We shouldn’t underestimate the power of images – images are what govern us in everyday life. If we were actually awake (which is to say, if we were actually paying attention to the fact that ‘images are only images and thoughts are only thoughts’) then images (or ideas) wouldn’t govern us, but we aren’t awake. This is the whole point: we aren’t awake and so instead we drift around in this ubiquitous state of being in which we are ‘hypnotised by images’, or ‘hypnotized by thoughts’. Our everyday modality is one in which we are governed by the ideas that we have in our heads and the images that we see all around us (which we also have in our heads because that’s where they take up residence) and the Number One Image that we are presented with in this commercially-orientated world of ours is the image of the existentially fulfilled narcissist! This is an odd notion right from the start because it isn’t possible to be in any way ‘fulfilled’ if we happen to be stuck in the narcissistic mode of being – that’s the one thing we are never going to be! We’re never going to be fulfilled because there is absolutely nothing at all fulfilling about narcissism. Consumerism is all about worshipping images and narcissism is all about worshipping the image of the self, and this means that we’re worshipping an illusion in both cases!
This key image – which we are bombarded with ten thousand times every day (unless we happen to be a hermit and therefore insulated from modern life) is deeply contradictory but this doesn’t in the least bit affect the potency of an image – who says that images have to be truthful, after all? The image we’re talking about here is the image of someone (the ‘idealised consumer’) who is leading an exciting and rewarding life as a result of purchasing certain products, or as a result of availing of certain commercial services. The runaway viral propagation of images is called ‘advertising’ of course and advertising is so commonplace to us, so much a part of our life, that we never give it a second thought. On the level that we generally understand it, advertising exists for the sake of selling certain products, certain services. On a deeper level however advertising can be seen as having the function of selling a whole way of life to us, a highly artificial way of life that we that we all now take completely for granted. As John Berger says,
Advertising is not merely an assembly of competing messages; it is a language itself which is always being used to make the same general proposal.
Every time we see the image of a happy/excited/fulfilled person within the context of advertising or promotions this is giving us the general message that it is possible for us to live this type of life and at the same time be fulfilled in every possible way. The fact that this message is entirely false doesn’t matter in the least, as we have just said, as the power of an image does not rely on its truthfulness but on its emotional appeal. How often do we see ‘truthful images’ anyway? What would a truthful image look like? Aren’t all images are created with some kind of agenda behind them? Is it even possible to create an image with no covert agenda behind it? In order to do this we would have to be ‘awake’, which is to say, we ourselves would have to be in that state of being in which we are not being controlled by unconscious biases or unconscious programming. When we are being governed by images that we have unconsciously absorbed from the social media, then all we can do is pass on’, whilst being under the impression that we are being original, being creative, being ‘true to ourselves’. This is what ‘the unconscious life‘ is all about…
Very oddly, no one ever comments on this. We do often talk about the fact that commercial representations of people promote an ‘idealised body-image’ which is very likely to have an adverse effect on our mental health (= ‘body-facism’). We also remark on the fact that social media generally only has an interest in people who are good-looking (= ‘beauty fascism’) and this too is undoubtedly ‘an unhealthy message’ to be spreading around the place. It is clearly an unhealthy message because it encourages us to be even more superficial than we already are! In focusing on body-fascism and beauty-fascism we missing the most significant point of all however, which is that the representations of people in advertising inevitably present in a highly positive light this proposition that we might call ‘the human being as a narcissist’ and this – without any question at all – has got to be the most disastrous of any image that we could ever be promoting. We are very effectively ‘shutting down our own consciousness’ in this way, and what could be more sinister than this?
As a culture, we suffer from a kind of ‘split personality’. We think we can do two things at once which are actually incompatible – we think we can put all this emphasis on the narcissistic modality of being (in the interests of commerce) and yet – at the same time – have some kind of actual integrity as a culture! If this isn’t a joke then what is? We don’t consciously think this of course, it’s just an assumption that we have all too glibly made. We don’t think that the trashy trappings of consumerism are that important really; we don’t think that this type of ‘bubblegum culture’ impacts on who we really are. It’s as if we think we can have all of this instantly disposable two-dimensional ‘rubbish culture’ going on everywhere we look and yet at the same time not be as adversely affected by it in some way. We can’t though – very clearly we can’t! All we need to do is look at the amount of money and resources that goes into commercial advertising (as opposed to any other type of message that might be possible). In order to have an impact on people’s consciousness big money is needed because all the channels of mass communication are operated commercially and this means that the type of message which we are going to see is inevitably going to be messages related to selling stuff, Whether we like it or not we are a culture that is based on consumerism (i.e. shopping) and nothing else. In one way, we already know this – we say it often enough, after all – but in another way it is clear that we don’t take it that seriously. If we did take it seriously then we would do something about it!
One way – perhaps the most important way – in which we try to hang onto our dignity and pretend to ourselves that we aren’t entirely superficial as a culture (and who actually wants to be superficial, after all) is by celebrating what we call ‘high culture’ (i.e. the arts and literature and theatre and so on) but whilst high culture might possibly have had relevance at one point in our history, it most certainly doesn’t now. It has now become, as we have said, our way of convincing ourselves that we aren’t entirely shallow and materialistic, which we plainly are. There might be a lot of money caught up in the arts but this just proves the point – culture is predominately the province of the rich and the powerful, and this stratum of society is more committed to the status quo than any other, obviously. They have got a lot more to lose if it changes! Our so-called ‘culture’ is just so much ‘window dressing’ when it comes down to it; it has no impact on our collective consciousness whatsoever and how can ‘culture’ be worthy of the name unless it has a profound impact on our consciousness? How can art be worthy of being called ‘art’ and this is unless it radically changes the way we see the world?
The truth is that we have quite forgotten the role of art, which – as Gurdjieff says – was originally to wake us up out of our everyday bland forgetful type of ‘awareness’ and cause us to ‘remember ourselves’. It exists as an antidote to the general anaesthesia, we might say. Art isn’t something that we ‘do in our sleep’, therefore. There are only two types of messages in the world – the messages that have the function of waking us up and the messages that have the antithetical function of anaesthetizing us, putting us to sleep. Our culture, without any doubt at all, (how could we possibly doubt it?) is totally geared towards the latter. All messages that have anything to do with commercial interests are there to ‘put us to sleep’ – it’s not in anyone’s interest that we should become more conscious rather than less conscious. [Although of course we could also say that it is in everyone’s interest that we do become more conscious.]
We could give one more example of how we try to pretend that we’re not as superficial as we are. Contemporary society’s interest in mindfulness and meditation arguably has much the same role as ‘culture’, which is to say, it is there more as ‘a way of offsetting our general awareness of how terribly shallow and unsatisfying our modern way of life is’ than it is there for any other, loftier, reason. Again, if there were more to it than this then we would be actively challenging the deeply conservative structures that exist in society, and – to date – there are very few signs of this. We are – on the contrary – frighteningly compliant! Perhaps future generations might be interested in challenging the debilitating status quo more than we are, but we don’t seem to be in any great hurry to do so! There was far more ‘challenging’ going on in the 60s and early 70s than there is now, despite all our despite the current burgeoning interest in mindfulness and yoga, and healthy lifestyles, and so on.
The problem is of course – as has often been pointed out – that we have done what we are best at in the West – we have packaged the ‘consciousness movement’ and turned it into yet another product, albeit an apparently ‘less materialistic’ one. There is a change in emphasis here however that is both subtle, and at the same time not-so-subtle. It is ‘subtle’ because we haven’t noticed it happening, and it is ‘unsubtle’ because it represents hundred and eighty degree turnaround. It is a hundred and eighty degree turnaround because it has now become something to support the self-image, (i.e. something to enhance or validate or ‘accessorise’ it), rather than something to painfully show it up what it actually is, i.e. an obscuration of our true ‘self-less’ nature. Very clearly, there couldn’t be a bigger turnaround than this! What we are actually looking at here – as peculiar as it might sound – is yoga for narcissists, tai chi for narcissists, mindfulness for narcissists, etc. We only need to look at the images that we use to advertise yoga or mindfulness which are – of course – images of ‘good-looking happy people who are having a wonderful life and enhancing it even more with a bit of self-awareness’! It’s a very attractive image to be sure – the only down-side being that it is at the same time infinitely superficial!