These are some thoughts I’ve gathered over the past few years on how to deconstruct and reconstruct reality. This is intended as a philosphical grounding to inform creative practice, written mainly for a current project with Edie Jo Murray. I provide some definitions of reality, go into some of the philosophical background, then channel that into six ways artists and others can put these ideas into practice, to explore multiple realities or even create new ones.
The sci fi writer Philip K. Dick defined reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” It’s something fixed and external, that exists outside our consciousness — a backdrop against which our activities take place.
Conversely, the scientist Heinz von Foerster saw reality as completely subjective, created entirely in our heads. “Out there” in the world, he said, “there is no light and no color, there are only electro-magnetic waves: quantities not qualities.” The act of perception, in his view, is the act of invention, and as such, based on our individual biases, limitations and experience, we might see what’s not there, and we might miss or ignore what is there. Perception is thus an act of world-building, through organization and classification of things into categories. The act of cognition is computation: computing a reality.
A view that falls between these two extremes comes from biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, who saw reality rather as a shared, consensual illusion: “The world everyone sees is not the world, but a world which we bring forth with others”. This makes sense intuitively: we need to agree on some shared things, places and concepts in order to coordinate our activities with others.
Fast-forward to 2021, and we see what some identify as “the collapse of consensus reality,” specifically of the “neoliberal fantasy of ‘unlimited’ movement of people, goods and ideas around the globe. That fantasy obviously contributed to a particular reality: refugee and migrant crises, shortages of essential items, and the rise of far-right movements, fake news, and mass ignorance.” We might point to the internet as a key factor in this collapse, and we might point to events such as the storming of the U.S. capitol on January 6, 2021 as evidence that large groups of people can hold completely different perceptions, perhaps living in completely separate realities.
Under the surface
Let’s look a bit deeper, beyond individual events and viewpoints to see what lies beneath them. I like Edie Jo Murray’s analogy of the unreality iceberg: under the surface there’s a lot of stuff supporting what we experience. We could, for example, read the world and everything around us as ideological constructs; my friend Federico Campagna defines ideology as an all-encompassing vision of how things are, or should be, which is so natural and invisible that it becomes part of everything, and structures everything. In this sense it is like a filter, limiting our ability to act differently or imagine otherwise, but it changes over time. We could look at particular events such as the capitol siege, larger political events, and technological changes through this filter of ideology to see what are the dominant ideas driving such changes.
But what lies below the level of ideology, and below economic systems like capitalism? What defines which ideas are even thinkable, which things can exist, which actions are possible? In Campagna’s branch of philosophy, this is the realm of metaphysics, and here we come to another definition of reality: that which defines the range of the possible, what it means to exist, what kinds of things can legitimately exist and how, how they are related to each other, and what their attributes are.
Where Murray’s iceberg suggests a great unseen mass under the surface of our consciousness that supports what we see, do and experience, Campagna uses a different analogy: that of a puppet theatre (a long cultural tradition in his native Sicily). If all the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare said, we might envision some kind of puppetmasters pulling the strings to make the actors (us) do and say particular things. We might also imagine someone who writes the script that lays out the actions and dialogue.
But beyond that, think of the theatre itself: reality, Campagna says, is the metaphysical stage set against which our actions take place. A backdrop depicting a castle interior, for example, limits the action on stage to domestic scenes and courtly drama; an outdoor backdrop can frame battles, journeys, etc. This backdrop to reality is usually fixed, placing this definition close to Philip K. Dick’s at the top of this article; but like the characters, it too can change with each scene or production.
What, then, might be the parameters to change reality as the metaphysical background to our world? Campagna identifies two opposing reality settings: essence, and existence. Simply defined, essence is what something is—what we call it, how we classify and compare it to other things. Existence is merely that something exists, without comparing or categorizing it but instead treating each thing as separate and unique.
So here we have on the one hand a rational way of categorizing things, and on the other our direct apprehension of things—the measurable versus the unmeasurable. Think of these as reality settings, like knobs or dials to turn each one up or down like on an audio mixer. Reality, in this view, is the space between these two absolutes, and turning the dials becomes a form of reality engineering.
So what, then, are our current reality settings? According to Campagna, essence is turned up to 11, pushed to the limit and beyond, denying and annihilating things’ full and autonomous existence. This means the total transformation of everything into units, digital data, chains of information, empty names. He follows Martin Heidegger, another philosopher, in pinpointing technology as transforming the world, by framing everything as a “stock-pile of standing-reserve” of nothing but instrumental value—things that exist purely for the production of other things. “A forest is no longer a forest,” Campagna writes, “but a stockpile of timber ready to be sent to production; a waterfall is no longer a waterfall, but a stockpile of hydro-electrical units ready to be extracted; a person is no longer a person, but a stockpile of labour ready to be employed; and so on.” Everything is merely a means to an end, and everyone is nothing but a worker, because in this ontology, or reality system, there is nothing but work, oriented toward endless production.
“No! Not that!” I cried, gripped by a sudden desperation, as if at that moment I had realized that only the checking of the meteorological instruments enabled me to master the forces of the universe and recognize an order in it.”
— Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
A reality system focused on essence —an ontology of positions, not things—relies on language to classify and categorise everything. According to another contemporary philosopher, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “What we are accustomed to call ‘the world’ is an effect of a process of semiotic organisation of prelinguistic matter.” Language organises time, space and matter in such a way that they become recognisable to human consciousness.” Space and time are, indeed, human constructs—filters through which we see the world, according to Immanuel Kant, another philosopher.
In this process of abstraction and encoding, language in turn relies on measurement, cutting up the world in ways that it can be infinitely recombined. To classify is to parse or interpret. You can see where I am going with this: the perfect instrument in this process is, of course, the computer. By its nature, it must separate everything, at a base level, into digital binary units of either one or a zero. For numbers correspond to ontologically identical positions. And in this reality system, it doesn’t matter if this process is done by a human or a machine, for these are functionally equivalent. “Big data” and AI assume that the language of information technology can encompass all of existence. Humans are, according to the novelist Richard Powers, “a species turning from animal into data.”
We can see this, for example, in the predominance of financial markets, where everything is assigned a value, and it doesn’t matter if a dollar is made from child labor or the value of property (in fact the very notion of money is a linguistic fiction and, now, digital data as well). You can also see echoes of this ontology in science and its relentless drive to divide and classify things, branching and naming the new and the imagined (though we now know that advances in measurement transform the thing being measured). So too in citizenship, where you have no identity or legitimacy without a passport. Our day-to-day actions, also, from going to work to our unthinking behaviours, according to the artist duo Gens d’Uterpan: “Our reality is dominated by routine, guided operations. Our relationships are superficial, artificial encounters.”
You can see where this has gotten us in terms of climate change, identity politics, sectarian conflict, not to mention, according to Campagna, psychopathologies and real physical maladies. And you can now see what’s behind the term “existential anxiety.” One person is defined as a billionaire; 2000 people die in a natural disaster or an armed conflict. Everything becomes a number, ontologically equivalent as a position in a series, and ultimately, void. There is no mythical one percent of the population deliberately oppressing the rest of us for their benefit or enjoyment; in this ontology, the very notion of responsibility doesn’t make sense.
Dial it down
If this is what grimly defines and underlies our current reality, what might be alternatives, and how could we possibly get out from under it? Sociologist Ruth Levitas identifies utopian thinking as what makes us human; it’s the ability to imagine how things could be otherwise. In fact it’s not difficult to identify alternative ontologies to the one described above: for example, Plato’s realm of ideal forms and pure ideas; the multiple gods of ancient Greece or Rome that drove all of human and natural processes; animistic traditions that see the divine in various living and nonliving things; or scientific notions that look to tiny particles or bits of DNA as drivers of reality.
What might happen if we twiddle those knobs of essence and existence? To dial down essence, we might start by looking at its reliance on rational language and its tendency to classify and categorize. But, on the other hand, “you know more than you can say,” according to the writer Nicholson Baker. Campagna suggests shifting our focus to the ineffable quality of things: that which cannot be put into words. “The ineffable,” he writes, “the absolutely unknowable, can be only sensed. It is the province of art which is not ‘expression’ merely, or even primarily, but a quest for, and formulation of, experience evoking, energy-waking images: a ‘sensuous apprehension of being’.”
This ventures into mysticism, and not the popular usage of that term to mean some superficial New Age, hippie thinking. For Campagna draws on the deep mystical traditions of Christian, Hindu and Islamic theology, to identify existence in mythical or magical qualities of individual things. Consider, for example, a sacred object—in whatever religious tradition. Take a sacred rock in an indigenous culture: it is, on one level, simply a rock (its essential qualities might classify it as valuable for production of other things); but if you believe it is endowed with a magical quality, because of where it comes from or that someone has bestowed upon it such a quality, it also becomes something else—it stands for something else. To use it in constructing a house, or to break it apart to produce a mobile phone, for example, would constitute blasphemy, inviting existential danger to one’s self and world. So instead of locating the essential qualities of such a thing, one might look instead for its “true self,” some indescribable quality that comes before the thing is even given a name.
This brings us to a paradox, and the ontology of existence is full of paradoxes. The rock—this individual rock—exists as something unique, yet it is somehow permeated by an invisible, unnamable, universal force. This is, Campagna says, “at once the greatest secret and the most blatant reality”. For the level of existence is “a game of reflections in which [things] themselves were the reflections; reflections of what? This is impossible to say — literally, it is ineffable.”
Artist Hito Steyerl and others call this “strange universalism,” which they identify as “something both more and less than general, both below and beyond the realm of forms.” It doesn’t “refer to a ‘whole’ or a totality, but to something smaller than its parts, each one potentially exceeding it in detail and complexity. Anyone younger than nine years old knows that a couple of universes easily fit into a pocket.”
Existence in practice
All very theoretical, but how might we put this into practice? Levitas shapes utopian thinking into a method for imagining otherwise and inducing change. This involves operating on three different levels: the archaeological, the ontological, and the architectural. These correspond roughly to past, present and future. We’ve already explored the ontological—the reality system said to dominate our world and our lives. We could then locate the roots of this system in the past, using archaeological methods of surveying a site, digging down, piecing together fragments. Campagna does this with regard to our current ontology to some extent, finding its roots in the rise of scientific classification, seeing a rapid increase somewhere around World War I. We know well by now that history repeats itself: over and over lessons are forgotten or buried over, the same mistakes made again and again.
That brings us to Levitas’ architectural level, and that means building something new. How could we even begin to construct a new architecture of reality? If we take this metaphor literally, we might start with a design process. The technologist Walter van de Velde, viewing the world as a kind of computer (forgive the essentialist notion of computation for a moment) sees design as a way of programming the world: by changing someone’s perspective or behaviour through something we create, we change their future and thereby our collective future. (I go into more detail about this idea here.) Think of physical architecture: placing a door, a wall or window in one place and not another means restricting where someone can go and what they can see or do—not unlike the puppet theatre set. In terms of metaphysical architecture, then, think of some other ways one might influence or frame how people see or behave through design; look indeed at the digital frame you’re reading this on, for a start.
Second, shift your focus to process instead of product. Enjoy the journey: as Campagna says, “What is invisible to the cartographer might be revealed to the traveller.” While some design processes aim (often by necessity) for the final outcome to be produced to some exact specification, artists know that when you start off on a project you can never entirely predict where you’ll end up or what you’ll end up with, due to the particularities (indeed ineffable qualities) of your tools, your body and mind, unexpected events. Everyone knows that you can’t go looking for love (that most ineffable of qualities); it happens when you least expect it.
Third, while you’re enjoying the journey, ask questions. Think of Aristotle’s “peripatetic school” of lecturing while walking. (I’ve written about how movement is related to perception here.) Indeed, question everything, constantly, including your own processes and assumptions. If our very notions of space and time are human constructs and serve to reinforce essence over existence, how might we approach them otherwise? Why are you sitting in front of a screen, indoors? For how many hours every day? (I recommend Helga Schmid’s version of utopian thinking applied to time.)
The key word here is, of course, “why”. Why do you do what you do? For most of us, it’s to earn enough money to survive and thrive within a capitalist economy. Why, and how might things be otherwise? A common technique is to ask seven “whys” to get to some inner truth; the technologist Jaron Lanier (in Chapter 4 of this book) says that when you get to the bottom of your chain of justifications, you usually end up with some ineffable or mystical quality: you do it for love, for example.
Fourth, question and refashion language. If language is at the heart of an essentialist reality system, to imagine and enact an alternative, we should push back against its essentializing qualities. But shifting focus from essence to existence doesn’t only mean attention to ineffable qualities, for some kinds of language have a role in an existential ontology. For example, poetry plays with language to allude to multiple meanings, prompting us to question words themselves or subverting their usual meanings; Berardi calls poetry “the act of experimenting with the world by reshuffling semiotic patterns”. Symbolic language, too, points to meanings not so literal to the object in question—think of the rock in the example above which can be described in terms of mystical or magical qualities.
More broadly, don’t be afraid, Campagna advises, to venture into the realm of fiction, for that too disrupts the dominant thinking:
our way of dealing with the world is always based on ‘fictions’ rather than ‘facts’ or even ‘hypotheses’. Since the world as it is in itself is hidden to our rational understanding…we cannot then proceed through our life by way of verifiable hypotheses — rather, we must always make up fictional concepts and notions that we employ to navigate the world, while treating them ‘as if’ they were ‘real’. The point of this fictional endeavour … is that such fictions are useful to us.
Then think of other types of languages that don’t use words in a conventional sense, such as music. The miracle of musical gestures, according to Michael Spitzer, “is that they can express thoughts and feelings, even a theory of mind, without language. And music, being abstract and unmoored from reference, was a laboratory for imagining the invisible, the faraway or the new — in due course, religion and science.”
Fifth, embrace multiple perspectives. One of my university professors, the sociologist Todd Gitlin, promoted a kind of “cubist sociology” that looked at every side of an issue at once; good journalists try to cover all sides of a story. Similarly, Campagna describes the “reverse perspective” of philosopher Pavel Florensky to see multiple sides at once. For what is alive is dynamic or potential, Campagna explains, can also be defined as “virtual”:
So the true life is the virtual life — the life which contains within itself infinite perspectives, infinite points of view — which is how we experience life everyday. We never look at things fixed and stable, but by moving around. In our minds, a thing is synchronic — all the sides simultaneously there…. Art allows us to catch a glimpse of the totality of existence in one image — it has to be a revelation of everything.
Sixth, look in between: The white space, the gaps between the musical notes and the letters on the page (or the screen). Think, indeed of the ink (or the pixels) versus the letters : as Campagna describes, such a ubiquitous substance can produce endless variations.
More broadly, try to look in between worlds or realities. The Yawinawa people have a physical bridge that represents crossing from one reality to another. For our project about artificial intelligence, Edie Jo Murray and I use the concept of the “third space” from the ancient Persian philosopher Suhrawardi, who described reality as existing on three parallel planes: the realm of the senses, that of the intellect, and an in-between plane, at once everywhere and nowhere—the realm of existence.
Constructing a reality
Putting it all together, we can go back to Campagna’s analogy of the puppet theatre and start framing a new stage set, a new backdrop. What actions and dialogue might be possible on stage? We might start by deconstructing the current ontological stage set, locating its roots using archaeological methods. Then working architecturally, locating metaphysical doors, windows and walls, “programming” the future by prescribing or proscribing particular behaviours. Enjoy the process, embrace the unexpected, enquire “why” before thinking about what, how and where. Play with language and alternative languages, remember that theatre is fiction and the world is a stage set. See through the eyes of multiple characters, and look in between: the silences speak as loudly as the sounds.
Not only do we know more than we can say, we can produce more than we can imagine, according to the philospher Zygmunt Baumann. The challenge for artists and communicators is, Can we speak from a position outside of our current reality?
Don’t be afraid to break the software, break through the mesh or the wall, go up a level, make up a dimension. The future might never know. Look at the present, in fact, as if from the future. Maybe then, fact will merge with fiction —in fact it already has. Factions, frictions, fractures, freaks and creatures. Don’t be limited to yourself, your race, gender, identity, species; to the living or the possible. Ask why, but also ‘Why not?’ But if you want to take other people there, and not be locked up in your own reality, like the Yawinawa, you need to build a bridge to the others’.
Federico Campagna describes his views on reality much more eloquently than I do in this book, from which the quotations in this article are taken, except where noted.