Inspired by a reading of Milan Kundera’s Immortality, this was meant to be an enquiry into ‘journalistic truth’ as opposed to ‘novelistic truth.’ It grew instead into a consideration of the significance of the metaphor in our understanding of reality. This happened as a result of several coincidental occurrences: mainly my discovery of Milan Kundera, and then Professor Vilayanur Ramachandran’s Reith Lectures 2003, Steve Hagen’s, Buddhism Plain and Simple, Tutu as I know him, Michael White’s The Pope and the Heretic, and Simon Wiesenthal’s The Murderers Among Us – an unplanned bibliography for this essay.
If you are trying to find a way to connect this random selection of readings, you are engaged in what Professor Ramachandran calls, “cross-modal abstraction,” the ability to abstract common elements from very unlike items. According to the Professor:
My reading represents a search for an understanding of reality. While Buddhists see reality, and Ramachandran, making correlations between neural and physical activity, searches for reality in brain functions, Kundera seeks reality in the way we function in the world. Both Kundera and Ramachandran attribute changes in human perceptions of reality to revolutions that displaced human beings from the centre of the universe, disabused them of the notion of predestination, and questioned their understanding of being in the world.
In Kundera’s words:
In Ramachandran’s words:
For Buddhists it is the reverse:
While Buddhists calmly make their way, like particles in waves, through life’s diverse and continuous flow, regarding the adoption of a particular point of view as denial of life’s complexity, the rest of humanity continues the struggle to stop the flow with fixed formulations of truth and identity.
In the search for the finite, coincidences, unexpected yet seemingly coherent happenings, tease us with glimpses of certainty. Coincidences call into play Ramachandran’s cross-modal abstraction which allows us to derive coherence from disparate happenings. Thus we give our lives consistency and turn them into metaphors. For Ramachandran, we developed the metaphor as a means of survival; for Kundera, according to Jan Čulik, we use the metaphor to turn reality into myth.
Once life was shown to be indeterminate and uncertain underneath its superstructure of myth, some languished in existential angst while others, seeing the gap left by the departure of the Divine, seized on the notion of impermanence and turned it into a metaphor for profit. These pragmatists, whom Kundera calls imagologues – image makers – who demonstrate great expertise in milking our insecurities, have conquered the world with a new dogma:
Impermanence and change, the business principles of imagologues, and metaphor their modus operandi, made concrete in updates and make-overs, restore weight to existence and proliferate a material democracy.
Now we no longer fear change, we fear being out-of-fashion, out of step, not politically correct, and imagology, which has given us a way to cohere, to be in community with ever-changing, fashionable identities, is a new, more effective form of ‘democracy.’
While ideologists theorise, plan and create structure upon structure to implement democracy, imagologues with no bureaucratic controls to impede their progress, have, with the aid of the media, immersed us in a practical form of democracy that has spread throughout the world – a form of democracy that is ‘kitsch’:
Imagologues have ensured the support of the people for kitsch democracy through their powerful means of consultation:
Unlike politicians, whose allegiance is to other politicians, as party conformity and floor crossings show, imagologues keep in touch with the people and supply even before demands are articulated. Imagologues, who know what we want/need even before we do, have gone beyond responding to our needs, they are in the business of creating needs. Thus their ability to deliver seems magical and makes us impatient with politicians who have disappeared into bureaucracy, and seem indifferent to service delivery.
Politicians,Â though equallyÂ adept at abstraction – election promises, have a problem with delivery andÂ are unable to win the kind of support that we give to imagologues. Only when elections are to be held, is there a connection between governors and governed. After elections democracy devolves into metaphor, and power, into vested interests. It is amandla without awethu, cratos without demos and democracy assumes a lightness of being that floats without the weight of the people. When the masses shout amandla awethu, they believe it to mean the Freedom Charter – the land belongs to all who live in it, education and decent living standards for all. But people-power is a metaphor and freedom charters are kitsch.Asrights and responsibilities are not goods bought off shelves, the exchange is not in concrete terms (money and goods), but in terms of trust, which is abstract, therefore easy to ignore in practice. So we place on high, plaques and banners that read, ‘A person is a person through other people,’ ‘Motho ke Motho ka Batho,’ that reveal ubuntu as kitsch.
Unfortunately for politicians, they are required to deal with empirical reality. If, like imagologues, they could generate needs, they would be able to fulfil them too and still get rich. Then, like imagologues, they would also be involved in a totalitarian fantasy of democracy and would not be under constant fire for poor delivery.
Having turned supply and demand into a metaphor for democracy, imagologues propagate it through the media.
The globe has thus become the constituency of imagologues who are homogenising the planet while we, in our designer jeans, embrace this new form of totalitarianism, and simultaneously lament the loss of diversity and cultural uniqueness. Though imagologues, with their swiftly changing metaphors, demonstrate that there are no absolutes and existence in an infinite universe is transient, we cling to their metaphors as our reality because they are absolute in the moment. Thus they become coping mechanisms for being-in-the-world. And imagologues, working in the moment, have found a way to resolve the absolute/relative paradox by making change consistent.
But constantly changing metaphors do not remove the paradox. Our relative existence is still ruled by ‘absolutes,’ – the rules and regulations that we devise to reduce ambiguity and uncertainty. Society, an extended metaphor, is in itself a reaction to arbitrary existence. Its institutions present the absolute in opposition to the relative. In the justice system, for instance, court cases are about determining whether events and happenings are coincidental (relative truth) or whether they are causally linked through intent (absolute truth).
But in daily interaction people are forced to translate the ‘language of relativity and ambiguity into their own apodictic and dogmatic discourse’; they are forced into reduction. Even Hamlet, who put off making decisions because he didn’t have conclusive proof, eventually had to act. ‘To be’ means to live in the world, in a practical situation; if we do not act, we cannot be. Decisions and actions are based on definition. And we are not unaware, though our awareness may be subliminal, that our definitions are reductionist. Why else are capital punishment, abortion and euthanasia, such dilemmas? Why else, even after a judge has made up his mind, are there appeal courts? Why else do we have such contradictory views on how to treat AIDS?
Though we set up rigid institutions in our societies in order to eliminate uncertainty, the quest for certainty is a forlorn quest, a tilting at windmills. in the practical world, where ‘truth’ is relative. Consequently, it takes courage to make decisions and declare the rightness or wrongness of a situation when we know full well that the ‘truths’ we declare are compromises based on overwhelming but not necessarily conclusive evidence. That is why we need confirmation from others; that is why we have majority decisions and consensual decision-making and the opinion poll. But our courage in making decisions can blind us to the dangers of totalitarianism that peek from behind consensus.
When we still believed in the dichotomy of good and evil, it was easier to make categorical judgments. But after Einstein, we could no longer be in denial. Perhaps, it was to overcome the horror of uncertainty, the unbearable lightness of being, that led to the mass psychosis that gave rise to the atrocities of the holocaust. Perhaps by demonstrating that they had control over life and death, the SS sought to wipe uncertainty out of consciousness, impose certainty on the world, make truth and knowledge absolute and remove ambiguity from our existence. Their actions fit into Professor Anthony Giddens’ description of fundamentalism:
And fundamentalism, as the Nazis have shown, is powerful. It has its roots in the reductionism to which we resort because we cannot function in uncertainty. And reduction is most clearly manifest in the work of journalists and judges who in their search for categorical truth, must reduce infinity to the finite, the relative to the categorical. This form of fundamentalism, the identification of ‘absolutes,’ has given journalists tremendous power. According to Kundera,
But, unwittingly, journalists are involved in another paradox. Journalists, as Woodward and Bernstein have shown, are ‘defenders of democracy’, and democracy, which means individual rights and freedoms, translates into myriad truths – relativity. But the journalist’s pursuit of ‘categorical truth’ being reductionist, denies relative truth and becomes undemocratic and punitive. And journalists, living in the karmic world, embroiled in its uncertainty, have made the ‘Eleventh Commandment’ their weapon against relativity. Truth, a philosophical inquiry for the novelist, is a battlefield for journalists and in their demand for ‘absolute truth,’ they uncover what Kundera calls,
The following are a few newspaper headlines that appeared in August 2007, about problems in the Health Department:
And what are the facts? Abuse of alcohol. “Purely positivist factual truth” is mundane, but the metaphors abstracted from such demonstrable facts move ‘truth’ from the absolute to a superstructure of relative truths that can topple politicians from positions of power. Some put the facts together to form a picture that exposes dangerous incompetence and apathy; others find in them a conspiracy aimed at toppling the President. These are metaphors. There is no way to establish the absolute truth or falsity of metaphors, but we accept one or another in order to make decisions and take action.
Where a crime has been committed, for example, opposing metaphors are put to the test at a trial. The defence puts one construction on the facts; the prosecution another and whichever has the most sway is declared the truth. In countries where trials include juries, juries represent public opinion and the meaning that is accepted as truth is the result of consensus, and has the weight of a majority decision. In our country, which does not use the jury system, a judge weighs up the evidence and makes a decision. But his decision, based on his construction of the facts, is still a metaphor.
And judgments are not final. Decisions of juries or judges are subject to appeal at higher levels. Thus, despite our striving for the absolute, we demonstrate through our judicial processes that we can only produce relative truth. It can change from High Court to Supreme Court and needs further consent for a perception to become ‘the truth’.
In the end, what we accept as ‘truth’ depends on consensus: if a meaning carries the weight of numbers or power, it becomes ‘the truth’. Dependence on consensus has made the public opinion poll the arbiter of truth; has made journalists the administrators of the ‘Eleventh Commandment’, and imagologues more powerful than politicians.
Despite their power, however, journalists are unable to penetrate the labyrinths ofbureaucracies so they demand transparency, which Kundera declaims as naïve and abusive:
The quest of the journalist, frustrated by the opaqueness of bureaucracy, is deflected from the public to the personal, to the individual in her private capacity, a realm in which categorical judgements can be made in conformity with accepted norms and values that reduce the individual to a fixed identity, a categorical self. But the scientist asks,ÂÂÂ ÂÂÂ ÂÂÂ ÂÂÂ ÂÂÂ ÂÂÂ ÂÂÂ ÂÂÂ ÂÂÂ
Is this unity a metaphor, an abstraction, a reduction? Buddhists have no doubt:
and when Kundera says,
he rejects abstraction – the metaphor that turns the self into a stereotype.
There seems to be consensus among those I have quoted that there is no categorical self. Though consensus does not necessarily mean ‘truth,’ this view of the self accounts for the difference in modes of operation between journalists and novelists. Journalists, demanding consistency of behaviour, take for granted the fixity of identity, which forms the basis for questioning the morality of actions. Novelists on the other hand, examine actions as coping mechanisms and are interested in facts, only in so far as they illuminate a character’s reason for being and her struggle to make sense of life. The novelist does not impose or demand consistency of behaviour and the novel pursues the “wisdom of uncertainty.” (The Art of the Novel, p.7)
If a novelist took events surrounding the Health Minister and placed them in a novel, he would not be concerned to verify or deny facts. His concern would be to examine the actions and situations in which she is involved without forcing them into a conventional pattern. The novelist searches for understanding from within, from subjective consciousness, the heart of relativity and does not judge. The journalist, however, searching for ‘incontrovertible truth’, finds and strings empirical facts together to create metaphors, and, assuming that she (the journalist) is objective, makes categorical judgments. The journalist demands commitment to the worldly ‘absolutes’ of regulated living: to fixed identities and conventions; whereas the novelist invites us to contemplate the unbearable lightness of being (that denies definition) in a world that has become a particle in the ever-expanding wave of the universe.
Reading Tutu as I know him, in the midst of my discovery of Kundera, I, like a journalist, made my own cross-modal abstraction. Though both the Archbishop and Kundera gained their insights from experiences in oppressive totalitarian situations that demanded uniformity and conformity, existence is clearly defined for one but not the other.
For Kundera, in a situation from which God has withdrawn, there is no absolute knowledge, no dichotomy between good and evil, no absolute truth, as we shape-shift our way through existence. The lightness of being, in its fearsome ambiguity, as oppressive as it is liberating, detaches sex from reproduction, being from identity and consistency from commitment, leaving the individual free to rise/fall in her efforts to find a way to be.
As a loving God is with the Archbishop, the universe maintains its order, and allows the Archbishop to accept that though truth in this world is relative, there is also absolute truth. Justice Edward Cameron commenting on the Archbishop’s lecture at King’s College, London, on Thursday 22 January 2004, indicates that convention (fixed structures for truth) can lead to “immoral moralism”:
But being a man of God, Archbishop Tutu is anchored in absolute truth. Motho ke Motho ka Batho (Ubuntu) which, I assume, he translates as “love thy neighbour as thyself”, is for him a way of being-in-the-world. Pieter-Dirk Uys says of him;
For Kundera there is no absolute truth and uncertainty is hidden under fixed definitions (metaphors) on which we build our existences. For himÂÂÂ perfectionÂÂÂ would be ÂÂÂ a finite state, a metaphor,ÂÂÂ not real – kitsch.
1. Čulik, Jan. “A Self-referential paradox: Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being,” http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/Slavonic/KUNDERA19.htm
2. Kundera, Milan. Immortality, 1991. London: Faber & FaberLtd.
3.Kundera, Milan. The Art of the Novel. 1988. London: Faber and Faber Ltd.
4..Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 1985.London: Faber and Faber Ltd.
5.Tutu, Desmond. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, (2004),” The Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture. 2007. Johannesburg: The Nelson Mandela Foundation.
6. Crawford-Browne, Lavinia. Ed. Tutu as I know him: on a personal note. 2006. Umuzi (Random House): Houghton, Johannesburg.
7.Reith Lectures: bbc.co.uk: 1999 Giddens, Anthony. The Runaway World.ÂÂÂ 2003 Ramachandran, V. The Emerging Mind.
8.White, Michael. The Pope and the Heretic: A True Story of Courage and Murder at the hands of the Inquisition. 2002.ÂÂÂ ÂÂÂ London: Little, Brown and Company. (The story of Giordano Bruno)
9.Wiesenthal, Simon. The Murderers among Us edited by Joseph Wechsberg, 1967. London: Heinemann.