What Error Drives Our Eyes and Ears Amiss?

The Comedy of Errors, Act II

Technology fools us into believing that time and space no longer matter, that we have somehow overcome such barriers to know each other better than we ever have before.  Every weekend during football season, I was subjected to a nonstop battery of “tech porn” advertisements seducing me into accepting that life would be more enjoyable if only I would purchase a nonstop array of glittering, new electronic devices.  The implicit promise underlying said technology is that one day our lives will finally achieve perfect bliss when we upload our souls into the cloud. Um, no thanks, Mr. Man in Gray.

Image

Illustration from Michael Ende’s “Momo”

These ads remind me of how home appliances were once touted as “time-saving” devices that would allow us to enrich our lives with more intimate, “quality” interactions with the ones we love.  We all know how that turned out.  It seems like, more and more, we have to unplug ourselves from the grid and toss away those clever gadgets in order to recover our collective sanity.

No matter how many iPods, iPhones or iPads you might own (personally, I’m an Android guy), you have probably discovered that there’s no real way to avoid the epistemological problem hardwired into the human experience.  (If you don’t know what epistemology is, you probably weren’t around to read Othello with this blog.  Go look it up.  I’ll wait.)

I mentioned then my surprise discovering Shakespeare’s implicit awareness of this philosophical conundrum in Colin McGinn’s fabulous book titled “Shakespeare’s Philosophy.”  I’ll badly summarize it here by saying that epistemology is the philosophical enquiry into how humans know what we know – and indeed, whether we can know anything with any certainty whatsoever.

Back when I was in college at UCLA working on a German degree, I was required to read (or attempt to read – it’s extremely difficult) a groundbreaking work by the renowned scholar Jurgen Habermas called “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,” a discourse on how our ideas defining (and separating) exterior, public space from private, interior space evolved.  You’ve probably never thought of public space as a learned concept, but I think about it all the time now whenever I see somebody chatting on their cell phone on a bus or in the grocery checkout line or during a concert or while conducting a transaction with a bank teller.

Habermas

What McGinn has done for me is to awaken a sensibility regarding personal and private space within Shakespeare, to understand that not only his tragedies but his comedies are informed by epistemological concerns.  In short, that there always seems to be a discrepancy in shared information, leading to confusion or worse.  In the tragedies, truth can be manipulated to ruthless ends.  In the comedies, ironic levels of misunderstanding evoke laughter.  But in both cases, ignorance of what’s actually happening lies embedded at the core.

I would love to carve out a span of time to go back and re-read Habermas with an eye on Shakespeare.  The issues at stake in the Comedy of Errors hardly require such heavy lifting, but over the long haul this year I am fascinated by whether Shakespeare was unique in his preoccupation with epistemology or whether it was inherent in the age.  Perhaps society as a whole was only coming to grips with the implications of interior and exterior forms of knowledge, grappling with how discrepancies might be exploited or manipulated.  Machiavelli was a Renaissance thinker who advocated such awareness and usage by a ruler who wished to stay in power.  But deception itself is as old as human self-awareness.

In my next post, I will harken back to Act II in order to write about Shakespeare’s women.

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