Our ‘everyday mechanism’ is the mechanism by which we superimpose the shadow of superficiality on a reality that is actually infinitely deep. This is what our conditioned (or concrete) existence in this world is all about – denying the profound and imposing the superficial. The main impetus of our purposeful activities in life is directed towards this end and the degree to which we feel that we have been successful at this task is also the degree to which we feel good about ourselves!
What we call ‘success’ – for us as conditioned or goal-orientated beings – always comes down to this; it always comes down to how well we have been able to cover up the infinite depths of life, and substitute in its place our home-spun banalities. This is what we see as ‘achievement’, movement in this direction is what we see as ‘progress’. ‘Success’ or ‘winning’ is the covering up of everything that is profound. Our overall ‘task’ in life is without any question the task of ‘perpetuating a believable cover-up’, and the fact that we can’t even begin to see the truth of this statement in no way detracts from its force. All we need to see in order to appreciate the truth of what we’re saying here is simply that all of our rationally-orientated activities necessarily take place in ‘positive space’ – there is nowhere else they could take place. ‘Positive space’, by definition, is always an obscuration of the uncertainty underlying situation; positive space is ‘space that has been mapped out or modelled’. What we call ‘progress’ therefore means movement that is heading towards a defined endpoint; what we call ‘success’ is when we actually reach this defined or specified endpoint! This all sounds perfectly straightforward and easy to understand, but the twist in the tale here is that no progress (and no achievement) can ever take place unless we have a goal that is certain and unambiguous, and we can only bring that about if we take great care to ignore the underlying complexity of reality, which doesn’t allow for there to be any such thing as a ‘defined endpoint’!
The very term ‘endpoint’ (or the very word ‘goal’) illustrates this ‘ignoring of the inherent complexity of our situation’; the notion that there could be such a thing as ‘an end’ is an oversimplification, just as the notion of a ‘point’ is an oversimplification. Both involve arbitrary lines that have been drawn, made-up boundaries that have been imposed. To say that there is a ‘goal’, a ‘definite endpoint’ is actually to create a fiction therefore – we have, very clearly, abstracted an entity that wouldn’t exist unless we actually had extracted it. Once the goal has been reified in this way then the positive reality clicks into place – we can now feel that we have a sense of direction, we can now feel excitement as we get closer and closer to the goal, we can now feel disappointed or despairing if we fail to reach it, and we can now experience a feeling of achievement when we do attain it. None of this is possible without the abstraction of the goal, which is to say, without some very specific set of circumstances which we believe to more important than anything else. Goal-orientated behaviour, on the face of it, seems to be all about getting closer and closer to the goal, but that is entirely trivial; what goal-orientated behaviour is really all about is ignoring everything that doesn’t support our idea of the goal being important. This is the real task, everything else is just the icing on the cake. We will say that it’s the goal that is the great thing but the goal isn’t worth anything unless we can believe in it!
The goal (the attaining of which is ‘our measure of success’) only remains meaningful when the world we live in stays the same, in other words. If our perceptions of the world changed dramatically – as it world if we ever paid attention to it – then our successes (both present and past) would no longer be ‘successes’. They wouldn’t actually be anything and so we wouldn’t be able to derive any good feeling from them, any status or validation from them, and so we are obliged not to revise our view of reality, or put ourselves in a position where we would have to admit the necessity to do so. We are obliged to protect the ‘status quo’ and fight against the danger of change therefore – and this is of course exactly what we do! This is what society is all about – protecting ourselves against the danger of consciousness and the revolutionary change that inevitably comes with it…
Given that there isn’t some point that is more important than any other point, that there aren’t some set of circumstances that are special in a way that no other set of circumstances are, this distorts our view of reality and the most peculiar way. Some parts or aspects of life then become expendable, unimportant, of no great worth, and can therefore be disregarded or dismissed in favour of other parts or aspects. One aspect of reality is set up above all others, as if it can be ‘split in two’ in this way. This is of course the whole mechanism of ego, which is constantly disregarding those aspects of life (and those other people) which it sees as of no or little importance. Everything gets sacrificed for a ‘value’ that doesn’t really exist, a value that only seems to exist for us because of our prejudice against anything that doesn’t serve this assumed value. If we can understand this point then we can understand a great deal of human life! Because our whole modus operandi revolves around devaluing what shouldn’t be devalued and overvaluing what shouldn’t be overvalued this is bound to lead to trouble. By inverting life in this way, we generate constant suffering and we can see this happening all around us, both of the microscopic and macroscopic social scale.
The ‘shadow of superficiality’ that we impose on the infinitely profound depths of reality that surrounds us is that function of the thinking mind’s activity, just as it is a function – as we have just said – of the ego’s activity. The self or ego is a particular expression of thought’s activity, but it’s no different from all the rest – it’s no different because it’s all about making one abstract value supremely important and skipping over everything else, as if everything else is – at best – only ‘a means to an end’. The essential operation of thought is to separate one thing from another on the basis of an arbitrary set of criteria; this is how boundaries are created, and this is also how the self – which is at another boundary – is created. It’s all just ‘thought formation’. This is the mechanism by which a defined (or ‘certain’) reality comes into focus for us.
The thing about this ‘arbitrary set of evaluative criteria’ is that it becomes a perceptual horizon for us; it becomes a cut-off point regarding what we can know about and what we can’t. It doesn’t in the least bit matter what the criteria in question are – ‘using evaluative criteria’ means ‘incurring a cut-off point in our perceptions,’ and that’s all we need to know. The only way that there isn’t going to be a perceptual horizon limiting what we can know about the world is if we don’t have these arbitrarily chosen evaluated criteria in operation; the only way our perceptions of the world are not going to be limited, in other words, is if we are not playing some kind of game with reality. This is a point we have the very greatest difficulty in understanding. I’m not playing any game!’ I will protest, in all good faith. We simply don’t perceive ourselves to be ‘playing a game’, and that oughtn’t to come as any surprise since the whole point of playing a game is that we don’t know we are playing it, just as the whole point of ‘daydreaming’ is that we don’t actually pay any attention to the fact that we are daydreaming.
The game we are playing is that we really are seeing the world as it is, not merely ‘as we are say it is’. We are denying that we have any biases, any prejudices, regarding what we allow ourselves to see. We are (implicitly) denying that we have any criteria for what we see or don’t see, in other words, but to deny such a thing as preposterously naïve. We are living in this highly constrained, highly artificial view of things, and yet we have the temerity to assert that this view of reality is ‘just how things are’! This is the same as saying that we have the temerity to assert that we know ‘what is true what is not true’. The greatest philosopher who ever lived will not dare assert such a thing, and yet this is what we all do on a regular basis. We spend all of our time saying that such and such a thing is true and that such and such a thing is not true, and getting all hot under the collar about it! We come to blows over it, we start wars over it, we spend our lives defending this or that absurd position other as if it actually mattered.
The game we are playing is therefore ‘the game that reality is this or that’. We are playing ‘the game that reality is this or that’ but we won’t for the life of us admit it! We go around with serious expressions on our faces precisely because we aren’t admitting this fact. The very idea of admitting such a thing is inconceivable – whoever would do this? Who do you know who would ‘come clean’ in this way about their purposeful activity and admit that it’s all predicated upon the ongoing pretence that ‘reality is this or that’ when it isn’t? We might wonder what kind of world it would be if we weren’t playing this odd game the whole time. It would be a world without so much bullshit going on anyway, that’s for sure!
There is a point to all this bullshit however and this point has to do with the other side of the game that we are playing, but not admitted to playing. We are constantly saying that ‘reality is this or that’ and being very serious about it’ we are always busy investing to the hilt in what we claim to be true, and making as big a deal as we possibly can about it. This is pretty much what constitutes a ‘life’ for us; we don’t know any other way that we could be living! It all looks quite ridiculous when we put it like this, but the other side of the game (the side we don’t emphasise or draw attention to) is that we are defining ourselves just as much as we are defining the world we live in. We’re playing the game that reality is this, or that reality is that, but we are also playing the game that we are this, or that we are at, and that is the real point of what we doing!
The drawback to this game is that anything we define reality as being is inevitably going to be superficial and banal, since all definitions are superficial and banal! Whoever heard of a definition that wasn’t superficial and banal, after all? The drawback is therefore that we are obliged to live in a shallow and fundamentally sterile ‘version’ of reality; we are obliged to put up with this because if we didn’t put up with it then we couldn’t carry on playing the game. To say that the world is a cruder and more superficial place than it really is (when it isn’t crude or superficial at all) is a tremendously perverse thing to do. It’s a bafflingly perverse thing to do, and yet this is what is always going on. That’s ‘what we do’; that’s the name of the game’ so to speak! This is mankind’s primary activity and it always has been – we’re orientated towards the crude and the superficial and away from the subtle and the profound. We’re not happy with the subtle and profound; we’re not happy because there’s no room for our crude conceptions of ‘ourselves’ in this!
As we have said, getting a good feeling about ourselves can only come from our success in perpetrating this cover-up. ‘Successfully perpetrating the cover-up’ is what we see as the most commendable and public-spirited act possible – we will heap adulation on the heads of anyone who can do this! This is the Holy Grail to us; we are fervent in our pursuit of this end – no religious zealot was ever more fervent than we are in pursuit of this absurd, ugly, self-defeating fiction. There are a few people here and there who aren’t orientated this way, of course. There are a few people who – operating on the very fringes of society – actually are interested in the infinite depth, subtlety and profundity of reality, and do not wish to ‘look the other way’. The vast majority of us, however, take a very dim view indeed of this type of thing…
Art: Michael Cheval