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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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In the closing decades of the 13th century, as he traveled through the islands of Sumatra, Marco Polo declared to the world that he had found unicorns. He had not merely discovered one, either; there were “numerous unicorns,” he wrote, “very nearly as big” as the “wild elephants” he had also found in the same habitat. They were not the regal equine beings he had expected, who were so pure that, legends assured him, they would only rest their head in the lap of a virgin maiden. Indeed, they bore a striking similarity to a creature one might expect to find on the island he called Java the Less: the rhinoceros. But Marco Polo had never heard of rhinoceroses. Unicorns he already believed existed; therefore, an animal that moved about on four legs with a horn on its nose had to be a unicorn, even if it might be a somewhat disappointing specimen of the species. That the rhinos he encountered likely had two horns on their noses, not one—for the rhinoceros he was most likely to come across in Sumatra would have been the Asian two-horned rhino—did not dissuade his judgement. If it had four legs and a horn upon its nose, it had to be a unicorn.
To be fair, the creatures’ visual departure from the glowing white horses Marco Polo had expected was not lost on him. “’Tis a passing ugly beast to look upon, and is not in the least like that which our stories tell of as being caught in the lap of a virgin,” the Venetian explorer conceded in Book 3 of his Travels; “in fact,” he continued, “’tis altogether different from what we fancied.” It certainly was, as the animals he recorded had “hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick. They do no mischief, however, with the horn, but with the tongue alone; for this is covered all over with long and strong prickles [and when savage with any one they crush him under their knees and then rasp him with their tongue]. The head resembles that of a wild boar, and they carry it ever bent towards the ground. They delight much to abide in mire and mud.”
Few descriptions match up less with mythological images of unicorns. And it is clear from his writing that he perceived the mismatch between expectation and reality. Yet after announcing that the unicorns were quite different from the legends about them, he moved on, with no further discussion, to describing the rest of the island’s fauna and marvels: monkeys, goshawks “as black as crows,” and, bizarrely, pygmies, people he claimed “are manufactured on the island” by plucking the hair from monkeys until they resemble humans. The latter is almost as extraordinary a misunderstanding as the unicorns, but now tinged with imperialist and racialist assumptions.
When the Italian writer Umberto Eco read this famous passage from Marco Polo, he was struck by the famed traveler’s insistence on calling the rhinos unicorns. Why did he persist in such an extreme delusion? The answer, Eco argued in Serendipities, a collection of his essays, was one that could apply to life in general. Marco Polo had fallen victim to what Eco termed his “background books,” an idea that basically refers to our presuppositions about the world. Background books, Eco writes, are “preconceived notions of the world, derived from our cultural tradition. In a very curious sense,” he continues, “we travel knowing in advance what we are on the verge of discovering, because past reading has told us what we are supposed to discover. In other words, the influence of these background books is such that, irrespective of what travelers discover and see, they will interpret and explain everything in terms of these books.”
Marco Polo had no language, no interpretative space, for rhinos. So he subconsciously consulted his background books, his presuppositions. And his finger landed on the entry for unicorn. In other words, Eco writes, “because an entire tradition had prepared him to see unicorns, he identified these animals as unicorns… We cannot say Marco Polo lied,” Eco clarifies. “He told the truth, namely that unicorns were not the gentle beasts people believed them to be. But he was unable to say he had found new and uncommon animals; instinctively, he tried to identify them with a known image… He was unable to speak about the unknown but could only refer to what he already knew and expected to meet. He was,” Eco finishes, “a victim of his background books.”
Many of us are victims of our background books, to varying degrees. When someone assumes a young black male in a hoodie who they have never seen before is a threat simply for his blackness and his attire, they are reducing him to an entry in a narrow background book. And Marco Polo was far from the only writer to have made an extraordinary claim based on their background books; one of the most notable is perhaps the 11th-century Arabic theologian, Al-Ghazali, who memorably argued in The Incoherence of the Philosophers that cause and effect—like, he said, fire burning cotton—is entirely based on God’s will, meaning that fire burnt cotton not because fire is likely to burn what it touches, but rather because God chooses to conveniently make it burn every time cotton touches fire.
Did members of Black Lives Matter recently kidnap a white male teenager with a mental condition and abuse him on camera? This recent incident is a depressingly perfect example of the danger of background books. While the incident itself was disgusting and shameful, at no point during the filming of the incident did the perpetrators claim to possess any affiliation with Black Lives Matter, yet a number of right-wing pundits immediately declared the event a kidnapping a “BLM kidnapping,” evinced by a hashtag of the same name. When asked about whether or not there was any connection to BLM, one popular right-winger—who once also told a woman on Twitter decrying rape that she wasn’t even pretty enough to be raped—said multiple times that he had no evidence BLM was involved in any way, yet he didn’t mind still labeling the event a kidnapping by BLM. This is an obvious case of a presupposition—I believe BLM is responsible for these kinds of crimes, so this crime must be by BLM.
On the other hand, the kidnapping video also prompted people to immediately declare it a “false flag” or a fake event designed to stir up anti-black hatred. While the event undoubtedly, unfortunately, did stir up some anti-black sentiment—all the more so because of the narrow-minded racial comments the perpetrators made themselves—it is also a dangerous presupposition to assume that some negative event like this could not be real, but must, rather, be a conspiracy against a certain group. I think the former—assuming that the kidnappers were associated with BLM—is more dangerous, given that it often suggests a casual or explicit anti-blackness or erasure of the important message about racialized police brutality that BLM was founded upon—but both mistakes matter, if at different levels. We need to follow the evidence, not conspiratorial presuppositions, regardless of what side of the political spectrum they are on. I sympathize, emotionally, more with those who believed the event a fake attempts to attack black Americans, in that I, as a part-black woman myself, am frequently worried at the resurgence of open racism directed towards nonwhite Americans. But I also believe in following the evidence, and it does us no good to immediately invalidate an event like this without proof that it was designed to do so.
This problem is all the worse due to social media, where people often simply read and accept headlines, regardless of the veracity of said headline. (NPR, on April 1st of 2014, memorably proved this true with a headline alleging that Americans never read anymore; most commenters debated with the title without having clicked on it, as the article itself advised readers to prove they had read it by not commenting.) Who won the debate between Tomi Lahren and Trevor Noah? While debates are always partially subjective, the answers so many people give is an absolute: Trevor Noah destroys Tomi! Tomi rips leftists a new one! How we interpret who won is all too often contingent upon what is written in our background books: many people unfortunately already assume one side is right and the other is wrong, and even if one side presents an argument that should cause them to at least question their beliefs, they will brush it aside as they turn to the page of their background book because it doesn’t fit the narrative they already expect to be true. I despise Lahren’s rhetoric and would much rather, as with that of the upcoming Simon and Schuster book by transphobic, misogynistic, self-loathing troll Milo Yiannopoulos, that it did not have such a large and relatively well-paid platform to begin with. All the same, the only way to begin fairly evaluating Lahren’s discussion with Noah is to watch it oneself and decide. I would rather know what those who disagree with me think, so I can keep my background books updated.
The map of the world becomes better, as do its cartographers, when we can acknowledge that sometimes, the world is utterly unlike what we expect it to be. Truth, ideally, is firm and fixed; but sometimes, rather than a rigid binary of right or wrong, it becomes smoky, jellyfishesque, star-distant, less firm than firmament. When that’s the case, we have to follow the evidence. But many people would rather not—and Trump, the sun around which so many fake news stories circle, is now President Elect partly because of it. And he may be President Elect a second time if we do not learn from our mistakes—though the DNC’s repeated repudiation of the Sanders wing of the party suggests that it has still failed to learn, has still failed to update the information in their background books. Such failures mean that some rhinos will forever be listed as unicorns.
Of course, background books are not necessarily wrong, if we have good things written in them. Our presuppositions can be useful, if not salvific. But they can also be wrong in ways we might not have expected. And this election, in so many ways, holds a mirror to this. I deeply fear for what is coming. But I also hold out hope for resistance, for forging bonds with people across aisles who want to oppose a common enemy, and for us committing to seeing the world more clearly. We are all biased, inescapably; as Stuart Hall puts it in “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” we “all write and speak from a particular place and time, from a history and culture which is specific. What we say is always ‘in context,’ positioned.” Absolute objectivity, as Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison argue in Objectivity, is not possible, even in the sciences—but we can aim for it, all the same, in how we approach the world, while not losing the commitment to the ideals we believe in because they are demonstrably just and good.
Let us call out Trump when he lies rather than softening terms or by assuming, via background books, he cannot really be lying because he’s a “successful businessman,” as some of his supporters justify casually brushing aside his untruths. Let us call neo-Nazis and white supremacists what they are, not softening and blurring things with terms like “alt-right” (which is a broader group, and a term that does not have the impact of calling its most dangerous members what they are.) Let us call rhinos what they are—and then move from there into making the world better for them, and for us.