We got widely varied critical response to A NEW THEORY OF VISION; the first critic gave us an unabashed rave and said, there’s all this philosophical background in the play, perhaps a bit too much, but since it does reflect on the action, you have to sort of let it wash over you and then it all makes sense, even if you’re not a philogeek. Another, our only pan, said, there’s all this character and plot stuff but not enough of the actual philosophy these guys are talking about. Finally, there was a balanced review that complained s/he wanted to hear the philosophy too. So that’s two critics who complained they wanted to have the philosophical content of Lee’s books spelt out.
Well, I’m not adding these explicitly to the play. It feels talky enough in the parts where it talks about the de minima aspects of Berkeley’s philosophy that directly impact the play (a total of 2 minutes of stage time, max, and even though these support the action moment to moment, some might feel even these to be part of an extra credit assignment).
So perhaps we need to prepare a companion to the play that explicates the exact philosophies about which Lee wrote in his two books? Now, it must be said the philosophy is actually at the heart of the play’s action. Thus if you observe the play’s action, you can deduce all the philosophy you need, right there in front of you. This is perhaps an arrogant statement. Because if the smart people who write our theatre criticism can’t pick this stuff up from the action of the play, how can we simpler minded people?
(There’s an implicit criticism of criticism building here, I can feel it… but I won’t spoil the ending of this essay by stating it there, so let’s briefly state it here. Critics often take upon themselves the “duty” to “represent” the audience, but they often use a simplified model of who the audience is, and judge a work by how “clear” it is to that simple-minded artificial audience model. But it’s self-deception. Audiences are far smarter than critics think they are, and sometimes, far smarter than the critics themselves.)
So. A warning. If you proceed there will be spoilers. And thanks for sticking with this, thus far.
Lee’s first book, A New Theory of Vision was essentially a simplification and popularization of the works of Berkeley and the idealists, updated for a more telepresent world such as existed in the late 1980s, when his book would have come out. The parts of the materialist/idealist philosophy that would have made the most stir in the popular mind – the book was, after all, a massive best-seller – would have been those that talked about the increasing virtualization of who we were. Extended we were, as McLuhan would have said, by our creations – the telephone, television, and the PC network – we learned to project and virtualize our identities to match their representations over the various wire protocols of these extensions.
So we would have first developed a “voice or sound-heavy” set of identity contexts to serve as representations of ourselves over the telephone (which is a two-way medium – one-to-one) and for radio (which is a broadcast medium – one to many); a visual-and-sound set of identity contexts to represent us over the airwaves. These would eventually evolve to no longer being literal attempts to represent us. They would begin that way. But identity as communicated and compressed over these media would become first shadow representations of our selves, then gradually the representations would diverge as we accommodated ourselves to the medium, until eventually we had created at least one, perhaps many separate representations of ourselves to adapt to each medium.
Shadow identities, each containing part of our own experience and the contexts made real and appropriate for each medium and tuned to the audience each medium brought. So to each person with whom you conversed on the telephone, you created a different identity. It began as a set of sounds that resembled your voice, but gradually it evolved to become a new voice. Likewise, on TV or the radio, you created new visual and audio aspects of yourself.
Note in the play how the characters identities are somewhat malleable. Not in a MAN = MAN way (cf. Brecht) but rather in a postmodern way – their decisions and actions and the “selves” we see of them are adapted to the medium in which they present these selves. These represent the world as Lee saw it in his best-selling book.
Lee’s new book, also probably destined to be a best-seller, The Book of Reality, takes this much further, in fact all the way into the world Erich inhabits. On the path to writing the book based on Erich’s online world, Lee is in fact creating signifiers that led him inexorably to the realizations he has at the end of the original act-break, where his mind begins to loop in on itself – when both he and we – SEE and HEAR his self-perceived crime, that he didn’t prevent a suicidal person, whom he loved very much, from committing suicide. The realization he makes – and which is wrong – is that the self is actually an illusion. That there is no contiguous set of ideas upon which any person is based. That we are chaotic stews of ideas constantly attempting to summarize and interpret and re-spew endless chaotic casseroles of matter and energy that surround us, and of which we are also constructed.
This can lead to a depairing, nihilist worldview which in fact represents exactly Jane’s. We would then all want to kill ourselves, since what’s the point of existence if you’re a temporary process that observes temporary processes, and even your observations themselves are captured in a boiling cauldron of sense information which in itself is destined to change and be corrupted by chaos?
But the other assertion The Book of Reality makes is there are constancies. That the only constants are the links between us. Two hands clasping each other. Words of comfort, and care. We are the forces, amidst the stew and spew, that wrenches the world back from chaos. We create the illusion of order, and it is in fact the illusion of order that is the fact of order. In a world where all is illusion, illusion is therefore fact. That it all is some sort of miracle worth experiencing is the main of it.