Fuck your assumptions

As part of the second session of the Ribbonfarm Longform Blogging Course we’d been asked to come up with an alternate name for a Murray Davis paper entitled “That’s Interesting”. I came up with “Fuck Your Assumptions” because that seemed to be the essence of Davis’ definition of interestingness. His point was that something is interesting because it defies the assumption ground of its audience:

“In brief, an interesting proposition was always the negation of an accepted one. All of the interesting propositions I examined were easily translatable into the form: ‘What seems to be X is in reality non-X‘, or ‘What is accepted as X is actually non-X‘.”

Later in the paper, Davis outlines some typical ways in which interestingness is arrived at. For example, it’s interesting if a person can…

– Show that a disorganised phenomenon is actually organised, or the reverse.
– Show that something stable and unchanging is actually unstable and always-changing, or the reverse. 
– Show that what seems to be good is bad, or the reverse.
– Show that two things which seem to be in opposition are actually similar, or the reverse.

That’s not an exhaustive list. There’s many more ways to arouse curiosity and evoke attention. But what is worth noting is that Davis’ paper is directed mainly at theorists, at thinkers and intellectuals and writers. So, the natural next question is, “Does this definition of interestingness apply everywhere?” Let’s see.

Imagine the high street of a middle sized town on a summer afternoon. What do you see? I see a central road running through it. Perhaps a pedestrianised zone as well. I see glass-fronted stores, mostly composed of big chains, with some thriving independent stores here and there. There’s multiple fast-food outlets and some big restaurants. There’s alleyways that lead to side-streets, which is probably where the smaller niche and stand-alone stores are. I see pavements densely populated with people of varying demographics; old, young, men, women, children. That’s a standard high street in a medium-sized town. Pretty boring, right? But what about an interesting high street in a medium-sized town? 

An interesting high street would be one that had no people crowding its pavements on a summer’s afternoon (“Where all the people at?”). An interesting high street would be one that had no chains or big brands (“How have they kept the independent stores here?”). An interesting high street would be one whose majority is a single demographic (“Why is there only men/women/retirees/youths walking around?”).

Now imagine a park. We all have a mental model which represents what a park is and isn’t, and the activities that take place in a park? I don’t know about you, but I expect people to be walking dogs, lounging on the grass, playing games, fooling around in the playground, sitting on benches, feeding ducks in the river, or walking around whilst eating an ice cream or sipping a takeaway coffee. These are my assumptions regarding a park. What I assume I’m not going to find is a pop-up circus in its centre. Or a helicopter landing and taking off, giving rides to the young and old alike. And I certainly don’t expect to find police trying to stop people getting close to the circus because the elephant has escaped and is splashing around in the river. 

That’s the interestingness of environments and the things that take place within them. But what about people? Are interesting people only interesting because they break with the assumptions we have about them? I think so. Take Trump. He’s everything a president shouldn’t be. He lies. He uses Twitter as a way to announce his policy intentions. Unlike other presidents, he hasn’t scaled the mountain from grassroots to national governance. No. He’s been on reality TV shows and gone bankrupt more than zero times. All things that go against our assumptions of what a president should be and have done. That’s why everyone—especially those who despise him—talk about him so much.

Or take a nondescript person. Someone like me. White. Male. Mid-twenties. What would make me interesting? Would dressing outlandishly net me a few interestingness points? Perhaps. Would having a pet duck that accompanied me everywhere be a talking point? Would having different forms of punctuation tattooed all over my arms be a point of interest? Would being average height be interesting? Nope. What if I was five foot, or seven foot? That’d be interesting. What if I spoke ten languages fluently? Or couldn’t speak even one and was only capable of communicating with grunts, groans and wild gesticulations? Would I be an object of curiosity? What if I’d lost the lower half of my right arm and had a robotic replacement? Surely, you’d wonder where my arm went and how far along I am to becoming a cyborg.

What about art? What makes it interesting? Is it the same thing—the defiling of assumptions about that particular medium or form? Yes yes yes. Take the Game of Thrones TV series, or the books. One part of what makes them so absorbing is the tension that comes with each episode. GRRM has shown that he’s not afraid to kill off some major characters, which is something most other series don’t do, so we find it interesting in part because we want to know if our favourite characters are going to make it through unscathed. 

Or consider a painting. We expect them to hang in galleries and their subjects to be beautiful things. That’s what most paintings are, and that’s why most of them are boring. But what if the paintings don’t hang in a gallery in London or Paris or New York? What if the same paintings are hung in a dingy alley that no one goes down? What if the paintings are done on the side of a building, or a train carriage, a la graffiti. And what if that graffiti is an infinite recursion of the environment it’s placed in. More worthy of interest, right?

So, Murray Davis’ theory of interestingness doesn’t just apply to theories. It applies to environments, to the activities that take place within them, to people, to art, and I suspect, to any other thing you can think of. 

Now, here is where, if you’re an attentive reader, you’ll have picked up on my faux pas. All I’ve done with this piece is affirm what Davis is saying. He said, interestingness = an affront to assumptions. I said, like all boring writing, someone said this, and I agree. So, to save my own skin, the only thing I can do is show you that Murray Davis is batshit crazy and his theory of interestingness is fucking absurd and completely mistaken.

But I can’t do that. Perhaps it’s because Davis’ idea is so insidious and consuming that it’s pushed all alternatives from my mind? Or perhaps I’m just bereft of imagination on this decidedly average morning? I mean, before I read the paper, I’d never thought about why something is interesting. Now, after reading the paper, I’m trying to think of why something is interesting and all I see is “Fuck Your Assumptions”. So rather than drawing the threads of this piece together and revealing some breathtaking, mind-bending tapestry of thought, I’m going to leave you with a terrible rhyme.

A few weeks ago, Molly was nagging me to do something. “Nagging” here means she asked me to do something and I didn’t do it, so she did the sensible thing of asking me again. My response to feeling pressured into doing something was typically childish. I said:

Get off my back