A performative contradiction refers to a statement whose presupposition contradicts its content. Sentences such as “I am dead” or “I am illiterate” or “I don’t speak English.” I can’t be dead, unable to read or write or speak English and proceed to make these claims. Even though the performative contradiction is a rhetorical principle, I am interested in its application to the realm of action. What if our actions can’t be distinguished from the cohesive state of our psyches, both its conscious and unconscious contents? Instead, our actions are inevitable extensions of the content of our psyches, which may or may not be available for our conscious viewing.
To illustrate what I mean—I usually think of myself as a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat because I am fearful of its potential health risks (though there seems to be conflicting evidence in this regard, so this explanation has lost some of its juice). BUT I am also fascinated by and have a tremendous amount of respect for consciousness, and I don’t think chickens and cows are any less conscious simply because they do not participate in language speaking or driving on freeways. (and here you might say something like yeah but they’re clearly not operating at the same level of sophistication as human beings. But if we’re respecting them only on the principle that they may be conscious, consciousness proceeds all the contents that inhabit it, including intelligence and competence, so this type of respect seems to arise prior to the fruits of a conscious agent). And yet, I still eat mayonnaise occasionally, and sometimes I’ll eat cookies with eggs, and if I’m feeling especially unruly sometimes I’ll drink coffee with cream. You might think, well maybe these things are okay because animals were not killed in the process of creating these products. But if the natural course of their lives was re-negotiated by the human agenda this seems to be a disruption to their autonomy, and it seems like autonomy and consciousness are at least close to being indistinguishable.
Granted, it is possible that I am more susceptible to breaking my own principles than the average person, (only moderate in conscientiousness [58th percentile]) but my sense is that this sort of performative contradiction is more endemic to human experience than we collectively acknowledge. If there is a dis-junction between my stated values and my actions, then what if it’s not so much that my actions are out of alignment with my values, but that I don’t have a fully articulated set of values? Perhaps there are values that are operating beyond my conscious understanding that are manifesting in my behavior. For example– the person who smokes cigarettes and claims to value her life and her family. There is a way in which it is possible to smoke and still experience positive emotion that would contribute to a person’s will to live. But if the cigarette smoker knows that by breathing in these chemicals it is possible that one day she might be told she has a tumor pressing on her lung that has spread to her brain, can she (FULLY) acknowledge this possibility and value her life simultaneously? As Jordan Peterson articulated in his 8th rule: “Tell the truth; or at least, don’t lie” we only think we understand how a system works (in this case, the body) when it cooperates with us. Then the question becomes–what if my actions are always a perfect representation of my values, and it’s just that as an ego I am not, at any moment, fully aware of the constellation of desires and attributes and short comings which make up my psycho-dynamics. In short, there may be details of the unconscious that are unavailable for my speculation that result in my acting in specific ways. The implication here seems to be that when I conceptualize about myself, I only have access to a sliver of the relevant information. Of course, this was the news of psychoanalysis that we all embraced in the early 20th century, but the ego has a significant hold over daily thoughts and emotions, so it seems worth re-affirming: I as conscious witness am an amalgam of competing sub selves with their own set of desires and attitudes and emotional valences. It is possible that when I am stating my values, I am speaking for a single sub-self with desires that are split off from the version of me who sighs in resignation prior to taking a bite of a portobello mushroom sandwich with mayonnaise and cheese.
Most people do not acknowledge the parts of themselves that conflict with what mainstream culture deems acceptable. Darker thoughts that we might loosely associate with the shadow might occur because our status as members of the animal kingdom dictates that a certain level of aggression and resentment are necessary to getting what we want. What’s interesting about the kind of performative contradiction i’m describing is that it demonstrates not so much that the action is unrepresentative of the inner life but that our actions can emphasize some avenue of the psyche that has not yet been explored or acknowledged. Whenever people like me sit and articulate our values we’re only speaking from one of many autonomous selves. As Steven Pinker stated in The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature, “The self is a spin doctor not commander in chief.” The self can articulate a list of justifications for doing whatever suits its current purposes because it seems to be something like fleeting software that comes about depending on a person’s physiological climate. When I’m distracted and under nourished, a cold water and some indulgent food seems like the most obvious choice in the world, but when I’m feeling productive and caffeinated all I want to do is explore the world of articulating principles and figuring out what it would mean to stand beside them.
The things that get us in the most trouble—the drive for food and sex—arise from our instincts, and our interest in articulating values or creating blogs came at a much later time in the evolution of the species. Are the systems that evolved earlier are inherently more powerfully motivating than the ones that evolved later? If so, the performative contradiction I’ve been describing may be a fundamental human problem because we have these complex conceptualization skills but we’re still held hostage by the lower drives we share with other members of the animal kingdom. Maybe the performative contradiction is a problem that plagues most humans because it cuts to the core of our existential issues. We can conceptualize about our own death, but we’re still ultimately powerless in the state of our body’s eventual decay. In other words, we can learn as much as we can with our minds, but the mind is dependent upon the condition of the body. Therefore, in these smaller moments of choosing between sticking w principles and playing around w what it is like to be a body, the probability that we’re going to make the less enlightened decision is high.