Inception and the Epistemology of Dreams

Inception and the Epistemology of Dreams

Last week I went to the movies and watched Inception, a movie about the boundaries of reality explored in the lucid dreams of the main characters.

The main question posed in this flick is how we can know whether we are dreaming. This is an age old question in philosophy and was most famously explored by French soldier-philosopher René Descartes. In his magnificent philosophical book Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes doubts all sources of knowledge and asks himself:

How often, asleep at night, am I convinced of such familiar events — that I am here in my dressing gown, sitting by the fire — when in fact I am lying undressed in bed. … As I think about this more carefully, I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep.

Descartes doubt in his first meditation is total. Descartes is, however, not actually convinced that we can not know anything. He merely engages in a thought experiment to find the one true source of knowledge. Eventually he concludes famously that the only thing he can know is that he is a thinking being — I think therefore I am.

The storyline in Inception refers back to Descartes’ argument. In the movie the main characters experience a collective dream and even dream within a dream, within a dream, within a dream. The main characters know that it can be confusing to distinguish our waking reality from our dreaming one and they use a little trick to determine where they are.

Although Descartes thinks he can not know whether he is dreaming or not, there are clear differences between our waking and dreaming reality.

Most importantly, the waking reality is bounded by causality. If you hit somebody in the face in reality, there will be consequences. If you do the same in a dream, there are no consequences. The other difference is that waking reality is a shared experience. You can hit your best friend in the face in a dream, but she will not show up with a bruise in waking reality. Even if there was no mark, your friend will not have experienced being hit by you in her dream. Dreaming reality is a private experience.

The question remains, however, which reality we should give primacy, the waking world or the dreaming one. The empiricist philosopher might argue that since our experiences in waking reality are shared and can be confirmed by others. This seems an attractive line of reasoning, but the question of reality can not be resolved by democratic means. Just because we all agree on something does not mean that it is the truth.

The Psychic Octopus is a Fraud

Many people believe that supernatural forces exist that can be controlled to help them shape their lives and the lives of others. Since time immemorial, shamans have been employed by the members of their community to control or appease these otherworldly forces in order to remove chaos and unpredictability from their lives by predicting the future.

Following Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction, which states that: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, magic has all but disappeared from contemporary culture. Technology is so advanced that almost nothing seems magical any more. The world has, in Max Weber’s words, been disenchanted. One area of the ancient mystical arts is, however, still open to ‘real’ magic.

Man’s final frontier is not space, as Gene Roddenberry famously wrote. The final frontier of human intellectual pursuit is the mind. Our minds are practically infinitely complex and science has only started to make some small inroads into a full understanding how we function.

This leaves lots of space for a belief in mentalism, the final frontier of magic. Many people believe that so called mediums such as Uri Geller and John Edward actually have supernatural powers. Some even believe that self-confessed deceivers, such as Derren Brown has magical powers. His material is so strong that they don’t believe he uses magic tricks and think that he just does not want to admit to his powers.

Two year-old octopus Paul, the so-called "octopus oracle" predicts Spain's 2010 soccer World Cup final victory over The Netherlands by choosing a mussel, from a glass box decorated with the Spanish national flag instead of a glass box with the Dutch flag, at the Sea Life Aquarium in the western German city of Oberhausen July 9, 2010. The octopus has became a media star after correctly picking all six German World Cup results including their first-round defeat against Serbia and their semi-final defeat against Spain.            REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay (GERMANY - Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP ANIMALS SOCIETY)

Two year-old octopus Paul, the so-called “octopus oracle” predicts Spain’s 2010 soccer World Cup final victory over The Netherlands by choosing a mussel, from a glass box decorated with the Spanish national flag instead of a glass box with the Dutch flag, at the Sea Life Aquarium in the western German city of Oberhausen July 9, 2010. The octopus has became a media star after correctly picking all six German World Cup results including their first-round defeat against Serbia and their semi-final defeat against Spain. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay (GERMANY – Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP ANIMALS SOCIETY)

The latest star in mentalism is a psychic Octopus with the unassuming name Paul. He has been used to ‘predict’ the outcome of football games in the recent FIFA World Cup and the European Championships two years ago. Paul has made twelve verifiable predictions, of which only two were incorrect. The odds for that to occur by change are remote.

Logic dictates that the psychic octopus is a fraud. But he is an octopus, how can he be a fraud? I am quite certain that he has not read 13 Steps to Mentalism nor that he has a Swami Gimmick on one of his eight tentacles.

Octopodes are known to be quite intelligent, but making repeated accurate predictions goes beyond intelligence. One aspect of this phenomenon is the fact that we would not have been discussing Paul had he been wrong more often. The most likely method employed here is that his minders are good at predicting the results and somehow coax Paul to prefer one side over the other. Using animals to predict the future is not new, but this traditionally involves their entrails.

The method to achieve this mystery is much less interesting than the fact that the whole world is talking about the seeming supernatural abilities of this cephalopod mollusk. Even though we are rational beings that do not want to believe in supernatural influences, we all want to believe that there might be some order to the unpredictable nature of the world after all.

Deception in the Arts

Canadian magician Jay Sankey recently asked himself why there is such an obsession with the method of magic tricks. This obsession comes from both sides of the stage curtain. Magicians spend most of their time perfecting new ways to achieve the same old effects. Spectators are obsessed with the method because they are presented with a mystery that the magician is unwilling to explain.

Sankey is correct that almost every art form uses a kind of deception. Realistic art aims to make us believe we see something that is not there. Actors pretend to be somebody they are not, dancers hide the enormous physical strain they are under and magicians hide the real cause of the effects they create. I think that it is this focus on the method that is preventing magic from becoming an important form of performance art.

There are two reasons for this obsession: firstly, secrecy is inherent to magic because we present occurrences where the actual causal relationships are obfuscated from the spectator. This secrecy is not the case in any other form of arts where deception is used to support a story. In practical terms, the magician deceives to make something happen without physical cause while a dancer or actor deceives to tell a story or communicate an emotion.

A good example is the movie Avatar — a feast of visual deception. But because there was a story (albeit a one-dimension one), attention was moved away from the method. And the most interesting part is that movie makers even expose their methods on the obligatory “making of …” DVD so that everybody who is interested can find out how they were deceived in believing in a three-dimensional world.

Jim Steinmeyer writes in Hiding the Elephant that one can only truly understand the art of magic if you understand the magician’s secrets:

To appreciate magic as an art, you’ll have to understand not only the baldest deceptions but also the subtlest techniques. You’ll have to learn to think like a magician.

This idea has recently been confirmed through scientific enquiry. A group of people were subjected to an fMRI brain scan while watching a video of a magic trick. The research showed that looking at a trick triggers specific parts of the brain- the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) — that are associated with the detection of conflict and cognitive control. This finding means that people watching magic tricks are placed in a position where they will focus on method because as their brain seeks cognitive control.

Deception study: fMRI of impossible causal relationships in magic tricks

fMRI study of impossible causal relationships in magic tricks

The cognitive control prevents spectators from truly experiencing magic as a form of art — suspension of disbelief is made impossible. Most people are well educated and do not believe in real magic, leaving little room for actual suspension of disbelief. There is also a social contract between conjurers and their spectators that although an admission of deception is made, the method will not be revealed.

Deception in the Arts

One form of magic where this is still possible is mentalism. The main reason for this is that the science of the brain is not as advanced as the science of physical objects and thus, following Clarke’s Third Law of Prediction, there is still a lot of room for people to believe in magic. Clarke’s law states that:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Because technology about how or mind works is still in its infancy, many people are prepared to believe that Uri Geller can bend metal with his mind and John Edward can communicate with deceased people. Some people believe so firmly in paranormal powers that some proclaim that English mentalist Derren Brown possesses supernatural powers, even though he clearly admits being a magician. These people believe that Brown wishes to keep his special powers a secret!

This week the controversial television show Magic’s Biggest Secrets Revealed is aired on Australian television. Too many magicians, this seems like the end of the world. Their cherished secrets are being squandered for the sake of ratings. I agree with them that these shows are not of high quality, but not because of their content.

Exposure in magic is a double edge sword. It would, of course, be self-defeating to explain tricks while performing magic, just as it would be very annoying to have the special effects in a movie explained to yo while watching the story. In the early days of filmmaking, exposure of the secret techniques to create special effects was very controversial. This knowledge is nowadays freely available, and people still watch movies!

In some way, exposure can be good for magic. The only people I ever here speaking of magic as a form of art are magicians themselves. They do so because magicians know what it takes to do good magic. Magicians do not focus on the secret but on presentation. They can switch off their cognitive control as they know the methods. This knowledge gives yo a freedom to enjoy magic at a whole different level. And lastly, the fact that magicians can quite easily be deceived supports this view.

Pagan University – The Ritual of Graduation

Graduation is a pagan ritualYesterday I took part in a pagan ritual. No, I did not dance naked around a camp fire or undertake an invocation of ancient gods. The heathen ritual I took part in was a contemporary university graduation to receive my MBA degree.

The pomp and circumstance of the academic dress and procession seem to be innocent reminders of ancient traditions to add gravitas to the moment of graduation. The ritualistic aspects of the ceremony and the continuous doffing of the at the chancellor are, however, all part of an elaborate pagan ceremony.

One particular moment, the conferring of the degree, can only be described as magical. Not magic in the sense that the ceremony has an ethereal atmosphere, but magic in the literal sense of the word. The conferring of the degree is in its very essence a mystical moment.

All graduands were standing and the Chancellor conferred the degree upon us. Even though she did not use any incantations nor did she invoke any occult forces, the conferring of the degrees is a moment of magic. It is only from that point forward that I could by right call myself a Master in Business Administration. Even those who decided not to attend the ceremony did not escape the magic powers of the Chancellor, as also they had their degrees conferred upon them by the power invested in her.

It seems rather strange that a rational organisation such as a university uses archaic and irrational practices to finalise several years of intense rational work. Although the purpose of academic education is to hone rational thinking skills, the process is concluded in an irrational moment.

Although it might not be sensed by contemporary graduands as being just that, there is no significant difference between the conferring of the degree and the activities of a witch doctor or priest bestowing a blessing.

Given the fact that the vast majority of graduands chose to attend the ceremony, rather than being provided with their degree  through the mail, shows that no matter how rational we think we are, we all require a magical and non-rational moments.

How the Seven Deadly Sins Progress Civilisation

The Seven Deadly Sins are the engine of society.

In his book, Sex, Bombs & Burgers, Peter Nowak describes how the world as we know it is shaped by the three primal forces of lust, aggression and gluttony. This is not a new notion, as more than 2500 years ago, Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote:

War is father of all things  (Πόλεμος πάντων μὲν πατήρ ἐστι)

Nowak takes the old saying from the ancient one a step further and adds lust and gluttony as major drivers for technological advancement. He argues that if it wasn’t for sex, bombs and burgers, what he calls the ‘Shameful Trinity’, we might all still be living in caves. From cars to high-definition televisions, from website logins to microwave popcorn, the origins of all technological advancement can be traced to sinful behaviour.

This books shows that progress is not driven by rational drives for progress itself, but that we are driven by our emotions. We can take dig a little deeper into Nowak’s Shameful Trinity and uncover what since early Christian times has been called the Seven Deadly Sins. Although Christian theology tries to eradicate these seven aspects of humanity from our lives, they are actually what drives us to be who we are. In The Divine Comedy, Dante describes the seven sins as:

Gula (gluttony)

Food is our primary need and has for millennia been the source of many innovations. Our stone age ancestors invented farming and started the neolithical revolution. An in our current times, high tech genetic technology is used to ensure people’s survival and high profits for food companies. The other innovation that food technology has introduced to contemporary society is the strict implementation of scientific management, following in the footsteps of Frederick Taylor. In fast food outlets every second counts and companies such as McDonalds have pioneered many management techniques that shave of those extra few seconds to deliver their fast ‘food’ even faster.

Luxuria (extravagance)

The original list of sins included fornication. But in AD 590 the pope of the time replaced it with extravagance. Lust, or porneia (Πορνεία) in ancient Greek, drives much of our culture. The pornography industry has played a major role in the proliferation of many technologies. Not as the progenitor, but as an early adopter and influence of the market. In the 1980s, when the Betamax and VHS video formats were battling it out for supremacy, the pornography industry played a big role in making VHS the most popular format. A similar ‘battle’ is currently being waged over which of the two blue-laser DVD formats — Blu-ray Disc or HD-DVD — will replace DVDs for high-definition content.

Avaritia (greed)

Unrestrained accumulation of wealth is the basic premise of capitalist philosophy. The idea of unbridled economic growth logically requires an unrestrained desire to buy stuff. Adam Smith postulated an invisible hand. This principle is what allocates resources in society through the conjunction of self-interest, competition and supply & demand. That this invisible hand can not fully self regulate has become apparent in the Global Financial Crisis, which was caused by greed in an unregulated financial system.

Acedia (sloth)

Sloth is a major driver in our quest for technology. Palaeolithic people decided it would be much better to stay in one place rather than moving around all the time so they invented farming. Technology is supposed to make our lives easier — from reclining chairs to snowmobiles, technology allows us to be extremely lazy.

Ira (wrath)

Wrath is the justification for many wars. The first World War started because of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the current Middle Eastern wars are caused by the wrath incurred because of the terrorist attacks in 2001. The causes of war are, however, mostly more complicated. Long term motives such as colonial expansion in the first and the thirst for oil in the second examples,are possibly the real causes.

Invidia (envy)

The state of envy can be an amazing motivator to improve your own existence. Envying your bosses’ position might drive somebody to perform better and undertake further studies to improve the chances of a promotion. Envy can of course also result in destructive behaviour and is one of the causes of war. Germany envied the allies because of the wealth accumulated through their colonies and thought it would be a good idea to start a war.

Superbia (pride)

Last but not least, pride is one of the great drivers in the fashion industry. Sociologist Goffman agreed with Shakespeare that all the world is but a stage. Goffman described the world as one large play in which we are all actors. As such we need props to communicate our identity to the outside world. In an society where the old anchors have been cut everybody has to seek their own identity and shopping provides the perfect replacement for tradition and religion. We buy certain brands, nit because they are necessarily better than another brand, but because we identify with it. It is the pride in ourselves that is one of the major drivers in our shopping behaviour.

Beyond good and evil

You might think that I have a negative view of humanity by claiming that our lives are driven by what are commonly considered sins.

But this post is not about what is good or bad, it is merely stating the sociological facts of the human condition. The facts are that not our quest for world peace or the admirable aim to make poverty history are the real drivers of progress. It is those behaviours and states of mind that some seek out to eradicate from humanity that makes us human.

This illustrates that the world is much more complex than simple religious philosophy could ever encapsulate.

The boundaries between good and bad are often faded and we need to seek beyond good and evil to find philosophical truth.

Chien Andalusia: What do the Lyrics of the Pixies mean?

The music of The Pixies was part of the soundtrack of my student years. Experiencing their sound for the first time live in 1989 at the Pinkpop concert opened a whole new planet of sound to me. I vividly remember standing in front of Joey Santiago as  he was playing Vamos. Cool as a cucumber, he produced the most bizarre sounds I had ever heard come from a guitar.

After the festival I immediately bought their Doolittle and Surfer Rosa CDs and immersed myself into the absurdist musical art of The Pixies. Being only 19 years old I attempted to seek meaning in their lyrics, such as Debaser:

Got me a movie
I want you to know
Slicing up eyeballs
I want you to know
Girlie so groovy
I want you to know
Don’t know about you
But I am Un Chien Andalusia

Listening to some of their Doolittle tracks such as Debaser placed a lot of questions into the mind of a 19 year old.  What do these words mean? Does Frank Black possess some profound knowledge he wants to share only with those whoc can decipher his songs?

Little did I knew that their inspiration came  directly from the 1929 film Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. This surrealist work of cinematographic art is a disjointed jumble of weird and disturbing images. It is all too human human to seek meaning in everything we perceive. The makers of Un Chien Andalus were, however, quite clear on their that there was absolutely no meaning attached to the images:

No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted … Nothing, in the film, symbolises anything. The only method of investigation of the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis.

Absurdist art shows us that there might not be any meaning and that things are just the way they are. Psychoanalysis is, by the way, the ultimate attempt to seek meaning where there is none. Absurdism highlights the meaninglesness that is in our lives and provides a point of reflection on sobering fact. It has taken me two decades of studying philosophy to understand this! Our minds are information processing machines that try to put everything we perceive into some kind of order. In most cases, however, things are just the way they are. And so is the music of The Pixies.

Their songs are symphonic eruptions that sound like a psychotic version of Abba.  Joey’s snaring guitar and Black Francis’ frantic screams are counterpointed by the tight rhythms  for David Lovering and sweet sounds of Kim Deal’s voice. The music from The Pixies can only be enjoyed head on; not interpreted and analysed, but experienced.

The Pixies in Melbourne, March 2010 (Flickr, dai pontybodkin).Last week I was fortunate to experience a live Pixies concert once again, this time in Festival Hall in Melbourne. Although the music was played somewhat mechanically, it was a great concert. Although I think I am getting too old too immerse myself in the mosh pit—I have been limping for the past three days—the best way to experience any  rock music is through lots of sweat.

At one stage I was standing back, as I was gasping for breath, and was hit in the face by the  sheer beauty of their compositions. Reflecting back on my 1989 Pinkpop experience, it dawned on me that The Pixies propelled me on a musical journey which  showed me how to experience music in a different way. After discovering the The Pixies, I am no longer afraid of music!

The journey took me from the likes of Einstürzende Neubauten and Karl Heinz Stockhausen to composers such as Phillip Glass, John Adams and Béla Bartók. The Pixes bridged the eighties and the nineties from a Rock & Roll perspective by creating the foundation for what would become known as grunge. Most importantly, their music also bridges a gap between popular music and contemporary art music as their complex compositions are timeless pieces of rock & roll.

Un chien andalouUn Chien nnn

Are you sure? Cognitive dissonance in magic tricks

Performing magic touches at the core of how we see the world. The fact that magic is possible, the fact that our brains can be deceived so easily proves that reality is not necessarily what we perceive it to be. Alvo Stockman expressed this fundamental fact on his video blog recently:

Being sure is at the core of being human and it is at the heart of what magic relies on … People need to mentally commit to something before it is destroyed.

Here he eloquently surmises the essence of magic. The magician creates a situation of which the spectator is sure that it is true. Although the fact that the observer knows that he or she is watching a magician will create some suspicion; but, because they don’t know what will happen next it is almost impossible not to believe what they see, as there is no hint available to what is going on. The technique, but more importantly the presentation, of the magician make the spectator’s mind “mentally commit” to the state of affair as presented by the magician.

In this video, you can see me performing the Ninja Rings in the local suq (street bazaar) in Luxor, Egypt. Although the routine keeps repeating the same effect, the technique is so deceptive that there is no way the spectator can think anything else but to assent to the state of affairs as presented by me, i.e., the rings penetrate each other.

The spectators will search for solutions in their mind, and when handing the rings out for inspection, they find out that their perceptions were wrong. One particular spectator in this video gets a bit too enthusiastic, nearly destroying the actual weld that holds the rings together. He is very committed to obtaining certainty rather than believing what I cause him to see. Alvo continues in more general terms:

Every day our brain makes decisions about what we see in probabilistic terms. The more information we have, the more certain we are about the world.

Cognitive Dissonance

In magic, we create the opposite situation. The magician presents a reality that does not conform with reality as the spectator is used to see. This difference creates cognitive dissonance in the spectator’s mind—a gap between the state of mind of the spectator and what they see. In good magic, an experience is created in which the spectator becomes more and more or less confident about what they see until a point has been reached where no rational explanation is immediately available and a state of astonishment.

Proud to be a Neanderthal

1992 PortraitHomo Sapiens is currently the dominant human species on earth. This was, however, not always the case. For 200,000 years our closest cousins, the Neanderthal, dominated Europe.

Back in 1993 I backpacked around China and visited the historical city of Xian. I shared a dorm with an Australian who introduced herself as being an archaeologist. We needed to get some passport photographs and when she saw mine exclaimed:

Neanderthal!

You might think I was insulted, but in fact I am proud to be associated with the earliest Europeans. For most people, when we say Neanderthal we think about brutish creatures, somewhere between apes and humans; dragging their wives by the hair into their cave and beating other males with a club,

Anthropologist John Hawks believes that we should give them a bit more credit. Neanderthal humans were not as primitive as the popular image might suggest. They had the same brain size as us, but smaller bodies. Archaeological evidence points towards a sophisticated culture. Manganese oxide rocks with artificial wear and tear found in caves in Europe point towards art, as this material can be used as a pigment. Also, Neanderthal stone tools were no less advanced then the tools made by the Homo Sapiens. This shows that our evolutionary cousins were not primitive sub-humans, but capable of abstract thought.

Erik Trinkaus argues that early European humans exhibit morphological aspects that are distinctive Neanderthal traits. There are also some indications in genetic material found in the archaeological record. Some scientists have posited a hyberdisation of early Homo Sapiens with Neanderthal. The interbreeding between these two species of man could have accelerated evolution as diversity is the engine of natural selection. Scientists of have even suggested that the ability to use language was passed on from Neanderthal to modern Homo Sapiens. Based on this scientific evidence, I can say that:

I am proud to be a Neanderthal.

The Praise of Folly: Philosophical View of Limburg Carnival

Today is Ash Wednesday and in many places around the world, including my home town of Hoensbroek, this marks the end of the annual carnival. Traditionally, Ash Wednesday was the start of the lent and carnival were the last three joyful days before the sombre time of fasting until Easter.

The annual carnival is an important part of the annual calender in the southern parts of the Netherlands and has played an important part in the first thirty years of my life. When I was a boy I was dragged by my parents to many carnival parades and parties. When I was in my second year of university I even had the honour of being known as Prince Peter I of the Klotsköp in Hoensbroek. My last carnival experience was when I visited a party of the Limburger Kangaroos in Melbourne Australia.

Prince Peter I and the Council of Eleven of the Klotsköp (1989-1990).

Prince Peter I and the Council of Eleven of the Klotsköp (1989-1990).

Having been away from my home town for ten years now I have obtained some distance from these traditions to be able to place them in some philosophical context. Although it might seem at first sight that carnival is about eating, drinking and fornicating as much as possible, in this article I will argue that carnival plays an important part in contemporary post-modern culture, specially with the disappearance of its religious significance as a preparation to the fasting.1

The essence of the carnival is a praise of folly and it are three days of the year when the normal world is turned upside down. Power over the city or town is symbolically handed over to the prince of the carnival and his Council of Eleven. The council and the prince are cultural mediators of the festivities, creating a connection between the everyday world of the sane and the world of the insane. The Council of Eleven is steeped in symbolism. Their bicorne hats are inspired on the hats worn by jesters and symbolise the foolishness that is central to carnival. Their formal suits are a reminder of the worldly connection of the council who are thus mediating between the two worlds. Every member of the council and the prince wear a chain that symbolises their unity. The regalia of the prince, his sceptre, feathers and other distinguishing features, are an expression of his symbolic power of the three days of folly. The council and the prince are the cultural mediators of the carnival, as it is their task to organise the carnival and bring folly to the otherwise so serious world.

Limburger Carnaval parade in Hoensbroek 2010 (Photo: Evelien Prevos).

Carnaval parade in Hoensbroek 2010 (Photo: Evelien Prevos).

The most recognisable aspect of carnival in most cultures around the world are the costumes worn by the revellers. They replace their identity in real life for a temporary identity, usually signifying a connection with the bizarre world of insane. The costume is a ‘mask’ behind which one can hide their normal identity so that carnival can be celebrated without shame. Although revellers hide their personal identity behind the ‘mask’, it is in fact an expression of their individuality. People take great care choosing their temporary identity and some express themselves in very individual creations.

The temporary loss of personal identity is an expression of a longing to a pre-modern time. Celebrations have a strong collectivist character – to properly celebrate carnival requires a critical mass of people. This is why my most recent experience with carnival in Mebourne was not very satisfying, compared to my home where regular life stands still for several days.

This shows a paradox in carnival. One the one hand we celebrate our individuality through costumes and on the other hand we seek for collectivist experiences. In contemporary society, personal identity is a product of individual development. We can, to a certain extent, choose our identity. This is, however, a fairly recent development. Our identities used to be determined by tradition and heritage. Although we can never fully relinquish our tradition and heritage, we now have great freedom in defining ourselves.

During carnival the idea of a fixed identity is implicitly criticised and our post-modern concept of individually created identities taken to the extreme with the ‘mask’ as a symbol of the fluidity of our identity.

During the the three days of carnival, many towns organise strange activities that are totally deprived of meaning. One such example is the annual Kowrenne (running of the cows) in Hoensbroek. This is a game whereby people run underneath home made models of cows. There is no reason for this activity, nor does it contain any symbolism to something outside the activity itself. These activities are an expression of the collective identity of the people that organise them and therefore have a very strong local character.

Carnival is an expression of Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, the playing man, providing resistance against the individualist aspects of contemporary life by organising a collective experience. The absurdity of carnival is an ode to absurdity, with the fools as the central symbol, mediated by the Council of Eleven. In carnival, people refer back to a time when, as Michel Foucault argues, when sanity and insanity where not opposites, but were complimentary. The absurdity of life is, according to Albert Camus, located in the confrontation between the irrationality of reality and our longing for clarity. In carnival, this confrontation is resolved by giving priority to the irrational. Carnival is thus a purification ritual as a catharsis for the pressures of contemporary life. Even though carnival has, in most regions, lost its connection with religion, it plays an important function in contemporary society.

Expressions of absurdity are not limited to places where carnival is formally celebrated. Many sports events, dance parties and pop festivals show similar aspects. This shows that, as Barbara Ehrenreich beautifully outlined in her book Collective Joy, that we have a deep need for ritualistic moments where we can express the absurdity of life and relieve our selves from having to create our own identity. Carnival shows that we should not take life to seriously and that reason and insanity are not mutually exclusive extremes, but aspects we need to fully embrace in order to be fully human.

Drawings by René Feijten.

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  1. This is an abridged translation of a Dutch essay written for the eZine Cultuurwetenschappen