BOOK REVIEW: Metaphysics: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Mumford

Metaphysics: A Very Short IntroductionMetaphysics: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Mumford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Metaphysics is a subject that gets complicated quickly. Like physics, it covers a wide swath of territory –many of the most fundamental questions of the universe — but (unlike physics) it doesn’t hold much promise of zeroing in on definitive answers. There’s just reasoning that is closer or farther from reflecting reality. Mumford makes a sound decision to avoid the usual approach of starting with a mile-high overview of the subject, probably rightly concluding that it would become an indecipherable mess quickly.

Instead, over ten chapters, Mumford starts with the simplest questions asked in metaphysics [relatively speaking] and proceeds to incrementally move toward the more complicated ones. In Chapter 1, he asks, “What is a table?” There’s nothing particularly crucial about a table. It’s just an item that is tangible, without a lot moving parts / complexity, and – thus — is the kind of thing that few people would discount as being real. However, even here at the shallow end of the pool, questions pile up about what even such a simple item really is, and under what circumstances it can be said to continue to be that thing. [e.g. One gets into Theseus’s ship kind of questions – i.e. if one replaces all the individual parts of a table to what degree does it remain the same object.]

Chapter 2 shifts from what the first chapter called “particulars” to what are herein called properties. [e.g. The redness of a fire engine. The roundness of a racetrack.] Are properties real? Could you take them away from a particular? If you could, what – if anything – would it be that remained. Chapter 3’s question is, “Are wholes just the sum of their parts?” In the case of the aforementioned table, this question might seem a lot easier to answer than if the object in question is oneself. We all intuitively feel that we are more than the sum of our bones, and skin, brain, etc. But are we? Even if a child’s toy blocks are nothing more than the summed blocks, might not a human being or a dog be vastly more.

I will propose that chapters four through six are closely related (though no such division is made by the book’s table of contents.) All of the questions addressed by these chapters hinge on our experience of time, and none of them would be questions if we didn’t experience one thing after another. Chapter four explores the nature of change. Chapter five is about cause and effect. The subject of cause raises all sorts of interesting questions because we often see examples of caused effects, but we also seem to read cause and effect into situations in which they don’t really exist. (e.g. The often-sited error of mistaking correlation for causation.) Chapter six takes on the subject of time directly. There are many different theories of time. With respect to metaphysic’s most basic question of “what is real?” one quickly comes up against different hypotheses. Some think only the present is real. Some believe the past and present are real, but the future couldn’t possibly be. Still others think the whole experience of time is an illusion.

Chapter seven gets into the metaphysical question that is both most intimately interesting and among the most challenging, and that is, “What is a person?” This is interesting in that we all tend to feel we know what a person is, at least one feels that one knows what one is, but views abound – from the Buddhist notion that the self is an illusion to various religious approaches proposing we are fundamentally a soul or spirit, to materialist interpretations that suggest – in all likelihood – we are the sum of our parts and their activities.

Chapters eight and nine retreat once more from tangibles to ask what is the nature of a possibility (ch. 8) and whether nothing can actually be thought of as a thing [and what the ramifications are of doing so] (ch. 9.) Both of these cases are interesting because they have no simple answer and in different cases different answers suggest themselves as truer. When a possibility is of high probability it may seem sound to treat it as if it were a [potential] reality, but following that reasoning toward the lowest probability happenings quickly results in absurdities.

The final chapter gets around to the overarching question of what metaphysics is, but it also deals with the question of whether metaphysics is relevant. Some say metaphysics amounts to little more than mental masturbation. Others feel that science has replaced metaphysics in all the important ways and more.

The book has a “further reading” section at the end. There are a few graphics throughout the text, but the book is primarily textual.

I found this book to be quite useful. I think the author took a smart approach with its organization and does a good job of avoiding getting lost in the weeds (which is a perennial risk in these types of works.) Mumford uses pop culture references and the like when they make approachable examples, and — in general — does a good job of keeping an eye on readability. If you’re looking for an introduction to metaphysics, this volume is worth checking out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Sartre: A Graphic Guide by Philip Thody

Introducing Sartre: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Sartre: A Graphic Guide by Philip Thody
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher, author, and critic, and this introductory guide discusses each of those aspects in descending order of emphasis – meaning it’s largely about his philosophy but it offers insight to his literary works and touches upon his criticism. This is the third book in this series that I’ve read, and I found it to be the best, so far. The other two books I’ve read also each explored the work of a philosopher (fyi – the others were Baudrillard and Kant,) and I think this one was the most appealing to read because it was able to draw upon Sartre’s literary work to convey his philosophical ideas more narratively. Because of this, the book required less intensity of concentration to keep complicated concepts and jargon straight. (Not that any of these books is particularly challenging, but with the hook of characters and stories it’s that much easier to hang on the ideas being expressed.)

As with the other books in the series, the book consists of many tiny sections, each of which uses graphics (usually in the form of cartoons) to emphasize certain information. In the case of this book, there were about seventy-five sections. Many of the sections discuss biographical aspects of Sartre’s life, and influential world events he lived through. The philosophical sections delve most heavily into the existentialist and phenomenological concepts most closely associated with Sartre, but also investigate his political philosophy. With regards to his political philosophy, there was extensive discussion of Sartre’s ideas about freedom and Marxism. Sartre was an ardent advocate of Marxism, but – like many – the theoretical appeal it held for him was somewhat tarnished by the brutal realities seen in Russia and the Eastern European satellite states. As alluded to, there are sections that discuss historical events as they pertain to shifts in Sartre’s thinking.

There are sections that explore Sartre’s various literary and philosophical publications – most notably “Nausea” which is Sartre’s most well-known literary work and which contains some of his most influential ideas. As for his work as a critic, the book focuses heavily upon Sartre’s writings about Baudelaire.

The graphics are all black-and-white cartoons, most of which serve a function similar to text-boxes in reiterating key concepts, or sometimes showing competing ideas in the form of a discussion. They are simply drawn and easy to follow.

I found this to be a useful way to gain some insight into the work of Sartre, who was little more to me than a familiar name before reading this book (though I was aware of his affiliation with existentialism.) If you are looking for a concise guide to Jean-Paul Sartre, this book is worth checking out. I read it via Amazon Prime.

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POEM: What Is this Thing Called Beauty?

We see beauty in nature, but we see more in nature reigned in — kept in check by the hand of man. Why should a fresh-cut patch of grass please the eye more than its shaggy state of nature?

What soul doesn’t sore at the sight of a Japanese garden? It’s nature, but micromanaged in the slightest details of distance, shape, light, and order. Not a leaflet out of place. Gravel pads equidistantly furrowed with great precision. A bonsai tree could be called grotesque in its gnarled, shriveled deformation, but — instead — the bonsai has a universal visual appeal. Is it because they are stunted and deformed in precisely the manner man has chosen?

We see beauty in the human form, as well — but too rarely in our own. We like them depilated — plucked to the point that not a hair stands out of place. Biology tells us our eyes should seek the figure capable of staying strong while chasing prey across the savanna or gathering nuts and berries through wastelands where those foods are sparse. But our eyes covet those leaner than that — that leanness expresses our beloved ordered angularity.

Pure nature is frisson-laden — ever uncontrollable, unpredictable, and disordered. Its beauty is never separated from the fear it inspires.

Manicured nature offers a pleasing feel of dominion — an illusion of control that puts the mind at ease.

BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Kant: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want

Introducing Kant: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Kant: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume is part of a large series of guides that are put out by Icon Books with the goal of providing concise overviews on various topics. In this case, said topic is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant was an eighteenth-century Prussian philosopher who greatly influenced modern and post-modern philosophy. Among the ideas that Kant shaped and influenced were skepticism, morality based in reason, and the need for an understanding of knowledge that was neither purely empiricist nor purely rationalist (but which acknowledged the strengths and limitations of each.)

The book largely follows a chronological approach in presenting Kant’s ideas as he came up with, and published, them. Along the way, there are sections that are biographical rather than being focused on the philosophical ideas. These sections are largely in the beginning, middle, and end as they discuss the philosopher’s entry into the field, the changes in the midst of his career, and the end of his life. I thought it was useful to gain a bit of insight into the man as a man (rather than just as a philosopher) because it helps one understand the nature of the mind that came up with those ideas. That said, if there were space constraints, I would have preferred more examples and narrative explanation of the ideas – which are intensely definitional and abstract, making them both dry and less effective than they could be – over that biographical information (much of which boils down to Kant being quirky and peculiar.) The bulk of the book follows the flow of ideas contained in the three publications that were the colonnade that undergirded Kant’s philosophy (“Critique of Pure Reason,” “Critique of Practical Reason,” and “Critique of Judgement.”)

Between the last biographical section and the book’s conclusion, there is a nice section that discusses Kant’s influence on other philosophers, including: Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Lyotard, and Derrida. When I say “influence” I’m not just talking about those who paid homage to Kant, but also those who critiqued his work and advanced the discipline by way of critiquing Kant.

As the subtitle suggests, graphics are used throughout. The graphics are black-and-white and are a mix of diagrams and cartoon drawings. I thought the drawings were well-rendered, but weren’t necessarily arranged to gain the most explanatory power. As with other books in the series, many of these are cartoons that merely restate ideas from the text. Other graphics are diagrams that arrange ideas in a way that I’m sure made sense to whomever was putting them together, but whose immediate explanatory value (if any) was not always readily apparent to me. I have no way of knowing whether this was purely the illustrator, or (more likely) a collaboration between author, illustrator, and editor.

This is an okay overview of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. I’d describe it as accurate but not as clear or interesting as I’d wish it to be. I will admit that if it hadn’t been available without extra cost via Amazon Prime, I probably would have obtained a different guide. There is loads of competition in this concise guide market (e.g. “Kant: A Very Short Introduction” by Oxford University Press.) You might benefit from shopping around a bit.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Matrix and Philosophy ed. William Irwin

The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the RealThe Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real by William Irwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As might be expected of a collection of twenty essays that try to squeeze every drop of philosophy out of a two-hour movie (or to criticize each drop,) some of the chapters are much more compelling and pertinent than others. One could argue that some of the chapters are of sounder quality than others (and I would make that claim,) but even if you take them as a collection of high-quality philosophy essays, it’s hard to deny that some of the chapters are germane to the story the filmmakers created, while others try to use the film to get across an idea they find worthy – regardless of whether or not it has anything to do with the film, per se. More simply, the book comments on “The Matrix” through the varied lenses of a wide variety of philosophical branches and schools, most of which have something to say about the movie, and others… not so much.

Few films have achieved the mix of popularity and philosophization of 1999’s “The Matrix.” The movie imagines a world in which the simulation hypothesis is true – i.e. there are people living in a simulated / virtual world that is so convincing that they are unable to tell that they aren’t going about their lives in “base-reality.” The movie’s central question is: should one prefer an existence that is real — if grey, dismal, subterranean, and hostile – over one which is illusory — but one has all the modern comforts, delicious virtual steaks, and one isn’t being hunted by killer machines? Over the course of the story we see two divergent perspectives on this question. The lead character, Neo, chooses to leave the Matrix to enter the real world. Meanwhile, one of the crew members of the ship Neo finds himself on, Cypher, betrays his shipmates in order to get back into the Matrix. It’s clear from the fact that Neo is the lead and Cypher is portrayed as a treasonous scoundrel that opting for “the real” – warts and all – is viewed as the correct position on the matter. However, the fact that we see Cypher in relatable circumstances, ones that engender some empathy for the character, means that answer isn’t meant to be taken as a forgone conclusion.

The movie’s premise engages a couple branches of philosophy – notably, epistemology (asking what, if anything, can one know to be true?) and metaphysics (asking, what is real?) While there are a number of philosophical ideas that recur in the book, the most repeated is Plato’s cave? Based on the ideas of Socrates, Plato described a situation in which people live chained in a cave in which they can only see silhouettes moving about on the wall from a light source behind them. What happens when one becomes unchained and leaves the cave into the “real world?” How is one received by people when he returns and tells the story of what one experienced? Is anyone interested in following in one’s footsteps, or do they believe it’s a lie, or the ramblings of a madman?

The twenty chapters of the book are divided into five parts. Chapters one through four consider the epistemological questions raised by the film. Chapter one sets the scene and gives the most extensive discussion of the comparison of the movie to Plato’s cave. Chapter two takes an anti-skeptical turn. It argues that, if one isn’t a philosopher, one has little reason to view the world skeptically. The world works, why question it? The argument is both true and not particularly useful. Chapter three proposes that one cannot make sense of a world in which all or most of a person’s beliefs are false. Like the previous chapter, this one boils down to: we can’t eliminate the possibility of a Matrix-like truth, but neither do we have any good reason for giving it a second thought. Chapter four focuses on sensory perception and what it says (and / or doesn’t say) about what we know. In daily life, we intuitively (if not explicitly) base a lot of what we “know” on our sensory experience — even though most of us know it is flawed. Perhaps the most intriguing issue raised by Chapter 4’s author was about the Hmong people, and their increased incidence of dying during sleep – in conjunction with a folk belief about malevolent spirits who attack during sleep. (Thus, it’s suggested that the mental world and the physical world aren’t separated such that the former can have no influence on the latter – i.e. the materialist take.)

[Note: The reason the point about the Hmong is salient is that there is a scene in which Neo asks whether dying in the Matrix means dying in the real world. Morpheus answers “the body cannot live without the mind.” From a storytelling perspective, it’s easy to see why the filmmakers created this rule. There would be zero tension in any scene that takes place inside the Matrix (i.e. where almost all the action takes place) if it weren’t the case that people could die from what happened inside. However, from a philosopher’s (or scientist’s) point of view the statement is problematic. Every night our conscious minds go “dead” and yet we wake up just fine. However, the Hmong issue raises an interesting point, suggesting maybe we don’t understand the issue as clearly as we feel we do.]

Part two of the book (ch. 5 – 8) shift from epistemology to metaphysics. Chapter five lays out the basic metaphysical issue, asking how effective a two-category classification scheme of real and unreal is, and where it runs into problems. Chapter six shifts focus to the mind-body problem (does physical matter generate subjective experience, and – if so – how,) and asks what minds are and whether machines can have one. Chapter seven rejects the film’s notion that mental states can be reduced to physical states, but ventures into interesting territory by evaluating the ethics of “imprisoning a mind” — if it were possible. Chapter eight explores questions of fate and determinism, which is also a central premise in the film. The appeal of the real world in this film is obviously not that it’s better, bolder, brighter – it’s none of those things – a major part of the appeal is that in the real world it seems one is free (i.e. one has full free will.) Whereas inside the Matrix, a least much of one’s life is deterministically dictated by computer programs.)

Up to this point, whether or not I felt a given essay said anything interesting, I believed they were all addressing this film’s philosophical underpinnings. From part three, we see a shift. For example, chapter nine asks, is “The Matrix” a Buddhist film. Not surprisingly (given – to my knowledge – none of the filmmakers ever said it was,) the authors conclude that it’s not, but that it has touches of Buddhist influence (also not surprising, given they aren’t hidden or subtle.) Chapter ten discusses the problems of religious pluralism. Because this film presents not only the aforementioned Buddhist influence but also Christian influence (Neo as savior) and bits from all-manner of ancient mythology (starting with character names / roles, e.g. Morpheus,) it’s proposed that it’s advocating a kind of pluralism. [Given that the movie exists in a fictional world, the fact that it draws ideas and names from various sources, doesn’t seem to me to be a suggestion that the filmmakers are advocating a particular hodgepodge, pluralistic, Frankenstein’s Monster religion.] I do think the author did a fine job showing that pluralistic “religions” tend to be logically inconsistent and systemically untenable. Where he lost me was in the suggestion that individual religions are logically consistent. The one I was raised in had an all-powerful god who couldn’t contradict human free will, and one god that was simultaneously three separate and distinct entities. In short, the religion I had experience with is chock-full of logical inconsistency. I burst out laughing when I got to this statement, “Is it really the case that the evidence supporting the truth of, say, Christianity is no stronger than that supporting the truth of, say, Buddhism or Jainism?” Given that (at least the schools of Buddhism closest to what Gotama Buddha taught) pretty much only ask one to believe that if one meditates and behaves ethically one can achieve a heightened state of mind free of the experience of suffering, and Christianity asks one to believe in a God[s] and demons and miracles and sundry ideas for which there is not a shred of evidence, I’d say it really is the case.

Chapter eleven examines the question of happiness, and concludes that: 1.) happiness “is the satisfaction that one is desiring the right things in the right way”; 2.) that one can’t have happiness without a “right understanding of reality.” I don’t think its convincingly conveyed that either of those two ideas is true, but the question of happiness as it pertains to Cypher’s decision is an interesting one. I found chapter twelve to be one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking of the book. It focuses heavily on the teachings of Kant, and it discusses how important features we see with the Matrix (e.g. illusion and enslavement) aren’t features projected from an external source but are imposed by oneself. I think this is a useful way to think about how the film can be related to one’s own life – i.e. thinking about the Matrix world as symbolic for an illusory mental world.

Part IV is entitled “Virtual Themes” and it looks at “The Matrix” from the perspectives of nihilism, existentialism, and then takes a step back and asks questions about the usefulness of studying philosophy through a fictional device (i.e. film.) Chapter thirteen looks at “The Matrix” through the lens of nihilism, putting it beside Dostoevky’s “Notes from the Underground.” Chapter fourteen is similar in that it compares / contrasts “The Matrix” with another philosophical literary work, the existentialist novel by Sartre, “Nausea.”

I thought the questions taken up in the second half part IV were important ones. These two chapters (i.e. 15 and 16) deal with what is the proper relationship – if any — between philosophy and the product of storytellers. I say this is important because the discussion throughout the book is contingent on there being some value in philosophical ideas in fictional accounts that aren’t optimized to conveying philosophy, but rather are optimized to building an entertaining story. Some of the critiques lack effectiveness because they seem to accept there is value in considering philosophy in fiction, but the correction to make it more effective philosophy would make it useless as story. I would hazard to say that any film that would receive a thumbs up as a conveyor of philosophical ideas from a panel of 24 philosophers (the number involved with these chapter) would be fundamentally unwatchable. But does that mean the bits and pieces of philosophy one gets are worthless? I’d say no, but opinions may vary. Chapter fifteen asks why philosophers should engage with works of fiction, as wall as considering the value of story. Chapter sixteen focuses on genre, concluding that “The Matrix” is a work of real genre, but virtual philosophy.

That last section includes analysis from the perspective of what I would call the single-issue schools of philosophy (feminism and Marxism,) as well as postmodernism (which is said to have been a major influence on the directors) and other twentieth century philosophers. The two single-issue schools do what those schools often do, which is to myopically focus on what is interest to them (regardless of that issues importance to the film, or lack thereof) and pick and choose examples that seem to support their idea. The feminist essay reduces the story to an attempt to be un-raped (i.e. unplugged) and catalogs all the instances in which some “penetration” took place, be it characters being jacked into the Matrix hardware or shot. The author compares “The Matrix” to “eXistenZ,” a film with similar themes that she prefers (though, given the relative popularity of the two films, she may be the only one who feels that way.) The chapter on the Marxist perspective isn’t as poorly related to the film. However, I doubt the essay would exist if the Wachowskis had stuck to their original plan. I read once that the filmmakers originally had a different (and more sensible) rationale for why the machines had humans in a vat. The idea that appears in the film is that humans are used to produce bioelectricity (probably the most scientifically ridiculous idea in the film) and this forms the basis for the Marxist critique of the pod people as exploited labor.

The penultimate chapter is probably the most relevant of the last section. It discusses postmodern philosophy, notably Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” which is said to have influenced the Wachowskis and it [the book] even had a cameo appearance in the film. The last chapter is the most convoluted read, but probably by the most prominent author in the book. It’s by Slavoj Zizek and it critiques the movie from the perspective of the ideas of Lacan, Hegel, Levi-Strauss, and Freud.

I found lots of interesting nuggets of food-for-thought in this book. As I said, the effectiveness of the chapters varies tremendously. This isn’t so much because the quality of authors varies. It’s just that some of the work gets off topic – kind of like if there was an analysis of “My Friend Flicka” and it was decided that the thoughts of a Marine Biologist were essential — you’d be like “what am I reading, and why?” That happens sometimes as one reads this book. But, if you like the movie and want some deeper insight into it, this is a fine book to check out. It’s also a good way to take in various philosophical ideas, leveraging one’s knowledge of the film.

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POEM: Mountain, River, or Mirage

What is this world: mountain, river, or mirage?

When one arrives at the mountain
one finds a fixed collection of matter.
Sure, it’s slowly changing its arrangement,
bits of grit erode off,
cracks develop, splitting rock from boulder,
but the long-and-short of it is that it’s a bunch of stuff.

When one arrives at the river one finds it exists
but is never the same arrangement of stuff.
With the pass of a second of time,
it’s completely rearranged itself.

If one could ever reach the slyly retreating mirage,
one would find that it was purely an illusion —
or, more precisely, you’d never find it because it’s not there.

Maybe it’s all three combined in some way
that my mind can’t comprehend.

Maybe it’s none of the above —
and, instead, is something outside my capacity to imagine.

Yes. That’s probably it.

POEM: Good & Evil

Good & Evil —
Mankind’s most devastating invention.

Good & Evil
don’t feature in nature.

The rule of nature is:

SHIT HAPPENS!

Sometimes it’s nourishing shit that grows big ears of corn.
Sometimes it’s infected shit that cripples the village with E. coli,

but it’s all just days playing out.
-a big, indifferent system burning energy.

Nature doesn’t care that your worldview requires everything be the result of a reason.
Nature’s reason is that something must happen,
and anytime something happens it has effects —
it’s just that humans have to go sticking their labels
onto those effects: good / bad, naughty / nice, tall / grande.

Good & Evil
are cultural constructs,

but — oh my! —
what we haven’t done with them:

-global wars
-holocaust
-genocide
-hellscapes scraped into the world’s sensitive bits.

This may all sound unfair to GOOD.
Sure, EVIL is… well, evil,
“But why you gonna go crap on GOOD?”
one might ask.

Because GOOD is a line that can be hatefully drawn.

Or, if you prefer,
a box that can be hatefully placed
to separate what’s loved and hated —

or who is loved and who is hated.

BOOK REVIEW: Simulacra & Simulation by Jean Baudrillard

Simulacra and SimulationSimulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 20-ish essays that share as a theme the idea that we live not so much in a world of events, information, and things, but in a world of simulacra in which those things represent or symbolize something (either the true version of that object or something else altogether.) After an opening that introduces the idea of simulacra and simulations, the chapters each look at an example of illusion and simulation in our world. The book’s strength is in suggesting outside-the-box, thought-provoking ideas. This is not to say that said ideas are all sound or unassailably true. A reasonable reader might conclude that much of the book consists of crackpot ideas. I tended to find that there was a kernel of truth in the points that Baudrillard was making, but that he often blew that kernel up into an absurdity.

To clarify, let’s discuss a couple examples of events that Baudrillard says that we don’t know, but instead we know a simulacrum of. These two examples are very different, and I believe one is a stronger argument for Baudrillard’s ideas than is the other. One is the Holocaust and the other is the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. In both cases, Baudrillard argues what we “know” is not the event itself, but a representation that has been created through fictionalized accounts and “common knowledge” with varying degrees of accuracy. In my view, his point was more clearly made regarding the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident. What people think they know of the event is more representative of what happens in the movie “The China Syndrome” than what actually happened. Most people grossly overestimate the costs and consequences of the event because they have a fictional representation of it in place of a factual understanding.

Besides events, Baudrillard considers a number of other ways we might be considered to be living in a representational world. The hypermarket doesn’t perform the same function as markets historically did. It exists to provide some hyperreal experience that is as much entertainment as it is the acquisition of necessary goods and services. Baudrillard also talks about how the media and advertising provide a façade in place of the real because of disincentives to provide accurate information. Journalism benefits from sensationalizing. Advertising benefits from hyperbolizing.

Baudrillard also ventures into the realm of science fiction. One of the most intriguing discussions is about holographs and how one might know whether one was the item being projected or the projection itself. There’s one chapter on J.G. Ballard’s novel “Crash” as an example of one of the more bizarre ways in which modernity conflates disparate things. [For those unfamiliar, Ballard’s novel deals with characters who are sexually aroused by car crashes.] An essay on “Simulacra and Science Fiction” proposes that sci-fi maybe dead by virtue of the fact that science fiction builds simulated worlds and since we already are a simulated world, the genre is passé.

I mentioned that this book’s strength is swinging for the fences with bold ideas about how modern humanity has built itself into a simulated world. So, what is its weakness? That’s easy. Low readability. The author assumes the reader has knowledge that it’s not reasonable to assume even an educated reader will have. If you weren’t familiar with the aforementioned J.G. Ballard novel or with the Beaubourg building in Paris, you’d have no idea what Baudrillard was going on about. Also, while it’s true that some of the ideas presented in the book are complicated, the author (and, perhaps, the translator) often make even relatively straightforward ideas complicated. There is a love of rare words. Beyond those issues, there’s a stream of consciousness approach to writing that makes the author’s train of thought hard to follow.

If you are interested in philosophy, this book is worth reading if you don’t mind struggling with difficult writing (a form of masochism with which I’m afflicted.) There have probably been more readable distillations of these ideas that will offer a clearer view of what Baudrillard means by ideas such as hyperreality. (We know Baudrillard means “more real than real,” but one only has one’s own intuition to make sense of that in a way that transcends Justice Potter Stewart’s dissatisfying definition of pornography as “I know it when I see it.”) If you don’t enjoy struggling with abstruse writing (or if you don’t know the meaning of the word “abstruse” without looking it up) this book is probably not for you.

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POEM: Baudrillard’s World

What’s it take to turn a symbol into something which is something [rather than symbolic of something?]

Treasuries turn high-rag paper and indelible ink into slips for which people will give one a shirt or a bicycle.

-Paper and pot metal as symbol of value

Admen turn color and font into a dollar more per kilo of a chemically-identical product. [The dollar can be used for someone’s ill-advised gas station hot dog.]

-Brand as symbol of value

Countries are defended by the potential to use weapons — not by their actual use.

-WMD as symbol of defense

Social media presents a lot of talking and the illusion of listening.

-Screaming into a dark forest as symbol of communication

Stories and verse get turned into potent chemical reactions in the body.

-Vicarious living as symbol of living

The letters of this post are symbolic of philosophy, which — in turn — is symbolic of something meaningful, which — in turn –… which — in turn –… which — in turn–…