Home > Uncategorized > Why Can’t I know what’s going on around me

Why Can’t I know what’s going on around me

The title of this post refers to a song refrain by Ghassan Rihbani. I think it might very well capture the condition of everyday life in Lebanon. A degree of uncertainty of whose account is true and confusion around the mean by which means to arbitrate between competing accounts is central to my political experience. The problem is captured in the absence of an authority which defines truth or against which truth can be used. This is not just the condition of Lebanon but is spreading to become the condition of the world. These are the effects of the communication revolution, the rise of multiple competing accounts with only the reader to arbitrate between them is emblematic of this.

In Lebanon uncertainty is heightened because the official institutions through which politics is supposed to happen are mere fronts. All the action takes place behind closed doors and the actors are unknown. It could be the Russian ambassador, or the Qatari delegate or the American Embassy representative who determines the stability or instability of political life in Lebanon. In other places it seems to me (at least in the developed world) the actors are at least clear.

What is prompting this are recent articles on North Korea and the Syrian civil war. Why is the American account better than the nationalist one?  Why is Al manar’s account which is consistently different from Al Arabiya’s account better or worse. Recently Al Manar Cited another website that claimed that the recent destruction of an 750BC Jewish temple was a Mossad operation done with the aid of the FSA (Free Syrian Army) Jabhat Al Nusra (Salafists of the Al Qaeda type) Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the USA. I mean this is a case where the facts are crazy enough that one must assume that this account is surely false. But how can we discredit it without evidence? I choose this example because it is so extreme but examples of these conflicting accounts of events are pervasive. One only needs to glance at the coverage of different newspapers to get a sense of the difficulties of arbitration.

I’m sure if I wanted to take this seriously I would consider the writings of the monism-dualism debate, but they seem dissatisfying to me because it seems that they do not appreciate the destructive influence of uncertainty. Or perhaps the heightened awareness of it in our time. Here I think I am being presumptuous. Is our time even that special? That they thought of these problems before (God vs Nature, ultimate truth and Reality) and that it is one of the oldest paradoxes of philosophy (Epistemology) should indicate that a lot of thinking has been done to resolve this question. The point however is that this question is ultimately unresolvable. But this isn’t a satisfying answer for the question of the how one can lead a life amidst such intense uncertainty. Uncertainty about which actors and which factors control and determine political outcomes.

On a personal note, this is why I am so drawn to the longue duree stuff. The long trends of shifts in agricultural productivity and population sizes gives a sense of comfort. It is out of our control but it is at least measurable. It is also easier to make objective authoritative knowledge claims about things like population sizes and types of staples than other variables. But still as an account of what is going on, they are inadequate, vague, broad, long-term and have little to say about the short-term. Even worse implicit in this view is a dualist assumption about the knowable nature of reality. It is not human actions (at least directly) that determine political, social, and economic outcomes, but the larger natural environment. But can this be more than just a banal stating of the obvious? The set of questions that this approach answers are all very big but also limited. It seems at this point we have reached some kind of consensus about it and further work is not producing equivalent returns.

I guess a final question is if I should even accept that certainty is possible. I am reminded of the historical criteria of factitude used by Arab scholars and wonder about their adequacy as well. If we want to embrace the enlightenment and behavioralism then we must discard all past knowledge and start from scratch everytime. For we cannot even trust the accounts in books to be true. If I want to know what happened to Hariri then I need to become an expert in forensices, phone networking technology and a long list of other specializations. The previous sentence makes it seem that what objective accounts require are trust; it is true that the lack of trust is an important element in the lack of authoritative accounts. But even absolute trust can be turned into doubt by injecting alternative account. The truly skeptical will compare all accounts and attempt to establish their veracity.

Anyway this is just some rambling that I was hoping might tie into a description of the information distribution in orders that are empires. A core with more certain knowledge and edges where certainty and causality vanish. After Sykes Picot how can any account not be taken seriously? Weather manipulation, earthquake generation, funding of terrorist groups, funding of labor unions etc… all of these could possibly be supported by foreign powers, acts of nature, generative from society etc… And there is no reason why we should discount any explanation out of hand. Again though I am thinking of the arguments for the existence of God, the flying spaghetti monster, the invisible unicorn sitting in my bed right now, and the argument of whether these  should be considered or whether it would be a waste of time attempting to disprove them is always in there. This must be a central topic in all theorists, I need to read more.

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