Sunday, September 26, 2010

Truth, Torus & Topology

by Gabriel Saloman

As a child I wondered how donuts got their hole. Where did it come from, why was it there, where did it go? The first time I came across “donut holes” (under phosphorescent light, lined up beneath a greasy display window) I knew they weren't the actual hole, but a substitution for what didn't exist. Ironically, the existence of a fraudulent hole confirmed for me the existence of a void that could only be alluded to by illusion. If the void is the illusion then its opposite must be what is real. The non-materiality inhabited by void, the invisible is real.

Donuts, or Olykoeks as the Dutch call them, are first mentioned in print in 1809 by Washington Irving in his “History of New York”.i Their history is rooted in the early Dutch settling of what would become N.Y. but it blossomed into a oil and sugar staple of the working class. A Long John with custard is food of the people. The bourgeoisie pretense of an eclair could never replace it. A fond memory: joining my best friend's father at his job. It begins with his daily visit to Happy Donuts on the corner of 6th St. in San Francisco. A pink box, a dozen donuts, sitting on a car hood. Most donut shops have survived the waves of gentrification and evolving food trends not just as a site of decadent resistance but as a continuing gateway for first generation immigrants. What may have once been Dutch, 100 years later became Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans. Less than a century on it's as likely to be Korean, Somalian or Vietnamese. The clientele remains the same: poor, workers, students, family and friends, regulars who have seen the face behind the counter change but the donut remains the same.

In Santa Cruz, California, while I was briefly attending school I often sought refuge in the cozy confines of Ferrell's Donutsii. A nearby all-niter, it had the ubiquitous décor of faded posters and used styrofoam cups, but it made up for all this with its unique zig-zag tile counter which wound around in a disjointed semi-circle. A destination of last resort after a night of indulgence, it also offered a quiet respite for study or social solitude. On a night that more resembled the former I and a group of friends paid Farrell's a 2 am visit. An old man sitting not so quietly by himself in the far edge of the donut bar began laughing. After little provocation he revealed that his laughter was inspired by our “pathetic” presence. He revealed that he “knew all about us”. Young, impressionable and bored we invited him to elaborate. “I can seeeeeee things. I can look at you and tell you who you really are.” Impressed we encouraged a demonstration. He made his way through the lot of us deciding that we were Shallow, Afraid, Gifted, and so on in his own gradual time. Nearly the last of the bunch, having given judgements to each of my friends, he looked at me and said “You're evil. Don't ask me why. You just are.”

I was in shock. My friends protested that it was impossible; that I was the least evil person they all knew. I appreciated their defense but it was pointless. Not because I thought that he was for real, or that he could actually see such a thing in me. The problem was that no one refused to come to my defense and say “yes, he is a little bit evil.” I knew I was a good person, but I was a human being and no person is without their darkness, their shadow. If my shadow was so well hidden it could only mean one thing. That my evil was greater than anyone could ever fathom. That hidden behind my strikingly apparent “goodness” was an invisible truth that I had to reckon with. And reckon I did to the depth of my soul, seeking the hidden darkness, the evil void that must be there, real as so much dark matter, all the more real because it could not be seen in light of day.

Donald Rumsfeld is famous for a piece of accidental poetry that he once offered in defense of the war he helped manufacture:

There are knownknowns. There are things that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know that we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things that we do not know that we don't know.”iii

A poetic child of Dr. Seuss and Gertrude Stein, Rumsfeld has never lived this statement down any more than the lies he told to instigate a war with Iraq. Because he's evil. What is unfortunate is that he deserves credit for making common knowledge a classic piece of epistemological military philosophy that reveals a critical dynamic of the fallacy of knowledge. It may seem silly, but compare his statement to this twister by Aristotle:

To say of something that is which it is not, or to say of something that is not that is, is false. However to say of something which is that is, or to say of something which is not that is not, that is True.iv

The history of Western Philosophy's conception of knowledge and truth was for a long time twined between mysticism and mathematics, and after Aristotle the latter was given preference. The equation of Knowledge = Justified True Belief held as the unquestioned foundation of epistemology from the time of Socrates. In essence, our knowledge is dependent upon a subjective basis that is supported by an objective state independent of us and that can be given an account of or explained. This basis for knowledge was widely accepted in Western thought until Edmund Gettier proved in 1963 that someone possessing a Justified True Belief didn't necessarily possess knowledge.v

Gettier's theory rests on the premise that one can acquire a piece of knowledge by accident. An interesting example might be the supposed “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs) that Rumsfeld and others in the US government claimed were in Iraq. Millions of protesters took the streets of the world's cities to refute that claim and resist the instigation of War on Iraq. After the war was initiated it quickly became clear to the world at large that there were no WMDs to be found in Iraq. For Rumsfeld this was an example of “unknown unknowns”. For the millions of protesters and many others this was a “justified true belief”: a belief held that was justified by known facts and turned out to be true. However, this wasn't knowledge. It was an “unknown unknown” that people took for granted was either a “known known” or a “known unknown” and it just turned out to be true.

What Gettier's theory acknowledges is the premise by which capital “C” conspiracy depends upon. Conspiracy culture depends upon an ability to speculate on a truth, develop speculations to justify their beliefs and present these justified “true” beliefs as knowledge. The “true” stays in quotes because there is no clear way within the paradoxical theory of Conspiracy that anything can be true in a totalizing sense. After all, there already exists a “truth” which is being refuted based on a competing justified true belief. Take for example the Conspiracy theories surrounding the events of 9/11, where there is what is considered an official truth, based on what is also considered common knowledge. At the same time there is an enormous lack of knowledge, or “unanswered questions” that are neither being addressed actively by those who claim to have knowledge of these events, nor are they without speculative answers. A vast array of “knowledge” has been offered by members of a movement often referred to as 9/11 Truth, most of which is constituted by justifiable beliefsvi. The real question for our purposes is can they be deemed to be true when they consist of “known unknowns”.

How do we determine truth given the human character of Subjectivity and Fallibility? Consider this Taoist dialogue:

One day Soshi was walking by a river with a friend. “How delightfully the fishes are enjoying themselves in the water”.

His friend replied, “You are not a fish. How do you know that the fishes are enjoying themselves?”

You are not myself,” Soshi replied. “How do you know that I do not know that the fishes are enjoying themselves?”vii

Our challenge is to neither surrender, nor surrender to, our capacity for subjective truth. We can not know what others truly do know, nor can we allow others to assume that that which we know is not true. Incompatible or simultaneous truths are possible.

One last consideration of Conspiracy. It is useful to recognize that within that culture, the conspiracy that is being critically addressed is not the manipulation of a singular event, for that manipulation is inherent in any political, social or cultural system. What is being contested is that event's History. The crisis emerges in the disappearance of possibility and potentialities as unaddressed unknowns are eliminated from the narrative. The void of knowledge is the only thing that is provable in a Conspiracy, and thus the only thing knowable.

This echos Lao Tzu who illustrates the Tao with the metaphor of the vacuum. He claimed that only in the vacuum lay the truly essential. The reality of a room, for example, is found in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and walls, not in the roof and walls themselves. The usefulness of a coffee mug dwells in the emptiness where coffee might be filled, not in the form of the coffee mug or the materials of which it's made.

The void is the only thing that gives form meaning, much as truth gives meaning to facts. The fact of the void is the only form of truth.

A metaphor that further illustrates this can be found in mathematics. Jules Henri Pincare created a visual mathematics of patterns and relationships known as Topology. Topology is a geometry in which all lengths, angles and areas can be distorted at will. All figures that can be transformed into each other by continuous bending, stretching and twisting are called “topologically equivalent”. Not everything is changeable by these topological transformations. In fact, topology is concerned precisely with those properties of geometric figures that do not change when the figures are transformed. Intersections of lines, for example, remain intersections. Another such property would be the hole in a torus. Thus, a donut can be transformed mathematically into a coffee mug (the hole now constituted within the handle) but never into a pancake. Topology is really then a mathematics of relationships, of unchangeable or invariant patterns. What then is the topology of truth?

The truth is the hole, the void, the unknown unknowns, the unanswered questions, the vacuum, the empty space pregnant with possible but unproven matter.

The above text, formally written in 2010, is derived from a lecture by the same name developed in the Summer of 2008.

iIrving, Washington. History of New York. (New York: GP Putnam,1859)

iiFerrell's Donuts, 2227 Mission St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060-5221, United States. News Transcript: DoD News Briefing _ Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers, United states Department of Defense. February 12, 2002. ( Also see Žižek, Slavoj. “What Rumsfeld Doesn't Know That He Knows AboutAbu Ghraib” In These Times (May 2004).

ivAristotle. Aristotle's Metaphysics. Trans. Hippocrates G. Apostle. (Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 1966)

vGettier, Edmund. “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”.Analysis 23 (1963)

viConsider this section of's mission statement: To expose the official lies and cover-up surrounding the events of September 11th, 2001 in a way that inspires the people to overcome denial and understand the truth; namely, that elements within the US government and covert policy apparatus must have orchestrated or participated in the execution of the attacks for these to have happened in the way that they did.”

viiKakuzo, Okakura .The Book of Tea. (Boston & London: Shambala, 2003)