On Ignorance

I am getting boring.

I think the curse (and blessing) of spending too long in any one context is that you get too used to its norms. You get socialized into what’s expected of you: not only in what you say, how you say it; not only in how you act, and why you act. Staying in any one space too long conditions you to think in the same way too. As gregarious social animals shaped by thousands of years of living with other human beings, we fall into rhythms, into sync with those we spend time with. And after awhile, if living in a situation where we need to accept the most seemingly ridiculous ideas and things is what it takes to continue surviving in a situation we cannot escape decisively from – we do.

And so it came to me the other day, as I picked up a book lying around the house, the unalloyed joy of reading, of narrative. I’d spent too many weeks reading and reading historical analyses, or descriptions, or argumentations. I’d spent too many weeks trying to shape vague ideas gleaned off these reports and papers into some sense of coherence. Reading different things at different points in your life can strike you differently. And the simple pleasure of reading, of asking “and then what happened next?” instead of “ok, so what” or “what are issues with Reid borrowing European historiographical categories into Southeast Asian pasts” or “what (the heck) does modern connote” or “what are the implications of using imperialism as opposed to colonialism blahblahblah” [in angery red for emphasis] reminded me how I’d been like years ago.

I remembered, then – the joy that came with talking about ideas. The strange, delicious half-anticipation of epiphany. Of taking an idea from somewhere else and putting it together into a context that nobody had before.

As a rash, arrogant undergraduate Year One or Year Two who didn’t know what a “discipline” entailed, or what “theoretical frameworks” meant, it was quite exhilarating to bring different lenses to different problems. Nobody had said no, although they’d given me weird looks. I have learnt that being given a weird look is the best way forward.

It’s like cooking really, when you first start out, unhindered by what anybody could tell you. You throw a dash of this or drop a slice of orange into something nobody else said you could (or couldn’t). And if it works, or works partway, you do it again, with some modifications.

It’s like hiking really, when you’re exploring a half-new place. A semi-trail you can sort of make out, that nobody has noticed or mentioned. Not so much the road less taken, because there’s barely a path there. You try it out tentatively, step by step, cautiously, slowly slowly.

And over the past weeks, lost and increasingly trapped in cycles and circles of words words words, I realized that I’ve lost my sense of ignorance, of wonder. Trapped in contexts with an astonishing amount of comprehension-level questions, rather than critical-level enquiries, I have forgotten the delight of strangeness. Of cooking rice with orange juice, or lensing human society with animals, of putting dinosaurs into the most awkward contexts.

I initially titled this blogpost “On Imagination”, but I realized how banal that was beginning to sound too. You know, you’ve seen it too: some silly fella wearing his most trite interpretation of “hipster” (turtlenecks, bad moustache, huge round glasses, neon red lipstick optional blahblahblah) telling you how “CREATIVE” you have to be, how you have to THINK OUT OF THE BOX. In an age where even the state is telling us to “think out of the box” – probably so you can trot into the bigger box they’ve already prepared for you – even talking about the imagination as if it were a cookiecutter you could buy from NTUC has started to sound hollow. No, I think asking people to be imaginative has become a bankrupt endeavour. Our internal landscapes stretch only as far as we know, as far as we dare to know.

It’s great knowing what you know. Spending time on it, talking to people about it, is going to deepen and nuance what you know. But navel-gazing only guarantees a deeper appreciation of your own navel. The immense danger is that you become a bore, even to yourself. Cancer begins when the cells start producing too much of the same, in the wrong places. And so maybe a cancer of our internal landscapes begin when we spend too much time in the same spaces and same places too.

Maybe the antidote is to fling ourselves outwards. I know too much has been said about ‘fake news’, about the repulsiveness of people proclaiming ignorance as THE THING. But perhaps there are still some things to be said about ignorance: about the thrill of releasing the vice-deathgrip we have held on what we have always known. About relaxing our holds on “knowledge”, what we think we know, to seek out what we can feel, deeper, inside us.

I don’t know what I’m writing here anymore, only that I woke up with the sense that I needed to write again. To write more, to put out more of these thoughts. To mix old things together, to be a little less afraid, because fear has become our default modes for too long. But perhaps what lies out in the raining darkness – in possibility, in potential – can release us to greater things, than running around in the same frightened circles once more.


“I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.” |Mary Oliver



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