Existential analysis of texts: A defense

To begin with I must apologize as I am presenting my thoughts to you in a severely unpolished form.  Discounting second-hand sources, my familiarity with continental philosophy runs only about one and one-quarter books deep.  However, delays have been frequent and long and I fear if I do not make an effort to piece together my ideas now, I will not have a chance to present them at all.

I also must apologize for my lack of formal training in literary, film, or vidcon analysis.  I have little doubt that many will wish to argue with me, and some will have such a background.  Nor do I think it unlikely that I will be rehashing a number of concepts which have already been written on extensively, most likely in a more rigorous capacity than I am able to affect.

There are two main arguments that I will bring to bear on this subject.  The first I will call the argument from symbolic necessity.  The second I will call the argument from analytic simplicity.

Argument from symbolic necessity

If we hold that the role of art is supposed to be didactic, as I used to and as Mr. Clunn does, then we encounter certain problems that must be addressed before we can interpret any text as compelling.  Essentially these boil down to one issue; what makes value sacred?  It can of course be postulated that there are two different types of didactic texts.  There are those which do not posit values, and merely communicate discrete facts about the world.  Certain history texts meet this requirement, as do any number of technical manuals.  Then there are those which have a moral, or which ascribe to some object or circumstance a value, either good or bad.

It is the job of the person arguing that art must be didactic to provide a reason for why the second type of text does not merely collapse into the first type of text.  Many people have proposed that morality is simply an outgrowth of an evolved biological trait, namely the human instinct for such things as self-preservation and satisfaction of desire.  If we accept this, or other similar arguments, then we encounter a problem.  Any positive attribute of the world simply becomes a fact among facts.  Hence the presentation of anti-market activity as a destructive force in Atlas Shrugged or of Objectivism as a destructive force in Bioshock becomes merely descriptive.  I am not here analyzing whether the description is accurate, merely noting that it ceases to exist in any uniquely human dimension and simply becomes description qua desciption.

To illustrate I will present three stories for your examination.

Story 1

Once upon a time, there was a rock that sat atop a hill.  Over many years, rain fell and removed layers of the rock.  One day, there was an earthquake.  The rock tumbled down the hill until it arrived in a forest.  Then it was in a forest.

The end.

Story 2

Once upon a time, in the post-apocalyptic ruins of neo-new york, there was a robot with the title Johnny3000.  He was a Mitsubishi product, top of the line.  His software was very advanced, and dictated how he would behave under a wide range of circumstances.  These ranged from performing labor to engaging in pleasantries for the benefit of his owners, discussing literature, critiquing film, having sex, and playing and watching sports.  To the untrained eye, Johnny3000 was indistinguishable from a human being.

This sophistication was quite consequential, as by now all humans had died from starvation or radiation sickness, and robots were left alone to wander the earth, performing the functions their programming and circumstances required of them.  One day, Johnny3000 had an error.  He had been programmed to salvage parts from other robots, provided they were not in use and their owner was either the same as his own, or else permission was not a problem.  Given that all humans were dead, ownership was not formally possible.  This had meant that robots had long destroyed each other in order to obtain parts for themselves.

However the problem with Johnny3000 was not that his mechanical heart was depleted, but rather that the drivers for it had, by some peculiarity with his memory module, ceased to function.  Hence he operated perfectly, but his programming constantly demanded that he find replacement artificial hearts.  So Johnny3000 went about, destroying other robots.  Every time he did so, he would replace his heart with their own only to encounter the error again.  So off he went to find a replacement.  Johnny did this for 300 years until every robot on earth was destroyed.  640 years later, Johnny ceased to function.

The year was 2873.  All music was silenced, all literature was left unread, all sports unparticipated in and unknown.  And they remained this way forever after.  The end.

Story 3

Freddy, 12 years old, stood before the counter.  He felt like the weight of the world was bearing down upon him.  Thoughts raced through his head.  The man looked down at him and spoke again.  “I said is that all?”.  He spoke with what older, more cynical people would have recognized immediately as an insincere politeness.  Like many people in his line of work, he didn’t care about his job.  It was better for him if he just got through the day, and the day was nearly over.  This kid was wasting his time, denying him precious moments at home with his luxuries of choice: alcohol and television.  Luxuries which he could sink into and maybe try and forget about a time earlier in his life, when he had envisioned things for himself; had envisioned himself as doing more than just working as a cashier at a department store.

Freddy looked up.  In his pocket was a $300 iPod he had taken from an open display case.  His parents had always told him not to steal, but something had come over him.  When he saw the iPod sitting there within grasp, he didn’t care about making his parents happy.  He wanted it, and nothing else was a consideration.  Now here he was, and the situation he was in had just started to dawn on him.  He had taken the iPod.  No divine hand had emerged from the heavens to stop him.  He had removed it from its case and hidden it from view, walked past a sea of people to get to the cashier.  Not one of them had payed him any mind.  Nobody had turned to look at him, a glint of judgment in their eye.  Nobody had shouted out “Stop! Thief!”  To the world, he was the same kid he was 5 minutes ago.

But he was here on an errand, to get milk for his mother.  So he had to go through the register.  He looked up, and smiled with the amateur enthusiasm of a first time actor, “Yes sir”.  The man smirked ever so slightly at the kid, then went back to his routine.  “That’ll be $5.50”.  Freddy bought the milk and left.

With the kind of happiness that only comes with succeeding at a task on a first attempt, he took out the iPod as he boarded a southbound train home.  He was too busy playing with the menu to see what he was walking into.  Plugging the headphones in and fidgeting with them to try and make them stay in his ears, he started playing one of the demo songs.  He was overjoyed.  All the other kids at school had iPods.  What he held in his hands right now felt like a little piece of belonging, in a life which even at his age tended to feel like alienation.

The doors closed.  Across from Freddy sat Abby, 17 years old.  He was with his friends, a group of other young men who enjoyed violence, theft, and mayhem and when together were commonly known to the public as a gang.  He had only recently come to associate with them.  At home he was beaten by a father who cheated on welfare and his wife in equal measure.  At school he was neglected, talked down to and marginalized by teachers who found out the hard way that kids can’t be programmed.  Teachers who simply gave up trying to teach as a result, instead of figuring out what this actually meant and how to respond to it.

When this little kid walked onto the train smiling confidently and holding a brand new iPod, Abby felt a feeling, complex and powerful that touched him to his very core.  This kind of feeling had been written about by various academic types, who described it in painfully dense and gilded language.  “Empowerment” was one word they used for it.  In reality it went much deeper than that.  Here was a little boy so young he didn’t even know what sex was, carrying a toy his parents had probably bought for him for no reason other than that he was their kid.  Maybe he had “earned” it with some petty achievement like getting good grades at the nice, middle class school he went to.  Or maybe it was enough that he belonged to a white, well-to-do family.  No matter what it was, Abby felt like the universe was finally giving him a break for once, and all he had to do was act on it.  He could make the world better for himself, and fight back against a terrible cosmic injustice at the same time.

“Hey kid, nice iPod.  Let me see it”.  Freddy looked over.  Even with his youthful naivety, he had some idea.  But he was in public, on a train.  The same train he had ridden a thousand times before without consequence.  Nothing bad could happen to him here.  The only thing people ever did on the train was wait to get where they were going, and sometimes talk or read.  They were people, after all.

“No” he said.  Abbie was incensed and simultaneously eager to hear this.  “What!?” he shouted, spinning around,  throwing his arms up in a gesture of wild bewilderment.  He briefly caught eyes with Skyler, the de-facto leader of the group.  Skyler nodded his head.  He felt much the same way.  That little nod communicated more than enough to send Abbie over the edge.  “Listen you little bitch, that’s my iPod.  I want it”.  With that he lunged for it, and got a clumsy grip on Freddy’s hand just before he pulled it away.

As soon as his hand slipped free, he felt a sharp, explosive pain next to his eye that reverberated through his entire body and sent him crashing to the floor.  Just then, the doors opened.  Abbie grabbed the iPod and bolted through the door.  His friends followed suit.  The sound of beeping could be heard as the door prepared to close.  A man walked through it to the sight of a small child, bleeding from the brow and sprawled awkwardly against the conductors door of the train.

“Oh god!” he proclaimed, in a voice of the sort that demonstrates the speaker has found occasion where obligation and instinct collude.  “Are you ok?”

Freddy began to cry.

Outside, Abby took out the iPod as he boarded a northbound train home.  Plugging the headphones in and fidgeting with them to try and make them stay in his ears, he started playing one of the demo songs.  He was ecstatic.  All the other members of the gang had already demonstrated their legitimacy through other actions.  His initiation notwithstanding, he had done something which made him feel like there was a place for him in the world at last.  A place that had until now been denied to him by forces beyond his grasp, circumstance, perhaps some cruel God.  No divine hand had emerged from the heavens to stop him.  He had taken it from the kid and hidden it from view, walked past a sea of people to get to the northbound train.  Not one of them had payed him any mind.  Nobody had turned to look at him, a glint of judgment in their eye.  Nobody had shouted out “Stop! Thief!”  To the world, he was the same kid he was 5 minutes ago.  But that part wasn’t on his mind.  What he held in his hands right now felt like a little piece of belonging, in a life which even at his age tended to feel like alienation.


These three stories are meant to represent three distinct types of story.  The first is merely descriptive of various discrete, worldly phenomenon.  The purpose of the second might be unclear to the reader, based on their predispositions.  In truth, it is effectively the same as the first.  The only difference is that it now contains characters, or agents as I shall refer to them for the rest of the article.  However, these agents conspicuously lack agency.  The third story is meant to rectify this.

In producing these stories I mean to call attention to one thing, and that is the consequence of dwelling on the agency of the agents.  It is from this attribute that the significance and hence the compelling nature of didactic (and particularly moral) tales stems.  Without a sense of free will on the part of the characters, their values and hence their lives become mere objects.  They cannot be empathized with.  A person might, in error, be able to read greater significance into the second story by means of a detached and intellectual effort.  What’s missing, however, is a sense of values as things which are more than just a worldly phenomenon.  By presenting agents with free will, we rectify that, even when we subsequently present them acting in ways in which they are dishonest with themselves about their freedom.

Of course, this exercise is all somewhat deceptive because it involves the production of stories rather than the interpretation of stories.  However this is less of an issue than might be immediately apparent.  I start with the assumption that human beings have free will.  Hence, when I approach texts I start with the assumption that all agents within the text are, as such, human.  This forms a simple syllogism which allows me a default mindset with which to approach texts, and which can subsequently be discarded (most likely along with the text itself) if evidence refutes the second assumption.

Onwards to my second argument

Argument from analytic simplicity

Having limited familiarity with literary interpretation, I do not know much about the schools of thought that exist on the subject.  In a class titled Legacy of Arts and Letters that I took while at Metropolitan State College of Denver, I entered a discussion about (if memory serves) Medea.  The professor wanted opinions on what the golden chariot in the final scene represented, or some such business.  I proposed that it represented a golden chariot, and this lead to some rather indignant scoffs on the part of the other students.  Ever patient and perhaps sympathetic, the professor responded by informing me of a school of literary thought called the fuzzy puppy dog school.  Whether that is a nickname or the standard title I don’t know, but I will repeat the explanation I was given of its tenants here.

The fuzzy puppy dog school holds that texts are much like a fuzzy puppy dog.  They have a certain aesthetic that works for them as a whole, but if you take them apart to look at them piece by piece, all you get is a bloody mess.  At the time I was thrilled to hear this.  Now I think it is likely a reactionary position, although certainly much of what it is reacting to is far, far worse.

To use philosophy to simplify the issue, the interpretation of symbols is a matter of premises like anything else.  We assume that the puppy represents industrial capitalism for purposes of our analysis, and then present our interpretation of the text as a consequence of this assumption.  Sometimes the consequence is ridiculous, at which point we ought to consider discarding our interpretation as well as our initial premise.  Of course not many people do that, because the sort of people attracted to literature are very rarely of the proper sort of intellect, and would much rather drown the entire universe than learn to swim.

Anyways, any interpretation of a text as such relies on the adoption of premises.  Most require an awful lot, sometimes going so far as introducing dozens or even hundreds for a single word or phrase.  The framework I am proposing has two strengths.

1.  It requires exactly one premise, as pertains to the text; that the agents are human (“human” here is operationalized.  If you don’t understand the context, tough luck buttercup).

2. It is compatible with virtually any other interpretation that can be proposed.

Given all of this, the first argument and the second, I have a proposition.  This framework should be a default analytical tool for all readers, notwithstanding any other manner of interpretation.  In fact, it ought to be considered the foundation for the significance of all other manners of interpretation.

~ by Kilroy del Dancefighter Estallion the First on September 9, 2009.

2 Responses to “Existential analysis of texts: A defense”

  1. […] than any of the other major subjects present in the game.  I include it principally because of a deep-seated belief in the significance of the issue.  The characters who present it are Snake, The Patriots, Ocelot, […]

  2. […] of social and psychological models, and my assessment of the relative merit of fiction along phenomenological lines.  In Popper Selections, the eponymous author never takes explicit aim at Sartre, choosing […]

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