It’s reported Lord Acton despaired over the prospect of ever finding French, German and British historians who agreed on an account of the Battle of Waterloo. So too have others.
In The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal famously recounts the misadventures of Fabrizio, who makes his way to Waterloo on the eve of the battle. Everything turns chaotic, with confusion supreme. “A few minutes later Fabrizio saw, twenty paces ahead of him a ploughed field, the surface of which was moving in a singular fashion. . . .[O]ur hero realized it was shot from guns that was making the earth fly up all around him. . . . ‘But is this the real battle’,” he asks a sergeant”.
Friedrich von Hayek, Nobel economist, picks up the story and asks, “Was the man plowing his field just beyond the extreme wing of Napoleon’s guards part of the Battle of Waterloo?. . .To follow up this kind of question will show at least one thing: that we cannot define a historical fact in terms of spatiotemporal coordinates”. Literary critic, Nicola Chiaromonte, revisits that narrative: “Certainly the Battle of Waterloo that Napoleon saw and directed (or thought he directed) is not the event Fabrizio wanders into. Nor is the explosion of incidents in which Fabrizio finds himself the same event as the mortal engagement of the soldiers who jeer at him. . .The Battle of Waterloo was all of these, separately and together, plus countless other happenings.” By no means last, a more recent Fabrizio, Tod Hackett, runs to watch the chaotic, confused and eventually disastrous filming of the Battle of Waterloo in Nathanael West’s Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust.
This power in “the Battle of Waterloo” is very much the power that political scientist, James G. March, long ago described as “different parts of the system contribut[ing] to different decisions in different ways at different times”. Of course, it can be countered that war and capitalism are their own powerful engines of contingency, but so too it can be said of evolution and that irreducible particularity of being.
Contingency is the chief feature of battle and the chief feature of contingency is surprise—not again that power defined as the ability of A to get B to do something B would not have done.
To appreciate this better, puzzle over the power that contingency plays in A getting A to do what A would not have done otherwise. Here is the poet and critic, T.S. Eliot:
“My writings, in prose and verse, may or may not have surprised other people; but I know that they always, on first sight, surprise myself. I have often found that my most interesting or original ideas, when put into words and marshalled in final order, were ideas which I had not been aware of holding. It is ordinarily supposed that a writer knows exactly what he wants to say, before he sits down at his desk; and that his subsequent labours are merely a matter of a better choice of words, a neater turn of phrase, and a more orderly arrangement. Yet I have always discovered that anything I have written—anything at least which pleased me—was a different thing from the composition which I had thought I was going to write.”
Stay with the range of evidence that those “most interesting or original ideas”—those most powerful ideas—are the ones you don’t know until you set them down before you:
- “A writer doesn’t know what his intentions are until he’s done writing,” says poet, Robert Penn Warren. Even when the writing is done, poets “are apt to discover that what they decide to express is not everything their poems say,” writes Anne Stevenson, herself a poet, adding: “Nothing in my experience is more important about the writing of poems than that they should surprise you; that while you are submitting to their rigorous demands of rhythms and sounds they find a way of saying things you never meant to say or never knew you knew.” “I never consider a poem done until a friend has seen it and put that extra glare of light on it,” said poet, C.K. Williams. “It’s a very strange thing—as soon as you give the poem to someone else, even before they read it, it shifts a little, it becomes slightly something else from what you had thought it was, and you begin to look at it in a slightly different way.”
- “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” asks a character of novelist, E.M. Forster. “Therefore, till my work is finished, I never know exactly what result I shall reach, or if I shall arrive at any,” wrote Alex de Tocqueville to John Stuart Mill. “I do not know what I think until I have tried to write it,” said political scientist Aaron Wildavsky. “I’m not sure I ever actually think without a pencil in my hand. Certainly I never wind up where I thought I would,” confesses Stacy Schiff, biographer.
- “You never know what you’re filming until later,” remarks a narrator in Chris Marker’s 1977 film Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge. “You start a painting and it becomes something altogether different. It’s strange how little the artist’s will matters,” adds Picasso (and any number of other artists). In like fashion, “one important reason for making drawings, I imagine, is not to draw a likeness of what one sees, but to find out what it is you see,” adds poet and art critic, James Schuyler. Goethe noted “my tendency to look at the world through the eyes of the painter whose pictures I have seen last”.
- Harrison Birtwistle describes his process of composing a piece of music: “I know what it is before I’ve even written it, but in other ways I don’t know at all. As I unravel it, it never turns out to be what you think it’s going to be”. J.M. Coetzee, Nobel novelist, manages to make all this sound commonplace: “Truth is something that comes in the process of writing, or comes from the process of writing”.
- More, there are other ways to “write as thinking.” Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss would record different points on separate note cards and then deal “them out randomly in the hope of finding unexpected correlations”. “As Beatrice Webb [UK reformer] rightly said, the very process of shuffling notes can be intellectually fertile. It helps one to make new connections and it raises questions to which one must try to find an answer,” writes historian Keith Thomas. Those who, as sociologist C. Wright Mills commended, sort out their files can have just this sense of making hitherto-unseen associations and connections.
Managing this mess called thinking in these ways becomes the way the pell-mell of distractions and their insights control you. Nor does any of this stop us from ghostwriting our earlier thinking later on. (Should it need saying, this notion that one’s sense of randomness is created by thinking at the limits of cognition contrasts with the commonplace that pre-existing random variation, a.k.a. indeterminism, limits how and what we think.)
If your point of departure in thinking about power is that ability of A to influence B to behave otherwise, then the person I am after having learned what I really know or think has enormous power over the person I was before being distracted and surprised by that discovery.
Conversely, there is an enormous powerlessness in not being able to think or know when few if any words or images exist for the purpose—“the language in which I might be able not only to write but to think is neither Latin nor English, neither Italian nor Spanish, but a language none of whose words is known to me,” despairs von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos. What is rendered too simple or too complex leaves us, literally, in and at a loss for words.
For me, it’s not good enough to say power is primarily about that A making that B do something instead. Nor is it good enough to say power is primarily about controlling the decision agenda or determining peoples’ interests without them knowing it. At least when it comes to the policy and management issues with which I am familiar, power isn’t concentrated or dispersed by interests, full stop. The power I am talking about lies in surprise and, since surprise is that chief feature of complexity, surprise and its power should be thought of as complex from the get-go. Again: Complex is about as simple as it gets.
Better to say the power I am talking about is the power of surprising connections.
It is thinking through the reverberations that, in my mind, connect Adorno starting an opera on Tom Sawyer, Picasso painting Buffalo Bill Cody, Sartre preparing a screenplay on Freud, Benjamin Britten facing the prospect of becoming a bandmaster (or Samuel Beckett considering being a commercial airplane pilot), Coleridge and fellow poet Robert Southey planning an egalitarian community on shores of the Susquehanna, Goethe’s plan to clean up the streets of Venice, Kafka drafting rules for a socialist workers’ cooperative, and Abraham Lincoln and Hedy Lamarr securing their respective patents. More than “w” as in war links Walt Whitman the medical orderly, Max Weber the hospital orderly, and Ludwig Wittgenstein the dispensary porter.
The objective correlative of contingency is power. Where so, the great threat to addressing power is to think there is an outside to contingency and to assume that asking a question requires first knowing what qualifies as an answer. Some of the most potent answers start out, provisionally, as distractions from the original question. When you think about it, these distractions are a bit like asking, “What is more important, power or contingency?”, and being told, “But that’s like asking which chopstick is the fork…”
To summarize: Contingency is a way of making room for knowing more; uncertain knowledge is the certain at important times; and we get to knowing more (even knowing more about not-knowing) by being distracted in positive ways, and powerfully so.