Richard Rorty for the Silver Screen
People were dumbfounded—perhaps more by my audacity than by my intelligence. My point was how an ethic grounded in a Trinitarian God makes more sense than either modernist or postmodern ethics. Other members on my panel included an African American professor talking about the ethics of Afrocentricism and a Queer Studies professor talking about the ethics of gay sex clubs. Since I knew the audience at this national conference would be most suspicious of my position, I outlined the insufficiencies of modernist and postmodern ethical positions before I argued for the legitimacy of Christian ethics. Several came up to me afterward to assure me that "My university has hired a Christian!"
In any case, I came home feeling successful, only to have my hundred-plus hours of research and writing sullied by a cute 90-minute film.
Waking Ned Devine is incredibly enjoyable—and disturbing. Filmed on the gorgeous Isle of Wight in the English Channel, the wonderfully quirky movie, written and directed by Kirk Jones, presents sprightly characters fascinating to watch. But Waking Ned Devine also presents a postmodern ethic with such delight that it seems far more attractive than traditional Christianity.
"Postmodernism" became a household word (at least in academic houses) soon after the publication in 1984 of Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Post-Modern Condition. In this work, Lyotard calls for a dismantling of "metanarratives": those totalizing explanations of existence that demand universal "consensus." Instead, Lyotard advocates "dissensus," wherein groups of people define themselves not by one metanarrative that they insist is the truth for all humans—as Enlightenment rationalism, like Christianity, had done—but instead by their own localized "language games." For Lyotard, then, different "language games" define what is just differently, explaining the pun behind his 1985 work Just Gaming.1
The notion of gaming informs the entire narrative of Waking Ned Devine. The film's opening shot is a television screen display of the winning numbers in a current Irish lottery game. The camera then pulls back to reveal a white-haired gentleman, Jackie O'Shea, watching the game in his easy chair, trying to surmount his wife's refusal to bring his dessert tart from the kitchen. He exclaims about each of his matching lottery numbers until Annie O'Shea excitedly brings the tart to her winning husband. Only then does she discover it was all a ruse: he was just gaming to get the tart.
In the midst of both games, however, Jackie discovers that the true winner of the lottery lives in their tiny Irish village, Tullymore. With the help of best friend Michael Sullivan, Jackie and Annie set up the next game of the film: inviting everyone who bought lottery tickets to a chicken dinner in order to elicit not only a revelation of the winner but also his or her good graces. By process of elimination, our protagonists figure out that Ned Devine, who failed to attend their homey banquet, must be the winner. Jackie and Michael visit his house only to surmise that news of the lottery killed him, for they find his dead fingers stiffened around his valuable winning ticket.
Dead Ned, of course, cannot claim his £7 million, so Jackie and Michael decide that one of them should impersonate him. To do so, they must engage the cooperation of the entire village in "just gaming," promising to divide the money equally among all 52 citizens. The protagonists make their new language game—Ned Devine lives—in deed seem just; everyone is encouraged to assent or dissent with full knowledge of the material benefits that all will share equally. By visualizing in sumptuous long shots the quaint isolation of the village, the filmmakers eliminate any apparent threat of alternative narratives challenging the villagers' game. As long as everyone within the community is willing to follow "the new rules of the game" (Lyotard), the ethic is pragmatically viable.
Unfortunately, one villager, Lizzy Quinn, refuses to play the game, not because it is false, but because she wants a larger cut of the winnings. To force her to join in, according to Lyotard, would be an act of "terror." True to its postmodern spirit, then, Waking Ned Devine is careful to show that no pressure other than gentle persuasion is placed upon Lizzy; the villagers acknowledge that they may have to give up on their game if she refuses to play, and they even accede to her demands for a larger percentage of the take. Lizzy, however, knowing she can make even more money by turning her back on the community, heads for the phone booth outside town to expose the "game" to the Lottery Officials, who give a substantial monetary reward to anyone who exposes fraud.
Lizzy has shown herself to be parsimonious throughout the film, nastily refusing to pay her debts to others in the village. Any compassion she might generate by being confined to a motorized chair is quickly overturned when the chair runs out of energy on her way to expose the village's scheme: she hurriedly walks the rest of the way to the phone booth. Thus, even her "disability" is merely a manifestation of her narcissistic self-interest. Called a "witch" by Jackie O'Shea, Lizzy's demise creates a fairy-tale element within the film; she is killed by accident while she's in the midst of sinning against the community—in such an outrageous fashion that the screen all but sings, "Ding, dong, the witch is dead; the wicked witch, the witch is dead!"
In radical contrast, the film closes with the noble act of Maggie, a young single mother, who surreptitiously sacrifices her son's legitimate claim to the lottery winnings so that the money can be shared by all.
Community solidarity becomes the highest good, fancifully illustrating the postmodern ethic suggested by Richard Rorty's famous Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. The "true" for Rorty does not correspond to universal moral principles but is contingent on the coherence of a community's vocabulary.
Rorty's neopragmatic ethic is grounded in "we-intentions": immorality is "the sort of thing we don't do"2—like defy the "intentions" of an entire village to share a dead man's lottery winnings. Of course, these weren't always the "we-intentions" of the community in Waking Ned Devine; the new solidarity of Tullymore is shaped by the two protagonists who see potential for positive change. Jackie and Michael thus illustrate Rorty's concept of irony: a force that brings into view the contingency of a community's vocabulary. Ironists prevent a community from stagnating or becoming legalistic, providing "new metaphors" for new contexts. A metaphor, of course, is when one object represents another: "My love is a red, red rose." In Waking Ned Devine, one person represents another: Michael O'Sullivan is Ned Devine, an incarnated metaphor that benefits the entire village.
Here the pun on the film's title be comes relevant: Michael is "waking" up the dead Ned by acting his part so that everyone can rejoice at his "wake"—the traditional Irish party celebrating someone's life after he has passed away. The villagers in their "waking" of Ned Devine celebrate how happy his lottery winnings have made them: a joy he would have welcomed, for he is repeatedly described as a "good man."
During the funeral service for Ned, Jackie continues to serve as community ironist. Having just begun his eulogy when the National Lottery Official walks into the church, Jackie at the last minute substitutes Michael's name in the eulogy, hence praising a living man who sits listening in the pew. Jackie thus provides a new vocabulary for the traditional funeral, making us re-evaluate the ethic of waiting to give a eulogy (literally "good word") after a loved one is dead. Better to "wake" Michael who is "waking" Ned Devine, as implied by the solidarity of those gathered in the church listening to and endorsing the new vocabulary.
As Rorty notes, in order for "we-intentions" without foundations to work, each member of the community must "stand unflinchingly for one's moral convictions"3—convictions that have no metaphysical base and hence are socially constructed. Thus, to stand for one's convictions is to maintain solidarity with the society that constructed them. But how, then, can one become an ironist? How can one stand unflinchingly for a vocabulary that one questions? Postmodern neopragmatism, as John McGowan wisely asserts, "re mains caught between a theoretical vision of the inevitable placement of subjects within historical and social conditions and the notion that freedom resides in breaking through the limits of those conditions."4
Nevertheless, Waking Ned Devine makes the viewer cheer for a communitarian ethic by applauding the destruction of the wicked witch—the one who refuses to endorse the rules of the game. But this is how witches have often been limned: as defying the language games of a community, like Joan of Arc in fifteenth-century France and Goody Proctor in seventeenth-century Salem. Even though the film portrays its witch as virulently selfish, with her highly humorous death scene a result of her own devilish desires, it is still uncomfortable to have the film's exceedingly "happy" ending situated upon the death of a human being, no matter how nasty that human might be. As Seyla Benhabib notes, "communitarians are hard put to distinguish their emphasis upon constitutive communities from an endorsement of social conformism, authoritarianism and, from the standpoint of women, of patriarchalism."5
One might respond to my reading of Waking Ned Devine with the idea that evil must be removed from the community; indeed, the witch's ejection (pun intended for those who have seen the film) might be parallel to Satan's traditional "fall" from heaven, both resulting from the evildoer's own self-interest. The film thus operates mythically, as do most fairy tales.
This answer would bother me as well. For then Waking Ned Devine must be read as a twentieth-century re telling of the "Christian myth": a community recognizes the need to resurrect a "good" man (gosh, look at Ned's last name!), a pretense that works toward the betterment of their society, not only monetarily but also through the destruction of evil. Thus Ned Devine lives on, both in name and spirit. In fact, his closest "disciple" (the young woman who "knew" him best) is the one who sacrifices the most for the good of all the people. As the capstone to the re telling of the Christian myth, the film shows the regular village priest, returning from vacation, as accidentally responsible for the witch's death, as though to say the point of religion is to sanctify localized language games by expunging the demonized "other."
Such a scenario would fit a postmodern view of Christianity: a successful system among the many in commensurate language games that make sense out of life. Indeed, Richard Rorty describes Christianity as one of "the great moral and intellectual advances of European history."6
One of the reasons I welcome postmodern discourse is because it exposes how Enlightenment humanists illegitimately repudiated vocabularies of faith in their assumption that rationalism was the only way to access truth. Postmodernism, as I have written elsewhere, "entered the den of modernism and closed the mouths of its once lionized attackers of Christianity."7
It is because of postmodernism that a recent issue of Academe, the bulletin of the American Association of University Professors, printed articles legitimizing those professors who desire to talk about their faith on university campuses.8 It is because of postmodernism that African American literary theorists bell hooks and Cornel West could open a presentation at Yale's African American Cultural Center with someone singing Thomas A. Dorsey's "Precious Lord" and say, "Both Cornel and I come to you as individuals who believe in God. That belief informs our message."9 It is because of postmodernism that I was invited to give a Christian apologetic on a secular university campus. And it is because of postmodernism, and its "in credulity to ward metanarratives," that I was taken seriously as I discussed problems with the narratives of postmodern ethics.
As I argued at the conference, those who hold to a purely naturalistic metanarrative for existence are hard-pressed to explain why an intuition for justice, for ethical treatment of any kind, should ever extend beyond the selfish gene of an individual species or tribe. The very idea that all humans deserve to be treated with justice and/or charity must be situated upon a ground that transcends localized language games.
A fundamental contradiction in scribes most postmodern ethical discussions; even those antifoundational theorists who seek to avoid the relativism and authoritarianism of communitarianism inevitably establish some kind of foundation upon which to build their ethics, whether love, justice, intuition, or the body. Christians are simply more up-front about their ethical foundation; it is situated upon God as the center and origin of existence. While many contemporary theorists might eschew such grounding as a metaphysical crutch, they are left with the paradox outlined by Bradley Butterfield: "rejecting all metaphysical first principles, one is left no ground from which to launch a critique of metaphysics."10
That is why, unlike the "just gaming" seen in Waking Ned Devine, which is built on nothing more than local lore and pragmatic pretense, my ethic is built on nothing less than a divine Christ who embodies right eousness.
Crystal Downing is associate professor of English at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.
1. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984); Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thebaud, Just Gaming, trans. by Wlad Godzich (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1985).
2. Rorty is quoting Wilfrid Sellars. See Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), p. 59.
3. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 60.
4. John McGowan, Postmodernism and Its Critics (Cornell Univ. Press, 1991), p. 210.
5. Seyla Benhabib, Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics (Routledge, 1992), p. 74.
6. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 48.
7. Crystal Downing, "Seeking the Mennotaur: The Multicursal Mennonite," Conrad Grebel Review, Vol. 14 (1996), p. 232.
8. The bulletin issue was entitled "The Academy: Freedom of Religion or Freedom from Religion?" Academe, Vol. 82 (Nov./Dec. 1996).
9. bell hooks and Cornel West, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (South End Press, 1991), p. 8.
10. Bradley Butterfield, "Ethical Value and Negative Aesthetics: Reconsidering the Baudrillard-Ballard Connection," PMLA, Vol. 114 (1999), p. 66.
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