Tag Archives: errol morris

Errol Morris and Spirals of Learning

13 Mar

Errol Morris, the famous documentary filmmaker, says the purpose of a documentary is not to document things as they are, but rather to find and animate a compelling mystery. Not a mirror walking down the road, but a magnifying glass stopping on the road and probably even leaving the road. The point is not to reinforce a stable model of the world but rather to add new data to that model. Maybe to add so much data or data so strange that the model itself has to be remodeled.

That seems to be the particular genius of Errol Morris: to discover wonderfully inexplicable complexities right where everyone is fast and desperately trying to demystify and settle things and close down, rather than rev up, curiosity, as we once sprayed dioxin on dust to beat it down. After the trial, after the tabloid furor ends, decades after the war is over, he brings his questioning gaze.

His mysteries seem to re-ravel, if you will, a sleeve of care. To start with a single fiber that the following of attracts more substance to itself, like a grain in a supersaturated solution, and forms loops and lattices, working itself back into a crystal, or a sweater, or a shroud.

Finding simple things that don’t fit the model, and unpacking them until they are so complex and beautiful the mind strains to encompass them might be the very inductive, Deleuze-like, hallmark epistemology of the age. Everywhere we see ecosystems where we used to see simple causes and effects. Maybe civilization evolves by a constant epistemological pendulum, from reduction to production, from resemblance to representation (as Foucault said), from induction to deduction, from E-Pluribus to unum, like music coming out of an accordion, and so on.

In any event, I wanted to point out that Morris’ re-raveling is how we learn important things. If you imagine that learning is improvement with a self-consciousness about it, such that learning includes the experience of seeing yourself learn, then it’s easy to understand that your improvement, since it feeds on itself, grows sort of like money in the bank, where the interest adds to the principle which adds to the interest, and the graph of growth gets steeper and steeper. Or to put it another way the learning gets increasingly complicated and the rate of the increase in complexity gets increased. Or to put it another way, the thread becomes a row of loops becomes a flap of fabric becomes a 3-dimensional sweater. Or to put it another way, the line becomes a kind of spiral of Archimedes, slouching towards complexity shuffling step by shuffling step, and looking with every lunge more like a chapter title page out of the Book of Kells. As if you are always moving from a certain kind of Flatland into a world of plus-one dimensions.

Kurt Fischer, a cognitive scientist at Harvard, developed a scale of universal cognitive development that models this kind of growth—showing learning progressing from simple ideas to relationships of ideas to relationships of relationships and so forth. Importantly, key steps include the whole of the previous level as the first building block. I will insert a pic if I can find one.

Robert Kegan’s work on adult development is similar. Adult minds, if they’re in the right environments, says he, go through a series of epistemological changes—from the “socialized mind” to the “self-authoring mind” to the “self-transforming mind,” where the key starting point characteristic of every level is that you “see” the previous epistemology. You see as an object the thing through which you previously saw the world, or your subject—you form, that is, a relationship with the thing that was previously you—you are two ideas now linked, instead of one, etc.

We could look, too, at the double-loop learning of Argyris: which is characterized by not just reflecting on the performance per the established goals, but which includes reassessment of the goals themselves (!). Or the collaborative learning praised by Lee Shulman, which is distinct from cooperative learning, and in which you and the people you’re learning with figure out why you’re there, what your product will be, how you’ll go about producing it, and what the individual roles will be—all simultaneously, as in a Jazz improvisation: you have to improve to even know why you’re there.

The core experience in all these is the excruciating or exhilarating feeling of stretching your perspective to fit a torrent of nonconforming data, then looking around for new data (including data about yourself looking at data) and doing it again. What’s perhaps unusual about Morris and people like him is a compulsion to inundate himself and us with this nonconforming data. Most people don’t seem as inclined to jump out of the pond at any opportunity to make themselves evolve legs; he is, though. Driven by a kind of faith or fanaticism that there will be a there there as the line grows into a complex spiral. Many theres are probably there simultaneously.

This mystery-as-epistemology is a neat thing on a couple of levels. For one, it’s a humanism. The belief that there are in you, me, and every aspect of the world unfathomable multitudes of complexity and wonder—and that that’s ok–not just ok, but, even, that that’s how we ought to be, and that the highest evolved action might just be to go digging for this stuff—this is deeply reassuring. Much of life seems to involve the opposite: sweeping things under the covers, assuming veneers of normalcy, and dealing with the inevitable neurosis that arises from the conflict between your inner complexities and your epistemologically circumscribed outer self. To do the opposite, for once—to honor the complexity—is nice.

It’s healing, in fact. These mysteries repair the workaday world. Justice system, war, politics, religion–things that are supposed to order the cosmos, answer questions, and regulate–also seem to leave destroyed people and confusion in their wake. A restoration of ambiguity after these kinds of simplicities is a wonderful thing. And if it ends up you need ambiguity to learn, well then so much the better.

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