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Being about thinking

I wonder how many people, intrigued by this book, have actually carried out any of the experiments. It misses the point to see them as ‘thought experiments’, as if they are interesting just to think about. They are real experiments and only achieve anything if one actually does them. But they are experiments about thought, in that they attempt to alter or modify the ways we think.

Most of the ways in which we think are unexamined and automatic. Roger-Pol Droit has written a series of short essays, suggesting exercises that might change our view of reality. It’s amusing, imaginative, wryly sceptical. Droit has no cosmology; rather he concentrates on the minutiae of daily life. It reminds me of another book of essays by a Frenchman, Philippe Delerm’s The Small Pleasures of Life.

But that book was about ordinary things, like having a glass of beer. This book recommends rather odd activities. Only profoundly unimaginative readers will not have done a number of these experiments already. For example, experiment no. 2, to ‘empty a word of its meaning’—I can remember repeating, with my sister, the word door, and being surprised at how arbitrary it started to sound, and how quickly. It’s the surprise that illustrates how accustomed we are to not examining everyday things, such as words.

Or take experiment no. 5: to look up at the night sky and imagine that you’re looking down on the stars. Haven’t most of us done that, or something like it? I lie in my backyard and look up at the sky through the branches of trees, and without much effort find myself looking not up but out, aware of gravity holding me in place as if I were clinging to a light on the ceiling, looking down into an enormous room.It’s possible, perhaps instructive, to see the world differently; this is the point of many of the experiments. But it is also possible to see the world wrongly. A former teaching colleague of mine claimed that one of his Year 10 students knew the world was round, but thought that we lived on the inside. A harmless misapprehension? Or something only a step away from loony conspiracy theories?

Why are the words ‘the philosophy of’ in the book’s title? ‘Experiments in Everyday Life’ would do as well. Droit is identified on the jacket as a philosopher, but I doubt whether this material is what he teaches and writes professionally.

Philosophy has always covered a multitude of discourses. Years ago I heard a TV interviewer describe Shirley MacLaine as ‘an actress and a philosopher’. I was study­ing Berkeley and Hume at the time and found that a bit rich. Philosophy is now a highly-specialised academic activity, but the earliest philosophers taught the love of wisdom by asking strange questions and making people think unexpected things. Droit belongs to this tradition, but even taking a very liberal view, Shirley MacLaine probably does not.

But I wonder how these experiments differ from some of the amusements of university undergraduates (at least, Arts students)? When I lived in the big house on Dandenong Road, Armadale and we dragged the couch and the stereo into the front garden; when we executed a rancid limburger cheese on the tram track; when we spent all morning at home barking instead of talking—was this what we were doing? Conducting experiments in the philosophy of everyday life?

One difference is that most of Droit’s experiments are solitary. For many of them it is vital that no-one else be within hearing to embarrass the experimenter. If you’re pretending to be an animal (no. 34) or saying a word over and over (no. 2), embarrassment is likely to get in the way. But in no. 26 (watch a woman at her window), no. 28 (look at people from a moving car), no. 67 (watch someone sleeping), or no. 72 (smile at a stranger), other people are treated as objects, as if they are unreal or irrelevant. Doubting the existence of everything except the self is a venerable starting point for French philosophical reflection. But these experiments do not move us far beyond solipsism.

Take no. 78 (tell a stranger she is beautiful); how very Gallic. Again, who hasn’t though of doing this? Whether it’s an experiment, or a chat-up line a few steps removed, doesn’t matter. Droit tries to persuade us to conduct this experiment by promising, ‘You will never see her again’. No. 11 invites us to dial phone numbers at random. Droit says the purpose, when we connect, is ‘experiencing the density of the human world’. But if we become disoriented, he advises, ‘just hang up’. In other words, it’s better if you don’t actually make meaningful connections with other people. Ditch the experiment if the world bites back.

I used to know a guy who did things like no. 61 (rant for 10 minutes), and no. 27 (invent lives for yourself) and even no. 25 (play the fool for 30–40 years). He thought he was making a point, teaching people salutary lessons. We stopped being friends when he started conducting other experiments—not in this book—such as ‘make false denunciations of your friends at their workplaces’.

But these are experiments, not a way of life, and that was my friend’s mistake. Droit’s little book is, he says at the start, an entertainment. Perhaps I’m taking it too seriously, when its lesson seems to be that it’s a mistake to take anything seriously. To the postmodern mind, the world is no longer framed by meaningful narratives or belief systems. The best we can do is to interrogate and disrupt the trivia and conventions that make up most of our lives, and see what we might discover. Droit is not sure that there is anything much to be discovered, except that ‘the world is liable to … an absence of certainty’. We might achieve the reassurance that we exist, as in no. 9 (hurt yourself briefly). ?

Paul Tankard is part of the Australian academic diaspora, lecturing in English at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.



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