At the top of Václavksé náměstí, the central artery of Prague, in a solemnly gray but geometrically dynamic Socialist Realist hotel that today is jammed between currency exchange windows and fast-food restaurants, up one floor from the busy street and the purple velvet lobby, a young laborer is trying to make a fidget spinner move with just his mind. He looks at it intensely, with sadness and urgency in his face. He looks at it like this for about thirty seconds, then releases his gaze, relaxes, blinks purposefully, restoring his energy, and resumes his effort. Sometimes he twitches but the fidget spinner never spins. And sometimes during his breaks he apologizes to his audience – me and, also, the coordinators of Paranormální výzva, a collective of Czechs who are testing claims of paranormal ability.
What they are looking for is a person or power that can “beat coincidence.” But they are also recording and televising their experiments in an effort to educate the Czech public on critical thinking, which they see as a requirement to ensure stability and justice in the decentralized chaos of a liberal society. [Read more…]
My interlocutors in this text are self-identified true believers of post-socialist cosmopolitanism, the young Czechs waving EU flags at student demonstrations and bragging about their vaccinations on social media. In Central Europe, a region that is currently marked by democratic erosion, they are champions of liberal institutions and liberal rights. They give depressed diatribes about their president, Miloš Zeman, who jokes about murdering journalists and repeats Kremlin talking points about how perhaps the Czechs, not the Russians, poisoned that double agent and his daughter in Salisbury, England. Connected to all of these issues, in their minds, are problems of empiricism. Horoscopes are read on state television. Homeopathic medicines are sold alongside physician-prescribed-pharmacons. The looseness of liberalism is a blessing but also a burden. For citizens to sort through the chaos of information and competing claims to authority, members of the Paranormální výzva argue that they must develop new models of thinking. Only doing so will enable liberalism to fulfill its promises.
Coincidence, they tell me, spotlights both the challenges and necessities of critical thinking. Here, I want to trace coincidence ethnographically, describing the ways it comes to matter to my interlocutors and how it anchors their practices.
I aim to draw from this material in order to think about relations, about attachment and detachment, and about how these map onto conceptions of subjectivity and objectivity. As a blog post, it’s inchoate. Yet ethnographically it shows how my interlocutors define coincidence through relations or a lack thereof as well as the ways that they aspire toward a unique form of objectivity, one that is constructed not by denying subjectivity – as is conventionally the case (Daston and Galison 2007) – but instead through a recursive subjectivity.
A dedication to place bridges theoretical concerns from anthropology to STS. Across Central and Eastern Europe, from socialism into nascent liberalism, knowledge has been laced with ambiguities in ways that allow for multiple and mischievous practices. In Prague, for example, the catalyst for the Velvet Revolution was a secret police officer, believed to be a student demonstrator, who was thought to be murdered in public but was actually just pretending, or possibly fainted. More recently, right-wing-extremists staged a hoax terrorist attack in Staroměstské náměstí, white Czechs wearing fake beards and shooting blank cartridges from real guns, terrifying tourists, in order to direct public attention to the potential acts that Muslim refugees might possibly commit. This text is therefore grounded within, and responds to, flexible empiricisms in which the power of irony and metaphysics meet the relative weakness of conventional forms of evidence, where the distinction between authenticity and fakery is blurred beyond recognition.
Defining and Divining Coincidence
As one member of the Paranormální výzva collective puts it, “coincidence is a constellation of events that you wouldn’t expect to happen. But if you look at the mathematics of it, it is much more likely than you think it is.” By this she means that, probabilistically, unusual things usually happen all the time, just less often. Indeed, they often repeat that it would be truly surprising, statistically significant even, if unusual things never happened. The test of coincidence, then, is one of distinguishing between the meaningless and the meaningful, of an appearance of predictable randomness or the manifestation of an identifiable force in the world. And to them, this distinction is necessary for liberal subjects to do everything from adjudicating responsibility to making rational choices toward one’s self-interest. In this way, coincidence lays provocatively within liberalism.
Critically, members of the collective distinguish between two kinds of coincidence.
Some coincidences are just chance, a stable probability, like a slot machine in which winning and losing is a factor of true numeric randomness rather than a higher power. Their manifestation can be predicted probabilistically. This type of coincidence is relatively simple; it proves nothing more than a mathematical constant.
But there are also coincidences that, despite their unlikeliness, are caused by something particular. The difficult part, though, is deciphering what that particular something may be. As one member told me, “When you think this way [their way] you can still experience a coincidence. But you don’t attribute it to anything supernatural. You look for the true meaning.” Here, cause and meaning are synonymous; what is important is the power of things to incite an outcome. And what makes coincidence a challenge is the way that they seemingly have no cause while at the same time they can plausibly be explained as emanating from any number of random causes. For example, “you start thinking about buying a certain type of car, and then you begin to see that car everywhere. This is not the universe telling you to buy that specific car, this is just your mind noticing something that was always there, but you notice it now because you’ve begun to think about it, but you must recognize this as a matter of individual psychology not mysterious powers controlling what cars drive on what streets.”
Cars. Pedestrians. Desires. Observations. Insights.
These are swirling in contingent relations animated through the specificity of individual experience. And out of this scene an undeniably true fact is materialized: there are a lot of red Škodas on the streets of Prague. It is not false. But my interlocutors insist that this fact be read alongside other facts and understood in its personal nature. In other words, to understand a coincidence as such it must be understood in context, as one fact among many and, importantly, as the consequence of a particular point of view – of subjectivity.
“I would say that a coincidence is magic without its context,” one interlocutor tells me. By this she means that without the context to properly interpret a coincidence – in her estimation – this unstable type of fact leaves a powerful opening. Its apparent lack of relation to other facts and other things creates space to speculate wildly; it can, with some justification, attach itself to any other thing. The collective therefore wants to train people to place facts in context in ways they believe will yield more empirical conclusions.
Most importantly, they want citizens to center their insights around their own personhood, figuring coincidence as a subjective phenomenon rather than an objective one. Members of the collective actively read literature from the psychological sciences. While this has convinced them of the fallibility of the human mind, it has also given them direction and structure to remedy its failings – or at least discount them. They warn about confirmation biases, about motivated reasoning, and about recency effects. But by recognizing these traps the collective argues that citizens can guard against overconfidence in their own thoughts. And they can seek out other opinions and other evidence to weigh against their subjective leanings. In this way, subjectivity becomes the foundation of an epistemological practice that strives toward objectivity.
While much of their program may appear as common sense, it nonetheless shines in its creativity against the bland backdrop of media fact-checkers who simply divide the world into truths and falsehoods, assuming a marketplace-of-ideas will sort facts appropriately from there. The collective is unique. They are champions of truth who recognize the many limitations of truth as a scientific and social concept. Moreover, as a type of activists, they target individual minds as the object of their intervention rather than society as a whole.
Members of the Paranormální výzva collective share stimulating resonances with STS scholars: the recognition that facts multiply meaning through their relation to other facts and that the qualities of a thing come as much from the context through which it is viewed as they do from the thing itself. As Marilyn Strathern (1996) writes, relations facilitate connection, but they also just as impactfully materialize disconnections. The collective, likewise, is concerned with the ways in which truths touch one another, expanding their interpretive reach, and the ways that a reflexive subjectivity can “cut the network,” halting what they see as reckless interpretation. Here, coincidences are defined by detachment. They float in possibility yet require the discipline to leave them isolated. Complementarily, this type of interpretation is made possible by a different type of relation: relations between a thinker and a thought.
Daston, Lorraine, and Peter Galison. Objectivity. New York, NY: Zone Books, 2007.
Strathern, Marilyn. “Cutting the network.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1996): 517-535.