A mix of work, life, and just the nature of the world has made writing more difficult for the past couple months. To try to get the ball rolling again, here’s a lightly edited version of a blog post I was working on a few months ago. I think there’s the seed of something here, at least.
Just before jumping in—the new icon and wordmark for Wander Lines were created by Calgary designer/illustrator Saje Damen, who just launched a line of slightly spooky stationery at voidpaperco.com.
“All generalizations are false”
I definitely first came across that phrase as a sort of joke, one of those self-contained paradoxes that used to entertain me endlessly as a kid exploring the strangeness of language and logic. But it’s been one of the thoughts I’ve been spending the most time with over the past couple years, today’s prompt being the third episode of Sharron Kraus’ Preternatural Investigations podcast. It’s a paradox, but it’s also true (sort of), and I think important in ways that I haven’t fully grasped yet.
A better formation of it would be “all generalizations are fictions,” although that makes the paradox a little less direct. Essentially, though, the idea is that all categories are useful fictions that humans (and likely other sentient creatures) have created to more efficiently navigate the world.
“Fish” is a go-to example (and “tree” can be added to the list) in that there is no way to create a non-arbitrary category that includes everything we commonly think of as fish and exclude everything that we don’t think of as fish. That’s not to say “fish” isn’t a useful term in daily life; it just isn’t an objectively definable category based on the currently-agreed-upon system for understanding how to group species. But then, even “species” is a blurry category, with debate as to its precise definition, so particular groupings of species are also bound to be troublesome.
I’m not just talking about gaps between common-usage terms and scientific categories, though. The point is, the world itself does not generalize. Each entity in the universe is only itself. We know what we mean when we’re talking about rocks, but “rock” isn’t a category that exists in the universe, there are only distinct collections of atoms that have properties similar enough to one another that it’s useful for us to lump them together as the conceptual group “rock.” There is no physical law to distinguish between rivers and streams and lakes and oceans, nor between planets and comets and stars. There are individual objects, and we find it easier to talk about them based on the similarities we see between some of them, and the differences we see compared to others.
This is probably a tedious, semantic point, and maybe it’s obvious to the point of being uninteresting. But I think there are at least two reasons that it is important. One is that it is a reminder of the uniqueness of everything. Generalizations are a way for us to avoid having to process each individual thing we perceive in its own particular fullness. If we had to consider every leaf, every blade of grass, every bird call or human voice as a completely discrete phenomenon, we would be paralyzed. But that doesn’t change the fact that all of them are, in fact, unique. Each of them is as intricate, as special, as beautiful as the first one you saw, or heard, before your mental mapping of them created a general form that your brain could process more easily.
J.F. Martel has written and spoken about how one of the roles of art is to force us to see the uniqueness of whatever is being depicted, and how moments of awe and beauty come from us seeing things as they actually are, as opposed to how we assume them to be. Talking about Van Gogh’s sunflowers, he talks about how a scientific drawing of a sunflower would try to remove everything specific about its subject so it could represent the general category, while an artist tries to remove everything general to create a portrait of that specific sunflower in that specific moment. The general can still be beautiful in its own way, but the specific is the only one that has the capacity to strike us as art.
Recognizing that categories are only useful shorthands can act as a reminder to look for that uniqueness, at least from time to time, and to focus on your present experience as the precious thing that it is, instead of something to be tolerated until some imagined future event happens where you’ll finally get to experience something truly special. In a way, the only thing between the mundane and the marvelous is a perceptual filter that strips away the specificity of the moment.
The second reason I think this is important is that it makes it easier to challenge your own assumptions. If you can internalize that “fish” is a fictional category and “Tuesday” is just a word to make it easier to communicate about future points in time and not a thing that exists in the physical universe, then you can also recognize that much broader conceptual terms (including the whole of politics and economics) are also just useful shorthands. They are attempts to describe complex recurring patterns of cause and effect, and are worth paying attention to for as long as they are actually useful, meaning as long as they have some sort of predictive or descriptive power, or create positive outcomes. And, importantly, they can be dropped when that’s no longer the case.
It’s a testament to the power of the human mind and its ability to recognize patterns and describe relationships that we are so inclined to think of those patterns and relationships as inherent to the universe. But it also leads us to cling to ideas well past their expiry date, and to fail to question the reason certain beliefs and practices arose in the first place. If we can manage to internalize the idea that all generalizations are fictional to at least some extent, and that all descriptions are generalizations (in that they have to translate something unique into language that can be understood in terms of its similarity to certain concepts and experiences), it makes it easier to try out new models of understanding, because the old ones become a little less precious.
Actually, one more reason it’s important, maybe: it’s a way of reminding myself how powerful the force of collective imagination can be. This is basically the inverse of the second reason, which is more about weakening the reality claim of things that can seem all too real. Instead, it’s recognizing the ability of shared imagination to alter the world in absolutely incredible ways. If we can wake up every morning and enact things as elaborate as capitalism and nation states (and it’s well commented on how those are products of collective action and collective belief), then it’s hard to imagine the limits of what realities we could manifest, what dreams and hyperstitions we could bring about.
It’d be an interesting challenge to think about what worlds we could have tomorrow, using existing technology and infrastructure, just by changing how we use the things we have. I don’t know that it would be enough to reach the goals of this year’s IPCC report, say, but… most utopias rely either on technological breakthroughs or a reversion to pre-industrial ways of living that completely abandon the comforts of civilization. I’d be very curious to try to imagine a third way, where the big changes that need to happen are more memetic than physical, where it’s our desires and aspirations that shift rather than using new technology to sustain the current dream. I have no idea what it would look like, but there’s at least a germ of an idea there.
The A.M. is my weekly show on campus and community radio station CJSW 90.9FM here in Calgary, and there’s a solid two months of A.M. episodes since the last mailout. A few highlights:
Ian Williams interview: I had the chance to speak to poet, novelist and essayist Ian Williams about his latest work, Disorientation: Being Black in the World:
September 13 was a spotlight on especially autumnal music, although that vibe has been creeping into more of the show anyway:
September 6 had a bit of a rambling tribute to ‘90s easy listening compilation Pure Moods, which I’ve realized deserves more credit than it gets for trying to pin down what’s proved to be a pretty influential blend of ambient, world, trip-hop and jazz sounds:
And for no other reason than that I like the music in it, August 23:
You can listen live or check archived episodes at cjsw.com. This month is also the CJSW Funding Drive, so if you’re one of the 300+ subscribers or a regular live listener, consider making a donation to keep the station on the air (and internet).
Monday Shorts is a weekly series I write and curate for the Quickdraw Animation Society, sharing independent animated shorts that deserve a wider audience. There are 150+ entries over on the QAS site, and even if you don’t feel like reading the write-ups, the shorts themselves are worth checking out. Here’s a couple highlights from the last two months (the links might break in the next week or two since Quickdraw is launching a new website, but they should be easy to find from quickdrawanimation.ca).
“Like Parry’s song, Wood’s video begins in open territory, using imagery of tattered flags and foreboding landscapes to quickly establish the film’s scale. A leafy creature roams the wasteland, a lone figure of life and warmth gathering its energy and releasing it in flame-like bursts, which eventually spread through the land, urging new growth from old roots.”
“Yearbook is a bittersweet film, but it’s a deeply affecting one, a reminder that life is more important than legacy, and how easy it is to get lost dwelling on the wrong things. That it can do all that while still being this briskly paced, this concise, and this funny is truly impressive.”
“Marco’s Oriental Noodles immediately differentiates itself from most science fiction by refusing to make a clean break from the past. It’s a twist on William Gibson’s oft-quoted statement that the future is already here, just unevenly distributed. If that’s true, it follows that it’ll still be unevenly distributed in the decades to come, but most sci-fi is still set in unrecognizable worlds fully transformed by the sweep of technology.”
No watch/read/listen recommendations this time, but to end things on an autumnal note, a thought that came to me while walking through a beautiful conservation area on the outskirts of Calgary:
The miracle isn't that fall is so stunning, it's that we're able to be awestruck by the world around us. There's no obvious reason for evolution to give us the capacity to experience the passing of the seasons and the processes of nature as beauty, to find awe in the landscapes and magic in the golden glint of a falling leaf. But we can, and it's a marvellous thing.
I love this - so many intriguing thoughts and a great write.