Everyday Life Is Superficial

Normal everyday life is superficial, just as all games are superficial. In a game we go so far into things but no further and that’s what makes the game into a game. The way things are in themselves however is that we can go as deep into them as we like – there’s no limit, there’s no boundary, there’s no point at which we have to stop. The way things are in themselves is not a game and it has nothing to do with the way in which we ordinarily live our lives. If we want superficiality then it has to be arranged artificially – there is no superficiality in nature.

There’s no superficiality in the naturally occurring situation of ‘the way things actually are’ and that’s why we don’t like it. We are – generally speaking – completely averse to the naturally occurring situation and we will stay away from it to very best of our ability. We shun the non-superficial like the plague in other words, and in place of it we create this strange thing called ‘normal, everyday, socially-adapted life’, which is trivial in all possible regards. The way of life that we have created for ourselves is necessarily trivial, necessarily superficial – it is necessarily superficial because we have decided to go ‘so far but no further’ with regard to this business of how we are to understand or interpret the world.

Superficiality is what it’s all about, although we won’t ever admit to it. There’s not much kudos to be had in admitting such a thing, after all. If we did admit to being superficial (or being aware of being superficial) then straight away this would mean that we aren’t superficial after all – we can only be in the superficial state of consciousness where we don’t know it. This is just like being in a daydream – the moment we spot that we are having a daydream we are no longer in it. The way of life that we’re so used to is hugely more stable than a daydream however since it is supported by everyone we meet, everyone who has influence over us. The social daydream is officially sanctioned in other words – it is preached at us every day from the rooftops and if we want to be accepted by our fellows then we have to go along with it. What’s more, if we don’t want to feel as if we are ‘all alone in a world that does nothing but mock our sensibilities’ then we have to totally believe in it in the same way that everyone else does. Otherwise we might feel that we’re going crazy, or something like that.

The legitimacy of the social game or the social daydream is reinforced at every turn – the reason we never go any further into things (into our understanding or interpretation of things) any more than we are supposed to – the reason we never deviate from the equilibrium value, in other words – is because this is heresy; we would be breaking the social taboo, we would be guilty of committing an act that threatens the established order of things, the time-honoured status quo that has served us all so well. We would by this act straightaway become outcasts, unwanted and unwelcome, exiles from the cosy-but-superficial world of the social consensus. This world isn’t ‘the best of all possible worlds’ by any means, it’s actually a crappy old world, a dull and trivial sort of world – a world devoid of any actual fun or creativity – but it does nevertheless exercise a tremendous pull on us. It serves as a refuge from the terrors of the new, the terrors of the unknown, the terrors of the unexplored and unverified, and for this reason we are ‘unhappily addicted’ to it. We don’t really like it (what’s to like, after all?) but we need it and we will always (almost always, anyway) come crawling back to it on this account.

So if we were to ask why it is that we should settle for such an undignified way, for a life that is so superficial, a life that is entirely lacking creativity (since being a model citizen has nothing to do with creativity, nothing to do humour and spontaneity, nothing to do with working out what’s happening in life on the basis of our own observations and reflections) this is the answer, and it is an answer that’s not going to come as much as too much of a surprise. We’re all instinctively familiar with this type of unhappy trap since it is so much a part of conditioned existence. To be trapped in the small world of our family, the small world of our social group, the small world of our friends, the small world of our culture, is something we all know, even if we don’t necessarily know that we know it. And extreme but familiar example of this sort of thing is where we’re stuck in the small world of an abusive relationship – this is an arid, hostile and very impoverished type of the world to be sure but it is nevertheless our world (which is to say, it is the world which defines us, the world which gives us the only sense of self we have). I am – in effect – defined as being ‘the one who belongs in this world’ and so how am I to escape this? How can I escape the world that I belong in and (as Baudrillard asks) who would I be if I did escape it?

This turns out to be the crux of the whole matter – the game ( i.e. the small, artificial world that we have created) gives us our identity, gives us our sense of self. If we want to find the courage necessary to question this world and see what lies beyond it then the first challenge we will face on this path is the challenge of going beyond this identity or sense of self, but there is of course no guarantee that we will be will be anybody if we do this. To be an exile is to lose one’s identity, after all. And yet an identity is always a superficial kind of a thing – it’s superficial but familiar, trivial but nevertheless logically consistent. A concrete sense of self is created by us ‘going so far and no further’ – if we didn’t stick at a particular hand and say ‘this is it’ then there couldn’t be an identity, they couldn’t be a sense of self. The only possible way we could know ‘who we are’ is if we go so far but no further – there can be no sense of being a particular self if we keep peeling back the layers. How could we ever obtain a particular sense of self when we keep on discovering new depths to the experience of what it means to be in this world (the real world that is, not the small and impoverished world of our games because there’s no space for anything real there).

‘Being this particular self’ can only happen when we don’t question what it means to be this self, therefore! We need to be profoundly incurious about who we really are in order for this game to work and yet we have to ask what kind of a ‘life’ it is (or would be) where we make sure never to question who we are? How can we presume to live on this basis, on the basis of never questioning the crucial thing, which is the validity of the viewpoint which we are constantly operating from? To never question the validity of what it means to be this particular self is actually never to question anything since this self is our only way of perceiving the world. The world perceived by the self is that self and so it really is the case that if we can’t explore who we are we can’t explore anything. Unless we take a bit of interest in the way we are seeing things we won’t ever see anything! This has got to be one of the most basic of all truths – we can’t ever see anything true unless we first question the self.

Identity is always a superficial kind of thing and so too therefore is the life that it leads – which is of course the only life type of life we know. Our identity – however prized it might be – is always superficial because as soon as we scratch the surface in any way it disappears to reveal something else, something entirely different. It shows itself up as being fake, in other words. The only way we can live the life of the identity therefore is to make very sure never to scratch the surface, never to question, never to look deeply into things, and this – very plainly – is the very quintessence of superficiality. What keeps us from scratching the surface (if we can possibly avoid it) is fear – the fear that automatically attends any awareness around the potential loss of the self we are obliged to keep on maintaining. Everything is so precarious – it is as if we have to tiptoe around everything the whole time. And at the same time however we are – when our denial is working for us – blasé about things, careless, bored and arrogant in some kind of a way. The feeling that we know what’s going on transformed into smugness, arrogance and complacency, it appears as a type of cockiness that would seem to be the very opposite of fear. And yet – despite our superficial bravado and cynicism – fear is the only reason we are playing this game – this game that we know who we are when we don’t. We’re afraid of going any deeper into life because we don’t know what we’ll find if we do…

Art – Lelin Alves