National Poetry Month: Instapoetry and Beyond

How to Cure a Ghost by Fariha RoisinAs art forms go, poetry is probably one of the most misunderstood. When you think of poetry, what comes to mind? Boring, incomprehensible gibberish? Maybe. Particularly with older versions, it’s almost impossible to appreciate without someone guiding you through it. But poetry is one of the oldest methods of artistic expression—think of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian poem and the oldest known surviving piece of literature— and it’s still around, so it must be doing something right. April is National Poetry Month, so to honour this literary practice I want to share some current poets who might make you change your mind about poetry, and show how you can get into it yourself!

The great thing about poetry is that it’s adaptive. Some forms rely on specific structures (sonnets, haikus) while others are free verse. It doesn’t matter! A poem can be what you believe it to be, as long as it expresses some truth. One of the most popular poets working today is Brampton’s own Rupi Kaur, whose debut collection Milk and Honey sold over 2.5 million copies (as of 2017, so more by now!). Kaur’s voice and distinct style is so recognizable that it has gotten the inevitable meme treatment. She’s part of a new wave of poets dubbed, perhaps a bit disparagingly, “Instapoets”, owing to the social media channel that launched their success. An Instapoem uses the small, square image format of Instagram, resulting in quick, bite-size poems that are easy to consume. They are minimalist in design, a few lines carefully organized in an aesthetically appealing way. There is a lot of handwringing over this format, but I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss it—after all, isn’t brevity the soul of wit? If these writers are able to form a connection with readers in the span of a few seconds, why should we discredit that? Rupi Kaur has four million Instagram followers—that’s four million people her work has presumably spoken to.

In fact, Instapoetry has been described as “gateway poetry”. The fact that Kaur’s work does not translate solely into likes but also into seven-figure book sales speaks volumes; people are literally buying what she’s selling! And they’re stepping into a world that may have seemed intimidating before. As The Atlantic puts it, “Social media seem to have cracked the walls around a field that has long been seen as highbrow, exclusive, esoteric, and ruled by tradition, opening it up for young poets with broad appeal, many of whom are women and people of color.”

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The Psychology of the Conspiracy Theory

 In this time of fear and uncertainty, conspiracy theories are everywhere. This has the effect of making a chaotic situation even worse. We find ourselves now in a situation where, if there is widespread skepticism towards the media, many people might not follow social distancing guidelines as a result. Some conspiracy theories hold that everything, the media included, is controlled by a select group global elites, the puppet masters of world history. Thus, conspiracy theories are particularly dangerous as they are a key source of this type of skepticism.

Why are we drawn towards conspiracy theories? I’ll admit, I had a brief flirtation with conspiracy theories when I was in high school. I consider it, oddly enough, very important for my intellectual development, although its importance lies it how it propelled me forward to something deeper. When I first read The Da Vinci Code, I became obsessed with the question of whether there was a secret society that has preserved the hidden bloodline of Christ. Eventually, as I kept reading, pursuing every trail of clues I could find on the subject, I thought to myself: well, the book claims to have evidence that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child; the Catholic Church claims to have to evidence that they did not have a child. I realized that before I could decide which claim was true, I had to figure out the nature of evidence. What is evidence? What is truth? How do we know when something is true? What is knowledge? And so on. Conspiracy theories were, for me, a springboard into philosophy. That’s why I consider it an important stage my in development. Once you reach the philosophical stage however, rarely do you return to the conspiratorial. And I never returned.

But I clearly remember being drawn into that world on an emotional level. These theories had some sort of psychological pull, an allure perhaps best captured by what John Chadwick, the classics scholar who deciphered the Ancient Greek writings known as Linear B, wrote: “The urge to discover secrets is deeply ingrained in human nature; even the least curious mind is roused by the promise of sharing knowledge withheld from others.” I thought I would take this opportunity, therefore, to discuss the psychology of the conspiracy theory.  Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? The best answers to that question, in my opinion, can be found in the writings of three figures: Karl Popper, Umberto Eco, and Alan Moore.

The philosopher of science Karl Popper defines a conspiracy theory in the following way: “What do I mean by a ‘conspiracy theory’? The conspiracy theory of society is just a version of this theism, of a belief in gods whose whims and wills rule everything. It comes from abandoning God and then asking: ‘Who is in his place?’ His place is then filled by various powerful men and groups—sinister pressure groups, who are to be blamed for having planned the great depression and all the evils from which we suffer.”

What’s wrong with this type of theory, for Popper? The problem with this conspiracy theory of society is, first, that it assumes that various powerful groups are capable of influencing society without any unintended consequences. This unrealistic given that all social situations have unintended consequences. He gives the following example to illustrate his point.

 

“Whoever wants to sell something always depresses the market value of what he wants to sell; whoever wants to buy something raises the market value of what he wants to buy. This is true, of course, only for small free markets. … You will agree with me that there is no need to prove that the man who wants to sell something usually has no intention of lowering the market price, and that the man who wants to buy something has no intention of raising it. We have here a typical instance of unwanted consequences. The situation described is typical of all social situations.”

If an all-powerful group pulling the strings of world history really exists, then it would appear not to be subject to this law of unintended consequences. They would be like no other group of people that ever existed in human history. Second, it should be the aim of social science, according to Popper, to explain how the unintended consequences of social situations work. The conspiracy theory of society fails to explain the very thing a genuine social science is meant to explain.

Popper became a well-known philosopher of science for his analysis of what is known as “the demarcation problem.”  His solution to the problem gives us a possible hint as to why conspiracy theories are so appealing. The demarcation problem is simply: What separates genuine science from pseudo-science? Why is Einstein’s theory of relativity properly scientific, and astrology is not? Popper’s solution to the demarcation problem was that scientific theories can, in principle, be shown to be false. Scientific theories are, in Popper’s language, falsifiable. They can be tested, and they can be ruled out. Scientific theories make predictions that can be observed in the natural world. If those predictions are not observed, the theory is ruled out.

Popper wrote: “Einstein’s gravitational theory had led to the result that light must be attracted by heavy bodies (such as the sun), precisely as material bodies were attracted. As a consequence it could be calculated that light from a distant fixed star whose apparent position was close to the sun would reach the earth from such a direction that the star would seem to be slightly shifted away from the sun; or, in other words, that stars close to the sun would look as if they had moved a little away from the sun, and from one another. Now the impressive thing about this case is the risk involved in a prediction of this kind. If observation shows that the predicted effect is definitely absent, then the theory is simply refuted.” Had this effect not been observed, the theory would have been shown to be false.

Astrology, on the other hand, cannot be falsified, and as a result  it is not genuinely scientific. “Astrology did not pass the test. Astrologers were greatly impressed, and misled, by what they believed to be confirming evidence — so much so that they were quite unimpressed by any unfavourable evidence. Moreover, by making their interpretations and prophecies sufficiently vague they were able to explain away anything that might have been a refutation of the theory had the theory and the prophecies been more precise. In order to escape falsification they destroyed the testability of their theory.”

Conspiracy theories are similar to astrology, and this might explain, in part, why we are drawn to them. They (a) appear to have great explanatory power.  “These theories appear to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred.” What this really means, however, is that anything can be interpreted in light of a theory. (b) Conspiracy theories seem to be confirmed everywhere, by everything. “It was precisely this fact—that they always fitted, that they were always confirmed—which in the eyes of their admirers constituted the strongest argument in favour of these theories. It began to dawn on me that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness.” These facts constitute the appeal of the conspiracy theories; but, if we follow Popper, the very thing that gives the theory its appeal renders it a poor theory, unscientific.  Good theories are those which we try to rule out, not those which we try to confirm. If you are looking for corroboration, you will always find it. But trying to rule out a theory involves a genuine intellectual risk.

Conspiracy theories avoid falsification because they operate according to the logic of the secret. The all-powerful group has a secret plan that can never be fully uncovered. The existence of the secret plan allows the theory to avoid being falsified. Using the notion of secrecy, a conspiracy theory is vague enough that it can simply be re-interpreted to avoid falsification. “The Illuminati wanted that to happen because it’s part of larger plan, more secret, more sinister, more unknowable.” The real truth is always one level higher. This game can continue without end, the true secret always beyond reach. Governed by the logic of the secret, the conspiracy theorist can say, for any event that seemingly rules out a particular theory: it was all part of a bigger plan, and that plan is secret. In this way, the theory is never ruled out, never falsified, never abandoned.

Italian philosopher and semiotician Umberto Eco wrote the master work on the logic and the psychology of the secret. Foucault’s Pendulum is about a group of writers who purposefully invent a massive conspiracy theory stretching back across world history, which they call “the Plan,” and which conspiracy theory-enthusiasts come to believe in – with deadly results.

In many ways, the novel is a narrative exploration of the some of themes he talked about in his Tanner Lectures given at Harvard in 1990,  called Interpretation and Over-interpretation: World, History, Texts. Conspiracy theories are over-interpretations – or paranoid interpretations – of world events. In one of the lectures, Eco said of the secret: “Nevertheless, there can be no final secret. The ultimate secret of Hermetic initiation is that everything is secret. Hence the Hermetic secret must be an empty one, because anyone who pretends to reveal any sort of secret is not himself initiated and has stopped at a superficial level…” The endless pushing back of the secret further and further, towards an inner sanctum forever beyond reach means the theory can never be tested; and if the theory can never be tested, it can never be falsified.

But why do we like playing this game of secrets? In Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco explores a deep psychological truth of conspiracy theories: we want to believe them.  We want to believe them because, if there is a Plan, then you are ultimately not responsible for your unhappiness.  “There can be no failure if there really is Plan.” What a liberating thought! Anything wrong with my life is the result of a conspiracy – against me!

This leads me to one of the best comments I have ever come across on conspiracy theories. It came from comic book legend, Alan Moore, author of such works as Watchmen and V for Vendetta. In an interview, discussing the idea of a global conspiracy, Moore said: “Yes, there is a conspiracy, indeed there are a great number of conspiracies, all tripping each other up … the main thing that I learned about conspiracy theories is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in the conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the twelve-foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control, the truth is far more frightening; no-one is in control, the world is rudderless.”

We believe in conspiracy theories because it is comforting to believe in them. 

The conspiracy theory has the potential to explain everything. The conspiracy theory seems to be confirmed  everywhere, by everything. The idea that there is an all-powerful group of evil elites controlling everything is, in the final analysis – comforting. This is its ultimate appeal, and this is its ultimate weakness. Self-transformation comes by facing the chaos of the world directly, not by avoiding it.

You can read Popper’s short piece, The Conspiracy Theory of Society here: https://www3.canyons.edu/faculty/marianaj/Popper.pdf.

You can read a short summary of Popper’s views on the demarcation problem here: https://staff.washington.edu/lynnhank/Popper-1.pdf.

You can read Umberto Eco’s lecture on over-interpretation here.

Wash your hands.

 

 

 

Top Five! Great movies from Kanopy

I know I’m not the only person who’s promoted this for VPL, but in case you’re not already aware, if you have a library card with us then that gives you free access to the video streaming service Kanopy! (Note: if you’re trying to log in to any of our online resources and can’t remember your PIN – it’s a common problem! – get in touch with us through Email Librarian, and we will get you set up ASAP)

I know, there’s a ton of streaming services out there there days, but listen, this extra one is FREE to you, so it’s definitely worth it. And Kanopy’s got some really great stuff. Here are some of my favourites:

Pan’s Labyrinth

This one is straight-up in my top five movies of all time (though don’t ask me to tell you the other four; I am really bad at top fives if I’m being honest!) A story about a little girl living in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, caught between the twin horrors of her dying mother and her abusive step-father, who starts meeting fairies (and a faun!), and inevitably winds up on a mission to combat Evil.

This film is a work of pure passion for Guillermo del Toro (who I love even when he’s doing the superhero-y Hellboy stuff!), and the contrast between the darkly gorgeous fairy tale settings, and the utter brutality of Ofelia’s ‘mundane’ reality is just… awe-inspiring? And endlessly satisfying.

Pan’s Labyrinth can be hard to watch – genuinely scary at points, and unflinchingly violent – but so worth it!

Pontypool

Ok, I promise this whole list isn’t just going to be horror films, but I couldn’t pass by Pontypool without talking it up to you! This is a wonderfully weird but extremely effective piece of Canadian indie cinema that every horror lover should put on their must-watch list! It’s really, really worth it.

The movie’s premise is that a… I’ll call it a ‘mysterious zombie-adjacent illness’ is sweeping across the country. The whole thing takes place inside the studio of a small-town local radio station (Pontypool, Ontario!), where former shock jock Grant Mazzy is still settling into his new job doing early morning talk and news. As increasingly strange reports of unexplained violence start coming in, Grant and his producer and support staff must try to sort out what the heck is going on and try to keep the town informed, and themselves safe, as it slowly sinks it that this is definitely all real, and definitely not isolated to Pontypool.

Collage of images in black and white (children's faces) and color (the adults those children grew up to be)56 Up

56 Up is a recent chapter in the utterly fascinating documentary study begun in 1964, following 14 British people from various walks of life. The documentarians returned to their subject every 7 years, from 7 to 56 (though some of the people chose not to participate every time), and though they are all just people living ordinary lives, it’s really an enthralling saga nonetheless.

I actually sat down one week and watched all the chapters of the Up Series, but I think you can get a good enough sense of the whole just from watching 56 Up, which provides all the background you need to get a picture of these people’s various lives. 63 Up also came out this year, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for it!

Image of a scene from Be Kind Rewind when Mike and Jerry are trying to re-create GhostbustersBe Kind Rewind

And now, for something completely different! We all respond differently to times of stress like this, so while you may be indulging in horror like me, it’s also possible you’re in the market for fluffy, feel-good stuff (also like me, to be honest! It depends on the day.) Be Kind Rewind is exactly that – wholesome, silly, and charming. I think I grinned the whole way through the last time I watched it!

Jack Black and Mos Def play classic lovable losers – Black is Mike, who works at an obsolete but nevertheless locally loved small-town video-rental store, and Mos Def is his friend Jerry who manages to accidentally de-magnetize all the tapes, erasing the films! To avoid getting fired, Mike enlists Jerry to help him try to recreate all the movies with a handheld video recorder, and whatever props and costumes they have on hand.

If you’ve ever wondered what people see in Jack Black, this is the quintessential example of his lovable, bumbling charm.

Hugo

I’m going to go ahead and call this one a cinematic masterpiece, worth watching entirely for the visual aesthetic experience (the Academy agrees – Hugo won Best Achievement in Cinematography and Best Visual Effects in 2011, among other awards). If you’re any kind of film nerd, you will especially love it, but this is also a kid’s film, and you don’t need any pre-existing knowledge to get immersed in its wonder.

Hugo is the son of a clockmaker in 1930s Paris who, through a series of misfortunes, winds up living alone inside a railway station clocktower. While also maintaining the clockwork, so as to remain undetected, Hugo continues to try to repair the mysterious automaton (a clockwork man) that his father found many years ago.

Of course, this project causes Hugo to go on many adventures, looking for parts, and seeking information about the automaton’s creator, and along the way he meets  girl, and many hijinks ensue.

This is another movie that had me smiling that whole way through. Maybe it’ll bring you some joy as well!