The other day I asked a friend of mine whether or not I should go to the movie theater to watch the new indie film on the block. “How was it?” I asked. “Do you think I’d like it?”

“You’ll either love it, or you’re going to hate it,” they replied. “It’s one of those.”

Not even two days later, a friend giving me a book recommendation concluded with the same sentence. Yet, I have never understood such sentiment. It feels not only illogical (we will either love it or hate it?), but overly simplistic. More and more I have begun to notice this same “extremes-only” reasoning in places as varied as pop culture to academics. Once detected, there is no avoiding it: the YouTube video just recommended to me: “Android vs iPhone – Which is ACTUALLY Better?”; 50 Cent’s song title proclaiming “Hate It Or Love It”;  Le Corbusier on planning where to build the Cloister: “In choosing the site, I committed either a criminal or a worthwhile act”; Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or.”

Such examples could fill a book and an uninteresting one at that.

But why can’t things be just OK?

Why must we always default to either end of the spectrum of possibilities, leave out the middle, and implicitly assume in the process that human taste is devoid of nuance? The “extremes-only” reasoning is but a symptom of a much larger, less perceptible disease that is antithetical to human nature: the flattening of nuance into seemingly related yet grossly inaccurate approximations.

The stakes here are high. Yes, the obvious sphere to point to would be politics. Political stratification combined with a seeming need for a unified message produces many sentences beginning the same way: “it’s all Muslims’ fault”; “it’s all class struggle”; “it’s all God’s will”; “it’s all liberals/conservatives”; “it’s all a meaningless mess”; “it’s all climate change,” etc., etc.

Of course, nothing, save perhaps fundamental physics, is all (and even fundamental physics, after the quantum, is amorphous). And yet we appear to constantly reduce, approximate, and simplify to such an extent as to completely tear the already fraying strand between the nuance of the world and its referent. Far beyond politics, this hunched mental posture leaves so much on the table that we ought to reclaim.

To allow something to be “just OK” is to embrace the nuance of the world and our minds. Indeed, if there were to be a definitive difference between the mind and the computer it would surely be nuance. The computer, however complex, operates within binaries; a 1 or a 0. However advanced, Chat GPT is still iterative, a sort of convincing average of the known, and importantly not emergent. The mind, however, is defined by nuance; able to mentally hold a multitude of perspectives as both true and false simultaneously. It is designed for paradox.

Nuance pushes against conclusions, against satisfaction, and against ends. It is a place always in a process of becoming, and a place perhaps only humans can inhabit. Wayne Koestenbaum, in his foreword to Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, described nuance as “a shimmer beyond good and evil, beyond detection, beyond system…it never combusts. Nuance offers not a substantive destination but a murmuring.”[i] Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg wrote further that “The neutral, for Barthes, is not synonymous in the least with ready acquiescence, political neutrality, [or] a lapse into grayness,”[ii] indeed it would be just the opposite—full color!

This is what we ought to strive towards, and if such a striving begins with a book recommendation ending with “so, overall, it was just OK,” then so be it. Yet, the OK is so much more. Extremes feel strong. At first glance, they take up so much of our field of vision as to leave us with the illusion that there is only one other option—the other extreme. Their “strength,” however, should be thought of as a sort of initial intensity, like a sweet candy whose flavor is uniformly strong, but nothing compared to a good affogato.

While the OK might not feel strong, it is strong. It is layered and multi-dimensional. It has more depth, more substance, more. It is wide and narrow. It is stable and moving. It is and it isn’t. Its irreducibility evades attack. Seigworth and Gregg here again quote Barthes noting that the neutral “‘outplay[s] the paradigm,’ of oppositions and negations…while also guarding against the accidental consolidation of the very meaning that the Neutral (as ‘ardent, burning activity’) seeks to dissolve.”[iii]

Of course, the OK is not merely a rhetorical strategy or an ontological fog machine, but more than anything a better approximation of reality. More than strength, color, or complexity, it is accuracy that is the OK’s superpower. Most things end up in the middle; anyone who has taken high school statistics has seen the common demonstration where dozens of small balls are dropped into a pachinko-like peg board, resulting in what mathematics has termed a “normal distribution curve.” Even at random, things tend toward the middle. And yet, for obvious attention-seeking reasons, superlatives still rule (The Grammys! The Oscars!), and at this point have ruled for so long as to distort the middle itself, which is to say the world itself.

How can we move more fully into the beautifully liquid world of the OK? How can we embrace the complexity of the world, in all of its nuanced, indefinable, mediocre glory, and swim in it? Barthes gave us a hint: “[he] broke down perception into a contest between rival meanings—sometimes two, sometimes three. He didn’t want to enter their fray. He wanted to ‘outplay’ it—to let the wrestling match exhaust itself and produce the flower of an alternative position, a nonlocation, a floating aura without a site,”[iv] to inhabit further “those judgment-suspending moments when perception halts.[v] The answer lies in hesitation.

In our capitalist superstructure where we seek time and efficiency for time and efficiency’s sake, slowing down is heresy, yet it is the only way to inhabit the OKness of the world—the world itself. Bergson wrote that “time is what hinders everything from being given at once,”[vi] a blindingly obvious point that bears repeating. Phenomenologist Alia Al-Saji in her essay A Phenomenology of Hesitation offered hesitation as “a corrective—potentially critical and ethical—to…reifying structures,”[vii] as a method to “hold open,”[viii] to let in, durate, complicate, and put immediacy itself in brackets. The OK is a becoming, a happening, a never-yet in-between. Time—hesitation—is the wedge in the door, letting more drip through, suspending a closing, a finality.

So, let us hesitate, be confused, and live in the in-between, the OK, the maybe. Yes, we must erect simplified mental models of the world in order to exist in it, to not drown in oversaturated ambiguity. But we are too far at the other end of the spectrum at present. Next time, before you inevitably begin a sentence with an “it is,” perhaps take a moment longer, hesitate, and see if that “is” turns into a “could,” a “might,” or a “maybe,” but certainly not an “isn’t.”

Is Pluto a planet? A dwarf planet? Not a planet at all? Can it not just be Pluto?



[i] Koestenbaum, Wayne, and Roland Barthes. “In Defense of Nuance.” A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, Hill and Wang, New York, 1995. P XI.

[ii] Gregg, Melissa, and Gregory J. Seigworth. “An Inventory of Shimmers.” The Affect Theory Reader, Duke University Press, Durham, 2010. P 10.

[iii] Ibid.

Quoted: Barthes, Roland, and Thomas Clerc. The Neutral: Lecture Course at the College de France. Columbia University Press, 2007. P 7.

[iv] Koestenbaum, Wayne, and Roland Barthes. “In Defense of Nuance.” A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, Hill and Wang, New York, 1995. P X.

[v] Ibid. P XVI. My emphasis.

[vi] Bergson, Henri. The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics. United States, Dover Publications, 2012. P. 75

[vii] Alia Al-Saji. “A Phenomenology of Hesitation: Interrupting Racializing Habits of Seeing.” Living Alterities: Phenomenology, Embodiment, and Race, SUNY Press, Albany, 2015. P 144

[viii] Ibid.