On Radical Ambiguity (2020)

This is the second (and considerably edited) version of my 2007 essay of the same name. Time passes, I get old, so does my writing. The part about the ambiguous attitude towards covering (‘türban’) was completely outdated and ‘Duh!’ in 2020 (although my attitude is the same), so it was replaced by a both more universal and more contemporary discussion on death penalty. Also the ending, which was not only ‘ambiguous’ but also a bit confused and evasive, is a little more (I hope) to the point this time. The rest is almost the same, although here and there there are some stylistic interventions. I owe a great deal (for all the updates) to Ezgi (Keskinsoy), who cannot help herself to comment on the content whenever she has the chance. Thank you Ezgi!

Between the deliberate falsehood and the disinterested inaccuracy it is very hard to distinguish sometimes… To deceive deliberately – that is one thing. But to be so sure of your facts, of your ideas and their essential truth that the details do not matter – that, my friend is a special characteristic of particularly honest persons… She looks down and sees Jane Wilkinson in the hall. No doubt enters her head that it is Jane Wilkinson. She knows it is. She says she saw her face distinctly because – being so sure of her facts – exact details do not matter! It is pointed out to her that she could not have seen her face. Is that so? Well, what does it matter if she saw her face or not – it was Jane Wilkinson… She knows. And so she answers questions in the light of her knowledge, not by reason of remembered facts. The positive witness should always be treated with suspicion, my friend. The uncertain witness who doesn’t remember, isn’t sure, will think a minute – ah! yes, that’s how it was – is infinitely more to be depended upon!

Hercule Poirot in Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie, 1933.

The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa.

Werner Heisenberg, Uncertainty Paper, 1927.

In 1933, Hercule Poirot, the fictional sleuth of Agatha Christie who solves every puzzle using his ‘little grey cells’, demonstrates the futility of ‘positive knowledge’, how it goads its (supposed) possessor into ignoring the details, and since facts not yet framed in a semantic context always assume the character of details, into ignoring the facts, hence bending, distorting, recreating and misrepresenting them in order to conform to a pre-existing, a priori ‘knowledge’. Werner Heisenberg, however, precisely six years before Poirot, demonstrates the impossibility of such knowledge, basing his argument (as a proper scientist always should) not on the undesirable consequences of presumed positive knowledge, but rather on its premises: ‘But what is wrong in the sharp formulation of the law of causality, ‘When we know the present precisely, we can predict the future,’ is not the conclusion but the assumption. Even in principle we cannot know the present in all detail.’ (Heisenberg 1983) What Heisenberg suggests actually coincides with Poirot’s argument: The further we go into detail in our investigation of physical phenomena, the less precise we get. The problem arises when we do not acknowledge this fact and believe our knowledge (of larger, more general physical phenomena) to be absolute, applicable to everything in existence, from the movement of galaxies to the movement of photons and electrons. Therefore, the more we believe our presumed knowledge to be certain, the more likely we are to ignore the minute details (the momentum and/or the position of an electron, for instance) which do not conform to this knowledge. To be sure, the 1926 discussion between Heisenberg and Einstein makes a specification as to the nature of this ‘knowledge’: While Heisenberg tries to specify observable/knowable phenomena with regard to measurability, Einstein challenges him to suggest that observability is directly connected with conformity to a certain theory:

Heisenberg: ‘One cannot observe the electron orbits inside the atom. […]but since it is reasonable to consider only those quantities in a theory that can be measured, it seemed natural to me to introduce them only as entities, as representatives of electron orbits, so to speak.’
Einstein: ‘But you don’t seriously believe that only observable quantities should be considered in a physical theory?’
‘I thought this was the very idea that your Relativity Theory is based on?’ Heisenberg asked in surprise.
‘Perhaps I used this kind of reasoning,’ replied Einstein, ‘but it is nonsense nevertheless. […] In reality the opposite is true: only the theory decides what can be observed.’ (Heisenberg  1969)

Isn’t this exactly what Poirot was criticizing? To bend observable facts in order for them to conform to a pre-conceived knowledge, of a certainty? It seems to be so, unless we take into account a (seemingly) slight shift in terminology: While Poirot is talking about knowledge (even positive knowledge) Einstein is referring to theory, that is, theoria, that is, a gaze, an outlook, an Anschauung. Theory, in the most basic sense of the term, is the way you look at things, and therefore, it goes without saying that it ‘decides what can be observed.’

Knowledge, on the other hand, is something arrived at, and once you arrive there, there is no room for uncertainties: So if details (facts) tend to create unwanted uncertainties, it goes without saying that you should ignore or distort them. Theory is based on uncertainties; the gaze shifts, wanders, wonders, takes in new data, changes, mutates: it represents the uneasy equilibrium of a priori and a posteriori. Positive knowledge, on the other hand, once established, becomes fixed; it doesn’t look anymore, it tells facts what they ought to be: it represents the hegemony of a priori over a posteriori. In short, once the theoretical act coagulates into knowledge, which will become, in the blink of an eye, preconceived knowledge, and loses its self-reflexivity, it becomes a peril, rather than an asset, for further knowledge.

In this sense, positive knowledge, that is, knowledge unquestionably certain of itself, has the possibility of becoming the bedrock of what we today call Fundamentalism, once the gaze is fixed. But wait, Poirot’s uncertain witness will say, isn’t the same positive knowledge also the basis of the Enlightenment, what we know today as the diametrical opposite of Fundamentalism? Nonsense, the positive witness will answer, the same thing cannot be the basis of two diametrically opposite entities, can it now? The uncertain witness remains ambiguous and demands (or requests, depending on their predilection) a further examination of the concepts of ‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘Enlightenment’, with which I will try to comply.

Fundamentalist Knowledge

 Let us consider the poles of the Fundamentalism versus Enlightenment duality more closely: Fundamentalism is a term much used and abused these days, and it is usually coupled with Islam and terrorism (by conservative-liberals), and religious bigotry in general (by liberals in general). The former, narrower meaning is a specific tactical use by neo-conservatives in the rationalization of their global power-politics, so I will deal with it later. In the broader liberal terminology, Fundamentalism means everything that the Enlightenment was against. It is supposed to stand against critical thought and reason, since some fundamental truths are axiomatic for it. Fundamentalists (of Islamic, Christian and Judaist creed) start from presumptions that are not questionable, not open to critical inquiry or to change over time.

The main problem with fundamentalism seems to be that, fundamentalists always positively know that they are right. Once, for instance, you accept as a fact that the Koran is God’s Holy Word, there will be no mention of questioning the political, economic or cultural structure of the society in which you live (as long as it is established according to the principles outlined in the Holy Book), because everything is clearly stated there, from gender relations to inheritance laws, from public administration to the rules that should be followed while buying and selling camels. Conversely, if the society in which you live is not organized according to the book, then you have the right to use every means to transform it. The same thing applies in the other religious structures too: Once you accept the Bible as God’s Truth, you know that the universe was created in only six days, that women should be subservient to men, because, first, they were created as a second thought, just to keep company, and, second, they were the instruments of the original sin. Judaist Fundamentalism seems to be the most tightly organised of them all, since it also entails a racial prejudice along with the religious one, and does not make any allowances even for assimilation. Judaist fundamentalists simply know that the Jews are God’s chosen.

This positive knowledge which stands outside, even opposed to, reason, gives the fundamentalists the superior ethical position to patronize, silence, suppress, oppress and finally annihilate any and all opposing or even sceptical views and positions, since they positively know that the opposition is wrong. This ethical position is the basis for Jihad and the Crusades as extroverted or extrapunitive fundamentalist acts (‘Since we know we are right, everybody should be made to share this knowledge’); or for the self-imposed Jewish closing-in, which is introverted and intropunitive (‘We are right, but they will never know’). Since the basis of all knowledge is a set of unquestionable statements embedded (even hidden, as they are in the case of the Kabbalah) in some holy texts, there is the necessity for a privileged group of people who know and interpret these texts, and guide the rest along the lines drawn in them. This position of guidance is precisely what Kant, as the philosopher par excellence of the Enlightenment, criticized in his definitive essay, What is the Enlightenment. When the rest (or some of them) refuse to be guided, there is only one course of action open to fundamentalist guides: Coerce them, and when it fails, punish them. This is the reason why, although ‘Thou shalt not kill!’ is one of the primary commandments of all monotheistic religions, they never fail to enforce the capital punishment, most of the time arbitrarily.

The Auto-da-Fé constitutes some kind of a zenith among the ultimate acts of fundamentalism, and the curious thing about it was, in spite of the horrors committed, it was not born out of pure malice, but rather made a claim (albeit a false one) to compassion: The shepherd, Cardinal Tomás de Torquemada was leading the herd away from the ultimate danger of damnation by torturing their bodies in order to save their souls. In Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Ivan tells Alyosha of a story of Torquemada condemning Jesus to death again, this time in 15th century Seville. The old, wizened Grand Inquisitor comes to (still young) Jesus’ cell at night and reproaches him for what he’s done:

Was it not you who so often said then: “I want to make you free”?  But now you have seen these “free” men, […] Yes, this work has cost us dearly, […] but we have finally finished this work in your name. For fifteen hundred years we have been at pains over this freedom, but now it is finished, and well finished. You do not believe that it is well finished? […] Know, then, that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and laid it at our feet. It is our doing, but is it what you wanted? This sort of freedom? […] For only now […] has it become possible to think for the first time about human happiness. Man was made a rebel; can rebels be happy? [… Y]ou rejected the only way of arranging for human happiness, but fortunately, on your departure, you handed the work over to us. You promised, you established with your word, you gave us the right to bind and loose, and surely you cannot even think of taking this right away from us now. Why, then, have you come to interfere with us? (Dostoevsky 1992, 212-213)

Jesus (if he ever existed) was not a Fundamentalist as a person; he was ambiguous to the last moment on the cross, always questioning. That was the gist of his teaching to people: ‘I will make you free.’ Free to doubt, free to be ambivalent, never to be self-assured even when you are going to die for what you (probably) believe to be true. Torquemada, on the other hand, knew that this freedom was too much for the people, his herd. The burden of doubt, of ambiguity, of choice must be taken from the people in order to make them happy. Torquemada is the true Fundamentalist in this equation, just like Moses was. When Moses and his God tried to coerce the Pharaoh to ‘let Israelites go’, most of what they did would have seemed terrorist acts by today’s standards:

[…] And the LORD spake unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and stretch out thine hand upon the waters of Egypt, upon their streams, upon their rivers, and upon their ponds, and upon all their pools of water, that they may become blood; and that there may be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood, and in vessels of stone.
[…] And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs.
[…] And the LORD did that thing on the morrow, and all the cattle of Egypt died: but of the cattle of the children of Israel died not one.
[…] Else, if thou refuse to let my people go, behold, tomorrow will I bring the locusts into thy coast.
[…] And Moses said, Thus saith the LORD, About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt: And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. (Exodus, 7-1)

These five acts, turning the water into blood (chemical warfare), causing a plague of frogs and then of locusts (biological warfare), killing the cattle (sabotaging production), and finally killing all the firstborns, most of whom should be innocent civilians, all sanctioned (indeed implemented) by a mean and unforgiving God, are what today’s fundamentalist ‘terrorists’ are doing, or at least trying to do. It is possible, therefore, to say that after three and a half millennia, the main strategies of the fundamentalists have not at all changed. Once you believe you know, you can steal, sabotage, maim and kill indiscriminately, since it is for the greater good. And the greater good is… whatever you say it is, because you know. The problem with Fundamentalism is not only that it believes that there is an ultimate Truth behind all existence; it is also that it believes this Truth to be knowable in its entirety, and that a person, or some persons, already have access to such knowledge.

How Enlightened is the Enlightenment?

The Enlightenment is supposed to be humankind’s rebellion against their guides who are supposed to know.[1] In Kant’s words:

Enlightenment is the human being’s emancipation from its self incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to make use of one’s intellect without the direction of another. This immaturity is self-incurred when its cause does not lie in a lack of intellect, but rather in a lack of resolve and courage to make use of one’s intellect without the direction of another. ‘Sapere aude! Have the courage to make use of your own intellect!’ is hence the motto of enlightenment. (Kant 2006, 17)

Further along the essay, Kant makes it clear that he was not living in an ‘enlightened’ age, but ‘in an age of Enlightenment’, that is, Enlightenment is only an ideal rather than an achieved or to-be-achieved state, embodied in an ongoing process. Towards the end of his essay, he also warns his age not to try to set up laws and rules which are exempt from change:

One generation cannot form an alliance and conspire to put a subsequent generation in such a position in which it would be impossible for the latter to expand its knowledge (particularly where such knowledge is so vital), to rid this knowledge of errors, and, more generally, to proceed along the path of enlightenment. That would be a violation of human nature, the original vocation of which consists precisely in this progress; and the descendants are thus perfectly entitled to reject those resolutions as having been made in an unjust and criminal way. (Kant, 20)

This warning, aside from reiterating the earlier statement that enlightenment was an ongoing process, also questions the claim that human knowledge is capable of attaining (or having attained) an eternal, unchangeable truth. So, if we are to judge the Enlightenment by Kant’s conception of it, there seems to be no, or little residual fundamentalism in it: Enlightenment is described in Kant as a perpetual questioning of yesterday’s axiomatic truths, although he cautions us this questioning should be in such a way in order not to upset the existing social structure, especially in areas in which organization, coordination and immediacy is vital, such as the military, where you have to ‘obey first and/but argue later’.

Enlightenment, however, was not only Immanuel Kant, nor was it a solely philosophical enterprise. It was also the age in which a new ruling class who, having (almost) acquired economic supremacy in the past century, was trying to reinforce this supremacy with political and ideological power. Although we cannot take a shortcut and say that Enlightenment was an exclusively bourgeois ideological enterprise, without a doubt it coincided with the bourgeoisie’s ascent to political and ideological power, and in this sense its nature is quite ambiguous: on the one hand it bears the marks of independent scientific and intellectual minds, trying to pave the way for unhindered freedom of thought and self-development for all humankind; but on the other, its call for freedom is limited in practice to the bourgeoisie’s need for it, namely, the need for a free market, the need for freedom from all pre-capitalist ties that hinder individuals from interacting in this market (that is, freely selling their labour-power and buying commodities), and, last but not least, the freedom of the working-class from the means of production. This is why many eminent Enlightenment thinkers sometimes seem inconsistent and even hypocritical: Voltaire, while arguing against slavery as such, still benefited from slave trade in a roundabout way, and was even ‘delighted’ when a slave trader offered to name his slave ship after him.[2] Of course Voltaire was not simply being hypocritical: he was only caught up in the inescapable ambiguity that was inherent in the Enlightenment.

The political/ethical face of the Enlightenment is less ambiguous: The American Declaration of Independence (some eighteen years before Kant’s essay) was not free of ‘fundamental’ truths:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (Declaration of Independence)

As a matter of fact, the phrase ‘all men’ only applied to white men, and furthermore it was precisely what it said: all men, and not women. To be sure, the Declaration was a giant step away from all men being subjects of the king, a step to be repeated and indeed enhanced in the French Revolution a decade later. But it is a sign that most Enlightenment political/ethical positions to come will share with what we call Fundamentalism the same self-assurance that they are in the right. This is what gave the Jacobins (definitely the legitimate children of the Enlightenment) the right to annihilate all opposing political positions, and while they were at it, each other in the end. This is why all the children of the Enlightenment, from the most docile liberals to the Marxists, are ambiguous towards the French Revolution: both liberals and communists compete in declaring it their revolution, but at the same time they stumble over each other to disown the period from 1792 to 1796, because it is precisely this period that betrays the secret of what we may call ‘Enlightenment politics’. When it is the ideology of an opposition, it stands for the questioning of all existing fundamentalist axioms that pass for truths. Once in power, however, it hastily starts to proclaim its own truths and defends them using the same methods it has learned from its Fundamentalist ancestors.

In his famous Leben des Galilei, Bertolt Brecht creates a scene in which the basic idea of the Enlightenment (that of the scientist, represented by Galileo’s pupil Andrea Sarti) is confronted with that of Fundamentalism (represented by the Catholic Inquisition). Sarti, his mother (Galileo’s housekeeper) and Galileo’s daughter have been waiting outside the chambers of the Inquisition where Galileo was being tried. When the bells begin to toll, signalling that Galileo has repented, his pupil Sarti, who had been hoping for his master to hold fast, to denounce the Inquisition, begins to yell: ‘And the sun is the centre of the cosmos and motionless, and the earth is not the centre and not motionless.’[3] Of course we don’t know that this actually happened, as a historical fact; it is as speculative as the great master mumbling ‘Eppur si muove,’ while leaving the chambers (which statement, by the way, Brecht does not use). What Brecht seems to be trying to do, however, is to show us that Fundamentalism and ‘Enlightenment’ use the same basic syntax. We, as citizens of a more enlightened age, know for a fact that the sun, indeed, does not stand still, and far from being the centre of the universe, it is a very ordinary star at the outskirts of one galaxy among many. The scientist, making some of the necessary observations, may be pretty sure that the existing dominant ideological preconceptions (those of the Ptolemaic universe in this case) are definitely false. But once they try to replace these preconceptions with newer, affirmative ones, they start using the same syntax. The problem with Sarti is, as the precursor and, in Brecht’s play indeed the archetype, of the Enlightenment scientist-cum-ideologist, he is as sure of himself as the Inquisitors inside the chambers. The only thing he lacks is power, and that, the Sartis of the coming centuries will have in abundance.

We could start to see that our basic dichotomy, that of Enlightenment versus Fundamentalism, is a little bit more complicated than what it first seemed: Fundamentalism syntactically includes Enlightenment ideology, and Enlightenment, in its adherence to some fundamental (or ‘self-evident’) truths, axioms which seem to be neutral and objective, but prove to be socially conditioned on close inspection, albeit they are different from those of religious Fundamentalism, is essentially fundamentalist. What we perceive as radicalism in the political and ideological attitude of the Enlightenment and Enlightenment-inspired belief systems, then, is not radicalism at all, but just another aspect of fundamentalism. Radicalism is ‘grasping things by the root’; Enlightenment-inspired ideologies, however, do not grasp things by the root, but rather leave the ‘root’ (of absolute faith in a set of axioms) intact, while aggressively striving to substitute religious axioms with another set of their own. Our dichotomy then metamorphoses into another one between two fundamentalisms, one religious and the other ‘scientific’ (rationalistic or positivistic).
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[1]I am well aware that my Enlightenment ‘subject who is supposed to know’ (le sujet supposé savoir) completely overlaps with Lacan’s definition of the analyst. This is no mere coincidence: The main difference is that, in Lacan the subject who is ‘supposed to know’, the analyst, is completely aware of the fact that they do not know, and in fact the process of psychoanalysis is the gradual uncovering of this fact by the analysand. The problem with the Enlightenment subject is that they really believe that they know; the supposition is treated as fact. More on this later.

[2] And, by the way, the Enlightenment was precisely the age in which our present concept of ‘Race’ was developed, preparing the ground for 19th and 20th century racism (See the 8-volume Concepts of Race in the Eighteenth Century edited by Robert Bernasconi). Racist bigotry is usually fiercer than the religious one, and crimes committed in the name of ‘race’ (genocides) usually have a greater death-toll and more far-reaching consequences than those committed in the name of ‘religion’, at least in the last two centuries. Still, however, we do not categorize racism under fundamentalism, because it has its roots in Enlightenment ideology, in a kind of Enlightenment science (or rather pseudo-science), of first Lamarckian, and later social-Darwinist brands, in which the hierarchy of races is constructed ‘scientifically’. So, it was no coincidence that the deportation/massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire between 1915-18 was carried out by Ittihat ve Terakki, a political organization then in power with an agenda of Ottoman modernization and Enlightenment, rather than the older establishment which was presumably fundamentalist and conservative, but cosmopolitan and essentially non-racist.

[3] Andrea Sarti: Und die Sonne ist das Zentrum der Welt und unbeweglich an ihrem Ort, und die Erde ist nicht Zentrum und nicht unbeweglich. (Brecht 1963, 127)