Navigating Being

In book Gamma of the Metaphysics, Aristotle states that the question of being, of existence, is the one question that remains unanswered. Since then many attempts have been made to find an answer to this issue, with the west historically depending on Christianity to explain it. Today there are plenty of ways to interpret the question of being: perhaps the meaning of being is found through God, or through the meaning we give things, perhaps the pursuit of meaning is what makes being meaningful in its own right, or maybe there is no meaning to being at all. All we can do is assert that while we are here, unaware of what it is we should be doing, that at least something must be done to fill our days.

Unintentionally, much of the content I’ve recently produced has focussed on psychoanalysis or at least some interpretation of our subjective connection to the rest of the world. I believe that approaching the question of being through this lens of thought ought to shed some light on the problem of being, at least in a practical way that might help anybody concerned with being.

Both Jacques Lacan and Martin Heidegger had contributed to schools of thought (Psychoanalysis and Phenomenology respectively) that offer insights and direct suggestions as to how to pursue and understand what it is to be. Firstly it’s important to comprehend that one’s time alive, regardless of whatever their view of life after death may be, is finite, it is the only time we will be able to experience, and it is running out. A grim picture yes, but a motivating one.

Both Lacan and Heidegger base their theories on this one point, that death is certain and that whether or not we will be able to exist in any form after we die is very uncertain. Lacan uses the Freudian term ‘death drive’ to explain this. Our only certainty is the horror of inevitable death, and in confronting death, we are given only one imperative: live! Death drive is an attempt to articulate the only source of libido (mental energy) we have at our disposal, that which is sourced from knowing that we must get things done before we can no longer.

Heidegger offers another interpretation of this in his theory of Dasein(to be). For Heidegger it doesn’t take much to be human, we merely need to exist; the world we live in and our relation to it is what shapes our humanity, one particular relationship that we share with everyone in the world is that we all exist in this temporary and finite state of life. In being placed here (in whatever circumstances that may be) you are presented with a limited number of pathways you can realistically pursue, your ability to do this is called Seinkönnen (your potentiality to be).

I’ve always found Heidegger to be one of the most empathetic thinkers of history, and one of my favourite reasons for this is because he understands that for all of us: if being born without purpose wasn’t bad enough, finding a purpose in the chaotic times we live in is near impossible. We may desire for ourselves things that the world doesn’t want us to have; we may see a path that will mean we must endure much suffering due to the incessant chatter and judgement of the world we live in. This chatter and judgement is known as ‘das Man’ (the they), it is the societal limitations you are expected to adhere to. Heidegger compassionately describes this unfortunate state, of which we are all born into as ‘thrownness’. We have been thrown into a situation we hadn’t signed up to; nonetheless, we are here.

The last post I wrote for you described the Tri-part structure of the personality: Id, Superego and Ego. I want you to recall the function of the superego as a repository of all of the collective opinions and expectations you gather through your exposure to society. Understand that our Superego and das Man are very similar concepts, in the same way, death drive and Dasein are.

Similarly to Freud’s ‘death drive’, Heidegger proposes that in spite of there being no instruction as to how we must live. He frames this as guilt, a debt that we must pay for simply being alive. Our guilt towards life is an imperative to live as good a life as we can, and we do often feel guilty if we find ourselves idle, or not living the life we had hoped to. In everything we do, our guilt compels us.

Now that we’re alive and have been placed on the earth, what is to do? Heidegger insists that there are two states of living: authentically or inauthentically. Most of us spend most of our time living inauthentically, why? An authentic life for Heidegger is defined by an insistence on breaking away from das Man, from not listening to the hubbub of society and living our life the way we feel we should. The mechanism that prompts us towards this is the very guilt that drives us toward any action; our conscience deems it necessary to repay the debt of life by accomplishing something we genuinely desire. This is known as a ‘call of conscience’: we are thrown into the world, may as well live it up.

This is all well and good until we look at the myriad of terrible options we can take if it is unfortunate enough to desire them. Take Heidegger himself: irrelevant of the subjective circumstances, he ended up becoming a prominent Nazi. Of course, it is unlikely that we will end up in as bad a position as him, but cheating on your partner or wasting your money on a lifetime’s worth of useless shit are only a dangerous desire away. Understanding your desires is the key to finishing Heidegger’s puzzle.

While Heidegger believes that we live directly in our reality and relate to the entire world around us, Lacan takes a different view. Lacanian psychoanalysis claims that you as a thinking being exist entirely within a psychic state, that your body relays sensations to you which you experience, but ultimately you are disconnected from the rest of the world. In particular, you are unable to understand how other people experience the world in any precise sense; therefore since we cannot possibly understand how we could relate to others, our entire reality is constructed in relation to us.

This mode of relating to the world is called fantasy which acts as a lens that allows us to see other objects (that’s a nice chair, how would it feel if I sat on it? How would it look in
My apartment?) and subjects (that’s an attractive lady, how would she look by my side? How would it feel for me to sleep with her?) in a way that makes sense to us. The energy used in fulfilling desire is libido, it comes from our innate drives, from our Id. Fantasy is a mental construct composed of everything we have learned from the world, the ethics, structures and motifs of our fantasies are limited to what we have and haven’t learned through our exposure to society, we can say then that fantasy is a function of the superego.

Like the guilt in Heidegger’s Dasein, it is the gap between our reality and our aspirations that create a need to act. For Heidegger, it is the gap between having been thrown into the world and the possibility of an authentic life, for Lacan it is the gap between our material reality and the fantasy through which we perceive it. Lacan calls this ‘manque’ (lack). There is always a lack between our fantasised desires and their real outcomes, meaning we always want more. Of course, if we were ever to have our fantasy fulfilled we would have no Lack with which to channel desire; our libido would asphyxiate itself. It is the very impossibility of fantasy that makes it so appealing.

Here at this point, we are offered an insight into our desire, to keep it potent we must keep it unreal. A healthy marriage is a modest contemporary life goal for many of us, beating the odds and making it till death do us part, rather than legal documents. Through the lens of the superego and our relation to the world through fantasy we can understand the tragedy of the typical modern marriage: two partners get together, marry after careful vetting and development of a marital narrative (we will have x amount of children, live in Spain for a couple of years, and so it goes). Time elapses, more boxes on the marital to-do-list are ticked, yet the desire wanes. The partners slowly reject each other due to problems evolving and intimacy devolving. We can see here that the very precise, intense fantasy of marital life is slowly being fulfilled and that this Lack that is fuelled by the very impossibility of our desire (for when we had committed to the desire we could never imagine ourselves as a parent with a loving family, an excellent job, and a legacy. What was then delightfully unattainable is now the everyday banal).

When tempted with a mistress, pursuing a new fantasy can prove useless. We know the story: the mistress makes the husband feel wanted again, the wife is bored and dissatisfied, there is a co-worker or a friend. All for nothing more than a masturbatory pursuit of personal fantasy. What we desire from infidelity is not the sexual act itself, but the arousing satisfaction we derive from a new phantasmagorical muse. Can we not direct this back towards our previous desire for marriage? Or project this libido to other less harmful pursuits? Perhaps the severely high rates of divorce tell us more about how out of touch we are with ourselves, than our partners

In summation, what we can learn from Heidegger is that we are here now, there is no out. The very best thing we can do is live according to our desires independently from what we feel people will judge us for, that way we will have accomplished tasks we were prepared to suffer for, that we desired to achieve before we die. These tasks should be carefully considered, and our desires questioned, there is no rule to say what is right for every situation; for each of us, the task is to do our best to be aware of our fantasies and to learn how to desire in a matter we deem right.

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The Human Voice

As a society, we have a collective fear that somewhere around the corner lies a depraved danger that will consume us: terrorism, murder, rape. What fascinates me more than these terrible circumstances of depravity is the kind of everyday depravity: our deepest, primitive, vulgar thoughts, our inner voice – the human voice. To understand and coexist with our inner thoughts is to understand our humanity further.

If you stop and listen to your inner dialogue for just a second, you will undoubtedly recoil in horror for what we verbally say is just a heavily filtered reduction of our actual stream of consciousness. The philosopher and historian Yuval Noah Harari recently wrote that ‘every subjective experience has two fundamental characteristics: sensation and desire,’ for each of our experiences, each and every second of our being, part of the sensations and desires we feel will be processed by our human voice.

Let’s unpack this using some ideas that Freud developed: namely the three-part structure of our personality. Our personalities are shackled to the human voice, and even though the Freudian theory has since been replaced with scientific, empirically grounded psychiatry and neuroscience, understanding the theoretical structure is imperative in coming to terms with our abnormal desires.

The culprit responsible for all of the vulgar, disgusting thoughts you have all the time is known as the Id (pronounced phonetically, not as an acronym). Theoretically speaking, the Id is the drive within us towards aggressiveness, sexuality, impulsiveness and hedonism. Interestingly enough the Id is present at birth, and psychoanalysis states that infants’ seemingly binary flickering between screaming unhappiness and manic joy is symptomatic of the Id dictating the behaviour of the child. Babies are yet to learn the social norms and develop the coping mechanisms that come with navigating our reservoir of spontaneous emotion. In regular adulthood, we experience the Id in our vulgar inner thoughts regarding what we would do to the rude customer on the other side of the counter, or the attractive neighbour.

Freud is often criticised for making the context of every subconscious thought sexual, but from the perspective of the framework he is using, the Id drives our unconscious desires from a deeply animalistic standpoint, which often takes us aback when we catch ourselves thinking very base, uncivilised things. Now and then we get a glimpse of this inner working through parapraxis, also known as the Freudian Slip: we unconsciously say the things that we’re thinking, rather than the things we intend to say, accidentally revealing our subconscious desires and motives. I have a feeling that I could get to know a person very well if I was able to analyse their Freudian Slips, but perhaps we wouldn’t be so different.

The antithesis to this is the Superego; the breadth of societal and ethical imperatives that we have accrued over time. This is the overbearing, totalitarian force of censorship that ensures we are not enacting the will of the Id all of the time. The Superego is quite a broad and vague concept, but an easy, succinct way of understanding it (although not entirely correctly) is as a brutal father figure, which punishes the subject for misdemeanours (i.e. succumbing to the will of the Id). The result is guilt, amongst a myriad of other emotions we associate with discipline and repression. If you find yourself suddenly feeling terrible about your thoughts, or what you do in bed, as if some invisible watchdog was judging your every move, it is probably symptomatic of the tension between the Id and the Superego. The best example of this is adolescence, as sexuality develops, the lack between what you feel you shouldn’t do and what you want to try can result in discomfort and confusion.

If the Id finds it’s antithesis in the Superego, then it’s synthesis is the Ego. Roughly the part of your personality that navigates our material and social reality, Ego mediates between our primal urges and our overbearing self-censorship. What we perceive as our being, as our conscious state of sensation and desire is experienced through the ego. After filtering through all of our unconscious urges and counter-urges, one can understand why just existing in our universe, continuously exposed to our consciousness yet knowing so little about results in confusion and apathy.

The Psychoanalytic model is far from rigorous science, yet taking to a model that allows for self-examination of the things we don’t want to know about ourselves allows us to come to terms with our Human condition. The Human voice; rather than shunned, should be stoically accepted as part of us. We cannot allow our desires to bend us to their will, yet understanding that they will always be inseparable from us. Accommodating that is a step towards understanding our faults and tensions, and ultimately understanding each other.

Diagnosing a Neurotic Public

Carl Jung wrote in 1964 that “our world is, so to speak, dissociated like a Neurotic”. It seems that much has remained the same since Jung made that observation, with our political climate constantly reminding us that nothing is straightforward and that the core of every ailment to society seems to lie behind layers of distractions and obfuscation.

Doesn’t our everyday confusion in dealing with a polarised political community, led by the likes of erratic narcissists like Donald Trump, enacting erratic decisions like Brexit, directly resemble a political world where ideology is completely dissociated from its constituents? The dissociation, the confusion all stems from an imbalance of power and a system which violently disregards those unable to contribute; we all understand that our current global economic network produces both winners and losers. The result of it is what we see rearing its ugly head in early 2017, rising inequality, famine and unease.

Neurosis is a retired term; it belongs to the school of psychoanalysis which isn’t practised in modern medicine, having been replaced by psychiatry and neuroscience. Psychoanalysis isn’t dead, though and survives as an interesting philosophical tool. Neurosis itself is a mild condition where a central problem within the subject (usually a trauma or grievance) is blocked from being overcome in a healthy manner. This manifests itself as either a symptom such as a phobia or obsession, or as a fetish such as cynicism or disavowal (best way to describe this is through the phrase “I know very well that this is true, yet I choose not to believe it”). The main difference between these two is that symptomatic behaviourism shows that the subject is unaware of the problem, resulting in neurotic stresses; whereas fetishistic behaviourisms indicate that the subject is somewhat aware of the problem.

If any of you reflect on 2016 as a disaster (as many of us do), then these psychoanalytic terms should provide a couple of clues as to how western society collectively embarrassed itself last year. Our society is completely neurotic, and as the years have passed and tensions have risen since the GFC of 2008, it seems that for the most part we collectively are aware of the many problems presenting us today. Let’s reflect on a few symptoms of the problem:

In regards to inequality; the most recent figures provided by the Credit-Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2016 show us that 0.7%(recognise that is less than one percent) of the global population owns 45.6% of the global pool of wealth. It’s predicted (albeit contested) that within 25 years the world will see its first trillionaire. In Sydney, where I’m writing from, workers have experienced stagnant wages for at least the last year and a half with experts saying that the trend is ‘likely to continue for the foreseeable future’(ABC, 2017), alongside a recent reduction in penalty rates for retail and hospitality workers. On top of this Sydneysiders have never had such difficulty acquiring a house (which for many is the major asset and financial security) with the median price of a home in Sydney reaching $1,123,991(Domain Group, 2017).

On the other side, we have famine en masse in East Africa. Only Recently did the UN under secretary general for humanitarian affairs claim that the world is ‘facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations’ in 1945. Over 20 million people in the region are in a state of famine, which is defined not only as hunger, or poverty but by death as a direct consequence of these factors.

To ignore this is madness, but if we look at where our fear and unease is directed, we can see that we are indeed Neurotic. Look at the rise and success of right-wing populist leaders throughout the USA, Europe and even in Australia. We see the anger and fear, a direct result of massive financial insecurity, yet where we see this passion directed is not at the flaws in our system, not at the source of the problem. Instead, we see the will of the people manipulated towards a phantom, an outside enemy, the same way it always has been. In the past, we had the Jewish Conspiracy, now the Muslim threat.

The greatest example that 2016 provided us was Donald Trump, who promised to ‘drain the swamp’ and in an expected twist of irony formed the richest cabinet in the history of the United States. He did this in plain sight while remaining tied to his business, withholding his Tax returns while simultaneously whipping up fear against foreign invaders, with grandiose schemes like the Wall and the Travel Ban. All the while tweeting further distractions and obfuscations, what is the public to believe?

We see here the problem: systemic power imbalances that further inequality, at the extremes resulting in the misery and suffering of millions, benefitting very few; a result that no system of ethics can justify. For the most part, if we aren’t retiring to cynicism, we are swung to fear the wrong target; we are given an obsession, an object to latch on to. The madness we saw in 2016 that will continue on this year is the result of a Neurotic Public heavily comprised of obsessive fetishists wasting their passions on a false cause.

Jung’s words will undoubtedly ring true well into the future, yet it is up to us, the subject to break this neurotic delusion and effect change. Unfortunately reducing inequality, changing the very structure of power, creating a society that is more just, equal and liveable cannot just be a fantasy lost to the next, more pressing distraction; it’s a necessity.