Every day in May of 2020, I posted a randomly selected pair of books from my personal library in a series I called the Random Walk.
I’ve since removed all those posts from the archives, and collected them in a single page, which you can find here.
After completing the series, I wrote this short essay on chance operations, in which I described my process. Randomness, after all, takes a lot of planning.
Ask the next question.
Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. After telling this, Dr Suzuki was asked, “What is the difference between before and after?” He said, “No difference, only the feet are a little off the ground.”
—John Cage, Silence
Here’s what I did.
First, I divided the library into sixty-four sections. I probably could have divided it into fewer sections with many more books in each, but I was aiming for sixty-four: the same number as I Ching hexagrams. Most of these sections were individual shelves on book cases, but others were simply areas in my home, like the stack on top of the filing cabinet in the office (Shelf 5), or the countertop in the kitchen with all the cookbooks (Shelf 64). (To get exactly sixty-four, I also divided some larger areas up. It got a little messy in the end, but is it really a mess if you know where everything is?)
Then I counted the number of books on every shelf and “shelf.” (This means, by the way, that I have a full count of how many front-facing books are in the house. There are many more backshelved, and several boxes in our storage unit.) I also made a chart, visually depicting the shelf number and the book count for each.
I threw the I Ching to generate one of the sixty-four hexagrams. If any sixes or nines came up, a single throw could, of course, generate two hexagrams. (I use the penny method, by the way. I’m all for ritual, but the yarrow stalk method is just too much.)
I checked the chart to see how many books were on the two shelves. Using random.org, I “rolled” a number to determine the book for each shelf.
I pulled the two books, took a picture, and created a draft in MarsEdit.
After the first few pairs, I rolled eight or ten days’ worth of book pairs at a time, in several sessions throughout the month. This gave me as much as a week or more to jot down any notes, retake pictures if need be, and get started on drafting a post (assuming there was anything worth saying; otherwise, it would get posted without comment).
The reason I did this was to get some of the harder parts of each post over with well ahead of time, leaving only the final touches for the morning of the particular day as I made my coffee. I also did this for the Pencil Tour, and it played a key role in my being able to stick with it all month.
I re-rolled twice when I landed on a book that was, frankly, too personal and no one’s business. My game, my rules. But otherwise, I played it as it laid.
So that was the game.
Have we learned anything? Wait, were we supposed to? Why does everything have to be a goddamn learning experience? Is it because people, all too often, value answers over questions? But if you don’t know how to ask questions, how do you expect to understand the answers? What if there aren’t any answers, not really, just more questions? On the other hand, would that be so bad? Isn’t that just another way of describing the situation we’re already in? Do you ever find yourself thinking, maybe late at night, that to stop as soon as you’ve arrived at an answer is to succumb to a curiously arrogant or even hubristic temptation: that the answer you, of all people, came up with is the actual, definitive answer? Who are you to think you’ve got it all figured out? After all, aren’t most answers predicated on whole webs of assumptions, some or even all of which could be mistaken, incomplete, misunderstood? Do you see how this means that if you change your assumptions, you might find that some of your beloved answers just evaporate? Not feeling so proud now, are you?
So what can we do about this? If how we define the “right answer” is dependent on which questions we ask, then should we take another look at what motivates us to ask a particular question in the first place? Don’t we usually ask questions when we think we’re missing some information, when something doesn’t quite make sense? Doesn’t that imply that a question is a way of filling in a gap of some kind that we think we perceive in the universe around us as we think we understand it? But what if there is no gap? What then? Would that mean the question is meaningless, like asking who’s the present King of France?
Well, have you ever noticed how the questions that people ask often tell you something about them and how they see the world? So could we say that a “question” is actually a sign of how we perceive the universe? Hey, could this be why inkblot tests can be so useful: they show us what sorts of connections we make, and what some of our assumptions about the universe are? So, what if we’ve been looking at “answers” all wrong, and that the really important thing is to become proficient at asking questions, more questions, the next questions? What if the things we call “answers” are important only insofar as they help show us that we’ve been asking good questions? Where exactly am I going with all this? How should I know? (Is he really just making this shit up as he goes along? Seriously? Who does he think he is?)
Okay, so can we say that a coincidence is just an event that we’re associating with something else, probably absent, which is personally meaningful? That is, if I walk by a car and its licence plate has the numbers “197” on it, will I even care — much less notice — unless “197” means something to me? Otherwise, isn’t it just a cluster of numerals? So, what if we were presented with a whole clump of sounds, or a hoard of words — if any of it makes sense at all, isn’t it because we expected it to hold some kind of meaning? And why else would it mean anything in the first place, if not for the fact that we were looking for meaning? In other words, for something to have meaning, don’t you have to notice it in the first place?
So, this is why I’ve always been intrigued by chance operations: it’s a hack that demonstrates to me just how eagerly my brain wants to see patterns and make connections. My brain almost always finds meaning as though it should be there, even when I have consciously arranged the situation to be explicitly, deliberately meaningless.
By using chance operations, I trick myself into noticing things I might not otherwise have noticed, instead of always noticing the same old things that tend to catch my attention. If I’m already predisposed to see meaning and significance anyway, then I can let chance operations do some of the heavy lifting in my creative process. I’ll make new, strange choices instead of the usual, easy choices.
Furthermore, I know that my audience of readers or listeners will, in turn, be engaged in their own programs of pattern-seeking and meaning-making — which makes them collaborators of a sort; and they will see any surprising or ambiguous elements in the work of art as parts of a puzzle to sort out. Art that seems to have all the answers tends to feel lifeless, preachy, claustrophobic, and possibly even propagandistic. Because, of course, it’s not possible to have “all the answers,” any more than it’s possible to ask “all the questions.”
This also gives us insight into what we mean by “bias.” Bias is the resting state of all that pattern-seeking and meaning-making. We all have a contextual framework by which we try to organize and arrange the universe as it seems to be out there, outside of our individual skulls and outside our communities’ mores. This is elemental. It is not possible to live in a world that holds no personal or communal meaning. We can’t eliminate bias in its most basic form. But we can become aware of it, and we can come to understand the extent to which it shapes how we see the world — and whether we even can see. Eventually, through asking questions and listening to answers, we can modify and shift our bias. If we want to.
But why would we want to? After all, these frameworks don’t have to be accurate, they just have to be comfortable. That is, we believe many things not necessarily because they’re “true,” but because, by believing them, we are accepted by whatever community holds us and to which we pledge allegiance. I mean, they might be true, but that’s almost never why we believe them. Beliefs, all too often, are shibboleths.
So, again: why would we want to shift our bias? Well, because if our brains are constantly working to fit observations into a preëxisting frame, then it’s sickeningly easy for us to draw wildly inaccurate conclusions, and then entrench ourselves in our comforting, familiar, sensible, but dangerously misleading webs of “meaning.”
The most fundamentally wrong thing anyone can think is: If it makes sense, then it must be true. We are dazzlingly good at making sense and dreadfully bad at finding it. Almost the only time we find sense is when it’s on our nursery floor, on our mother’s knee — long before we would ever “choose” to look for it. Sense gets baked in, and is rarely ever challenged again during the rest of our lives. Sense is what helps us decide what sort of tool or solution to reach for first when we’re confronted by a problem or puzzle. (Back to the inkblot tests…)
We will see what we look for, we will mine the data, and we will insist that the world is exactly as we have come to expect it to be. We will find it more and more difficult to imagine any other arrangement. And all this would be fine — if it weren’t for the uncomfortable fact that there is no single arrangement.
How do we break out of our hall of mirrors? By actively seeking out more details, more evidence, more perspectives, more opinions. By immersing ourselves in communities that are as rich and diverse as possible. By checking and double-checking our beliefs, to ensure we don’t mistake assumptions for conclusions. By striving to be as self-aware as we can. By constantly challenging ourselves and our communities to ask more questions. By listening to as many different sorts of answers as possible, and learning to be comfortable with the ensuing cognitive challenges to our beloved illusions. By opening ourselves to surprise. By exploring the providence of chance. By remaining watchful, and by staying awake.
Probably not. Probably, yes. We can’t help ourselves. Safe bet (but this sounds like a leading question). Maybe “understanding” is overrated. I like where you’re going with this. Define “bad.” My sources say Yes. YMMV but I’ve found this is almost never a good time to do sustained, productive thinking: dreams, yes; reveries, sure; but not discursive, linear thinking. I’m not sure I like your tone. Define “most.” I do, yes. Not really, but then, I wasn’t before, so.
You tell me, smart guy. I’m still waiting for you to define “bad” and “most.” Sometimes I ask questions just to annoy people. It also implies that I might be kind of a jerk. Oh I see, you want me to say there’s no gap, so if there is, I’m the one who looks like an idiot, not you; classy. Go on… That’s not a meaningless question, it’s a stupid one.
Look in the mirror. I think we could. Don’t tell me you just figured this out now. Define “we.” Now you’re just grandstanding. I’ve been wondering this for a few minutes. Christ, what an asshole. (Don’t put words in my mouth. Seriously. Like I said, look in the mirror.)
Just because we can say it, doesn’t mean it’s true (but in this case, it is). Right (and I’m guessing “197” means something to you). Define “just.” You’re wandering dangerously close to feedback-loop or tautology territory. It sounds like you’re saying that meaning is real, but extrinsic. Hold on, now it sounds like you’re saying that meaning is like the sound a tree makes when no one’s there to hear it fall, do I have that right? — no, don’t answer that.