(No) Surprise

The schooner Surprise, Camden, Maine

I am transcribing annotations from a book (Time: A Vocabulary of the Present, edited by Joel Burges and Amy J. Elias) I’ve been slowly making my way through for a while. I’m almost done reading it, but figured I’d get started on gathering what I’d found, to whatever ends I may have. Who knows.

This particular chunk, which I LOVE, feels relevant to my last post about revision/sneak circuits/whatever the heck else I was on about — but I don’t know (yet?) how to wedge it in there. But I want to keep it nearby. So I’m putting it here for now, and maybe some of you will also appreciate this thinking. It’s from the chapter/essay, “Anticipation/Unexpected,” by Mark Currie. (all giddy boldface emphases mine)

TLDR: Surprise used to be less surprising.

“How are these connotations, positive and negative, of the unexpected related to the notion of anticipation? This seems a straightforward question, since the unexpected, whether positive or negative, must be the negation of expectation, or the failure of anticipation. It is the arrival of what we did not see coming. It is that to which our expectations were oblivious. But in a less obvious way, the category of the unexpected is actually produced by anticipation, expectation, and prediction. The unexpected event is more prominent in a world that is methodical and accurate and expert in its predictions, and the degree of unexpectedness is proportional to the extent to which we are accustomed to seeing things coming. The unexpected storm, for example, acquires a significance in a world of increasingly sophisticated weather forecasting that it did not have when weather was generally unforeseeable, and all storms were unexpected. The science of prediction itself foregrounds and gives emphasis to whatever is unforeseen, which stands out against a backdrop of regular, rule-governed, or repetitive behavior. Paradoxical though it may be, we might be justified in regarding these emerging ideas about a world less predictable than it used to be as ideas actually produced by the general environment of reliable and accurate prediction rather than by simple failures of prediction. This is not simply a structuralist logic that points out the normally imperceptible relation between a concept and its dark structural other, the conceptual inseparability of the contingent and the necessary. It is instead a recognition of the heightened experience of surprise produced by the labor of its annihilation. The modern species of surprise at the unexpected is the product and not the negation of sophisticated expectation. For this reason it is always necessary to regard the unexpected not only as a term of futurity, but also one of belatedness, of realization of what, in the past, we did not know. The unexpected arrives from the future, but it also springs an unexplained past, or a gap in what we knew about the world.” (99-100)

Beyond weather and other similar physical phenomena, I’m not entirely convinced “we” are “better” at predicting stuff, or how we’d even know whether we were or not. But this idea is compelling to me, this notion of “the heightened experience of surprise produced by the labor of its annihilation” is really setting up shop in my head right now.

To what end? To what (unexpected) end?