The Other Side of Impossible

Hanabusa Itchou
Five Blind Monks Examine an Elephant by Hanabusa Itchou (1888)

Article by Sean Callaghan.

In which I ask a simple question: what if there is no elephant?


I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of men who had achieved a high degree of success working in the corporate sphere, and I just couldn’t resist asking them how they would respond to some of the leftist critiques that many academics throw in their direction.  The response I received took me by surprise.

“They think there’s some great design at work here,” one of the gentlemen answered between puffs of his cigar, “But that’s not how it works.  This is how it works.  You have a guy who finds one little spot in the world to make money and he does everything he can to squeeze what he can out of there, and then he moves on.  He doesn’t know about any bigger picture.  He doesn’t give a crap.  All there is is that one little place where he can squeeze a profit.”

My initial internal response to his answer was a standard one.  It wasn’t that there was no overarching design, I thought, it’s just that this businessman can’t see it.  I was reminded of an old Indian fable concerning a group of blind men and an elephant.  As the story goes a group of blind men come upon an elephant and are asked to describe the beast.  One man touches the trunk and declares the elephant is long like a plough.  Another touches its leg and announces the elephant is pillar-like, solidly planted in the ground.  Yet another touches the elephant’s ear and decides it is like a winnowing basket.  Of course, we know they are all wrong.  Their senses betrayed them.  Like the blind men, businessmen touch the elephant that is the market spinning profits off their interpretations of a synecdochical illusion.  Just because they can’t see the elephant doesn’t mean its not there.  I chuckled to myself smugly.  I knew what the elephant was. It was capital.  It was the profit motive.  It was biopolitical production, etc. etc.

After a few days, though, I started to rethink things.  Because I remembered I hated that story about the elephant, because it is inherently elitist. It operates by placing the listener in a position of power.  We are the seeing, and “they” are the blind.  We know better, and watch in smug satisfaction as those who are inhibited in some way – or let’s just call a spade a spade: those stupider than us – are left to fumble with a truth that exceeds their grasp.  Businessmen, like the gentlemen mentioned above, are too stupid and blind to their own limitations to see the truth that the rest of us have no problem seeing.  This is what separates US from THEM.  And this is what allows us to pass easy judgments on them.  It allows us to sniff indignantly when we discover the man or woman sitting across from us works on Bay Street of Wall Street.  This indignance, though, is itself a kind of blindness.

I am a big believer in privileging the question of what a belief, concept, or idea produces in us over the question of its truth.  Because there is only one truth, and that is production.  The world is not a stable given, but a constant process of change and transformation, and the only thing we can track are the productions that move outwards from our actions, thoughts, etc.  There is no hidden interior.  There is no secret origin to everything lost amongst the forest of symbols around us that can only be accessed by a privileged (elite) few.  I like to think we live on the surface of things where everything mixes with everything else the way rivers and streams flow and mix with one another.  Heraclitus reminds us that you can never step into the same river twice.  In the same manner, the moment you ask about the origin of a problem is the moment that the very world of the problem has passed.  You can only ask about effects.  So what effects does the interpretation above produce?  Nothing useful.  It makes us (the listener) feel superior, while reaffirming something we already knew going into the story – that there was an elephant, and that blind men can’t see elephants.  Whoop-dee-do.

I started contemplating a different idea: what if the businessman was right?  What if there was no elephant?  What if we are the blind ones staring at an obvious truth, but a truth that was meant to mask the fundamental lie that only the blind man could see?  What if the elephant was only an illusion of consistency.  And what if that consistency was just something to trick me into thinking I was also equally as consistent?  To make me believe in the liberal subject that is me that enters the world as a rational, thinking whole (despite all that science and psychology and philosophy has spent centuries telling us).  What would happen, if we pretended that we weren’t consistent?

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not supporting the kind of blindness that plagues the men on Main Street, Bay Street, or Wall Street who consistently ignore the elephant in the room whenever they talk about the need for austerity measures and reformist policies to keep the market circulating.  Hello!?  The market failed.  Capital failed, and not just this once.  Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff have made it very clear.  It’s a mistake to think “this time is different.”  We’ve been through this before.   Capitalism doesn’t fail because of some aberration.  It fails because that’s what capitalism does.  Failure is its key means of production.  Its failure is the constant reminder to us to believe in it.

What I’m suggesting is something a bit more perplexing.   I’m suggesting we stop thinking capitalism as a thing we can fix, and that we are the free subjects that will be able to access it from the outside, tinker with its mechanisms and get it running again. We don’t enter the market as these rational wholes, and then decide what to do from there.  That kind of rational choice theory depends too much on the idea that people are consistent in their desires.  If you are a big fan of fiction, you know that all heroes struggle to be consistent in what they say and how they act.  Their success is what makes them the hero, but it is a struggle. Of course, we know our heroes don’t resemble anything like the people we encounter in the real world.  They are ideals.  Shouldn’t it say something to us, though, when even our ideals struggle with their own self-consistency?     We enter the world conflicted, hounded by inconsistency.  And it is the market that makes us into a consistency.  The market decides who we are.

What if we choose not to be what the market wants us to be?  What if we change our eyes to see that capitalism is just as perverse as we are.  That it clings to its unity in desperation, and then makes us cling to ourselves for fear of what might happen if we let go of its unifying illusion.

What if we choose to believe there is no elephant?  Capitalism makes itself into the smooth glass mirror in which we find the image of ourselves intact.  We find comfort in that image.  It lulls our thoughts and better angels to sleep.  Seen in this light, the businessman mentioned above provided an answer that was profoundly insightful.  If we remember the question I asked, I asked him how he would respond to leftist critiques of corporate interest, and his answer was exactly that those searching for an elephant have been fooled into thinking there is an elephant.  The critics create whatever system of organization they want to see, and develop their critique based on this fundamental illusion – an illusion based on an illusion.  They then cast themselves as heroic figures, but end only by chasing after windmills.  What the businessman confronted me with was a thought that was far more sinister and possibly revolutionary than I had considered before.  He confronted me with an idea that had the power to terrify thought itself.  There is no elephant.  There is no stable market logic, except the logic stabilized by the market itself.  There is only a process convincing us of a real that doesn’t exist.  We are made to believe the market is a reality, and then acts as if it were real.  Just as we act as if we were all consistent in the way we think and act and desire.  If this were true, then why do we eat things that are unhealthy?  Why does my bladder force me out of the movie theatre right when things are getting good?  Why do I die?

What if we acted as if the market weren’t real?

The question then becomes: what would this produce?  Well, it would humble us by confronting us with the great abyss that we were too terrified at first to acknowledge. This abysmal Real is the great equalizer and the source of all our political egalitarianisms.  This abyss is also an historical one.  It could only express itself as it does because of the appearance of the market.  Weirdly enough, we can only come to realize there is no elephant because we see it sitting right there in front of us.  We are left to stretch ourselves over the abyss through an impossible act of thought – how do we both think his existence while at the same time denying it?  As impossible as this may be, we must do it.  If for no other reason than because it forces us to confront the abysmal truth of this impossibility.  When we start with the abysmal, the abysmal as a beautiful force of creation, then our illusions begin to fray at the edges, and fall into decay.  As the saying goes, men make plans and God laughs.  If this is the case, then the abyss is God’s laughter.  We should learn to laugh along.

Second, this pushes us to wonder why it was so important that we saw an elephant there in the first place.  More importantly, why is it so important that we find consistency in ourselves and the world around us?  Why is that blindness necessary?  And what happens when we acknowledge it as a dream, but a necessary one?

These are the questions I want to pursue in this blog.  I am interested in what strange and wonderful possibilities emerge when you look that elephant in the face and ask him if he’s real.

I think this is more than just an interesting thought experiment.  This has become a necessity, because as time goes on we are beginning to see that this particular elephant has a name, and his name is Apocalypse.  He bucks and kicks every decade or so, then naps his restful productive nap.  Each time, though, he gets bigger and bigger, and one day we know he’s going to go off on a tear so destructive none of us will be left untouched.   We know this, because in the mirror reflection of his crazy eyes, we find ourselves plagued by nightmarish visions of the end of the world – in our films, in the news, in our fictions of the future.   Why?  Possibly because we all want change, but as cultural critic Fredric Jameson aptly noted in the early 90s, it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capital.  The elephant stands in our path.

The challenge we face now  is how to think radical change in the absence of an apocalyptic climax, and the first step to doing so involves finding the courage to say the impossible:  there is no elephant.  The second step, then, is the reason we take the first one, because it takes us to the other side of the impossible where all our glorious doubts and fears rise at once and ask:

“All right, fine.  There is no elephant.  He’s cleared the path. But then… where do we go from here?”

Sean Callaghan has his Ph.D. in Modern Japanese History and Literature from the University of Toronto.  He is also a published playwright, and is currently working on a fiction manuscript that he hopes to be the first in a long series of speculative realist YA novels.

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