“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
— Albert Einstein
“But that was just a dream
That was just a dream”
— R.E.M., Losing My Religion
During the so called Culture Wars of the 1980s, Stanley Fish, a man who is to intellectual ability as McDonalds is to fine dining, wrote an essay entitled, Is There a Text in this Class.
Fish has spent his carreer like a graduate student who learned one interesting thing and then spent thirty years cranking out versions of that one idea, while insisting that each iteration was a unique example of his impish brilliance.
In this case it’s the basic template of the baggy suit called Postmodernism.
Despite the wailing screeching hysteria in certain quarters about how Postmodernism is in conjunction with “NeoMarxism” combined to form a sign of the apocalypse, the truth is, that as a system of aesthetics or a school of philosophy, it is essentially nothing more or less than a gloss on Buddhism with a French or “Continental” accent.
Does the self exist?
Is it a provisional narrative?
Is there cause and effect?
Is this, really distinct from that?
Are there definitive narratives?
Is reality akin to a dream and is a dream essentially just another gesture of reality?
Is reality just an endless Uncertainty Principle and various forms of what Einstein called, Spooky Action at a Distance or Entanglement?
Consider that these question elicit hysteria and epic denunciations in certain quarters and more importantly have been eliciting hysteria for centuries.
That a gang of irritatingly smart, mostly French intellectuals went to town with it, and never publicly admitted that they were regurgitating Kant’s argument with David (Buddhism with a Brogue) Hume – who in turn never publicly admitted that his perfectly brilliant, if not genius excavations of consciousness were, essentially not any different from the excavations conducted by the itinerant Pre Socratic freaks and cranks who in wandering around the Eastern Med, came in contact with traders working the marketing routes that stretched from Athens to China – is annoying but, if we measured importance by levels of irritation, we would have a very long ditch to dig.
In other words, the argument is as old as dirt.
Fish, having set the lit department at Duke on fire, spiked the carnival tent and ultimately landed at The New York Times where both he and The Grey Lady could indulge the fantasy that they were intellectuals curating America’s cultural salon.
Is There a Text in This Class is probably, at this point, more dust covered and discussed than actually read by all but a handful of former graduate students who passed through the academic and national sphincter many years ago.
In spite of all of that the essay falls backwards into usefulness and Fish, hanging on to Roland Barthes’ fussy reputation for dear life, retains relevance even if it’s an example of being right for all of the wrong reasons.
Barthes of course is Hume with more pique and less port, and the unintentionally funny verbal ballet of a huate Parisian intellectual.
S/Z is an important work but of course it’s just a paraphrase of Hume shooting a game of pool, being irritated by Rousseau’s dog, and is flawed because Barthes presents the infinite regressions of Buddhism, and Hume’s Bundle Theory as an objective inescapable fact like gravity. And does so without ever mentioning Buddhism. Or Hume.
Reading, and thus reality, for Barthes means that every word on the page provokes a series of associations ad infinitum.
What goes missing is that even if that is true it is also true that the reader-creator can turn a switch, so to speak, and say, that cookie dipped in a cup of tea does spark an endless set of associations, but I’ve read as much as I want to and now I’m going to do something else.
The connective tissue may continue to function but at a certain point one chooses and the connections recede to at most an autonomic state or into a kind of background noise.
That in turn does not mean that the premise is false – every word sparks a connection and what is revealed is not a singular object or singular reality or conversely an endless multiplicity of objects but a binary state or field in which every object occupies two states – as singular and as multiplicity.
This is of course essentially what one encounters in discussions about quantum fields and screams of protest from the Post Alan Sokal school of proprietery authority to one side, the fact is the philosophers and philosopher-artists were there before the physicists and the physicists are the functional illiterates not the other way around.
C.P. Snow may have been done dirty by F.R. Leavis but while Snow’s point in, The Two Cultures, that a great many members of assorted Hummanities Departments are functional illiterates regarding science, it is also true that beyond being able to quote a line or two from Yeats and “Shakespeare” the average STEM tool is a moron when it comes to the Ars Poetica.
But we live in Huxley’s Brave New World so when an otherwise intelligent physicist spaffs nonsense up the wall and says in a best selling book that the scientists took over because “the poets ran away” it takes a miracle for them to realize they are not only wrong, but that they have embarrassed themselves and their colleagues.
The poets did not run away except in the sense that they were chassed by the goons who had hired the scientists to build better further higher faster bombs to kill all the poets and everyone else. And additionally the scientists simply lost the cognitive ability to comprehend what the poets were saying – and not because the work was obscure but because the scientists have no understanding of the basic math.
And so, Fish asks a legitimate question – is there a text in this or any other class is a rather simple way of asking, what if anything exists?
The reactionaries will scoff or start screeching about the yeti of their imagination, “Postmodern NeoMarxism” but it’s the same question the Buddha asked and the same question you can find among assorted Hindu sages, Jazz mystics and of course, annoyingly smart French academics.
By the time you peel back the layers of the “self” what exactly remains?
The “self” in this context being defined as an endless series of associations. The “I” in relation to family, friends, education, class, job, likes, dislikes, habits, and so on in such a tightly wound system of relations that a change to anyone of them alters the definition of the “individual” to such an extent that the word “individual” becomes both accurate and hopelessly vague.
Consider the nature of language in this context and how language both sparks deviation from the standard and coerces thought into a set of straight jackets.
We say, colloquially, dreams are not real.
This is meant to suggest that a dream is gossamer, ethereal and not objectively real in the manner of an object like a table or a billiard ball or food.
And yet, the dream is a chemical reaction within the system of the mind; the emotions are authentic, have impact, resonance, and are part of the gestalt of the individual.
The images of a dream provoke, cause joy, confusion, dread, anxiety or relief.
The distinction in language serves to create a distinction in “reality” between the experience and the objective or organic “fact” which is either real compared to the unreal (dream) or is more real in comparison to what is defined as the less real.
Fish, in his essay, reports a student asking on the first day of the semester, is there a text in this class.
Taking this as a starting point he uses it as a springboard to say that the idea of the text as a fixed product of one consciousness, the “author” is false because the “truth” is that reading is a series of endless subsequent creations of “text.”
This of course is a kind of reactionary, if not petulant subversion of talent, context, and artistic intention with echoes of The New Criticism and the sense that behind the puckish insistence on having come down from the mountain with the tablets of wisdom, what was really on display was anxiety. After all one could interpret The Lord of The Rings as a really long book about Decretive Jewelry Findings but that would miss at least some of the author’s point.
At the same time there are few limits on the effect the work has on readers and those may run the gamut from a semi-comatose state to exhilaration and in either case we find a endless series of associations that create a binary state in which the singular is also the multiplicity.
Art is funny that way.
So is reality.
But none of that, one way or another and regardless of where on the spectrum one stands, changes the fact that thought is real; the brain is actual, and what it generates is authentic in abstract and concrete definitions.
The dream and the dreamer then has been kidnapped by the other side of Snow’s Two Cultures.
This is so obvious that it borders on the banal or has built a time share on the border of the banal at the intersection of irrelevant and despair.
We are saturated with authentic attempts at rebellion and authentic imitation rebellion (the subversive form of genuine imitation leather) in which the very systems that reject the question and control the sham discussion crank out products that appear to offer or provoke a revolt against the dreary Borg resistance is futile mantra.
Henry David Thoreau is of course Kerouac and Ginsberg is of course Rimbaud and Rimbaud is of course “Socrates” and “Socrates” is of course DADA and so on all along a spectrum without hierarchy with each singular component simultaneously also being not singular but a multiplicity that comes into focus as it is experienced.
The idea, the dream, exists in two states and when we define its form we lose the sense of its trajectory and when we define its trajectory we lose a sense of its form.
When Blake said, heaven in a wild flower and the universe in a grain of sand, he was, 150 years prior, stating the details of the Uncertainty Principle.
The scientists howl in protest and snidely insists that one must spend years studying the sacred tomes to understand the truth.
To which we say yes, start with Dr. Seuss, and after a few decades get back in touch and we’ll quiz you on the intricacies of Faulknerian physics, Pynchonian Thermodynamics, and the String Theory of Joyce, etc., etc., etc., etc.
For extra credit we’ll let you write a brief excavation on Impressionism and Cubism.
And so back to the dream and the dreamer.
Language becomes a habit; predictable, dictatorial, degrading and atrophied. To be a day-dreamer is to be declared lazy, if not dangerous, decadent and not busy at the necessary labor of a proper capitalist Borg Drone.
Lately the scientists have started to realize that “day-dreaming” is healthy and may even be profitable which of course always gives the establishment a hard on.
But beyond that there is a question to consider: if we change our definitions and say, the dream is real, does our definition of “reality” become more fluid and if so, what then?
How shall we know the dancer from the dance?