Can We Speak/Think Things Into Being?

Over the past couple weeks I’ve had the curious pleasure of hearing a couple of the world’s foremost “gurus”—Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins—give their respective accounts of human happiness to a classroom of wide-eyed college students. Chopra and Robbins are champions of “wellness” and mind-body-spirit synchronicity, preaching a new-agey self-help gospel not dissimilar from Rhonda Byrne’s Oprah-sanctioned The Secret. Central to each of their dogmas is a salvific belief in the power of positive thinking. For Chopra, this translates into things like “narrative medicine” and the assertion that beliefs can convert into actual molecules, that “our consciousness creates our biology.” Robbins articulates it in terms of pop-psychology, emphasizing the power of frames and syntax in the construction of our identities and personal stories, suggesting that “the way we think about our self changes the reality of who we are.” And of course this is all simplified rather nicely in The Secret, which similarly maintains that our thoughts can create our reality: “You become AND attract what you think.”

Now, my initial response to all of this is that it is complete and utter gobbledygook. Do we really think that we can change our biology, our personality, our material circumstance in life just by thinking about it a lot? Does our saying something bring it into being? Surely not…

But as a good postmodern (I use that designation loosely… in the postmodern sense, I suppose) who has studied Communication, Critical Theory, and Literary Theory in graduate school, I must admit there are lingering suspicions in my mind that there is something to this idea of reality as the construction of language, of declaration.

And speaking of declarations, perhaps we should turn to Jacques Derrida and his essay “Declarations of Independence” to understand these ideas. Derrida uses the Declaration of Independence to argue for the arbitrariness of all claims to power, specifically in the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights.” Derrida finds in this statement a profound contradiction: on one hand the signatories of the Declaration are invoking natural law/God and are thus stating a “constative” (to use Derrida’s term), while on the other hand they say that “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” which for Derrida is “performative”—it establishes the truth of the stated principles by means of the very act of stating them. If the truths are self-evident to all human beings, for example, why do we even need to point out that they are self-evident? The signatories must establish themselves as holding the truths to be self-evident. For Derrida, this is a performative declaration masquerading as a constative.

Indeed, isn’t it true that in our multicultural, heterogeneous, globalized world we have come to recognize that language (all communication, really) takes on an unavoidably performative dimension? That is: communication must be seen in cultural context—as a means of making meaning that is both “of” and “for” reality. What is “true” or taken as constative in one culture (e.g. “The sky is blue”) may be totally incomprehensible in another, where different words and expressions create different realities of what otherwise might be thought of as a “universal.” Different cultures emphasize different values and articulate different aspects of reality—and even those things that do seem universal (“love,” “sadness”) are articulated or understood in vastly different ways. Clearly, the way that we communicate the world to ourselves (in culturally and temporally specific contexts), determines what that world is, at least in terms of our perceptions of it (and what else do we have but our perceptions??).

And so, if we admit that to some extent our realities come into being through the various ways we communicate them to one another, is it that much of a stretch to believe Chopra, Robbins, and The Secret lady when they say that we can think our way to better lives??

Well, before we get too carried away, let’s think a bit more practically about all this. After all, aren’t there pretty obvious limits to “the power of declaration”? It’s not like we (unlike God) can simply say “Let there be light” if we are afraid of the dark. It’s not like we can declare “I want to fly” and then take off like Peter Pan… That is one belief, Deepak, that I don’t think can morph into molecular reality.

And of course, we still have the problems of first principles, of legitimacy and authority in the original instance. For rationalists/modernists like Jurgen Habermas, the untamed fluidity of performative declarations always begs the question, “in the name of what?” That is, if we have any recourse to dialogical reasonableness (i.e. the cognitive acceptance of another person’s statement as having some merit) we must appeal to some sort of transcendent norm or power. How could we ever converse across cultures? There must be some overarching power that allows us to accept logic and dismiss ridiculousness.

Hannah Arendt is perhaps the most articulate in highlighting the problem of circularity inherent in every foundational act or beginning. If it is true that the will of a person (to assert certain truths as self-evident, for example) is the source of all legitimacy, then from where do the people originally derive their authority? With respect to Derrida’s notion that the declaration “all men are created equal” is self-evident only because we posit it as such, Arendt responds that no, our experience shows us that men are not created equal, but become equal only through political order and constitutional assurances of equality.

The insinuation is that there are practical things that we must do, not just say, in order to bring things into being. And in this highly-mediated election season in which promises and soundbites and declarations are bandied about with gluttonous abandon, we would do well to recognize this fact: Words themselves can only do so much.

Yes, Rev. Wright, it is true that words can do quite a lot (Obama knows that better than anyone), but one can speak only so much truth to power. To those who feel slighted by the system or otherwise silenced, a word well spoken is a powerful thing, yes. But it is not all powerful. Language is an effective mediator, but it is not a creator.