The Unreal Economy
The known things, the familiar things, the expected things – they are the enemy! We don’t think they are the enemy but they are. The known things and the expected things and the familiar things are the very devil – they are Satan, though we know it not. We might think that the unknown is the enemy, but the complete opposite is true – the enemy is us, and our great, all-consuming fondness for the world of the known and the familiar, which we have created. This is ‘the past that catches up with us and chokes us’, this is John Berger’s ‘placenta for the dying‘.
We of course take a very different view on the matter; we divide ‘the world of known things’ into two camps – the good things and the bad things, the things that we like and the things that we don’t like. There are also the ‘irrelevant things,’ which also have their place in the scheme; they have their place in the scheme of things because we can like them or not like them to, depending upon whether they become either useful to us or a hindrance. The same can be true for people as well, needless to say!
Either way however, they are a trap – anything we are attached to, either positively or negatively, is a trap. We can’t see it for sure, but that doesn’t make it any less of a trap. What kind of a trap is a trap that we can see, after all? What sort of a trap is it that comes readily signposted?
The known world, the familiar world, is a curse because it blocks everything out, it blocks everything else out with a terrible efficiency. We could say that the known world is like the jealous God of the Old Testament who won’t tolerate any other God apart from himself. When the known and familiar world closes around us (like a shroud, or like a ‘placenta for the dying’) it drives out everything else apart from itself. Anything that isn’t part of the ‘known and familiar’ no longer exists for us – there isn’t a concept for it, there isn’t a place on the map for it.
This is a truly dire situation but, but we don’t see it as such. To us, it’s more or less convivial! To live in a world that is made up of wholly of the known or the familiar seems to us to be not a bad thing at all and we’re not just okay about it, we are actually very comfortable indeed. We’re actually quite snug in this familiar world – we’re as smug as a bug in a rug!
This in itself ought to be setting off alarm bells; it ought to be setting off alarm bells because we really oughtn’t to be so comfortable, so snug! To be comfortable and sung in the world of the known and the familiar when being in this world has the automatic effect of causing us to feel that there isn’t (and couldn’t be) any other world is ‘cause for concern’. This isn’t a hard point to understand – we are feeling completely comfortable as if we knew everything that there is to know about the world we’re living in when the truth is that nothing could be further from the truth. We know only the superficial ‘shell of familiarity’ that we ourselves have created, so what has actually happened here is that we have tricked ourselves into thinking we know something when we don’t.
‘The world of the known’ is our creation and it is an entirely spurious creation; ‘creating the known’ is actually a meaningless act! It’s a meaningless act because there is no such thing as ‘the known’! Or we could say that there is such a thing as the known, but it’s not really a thing’! The known world is not a world at all – it’s not a world because there’s nothing in it. It is of course merely a veneer; we describe the world to ourselves (using symbolic logic) and then we relate to the world that is made up of our descriptions. It’s no wonder that we experience a sense of familiarity about things; the world we live in is familiar to us because we have made it ourselves. There’s nothing there that we ourselves have not put into it.
This is far from being obvious – if I’m walking through a forest I will see lots and lots of trees, but no one can tell me that the trees are only there because I myself have described them as being trees! The tree is going be there whatever I call them, and they are going to look the same, no matter what names they use for them. I may say. But it’s not so much the names that we are talking about, but the mental construct of ‘trees’, the construct that lets us know that there is such a thing as ‘trees’. Get rid of this construct, this concept, this ‘expectation’, and the trees will straightaway start to look very strange. Get rid of our construct for the world and the world will start to look very strange; “how could we take it so very much for granted?” we ask ourselves, and yet we do. We take it for granted every day of our lives.
‘Familiarity’ denotes lack of complexity, lack of content; if there was complexity, if there was content then it wouldn’t be familiar in the way that it is. So – by definition – when we live in the conceptual world we live in a world that is profoundly impoverished. And it’s not just ‘impoverished’ but barren, as Milarepa says. Milarepa says that we don’t have the sense to be afraid of the barrenness of Samsara, which is another way of saying that we are incongruously comfortable, comfortable when we have no reason at all to be so. In one way of course we do have a reason for feeling secure and that is because we live in a very small world that we can’t see to be small. We’re sleep, in other words. We are perfectly, flawlessly adapted to a world that is so small that it doesn’t even exist, and this is in itself a flaw! We may not be able to spot it for the flaw that it is, but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.
We aren’t aware of the flaw, but we suffer from its consequences. The consequences are that we live in a type of pseudo-reality that possesses the quality of being completely sterile, completely uncreative. We live in a type of pseudo-reality that possesses the quality of ‘not being real’, in other words. It might be imagined that we would notice this – it might be imagined that the sterility which we are talking about would impinge on us in some way – but we don’t, and it doesn’t. The reason for this ‘lack of impingement’ is that there is a constant vibration – so to speak – between positive and negative, and this vibration keeps this entirely preoccupied. There’s nothing as effective as the vibration for keeping is entirely preoccupied! The ‘vibration’ is created by the way that we have of not living in the present moment, but rather ‘living in terms of what we assume or expect is going to happen next’. The vibration is created by the fact that we’re living in the realm of thought in other words, and because the realm of thought is made up of vibrations, or ‘plus and minus oscillations’. All there is here is YES and NO and that’s a vibration!
If I feel that something ‘advantageous’ is going to happen then I feel good, and if I feel that something ‘disadvantageous’ is about to happen then I feel bad. This is the basic game that we play – it’s not about ‘the thing itself’ but the thought of the thing, the anticipation of the thing. The curious thing about this setup is that we don’t really need know what the currency is in all this is – we just need to know that it is a ‘good thing’ that is going to happen and we will ‘fill in the blanks ourselves’. It’s a ‘dumb’ kind of expectation, if we may put it like that. We will imagine what we don’t know, in a vague or half-baked sort of way. In nominal kind of a way we know what we are expecting – we believe that we are going to obtain this or that situation and this or that situation is going to be better in some way than our current one, and this is all we need to know in order to feel good. There is often (although by no means always) some kind of genuine practical advantage associated with the situation that we are chasing and so what is happening is that we using that practical advantage as a token for something else, without realising that we are. The practical advantage stands for something else in other words, but we don’t know what this is. We don’t care, either.
This is ‘unconscious tokenism’ – for example, if I’m going to buy new hat or new car then this is ‘good’ in the sense that the hat will keep the hot sun off my head, and the car will get me from A to B. That’s all there is to it, so we can’t really feel ridiculously happy just because I have bought a new car or new hat or whatever! I have no grounds for feeling too good about it and yet I do feel disproportionally good – I feel as if I have solved some important problem. This mechanism is of course the whole basis of the way of life we call consumerism!
We are allowing ourselves to feel better, in what is it’s basically an illegitimate way, by obtaining practical advantages, by realising our goals, and then feeling better than we should do about it. The goal stands for so much more than just the goal; it stands for the redeeming of our situation; it secretly stand for making everything right that isn’t right (but that we don’t even admit to not being right). The point here therefore is that it is this mechanism that makes it possible for us to keep on ‘living happily’ (so to speak) in the sterile world of our arid conceptualisations and not feel that we need to look elsewhere for meaning in our lives. We don’t consciously see (as we have just said) that our situation – such as it is – ‘needs redeeming’ – we simply project this unacknowledged awareness of incompleteness onto the world in the form of treasures that we would dearly love to obtain. Glittering jewellery and gold and silver (or even abstract numbers in a bank account) provide a perfect example of this sort of thing; there’s nothing so crude as ‘chasing after treasure’ and yet that’s what we all do, in one way or another. The treasure is only treasure to us because we are ‘inwardly barren’, because we have no inner life to sustain us, but rather than contemplating this barrenness we just keep on chasing trinkets, and the more we chase trinkets the more stuck in our situation we become. We’ve made what’s inside us be outside of us, only it’s in ‘disguised’ sort of way – we’ve turned it into something else, we’ve used it to augment the sterile world of our thoughts and make it look as if there’s something there when there isn’t.
Our ‘projections’ are (we might say) the garbage that we populate the world with – there is the attractive type of garbage and the type we are repelled by, and there are all the various shades in-between. If the ‘known world’ is the world that is made up of our projections then this world is simply ourselves, in other words, and that is why it’s so very familiar. What could be more familiar than the world that is made up of our own expectations? What could be more sterile? And yet there is a ‘sting in the tail’ with regard to this sense of familiarity and that sting has to do with the fact that the familiarity exists in relation to a self which we are not. The whole thing is hollow, in other words – the self that lives in the ‘projected world’ is itself a projection, it’s a kind of ‘back-projection’ of the world of familiar things. If the projected world only makes sense to ‘the assumed sense of self’ and the assumed sense of self can – for its part – only exist in the projected world, then clearly both are the same thing. Clearly it’s the same system are looking at here – the garbage outside is a reflection of the garbage inside, and vice versa. It’s ‘garbage’ – of course – simply because there’s no reality in it…. What after all is the value of something with no reality in it?
The familiar things to which we are drawn (or by which we are repulsed) are ‘the enemy’ because they are what keeps us unconscious. The familiar things that we surround ourselves with are our own unconsciousness – we’re in a cocoon made up of unconsciousness. It’s not the things themselves that we are talking about here of course but what we have ‘invested’ in them, and what we have invested in them is ‘an unreal thing’. When we live in ‘a world of signifiers that we can’t perceive to be signifiers’ then what is happening is that we are feeling good because we expect something to happen, but we don’t really know what it is we expect. We never look beyond the signifiers, after all. Contrariwise, when we feel bad (i.e. dysphoric) this is also because we are being told by the signifiers (i.e. our thoughts) that something bad is going to happen, and we aren’t able to question what the signifiers (or thoughts) are telling us.
Both the good outcome and the bad outcome (which we either desire or dread) constitute ‘the unreal thing which we are investing all the situations in our lives with. We have zero curiosity about why the good outcome is so very good or why the bad outcome is so very bad – we are either buoyed up instantaneously or flattened instantaneously and that’s what unconscious living is all about! We have become completely ‘dumb’, so to speak. The expectation of the good thing is itself the good thing and so we are completely justified in feeling euphoric and this is the ‘plus’ side of the deal; the ‘minus’ side of the deal is the mirror-image of this – the expectation (or signification) of the bad thing is itself the bad thing and so we are completely justified in feeling dysphoric. It is as if you shout “The good thing!” at me and I immediately feel uplifted, or you shout “the bad thing!” at me and I feel absolutely demoralized straightaway. This is the ‘Unreal Economy of the Hyperreal’, this is comedy which is unconscious living.
There is in other words a cheat going in the system whereby it doesn’t really matter if the unreal thing (i.e. the benefit to the back-projection which is the everyday self) is unreal. Who care? The way that this cheat works is that, as Baudrillard says, the signifier has actually become the thing, so that when we expect the good thing to happen (whatever that might be) that expectation or assumption actually becomes a solid currency in itself. The description becomes the thing and so we can therefore feel good or bad accordingly. We’re trading on fantasies with apparent impunity – we’re ‘free to be totally deluded’. There is a loose thread here if we want to look for it of course and that ‘loose thread’ has to do what the signifiers in the system actually signify. Why is the good outcome so very good and why is the bad outcome so very terrible? If we pulled on this thread we would find that the whole garment would very quickly come completely undone. We won’t ask that question though because asking that question is the one thing we know we must do if we want to carry on playing the game!
Art: Angela Hesaltine Pozzi