: I am NOT suggesting AT ALL that the fear of the Lord is the end of knowledge, also. Hence the word “beginning.” Scientific discovery is – and always has been – part of the gig. I would suggest that the writer of that Proverb is suggesting the fear of the Lord is, in academic language, “necessary but not sufficient.” That should offend neither the man of faith nor the man of science. It will probably offend both. And a lot of women, too.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, there is a very interesting – and very puzzling – interchange between Jesus and his disciples:

“The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?’ He replied, ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables:

Though seeing, they do not see;
Though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
You will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
They hardly hear with their ears,
And they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
Understand with their hearts
And turn, and I would heal them.’”

You see what Jesus is talking about, don’t you? It’s not physical stuff he’s giving and taking away. It’s metaphysical stuff. Sight. Understanding. Perception. As it turns out, the parable gig was on purpose. Whenever Jesus was speaking to a crowd, he only communicated via parables, and the parable is distinctly anamorphic. The meanings behind the stories can’t be grasped by just anyone; rather, they are only revealed to people who are particularly open to anamorphic vision. He finishes with, “So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.’”

REALLY?? Hidden since the creation of the world?? Well, there goes half your audience, dude. Everyone knows the world wasn’t created

Ironically, in the historical context in which these words were delivered, the people who didn’t grasp the meaning of these stories were the highly educated folks of the day: the religious leaders who were the gatekeepers and keymasters of knowledge and wisdom. Conversely, peasants and dolts saw things with remarkable clarity. Which just goes to show that you can be too smart for you own good.

In the end, if we care about truth – big-T or little-t – we have to ask, “What conditions would keep us from seeing, understanding and perceiving?” I will phrase the answer to this question like a good researcher would: the answer “appears” to be anamorphic in nature and “seems” as if it would have a huge impact on what kinds of questions we allow ourselves to ask, what kinds of studies we allow ourselves to conduct, what kinds of conclusions we allow ourselves to draw, and, ultimately, what kinds of things we allow ourselves to believe.

There’s no point in heading into that with one eye closed.

I did warn you.

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