Reality: too obvious to be true

Banksy and Baudrillard

untitled (Banksy and Baudrillard) (detail)

Nothing is wholly obvious without becoming enigmatic. Reality itself is too obvious to be true. (Jean Baudrillard)

In hand, a bunch of diverse quotations, most of them having at least some bearing on the nature of reality. The Baudrillard piece seems to have appointed itself chief amongst them, but Einstein can be heard muttering in the background.

Not unexpectedly – given the two words, ‘obvious’ and ‘enigmatic’ – Google Images quickly finds a picture/text version of the Baudrillard quote. But more interesting by far, I think, is this Banksy art piece with which it is teamed up on the Particulate Matters blog.

Clearly, both Banksy and “cosmicdebris” (proprietor of Particulate Matters) are saying something about the teachings of the Christian Church – particularly, it seems, in relation to the indoctrination of children. Look elsewhere on the Particulate Matters blog and you will find links to other ‘indoctrination’ stories: for example, Monsanto indoctrinating kids at the zoo.

Actually, I’m inclined to suspect that indoctrination is integral to every aspect of living – and that everyone is routinely doing it and/or having it done to them. And it wouldn’t necessarily qualify as either brainwashing or catechism. Let’s put it more simply: we’re all inclined to push our ideas on others – and we call it marketing, persuasion, instruction, education, or teaching.

Be that all as it may, it is not really the main point of my post.

A few months ago, on |cross-ties| – the blog of “The Other” – there was a bit of back-and-forth about the nature of reality. A piece titled Taking a cycle trip led one reader to discuss Derrida’s ideas, noting that in language there is a gap between words and things. I would take this further, asserting that there is a gap between what we perceive and what is actually the case.

A similar gap yawns between the words of every witness and the occurrences they describe – what we thought we saw, the way it seems to us, what we believe to be true, and everything that is ‘obvious’. (And, by the way, since it’s that obvious, why can’t everyone see it our way?)

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus begins with the proposition that “the world is everything that is the case” and ends by reminding us that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Wittgenstein isn’t saying there’s stuff we can choose not to talk about; he’s actually pointing out that there are some things nobody can put into words.

Albert Einstein asserts that “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Elsewhere, he declares, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking.” He is not saying that nothing is real; what he means is that everything we experience as real is invented. “The human mind has first to construct forms, independently, before we can find them in things.” (Albert Einstein Essays in Science (1934), p27)

The way science talks about reality and truth is sounding more and more like the words of the ancient religions. For example, Geshe Rabten Rinpoche, a notable teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, says: “The ultimate truth of all conventional truths is their being void of inherent existence. Conventional truths, ie empirical phenomena, exist dependently upon causal conditions, parts and imputation; they have absolutely no existence apart from these conditioning factors.”

But “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true,” wrote Francis Bacon (1560-1626). Called the creator of empiricism, “[Bacon] established and popularised inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method.” (GoodReads)

Ultimately, then, as Baudrillard says, whatever seems obvious is, in reality, the superficial manifestation of a profound mystery: the deeper you go into it, the less you are able to say about it.

In Poetry: This Death Is Incomplete (part one of an essay on poetry and death), Amy King talks about “spinning yarns to name things and claim power over them” – which, she reminds us, is not a new concept. In explication, King points us to Alice Notley’s The Book of Lies. The opening lines are especially apt: “Do you believe this stuff or is it a story? I believe every fucking word, but it is a story.”


An ever-changing draft of this piece has been in my editor for months. There’s so much more I want to say, but it is long past time I got something posted. 



Nothing more than useful nonsense

Ludwig Wittgenstein by Ben Richards (1947)

Ludwig Wittgenstein by Ben Richards (1947)

Thus, even the philosophical achievements of the Tractatus itself are nothing more than useful nonsense; once appreciated, they are themselves to be discarded. The book concludes with the lone statement: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” (Tractatus 7) This is a stark message indeed, for it renders literally unspeakable so much of human life. As Wittgenstein’s friend and colleague Frank Ramsey put it, “What we can’t say we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.” It was this carefully-delineated sense of what a logical language can properly express that influenced members of the Vienna Circle in their formulation of the principles of logical positivism. Wittgenstein himself supposed that there was nothing left for philosophers to do. True to this conviction, he abandoned the discipline for nearly a decade. (Garth Kemerling


The “spam queue” for this blog usually contains a high percentage of nonsense – including insincere and irrelevant compliments (often couched in broken English), or handfuls of disjunct excerpts nefariously grabbed from unrelated and unacknowledged sources – and including links to sites offering goods and services of no interest or value to me. 

Once in a while, I find the material interesting – such as this excerpt from what turned out to be (thank-you, Google) an essay by Garth Kemerling dealing with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus on a site calling itself Philosophy Pages

The fundamental tendency of matter

Legion (cover)

Legion (cover)

The human brain, three pounds of tissue, held more than a hundred billion brain cells and five hundred trillion synaptic connections. It dreamed and wrote music and Einstein’s equations, it created the language and the geometry and engines that probed the stars, and it cradled a mother asleep through a storm while it woke her at the faintest cry from her child. A computer that could handle all of its functions would cover the surface of the earth.

The hundreds of millions of years of evolution from paramecium to man didn’t solve the mystery, thought Kinderman. The mystery was evolution itself. The fundamental tendency of matter was toward a total disorganization, toward a final state of utter randomness from which the universe would never recover. Each moment its connections were becoming unthreaded as it flung itself headlong into the void in a reckless scattering of itself, impatient for the death of its cooling suns. And yet here was evolution, Kinderman marvelled, a hurricane piling up straw into haystacks, bundles of ever-increasing complexity that denied the very nature of their stuff. Evolution was a theorem written on a leaf that was floating against the direction of the river. A Designer was at work. So what else? It’s as plain as can be. When a man hears hoofbeats in Central Park, he shouldn’t be looking around for zebras. (William Peter Blatty, in Legion [pp104-5]) 


Originally published by Simon & Schuster in 1983, and subsequently turned into what Rinker calls “a more than satisfactory sequel … Exorcist III (which, mercifully, has nothing to do with Exorcist II: The Heretic).” Legion appeared in a Tor paperback edition in 2011 (Tom Doherty Associates, New York).


Soxter audibly sighed.

“As citizens of this republic, we are allowed to not believe in God, but we all should believe in democracy. When we set out to make the rich smarter and stronger than the poor by offering to the wealthy these expensive drugs and genetic alterations, we undermine democracy. I have always thought that the size of a person’s income did not tell me about his IQ, but that will soon no longer be the case …” (Richard A Clarke, in Breakpoint)

Clarke, Richard A. 2007. Breakpoint. New York: G P Putnam’s Sons [p88]

Every thesis is … a prosthesis

“every thesis is (bands erect) a prosthesis; what affords reading affords reading by citations (necessarily truncated clippings, repetitions, suctions, sections, suspensions, selections, stitchings, scarrings, grafts, pastiches, organs without their own proper body covered with cuts, traversed by lice)” (Derrida, 1974: 168b).

Long before the word mashup was coined, I was already a masher. My recent series (which started out a mini-series) exploring possible approaches to the reading of sacred texts (the Bible, especially) is something of a mashup … I acknowledge, too, that Derrida’s description is entirely warranted.

Those posts are — as their painstaking bibliographies might have signalled — fragments of an actual thesis (submitted in 2002). Having nothing at all to do with reading the Bible, my thesis offered a deconstruction of what was at that time labelled “the Digital Divide”.

Deconstruction enables us to contest the nature of reality; in that sense, it is akin to pure science. But it also permits us to invent and fabricate alternative realities — to see visions, dream dreams, narrate parables — and I don’t know, but I suspect that’s what we’re here for.

Derrida, J. 1974. Glas. Web page — part of the Hydra web site, designed and edited by Peter Krapp — “This Forum © 1996-2000 Peter Krapp” — — accessed 27 February 2002, but now defunct.

A Wikipedia article, Glas (book), gives an apt but brief description of the work. Amazon lists eight used copies of the paperback edition, priced from $176.76.

Hidden systems of cultural belief

No text is an isolated island. (Professor Byron Hawk, GMU, Virginia)

Roland Barthes’s writings do not fit well within the category of ‘literary criticism’ in any conventional sense; nor, indeed, does he limit himself to the critique of that which is conventionally called ‘literature’; in Barthes’s view, “work of every form and worth qualifies for citizenship in the great democracy of ‘texts’”  (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: xi). For Barthes, there is nothing that cannot be treated as ‘text’: everything is literature — a ‘text’ open to that challenge whose function and intention is to call into question the very nature of things. But this assertion represents but one side of a binary: the other side of the argument embodies the notion that “all objects are created, and subjects constituted, by … language” (Lavers, 1982: p13).

Dr Jack Solomon — in the Introduction to The Signs of Our Time — states that his book is “about codes and the way that ordinary words, objects, and activities can be signs that point to hidden systems of cultural belief”  (Solomon, 1988: p2). He explains that “The ideological nature of signs is particularly marked in the political arena, where a battle over words may have much more than mere semantic significance” (Solomon, 1988: p3).

Solomon sets out two principles which may guide us as we attempt to decipher the meaning of any ‘text’: Solomon’s “first principle [of semiotics] tells us to distrust what is called ‘common sense’ …| According to the second principle … a cultural interest lurks behind our most fundamental beliefs” (Solomon, 1988: pp9-10).

Annette Lavers (1982: p13), regarding the recognition of the observer’s involvement in what he or she observes as “probably the main lesson of twentieth century thought,” argues that “when extended from perception to language, [this idea] leads to the conclusion that all objects are created, and subjects constituted, by this same language.” In other words: “We make ourselves, and what we make is perceived as reality” (McLuhan & Powers, 1992: p10). (Sir Francis Bacon somewhere states that “Men prefer to believe what they prefer to be true.”)

Glancing quickly today through some of the pro-Christian/anti-postmodern materials I found on the web, it was soon clear to me that the reading and interpreting of biblical texts is much more than “a battle of words”; the issues are ideological and political, moral and ethical … and might ultimately be about power.

In his online Introduction to Semiotics 101, Byron Hawk aptly explains: “Interpreting culture is not simply a description of culture, nor is it mere opinion. The cultural meaning in a particular sign comes from its historical context. By itself, an ad is just selling a product, and a movie is just entertainment (denotation). But examined in the context of the other cultural signs that provide a backdrop for the ads’ or movies’ presentation, it becomes clearer that they carry additional meaning (connotation).”

Niall Lucy encapsulates an invaluable insight: “Imposing an order on the world, myths give shape to it — and this shape is what comes to be accepted as ‘natural’, ‘given’ and ‘true’” (Lucy, 2001: p17).

Professor Byron Hawk taught English 101-006 (Composition) in the Spring of 2006 at George Mason University (often referred to as GMU or Mason) — a public university based in Fairfax County, Virginia, United States, south of and adjacent to the city of Fairfax. Read more about GMU here:

Here is a link to the Semiotics 101 online notes:

Niall Lucy is an Australian writer and scholar best known for his work in deconstruction. Wikipedia has an incomplete piece on him here:

Barthes, R. 1982. A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.

Lavers, A. 1982. Roland Barthes : Structuralism and After. London: Methuen & Co.

Lucy, N. 2001. Beyond semiotics : text, culture and technology.  London: Continuum International Publishing Group

McLuhan, M & Bruce R Powers. 1992 (“first published in 1989 by Oxford University Press”). The Global Village : Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century. New York: Oxford University Press.

Solomon, J. 1988. The Signs of Our Time : Semiotics: The Hidden Messages of Environments, Objects, and Cultural Images. Los Angeles: Jeremy P Tarcher, Inc.

Do things mean something?

Words cannot have ultimate meaning, after Babel; they are no longer centered on any truth; they don’t correspond to reality the way we think they ought to.  In vain we try to find universal meaning in written and spoken language; in vain we try to make ourselves understood.  But all is vanity, and a chasing after the wind. (EddystoneLight, in The Agony of Babel (Myths of Language, Part II))

Roland Barthes, in an interview entitled ‘Do Things Mean Something?’ (first published in Le Figaro Littéraire, 13 October 1962), explained that his passionate, lifelong interest was “the way men make their world intelligible to themselves. … Men give a meaning to their way of writing; with words, writing creates a meaning which the words do not have at the outset. That is what must be understood. That is what I try to express” (Barthes, 1985 (2): p8).

Such seemingly straightforward speech might wisely be regarded with scepticism. In her Introduction to A Barthes Reader (Barthes, 1982: xi), Susan Sontag reminds us of Barthes’s assertion that “The aim of literature … is to put ‘meaning’ into the world but not ‘a meaning’”. She also warns that “Barthes is always after another meaning, a more eccentric — often utopian — discourse” (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: x).

Back in the ‘seventies, Philip Thody (1977: p100) had remarked that “Barthes has not so far always had a very enthusiastic reception in England.” Regarding as self-evident the view that language which sets out to communicate ideas should first of all try to be clear, Thody considered such a view “difficult to eliminate from minds brought up upon Hume, Russell or Ayer” (ibid). Branding Barthes as “one of nature’s structuralists,” Thody — who apparently regarded as axiomatic the view that ‘la clarté est la politesse de l’homme de lettres’ — accused structuralists generally of “the new obscurantism … neither Foucault, Lacan, Lévi-Strauss nor Roman Jakobson writes books whose meaning leaps off the page” (Thody, 1977: p109).

Thody went on to suggest: “Surely it would have been better if Barthes had set out with the conventional aim of communicating with his readers and influencing their way of looking at language and society” (Thody, 1977: p102). Jean-Paul Sartre — with his commitment to writing as communication (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: xix-xx), and an “intellectually brutal, bon enfant view of the world, a view that wills simplicity, resolution, transparence” (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: xxi), but which at times descends to “latent philistinism” (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: xx) — might well have sympathised with such an attitude.

Always an assiduous and meticulous writer, Barthes (1985 (10): p81) insists that the only way to create a dialectic is “through a readiness to write, to enter into the movement of writing, as exactingly as possible.” Sontag (in Barthes, 1982: viii) observes that “[Barthes] always wrote full out, was always concentrated, keen, indefatigable.” Nevertheless — while not always easy to understand — Barthes makes “no efforts not to be understood” (Sontag, in Barthes, 1982: xvii).

But it is not always Barthes’s intention to be unequivocal: for Barthes, as for Nietzsche, the point — in many instances — “is not to teach us something in particular … [but] to make us bold, agile, subtle, intelligent, detached. And to give pleasure” (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: xvii).


Barthes, R. 1982. A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.

Barthes, R. 1985. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962‑1980 [39 items], translated from the French by Linda Coverdale. London: Jonathan Cape (1985). Translation copyright © 1985 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc; originally published in French as Le Grain de la voix, copyright © 1981 by Éditions du Seuil. 
(2) ‘Do Things Mean Something?’, from an interview conducted by Pierre Fisson, first published in Le Figaro Littéraire, 13 October 1962.
(10) ‘On S/Z and Empire of Signs’, from an interview conducted by Raymond Bellour, first published in Les Lettres françaises, 20 May 1970.

Thody, P. 1977. Roland Barthes : A Conservative Estimate. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd.