The Heteronomous Mode

We could very easily spend decades (or even centuries) discussing what is right with society and what is wrong and still not get anywhere. This is a ‘hoary old chestnut’ – we each have our own opinions on the subject of ‘what’s wrong with the world’ and we are generally more than happy to talk about it pretty much ad infinitum. All of the ways that we commonly have of looking at this question miss out on something fundamental, however; we almost always fail to take into account what might be called the ‘psychological factor’ (which is to say, the question as to whether the social system we’re in favour of will help us to fulfil our true potential or whether it won’t). This – needless to say – turns out to be THE crucially important question to ask; the only thing here however being that we never do ask it. For the most part, we don’t even think of asking it.

We don’t know enough to ask the question because we don’t know anything about our ‘true potential’ (as is generally the way with potential); what’s more, we are being constantly fed all sorts of societal propaganda about what life is supposed to be, and what we’re supposed to be, which (inevitably) has absolutely nothing to do with our actual nature. This is what present day civilization excels at – persuading us that ‘we are what we aren’t’, persuading us to adapt ourselves in ways that will bring us nothing but misery. It’s ‘good to excel’, we might say – our culture adores excelling in whatever form it may take (since this is how we ‘distinguish ourselves from the masses’) – but excelling at whatever society tells us we should be excelling at is simply a sneaky way of controlling us, a sneaky way of enforcing social adaptation.

This line of reasoning brings us closer to an understanding of what we mean by the ‘psychological factor’ – the all-important psychological factor that we don’t ever (in our headlong stampede in the direction of progress) stop to consider, which has to do with the ‘wholesomeness’ (or lack of it) of the way of life that we are so busy creating for ourselves. We are led by ideas or trends that – for whatever reason – get amplified by society and which, as a result, go to form the basis of our way of understanding things. This is a classic positive feedback mechanism and we can explain what this means by looking at the phenomenon of celebrity. What positive feedback means in relation to celebrity may be expressed by saying that ‘the more famous you get, the more famous you get’. Whatever random fluctuation it was that started the ball rolling doesn’t really matter here since the phenomenon of fame doesn’t necessarily depend on anything outside of itself (which is to say, it’s perfectly possible to ‘become famous for being famous’, in which case, if I do become mega-famous, then this doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with any virtue on my part.

Another good example of this sort of thing would be fashion – things become fashionable (we might say) simply because they’re fashionable. If – for whatever reason – enough people take an interest in some nascent trend then, purely because of this interest, lots more people are going to become interested as well and so in no time at all the whole thing (whatever it is) is going to ‘take off’, is going to ‘skyrocket’. Again – as in all such positive feedback phenomena – there doesn’t have to be any good reason for what’s going on; the phenomenon feeds on itself (as we see illustrated in the ancient symbol of the self-eating serpent, the Uroboros). From the standpoint of sociology (or social psychology) we can say that this is a fundamental principle, i.e., we can say that, in a group (where everyone is necessarily ‘externally directed’), positive feedback loops are how things get to happen.

We might imagine that this process can be controlled (or ‘directed from behind the scenes’) but the whole point of positive feedback processes is that they aren’t controllable; they are – on the contrary – out of control. Control is on the contrary always a negative feedback mechanism; positive feedback – in contrast to this – is ‘the system running away with itself’. If it were the case that positive feedback loops could be deliberately engineered, then we would be doing that already. Anyone finding a way to get some sort of promotional material to ‘go viral’ would be able to sell this trick for billions – this is advertising’s ‘holy grail’ and no one has as yet found it. There is no such thing as ‘a formula to predict whether a meme is going to go viral or not’. What we’re saying here therefore is that there’s simply no such thing as progress in the way that we tend to think there is; what we call ‘progress’ is merely movement in the direction of ‘optimizing whatever it is that happens to be trending at the moment’, and when we say this then it does not of course sound quite so inspirational. It’s ‘utter garbage’ (albeit garbage that we are all pretty much obsessed with).

All of this is inherent in the nature of social groups – when we are members of a group then, as we have been saying, we are necessarily ‘externally directed’, we are necessarily in ‘Heteronomous Mode’. We are – in other words – orientated towards the ‘outside of us’ rather than ‘the inside’. We take our cue from the ideas that are circulating in the social matrix, not from our own insight, not from our own unique perspective on things. If ideas arise within us that aren’t congruent with the ideas that are circulating on the outside, that do not make sense in relation to the official viewpoint then we will disregard them, we will repress them, in fear of being embarrassed, in fear of making fools of ourselves. In order to be valid, an idea must be agreed upon by the collective; in order for society to hold together, we have to suppress our own creativity. To quote James Carse –

It is a highly valued function of society to prevent changes in the rules of the many games it embraces… Deviancy, however, is the very essence of culture. Whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past, is culturally impoverished.

Just as we become culturally impoverished as a result of ‘following the script’, so too do we become personally impoverished as a result of being ‘heteronomous rather than autonomous. When we are always deferring to ‘what’s on the outside’ then this means that we are ‘neglecting what’s on the inside’, and that means that our ‘inner life’ becomes impoverished. It doesn’t just become impoverished, it becomes non-existent; it gets so we don’t even know what ‘an inner life’ is.  We now have the outer (or generic) life in place of the inner one but the thing about this is that the generic life isn’t actually life at all – it’s merely a mechanical formula, a meaningless script to be endlessly repeated. We can come back to the idea of potential here – merely living the generic (or socially prescribed) life then we are of course merely what we have been defined as being and this means – quite simply – that we don’t have any potential. The game we’re playing denies our potential – it automatically denies our potential since because the game (or the script) doesn’t recognise anything but itself and ‘itself’ doesn’t have any potential. It is only what it is defined as being; ‘what you see is what you get’, so to speak – there is no more.

Instead of potential (which is the same thing as depth) the prescribed life has ideals which we are continuously being pressurised to accord with. The better we are at reflecting society’s ideals (which on the level of the individual are quite meaningless) the more we are rewarded; far from realising our potential therefore we are ‘mimicking some sort of external standard’, some sort of ‘artificial template’ that has nothing to do with us. The more effort and time we put into actualising the societal template the further away we move from realising our potential; these two things – ‘optimising our game’ – and ‘personal growth’ are absolutely incompatible. One does not grow as a person by striving mightily to ‘be what society wants us to be’, in other words (which, when we put it like this, would seem to be pretty much undeniable). The social world – despite all its protestations to the contrary – doesn’t care one jot about our personal growth or well-being; on the contrary, its continued integrity depends upon us not growing, us not realising our potential. Its continued existence depends on our obedience, not our growth! The social system can hardly be blamed for this either, since it is functionally incapable of being otherwise; The responsibility lies squarely with us, not the collective which we hand over all responsibility to.

Our mental health can’t be ‘handed over for the collective to take care of’; Other things can be – the transport system, the water or electricity supply, the distribution and storage of foodstuffs, the treatment of sewage, and so on – but this thing that we call ‘mental health’ absolutely can’t be – mental health has nothing to do with arbitrary standards (or parameters) that have been set by a collective! Mental health has nothing to do with ‘conforming to an ideal’ – when we conform to an ideal this benefits the system that we are conforming to but it sure as hell doesn’t benefit us! We’re the ones who suffer here, not the system. We can’t expect a system that is made up of fixed rules or regulations to help us grow as the individuals we (potentially) are; we can’t expect this any more than we can expect it to somehow ‘cure’ us of the malaise that itself has brought about in us. And yet we do expect it to – it simply never occurs to us that there might be something deeply wrong with this bland assumption of ours…







Image credit – The New European