Escaping Literalism


The only way in which rules can be carriers of genuine (i.e. ‘non-generic’) meaning is when we either see them in a way in which they do not want to be seen, or use them in a way in which they do not want to be used. The idea of not using a rule in the way in which it requires itself to be used tends to sound a bit pointless. It is as if instead of using the word ‘turnip’ to denote the pinkish-white rotund root vegetable of the brassica family I use it to mean something completely different. The type of ‘misuse’ that we are talking about here has to be understood properly however – if I simply say ‘turnip’ instead of ‘armchair’, for example (as in, “I’m sitting comfortably in my favourite turnip…” there is a definite novelty value to start off with but before very long ‘turnip’ will just come to mean ‘armchair’ in the same flat way that, originally, ‘armchair’ meant ‘armchair’. We have come right back to square one and thus nothing at all has been gained by flagrantly contravening the Oxford English Dictionary in the way that we have done. This is obviously going to be the case since all names (with the partial exception of the onomatopoeic ones) are completely arbitrary, which is to say, it doesn’t matter in the slightest what word I use to mean what thing. Thus, we cannot escape the suffocating tyranny of literalism merely by switching designations.



Changing polarity is similarly useless as far as escaping literalism goes. If every time you say “NO” I take it that you mean “YES”, you will soon get the hang of what I have done and – if you so wish – you can easily get around my polarity-reversing perversity by saying “YES” when before you would have said “NO”. If you do this, then we are of course both back to square one again. Both the confirming and the denying response are equally literal since both completely assume the context with which either an confirming or denying response make sense, i.e. if I ask you if you are a total loser then replying with a ‘YES’ is exactly the same as replying with a ‘NO’ since both answers confirm that the question is in fact meaningful in the first place. The reason the examples of changing designation or changing polarity do not help us escape the rule is because the way in which we misuse the rule is itself ‘rule-based’. Thus, even though I am altering the original rule I am using another rule to do this, and so I am still ‘a slave to the rule’. This type of thing results in an unbroken continuum of rules – it is ‘rules, rules, rules’ all the way (which is to say, it is an infinite regress of rules relying on rules relying on rules).



Using the rational (i.e. rule-based) mind as a way of interfering with the way in which rules (or with the ‘rules-of-communication’ which are language) does not take us in the direction of radical otherness, but rather it always takes us in the direction of continuing same-ness. Uniqueness can’t come out of the thinking mind. The way to escape the linear literality of rules may be said to be by creatively misusing them. Creativity has the connotation of bringing something into being that didn’t previously exist and this happens when we allow ourselves to go beyond what we know – beyond the stock-in-trade, shop-worn certainties of the rational mind – and hang out in that uncertain space where shadowy intuitions and mysterious intimations are to be found. So, suppose I have an inchoate sense of something or other – something which, though undefined, nevertheless possesses the capacity to move or inspire me in some strange way – and I want to try to convey something of the spirit of that which is moving me. In this case what I can do is to use a word which normally has a very circumscribed or definite meaning in a somewhat odd or peculiar way so that the ‘oddness’ of what is usually not odd at all points at something or other that actually lies right ‘off the map’ with regard to what we can see or think about. Therefore, I am using the word just as normal but at the same time I am putting a sort of strain or inflection on it so that I can get it to intimate a meaning that it is not supposed (by the conventional ‘rules of the game,’ that is) to intimate at all. Basically, I am using a term which by its very nature does not point at anything that is outside of itself, to do just this. At the risk of making a point that is so obvious as to be hardly worth belabouring –


When we use everyday literal language to point (however subtly) at something that is completely outside of its own remit, its own circumscribed frame of reference then we are using language creatively.




The suggestion that we can use a word that has a specific, standard and perfectly straightforward meaning in order to ‘get at’ a meaning that is non-specific, uncertain and not at all standardized or straightforward is hardly groundbreaking – it is impossible to take any sort of creative writing, poetry, literature, or language course at all without coming across this very basic idea. Possibly the first time we are likely to be formally introduced to the use of ‘non-literalism’ in language is in primary school when we learn about metaphors. The Compact Oxford Dictionary (2003 edition) defines a metaphor as:


[1] a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable (e.g. food for thought)


[2] a thing symbolic of something else


The word is then said to be have its derivation in the Greek verb metapherein which means ‘to transfer’. It is of course possible to use one term instead of another term without ever leaving the continuum of literal meanings, as is the case in the ‘food for thought’ metaphor given above, and so we can see that metaphors do not necessarily have the function of transferring us out of the flat and unremarkable realm of language as it is literally used.



With regard to the Compact Oxford Dictionary’s second definition, it can be seen that just about any word at all can be used symbolically – although this is probably more difficult to do with some words than with others, some words such as (‘is’ or ‘the’ or ‘a’ or ‘in’) ending themselves to literality more than others. But even with the flattest or most one-dimensional words such as ‘is’ it is possible to put an inflexion upon them so as to intriguingly call into doubt the flat certainty of usage that they usually carry, and this brings us into the territory of irony. Irony, like metaphor, has the ability to transfer us right out of that unremarkable world where appearances are always exactly what they seem to be, and where the contents are always exactly as they are advertised to be on the label, into a world of sudden, startling, unexpected depth – the depth of ‘non-literality’.


Irony is defined, from the same source that we quoted from above, as –


[1] the expression of meaning through the use of language which normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous effect


[2] a state of affairs that appears perversely contrary to what one expects


The origin is given as eironeia, which means ‘simulated ignorance’. This dictionary definition of irony obviously doesn’t imply anything anywhere near so profoundly creative as the definition we have just assumed – we have after all just granted irony the most incredibly wondrous power or property of transferring the user (and potentially the hearer too) clear out of the dismal and grim fetters of literal word-use in to the exuberant sunshine of ‘opened-up meaning’ where absolutely everything we come across is richer in meaning than it first appears to be. If we go back to the etymology of the word as given above however we can see that this seems to touch upon the very heart of the matter. If I use language ‘ignorantly’ then what I am ignorant of is the way in which I am using a one-level description as if it were the only possible level of description. This lack of awareness means that I do not have any sense of ‘possibility’ at all; instead of possibility what I am immersed in is something quite different – I am unconsciously immersed in literality, which is where I take the descriptor (i.e. the thought or the word) as being the same thing as that which the descriptor is supposed to be describing. This means that I have no sense of any quality of ‘otherness’ pertaining to the world that is being described, i.e. –


I am entirely enclosed in the system of language that I am using to relate myself to the world at large and I am therefore making the unconscious assumption that this system is ‘the same thing’ as the world which it (supposedly) exists to represent.


The type of ignorance inherent in literalism is therefore genuine not simulated. If, however, I was to ‘simulate’ this same ignorance then the situation is instantly transformed because the very fact that I am simulating – and letting you know that I am simulating – the ignorance of literality means that I am aware of it; furthermore, because irony is a device in communication this means that I am indicating (and thereby transmitting) this liberating awareness to others as well. What this really comes down to is the mindful use of conventions of thought and language as opposed to the hasty and therefore unreflective use, and the ‘haste’ that causes this lethally trapping unreflectiveness is simply greed and fear, which are the two apparently different sides of attachment (or extrinsic motivation). Irony can therefore be said to be a way of using ideas and words and images in general in a way that brings perspective to bear on the matter, and the light that perspective sheds always has the effect of revealing that which it is shone upon to be different to that which it blandly and superficially declares itself to be. Actual meaning diverges from nominal meaning – the more perspective there is, the bigger the divergence, and the bigger the divergence the greater is the resultant ‘shock value’. Irony can therefore be said to be a way in which language or thought is used to draw attention to its own duplicity, i.e. –


Irony is the way in which the system of thinking (or our system of communication) can be used to poke fun at itself by holding itself up to parody, thereby drawing attention to its own pretentious nature.




It is worth spending a moment thinking about how utterly, freakishly bizarre it would be to use language in such a way that each and every word means exactly what it is supposed to mean, and nothing more. The naïve approach is to assume that this is indeed the case, we take it that words do mean what they are supposed to mean, but even though we do this assume this linearity of meaning we generally do have a non-literal edge to our communications all the same. Because we almost always have a slight –and sometimes more than slight – edge of creative or expressive ‘lightness’ to the way in which we use words we tend not to consciously notice it very much, but if this slight degree of perspective were suddenly to be removed entirely the result would be quite dramatic.



An example of a type of situation where the ‘communication’ would be strictly dead might be a formal gathering of people where for whatever reason the ice never gets broken and everyone is too ill at ease to depart from the prescribed social formula. In this case, all the attention is on the social code, and as long as the accepted social code is not broken everything is ok. We may say various things to each other, but because we all are merely following the rules of polite conversation we are not saying anything really. The function of our so called ‘communication’ is not at all to divulge how we really feel or think about things, but to present an immaculate façade of composure; our allegiance is in other words towards the deceptive appearance rather than towards the actual unvarnished truth of the matter. It may sound unduly harsh to use a word like ‘deception’ with regard to a more-or-less harmless social situation like this where surely no one really wishes to seriously deceive anyone or get away with any kind of nefarious subterfuge, but the mechanics of the set-up are nevertheless those of a fully-fledged ‘covert operation’. With regard to the rules of the game that we are all so seriously playing, what matters above all else is that there should be a believable semblance of ‘all being well’. Therefore, if this semblance or simulation is effectively produced and maintained the only thing that really matters has been achieved and we can ‘relax’ (or at least, we can partially relax).



If all this were done in perfect awareness then that would be one thing. But the deliberate or purposeful simulation of the situation where decorum reigns and all is indeed ‘well’ is not generally something that we relate to in full awareness because the principle of unconsciousness cuts in – as it might well be expected to, seeing as it is almost invariably the dominant principle in our lives! What happens therefore is that we relate to the over-simplified analogue as if it were the real thing. We get sucked up in the tendency to believe that if all seems well within the two-dimensional specially managed theatre of the social game, then everything actually IS OK. If this happens – as it is very likely to for anyone who is adept enough at this game – then the whole business will not feel like a shallow pretence that has to be carefully maintained in the face of some lurking contrary or antithetical situation, but on the contrary it will seem like everything really is genuinely as it should be. For anyone who happens to suffer from any kind of partial or total inability to ‘fluently follow the socially prescribed rules’, this substitution of the tame analogue for the genuine article will not take place and the two levels of ‘how it is’ and ‘how I pretend that it is’ (or ‘how I feel’ and ‘how I must pretend to feel’) are as a result widely and very painfully separate. Thus, what we might call ‘successful’ unconsciousness can be defined by the lack of any perceived separation between the two levels of ‘actual’ and ‘apparent’ whereas unsuccessful unconsciousness (which is the same as ‘consciousness’!) is marked by the noticeable presence of this divergence or disparity between the two levels of real (i.e. unintended) meaning and nominal meaning.



What we are saying here is that, in theory, if I happened to be perfected adapted to the game, or to the superficial analogue of life, then the freaky bizarreness of 100% formal interaction would be invisible, which is a principle that we have already met. Total adaptation (unconsciousness) equals ‘the inability to see the absurd as the absurd’, and thus we take something that is wholly redundant in terms of actual meaning content very seriously indeed – we understand it in an utterly ‘non-ironic’ fashion. When therefore we pay attention to the mechanics of a social situation where the interaction is of an entirely formal nature, we can see that there is no way that what is going on can be dignified by the term ‘communication’. If you and I and everyone else are sticking like glue to the prescribed rules, then what is going on is the rules and nothing else, and the rules were laid down right from the beginning. If the rules are used ironically, then it is of course true that they can provide a useful structure within which to work and we can have fun with the rules at the same time as abiding by them, but if there is an underlying motivation of either fear or greed, then this sort of agenda-free playfulness goes out of the window in a shot – or rather, it never even comes into the picture – and instead of free or creative expression of the individual we have a ‘humourless adherence to the rules’, we have adherence to the rules at any cost.




Rules do of course always have a pronounced tendency to be ‘cruel’; this is in their very nature since a rule has to ‘rule out’ everything that it isn’t (or everything that it doesn’t know about) in order that it can be a rule. Left to themselves, rules will inevitably take over the whole show, for no other reason than this is what they do. The collapsed or ‘degenerated’ situation of runaway literality is the situation where the rule exists for its own sake and in this case there is no source of organization outside of the rule itself. The only thing behind the rule is itself – the rule is its own justification. This is a particularly stubborn tautological knot, a knot that turns forever in on itself with the infinite blind persistence of stupidity. There is simply no way at all to prise open this knot since <the rule is ‘there shall be the rule’> does not leave itself open to any way of breaking into its viciously short-circuited logic. If we go back to our hypothetical ‘formal gathering’ scenario where the ice never gets broken and where as a result everyone remains wholly constrained by the rules of polite conversation, we can see that this a perfect example of a situation where rules are adhered to for no other reason than fact that they happen to be the rules. What the rules of polite conversation actually are is wholly irrelevant since we would all hold to them with equal determination no matter what they were. The actual specific utility of the rules in question has nothing to do with it; all we are interested in is the fact that they can be used as a way of safely negotiating the unthinkably dreadful discomfort of ‘unstructured social space’.



It is possible to generalize this principle to cover all the structures created and used by thought. Just as we are only too glad of any pathway through the potentially ghastly silences and general awkwardness of unstructured social space, and do not care one whit about the particular design or shape of the paving stones just so long as they get us safely across the gap, so too are we only too glad for any safe passage way through the terrifying abyss of unstructured mental space (i.e. unconditioned consciousness). The only thing that really matters to us is that we should not be exposed to the vertiginous reaches of unfathomable ‘rule-lessness’ (which is to say, symmetry), and as long as we can avoid any awareness of the underlying Ocean of Immaculate Symmetry we do not actually care at all about the specific nature of the rules or constructs which we make up and use. As long as our ‘certainty supply’ is not threatened we are not fussy about the nature of the coin in which that certainty is delivered – we will, when it comes right down to it, believe in anything rather than discover the quintessential hollowness of all beliefs.



With respect to our non-negotiable demand for the security of flat, unyielding ‘certainty’ literalism is therefore our very good friend, and any departure from the closed book of literalism the deadliest of sins. Non-literalism is the heretic to be burned at the stake. Literalism isn’t just to do with words but rather it has to do with just about everything we think and do – a belief in our goals is literalism, activity directed towards our goals is literalism, rational thinking is literalism, activity based on our rational thinking is literalism, our maps or theories about the world are literalism, our map or idea of ourselves is literalism. Actually, the idea of the self is the very quintessence of literalism; the concrete self is the holy grail of literalism and all activity that proceeds from this unquestionable basis is pure blind, flat, unyielding, senseless, uncaring literalism. In relation to the idea of ‘virtual or linear space’ we can say that linearity is literalism, and so everything we have said about linearity also holds good for literalism. These are two words for the same thing.




Literalism is manufactured by the same old ‘two-step security-creating procedure’ that we keep coming back to time and time again. In terms of the illusion of ‘being central to everything’, I am able to convincingly experiencing myself as being ‘the centre of the universe’ simply by overlooking the very obvious fact that no matter where I go it is going to feel like the centre of the universe. The way things work is that when I choose to look out at the world from a particular vantage point that point gets to look central, so that although I could equally well have chosen any viewpoint once I have made the choice where I am looks like the ‘right place to be’. It is ‘ignorance towards this essential relativity’ that provides us with the ontological security that we crave. So if I am born and raised in England then England seems to occupy a central place in the world, and English culture seems like the standard by which all other cultures should be judged. I won’t even see my own ‘Englishness’ is it actually is because I take the idiosyncrasies of that culture so much for granted that they are invisible to me. For a visiting member of a different culture all these idiosyncrasies (or rules) are delightfully highlighted by virtue of their absurdity, but for me any sense of the absurdity of the rules which make up the basis upon which I operate on has been replaced by a comfortable but utterly unfounded sense of cultural centrality. So we have the strange situation where I automatically assume that my way is best, even though I can’t truly see what my way is since to see it for what it is I would have to be outside of it, i.e. I would have to be an implicitly ‘inferior’ foreigner. This is of course the very height of outrageous arrogance – I believe that my way of seeing the world is the best simply because it is ‘my’ way, and the fact that I don’t really know what my way is (how can I when I don’t even see that it is just ‘a way’?) doesn’t come into the picture at all. What lies behind my unfounded confidence is simply lack of perspective – it is the absence of perspective (i.e. the inability to see things any other way or indeed even to know that there are any other ways) that enables me to be arrogant enough to feel like aggressively pushing my viewpoint onto others even though I have never bothered myself to take a good look at what that viewpoint of mine actually is in the first place!



It is the lack of perspective, in other words, that enables me to mistake what I am saying (or rather preaching) to the world at large, to be genuine communication when it is in fact ‘phoney communication’. We can explain what is meant by these two terms as follows. Because the true nature or meaning of a literal message is necessarily occluded from us – since the certainty that literalism is all about is brought about, and can only be brought about, precisely by this occluded (i.e. one-sided) way of looking at the world then this means that the communication is ‘true’ only in a very limited sense of the word, which is to say, it is ‘true’ only when you as the receiver share the same occluded viewpoint as me as the sender. This is where the big snag comes in because if the information content of a message is proportional to the unpredictability of that message then this means that –


There is no way in which a message which only makes sense within the very narrow terms of a particular ‘literal’ (or linear) way of looking at the world can be said to contain any unpredictability at all.


If you and I are on the same linear track (which we absolutely need to be for a particular literal message to make the same sense to both of us) then any communication that passes between us is bound to be tautological. We both secretly intend the same thing; we both intend – in exactly the same manner – that the message shall be meaningful. We covertly specify in advance – by virtue of the framework we both assume – what it is that is to be communicated about, and so that what subsequently transpires looks like a surprise, actually was rigged from the very beginning. This assertion tends to sound unnecessarily harsh as we don’t have a clear appreciation of the veiled but nevertheless tremendously stark tautology; the two of us could theoretically converse on a wide range of subjects (on anything we are capable of conceiving in fact) and so where – we might ask – in this apparently free and easy conversation is the absolute, irrevocable, and utterly crushing limitation indicated by the word ‘tautology’?




It is possible to catch a glimpse of the limitation we are talking about simply by considering the implications of a ‘shared framework’. To paraphrase what we were saying earlier in relation to the hypothetical situation of an oppressively ‘over-formal’ social scenario, “If everyone involved sticks rigidly to the rules then there is nothing but the rules, and so there cannot be any genuine communication”. This can be equivalently stated in terms of an overall framework of understanding, i.e. a game. For a game to be a game the rules of interaction must be agreed to by all concerned – when there is such a framework of unquestionable rules the advantage is that it can now be known absolutely whether a player has won or lost, but the disadvantage is that we are no longer able to see the trivial nature of the two mutually conditioning categories <WINNER> versus <LOSER>.  Or to state matters another way –


The gain is that we now obtain the satisfying certainty of a black-and-white perception (i.e. evaluation) of everything that happens, whilst the loss is that we are simultaneously rendered constitutionally incapable of seeing that a black-and-white view of things is a laughable, if not to say grotesque, oversimplification of reality.


We could state this principle of ‘the loss and gain involved in games’ even more baldly by saying the following –


The gain is the creation of what appears to be meaningful categories of evaluation, whilst the loss we incur at the same time is the inability to see that these categories are not really meaningful at all.


When put like this we can of course see that the ‘gain’ and the ‘loss’ are the very same thing, only seen in two different ways. All of the above is just another way of talking about the process discussed at the beginning of the last chapter whereby the ‘false’ (or ‘lower’) analogue sneakily substitutes itself for the reality which it is falsely analogizing. The reason this process works as incredibly smoothly and efficiently as it does is because of the way perspective is automatically lost, i.e. because of the way in which the entropy content of the set-up naturally increases. It is of course entirely obvious why the process whereby a vastly oversimplified analogue replaces the immeasurably complex ‘genuine article’ should involve a massive increase in entropy but it is nevertheless useful to go through the argument step-by-step. If you and I are communicating (or interacting) on the very same basis then clearly we are in complete agreement as to ‘what really matters’ and it is only the details that need to be thrashed out. Speaking in terms of a game, it can be said that we are both in complete agreement that the thing to do is win, and the thing not to do is lose!



How winning and losing is defined within the context of the formal social interaction that we have been describing is simple – present the prescribed impression and this is ‘winning’, fail to present this image and this is ‘losing’. The not-necessarily-obvious point we made about this game had to do with the essential irrelevance of the rules which define what this ‘prescribed image’ is; although on the face of it we are worshiping (so to speak) at the alter of that particular game or tradition, behind this façade what we are really doing is worshipping at the alter of ‘spurious self-validation. In other words, all we really want is the satisfaction of knowing that we are winners rather than losers and we would adapt to any game to this end. Even more simply put –


All we really want is the shockingly shallow (or hollow) gratification of being a ‘winner’ within the terms of whatever paltry game we happen to be playing, and because this is all we want we focus on this vanishingly superficial datum to the complete exclusion of the other side of the deal, which has to do with the awareness of the fact that [1] what are succeeding at is only a game and [2] the game, by its very nature, is infinitely trivial and therefore infinitely meaningless.




The defining point about a game is that the only stuff that is allowed consideration is stuff which is meaningful within the terms of that game. When playing (or watching) a game we focus purely on those elements and events which are meaningful with respect to the rules of the game – we simply have no interest in those elements or events that have no bearing to the rules, and so they are invisible to us. Of course it could theoretically happen that I am participating in a game (either by playing or by watching) and I start to develop an interest in irrelevant stuff, like a beetle crawling over my trousers or the shape of the clouds on the horizon, but if it is the case that such chance observations are interesting to me then at the moment at which I am taking an interest in non-game phenomena I am not participating in the game. I cannot participate in the game and pay attention to irrelevant details at the same time because if I do admit the existence and inherent interest of random details then I have effectively burst the bubble of the special type of directed (or exclusive) interest which constitutes a game. A game must exclude everything that is not part of itself otherwise it cannot be a game – ‘excluding the wider reality’ is what a game is all about.



Another way of making this same point is to say that nothing can happen in a game unless it has been specified in advance by the rules of the game. Therefore, we have on the one hand the rules of the game (if we don’t have these then there cannot be a game) and on the other hand we have the events which unfold in the game (which is what we generally call ‘the game’.) But if nothing can happen that has not been specified in advance by the rules of the game then we might as well come right out with it and say that ‘the rules are the game and the game is the rules’. Informationally speaking, this means quite simply that nothing new can ever happen in a game. This tends of course to sound ridiculous because if nothing new ever happens in a game then surely games would be very boring indeed, far too boring in fact for anyone ever to take any interest in them. This assertion appears to be direct conflict with the evidence, which is that people find games interesting and motivating and absorbing and rewarding – which is after all (we might imagine) why we like playing games so much.



It is important to try to avoid any confusion here regarding exactly what we mean by ‘games’ – football and tennis and golf and horse-racing and pool and chess and poker and trivial pursuit and jigsaws are of course games but these are in a way a ‘special category’ of games because they are actually framed as such in our awareness. Most of our time (unless perhaps we happen to be totally obsessive about one of the above ‘game-type’ games) is spent playing games that we do not recognize as such – any type of activity that is based upon an agreed-upon set of rules is a game, which means that the major part of our social interaction is a game. This does not just include the sort of interpersonal interactions described in social psychologist Eric Berne’s popular book “Games People Play”; society itself, as a whole, can be seen as a game when we use the definition of a game as ‘a set of interactions based upon an agreed-upon set of rules.



Academically ostracized Harvard professor of psychology Timothy Leary went several stages further than Eric Berne – his concept of ‘game reality’ contains not just the ‘big game’ of society and all the little social games that go on in it, but also everything that we think and do, inasmuch as that thought and action is based on a fixed and certain view of the world (i.e. inasmuch as it is based on unquestionable rules). Leary’s earlier theories on games predate those of Eric Berne, but it seems to be the case that he isn’t given much if any credit for this by the forbiddingly ‘straight’ world of academic psychology, not just because of his undisguised enthusiasm for the use of LSD as a therapeutic agent but also probably because of the actual content of his post-LSD theorizing. After all, if we were to accept that all rational thinking (not to mention all purposeful behaviour) is a game (i.e. true only on the terms that it itself takes for granted) then where were would this leave the rational psychologist? If my acceptance within the academic world depends upon me taking the ponderously self-important deliberations of my rational mind seriously, then a truly thorough-going understanding of game theory is always going to remain something that is way beyond the boundaries of my interest. Game theory is fine up to a point, but when I begin to understand that my understanding of game theory is itself a game, then that definitely starts to get too weird for me…




The basic point that we are getting at here can be stated best in terms of information. The thing about games is that nothing new can ever happen within them.  The only type of event that can take place in a game is the type of event that has been ‘anticipated’ by the rules of the game and this is why we can say, quite categorically and unequivocally, that nothing new can ever happen in a game. Information can as we know be defined as the degree of unpredictability in the set-up and since games are hygienically sealed against any genuine type of unpredictability, we can say there is never going to be any change in terms of information no matter what changes of state occur in that game. This is potentially confusing because it is of course true that what keeps us glued to the show in games is the uncertainty of outcome, whether player A will beat player B or lose to them. Much money is won, and even more lost, as punters the world over gamble feverishly upon this essential unpredictability, the unpredictability of win versus lose.



This type of unpredictability is however strictly trivial in nature – if there is a system which like a stick spinning end over end in space has two complementary ends, YES and NO, then no matter what end of the stick comes into view, it is always the same old stick. It is possible to still get excited by the big question of whether it will be one end or the other that swings into view next but only if one takes a superficial enough view of the proceedings. If we focus narrowly on the details so that the over-arching framework becomes invisible, then the changes associated with these details become meaningful – i.e. the stuff that happens looks new or unprecedented – but when we de-focus from the small scale of things we see that no matter what, its always the same old framework. Football is a perfect example of this sort of switch-over. If I am a keen football fan and I am watching a major match involving my team, then the outcome of that match is frightfully important to me: If my team wins the sense of triumph will be tremendous and, contrary-wise, if they lose then the blow I feel is utterly crushing. But suppose you are my partner and you don’t happen to care about football at all. You enter the TV room just as I am being transported by the most intense emotions of victory (or defeat), and yet for you – in stark contrast to me – there is no difference at all between the two outcomes – no matter what the outcome of the match is, it is still only just the match. It only matters to me because I have chosen for it to matter.



The contrast between the experience of the person who is a dedicated fan and the experience of the person coming into the room who hasn’t the remotest interest in the sport of football perfectly illustrates the principle of ‘motivation due to perspective loss’. In order to attach the difference that I do attach to winning versus losing it is necessary for me to engineer a dramatic loss of perspective – I need to lose the perspective that would be needed in order to see that ‘it’s only a game’. Once I do this, then the trivial uncertainty of “Will I win or will I lose?” becomes entirely gripping – it has me by the throat. The two complementary opposites of YES and NO are separated by a mighty gulf, and since the difference between them becomes highly meaningful, the motivation to obtain the former and avoid the latter is born. The meaningfulness of the categories YES and NO, along with the motivation that arises from this, depends completely upon my inability to see that both YES and NO mean the same old thing, i.e. football. If I am able to see that football is only football then I am simply not a fan; for a fan football is the whole world, it is everything; it is not quite correct to see that a fan sees football as being ‘everything’ – this is assumed rather stated since to state it would, for the true football lover, be wholly unnecessary. If I feel it necessary to state that football is everything then I have already started to question it, just as a man who asserts his innocence unwittingly brings this innocence into question; if I protest my innocence then I automatically cast doubt on myself because I am obviously feeling the need to assert what would otherwise have been taken completely for granted.



This principle might be said to be an analogous form of the great Taoist principle whereby ‘the moment you try to accord with the Tao, you deviate from it’. With regard to the unknowable ground of all being, the moment I say “I exist” I break the symmetry and create the static dualist situation where there is on the one hand the possibility of existing, and on the other hand, the possibility of not existing, both of which categories are equally absurd. Once I assert that I exist, I sow the seed of the doubt that I do not in fact exist, and so I am stuck in a position where one opposite has to struggle fruitlessly against the other, even though – if the truth were to be known – the whole issue is a complete absurdity since neither category has the slightest bearing on the non-dual reality of Unbroken Symmetry. The relative or conditional meaning that they do have, they only have in relation to each other (or in relation to the framework which the two opposites exemplify). Going back to example the true footy fan, we can – in a manner of speaking – say that the ‘lower analogy’ of this great Taoist principle has to do with the way in which any assertion of the primacy of the game I am playing destroys the integrity of prior unconscious state in which I unreflectively assume this primacy. In other words, when I point to the system of thought (i.e. the ‘game’) that is my mental context and say that this system is supremely important I have actually framed it within a greater context, thereby relegating what was implicitly understood as ‘the world’ to a mere sub-context of the world, thereby thoroughly undermining my own argument.




Christmas could be another example of the principle of ‘motivation arising due to the inability to see that its all just the same old thing’. The general idea behind Christmas is that when it comes we all get enthusiastically motivated by how marvellous and wonderful it all is; the day dawns and the excitement is great – it is Christmas day! Hooray! On the other hand, for those of us who are thoroughly jaded by the whole tedious process of the trivially surprising appearance of Christmas once more, there is precious little excitement to be had by it all – after all, Christmas arrives with mechanically monotonous regularity like a boring relative who always comes out with the same stories every time he has a few drinks. For such a person, a person who has seen through the shallow glitz of it all, Christmas isn’t new at all, but dreadfully old – it is dressed up as if it were a spring lamb but really it is very old mutton indeed.



We could illustrate the principle of ‘the apparent novelty of the same old thing’ by talking about a stick turning end over end in space. Another way at getting at this idea is to think of a nondescript, grey-coloured cardboard disc which spins around its centre point like an old LP record on a turntable. Near one edge of the upward-facing face of the grey cardboard disc –  we might say – there is a bright white spot. Let us further imagine that the whole disc is covered by some sort of sleeve with a notch cut out of one side which obscures everything one fairly small window. Obviously when the disc is spinning the white spot will come into view through the window every time there is one complete revolution of the disc. The point of this visual model is that it gives us a pretty good way of grasping the idea of genuine novelty, which is information, versus superficial novelty, which we might call virtual (or ‘phoney’) information. If I could see that the white dot is part of the cardboard disc, and that the disc is rotating, then clearly there would be no surprise factor involved in when the spot appears at the window. On the other hand, if I have no awareness of the cardboard disc as being a cardboard disc, and focus my attention purely upon the white spot, as if it were some sort of independent entity transmigrating in some inscrutable way through space, then when I see the white spot I will be surprised, and register its appearance as ‘information’. Because I am focussing my attention on the dot, this means that I see the dot as being ‘not at all the same thing’ as the uninteresting grey cardboard medium that it is printed upon – in fact I have no awareness of the cardboard disc as anything at all since I am concentrating purely on the white spot. The white spot is therefore perceived as being different to the disc that it is printed on even though the truth of the matter is that the spot is just a part of the disc that has been made more visible than the rest – the spot is really just ‘the disc’, in other words. This gives us a simple way of defining virtual information –


If I see the white spot as being different to (or independent from) the cardboard disc, then it will seem like information to me, whereas if I see that the white spot equals the disc then its appearance will in no way constitute information for me.


With regard to Christmas, which is the example we started off with, the application of our ‘rotating disc’ model is easy – Christmas is the white spot (which is where the disc has been highlighted or ‘flagged up’, and the rest of the year is of course the boring, grey, unremarkable old cardboard. Other special days, like New Year’s Day or Easter Sunday, may be added as one wishes as different coloured spots, but the principle remains the same – none of these coloured spots constitute genuine information. The most obvious objection to our argument that Christmas is really not news at all, but just a cheaply disguised version of the same old cardboard fare that we get every day would be the perfectly justified objection that no one actually thinks that Christmas Day is any different to any other day of the year, but that we choose to celebrate the event of the birth of Christ upon this day. It isn’t the day itself, but what the day represents. There is nothing wrong with this objection apart from the fact that it evades the problem by saying that Christmas isn’t meant to be understood literally, but rather symbolically.



If it were the case however that Christmas was experienced symbolically rather than literally then everything would be fine but the point is that the way our understanding works tends very much to be in the latter mode. Just to give a basic everyday example of the inveterate nature of our crassly non-symbolic thinking, when I say “It is Wednesday”, or hear it said that “It is Wednesday”, I generally relate to this sentence as if it were a simple statement of fact, which it isn’t. There is actually no such thing as Wednesday; the names we use for the days of the weeks are merely conventions that we adopt for the sake of convenience, but due to what might quite reasonably be called ‘laziness’ we take the conventions literally. We take the arbitrary ‘nominal value’ at ‘face value’ and thereby miss the crucially important fact that ‘Wednesday’ is an exercise in ‘making up our own reality’, i.e. it is only Wednesday because we have agreed for it to be Wednesday. The names we give to the days of the week is only a typical example – the process whereby we lazily end up mistaking the names we give things for the things themselves (if indeed there are such things as things in the first place) is rampant and not limited at all to a few isolated instances. This process that we are talking about here is that highly pernicious process whereby the system of vastly oversimplified and essentially non-representative analogues gets to be pawned off wholesale as the genuine article. In other words –


Literalism is nothing other than the ‘end point’ of the entropic process whereby my essentially open relationship with Reality is replaced, without my knowledge, by a closed ‘relationship’ with my own mental productions, productions that I have mistakenly taken to be independent (or self-existent) entities.




We can therefore look at all of this in terms of literalism versus non-literalism: if Christmas literally means Christmas (which is to say if that is a final definition, a thing-in-itself)  then this is literalism and literalism is always virtual information.  Christmas means Christmas and that is the end of the matter – it means what it says and nothing else. Insight shows however that Christmas doesn’t mean Christmas: ‘Christmas’ means ‘not-Christmas’ which means ‘Christmas’ which means ‘not-Christmas’ and so on. The one always succeeds the other; it isn’t possible to have the YES without the NO. All boundaries have ‘YES’ on one side and ‘NO’ on the other. Going back to the rotating cardboard disc model, a literal understanding of the periodically-appearing white spot is that it exists independently of the disc as a ‘self-existent entity’, i.e. that the white spot equals the white spot and nothing else. But the whole point of this model is to demonstrate that in actual fact ‘the white spot equals the cardboard disc’ and that – since there is really nothing else apart from the disc – any literal understanding of the spot is quite without foundation. It is at this point that the model which we are using to demonstrate the meaninglessness of literalism itself starts to pose a problem because the next and perfectly logical step would be to say that we can get around the false-literalism of the white spot by talking about the cardboard disc instead of the disc. So if the spot doesn’t equal the spot, but only the disc, then perhaps we can talk about the disc and say that ‘the disc equals the disc’, which would appear to be legitimate literalism. Is the disc the literal reality?


The thing is however that from the standpoint of the game whereby we are looking at the white spot as an independent entity, the grey cardboard disc is invisible – we can’t see it, and so we certainly can’t speak about it. the cardboard disc is the framework of thinking that we are using in order to be able to bring details into positive conceptual focus, and if we are to have that positively defined detail the ‘system of thought’ that we are using must remain behind us so to speak, rather than occupying a place in the conceptual foreground. If we were to look at the cardboard disc, then what this would mean would be that it had now become a white spot itself, on a bigger scale of things, so that all we have done is to regress up (or down) the ladder by one step. Actually, there is no such thing as the disc – the rotating cardboard disc is the necessary invisible counterpoint to the visible details that we are busy preoccupying ourselves with. The positively defined details and the unexamined set of assumptions that we make in order to produce these details are the two sides of the same coin, and since the two sides are mutually dependent, so to speak (i.e. since neither has any meaning apart from the other) we simply cannot say that either the visible details or the mental ‘blind-spot’ that allows us have the details constitute a ‘thing-in-itself’. The former is like the light side of the moon, the latter like the dark side, but since the light side only exists because of the dark side and the dark side only exists because of the light side the ‘moon’ itself – which is the system of thought – is merely a self-creating (i.e. tautological) phenomenon.




It is the invisibility of my assumptions that allows me to take my positive statements seriously, which is to say, literally. And yet the net result of this ability to take my own positive statements seriously is that I ‘allow thought to make a fool of me’. If I say “It is Christmas” then this statement – if said or understood literally – is quite meaningless. ‘It’ and ‘is’ and ‘Christmas’ are all nominal values, they are all marks that we have made on the grey cardboard disc of the system of thought. The reason they don’t seem meaningless to us is because by focusing upon them we have lost the perspective we would have needed in order to see that every nominal value is only ever a high-lighted part of the same old system, the system that is common to them all. If I understand the above sentence literally, which is to say non-symbolically, then the what I am saying seems to make sense to me only because I am ‘unconscious’ – it seems to make sense only because of the entropy content of my rational mind, only because I have lost perspective without (of course) realizing that I have lost perspective.


Actually, in the terms of our rotating cardboard disc model, when I literally assert that “It is Christmas” this is, to borrow St Paul’s phrase, ‘no more than an empty clanking sound’. What exactly is the ‘it’ that I am talking about? To what am I referring? And just what the hell is this word ‘is’ all about? If one thing ‘is’ another thing, then they are both the same thing, but if they are both the same thing, then all I am doing is uttering a tautology. When it comes right down to it, all nominal values within the field of literal language are tautologically related. ‘It’ equals ‘cardboard’, ‘is’ equals ‘cardboard’ and ‘Christmas’ equals ‘cardboard and so what I am really saying when I say “It is Christmas” is “Cardboard cardboard cardboard”! This as a sentence is clearly nonsense since it is grievously lacking in the one ingredient that it needs in order for it to make sense, i.e. information. The system of conventions that we use to picture the world and communicate about the world does not – if understood literally – communicate with anything outside of itself, and as a result of being ‘closed’ in this way it cannot contain any genuine information.


Literal communications can never contain information, however peculiar (or nonsensical) this assertion might seem to us. If it does sound nonsensical to us then this is simply because we are seeing everything – as usual – in the inverted fashion that is characteristic of the psychologically unconscious state. As we have already indicated, ‘an invisible lack of information’ (or ‘ignorance that we are ignorant about’) may be called entropy, as much for the sake as brevity as anything else. The cardboard disc isn’t the entropy – the entropy is the blindspot which we cultivate with regard to the disc, the blindspot which allows us to perceive the figure which is the white spot but not the ground upon which that figure depends. In terms of ‘specialness’, the special day which is Christmas can only be special because of all the other days that are not special. Furthermore, if I am to appreciate the special as being special I cannot allow myself to perceive the fact that special depends on not-special – I have to see the special as standing out on its own accord, completely by its own efforts – so to speak – without any help from behind the scenes. So what we are saying here is that the ‘full-of-himself’ front man can only have the impact that he does have when he has a silent, self-effacing partner, a partner who stays in the shadows whilst the front man hogs the limelight. A better way of making this point is to say that the man who appears taller than everyone else in the immediate vicinity only appears taller because of the way in the two men on either side duck down to appear shorter than they really are. Here we come back to the wave metaphor and the idea that the wave crest can only ‘stand out’ in the way that it characteristically does because of the way in which the troughs on either side of it ‘stand back’, as it were.




The mutually-dependent relationship between the attention-hogging front man who puts himself forward and the silent partner who self-effacingly stands back so that he is not noticed is not the source of the entropy that we have been talking about; where the entropy comes from is from the way in which we are deliberately inattentive to the true nature of this relationship, so that instead of perceiving that the positive can be positive only because of the negative, we perceive the positive to be shining forth positively in the way that it does because of its own innate merit. This, in a nutshell, is the ‘deliberate error’ of literalism. We can therefore say the following –


The entropy isn’t a function of the way in which the silent partner steps back into relative obscurity, but rather of the way in which we do not pay attention to the fact that the visible front man relies upon the cooperation of a silent or hidden partner to give him the positive definition that makes him seem ‘special’ – it is a function of our one-sided attention, in other words.


This might seem like an unnecessarily subtle distinction, is but it is nevertheless an essential one. It is not enough to define psychological entropy as ignorance, or ‘the lack of information’ – if I am able to point at the ignorance or lack of information then I have information about that state of affairs; I know that I do not know, in other words. Entropy, in the psychological sense that we are using the term, is essentially all about misrepresentation – it is ignorance that doesn’t come clean as being ignorance, but which implicitly understands itself (and implicitly declares itself) as being the actual or genuine truth. So when I see a literal – or tautological – statement as being devoid of any information content, then this perception itself constitutes genuine information, but when I see a tautological statement as being actual information then what we are talking about is ‘false information’, which is what we are getting at when we talk about psychological (or mental) entropy.



This definition of psychological entropy can be made very straightforwardly with the cardboard disc model. The white spot on the disc is essentially the same sort of a thing as a wave since the highlighted white area depends upon the not highlighted back-ground. As we have said, a wave itself does not contain entropy – the entropy enters the picture only when we pay exclusive attention to the positively defined crest, ignoring the negatively defined trough. With regard to the white spot, the entropy enters the picture when we focus on the spot as if it somehow exists as an entity which is completely independent of the nondescript background of the unmarked cardboard. With regard to the rotation of the disc, we can say it isn’t the endlessly repetitive rotational movement that creates entropy but rather it is the fact that we ignore the way in which the appearance of the dot is deterministically inherent in the nature of the disc itself – which is to say, the entropy comes out of the way in which we contrive to be surprised and excited every time the spot comes into view, as if it were not entirely predictable. This is where our ‘psychological model’ departs from the classical definition of entropy –


Entropy S, is classically defined as a quantity that varies in direct proportion to the degree of predictability in a message, but what we are saying is that psychological entropy Ψ S, increases in direct proportion to the degree to which we are unaware of the predictability.


The reason we have to adopt this modified definition is simple. Anything that I become conscious of that is truly ‘outside of my own perceptual/cognitive system’ has to be genuine information – it has to be genuine information because I have not intended it. So if I see the rotation of the disc, and I see that the arrival of the white dot into my field of view is entirely predictable, then this predictability is actually information since it is actually ‘a surprise’ to me, just as everything that I am conscious of is ‘a surprise’. This is really just a way of saying that consciousness is ‘being open to whatever is out there’; if stuff is genuinely out there – which is to say, if it isn’t a product or projection of my conceptual mind – then it must be constitute genuine information.



If I were to become aware of my conceptual mind (which is essentially the same as the old grey cardboard disc with dots on it that we keep going on about) then what I would become aware of would be a system that represents its own products as not being its own products. Or, we could say that I would become aware of the existence of a system which represents the deterministic or linear changes that take place within it as actual spontaneous (i.e. free) change. Whatever way we put it, I would become aware of the utter and complete redundancy of what I had previously taken to be bona fide information, and this startling awareness of infinite predictability would itself constitute information. What we are basically saying here then is that entropy (S) which we are aware of is information (W), whereas entropy (S) that we are not aware of is psychological entropy (Ψ S). Or to put this another way, when I don’t see a literal statement for what it is then I am taking something seriously that was never really there in the first place…


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