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Our What if? essay series encourages you to embark on philosophical adventures more frequently and motivates you to regularly push past the boundaries of conventional thought. To read previous submissions, click here

This open-ended thought experiment is participatory and accessible to everyone.

For 2015, we’ve reframed the parameters, to find out more about it and how you can submit an essay, please visit:

How to participate in the What If project


JASON STONEKING is an American poet and essayist who travels as much as possible but always seems to wind up back in Paris. He has published two collections each of poetry and essays, and recently released a volume of his observations from a three-month residency in Cairo. He has also worked as a screenwriter, a chess commentator, a performance artist, and the front-man of a punk band. His goals are to never surrender and to keep himself interested in life at all costs.

More about him and his work can be found on his website at www.jasonstoneking.com.

What if…?

What if it turned out that there is no such thing as really telling the truth? What if all our most earnest attempts at honesty and sincerity were actually just roads to nowhere? Like, for example, when somebody asks me what my favorite kind of ice cream is. What if I said butter pecan? Would that mean that I actually knew what “favorite” meant or where “liking” came from? What if I was only saying butter pecan because I had somewhere along the line gotten the idea planted in my head that it was an interesting sensation on my tongue, or even just an interesting thing to say? And what if I didn’t know where or when the plantation of that idea had originally occurred? What if I couldn’t guarantee the absence of interference from marketing or cultural zeitgeist? What if I had no accurate way of tracing where even my most trivial opinions came from to begin with? How would I then know which ones were the most honest? What would honesty then even mean?

Can I really be sure that I know what kind of ice cream I like? If I’m conscious of all kinds of outside influences that have likely contributed to my tastes, does that make those tastes less organically mine? Or what if, say, I had a distant memory of preferring rocky road as a child, and what if I couldn’t say for sure whether I had just gotten tired of it, or if my taste buds had evolved, or if I had psychologically abandoned my allegiance to that flavor because it represented something else in my childhood that I was subconsciously trying to escape? What if I don’t even know what makes tastes change, or what preferences ever even mean, or what they are founded on, or for how long?

What if I have to admit that I like lots of flavors because they all evoke different mysterious sensations in my body memory and that my answer to the question might change from day to day? Or that I suspect it may sometimes change sheerly out of boredom rather than out of a change in qualitative judgment of any kind? What if I’m afraid that my real reason for liking butter pecan might be a subconscious effort to fit in with and be liked by some group of influencers from my childhood that I don’t even remember anymore.  And what if I have new unexamined influences now? What if have to admit that even as I say butter pecan I harbor a suspicion that I might soon start saying vanilla bean or maple nut crunch instead? Does that mean that I’ve already on some level changed my mind? Or that I’m on some level working in concert with the forces that are acting on me to change it?

And what if it wasn’t just ice cream? What if that same kind of reasoning then began to pull the rug out from under my feelings about anything at all? What if I found myself having the same problem unraveling my political affiliations, my philosophical ideals, my most deeply held values? After all the nights I’ve spent pouring my heart out onto the page, desperately and neurotically struggling to record the most honest conceivable representation of my thoughts and feelings, what if at the end of the day there just wasn’t one? On any subject? What if under each of my thoughts was just another level of awareness, and that under each level of awareness lurked a sinister cynical skepticism implying the next? And what if I were actually provoking that skepticism by upturning all those stones in my psyche, only to find darker and more cruelly labyrinthine tunnels beneath each of them?

What if the mere act of investigating the motives that lay beneath each of my thoughts was the very thing subverting their authenticity? What if  there was truly no such thing as a confession? What if the ritual of excavating and publicly declaiming one’s self-awareness and self-consciousness was actually the most corrupt and cynically intentional thing that one could do? What if all my efforts to say the truest, realest possible thing were actually just exacerbating this problem? What if all my digging into reflections on the motives behind the motives behind every one of my words was only telescoping into a vertiginous infinite regress, like a mirror held up to a mirror held up to a mirror?

What if human self-awareness turned out to be some kind of grand malfunction, an ill-adapted mutation, the fatal flaw that forever condemned us to a less authentic, a less real, a less visceral life than that of the animals? What if language was really nothing more than an erected layer of distance between the self and the other, between the mind and the object of contemplation, between the eye and the thing beheld? What if the names of things were not signifiers or descriptors of those things, but in fact were only signifiers of forms, or of ideas of those things, and therefore by invoking those names we were actually constructing a distance between what we comprehend and the actual truth of the thing named? What if all our attempts at understanding ourselves and our environment through communication were backfiring?

And what if that meant that we writers, for all our efforts, were even further from our truth than the average person? I’m not saying that there’s no value to writing, or no point, or no kind of truth to find in any corner of existence, or that it doesn’t matter what we say, or whether we say anything at all, because there’s no foundation of meaning underneath anything anyway. I’m not saying that I wake in terror wondering why I write at all, or that my proudest creative achievements only taunt me from the shelf with reminders of their ultimate emptiness. I’m not saying that every time I look at a tub of ice cream I am plunged into a bottomless black hole of self doubt that makes me question the very backbone of human self-conception. I’m not saying any of that at all. I’m just saying, you know, like… what if ?

J.S. 2014

Published: January 8th, 2015

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One Comment

  1. A grammatologist is born?


    Zachary Willis

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