Notes From Babel

The Limits of Political Philosophy in an Existential World

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The other day, a co-worker and I were discussing “memory movies”–Memento, Total Recall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Matrix. Movies that play on the mind/matter dichotomy, that question whether there is a world outside the mind. It had been a while since I watched Memento, so I put in the DVD over the weekend. The plot of the movie is hard to recall because the whole story moves backwards, showing one five-minute scene, and then the five-minutes that happened before that, and so on. It produces a destabilizing effect that helps the viewer empathize with the protagonist, a man with a condition that prevents him from forming any short term memories, but who nonetheless plods ahead, scribbling notes and “facts” for himself, in his quest to find his wife’s murder.

The movie gives a thoroughly existential account of human nature. Stripped of the comfort of our stabilizing memories, life simply moves by us, objects in the world impress upon our senses for a short while, and we occupy ourselves always with some present task, but never with any security that it will produce a meaningful consequence. Memory provides a means to anchor the otherwise meaningless torrent of experiential data by giving us the ability to engage in puzzles that require the accumulation and manipulation of information acquired over long periods of time. In this way, an otherwise meaningless present task can have meaning in its place in the larger puzzle. But mustn’t we still ask, what is the point of the larger puzzle? Perhaps we simply must learn to stop asking questions of purpose; we make and solve puzzles, and that is all.

Memento also asks, as The Matrix does, how do we come to know anything that is outside the mind? And how can we communicate anything that is out there? How would we ever know that others might believe the same things that we do? We are full of biases, some universal among humans, but perhaps all slightly different. Reason is our only conduit, but it cannot bear the strain: words already truncate their writers’ ideas, which thus may never be truly made known to others; and the ideas’ full context can never be expressed, whether due to the writers’ inability to account for it, or the listeners’ attention span. Perhaps, then, we are foolish to believe that we can live in big societies held together by the slim cord of reason. We instead must rely on the mere coincidence of our agreement on things simply because they resonate in the right brain, not because they are approved by the left.


Written by Tim Kowal

June 9, 2009 at 3:16 am

Posted in Philosophy

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