Identity Politics

In our mass-minded culture we are completely obsessed with this thing called ‘identity’ and the problem with this is that the identities which we are so obsessed with have nothing to do with who we actually are. They couldn’t be further away from it. No matter what identity we might pick to take shelter behind it’s never going to be anything even remotely connected with our actual nature. We’re talking about fake identities therefore; we’re talking about mistaken identities, misleading identities, manufactured identities – anything thought identifies as ‘us’ is always going to be a ‘false identity’ and – therefore -it is always going to be a dead end. As Alan Watts has so often said, ‘who we are’ is a negative thing not a positive one. We can only say what we’re not, not what we are – to say ‘what we are’ is to hand ourselves over to the tender mercies of ‘the Great Labelling Machine’! When I identify myself as this, that or the other then I confuse myself with an image, with a category of thought…

When we say what something is (or what we are) then this is simply the action of thought. We’re ‘identifying with the label’ in other words, we’re identifying with a mind-created description, we’re fitting in with a purpose-made category. We don’t get this at all however – our understanding is that the label or description stands for something in the real world. This is the very essence of what it means to be ‘unconscious’ – that we relate to our thoughts, our ideas as if they were the things that they supposedly represent. This is Baudrillard’s ‘realm of the hyperreal’ in a nutshell. This is the world of abstract ideas, the world of ‘dissociated or disconnected literal signifiers’ that we are compelled to adapt to if we are to be taken seriously by our fellow human beings; it is the game we’re obliged to play along with if we’re not to be shunned by all the other game players.

When we talk about ‘playing a game’ this doesn’t necessarily sound like such a bad thing but in psychological terms playing a game translates as ‘avoiding reality’, which – as we might suspect – isn’t a move that’s going to do us any good. There are consequences to avoiding or denying reality – burying one’s head in the sand doesn’t mean that ‘everything’s going to be fine’, it just means that we’re convinced everything’s going to be fine when – actually – it isn’t. This isn’t a playful game, therefore – there’s nothing cheery or light-hearted about it. It is – on the contrary – deadly serious; there’s no humour here at all, only ‘obeying the rules’, only ‘doing what you’re supposed to do’. This is – in other words – The World That Fear Made. We’re not denying or avoiding reality ‘for fun’ but because we are frankly terrified to do otherwise. We’re following the rules like machines because that’s the only way safety is to be found. It’s the only thing we can do, if we are to escape our fear.

The other way of putting this is to say that the social game is all about control – things have to be controlled because otherwise they will stop being what they’re supposed to be and they will start to be something else instead. And this is the one thing that can never be allowed to happen – not when we are afraid of ‘the unforeseen circumstance’. Life has to be controlled every step of the way; the basic gist is that our lives have to be strictly regulated to prevent ‘the bad thing’ from happening. We don’t exactly know what this bad thing is, but that only makes it more frightening! It’s a nameless fear and nameless fears are by far the worst kind…

If we didn’t control then then things wouldn’t get to be defined anymore – the meaning things have for us would drift and who knows where this could end? ‘Out of control’ is scary precisely because it is ‘out of control’ – it’s scary because we are no longer in the position of being able to say what will happen next… For us – in our everyday mode of consciousness – the meaning of things is very much something that needs strictly controlling at all times, therefore. It can’t be allowed to get away from us. This is absolutely crucial – the world must be a blank canvas for us to paint our meanings onto, it cannot be allowed to turn the tables on us and tell us that what we think is true isn’t. When we’re in Unconscious Mode and the world starts manifesting its own meaning then this is very disturbing for us – we don’t in the least bit like it. No one likes to wake up, as George Gurdjieff says – no one likes their dream to suddenly start falling apart…

Definitions (or literal descriptions) are another way of talking about the control of meaning therefore – we ourselves say what things mean, we ourselves impose the order that we wish to see in the world. We speak ‘on behalf of nature’, as James Carse says. We have silenced the gods and put ourselves in their place. If we were not to control the meaning of things then this artificial setup of ours would disappear without a trace, and so this is where the necessity for ‘joined up controlling’ (controlling with no break or pause) comes in – once nature has been successfully subjugated then we’re left to take charge of everything ourselves…

We end up therefore in this position where we are obliged to be controlling all the time – thought has created the world that is made up of rigid narrow literal meanings and it is our job to maintain it. We’re obliged to maintain the artificial world that thought creates precisely because it is artificial, precisely because it isn’t a naturally occurring thing, and the driving force behind our incessant controlling is fear. Fear doesn’t represent itself as fear however – represents itself as ‘free, volitional activity in the service of a genuinely good cause’ (i.e., the upholding of some extremely important principle or value). There is no important principle of value here however – only the undeclared need to hide away from the truth.

Identity or self is thus our way of hiding from the truth, curious though this may sound. This ‘truth’ includes the truth about ‘who we actually are’ of course, and the truth about ‘who we actually are’ is just as frightening to us as the truth about anything else! It’s the same truth, it’s what Buddhists call ‘the truth of emptiness’. This doesn’t mean that there is ‘no content’ involved but rather that this content, which is endless, can never be defined. Our labels are hollow (or empty) but the potentiality which they arise from isn’t – potentiality isn’t empty or limited, but anything that is pulled out of the undefined state of potency (or latency) inevitably is. To reify a phenomenon is to make it redundant – we end up with appearances which seem to be solid, but which have nothing at all behind them. Things don’t have to be said to be true in order to be true, in other words; the irony is that when we assert our truths in a concrete or literal fashion (as we very much like to) then they automatically become lies – to seize hold of something is to lose it.

Our longing for identity is our fear of our own incomprehensible potential therefore – we’re fleeing from the nameless unspeakable depths, we’re fleeing from the ‘infinite bewildering expansiveness of reality’ for all we’re worth and we find refuge from it by latching limpet-fashion onto some two-dimensional identity or other and ingeniously claiming that this ‘ten-a-penny cheap-ass identity’ is ‘the whole of who we are’. We could also say that our obsession with identity (which is our fear-driven avoidance of our true nature) is our way of ‘not taking on any responsibility’ but instead of seeing this dereliction of responsibility as being the result of fear we see it as a glorious achievement, we see it as something to be proud of, something to shout out triumphantly from the rooftops…

To live in a culture which is all about identity is to live in a culture where consciousness has been outlawed and where everything is seen backwards. We’re putting all our money on the wrong thing – we are energetically promoting the causes of misery, ignorance and confusion whilst at the same time claiming to be experts on everything under the sun! We could say many things about ‘the failings of society’ – we could say that it is based on the principle of inequality and exploitation, we could say that it’s full of corruption and power games, we could say that it’s all about striving for superficial values like money and status, but we are missing the point when we make these arguments. The point that we’re missing is that – as a culture, as a society – we are 100% dedicated to promoting distractions and avoiding the truth. That’s our game, that’s what we’re all about, and the thing about this is that when we are ‘100% dedicated to promoting distractions and avoiding the truth’ then there is clearly no way we are ever going to admit to this!

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The Hunger For Identity

Our neurotic pain comes about both because of the way in which we are compulsively driven to maintain a false and limited idea of ourselves and because of the tremendous constriction of possibilities that this false idea of who we are brings about.

We are ‘caught both ways’, so to speak, we’re caught because of the absolute need to go on maintaining the self-image, which is a job that just goes on and on, and we’re caught because we are forced to live in a world that is predicated upon the supreme importance of this self, the unquestionable centrality of this self. We have made our bed, which took (and continues to take) an awful lot of effort, and so now all that is left is for to lie in it, which turns out to be no fun at all. How can working away ceaselessly at maintaining and refining a situation that denies our true nature be ‘fun’?

The maintenance of the idea that we have of ourselves is a pain and being that self is a pain too, so this isn’t exactly a good situation to be in. It’s also not a situation that we will recognise as being ours – the only time we do start to relate to our situation in a more honest way is when neurosis starts to close its teeth on us and we really and truly start to ‘feel the pinch’. This isn’t to say that we automatically get to understand the nature of our predicament and where our pain is coming from when this happens – the suffering comes first and the understanding comes a lot later, if it does. It is entirely possible to continue suffering for years from neurotic pain without having the slightest bit of insight into what’s going on and this pain-filled delay between ‘feeling the pinch’ and ‘learning the lesson’ isn’t helped by the fact that we live in a society that is not ‘psychologically-minded’, a society that functions by alienating its members both from the natural world and our true (or ‘unprogrammed / spontaneous’) nature. We are after all a distraction-based culture, not an insight-based one!

The chance that we will learn something (learn freedom) from our neurotic suffering is there for sure but one big problem we face is therefore that as a collective we do not acknowledge this pain (or any pain) as being a necessary precursor of insight and that we are – moreover – absolutely dead set against doing so. Society most certainly doesn’ttell us that we should be careful about identifying with the act that we ourselves have put on in case we forget who we really are in the process. Of course we aren’t told this – we’re given the opposite message, we are encouraged to identify as much as we can with the image, the role, the act that we are putting on, in order to conform to the script.  This is only to be expected – society is a game and so we are encouraged to play the game (because the game is no good if we don’t play it). We are encouraged to ‘be what we are supposed to be’ within the generic terms of the narrative that has been provided for us and the narrative doesn’t warn us about itself.

This ‘encouragement’ (if we can continue to use that inappropriately mild word) is indirect rather than direct, implicit rather than explicit, hinted at rather than stated, since no one concerned wants to draw attention to the fact that the game is a game (which really means that the game doesn’t want to draw attention to the fact that it is a game, since we ourselves don’t actually know what we’re doing). We are shown images of adapted game-players (who are so well adapted that they don’t even know that they are playing the game) having a rich and meaningful life and as a result we take on board (quite unconsciously) the message that this is the way to find happiness and fulfilment. Just to give what is probably the most obvious example of this sort of thing, we might point to the advertising industry. We might think that adverts are there to promote the specific product that is being sold but what’s really being sold here is the game itself, as John Berger says in Ways of Seeing. The game is selling itself to us (because if it doesn’t sell itself to us no one else will).

When we look into it we can see that advertising and promotional activity are only a small part of the package, therefore. How people are presented in the media in general is a bigger part because that creates the template from which we unconsciously (or consciously) work. Another key element is what we might call ‘our own individual contribution to the essential lie’ – those of us who are doing well in the game (for example) are tacitly expected to cultivate ‘the mystique of success’ so that the other players will become envious and invest more in the game as a result. On the other hand, those of us who are doing badly according to the high standards of the social adaptation game have to be generally disregarded and – if possible – swept out right out of sight so that the negative side of the theatre doesn’t impinge on us any more than it has to. This accounts for the existence of the stigma attaching to those of us who are affected by mental health conditions. Neurotic suffering is an inevitable result, given our trivial and inauthentic way of life (which is nothing other than ‘the Generic Life’) and given the fact that all we ever do (when we’re in the Generic Mode of Living) is distract ourselves from feeling how we’re really feeling or from thinking what we’re really thinking, it is only natural (in a manner of speaking) that we should distract ourselves from seeing that we are a distraction-based culture. That’s not the image we want, after all.

Another aspect of this is the way in which we blame those who fail in the social game and ascribe that failure to personal shortcomings (or culpability) on the part of those who are conspicuously failing to make the grade, thereby saving ourselves the trouble of having to think any more about them. ‘Judging’ means that you don’t have to think about it anymore and that is of course why we love judging so much – that is the beauty of having a narrow judgmental mind! The fact that we don’t look at anything except in a purely superficial way means that we’re able to carry on playing the game therefore – the status quo can continue unabated (for all the good that this does) and we are – as we have said – all very invested in that. That is our conservatism – we want to ‘conserve the game’ at whatever cost. To play the game is to be invested in the game because when we play we fall into the trap of having to play; the social game is an addiction in other words, just like gambling or taking heroin. We commit to playing the game as much as we do because we think that it’s going to work out for us, even though it never can; the game never works out for anyone precisely because it is only a game. The fact that we continue to think that it’s ‘a good idea’ to carry on with what we’re doing is due to delusion and nothing more.

All of this comes down to one very simple thing – we are encouraged (or rather railroaded) into identifying with a particular limiting image of ourselves (‘limiting’ because all images are limiting). There is a definite or concrete identity there on the shelf and we are manoeuvred into believing that it is us, that it is who we are. Out of our hunger for identity a marriage is made, albeit an unhappy one. We are all too keen to find an identity for ourselves – in current times more than ever. There is a hunger for identity such has never been seen before, it seems, and it is a measure of just how much the all-defining Generic Mind has us in its pocket – effectively cut off from the inner life (which is the only thing we’ve really got going for us) we have no choice but to embrace the outer (or generic) life, which is an inauthentic and trivial life that faithfully reflects societal values but which – in doing so – utterly denies the individual.

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Echo World

When we live in the Defined World, then we live in it as the ‘defined identity’ and there are absolutely no other possibilities than that – the one implies the other. Moreover, we can also add that the defined identity is the only sort of ‘identity’ there is! In the absence of definition there is going to be no identity. In the absence of the Defined World there can be no identity…

This kind of statement doesn’t really tend to make much of an impact on us for the simple reason that we automatically assume that the Defined World is the only sort of world there is. How could the world not be the way we have defined it as being? As soon as we ask this question however (which is something we practically never do) then we can see that it is very naïve. If the world is defined then that is only because we ourselves have defined it – certainly didn’t come that way! This means that we could equally well have defined it differently or – even more significantly – we could have not defined it at all…

We define the world according to the uses we have for it and this is a perfectly legitimate and perfectly reasonable thing to do. As biological organisms we have needs that cannot be denied and so we are obliged – by the nature of this ‘survival game’ that we are playing – to define or conceptualise the world in terms of these needs. The ‘use’ we are putting this world to is the ‘use’ of having our biological needs met therefore – this is what we are necessarily ‘tuning into’. Other stuff – stuff that is not important for our ongoing survival – is not really going to be of any concern to us. So, just to give a very general example here, if I am an animal of some sort then I’m always going to be on the lookout for either ‘things that I can eat’, or ‘things that can eat me’! If I don’t stay on the lookout for aspects of my environment that fall into either one or the other of these two categories, then I’m not going to last very long.

My environment also contains a lot of stuff that doesn’t fit into either of these categories, but because it’s neither significant to me as ‘something I can eat’ nor ‘something that can eat me’ I can afford to ignore it. It doesn’t help me any pay attention to it and so I don’t – the game of survival is too pressing for that. Irrelevant details are necessary invisible to me.We do of course have more needs and the need to find stuff to eat and the need to avoid being eaten but it’s the same principle; no matter how many needs we have it’s always the same principle – when we have needs that we have to tune into then that makes us blind to whatever isn’t relevant to our needs. This is just another way of talking about what is called ‘conditioning’. Or as we could also say, when we are playing a game then we are necessarily going to be blind to anything that isn’t part of the game. So we define the world in accordance to the uses which we are putting it to, and then the world becomes – to us – what we have defined it as being. The rest of the world – the part of it that isn’t important to us with respect to our needs – has become completely invisible to us, after all.

It’s probably fair enough to suggest that most members of the Animal Kingdom are too hard pressed by the necessities of playing the biological survival game to have much time left to them to give any attention to ‘inconsequential’ matters, matters that are entirely relevant to the all-important agenda of ‘staying alive’; human beings – however – do have a degree of freedom in this regard, at least potentially. If this were not the case then there would never have been any artists, poets, philosophers or mystics. There are of course a lot of people around that have no time for such matters and consider all of that type of thing to be a foolish waste of time – the old Soviet Union is a good example of this type of thinking – art, in the view that was prevalent in that system, was only of any value if it helped to glorify the values of Soviet-style socialism. Heroic workers had to be depicted doing their part for the state, for the collective, and so on. The only problem here being that such ‘art’, since it all has an agenda, is very superficial and can’t properly be called ‘art’ at all. Ideology yes, propaganda yes, but art no! As Oscar Wilde has noted, the nature of art is to be useless. If it had any use then it would be trivial, if it had a use then it would be all about preserving equilibrium, preserving the status quo. Art that serves the state isn’t art but merely conformity to a predetermined pattern.

We all know that art isn’t a utilitarian type of thing and that if it does no more than reflect current social values or fashions then it isn’t art at all; we might still however be hard put to say what exactly its value might be. To say that art has no purpose or no agenda is enough however – if it had a purpose or gender then it would define the world for us but it doesn’t and so, through art, we get to live in an undefined world. The trouble with the Defined World, as we have said, is that it fosters a very pernicious type of blindness in us. We have become blind to anything else other than our purposes and the deterministic ‘pseudo-world’ that has been called into existence as a result of us looking at things only in this very narrow way (and which is an echo of our purposes). We are trapped within this world that is made up of our unexamined or taken-for-granted ‘agendas’ and these very same agendas being reflected back at us. We are trapped in the Defined World, in other words, and the reason we can say that we are ‘trapped’ is because there is no freedom here. All there is are our purposes (which are not really ‘our’ purposes at all but purposes that have been imposed upon us) and because ‘all there is are our purposes’ we live in a world that contains only two possibilities – either ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’. And these aren’t actually two possibilities either because both ‘succeeding’ and‘failing’ only ever equal ‘our purposes’(or rather our purposes that aren’t really ‘our’ purposes at all because we can’t question them). Both succeeding and failing equal the rule because it is the rule which we succeed or fail in relation to. Both winning and losing equal ‘the game’ and the game is a trap because when we’re in the game we don’t have the freedom not to play it.

To live in a world that is made up solely of our purposes and the two ‘polar possibilities’ of either succeeding or failing at them is a world with zero freedom in it and saying that we are living in a world that has zero freedom in it is the same thing as saying that we are living permanently under compulsion. We’re told what to do every step of the way in other words, even though we don’t see this to be the case. We don’t see this to be the case because we think that the purposes that have been forcefully imposed upon us are our purposes (because we have identified with them). Struggling to fulfil our purposes doesn’t feel like a trap, therefore. We might of course feel constrained and hemmed in by the necessities of the struggle but because we are orientated towards the possibility of succeeding we feel that ‘freedom from the struggle’ is only just around the corner and this of course has the effect of making our situation bearable for us. What we don’t see however is that ‘success’ in fulfilling our purposes isn’t anything different from ‘our purposes’ but is in fact only our purposes reflected right back at us. We are living in a closed world therefore, but we can’t see this because we are constantly orientated towards an illusory form of freedom.We’ve got an eye on the prize but ‘the prize’ isn’t real!

The Defined World is always a closed world – it is always ‘a world with no freedom in it’. For it to have freedom in it there would to be something in it that is ‘other than it’, something that is ‘not it’, and ‘something that is not it’ means something that is not defined. The Defined World however cannot contain ‘something that is not defined’ in it – if it did then it would no longer be ‘the Defined World’. If the Defined World led on to ‘something else’ then it would be open not closed, and in an Open World definitions don’t mean a thing. We can still have definitions if we want them but they are only ever going to be provisional, they won’t be final and so they won’t really ‘say what anything is’. Our definitions would then be ‘ways of looking at the world that we could drop at any moment’ (or that can be revised at any moment) and so there will be no solidity to them. We won’t be able to rely on them. What we are saying here therefore is that the Defined World can’t be made up of provisional definitions only absolute ones because if it was made up of provisional definitions then it wouldn’t really be defined at all!This is the same thing as saying that the DW can’t have some parts of it that aren’t are defined and some other parts which are – if the thing is to work at all then it all has to be defined, there cannot be any gaps or cracks in the structure. Or if we wanted to express this in terms of games, we can say that a game can’t have any freedom in it – if it did then it wouldn’t be a game. Once we are playing the game then there can’t be any such thing as ‘the freedom not to play’ (or ‘the freedom to see that the game is a game’); in order to play the game we have to veil our own freedom from ourselves, as James Carse says in Finite and Infinite Games.

Human beings, as we have said, have the possibility of not being purposeful or agenda-driven the whole time. This means that we don’t have to spend our entire lives living within the deterministic or mechanical Defined World – we have the chance to avoid that grim fate, we have the chance to live in the Undefined World which is the only real world. The DW claims to be the real world of course – that is exactly its claim. It makes its claim implicitly rather than explicitly by virtue of our conditioned blindness with regard to anything that isn’t relevant to our purposes or agendas. The truth of the matter is that the DW isn’t a world at all – it isn’t a world because it isn’t ‘other’, because it doesn’t actually go anywhere. What the DW actually is is a mere vibration or reverberation, a mere echo of our assumptions. So even though it seems perfectly acceptable and perfectly ‘as it should be’ to be living in the Defined World as the defined identity (or defined self) it’s not actually such a great situation at all, not if the truth be known… It’s not such a great situation because all we are ever doing is mapping out the same tired old possibilities over and over again and – what’s more – the one who is wearily mapping out (or acting) out these tired old possibilities isn’t actually us at all. It isn’t actually us at all because just as the Defined World isn’t the real world, so too the defined identity isn’t a real identity. The Defined World is a projection, and the defined identity is the ‘back projection’ of the projection. Both are echoes of each other, and neither are real.