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Dancing Towards Nihilism: Third Sketch

  • To say that something is fictional is not to say that it lacks any significance.  Money is a good example of a significant fiction.  The material employed in money — metal, paper, or most recently here in Canada, plastic — has no intrinsic value in relationship to other objects (as far as I can tell — actually, as far as I can tell, nothing has any intrinsic value in relationship to anything else).  So why can I trade two pieces of paper for one piece of wooden furniture?  Because we, as a group, choose to participate within a fictional understanding of that which we call “money.”  Money is like the Emperor–clothed in incomparably beautiful robes… as long as we all pretend that he is not naked.
  • Other examples abound: nation-states are also fictions, as are all political boundaries, but our choice to participate in those fictions has serious ramifications for our actions.  As I stated before, we are all creating the world in which we live, and when we create a (fictional) world that has (fictional) components like money and nation-states, how we act in that (fictional) world will be significantly modified.
  • Language, itself, may be the most powerful example of this.  Non-sense, or fiction, that we take as “sensible” or “real” based upon the games that we play with it.
  • That said,  to  say that something is a game is not to say that it is not serious.  Some games, of course, are more serious than others–usually, what is risked in a game of Scrabble amongst friends is significantly different than what is risked in a game of Russian Roulette and the same spectrum of significance applies, I think, to the different language games we play as we construct meaning and value and, literally, make sense of our lives.  Yes, all language is game playing, yes, all definitions are tautologies as worked out within the rules of a particular game, but that game can be deathly serious.  Again, what matters is the way in which the game impacts one’s actions.
  • Of course, all of this assumes that game-playing and participating in fictional constructions of the world do, in fact, impact a person’s actions.  This assumption could be reversed — we could argue that one’s beliefs and values are determined by one’s actions and not vice versa.  In fact, I believe that this is the case far more often than we care to think — we do what we want to do and only then find ways to narrate those actions so that we are good people within the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and within the stories others tell about us.  However, I don’t think this has to be a strict either/or.  Actions (more often? ) influence beliefs; but beliefs (less often?) can influence actions.
  • The other assumption operating here is that, while appearing to try to objectively describe things as they are, there is still a system of valorisation operating within this post.  That is to say, I believe that things are significant to the extent that they impact what we do and make our actions more or less life-giving or death-dealing.  I am not just saying that fictions impact action, nor am I saying that game-playing can have repercussions for a person’s lived existence, I am saying those things are significant because of that.

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  1. Hi DanO, thanks for a great reflections. I ain’t hardly got started thinking about one post and then here come another! Well, let me just herd my thoughts for all 3 into this one corral. First though, I wanted to include a youtube clip of the scene from “The Tree Of Life” I describe below but i couldn’t find one. I will instead offer the scene leading up to it though because it includes Mozart’s Lacrimosa by Zbigniew Preisner’s in his “Day of Tears.” Please open up another window and start playing now… …thank you for your cooperation.
    So, in Malick’s “The Tree Of Life,” there is a scene of a dinosaur lying on it’s side in a stream bed (I don’t know why but I felt that it was a girl dinosaur, maybe even in labor, it’s hard to decide). The Mesozoic world is strange and largely unknown to us, but we know enough of how things work here, in what we have come to name the “natural world” that any animal, any life-form that appears defenseless, weak, wounded, is in great risk. I am afraid for her. Then, my fear proves prescient and another dinosaur appears out of the dark foliage and spots the vulnerable one. I don’t really know much about dinosaurs but this other dinosaur is clearly some kind of larger predator/raptor. It charges toward the vulnerable one laying there like a waiting sacrifice. Then, in a seemingly cruel act, it takes it’s clawed foot and forcefully pushes the face of the weakened and dying one into the ground. I cringe and wait for the predator to start tearing into the flesh of the helpless one, to consume it’s life-blood; but then the predator does a peculiar thing, it lifts it paw for a moment, letting the wounded one raise it’s head just for an instant. Then, almost gently, it pats the dying one on it’s head once more and then scurries away, stops, looks up towards the the heavens…and end of scene. (***At this point I am just wondering, how many folks reading this–if any do–actually went to the youtube link first as I instructed. If not, why not? If so, why are you taking instructions and acting out the will of the digital fiction that is Daniel? OK, now back to the comment).
    All the actions of these creatures (within this structure of representation, that is, attending to Guy Debord’s insight that ‘spectacle is capital accumulating until it forms an image’) are *made* (as i think DanO would agree) intelligible to us through preexisting systems of symbol and meaning that we do not create or control; convenient fictions, in a web of significations as complex as Malick’s gestating universe. Merleau-Ponty in “The Primacy of Perception” argued: “The world is already constituted, but also never completely constituted; in the first case we are acted upon, in the second we are open to an infinite number of possibilities…. There is, therefore, never determinism and never absolute choice, I am never a thing and never bare consciousness (PofP, p. 453). Merleau-Ponty agreed with Heidegger that being-in-the-world, is too complex, too mysterious, even too glorious, to ever be understood simply through empiricist notions of cause and effect. As M-P says (and I think at least this has an affinity with DanO’s great insights) that “…In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.”
    This I think is why the actions of the predator are so disjunctive. Malick (a Heidegger scholar and translator (and Chaldean Christian?) who taught his students Merleau-Ponty, DeBord and Husserl) disrupts the established narrative structures by which we understand the world of dinosaurs, the world of power and weakness, the world of master and slave, of kill or be killed–as well as the world of sacrifice and mercy. But could a dinosaur be merciful? How do we interpret the predator’s action with any certainty? What meaning do I impose on it and how do I interpret my own experience of this action and then choose myself to act in a meaningful way? All the while maintaining the awareness that it is all a spectacle orchestrated by another being mired in another equally inter-referential matrix of significations as I am? “The world is… the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions. Truth does not ‘inhabit’ only ‘the inner man,’ or more accurately, there is no inner man, man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself.” (PofP preface) MMP is arguing that whatever I know of the multiplicities of my self is always and only in relation to others, and I would add to the ‘Other.’ As DanO, channeling the existentialists MMP and Sarte’ some time ago wrote something like, ‘we are all thrown into this world not of our making and not of our choosing….’ Even so, we seem to be, pacing Sarte, Heidegger, Levinas and Jesus, ‘condemned to freedom,’ which includes the freedom to wound, exploit, consume, and kill others, even the Other!
    The narrator has asked into the void, into the consuming chaos of the Eye of God: “Who are we to you,” then we witness this predator that has been given the power of life and death over others look to the heavens for a fraction of an instant, and in the next scene we see this giant asteroid hurtling toward earth that will destroy all the dinosaurs, the strong and weak alike, and most all forms of life on the planet. Is this what the predator was looking up at? After one act of mercy the world is changed forever? One instant I was watching and pondering the possibility of compassion in the heart of a predator and in the fabric of creation (and it’s Creator?) when ZOOM-CRACK, both predator and victim are wiped out by the same act of chance/choice…and then life begins again, is worlded into existence. Will the new world be better than the old? By what measure will we decide? What choices will we make? What will we do?…Is this what you are asking us? Obliged.

  2. Hi Daniel,
    Thanks for your remarks. I’ve decided to bite the bullet and have attained a copy of Tree of Life. Hoping to watch it with my wife tonight. I appreciate everything you say–I understand far less of Heidegger than you and I haven’t read Merleau-Ponty (just read of… you know how that goes…) so much appreciated (also, to add another reference to the discussion, I would point out that Proust is emphatic about the whole “I am a plurality”). A lot to think about.

  3. Yeah, well, I only learned just enough Heidegger soze zat I could understand the Hank Williams songs that I sing. Nevertheless, I was just asked today by some hollywood folks to send them a treatment on a movie about Heidegger! I am writing up something that attends to his relationship (that is, he screwed her) Hannah Arendt, as well as his relationships with Mordechai Rosenbaum, Husserl, and other Jews….maybe a comedy? Second, I think Proust was thinking of Facebook when he explored ideas of plurality (I too will be expecting a FB friend request from at least one of the manifestations of DanO’s). Third, my comments above should not be construed as an endorsement of Malick’s movie, and I wonder how well the movie will appeal to you younger folks (I was born in the 50’s which is the setting for much of the movie, of course, if you were on FB it would notify you of all your friends birthdays!). Fourth, seems like Merleau-Ponty is right up your ballywick, him and the RC Jacques Maritain. Blessings and looking fwd to your critique of Malick, as well as more about ‘chemical valley’ and the native struggles there, soon as your finished up with circumscribing nihilism, obliged, Daniel.