Between the idea And the Reality Between the motion And the act Falls the Shadow
From “The Hollow Men,” by TS Eliot
I notice that I share a fundamental starting assumption with post-modernism – the realization that everything is a story, and the impossibility of obtaining “positive certainty” about the full nature of anything.
Even the factual things people do manage to measure with precision are already fictional distinctions premised on limited assumptions. We imagine different ways of separating and measuring what is otherwise an infinite but unrealized potential, the so-called Void.
And I understand (but don’t share) their tendency to make no distinction between thought and thing, because the “thing” is also a thought. Everything we know is put together by narrative – it’s all a fiction. Peering through the post-modern lens, everything, in other words, is just language. From this angle there is no reality beyond language, or no meaning beyond what language ascribes.
There is insight here, but there is also a very subtle blunder. It’s the same one I made as a teenager when I fell into a depersonalization/derealization crisis, which is a terrifying physical and psychological conviction that nothing is real.
Here’s what this post-modern insight misses: If all conclusive meaning (Truth or Reality) is fictional, then this information itself – this negative discovery – is an example of an insight that is non-fictional. The nature of “truth” doesn’t disappear, but changes at this juncture from positive certainty to negative discovery. Truth changes shape but doesn’t disappear.
On one level I’d say no, because the Self is merely the means by which the body refers to itself. So the Self isn’t delusional from that perspective, because the word and image are grounded in a real referent (the body). However, this projection of a bodily image quickly morphs into a sense of Self that controls the body, or is trapped within the body, as if it were a spirit or separate entity. This is where the illusion starts.
The brain tends to be imagined as a seat of consciousness (also semi-independent from the rest of the body) – wobbling up there like a big, fat turkey on a telephone pole. But this image of a body/brain dichotomy easily morphs into a projection of an even more independent-seeming “mind” drifting above the body like a balloon on a long string. And this “mind” tends to become a synonym for the Self, which sits at its desk behind the eyes and acts like a CEO of the in-corporation, or an overlord of sorts. The varieties of imagery are endless. And even among atheists, this Self tends to take on the qualities of a “soul” as well, a lively essence possessing or inhabiting the body.
But these are not minds, Selves or souls, but merely images — masks that have lured this bodily intelligence into dreams of an autonomous existence over and above the comparatively material level of biology. They are deceptive illusions of minds and souls, illusions of identity. Read More »
I think this is an unexpectedly meaningful question. It pertains to why human beings tend to differ so violently in our interpretations of reality; whether or not we can come to understand two divergent visions (of anything, even this simple arrow) simultaneously without conflict; or whether we’re forced to take sides and stick to our positions until one of us submits (i.e., plots revenge).
Even the resolution of this simple question depends on finding a view wider than the widest view of the question – not merely a wider interpretation, but an awareness that encompasses the limits (and therefore valid extent) of every interpretation that is encountered. (It’s always a little startling how this “negative awareness of limits” is precisely what adds clarity to an interpretation. Until I know the limits of something I don’t know it’s real shape and function. Two sides of the same coin).
(Whether the arrow describes something abrupt or gradual looks meaningless, I grant you. But I think it matters because climate catastrophe and political rebellions, are all nudging this civilization to an abrupt end, or at least to abrupt changes in direction. But we tend towards despair when we see the magnitude of change that’s necessary, which is why the gradual interpretation of change is still more popular, which means we’re not alert to the more optimistic possibility of rapidly shifting our whole approach to life. I suspect, in other words, that we get comfortable with an illusion of gentle progression, which shuts down the possibility of seeing a new potential for learning and changing astonishingly fast. So that’s probably why this feels like a necessary question, a way of waking myself up from this sleepwalk to extinction).Read More »
I’m tempted to apologize for the difficulty of the next essay. There are too many links between seemingly unrelated and perhaps even initially uninteresting or irrelevant ideas. For instance, there are links between the potential for abrupt psychological shifts, self-generated extinction, relativity and evolution. I don’t operate by rationally trying to link these disparate issues. An amorphous lump of loose ends (a chaos hiding an implicit order) involving these various issues grows into an uncomfortable tumor of churning thought. And it’s only when I sit down to write (or contrariwise, if I stumble into an alert and wordless frame of mind) that this amorphous conglomerate of disjointed issues begins to unravel and sort itself out into a more orderly arrangement.
I wanted to write because I needed to bring some order to the swirling fog of my own experience. Not a belief system that pins thought down too tightly, but a lattice of sorts it can safely grow, so it knows its place and doesn’t keep sprawling chaotically like Kudzu over every aspect of life, drowning out the world in this relentless voice, which is perpetual self-deception.
It’s not easy to look for the source of this restlessness. It’s easier to find a job or some other way of occupying our thoughts at a safe level of magnification. It’s easier to focus on the practical necessities of navigating this crazy highway of life, a perpetual state of semi-emergency that becomes routine, but a tenuous routine that can’t afford to be interrupted by larger questions about the underlying infrastructure of belief we’re riding upon. Accept the crazy beliefs, the nationalism, the war-state, the cut-throat economic system, the values and goals this emergency approach to life forces on us — accept all that at face value and call our subjugation to this mad system of thought “a practical approach.”
(By the way, some people like to say that they’re not philosophers. Still, we’re all running on vast infrastructures of metaphysics unconsciously, in the same way that anyone driving on an interstate is unconsciously following the infrastructure of road-building ideas. We may not consciously reflect on why we’re heading in this or that direction, but our lives are following patterns of an infrastructure of belief nevertheless. So we may not be capable of understanding the descriptions of these philosophies, but they’re still under-girding the way we live).
The restlessness is the same for me, but the practical approach wasn’t helpful. And leaving behind the highway metaphor, the practical approach constructs a solid floor to everyday life, and all the restless energy of a constantly swirling brain gets kept in the crawlspace. Then it becomes a taboo or “simply uninteresting and pointless” to look beneath the floorboards at one’s own churning mind. And this is a clever tactic if all you want from life is the kind of happiness that remains circumscribed by a repressed turmoil. And what goes missing in life isn’t missed, because nobody misses what they don’t notice.
But still they compensate themselves for everything that gets left out by making an art out of the minutiae of life, appreciating the “little things” as you would admire a knick-knack shelf, but always remembering that what’s important are the practical necessities of maintaining this bubble of unconscious repression wherein happiness can reign. In fact, the rule is, don’t indulge in any larger questions, which tend to pry open the floor boards and release all sorts of religious and political demons that ruin dinner parties.
Now and then, of course, a few pressing questions and confusions nevertheless erupt from the floorboards and circle the brain in repetitive patterns all night like giant mosquitos. And until a distraction is found (a way to nail the boards down again), the person is forced to see themselves as powerless victims of these escaped thoughts. And this reinforces the conviction that our own turmoil is something external to us, a fact of nature that can’t change. That’s one of the strongest nails keeping the flooring in place: we’re helpless victims of our own brains, so ignore the brain and just focus on this nice little space we’ve created.
If any readers have made it this far then they also probably can’t ignore the racket from beneath the flooring any more than I can. The pursuit of happiness begins to feel like a shallow sitcom, devoid of all real adventure and danger.
So you and I (the nervous ones essentially) couldn’t follow their lead and rest comfortably while the floor kept popping and creaking all day. Every belief that was designed to nail down those loose boards — whether it was religious or patriotic or careerist beliefs — included the same taboo against questioning the framing, which made them feel deceptive.Read More »
Let me clarify the last essay, I think we can emerge from this trap of thought in time for the earth to heal. I do believe it, for what it’s worth. I’m not saying this as a spur to change, but as an observation of the nature of the problem itself. It’s not unresolvable.
We can change because the problem driving the world to the brink of collapse is a runaway imagination, thought that has no sense of itself as a creative fiction, which means we get fooled by all the red herrings that this imagination produces. Not just the usual evils such as status, power, money, but also suckered by all the well-intentioned solutions that are invented to counteract these evils.
However, we aren’t even coming close to realizing what this change demands from us. This is not the usual crisis we’re facing.
Every previous crisis in human history could be surmounted by applying our extraordinary capacity for imagination. This time we can’t.
Any species that develops this far in this direction would face the same dilemma. It’s a dangerous new power and we haven’t learned to use it in proper measure.
These dangers weren’t obvious over the vast course of human history. Population pressures weren’t enough to incite the imagination into hyperdrive. But as these pressures grew, more complicated products of the imagination appeared, such as agriculture, cities, governments, writing, and on and on. Products of the imagination became increasingly complicated, causing new problems faster than the imagination could be used to solve them. [Note, I have somewhat changed my mind on the inevitability of this problem, see comment below and “Notes on Closed and Open Views of Evolution”].
Essentially we entered into a predator/prey developmental relationship with our own imagination, inventing new forms to solve the problems caused by unforeseen complications arising in previous forms. And this has led to a logarithmic increase in products of the imagination and in the kinds of problems we face.
So up to this point we could say that we’ve only faced problems that the imagination was capable of solving, albeit by kicking the can of ever more complicated problems farther down the road. We are keeping one step ahead of a shadow that keeps growing larger and more menacing.
But now that road has shortened to a dead end. There is no room to kick the can anymore.
In other words, we’re beginning to realize that this two edged sword of imaginative development has grown into such a large sword that it’s going to kill us on the next swing.
Some don’t realize the implications of this development yet. They either fail to see the double-edged quality of so-called progress, concentrating only on the promises and not the perils of every new development of the imagination; or they can’t wrap their heads around the fact that this is not a problem like previous problems. They can’t see that we’re engaged in a logarithmic growth in products of the imagination, and that this has become a momentum that imprisons us. Technology is a steroid in this development, but not the real problem. The problem isn’t merely that we work for machines now, and not vice versa. The underlying reason why we’re susceptible to this enslavement is because we were already trapped within the products of our imagination.
“Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still”
“Ash Wednesday”, Eliot
There is no problem with the world. Only thought makes problems. Every single human problem is only the result of how we imagined things in a crazy way.
Life does have challenges, but every stubbornly knotted predicament, such as mass hunger, war, greed, selfishness itself (internecine competition), are responses to a problematic way of imagining things.
Dropping bombs is not a quality of the earth itself or of life itself, but only a quality of human imagination. War doesn’t exist until we imagine borders, identities, competitive economic systems, hierarchy and status. Mass starvation doesn’t exist until we imagine competition, ownership, and hierarchies that undermine sensible ways of distributing food, as well as monocultural, soil-depleting, destructive ways of growing food.
Even selfishness itself is only a radicalized response to the world, not a quality of the world or of humans by nature. As soon as we begin to imagine the world, and create stories to make sense of it, we have left behind a static vision of human nature and have entered the realm of an infinite plasticity. We can’t hide behind the excuse of nature. Nature is not causing our problems. The imagination is doing that.
Our needs are not problems either. I’ve heard people say that testosterone is a terrible chemical. But testosterone is not a problem. It’s the way this natural energy, this necessary desire, gets perverted into bizarre shapes by our vision of the world, our ways of thinking.
The need for shelter, love, food and sex doesn’t necessitate the problems of identity (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth). The infamous seven deadly sins derive directly from a staked identity (from taking our self concepts too seriously). These seven varieties of selfishness are only secondary qualities of the way we’ve fetishized those simple necessities through an overpowerful or too literal sense of identity. A fetish arises only because something has gone haywire in the way we imagine ourselves and our relation to the world.
But the earth itself, life itself, has no problems, only challenges. These challenges are presented to us open-endedly. How we respond to the conditions of life is up to us.
This is why it’s a waste of time and energy to try solving human political, social and technical problems one at a time. Problems are only getting more complicated because we’re empowering illusions by trying to solve them. It’s the imagination that has to be resolved (clarified). We have to unearth our own compulsion of making a fetish out of simple necessities, step out of the momentum driving us to imagine ourselves in such isolated and alienating forms, as if we were each individually the center of the universe.
By spending so much energy working to solve specific problems we spread the virus of fetishistic thinking, which merely grows the canopy of problems and never digs towards that root, which is in our confused relationship to the imagination.
Turning attention to thought is far more practical and leads to far quicker changes than attending to every problematic symptom of thought. The practical approach to life is sleepwalking into a maze of ever-growing problems.
Looking more honestly at our confused relationship to the imagination is the only chance.
But chance for what? For personal salvation? Hardly.
I’m picturing a mostly unconscious human being – a mind occupied all day by video games, food, sex, drink, and sleep. Or I could picture a corporate executive who has utterly surrendered to the sociopathic profit motive, perhaps somebody at Shell who has helped to bury the science on climate change. Or even myself more often than I care to admit – my thoughts like mice constantly scurrying to the higher end of a perpetually sinking ship.
But it’s all the same state of mind in one fundamental way at least – a mind perpetually busy trying to outrun itself, trying not to notice the unfathomed compulsion that keeps it busy. In this state of mind (if there aren’t sufficient distractions available) the tendency is to feel subjected to thought, tossed and turned by thought. To avoid the sensation of drowning in this tumult, an inner director, a thinker in charge, a focus of Self, is created, which seems to be a retroactive gloss that thought itself compulsively places over its own shenanigans to retain an illusion of order and control. But in this state of mind there is only a running script (though ad libbed) in which this fantasy of a director (a Me playing the starring role) ends up organizing what is still only a compulsive escape from its own unfathomed turmoil.
I need to emphasize this distinction between people and the habits of thought that hold them captive, otherwise I fall into the common misconception that people who think and do ugly, evil things are inherently (in their blood and bones) ugly and evil, and not merely ill with thought. If I blame the person — even my own starring Self — too much (and I often do) I become susceptible to the illness itself, willing to injure that person just to stop the ridiculous ideas driving them (or me). Then the distinction between these dimensions of life (between the actual human being and the thoughts driving them, between territory and map) is lost, and then I’m driven by the unfathomed compulsions of thought, and capable of ugly, evil things.
Each essay wrests a limited clarity from the infinite mycelium of loose ends that keeps the inquiry growing. As if demonstrating what I felt to be true in Truth and Distortion, the last essay clarified something, but also left distortions that I’d like to consider.
Is the transition to a proprioceptive mentality necessarily so dramatic and dangerous for example? Is it really like falling from a cliff? Or is it the most gentle transformation imaginable, giving up the strife that comes with trying to live up to a false ideal, seeing through all these deceptive feints and accepting them until they evaporate as irrelevant?
I’m never going to argue that anything I say is real. These are merely stories that wring from the world particular insights, while shutting down others. So the question has to be spun like a prism to see other spectrums of truth. And this also allows me to see with greater clarity the context in which the previous metaphor was apt. Let me see if this can be done with one of those loose ends right now, the gradual versus abrupt question.
I’m forced to decipher the order that is slowly unfolding on its own. That is, this isn’t really an inquiry through words or logic of a thinking mind, but a way for words and logic to catch up with a wider perspective than a thinking mind can know.
It’s as if something non-rational is trying to recalibrate the rational mind so that it doesn’t block access to a larger perception.
And I’m not sure of my role as a speaker entirely. The speaker seems to be necessary in some way, but it’s not central to what is happening. Currently it seems to function mostly as a filter, to help organize certain features of reality into a workable personal relationship to the world.
But this worked-out relationship to the world – not only this sense of Self, but also everything this form of Self demands, such as power, prestige, and economic and national systems to promote all that – is leading to self-destruction.
The culture keeps looking for new ways to improve the filtering function of the Speaker or Self (which is to say, improve the moral quality of this fictional approach to the world); and we also keep looking for ways to improve the economic and national systems designed to promote the function of the Speaker or Self (which is to say, we keep looking for social solutions to this psychic and spiritual crossroads).
In other words, we keep employing one of two main ways to handle the approaching apocalypse: 1) Try to improve one’s Self; and 2) try to improve the culture that promotes the Self.