The Problem of Knowledge in a Postmodern Society: Lyotardian Incredulity and Baudrillardian Nihilism in Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin. (2022)



The Problem of Knowledge in a PostmodernSociety: Lyotardian Incredulity and Baudrillardian Nihilism in Lionel Shriver’sWe Need to Talk about Kevin.

The publicationof Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The PostmodernCondition in 1979 sparked considerable debate on the possibility of obtainingobjective knowledge. Postmodern theorists have argued that this is an outdatedEnlightenment ideal which fails to recognise cultural relativity. It isundeniable that postmodern deconstructive techniques have been very importantin the development of postcolonial and queer theory and certain branches of feminism. However, Lyotard’s work considers all claims of moraland epistemological ‘truths’ in terms of ‘metanarrative’ and Jean Baudrillard’sSimulation and Simulacra (1981)argues that our postmodern society has entirely lost the ‘real.’ This hasprovoked heated responses from empiricists of numerous disciplines andparticularly from scientists.

I shall briefly outline Lyotard’s and Baudrillard’stheories on knowledge, truth and ‘the real’ and the empiricist criticisms ofthem before considering Lionel Shriver’s WeNeed to Talk about Kevin (2003) as a postmodern text which explores theconcepts of metanarrative, truth,knowledge and reality. It will be arguedthat Franklin ascribes wholly to metanarratives and is unable to perceiveanything outside them. Eva will be shown to exhibit Lyotardian incredulitytowards metanarratives and an attempt to negotiate her way through life usinglanguage games whilst Kevin rejects prescribed ‘truths’ utterly, epitomisingBaudrillardian concepts of ‘nihilism’ and ‘terrorism.’


The postmoderncondition at its most simple, argues Lyotard, is ‘an incredulity towardmetanarratives’ (1979 pxxiv.) He goes on to say that from the end of the 19thcentury, ‘an internal erosion of the legitimacy principle of knowledge’ beganto cause a change in the status of knowledge (p39.) By the 1960s, the resulting‘doubt’ and ‘demoralisation’ of scientists had made ‘an impact on the centralproblem of legitimisation’ (p8.) However, scientists are by no means sure they are doubtful and demoralised. In a critiqueof postmodernism, Intellectual Impostures(1997) French physicists Sokal and Bricmont argue that this ‘relative attitudeis at odds with scientists’idea of their own practice. While scientiststry, as best they can, to obtain an objective view of (certain aspects of) theworld, relativist thinkers tell them that they are wasting their time and thatsuch an enterprise is, in principle, an illusion. We are thus dealing with afundamental conflict’ (Loc 967.)


In this conflict, an important argument for anobjective morality is presented by the neuroscientist, Sam Harris in The Moral landscape (2011.) Harris’ chapter ‘Moral Truth’ read alongside Lyotard’s‘Narratives of the Legitimation of Knowledge’ reveals their initial argumentsto be remarkably similar. They both stress that consensus should not bemistaken for ‘truth’ and emphasise that positive knowledge cannot, in itself, dictatemorality. Harris’ image of a landscape with many peaks representing different waysof achieving wellbeing could be seen to parallel Lyotard’s paralogy of legitimation. However,Harris asserts that ‘There are facts – realfacts – to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worstpossible misery and the greatest possible wellbeing’ (p30) whilst Lyotard argues‘the only role positive knowledge can play is to inform the subject about thereality …what should be done is not within the purview of positive knowledge’ (p36.)


JeanBaudrillard, in Simulacra and Simulationargues that a postmodern society has moved beyond meaning in any form and is comprisedentirely of signs which have lost all connection with any external reality and become‘hyperreal’ (1981. p1.) ‘The universe of the simulation is transreal andtransfinite: no test of reality will come to put an end to it – except thetotal collapse and slippage of the terrain’ (p157.) Sokal and Bricmontanalyse two of Baudrillard’s claims; that science too has come to suspect that reality is souncertain that physical laws can be reversedand also that a reversal of cause and effect is supported by chaos theory.They demonstrate that neither of thoseclaims makes sense in scientific terms and convincingly argue that ‘one finds in Baudrillard’s works a profusion of scientific terms, usedwith total disregard for their meaning and, above all, in a context where theyare manifestly irrelevant’ (1997. loc2307.)

When Baudrillard speaks of ‘objectivity of which science is nevercertain, of which it secretly despairs’ (1981 p129) and Lyotard asks ‘What proof is therethat my proof is true’(1979 p24) they express the radical scepticism to which the biologist Richard Dawkins has replied ‘Because it works. Planes fly. Cars drive,computers compute. If you base medicine on science you cure people. It works’ (News.com.au. 2013.) Similarly, the philosopherDavid Detmer argues ‘The fault in …many contemporary postmodernists is notmerely that they fail to subject their beliefs to abstract, artificial, purelyformal and logical tests, but that they fail to notice that they cannot live bythose beliefs’ (2003. loc 170.)


We Need to Talk aboutKevincan be read as anexploration of different attitudes towards knowledge and the attempts to liveby them. Franklin, with his commitment to the metanarratives of America andfather-son relationships, regards ‘redemption as an act of will’ (p15) andcan be seen to symbolise themore unified of Lyotard’s two narratives of legitimation.Lyotard relates this model tothe German concept of Bildung in which a principle and an ideal are unified bya single philosophy (pp32-5.) Eva describes Franklin’s‘heartrendingtendency to mistake what you actually had for what you desperately wanted’(p16.)In this narrative, Lyotardargues ‘every possible referent is taken up not from the point of view ofimmediate truth value but …by virtue of occupying a certain place in theitinerary of spirit or life’ (p35.) To Franklin ‘Earthly countries and singlemalignant little boys can go to hell; the idea of countries and the idea ofsons triumph for eternity’(p80.)Bildung has its origins in Christian theology and Evasays of Franklin ‘Although neither of us went to church I came to conclude thatyou were a naturally religious person’(p88.)

Psychiatrist Gerald Wiviott discussesthe psychology of fundamentalist thinking, religious and otherwise, arguingthat‘fundamentalists see theworld as if their knowledge of it were absolute. Rigidly held beliefs,intolerance of alternative points of view (and a) capacity to reinterprethistory to fit their worldview’ (2007. p3-4) are all traits of fundamentalism.Franklin’s views as described byEva show this mind-set ‘History is made of empires, and the United States wasby far and away the greatest, richest, and fairest empire that had everdominated the earth’(p37.)Wiviott advocates a ‘contextual epistemology’ which recognises ‘that much ofwhat we call knowledge is culturally determined’ but argues that‘postmodernists, in taking … relativity to an extreme, make moral principlesseem vague and trivial. One might make the case that fundamentalist ideologiesare a growing response… to the lack of moral absolutes’ (p4.)

If Franklin conforms toLyotard’s second, unified, narrative of legitimation, Eva is, at first,self-consciously committed to what Lyotard describes as the first, critical,version which legitimates itself upon ideals of an ‘autonomous collectivity,’finding validity in the human subject (p36.) That Eva is sceptical of theprescriptions of the collective on maternal behaviour even whilst conforming tothem is shown in her language. ‘I have no end of failings as a mother, but Ihave always followedthe rules’(p39.) ‘It is againstthe rules, isn’t it, to actually havea baby and spend any time at all on that banished parallel life in which youdidn’t’ (p12.)‘I was notfollowing the program… I had dismally failed us and our newborn baby’ (p83.)However, Lyotard’s argument that ‘weno longer have recourse to the grand narratives …even to the emancipation ofhumanity’ (p60)is shown when,after the shootings, Eva loses hertenuous commitment to this more critical, idealistic narrative. ‘Though once astaunch democrat -I long ago gave up on defending humanity. It’s beyond me, onmost days, to defend myself’ (p65.)

These two narratives oflegitimation, represented here in Franklin’s assured denotative utterances andEva’s slightly ironic prescriptive ones, Lyotard argues, require ‘totallydifferent language games’ (p36) and Eva describes their conversations abouthaving children in these terms ‘These talks of ours had a gameliness, and youropening play was noncommittal’ (p16.)Before Kevin, Eva’s and Franklin’slanguage games produced, if not agreement, co-operative moves which enabledtheir relationship to work.InLyotard’s theory of language games ‘if there are no rules, there is no game…even an infinitesimal modification of one rule alters the nature of the game’(p10.) From Eva’s perspective, Franklin changed the rules. When he says“Never, ever tell me that you regretour own kid,” Eva perceives a drastic change.‘(S)incewhen was there anything that one of us was never, ever to say?’(p64.) Eva’s moves are then restricted.‘I would never reveal to anyone onearth that childbirth had left me unmoved. You had your unspeakable...now I hadmine. I would reach for that word, indescribable’(p83.)Finally, they lose the ability tocommunicate at all. The title of the novel indicates how central this is tothe plot. Eva says ‘I’d have given my eye teeth to beable to talk to you’(p293.)Evais gradually silenced over the course of the novel as she is removed from thelanguage game. Lyotard says ‘a player is silenced not because he has beenrefuted but because his ability to participate has been threatened’ and ‘Thisbehaviour is terrorist’ (p63.)Interestingly, the ‘terrorist’ responsible isnot Eva’s fundamentalist husband but her nihilist son.


Kevin’s use of languagereflects Baudrillard’s notion that speech is a form of force exerted toforce children to agree with the system. ‘Children speak … not through somesort of "liberation" of their speech, but because adult reason hasgiven itself the most subtle means to avert the threat of their silence’ (1981p136.) As a young child, Kevin does not speak and Eva does find thisthreatening. ‘Kevin’s silence had an oppressive quality’ (p112.) When Kevinchooses to engage in language games, his ‘moves’ are deconstructive. When Evatries to engage him in conversation on their ‘mother-son’ outing, he uses herown adjectives to attack and silence her (p279.)


Baudrillard uses the imagery of a ‘black hole’ todescribe postmodern society in ‘In The Shadow of the Silent Majorities’ (1983p8) and in ‘On Nihilism’ he says ‘Society is … nihilistic, in the sense that ithas the power to pour everything… into indifference’ (1981 p163.) Eva usesseveral images of dark holes to describe Kevin. He has an ‘apathy so absoluteit’s like a hole you might fall in’ (p57.) ‘(H)is pupils were thick andsticky as a tar pit’ (p295.) ‘I’m not surethat I want to understand Kevin, to find a well within myself so inky that fromits depths what he did makes sense’(p167.)


Kevin can be seen to represent a Baudrillardiansense of meaninglessness in numerous ways. Baudrillard says ‘Melancholiais the inherent quality of the mode of the disappearance of meaning’ and Evasays of Kevinunderneath the levels of fury…lay a carpet of despair. He wasn’t mad. He was sad’ (p236.) However, Kevin was angry with those who found meaning in life and made them hisvictims. He found them ridiculous but ‘impenetrablepassions have never made Kevin laugh. From early childhood, they have enragedhim’ (p247.) Baudrillard alsoaggressively rejects the idea of finding pleasure and meaning in life. ‘One canexalt the ruses of desire… but this does not resolve the imperious necessity ofchecking the system in broad daylight. This, only terrorism can do’ (p163.)


BrendanButterfield argues ‘Against the system and its passive nihilism,Baudrillard proffers his own brand of what might be termed active nihilism, apraxis that includes theoretical and aesthetic "terrorism," but not,in the end, the bloody acts of actual violence his theory accounts for’(2002:4.)Kevin, of course, does commit bloody acts of violence. Significantly, hespeaks the single word ‘maleficence’ whilst doing so. This is the name ofBaudrillard’s second order of simulation – the appearance of evil in which aprofound reality is distorted (p6.) If Kevin’sactions are an attempt to do something real or meaningful through ‘evil’, theyare as ineffective as Baudrillard predicts they will be. When Baudrillard says ‘This is the victory ofthe other nihilism, the other terrorism, that of the system’ (p164,) Butterfieldargues that he is expressing his ‘ utmost pessimism regarding the subject'sability to effect a change in the system, which in the end neutralizes everyevent, no matter how deadly’(3.) Eighteen months after the shooting ‘Kevin isalready yesterday’s news’ (p41) and whenEva asks him to explain his motivations for the shootings, he says ’I used tothink I knew…now I am not so sure’ (p397.) The novel ends shortly after thisanswer which would seem unsatisfactory or evasive to many people. Eva, however,recognises an uncharacteristically genuine response and can respect an admissionof the lack of knowledge. She is hopeful that, for Kevin, ‘progress isdeconstruction’ (p397) and this mild optimism towards language games and the deconstructionof metanarratives is purely Lyotardian.

We have seen that attitudes towards knowledge andreality have been the root of conflict in this novel and I have outlined how this reflects the disputes between postmodernistsand empiricists as they continue to contest how much we can actually ‘know’ andhow much we construct for ourselves. Franklin’s construction of an absolute‘truth’ has been contrasted with Eva’s Lyotardian incredulity and Kevin’sBaudrillardian nihilism. If there is a conclusion to be reached in this novel,it could be argued to be that neither blind acceptance nor hostile rejection of‘truths’, ‘knowledge’ or ‘meaning’ work well in today’s society.

Bibliography

Baudrillard.J. (1983) In theShadow of the Silent Majorities and Other Essays. New York. Semiotexte Inc.(Online) Available at: http://autonomousuniversity.org/sites/default/files/Baudrillard_Shadow-of-the-Silent-Majorities.pdf. (Accessed April 28th 2013)

Baudrillard. J.(1981) Simulacra and Simulation. Translatedby Sheila Farria Glaser. Reprint. The University of Michigan Press. 1994.

Butterfield. B. (2002) ‘The Baudrillardian Symbolic, 9/11, and the War ofGood and Evil’ Postmodern Culture 13(1) (Online) Availableat: http://pmc.iath.virginia.edu/textonly//issue.902/13.1butterfield.txt(Accessed May 7th 2013)

Detmer. D. (2003) Challenging Postmodernism: Philosophy and the Politics of Truth. NewYork. Humanity Books. Kindle Edition. Available at: Amazon.com.

Harris. S. (2011)The Moral Landscape. TransworldDigital. Kindle Edition. Available at: Amazon.com.

Lyotard. J. (1979) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated byBennington.G & Massumi.B. Reprint. Manchester. Manchester University Press.1984

News.com.au (2013) ‘Scientist Richard DawkinsSlaps Down Science Cynic.’ (Online) Available at:

Sokal.A &Bricmont.J (1997) IntellectualImpostures. London. Profile Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. Available at:Amazon.com

Shriver. L. (2003) We Need to Talk about Kevin. London. Serpent’s Tail. KindleEdition. Available at: Amazon.com.|

Wiviott. G. (2007) ‘The Psychology ofFundamentalism.’ St Mary’s HospitalPsychiatry Grand Rounds. (Online) Available at: http://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/The_Psychology_of_Fundamentalism-Gerald_Wiviott.pdf (Accessed 26th April 2013)


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