In my last post, I briefly touched upon the Hofstadterian phrase closer to the surface, which he used numerous times in Goedel, Escher, Bach, but I actually don’t remember what for because it’s been so long since I read the book.
This is my attempt to clarify my own thoughts on what the phrase means.
Epistemic Status: uncertain
Consider this quote from the plagiarist Slavoj Žižek
Let us engage in a mental experiment by way of trying to construct proverbial wisdom out of the relationship between terrestrial life, its pleasures, and its Beyond. If one says “Forget about the afterlife, about the Elsewhere, seize the day, enjoy life fully here and now, it’s the only life you’ve got!” it sounds deep. If one says exactly the opposite (“Do not get trapped in the illusory and vain pleasures of earthly life; money, power, and passions are all destined to vanish into thin air–think about eternity!”), it also sounds deep. If one combines the two sides (“Bring eternity into your everyday life, live your life on this earth s if it is already permeated by Eternity!”), we get another profound thought. Needless to say, the same goes for its inversion: “Do not try in vain to bring together eternity and your terrestrial life, accept humbly that you are forever split between Heaven and Earth!” If, finally, one simply gets perplexed by all these reversals and claims: “Life is an enigma, do not try to penetrate its secrets, accept the beauty of its unfathomable mystery!” the result is no less profound than its reversal: “Do not allow yourself to be distracted by false mysteries that just dissimulate the fact that, ultimately, life is very simple–it is what it is, it is simply here without reason and rhyme!” Needless to add that, by uniting mystery and simplicity, one again obtains a wisdom: “The ultimate, unfathomable mystery of life resides in its very simplicity, in the simple fact that there is life.”
This passage neatly illustrates the difference between invoking truth and evoking it; evoking truth is what proverbs do, and invoking it is what propositions do. From another angle, propositions are constative; their value lies in their capacity for being true or false. Proverbs are performative; their value lies in the perspective they offer.
For instace, the thesis of “Should you reverse any advice you hear?” is that proverbs exist in a kind of equilibrium. Some people need to hear “Seize the day” and some people need to hear “Think about eternity”, and it’s usually the people who live by the opposite proverb. I’d add that largely, this derives from our negative imagination; our tendency to get stuck in patterns of thought and action. A well-timed proverb could kick you right out of the rut you’re in, and with luck, you’ll fall into one that works a bit better for you.
I’ve gotten into arguments about this, where I’ve said “Freedom is the death of art” without meaning it literally, and proceeded to have to invent most of the theory in this post from scratch in the following argument.
The concise way of stating this is simply that proverbs are a way of reaching into your head and twisting it into a new perspective, at least temporarily. A proverb is the twisting, but whatever truth the proverb has is contained in the new perspective it offers,
Hypnotic binds don’t have to take the either/or form, though. I often use single binding deliberately when I teach: When I pause for questions, I always ask, “What questions do you have?”, and never “Are there any questions?”
Since students usually do have questions but often have trouble identifying them on command, directing their attention to the range of thoughts that assume they have questions saves them some work: It leaves more of their cognitive resources available for choosing among the questions that they have.
“Are there any questions?”, by contrast, directs attention to the search space of “yes” and “no” – neither of which is itself a question! I always have trouble with this when someone asks me “any questions?”. “Welp, I see no questions in this search space, so I guess the answer is no.”
Sometimes, authors, both in nonfiction and fiction, like to be clever. For a fictional example, in the right context saying “I gestured” actually says “I flipped the bird,” but you’d have to figure that out on your own. In nonfiction, you’ll see this as sarcasm. It contradicts something in more informative way than merely saying “it is false”, but has a non-negligible risk of being taken completely seriously.
This is also the difference between invoking and evoking, but I like using the closer to the surface terminology here. Going out and saying “I flipped the bird” puts the intended meaning closer than “I gestured”. It’s a difficult intuition to communicate, but I always think of mathematical functions, or computer procedures when I think of this. The invocation is saying “the answer is x“, the evocation is saying “the answer is f(x)” without evaluating the ‘f(x)’ bit.
I am often guilty of evoking when I link to posts. In my last post, I linked to a countercomplex post ostensibly about bringing back clever hacks and magical programming to the mainstream. It would seem like it makes no sense to link it, as it has nothing to do with my post. The problem was, I wasn’t invoking the thesis of the post. If I ask “What is the connection to the countercomplex post?” The answer isn’t in the search space of sentences in the countercomplex post, it’s a more general, something more rarefied that is conveyed without being stated. Ostensibly, this is the definition of magic developed.
This another way of defining an evocation of truth; it’s an evocation if the truth isn’t in the explicit search space provided.