The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman

By David Larocca | Go to book overview

LIVING A PART

Synecdoche, New York, Metaphor, and the Problem of
Skepticism

RICHARD DEMING

There is an old bit by absurdist comic Steven Wright in which he tells the audience, employing his characteristic deadpan monotone, that he has a map of the United States, actual size. “It says, ‘scale: one mile equals one mile.’ I spent last summer folding it. I also have a full-size map of the world. I hardly ever unroll it.”1 If Jorge Luis Borges were a stand-up comedian, he might have written these very lines. Indeed, as funny as Wright’s bit is, there is something more telling beneath it, some kind of thought experiment put into play here about scale and representation, about something we might call a world being itself a kind of representation situated within some larger condition that warrants our attention and yet exceeds our ken. In speaking of a world, we are always speaking within a series of representations and approximations, classifications that inform and form how experience comes to us. Opportunities that bring forward the problems and possibilities of representation provide the occasion for discussing issues of the largest possible import.

Philosophical occasions can appear almost anywhere, in a series of lines from a comedian, say, or in a film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman—a film such as Synecdoche, New York, whose title lets us know that the movie is conscious of its troping, of its being a trope. Both Wright’s lines and Kaufman’s film offer a meditation on the means of representing things, and representations are a part of some wider, some wilder earth that we cannot represent without diminishment and yet must represent in order to locate ourselves. To deal with representations is to find that one is negotiating worldviews. These works of art enact those views, which

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