Sunday, December 1, 2013

Holidays and the absurd: it's all about us

by Vadim Keyser

As the mild autumn approaches the soggy Sacramento winter, and the oldies radio stations, one-by-one, become clogged with the holiday spirit, I start feeling a bit uncomfortable. Around about Thanksgiving that feeling becomes more precise. I can tell you what gives me that feeling: Taking a large bite out of sweet potato casserole only to realize that it’s made out of stinking yams; seeing people lined up outside of every store like a bunch of cold turkeys and lined up in-stores to buy 45 million cold turkeys; and, television. I can tell you what that feeling is like, and I can get you to feel that feeling. All I have to do is sigh, or make you watch a Charlie Brown special. Ostension is a powerful tool for directing understanding (shout outs to Dr. DiSilvestro). But, how can I describe this feeling and the cause behind it in analytically precise terms?

Thomas Nagel gives us a working answer in his 1971 article, "The Absurd." In it, he analyzes absurdity as a phenomenon, and tries to answer two questions:
  1. What makes things absurd? 
  2. How can we solve our absurd situation? 
I think we can use Nagel’s account in a very practical way—to answer this question: What is wrong with the holidays?

According to Nagel, most people, on occasion, feel absurd but get the source of the feeling wrong. That’s because we appeal to our intuitions to figure out the cause. You might think that what makes things absurd is the realization that we are tiny in space-time. During the holidays we have a lot of time to think. We might find ourselves taking a walk through an empty city or a cold countryside. We look around (mostly up), and, oftentimes, these thoughts emerge: “How brief is my existence” and “How small I am." I once heard Bill Nye speak at the University of Nevada, Reno.  At one point he flashed a slide where the earth was pictured as a tiny jellybean among other jellybeans. He said, “We are a spec within a spec, within a spec…and that sucks.”

But according to Nagel, brevity in existence and smallness in size do not explain the feeling that life is absurd. Some thought experiments may help. Imagine yourself as immortal. You watch societies and solar systems cycle through creation and destruction. Does this take away the feeling of absurdity? Immortality seems to magnify absurdity. What about size? Imagine humans as large as galaxies (imagine a bunch of gigantic, floating baby humans). This just magnifies the feeling of absurdity as well. According to Nagel, the reason why absurdity doesn’t go away when we add more time and space is because the absurd is not due to some external condition that can be modified.  It is a property of something deeper within the human psyche. We’re like balls of cookie dough with salmonella inside of them. Adding more cookie dough isn’t going to get rid of the salmonella—in fact, the condition worsens and spreads. 

According to Nagel, what makes things absurd is a discrepancy between aspiration and reality. For example, you confess your love to an answering machine (or worse, you accidentally get Liam Neeson's line, and he’s having a very bad day). This seems to parallel Camus’s answer about what makes things absurd. Like, Sisyphus, the working human is pressed up against his/her rock—the cold reality of it, grinds against our warm faces. But Nagel says that the discrepancy isn’t between us and reality. This is because we don’t have much access to what reality really is. Rather, the discrepancy is between us and us. I think this is where Nagel’s description of the absurd becomes fascinating and surprising.
This condition is the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary or open to doubt. [178, my emphasis]
What makes things absurd is a discrepancy between perspectives. On the one hand, taking life seriously is unavoidable. On the other hand, when we step out and take a look at our situations, we’re these organisms that wear other organisms on our feet, and sit on dead trees, and tap plastic keys for extended hours and laugh at a lit box, and put mush into holes that exist on our faces. Why do we do these things? When we take a look at our habits, inclinations, norms, and justifications there is only doubt. Even if we have a divine purpose—the universe becomes a part of us, and we become part of the universe—we still can’t get rid of the annoying nephew within us, constantly asking, “Yeah, but why?” 

Nagel says that all values can only be justified by reference to themselves, and when we try to zoom out to reach a foundation, we only end up in the thin air of doubt—the view from nowhere. But the absurdity is not in the fact that humans can take the nebula’s eye view of themselves. Rather, it’s that once they do, they can go back to their daily activities as though nothing happened. This is why the holidays are a prime time for the absurd process. We reflect, we doubt, and on Monday, we wake up at 6 am to a batch of emails that make no sense, and, at the same time, a lot of sense.

According to Nagel, we can never get rid of the absurd because it’s within us. My bone to pick with Thanksgiving is really something that’s within my bones. So how do we solve our absurd situation? Nagel’s solution is that we accept our self-transcendence and have some fun with it—we use irony to be light about our being. I like this solution just fine. I think this is why Woody Allen’s films are so enjoyable. But I’ve always respected Albert Camus’s solution a bit more. You see, I think Nagel gets Camus all wrong. He says that Camus' Sisyphus is self-pitying and that that his only solution to absurdity is to shake his fist at the world. I beg to differ.

I think Camus is talking about shaking a fist at yourself. For Camus, the rock isn’t the external world; rather, it’s our response to the external world. The rock is an amalgamation of all of those anxiety-producing reactions we have to the world. The doubt that Nagel speaks of can be clumped right in there along with hope, fear, and regret. Sisyphus has a chance at happiness only because he makes a conscious choice to rebel against those aspects of himself. He is stronger than his fate because he can rebel against fear, hope, doubt, and regret. I like this solution because it’s more hands-on.  Camus doesn't just passively accept our fragmented nature.

What’s wrong with the holidays? Whether you like Nagel’s account or Camus’s account, one thing seems clear: The answer is: us. But fret not. This makes the problem easy to solve.

Vadim Keyser
Lecturer, Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State University


  1. Vadim,

    I've always been intrigued by Nagel's analysis of absurdity and I wonder if I have a slightly different take on it than you. I see Nagel as claiming that there is an identifiable feeling of absurdity that arises from our ability to adopt an external perspective on our lives, or human life in general, or even existence itself. As you indicate, from this perspective the seriousness with which we take our everyday affairs is palpably absent, and everything seems open to doubt. The absurdity consists in the felt conflict between these two perspectives.

    Nagel's analysis seems to me to imply that absurdity (so conceived) is actually an illusion (much like traditional dualistic concepts of the self and free will, which arise from the same capacity for objectification.) Life is not itself absurd, but we think that it is because we do not understand that the disappearance of meaning that occurs when we ascend to the view from nowhere is not because meaning is not there, but because it can not be experienced from that perspective. (This has an interesting parallel with Tom Pyne's piece on color. People conclude that red is somehow not real because it vanishes when we take a neurobiological perspective on vision.) So really there is no conflict, just as there is no conflict between being free and determined.

    What we do need to appreciate about the view from nowhere, however, is that it is far better at revealing the consequences of our actions. So it can still be the source of a useful critique on our meaningful activities. Humans as a species used to find war to be a deeply meaningful activity, but an external perspective has helped a fair number of us to see that human life can be more meaningful for everyone if we divert our attention to slightly less lethal activities, like football and ultimate fighting.

    If I'm right about the illusion thing (and it seems to me that you probably agree with me on this) then it's kind of odd of Nagel to offer this as the correct analysis of absurdity. It's sort of like insisting on the correctness of the traditional concept of the self or incompatibilist free will. To my mind, what he should be saying is that since this sense of absurdity is an illusion, we should use the term to refer to the kinds of absurdity that really do exist.

    For example, holiday absurdity does not strike me as very amenable to Nagel's analysis at all. To me, holidays are supposed to be a celebration of life, and anything that gives you an excuse to celebrate life is a good thing. So what strikes me as absurd about the holidays is when what we actually do is create a lot of stress and mayhem during this period. This kind of absurdity is just garden variety performative inconsistency, which is definitely not an illusion. As far as I can tell, the feeling of absurdity that arises from this situation is not phenomenologically distinct from the one that arises under Nagel's analysis. However, in this case it has the virtue of typically pointing to a real problem.

    In the, end I think Nagel's solution is wrong. The whole ironic detachment attitude seems to me to make sense if you think that form of absurdity is real. If it's not, then we should take all of our pursuits just as seriously as ever. I don't know if you are right about redirecting Camus' fist shaking, but I like the basic idea that we should be blaming ourselves for continuing to feel that life is objectively absurd when reason can show us that this is an illusion.

  2. Vadim,
    Wonderful post, especially for this time of year! I love that you experience absurdity over not-sweet-potato yam pie. As Camus noted, it can strike any moment, even the most mundane. I also like your use of Nagel and his attempt to come to terms with Absurdity. On your account of Nagel, though, he seems to miss a very central element of the phenomenon he's describing, but which Camus noted as core to the concept: that it is the feeling of the awareness of the indifference of the universe (and of each to each other) to our plans, hopes, dreams, expectations, purposes, and attributions of meaning. For Nagel to see Sisyphus's final condition as shaking his fist at his rock just seems to miss the very core of the experience of the absurd -- that one realizes that the world (the rock) doesn't care, never did, and never will, it can't. To shake my fist at the rock implies that it can care, that it did (and now doesn't) or that it hasn't (but could). Just seems odd. Camus, as you know, leaves it open for Sisyphus to either meet his rock with joy or resignation, and speculates that we must understand him as meeting it with joy. We must...

    I agree with your preference for Camus, he really was the prime philosopher of the absurd. But, I'm a bit unsure of what you mean by the absurd being "within us". I know our responses are within, but in a sense the absurd is a condition, it a mode of being -- in rebellion in the world, not merely being in the world, but being in it in rebellion. Rebellion against all that inclines us toward or lulls us back into the way of being in which one finds meaning (rather than makes it), lives a purpose/plan (rather than the experience as its happening for what it is), and wants someone or something to care whether we live or die, for it all to have been worth it, for it to have meant something afterall (rather than nothing at all). It's this expectation for transcendence, understood as seeing oneself from any other position than from the immediacy of the one whose life one is living. It's this position, this view, on the world and oneself that absurdity brings to the fore. Life has the meaning we give it by our living it as we choose to do and which we affirm as doing by our willingness to continue it at every moment. I suspect this is considerably different from Nagel's view, at least how I read it, where for Nagel, absurdity is a condition which demands remedy.

    I love this stuff... but what if it's all a bunch of whooey? Sartre infamously said, of anguish (key to absurdity), in a series of interviews in the late 1970s, "I have never known anguish. That was a key philosophical notion from 1930 to 1940. It was one of the notions we made use of all the time, but to me it meant nothing."

  3. Randy,
    Thank you for the comment. I agree that (for Nagel) the discrepancy in perspectives creates the feeling of absurdity. It’s also true that we can characterize the zooming out as taking “external” perspective. But characterizing it this way also gives it some sort of foundational quality. The only key feature of the view from nowhere, or the “thin air of doubt” is that there is negation of values and knowledge, so we never have a foundation. The reason why I make this point about using the term “external” is because for something to be an illusion there has to be a discrepancy between appearance and reality (or, two perspectives). Reality gives us a foundational vantage point against which the appearance is inaccurate, incomplete, skewed, etc. But the view from nowhere does not provide such a foundation. So, I’m not sure if absurdity is an illusion in this sense. But that does not make it an illusion. We could only call it that if we have some sort of external, foundational vantage point. Side note: It may be that absurdity is a relational phenomenon (between two perspectives) that only humans can experience. I don’t have an account for relational phenomena vs. illusions (vs. public hallucinations). It’d be interesting to make the argument that there are distinctions between different kinds of relational phenomena (e.g. color vision, rainbows); and that these may differ from illusions (e.g. artifacts, misinterpretations of data). There may be an intersection between the two categories (e.g. hallucinations).
    I think you have a very interesting point about differentiating types of absurdities. I agree that holiday absurdities can be a different type of absurdity if performative inconsistencies are involved. But Nagel may say that performative inconsistencies only arise because of our doubting mechanism (e.g. one type of absurdity is reducible to the other).
    Another thought, emerging from your interesting point above: If the absurd process is plagued/characterized by doubt, then how can we even know if our condition is absurd and/or what kind of absurdity we are currently in? This is an epistemic problem with characterizing absurdity.
    In response to the final point about Nagel’s solution being wrong given that absurdity is merely an illusion: I’m going to go zen on this one… There are no holidays, but they are indeed jolly. I think that depending on what we take as our foundational vantage point, the discrepancies we have end up changing; and sometimes the discrepancies disappear completely.

    1. V, thanks, interesting reply. In support of my position I'd suggest there is an appearance reality issue here. It is just like a magic trick in which the magician makes you look at something in a way that makes you think it has actually disappeared or that it has changed. The reality is that it is still there and the change is a function of your perspective. Same thing with adopting the external perspective on our lives. It is an illusion that meaning is gone. You just can't see it from that perspective. It's a doubly powerful illusion, though, because we are built with the expectation that everything becomes clearer from this perspective.

      Somehow we understand this when we see people from a plane or visualize the earth from a position outside the Milky Way. These perspective do cause us to experience a loss of meaning, but it doesn't cause the same conflict when we return to earth. I think it is because of space time continuity. The view from nowhere is a perspective that doesn't result from getting further and further away. It's a sudden shift like the Necker cube or Rabbit-duck illusions. Of course in these illusions we don't argue about which view is the correct one. But we can still feel a kind of absurdity when we are stuck looking at it as a rabbit when we know we could just as easily be seeing it as a duck.

    2. Ah yes, that's wonderful, R. Combining these two responses: Life is not itself absurd; rather, absurdity is an illusion generated by this shift in perspective. The meaning doesn't disappear when we ascend. We just can't experience it until we fall back down. I have two worries, one new, one old.

      The old, slightly transformed: I still have the worry that maybe there is an issue of foundation here. Now that I see how your view works, I don't think it's the original worry I had. Originally, I thought that the view from nowhere had to be foundational for the illusion to occur (otherwise there is no necessary distinction between appearance and reality, and no illusion). But now that I see that the only illusion necessary is a discrepancy between two perspectives, I worry that we can't characterize it as an illusion at all. It's just a regular ol' shift, and there's a discrepancy between perspectives. There are all sorts of shifts that do not constitute illusions. I maintain that to be an illusion, one perspective has to be more foundational, real, etc. Also, potentially this isn't just a perspectival shift but something more extreme, like paradigm shift, where everything is lost in translation. In this sense, we're shifting worlds, and when we shift worlds, elements are not temporarily hidden, they are tossed out completely. More on this below.

      This brings me to the new worry: I'm not sure if you intended this in the original response, but you seem to suggest that meaning is not lost when we shift in views (we just can no longer experience it). This seems to suggest that meaning somehow sticks around. But, if we're talking about a large shift, I think meaning is completely lost, and no longer exists. Then, when we shift back, it pops into existence. So, the mechanism looks more like measurement in some interpretations of quantum mechanics and less like zooming out somewhere far (since when we zoom, all of the features that we can't see anymore still exist).

  4. Chris,
    Thank you also for the comment. I really dig this stuff. I fully agree, Nagel gets Sisyphus wrong: rocks can’t care (excellent name for a band).
    I think you are correct that the absurd is a condition. I like the characterization of Camus’s ‘absurd’ as a rebellion in the world. This is where things get a bit confusing for me. First, Camus, since he hated being called tagged as an existentialist might not give us this characterization. Second, I used to see the rebellion as something that required the conditions of the world, but I wanted to put a twist on it because I think Camus’s message is about turning inward. On the one hand, rebellion does depend on the condition of the world. On the other hand, the rebellion is really against our tendencies. It’s an internal event. And, I’d say that even if there was a change in the world, Camus would still tell us to rebel internally. The risk here is that we’re fingerpainting on Camus’s sketch.
    Exactly, it could just be a bunch of nonsense. Hume tells us that nature equips us with a mechanism to deal with this kind of heavy feeling—play. After we play a good game of backgammon and hang out with our peeps, these feelings don’t seem so heavy.