“Once you realize what a joke everything is, being the Comedian is the only thing that makes sense.”
Alan Moore (The Comedian, Watchmen)
In his 2018 book,Žižek’s Jokes, Slavoj Žižek retells many of his favorite philosophical jokes. If you don’t know who Slavoj Žižek is, he is a Slovene philosopher and cultural theorist whose work addresses themes in psychoanalysis, politics, and popular culture. One of his jokes tells the story of two friends from the defunct German Democratic Republic.
The two friends communicate through letters, but one of them, a German worker in Siberia, is aware that his letters will be read and censored. To ensure that they can communicate honestly, they develop a strategy where if something is written in blue ink, then the friend will know that it is truth; if it is written in red, then it is a lie. One day the friend receives a letter written in blue ink that reads, "Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theaters show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair—the only thing unavailable is red ink."
While Žižek might not be Seinfeld, for a philosopher, he’s pretty funny. But it’s not even a joke as much as a Marxist’s clever metaphor to explain individual limitations when not equipped with the tools necessary for success. (At this point and for the sake of those that know me, I would like to clarify that despite references to Marxism and future references to postmodernism, this is not some postmodern, deconstructionist’s neo-Marxist diatribe against rugged individualism and the “Can Do” American spirit. At least for the most part.)
Politics aside, his point is valid. Too often, we lack the tools necessary to articulate reality. The result of this is that we either accept the lie outright or allow for a social construct to develop that accepts the lie fully aware that it is, in fact, a lie. Regardless, we still know it’s a lie. We rationalize, justify, and try to contextualize, but the lie is obvious. Too much has been exposed, learned, or changed for the lie to continue, but because we don’t have the tools necessary to name the reality for what it is, we uncomfortably live with it. To call out the lie without the proper tools puts us at risk of hypocrisy, embarrassment, and judgment.
Too often, we lack the tools necessary to articulate reality.
Sometimes we are simply wrong. Perhaps the truth has not become obvious to us. Maybe we are holding on too tightly the power that the lie gives us. Possibly we are just being assholes about the whole thing. But there are times when the truth has been laid obvious and for whatever reason, we are simply unable to accept it. It is in those times that our primary hindrance is that we lack the tools required to allow us to name that lie and address it.
The ability to deconstruct and unpack system and belief structures that hinder growth and limit truth has never been more obvious than now. Throughout history, we have been exposed to evil practices and beliefs and have at times made significant progress in addressing them, but even within that progress, the system and belief structures were rarely dismantled. The systems held on to power by allowing for enough progress to maintain old systems. It was only during radical times that the dismantling of old systems was accomplished. But for the majority of history, systems persisted with embedded biases and judgments. Those systems persisted because while the “words” may have changed and the politics shifted, the systems never did.
It is only during radical times that the dismantling of old systems was accomplished.
While the last 50 years have focused on a postmodern agenda to deconstruct these systems and structures, a new day is emerging. A focus on constructionism holds to the continuous efforts of postmodernism to dismantle inconsistencies, but with renewed focus to find clarity. Non-dualism has found its way into philosophy of the mind to explore transcendent realities that are not limited to binary concepts of cognition. Social constructionists are exploring societal and political issues that appreciate individualism in new and exciting ways. Political scientists and social researchers are identifying radical changes that move beyond equality and into the goal of inclusion. Even theology has begun to coalesce around new theological paradigms such as Anatheism and weak theology.
But for the construction of new systems to happen, we have to first continue to identify any system or paradigm that requires continued deconstruction, but we must also identify and use the tools necessary for success for building something new. Nones, those that don’t identify with specific religious labels, are aptly positioned for such a task. The nature of resisting certain labels associated with beliefs addresses the first and fundamental tool of constructionism: Language.
Embedded in the history of postmodernism is post-structuralism. Post-structuralism, in part, strives to reject binary linguistic structures that attempt to understand culture and identity through structured models. The rejection of binary language is not liberal, PC snowflakery. It is the acknowledgment that language, while useful for creating models for classifications and communication, is limited on almost all fronts. It is the full embrace of the idea that things worth valuing are richer than binary structures can categorize. It is through deconstructing and reconstructing the language we use to discuss the most sensitive and important aspects of our lives that our eyes are opened to more possibilities. It is also through deconstructing and reconstructing language that we are able to be invited into others’ lives.
Language... is limited on almost all fronts.
There has been a variation of a meme lately that states, “Tradition is just peer pressure from dead people.” I don’t know why I prefer the Maggie Simpson version, but there is something about Maggie’s existential angst that carries a little more weight. But building new systems is not a rejection of tradition, but an awareness of what is worth keeping and what needs to be thrown away.
The modern Christian sin is not simply that it has perpetuated sexism, racism, xenophobia, and simply being blind to others’ experiences, but that it has been equipped with new tools for diving deeper into spiritual formation, ecumenical community, and missional purpose, but has rejected them to maintain the convenient and simple status quo. The irony of this sin is that it runs contrary to the central work of Christ which was that he challenged dysfunctional and corrupt systems head-on. For those that fear the deconstructionist activity, worried that it might threaten your identity or power, take heart. While the road is treacherous, the journey is freeing.
Craig Morton is a contributing writer for American None. He has a Ph.D. in Higher Education but is famous for being a Master of the Grill.