Monday, November 29, 2010
Justin E. H. Smith
Some readers will recall the exposé I wrote a few months ago on the life and work of the American poet Jason Boone. What might not have been obvious in that piece, as I would urgently like to clear up now, is that it was all entirely made up: every last word of it, from the meetings I had with Boone at Nirvana concerts in Sacramento in the late 1980s, to the documentary about Boone's life supposedly made by an MA student in the Media Arts Program a the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. There is no Media Arts Program in Fairbanks! In fact, the interviewees in the segment of the film I included in the exposé, one supposedly named 'Michel Pupici' and the other 'Dylan Cooney', are both plainly the same person filmed from different angles. What is more, anyone who has ever met me will be able to confirm that it is I myself, the author, Justin Smith, in both of those roles. I am looking unusually fat, true, and I do not appear entirely sober, but personal identity persisting as it does through such superficial changes, I feel I must come clean and acknowledge my role in the ruse. It was me. All of it. The entire operation behind the Jason Boone story was a one-man job, and that man was not Jason Boone.
You can thus imagine my surprise when, not long ago, on the morning of this year's Canadian Thanksgiving, I received a telephone call from a certain Augusta Aardappel. Readers will recall that Aardappel was supposedly the South African academic who had written a dissertation, in a Deleuzean vein, on the poetry of Jason Boone ('The Boone Rhizome'), and who apparently had dated Boone for a while in the early 1990s. But again, I made her up along with Pupici, Cooney, Coombs, and the rest. Anyone who has the faintest familiarity with the sonorities of Dutch should have been able to detect that she was a fabrication: 'Aardappel' literally means, 'earth-apple', and, on the model of the French 'pomme de terre', serves in Dutch as the word for 'potato' (in Afrikaans it is 'aartappel'). Have you ever met anyone named 'Mr. Potato'? Of course not. It is a name for fictional characters, not for real people.
Yet here was this woman on the telephone, on the morning of Canadian Thanksgiving, with a fully convincing Afrikaner accent, claiming to be none other than Augusta Aardappel. Of course at first I did not believe her, but I was also very intrigued, since my fiction had not previously inspired a great number of copycat hoaxes (I write in a non-existent genre --hyperlinked, multimedia, serial metafiction-- and my readership, if I may be honest, is fairly limited). Curious to figure out why anyone would bother to perpetrate such a pointless fraud, I determined to keep this 'Augusta' on the phone for as long as I could.
I asked her how the weather was in Pretoria, what was her opinion of vuvuzelas, Julius Malema, and Die Antwoord. She complimented me on my familiarity with today's South Africa, and I told her it was really nothing, I just get it from my friends' Facebook status updates. I could conjure an equal semblance of knowledge, I told her, about Vietnam, Tonga, or Sakhalin Island (with the last of these I could even add some Chekhovian flourishes).
When I felt I had gained her confidence I put to Ms. Aardappel the inevitable question. Why, I asked, would she claim to be someone I had made up?
"There's something important I need to tell you," she replied evasively. "Jason didn't die."
"Of course he didn't die," I answered. "He never existed in the first place. I made him up too. Now tell me where you're calling from and what it is you want."
"I'm calling from across possible worlds," was Augusta Aardappel's answer. "I'm calling because I need your help."
I knew immediately she was telling the truth.*
Philosophers have taken up widely divergent positions on the metaphysics of possible worlds. While the philosopher who coined the phrase --G. W. Leibniz, in his Theodicy of 1709-- was never entirely clear as to just how real the other possible worlds besides this one were supposed to be, over time most converged on the view that these worlds are figments of the human mind, 'state descriptions', as Rudolf Carnap called them in the early 20th century, accounts that people give of some other way this world might have turned out, but in the end did not. Still later others, and most notably the great metaphysician David Lewis, would defend the radical thesis that other possible worlds are only possible relative to us, while they are perfectly actual relative to all the beings inhabiting them.
Lewis's possible-worlds realism would send shockwaves through Anglo-American philosophical circles, though many believed the whole theory was put forth with tongue firmly lodged in cheek. Meanwhile the French, if they heard about him at all, would mostly just stew about his lifting of the title of his major book outlining the theory from Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (his Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes of 1686 would serve as inspiration for 1986's On the Plurality of Worlds). And the common people, for their part, on hearing of the notion of possible worlds, as is their custom would giddily declare that this theory is, variously, either corroborated or refuted by quantum mechanics.
I knew about David Lewis because I spent a number of years studying philosophy, and had even considered going into an academic career before shifting gears entirely, surprising everyone who knew me in my earlier life and taking up a career in law enforcement (I am now running for sheriff of Larimer County, Colorado; my slogan is 'Prepared to Lead'). So when Augusta used that phrase, 'across possible worlds', it immediately brought forth a flood of memories from my more studious days. I understood right away, I mean, that she was using a technical term, that she meant something very concrete when she spoke of crossing from one world to another. She, it dawned on me, could very well be the only person who had ever experienced such a thing. No one, not Lewis, and not even Leibniz (who seemed ready to believe just about anything) ever so much as toyed with the possibility of inter-world causation.
"So how does this work," I asked when we spoke again the following night. "Do you need to download the most recent version of Skype to do it? Is that it?" Augusta laughed. "Are you still in the other possible world right now? Is there an inter-world switchboard operator?"
"Those questions can wait," she replied. "For now I need to come see you."
One of the most difficult branches of the metaphysics of possible worlds is what is sometimes called 'counterpart theory'. If two distinct possible worlds have some relationship to one another, it is supposed, this will have to be because they contain at least some of the same individuals. But these individuals will not be exactly identical to their counterparts in other possible worlds. Even if everything about two counterpart individuals is intrinsically the same, they will still exist in two different worlds, and so will have different 'extrinsic denominations' or what are sometimes called 'Cambridge properties', which is to say relational properties, properties that result from the way the world around them is, rather than from the way they themselves are in their interior natures.
Sometimes, it is generally agreed, even some of the intrinsic properties of two counterparts might be different, without thereby compromising their status as counterparts of one another: George W. Bush might have one more chest hair in a neighboring world than in this one, or Michael Jackson might have died one day sooner or later. But the problem with these counterparts is that it is difficult to know where to draw the line, impossible, even, to determine at what point so many things about two supposed counterparts are so different that they are no longer counterparts at all. George W. Bush is still George W. Bush plus or minus a few chest hairs, but what if he had ended up running a hardware store rather than the United States?
Yet we seem to have a deep intuition about which inhabitants of other possible worlds might be our counterparts, which, that is, might be us if things had gone differently, and which could not be. We might even have a sense of deep familiarity with our own counterparts. For example, sometimes I am seized by the uncanny sense that I am leading several counterpart lives in parallel. There are moments when I am frankly unable to say of the actual, this-worldly me --by which I mean to say the counterpart of me that is myself-- which world-track exactly he, or I, is on. On occasion it even strikes me that I am not a law-enforcement official at all, but rather Justin Smith, a player for the San Francisco 49ers. Just the other day, I experienced something even stranger still: as I was cleaning out my firearm, I had a sudden sharp sense that I was Justin Smith, Esquire, a bespoke milliner, and that I was preparing to show some of my exquisite new creations at the Milan Fashion Week.
Sometimes it seems the actual world is nothing special, and that my real life is simultaneously unfolding in infinitely many other worlds, in all of my infinite counterparts. Not to put too fine a point on it, but sometimes I really just don't know who I am.
Augusta and I had video conversations over Skype several times in the following weeks. She told me a great deal about her life in South Africa, about the tedium of her job, and about how much she missed Jason. She said that as an untenured adjunct at the University of Pretoria she was made to teach a course on District 9, in which she was required to have students break into small groups and to discuss how they would feel if they were treated like the aliens. Consistently, Augusta reported, the students came to the conclusion that they would not like it at all.
She thought she'd enjoy teaching the course on 'Literatures of Apartheid' a bit more, but by the time it was assigned to her the 'Accommodating Learning Diversity' rules had taken effect, and professors at the university were now required to accept for a final grade any work that was pre-approved by the Office of Instructional Excellence's 'Learning Styles Grid'. More than half the students had determined that they were 'Kinetic-Dynamic Learners', and chose as their final work for the course to perform interpretive dances inspired by Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. Mostly they just hopped around in a squatting position in front of the class.
"I didn't spend three years of my life trying to make sense of A Thousand Plateaus just to end up as a babysitter," Augusta lamented. "I've got to get out of this university racket before I lose my dignity entirely. So do you," she added.
"What do you mean, me? I'm a law-enforcement officer."
"You're not a law-enforcement officer. You're a professor of philosophy."
"Maybe in some other world. Not in this one. In this one I'm running for sheriff."
Augusta laughed. "Whatever. I need you to help me get to the world where Jason didn't die."
"Again," I told her, "I made Jason up. He's fictional."
"Yes, he's fictional in your world. But in the world I'm in, or the world I was in, he died in a plane crash. You made him die, remember?"
"I made a fictional guy die, yes. If I make a guy up I'm allowed to do whatever I want to him."
"Yes. I think it's known as 'Flaubert's Law'." She laughed again. "But seriously, how can I have made him die in your world? The Law has no force beyond the bounds of the fictional."
"Just forget about that. The only thing that matters to me is that there's this other world, not this one and not the one I come from either --I found it by accident when I got drunk and decided to try Chatroulette-- where Jason actually exists and there was no Qantas accident."
"And where he's living out his days masturbating on Chatroulette?" Augusta wasn't laughing this time. "Sorry," I said. "By the way, have you ever heard of Fontenelle?"
"Fontenelle? Isn't that like that opening in your head when you're born that closes by the time you're grown up?"
"Yes. It's that too, I suppose."
The date of Augusta's arrival was drawing closer, and I found myself thinking constantly about what it would be like to meet her. She was her own person, certainly, yet I couldn't help but think that she was also, in some sense, my creation. Of course I can't create a person ex nihilo. I'm not God after all. But if a creature of my imagination happens to coincide exactly with a person God actually placed in a nearby possible world, then isn't my creation in some sense just as impressive?
I had been travelling constantly in the weeks before her arrival from South Africa. Going to meetings, talking with people, flying in planes, staying in hotels. I could not have told you where I was or what my purpose was for most of this time. All I really knew is that Augusta had agreed to meet me in one of my destination cities. My creation, appearing in flesh and blood in some hotel lobby. What would come next?
Not that I was getting ideas, of course. I'm a family man, with a pretty wife and two fine boys. I've built my whole campaign on it. But still, maybe there's some exemption, some hidden clause of Flaubert's Law.
Things are getting stranger. Just this morning, the day of Augusta's expected arrival, I awoke to find the following message in my inbox:
I fear you're losing hold of yourself, Justin. You are not a policeman in Colorado, and you're certainly not a football player in San Francisco or a designer at Milan Fashion Week. It's hard enough to see how you could believe you were just one of these characters, but how you could be all of them at once is truly beyond me. Perhaps next you'll start believing you're Justin Smith, the Australian rugby player, or Justin 'Boosted J' Smith, the champion poker player from Connecticut? Go Google these people again (I know you have already). Do you see an 'E. H.' in their names? Have you really forgotten who you are? Go look at your work profile. You are Justin E. H. Smith. I should know. I am too.
Your counterpart, J.
PS Stay away from Augusta Aardappel. You don't want to get mixed up in this trans-world stuff (any more than you already are...).
Now this is all really too much. It's one thing to be contacted from another possible world by someone who doesn't even exist in this one; it's quite another thing to be contacted by your own counterpart. I assume he must have been writing from some nearby possible world. He probably figured out how to monitor me through my webcam or something. I don't really know how it all works, but it's clear that the Internet is making things possible that really never should have happened.
Anyway, my counterpart's onto something. I'm not a Colorado family man. Those aren't my wife and kids back in Fort Collins. I don't know what I was thinking when I said they were. It's just that I've been on the road so much recently, and I've spent so much time clicking around from this site to that in anonymous hotel rooms, that my sense of my self has really started to unravel. But I'm sure I can get it back with a little effort.
Come to think of it, Augusta contacted me for the first time on Canadian Thanksgiving. How would I know that unless I lived in Canada? I'm a philosopher there, I think. Anyway I know way too much about the metaphysics of possible worlds to be qualified for anything else. But then there's that time when I was a rookie and I was out in the patrol vehicle with my partner Mike. (Why did I just call it a 'vehicle'? Who talks like that?) We pulled over a Dodge van with fumes coming out of it and next thing we knew we were making national headlines for uncovering the new 'mobile meth lab' phenomenon. I remember.
For now, one thing is clear: according to the 'Services for Guests' booklet, I'm sitting at the writing desk in a room at the Hyatt Regency Boston. My laptop tells me it is Sunday, November 28, 2010, 8:24 PM. I've just checked the internal digital information service on my room's television set, and it says that there are two conferences going on right now: in the Chesapeake Ballroom, it's the North American Executive Policing Conference; and on the Hancock Mezzanine, the Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association. (I suppose these organizations schedule their annual meetings on the weekend of the American Thanksgiving in order to help their members make the inevitable choice between career and family.)
On the nightstand next to the bed there is a firearm (where did I learn to call it a 'firearm'?) in a shoulder holster. It is sitting on top of a book: Fontenelle's Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (the 1998 Flammarion paperback edition). I pick the book up, open it at random, and read this line: Ceux qui ont des pensées à perdre, les peuvent perdre sur ces sortes de sujets; mais tout le monde n'est pas en état de faire cette dépense inutile.
How true, I think. But where did I learn to read French? And as I'm puzzling over this little biographical detail my iPhone starts vibrating with a message. It's Augusta. "R u up there?," she wants to know. "Im inthe lobby."
"I've been warned not to see you," I write back carefully (I, or the counterpart me who I happen to be, have/has always been punctilious about proper spelling, in all media). "It could knock the world off balance, or something."
"Thats crazy!!!," she texts back a few seconds later. "Were he're to help eachother!!!"
I strap on my shoulder holster (where did I learn to do that?) and I glance again at the book. Shall I bring it too? The phone vibrates again, but this time it's not Augusta.
"Whatever you do, don't bring the gun." It's my counterpart again, correct spelling and all.
"I can take care of myself, me," I write back angrily.
I grab my Fontenelle and I head for the door.
To be continued..
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Posted by Justin E. H. Smith at 01:05 AM | Permalink