Between the idea
And the Reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
From “The Hollow Men,” by TS Eliot
I notice that I share a fundamental starting assumption with post-modernism – the realization that everything is a story, and the impossibility of obtaining “positive certainty” about the full nature of anything.
Even the factual things people do manage to measure with precision are already fictional distinctions premised on limited assumptions. We imagine different ways of separating and measuring what is otherwise an infinite but unrealized potential, the so-called Void.
And I understand (but don’t share) their tendency to make no distinction between thought and thing, because the “thing” is also a thought. Everything we know is put together by narrative – it’s all a fiction. Peering through the post-modern lens, everything, in other words, is just language. From this angle there is no reality beyond language, or no meaning beyond what language ascribes.
There is insight here, but there is also a very subtle blunder. It’s the same one I made as a teenager when I fell into a depersonalization/derealization crisis, which is a terrifying physical and psychological conviction that nothing is real.
Here’s what this post-modern insight misses: If all conclusive meaning (Truth or Reality) is fictional, then this information itself – this negative discovery – is an example of an insight that is non-fictional, non-linguistic. “Truth” doesn’t disappear, but changes at this juncture from positive certainty to negative discovery. Truth changes shape but doesn’t disappear.
Post-modernism focuses almost exclusively on what is lost here (which is any form of positive certainty), and not on what is gained, which is the clarity of realizing what is NOT true.
This negative certainty provides an orientation to the world in the absence of any capacity to pin the world down. A negative certainty goes only far enough to unmask old convictions, leaving questions more open-ended and nuanced. It’s not the certainty of conclusion (which puts an end to learning), but the certainty of not knowing (or of recognizing bullshit), which revives inquiry and learning.
A certainty that opens the mind, rather than shutting it down.
These negative blows to our best laid theories represent a ceaseless corrective force blowing through everything like a solar wind. We can become attentive to this negative force simply by noticing our resistances, which are the doors we shut against the world.
The irony is that they’ve built a nihilistic story on this bedrock reality, this negative Truth, but don’t seem to recognize the ground on which they’re standing.
When post-modernism claims that there is no objective truth, their own insight gets ruined. They end up regarding this claim as a literal Truth, which contradicts their own negative insight.
Post-Modernism as a Depersonalization/Derealization Crisis
I know because I made this mistake as a teenager. When I first confronted the shocking realization that everything is imaginary, I lost my feel for reality. I was stranded in a terrifying solipsism. The solipsism itself — the isolation, the sense of being stuck in a maze of frightening illusions — felt indisputably real. It was, it was an insight. But it took years until I realized that if I’m consistent with this insight, then the terrifying story of isolation is also a fiction.
And when I realized that even the “terrifying truth” was fictional, fear disappeared, and thought had nowhere to go. It couldn’t conclude anything, nothing anxiety-provoking and nothing hope-provoking. Thoughts and images became irrelevant to the question of reality, and quieted down. I became real (not for long, not for long) instead of knowing what was real. For the first time in my life, the “territory” made itself known without the need for a map. In other words, the mind relaxed its need for positive certainty and discovered another form of knowing, another form of truth and reality, which is not conclusive, not based in thought, interpretation or knowledge.
This didn’t last because the culture relentlessly demands positive explanations for everything, because our culture is a force of control and captivity. This perpetual insistence on “making sense” easily confuses the delicate new orientation.
In other words, there is no way to positively describe such a negative form of intelligence, because descriptions force this newer form of meaning back into the imprisoned patterns of old thinking. There is no way to positively identify what a new relationship to uncertainty means, if meaning is understood as verbal description. The attempt perverts the new form of “knowing”, turning our attention in precisely the wrong direction. And the culture ridicules or ignores anything that isn’t reducible to explanation or answer.
In the same sense, the post-modernists confronted the real limits of thought and language, but saw this turning point as a dead end, rejecting everything that strayed beyond the linguistic limit, because it looked like a void.
So the post-modernists lost all interest in the territory (in truth, meaning and reality) simply because they discovered that the mind covers the whole world in the fictions of map-making.
In general, they hide from this challenge, retreating into a soft nihilism, and others suffer the consequences.
In other words, this insight into the limits of thought and language landed too lightly to dissolve their conflation of language and Truth. Without conclusions (the post-modernists conclude) there is no meaning, (which undermines their sense of honesty also). All they can do now is achieve a kind of “functional meaning”. They can construct conclusions that might help us function better in a particular context. So they end up thinking nothing is real, but we have to make artificial meaning anyways in order to survive. And that feels like a diminished world.
The culture as a whole is more influenced by these ivy towered fashions in thinking than construction workers or car mechanics might at first imagine. Or maybe not. Maybe this nihilistic philosophy is the general fashion for the culture as a whole, and the academics are merely articulating this meaning-deprived orientation to life. I think that’s more likely. But I also think that if the academic world faced their own contradictions in this area, they might resolve the crisis, which might also alter the fashion of thinking and feeling in the culture as a whole. How this trickle-down effect works isn’t my concern right now. Call it a cultural ductwork of sorts that transports a new perspective from one social context to another. And the intellectuals are at least more prone to questioning themselves (eventually) than those of us who feel trapped into plodding relentlessly down the usual cultural ruts as a matter of survival and who generally find this kind of reflection worthless anyways (because practical people are also mainly hypnotized into believing that life is ultimately meaningless, just like the academics).
We’re like flies on sticky paper. Once we land on a conclusion we tend to stay there. And that’s because we haven’t faced the full weight of this negative insight, that everything is a story. If we understood that fully then we wouldn’t conclude that life is meaningless. Because that is also merely another conclusive story, which misses the real point.
I think maps seem disembodied, unrelated to a “real world” because map making and lying seem hopelessly entangled. We can’t trust our maps to provide anything but self-defensive justifications of their own starting assumptions (tautologies), because we don’t see any way of distinguishing honest and dishonest stories.
Lying, in other words, seems like “human nature”, something utterly inevitable. Lying seems like a natural survival tactic. Hiding from prey is a predatorial trick after all.
But there’s a big difference between that kind of lying – a predatorial cunning – and self-deception. The problem lies here: deceptive tactics used in hunting animals can’t be applied on a psychological level (as manipulation or control) without causing the psychological predator (in particular) great psychic harm. Not necessarily immediate pain or unhappiness, but substantive harm.
No matter how good the deceiver becomes, no matter how successful they may be in their deceptions, they will be motivated by a lie far more insidious that they don’t notice, and which bites them in the ass.
It’s the motive that matters. It matters why we predate or kill. If we’re merely trying to obtain food for our tribe, then the motive is clean, there’s no psychotic excess, but only careful attention to the rituals of life and death. It becomes a sacred rite that strengthens our relation to the earth. So the motive doesn’t generate self-deception, unless the hunter becomes a trophy hunter.
What generates self-deception are motives of personal triumph and greatness. Then the self-promoted, self-obsessed predatorial motive becomes psychopathic, which I’d describe as an aphasia, an utter deletion of half the field of perception, effectively repressing into irrelevance the whole right side of the brain, and letting the motives of the left half of the perceptual field run rampant from its narrow and mechanical vantage point, incapable of seeing spectrums of empathy and self-limitation.
This self-centric motive essentially leaves the “host” semi-beheaded, a zombie of sorts who seems convincingly alive, simply because they mimic the patterns of life, pretending to be kind and generous, but only for ulterior motives.
If there is no broader view than the personal, if everything is reduced to a spectrum of personal triumph, then we can’t see ourselves in the context of a larger world. The larger world – the earth, other creatures – become background figures suitable for mere manipulation and self-aggrandizement.
They can’t see this loss, they can’t recognize the absence of these spectrums of intelligence, because the perceptual field is narrowed to their own self-referential fictions. So the Self — individuality as a solipsistic, and easily self-aggrandizing force — becomes its own justification for anything it “wants”, because the rest of the world (the rest of its mind) is dismissed as irrelevant.
What’s worse, as soon as we apply this deceptive motive in the psychological jungles, where we’re hunting for power and prestige (self-promotion and self-worth), we’re also unconsciously fleeing weakness, powerlessness, and other unspeakable terrors.
This is the real motivation of psychopaths, escaping the terrors of a stranded self, a fiction gone mad, and they can’t admit this horror, this loss of any connection to a reality beyond the fictions of themselves, so they are driven relentlessly to act in ways that sustain their illusions of self-importance and power.
They are fleeing a depersonalized vision, compelled to hurt or control others to keep one step ahead of a terrifying absence of reality and sensitivity (intelligence) that they dare not admit. So in the psychological fields and streams, predators destroy themselves, are left utterly bereft of real feeling. In the absence of intelligent sensitivity, mere dumb sensation is all that remains.
The loud stimulants of sensation replace the missing spectrums of connectivity. So on one level they lie and deceive others knowingly, cleverly, but on a level they can’t see this is merely an act of self-deception. They don’t notice because half their brain is essentially missing. The higher they turn up the volume of sensation – indulging in some orgy of control – the more they’re able to gloss over the unacknowledgeable absence of reality, as long as the sensation lasts. So they become addicted to sensation. Fear is the motive, but they’ve been made too stupid to notice their own fear.
But this isn’t just a problem of psychopaths. We’re all forced to lie when the motive is personal. We become self-defensive, resistant to being wrong, and that means self-deceived. In the personal field, we can’t deceive without being deceived. It carries the seed of a psychopathic form of solipsism (not all forms of solipsism result in psychopathy, some diminish the Self). But self-promotional solipsism tends inevitably towards psychopathy. That’s why so many of the values we hold dear – status, patriotism, winning – all require lying, and this lying undermines the health of a society in ways that the psychopathic-tending culture refuses to see. We don’t see how utterly barren this culture has become, because we’re distracted by the culture’s endless stream of sensational events.
The cultural stream, in other words, is utterly polluted by historical lies, by stories of racial, national and personal greatness. And this requires lying about having lied, which is self-deception, which is the deletion of the broader portion of our fields of intelligence, leaving us susceptible to extinction, because no animal survives for long if its perceptual field is distorted in this way. They end up running in panicked circles, attracting predators, because predators know how to manipulate those fears (because they secretly share them).
So the lies we constantly encounter in every story aren’t “natural” in the sense of being inevitable. We indulge in them because we suffer from a partial aphasia, a horrible hollowness, trapped in an unreal world by our own unconscious lying (hence the Eliot quotes at the start). So deception isn’t a survival tactic outside a real jungle. In this immaterial jungle of thought, they become self-maiming mistakes.
Therefore honesty is a matter of survival, of clear vision. It’s not a moral obligation. It’s not a commandment, it’s a form of intelligence. It restores the lost mind.
Fiction Doesn’t Preclude Honesty
I won’t go into this deeply now, because I’ve covered it elsewhere often. But if we realize we’ve dangerously conflated thought and thing (or in the case of post-modernists, simply obliterated the significance of the distinction, ending up blindly attached to what remains (thought)), if we realize this error, then we stop using our fictions to deceive. Then we know they’re not answers, but only ways of distorting our perception helpfully, revealing qualities of an unknowable world that remains nevertheless real, because the world is who we Are, not what we think. Then language dances the location of pollen in a real world, performing myths that don’t conflate themselves with that reality, but also don’t demean themselves as meaningless, because the dance of language is also the dance of life, a way of moving in sync with a mysterious and invisible reality.
Honest Maps and Honest Holes in Maps
But still, post-modernism might ask, how do we honestly apprehend the real territory if every claim we make is another map, another fiction?
So this is what I’ve been writing about since I emerged from my own depersonalization/derealization crisis in my early twenties.
We can distinguish at least 2 ways of relating to reality directly, without any maps. And there is a third way, which makes existing maps translucent or honest.
Direct Meaning #1: Negative Awareness (Holes in Maps)
The first direct relationship is what we’ve already called “negative awareness” (a term Krishnamurti used). Here reality itself intrudes on our best-laid maps, by showing incoherencies. The apple falling on Newton’s head was an intrusion of reality on his map of the universe. The apple of reality itself didn’t show him a new map of the universe. It simply tore a hole in the old one (which he filled with a new theory, and we’ll discuss that).
So that’s one way in which the territory makes itself known – by revealing our false assumptions, by poking holes in our maps.
Direct Meaning #2: What Happens in the Holes
Another way of relating directly to actuality without any maps or interpretations is proprioceptively (thank you Bohm, although Krishnamurti demonstrated this more often than not as well). That is, when negative realizations burn a hole through our map of Self, the Self turns translucent, and the deceptive ploys and white lies that support the illusion of who I am are realized as hitherto hidden deceptions. A peaceful avalanche of self-revelation takes place, all without maps, or rather, burning through one map after another, without the formation of any additional interpretive layers.
A non-reactive confrontation with the brain’s habits of fight and flight calms the nervous system, and the energy that had been wasted in fleeing and fighting illusions translates into a heightened awareness. We become sensitive to more subtle layers of movement, the origins of intention and action, the roots of dis-ease. We see through dishonesty before it can set seed.
We could call this second form of direct perception, self-transparency, seeing the Truth of our own falseness.
For some reason, the post-modernists failed to recognize either of these direct forms of perception, and became cynical in the absence of linguistic certainty. This is also how I fell into the pit of depersonalization/derealization. The insight that nothing is real looks like a dead end, because we have no way to proceed in a positive direction, and this seems to rob us of any ground or compelling reason to relate to a wider world. We cease to believe in it. It leaves us all isolated in solipsism, without the old-fashioned dictator of God to tell us what is right and wrong. And their insights weren’t deep enough to come out the other side, to recognize an orientation towards clarity and goodness after all (the orientation of negative insight, proprioception and a third form of knowing, which is next), not as moral obligations (which would never hold), but as a need to see things honestly, without undue distortion.
Direct Meaning #3: Honest Maps
And the third way of relating to actuality directly involves map-making itself (now we return to Newton). After the apple negated his assumptions about the universe, it freed his mind to imagine a more creative and coherent story. We CAN make maps that don’t obscure actuality, but this only happens if the post-modernist insight – the negative discovery that linguistic certainty is impossible – lands even stronger, negating a subtle and lingering Literalism, which still conflates map and territory (either by way of an ignorant Literalism that doesn’t see the fictional nature of everything, or by way of a post-modern Literalism that denies map and territory, leaving one attached to maps by default).
When we stop mourning this loss of certainty it becomes possible to use map-making more creatively, as a way of squinting our eyes this way and that (and every story is a squint of a different kind). The distinction between fact and fiction is replaced by a distinction between honest and dishonest fiction. And these helpful (honest) distortions (honest, because they no longer pose deceptively as Answers, but only as Angles) reveal insights that otherwise wouldn’t be noticeable.
That is, unless Newton was simply looking for a new answer, which most scientists are still doing.
But if we understand theory the way David Bohm understood them, then we become explorers who report back to the village from contradictory directions. From that angle up there a pass can be seen through the mountains, which people standing over here can’t see. Neither view is more true. But sometimes we need to see a way through the mountains of assumption, and so it becomes necessary to squint through the trees from this angle rather than that.
Why would an honest report from over there upset people looking from here unless they conflated their own location with the only possible place to stand? How absurd to argue that no such pass exists, simply because it can’t be seen from the village?
Map-making stops becoming a competitive struggle for conclusion when this is understood. Then our contradictory reports on the nature of reality no longer collide, no matter what. Confusion, yes, but argument, impossible. If someone says “the tree is to the right” and the other says “it’s to the left” this no longer leads to a debate. We understand, now, that every honest story is describing the world – reality, yes it exists — from different angles. From the north it might be to the left, and from the south to the right. A creative, theoretical, inventive overview perspective is constantly being tickled into existence, which bridges these contradictions, but isn’t a positive conclusion, it’s a posited contingent fiction.
So, yes, the post-modernists see the same glimmer of truth: Reality may not be graspable, but it clearly exists after all. It’s not in these words, these glorified grunts. Only in reading a map translucently, or in falling through its holes negatively, does this territory open up and become real. It’s not real until then. But to dismiss the territory of meaning, reality and honesty conclusively is map-making at its most Literal and dogmatic.
It’s time for the post-modernists to recognize that the blinding virus of scientific materialism has infected them too. They had an insight, but it was incomplete, it didn’t irradiate their own need for dogmatic certainty, and it left them (the whole culture too) in a derealization crisis, a failure to realize that relativism is itself a universal insight, which doesn’t flatten every perspective on the same two-dimensional page of mere opinion, but awakens intelligence with honest fictions powered by negative explosions of insight.