BY MATTHEW HERBERT
In my last post, I made a gesture of détente toward postmodernism, the philosophy that says we create our own reality, including things that seem to exist entirely on their own, such as rocks or numbers or people.
Why would I do such a thing? The idea that the world would be a mere void without our thoughts to substantiate its content seems plainly, irrefutably wrong. The world is just there, right?
I still don’t believe that the claims of postmodernism are literally true, and I still have an old-fashioned attachment to literal truth as the most important kind of truth.
But over the years I have come to believe that the allure of postmodernist claims ought to be taken seriously even if the claims themselves make little sense in their hyped-up, academic form. They sometimes have an important kind of figurative truth to them.
I began my encounter with postmodernism in the field of philosophy–the very realm where hyped-up, academic claims take center stage and fight it out with one another–but it is literature that has softened my objections to postmodernist ideas and given them a playground rather than a field of battle. Certain novels have persuaded me that there are levels of reality that we do in fact create and it is sometimes hard to distinguish those levels–socially constructed reality–from the already-there world.
But let me back up.
In the 1990s I belonged to a school of philosophers called analytic philosophers, who believe that the best arguments for or against a given position are expressed as numbered sequences of clear, precise sentences, or even better, symbolic logic. To us, really excellent proofs were more like math than conversation. Here’s an example of one:
(∀C) (((∃S)csg(C, S, “A”)) → ((∃T )csg(C, T, “B”)))
It became a sort of mean-spirited game to show how ridiculous postmodernism was by translating it into our preferred forms of precise, logical arguments and then spotlighting the consequent profusion of nonsense. (Example: I recall a professor of mine smirking at a line from Being and Time in which Heidegger says that when he enters a room, he “pervades” it. At what rate of motion, the professor wondered, would Heidegger’s pervasion have progressed? Could one outrun it? And so on.)
It was all great fun. But one does read other books than analytic philosophy, eventually. And the best books change you, or reveal parts of yourself you had misunderstood all your life, or didn’t even know were there. For me, the pivot happened through novels. Over the years I have found that many of the most searching novels address ideas and questions that draw on postmodernist concerns, and that I in fact share many of those concerns. Read White Noise by Don Delillo or The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk and see if they do not affect your sense of reality.
Not everything worth saying in life is translatable to a syllogism.
I have just finished the stunningly good There There by Tommy Orange, which is certainly not translatable into a syllogism. It is a novel about twelve present-day Native Americans who are converging on a powwow in Oakland, California. It is a multi-sided tale told through twelve individual voices. Although the first responsibility of the critic is to focus on the work of art itself, I cannot avoid saying at the outset just how good this book is, especially considering it is Orange’s first, and that he didn’t even start reading literature until he was an adult. His sensitivity to the craft of novel writing is simply astonishing. I hope he lives a long time and writes a lot of books.
Orange’s choice of a collection of narrators rather than a single protagonist is an acknowledgment of how all of our identities are increasingly embedded in virtual networks–of social media, virtual schooling, home-office work, e-commerce, and so forth. It also illustrates Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s observation that individual humans are essentially situated in social settings from which our identities are derived. Over and against the Enlightenment ideal of hermetic individuality (God: “I am that I am.” Thoreau: “I will breathe after my own fashion.”), the postmodern self acknowledges how deeply it is interpenetrated by, and dependent on, others. We are other people, as I often remind myself.
One of Orange’s best-drawn characters is Edwin Black, an overweight, socially awkward aspiring writer whose extensive online research has made him something of a computer nerd as well. While searching for the identity of his long-lost father–a query that is definitive, concrete, and personally compelling–he finds something else, more elusive and disorienting: his own intellectual agency is merging with the algorithms and networks of the online world. Almost everyone has experienced something like the weird annexation of self by the internet that Edwin describes as “the open window my mind has become since the internet got inside it, made me a part of it.” Lest we think this kind of encounter is just a static intermingling of online “content” with one’s private thoughts, Black reminds us, it is a relationship that can exert force and direction on us, changing who we are: “Sometimes the internet can think with you, even for you, lead you in mysterious ways to information you need and would never have thought to think of or research on your own.”
We are not just other people; these days we are also other virtual networks.
Take this kind of reflection to its extreme, and you can see how it became the inspiration for the Matrix movies. If, as Jean Beaudrillard argues, our selves, the objects of our knowledge, and our very worlds are essentially mediated, we live with the menace of being unable to reliably distinguish our “true” experiences from our mediated ones, our core selves from what has been shaped by others. That’s The Matrix in a nutshell. But as Orange reminds us through Black’s reflections, it is at the thin end of this wedge, where we feel the internet–or any virtual network–making us a part of it that is most unsettling, because unlike science fiction movies it is really happening. You need not believe that The Matrix could be literally true to fear the encroachment of the mediated, virtual world onto the unmediated, “real” one. Most of us are not “really” at work, for example, until we log into the hive mand that runs, monitors, in fact is our organization. We are living in a Beaudrillardian twilight zone, and Orange is finely, expertly attuned to it. This sensitivity alone makes There There wonderful.
In a luminous, ironic prologue worthy of Kurt Vonnegut, Orange executes a deft act of misdirection to set the stage for There There, surprising the reader with the news that many 21st century Natives are, like Orange himself, urban, and call Oakland, California home. Orange writes:
Getting us to the cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours. . . . We made art and we made babies and we made a way for our people to go back and forth between reservation and city. We did not move to cities to die.
He later says that Natives living in Oakland draw as much inspiration from their built-up, urban environment as they do from “any sacred mountain range.” Some of his characters speak West Coast gangster, weaving words and attitude from Tupac into their Native-inflected patois. Who would have thought? The city is in them, and vice versa.
One thing about cities, though, is that they are constantly changing. Can they really help us frame a solid identity if their personality is ever in flux? Augie March would say yes without question, based on his announcement at the beginning of Saul Bellow’s masterpiece, “I am an American–Chicago born.” But in real life, the essence of a city is unstable and unlocatable, a fact that Orange embraces in the very title of his novel. “There there” is snipped from Gertrude Stein’s famous remark on Oakland, her childhood home. Returning as an adult in search of her roots, Stein once observed there “was no there there” in her hometown.
(Stein would not be the only California native to find the geography of her past transmuted and slipping out of her reach. Joan Didion’s 2003 Where I Was From is a deeply felt 240-page rumination on the same subject.)
As a good novelist, Orange does not simply disclose his worldview to the reader. But through the dialogue of the characters and the convergence of the plot strands on the climax at the big Oakland Powwow, we come to discover how thoroughgoing a postmodernist Orange is. His suggestion that there is no “there” in Oakland despite his characters’ creation of meaning there, in that very place, despite the powwow’s gravitational pull, drawing them there, to that very place, reflects Beaudrillard’s idea that a referent–the thing that a word refers to–can evaporate into nothing through a “normal” sequence of shifts in the structure of representations. But a whole city can just disappear?
Maybe. Trace the referent of a place, a society, or an institution–anything–far enough back and you eventually fall through a trapdoor of indeterminacy. What is “home,” for instance? For Natives, Orange probes the idea that there is something stereotypically “original” about unspoiled nature as the Indian’s proper home. The grasslands, the desert, the forest is somehow where he is supposed to be. But why would this be such a fixed notion, Orange wonders:
Nothing is original, everything comes form something that came before, which was once nothing. Everything is new and doomed.
Orange is also attuned to Beaudrillard’s concept of hyperreality, or the process of overdetermining the meaning of a representation through mediation and mimesis. Orange lodges this idea throughout his story, in elements large and small. In a line that looks like a throwaway, he has one of his characters muse that she dislikes poinsettias “because of how even the real ones look fake.” They are too brilliantly red, she thinks. In a world where representation is always overdone (think of how fake food is manipulated to look like real food, in fact too good to eat, in advertisements) poinsettias look too much like poinsettias.
There There is filled with these Alice-in-Wonderland gems, scenes where characters’ fears, habits, desires, or actions destabilize the line between appearance and reality. Edwin Black tries to convince his mom that he is (finally) eating better by mediating his own virtuous performance. “‘See?’ I almost shout, holding up the apple for her to see. ‘I’m trying. Here’s a live update for you. I’m live streaming it to you right now, look, I’m trying to eat better. I just spit out some Pepsi in the sink. This is a glass of water.'”
“Virtually everything” 14-year-old Orvil Redfeather “learned about being Indian, he’d learned virtually. From watching hours and hours of Powwow footage, documentaries on YouTube, by reading all that there was to read on sites like Wikipedia, PowWows.com and Indian Country Today.” Orvil plans to translate these virtual representations into “real” Indian ritual when he dances at the Oakland Powwow. On the big day, he boards the bus, wearing his regalia; he muses on being an Indian dressed up as an Indian. Does the double layer of Indianness make him more or less Indian? And what should we make of Orvil’s fellow BART passengers, so bathed in a mediated world that they raise not one curious eye toward him in his getup?
Daniel Gonzales, a smalltime drug dealer, uses a 3-D printer to print a 3-D printer. (It will be used, a la Chekov, to print a gun, which will bring about the climax of There There.) He spends his time online and writing code. To Daniel, it would not come as a shock that there is no longer any there there in Oakland. “I mostly see Oakland from online now,” he says. “That’s where we’re all going to be mostly eventually. Online.” “There” is just a representation of a place, in some ways truer and more useful than an actual, hunk-of-earth place.
The pervasiveness of virtuality might even offer a kind of hope to us mortal humans. Opal Victoria Bear Shield takes comfort in something her mother said right before revealing she was dying of cancer. “She told me the world was made of stories, nothing else, just stories, and stories about stories.” This passage comes about as close as possible to rendering Derrida’s tendentious claim that “there is nothing outside the text” in a beautiful, humane way. In a world like Victoria’s mother’s, where we are only present as parts of a text, we just might live forever. Is that so bad?