Ambiguity and Danger

My pursuit of heathenry is a pursuit of the ritualized life, a life replete and fecund with meaning, where ambiguity is confronted, analyzed, and ultimately conquered by meaning through ritual. Ambiguity is to meaning as entropy is to order. It is the breakdown of meaning, the natural state of potentiality and destruction from which all things rise and back to which all things must eventually sink. But for so long as we continue to create, impose, and perpetuate meaning within our lives, we are victorious in the face of ambiguity and entropy.

Ambiguity is dangerous. Not in a figurative sense, where ambiguity evokes feelings of discomfort, leading us to confront the source of the ambiguity in a artsy-with-a-capital-a kind of way (but it is this too), but in a very real, very dangerous real world implications kind of way. In the wild, animals have behaviors that they use to signal aggression and danger. If we misinterpret those signals, much in the way a dog bearing its teeth is a sign of stress and not happiness as it is in humans, we may find ourselves in gross physical danger. Even in human company, ambiguity can lead to very real, very violent consequences. You may think you are being jocular and friendly when you tell a person that you had sexual congress with his mother, but if that person is from some cultures, you have just opened yourself to very real, very violent physical danger. Less physically dangerous, but nonetheless still complicated and with the potential for great ramifications is misreading signs of attraction between men and women, the ubiquity and eternality of which has given birth to entire genres of art and entertainment.

The myth of progress states that as we have progressed and evolved as society, we have developed more and more tolerance for ambiguity. I dispute this. Society's privileged — have always minimized the consequences of ambiguity for them, often at the expense of others — but as the social churn of conflict depose some privileged positions and install others, the danger of ambiguity is still always present. And in any case, where ever there is ambiguity, you will find humans creating ritual to navigate it. As arranged marriages gave way to courtship gave way to dating, so too now dating has changed and morphed as humans have tried to navigate the ambiguity inherent in the fact that we do not live in a single, objective reality.

Objectivity, Subjectivity, and the Intersubjective World

The reality that we perceive as human beings is not objective. It contains an objective reality but is not contained by it. Light travels the same speed for everyone, oxygen exists, and there are physical reality that is the same for everyone who exists. This is Objective Reality, and for most of us, it is the least interesting layer of reality. On the other side of the coin is the subjective reality, or the reality as each of us perceive it. This is the reality that exists solely within our own internal lives, and where our perceptions of ourselves and others are the sole arbiters of our reactions. This is the world where we give free reign to our inner voices that build us up, or more often, at least for me, tear ourselves down in self critical loathing.

But the most interesting reality, the one where meaning is actually found and created, is the intersubjective reality. This is where culture exists, and where the various subjective realities are navigated and either accepted, modified or rejected outright by conversation, conflict, and ritual. Intersubjective reality is largely consensual. When conflict rises, we often either retreat into the subjective - i.e. silence, or surge to the objective, which is to say violence. And it is the resorting to violence that makes conflict and ambiguity so deadly dangerous. For example, we recognize objective reality. We sit at a table. When someone comes in, and insists, without any hint of mockery or foolishness that we are sitting at a fish, it introduces a disquieting and dangerous ambiguity to the setting. Not because the table might in fact turn into a fish, but a person who claims that a table is a fish is a person who may do anything else, and in that disquieting unknowability of what is going to happen next, we find ourselves intensely uncomfortable.

In that moment, a ritual forms, spontaneously. We communicate in looks and silent gestures, or simply through the adoption of a fantasy — that the table is a fish — in order to navigate ourselves out of a moment of danger. Perhaps there is communication in ritual drama, speaking in coded language to get someone to call the authorities, such as "it truly is a most magnificent fish. Pity for it to be out of the water. Perhaps we should call someone to come and fetch it home!"

Enter the Ritualized Life

All humans live lives of ritual. We create ritual actions and engage in ritual action spontaneously, whenever we encounter ambiguity. The difference between the ritualized life and a life of ritual is in the deliberation. The ritualized life is a deliberate life. It recognizes the need for ritual and it engages not in spontaneous ritual which may, or may not be effective, but instead in a system of ritual where the meaning and the symbols are clearly defined and part of a shared body of knowledge where unambiguous meaning can be communicated.

The ritualized life is based in an understanding that tolerance for ambiguity isn't a permanent state, that every increasing amounts of ambiguity equate to ever increasing amounts of danger. It is the acceptance that the current situation is not the perpetual situation, and that ritual will be needed to navigate these states, especially as the stakes and the repercussions of ambiguity get ever more lasting and impactful.

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