Select Page

How Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster inadvertently dealt a fatal blow to the postmodern ideal…

In college, I wrote and submitted a paper to a writing conference entitled, “Tokens of Absence and Presence: Discussing Truth and Reality in Light of the Movie Inception.” The piece explored the themes of absence and presence from the perspective of absolute truth in the light of the cinematic film Inception. It centers on the inherent value of one of our most foundational truths—one’s presence in reality. There is a popular notion among postmodern anti-realists that a person cannot experience true presence in this world and that all human presence is mediated in some way, and therefore a form of absence. I adapted this piece for a blog post here in honor of the 7 year anniversary of the release of the blockbuster-hit movie Inception, by director Christopher Nolan.

“We stand at the end of the Age of Reason. A new era of the magical explanation of the world is rising. There is no truth, in the scientific sense.”
— Adolf Hitler

The Absence of Postmodernism

Postmodern anti-realists hold to a concept that Kant originally proposed – that there is an impenetrable barrier between “das ding für mich” (the thing for me) and “das ding an sich” (the thing itself)[1].  Thus, we are never able to go outside of our subjective perceptions in order to be able to know something objectively in reality. Kant’s critique eventually evolved into the complete postmodern rejection of the attempt to even SPEAK of something as being objectively true outside of us.

Now we will look on the effect this idea has when it comes to one of the most fundamental truths on earth – our very PRESENCE in reality.  Presence is “being in touch” – either literally or figuratively – with people, things, events, and feelings that make you who you are. The notion held by many postmodern anti-realists is that a person can never truly be “present” in reality, but that we can only experience mediated presence. That is because they believe our mind acts like a filter that distorts – nay – creates our very own reality which is distinctly different from anyone else’s’ reality and that therefore, there is no true reality. This then creates an underlying ABSENCE (void, emptiness) that exists between us and everything else in the world, even down to the person with whom we feel most intimate.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident”
— The Declaration of Independence

The Layers of Inception

Do you remember totems from the movie? The main character Dom advises his team to keep a “totem” with them at all times in order to discover whether they are deep within the layers of the subconscious dream state or whether they are in fact in the real world. Each totem is supposed to be an object or personal belonging that is intimately known and trusted by its owner.  Each team member is to familiarize themselves with their totem and to know how it feels, moves, and interacts with them. That way, if they ever forget whether they are awake or in a dream state, they can interact with their unique totem. If it does not look, feel, or act in way that is familiar to the owner, he or she can be assured that they are in a dream state and not in fact present in reality.

But here is the catch. In order for Dom to put faith in the ability of his spinning top to indicate when he was DREAMING, he had to first know how the top acted when he was AWAKE. In other words, Dom had to first know how his top acted when he was present in reality (that it would eventually fall) before he could trust it to indicate his absence from reality when it departed from that usual behavior (if it were to keep spinning).  In short, the only way we could trust our faculties to discern our absence from the rest of the world is if we first trust those same faculties to experience our presence in the world.

I’m not saying that we can ever separate ourselves from our unique perceptions and constructs that help us frame reality.  What I AM saying is that that there is an inherent presence, which we can and MUST first acknowledge and experience before we can begin to perceive it. In essence, an object must first be considered present before we are able to ‘absent it away’ with some form of mediation or mental filters.  In the language of Kant, there must first be “das ding an sich” before there could ever be “das ding für mich.”   This means there are some basic truths of reality, that, like totems, we can consider to be self-evident – true within and of themselves – and these fundamental truths are essential in our ability to frame and interact with reality.

“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.
“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone.
“To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s 
as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”
— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, chapter VII

“Hall of Mirrors” Effect 

What would it mean for us to accept ABSENCE as the fundamental human condition, rather than believing there to be an underlying PRESENCE with which we encounter our world?  Blockbuster movies like Inception continue to pick up where The Matrix left off, always keeping in step with the latest degree of virtual reality afforded by the technological advances of our time.  With increasing technology invested in the creation of virtual realities aimed at tricking the mind by its realism, scholars and professionals in many fields – especially in media – see our society heading towards an absolute loss of presence[1].  

It would seem that our society has successfully achieved the “hall-of-mirrors effect” prophesied by many postmodernists, in which we as a culture are meant to “stop asking which is the real thing and which is the image, and to settle for an ever-expanding choice of images.”[2] If this idea were taken to its natural conclusion, we would be left with NO knowable difference between physical presence and mediated presence. This would mean that a letter is philosophically no more “present” than a face-to-face conversation.  Should we be at all surprised, then, when author Katherine Hayles claims that there is now no difference between computer simulations and corporeal existence’[3]?

The idea that the human experience is fundamentally one of absence rather than of presence is to attempt to create chaos out of the ingredients of order – to congratulate ourselves on the end of all things without first rejoicing in the existence of those very things.  It is to mourn the death of a thing before fully experiencing its life. It is to dwell in the silent void and forget what it means to speak.

A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.
— Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

The Lie of Pseudo-presence

I happen to believe we are NOT merely autonomous selves separated from reality by layers of absence, but that we are primarily present in our relationships to real things and real people. Oddly enough, Inception unknowingly supports this assertion.

As Dom and his team continue to go deeper and deeper into the levels of dream states of their victim’s subconscious, Dom continues to battle with his own subconscious threatening to sabotage their efforts. This occurs chiefly through the frequent appearance of his wife, whose agenda is to keep Dom inside the dream world they had initially discovered together and in which she met her demise.  Near the end of the film, he finally endeavors to confront her before returning to the “surface” present and they engage in a fascinating dialog:

MAL: What are the distinguishing characteristics of a dream? Mutable laws of physics? Tell that to the quantum physicists. Reappearance of the dead? What about heaven and hell? Persecution of the dreamer, the creator, the messiah? They crucified Christ, didn’t they?
COBB: I know what’s real.
MAL: No creeping doubts? Not feeling persecuted, Dom? Chased around the globe by anonymous corporations and police forces? The way the projections persecute the dreamer? (Mal puts her hand on his face. Pitying.) Admit it, Dom. You don’t believe in one reality anymore. So choose. Choose your reality like I did. Choose to be here. Choose me.
COBB: (Rising anger) I have chosen, Mal. Our children. I have to get back to them. Because you left them. You left us.
MAL: You’re wrong, Dom. You’re confused… our children are here.
(A child’s shout draws Cobb — James crouches on the porch, back to us. Philippa joins him, also turned away. Cobb watches, moved. Mal leans in close.)
MAL (whispers): And you’d like to see their faces again, wouldn’t you, Dom?[1]

Dom’s choice was at that moment to return to the true Present or to perpetually live in a state of pseudo-presence. Pseudo-presence is absence masquerading as presence – perception pretending to be reality – and it is one of the greatest and most attractive illusions of our time. The moment Dom is forced to answer the question of whether he is absent or present – dreaming or awake – the deceptive pseudo-present illusions he had so carefully and meticulously constructed come crashing down.

No matter how embedded Dom is within the dreams – no matter how deeply buried in the layers of pseudo-presence and subterfuge – he could not escape the truth of the actual events that had taken place in his present reality.  No matter how cleverly he had constructed his imaginary world, he could not avoid the very real choice between absence and presence. He could continue to believe the attractive illusion of the pseudopresent dream by staying with his wife or to face the raw reality by returning to the Present where his children were waiting for their father to return.

The truth is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should, therefore, be treated with caution.
— Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

A Movie Script Ending

The movie continues to show the team successfully escape the layers of the dream world and return to the real world, allowing Dom to finally return home to his children in America.  After he enters the house, he takes out his top and begins to spin it as he watches his children run in from playing outside.  The screen continues to show the top spinning for several seconds, showing Dom reuniting with his children in the background. Finally, the screen goes dark and the movie ends.  The audience is left with a sensation that represents the epitome of the “postmodern sublime” – the uncertainty of whether the entire film was simply Dom’s dream or whether it did indeed begin and end with reality. 

This mind-boggling ending, however, embodies the fundamental deception of the “hall-of-mirrors effect” described by influential postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty. We as the audience are intended to “stop asking which is the real thing and which is the image, and to settle for an ever-expanding choice of images.”[2] What we seem to forget, however, is that if the camera had captured one or two more seconds of footage, we all would have inevitably seen the man behind the curtain.  The truth is that the top only ever had two choices: to fall, or to remain spinning. 

So, while movies have the advantage of being able to play these kinds of clever tricks, the real world is not so easily manipulated. It doesn’t matter how many mirrors are held up in front of us or how many dream layers Dom sinks into – There is still one original subject in front of the mirror, just like Dom still had only one original reality.  In the real world, humans do not have a myriad of options, a “hall of mirrors”, or an endless stream of possible meanings, as postmodernists would suggest.  Like Dom, we are left face-to-face with the choice of either a fundamental absence or a fundamental presence of reality as our starting point, no matter how far beneath the layers of mediation we find ourselves.



[1] Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason

[2] Elco Ruina, “Presence” History and Theory 45 (February 2006), 1-29

[3] From her book How We Became Post-Human.

[4] Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979)

[6] Want to understand Inception?