Paradox and Doubt

In 1976, I received a M.A. in cultural anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle. I had been studying with anthropologist John Atkins, a man whose obsession with his schizophrenic son induced his obsession with the nature of paradox in culture. All paradoxes, he says, involve critical self-reference. A half or near paradox might sound like this:

half circle

"You hereby are ordered to ignore this command."

The semantics of this expression are self-referential and "go in a circle," but the circle does not go round and round. The circle of a half-paradox goes one way only.

full circle

We have a true paradox in the following:

"In this very assertion I am, in fact, lying to you."

Here the circle goes both ways. In other words, if that last sentence is true, it must be false, and also if it is false it must be true, and hence on forever.

Atkins introduced me to the calculus of language, of interaction, and opened the way to the only anthropology I could accept: one that could not be done, or rather that must always point to the predicament of culture itself. That is, culture, like mathematical thought, suffered the loopiness that comes with self-reflexivity, of people telling stories about themselves, meta-narratives that work like mobius strips. In fact, Atkins' influence upon me was profound. I left anthropology and began to study representation theory and performativity—arenas that celebrate and engage the irresolute nature of paradox and slippage.

Translated into psychic experience, paradoxes can be understood as the stuff of spiritual angst. A hopeless yearning for resolution, an endless questing for an impossible poise { new window }. Doubt certainly has its down sides: it brings with it self-effacement, paralysis, disappointment. But in his book Desiring Theology [1995], Winquist revitalizes the radical potential of doubt. He talks about "a desire for a (critical) thinking which does not disappoint," a thinking that resists the trivialization of ultimate questions. For Winquist, doubt resists the seduction of reductive and totalizing discourses. His doubt-full approach requires a strange leap of faith—a refusal of the comforts of what we know and a surrender into the profundity of what we do not.

But such leaps do not occur when we are in opposition; put another way, no one authorizes leaps of faith. They occur in contradiction, in hesitancy, in states of heightened vacillation and skepticism. This economy of 'faith' which we are so quick to devalue is really very much the same as the economy of evidence, which we are so quick to valorize. They are the same in that neither is reliable [Women and Theatre Conference 1997, in conversation with Amy Robinson and Elin Diamond].

What inspires me in paradox, in critical faith and radical doubt, is the potential for a terrain in which taking-a-stand and always-changing do not obliterate one another in the trenches of false duality. I am interested in a collectivity of the liminal, an unpredictable and unreliable coming together inspired by civic responsibility and social need.