Bigsley the Oaf

Quick Notes on Controversy

Posted in Uncategorized by bigsleytheoaf on June 27, 2012

Please bear with me – I had a green tea and I’m hopped the hell up.

I don’t think I write particularly controversial posts. The stream of thoughts which lead to this conclusion is as follows:

Been reading Venkatesh Rao’s latest series of posts on Ribbon Farm (rec. by Toby) which are categorizations/catalogues of his writings from the past ->

Thinking about how he is exploring unusual realms of metaphor and thus cannot expect widespread and immediate readership/understanding, but is self-consciously examining the placement and positioning of his blog ->

What position do I want my own writing to have? What do I want my readership to be? What sorts of community interactions do I want to promote? ->

I don’t think anyone’s ever had any sort of argument in the comments section of any of my posts. I value this. One of the main things I’ve always valued about Foucault’s writing is its moral distance – even when he’s talking about what should or should not be there is a feeling that his beliefs are deeply personal.


This is a question, no? We’re all familiar with the following interaction:

“That band sucks!”

“No it doesn’t, you suck!”

“Yes it does, it sucks! Here’s why…”

There’s some weird stuff going on here around apparent objectification. Our language tends to de-personalize our views against our will. Person A was trying to assert their opinion but accidentally presented their belief in a way which Person B interpreted as a statement of “objective fact.”

The weirdest thing about this interaction is that both people actually knew that Person A was simply conveying an opinion. Despite their shared knowledge that Person A’s initial assertion is deeply non-controversial (compare: “Lollipops taste bad to me!”) they have created a controversy out of it.

Perhaps one reason that this interaction ends up holding controversial weight is that the domain of musical taste has become pseudo-objective via capitalistic/class pressures. Liking certain types of music becomes an indication of group membership. This doesn’t seem like a very good explanation to me, though, because there are plenty of examples of situations in which the disagreement does not fall along clear class boundaries.

I think that the real reason that controversy arises in this situation is that neither person has done the work to establish for themselves the context in which these sorts of beliefs are embedded. It’s a lack of maturity – but a very particular (and increasingly common) lack of maturity which is especially pernicious. Modern human has lost her metaphysics – she does not understand how her facts and beliefs are related either internally or externally. She is left to flounder in a perverse pseudo-objectivity where beliefs like “George Bush is evil” and “the leaves of that tree are green” and “life has no meaning” are each of the same rank. The real lack here is knowledge of the common-knowledge status of belief. Namely, if you don’t know how other people are likely to feel/think about what you’re saying then you’re unlikely to understand the rank/class of what you’re saying.


Hopefully you can see how these ideas on controversy are related to Venkatesh’s and my own introspection w/r/t the deep position and consumption patterns of our blogs.

I’m about to make a moral claim which is (perhaps, perversely) controversial, which is that it is very important for us to understand the positioning of our writing and more critical than ever before to come to grips with the horizon of interpretability of our statements. There is no longer any concept of speaking precisely because we cannot be sure to any extent that we will be interpreted precisely.

There are various techniques for decreasing the controversiality of your writing.

One is to personalize explicitly. This can be done syntactically – e.g. do not say “This is good” – say “I like this” (There are clearly some relationships here to Toby’s However, I find this sort of personalization somewhat vulgar at times – it is much better to instead try to cultivate a tone lacking in authority.[1] I desire to be read with the understanding that what I’m writing is sometimes notional, sometimes exploratory, sometimes ranty – I don’t want to pretend that my writing isn’t tinged by personal bias or emotion. Though I’m attempting to overcome the short-wavelength [2] influences on my writing I’m not sure it’s possible at all (polish the stone).

Another is to cultivate a community slowly and carefully. Part of the reason that controversy springs forth is unintelligibility/lack of shared semantic space. If you bring together people from vastly different intellectual cultures and they try to have an intellectual conversation it is unlikely that there will be very much intersection in their realms of interest/language. Sure they can always talk about the deep spiritual shared stuff (Calvin and Hobbes) of human experience, but I find that not many intellectuals are spiritually aware/present enough to engage in such discussions [3]. I’ve been pretty lucky that most people who read my blog are thoughtful/introspective/non-confrontational in general – but this hasn’t exactly been an accident. It’s not like I’m posting links to my articles on reddit or anything.

I had more to say, but was interrupted, so this is where the post ends.


[1] Writing this paragraph was particularly difficult because I had trouble not hyper-attending to the personalization/objectification of my own language and the presence/lack of my own projected authority.

[2] As in, hourly, daily.

[3] Aren’t I special. No, I think I have serious problems with this, too. My dad is my shining beacon of “how to speak to anyone” which I have been attempting to approach for many years. Let’s not forget our oldest knowledge, please.


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