Uncertain superlatives


Certainty has such a strong place in politics not just because it serves as the preferred foundation/platform from which to choose to act, but also because certainty supports and drives the belief that any such choice to act can be superlative, i.e., serve as the best or superior or optimal course of action.

A key part of the challenge of a politics of uncertainty is to insist superior and superlative are still achievable, and not in a diminished sense of the economist’s “second best.” The challenge is to show, with and through examples, where superlative and best are not only really-existing in the midst uncertainty, but also how uncertainty’s superlative and best are better than so many of certainty’s counterparts.

To that end, we obviously need to identify and underscore how uncertainty and its cognates, like experimentation, have led to positive–sometimes very positive–outcomes. Each of us probably has our own examples of this. Three additional pathways ahead are, I feel, under-acknowledged and deserve further consideration:

  • The first is to underscore how certainty can truly mislead, whatever your starting point, as in: Francois Jacob, Nobel Laureate, reflecting that “Our breakthrough was the result of ‘night science’: a stumbling, wandering exploration of the natural world that relies on intuition as much as it does on the cold, orderly logic of ‘day science’”. As in: Nothing quite smacks of certainty as do habits, inhibitions and defense mechanisms. As in: We all know of revered ideals that ended in irrelevance. As in: Humans are never fully in the present; we are ourselves now, but reserve other of our intermittent selves for later action. As in: When in doubt, make the puzzle bigger.
  • The second pathway is to recognize the impossible is never perforce a bar to action in the face of uncertainty. Here is Richard Falk writing on the critic and Palestinian activist, Edward Said: “To dedicate action to achieve the impossible should never be a matter of optimistic false consciousness. It is rather a recognition that there is no way for the rational mind, in light of present circumstances, to figure out a solution that accords with the postulates of a just peace. Yet at the same time there are present moral and political imperatives of carrying on the struggle to reach such a solution, because the future is unknowable and the present circumstance of occupation, oppression, dispossession, and dispersal intolerable.” The insight, I take it, is that we might well be in a position to do something but not know it until we start trying.
  • A third way ahead is to insist that uncertainty is real and unavoidable and that this “certainty of uncertainty” looks nothing like the certainties offered up by the political class and deskoid pundits. Lines from one of Norman MacCaig’s poems say it better than I can:

Who owns this landscape? –
The millionaire who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?

Who possesses this landscape? –
The man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?

False questions, for
this landscape is
and intractable in any terms
that are human.

This article was first published on Emery Roe’s blog. It is one of a series of blog posts by participants following the STEPS symposium The Politics of Uncertainty: Practical Challenges for Transformative Action.

UncertaintyUncertainties can make it hard to plan ahead. But recognising them can help to reveal new questions and choices. What kinds of uncertainty are there, why do they matter for sustainability, and what ideas, approaches and methods can help us to respond to them?

Find out more about our theme for 2019 on our Uncertainty theme page.

One comment:

  1. Prof Prem raj Pushpakaran writes — 2020 marks the 100th birth year of François Jacob, who discovered the genetic switch!!!

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