Escaping Uncertainty


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Certainty                           -                      Uncertainty
Solid                                 -                       Liquid
Known                              -                       Unknown 
Actuality                           -                       Potentiality
Closed                               -                      Open
Rest                                   -                      Motion
Planned                             -                       Random
Control                              -                       Chaos
Simple                               -                       Complex

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Mysteries are fertile, like soil. They are dark places, from which things grow and emerge, things that nourish us.

We have a tendency to want to solve mysteries, to shine light in the darkness and make the unknown, known. Taken to its extremes, this tendency believes that all mysteries can be solved, and that there is nothing that cannot be known. This is rationalism untrammelled, unhinged. To the rationalist mindset a mystery is akin to an open wound, a sore spot that niggles and itches, and begs to be healed.

Mysteries bring perspective, suggesting that there are things that cannot - or should not - be known. An acceptance of mystery is an acceptance of limitation, a drawing of borders around the expansive ego. Mysteries remind us that we cannot know it all, or have it all - that we are forever incomplete, never whole.

The Child craves certainty, and the Parent likes being certain. The Adult knows that few things in life are certain, and attempts to tolerate ambivalence.

The child in us is in constant search of a parent, someone - or something - that can relieve us from the anxiety of doubt, and the responsibility of having to think for ourselves. In this sense, a person who professes certainty can be magnetic, drawing us into their sphere of influence. In a public forum, the surest voice tends to be the most compelling.

Uncertainty is often mistaken for cowardice, or indecision; an unwillingness, or an inability, to take a certain position. The uncertain voice is subjective, and provisional, full of formulas that 'soften the boldness of our propositions' ('maybe', 'perhaps', 'seems to be'...).

We are always missing something. None of our systems - our theories, or beliefs - are ever sufficient enough to capture reality as it is. Certainty, then, can only be achieved by ignoring or disregarding (or 'defeating') conflicting data points; in other words, by closing the self off to certain aspects of reality, and narrowing the field.

The simpler our view of the world becomes - the more complexity we are able to purge from our constructs and concepts - the more certain we can be of things. On the other hand, the more variables we have to consider, the less sure we can be in our judgments or decisions.

Whenever we make something - be it a concept, a physical structure, or even a human life - we act against the tide of entropy, that ever present, on-going process that gradually reduces all wholes into their constituent parts, constantly complicating things. All creation is, in this sense, simplification.

In spite of the complexity of things, we must be certain enough to live; to act and create, to make decisions and affect changes in the world. At some point, in spite of the errant data points, we become certain enough to put our weight on our structures, trusting that they will hold us - trusting that those things that we left out are not crucial to our endeavours.

'Certain enough' may, then, be the best that we - with our necessarily limited view of things - can do. Only an unlimited view can provide true certainty, and this is where the notion of 'God' becomes useful. As humans, it may be that the closest we are able to come to 'certainty' is a high degree of probability, but with God behind us - the ultimate parent, the highest, broadest concept - we are afforded a firm guarantee; the backing we need to affirm or deny, with certainty.


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Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge [...]

[Charles Darwin]


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Mystery, or unknowing, is energy. As soon as a mystery is explained, it ceases to be a source of energy.

If we question deep enough there comes a point where answers, if answers could be given, would kill.

We may want to dam the river; but we dam the spring at our peril. In fact, since 'God' is unknowable, we cannot dam the spring of basic existential mystery. 'God' is the energy of all questions and questing; and so the ultimate source of all action and volition.

[John Fowles]
The Aristos, p. 27


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Religious worldview - there is a mystery at the heart of everything. There is a ceiling to our ambition. Everything cannot be known. Man is finite, God is infinite.

Scientific worldview - all mysteries can be solved. There is no ceiling on our ambition, no limit to how high we can fly. Everything can be known. Man is infinite, God does not exist.


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Everything has a secret. 

Everything has an essence that cannot be known. On the outside everything seems to make sense, but on the inside there is a Godly spark that cannot be explained.

For all of us, there is a dimension which we can never grasp, the dimension that lies beyond our being.

[Tzvi Freeman]
'Secret Samech'


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If the arts don’t hurt, why have them?

It’s only modern vanity which supposes that everything can be known or that only what is knowable has a claim upon our interest. The artist and the priest know that there are mysteries beyond anything that can be done with words, sounds or forms.

If we want to live without this sense of mystery, we can of course, but we should be very suspicious of the feeling that everything coheres and that the arts, like everything else, fit comfortably into our lives.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 21


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What men really want is not knowledge, but certainty.

One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.

[Bertrand Russell]
Interview in 'The Listener', 1964, and The Triumph of Stupidity


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Certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris.

[Iain McGilchrist]
The Master and his Emissary, p. 460


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The majority of human beings are only too ready to follow a leader who professes complete conviction, since such a course relieves them from the anxiety inseparable from uncertainty, and from the effort of thinking for themselves.

It is not difficult to point to recent political examples of leaders exhibiting single-minded confidence of a comparable kind, however narrowly based.

As Norman Cohn demonstrated in The Pursuit of the Millennium, utter conviction lends charisma [...] to figures [...]

[Anthony Storr]
Freud, p.125



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Lacan suggested that though we believe ourselves to be democrats, most of us are remarkably interested in finding (and then worshipping) authority figures who will promise us the earth.
 
We desire to have someone else in charge who can make everything OK, someone who is, in a sense, an ideal parent – and we bring this peculiar-sounding bit of our psychological fantasies into the way we navigate politics.

'Jacques Lacan'


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While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked.

[Bob Dylan]
"It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"


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The separation from wife and children, the breaking up of a settled establishment, and the going from the certain to the uncertain - all this was for a moment painful, but I had inured myself to an uncertain life.

I think it is wrong to expect certainties in this world, where all else but God that is Truth is an uncertainty. All that appears and happens about and around us is uncertain, transient. 

But there is a Supreme Being hidden therein as a Certainty, and one would be blessed if one would catch a glimpse of that certainty and hitch one's waggon to it.

The quest for that Truth is the summum bonum of life.

[Gandhi]
The Story of My Experiments with Truth, p.235

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Of all the qualities in a manager conductive to innovation and initiative, a degree of uncertainty may be the most powerful.

If a manager is confident but uncertain - confident that the job will get done but without being certain of exactly the best way of doing it - employees are likely to have more room to be creative, alert, and self-starting. When working for confident but uncertain leaders, we are less likely to feign knowledge or hide mistakes, practices that can be costly to a company.

Admission of uncertainty leads to a search for more information, and with more information there may be more options.

[Ellen Langer]
Mindfulness, p.143

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Without the random, there can be no new thing [...] creative thought must always contain a random component.

[Gregory Bateson]
Mind and Nature, p. 160, 200


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To me, it’s the avenue to insanity, to presume if you keep studying you’ll find the answers.

As I got older, I was more able to accept the idea that you don’t have certainty of this earth; rather than make you more perplexed and worried, it actually lightens the load when you realize there are no certainties.

[David Bowie]


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To be able to feel ambivalent about someone is, for Kleinians, an enormous psychological achievement and the first marker on the path to genuine maturity. 

The child will gradually perceive that there is in truth no entirely good and no entirely bad breast, both belong to a mother who is a perplexing mixture of the positive and the negative: a source of pleasure and frustration, joy and suffering.

These complicated psychological realisations belong to what Klein called ‘the depressive position,’ a moment of soberness and melancholy when the growing child takes on board (unconsciously) the idea that reality is more complicated and less morally neat than it had ever previously imagined: the mother (or other people generally) cannot be neatly blamed for every setback; almost nothing is totally pure or totally evil, things are a perplexing, thought-provoking mixture of the good and bad… 

Unfortunately, in Klein’s analysis, not everyone makes it to the depressive position, for some get stuck in a mode of primitive splitting she termed (somewhat dauntingly) the ‘paranoid-schizoid position’. 

For many years, even into adulthood, these cursed people will find themselves unable to tolerate the slightest ambivalence: keen to preserve their sense of their own innocence, they must either hate or love. They must seek scapegoats or idealise.

'Melanie Klein'  

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Anomalies are unsettling because they represent everything that lies outside the domain of the understood world. Complexity lacks the simplifying and constraining boundaries defining the objects that characterize known territory.

In consequence, we have profound, a priori motivation to avoid anomaly, to ignore complexity, and to maintain the structural integrity of our belief systems. 

Anything unexpected (new phenomena, new ideas, new people) re-introduces the overwhelming complexity that our beliefs simplify. This introduced complexity, in turn, threatens the stability and security that our beliefs tentatively confer on existence.

Freud described religious beliefs as illusions, motivated by wish-fulfillment. Such beliefs can be more accurately understood as culturally-shared and accepted strategies for pragmatically managing complexity.

[Jordan B. Peterson]
‘Complexity Management Theory: Motivation for Ideological Rigidity and Social Conflict’, in Cortex, December 2002, p. 455


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One of the strongest motives in modern life is to explain everything and preferably to explain it away. 

The philosopher Gabriel Marcel has distinguished a mystery from a problem in this way. ‘A problem,’ he says, ‘is something which bars my passage. It is before me in its entirety. A mystery is something in which I find myself caught up, and whose essence is therefore not to be before me in its entirety. It is a proper character of problems to be reduced to detail: mystery, on the other hand, i s something which cannot be reduced to detail.’

A character in Yeats’s play The Resurrection says: ‘What if there is always something that lies outside knowledge, outside order? What if the irrational return?' 

The gist of the matter is: a problem is something to be solved; a mystery is something to be witnessed and attested.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 12


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Application of the second law of thermodynamics to psychology produces the first major tenet of EMU, that uncertainty poses a critical adaptive challenge, resulting in the motive to reduce uncertainty. 

In his groundbreaking book, What Is Life?, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1944) argued that living systems survive by reducing their internal entropy, while simultaneously (and necessarily) increasing the entropy that exists in their external environment.

Dynamical systems theorists therefore propose that stable information systems survive only insofar as they are able to effectively manage their internal entropy. Those that cannot effectively dissipate this entropy are destroyed, in a Darwinian fashion (Kauffman, 1993). One consequence of this process is that complex systems tend to return to a relatively small number of stable, low-entropy states (known as attractors; Grassberger & Procaccia, 1983). This is because the vast majority of states that these systems could theoretically inhabit do not provide effective entropy management and are therefore characterized by instability.

[…] entropy reflects the amount of uncertainty about a system: The greater the number of plausible microstates, the more uncertainty about which microstate currently defines the system [...] High psychological entropy occurs during situations in which there are multiple competing frames and behavioral options, none of which is clearly more strongly activated than the others.

[…] As a system’s disorder and uncertainty increase, its ability to perform useful work is hampered by reduced accuracy in specifying the current state, the desired state, and the appropriate response for transforming the former into the latter. 

[Jacob B. Hirsh, Raymond A. Mar, and Jordan B. Peterson
]
'Psychological Entropy: A Framework for Understanding Uncertainty-Related Anxiety'




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Simply stated, uncertainty and related disorder can be diminished by the direct artifice of creating a higher and broader more general concept to represent reality.

[John R. Boyd]
'Destruction and Creation', p. 6


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A scientific theory is not one which explains everything that can possibly happen: on the contrary, it rules out most of what could possibly happen, and is therefore itself ruled out if what it rules out happens. So a genuinely scientific theory places itself permanently at risk.

[...] Other theories which claimed to be scientific [...] such as those of Freud and Adler, did not, and could not be made to, put their lives at stake in this way. No conceivable observations could contradict them. They would explain whatever occurred (though differently).

And Popper saw that their ability to explain everything, which so convinced and excited their adherents, was precisely what was most wrong with them.

Popper often pointed out that the secret of the enormous psychological appeal of these various theories lay in their ability to explain everything. To know in advance that whatever happens you will be able to understand it gives you not only a sense of intellectual mastery but, even more important, an emotional sense of secure orientation in the world.

Near the centre of Popper's explanation of the appeal of totalitarianism is a socio-psychological concept which he calls 'the strain of civilization' [...] We often hear it asserted that most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.

Whether or not this applies to 'most people' there is, I am sure, a vital element of truth in it. Accepting responsibility for our lives involved continually facing difficult choices and decisions, and bearing the consequences of them when they are wrong, and this is burdensome, not to say alarming. And there is something in all of us, something infantile perhaps, which would like to escape it by having the load taken from our shoulders.

However, our strongest instinct being the instinct for survival, our strongest need is probably the need for security; so we are prepared to shift responsibility only to someone or something in whom we have greater confidence than in ourselves.

[...] Above all we want release from fear. And in the end most fears [...] are forms of fear of the unknown. So we are all the time pressing for assurances that the unknown is known really, and that what it contains is something we are going to want anyway. 

We embrace religions which assure us that we shall not die, and political philosophies which assure us that society will become perfect in the future, perhaps quite soon.

These needs were met by the unchanging certainties of pre-critical societies, with their authority, hierarchy, ritual, tabu and so on. But with the emergence of man from tribalism and the beginnings of the critical tradition, new and frightening demands began to be made: that the individual should question authority, question what he has always taken for granted, and assume responsibility for himself and for others. By contrast with the old certainties, this threatened society with disruption and the individual with disorientation.

As a result there was from the beginning a reaction against it, both in society at large and [...] within each individual. We purchase freedom at the cost of security, equality at the cost of our self-esteem, and critical self-awareness at the cost of our peace of mind. The price is steep: none of us pays it happily, and many do not want to pay it at all.

So from the beginning of critical thought [...] the developing tradition of civilization has had running parallel to it (or [...] within it) a tradition of reaction against the strain of civilization, which produced accompanying philosophies of return to the womblike security of a precritical or tribal society, or of advance to a Utopia. Because such reactionary and Utopian ideals meet similar needs they have deep and essential affinities [...]

If you think society is going from bad to worse you will want to arrest the processes of change; if you regard yourself as establishing the perfect society of the future you will want to perpetuate that society when you get it, and this likewise will mean arresting the processes of change; so both the reactionary and the Utopian are aiming for an arrested society.

And since change could only conceivably be prevented by the most rigid social control - by stopping people from doing anything on their own initiative which might have serious social consequences - both are led into totalitarianism.

[Bryan Magee]
Popper, p. 43-5, 87-90


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Certainty is also related to narrowness, as though the more certain we become of something the less we see. 

To put this in context of the neurophysiology of vision: the fovea of the human eye, a tiny region in the retina at the centre of the gaze, is the most pronounced of all the primates. Here resolution is about 100 times that at the periphery.

But it is only about 1 degree across. The part of the visual field that is actually brought into resolution is no more than about 3 degrees across. This is where the narrow focussed beam of left-hemisphere attention is concentrated: what is clearly seen.

[Iain McGilchrist]
The Master and his Emissary, p. 83


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Negative Space

One cost of the retributive conversation is that it breeds entitlement.

Entitlement is essentially the conversation, "What's in it for me?" It expresses a scarcity mentality, and the economist tells us that only what is scarce has value.

Entitlement is the outcome of a patriarchal culture [...] if we create a context of fear, fault, and retribution, then we will focus on protecting ourselves, which plants the seed of entitlement.

The cost of entitlement is that it is an escape from accountability and soft on commitment. It gets in the way of authentic citizenship.

The weakness in the dominant view of accountability is that it thinks people can be held accountable. That we can force people to be accountable. Despite the fact that it sells easily, it is an illusion to believe that retribution, incentives, legislation, new standards, and tough consequences will cause accountability.

This illusion is what creates entitlement - and worse, it drives us apart; it does not bring us together. It turns neighbour against neighbour. It denies that we are our brother's keeper. Every colonial and autocratic regime rises to power by turning citizens against each other.

Accountability is the willingness to care for the well-being of the whole; commitment is the willingness to make a promise with no expectation of return.

[Peter Block]
Community, p.70-71

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Childish Rebellion

Rebellion [...] lives in reaction to the world.

The community form of rebellion is protest. It is noble in tradition but still often keeps us in perpetual reaction to the stances of others. 

There is safety in building an identity on what we do not want.

The extremists on both sides of any issue are more wedded to their positions than to creating a new possibility. That is why they make unfulfillable demands. The AM radio band is populated with this non-conversation. Any time we act in reaction, even to evil, we are giving power to what we are in reaction to.

The real problem with rebellion is that it is such fun.

It avoids taking responsibility, operates on the high ground, is fueled by righteousness, gives legitimacy to blame, and is a delightful escape from the unbearable burden of being accountable.

Blame, denial, rebellion, and resignation have no power to create.

[Peter Block]
Community, p.134-5

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The task is to rearrange the room to meet our intention to build relatedness, accountability, and commitment. This puts the convener in the role of interior designer.

I spend my life being neurotically fussy about what room to meet in, and how to rearrange it once I get there.

This is embarrassing, awkward, gets weird looks, and receives irrational refusals, and sometimes you just get tired lugging chairs around the room.

But this is work that has to be done in a world not designed for human interaction.

[Peter Block]
Community, p.153

Ownership

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The ownership conversation asks citizens to act as if they were creating what exists in the world. Confession is the religious and judicial version of ownership.

A subtle denial of ownership is innocence and indifference. The future is always denied with the response, "It doesn't matter to me - whatever you want to do is fine." This is always a lie and just a polite way of avoiding a difficult conversation around ownership.

Ownership is the decision to become the author of our own experience [...] It is the stance that each of us is creating the world, even the one we have inherited.

[...] each time people enter a room, they walk in with ambivalence, wondering whether this is the right place to be. This is because their default mindset is that someone else owns the room, the meeting, and the purpose that convened the meeting.

Every conventional gathering begins with the unspoken belief that whoever called the meeting has something in mind for us. We are inundated with the world trying to sell us something, so much so that we cannot imagine that this time will be different.

The leader/convener has to change this, in a sense to renegotiate the social contract. We want to shift to the belief that this world, including this gathering, is ours to construct together.  

The intent is to move the social contract from parenting to partnership.

Renegotiating the social contract with this room is a metaphoric example of how our social contract with the community can also be renegotiated.

If I do not see my part in causing the past and the present, then there is no possible way I can participate usefully in being a coauthor of the future.

[Peter Block]
Community, p.123, 127-9


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"The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior."

In words so applicable to the rest of our politically-structured lives, he declared: "The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles." Monderman expressed the matter more succinctly in saying: "When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots."

Formal rules divide us from one another; the more rules that are imposed upon our conduct, the greater the distances among us. Of course, this is the logic upon which the state always acts: to insinuate itself into our relationships with others, substituting its coercively-enforced edicts for our interpersonal bargaining. We become conditioned to look upon strangers as threats, and to regard political intervention as our only means of looking after our own interests.

What if the idea of living without coercively imposed rules was to spread from the streets into all phases of our lives? What if we abandoned our habits of looking to others to civilize us and bring us to order, and understood that obedience to others makes us irresponsible?

As government people-pushers continue their efforts to micro-manage the details of our lives – what foods and drugs we may ingest; how we are to raise and educate our children; the kinds of cars we may drive and light bulbs we may use; the health-care we are to receive; our optimal weight levels; how we are to provide for our retirement; ad nauseam – might we summon the courage to end our neurotic fixations on "security?"

[Butler Shaffer]
'Anarchy in the Streets', online article here.


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Montaigne disagreed with learning strictly through books. He believed it was necessary to educate children in a variety of ways.

He also disagreed with the way information was being presented to students. It was being presented in a way that encouraged students to take the information that was taught to them as absolute truth. Students were denied the chance to question the information. Therefore, students could not truly learn.

Montaigne believed that to truly learn, a student had to take the information and make it their own. 

'Michel de Montaigne'


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Individualistic (E7)

The individualistic ego shows a broad-minded tolerance of and respect for the autonomy of both self and others.

Subjective experience is opposed to objective reality, inner reality to outward appearance; and 'vivid and personal versions of ideas presented as cliches at lower levels' may emerge.

'Loevinger's stages of ego development'


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My Advice? No Advice!

Trying to be helpful and giving advice are really ways to control others.

Advice is a conversation stopper.In community building, we want to substitute curiosity for advice.

No call to action. No asking what they are going to do about it. Do not tell people how you handled the same concern in the past. Do not ask questions that have advice hidden in them, such as "Have you ever thought of talking to the person directly?"

The request for advice is how we surrender our sovereignty.

If we give in to this request, we have, in this small instance, affirmed their servitude, their belief that they do not have the capacity to create the world from their own resources; and more important, we have supported their escape from their own freedom.

The goal is to replace advice with curiosity. The future hinges on this issue. Advice, recommendations, and obvious actions are exactly what increase the likelihood that tomorrow will be just like yesterday.

[Peter Block]
Community, p.109

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Only through experience do we become aware of the inflexibility of other people's characters, and till then we childishly believe that we could succeed by representations of reason, by entreaties and prayers, by example and noble-mindedness, in making a man abandon his own way, change his mode of conduct, depart from his way of thinking, or even increase his abilities; it is the same, too, with ourselves.

[Arthur Schopenhauer]
The World as Will and Representation, p.304

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Field of Vision

Since the Psychopathology of Everyday Life things have changed. This book isolated and made analyzable things which had heretofore floated along unnoticed in the broad stream of perception.

For the entire spectrum of optical, and now also acoustical, perception the film has brought about a similar deepening of apperception.

By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action.

Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended.

The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. So, too, slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones “which, far from looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions.”

Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man [...] The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.

[Walter Benjamin]
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, section XIII

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