I came out of a lecture in my sophomore year of college and said to my good buddy, poking my finger in the air, Ambiguity tolerance. I have got to cultivate ambiguity tolerance. We had on three days just sat through three lectures on the Russian Revolution. And I had found them unsettling, even upsetting. I felt a sense of frustration because all the lectures had been different.
They were of course all about something called the Russian Revolution but one was about serfs or something like that, and one was about the bread riots or marches, and another about the various parties and by the time it was all over you didn’t know when the Russian Revolution actually took place, when it started exactly or when it ended. So how could you even call the Russian Revolution an event if you couldn’t figure out such simple things as when it started or when it ended.
Ambiguity was a big word for me in my literature study, along with paradox, because literature was taught where I was generally from the perspective of what was called way back then, “The New Criticism.” The New Criticism is probably more responsible for the formation of things called English Departments than anything else because it stripped literature of its relation to history and to philosophy, and set it apart as something that might be studied apart. One looked for the meaning of the art object just in itself and not relative to when or where or why it had been produced. The overall goal of this study was to say what a book or poem meant.
But mostly one had great difficult saying what anything meant. One guy said this and another guy said that and nobody could prove or disprove anybody else, so the result almost invariably was ambiguity and/or paradox. So that’s how I felt after those three lectures on the Russian Revolution. I came out feeling that it was all ambiguous. But this was not some book being ambiguous, but something that had actually the fuck happened, the Russian Fucking Revolution. So if I were not to be upset by the ambiguity, which I was, I had to learn to tolerate it.
That was a big moment in my education though I didn’t at the moment see all the ramifications or consequences of it. I saw that there wasn’t One Truth, but many, or rather there were many theories and each generated facts that were asserted as important by the theory itself. Or to put it another way, whatever anybody said about a book or an historical “event” was the result of their original assumptions, sometimes clearly understood, sometimes relatively buried. And if you could dig those out what anybody had to say about anything was relatively predictable.
So I did learn something in college. Maybe the most important thing. Middle class education was not about morality or religion or values (just like they said) it was about knowledge, about how you knew something or how you didn’t. And that was important because many of the middle class professions were based on the claim to knowing something whether they really knew it or not.