Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
On the old forum, I posted an essay by Robert Miller on Zen and an aesthetic philosophy of play. Here is another of his essays (excerpted below, and attached in full as a document to this post).
What Might Come After Postmodernism?
Here’s a thought-experiment. Let’s explore the idea that human consciousness is a
metastable interplay between being and not being, believing and not believing.
Though I had not thought of Sartre in a long while, the idea reminded me of him. For
it seems similar to the characterisation of human consciousness he presents in Being
And Nothingness, particularly in his chapter on Bad Faith.i So I had a look at that
again. His account is intriguing, though rather negative in tone. I’d like to
counterbalance his play on the negative in the interplay of consciousness by playing
up the more positive aspects. It may help us explain how the general phenomenon of
human playing is possible – eg, how children can play so easily at cops and robbers,
or how an actor can play at being Hamlet, or how audiences can play at believing in
the reality of the play unfolding on stage when they also know at the same time that
it is not real, or how the player in a relatively trivial game can nevertheless play the
game as if it had great importance. In other words, it may help elucidate the “as if”
phenomena in human life that involve elements of pretending – and, we may note,
not always in a “bad” sense.
Let’s raise this Kantian-sounding question: What are the conditions of the possibility
of the phenomenon of human playing and pretending? The suggestion is that what
conditions the possibility of the phenomenon is the ongoing metastable interplay of
consciousness between being and not being, believing and not believing.
In what way has Postmodernism added to our understanding of this phenomenon?
It has helped to highlight for us how this interplay of consciousness is influenced by
the differential play of signs in semiotic systems, especially words in a cultural
language or in paradigm language-games – much along the lines suggested by such
writers as, eg, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and Baudrillard. Postmodernism has
focussed on how this factor of linguistic structuring and differential play makes it
impossible to establish a final decision – closure – on such key philosophical terms as
truth, knowledge, proof, power, value, and meaning: for the criteria for and meaning
of these key terms is said to be culturally and historically relative and shifting in an
evolving way. Accordingly, the tendency in postmodernity has been relativistic and
deconstructive, even nihilistic and auto-destructive – as Baudrillard, among others,
claimsii – a corrosive criticism undermining the very foundations of all theory and
knowledge, an “antifoundationalism” that undermines every foundation, even its
own in the long run.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, if one were to focus attention
exclusively on the negative, highlighting and attempting to consolidate only its
critical and nihilistic effects, there is a sense in which it could be rather debilitating or
depressing or even incapacitating – as many these days complain. At an extreme it
could perhaps make human life impossible. For if postmodern theory declares
everything problematic, unfounded, and undecidable, still, something has to get
decided all the same if there is to be purposive human thought and action in the
world. For this presupposes some kind of transcendental framing – that is, some kind
of being and believing – even although it takes us well beyond proof.
On the other hand, looking on the bright side, one can see how the postmodern
demise of fixated truth can have a liberating effect, viz., in that it can free us up to be
more playful, creative, artistic, and positive in our beliefs. If there is to be something
“after Postmodernism” – after this onslaught of critical theory – it will have be
something that plays up the factor of creative belief while at the same time fully
taking into account the preceding critical play of the auto-destruction of theory.iii
If we say that human consciousness is an ongoing metastable interplay between
being and not being, believing and not believing, then the recurring sceptical
movements in the history of philosophy from Socrates and the ancient Greek
Pyrrhonian sceptics to the postmoderns tend to play up the negative or nihilistic side
of the interplay: ie, the philosophical “via negativa”, as it were, which attends more
to non-being and non-believing – or to “the suspension” of being and believing.
Meanwhile, rationalist metaphysicians and other master-builders and believers, tend
to play up the positive or constructive side: the philosophical “via positiva”, as it
were, which attends more to being and believing – or to “the fixation” of being and
believing. However, overall the situation is not simply one side or the other. Rather,
it is the ongoingmetastable interplay of the two: hence an interplay in human
consciousness of being and not being, believing and not believing, the condition of
the possibility of the general phenomenon of human playing and pretending (eg,
theatre, games, sports, etc)....
Now, let’s relate all this to the title of our talk. Suppose we were to appropriate the
lessons of 20th century Existentialism and Postmodernism to seek a way forward
into the 21st century. What might come after them? What seems likely? If we accept
that human consciousness is an interplay of being and not being, believing and not
believing, and if the tendency in the 20th century has been mainly to play up and
consolidate the negative side – eg, nonconformist existential and postmodern
scepticism, disbelief, deconstruction, auto-destruction, nihilism, emptiness, etc –
what seems likely is that there will now be a counter-reaction to this of trying again
to play up and consolidate the positive: the side of stable being and conformity in
believing. The rise of various fundamentalisms lately on the global scene may be a
sign of this happening. There is a tendency to re-introduce some authoritarian
dichotomies of old: of absolute good and evil, truth and falsity, religion versus
religion, science versus religion, religion versus science, and so forth, in the way of a
On the other hand, if we learn the lessons of history, we might come to an awareness
that it is contrary to the metastable nature of consciousness to rest for long in either
one side or the other. If this is so, then perhaps the wisest thing to do is to
acknowledge and become comfortable with the metastable interplay itself. That is:
get in harmony with human life in the world as a kind of playing and pretending.
It’s a double game: a matter of living in the interplay between being something and
not being anything – a flickering between being and nothingness. With this in mind,
recall now Hamlet’s famous either/or – the most famous question in the history of
playing: “To be or not to be”. Maybe the proper reply to this riddle is: to be and not to
be – the opposites held together but, somewhat paradoxically, not mediated in a
higher synthesis. It is this interplay, after all, that allows us to be players playing in
this or that theatre of the world....