Fogged Visions

The idea of vagueness is something that is particularly challenging for some.  Some people have trouble thinking beyond absolutes; that the world is ruled and maintained by clearly defined categories:  black/white, good/bad, strong/weak, masculine/feminine.  At times, we all feel threatened by vagueness or the need to cast solidity upon something that doesn’t quite fit for our individual or cultural comfort.  Whether it's someone who doesn't easily fit into a category (such as has been seen in the history of gender and sexuality), a foreign country we can't seem to fully understand as friend or foe (look at the debates around "France", particular with regards to Iraq), or anywhere we can’t seem to get a clear fix on the information we’re receiving, lack of category, that is, the “fuzzy” or the “gray” is discomforting.   

Therefore, I’m intrigued by this interview from New Scientist with Kees van Deemter, author of a new book (that I have yet to read but will definitely make it onto my “To Read Shelf”), Not Exactly: In praise of vagueness.  The idea that vagueness is much more relevant to our world than we often like to give credit to, makes sense.  Science often seems to be (or rather the depiction of science—not quite the same thing) the clarifier of all things and for sure, it does give us great information. 

However, science can also “grey” up a lot of categories.  Sex used to be seen as clear absolutes of “male” and “female.”  But the work of Anne Fausto-Sterling and others have challenged these two categories as absolute.  That is, we tend to define  male or female as composed of a range of “clear facts” but many of them are held in question when closely examined or more important, we find the categories are more like a scale of differences from sex to the other.  For instance, both males and females produce estrogen, despite it previously being the indicator of the female sex.  So how much (or how little) must be produced for someone to be taken into account as one sex or another?  The fairly regular appearance of intersex children (not the vagueness of that quantification) also indicates the parameters of absolute male and female are not so clear. 

So why is vagueness interesting or relevant?  Well, there is our overwhelming quest to vanquish it, which seems like Quixote and his windmills.  But I think there’s something more pressing about it.   Vagueness also speaks to the complexity of the world.  In the interview, the discussions around what a “species” is or how we understand issues of obesity and poverty, speak to this issue of complexity and nuance, that many of us have trouble wrapping our heads around. 

What does vagueness mean for learning?

I’ve talked about this in my courses too.  When there is a clear sense of understanding, it’s easier to place ourselves in that context.  A good example is the Holocaust.  Inevitably, when we think about the Holocaust and its perpetrators, the word “Nazi” is clearly shouted at us.  They fall into a category of “barely human” or “evil,” but most importantly, “not us” or “not normal.”    Unarguably, yes, they are center stage in the Holocaust, but that’s a simplified look.  That’s not the entire picture.  Several books, including Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R. Browning tell us that regular people; “ordinary Germans”—people like us, committed heinous acts in conjunction with the Holocaust.  This throws our sense of humans or the category of “us” into a questionable light.  If normal people did it, then does that mean I can too?  The gut reaction is “no” but the evidence says otherwise.  The combination is vague, uncertain, and unclear. 

Of course, vagueness can draw us in too.  After all, in forms of entertainment, we don’t have a clear view of what’s going to happen in a story; it’s purposely vague, only filling you in with snippets along the way as rewards for continuing along.  Even when the endgame is given away, we still can’t fully connect the first introduction what we know will happen. 

So how else is vagueness relevant to the different disciplines and our ways of life?  Where else does vagueness show up that we either embrace or revoke?  For instance, we certain don’t want vagueness when it comes to our bank account, but we’re ok if we’re vague about exactly how much we make a year (often, surveys/forms/etc ask for a range and we’re often reluctant to say (or actually can specifically say) exactly how much we make.  Where else do we see similar phenomenon? 

In the study of history, there is a desire for specificity but is there also an interest in depicting “vague” pieces of history?  Why is that?   What are the benefits?  Beyond sources, what also regulates how much vagueness is tolerated within constructing/reconstructing history?

How has vagueness used or invoked to imbue certain people and groups with negative (or positive) attributes?  How does vagueness work with these examples? 




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Comments

  1. Vagueness, vagueness, the gray place where we all go one time or another. To be vague ok how’s this; Diner tonight was rather interesting Honey, was it a new recipe? Now that was vague right, but what he meant to say was; Wow honey I’m sorry but that sucked. Was that one of your mother’s recipes? After all we really don’t want to be rude do we?
    So vagueness must be a way not to show people how ignorant we truly are! Hey Mr. Roosevelt did you hear the VAGUE report that the Germans were killing Jew’s by the thousands in Poland. Hey George W. Bush did you read that VAUGE report of Muslims/Arabs are taking flying lessons, But only take off and flight no landings! How’s that for vagueness?
    Then you used Don Quixote and his Dragon/ windmill. I don’t see the vagueness in what he did. He thought that the windmill was a Dragon and he attacked it. Yes he was a little crazy, but he was far from being vague in his actions or deeds. We as people who are said to be the brightest people who have ever walked this Earth sure are vague on a lot of very imported things.
    We are vague about H.I.V., and Homelessness, and welfare, and let’s not forget Education and the elderly, oh yes we are real fucking vague about all of those things. Vagueness is just a crock of bullshit that we all use when we have known idea of what else to say of we know that we are paid way too much money and can’t answer shit…

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