The maps of the early modern world have often been lampooned because of the supposed tendency of mapmakers to fill in the unseen gaps of knowledge with notes like “there be dragons here.” While this is good for hilarity, it is unclear that our efforts at filling the unseen are often more profound than such obsolete maps. We cannot help but attempt to fill the unknown. As human beings, we all have things going on inside of our head that other people must guess at. How they fill in the unseen matters a great deal. And the same thing is true in larger aspects as well. When we see or when we seek to understand something, we put it in some sort of context. We try to fill in the games and see the unseen, and that can result in different judgments as we fill in the spaces different ways. Let us, at least briefly, try to illustrate how we can fill in the unseen.
It is perhaps little surprise that as a music fan I am a big fan of quirky pop music. When Paul McCartney released his second solo album, Ram, at the time it was savagely reviewed by critics who viewed it as self-indulgent and inconsequential. Fans at the time were more kind to the album, driving it to platinum status and turning the album’s single, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” to #1 status. Later on, the album became seen as being a forerunner to indie pop because of the quirky elements that had originally irritated and infuriated critics. The difference between the harsh early reviews and the much more positive later retrospectives is a different context. When the album was originally released, it was being compared with the very different music of its time, and its more stripped down and odd elements were at odds with the sound of the times. By the time a decade had passed, the album served as a template for other acts that were doing the same thing, and was seen not as an anomaly but as a trailblazer, and viewed as vastly more consequential as a result, even if the music itself did not change.
One of the characteristic aspects of our time is the tendency to see humorous images and words as being memes that exist on their own to be connected with a variety of situations out of their original context. Frequently this allows for a great deal of deeper connections to be made, and as someone who likes to make layered statements that apply in multiple, and occasionally even contrary, ways at the same time, it is little surprise that I have greatly enjoyed memes and their use. A single imagine with a bit of text can express several contexts, including an appreciation of the original context that the meme came from, a humorous message about the context the meme is being posted in, and often some ironic humor as well. It is the complexity of contexts and meanings that makes images so commonly used and perhaps also so problematic, because images are often designed intentionally to be directly contrary to the reality, and thus present a false impression of what really is. And while we can be greatly harmed by the false impressions that other people put, it is often in our own interest to present a false impression for our own well-being, and so it is hard in good faith to be harsh on others for doing what we do ourselves.
One of the more notable and lamentable ways that we fill in the unseen is to see other people as we are and to judge the unseen around us by what is unseen inside of us. There are various ways that this can be done. It is very common, for people, to fill the unseen about others and their motivations based on their own unseen behavior. For example, someone who is treacherous will assume that others are the same way because that is how they behave. Not all such filling has this sort of evil motive, though. It is also true that those who have had negative experiences in their lives tend to judge the unseen based on what they have experienced. This is is also unjust, but it requires a great deal of moral imagination to see the unseen as better than one has experienced, and not everyone has that sort of knowledge and hope to do so. Similarly, some people judge the unseen based on the ideas of their head, not realizing that people will not live up to or down to one’s ideological beliefs. In all of these cases, with varying degrees of folly and injustice, people fill the unseen with what is inside of their own hearts and minds, and what is inside our hearts and minds is not always what actually fills the world outside us and inside others.