Monday, December 28, 2009

Second Thoughts on Existentialism

Over a decade ago now, I discovered Robert Pirsig. My first encounter was blasé—I read the first 60 pages of ZMM for a high school class on philosophy and religious studies and faked my way through a paper on it. My interest in Pirsig didn’t surface until the next year, as I took Phil 101 and had ZMM assigned on the syllabus. I groaned inwardly, but—in the context of a semester on Plato, Nietzsche, and Kuhn—I found him much more interesting. I became simultaneously interested in philosophical problems and the life-entanglement that ZMM represented. Here’s a guy who went to the mat for these problems. It was very interesting.

I was on my way up to my 101 discussion group one day in an elevator with my TA, when he asked me what philosophy courses I was taking the spring semester. I looked quizzically at him and kind of shook my head saying, “I’m…not taking any…?” He got a funny look on his face: “Oh—I thought you were a philosophy major.” I said no, I was still undeclared. He said I should think about it, and a month later when our professor asked me to assist her in a class that spring, I thought the least I could do was declare (though it took me till mid-spring—I’m very lazy).

I took three philosophy courses that spring, in addition to the aesthetics course I helped out in (a complete farce: what do I know about aesthe—wait, I’m a literary critic in training now…I love aesthetics! Ha!, and boy do I know a lot about beauty, and stuff!) . They were in Greek philosophy, existentialism, and a random cavalcade of 20th century people, including the existentialists. The deal with the 20th century class was that we could pick out any philosopher we wanted, even if we didn’t study them specifically, and write our final on them. I chose Pirsig, and because he wasn’t well known as a philosopher, my professor suggested I compare Pirsig with someone else. Because I was taking so much existentialism, I picked Sartre. This turned into “Phenomenological-Existentialism and the Metaphysics of Quality.” I read Lila for the first time for this paper, and became enamored with Pirsig’s arguments about needing a new metaphysics for our culture. And because I had so much Pirsig on the brain, when it came to writing my existentialism paper, I couldn’t help but refute Camus with the help of my newly learned Pirsig-foundation called the MoQ. This was “Absurdity and the Meaning of Life.”

It never ceases to fascinate me that of all the junk I have lying around the internet, this particular essay sends me the most random readers who feel like writing (all of my reply letters begin “Thanks for reading and writing!”). Having written it a decade ago, though, I have mixed feelings about the arguments. (I have no mixed feelings about the writing—it’s horrid.) At the close, with the help of Pirsig’s theory of static levels, I get to state that Camus’ most pressing of philosophical problems, the question of suicide, of why I should not just off myself, has an easy answer: “It’s simply that Life has Meaning: to live.” Really? Life’s purpose is to be lived? I suggest that this “rather simple ethics” “leaves the door open” for the further development of a teleological ethics, but why on earth should we think that the firm foundation of the ultimate telos of life is “to be lived,” and this because we are cellular beings? At root, life has biological meaning, so now Camus’ full of crap. “Life’s purpose is to be lived” is at best a tautology, and how boring is that? Why on earth would somebody think that that’s an interesting answer to Camus’ problem?

In my estimation, there are two types of 19-year-old philosophy students: 1) people who thought Nietzsche was probably right when he said “God is dead” at 18 and still do and 2) people who thought Nietzsche was right at 18 but now don’t. I was the latter type. Most people who go in for philosophy these days do not make it through their teenage years undisillusioned (saying “illusioned” would be unfair to people for whom it hasn’t even occurred that life might be an illusion—and since Platonism is predicated on the appearance/reality distinction, such an awareness does seem to be intrinsic to philosophy). I, certainly, didn’t make it. However, I also didn’t really care that God was dead. Some people like Camus do. He cared very much, for only somebody that takes Nietzsche far too seriously could take seriously the question, “Why should I not commit suicide?”—let alone as the only truly pressing philosophical question. Passing through Nietzsche makes some people (call them “existentialists”) really pessimistic about humanity, even cynical. I wouldn’t say I was optimistic—I spent much of my time making fun of everything around me and I thought most other people were idiots (it’s hard not to when living in a dorm)—but cynical? It seemed like the perverse twin of the eternal optimism of people who go in for God. I just couldn’t get up the energy for that—it seemed like I’d have to spend just as much energy pissing on God’s grave as I would have had to do propping Him up, and when it comes right down to it, I’m very lazy.

So, what happens to some lazy 18-year-olds who go in for philosophy is that on their way to 19 they discover an easy way out—someone offers them a quick dialectical fix, a cheap but sturdy looking foundation that claims to give more polemical bang for your argumentative buck. (If they don’t find one of these by 20, they either cease to be lazy and declare as political science or sociology majors and try to save the world, or—if still lazy—enter an English department.) That was Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality for me. The trouble is, you still have something you need to prop up, and that’s no fun. It ends up being just as much work as a full-fledged God. Here you are, standing your philosophical ground, and you need something to cover yourself from all those existentialists pissing on you, but you choose a shack with a leaky roof, when at least the God-guy across the street has somebody to talk to for comfort. And so many, by 22, leave philosophical ground and never come back. I mean, shit, you just move a hundred yards south and you can watch all the football you want without ever worrying about the pissing match occurring right up the alley.

True enlightenment happens, though, when you realize that you can avoid the golden shower while still remaining on philosophical terrain. You don’t need a foundation, you just move up hill and let the others piss themselves all they want. Doing this means seeing the need for a house, even a shitty leaky one, as a small problem in a larger landscape. Seeing this, where there’s suddenly a dry hill out back you’d never noticed before, means seeing that not only is the tautology, “Life’s purpose is to be lived,” both true and boring—but it makes you wonder why you thought you should’ve been excited by it. Seeing the larger terrain of life starts to make you wonder about everyone’s motivation for saying and doing certain things, like praying or building houses or pissing on them.

Why did I go in for being a quasi-metaphysician for a time, to want to build some sort of foundation, but not an expensive God-like one? The presupposition in this is: I felt that Camus’ question needed to be answered. I felt that the cynics needed to be answered on their own ground. But once one looks at that dry hill, you have to wonder: why would I want muddy ground that’s been pissed on for 2500 years? I.e., why does Camus feel the need to ask his question? Is every question a good question? Maybe not—maybe we should wonder about Camus.

Once you start wondering about the foundation metaphor, about the need for a knock-down answer to stubbornly stupid questions like “Why should I not kill myself,” you start seeing philosophy as just another mode of articulating yourself. And you notice that you can articulate yourself anywhere, not just at your pissed-on house. So you think about moving up hill. You start to think of philosophy as just another piece of your clothing, that keeps you warm and comfortable, but is mobile and flexible, and if it becomes threadbare, you get something new—because it’s all about having something nice to wear while you wander through the landscape of life. (If anybody’s wondering what expensive, well-worn term of opprobrium to apply to this attitude, if you guessed “aestheticism,” give yourself a serious, stern nod of approval. Sorry, all the gold stars and hot bling are reserved for the people who care about the appearances—you only care about reality, a cold, bleak place which could give a shit if you get it right. So while you shiver in your patched-up hovel, dripping like an R. Kelly wet dream, console yourself—as you watch the carnivalesque, tiki-torch party on the side of the hill—with the thought that all those people are going to hell…or whatever equivalent you’ve dreamed up for them.)

The argument I made in the essay was valid, I think, but it was also—much like my last parenthetical—just silly. Why would one make it? I made it because I thought life needed a big Telos, even if it was a silly one. And, come to think of it, mine was perfect: if Camus is going to ask a stupid question, then I’m going to give a stupid answer. If you demand that the space where the Grand Telos used to be is filled, then in a disillusioned age the only way to fill it is with the inverse of God’s grandeur—tautological insipidness. Some people think that the space does need to be filled. Those who think, for instance, that free will is impossible because Darwin and Newton have proven determinism true, and therefore moral action is in trouble—these people think the hole left by God needs to be filled. They want a Grand Telos.

But why? Why not just have a little telos, or a bunch of little teloses? Why even continue using the Greek? Just say “purpose,” think of all the little things you do and why you do them, and if you like fulfilling these little goals, then keep doing them. If not, then don’t. If you break things into small enough pieces, then odds are that you’ll never answer “no” to all of them and have to start contemplating suicide. Camus’ mistake was to take all the little things as emblems for one big thing, to take riding the subway or going to work as symbols that don’t signify various little purposes, but all signify One Big Purpose. And the only thing he could figure out to fit was Nothing, and hence the absurdity. But if we thought it was a good idea to stop contemplating the big guy named God, maybe the trouble wasn’t God, but the continual contemplation of something big, parenthetical or otherwise.

My attempt to resurrect “teleological arguments” was a short-lived effort to save my leaky roof. In “Absurdity and the Meaning of Life,” I answered for ethics by taking on Kantian deontology. I still think that’s right. Deontology rests on the assumption that the World, or Reason, or Something—Something Big—gives us obligations to be performed. I don’t think that’s true. I think the only reason we have any obligations is because somebody gives them to us, meaning we give them to ourselves, and we can start breaking these obligations off into small pieces and deal with them in terms of the purposes they fulfill—which is to transform “obligation,” and deontology, into a utilitarian ethics of some kind. Not the old teleology, but a pragmatist notion of only being obligated to each other, a notion of solidarity rather than the old, cosmological obligation Kant tried to keep alive (for more on this train of thought, see “Religion, a Utilitarian Ethics of Belief, and the Public/Private Distinction”). In a later paper, “Mechanistic Philosophy and the Yellow Brick Road of Science,” I tried to give sense to “teleological argument” for science. That failed miserably, as one helpful commentator pointed out ruthlessly, and was the beginning of my suspicions that I should just can the telos talk.

So while I still think Nietzschean anti-Kantianism is right, the whole idea of pressing philosophical ethical questions doesn’t, and that’s because the notion of “philosophy” is typically the “big view.” As my metaphor earlier suggests, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a big view—the problem just seems not knowing when to give it a rest. The big view is necessarily, because of its bigness, abstract—the “high country of the mind,” as Pirsig put it. But some problems are down in the woods, under the canopy, and being up high obscures them. My engagement with Sartre and Husserl brings out somewhat the part of existentialisme français I still think is true. Whatever Husserl’s scientism and Sartre’s decisionism (let alone Camus’ woeisme), the easy slogan we might distill from existentialism is “existence precedes essence.”

The slogan signifies two movements: 1) the movement away from essentialism, the notion that there are set, defined centers to each particular thing that can be discovered rather than fluid, evolving centers created by the thing (any “essence” is created by the way in which we exist) and 2) the movement away from Platonic other-worldliness, away from the Realm of the Forms and back down to the ground-level of life. If there is any utility left in the “Absurdity” paper, it is the slapping around of deontology; if any in the “Phenomenological-Existentialism” paper, it is my playing up of lebenswelt, the “lifeworld” that Husserl wanted us to get back to. (Oh, and Demonstration Stick Man, who finally made an uncredited comeback in “A Spatial Model of Belief Change.” What a mysterious person—is he a man who is a demonstration-stick or a stickman used for demonstrations?) The notion of lifeworld is useful in reminding philosophers, people who occasionally think too big for their own britches, that their reflections are rooted in a world that is not itself the world of reflection. This sounds other-worldly again, but perhaps a comparison with fiction may help—the words of a novel serve to create a world in which we can live through the reading of the words. Philosophy does that, too—the only difference is that if the words of philosophy do not connect up usefully enough with the things we do when not reading philosophy, then we might begin to doubt that it is philosophy we’re reading, but perhaps rather fiction (which is what well-read pragmatists think of large swaths of Plato’s dialogues and what most of my dorm-mates thought of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, as much as I tried to persuade them to the contrary).

Friday, December 25, 2009

Two Poems

So, I stop posting for nearly four months because of the demands of grad life, and I come back with two poems? How does that work? you may be asking.

Well, one of my classes was on poetry, and writing on poetry...every week, which for prose people is like tearing the skin off of a cat every week--it's a gruesome, painful, disturbing process that leaves you torn up and lying awake at nights, but it's gotta' be done. And any excuse to do something else you'll do, even if it's writing your own poetry, which for prose people is like pulling out your own eyes--it's a gruesome, painful, disturbing process without much chance of you seeing what you're doing. That is why I have two new poems.

The first is a traditional sestina, written instead of writing about a sestina. A sestina has a specific kind of repetitive involution, in which the last words of each stanza repeat, but they change places in a pattern: lines 123456 of stanza one becomes 615243 of stanza two--and then repeat. (Also, the poem is in pentameter, and the last three lines are the "envoi," which repeats the last three end-words of the last stanza, and includes the other three left out words.) There's a lot of tradition with the damn thing, and some interesting theorizing about the pattern, but instead I wrote my own, the mandate being to turn the form of the verse into a trope of the poetry. So what does the involution of my end-words mean? I wrote the poem to specifically avoid having to answer that kind of question, so I'm not starting now.

The second poem was written under the mandate of turning rhyme into a trope. You don't just rhyme for fun--that's not poetry, but jingoism. The rhyming is supposed to service the poetic meaning somehow. Which if you think about the wrong way, tells you something about the poem I wrote.


Wandering Eye

Trust not broken meets the spoken candor
Gifted the silken words. Dropped the slow tear,
Not unexpected, swift the sign of care.
Baited with long-lashed, purpled hoods, with breath
Hung like violets, no one asked to endure.
Questions remain: is there more in the eye?

I wonder, I start, I ask what this eye
Must do to break the certain soft candor.
Like Sisyphus, what more must I endure?
Talented and introduced, spilling, “Tear
Not and hide away your lingering breath,
Your not understated, lilac quick care.”

Overcrowded incense, thrice lingered care,
Now not unbelief—pry open this eye!
I flinch at the outburst, like violent breath
Hooking snappers. I wonder in candor
If I’m able enough to harden tear-
Drops, and if I cannot, how to endure?

I cannot quit my end. Like awe, endure
Beyond four announcements, symbols of care,
Stuttering I rip this lavender tear!
Breaking underneath this flush orchid eye,
I wilt, I wander, no more heard candor
Can greet the full sense of this draining breath.

I huddle myself, I draw in my breath,
I unask questions I’ve sought to endure.
We should speak, like infants, with mute candor
Of the Herculean effort to care.
Gazing back and asking that hurtful eye,
Is it true to wipe away that one tear?

Empyrean stars, crying their last tear-
Drops; Adamic gods giving their last breath;
All is all, now plumb the depths of the eye:
Sinking down slowly, asking to endure—
I wonder, I start, I thunder, “I care…”
Now these dangled, scar-lent words in candor,

Spoken not unbroken, meant to endure.
Hushed, gentle scarlet breath, quickening care—
Answers silk tear-drops: trust this eye’s candor.


Sign of the Times

This feels a little at odds
Like spittle crossed down your
Face, quickening pace—
So austere you
Appear with
Thirst for
So fine.
Flow on back
Up to the cup
That spilt this clear side-
Ways mouth-tear forever
The sign of true muffled time.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Austin Gets Rhemed

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


J. L. Austin occupies a curious place in the philosophical canon. On the one hand, he began practicing what came to be known as "ordinary-language philosophy," which a professor of mine said John Searle picked up and beat to death and made ugly. And this is why Rorty can be found saying that, as with Derrida and deconstruction, ordinary-language philosophy isn't a program, but whatever it is that Austin was doing. Yet, on the other hand, as the close of Rorty's wonderful introduction to his anthology, The Linguistic Turn, intimates--Austin did seem to want to be programmatic.

I'd like to focus on a section in Austin's How to Do Things With Words in order to bring out why one shouldn't (like Searle) push Austin for programmatic purposes.

At the start of Lecture 8, Austin reminds us of his distinction between phonetic, phatic, and rhetic acts (95). The phonetic is the "act of uttering certain noises," the phatic "noises of certain types," i.e. linguistic noises, and rhetic is defined as "using those vocables with a certain more-or-less definite sense and reference."

The first thing to notice is that it is difficult to maintain the distinction between phatic and rhetic. Both phatic and rhetic are, roughly, intelligible noises, noises we recognize as linguistic, and therefore functioning in a linguistic manner (which is to say, having sense and reference). Austin quickly allays our fears of collapse by giving a simple example of what he means:
Thus 'He said "The cat is on the mat"', reports a phatic act, whereas 'He said that the cat was on the mat' reports a rhetic act. (95)
Oh, that seems simple--take off the quotes, and add "that." The trouble arises again, though, when we we try and think about how intelligible a foreign language is to us:
'He said "gibba gobba gooba"' reports a phatic act, whereas 'He said that gibba gobba gooba' reports a rhetic act.
It's gibberish. If we don't already understand prior to hearing certain noises, in a fairly definite way, what the sense and reference are of certain noises--if we don't already recognize it as a language--then all we'll hear are phonemes.

Austin doesn't quite say this, but the set-up seems to suggest that we can distinguish a pheme prior to being able to distinguish a rheme, that we can hear it's a pheme without it necessarily making any rhetic sense. Austin says later, "it is clear that we can perform a phatic act which is not a rhetic act, though not conversely." Can we? "Thus we may repeat someone else's remark or mumble over some sentence, or we may read a Latin sentence without knowing the meaning of the words" (97). So, just knowing that a set of noises is supposed to be linguistic is enough for the noises to be phatic? "If a monkey makes a noise indistinguishable from 'go' it is still not a phatic act" (96). Because the monkey didn't realize he said "go"? What if he did? What if it was a gorilla and the language ASL? What if the gorilla made a gesture, and we just sat there stupidly while the gorilla's thinking, "Hey, idiot, I just told you to get out of my seat"? We didn't recognize it as language, and so no phatic or rhetic act, despite that it was intended as such.

"The pheme is a unit of language: its typical fault is to be nonsense--meaningless. But the rheme is a unit of speech; its typical fault is to be vague or void or obscure, etc." (98) But isn't part of Austin's point (or rather, shouldn't it be) that there is no static "language" outside of the act of it's performance, outside of, e.g., speech? (It is apropos to recall Donald Davidson's remark that "there's no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed."[1])

I bring this up is because of what these set of three--phonetic, phatic, rhetic--have in relationship to the more famous and important set of three--locution, illocution, perlocution.

Locution : "Look out!"
Illocution : warning
Perloction : he was warned

The locutionary act are the words being emitted, the illocutionary act is the intended effect of the words, and the perlocutionary act is the actual effect of the illocutionary act. These seem on the surface much more likely not to collapse, I will agree. What seems to be the case in the way Austin uses the first set and the second set is that he intends a locution to be a full phonetic-phatic-rhetic combo act--a fully intelligible linguistic act. From there, and this is what prompts his distinctions, we still get fuzziness in isolating meaning (which was the quest of his predecessors, something like the linguistic version of Descartes' "clear and distinct ideas"), and so he distinguishes the linguistic noise from the noises intended effect, let alone what it causes in a hearer.

Or is that right? What if the locution is simply a phonetic-phatic act, linguistic, but bereft of "more-or-less determined sense and reference," which is the rhetic? This would make sense, for to determine the sense and reference of "Look out!" we would determine that it was a warning. This would make the illocutionary effect a rhetic act, which brings us back to some trouble.

Some literary critics have turned the notion of "speech acts," and specifically the illocutionary act, towards practical duties in reading. For instance, in reading poetry (and this could really go for any piece of language) one might distinguish between the speech act of a line from its tone. To take an example:
Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
These are the first six lines of William Carlos Williams' "The Widow's Lament in Springtime." When treating a selection, the first thing you'd need to do is parcel out speech acts. A period followed by a capital letter, particularly in a poem, need not be the typographic cue for a new speech act (notice, too, the fluid nature of demarcation in speech, and follow that through in written language). The speech act of a poem would be the intended effect of the poetic speaker in "uttering" the particular words and phrases. In this case, we have a widow: "sorrow is my own yard." Noticing the elevated diction created by the odd syntax (let alone the metaphor), we might say that the widow in the first line is insisting to herself the state of her mind--speech act: to insist. We might hold from calling the tone of this speech act, however, insistent. The diction makes it dignified.

I do not doubt the efficacy in using Austin to help climb into a poem--but what I wonder is how the collapse of the phatic/rhetic, locution/illocution might effect the further plunge into a poem. For instance, wouldn't tone be part of an illocutionary act? To take "look out," wouldn't the tone in which I said it create, to a large extent, the intended effect of a warning? And if tone is part of the illocutionary act, the rhetic act, then are we really talking about the same speech act--the same poem--if we get the tone wrong? In other words, if we get the tone wrong, might we be getting the speech act wrong, and if the speech act, then the poem? Might this be why we can still talk about better and worse readings of a poem?

There are a lot of interesting theoretical conundrums lying around this area, and though the distinction between tone and speech act might seem a little artificial, it can be quite useful. The above considerations are probably more like an explanation of why any one of us may have trouble climbing into poems--poems are what they are because of their active attempt to flout their very composition as language, i.e. as having definite sense and reference. It might be important to remember Davidson on metaphors here. Davidson said that metaphors aren't the kind of things that have two meanings, one literal and another metaphorical, but are rather simply noises. Until you beat these surprising noises or marks on a page that have no initial meaning down (by giving them sense from repeated use), they are just unintelligible noises or marks. But when you do, you eventually get dead metaphors we don't even bat an eyelash (i.e. don't even recognize as metaphors, but just as having one literal sense)--like rivers having mouths or mountains feet.


[1] From "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs," collected in Truth, Language, and History, 107.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Narrative and Making Sense

In honor of my first day of school, here is the paper I submitted to the grad schools I applied to. It includes pieces of three posts I have already posted (two of which were originally papers for what I called the "Time Class"), but the material has shifted enough that I'm not even going to bother pointing them out.

I feel like I'm 18 again. I haven't like I was 18 again since I was 23.

This was the culmination of the Time Class I took last summer that began with James, Bergson and Woolf, and I'm quite happy with it (which will only last for another couple months, I imagine). I don't like Jameson much, but he ends up making a pretty good foil. This paper crystallizes the dynamic I've been exploring, picked up from Rorty's practical philosophy and Pirsig's philosophical practice, between Narrative and Theory. It is likely largest stepping-stone in the area from where I am now and the things I'll be writing in the future.

What might be interesting for readers of Pirsig is my engagement with Sherman Alexie. In Lila, Pirsig apotheosizes the Native American, but his descriptions of them, I don't think, go much further at best than a finger in the right direction, too fuzzy and glorifying to reach what's really interesting in a contrast with white American culture. Reading Alexie will give you that real contrast, and the tradition that should be tapped into. (While on the one hand, this seems to depreciate Pirsig's own accomplishment, on the other, when I move to interpreting Alexie at the end of the paper, when I move to suggest that what Thomas the myth-maker says is not literally true, but that that's because he isn't using a Western sense of literalness, I could've just as easily said that Thomas was being metaphorical. That would've been true, but only from a Western perspective, and the breaking from a narrow literary reading to a larger literary-philosophical reading of the book was made possible for me, in part, because of my previous encounter with Pirsig.)

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


There are two kinds of people who feel all too keenly the potential loss of self: teenagers and philosophers. For the former group, anxiety often arises as they navigate the treacherous waters of identity formation, passing from the stage of dependent learning of childhood to the achieved autonomy of adulthood. Occasionally adolescents become disaffected as they become self-conscious about the entire process, learning that the available identity forms they are facing—and have indeed already inculcated in childhood—are the contingent products of a nameless history they seem randomly inserted into, thus eliminating their sense of uniqueness and any hope for autonomous control. A few of these inadvertently read Nietzsche, or perhaps Sartre, and become philosophers.

Through an interesting, though for present purposes passable, chain of events, many who in a past age might have become philosophers find themselves comfortably seated in English departments. If philosophy is generically the task of apprehending the largeness of culture and its problems, literary studies has produced a wing of their own to do just that: literary theory. In what follows, I would like to pick up one theorist of culture, Frederic Jameson, and evaluate his situation in contemporary theoretical discourse. Jameson’s overall argument is that our cultural coherence has disintegrated, leaving us—i.e., any chance of us having a sense of self—and our attempts to live well and responsibly in tatters, calling this condition “postmodernism.” My overall argument shall be that, while Jameson interestingly collages together a number of contemporary cultural patterns, his attempt to produce a (specific kind of) theory is exactly what hampers him. More specifically, Jameson believes a holistic account of language unsettles our attempts to make sense, whereas I will argue, in effect, that making sense is a basic condition of humanity (the basic form of which to be repeated is: to make sense of the case that we have demonstrably stopped making sense is to performatively contradict the case—you’ve just made sense). If my argument is right, though, we must redescribe the old ways of describing our situation in life that Jameson still clings to. For this I will recur to the example of Sherman Alexie and the work of Alasdair MacIntyre. In their work, we will find the messy stuff of life housed in the dwelling of mythic narratives.

Jameson’s first feature of postmodernism is “a new depthlessness” (Jameson 6). One of the prime pieces of evidence for this that Jameson points to is the rise of antifoundationalism in contemporary philosophy and theory. In Geyh, Leebron and Levy’s functional introduction to postmodern theory, they flesh out the notion of antifoundationalism chiefly by reference to Lyotard and Derrida. Lyotard defines “postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives” (Lyotard xxiv, italics his). For Lyotard, the postmodern condition is basically a skeptical attitude toward “any philosophy or theory … which claims to provide a complete explanation of culture and society” (Geyh xx). Derrida’s orientation toward the function of language is a rejection of the atomistic, pairing off of word-bits with their correct world-bit partners in favor of a linguistic holism, where meaning is generated by the ensemble of signs in interlocking conjunction. Derrida’s realization was that meaning is therefore “always in some sense in process, unstable, and ‘in play,’” (xxi) as the circumscribed ensemble can always be increased or decreased as context demands—like the shift in music from a string quartet to the London Symphony Orchestra. So on the one hand, Lyotard eliminates the large, overarching foundations for situating ourselves in the world and, on the other, Derrida eliminates the small, underpinned moorings we used to situate ourselves.

This instability is enunciated well by Jameson as he discusses the fate of the “self” at the hands of postmodernism. Jameson says that “the very concept of expression presupposes indeed some separation within the subject, and along with that a whole metaphysics of the inside and outside” (Jameson 11) and that postmodernism has made it central to itself to be “committed to the mission of criticizing and discrediting this very hermeneutic model of the inside and the outside” (12). This obliteration of the self is predicted largely by Wyndham Lewis’ identification of the irony of romanticism—all this focus on the individual personality ends up eviscerating the notion individuals.[fn.1] What we have, in some sense, is a hyper-romanticism in postmodernism, a dissolution of anything substantive to be as a self by the elimination of the traditional hard edges (of metanarratives or word-world pinnings) and the relocation of meaning-inscription within each person as they swim through the bottomless stream of time. We begin blending into each other because we are never quite sure where we end and someone else begins because we ultimately only know ourselves.

We should look closely, however, at what Jameson means by the “hermeneutic model.” Jameson says, in reference to his two readings of Van Gogh, that he’s using it in the sense “in which the work in its inert, objectal form is taken as a clue or a symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth” (8). So, in Jameson’s example, either his initial or his Heideggerian reading of Van Gogh’s peasant shoes replaces, perhaps, a simpler, shorter reading of the painting (something like, “They are shoes.”). This is characteristic of the earlier modern period, but in the postmodern period, we have works like Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes which “does not really speak to us at all” (ibid.). After noting a number of the painting’s features, Jameson concludes, “There is therefore in Warhol no way to complete the hermeneutic gesture…” (ibid.). If this is the case, though, one might wonder what the proceeding 167 words were if not an attempt to elaborate the “ultimate truth” to which Warhol’s painting is but “a clue.” Isn’t “there is therefore…” a signal that whatever fills in the ellipsis is the truth of the matter? The whole functioning structure of argumentative discourse preempts Jameson’s attempt to argue that postmodern discourse refuses conclusions in favor of unconnected pieces of flotsam, “oddments” without their “whole larger lived context” (ibid.).

In Jameson’s defense, he’s attempting to pull out the consequences to our culture of arguments that so-called postmodern theorists have been making. He says it would “be inconsistent to defend the truth of its theoretical insights in a situation in which the very concept of ‘truth’ itself is part of the metaphysical baggage which poststructuralism seeks to abandon” (12). The problem for Jameson is that he’s taking seriously things that he shouldn’t. Antifoundationalism doesn’t translate into a loss of truth, though many less careful theorists have thought so. A thorough-going theoretical antifoundationalism translates into a pragmatic linguistic holism. It doesn’t eliminate our connection to life, but radically reasserts the “whole larger lived context.” All antifoundationalism does to the hermeneutic model (“the work in its inert, objectal form is taken as a clue or a symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth”) is excise the word “ultimate.”

To help show what I mean, I’d like to trail into Jameson’s discussion of schizophrenia. Piggybacking on Jacques Lacan, Jameson “describes schizophrenia as a breakdown in the signifying chain” (26). Jameson states rightly that in holism the old “signified,” which used to be classically seen in atomistic conceptions of language as a material world-chunk, is now seen to be just another signifier.[fn.2] A signifier-as-signified, however, is in a particular kind of context, one of, roughly, being-pointed-to as opposed to the usual doing-the-pointing situation of a signifier. Jameson, again rightly, calls this a “meaning-effect,” but then goes on to call this an “objective mirage of signification generated and projected by the relationship of signifiers among themselves” (ibid.). A consistent holist would not say that the context-dependence of meaning puts objectivity (or truth) in jeopardy, but simply replaces a bad philosophy of language with a better one, one that redescribes the sources of objectivity accordingly.

This is the crux of Jameson’s argument, however. He has to take seriously the idea that objectivity has been exposed as a mirage to be able to bridge from the analogy between, on the one hand, the psychic life of persons and the functioning of language to, on the other, the meltdown of literary and historical meaning as postmodern artists set out to render life in contextless (and hence, meaningless) chunks. Jameson’s fear of schizophrenia is the cultural realization of “a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers” (ibid.). He says this creates “an experience of pure material signifiers … a series of pure and unrelated presents in time” (27). We might feel Jameson’s fear, which could be described “in the negative terms of anxiety and loss of reality,” but we might also “just as well imagine in the positive terms of euphoria, a high, an intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity” (27-8). The old, atomistic view of language once safe-guarded our sense that we could get back in touch with a solid reality, but—now in postmodernity—we no longer have this comfort.[fn.3]

To reapply the form of my argument again, Jameson’s argument breaks down by its very ability to compose itself as an argument.[fn.4] Put very simply—schizophrenic contextlessness cannot actually exist, for if it did, it would be just as much a “meaning-effect,” an effect of context, as any other normal-seeming, contextually generated meaning.[fn.5] Jameson cannot move from holism to a scary form of schizophrenia because holism simply describes how we are (and were) always situated, not a new situation. The only new thing in antifoundationalist holism is the fact that we are rejecting Plato’s way describing our reality, not introducing a massively new and differently behaving and organizing reality.

According to Jameson’s theory, we should encounter cultural artifacts that are isolated and contextless, “randomly heterogeneous and fragmentary” (25). The consequence of this theory is that displays of history and time should be free-floating, broken from their signifying chain. A good example of how this theory founders in practice is Sherman Alexie’s “A Drug Called Tradition.” In this section, Victor and his friends take an unnamed drug and free-float through a series of hallucinatory dreams in the recapitulation of the evening. This would seem to be a good example for Jameson’s cause: the very concept of history is called into question as the boys see pasts and presents that are clearly not what had happened or is happening. And by the end, Alexie has someone hallucinating a theory of history that ends with “We are trapped in the now” (Alexie 22, italics his).

The ironic return of context begins with analyzing the italics in the passage. Devoid of the context of the piece, one might think Alexie was emphasizing the trap of presentness, much like Jameson’s notion of the sad, but inescapable state of postmodernism. But this is not what the italics mean. The italics are part of a consistent effort to demarcate the boundaries between hallucinative state of dream and normal state of reality. This stylistic choice, among others, is what signals to us, the readers, that we are reading something different than what is contained in the other parts (whatever the differences end up meaning on any of the many levels one could interpret them).

The point is that Alexie, as a writer, circumscribes the context with which we are to read the passages as much as the atomist supposes that the world circumscribes our words and what they mean. The hallucinatory effects in Alexie are as much “meaning-effects” as are normality and my attempt at asserting this particular meaning-effect over the italics-as-emphasis reading is as much hermeneutical as any other. This doesn’t mean atomism is true, it simply means that context always determines meaning, including the appearance of meaninglessnes or contextlessness. Jameson has confused a theoretical point about language-functioning for an empirical shift in culture, including the empirical shiftings of literary production.

Jameson must make this confusion, however, for his theory to attain its critical bite. Jameson’s intention is to identify “a dominant cultural logic or hegemonic norm” in order “to reflect more adequately on the most effective forms of any radical cultural politics today” (Jameson 6). The key to understanding the perspective Jameson is coming from is seeing him as a nostalgic Platonist. Jameson says our “cultural production” “can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world,” but is now “in Plato’s cave” (25, italics mine). Plato was suggesting a metaphorics for describing our knowledge-production. The holists, like Derrida, want to reject wholesale this entire edifice, whereas Jameson seems to swallow Plato’s poison pill and imagine we were once out in the light of Plato’s Form of the Good, but we have now—in real historical time—been shuttled back down into the cave.[fn.6]

Seeing Jameson this way makes sense of his strange remark that the contemporary announcement of the “‘death’ of the subject” sees two possible formulations, “the historicist one, that a once-existing centered subject … has today in the world organizational bureaucracy dissolved; and the more radical poststructuralist position, for which such a subject never existed…” (15). If one buys into my argument, that antifoundationalism doesn’t set us adrift into an endless sea of interpretation, but thrusts us, paradoxically, into the position we’ve always been in—of figuring out what stuff means by the context we find ourselves in—then poststructuralism is ultimately not radical at all because nothing follows from it in terms of how to figure out what stuff means: nothing changes as a consequence of it. Jameson does think that something has followed from poststructuralism, but some of his more extreme formulations seem to be more like reductio ad absurdums for his theory. If poststructuralism meant more than the death of Platonic rhetoric, then indeed it would mean the end “of style, in the sense of the unique brush stroke” (ibid.). And yet, how is that not just more hyperbole, in direct relation to the postmoderns who do think their deconstruction of Plato means something to culture and not just the culture of philosophers? And worst of all, Jameson suggests that “concepts such as anxiety and alienation … are no longer appropriate in the world of the postmodern,” to which the only appropriate response seems to be: as long as there are teenagers there will be anxiety and alienation.

The question might be why Jameson thinks we need a conception of language, or truth or whatever, that is harder and edgier than the holist’s. For this we need not diagnose culture-at-large, like Jameson, but simply the much smaller culture of philosophers. What Jameson, and others who hope for foundationalist theory, suffer from is what Richard Bernstein calls “Cartesian Anxiety.” Cartesian Anxiety is Bernstein’s name for the fear one experiences when faced with the “grand and seductive Either/Or” situation of Platonism: “Either there is some support for our being, a fixed foundation for our knowledge, or we cannot escape the forces of darkness that envelop us with madness, with intellectual and moral chaos” (Bernstein 18). Descartes set the pace for modern philosophy by turning inwards for the foundations of knowledge. The dialectic of modern philosophy, however, has turned up with nothing, and so we get Jameson and Lewis’ fear of the loss of personal identity.

There is another trail out of Descartes, however, that doesn’t falter on the trumped-up fear of falling into an abyss without a theoretical Archimedean point. Alasdair MacIntyre begins by thinking about what it means to be in an “epistemological crisis.” He does so in a very down to earth, real life manner, like when “someone who has believed that he was highly valued by his employers and colleagues is suddenly fired” or when “someone falls out of love and needs to know how he or she can possibly be so mistaken in the other” (MacIntyre 241). These are real problems that most of us have faced, or can at least imagine being in. What we think about people is based on how they behave, but sometimes our entire outlook on them changes and all their behavioral cues become transmogrified—and worse, sometimes we cease to be certain about how to take their behavior at all. What we “took to be evidence pointing unambiguously in some one direction now turns out to have been equally susceptible of rival interpretations” (ibid.).

This produces a frightful situation in which we lose our hold on reality. For “my ability to understand what you are doing and my ability to act intelligibly (both to myself and to others) are one and the same ability” (242). If we begin to lose our hold on others, we begin to lose our hold on ourselves. Recurring to the example of Hamlet as an exemplar of epistemological crisis, MacIntyre says perceptively that “to be unable to render oneself intelligible is to risk being taken to be mad—is, if carried far enough, to be mad. And madness or death may always be the outcomes that prevent the resolution of an epistemological crisis, for an epistemological crisis is always a crisis in human relationships” (243).

The wisdom that MacIntyre is pulling out of the example of such an individual in distress has the same implications for disciplines or paradigms of thought in distress. “When an epistemological crisis is resolved, it is by the construction of a new narrative, which enables the agent to understand both how he or she could intelligibly have held his or her original beliefs and how he or she could have been so drastically misled by them” (ibid.). The most important reason for such narratives is that without them we would be taken over by the kind of radical, paralyzing skepticism that Descartes (and every epistemological skeptic after) pretends to have. MacIntyre points out that even Descartes, having formally eschewed narrative for formal deduction from self-evident premises (Derridean transcendental signifieds), constructs narratives to couch his process in the Meditations. The epistemological consequences are large. MacIntyre says that an epistemological crisis, even after being abated, can induce two conclusions: 1) that our understanding of a situation, the schemata or paradigms we use to interpret, even the ones we just adopted to end the crisis, “may themselves, in turn, come to be put in question at any time” and 2) “because in such crises the criteria of truth, intelligibility and rationality may always themselves be put in question ... we are never in a position to claim that now we possess the truth or now are fully rational. The most that we can claim is that this is the best account anyone has been able to give so far, and that our beliefs about what the marks of ‘a best account so far’ are will themselves change in what are, at present, unpredictable ways” (244, italics mine).

I’d meditate on MacIntyre for so long because we see the antifoundationalist in a position of redescription. When MacIntyre says the italicized section above, he is saying the same thing as when Derrida suggests that meaning, in the sense of transcendental signifieds, is endless deferred.[fn.7] But we also get a sense of what this can mean to us actually living deferrers. It is a messy process and MacIntyre suggests that narrative is in fact indispensable to it. Without the writing of stories, of how we grew, matured, changed, we wouldn’t be able to make coherent sense of the stupid things we once believed. And our theories, our schemata, of how the world works, our sense of how reality is, is partly governed by the tradition we’ve grown out of. MacIntyre suggests that the only way to give consistent sense to the context in which meanings are both determined and change over time is if there is a diachronic notion like a tradition in play. And what’s more, “a tradition is a conflict of interpretations of that tradition, a conflict which itself has a history susceptible of rival interpretations” (249).

The conflict of interpretations, the conflict of truths, is the consternating thing about what is still broadly called postmodernism. One of the greatest, most morally inspiring impulses behind the frontal attacks on philosophical notions of “truth” and “objectivity” was that what counted as the “truth” was simply what the powerful, bloody winners at the altar of war said it was and all philosophy did was obfuscate the violence lying just underneath. The odd thing about Jameson is that he carries this strong moral impetus on his sleeve,[fn.8] and yet tries to diagnose our culture’s sense of “real history” by interpreting movies and novels—as if historians have ceased, or changed, their production. Jameson might be right that aesthetic innovations have altered our culture’s sense for the worse, but it is certainly not the case that they are a philosophical consequence of linguistic holism.[fn.9]

I would like to close by returning to Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and the curious, difficult-to-interpret Thomas Builds-the-Fire. Without question, Native American Indians are the necks underneath the boots of American military dominance. Our histories of their tribulations are naturally suspect. What we find in Alexie, particularly through the representation of Thomas, is not just an alternative history of Native American culture, like one would find in a Howard Zinn narrative, but a different conception of history, and particularly of our relation to it.

I’d like to begin again with “A Drug Called Tradition.” The boys in the story take a “new drug” (Alexie 13) which is never named in the story, which suggests we take the story’s title as a symbolic stand-in. This encoding takes on broader proportions when Victor says of doing the drug, “It’ll be very fucking Indian. Spiritual shit, you know?” (14) Native American culture has been eviscerated and overtly suppressed by the American government[fn.10] and the taking of this drug, tradition, suggests a reacquaintance with an outlawed piece of their culture. I would suggest that the notion of tradition at work in Alexie is very similar to the one MacIntyre develops. Thomas, throughout the stories in the book, represents most fully a person connected to the traditional past of Native American culture, through his act of visionary storytelling, but in this particular story the other boys become connected, too. Every boy has a vision of one of the other boys, though the stories are written in the first-person.[fn.11] This suggests a sort of symbiosis, that tradition isn’t just a connection to their past, but their connection to each other.[fn.12]

The suppression of Native American culture is shown as the violence it really is in Thomas’ trial. At the head of the story, a “BIA suit” says that Thomas has “A storytelling fetish accompanied by an extreme need to tell the truth. Dangerous” (93). The curious part is that Thomas’ truths sound distinctly like lies to Western ears. When Thomas is asked to tell “the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” he begins, “It all started on September 8, 1858. I was a young pony, strong and quick in every movement. I remember this” (96). None of this could be literally true, but Thomas isn’t speaking with a Western sense of literalness. Our “objective histories” are built on the metaphor of a passionless spectator recording the neutral details of life, like a clay tablet bombarded with particles. But the Native American notion of tradition and history born out of Alexie’s stories about Thomas is built out of a passion-filled orator connecting the value-ladened events of his life to the hopes of his community, like a leader marshalling his forces against the steady march of fate. Thomas’ “testimony” is allegorical from Western eyes (“What point are you trying to make with this story?” the judge asks (99)), but the community in front of him are held in thrall by his words, seeing the suppressed truth like Esther about her husband David WalksAlong.[fn.13] And so with the trial, we see the marginalized and ignored Thomas achieve apotheosis by a repentant crowd (“Thomas,” “We’re all listening” (99)) and condemned for nothing more than being Native American.[fn.14]

One of the most interesting figures in the story occurs three times, most prominently at the close. At the end of Thomas’ first story, where he’s a pony, he closes, “I lived that day, even escaped Colonel Wright, and galloped into other histories” (98). This is another odd locution for Western ears, but I think it suggests the over-lapping, dialectical quality found in MacIntyre’s sense of tradition.[fn.15] The second time is at the end of the news article recapitulating, from the slanted eyes of the West, what had transpired in the trial. It closes, “[Thomas] was transported away from this story and into the next” (103). The news article had carried the trappings and signals of “realness,” and Alexie’s close breaks us out of that spell, though we should perhaps wonder if it wasn’t a neutral real, but rather our Western real. The third occurs at the final close of the entire story, “Thomas closed his eyes and told this story” (ibid.).

Another self-referential quirk, perhaps, suggesting we start again at the beginning, but I think it brings us back to the skeletons in “A Drug Called Tradition.” Thomas’ myth-making fully encloses the whole story, including the points that make it seem Western-real and the ones that seem Indian-mythic, both of which require the opposition of the other to appear as the literary affectation of “real” and “mythic.”[fn.16] What’s more, they are also embedded in time-structures that ambiguously morph. The story told about the trial up to the point of the news article appears to be the present. The intersection of the article suddenly shifts us into thinking that what we had read was a recapitulation of the past in present-tense and the final switch occurs by making the suggestion that the story is a presently told past (“told this story”). Every gesture suggests all three time senses, past, present, and future.[fn.17]

“Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you” (21). Alexie’s myth for the mythic sense of tradition is at once descriptive and haunting. One could seemingly apply it to everyone’s connection to reality, as his continual second-person referral suggests. But we shouldn’t forget that the myth itself is induced by the drug of tradition, bookmarked by fully italicized sentences. For the Native American, “the past, the future, all of it is wrapped up in the now. That’s how it is. We are trapped in the now” (22). Reconsidering the enormity of the suggestion—the blood spilled in objective histories, even if we aren’t making the kind of sense Jameson desires—we might begin think that the italics function both ways, demarcation and emphasis. Alexie’s characters continually refer to “how things are,” and as fluid as this may be in Native American myth (as opposed to the Greek myths of static, essential identity), there does seem to be a contemporary, real trap for specifically Native Americans, and not just the usual trap of life for us all. If the demons of the past wrap into your future, where does hope lie? Alexie’s answer lies in the myth-maker, Thomas, the one who would change his community’s identity, its vision, enter into agonistic relationship with its previous interpreters.

This may seem a little messianic until we realize that the vision is within us all. We all carry a piece of the community with us, our sharing is what makes us an “us,” and any one of us can light that spark. Jameson talks a lot about a shattered homogeneity careening into a schizophrenic, heterogeneous mass, but it is difficult to see anything but a dispelled myth of absolute homogeneity that, when lifted, reveals the mess that life’s always been. Jameson needs some “hegemonic norm,” whether it’s the homogenous hegemony of high modernism or the hetero hegemony of post-, in order to conceive of a “radical cultural politics” (Jameson 6). To make a radical break, you need one really big thing. But life’s not like that. Life is a long series of smaller conflicts, and a single life is a narrative of those conflicts, and indeed, a narrative of conflicting narratives. We can arrange them in elucidating ways, like Alexie’s interweaving of time, reality, and myth, but what we shouldn’t do is become so afraid as to become philosophers, reducing everything to a single, if massively amorphous and interpenetrating, enemy. Leave that to the teenagers.


Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York: Grove Press, 1993, 2005.

Bernstein, Richard. Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.

Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

---. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayari Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974, 176.

Geyh, Paula, Fred G. Leebron and Andrew Levy. Postmodern American Fiction. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Lewis, Wyndham. Time and Western Man. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1993, 1927.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy of Science.” The Monist 60 (1977): 453-72. Rpt. in Anti-Theory in Ethics and Moral Conservatism. Eds. Stanley G. Clarke and Even Simpson. New York: State University of New York Press, 1989. 241-61.


[1] “…the more your particular personality … obsess[es] you, … the less ‘individualist’ you will be in the ordinary political sense. … Your ‘individualism’ will be that mad one of the ‘one and only’ self, a sort of instinctive solipsism in practice” (Lewis 8).

[2] This is the real meaning behind Derrida’s much parodied line “Il n'y a pas de hors-texte” (“There is nothing outside the text,” or better, “There is no outside-text”). Derrida was not staking out a new form of idealism, or denying the existence of rocks, but denying, like Wittgenstein when he denied ostensive definition, that language is (or perhaps, can be reduced to) a word-world relation. Words are words (i.e., have meaning and are not just sounds or marks on a page) because of how they hang in a web with other words. For Derrida, the “transcendental signified” is the stopgap with which philosopher’s have searched so that endless bickering about the truth of X would cease. After the Kantian turn in philosophy, the stopgap has often been “the world,” or in Kant’s lingo, “the thing-in-itself.” See, on this, Derrida’s discussion of Peirce where he says, “The thing itself is a sign” (Derrida, Of Grammatology 49) and on his most infamous line Derrida, Of Grammatology 158.

[3] To be sure, the notion of schizophrenia as a breakdown in the signifying chain can be used just as well for an atomist, but there seems to be a heightened sense of precariousness for the holist. In the atomist picture, a break in the chain can be rectified by being put back in touch with the solid, unalterable signified. On the holist picture, on the other hand, everything is a chain of signifiers, every signified can be reduced to a signifier such that a shift in signifiers alters the composition of the signified. This is the force of Jameson’s “objective mirage”: once our solid signifieds are really as ephemeral as our constantly shifting significations, we begin to really fear the loss, now irrevocable, of our grip on reality.

[4] Which should be suitably ironic, given how much fun holists-cum-deconstructionists have in showing how displays of intelligibility slide into unintelligibility, that Jameson’s display of unintelligibility should slide into intelligibility.

[5] For instance, the actual psychological state of schizophrenia could be described as signifiers losing touch with their signifieds (which seems to be the image that Jameson more relies on), but that reposes on the old atomistic view. On the holist view, schizophrenia would better be described as signification-chain-A losing touch with signification-chain-B. On this view, schizophrenics don’t behave oddly because they are acting without context, but because they are acting in the wrong context, an A-chain that would be less socially awkward if it were an AB-chain.

[6] Lyotard makes this same mistake when he says that “the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably, [to] the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it” (Lyotard xxiv). Universities and other institutions of knowledge-production, like scientific laboratories, have gone on producing without a hitch even after the loss of what Nietzsche called “metaphysical comfort.” Like the excising of “ultimate” in Jameson’s hermeneutical model, all the holist is excising is the “meta-” in metanarrative, and then arguing that all we need for legitimation are regular, run-of-the-mill narratives (about which I shall discuss shortly).

[7] This is partly what Derrida means by his neologism “différance.” See, for instance: “it marks not only the activity of ‘originary’ difference, but also the temporizing detour of deferral” (Derrida, Margins 14)

[8] See especially, “Yet this is the point at which I must remind the reader of the obvious; namely, that this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror” (Jameson 5). Also, “Faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existence…” (17).

[9] Possibly the most revealing passage in terms of the connection Jameson hopes to make between artistic innovations and poststructuralism is this one:
Here [in Warhol’s work] it is as though the external and colored surface of things … has been stripped away to reveal the deathly black-and-white substratum of the photographic negative which subtends them. Although this kind of death of the world of appearance becomes thematized in certain of Warhol’s pieces … this is not, I think, a matter of content any longer but of some more fundamental mutation both in the object world itself—now become a set of texts or simulacra—and in the disposition of the subject. (Jameson 9)
Are we really to believe the stylistic innovation of self-reference or of calling attention to the materials at work in the presentation means the destruction of reality? Jameson wants to connect the notion of a signifiedless signifier (a Platonic notion Baudrillard runs with, not the holistic notion of a signification chain) to these now common and old hat artistic tools and suggest they are destroying our sense of reality, but should we really buy that, rather than blaming it on, say, the pernicious effects on national trust of state propaganda brought on by the lack of governmental transparency?

[10] The subtle background of the white, governmental presence is given excellent expression by Alexie’s referral to the “BIA,” an agency most Americans are entirely unaware of. By casually using the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ acronym (like an FBI or CIA) Alexie is able to call attention to a major difference in the lived cultures of Native Americans and European Americans—Native Americans would recognize the “BIA” as the BIA, whereas almost all others would have to stop and think about what the “BIA” stands for (unlike “FBI,” which is just the FBI). The first appearance of this is Alexie 49, in an offhand reference (another way of suggesting the subtle, circumscribing presence) to a brick going through a BIA pick-up’s window.

[11] The first is Thomas’ about Victor (Alexie 15-6), the second is Junior’s about Thomas (17), and the third is Victor’s about Junior (18-9). The fourth vision is one of Thomas’ stories and the fifth, the skeletal theory of history, is ambiguously left unattributed.

[12] This is reinforced in Victor’s journey to Arizona with Thomas. At the end of it, Victor thinks to himself, “he couldn’t really be friends with Thomas, even after all that had happened. It was cruel but it was real” (Alexie 74). Thomas calls out verbally every thought Victor has in this passage, including that one, to which Victor responds internally: “Victor was ashamed of himself. Whatever happened to the tribal ties, the sense of community? The only real thing he shared with anybody was a bottle and broken dreams” (ibid.). I think this passage does two things: one, it reinforces this notion of tradition as our source of community (our context, what circumscribes who counts as “us,” “we,” “our”). And two, it weaves in the notion that Victor’s previous notion of “reality” isn’t, perhaps, so real after all, and it is Thomas’ myth-making that forms the real core of a true Native American reality. Alcoholism is our current reality, but is it all we can hope for?

[13] Esther hears “a noise that sounded something like rain” and gained the courage to leave her husband, who—so in step with the BIA—“took to calling his wife a savage in polyester pants” (Alexie 94, italics his).

[14] “[Thomas] was guilty, he knew that. All that was variable on any reservation was how the convicted would be punished” (Alexie 94-5). Since it was already established that the BIA was trying to make something up for him to be guilty of, what Thomas knows is his heritage and the convicted are every inhabitant on a reservation, punished variably by jail or alcoholism.

[15] This point is reinforced by the fact that Thomas is said, in an earlier crisis, to have “threatened to make significant changes in the tribal vision” (Alexie 93).

[16] For instance, Thomas’ telling of the stories appear weird to us at points because of reassertions of “expected behavior,” like the judge pounding the gavel or demanding the point of the stories.

[17] The story is first the present, then embedded in the past by the news article, and then swept into the future, when we will hear the story we already know, at the close.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Rise of Buddhism in China

This was a take-home final exam, probably my least favorite way of writing. Even the Blue Book has the virtue of pure spontaneity, but the take-home is a bastard child, halfway between polish and improv. No doubt it will be my instrument of choice should I ever be in a position to give exams.

The class was a Chinese intellectual history course, which I took in 2001. The essay was in response to an exam question, evidence suggests "Question #8," but I have no idea what the question was. This also has the drawback of quotation with a citation, but no bibliography--I know I own the books somewhere, but I don't have them with me (long story). So the quotations are real enough, but just fake enough for no one to be able corroborate.

I have another paper elaborating the "escapist" thematic I introduce as the thesis below, but I don't remember why I was using that language, whether I imported it or the lecturer talked about it. I suspect I brought it in a bit to organize the material. I also don't know why I thought the question I ask in the intro is "interesting"--sure, it's interesting enough, but why more than any other question. It has been so long since I've been involved with the material that I have no answers to that.

One thing to defend the thematic of "escapism" is a general consideration of the function of other intellectual patterns across the world. When one read's Hans Blumenburg's The Legitimacy of the Modern Age," one is confronted with the thesis that modern science didn't take hold in early Greek materialism (principally Democritus and Epicurus, but one can trace it to the pre-Socratics who are still taught on the first day of History of Science 101 lectures), not because people weren't ready for science, but because these explanations weren't forwarded in the the interest of explaining how the world worked--they were forwarded, particularly in the very influential Epicurus, to quell doubt, to help people be happy.

So I hope no one reads the below as somehow slanderous against Eastern philosophy, or early philosophies in general. I take escapism to be one thematic among many, one that is continued today, and I don't take escapism to be an evil thing. Pirsig even points at it at the beginning of ZMM: "[Phaedrus'] kind of rationality has been used since antiquity to remove oneself from the tedium and depression of one's immediate surroundings." (72-3) Blumenburg's point is that science didn't take off until technological advance had gotten to the point where scientific explanations began to obviously increase our control over our environment, directly lead to increases in happiness. Science's vaunted "disinterestedness" came out of a very specific interest.

The other thing that catches me about the paper is the unhappiness of my articulation of the difference between Buddhism and Daoism. I still think there might be something important in the differences between Daoism's enunciation of being in the Flow and Buddhism's of ceasing to desire, escaping out of the hold of desire, but I don't think my clumsy attempt below gets at it. It would require a lot more work in articulating the meat and bones of the traditions.


As early as the second century BCE, China had contact with Buddhism through the Silk Road, but it was not until the second century CE that Buddhism began to spread in China. Commoners started by organizing churches between the second and fourth centuries. After the fourth century, intellectuals became involved with the development of Buddhism in Chinese culture and some began to make pilgrimages to India and some began to make translations of the Buddhist sutras. The interesting question to ask is, “Why did Buddhism take hold in the minds of ethnocentric Chinese intellectuals and commoners?” The answer is that Chinese intellectuals and commoners had a tradition of escapism during this time, through Neo-Daoism and Religious Daoism respectively, and Buddhism not only fit this escapist mold, but also added an explanation as to why there was a need to escape.

In the third and fourth centuries CE, intellectuals began to criticize Imperial Confucianism. They said that Confucianism is concerned with teaching wisdom and truth, but these things are only names for reality. Wisdom and truth otherwise have no other significance. These intellectuals began to dabble in Daoism and this sparked the rise of Neo-Daoism.

Neo-Daoism emphasized spontaneity and opposition to social norms. They also valued eremitism and practiced a kind of nihilism. In their revolt against social norms, Neo-Daoists placed high value on hermits. Ge Hong is an exemplar in this tradition of intellectuals. In his autobiography he says,
I am hoping to ascend a famous mountain where I will regulate my diet and cultivate my nature. It is not that I wish to abandon worldly affairs, but unless I do so, how can I practice the abstruse and tranquil Way? … It is not that the Way is found in the mountains and forests; the reason the ancient practitioners of the Way always had to enter the mountains and forests was that they wished to be away from the noise of the world and keep their minds tranquil. (95 of Ge Hong’s Autobiography)
He says that unless he travels to the mountains, how could he practice the Way? The noise that Ge Hong wishes to escape from is the noise of social norms.

Neo-Daoists also practiced nihilism. Nihilism is the position that all values and norms are illusory and because of this one cannot make value assertions. Instead Neo-Daoists, like the Seven Sages of Bamboo Grove, would engage in pure conversation to help disengage from worldly developments. In pure conversation, the Sages would argue about various philosophical questions. These conversations, rather than being about truth, were about dialectical agility. Rather than reaching any kind of conclusion or wisdom, the Sages would merely marvel at their own skill of debate.

Eremitism and nihilism are two ways in which Neo-Daoists’ escapism appeared. In eremitism, they tried to physically remove themselves from their surroundings, thus negating social norms. In nihilism and through pure conversation, they tried to mentally remove themselves, thus negating intellectual norms.

Religious Daoism had very few links with the new Neo-Daoism. Since the second century CE, Religious Daoism became the most prolific religion in China, though it never reached a sophisticated level of religious explanation. Because of, or partially do to this, Religious Daoism adhered to eclecticism or spontaneous doctrines. Each temple or preacher had their own principles and doctrines that were taught. During the Han Dynasty, though, two important religious schools converged under Religious Daoism: the hygiene school and the Elixir school.

The hygiene school taught ways in which to enhance your life. They taught meditation and gymnastics. The Elixir school sought immortality through alchemy and other potions. These schools combined and the belief that practitioners of meditation and alchemy could become immortal became very widespread. This is also a form of escapism. The practitioners sought to escape this life by transcending the life/death cycle.

Buddhism began to first filter in on the religious level with some of its doctrines. The meditation and gymnastics that the Religious Daoists taught matched up fairly well with the meditation and yoga that the Buddhists taught. And the eclecticism of Daoist teachers and temples allowed an easy flow of Buddhist beliefs to creep in. Indeed, many early Chinese believed that Buddhism was merely a sub-branch of Daoism.

The intellectual beliefs of Buddhism also sometimes had a striking similarity to Chinese philosophies. Theravada Buddhism’s stress on the ascetic lifestyle for enlightenment seemed to mirror the Neo-Daoists’ eremitism. Buddhism also taught that values in this life are transitory, which matched with Neo-Daoism’s nihilism. The scholar Mouzi went as far as writing an apologetic for Buddhism. In it he tried to argue that Buddhism wasn’t so foreign a doctrine when compared to current Chinese philosophies, especially Daoism. He even went as far as trying to show misconceptions in Chinese philosophies, such as the belief in immortality:
The questioner said, “The Daoists say that Yao, Shun, the Duke of Zhou, and Confucius and his seventy-two disciples did not die, but became immortals. The Buddhists say that men must all die, and that none can escape. What does this mean?”

Mouzi said, “Talk of immortality is superstitious and unfounded; it is not the word of sages. Laozi said, ‘Even Heaven and Earth cannot last forever. How much less can human beings!’ Confucius said, ‘The wise man leaves the world, but humaneness and filial piety last forever.’ … I make the Classics and the commentaries my authority and find my proof in the world of men. To speak of immortality, is this not a great error?” (426 de Bary)
While all these similarities between Buddhism and Chinese philosophies may have facilitated the integration of Buddhism, it does not account for its lasting foothold. If you have a spoon that you like and is nice and another spoon comes along that is equally nice, unless you are capricious, you don’t just switch spoons. One spoon has proven its worth; the other has not. So what did Buddhism add?

The main tenets of Buddhism are called the Four Noble Truths: 1) All life is suffering. 2) Suffering comes from Desire. 3) The cessation of Desire will lead to nirvana, or enlightenment. 4) Nirvana can be reached by way of the Eight-Fold Path (an eight-step plan of right action, right speech, etc.). These Four Truths continued the streak of similarities. The Eight-Fold Path was very similar to Confucian doctrine of humaneness. Indeed, Wei Shou, a Chinese historian in the sixth century, had this to say about the similarities between Confucianism and Buddhist doctrine:
The first step in cultivation of the mind is to take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the samgha. These are the three refuges. These are comparable to the three things a man of virtue stands in awe of [in Confucianism]. There are also five prohibitions: one must not kill, rob, commit adultery, lie, or drink wine. The meaning is much like [the Confucian virtues of] benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and trustworthiness, though the names are different. (98 Buddhist Doctrines and Practices)
The cessation of Desire was also something that Confucians and Daoists were in the habit of doing. What was new was the first Noble Truth: all life is suffering. It was an explanation for the world’s evils that the Chinese had never had before. In Daoism, neither Neo-Daoism nor Religious Daoism had an explanation for why evil occurred. Buddhism was a new spoon.

The doctrinal differences of Buddhism and the two Daoisms can be found in the Buddhists belief in reincarnation and the third Noble Truth. Buddhism taught that all life was caught in a karmic cycle of life and rebirth. Evil and good deeds are like stains on your skin that follow into your next life and shape the way your life is experienced. The third Truth says that if you cessate your desires you will reach enlightenment. Well, karma is the cycle of life and if all life is suffering, then that means that karma is the cycle of suffering. If suffering comes from desire, then karma is the cycle of desires. Therefore, ceasing to desire rids you of the karmic cycle, which also rids of you of life (being that the karmic cycle is the life cycle). Nirvana literally means “blowing out,” as in a candle or lamp, but it also has come to mean annihilation, Nothingness—“no life”.

The karmic life cycle resembles, in a way, the Dao from Daoism. Daoism didn’t have a doctrine of reincarnation, but they believed that even when your material body died, you were still in the Flow (a synonym for the Dao). Material life and material death were really a unified reality. Buddhism agrees insofar that after you materially die, you are materially reborn. But from this Buddhism diverges.

Daoism is all about being in the Flow. Being spontaneous and letting life happen and going with it. Buddhism is all about getting out of the Flow. Enlightenment is reached when you stop desiring and, therefore, cease to be. This “getting out of the Flow” of enlightenment can clearly be seen as an escape from life. It literally is an escape from life, the karmic cycle. This fits in strongly with the vein of escapism in Daoism. The escape from social and intellectual norms (eremitism and nihilism) and transcendence of life into immortality are stepping-stones to finally just leaving life altogether.*

Early Chinese philosophies never enunciated what evil was. Daoism, in particular, says that the world is neither good nor evil, it just is. Buddhism does say where evil comes from and it also tells you what to do about it. As it happens, what it told practitioners to do wasn’t a giant leap for the Chinese. They had begun a tradition of escapism and Buddhism’s continuance, but with an added explanation, of this tradition made it very popular as a fully separate Chinese religion, standing alongside Daoism and Confucianism.


* It can be argued that immortality can hardly be seen as a stepping-stone for leaving life, but the Chinese transformed Nirvana into a kind of Heaven, so that you kept your identity when you reached enlightenment (unlike Indian Buddhism). This, then, mirrors the belief in immortality that is believed by the Western religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam where immortality is reached in Heaven after life.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Short Pirsig Presentation

This was a presentation for a literature class I took about a year ago. The subject was Modernism and time, and we were each asked to read a book on our own and relate the subject of the class to it. I took the easy way out and did Pirsig, but it allowed me to not only help some of the students handle the theoretical concepts we we're struggling with, but also focus some thoughts about Pirsig and his narrative.

The biggest insight into Pirsig the class allowed was in the genesis of his classic/romantic distinction. It was never a distinction, or set of concepts, that I'd encountered in philosophy, though obviously "classic" was typically a Greek reference and "Romanticism" was a movement (of poets, and possibly more) during the 19th century. Turns out, however, that it was a much applied set of concepts in early Modernism, in the beginnings of literary theory in T. E. Hulme, T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis at the beginning of the 20th century.

The below, then, was written for an audience with a basic acquaintance with that context, though it does little to elaborate it. It is basically a very short introduction to Pirsig (though it does hazard some conclusionary remarks) for an audience who knows nothing of him, but has an interest in modernism, narrative, and timeIt also has a very simple, outline style, since it was to be delivered orally (with the ability to respond to a possibly dynamic audience) and it included a handout of selections from ZMM.

For a little bit about what we were reading at the time, you might read my critical jaunts from that class on James ("James and Woolf"), Lewis ("Lewis and Ulysses"), and Eliot ("Eliot, Forster, and Experience").

*NOTE* The internal, handout links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


I. Part I
a. The book is basically autobiographical. We are confronted at the outset with an “Author’s Note”: which says, “What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact.” It is thus that we approach the book as a kind of memoir of a motorcycle trip of the author and his son Chris, with two friends, across the Midwest to San Francisco.

b. Things aren’t all that simple, however. Written entirely in the first-person, the narrator quickly let’s us know that he isn’t just going to be narrating the passing marshes and mountains. (first quote)

c. This should remind us of Eliot and Lewis, railing against romance and newness for the sake of newness. What I want to suggest is that Pirsig’s book suggests an answer to them, indeed on their own terms.

d. The problem the narrator takes up are embodied in his friends—they don’t like technology, but they can’t really explain it. Part I consists in the set-up of the problem. He links his friends with hippies, and people more like himself with the “squares” and says there is a dimensional gap between them. (second quote)

e. In fact, it doesn’t take him long to deploy the categories we’ve been using this whole class. (third quote)

f. The narrator begins using these categories to organize the problem and move towards answering it.

g. However, a little ways into Part I, we are introduced to a new character. Stopped for the night at a campsite, Chris, the narrator’s son, says that a friend of his, who’s Native American, believes in ghosts. The narrator says that that makes sense. When Chris asks if he believes in ghosts, the narrator replies yes: (fourth quote)

h. As the narrator is falling asleep, Chris presses him on whether he ever knew any ghosts. The narrator says that he did once know a ghost, someone “who spent all his whole life doing nothing but hunting for a ghost, and it was just a waste of time.” We learn that the ghost the narrator knew was named Phaedrus, and the ghost he chased was Reason.

i. As the narrative continues, by which I mean, as the narrator continues, he becomes more and more preoccupied with this ghost, Phaedrus. He admits that all of the ideas he has are really Phaedrus’, including his use of the distinction between classic and romantic. At first his descriptions of this ghost are quite enigmatic: are we to really believe that the narrator knows a ghost, no less with the titular name of a Platonic dialogue?

j. The climax of Part I of the book occurs when we learn that the narrator used to be Phaedrus. He says he “first discovered him by inference from a strange series of events.” The narrator says that he crashed on a bed in a back room at a party one weekend and then woke up in, surprisingly, a different room. His clothes were changed and he walked down a corridor in what looked like a hospital. (fifth quote)
II. Time
a. I’ve spent a lot of time on narrative exposition, and particularly Part I, because the narrative—and the particular way it is written—is an integral part of the conceptual story that the narrator is also attempting to relate.

b. The narrator through the rest of the book spends more and more time on relating Phaedrus’ past—his past. We learn that he finished his first year of college, studying biochem, when he was 15, and failed out of the university when he was 17 for being unable to move past the problem of scientifically validating the scientific method. We learn of his encounters with the Enlightenment philosophers, David Hume and Immanuel Kant, of his short stint at the Benares University. In Part III, we learn of his teaching of English at the University of Montana-Bozeman. Each step leads us further and further back, it turns out, into philosophical history, until Part IV where we reach his brief studies of ancient philosophy at the University of Chicago, where he—Phaedrus—met his fate.

c. The fascinating twist of the book is that we learn, through the narrator’s own obsessive preoccupation with Phaedrus, that Phaedrus isn’t the bad guy, as ghosts usually are, but the good guy. The climax of the narrative occurs when the narrator realizes that he’s the bad guy for being the conformist. (sixth quote)

d. So Phaedrus rises like a phoenix at the close of the book, but this poses a series of questions:
i. Phaedrus was committed to a hospital because he became obsessed with nothing but his own philosophical preoccupations. So how is it good that Phaedrus is back?

ii. We’ve always been looking through the narrator’s eyes, through Pirsig’s writing, so of course, when Phaedrus wins the psychic struggle, he says that he—Phaedrus—is the good guy. So why should we trust his pronouncement in the last lines “It’s going to get better. You can sort of tell these things.”?

iii. We can now see the narrator’s own Chautauqua, from the beginning, as Phaedrus raising his voice, scratching back to the surface. We see the narrator’s increasing preoccupation with Phaedrus as Phaedrus beginning to win. And not only that, the narrator being preoccupied with Phaedrus is concurrently a preoccupation with Phaedrus’ original problems, the ones that got him committed. So, again, is this a good thing?

iv. Worst of all, we must confront the fact, completely ignored by the narrator except for the brief admission designed as exculpation at the front of the book (first quote again), that as the narrator relates the entire story, time is passing—which means that as he goes on and on about classic and romantic, Kant and Plato, time is passing on the motorcycle with him essentially ignoring Chris. Might this not have been the problem to begin with? Dereliction of life?
e. I think the problem posed by Pirsig, and enunciated in terms of classic and romantic, is roughly the same problem that Eliot and Lewis, and Bergson and James for that matter, tangled with. It is a towering complex of interrelated ideas, ones that Pirsig is at pains to swish around in his story, but the simple problem is this: for classics, revering the romantic, the now of life, is the reduction of life to a series of unrelatable moments, as if the romantic sucks the marrow out of each moment, but then is left no ingredients to make a stew. For romantics, however, to revere the classic, the underlying abstract forms of life, is to remove oneself from life, to play in an imaginary world of ghosts without any sense of what’s going on around them.

f. Pirsig’s answer, embodied in the story, is that both are right, the extremes of either are dangerous. Time is the ultimate category that governs everything, whether it’s the past haunting us, our slanted recapitulation of that past, or the relinquishment of responsibility because we don’t want to think about the consequences of our actions—because thinking takes time. Pirsig’s answer is that only a balance will do in an individual life. Cultures may have to sway back and forth, between broadening the banks in search of novelty and digging into the trenches to clear out the silt, but individuals should learn balance and harmony.
Handout of Pirsig Selections

Relevant Statistics
Born in 1928 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Holds degrees in chemistry, philosophy, and journalism and also studied oriental philosophy at Benares Hindu University in India. He published ZMM in 1974, though only after having it rejected by 121 other publishers. It is constantly being republished, a new edition with afterword in ’84, a 20th Anniversity edition, a 25th with a new introduction, and a 30th just for kicks. It has been called the “most widely read philosophy book, ever.” Robert Redford attempted throughout the ‘80s to turn it into a movie. He is also the author of this book’s sequel, Lila—published in 1991, and the only other book he ever did publish. He is still alive, living on a boat, probably somewhere in the North Atlantic.

On Chautauquas (7-8)
Unless you’re fond of hollering you don’t make great conversations on a running cycle. …
What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua—that's the only name I can think of for it—like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. "What's new?" is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question "What is best?," a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and "best" was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.

Two Realities (57)
What you've got here, really, are two realities, one of immediate artistic appearance and one of underlying scientific explanation, and they don't match and they don't fit and they don't really have much of anything to do with one another. That's quite a situation. You might say there's a little problem here.

On Classic and Romantic (70)
A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance. If you were to show an engine or a mechanical drawing or electronic schematic to a romantic it is unlikely he would see much of interest in it. It has no appeal because the reality he sees is its surface. Dull, complex lists of names, lines and numbers. Nothing interesting. But if you were to show the same blueprint or schematic or give the same description to a classical person he might look at it and then become fascinated by it because he sees that within the lines and shapes and symbols is a tremendous richness of underlying form.

The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. "Art" when it is opposed to "Science" is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience. In the northern European cultures the romantic mode is usually associated with femininity, but this is certainly not a necessary association.

The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws—which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behavior. In the European cultures it is primarily a masculine mode and the fields of science, law and medicine are unattractive to women largely for this reason. Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic. The dirt, the grease, the mastery of underlying form required all give it such a negative romantic appeal that women never go near it.

On Ghosts (36)
"Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn't a human invention. The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It's all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It's run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts trying to find their place among the living."

On Phaedrus (87-8)
It took me more than a week to deduce from the evidence around me that everything before my waking up was a dream and everything afterward was reality. There was no basis for distinguishing the two other than the growing pile of new events that seemed to argue against the drunk experience. Little things appeared, like the locked door, the outside of which I could never remember seeing. And a slip of paper from the probate court telling me that some person was committed as insane. Did they mean me?

It was explained to me finally that "You have a new personality now." But this statement was no explanation at all. It puzzled me more than ever since I had no awareness at all of any "old" personality. If they had said, "You are a new personality," it would have been much clearer. That would have fitted. They had made the mistake of thinking of a personality as some sort of possession, like a suit of clothes, which a person wears. But apart from a personality what is there? Some bones and flesh. A collection of legal statistics, perhaps, but surely no person. The bones and flesh and legal statistics are the garments worn by the personality, not the other way around.

But who was the old personality whom they had known and presumed I was a continuation of?

This was my first inkling of the existence of Phædrus, many years ago. In the days and weeks and years that have followed, I've learned much more.

On Phaedrus and the Narrator (412)
What I am is a heretic who's recanted, and thereby in everyone's eyes saved his soul. Everyone's eyes but one, who knows deep down inside that all he has saved is his skin.

I survive mainly by pleasing others. You do that to get out. To get out you figure out what they want you to say and then you say it with as much skill and originality as possible and then, if they're convinced, you get out. If I hadn't turned on him [Phaedrus] I'd still be there, but he was true to what he believed right to the end. That's the difference between us, and Chris knows it. And that's the reason why sometimes I feel he's the reality and I'm the ghost.