The Lure Of The Generic

We fear the individual, the unique and we are attracted to the generic, the regular. Our aversion to the unique is the same thing as our attraction to the generic. The movement towards the generic is the movement away from the unique. Our attraction to the latter is our fear of the former.


But why would this be true? Why do we fear the unique so much? Why are we so averse to it? This is actually a very strange thing – it’s a very strange thing because the unique is the only thing that’s real. Everything is unique when it comes right down to it – how could there be something genuinely ‘real’ that isn’t also unique? By the same token therefore, the generic isn’t real – there’s no actual content in it, no content at all. There is nothing in the generic yet we are drawn so strongly to it; we are drawn to it like moths to a candle flame.


It’s easy to see why ‘the generic’ (or ‘the regular’) has no content. The generic only gets to be the generic because it belongs to a class (i.e. to ‘a genus’) and yet classes are only there because we say that they are. We get out our ruler, our measuring stick, and we mark off what is in the class, and what is not, and that’s how we create this thing that we’re calling the ‘generic world’. But if the generic only comes into being because of our ‘classes’, because of our artificial ‘divisions’, then how can it be real? How can reality come out of unreality? How can the ‘generic world’ – which is the only world we know or believe in – be any more real than the unreal categories from which it is constructed? This point is made very clearly here by Alan Watts –

I have said that one of the great meanings of nature in the West is “classification”: “What is the nature of this thing?” In Greek, physis – from which comes our physics – has to do with the world as apprehended in a certain way: the world is apprehended according to its classes, and those classes are abstract. When we say of something, “It is immaterial,” “It doesn’t matter,” that means it has no quantitative measure. It doesn’t amount to anything; it doesn’t add up to anything. It is unquantified. But what we need in life is not so much quantity as quality. Mere quantity is absolutely abstract. It’s the quality, the essential taste, the flavor of life, the meaning of it, that is the important thing.

There are ways of measuring qualities, but in our language you always have to turn them into quantities. When a cook, standing over a stewpot, adds salt, takes a taste, puts in a little more, tastes again, and then says “Now that’s just right,” we can have someone stand behind him and record the actual quantity of salt added. And that would be the quantitative abstraction that corresponds to a taste experience that was not an abstraction at all. However, in order to bring people back to the real world, you have to temporarily suspend their abstract thinking, because it is through abstracting that you get the notion that you are one thing and I am another, and that events are separate from each other, in the same way that minutes are separate. We try to draw the lines on our watches that separate one minute from another as finely as possible because we want to know exactly the moment one minute turns into another. And those lines, by their very thinness, show us how abstract, tenuous, filmy, and unreal they are. They are measures; but don’t confuse measure for what is measured. The world that can be seen and felt without abstractions is the world in which you are connected to everything that is, to the Tao and the whole course of nature. However, you have been taught differently because you have been hoaxed and wangled by people who chatter and explain, and who have already hypnotized themselves into a view of the world that is quite abstract, quite arbitrary, and not necessarily the way things are at all.

What we are essentially doing in life is therefore ‘fleeing from the real and gravitating to the unreal’. This is what it’s all about. This is the basic tropism involved (which we might also call ‘the basic tropism of unconsciousness’ and which is also sometimes called ‘the law of fear’). Once we see this then it is not too hard to get a handle on what is happening here – we’re busy ‘escaping from reality’, which is actually not to radical an idea for us to get our heads around. ‘Escaping from reality’ is a fairly familiar kind of concept for us – anyone with any self-awareness at all is aware of this (at times overwhelming) impulse that exists within us. The more insight we have into our underlying motivation to find safety in systems (and our love of orderliness and predictability) the more clearly we see this ‘impulse to hide away from reality’.


How does this apply to what we started off talking about, however? Why would we be ‘attracted to the generic and repelled by the unique’? One point that presents itself straightaway has to do with what we could call ‘ease of processing’ – basically, we can process the regular but we can’t process the irregular. Of course we can process the regular – the regular gets to be the regular in the first place via ‘logical processing’, and so naturally it is amenable to logic. The great thing about the regular or the generic is that we can ‘generalise our learning’ – once we find out how to do something in one situation then we can apply this principle ‘across the board’ and this makes life a lot easier. Is it any wonder that we like the regular, the generic as much as we do? Is it any wonder we like things to be neat and orderly? This is as true in the field of mathematics as it is in everyday life. Until comparatively recently chaos and chaotic processes were completely ignored as James Gleick says in his book Chaos, and were never to be found mentioned in any mathematics textbook. Rudy Rucker in his book Infinity and the Mind points out that even the ancient Greeks – who with the likes of Euclid and Pythagoras pretty much started off mathematics – despised the regular and considered it lacking in the perfection that all numbers ought to possess –

It is possible to regard the history of the foundation of mathematics as a progressive enlarging of the mathematical universe to include more and more infinities. The Greek word for infinity was apeiron, which literally means unbounded, but can also mean infinite, indefinite, or undefined. Apeiron was a negative, even pejorative word. The original chaos out of which the world was formed was apeiron. An arbitrary crooked line was apeiron. A dirty crumpled handkerchief was apeiron. Thus, apeiron need not only mean infinitely large, but can also mean totally disordered, infinitely complex, subject to no finite determination. In Aristotle’s words, “… being infinite is a privation, not a perfection but the absence of limit. . .”

There is even a story that Pythagoras secretly drowned one of his students on a boat trip because he discovered an irrational number, a number that failed to meet the required standard of perfection. One version of the story says that the student (who was a guy by the name of Hippasus) was killed for coming up with the so-called ‘golden ratio’, another version says that he was eliminated coming up with the square root of two, which is another irrational number. Mathematicians and scientists have traditionally had problems with irregularity, and so do the rest of us – we don’t like things that don’t obey the rules; we don’t like things that aren’t amenable to analysis.


The irregular or unique can’t be generalised, obviously. When we confront the irregular there is nothing that we have learned beforehand that can help us, and whatever we learn now won’t be any good to us in any other situation! There is no generalization possible. We can therefore say – on the basis of what we have just discussed – that what repels us about the unique is its difficulty, i.e. what it ‘requires’ from us. The unique requires something very particular from us; it’s not just a matter of hard work’ – although that comes in it into it as well, of course. A unique situation requires that we ourselves have to become unique. This is a very remarkable thing to consider – when we generally come across problems or difficulties what we do is to look in our toolbox to see what tricks or strategies we have there that might help. We are looking for the right size of screwdriver, the right size of spanner, and once we find it then it’s just a matter of doing whatever we have to do with the tool and then it’s ‘job done’.


When we come up against a situation where there isn’t some kind of ‘standardised fix’, where there isn’t any tool (or strategy) in our toolbox that will get the job done, then we are ‘thrown back on ourselves’. What are we going to do? How are we going to tackle it? It’s no good asking anyone else for advice or looking it up on the Internet – this problem is for us and us alone. It’s ‘uniquely ours’. This is a very particular kind of demand that is being made and us therefore; we are being asked to exercise a muscle that we have never exercised before, and this hurts. When a particular muscle has been developed then it actually feels good to use it, as we all know, but when the muscle hasn’t been developed at all, and we don’t even know where that muscle is (or even if we have one in the first place) then this is a very different story. To say that what we are being asked to do is hard is a masterful understatement!


When I come up against a truly unique situation and all my tools or strategies are ‘no use to me’, then what I’m being asked to do – so to speak – is to manifest my true unique nature. This is the ‘muscle’ that I have never up to this point developed; this is the muscle that I don’t know where to look for, or even know if it’s there at all (and almost certainly I will say and believe that it isn’t there). Of all the challenges that we could ever possibly be faced with this is the greatest. There is no greater challenge than this – there simply isn’t ‘any such thing’ as a challenge that is greater than the challenge to dig deep and manifest our true unique nature. Rather than undertake this challenge therefore, we retreat (as we have said) into ‘the world of the generic’. We retreat into the Consensus Reality where all the answers are provided for us, and where – as a result – we never have to worry about ‘manifesting our own unique nature’.


This ‘retreat into the generic world’ puts us in a very strange situation, however. It’s not just that we prefer to have ‘ready-made problems’ handed to us, as Eric Fromm says (so that we can tackle them with ready-made methods, with strategies taken straight out of the super-convenient ‘Book-of-Strategies’) – it’s that the ‘sense of ourselves’ that we have, the ‘sense of ourselves’ that we operate out of, has also been provided for us. It’s the whole package.  Our sense of identity comes to us straight ‘off-the-shelf’ (or out-of-the-brochure’) and is delivered right to our front door the same way everything else is – that’s what the Generic World is all about, after all! What we’re talking about here is the ‘Common Domain’, it’s the formula-driven, mass-produced world of Jung’s Everyman.


This all sounds very easy, all very convenient therefore, but what we don’t see is that there is no place in this generic world for us as we really are! That’s the whole point of the exercise, after all – the whole point is that we don’t have to’ dig deep’ and find out who we really are. That’s the ‘advantage’ that we’ve been angling for the whole time! The so-called ‘advantage’ of life in the Generic World is that we never have to dig deep. The advantage of life in the Generic World is that we never get essentially challenged so that we have to ‘discover who we really are’. All the challenges that we meet in the GW (the trivial challenges that have been ‘engineered into the system’) are ‘dummy challenges’ – they are challenges that really only exists for the sake of ‘reaffirming or confirming the reality of the Generic Self’). This so-called advantage however the same time ‘the Very Great Disadvantage’ – it is also – unbeknownst to us – The Great Calamity.


The ‘Very Great Disadvantage’ is that there is no place that we have created for us, as we truly are. One analogy might be to say that it’s like being in an abusive/controlling relationship where the other person controls everything about us, including how we actually see ourselves: the ‘advantage’ of this situation is that we don’t ever have to think for ourselves (that after all is the one thing we are never allowed to do) and yet obviously this is the disadvantage at the same time. Another way to analogize our situation is to say that it is like sending a surrogate to live our life for us – a very crude and robotic sort of a surrogate, a surrogate without any of the finer feelings of which we are innately capable. This is like Colin Wilson’s idea of the ‘internal robot’ which he talks about here in this quotation from The Intuition Network:

Yes, well, you see, the basic point about the philosophy of Gurdjieff, and I suppose about my own basic ideas, is this recognition that we have inside us what I call the robot — a sort of robot valet or servant who does things for you. So you learn something like talking French or driving a car or skiing or whatever, painfully and consciously, step by step. Then the robot takes it over and does it far more quickly and efficiently that you could do it consciously. However, the important thing is not to interfere with the robot once he’s learned it, because you completely screw him up if you do. Now, the robot does all these valuable things like talking French and so on for us. The trouble is he also does the things we do not want him to do. We listen to a piece of music; it moves us deeply the first time. We read a poem, we go for a country walk, whatever, and it moves us. But the second or third time you do it, the robot is listening to the music or reading the poetry or doing the country walk for you. I said I’ve even caught him making love to my wife. And this is our real problem — that the robot keeps taking us over and doing the things that we would rather do. Now, Gurdjieff recognized this; he talked about the machine. Gurdjieff, of course, would walk into, let’s say, the dormitory of his students at midnight, snap his fingers, and everybody had to be out of bed and in some complex position within two seconds flat. Obviously he would keep people at a certain level of tension by doing this. Do you remember that Sartre said that during the war, when he was in the French Resistance and he was likely to be arrested and shot at any moment, he never felt so free. And obviously you would in these circumstances — you keep your energy so high because of your sense of crisis, that you would feel far more free. Now this is clearly the secret of freedom — keeping your energy so high that the robot is a bit like the thermostat on the wall which turns on quite automatically when your energies drop below a certain point, and then suddenly, without even noticing it, you’re living mechanically, robotically, instead of with the real you. The interesting thing is that it’s only a matter of one degree. Therefore, if it’s just one degree to turn on to the robot, it’s only one degree of effort to turn the robot off.

It’s certainly very convenient to have the internal robot take care of all the details of our live for us. By this same argument it is all the more convenient (it is ultimately convenient, we might say!) when the robot takes over completely and actually goes right ahead and lives our life for us in its entirety, whilst we ‘fall asleep at the wheel’, so to speak. We’ve ‘gravitated to the generic’ like moths to a candle flame and the result of this is that the robotic surrogate gets to live our life for us. This doesn’t work however – it’s a cheat that couldn’t possibly ever work! Only I can live my life and if I try to get the robotic surrogate to take on this ‘responsibility’ for me all I’m doing is creating suffering the like of which I can’t even begin to comprehend. According to Erich Fromm,

The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life.

The movement towards ‘unconsciousness’ is therefore the movement towards self-destruction – nothing good can come out of putting all our money on the strategy of running away from our own true nature, after all! Nothing good can happen as a result of embracing the Generic Mind. All that happens when we fall ‘asleep at the wheel’ is that dark forces which we know nothing about are all too quick to take over the vehicle, and drive it over a cliff…