by Douglas Lain
“The idea is to remain in a state of constant departure while always arriving.” – Waking Life, Richard Linklater
I met up with the Marxist economist Andrew Kliman at Katz’s Delicatessen on Houston St. about two hours before we were scheduled to do a reading at Bluestocking’s books over on Allen St. I was hung over from McSorley’s and other venues the night before, but I’d managed to put together a rough outline of what we were going to talk about. I had written a series of questions that I hoped might connect value theory and the tendency for profits to decline to Christopher Robin Milne, the Society of the Spectacle, but as we took our tickets from the cashier and headed for our table I didn’t get the confirmation I was hoping for.
“Do you see how these different parts come together and cohere?” I asked.
“I see how they cohere individually as separate parts,” Kliman said.
Brendan Cooney, the jazz musician and Marxist Youtube star, was tagging along with us. He elbowed me and nodded after Kliman as the economist pushed on through the crowd and opened up a path to table 11. This was the no-nonsense and hyper-rational Kliman that Cooney had warned me about. While others might argue through implication and take up concepts and juxtapose their sentiments, Kliman was linear.
At the table there was a ceramic bowl full of pickled cucumbers and peppers and I took one and bit into it as Kliman reached into his shirt pocket and produced a pair of wrap around sunglasses. He put them on, not just to block out the light, but the crowd as well.
“I don’t like crowds,” he said. “Too much random stimulation. These help,” he said. Not one for chit chat, Kliman immediately started in on the main subject. “You think that we’re constrained by the ideology of our times. That we can’t think past the mode of production that defines our lives. Right?”
“If that’s so then how did you come up with that idea?” he asked. “How are you able to see the constraints?”
I was in NYC, on what I was calling my Think the Impossible Tour, for the purpose of answering that precise question. I thought that I might know the answer, and I hoped that my novel, my readings at various bookstores along the way, and the question and answer sessions I’d scheduled to compliment the readings, would elucidate an answer. The question was, if we are defined by the system we’re trying to change, how are we, as we know ourselves, to ever change anything? Kliman was simply turning the question around on me. Instead of asking how it was possible to see beyond the system and the identity the system provided, Kliman was asking how it was possible that I could recognize the system as a system.
Think of it this way: Suppose that you are a character in the movie Tron. Think of yourself as a program inside a computer network. Think of yourself as a computer program that has come to know yourself as a computer program. You might be the program called Ram who referred to himself as an actuarial program and waxed nostalgic about helping people plan for their financial future. The key is that, if you were a program, then your self-knowledge would be just another part of your program. Or, to put it another way, your understanding of yourself as a mere acturial program would be mistaken because you would actually be some other kind of program, a program that had something like self-consciousness built into it.
We ordered lunch. I asked for Matzo Ball soup, which was all I thought I could handle given the sorry state of my digestive system, and Kliman and Cooney both had sandwiches: pastrami for one and corned beef for the other, although I can’t remember now who ordered what.
Kliman wanted to know how it was that a program could know himself as a program without also knowing more than what his program contained. Another way to put this, sticking with the Tron metaphor, is that the program, in order to know himself as a program, would have to know something about the programmer.
My argument, my concern really, was that it might be possible to know that the programmer existed without knowing the programmer himself. Or, to put it another way, I worried that we are, in a sense, living in a dream, but that it was possible to become lucid without waking up to reality. Kant explained the situation. Our very experience relies on illusions, on ways of seeing, on framing functions. Space and time, for instance, are human concepts that put the world into an order, but while these things are necessary for cognition, these categories of perception allow us to make sense of the world, they don’t give us access to it. There is, in the background, the world as it really is out there, beyond space and time, beyond the human understanding, the world of the programmers, but because we rely on the categories of perception, on our program, because these ideas are necessary for us to live rationally, we are necessarily cut off from reality.
“Okay, so you have a philosophical argument for your position, but Hegel has answered this question. And you know this? Right? You know what I’m about to tell you. It’s about how you recognize a barrier or a wall.”
I did know the argument. The only way you can recognize a wall or barrier is if you have already gotten beyond it. That is, we can only imagine or see that reality is cut off from us because we’ve already seen it, because we know that it is there on the other side. A barrier that doesn’t reveal its other side, that truly hides what is beyond it, is not seen as a barrier at all.
I had to agree. I ate my Matzo ball soup and mulled this over, tried to poke a hole in it, and found that I couldn’t. But, there still seemed to be a problem. It was true that one has to at least posit the other side to barrier in order to recognize a barrier, but that was not the same thing as saying one must know the other side, to see it as it is over there, in order to know it or posit it. Rather, if you approach a wall you recognize it as a wall because you recognize there is another side that can’t be seen because of the obstruction.
Later on, at the reading, I asked Kliman to describe or affirm the essence of our current system. I asked him if Capitalism had an essence, and he said that yes, it did. The essence of Capitalism was Value, an abstract something that appeared as prices but that was derived from work and exploitation.
What Kliman described was our program, but what was missing from this essence was the consciousness that allowed us to recognize this essence without seeing beyond it.
I’d come to New York to speak about the impossible, to find a way to connect my writing, my fictions, to what I saw as a real problem in the world. I hoped that I would be able to demonstrate, after the fact of writing the book, that I’d arrived at a solution that still felt elusive, but all I discovered were variations on the problem itself.