“I think all good painting looks as though the painting has escaped from the thicket of prepared positions and has entered some sort of freedom where it exists on its own…” Frank Auerbach, painter
–Policy incompleteness continues as permanent fact on the ground. In his December 1986 testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State George Shultz criticized one of his ambassadors for having reported to the National Security Council (NSC) without his knowledge or authorization:
Ambassadors—there is supposed to be, I say supposed to be—a chain of command that goes from the President, to me—not to the N.S.C., to me—and through the Assistant Secretary, by and large, to the ambassador. That’s the chain of command. . . .I think we should recognize, however, what life is like in Washington. . . .Nothing ever gets settled in this town. . .It’s—it ‘s a seething debating society in which the debate never stops, in which people never give up, including me. And so that’s the atmosphere in which you administer.
One clear way to interpret Shultz’s remarks is to cast them in terms of what appears to be the Secretary’s model of a closed, hierarchical bureaucracy clashing with the open-ended policy incompleteness of contemporary Washington. To do so, however, misses the performative nature of what the Secretary was doing by making his comments where and when he did. By airing such problems publicly in Congress, Shultz was reasserting authority over his ambassadors. Giving Congressional testimony, venting his pique with an ambassador, all broadcast live and reported many times thereafter, are ways an American cabinet secretary tries to exercise control in today’s environment where nothing is settled and everything important remains unfinished.
But policy incompleteness is just one of many versions.
–Jean Cocteau, French litterateur, records the following interchange involving composer, Darius Milhaud:
“[Milhaud] shows his old housekeeper a very faithful painting of the great square at Aix.
You see, it’s the square at Aix.
Answer: ‘I don’t know.’
What? You don’t recognize the square at Aix?
‘No sir, because I’ve never seen it painted before.’”
The rub isn’t how well the painting depicts that which it is a painting of, but rather we recognizing what it means to be a remove away from literal representation.
The painting itself—better yet, any mental model we have—is that which we can compare only against other representations (mental models). Moving toward uncertainty and risk (from the directions of certainty or unstudied conditions) means not only that we have a more complete appreciation of reality as contingent, provisional and messy; we end up also seeing how the permanent incompletion of representation drives the very production of more representation. . Of the original Venus De Milo statue, Cocteau asked, “Suppose a farmer finds the arms. To whom do they belong? To the farmer or to the Venus de Milo?” Or to something altogether different?
–The sense of incompleteness may be among our earliest experiences. George Steiner writes of a childhood epiphany:
The notion which, in some visceral impact, tided over me and held me mesmerized was this: if there are in this obscure province of one small county (diminished Austria) so many coats of arms, each unique, how many must there be in Europe, across the globe? I do not recall what grasp I had, if any, of large numbers. But I do remember that the word ‘millions’ came to me and left me unnerved. How was any human being to see, to master this plurality? Suddenly, it came to me, in some sort of exultant but also appalled revelation, that no inventory, no heraldic encyclopedia, no summa of fabled beasts, inscriptions, chivalric hallmarks, however compendious, could ever be complete.
–All of this incompleteness has at least one upside. The criticism against specialization is that each specialism—and there are so many—encourages an infinity of specialized questions and topics taking us further and further away from ever gaining a total view. (Yet when infinity meets infinity, you’d think there’d be some overlap.)
The more specializations, however, the easier it should be to recognize we share the limits of knowledge, right? Now the upside: The more we differentiate needs, risks and issues, the more likely we can recast (re-present) the complex into multiple ways that matter, right?
To put the matter more familiarly, a reason why we have not all tipped into seeing the world one way only is that, while the world is real, it is more complexly real than humans can cognitively realize (such is the argument of philosopher of science, Roy Bhaskar).
No single or new representation could ever even pretend to complete the reality that other recastings are both irresistibly forthcoming and inescapably required. (Yes, the photograph recasts the way racing horses were portrayed compared to earlier paintings of them; no, the photograph is not the only way to portray horses running race.)
–Is the sense of incompleteness the felt part of an irreducible particularity of being, that sense we never body forth as representative or total?
“The [French] Constitution of 1795, like its predecessors, was made for man. But there is no such thing as man in the world. In my lifetime I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; thanks to Montesquieu, I even know that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare that I have never in my life met him; if he exists he is unknown to me,” declared conservative critic, Joseph de Maistre.
Or consider the more recent lines of poet, Fernando Pessoa,
They spoke to me of people, and of humanity.
But I’ve never seen people, or humanity.
I’ve seen various people, astonishingly dissimilar,
Each separated from the next by an unpeopled space
Lessing’s Nathan says “I have never asked that all trees have one bark.”
–Henry Hardy, who labored long over editing the work of Isaiah Berlin, recounts:
Russian translation rights in an Oxford dictionary had been sold to a Soviet publisher on the usual condition that the translation should be a faithful rendering of the original. However, when the Russian book arrived, it was found that a change had been made in the entry for the verb, ‘make’. One of the examples of usage in the English text was ‘God made man’; but in the Russian edition this appeared as “Man made God’.
And the incompletion continues. . .