The Collective Life
Whenever a bunch of people get together and agree between themselves about what life is (or what it ought to be) then this is where life ends, this is where life ceases and is replaced by something else. Instead of life, there is then only conformity to the established pattern, compliance to the unspoken group rules. Instead of spontaneity, therefore, there is only control…
Whenever two or more people get together and agree what reality ‘is’ that’s where reality ends. That’s ‘the murder of the real’ right there, just as Jean Baudrillard says. We’ve swapped ‘what’s going on’ for ‘what we think is going on’ and we’re a lot worse off as a result. Instead of being able to relate to what is actually real, we can only relate to what people say is real, to what people tell us is real. We can only accept as real what we are supposed to accept as real.
This is the phoney life therefore, and what takes place in the consensus reality is always a phoney life, no matter how much we dress it up. Even the very best of what consensus reality has to offer us is phoney — it’s phoney all the way through, it’s phoney from top to bottom. If we had any respect or regard with the authentic then we’d have nothing to do with a collective viewpoint, nothing to do with what people say is real. What greater disempowerment could there be than being in the situation where we are told ‘what reality is all about’, whilst having the ability to think for ourselves systematically undermined almost from the word ‘Go’?
When we get together and agree what life is (or what life should be about) then what we are agreeing upon is an idea. This is ideology, nothing more. When two or more of us come together and agree what reality is then what we are agreeing on is a theory, a model, a hypothesis. There is no agreeing on reality itself — reality can’t be agreed upon because it isn’t a logically consistent system and so can’t be wrapped up in a description. And even when I agree with myself about what’s going on, about ‘what life is all about’, I am departing from the real. When I agree with myself then I straightaway substitute my thoughts about life, my ideas about life, my beliefs about life for the thing itself. Somehow my beliefs about life have become more important that the thing itself, and this is how it is for all of us — it’s our tawdry second-hand ideas that we venerate, not the actual truth of our situation.
Beliefs are always banal — there never was such a thing as ‘a belief that is not banal’, ‘a belief that is not infinitely tedious’, so what is it with our desperate need to believe in something, anything? Why are we in such a rush to sedate ourselves with bland certainties? If I agree with myself about ‘what it’s all about’ then I am agreeing with an idea, I am agreeing with some mental construct or other, which means that I am seeing reality via this mental construct, in terms of this mental construct, which means that I’m not seeing reality at all. I’m only seeing what my thoughts are showing me and so the one thing I’m never going to come across is any sort of ‘independent truth’.
We can’t ever know what reality is, we can only agree on what we think it is, on what we say it is, and that’s not the same thing at all. That’s just our biases or prejudices speaking, that’s just our ideology. When it comes to reality, there is no conclusion that we can come to which won’t be absurd — every conclusion we jump to, every thought that we have, every idea that we eagerly buy into equals ‘us shutting the door on reality’. We’re shutting the door on reality and then — bizarrely — we’re taking that shut door to be the same thing as reality, and we couldn’t make a more stupid mistake than this if we tried.
What we’re essentially doing here is that we are creating ‘logical systems’, logical systems which then turn around and enslave us completely. We then become tools of the system, pawns of the system, extensions of the system. Every agreement we make results in the creation of a logical system and logical systems (when we don’t stay 100% alert to the danger) always enslave us. When we take the system that thought creates to be reality itself then how can it not enslave us? The only way to be not to be enslaved by thought is to see our ideas to be ‘mere ideas’, our beliefs to be ‘mere beliefs’, our ideology to be ‘mere ideology’, and we aren’t exactly in a big hurry to do this. The ‘prejudice’ — which is to say, ‘the preformed image of what things are’ — has too much of a hold on us for that…
If we had any actual curiosity about what ‘existence’ is all about, then we wouldn’t agree with anything. We wouldn’t be looking for something to agree with — we wouldn’t agree with anything or anybody and we wouldn’t even agree with ourselves. As Kurt Vonnegut points out, we don’t agree with others because of any regard we might have for the truth, we agree with each other in order to be friendly, in order to ‘get on’, in order to be ‘part of the group’. We’re looking for benefits, in other words; we’re enacting a strategy so as to obtain a desired result. We’re not members of society because we have any curiosity about the truth of things, in other words — that’s something different entirely!
Another way of putting this is to say that all agreements are made for political reasons; we make agreement for political purposes and as everyone knows politics had never had anything to do with the truth. Politics is about power alignments, it’s about benefits it has to do with pragmatic short term usefulness and the truth is never useful! All art is useless, as Oscar Wilde says, and so too is the truth. The truth is of necessity quite useless to us. If we could put the truth to some use then that would be setting something above the truth, it would be saying that there is something (some goal or outcome) which is more important than the truth, and there isn’t.
There’s nothing more important than the truth and when we act as if there is then we will find out — at some point or other — that what we’re living is a lie. And (almost inevitably) we do act as if there is a value which supersedes the truth, a value which we take to be ‘above and beyond the truth’ — we will never come out and say this, but we act as if the truth were subsidiary to certain concerns all the same. What that ‘value’ is can be talked about in various ways — we could say (as we mentioned earlier) that ‘getting on with people’ or ‘fitting in’ is one value that we place higher on the list. We could say that ‘being on the same page as everyone else’ is, for purely practical purposes, more important than the truth; this is a default rather than a conscious decision, but it is one that we make all the same.
We could also say, as Jung does, that the reason for this sorry state of affairs is that ‘collective function’ is just so much easier than ‘individual effort’. It is vastly easier to agree with everyone else, as we know very well — we might talk very casually and knowledgeably about ‘peer pressure’ as if it’s something that only teenagers are susceptible to, but we are all victims of peer pressure, whether we want to admit it or not. We’ll go with the crowd every time. But no matter how forbiddingly difficult it is not to agree with the group mind (not to mention ‘not agreeing with our own mind’, which is harder still) the alternative is utterly ignominious — unless we rebel both against societyand our own minds we’re going to have to live out the course of our lives in a crass ‘second-hand version of reality’, a dire version of reality that is lacking in even the tiniest bit of originality, a thoroughly dismal version of reality that is really a joke that is being played on us…