Thursday, February 14, 2008

More Ontological Grief

If Britain is a nation of shopkeepers, France is a nation of philosophers.

While the average life in Britain could conceivably be marked out as a series of purchases, the average life in France could be marked out as a series of philosophical ruminations, as admirably illustrated by the attitude exhibited by my mum's former doctor.

Mind you it's not surprising that the French are so fond of philosophising when even the most mundane activities are fraught with uncertainties and ambiguities of the most complex and fundamental sort. Just this week, for example, I was walking in the woods in the Languedoc with my dad, when we happened upon this notice:

Roughly translated, this means:

Community of the Communes of the [River] Orb and the [River] Jaur
Commune of Olargues
The Lisson rubbish dump is
Anyone who violates this decision will be prosecuted.
Municipal by-law of the 4th March 2004

Now, Occasional Poster of Comments has a philosophy degree and therefore is far better placed than I to comment on the ontological difficulties presented by this notice.

But the fact is that the Lisson rubbish dump to all intents and purposes does *not* exist. It used to be there, in fact I was one of its last patrons, having dumped an orange IKEA futon mattress into it in 2003. But it's been filled in now and replaced with a fancy modern déchetterie down on the main road, where you are invited to sort your rubbish neatly into differently themed skips: one for metal waste, one for garden waste, one for dud batteries, one for old pots of paint, etc.

And yet, according to this notice, denying the existence of the Lisson rubbish dump is a flagrant contravention of local municipal by-laws punishable by prosecution through the courts.

Which brings one to wondering: how explicit would the denial have to be in order for it to become a crime? If one was at a dinner party, for example, and happened to reminisce to one's fellow diners about the 'old' rubbish dump, would that be a punishable offence? What if one simply thought to oneself, in the course of one's daily meanderings, about how the rubbish dump isn't there any more? Is the local village council capable of detecting and prosecuting thought crimes?

And if so, what could one offer in one's defence? Any defence of a thought crime like this would have to hinge on philosophy, but it's no use looking to the French Existentialists for help; their definition of existence was limited to things that exist on the physical plane: from what I remember of Sartre, mainly tree roots, and door knobs, and scrunched up bits of paper. Sartre found these things frightening*, and would probably be deeply comforted by the thought of a rubbish dump that didn't exist, which wouldn't help your case any.

No, the philosopher you'd want as your expert witness would be our good friend Baudrillard, champion of all that is not real. You could rely on Baudrillard to explain that a notional rubbish dump - an idea of a rubbish dump - is just as real as a physically extant rubbish dump, possibly even more so. The rubbish dump itself may no longer exist, but the simulacrum of the rubbish dump that exists in one's memory or imagination is - to our mass-media-enfeebled minds - just as real as the original was.

Which I think is exactly what I'll say when the combined law enforcement agencies of the Valleys of the River Orb and River Jaur come knocking at my door at dead of night.

* That's hallucinogens for you. Don't do it, kids.


9/10ths Full of Penguins said...

I'm suddenly feeling very inadequate in the blog-stakes. Having read your most eloquent post (Philosophy rocks!), I'm quite embarrassed that my latest post is me grumbling about Nicholas Cage's new movie...

patroclus said...

Hee, your Nicolas Cage post really made me laugh. Also, don't be fooled by my pretend eloquence; I'm pretty sure that the combined intellects of OPC and Tim Footman will soon be along to trash what little I think I know about French philosophy.

Dave said...

I understand that pregnancy makes women's minds go all woolly and fluffy, and incapable of rational thought.

Let us know if this happens to you, won't you?

Anonymous said...

Desperately want to say something clever using the words teleological and epistemological but can't. Just can't. That's alcohol for you. Don't do it either, kids.

Occasional Poster of Comments said...

>>Now, Occasional Poster of Comments has a philosophy degree<<

Shush! Everyone will want one.


Waiter, waiter! There's a philosophy degree in my soup!

Sartre might not have liked doorknobs, but he was quite fond of waiters. Erm, for illustrative purposes at least.

Sorry, I was actually going to say something sensible, but you'd already pursued the Baudrillardian argument yourself by the end of the post.

It does raise another interesting question, though: if the rubbish dump 'is', then is Baudrillard? At least in a Baudrillardian sense. If he wasn't dead we could probably ask him.

Or can we ask his simulacrum?

Occasional Poster of Comments said...

>>I'm pretty sure that the combined intellects of OPC and Tim Footman will soon be along to trash what little I think I know about French philosophy<<

Oh. Right.

Whatever we might be using for said trashing, looks like Mr Footman will be lifting the heavy end then...

patroclus said...

I think Mr Footman *is* his simulacrum.

Billy said...

That is just brilliant. More posts like this please.

Tim Footman said...

No, the whole point of simulacra (in their ultimate manifestation) is that the simulacrum remains when the original has faded from view (more people remember Garry Shandling's Show than Kelly Monteith, say). But Baudrillard is still bigger than me, despite being dead. So (since, conveniently, chronology and creative genealogy are among the first things to be kicked in the nuts by postmodernism - was going to post something Umberto Eco said about 2001 vs Star Wars, can't be arsed), maybe Baudrillard is a simluacrum of me.

Anyway, this dump, right. Is it a dump, even if nothing is dumped there? Does a sign saying THIS IS A DUMP make it so? If not, how much needs to be dumped there? A single broken Thompson Twins cassette - does that a dump make? Or do you need to add an old cushion and a warped saucepan as well?

(You can tell I'm the one without the philosophy degree, can't you?)

cello said...

I'd love to see that dump, even though it's not there. But do you think it's the same thing, seeing-it-not-being-there, where it was possibly intended to be and seeing-it-not-being there in my back garden? It would save an awful lot of trouble if so.

Possibly my fave post ever, if you're interested.

patroclus said...

Thanks Billy and Cello, I enjoyed writing this one. Sadly I'm now back to the grindstone of writing about payroll management systems.

Tim: I reckon it's not a dump until someone's complained to the local paper about it.

Iris said...

Wow, I just came about this post - a bit after the battle - and I'm not quite sure whether I could really follow all the philosophical implications it offers for thought : -)

Just wanted to say that I never knew that this "imondise", which used to be called "la décharge d'Olargues" and polluted and smoked for years above our heads, had been in extremis baptized "Lisson" when they finally were obliged by European laws to close it down and to cover it. Perhaps it was considered as a cemetery or special burial place and that's why they thought that it should have a memorable name written somewhere...

During its existence, every time I went to the local mairie to complain about the nuisance it caused, I was told that I was the only person to care about it - perhaps I should take it as a special honor that after it's death it has been baptized "Décharge de Lisson" - like our pests-free naturally working winery Domaine Lisson (the name exists since the 15th century) further down....