The Slow Misalignment

During a summer camp before the start of middle school, I had to participate in a swimming class (to my protest). I did like swimming back then, but not so much the goggles that we had to wear. My hair frequently got caught in it and I lost a fair share of strands throughout my childhood years. Rather than deal with that, I decided for that lesson that I was going to get by without the goggles, which meant I needed some way to stay straight without being able to see (I also did not like opening my eyes while swimming).

My plan was this: Rather than struggling to see and slowing my swim down, I would focus on calibrating the strength of my freestyle strokes between my two arms so perfectly that it would simply propel me straight forward without me worrying. In essence, I had delegated, or reduced, the goal of staying straight to the task of keeping the strength of my strokes consistent rather than to my vision. It wasn’t until my arm struck the pool buoys that I realized my mistake.

Historically, the task of philosophy (and later, science) has been about a similar sort of reduction. We reduce morality to utility, the world to a collection of logical propositions, or thoughts and emotions to neuronal patterns. Our favorite phrases usually take the form of “X is really just Y.”

And there is a reason for this reduction. Concepts like morality, the world, and emotions are fuzzy, hard to define, so reducing them to more concrete concepts help us analyze them more rigorously. It would be hard to imagine getting anything done without these mental crutches. It would be like talking to Socrates 24/7.

The problem occurs when philosophers and scientists insist that this reduction is actually an equation. X is not simply reduced to Y for heuristic purposes, no, X just is Y. Once this equation takes hold, our attention shifts to Y, we strive for Y, rather than X. The irony here is that our means of attaining Y become the very thing that pulls apart the contingent identity between Y and X.

The profit motive of a business, for example, is meant to be a substitute for product quality, or consumer demand. The better the product, the more the demand, and thus, the higher the profit. And so to chase after profit is to produce superior products to better humanity with. Yet, we see that the more efficiently businesses start to chase this “profit-quality” double-concept, the more the two concepts are pulled apart; at the extreme, the two can no longer stick together.

But the initial equation is not abandoned at the sight of this separation, it lingers around as a sort of circular logic. Businesses must be producing better products, because their profits are growing ever higher, even if the material reality contradicts the claim. Because equations are atemporal, their decisions are thereby final. They cannot be overturned, and so they, like Frankenstein’s monster, take on a life of their own.

The problem here is actually nothing new, but a rehash of the problem of translation that most of us are already familiar with. For us bilinguals, this is especially salient: something is always lost in the act of translation, between languages, and all the more so between entirely different mediums.

David Lynch’s entire history of work straddles this perpetual difficulty (impossibility?) of translation. His piece called Fish Kit (1979) depicts a fish severed in three parts with the instructions on how to handle the “fish kit” underneath in an ominously matter-of-fact tone. In essence, the fish has been translated, reduced, to the language of an assembly kit, a victim of the mechanical deconstruction of our modern scientific mind.

Fish Kit, David Lynch (1979)

Of course, it is not the same. The translation is unsuccessful. It is not a fish we see, but a grotesque mutilation of one. In picking this specific work of art, I am making a conscious allusion to the violence of our own mis-translations in philosophy and science. Each time we insist on the reduction of mental illnesses to biochemical factors, morality to mathematical utility, and human wellness to growth in GDP, real people suffer. Our closed-door debates on metaphysical realities have decidedly physical effects, and we must remember that.

I never learned to wear goggles, even after my failed attempt at staying in a straight line. And I still do use my strokes as a guide to where I’m headed. But I’ve also learned to surface once in a while and look, to check whether my convenient reduction is really helping. I do not lose sight of the initial aim, that of staying straight. In the process of checking, I may end up slowing down a little. But philosophy was never a race anyways. I learned to take my time.