David Letterman, Hegel, and Philip K Dick = Praxis

May 19th, 2015 | By | Category: Articles

This is a rough draft for a presentation to be given at the start of a Panel Discussion at the Left Forum at the end of May. The panel is entitled Theory vs Practice, or What is Praxis? and will feature Michael Steinberg, Frank Smecker, and Christopher Vitale as participants. Masha Tupitsyn may also partipate.

praxisThere are many definitions of the word Praxis that get kicked around in Marxist circles and most of them are meaningless. Often enough the word is used to signify a half baked notion of a synthesis between theory and practice, touted as a solution for the problem of sterile or academic philosophy. The idea is that people put “theory” on a pedestal when really, as Marx argued, the aim shouldn't be to merely interpret the world, but to change it. Praxis then is the realization of this necessity, it's a word that is often spoken with the aim of elevating practice, a new word meant to bring the merely practical to the level of theory, when the true insight contained in the word is how utterly entwined theory and practice are from the start.

Given that the American talk show host David Letterman's retirement is a current event and because I'm a long term fan I'm going to turn to one of his earliest bits as an example of the kind of entwinement that the word praxis contains. On February 2nd in 1982 Dave took a microphone into the seats and interviewed members of the studio audience, but what he was searching for in fact was a volunteer.

“Have you ever been to a television studio before?” he asked a woman named Sally. When she admitted that she had not he asked if there is a particular piece of television equipment that she found most interesting or compelling.

“This one,” she says.

“This one? That's the producer,” Dave responded. But they worked it out that what she was really interested in was the television camera. At that point David suggested that Sally might like to take a spin behind the camera. She might like to test out the machinery.

What happened was that Letterman turned a lesson in camera work into the show the camera was supposed to capture and, along the way, demonstrated that the world of Late Night television was much more of a work of human expression than it appeared to be. That is, doing a Late Night television isn't simply a matter of telling jokes, but even the space of Letterman's studio only exists through a kind of expression. What had been, up to that point, a relatively simple and open landscape, a stage that the viewer at home imagined he or she understood fully, became instead a far off land separated from the viewer and seen through a tube. With Sally working the camera the images on the TV screen became erratic, out of focus, and labored and we were asked to be entertained by how many different ways the filmming of a television show can go wrong.

I think this is an example of praxis exposed. The expert practice of implementing theories of television production and filmmaking in a way that appears seamless was itself brought to the screen. That is, Sally's failures behind the camera demonstrated the need for formal training and were themeselves documented by not only by her own camerawork but also by the seamless and transparent work of the man on camera two. We got to watch Sally move through the open space of the television studio and then, when we cut to her camera's perspective, witness how she's butchered and inaccessible that space really could be.

To get a good sense of bad filmmaking you need a filmmaker who knows how to use a camera. Likewise, to understand how important practice is we need someone who knows the theory of practice.

So Praxis is a fairly simple thing then. Only to really understand it we can't just see it on television but we need to theorize about it for ourseleves, because it turns out that seeing on its own needs believing and believing needs thinking.

One way to consider the two parts of practice and theory is to couch consider them separtely. Let's start with theory.

Here are a few lines lifted from a Marxist Online Dictionary:
Theory reflects and organises practice; practice manifests and enriches theory.[...] By means of theory we mentally organise the material world into what we conceive of as objects. The objects we choose to label, and how we label them, varies tremendously from one era to the next, between classes, cultures, etc.

Now, here it is again, the same lesson that we just learned from Letterman. The decision, the way we choose to label the world and organize it, always relies on a practice, but that practice is itself the manifestation of the theory.

This raises two distinct problems. One is a problem of metaphysics or ontology, and the other is a problem that I'll call subjective but that might be called epistemological. The metaphysical problem with this twisted division between theory and practice goes all the way back to a Platonic dialogue called Parmenides, and probably further still. But, looking at Parmenides, what we start with is a philosophy that has no division between theory and practice at all, but instead asserts a philosophy of sameness and of oneness. For Parmenides there is only one unified and complete thing. The world is not broken down into objects but stands united. There are not many objects but one reasonable existence that remains unbroken. Change is shown to be impossible, individuality is impossible, any and all difference is impossible. What this means is that, for Parmenides, the world of experience, the world brought to us by our senses, should be denied.

In Plato's dialogue named after this insensible philosopher a young Socrates objects. Socrates doesn't agree that the world is unchanging, that there are no differences in it, but instead suggests that there are really existing objects, real differences between say an elephant and a giraffe, and that these differences can be seen because of how different particular things relate to what I'll call theory here, but which Socrates called the forms.

In the dialogue Parmenides disects Socrates' notion of forms or of theory, by introducing a variety of objections including the third man argument.

Here's that argument as lifted from wikipedia:
Parmenides posits that if a man is a man because he partakes in the form of man, then a third form would be required to explain how man and the form of man are both man, and so on, ad infinitum.

To put this another way, if we are truly to understand how it is that one cameraman (say the experienced cameraman) captures and explicates the work of Sally the camerawoman then we'll need a thrid cameraman to capture the second camera filming the first and so on... We'll need a infite number or theories and practices if we are ever to understand anything.

Now, I suspect that the philosopher Hegel might have resolved Socrates' dillemma and helped us to escape from the dark oneness of Parmenides. Let me see if I can explain that solution to you and, in the process, understand it for myself.

(What follows is a reworking of a blog post that I wrote for Tor.com, which is the blog for a science fiction publisher, so keep that in mind. This is only a stab at an answer.)

Consider the Philip K Dicks story entitled “The Electric Ant.” In this story an android comes to know that he is not a real boy but just a machine. His actions are programed in advance, he's a robot, but he wants to be free and he attempts to get rid of his programming. The robot consults a computer and asks for instructions on his own anatomy. He figures out where the device that gives him his perceptions, his sense of reality. There is a punch card reader located in his chest right above his artificial heart. The computer tells the robot:

This is BBB-307DR recontacting you in response to your query. The punch tape roll above your heart mechanism is not a programming turret, but is in fact a reality supply construct.

andr.190And so the protagonist in PKD’s story is able to look at what it is that gives him reality or knowing, and he’s devastated by this because he realizes that everything he thinks he sees is really an image stored on a punch card.

Now Hegel says that when we take our knowledge as an object we end up discovering not the truth about knowledge, but rather that this truth disappears in the process of our understanding. That is, that whatever it is that knows the world drifts away from itself through an infinite regress in much the same way as the forms drift away from themselves in the Parmenides dialogue. Rather than ever capturing the camera on film you're always only capturing some other camera.

In the Electric Ant the problem is acted out in such a way as to intimate at a solution.

Philip K Dick’s robot finds the source of his own knowledge, the punch tape roll in his chest. When the robot looks at the tape he’s presented with the third man argument, only of a twisted sort. If his reality is created by holes in a punch tape roll then that the holes he themselves, once he sees them, are also contained in themselves.
I think what we have here is a moment where one can viscerally feel what the solution is, if not quite articulate it. The solution is, to be crude about it, is that neither the punch holes as the robot sees them nor as they are in themselves (or in theory) are complete or real.

That is, what appears to be an open and easily accessible stage for a Talk Show is really only an image seen through a lens darkly. What appears to be a clear practice is always somewhat theoretical. What we take to be a reality supply construct can never quite sustain itself.


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