Root causes

When it comes to simplifying, we mustn’t forget those who also go for “the root cause” in all these policy messes.

But which root cause? Hegelian estrangement, Marxian false consciousness, Weberian disenchantment, Freudian defense mechanisms, Sartrean bad faith, Orwellian doublethink, Gramscian hegemony, or Goebbels’s Big Lie? Or is the root cause, in that famous “last instance,” Kuhnian exemplars and paradigms or Foucauldian discipline or God’s plan or that sure bet, money—or have I stopped short of the Truly-Rooted Root Cause?

Explanations via root cause are exaggerations, each pretending to be an outsized clarity that isn’t there. (Geoffrey Hill, the poet, put the point neatly, “the very idea of a ‘transparent’ verbal medium is itself an inherited and inherent opacity.”)

Root causes wash out context, distinctions, and the differentiation. We seek to pinpoint the root cause of all our unsustainability in ways that render us oblivious to history: The rationale of irrigated agriculture was to sustain crop production throughout the year; the rationale of burning coal was that it generated a many-fold increase on the energy needed to dig it out.

The crux in all of this is where to locate really-existing contingency: It is one thing to say the present advances to the future it renders for itself; it is quite another thing to say the future advances to the contingencies the present affords. Contingency makes room for knowing more by distracting us. It’s like finding out the best hamburger in town is at the Vietnamese diner.

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