‘The test of a first-rate intelligence,’ F. Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’ While I’m not all that interested in what constitutes ‘intelligence,’ I do want to consider – and reason for – a mode of being, thinking, and inquiring that permits more than one of two sides or truths in an argument or situation to be taken seriously – even considered, if momentarily, to be true.
I don’t feel this is something we commonly value or defend. As open minded as we might consider ourselves to be, we tend to prize a position well-argued and arrived at. We esteem those who hold a stance that is strong, singular, and coherent. It symbolises a path of inquiry and learning ventured through, a destination subsequently reached. Linear, rational, sound, and in order. Even if we disagree with an interlocutor’s position, it is likely we have arrived at our own in a similar fashion. But I am advocating here for a form of questioning and contemplation that can seek and sit with more than one reality.
Not knowing as a way of being
I have been doing fieldwork in Northern Australia for the last nine months. This experience, more than any other, has bred in me a mode of being that derives little comfort or sense of personal or epistemological coherence from what I earlier conceived broadly as ‘knowing’ or ‘understanding.’ I mostly feel I am gleaning few ‘answers’ and am somewhat beset by an increasingly confused, and potentially futile, set of questions. I am learning slowly to live more comfortably in a swamp of un-knowing that I believe will only ever lead to incrementally more knowing. To me this has been a thoroughly embodied, profoundly rupturing experience of what it can mean to be and know.
Some months ago, I went for an early morning run with a mate at my fieldsite. After a short trot together, she left for work, and I decided – against all advice from my adopted Aboriginal family and many others – to put off my fieldnotes and continue a few more kilometres on the road alone. A short way up, I saw in the distance a lone figure seemingly dancing about on the road. I was all at once entranced, curious, astonished, and frightened. I turned and returned speedier than ever before!
Other kinds of beings
Later that morning, and in the beginning with some caution, I told my adopted mother and father what I’d seen. It turned into a cross-examination. I was to recount every detail I could of the morning – the exact time, my position on the road and its features, to mimic the figure’s movements; the photo I’d taken on my phone was studied, photographed again, zoomed in and out of, every pixel of shadow and light examined; we drove up to where I’d been. They told me it was, and as I’d feared, someone spirit-possessed who could trick, harm, or possess me, and potentially our family.
I believed them. What I had seen corresponded in nearly every way with the stories I’d heard and the warnings I’d received about the dangers of going anywhere alone. My concern was not so much with the truth of the explanation, but for my safety and that of my adopted family. Integrating their explanation into my understanding of events was in fact less difficult than the question of whether I ought to tell other balanda (non-Aboriginal or white people) of the dangers of the road we often run on. I appreciated that this explanation was also – for an outsider – quite fantastical or unfathomable, that they would unlikely take it seriously. That I’d come upon someone roused for no more than a sunrise boogie remains possible.
And yet the use of this vignette belies the everyday, almost mundane nature of my experience of multiple truths in my fieldsite. I often hear different, conflicting, though equally plausible explanations for events and questions. My very fledgling understanding of the workings of the place mean I am needing all the time to leave wide open possibilities for varied interpretations of what I’m witnessing and experiencing. Not since I was a child have I lived such an open, fluid, and contingent experience of knowledge.
Sophie Chao’s interview on The Familiar Strange podcast last year resonated with me. She described her Marind interlocutors in West Papua, who reported experiences of being eaten by oil palm. She says of her understanding of this phenomenon: ‘I should at least allow myself the possibility of believing that it may be true.’ I think this speaks to the obligation we have, not just as anthropologists, to ever leave ourselves open to further or alternative truths or realities, no matter our resolve or conviction about our own.
Bifocals are out…
All this has thrown into relief the much broader issue of how I (we) see and approach the world beyond my fieldsite. I have taken a break from fieldwork and encountered a barrage of news stories, the most harrowing and hard-hitting being those of victim/victim-survivors of sexual assault by men employed at Parliament House.
Opinions have been predictably divided on the veracity of these allegations. Many commentators and onlookers appear impelled in these cases, and in the movement that has ensued, to ‘pick a side.’ The two options being either that of the alleged perpetrators, or even parliament as an establishment and, oppositionally, that of the victims of the alleged assaults and groups fighting for women’s justice.
I have heard manifold accounts by those denying the experiences of these women, unable to grapple with the possibility that such violations could have taken place, and cushioned too by this most revered of institutions. To me, these wholesale denials are not only difficult to stomach, but one-dimensional. I do not refute the principle of presumption of innocence or that the alleged perpetrators are due procedural fairness. Yet an inability to absorb new or unwelcome truths can only shackle, make more fragile, an institution this work tries to protect. Are we forgetting that stories, too, formed these institutions? Admitting new ones is not betrayal; it will not lead to their sudden collapse. It is a blindness.
…Kaleidoscopes are in
Clichéd as it may be for a student of anthropology, I am urging here for stories. For a multitude of stories that weave in and out of and sometimes conflict with each other – and with reality as we have always known it. For an approach to stories where more than one can be potentially true: to be able to respect an institution and to recognise simultaneously it is profoundly damaged, and to be able to incorporate into our schema new, even ‘otherworldly,’ forms of influence on human life.
I argue for a method of thinking founded in openness and curiosity that permits, even requires, seemingly oppositional views to be held in suspense and with some caution believed, until a time comes when we (might) learn more. I think we need to get better at not knowing, at accepting that we can’t always pin down, grasp, and arm ourselves with singular truths. We might only ever be able to hold them in suspense.