There Is No Background

Amazon / Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
Amazon / Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

There is No Background. There is no Foreground. Everything is in Flux.

Sometimes, when I’m out and about in nature — on that rare occasion I’m hiking or in some spectacular place — I’ll take a picture of myself. I know that if I take a picture of that scene on its own, it’ll be boring. So I put myself in the foreground, the mountain or cactus or what have you in the background. There is nothing interesting about this. It’s what we do, how we think. There’s what’s in the foreground and what’s in the background. Duh.

But metaphors are tricky things. When they’re extreme, we call them insane or poetry (“Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.”). But most of the time, we use metaphors — along with a variety of other tropes such as metonymy, irony, litotes, hyperbole, and so on — without thinking (even though tropes are an expression of thought, the person using them is often not thinking). Tropes distribute the world — this here, that there, with these terms of relation.

This is Nietzsche’s great argument in his essay, “On Truth and Lies in Their Extramoral Sense.” All thinking is tropic. To speak is to distribute bodies — linguistic, conceptual, physical, ideological. This is what knowledge is, what knowledge does: it creates tropic configurations that we forget are tropic. This is the point — what a sharp metaphor! — of Nietzsche’s essay: ‘truth’ is what we assign to tropes we don’t want to change (for psycho-ideological reasons). The things we call true are metaphors that we’ve forgotten are metaphors. For Nietzsche, science is poetry that’s forgotten it’s poetry.

The background is a metaphor that we’ve forgotten is a metaphor. When we assume there’s a background, we assume there’s a foreground. Our cameras proudly offer auto-focus as they search for faces to foreground.

While seemingly innocuous, the figure of the background is dangerous. For instance, we tend to feel that the planet is the background, the backdrop, for human life. We repress the fact that we live with the earth, not on the earth. Human beings are continuous, not to mention contiguous, with the stuff of the universe — dirt, trees, sky, air, flies. They may not always be front and center but they are not the background.

This is one of the brilliant aspects of Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean series. The characters don’t just play out their dramas with the boat as the backdrop — the boat itself is a character! And the boat is not just a character floating on the ocean — the ocean becomes a character, too! Soon, everything is in play, everything in flux. There’s no background or foreground. There’s just an ever shifting calculus of bodies all interacting in different ways, at different speeds and intensities.

Reading John Searle in college drove me apeshit. What is this background he relies so much on? There’s what we do and then there’s this background of desires and abilities and knowledge, these so-called passive components, which set the stage for action. Huh? That just skips over the very complexity of the issue, of the social, of ideology, of how we stand towards each other. To just dismiss things like desire and dispositions as background is to dismiss the very stuff of power, politics, dynamics, history, discourse, of life itself.

No, there’s no background, Professor Searle. Action and perception are always chiasmatic, an intertwining with the world (pace Merleau-Ponty). I don’t just stand here and view the world. I am part of the world! When I look at a tree, that is the world seeing the world. I see the tree, sure, but that tree sees me — and has me seeing it.

There is no background. There is no foreground. In fact, there’s no ground at all. It’s funny how we turn to this figure of the ground over and over again. We must ground ourselves to be strong! We must ground our arguments! We must stand our ground! But, as Emerson says, Gladly would we anchor, but the anchorage is quicksand.

The trick, then, is to inaugurate new conceptions of space (Merleau-Ponty’s chiasmus does this), to invent new figures, metaphors, tropes. Or else to keep shifting our tropes, to constantly invent new ones, to abandon the very effort to construct anything once and for all and, instead, take to the swirling sea and frolic away. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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