Confidence in Lack

In his comment on Cubist Geometries, Allen Fisher points out the difference in his position from Olson’s condition of uncertainty:

I think of ‘decoherence’ as referring to a condition where I am confident in the information I have been provided with, through the use of interlocutors and expertise, which contributes to my experience of truth or a multiplicity of truths, but contemporary with this, I am unable to empirically confirm the truths or the information…

Unlike Olson, he is not in a condition of doubt and uncertainty; he is confident in the information he has been provided with, though he cannot verify it.  To me, the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics seems similar to the relativism of postmodernism.  My understanding of the uncertainty principle is that quantum measurement is dependent on the observer: if the observer measures for a particle, then a particle will be found, and if the observer measures for a wave, then a wave will be found.  Similarly, postmodernism is characterised, to paraphrase Lyotard, by incredulity towards grand narratives.  Our scepticism towards such totalising explanations of the world would seem to dissolve the notion of coherent truth into multiplicity.  What we believe to be true changes over time and in different contexts.  I found it interesting that in proposing a confidence in lack of coherence, Fisher seems to allow for the possibility of truth.

In Confidence in Lack, he points out that despite the fact that most recent modernist poetry uses methods of fragmentation and multiplicity, much public discussion of poetry involves an aspiration for coherence.  He suggests that poetry might be ‘at great variance’ to such expectations of logic and coherence.  This has led to ‘a confidence in lack – a confidence that poetry, when it is at its most efficacious, cannot propose logic, as it is variously perpetuated in paternal and public thinking, and cannot aspire to coherence, as this is also prescribed.’ (Confidence in Lack, p. 7)

He follows this with examples of attempts to measure quantum entities using circuit quantum electrodynamics, a complicated set-up which, like cavity quantum electrodynamics, is a way of perceiving quantum activity.  The point seems to be that human beings cannot perceive such activity except through such devices.  He adds:

Since ancient times, thought in the west has debated the difficulties between direct perception and information derived from machines, between demonstrations of truth and informed presumption or speculation. (p. 8)

Fisher refers to Plato for examples, though these are examples of the debate not between direct perception and information derived from machines, but between truth and poetry.  He quotes from Plato’s Apology:

So I took up those poems with which they seemed to have taken most trouble and asked them what they meant… Almost all the bystanders might have explained the poems better than their authors could.  I soon realized that poets do not compose their poems with knowledge, but by some inborn talent and by inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many fine things without any understanding of what they say. (pp. 8-9)

I’m not sure exactly what connection Fisher is trying to suggest between experimental physicists’ use of machines to perceive the activity of the quantum world and poets’ inability to explain what their poems mean.  The truth of physicists’ descriptions of the quantum world might be dubious because it can never be verified with direct perception, only interpreted in informed speculation from data provided by machines.  But the poet’s poems don’t seem to come from machines, so why are they removed from direct perception?

Fisher relates Plato’s argument against poetry to Charles Olson.  Plato thought poetry was ‘the enemy of truth’ (Eric Havelock) and that it ‘obstructed the development of the abstract powers it was Plato’s concern to nurture’ (Charles Stein). (p. 9)  He banished poets from his utopia, The Republic, because in his desire for a more rational understanding of the world, the aesthetic experience of poetry was a ‘psychic poison’ (Havelock).  Olson, however, takes Plato’s rejection of poetry as a basis for his poetics.  His emphasis on the concretistic qualities of language and thought seeks to return poetry to the position which Plato’s emphasis on abstract thought displaced.

Olson’s poetics thus seems to promote empirical observation over abstract speculation.  Olson’s stance – ‘all that irritable reaching after fact and reason … I do better to stay in the condition of things’ – might suggest that there is no point in searching after truth, that it is better to reside in the concrete realm of empirical observation.  I don’t see how, in this sense, the poet can be compared to the physicist observing quantum activity via machines.  The very point there is that such observation is never directly empirical.

But poetry is not, for Olson, simply empirical, however, due to his insistence on the concrete qualities of language.  It’s not about naturalistic description of observed reality; the fact of the words themselves is the reality.  Olson considers description abstract, an instance of the abstract powers that Plato recommended.  So it might be said that language is the machine which, for Plato, obstructs direct perception.  Plato criticises the poet’s emphasis on the material aspects of language: ‘Strip what the poet has to say of its poetical colouring and I think you must see what it comes to in plain prose’ (The Republic, quoted in Confidence in Lack, p. 9).

Fisher might, then, be pointing out the difference between the direct perception sought by Plato in a purely rational thought stripped of the material qualities of poetry, and the information derived from machines in quantum physics (and from language in poetry).  Though the latter cannot be empirically verified, Fisher can still feel confident in its truth.



It’s useful to consider Roger Penrose’s discussion of truth in his quantum theory of consciousness:

What is truth?  How do we form our judgements as to what is true and what is untrue about the world?  Are we simply following some algorithm – no doubt favoured over other less effective possible algorithms by the powerful process of natural selection? Or might there be some other, possibly non-algorithmic route – perhaps intuition, instinct, or insight – to divining truth? (The Emperor’s New Mind, p. 129)

Penrose’s view is that there are aspects of conscious activity that are not able to be produced by a series of algorithms – things like ‘awareness’ and ‘understanding’.  He demonstrates this with Gödel’s theorem.  The theorem shows that any formal mathematical system must contain statements that are not provable by the system itself (p. 133).  A system of rules can never be complete in the sense that the truth of any mathematical statement can be proved by the rules of the system. (p. 137)

Linguistic parallels might be found in the liar’s paradox: ‘This sentence is false’.  Inferring the truth or falsity of the statement involves stepping outside it.  This is experienced in the insight that reveals the paradox.  In a similar way, Gödel shows, mathematical statements also require us to use our understanding to validate them.  You do a calculation but then you ask ‘Is it correct?’  Not every calculation can be proved solely using the rules of its own system.

Penrose believes that Gödel’s theorem leads to a Platonic viewpoint.  Gödel himself was a Platonist, Penrose points out.  Plato believed that mathematical truths inhabited an ideal world of perfect forms, which is distinct from the physical world, but in terms of which the physical world must be understood.  This is not to suggest that mathematical truths lie beyond human understanding:

Gödel’s argument does not argue in favour of there being inaccessible mathematical truths.  What it does argue for, on the other hand, is that human insight lies beyond formal argument and beyond computable procedures. (Shadows of the Mind, p. 418)

It is this insight, this capacity for understanding or awareness, that Penrose says provides a link to the Platonic realm of ideal mathematical forms.  He claims it shows that consciousness involves processes that cannot be produced through algorithms of classical mathematics, so might be better explained using quantum mechanics.  The quantum world becomes a portal to some Platonic realm of ideal forms.

Fisher seems to agree with Penrose that thought cannot be reduced to a formal system and he does seem to believe that some truths, such as our understanding of the quantum world, cannot be empirically verified by direct perception.  Like Bernard Williams, however, he would seem to reject the Platonic notion that rationality consists of eternal, universal standards that can form the basis of a moral law.  Williams says that in Plato ‘the concept of truth is itself inflated into providing some metaphysical teleology of human existence’. While rejecting such assumptions, Williams, as Richard Rorty explains, ‘wants to show us how to combine Nietzschean intellectual honesty and maturity with political liberalism – to keep on striving for liberty, equality and fraternity in a totally disenchanted, completely de-Platonised intellectual world’ (Rorty, ‘To the Sunlit Uplands’).

Williams tries to abandon the Platonic realm as an eternal world of universal forms, but retain the belief that truth is intrinsic.  This is what distances him from Rorty’s pragmatism: truthfulness escapes empirical observation.

In Truth and Truthfulness, he identifies ‘an intense commitment to truthfulness’ – or at least a ‘reflex against deceptiveness’ – in modern thought, which accompanies the ‘equally pervasive suspicion about truth itself: whether there is such a thing; if there is, whether it can be more than relative or subjective’. (Truth and Truthfulness, p. 1)

He discusses the way that supposedly true accounts – of historical events, for example – have been revealed to be biased and ideological.  This has led to our suspicion of any claims to objective truth, or to truth at all.  But Williams makes an interesting point by suggesting that this position has come about through the desire for greater truthfulness.  Claims to objective truth are interrogated for ideological bias in the aim of removing deception and attaining greater truthfulness.  This leads to the current position where it is considered more truthful to reject truth.

Yet a rejection of any claim to truth, he says, depends on some other claim being taken to be true.  For example, to reject a historical account as ideological deception, we have to believe in the truth of the information that shows the historian to be biased.

This reveals a paradox similar to Gödel’s theorem or the liar’s paradox: ‘If you do not really believe in the existence of truth, what is the passion for truthfulness a passion for?’ ‘in pursuing truthfulness, what are you supposedly being true to?’ (p. 2)

I began to see these themes in Olson’s interpretation of Plato.  While Olson seems to reject the rationalist search for truth, his rejection of it is in fact motivated by a desire for greater truthfulness: the concrete use of language is seen as more truthful than the abstract.  He rejects Plato’s claim to truth, but this is based on belief in the truth of Eric Havelock’s interpretation of Plato and the concretistic linguistic theories of Edward Sapir.

It becomes more truthful to admit that you don’t know what the poem is about.  The pretence of logic is seen as deceitful.  Yet this allowance for multiple truths is driven by a need for truthfulness.  The admission of lack of truth becomes the new truth, and potentially a new coherence.


How does this notion of truth apply to poetry?  To think about this, it might be worth looking at the recent revival of utopianism in art.

In his essay Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud proposes that ‘Social utopias and revolutionary hopes have given way to everyday micro-utopias’. (Relational Aesthetics, p. 31)  He cites examples of art works from the 1990s that he sees as ‘to do with interactive, user-friendly and relational concepts’. (p. 8)

This is exemplified in the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose art works take the form of social situations, often involving the preparation and consumption of food.  He cooks soup in the gallery and serves it to visitors; he organises a dinner at the art collector’s home and provides the host with all the ingredients to make a Thai soup; he equips the gallery with a bowl of water on a gas burner and stacks of boxes of dehydrated Chinese soups which visitors are free to add the water to and eat; he turns the gallery into a replica of his flat, which visitors are able to use; he provides a relaxation area in the gallery, complete with table football and a fully stocked fridge.

We can see how these works have the qualities Bourriaud suggests: they are ‘interactive’ and ‘user-friendly’ because gallery visitors can actually use them, and they are ‘relational’ because they set up social situations that involve relationships between people and with the world.

The concept of microtopias interested me because of its connection to utopias and to Foucault’s concept of heterotopias (in ‘Of Other Spaces’).  I wondered what the difference was between the microtopia and the heterotopia?  And how did both differ from the utopia?

Utopias are ideal spaces, hypothetical perfect worlds.  Heterotopias differ from utopias, Foucault says, because they are real, not imaginary, spaces.  They are places that bring together different places and times in a single space, such as gardens, museums and libraries, and festivals.  A heterotopia is not a perfect world according to a single set of values, but a mixture of many different ones.

A microtopia, meanwhile, is a localised, temporary utopia.  It differs from the utopia in that doesn’t claim to hold for all times and places.  It sounds similar to the heterotopia and some of Foucault’s examples, such as the festival, might be considered microtopias.  Similarly, the microtopia might be said to create a heterotopian space.  For instance, when Bourriaud describes the microtopia as ‘a space partly protected from the uniformity of behavioural patterns’ it recalls Foucault’s accounts of heterotopias as spaces removed from the rest of society.

The main difference seems to be the emphasis on how the space is used.  While the heterotopia has both positive and negative aspects, a microtopia is constructed with positive, utopian hopes.  The primary aim is to generate relationships with the world in a society ‘where human relations are no longer “directly experienced”,’ Bourriaud says, drawing on Guy Debord, ‘but start to become blurred in their “spectacular” representation.’ (p. 9)  Bourriaud puts direct experience in inverted commas, suggesting some distrust of the notion, but there is a sense here that more truthful experiences and relationships are a possibility.

Bourriaud sees the relational art of the 1990s as continuing the utopian aims of the Enlightenment project to ‘emancipate individuals and people’, ‘to free humankind and usher in a better society’ (pp. 11-12).

‘It is evident,’ he writes, ‘that today’s art is carrying on this fight, by coming up with perceptive, experimental, critical and participatory models, veering in the direction indicated by Enlightenment philosophers, Proudhon, Marx, the Dadaists and Mondrian.’ (p. 12)

The Artintelligence article on Bourriaud’s aesthetics makes an important distinction between these suggested utopian precursors and contemporary microtopians:

…the fundamental difference lies in the concept of totality.  The notion of totality is evident in all of the precursors Bourriaud mentions…  In short their utopian project was to change the world whereas the strategy as outlined by Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari is to proceed micropolitically. (

The utopian project of modernity is continued in these art works, but without the aim for totality.  ‘It is not modernity that is dead,’ Bourriaud says, ‘but its idealistic and teleological version.’  Microtopias are utopian in their aim of ‘learning to inhabit the world in a better way’, though the aim of the art work is ‘no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real’. (p. 13)

Bourriaud points out that the work of these artists is located ‘within the slipstream of historical modernity’ – there are clear echoes of Dada, Situationism and Fluxus – but they don’t repeat the same functions as their predecessors.  He quotes Jean-François Lyotard’s description of postmodern culture as ‘condemned to create a series of minor modifications in a space whose modernity it inherits, and abandon the overall reconstruction of the space inhabited by humankind.’ (p. 13)  The totalising utopian goals of modernism have been abandoned and artists are left to make minor modifications to the forms the modernist project produced in the service of those goals.  Bourriaud, however, doesn’t see it as ‘condemnation’ but as an opportunity: the artist today inhabits a culture with a broader conception of art forms and no longer worries about constructing a total or final world, but instead ‘dwells in the circumstances the present offers him, … catches the world on the move: he is a tenant of culture, to borrow Michel de Certeau’s expression.’ (pp. 13-14)

At the end of Confidence in Lack, Fisher quotes Williams’ question, ‘Can the notions of truth and truthfulness be intellectually stabilized, in such a way that what we understand about truth and our chances of arriving at it can be made to fit with our need for truthfulness?’ (Confidence in Lack, p. 17)

Artists and poets seem to be currently trying to find ways to stabilise their desire for truthfulness with what has been learned from poststructuralist and postmodernist philosophy about truth’s problems, its tendency to reflect ideological biases, its pretence to eternal and universal standards.

The rhetoric of postmodernism has at times conveyed a sense that there is no possibility of utopian thought, no vantage point from which to criticise the hegemony, because all truths can be shown to be relative, and the neoliberal capitalist system has, by Fukuyama at least, been heralded as the end point of history.

What Fisher describes is a condition where, as totality is no longer sought, we can take confidence in a lack of coherence that is necessary, to keep the discussion open, while a microtopian sense of truth or truthfulness tackles the disillusionment of an insistent relativism, pointing towards a way of being ethical in a postmodern world.


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  1. * allenfisher1 says:

    There is strength in this interpretation of the microtopian, the micropolitical and the potential towards a way of approaching ethical awareness. But in terms of the quantum world as a portal to the realm of idealism, I want it differently focused – could quantum ideas be a portal to the realm of the ‘natural’? I leave it there and pick it up in a different way through ideas of ‘reality’.

    ‘the possibility of truth’ seems a viable and sustainable position, one I would want to expand upon, with regard to the construction of the self and the concept of truth, in relation to, for instance, Michel Foucault’s late lectures titled The Courage of Truth: The Government of the Self and Others II, (1983-1984), but I don’t want to here divert from your comments into an area I’m still working into.

    In response to ‘poet’s poems don’t seem to come from machines, so why are they removed from direct perception?’ I have a raft of matters to raise. For example, poems are removed from perception if they are transformations from that perception, transformed through language, through thinking and might involve speculation or supposition bereft of direct perception. I presume we can understand æsthetic reception as more than perception.

    It is the case that ‘words themselves is [are] the reality’, in the sense of materiality, but what is named ‘reality’ might be variously decided upon. I have used that thought for sometime, so forgive me if I over-rehearse it here. I think it could lead to an extended idea about your discussion of truth. There are extensive reports on ‘reality’ and what it variously means; as an art historian I have been overwhelmed with the discussion of reality and actuality and the machines of representation. In the nineteenth century, for instance, one debate might be about the real and the imaginary, another debate could be about the difference between the real and the natural. [In the anthology Art in Theory, 1815-1900, ed. Harrison and Wood, 1998, there is a 60+ page section of quotations headed ‘Realism and Naturalism’ pp.356-421. In the new edition of their volume 1900-2000, 2003, there is an extensive index under ‘Realism, realism’, but I will not use these here.]

    The painting by the ‘Realist’ artist Gustave Courbet, The Artist’s Studio, 1855, was given a fuller exhibited title by Courbet, A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life. Courbet wrote to Champfleury about The Artist’s Studio, ‘I am not yet dead, nor Realism either, because there is realism in it.’ (Elizabeth Gilmore Holt, From the Classicists to the Impressionists: A Documentary History of Art and Architecture in the 29th century, 1966: 349.) He addressed a group of students in 1861, ‘I believe that painting is an essentially CONCRETE art and can only consist of the representation of REAL and EXISTING objects.’ (Holt, 1966: 349.)

    Charles Baudelaire in The Painter of Modern Life 1863, viewing work by Constantin Guys in 1859, ‘Under the direction of nature and the tyranny of circumstance, Monsieur G. has pursed an altogether different path (different from earlier artists Van Dyck, Borgognone or Van der Meulen). He began by being an observer of life, and only later set himself the task of acquiring the means of expressing it. This has resulted in a thrilling originality in which any remaining vestiges of barbarousness or naïveté appear only as new proofs of his faithfulness to the impression received, or as a flattering compliment paid to truth. For most of us, and particularly for men (sic) of affairs, for whom nature has no existence save by reference to utility, the fantastic reality of life has become singularly diluted. Monsieur G. never ceases to drink it in; his eyes and his memory are full of it.’ (Baudelaire, trans. Mayne, 1964: 15) This could extend into a discussion of work by Eduard Manet in 1863, contradictory ideas of ‘theatrical naturalism’ in Emile Zola, and art historians on the subject from T.J. Clark on Courbet to Linda Nochlin on Realism, to Brandon Taylor Modernism, Postmodernism & Realism, but I divert too much.

    There is one diversion that might be useful, that is Alfred North Whitehead. In Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology, 1929, he paid much attention to ideas of reality and truth, much of which are too technical to use here, out of the lecture’s context, but in view of Olson’s engagement with this book in the period 1955-57 it might be useful to give a taster. [I should add that Olson may have used Whitehead before this for the prose headed ‘The Resistance’, 1953 and Olson’s use of the book was extensive in his poetry, particularly The Maximus Poems, but also, for instance, A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn, 1955, ‘He’s the greatest, if you read only his philosophy. If you read him on anything else …’ and in his lecture, The Special View of History, 1956.] Here are some fragments from Whitehead using the Corrected Edition edited by Griffin and Sherburne, 1978. In ‘Part II, Discussions and Applications’ he begins, ‘All human discourse which bases its claim to consideration on the truth of its statements must appeal to the facts’, but of course, ‘the record of facts is in part dispersed vaguely through the various linguistic expressions of civilized language and of literature …’ and so forth. (1978: 39)
    ‘An actual entity is a process, and is not describable in terms of the morphology of a “stuff’.”’ (1978: 41)
    ‘… a clear understanding of the “given” elements in the world is essential for any form of Platonic realism.’ (1978: 42)
    ‘The endeavour to interpret experience in accordance with the overpowering deliverance of common sense must bring us back to some restatement of Platonic realism, modified so as to avoid the pitfalls which the philosophical investigations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have disclosed.’ (1978: 50)
    ‘… in framing cosmological theory, the notion of continuous stuff with permanent attributes, enduring without differentiation, and retaining its self-identity through any stretch of time however small or large, has been fundamental. …’ (1978: 78)
    ‘But we must–to avoid “solipsism of the present moment”–include in direct perception something more than presentational immediacy. …My process of “being myself” is my origination from my possession of the world. … Those realists, who base themselves upon notions of substance, do not get away from the notion of actual entities which move and change …’ (1978: 81)

    The discussion about the real and the natural, the real and the actual, are partly to do with the idea that the real is constructed, but I don’t know if that’s part of what we are talking about here. The development of ideas of representation and simulation extended into ideas about how you see because of what you are or are becoming, or you only see what you want to and so forth. On another view, from Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey in 1974, and I don’t think this is becoming too tangential, ‘ “All fiction”, it seems, has a reference point, whether to “reality” or to “truth”, and takes its meaning from that. To define literature as fiction means taking an old philosophical position, which since Plato has been linked with the establishing of a theory of knowledge, and confronting the fictional discourse with a reality, whether in nature or history, so that the text is a transposition, a reproduction, adequate or not, and valued accordingly and in relation to standards of verisimilitude and artistic licence.’ (trans, McLeod, Whitehead, Wordsworth, in Untying the Text, ed. Young, 1981.) I am tempted to extend this into what Georg Lukács had to say about realism in fiction, but I think this is enough for right now, and please forgive my presumption by including so much in your webpage.

    Posted 6 years, 7 months ago

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