Alibi V.12 No.37 • Sept 11-17, 2003 

Art Article

Contemplate a Dead Bird

Astonish Yourself! 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life

Roger-Pol Droit
Penguin Compass
paper
$12

We live in an adamantly non-reflective culture. In the United States, reflection—and, by extension, mental activity of any kind—is regularly dismissed as dorky and pretentious. Most Americans don't like to waste a lot of time contemplating their place in the world, and they certainly don't spend much time challenging their preconceived ideas about reality.

Needless to say, this isn't a particularly healthy attitude.

Astonish Yourself! is ostensibly designed to jolt us out of our perceptual ennui. Roger-Pol Droit claims in his introduction that these experiments should be considered entertaining exercises that, if properly undertaken, will force the experimenter to view reality in new and "astonishing" ways.

It sounds like a good idea, but it isn't. Overall, the book is a big disappointment. Droit is French, and Astonish Yourself! exhibits several of the stereotypes Americans cherish about French intellectuals. It's pretentious. It tries too hard to appear intellectual. Worst of all, it's boring.

Here's an example to illustrate how the experiments are supposed to work. No. 13 is titled "Drink While Urinating." Droit gives the intended duration of the experiment (1 to 2 minutes), lists any requisite props (in this case, a toilet and a glass of water), and tells us the intended effect of the experiment. The effect is usually so abstract and pretentious as to be utterly meaningless. For lucky No. 13, Droit lists the effect as "wide open."

Droit then waxes philosophical about ways in which undertaking the experiment might somehow alter your consciousness. In this case, drinking water while urinating will foster the illusion that the water you're drinking is immediately exiting your body. Actually, this is one of the better experiments. Try it. It's kind of funny.

A few of the other experiments are also moderately entertaining. I like No. 69, "Consider Humanity to be an Error," and I'm already a daily practitioner of No. 54, "Stay in a Hammock." I tried No. 35, "Contemplate a Dead Bird," the other day and it definitely had some entertainment value.

Overall, though, Astonish Yourself! isn't nearly astonishing enough. Experiments like "Decorate a Room," "Play with a Child," "Try on Clothes," "Overeat," "Turn Off the Sound on the TV" and "Go to the Hairdresser" are too ridiculously mundane to deserve comment. A healthy dose of self-reflection while engaged in these everyday activities might be a good thing, but on the whole Droit's so-called experiments are too uninventive to astonish anyone.

Some of the experiments are funny— “Put Up with a Chatterbox," "Recite the Telephone Directory on Your Knees," "Kill People in Your Head," etc.—but anyone could make up these excercises. You don't need to be a researcher at the Centre de la Recherche Scientifique like Droit to have bizarre thoughts about ordinary activities.

Hell, I'm killing myself in my own head while I type this sentence. How kooky is that?