Pragmatism & Postmodernism


To my best belief: just what is the pragmatic theory of truth?

Cheryl Misak | Aeon Ideas

What is it for something to be true? One might think that the answer is obvious. A true belief gets reality right: our words correspond to objects and relations in the world. But making sense of that idea involves one in ever more difficult workarounds to intractable problems. For instance, how do we account for the statement ‘It did not rain in Toronto on 20 May 2018’? There don’t seem to be negative facts in the world that might correspond to the belief. What about ‘Every human is mortal’? There are more humans – past, present and future – than individual people in the world. (That is, a generalisation like ‘All Fs’ goes beyond the existing world of Fs, because ‘All Fs’ stretches into the future.) What about ‘Torture is wrong’? What are the objects in the world that might correspond to that? And what good is it explaining truth in terms of independently existing objects and facts, since we have access only to our interpretations of them?

Pragmatism can help us with some of these issues. The 19th-century American philosopher Charles Peirce, one of the founders of pragmatism, explained the core of this tradition beautifully: ‘We must not begin by talking of pure ideas, – vagabond thoughts that tramp the public roads without any human habitation, – but must begin with men and their conversation.’ Truth is a property of our beliefs. It is what we aim at, and is essentially connected to our practices of enquiry, action and evaluation. Truth, in other words, is the best that we could do.

The pragmatic theory of truth arose in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1870s, in a discussion group that included Peirce and William James. They called themselves the Metaphysical Club, with intentional irony. Though they shared the same broad outlook on truth, there was immediate disagreement about how to unpack the idea of the ‘best belief’. The debate stemmed from the different temperaments of Peirce and James.

Philosophy, James said, ‘is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits. It works in the minutest crannies and it opens out the widest vistas.’ He was more a vista than a crannies man, dead set against technical philosophy. At the beginning of his book Pragmatism (1907), he said: ‘the philosophy which is so important to each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means.’ He wanted to write accessible philosophy for the public, and did so admirably. He became the most famous living academic in the United States.

The version of the pragmatist theory of truth made famous (or perhaps infamous) by James held that ‘Any idea upon which we can ride … any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labour, is … true INSTRUMENTALLY.’

‘Satisfactorily’ for James meant ‘more satisfactorily to ourselves, and individuals will emphasise their points of satisfaction differently. To a certain degree, therefore, everything here is plastic.’ He argued that if the available evidence underdetermines a matter, and if there are non-epistemic reasons for believing something (my people have always believed it, believing it would make me happier), then it is rational to believe it. He argued that if a belief in God has a positive impact on someone’s life, then it is true for that person. If it does not have a good impact on someone else’s life, it is not true for them.

Peirce, a crackerjack logician, was perfectly happy working in the crannies as well as opening out the vistas. He wrote much, but published little. A cantankerous man, Peirce described the difference in personality with his friend James thus: ‘He so concrete, so living; I a mere table of contents, so abstract, a very snarl of twine.’

Peirce said that James’s version of the pragmatic theory of truth was ‘a very exaggerated utterance, such as injures a serious man very much’. It amounted to: ‘Oh, I could not believe so-and-so, because I should be wretched if I did.’ Peirce’s worries, in these days of fake news, are more pressing than ever.

On Peirce’s account, a belief is true if it would be ‘indefeasible’ or would not in the end be defeated by reasons, argument, evidence and the actions that ensue from it. A true belief is the belief that we would come to, were we to enquire as far as we could on a matter. He added an important rider: a true belief must be put in place in a manner ‘not extraneous to the facts’. We cannot believe something because we would like it to be true. The brute impinging of experience cannot be ignored.

The disagreement continues to this day. James influenced John Dewey (who, when a student at Johns Hopkins, avoided Peirce and his technical philosophy like the plague) and later Richard Rorty. Dewey argued that truth (although he tended to stay away from the word) is nothing more than a resolution of a problematic situation. Rorty, at his most extreme, held that truth is nothing more than what our peers will let us get away with saying. This radically subjective or plastic theory of truth is what is usually thought of as pragmatism.

Peirce, however, managed to influence a few people himself, despite being virtually unknown in his lifetime. One was the Harvard logician and Kant scholar C I Lewis. He argued for a position remarkably similar to what his student W V O Quine would take over (and fail to acknowledge as Lewis’s). Reality cannot be ‘alien’, wrote Lewis – ‘the only reality there for us is one delimited in concepts of the results of our own ways of acting’. We have something given to us in brute experience, which we then interpret. With all pragmatists, Lewis was set against conceptions of truth in which ‘the mind approaches the flux of immediacy with some godlike foreknowledge of principles’. There is no ‘natural light’, no ‘self-illuminating propositions’, no ‘innate ideas’ from which other certainties can be deduced. Our body of knowledge is a pyramid, with the most general beliefs, such as the laws of logic, at the top, and the least general, such as ‘all swans are birds’, at the bottom. When faced with recalcitrant experience, we make adjustments in this complex system of interrelated concepts. ‘The higher up a concept stands in our pyramid, the more reluctant we are to disturb it, because the more radical and far-reaching the results will be…’ But all beliefs are fallible, and we can indeed disturb any of them. A true belief would be one that survives this process of enquiry.

Lewis saw that the pragmatist theory of truth deals nicely with those beliefs that the correspondence theory stumbles over. For instance, there is no automatic bar to ethical beliefs being true. Beliefs about what is right and wrong might well be evaluable in ways similar to how other kinds of beliefs are evaluable – in terms of whether they fit with experience and survive scrutiny.Aeon counter – do not remove

Cheryl Misak

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Postmodernism in Ancient Greece


Plato and Aristotle Plato (left) and Aristotle, detail from School of Athens, fresco by Raphael, 1508–11; in the Stanza della Segnatura, the Vatican. Plato pointing to the heavens and the realm of forms, Aristotle to the earth and the realm of things. Album/Oronoz/SuperStock

The 5th-Century Sophists

The Sophists taught men how to speak and what arguments to use in public debate. A Sophistic education was increasingly sought after both by members of the oldest families and by aspiring newcomers without family backing. The changing pattern of Athenian society made merely traditional attitudes in many cases no longer adequate. Criticizing such attitudes and replacing them by rational arguments held special attraction for the young, and it explains the violent distaste which they aroused in traditionalists. Plato thought that much of the Sophistic attack upon traditional values was unfair and unjustified. But even he learned at least one thing from the Sophists—if the older values were to be defended, it must be by reasoned argument, not by appeals to tradition and unreflecting faith.

Seen from this point of view, the Sophistic movement performed a valuable function within Athenian democracy in the 5th century BCE. It offered an education designed to facilitate and promote success in public life. All of the Sophists appear to have provided a training in rhetoric and in the art of speaking, and the Sophistic movement, responsible for large advances in rhetorical theory, contributed greatly to the development of style in oratory. In modern times the view occasionally has been advanced that this was the Sophists’ only concern. But the range of topics dealt with by the major Sophists makes this unlikely, and even if success in this direction was their ultimate aim, the means they used were surely as much indirect as direct, for the pupils were instructed not merely in the art of speaking, but in grammar; in the nature of virtue (aretē) and the bases of morality; in the history of society and the arts; in poetrymusic, and mathematics; and also in astronomy and the physical sciences. Naturally the balance and emphasis differed from Sophist to Sophist, and some offered wider curricula than others. But this was an individual matter, and attempts by earlier historians of philosophy to divide the Sophistic movement into periods in which the nature of the instruction was altered are now seen to fail for lack of evidence. The 5th-century Sophists inaugurated a method of higher education that in range and method anticipated the modern humanistic approach inaugurated or revived during the European Renaissance.

Nature of Sophistic Thought

A question still discussed is whether the Sophists in general had any real regard for truth or whether they taught their pupils that truth was unimportant compared with success in argument. Plato’s hostile judgment on both counts is still frequently repeated without question. The Platonic writings make frequent reference to what Plato calls “eristic” (eristikos, “fond of wrangling”) and “antilogic”; the two often have been incorrectly treated as identical. Eristic, for Plato, consists in arguments aimed at victory rather than at truth. Antilogic involves the assignment to any argument of a counterargument that negates it, with the implication that both argument and counterargument are equally true. Antilogic in this sense was especially associated with Protagoras; but Plato, no doubt correctly, attributes its use to other Sophists as well. He regards the use of antilogic as essentially eristic, whether it be used to silence an opponent by making his position seem self-contradictory, or whether it be used mechanically to negate any proposition put forward in debate. He concludes that the widespread use of antilogic is evidence that Sophists had no real regard for the truth, which must itself be free from antilogic.

But Plato himself believed, for much or possibly all of his life, that the phenomenal world was essentially antilogical inasmuch as no statement about it could be made possessing a greater degree of truth than the contradictory of that statement. For example, if a person is tall in relation to one object, he will be short in relation to another object. In so characterizing the phenomenal world, Plato certainly did not wish to be called eristic—he regarded the application of antilogic to the description of the phenomenal world as an essential preliminary to the search for the truth residing in the Platonic forms, which are themselves free from antilogic.

Seen in this perspective, the Sophistic use of antilogic must be judged less harshly. To the extent that it was used irresponsibly to secure success in debate it was eristic, and the temptation so to use it must often have arisen. But where it was invoked in the sincere belief that antilogic elements were indeed involved, or where it was used for analyzing a complex situation in order to reveal its complexity, then antilogic was in no way inconsistent with devotion to truth. This raises the question to what extent the Sophists possessed any general view of the world or gave expression to any genuine philosophical views, whether original or derived. Ancient writers, influenced by Plato and Aristotle, seem to have excluded the Sophists, apart from Protagoras, from their schematized accounts of early Greek thinkers. Modern writers have frequently maintained that, whatever else they were, the Sophists were in no sense philosophers. Even those who acknowledge the philosophical interest of certain particular doctrines attributed to individual Sophists often tend to regard these as exceptions and claim that, inasmuch as the Sophists were not a school but only independent teachers and writers, as a class they were not philosophers. Two questions are involved: whether the Sophists held common intellectual doctrines and whether some or all of these could actually be termed philosophical.

Among moderns, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was one of the first to reinsert the Sophists into the history of Greek philosophy. He did so within the framework of his own dialectic, in which every thesis invokes its own opposite, or antithesis; thus, he treated the Sophists as representing the antithesis to the thesis of the group of philosophers known collectively as the pre-Socratics. Pre-Socratics such as ThalesHeracleitus, and Parmenides sought the truth about the external world with a bold enthusiasm that produced a series of explanations, each claiming to be correct. None of these explanations of the physical world paid attention to the observer and each was driven to reject more and more of the phenomenal world itself as unreal. Finally, with the Eleatics, a 5th-century school at Elea in Italy that held that reality is a static one, of which Parmenides and Zeno are representatives, little or nothing of the phenomenal world was left as real. This trend in turn produced a growing distrust of the power of human beings to attain knowledge of the ultimate basis of natural phenomena. Philosophy had reached an impasse, and there was a danger of complete skepticism. Such an extreme position, according to Hegel’s view, provoked the “antithesis” of the Sophistic movement, which rejected the “thesis” of the objectivists and concentrated attention upon humankind rather than upon nature. To Hegel, the Sophists were subjective idealists, holding that reality is only minds and their contents, and so philosophy could move forward by turning its attention to the subjective element in knowing. Reflection upon the contrast between the thought of the Sophists and that of their predecessors produced the “syntheses” of Plato and Aristotle.

Whether any of the Sophists actually were subjective idealists may be doubted. The conclusion depends in part on whether Protagoras held that phenomena had subjective existence only, or whether he thought that all things perceived had objective existence but were perceived differently according to the nature of the percipient and their relation to him—i.e., whether he interpreted phenomena subjectively or relativistically. It is fairly clear, however, that the Sophists did concentrate very largely upon human beings and human society, upon questions of words in their relations to things, upon issues in the theory of knowledge, and upon the importance of the observer and the subjective element in reality and in the correct understanding of reality.

This emphasis helps to explain the philosophical hostility of Plato and Aristotle. Particularly in the eyes of Plato, anyone who looks for the truth in phenomena alone, whether he interprets it subjectively or relativistically, cannot hope to find it there; and his persistence in turning away from the right direction virtually amounts to a rejection of philosophy and of the search for truth. Many a subsequent thinker for whom metaphysics, or the investigation of the deepest nature of reality, was the crowning achievement of philosophy has felt with Plato that the Sophists were so antimetaphysical that they have no claim to rank as philosophers. But since the mid-19th century there has been growing appreciation of a number of problems and doctrines recurring in the discussions of the Sophists in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. In the 18th and early 19th centuries the Sophists were considered charlatans. Their intellectual honesty was impugned, and their doctrines were blamed for weakening the moral fibre of Greece. The charge was based on two contentions, both correct: first, that many of the Sophists attacked the traditionally accepted moral code; and second, that they explored and even commended alternative approaches to morality that would condone or allow behaviour of a kind inadmissible under the stricter traditional code.

Much less weight is now attached to these charges. First, many of the attacks on the traditional morality were in the name of a new morality that claimed to be of greater validity. Attacks upon particular doctrines often claimed that accepted views should be abandoned as morally defective. Furthermore, even when socially disfavoured action seemed to be commended, this was frequently done to introduce a principle necessary in any satisfactory moral theory. Thus, when Thrasymachus in the first book of Plato’s Republic argues that justice is unwarranted when it merely contributes to another’s good and not to the good of the doer, Plato agrees. Finally, there is no evidence that any of the Sophists were personally immoral or that any of their pupils were induced to immoral actions by Sophistic teaching. The serious discussion of moral problems and the theory of morality tends to improve behaviour, not to corrupt it.

Theoretical Issues

Relativism and skepticism have often been regarded as common features of the Sophistic movement as a whole. But it was early pointed out that only in Protagoras and Gorgias is there any suggestion of a radical skepticism about the possibility of knowledge; and even in their case Sextus Empiricus, in his discussion of skepticism, is probably right when he declares that neither was really a skeptic. Protagoras does seem to have restricted knowledge to sense experience, but he believed emphatically that whatever was perceived by the senses was certainly true. This led him to assert that the tangent does not touch the circle at a point only but along a definite length of the circumference; clearly he was referring to human perception of drawn tangents and circles. Gorgias, who claimed that nothing exists, or if it does exist it cannot be known, or if it exists and is knowable it cannot be communicated to another, has often been accused of denying all reality and all knowledge. Yet he also seems to have appealed in his very discussion of these themes to the certainty of perceived facts about the physical world; e.g., that chariots do not race across the sea. Others dismiss his whole thesis as a satire or joke against philosophers.

Probably neither view is correct. What Gorgias seems to have been attacking was not perceived reality nor one’s power to perceive it but the attempt to assign existence or nonexistence (with the metaphysical implications of such an operation) to what one perceives. There is evidence that other Sophists (e.g., Hippias) were interested in questions of this kind, and it is likely that they were all concerned to some degree with rejecting claims of any nonsensible existence, such as those of the Eleatics. The Sophists, in fact, were attempting to explain the phenomenal world without appealing to any principles outside phenomena. They believed that this could be done by including the observer within the phenomenal world. Their refusal to go beyond phenomena was, for Plato, the great weakness in their thinking.

A second common generalization about the Sophists has been that they represent a revolt against science and the study of the physical world. The evidence is against this, inasmuch as for Hippias, Prodicus, Gorgias, and Protagoras there are records of a definite interest in questions of this kind. The truth is rather that they were in revolt against attempts to explain the physical world by appeals to principles that could not be perceived by the senses; and instead of framing new “objective” explanations, they attempted to explain things, where explanation was required, by introducing the perceiver as one element in the perceptual situation.

One of the most famous doctrines associated with the Sophistic movement was the opposition between nature and custom or convention in morals. It is probable that the antithesis did not originate in Sophistic circles but was rather earlier; but it was clearly very popular and figured largely in Sophistic discussions. The commonest form of the doctrine involved an appeal from conventional laws to supposedly higher laws based on nature. Sometimes these higher laws were invoked to remedy defects in actual laws and to impose more stringent obligations; but usually it was in order to free the individual from restrictions unjustifiably imposed by human laws that the appeal to nature was made. In its extreme form the appeal involved the throwing off of all restraints upon self-interest and the desires of the individual (e.g., the doctrine of Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias that might, if one possesses it, is actually right), and it was this, more than anything else, that gave support to charges against the Sophists of immoral teaching. On other occasions the terms of the antithesis were reversed and human laws were explicitly acclaimed as superior to the laws of nature and as representing progress achieved by human endeavour. In all cases the laws of nature were regarded not as generalized descriptions of what actually happens in the natural world (and so not like the laws of physics to which no exceptions are possible) but rather as norms that people ought to follow but are free to ignore. Thus, the appeal to nature tended to mean an appeal to human nature treated as a source for norms of conduct. (See also natural law.)

To Greeks this appeal was not very novel. It represented a conscious probing and exploration into an area wherein, according to their whole tradition of thought, lay the true source for norms of conduct. If Plato’s Callicles represents a position actually held by a living Sophist when he advocates free rein for the passions, then it was easy for Plato to argue in reply that human nature, if it is to be fulfilled, requires organization and restraint in the license given to the desires of particular aspects of it; otherwise the interests of the whole will be frustrated. Both Plato and Aristotle, in basing so much of their ethics on human nature, are only following up the approach begun by the Sophists.

Humanistic Issues

The Sophists have sometimes been characterized by their attacks on the traditional religious beliefs of the Greeks (see Greek religion). It is true that more than one Sophist seems to have faced prosecution for impiety, as did Socrates also. Protagoras wrote “concerning the gods, I cannot know either that they exist or that they do not exist nor what they are like in form,” and Prodicus offered a sociological account of the development of religion. Critias went further when he supposed that the gods were deliberately invented to inspire fear in the evildoer. It is thus probably correct to say that the tendency of much Sophistic thought was to reject the traditional doctrines about the gods. Indeed, this follows almost inevitably if the supposition is correct that all the Sophists were attempting to explain the phenomenal world from within itself, while excluding all principles or entities not discernible in phenomena. But in their agnostic attitudes toward the Olympian deities, the Sophists were probably at one with most of the pre-Socratic philosophers of the 6th and 5th centuries and also with most thinking people living toward the end of the 5th century. It is thus probably misleading to regard them as revolutionary in their religious beliefs.

The importance the Sophists attached to human beings meant that they were extremely interested in the history and organization of human societies. Here again most is known about Protagoras, and there is a danger of treating his particular doctrines as typical of the Sophistic movement as a whole. In the 5th century, human history was very commonly seen in terms of a decline from an earlier golden age. Another view supposed that there were recurring cycles in human affairs according to which a progression from good to bad would give way to one from bad to good. The typical Sophistic attitude toward society rejected both of these views in favour of one that saw human history in terms of progress from savagery to civilization. In a famous mythProtagoras explained how humans achieved civilized society first with the aid of arts and crafts and then by gaining a sense of respect and justice in the ordering of their affairs. The general thinking of most of the Sophists seems to have been along similar lines.

One of the most distinctive Sophistic tenets was that virtue can be taught, a position springing naturally from the Sophists’ professional claim to be the teachers of young men. But the word virtue (aretē) implied both success in living and the qualities necessary for achieving such success, and the claim that aretē could be taught by the kind of teaching that the Sophists offered had far-ranging implications. It involved the rejection of the view that aretē came only by birth—for example, by being born a member of a noble family—and it involved also the rejection of the doctrine that aretē was a matter of the chance occurrence of specified qualities in particular individuals. Aretē, in the Sophists’ view, was the result of known and controllable procedures, a contention of profound importance for the organization of society. Moreover, what can be taught has some relation to what can be known and understood. The belief that teaching of a high intellectual calibre could produce success both for the individual and for governments has had a profound influence upon the subsequent history of education. Once again, it is through the acceptance of this doctrine by Plato and Aristotle that the Sophistic position came to be part of subsequent humanist tradition.


Encyclopedia Britannica – Sophist

The Death of Postmodernism And Beyond

Alan Kirby says postmodernism is dead and buried. In its place comes a new paradigm of authority and knowledge formed under the pressure of new technologies and contemporary social forces.

Originally Published in Philosophy Now


I have in front of me a module description downloaded from a British university English department’s website. It includes details of assignments and a week-by-week reading list for the optional module ‘Postmodern Fictions’, and if the university is to remain nameless here it’s not because the module is in any way shameful but that it handily represents modules or module parts which will be taught in virtually every English department in the land this coming academic year. It assumes that postmodernism is alive, thriving and kicking: it says it will introduce “the general topics of ‘postmodernism’ and ‘postmodernity’ by examining their relationship to the contemporary writing of fiction”. This might suggest that postmodernism is contemporary, but the comparison actually shows that it is dead and buried.

Postmodern philosophy emphasises the elusiveness of meaning and knowledge. This is often expressed in postmodern art as a concern with representation and anironic self-awareness. And the argument that postmodernism is over has already been made philosophically. There are people who have essentially asserted that for a while we believed in postmodern ideas, but not any more, and from now on we’re going to believe in critical realism. The weakness in this analysis is that it centres on the academy, on the practices and suppositions of philosophers who may or may not be shifting ground or about to shift – and many academics will simply decide that, finally, they prefer to stay with Foucault [arch postmodernist] than go over to anything else. However, a far more compelling case can be made that postmodernism is dead by looking outside the academy at current cultural production.

Most of the undergraduates who will take ‘Postmodern Fictions’ this year will have been born in 1985 or after, and all but one of the module’s primary texts were written before their lifetime. Far from being ‘contemporary’, these texts were published in another world, before the students were born: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Nights at the Circus, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (and Blade Runner), White Noise: this is Mum and Dad’s culture. Some of the texts (‘The Library of Babel’) were written even before theirparents were born. Replace this cache with other postmodern stalwarts – Beloved,Flaubert’s Parrot, Waterland, The Crying of Lot 49, Pale Fire, Slaughterhouse 5,Lanark, Neuromancer, anything by B.S. Johnson – and the same applies. It’s all about as contemporary as The Smiths, as hip as shoulder pads, as happening as Betamax video recorders. These are texts which are just coming to grips with the existence of rock music and television; they mostly do not dream even of the possibility of the technology and communications media – mobile phones, email, the internet, computers in every house powerful enough to put a man on the moon – which today’s undergraduates take for granted.

The reason why the primary reading on British postmodernism fictions modules is so old, in relative terms, is that it has not been rejuvenated. Just look out into the cultural market-place: buy novels published in the last five years, watch a twenty-first century film, listen to the latest music – above all just sit and watch television for a week – and you will hardly catch a glimpse of postmodernism. Similarly, one can go to literary conferences (as I did in July) and sit through a dozen papers which make no mention of Theory, of Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard. The sense of superannuation, of the impotence and the irrelevance of so much Theory among academics, also bears testimony to the passing of postmodernism. The people who produce the cultural material which academics and non-academics read, watch and listen to, have simply given up on postmodernism. The occasional metafictional or self-conscious text will appear, to widespread indifference – like Bret Easton Ellis’Lunar Park – but then modernist novels, now long forgotten, were still being written into the 1950s and 60s. The only place where the postmodern is extant is in children’s cartoons like Shrek and The Incredibles, as a sop to parents obliged to sit through them with their toddlers. This is the level to which postmodernism has sunk; a source of marginal gags in pop culture aimed at the under-eights.

What’s Post Postmodernism?

I believe there is more to this shift than a simple change in cultural fashion. The terms by which authority, knowledge, selfhood, reality and time are conceived have been altered, suddenly and forever. There is now a gulf between most lecturers and their students akin to the one which appeared in the late 1960s, but not for the same kind of reason. The shift from modernism to postmodernism did not stem from any profound reformulation in the conditions of cultural production and reception; all that happened, to rhetorically exaggerate, was that the kind of people who had once written Ulysses and To the Lighthousewrote Pale Fire and The Bloody Chamber instead. But somewhere in the late 1990s or early 2000s, the emergence of new technologies re-structured, violently and forever, the nature of the author, the reader and the text, and the relationships between them.

Postmodernism, like modernism and romanticism before it, fetishised [ie placed supreme importance on] the author, even when the author chose to indict or pretended to abolish him or herself. But the culture we have now fetishises the recipient of the text to the degree that they become a partial or whole author of it. Optimists may see this as the democratisation of culture; pessimists will point to the excruciating banality and vacuity of the cultural products thereby generated (at least so far).

Let me explain. Postmodernism conceived of contemporary culture as a spectacle before which the individual sat powerless, and within which questions of the real were problematised. It therefore emphasised the television or the cinema screen. Its successor, which I will call pseudo-modernism, makes the individual’s action the necessary condition of the cultural product. Pseudo-modernism includes all television or radio programmes or parts of programmes, all ‘texts’, whose content and dynamics are invented or directed by the participating viewer or listener (although these latter terms, with their passivity and emphasis on reception, are obsolete: whatever a telephoning Big Brother voter or a telephoning 6-0-6 football fan are doing, they are not simply viewing or listening).

By definition, pseudo-modern cultural products cannot and do not exist unless the individual intervenes physically in them. Great Expectations will exist materially whether anyone reads it or not. Once Dickens had finished writing it and the publisher released it into the world, its ‘material textuality’ – its selection of words – was made and finished, even though its meanings, how people interpret it, would remain largely up for grabs. Its material production and its constitution were decided by its suppliers, that is, its author, publisher, serialiser etc alone – only the meaning was the domain of the reader. Big Brother on the other hand, to take a typical pseudo-modern cultural text, would not exist materially if nobody phoned up to vote its contestants off. Voting is thus part of the material textuality of the programme – the telephoning viewers write the programme themselves. If it were not possible for viewers to write sections of Big Brother, it would then uncannily resemble an Andy Warhol film: neurotic, youthful exhibitionists inertly bitching and talking aimlessly in rooms for hour after hour. This is to say, what makes Big Brother what it is, is the viewer’s act of phoning in.

Pseudo-modernism also encompasses contemporary news programmes, whose content increasingly consists of emails or text messages sent in commenting on the news items. The terminology of ‘interactivity’ is equally inappropriate here, since there is no exchange: instead, the viewer or listener enters – writes a segment of the programme – then departs, returning to a passive role. Pseudo-modernism also includes computer games, which similarly place the individual in a context where they invent the cultural content, within pre-delineated limits. The content of each individual act of playing the game varies according to the particular player.

The pseudo-modern cultural phenomenon par excellence is the internet. Its central act is that of the individual clicking on his/her mouse to move through pages in a way which cannot be duplicated, inventing a pathway through cultural products which has never existed before and never will again. This is a far more intense engagement with the cultural process than anything literature can offer, and gives the undeniable sense (or illusion) of the individual controlling, managing, running, making up his/her involvement with the cultural product. Internet pages are not ‘authored’ in the sense that anyone knows who wrote them, or cares. The majority either require the individual to make them work, like Streetmap or Route Planner, or permit him/her to add to them, like Wikipedia, or through feedback on, for instance, media websites. In all cases, it is intrinsic to the internet that you can easily make up pages yourself (eg blogs).

If the internet and its use define and dominate pseudo-modernism, the new era has also seen the revamping of older forms along its lines. Cinema in the pseudo-modern age looks more and more like a computer game. Its images, which once came from the ‘real’ world – framed, lit, soundtracked and edited together by ingenious directors to guide the viewer’s thoughts or emotions – are now increasingly created through a computer. And they look it. Where once special effects were supposed to make the impossible appear credible, CGI frequently [inadvertently] works to make the possible look artificial, as in much ofLord of the Rings or Gladiator. Battles involving thousands of individuals have really happened; pseudo-modern cinema makes them look as if they have only ever happened in cyberspace. And so cinema has given cultural ground not merely to the computer as a generator of its images, but to the computer game as the model of its relationship with the viewer.

Similarly, television in the pseudo-modern age favours not only reality TV (yet another unapt term), but also shopping channels, and quizzes in which the viewer calls to guess the answer to riddles in the hope of winning money. It also favours phenomena like Ceefax and Teletext. But rather than bemoan the new situation, it is more useful to find ways of making these new conditions conduits for cultural achievements instead of the vacuity currently evident. It is important here to see that whereas the form may change (Big Brother may wither on the vine), the terms by which individuals relate to their television screen and consequently what broadcasters show have incontrovertibly changed. The purely ‘spectacular’ function of television, as with all the arts, has become a marginal one: what is central now is the busy, active, forging work of the individual who would once have been called its recipient. In all of this, the ‘viewer’ feels powerful and is indeed necessary; the ‘author’ as traditionally understood is either relegated to the status of the one who sets the parameters within which others operate, or becomes simply irrelevant, unknown, sidelined; and the ‘text’ is characterised both by its hyper-ephemerality and by its instability. It is made up by the ‘viewer’, if not in its content then in its sequence – you wouldn’t read Middlemarch by going from page 118 to 316 to 401 to 501, but you might well, and justifiably, read Ceefax that way.

A pseudo-modern text lasts an exceptionally brief time. Unlike, say, Fawlty Towers, reality TV programmes cannot be repeated in their original form, since the phone-ins cannot be reproduced, and without the possibility of phoning-in they become a different and far less attractive entity. Ceefax text dies after a few hours. If scholars give the date they referenced an internet page, it is because the pages disappear or get radically re-cast so quickly. Text messages and emails are extremely difficult to keep in their original form; printing out emails does convert them into something more stable, like a letter, but only by destroying their essential, electronic state. Radio phone-ins, computer games – their shelf-life is short, they are very soon obsolete. A culture based on these things can have no memory – certainly not the burdensome sense of a preceding cultural inheritance which informed modernism and postmodernism. Non-reproducible and evanescent, pseudo-modernism is thus also amnesiac: these are cultural actions in the present moment with no sense of either past or future.

The cultural products of pseudo-modernism are also exceptionally banal, as I’ve hinted. The content of pseudo-modern films tends to be solely the acts which beget and which end life. This puerile primitivism of the script stands in stark contrast to the sophistication of contemporary cinema’s technical effects. Much text messaging and emailing is vapid in comparison with what people of all educational levels used to put into letters. A triteness, a shallowness dominates all. The pseudo-modern era, at least so far, is a cultural desert. Although we may grow so used to the new terms that we can adapt them for meaningful artistic expression (and then the pejorative label I have given pseudo-modernism may no longer be appropriate), for now we are confronted by a storm of human activity producing almost nothing of any lasting or even reproducible cultural value – anything which human beings might look at again and appreciate in fifty or two hundred years time.

The roots of pseudo-modernism can be traced back through the years dominated by postmodernism. Dance music and industrial pornography, for instance, products of the late 70s and 80s, tend to the ephemeral, to the vacuous on the level of signification, and to the unauthored (dance much more so than pop or rock). They also foreground the activity of their ‘reception’: dance music is to be danced to, porn is not to be read or watched but used, in a way which generates the pseudo-modern illusion of participation. In music, the pseudo-modern supersedingof the artist-dominated album as monolithic text by the downloading and mix-and-matching of individual tracks on to an iPod, selected by the listener, was certainly prefigured by the music fan’s creation of compilation tapes a generation ago. But a shift has occurred, in that what was a marginal pastime of the fan has become the dominant and definitive way of consuming music, rendering the idea of the album as a coherent work of art, a body of integrated meaning, obsolete.

To a degree, pseudo-modernism is no more than a technologically motivated shift to the cultural centre of something which has always existed (similarly, metafiction has always existed, but was never so fetishised as it was by postmodernism). Television has always used audience participation, just as theatre and other performing arts did before it; but as an option, not as a necessity: pseudo-modern TV programmes have participation built into them. There have long been very ‘active’ cultural forms, too, from carnival to pantomime. But none of these implied a written or otherwise material text, and so they dwelt in the margins of a culture which fetishised such texts – whereas the pseudo-modern text, with all its peculiarities, stands as the central, dominant, paradigmatic form of cultural product today, although culture, in its margins, still knows other kinds. Nor should these other kinds be stigmatised as ‘passive’ against pseudo-modernity’s ‘activity’. Reading, listening, watching always had their kinds of activity; but there is a physicality to the actions of the pseudo-modern text-maker, and a necessity to his or her actions as regards the composition of the text, as well as a domination which has changed the cultural balance of power (note how cinema and TV, yesterday’s giants, have bowed before it). It forms the twenty-first century’s social-historical-cultural hegemony. Moreover, the activity of pseudo-modernism has its own specificity: it is electronic, and textual, but ephemeral.

Clicking In The Changes

In postmodernism, one read, watched, listened, as before. In pseudo-modernism one phones, clicks, presses, surfs, chooses, moves, downloads. There is a generation gap here, roughly separating people born before and after 1980. Those born later might see their peers as free, autonomous, inventive, expressive, dynamic, empowered, independent, their voices unique, raised and heard: postmodernism and everything before it will by contrast seem elitist, dull, a distant and droning monologue which oppresses and occludes them. Those born before 1980 may see, not the people, but contemporary texts which are alternately violent, pornographic, unreal, trite, vapid, conformist, consumerist, meaningless and brainless (see the drivel found, say, on some Wikipedia pages, or the lack of context on Ceefax). To them what came before pseudo-modernism will increasingly seem a golden age of intelligence, creativity, rebellion and authenticity. Hence the name ‘pseudo-modernism’ also connotes the tension between the sophistication of the technological means, and the vapidity or ignorance of the content conveyed by it – a cultural moment summed up by the fatuity of the mobile phone user’s “I’m on the bus”.

Whereas postmodernism called ‘reality’ into question, pseudo-modernism defines the real implicitly as myself, now, ‘interacting’ with its texts. Thus, pseudo-modernism suggests that whatever it does or makes is what is reality, and a pseudo-modern text may flourish the apparently real in an uncomplicated form: the docu-soap with its hand-held cameras (which, by displaying individuals aware of being regarded, give the viewer the illusion of participation); The Office and The Blair Witch Project, interactive pornography and reality TV; the essayistic cinema of Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock.

Along with this new view of reality, it is clear that the dominant intellectual framework has changed. While postmodernism’s cultural products have been consigned to the same historicised status as modernism and romanticism, its intellectual tendencies (feminism, postcolonialism etc) find themselves isolated in the new philosophical environment. The academy, perhaps especially in Britain, is today so swamped by the assumptions and practices of market economics that it is deeply implausible for academics to tell their students they inhabit a postmodern world where a multiplicity of ideologies, world-views and voices can be heard. Their every step hounded by market economics, academics cannot preach multiplicity when their lives are dominated by what amounts in practice to consumer fanaticism. The world has narrowed intellectually, not broadened, in the last ten years. Where Lyotard saw the eclipse of Grand Narratives, pseudo-modernism sees the ideology of globalised market economics raised to the level of the sole and over-powering regulator of all social activity – monopolistic, all-engulfing, all-explaining, all-structuring, as every academic must disagreeably recognise. Pseudo-modernism is of course consumerist and conformist, a matter of moving around the world as it is given or sold.

Secondly, whereas postmodernism favoured the ironic, the knowing and the playful, with their allusions to knowledge, history and ambivalence, pseudo-modernism’s typical intellectual states are ignorance, fanaticism and anxiety: Bush, Blair, Bin Laden, Le Pen and their like on one side, and the more numerous but less powerful masses on the other. Pseudo-modernism belongs to a world pervaded by the encounter between a religiously fanatical segment of the United States, a largely secular but definitionally hyper-religious Israel, and a fanatical sub-section of Muslims scattered across the planet: pseudo-modernism was not born on 11 September 2001, but postmodernism was interred in its rubble. In this context pseudo-modernism lashes fantastically sophisticated technology to the pursuit of medieval barbarism – as in the uploading of videos of beheadings onto the internet, or the use of mobile phones to film torture in prisons. Beyond this, the destiny of everyone else is to suffer the anxiety of getting hit in the cross-fire. But this fatalistic anxiety extends far beyond geopolitics, into every aspect of contemporary life; from a general fear of social breakdown and identity loss, to a deep unease about diet and health; from anguish about the destructiveness of climate change, to the effects of a new personal ineptitude and helplessness, which yield TV programmes about how to clean your house, bring up your children or remain solvent. This technologised cluelessness is utterly contemporary: the pseudo-modernist communicates constantly with the other side of the planet, yet needs to be told to eat vegetables to be healthy, a fact self-evident in the Bronze Age. He or she can direct the course of national television programmes, but does not know how to make him or herself something to eat – a characteristic fusion of the childish and the advanced, the powerful and the helpless. For varying reasons, these are people incapable of the “disbelief of Grand Narratives” which Lyotard argued typified postmodernists.

This pseudo-modern world, so frightening and seemingly uncontrollable, inevitably feeds a desire to return to the infantile playing with toys which also characterises the pseudo-modern cultural world. Here, the typical emotional state, radically superseding the hyper-consciousness of irony, is the trance – the state of being swallowed up by your activity. In place of the neurosis of modernism and the narcissism of postmodernism, pseudo-modernism takes the world away, by creating a new weightless nowhere of silent autism. You click, you punch the keys, you are ‘involved’, engulfed, deciding. You are the text, there is no-one else, no ‘author’; there is nowhere else, no other time or place. You are free: you are the text: the text is superseded.

© Dr Alan Kirby 2006

Alan Kirby holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Exeter. He currently lives in Oxford.

Source: Philosophy Now: A Magazine of Ideas, Issue 58

Zen & The Art of Postmodern Philosophy

zen and postmodern philosophy

Selected Passages

Nietzsche views Buddhism as a passive kind of nihilism, a sign of weakness. Contrary to Nietzsche’s opinion of Buddhism, the historical Buddha wanted to “steer clear of notions of permanent existence and nihilistic nonexistence.” Within the context of the historically later Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, classical Madhyamika thinkers, for instance, emphatically rejected a nihilistic interpretation of the doctrine of emptiness. In his Mulamadhyamakakarika, Nagarjuna writes, for instance, the following:

In truth, the cessation of a real existing entity is not possible. For, indeed, it is not possible to have the nature of both existence and non-existence at the same time.

This type of statement motivated some critical interpreters to label such assertions nihilistic…

In response to western critics like Nietzsche and others, Nishitani rejects such erroneous claims, and asserts that nihilism is “the single greatest issue facing philosophy and religion in our times.” Within our historical time and place, philosophy has failed to provide an adequate response to nihilism, a historical actuality. The failure of philosophy is connected with the death of the traditional notion of a transcendent deity that gave history its meaningful basis in eternity. Devoid of any transcendent foundation, history becomes an errant striving for a viable future and an unbearable burden upon the individual.

Nietzsche’s response to the loss of a transcendent God and ground of historical meaning was to attempt to transcend history in and through time rather than striving to go beyond time…

Nishitani does not think that Nietzsche’s vision is a useful solution because the “will to power” was conceived as a “thing” referred to as “will.” To remain an entity suggests for Nishitani that it did not lose its connotation as other for us and something of which could help us become aware of ourselves at a primary level.

Science is also part of the problem because “Modern science has completely transformed the old view of nature, resulting in the birth of various forms of atheism and the fomenting of an indifference to religion in general.” Moreover, science rejects the possibility of a personal God or a teleological view of the world, and conceives of nature as something indifferent and impersonal.

According to Nishitani, reality is not something that can be reduced: “It is both life and death, and at the same time is neither life nor death. It is what we have to call the nonduality of life and death.”

From Nishitani’s perspective, contemporary atheism goes further by adding a sense of the meaninglessness associated with a purely materialistic and mechanistic world and “an accompanying awareness of the nihility that lies concealed just beneath the surface of the world.” Within contemporary atheism, there is an awareness of nihility in which the existence of God is denied and replaced by nihility. How is it possible to break out of this fundamental crisis of human existence? It is possible to deepen our subjectivity and freedom by practicing zazen (seated meditation) which will help us to become aware of the reality of sunyata (emptiness)? … From Nishitani’s perspective, Zen Buddhism does not represent an eastern form of nihilism.

Nishitani refers to the elemental mode of being as possessing an illusory appearance: “That being is only being in unison with emptiness means that eing possesses at its ground the character of an ‘illusion,’ that everything that is, is in essence fleeting, illusory appearance.”

In his work entitled Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Nietzsche refers to the overcoming of metaphysics and links it with liberation. In his four-volume study of Nietzsche, Heidegger interprets Nietzsche’s call for an end of metaphysics in the following manner: “The end of metaphysics discloses itself as the collapse of the reign of the transcendent and the ‘ideal’ that sprang from it. But the end of metaphysics does not mean the cessation of history.” Heidegger’s study of Nietzsche depicts him as the last metaphysician. Rosen disputes this claim because Nietzsche view metaphysics as illusion, and “Metaphysics is rendered impossible by the irrational necessity of the Chaos that lies in the heart of all things.” Nonetheless, Nietzsche’s call for an end of the western metaphysical tradition creates room for the eventual development and retrieval of an analysis of Being from the perspective of Heidegger. In a lecture from his later period, Heidegger claims that “To think Being without beings means: to think Being without regard to metaphysics.” Within the space provided by Nietzsche’s termination of metaphysics, Heidegger anoints and appoints himself to be the initial philosopher after the end of metaphysics, which for some postmodern thinkers also means the end of philosophy or the conclusion of philosophy as it has been practiced in the West.

As part of his argument, Derrida states that not all languages are logocentric because Chinese or Japanese nonphonetic scripts are evidence of cultures developing alternatively to logocentrism.

D.T. Suzuki captures the spirit of play in Zen Buddhism when he writes, “For playfulness comes out of empty nothingness, and where there is something, this cannot take place. Zen comes out of absolute nothingness and knows how to be playful.” To be able to play is to be free, whereas to work is to be limited and confined. The free and voluntary nature of play is a source of joy and amusement. The spirit of play for Dogen represents his transcendence of earthly dichotomies and absolute freedom. In a spirit applicable to the Zen of Dogen, Huizinga writes, “Play lies outside te antithesis of wisdom and folly, equally outside those of truth and falsehood, good and evil.”

It is a time for thinkers to wander aimlessly, err, emphasize altarity, stress the importance of difference, communicate indirectly, and embrace irony.

Zen, from one perspective, represents the end of philosophy as the love of wisdom and the use of rational means to find the truth, and many postmodern thinkers share the Zen suspicion of metaphysics and representational thinking, even though some postmodernists might view Zen as an example of eastern logocentrism.

“[Writing] plays within the simulacrum.” In fact, other postmodernists agree with Derrida that we are located in the simulacrum, a copy of a copy according to Plato… The functioning of the simulacrum, a Dionysian machine, is simulation, a phantasm itself, that subverts the same or representative model and renders it false… “It harbors a positive power that deniesthe original and the copy, the model and the reproduction.” Such a philosophical position manifests an anti-Kantian perspective that is aconceptual and nonrepresentational.

Writing on behalf of all human beings, Deleuze concludes that “We have become simulacra.”

Although there are certainly many similarities between Buddhist philosophy and forms of postmodern philosophy as evident by our previous discussions, the differences are ultimately more significant. Many postmodern thinkers manifest evidence of moving in the direction of Zen, but there is always a point at which they become captives of their own radical skepticism and/or language games.

Proceeding in a direction where the postmodernists would never tread, Dogen claims that the body is both subject and object, and that the body and mind represent the entire world, which implies that we are never separated from the world.

Due the the absence of an end, a definite conclusion is impossible. The most that we can affirm is that a conclusion is inconclusive, and yet we must come to some sort of end. I tend to agree with Taylor who thinks that one must end where one finds oneself. It has not been the intention of this dialogue between representatives of the Zen philosophical tradition and postmodern thought to arrive at a final solution to any philosophical problems. The inconclusive end of this intercultural dialogue terminates with an interlude that anticipates a continuation of the dialogue at a future date. Unable to come to final conclusions or a definitive end, it seems advisable to simply sign out.

– Carl Olson


“The Buddhist Dharma cannot be understood through rational and intellectual study.”

– Dogen

“The relationship of being and nothingness is thus one of mutual implication and intertwining; it is not predicated on antithesis or reciprocal exclusion.”

– Dallmayr

White Noise

What if there were a pill that cured the fear of death?

white noise

@Don DeLillo: My apologies for chopping your novel up, but I’ll try to get the point across in the sections I use. Great novel by the way.

@Everybody: Buy “White Noise” by Don DeLillo.

“Why can’t we be intelligent about death?” I said.

“It’s obvious.”

“It is?”

“Ivan Ilyich screamed for three days. That’s about as intelligent as we get. Tolstoy himself struggled to understand. He feared it terribly.”

“It’s almost as though our fear is what brings it on. If we could learn not to be afraid, we could live forever.”

“We talk ourselves into it. Is that what you mean?”

“Every death is premature…”

“Do you think it’s a sense of incompleteness that causes you the deepest regret? There are things you still hope to accomplish. Work to be done, intellectual challenges to be faced.”

“The deepest regret is death. The only thing to face is death. This is all I think about. There’s only one issue here. I want to live.”

“This is death. I don’t want it to tarry awhile so I can write a monograph. I want it to go away for seventy or eighty years.”

“Your status as a doomed man lends your words a certain prestige and authority. I like that. As the time nears, I think you’ll find that people will be eager to hear what you have to say. They will seek you out.”

“Are you saying this is a wonderful opportunity for me to win friends?”

“I’m saying you can’t let down the living by slipping into self-pity and despair. People will depend on you to be brave.”

“Do you believe love is stronger than death?”

“Not in a million years.”

“Good,” he said. “Nothing is stronger than death. Do you believe the only people who fear death are those who are afraid of life?”

“That’s crazy. Completely stupid.”

“Right. We all fear death to some extent.”

“Doesn’t our knowledge of death make life more precious?”

“What good is a preciousness based on fear and anxiety? It’s an anxious quivering thing.”

“There is no reason to believe life is more precious because it is fleeting. Here is a statement. A person has to be told he is going to die before he can begin to live life to the fullest. True or false?”

“False. Once your death is established, it becomes impossible to live a satisfying life.”

“Would you prefer to know the exact date and time of your death?”

“Absolutely not. It’s bad enough to fear the unknown. Faced with the unknown, we can pretend it isn’t there. Exact dates would drive many to suicide, if only to beat the system.”

“This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.”

“It is?”

“It’s what we invented to conceal the terrible secret of our decaying bodies. But it’s also life, isn’t it? … Give yourself up to it, Jack. Believe in it… God’s own goodness.”

“I don’t think I want to see any doctors for a while, Murray, thanks.”

“In that case you can always get around death by concentrating on the life beyond.”

“Pick one you like.”

“But you make it sound like a convenient fantasy, the worst kind of self-delusion.”

“But I don’t have to believe? Don’t I have to feel in my heart that there is something, genuinely, beyond this life, out there, looming, in the dark?”

“What do you think the afterlife is, a body of facts just waiting to be uncovered?”

“I’ll tell you what the afterlife is. It’s a sweet and terribly touching idea. You can take it or leave it. In the meantime what you have to do is survive an assassination attempt. That would be an instant tonic. You would feel specially favored, you would grow in charisma.”

“Why  have you failed, Jack?”

“A confusion of means.”

“Correct. There are numerous ways to get around death. You tried to employ two of them at once. You stood out on the one hand and tried to hide on the other. What is the name we give to this attempt?”


“Why have I had this fear so long, so consistently?”

“It’s obvious. You don’t know how to repress. We’re all aware there’s no escape from death. How do we deal with this crushing knowledge? We repress, we disguise, we bury, we exclude. Some people do it better than others, that’s all.”

“How can I improve?”

“You can’t.”

“Do you think I’m somehow healthier because I don’t know how to repress? Is it possible that constant fear is the natural state of man…”

“But isn’t repression unnatural?”

“Fear is unnatural. Lightning and thunder are unnatural. Pain, death, reality, these are all unnatural. We can’t bear these things as they are. We know too much. So we resort to repression, compromise and disguise. This is how we survive the universe. This is the natural language of the species.”

“Why do I feel so good when I’m with Wilder? It’s not like being with the other kids,” I said.

“You sense his total ego, his freedom from limits.”

“In what way is he free from limits?”

“He doesn’t know he’s going to die. He doesn’t know death at all… How lucky he is. A cloud of unknowing, an omnipotent little person. The child is everything, the adult nothing. Think about it. A person’s entire life is the unraveling of this conflict. No wonder we’re bewildered, staggered, shattered.”

“We create beautiful and lasting things, build vast civilizations.”

“Gorgeous evasions,” he said. “Great escapes.”

“We have talked about ways to get around death,” he said… “There are other methods as well and I would like to talk about one such approach.”

We crossed the street.

“I believe, Jack, there are two kinds of people in the world. Killers and diers. Most of us are diers. We don’t have the disposition, the rage or whatever it takes to be a killer. We let death happen. We lie down and die. But think what it’s like to be a killer. Think how exciting it is, in theory, to kill a person in direct confrontation. If he dies, you cannot. To kill him is to gain life-credit. The more people you kill, the more credit you store up. It explains any number of massacres, wars, executions.”

“In theory, violence is a form of rebirth. The dier passively succumbs. The killer lives on.”

“Nothingness is staring you in the face. Utter and permanent oblivion. You will cease to be. To be, Jack. The dier accepts this and dies. The killer, in theory, attempts to defeat his own death by killing others. He buys time, he buys life…”

“To plot is to live,” he said… “We start our lives in chaos, in babble. As we surge up into the world, we try to devise a shape, a plan. There is dignity in this. Your whole life is a plot, a scheme, a diagram. It is a failed scheme but that’s not the point. To plot is to affirm life, to seek shape and control. Even after death, most particularly after death, the search continues. Burial rites are an attempt to complete the scheme, in ritual…”

“I only want to elicit truths you already possess, truths you’ve always known at some basic level.”

“How does a person say good-bye to himself? It’s a juicy existential dilemma.”

“Better you than me.”

REMEMBER. You cannot access your account unless your code is entered properly. Know your code. Reveal your code to no one. Only your code allows you to enter the system.

“How stupid these people were, coming into my office unarmed.”

“What is dark? It’s just another name for light.”

This must be how people escape the pull of the earth, the gravitational leaf-flutter that brings us hourly closer to dying. Simply stop obeying. Steal instead of buy, shoot intead of talk.

“You’re saying there is no death as we know it without the element of fear. People would adjust to it, accept its inevitability.”

“There will eventually be an effective medication, you’re saying. A remedy for fear.”

“Followed by a greater death. More effective, productwise. This is what the scientists don’t understand, scrubbing their smocks with Woolite…”

“Are you saying death adapts? It eludes our attempts to reason with it?”

[After some events that I would consider spoilers to the story…]

White noise everywhere… I continued to advance in consciousness… I knew for the first time what rain really was. I knew what wet was. I understood the neurochemistry of my brain, the meaning of my dreams (the waste material of premonitions [with deja vu being a physiological side effect of premonition in still-primitive man.]) Great stuff everywhere, racing through the room, racing slowly. A richness, a density. I believed everything. I was a Buddhist, a Jain, a Duck River Baptist… I saw things new… I saw beyond words… Is it better to commit evil and attempt to balance it with an exalted act than to live a resolutely neutral life?… This was the key to selflessness… Get past disgust. Forgive the foul body. Embrace it whole… My humanity soared…

It hadn’t occurred to me that a man’s attempts to redeem himself might prolong the elation he felt when he committed the crime he now sought to make up for.

Heaven was a partly cloudy place…

I said to my nun, “What does the Church say about heaven today? Is it still the old heaven, like that, in the sky?”

She turned to glance at the picture.

“Do you think we are stupid?” she asked.

“You would come in bleeding from the street and tell me six days it took to make a universe?”

“On the seventh He rested.”

“You would talk of angels? Here?”

“Of course here. Where else?”

I was frustrated and puzzled, close to shouting.

“Why not armies that would fight in the sky at the end of the world?”

“Why not? Why are you a nun anyway? Why do you have that picture on the wall?”

She drew back, her eyes filled with contemptuous pleasure.

“It is for others. Not for us.”

“But that’s ridiculous. What others?”

“All the others. The others who spend their lives believing that we still believe. It is our task in the world to believe things no one else takes seriously. To abandon such beliefs completely, the human race would die. This is why we are here. A tiny minority. To embody old things, old beliefs. The devil, the angels, heaven, hell. If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse.”

“You don’t believe in heaven? A nun?””If you don’t, why should I?”

“If you did, maybe I would.”

“If I did, you would not have to.”

“Your dedication is a pretense?”

“Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.”

“Soon no more. You will lose your believers.”

“And nothing survives? Death is the end?”

“Do you want to know what I believe or what I pretend to believe?”

“I don’t want to hear this. This is terrible.”

“But true.”

The supermarket shelves have been rearranged… There is a sense of wandering now, an aimless and haunted mood, sweet-tempered people taken to the edge… But in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods…

~ Excerpts from White Noise, a novel by Don DeLillo


“If God did not exist, then it would be necessary to invent him.”

– Voltaire

“May not religious optimism be too idyllic? Must all be saved? Is no price to be paid in the work for salvation? …

As a matter of fact countless human imaginations live in this moralistic and epic kind of a universe, and find its disseminated and strung-along successes sufficient for their rational needs…

The way of escape from evil on this system is not by preserving it in the whole as an element essential but ‘overcome.’

It is by dropping it out altogether, throwing it overboard and getting beyond it, helping to make a universe that shall forget its very place and name.”

– William James (GO USA! Destroy and create anew! Fnord.)