Society Is An Advert For Itself

What we have succeeded in doing (without necessarily meaning to) is creating a completely ‘dishonest’ environment for ourselves to live in. We all heard about ‘fake news’ but what this amounts to is a fake world. We can make a very obvious statement at this point and that is to say that ‘living in a fundamentally dishonest environment is without any doubt going to be psychologically harmful for us’! This might seem like too obvious a point to make but we need to make it all the same because it’s such a vitally important one – it’s a vitally important point that we never actually pay any attention to! We might spend money in a health food store or go to the gym twice a week or practice yoga or meditation but we never seem to give any thought to the fact that our actual environment is fundamentally dishonest, and therefore toxic

 

I’m not making a metaphysical point here about the illusoriness of the world or anything like that – what I’m talking about is the fundamentally deceptive nature of the communications we surround ourselves with. Just to give one example – it is abundantly obvious that we are living in a world that is completely dominated by advertisements of one sort or another. Everything is an advert for something! This is therefore just another way of saying that the reality we are presented with on all sides is dishonest – it’s not what it seems to be. Everything we see or read is propaganda for the system that is being daily foisted upon us!

 

Adverts are ‘dishonest’ because they always claim to be about something else than what they’re actually about – the day has long since passed when adverts were purely and simply about providing information about a product. We have moved on a long way since that day. The science of advertising relies on the fact that we are very easily manipulated by ‘unconscious associations’, implications which are there, but which don’t need to be spelt out. These associations work on us without us knowing that we are being worked on. This is just the same as saying that ‘adverts work by manipulation’, which is very obviously true – no one is going to be foolish enough to try to deny this!

 

We might agree that this is true but say that it’s not really a big deal either – we all know that ads are about manipulation, but so what? We have got used it to this stage and presumably we all feel that we’re immune to it. Where advertising surely does become a problem however is when the whole world becomes one giant advert, one giant ‘publicity exercise for itself,’ as John Berger implies here –

Publicity has another important social function. The fact that this function has not been planned as a purpose by those who make and use publicity in no way lessens its significance. Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world. Publicity adds up to a kind of philosophical system. It explains everything in its own terms. It interprets the world.

The entire world becomes a setting for the fulfillment of publicity’s promise of the good life. The world smiles at us. It offers itself to us. And because everywhere is imagined as offering itself to us, everywhere is more or less the same. …

Adverts aren’t just trying to promote the product that they happen to be showcasing, John Berger says elsewhere – they are, much more importantly, promoting our whole way of life, the particular way of life within which that product has a place. So how could we say that it’s not a ‘big deal’ when our whole environment is designed to manipulate or control us and there’s nothing left in it that’s at all honest? Surely we must realise that there are bound to be seriously adverse psychological consequences to living in a world that is totally biased, a world that is nothing more than ‘an advert for itself!

 

If we were unlucky enough to grow up surrounded by people who always had an ulterior motive, who were always duplicitous, who never did or said anything without a hidden agenda, then our mental health would of course suffer grievously as a result – we’d be in need of an awful lot of therapy if this were the case. The same is true therefore when we live in an environment is always comes with an ulterior motive, an environment that is designed to control us, an environment which always carries some kind of ‘disguised coercive element’. The usual way is for us to be more or less oblivious to the coercive (or controlling) aspect of our environment, and unaware of the all pervading dishonesty of the type of communications that make up the world we have to live in, and so this means that we are ‘unfree without knowing that we are’. Apparently – however – this very peculiar set-up seems to work; apparently – we can get by perfectly well this way!

 

There is a problem here though even if we can’t see it – there’s a problem especially if we can’t see it! In order to accommodate ourselves to this invisibly coercive and deceptive world we have to live on a very superficial level, and this is fundamentally unnatural and therefore unhealthy for us. It has harmful consequences. Human beings are not naturally superficial; we not naturally lacking in curiosity about the world we live in. All we need to do in order to appreciate this is to look at children – children are (of course) full of curiosity, full of questions. Adults  – on the other hand – aren’t! As adults (oddly enough) we seem to swallow whatever line in nonsense it is that is being fed to us at the time. We’ll go along with anything. The alternative seems to be just too frightening for us!

 

So the ‘problem’ that we are looking at here is the problem – we might say – of compulsory superficiality. We are given no choice in this matter – were pushed into this extraordinary limited state of being from a very early age. We don’t know that this fate has befallen us (we have no way of knowing it) but the quality of our lives has been degraded all the same. Another crucial aspect of this ‘compulsive superficiality’ that were talking about here is that we don’t have any genuine volition. If we are being swayed by superficial appearances the whole time then how can we possibly be said to have any genuine volition of our own? This is clearly an impossibility.

 

We can put all of this together – therefore – by saying that we have created the world for ourselves which, rather than being based on the Principle of Truth, is based purely upon the Principle of Deception. We so used to this that we think nothing of it – our eyes are accustomed to the systematic insincerity and so we pay it no heed. As Matthieu Ricard says,

We are very much like birds that have lived too long in a cage to which we return even when we get the chance to fly away. We have grown so accustomed to our faults that we can barely imagine what life would be like without them. The prospect of change makes us dizzy.

In this world it’s not about ‘what’s true’, it’s about what seems to be true. It’s about ‘image rather than content’. We all know this very well – who’s actually going to deny it?  The question we’re asking here is ‘What effect is it actually going to have on us to be living in such a world?’  One answer is to say that the consequences of this state of affairs is that we become completely gullible, i.e. ‘100% manipulable by external controlling factors’. We do what we told to do and we believe what we’re told to believe, and what this comes down to is a complete lack of autonomy. We have ‘lost ourselves,’ in other words. We’ve lost ourselves completely. It is one thing to have autonomy and find yourself in a world that is trying to manipulate you (or amongst people who are trying to manipulate you) and quite another to have never had that  in the first place and to live in a world whose very basis is manipulation and coercion!

 

This is such an extraordinary thing to contemplate – we have created a world that denies us, a world that is ‘against us’! It isn’t the case either – I would argue – that this world is ‘bad for most of us but is good for a small minority’, which is very much what it looks like on the surface, admittedly. What we’re looking at here is a fundamentally unfair system, it is true, but even the so-called ‘winners’ in this game aren’t winning anything worth having! By denying others we deny ourselves, after all. By controlling each other we are just as bound as our victims by our own need to control. It’s actually the business of ‘playing the game’ that denies us, not whether we win or lose, which is of course what we are brought up to believe. ‘Playing the game’ denies us because by always striving for personal advantage (which is what we have been brought up to do) we turn our backs on our true compassionate nature, and if this isn’t a recipe for misery and frustration then nothing is!

 

We can only truly be ourselves by being compassionate  – as all the great Wisdom Traditions tell us; to try to find meaning in life by being selfish and manipulative and competitive  (which is what our society demands of us, whether we see it or not) is a road to nowhere! Meaning in life doesn’t come from being good at controlling, or from being a ‘winner in the game’, but from nourishing the imagination, nourishing the creative and compassionate side of ourselves. Our true nature is incomparably greater than we have been led to believe that it is, but we are afraid to find that out, and this unacknowledged fear drives all sorts of toxicity…

 

 

 

 

 

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Life In The Box

So let’s suppose – just for the sake of the argument – that we have all been tricked or short-changed in the way that we have just been talking about. Let us assume that we have been pawned off with ‘a dummy reality’, a reality which a pale and tasteless imitation of the true thing. And – after all – since the way thought works is by ‘oversimplifying reality so as to make it agree with its categories’ (i.e. by steadfastly ignoring anything that doesn’t agree with them) it’s pretty much a dead certainty that this is the case! Assuming therefore that this is so, we can then ask what the psychological consequences might be of us being the victims of such a trick.

 

All we need to do – in order to arrive at some conclusions in this direction – is to think about all the ways all the things we can’t do in the fake reality. For example, we can’t be genuinely curious about anything, that capacity is lost to us. The reason why we can’t be curious any more is simply because there is nothing in the artificial world to be curious about! When reality is simplified down by only allowing that aspect of it which agrees with our assumptions (our’ evaluated criteria’, our’ categories’) then of course there’s nothing of interest in it. The only content that’s there is the content that we ourselves have put in it, so how can this possibly be said by any stretch of the imagination to be ‘interesting’?

 

When the content of my world is only what I myself have allowed or permitted to be there then my relationship with this predetermined content cannot be said to be one of ‘interest’. Curiosity cannot come into it; curiosity has no place in this world. They can be a kind of relationship to the prescribed content (obviously enough, since we do relate in some way to the artificial or oversimplified world) but it’s a relationship of a very different type. We can try to explain it by saying that it is somewhat akin to the relationship of miser has his goal, or the type of relationship an accountant has with his figures.

 

In the case of the miser (or the accountant) involved in an exercise in stock-taking there is a definite type of motivation involved – on the one hand there is the pleasure that comes with getting everything to add up properly, and on the other hand there is the annoyance and frustration, and ultimately despair, that come about when we can’t get the accounts to balance properly. This general setup is characterised by the fact that there is a’ ideal state’, which, if we meet it, will bring us great satisfaction – the target has been met, the criterion fulfilled. In short, the rule has been successfully obeyed. In the narrow or closed world, when the rule has been successfully obeyed then this is the ‘ultimate good’.

 

In the case of the miser, we may say that when he checks up on his stash and discovers that it’s all there, then this is the ideal. The discovery that’ ‘all my gold is there’ is what creates the pleasure or satisfaction. By the same token, when our miser checks his stash of gold and discovers that it’s not all there (or, even worse, he discovers that it’s all gone) then it is pain instead of pleasure that we get. What greater despair could there be than the despair of the miser who one day discovers that his stash has been stolen? All the pleasure that he has obtained as a result of ‘successful counting’ is now turned on its head and becomes its exact opposite. The more we have gloated, the more bitter is the despair when what we have been gloating over is one day taken away from us.

 

With regard to the accountant checking his figures, we can say that when the figures all balance out (when the debit column balances the credit column) then this (within the very narrow and rigid terms of reference of the accountancy game) is the ‘ultimate good’ – nothing trumps this, nothing feels better than this. And again – by the same token – when the columns don’t balance out then this is the ultimate disaster, the ultimate ‘disagreeable outcome’. This is the accountant’s nightmare. We can see from this discussion that simplifying reality (into a neat exercise in accountancy) automatically results in the situation where there is an’ absolute good outcome’ and the corresponding ‘absolute bad outcome’. If we weren’t simplifying reality down in this way and there couldn’t be any such thing as ‘an absolute bad/good outcome’ – this can only happen when we take a very narrow view of things. When we take the broad view, then all the so-called ‘absolutes get relativized (which is to say, they get turned into ‘non-absolutes’).

 

In a nutshell, what we talking about here are games, and the process of ‘turning games into reality’. When we turn reality into a game then straightaway we have the possibility of euphoria, along with the corresponding possibility of dysphoria. We all know this anyway of course – we all know that games contain the possibility of feeling euphoric and the corresponding possibility of feeling dysphoric. That’s why we play games, after all – we’re hoping to feel triumph rather than despair. This is what games are all about! There is a motivation for playing games therefore, but this motivation – as we have said – has nothing at all to do with curiosity! It can’t have anything to do with curiosity because there’s nothing to be curious about in the game. There’s nothing new in games (they can’t be anything new in games because a game is all about following the rules). The motivation in games have to do with arriving at a predetermined ‘known’ state that is nominated as being, for some reason, the ‘optimal one’. We can’t really ask ‘optimal for what’ because there is no answer to this; the only answer is ‘optimal for the game’. A game doesn’t acknowledge anything outside of it – if it were to do so then its integrity as a game would be fatally compromised.

 

This is of course exactly how thought works – it works by ‘creating a box and then not looking outside of it’. That’s the only way thought can work: there could be no such thing as ‘thinking’ if we didn’t do this! Before any logical process can happen we have to ‘limit the field’ (we have to ‘simplify the universe’, in other worlds). If we didn’t then we wouldn’t be able to create a definite model or theory of the world; we wouldn’t be able to define anything and if we can’t define things then we can’t think about them! It’s very hard thinking about something if you don’t know what that ‘something’ is it’s very hard thinking about radical uncertainty.

 

Representing our situation to ourselves in oversimplified way is of course a perfectly legitimate thing to do – if we didn’t discard all the irrelevant details then we’d never be able to get on with the job at hand. If I’m cooking a meal for example, and I allow myself to get interested in all sorts of random things that don’t have anything to do with the preparation of the meal, then this isn’t going to help me in my task. In all probability, the meal is going to turn out to be completely inedible. So when it comes to specific tasks like cooking food then it’s not just’ legitimate’ to disregard the relevant, it’s completely necessary. It’s necessary for the sake of doing whatever it is we’re doing! This isn’t to say that’ oversimplifying the universe’ is legitimate and necessary in any absolute sense therefore; only that it is necessary or legitimate in relation to this very specific goal.

 

This of course turns out to be the critically important point – this is exactly where (in one sense, anyway) it all goes wrong! Instead of being aware that our oversimplified view of the world (our ‘box’) is only necessary in relation to the pragmatic goal that is to be achieved (which means ‘keeping our awareness or some part of our awareness outside the box, so to speak) we get caught up in having the oversimplified version of the world on the table the whole time, for no pragmatic reason at all. We then get caught up living in a box without knowing that we are (without knowing that the box is a box) and we continue living our lives in this vastly oversimplified basis. Our superficial view of the world has now (for some obscure reason) become absolutely legitimate, absolutely necessary. And the other way of putting this is of course to say that it has now become absolutely illegitimate (or taboo) for us to ever depart from the oversimplified view, or admit or infer in any fashion that this might be a possibility.

 

On the face of it, we might say that this is a completely bizarre development – what on earth is there to gain from it? What could possibly be behind such a strange thing? On the face of it, from a psychologically naïve point of view, this might be a counter-intuitive, if not to say completely incomprehensible, development, but the point of view that is not psychologically naïve, it all starts to make sense rather quickly. This is a very basic human trait after all – hiding, running away, going into full retreat from openness. This is the operation of fear. When we ‘limit the field’ certain things pop into existence, as we have already mentioned. They’re not real things of course, but they are ‘things of a sort’. As we’ve already said, the possibility of definition comes into play. Definition doesn’t really exist, it is just something that’s imposed, not something that exists in itself, but when we’ limit the field’ (which again, isn’t actually a ‘real action’) then definitions (and the defined world) nevertheless comes into apparent existence.

 

When definitions come into play then – needless to say! – things get defined. All of a sudden they are all these definite things jostling around together, bouncing off each other, interacting with each other. Rule-based processes come into being, ‘logic’ comes into being, linear transformations come into being, orderly systems come into being. A whole ‘kind of’ world pops up – the world of mechanical order. This is like a company or organization coming into being, complete with all its policies and procedures. The point is therefore that – according to its own logic – the logical system has every reason for being there, every reason for existing. And yet – at the same time – the truth of the matter is that there’s no reason for it being there, no reason for it existing. Of course there is no ‘real reason’ for the logical system being there; it’s all just an artificial imposition, it’s all just a game. It’s only important from its own perspective. It’s an artificial imposition that has become ‘necessary’; it’s a game that has become real.

 

If we wanted to be more specific about what is happening here, we could say that what comes into apparent being as a result of us creating an oversimplified version of reality, as a result of ‘limiting the field’, as a result of ‘being constrained within a box that we cannot see to be a box’, we end up with the defined or conditioned self, which is the quintessential ‘game that has become real’. This is, naturally enough, a particularly hard thing for us to understand. It’s hard for us to understand because, we are almost entirely at the mercy of the framework which tells us what is real and what is not real. This framework tells us that the defined self is real (because definitions and defined things are real) and it implicitly tells us that anything outside of the framework (which is who we really are) is real. This is how frameworks (or ‘boxes’) work after all – by implicitly denying that there is anything outside of the box.

 

‘Living in the box’ means being disconnected from ‘mind at large’, to use Aldous Huxley’s term. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t any such thing as ‘mind at large’ (or ‘unconditioned consciousness’) – it just means that we are pragmatically disconnected from it. It just means that we are profoundly alienated from it. In pragmatic terms it’s exactly as if unconditioned consciousness does not exist – for us it doesn’t. The nonexistence of unconditioned consciousness (or ‘mind at large’) is however an entirely ‘subjective non-existence’ – it is a manifestation of our blindness. When we live in the world of definitions it is impossible to see beyond this world – it’s impossible to see how a ‘defined thing’ has no actual inherent thing-like nature, only the ‘apparent thing-like nature’ that we ourselves give it.

 

 

In the defined world (i.e. the ‘conceptual reality’) there is no place for curiosity as we have already said, and this ‘anomaly’ ought to tip us off that there is something artificial about it, something about it that is ‘not right’. How can we live without curiosity, after all? What degraded form of life would that be? And yet, for the most part, we don’t notice anything amiss. We take it as normal. On the whole, we don’t ‘smell a rat’ and the reason for this – as we have said – is that curiosity gets substituted for by an entirely humourless ‘concern with obtaining the positive outcome’. This ‘concern with outcomes’ which keeps us so busy, keeps us so ‘consumed’, that we simply never have the time to notice that we have no actual curiosity about life any more. This is the way the whole world has gone – we’re all ‘obsessed with outcomes’, we’re all ‘humourlessly concerned with goals and ego-competitions’, and no one seems to think that there’s anything wrong with this. It’s actually a sickness. It’s an abdication of our true nature; it’s an abdication of our true (open) nature in favour of ‘life in the box’….