Embracing Uncertainty with
Emma Cocker and Stuart Firestein
Tuesday, June 15
Writer-artist Emma Cocker and neuroscientist Stuart Firestein discuss failure and ‘not knowing’ as generative forces from the perspectives of art and science, exploring tactics for knowing how to not know and for embracing uncertainty during uncertain times.
Who wants to know the final score?
Uncertainty is a field of possibilities.
Certainty is a dull and predictable container.
“Too much mist.
Can’t see Fuji.
Makes it more interesting.”
—Basho (17th-century haiku poet)
For the curious and those who plan to attend this dynamic and unrehearsed exchange, Cocker and Firestein suggest you read the following in advance.
from Emma Cocker:
Not knowing might well be the ground from which creativity springs; however, to inhabit the experience in affirmative terms is not always an easy task. Not knowing is not inherently productive or generative nor does it always lead to new and imaginative lines of flight. Not knowing can be paralyzing or prohibitive. It can usher in the feelings of anxiety and embarrassment, the debilitating sense of being at a loss or lost, unable to see a way out or forward.
To place value on not knowing in and of itself might involve resisting the increasingly outcome-motivated or achievement-oriented tendencies of contemporary culture—the ceaseless pressure to know or to be sure. Working against the grain involves a degree of skillfulness and tenacity, a capacity to operate counter to expectation. The value of not knowing often depends on one’s capacity for noticing its opportunities, for harnessing its possibilities and potential. To inhabit the experience of not knowing in affirmative terms thus requires some preparation, even training; one’s capacity for not knowing might need to be practiced, rehearsed or relearned.
So, how does one differentiate between affirming and debilitating forms of uncertainty, between the not knowing that leads towards new openings and transformations, and that which creates only stasis, a sense of being stuck? Is there a spectrum of not knowing? Are certain modes of not knowing inherently critical or creative, while others are best avoided? Or is the experience of not knowing dependent more on one’s attitude or orientation?
Certainly, art practice and art pedagogy are underscored by the principles of curiosity and open-endedness, the importance of risk, of trial and error—foregrounding the critical role of uncertainty, disorientation, getting lost, the capacity for not always knowing or being certain.
Yet, can such principles and capacities be taught or even practiced? How do we know how to not know? Can the ‘negative capability’ for not knowing be learned? How might it be taught? Who else could we learn from? Indeed, what might need to be unlearned or undone in order to not know? How does one embrace the value of uncertainty and not knowing, if schooling conditions the individual only towards the passing of exams, for meeting (rather than disrupting or exceeding) the expectations of already-known assessment criteria? How do the values of not knowing and uncertainty withstand the contemporary pressures of the academy, increasingly driven by targets and goals?
Alternatively, what are the ethical implications of inviting the embrace of failure and not knowing when the individual might lack the grounding or confidence to inhabit these experiences in affirmative terms? What preparatory practices might help cultivate one’s capacity for not knowing, increase one’s receptivity or openness to the unfamiliar and unexpected, to the possibility of the unknown?
More broadly, what role does the practice of creative uncertainty and not knowing have within the increasingly uncertain conditions of contemporary life? How do we posit a value for not knowing now that contemporary life seems so uncertain, so ungrounded, with global socio-political destabilization, economic collapse and societal unrest reflected at the international, national and local levels? How does one resist the nihilistic implications of not knowing—the debilitating sense of having no point or purpose to one’s own actions, indeed to one’s own life?
Counterintuitively, is some sense of stability or grounded-ness a necessary precondition for affirmative or generative forms of not knowing? How can a controlled encounter with the uncertain or unfamiliar operate as a form of dosage against which to rehearse or test ways for cultivating a creative response? What practices of not knowing are needed for activating new conversations on how to live creatively in these uncertain times, offering a tactical toolkit for testing different ways of being and behaving, where the unknown is actively embraced? Are such tactics the privilege of only a certain few? If so, how can they be shared and opened up further through engagement with wider communities of practice? How can we exchange practices of not knowing?
Towards an ethics of uncertainty, how can the encounter with the unfamiliar and strange(r) operate as a micro-political—even ethico-aesthetic—practice? How do we cultivate receptivity to experiences and encounters beyond our zone of habitual comfort?