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Posts from November, 2007

Philosophical Theories: Existential or Postmodern?

Sunday, November 4th, 2007

Existentialism argues against the idea that the only reality we can be certain of is our own consciousness. Existentialism asserts that as conscious beings humans will always find themselves in a world with a prior context and history. This is received by the consciousness: humans cannot think away that world, it is inextricably linked to consciousness. Only this reality can we be sure off: “I think therefore I am”.

Reality is not being “thought conscious” according to Heidegger, it is “being in the world”. This idea radicalizes Brentano and Husserl’s notion of intentionality, which asserts: Even in its barest form, all consciousness is a consciousness of something.

Empiricism argues truth or knowledge are capable of measurement and proof, Pythagoras and Aristotle began the idea. This led to a philosophy of science, an empirical discipline dependant upon proof: mathematics uses logic to prove a truth.

Rationalism is a theory “in which the criterion of truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive” (Bourke 263). Bourke, Vernon J. (1962), “Rationalism”, p. 263 in Runes (1962).
Absurdism is a philosophy stating that the efforts of humanity to find meaning in the universe will ultimately fail (and, hence, are absurd) because no such meaning exists, at least in relation to humanity. The word Absurd in this context does not mean “logically impossible”, but rather “humanly impossible”. A literary consideration of Absurdism is to be found in Paul Aster’s The Music of Chance.

Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, “nothing”) is a philosophical position, sometimes called an anti-philosophy, which argues that the world, especially past and current human existence, is without objective meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. Nihilism was rejected by Nietzsche, author of The Antichrist and Superman.
Nihilists generally assert one or all of the following:
• There is no reasonable proof of the existence of a creator.
• “True morality” does not exist.
• Secular ethics are impossible.

For Nihilists life has no truth, no action can be preferable to any other.
Being called nihilistic is now considered by some a pejorative term.

Postmodern thought is coloured by the perception of a degeneration of systems of epistemology and ethics into extreme relativism, something especially evident in the writings of Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. These philosophers deny the grounds on which Western cultures base their ‘truths’: absolute knowledge and meaning, a ‘decentralization’ of authorship, the accumulation of positive knowledge, historical progress, and the ideals of humanism and The Enlightenment. Often described as a fundamentally nihilistic philosophy, nihilism is open to postmodern criticism: nihilism claims a universal truth: the proposition “existence lacks meaning” is true. Postmodernism rejects this idea.

Lyotard argues that rather than relying on an objective truth, or method, to prove their claims, philosophers legitimize their truths by reference to a story about the world which is inseparable from the age and system the stories belong to, referred to by Lyotard as meta-narratives. He defines the postmodern condition as one characterized by a rejection of meta-narratives and the process of legitimation by meta-narratives. Examples of meta-narratives are The Bible, The Koran, Mao’s Red Book.

Lyotard says,

“In lieu of meta-narratives we have created new language-games in order to legitimize our claims which rely on changing relationships and mutable truths, none of which is privileged over the other to speak to ultimate truth.”

The proposition that there is no stability of truth and meaning leads, for some, towards nihilism, though Lyotard does not endorse Nihilism.

Jean Baudrillard, a postmodern theorist wrote briefly of nihilism from the postmodern viewpoint in Simulacra and Simulation. He stuck mainly to topics of interpretations of the real world over the simulations that the real world is composed of.

Meaning is an important aspect of Baudrillard’s consideration of nihilism:

“The apocalypse is finished, today it is the precession of the neutral, of forms of the neutral and of indifference…all that remains, is the fascination for desert like and indifferent forms, for the very operation of the system that annihilates us. Now, fascination (in contrast to seduction, which was attached to appearances, and to dialectical reason, which was attached to meaning) is a nihilistic passion par excellence, it is the passion proper to the mode of disappearance. We are fascinated by all forms of disappearance, of our disappearance. Melancholic and fascinated, such is our general situation in an era of involuntary transparency.”

– Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, “On Nihilism”, trans. 1995

Postmodernism envisages a blurring of reality and fiction, a scepticism of accepted history, a rejection of grand narratives as a basis for reality. The blurring of reality and fiction leads to a blurring and eventual loss of identity. These issues are considered in texts such as Paul Auster’s City of Glass, Moon Palace, and Tales from The Scriptorium. Films such as Blade Runner and The Departed consider issues of reality, perception and a fragmenting of identity.

Such texts often use meta-fictional devices. These are especially evident in Moon Palace and City of Glass.

Flash Fiction and Narrative Prose Poetry Writing Exercise

Sunday, November 4th, 2007

Flash Fiction Techniques

This writing exercise will help you create flash fiction, scenes or narrative prose poetry. As with all writing exercises take from it that which helps and discard the rest. If you work through the process as is the first time I think you’ll be pleased with the result.

Create a Setting: Write down eight places in a spider diagram – the setting – it can be metaphorical.
Create Emotion: Write down eight emotions in a spider diagram – this is how the character feels.
Create Perspective: Write down eight animals in a spider diagram – this is the character’s perspective or viewpoint.

Pick one from each spider diagram.
For our purposes we will use: “jungle”, “miserable”, “elephant”.

This is the last line, the Resolution. Remember in any story or scene there is a Setting, a protagonist/antagonist who encounters a Conflict which Changes him or her and the Change provides the Resolution. So the story ends with a character who has the perspective of an elephant (interpreted by you later) in a jungle. The jungle could be physical or emotional, the jungle becomes a metaphor – wild, hot, steamy etc.

Now you have the last line: POINT B.

The beginning of the story, POINT A, involves a hero or protagonist who feels differently from the emotion expressed in the last line. So in the example the hero, who has yet to be defined, is not miserable, note this is not a binary opposite but an alternative. Of course a binary opposite may be the same as not feeling the emotion expressed.

The hero is in a yet to be defined Initial Setting.

At this point create the Hero or Protaganist:

Who is he or she? Someone with the perspective of an elephant. Write down further ideas in complete sentences, allow sixty seconds.

How is he feeling initially he is not miserable. Why? Write down further ideas in complete sentences, write them fast. Allow sixty seconds.

Where is he or she at the end of the story? In a jungle, feeling miserable, with the perspective of an elephant.

The next step involves SPANNING THE VOID between the beginning of the story and the Resolution.

The story needs an Initial Setting. Create a list of eight settings in sixty seconds; write the first things that come into your head. Choose one: for example “dentist.”

Then do the same, allowing sixty seconds with the following:

Smell – write a list of eight smells or objects that smell.
We will use orange as a smell.

Sound – write a list of eight sounds.
We will use a jack hammer’s sound.

Object – write down a list of eight things.
We will use a wedding ring.

Write a list of eight Preoccupations of the main character or hero.
We will have the protagonist worrying about the phone bill.

Select one from each list and circle it. You will include each one in your story.

We now have an A-to-B structure as well as sensory perceptions, tangible objects and a preoccupation of the antagonist.

The story can now be seen as:

POINT A: Our Hero, who has the perspective of an elephant is at the dentist not feeling miserable. He is preoccupied with his phone bill. Located in your Initial Setting.


Conflict => Change => Resolution

(orange scent, a ring and a sound like a jack hammer will all feature in the story).

POINT B: The Hero ends up in the jungle feeling miserable from the perspective of an elephant. He may or may not be preoccupied with the phone bill.

The next step in the process is to create prompts that will allow us to write a spontaneous rough draft in fifteen minutes.

Begin by quickly reviewing the sentences you’ve written in answering the questions where? why? how? who? answered above. Allow a couple of minutes at most.

Then consider why he or she is at POINT A. Your aim is to create a story line that will take your Hero all the way from POINT A down through a Conflict to POINT B at which time he or she has undergone a Change that provides Resolution.

Note down ideas as to the Hero’s personality (job, marital status, sexual orientation etc ) and consider why he or she is at POINT A in the dentist.

For the example Jack is a refuse collector working for the Town Council, he is married and has been ten years, he is faithful and loves his wife. He finds her unattractive sexually. He loves his kids but the oldest is a handful. He is an old father and his wife is much younger than him. He likes a beer or two, football (soccer) and pool. He is a worrier and a pessimist. He has had toothache for days and had to go to the dentist.

The Initial Setting (his office, the street, his home etc) provides the scenery within which the Conflict and Tension is developed. Note down ideas detailing an incident that provides Conflict and impetus for Change, (loses job, falls in love, reads an interesting advertisement) within your Initial Setting.

Conflict can be internal to the character or external. It could be caused by events, a chance happening, meeting a stranger and so on. Conflict may be enhanced by suspense, which if used, is introduced at POINT A and released at POINT B. Of course Suspense may not fit with your story in which case don’t worry about it. By asking yourself these questions: why? where ? how? who?

This process sets up a creative tension between POINT A, the initial situation, and POINT B, the final scene. If you use a mind mapping technique, like this one, and use bubble/spider diagrams your mind will search for the Conflict that arises and taken the Hero from POINT A to POINT B and made him or her SPAN THE VOID.

Once you have developed the setting, situation and character write a complete story. Do not be precise in grammar, spelling or punctuation. Just keep writing for fifteen minutes, if you get stuck write anything, if really stuck actually write “anything”. Use the sound, object, preoccupation and smell you selected earlier in the story. After fifteen minutes you will have a story based on the structure created that takes you from A-to-B

The next step is to edit it ruthlessly. Aim to create tightly written prose that leaves nothing out of the story you have written already. Cut it down to two hundred words maximum, or less if you can. Feel free to rewrite any of it, change or remove anything. You may find new images or objects popping into your head, better phrases, a new twist.; whatever it is use it. But remember to stay within the structure: A-to-B. Of course the whole thing may change. Just remember the elements of any story are: character, setting, conflict causing a change to the character which leads to a resolution. The story is heightened by sensory references like smell and sound as well as touch. If you complete all stages:

1. Brainstorming the beginning and end of the story

2. Create Conflict from the creative tension caused and SPAN THE VOID.

3. Create a rough draft of four or five hundred words.

4. Create a finished piece, tightly written of two hundred words or less.

You will now have a finished manuscript of 200 words or less. It will encapsulate all the elements of a traditional story line, You will have a Hero in a Setting in which he comes across a Conflict. By resolving the Conflict he will have undergone a Change. Now all you need to do is submit it.

This writing exercise is inspired in part by the article Writing Flash Fiction with Bubble Diagrams accessed 4th November 2007

The First Draft using the abovbe prompts came out at 993 words. The end product of 200:

Taking Out The Trash

Jack sat, hands clasped beneath plastic, a reluctant birthday boy of fifty-one. Toothache made almost everything annoying. The dumpy middle-aged dentist leaned forward on tiptoe, peering inside Jack’s mouth, aiming a needle.

Jack heard a jackhammer.

“Sorry,” said the dentist, turning away, “phone.”

“Yes,” Jack’s Mother once told Joan, “not the sharpest chisel in the box but reliable as an old shoe. Rather wear comfy slippers than patent leather any day.”

Jack anticipated Joan’s present, a helicopter lesson, with all the enthusiasm of a kid waiting for Christmas.

“Sorry, you’ll need another appointment.”
The dentist gestured at the nurse, pirouetted on squeaky shoes and left.

“I’ll check with reception,” she said, following him.

Jack saw the syringe and picked it up gingerly. He probed his gum, pin pointed the pain and injected. It felt like a heavy hole. He glanced at the door. Grabbing some pliers he clamped the tooth, pulled down and lifted his head. A sickly smell followed a satisfying squelch.

The helicopter soared like a helter-skelter; dived like a swift.

Jack excelled at hovering.

He’d go back tomorrow, get the right tooth out, pay the phone bill and buy Joan some flowers.


Let me know what you think!