Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Indeterminacy, The World Cup and Narrative

Last night I went to see a documentary, Killing in the Name, directed by a friend of mine, Jed. Besides being a compelling and thoughtful film, it forced me in a new direction about something else I had been thinking about for a few weeks. The film is about a man, Ashraf, whose wedding is targeted for a devastating suicide bombing in Amman, Jordan. The film follows his dedication to making sure the stories of the victims are heard, and that people speak up in response to this tragedy. There is one scene, however, where the filmmakers interview a recruiter of suicide-bombers about why he does what he does and how he does it. Besides being chilling, he describes how it takes about a month to get the potential bomber to convert to his side. But the part that was unstated, but obvious, is the certainty that the recruiter has. There is no sense of doubt. The suicide-bomber recruiter doesn't seem to have a story to tell as much as set of propositions to expound. Ashraf's goal in life is to engage fellow Muslims in an examination of the Koran, and to force them to confront the parts of the Koran that are counter to the position of jihad as they interpret it. The film, in fact, tries to make the story of this bombing more complete by creating a penetrating narrative.

One of the great problems with narrative, as my friend Gina pointed out in a letter to the New York Times after the failure of referees to see Frank Lampard's goal for England in the World Cut, is indeterminacy. Narratives always contain uncertainty and indeterminacy to be part of the story for a variety of reasons. They always contain a degree of doubt that is part of the process of creating a narrative. Now England's exit from the World Cup was comic (we knew it was coming), and the bombings are heart-breakingly tragic, but they both hinged on the limitations of human perception. In the case of the suicide bombers it is a set of beliefs founded on a certainty that removes all doubt. In the case of the referees, it is founded on the problem of literally not being in a position to see. Jed's film made me even more afraid of all proponents of certainty, and even more convinced that living with indeterminacy is, as Gina puts it, a "primal" part of the human condition.

These days I am talking with lots of former students who are asking about college recommendations, and as I listen to them I hear a desire for certainty either for some universal truth about the process or the equivalent of some "goal line technology" (the college
process has already tried to incorporate its own
in Naviance scattergrams) that will settle the truth of the matter beyond all doubt. What I find myself contemplating is how to encourage people to live with indeterminacy.

One answer, I think, may be in the idea of doing what Jed is doing in his film and what Gina is advocating in her letter--learning how to create a story, a narrative. Creating an argument and telling a story require different forms of thinking, and what passes for a solid logical argument and what determines a good story require accessing different cognitive functions. Michael White and David Epston build on the ideas of Jerome Bruner in his 1986 work Actual Minds, Possible Worlds when they rightly posit that stories
are not concerned with the procedures and conventions for the generation of abstract and general theories but with particulars of experience. They do not establish universal truth conditions but a connectedness of events across time. The narrative mode leads not to certainties, but to varying perspectives.

Stories are not about certainties but about possibilities. But with that process comes indeterminacy and an embracing of the multiple perspectives. So, it matters what cognitive process we choose to explain ourselves. That is what Jed is trying to explore in his film, and it is why soccer is not football. Both Jed's film and the game of soccer are about the creation of a narrative. George Carlin realized this was not true about football in his famous stand up comedy routine. Soccer is about the creation of a narrative story line that is literary in its essence. This is why it resists employing statistics as a standard of measurement.
Religion, soccer, college admissions--they should all be about using narratives to create possibilities, not logical modes to create certainties. With that choice of cognitive functioning, however, comes doubt and indeterminacy. Paul Tillich understood this when he wrote,
this element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed, it must be accepted. And the element in faith which accepts this is courage. Faith includes an element of immediate awareness which gives certainty and an element of uncertainty. To accept this is courage.

How one keeps the faith is always about realizing that doubt is part of the equation, or, rather, the story.

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