They call it “apophenia”: Mar-a-Lago and me

–Apophenia is finding connections and patterns that do not exist, as in conspiracy theories. At this point, apophenia is important to me for several reasons.

First, I spent this past Friday absorbed with countering alt-right conspiracy theories in the comment sections of the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. The articles concerned were about efforts to bring a former president to account and I was scrolling continuously across multiple links to see “likes” and responses to my own comments.

More was going on, it turns out. When talking to a friend a few days after I realized total absorption was my way of coping with learning the day before (Thursday) that a new treatment was needed for my wife’s metastatic cancer. A connection that wasn’t there, at least for me on Friday, is there for me now.

–Yet, even more has been going in this blog with respect to apophenia. Previous entries have made a virtue and practice of connecting points that are not conventionally connected in order to see policy and management issues anew or in less familiar light.

So, then: What’s the difference between their apophenia and mine?

–Clearly, they have a claim to the use-value of their revealed connections as much as I do for mine. I could insist that, whereas they actually believe their connections exist, I crudely put am shooting the bull to see what sticks. But that won’t do, because the connections I make also exist, really, for me.

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 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–all are connected in the sense they and this sequence resonate for me. Even though the concatenated clauses have not appeared before or been considered as such. (Resonance, in case it needs saying, is not the only kind of interconnectivity.)

–It’s closer to the truth to say the apophenia I’m criticizing is offered up in the form of one-right answers. For these alt-right commentators, there is a direct connection between, say, the “could-have-been murder” suicide of Vince Foster and the FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago, and we need look no further than to the Democrats.

Even if they can’t prove the link, “it could have been and you can’t prove otherwise” renders what they are saying self-evident to them. On top of it, comment threads are a genre where one’s values must shine brightly through all the mess.

The policy world I’m familiar with is more complex and uncertain, and so too the interconnections through arbitrary juxtapositions. But that is too easy to say as well. It sounds much like the conversation-stopper, “It’s complex.” “Yes, but” is the more appropriate response.

–Yes, it’s more complex than the one-answer-only comment threads (right, left or whatever).

But this begs several important questions, one being: What are really-existing political and economic arrangements for taking social complexity and human fallibility seriously, and what do we learn from their politics for managing under conditions of the Anthropocene? Worse yet, how much harm is being done by one-answer-only approaches that end up being the price few of the rest of us ever thought we’d have to pay?

Those are far more difficult question to answer. Yet, as we’re all necessarily amateurs when it comes to this challenge, so too are we then apprentices learning at different rates.

What is evident, however, is no apprenticeship needed in one-answer-only comment-threads! Their poverty isn’t that the comments are exaggerations or wrong. It’s that they’re no-go areas for new ideas to soften up or recast what they, self-defeating, render polarized or intractable. They both impoverish and are impoverished at the same time. One is reminded of the expression, “so poor that a bird wouldn’t shit on it.”

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