Scenes from a Pandemic

“Life is a hospice, never a hospital.”

~ Alan de Bottom

“In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love.

In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile.

In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm.

I realized, through it all, that in the midst of winter,

I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”

~ Albert Camus, The Stranger

I keep going back to Camus, perhaps because he grasped at a deep level our shared tenuous existential predicament of being human. As Alan de Bottom wrote this week an opinion piece in the New York Times about Albert Camus and his 1947 novel “The Plague” (Camus on the Coronavirus), De Bottom comments that Camus, “…was drawn to his theme because he believed that the actual historical incidents we call plagues are merely concentrations of a universal precondition, dramatic instances of a perpetual rule: that all human beings are vulnerable to being randomly exterminated at any time, by a virus, an accident or the actions of our fellow man.” And that, “Recognizing this absurdity should lead us not to despair but to a tragicomic redemption, a softening of the heart, a turning away from judgment and moralizing to joy and gratitude.”

A few days ago, I wrote this during the first week of working from home:

I am wondering how others are doing at Swanson & Youngdale (the company I am now working at) with this new reality we find ourselves in? I spoke with my supervisor yesterday for some time and again this morning. I told him how I am finding it difficult to focus and establish a new productive routine at home. Not only for “work” but also for my graduate studies, exercise, family and life in general. I do not think I am alone in feeling some level of anxiety in not knowing how all this will play out. I appreciate the ability to work from home and have a job where I can still work – many others do not have this option now. 

My partner is an RN and working on the front lines of this pandemic. She also has a cleaning company and had to lay off three of her four employees as customers no longer want people in their homes. We also run an AirBnB in our home and all the guests for April have canceled. This is just a small slice of how life is changing for now and undoubtedly will continue to change in the foreseeable future for many.  

As I have reached out to classmates and professors at UMD, they are sharing the same uncertainty. And, I am sure many at S&Y are also feeling this way. Perhaps, not knowing how to express it or if they should express it. I was telling Mark how this feels different, worst, more serious than even 9/11 and the 2008 recession which both altered live dramatically. I remember working for Tamarack Materials during the 2008 recession and being laid off in 2009. 

It is difficult to not let your mind wonder to that place and ask what is next?    

Today was a better day of focusing and being in a new regular routine. I feel that I was more productive than the previous days. I think our individual and collective mental health may be a challenge to maintain. At least for me I know from suffering with depression and anxiety in the past certain triggers make life more challenging to navigate even with strategies, doctors and therapists to help.  

One thought I have is to develop a means to share stories about working from home, the job site, the office so we can be in solidarity with one another. It could serve as a testimony to perseverance through these times.    

Back to De Bottoms thoughts, “’The Plague’ isn’t trying to panic us, because panic suggests a response to a dangerous but short-term condition from which we can eventually find safety. But there can never be safety — and that is why, for Camus, we need to love our fellow damned humans and work without hope or despair for the amelioration of suffering. Life is a hospice, never a hospital.”

I really think that last sentence has real significance for all of us, “Life is a hospice, never a hospital.”

Camus writes in his novel, “However, there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.”

Narrative and Epistemic Injustice – An Introduction

Narrative and Epistemic Injustice 

An Introduction

Based on observable epistemic injustices throughout society there is a strong/urgent case to be made for improving epistemological awareness for the betterment of humanity.

What happens when humanity finds itself awash in a sea of information? Engulfed by prolific social media that collect personal artifacts, social media that knows individuals better than they know themselves. What does it mean to be uniquely human in a setting like that? And what does it mean to critically assess competing narratives in all aspects of life; politics, religion, capitalism, communism, news, advertising, to name a few. When competing narratives are vying for power, is injustice in the distribution and understanding of those narratives not the inevitable result? Are there unwitting participants? Both willing or unwillingly ignorant and capable of being manipulated to the advantage of political, economic or religious power brokers? Are people who lack the requisite context, language and means to understand not necessarily and largely defenselessly exposed to cleverly designed narratives? In a world where the many find themselves living in various replicas of Plato’s cave, can epistemological justice be evoked to remove the scales from their eyes? 

It is my contention that such epistemological and hermeneutical justice is imperative to enable fully human existence and that, consequently, a disruption of the epistemological status quo is needed. Little by little, awareness of context, the power of language and clarity of what it means to interpret increasingly need to be made available to all people, thereby promoting well lived lives. What is needed is nothing less than the recovery of narrative as part of the art of knowing and understanding.   

I am going to build off the work of Miranda Fricker in her book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing.[1] She defines epistemological and hermeneutical injustice as follows, “Testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word; hermeneutical injustice occurs at a prior stage, when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences.” It is no secret that the dissemination of stories and claims that fundamentally lack credibility have only become possible through the prevalence of social platforms such as Facebook. When such platforms approach the task of fact checking political adds, for instance anemically, that important responsibility is simply passed on to the end user. Regrettably, those users appear to be increasingly less able to be able to live up to that task. Consequently, so called alternative facts and narratives are now able to take on the mantle of credibility. Their destructive power, at this point, is exponentially increased.

For epistemologically and hermeneutically justice to be instated, just and authentically human paradigms of knowing and pedagogy need to be imagined creatively and innovatively. An epistemological and existential crisis has to be sparked by a disruption in knowing, in how to know. The “knower” needs to be empowered to question, to look for context, to deploy language meaningfully and to comprehend reality credibly. 

Prominent examples of where epistemological injustice has occurred in recent history include, the use of mis-information to justify the U.S. led invasion of Iraq; the torture of suspected Al-Quada leadership with a few to creating alternative narratives of truth for the end consumer, the 2016 U.S. election that involved both, domestic campaigns of mis-information and foreign interference, the U.S. embargo against Cuba ostensibly for purposes of pressuring and helping the private citizens of Cuba, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth; and the willful confusion of biblical theology and conservative or right wing politics in the context of evangelical churches in the U.S.. All of the above have their genesis in competing narratives for dominance, with little regard for truth. Truth, apparently, is no longer the issue. Instead the focus has shifted to realpolitik and the pragmatism of power. Gustave Le Bon impressively discusses what happens when polarized crowds are at odds with each other, “The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduces them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.” [2]

What would the process of dissecting any given narrative look like? What tools would be needed to make sense of reality? 

I propose to use the tools visual ethnography.[3] By asking a wide range of individuals a series of epistemologically motivated questions, I hope to construct a meaningful snapshot of epistemological and hermeneutical awareness. I plan to do so in Duluth, Minnesota at a Starbucks, the UMD Campus, Curly’s Bar, the street, Cuban exiles in Miami, Florida as well as Cuban citizens in Havana, Cuba. My visual ethnography tool, besides interviews, is photography. In this manner, the verbal discourse that emerges from the interviews will properly localized visually. 

I also propose to use speech act theory as a tool for interpreting narratives, thereby examining how locutionary acts, illocutionary acts, and/or perlocutionary acts are able to shed light on cultural meaning and understanding. The importance of this endeavor is powerfully illustrated  by Anthony C. Thiselton in New Horizons in Hermeneutics[4]specifically when he quotes Emilio Betti, “For humankind, nothing lies so close to the heart as understanding one’s fellow human being.” Thiselton goes on to write, “This process entails a recognition of the limits of my own understanding, and learning to listen, with patience and respect, not only to what the other person says, but also to why the other person says it.” Paul Ricoeur in Hermeneutics and Human Sciences[5] writes, “Here I should like to propose that hermeneutics has to appeal not only to linguistics…. but also to the theory of the speech-act such as we find it in Austin and Searle. The act of speaking, according to these authors, is constituted by a hierarchy of subordinate acts which are distributed on three levels: (1) the level of the locutionary or propositional act, the act of saying; (2) the level of the illocutionary act or force, that which we do in saying; and (3) the level of perlocutionary act, that which we do by saying.”

I will also use critical realism to attempt to bridge the gap between positivism and phenomenology. Critical realism is located both, between those two ends of the spectrum, as well as being offset from the axis that connects them. It is “realism” to the extent that it expresses sympathy with a view that reality exists externally to the mind, while at the same time not succumbing to what has become known as naïve realism. Having said that, it is also indebted to phenomenalism at least to a degree, in that it insists that reality can only ever be understood subjectively. Such understanding can never be proven. On the plus side, and as a celebration of true humanity, the necessity of subjectivity in understanding enables change and transformation in human beings. To that extent it is fundamentally human. Positivism, on the other hand is neither interested in or capable of understanding this. In Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Baskar’s Philosophy[6] Andrew Collier writes, “Bhaskar’s work offers us the possibility of a new beginning. This is so, in the first place, because it avoids the alternatives of irrationalism and a positivistic conception of rationality, which dilemma has beset modern philosophy. On the one hand, it is committed to unfettered reasoning, to a belief that science can give us real insights into the nature of things, and to an interest in the potential of reason and science for human emancipation….On the other hand, Bhaskar avoids ‘foundationalism’ of most of the thought stemming from the Enlightenment, the belief that reason and/or sense experience could provide out of their own resources, abstracted from any historical and social context, foundations for the edifice of knowledge – and indubitable foundations at that.”  

Critical realism attempts to break out of the very epistemological paradigm that has created gridlock in the conversations between the liberal left and conservative right. Ironically, they are both arguing from the same basic epistemological framework, while, on the other hand, reaching opposite conclusions of content. Effectively, they are dancing to the same tune, but they are certainly dancing differently. This dichotomy goes to the very heart of our inability to make sense of cultural realities and to distinguish truth in competing narratives. Nothing less than our shared humanity is in peril. Bhaskar writes about societies, “I shall concentrate first on the ontological question of the properties that societies possess, before shifting to the epistemological question of how these properties make them possible objects of knowledge for us. This is not an arbitrary order of development. It reflects the condition that, for transcendental realism, it is the nature of objects that determines their cognitive possibilities for us; that, in nature, it is humanity that is contingent and knowledge, so to speak, accidental.”[7]

In light of the above, how can we succeed in creating an innovative challenge in knowing differently and in knowing better? For now, I am pursuing this conversation on my blog[8]. I have also been asked by my friend and public speaker Maria French, the director of Hatchery & Co. to teach an online class on this very matter in January/February 2020. Also, as Warehouse Theology progresses under the leadership of Dr. Moritz, I am looking forward to teaching further classes that pursue the ideas foreshadowed here. Meanwhile, my visual ethnographic project will be extended to include more people and more locations.

Appendix A: Interview Questions

First Name:




Can I take your photo:

  1. Who is the President of the United States of America?
  2. Who is the President of Russia?
  3. Who is Billie Ellish?
  4. Who won the Super Bowl in 2019?
  5. Do you have:
    1. Facebook
    1. Instagram
    1. Twitter
    1. Snapchat
    1. TikToc
    1. Twitter
    1. YouTube Channel
  6. Who is Mark Zuckerberg?
  7. How many books have you read in the last year?
    1. 1-5
    1. 5-10
    1. 10 or more
  8. Is there a God?
  9. What tv news shows do you watch?
  10. How do you identify politically?
  11. Did you vote in the last election 2018?
  12. Did you vote in last Presidential election 2016?
  13. Do you think truth is fixed or fluid?
  14. Do you go to church?
  15. Are most issues black, white or gray?
  16. How do you know what you know?
  17. How do you interpret life?
  18. What is truer – a fiction or non-fiction book?
  19. How many foreign countries have you visited?
  20. Do you have a passport?
  21. Does education help or hinder one’s understanding of his/her experiences?
  22. What is most real/true for you?
  23. What do you most value?
  24. What are you grateful for?
  25. What does epistemology mean?
  26. What does hermeneutics mean?
  27. Are you interested in thinking about why you know what you know?
  28. Are you interested in thinking about how you interpret what you experience?
  29. In your opinion are there more than two genders?
  30. Is gender fixed or fluid?

[1] Fricker, Miranda, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). p.1.

[2] LeBon, Gustave, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002).

[3] See proposed question in Appendix A

[4] Thiselton, Anthony C., New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992). p.33.

[5] Ricoeur, Paul, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, ed. & trans. by Thompson B. John (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2016). p.161.

[6] Collier, Andrew, Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy (London, New York: Verso, 1994). p. ix.

[7] Collier, Andrew. p.137.


Humanity and AI

Humanity and AI Script

What does it mean to human in an age of artificial intelligence (AI)?[1] What differentiates humans from machines? Fundamentally, the answer is epistemological and hermeneutical. How do we know what we know, and would any machine know in the same way? For example, be able to pass the Turing test?[2] And, how do we interpret what we know? In the age of AI it is vitally important to explore the question of being human. To not do so renders humanity open to manipulation by algorithms or worse susceptible to a surveillance state. And, as technology and AI continue to invade the workplace the concept of labor continues to mutate, and the wealth disparity widens. Just as the industrial revolution brought freedom of human brawn the AI/tech revolution is transforming intellectual and routine tasks away from humans and onto machines.

Capital no longer thought of in terms of labor but data. Our digital dust is practically everywhere as social media is omniscient and handheld machines are ubiquitous. How is our digital fingerprint being used with and without our knowledge when we “the people” are the product? Here again how we know and how we interpret are vital when being bombarded with a plethora of competing ideas from all perspectives. How we distinguish what is a fact or an alternative fact or what is true and what is not. Especially when AI is used in promulgating confusion with social media. 

Nietzsche[3] pronounced that god was dead and we (humanity) had killed him. However dead god may be our human desire for a god has not diminished. The omnipresence of the digital world is the water we live in and epistemological awareness and interpretive shrewdness are uniquely human tools needed to navigate our world. 

It is my intention is to explore the question – what does it mean to be human in the age of AI by fusing the horizons of theology, philosophy, anthropology, photography, hermeneutics and computer science on a singular platform (my blog)[4] to produce a representation of the answers I discover and the new questions they generate.

[1] “Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the branch of computer sciences that emphasizes the development of intelligence machines, thinking and working like humans. For example, speech recognition, problem-solving, learning and planning.”

~ Farhan Saeed, IQVIS Blog

[2] “The phrase “The Turing Test” is sometimes used more generally to refer to some kinds of behavioural tests for the presence of mind, or thought, or intelligence in putatively minded entities.”

~ Oppy, Graham and Dowe, David, “The Turing Test”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

[3] “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, Tr. Walter Kaufmann

[4] The Face of Humanity,