Noticing How to Doubt

Doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men.”  Victor LaValle, Big Machine

My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice. Dionne Brand

Throughout the semester, I’ve been thinking a lot about doubt because of the Big Machine course epigraph. I questioned my own misunderstanding of LaValle’s quote and how important doubt actually is. In two of my blog posts, I navigated through and cycled back to this quote and came to the conclusion that doubt allows for intellectually conscious and independent perspectives. These perspectives are independent of institutions that may fail us. I chose to reproduce the Big Machine epigraph above because this is where my thinking for the semester started. Through thinking about doubt, however, it really made me question how I doubt as a student and where this doubt stems from. This is where the Dionne Brand epigraph comes in.

Dr. McCoy is right when she says we have read “amazingly varied literature” this semester. Originally, I thought that doubt and the first epigraph provided the through line for this variation. We’ve had Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl respectively attempt to make American society doubt the institution of slavery and how we treat one another. Victor LaValle makes his audience doubt  their memories and where their beliefs in institutions come from. Taking an example from this text, Ricky Rice reminds the angel he is pregnant with “In case I don’t survive, I want you to know that this is my voice. Ricky Rice. Your father.” The letters Ricky writes to his child and the information they contain has a source: Ricky. Through this passage, LaValle highlights how important it is to know where information comes from. I also remember Paul Laurence Dunbar (under the alias Pffenberger Deutzelheim, which I can humbly say tricked me into thinking Deutzelheim was the real poet) in “Lager Beer” made me doubt how I attribute my own information and to think about the true source of the information I spread. These are just a few examples of doubt coming up over and over again. As I said in my blog post “Doubting Doubt,” the importance of doubting is to allow people to take account of their surroundings, to take a look at what’s going on in their lives and society at large. Through this doubting, there’s a reckoning of what people know and where it comes from. People can then take more agency for themselves and not subscribe to bigoted or malicious institutions’ perspectives. Institutions shouldn’t drive people’s thoughts and actions, people should do that themselves. Doubt makes this possible.

This is all fine, but how do I do this? As a student at SUNY Geneseo, how do I doubt? Where do I even begin? It takes a lot to doubt powerful institutions, ingrained language/methodologies, and our own memories. By this I mean navigating through life already requires focus and a lot of mental energy. Where does someone find time to go back and question what they know, their lexicon, and the information they learn? It’s not only going back to doubt memory, but also doubting as one moves through life and interacts with new information. Especially with regard to students, aren’t we meant to assume our professors are teaching us information in good faith? Or is this just the educational institution telling us this, an institution that should be doubted? I also think of the SUNY Geneseo GLOBE outcomes saying students should gain practice in the ability to “reflect upon changes in learning and outlook over time.” As the way information is disseminated and the way academics’ outlooks on information change, it can distract from the information itself. Despite how it’s packaged and spread, students should still doubt the information they take in—but, again, how? This is a lot to think about, but I think Brand’s quote and course epigraph sheds some light.

Doubting begins with noticing. As a person, it’s my job to first notice how I’m taking in information and what the sources are. This is independent from how I encounter the information, as the GLOBE outcome demonstrates—it’s my job as a student and person to take ownership of the information. In so few words, noticing is awareness, and this awareness inoculates from inadvertently taking on/spreading dubious perspectives. Noticing how institutions have failed or mislead provides a good background with which to doubt and become aware. From this, people can first begin to trust their own intuition: even powerful institutions are not infallible or perfectly well-intentioned. Now armed with their own agency and awareness, people can begin to confront institutions and effect change.  

Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs first noticed slavery’s evils through their personal experiences. From this noticing, both authors begin to doubt pervasive societal perceptions of African Americans in the United States due to slavery. Douglass particularly mentions how “the slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that still tongue makes a wise head. They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in doing so prove themselves part of the human family.” This passage demonstrates how the institution of slavery warped information and attempted to change people’s perspectives in favor of itself. The doubt that Douglass and Jacobs express then leads into repeated revision of society through awareness, criticism, and action. Jacobs for example calls for people to repeatedly revise their perspectives to express “love,” “duty,” and “gratitude” like Mrs. Bruce extended to her. This connects with Suzan-Lori Parks  and what she notes in “from Elements of Style”: “‘Repetition and Revision’ is a concept integral to Jazz esthetic in which the composer or performer will write or play a musical phrase once and again and again; etc.—with each revisit the phrase is slightly revised.” The doubting process permits repeatedly revising people’s own assumptions, where these assumptions come from, how they perform to/for/against the greater community. Repetition and revision are essential to not only plays and musicals but life in general.

Noticing, using what we notice about society, and then using this as a platform to doubt is important, as Jacobs and Douglass demonstrate. As students, we should trust our professors as they’re experts in their fields, but they are part of an institution. Due to this, we need to be aware of the information they disseminate (by noticing) and doubt, asks questions, and learn by doing so. This engagement is learning and allows students to gain an informed perspective of the world. What’s even more important is the second half of the epigraph “and to notice that you can notice.” Through a shared ability to notice, be aware, and doubt, students—or anyone— can take the information they learn, carefully question it when necessary, and use it to combat institutions, like Jacobs and Douglass accomplished with slavery. If people can notice and do notice together, they can better inoculate society at large from harmful perspectives pervading through public consciousness and practice. Doubting, Rep&Rev, and the change these processes incite grinds up people’s delusions. This all begins, however, with first noticing… and noticing that others can notice.


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