The Generic Life

Society is the Great machine for producing the generic life. It’s not that society doesn’t or couldn’t have any other more practically useful functions aside from this but just that these ‘useful functions’ are completely overshadowed by this unacknowledged negative aspect. In this, the social organization of which we are all a part acts as ‘negative parent’. Just as a negative or toxic parent will – when challenged – point to the nurturing functions which they do provide, such as food, shelter, clothing, protection from external harm and make the indignant claim to be benevolent rather than malign – so too will society reject any accusation that it has failed us, and more than just failing us that it is doing us harm. This argument is easily seen through – suppose that I am a parent who does all of these things (and who even perhaps provides emotional support too) but who nevertheless has an underlying agenda to sabotage the developing autonomy of those under my care. Suppose that I am fostering dependence rather than independence. In this case can it still be said that I am acting as a ‘good parent’? This is of course a purely rhetorical question – we all know that a parent who provides food, clothing and shelter but nothing else is abusive. The rudiments of parenting are there but not the ‘higher functions’, which is something an uncaring robot could perfectly well manage. Physical health – in a very narrow sense – may be being fostered but not emotional or mental health. The trauma that is caused by emotional neglect is tremendous and may take many decades to work through. If the child has been kept dependent and subservient and has thus been prevented from reaching the state of true adult autonomy, this is too is a complete failure of parenting – the children then in this case become nothing more than versions or copies of the dysfunctional parent.

 

So the point we are making is that society is an abusive (or ‘negative’) parent in exactly the same way, no matter what claims it may implicitly make to the contrary. The evidence is all around us! We don’t see this – it is true – but blindness is par for the course. That’s how things work – we don’t know anything different, we don’t have anything else to go on. Society – the common system of relations that we are all part of – is a negative parent, an abusive guardian. ‘Culture isn’t your friend’, as Terence McKenna says. The reason society isn’t our friend is because it doesn’t allow us to grow; it doesn’t do all the really important things that a parent quite naturally does if they really care about the well-being of their children. If you care about your children (rather than just caring about yourself) you will let them go, you will let them evolve beyond you. Society never does this – it would never occur to it to do this. As far as ‘growing as people’ or ‘developing as individuals’, this absolutely isn’t going to happen – we have to copy or mimic the template or else we’re misfits, we have to ‘fit in’ or else we’re ‘weird’. It can’t happen – there is no growth within the generic life. The generic life is the generic life and that is that; the only time growth is going to happen is when we go beyond the limits that have been set for us, not when we stay faithfully within them like a machine that always works the way it is supposed to work. Moving beyond the prescribed way that we have of understanding ourselves is growth but this happens to be the very thing that society doesn’t allow – that is illegal, that is prohibited by the whole weight of society. This is of course how systems get to be systems: by enforcing limits, by treating limits in a very serious way. When we look into it, we can see that systems actually are the limits that they enforce, that they take seriously.

 

Whenever we collectively agree – by whatever process – that this is the way we do things and that this is the way we think about things then we have created a system. We have created a set of limits which we are now taking seriously and this set of limits, this system then acts so as to mould and regulate us. This is what we call ‘society’ – it’s a working template that we set above ourselves. The point here is that this template then develops a ‘life of its own’ – it becomes more important than the human units that make it up and so it prioritizes its well-being and survival over that of the individual lives that make it up. Of course it is more important – the mould is always more important that what is being moulded. Naturally the template tells us what to do – it tells us what to do, we don’t tell it what to do. We can’t play fast and loose with society’s laws, society’s conventions. Even the least of these laws or conventions, if we go against it, will bring huge penalties down on our head. Anyone who has ever had the experience, in any way, of ‘not fitting in’, will know what a tremendous force ‘peer pressure’ is to come up against. This is why we always do conform to conventions in the way that we do – because we know how it works, because we know that there is this tremendous coercive force there and we don’t want to find ourselves on the wrong side of it!

 

What happens when we ‘conform’, when we take seriously the limits that the system takes seriously (i.e. when we allow the system to mould and regulate us in accordance with these limits) is that we become generic. As we started off this discussion by saying, the societal life is the generic life. When we reflect on it, this is so obvious as to be hardly worth saying; it’s ridiculously obvious – it’s like saying that people who are sad are no happy or that people who are under five feet in height tend not to be tall. Yet we need to say it because we never actually think about it; we just don’t appreciate the implications of what we have just said here. The ‘implications’ couldn’t be bigger. The implications here simply couldn’t be overstated:

When we are living what we have called ‘the generic life’ – which is the default setting where everything is running smoothly ‘on automatic’ and nothing has happened to knock us off our pre-established trajectory – then we aren’t living as ourselves but simply as an idea of ourselves (i.e. as a generic idea of ourselves).

This is very easily said and it comes across perhaps as being rather glib, but when we come to grips with this idea and actually appreciate what it means to us then we can see that that it is an enormously disturbing revelation. It’s as if someone stole your life when you were still really young and then lived it instead of you, leaving you sidelined, leaving you marginalized, leaving you quite forgotten about. And not only this, it is also the case that the ‘thief’ who stole our life isn’t actually anybody but is only an idea, only a notion that has been passed on randomly from person to person like a cold, like a dose of the flu in winter.

 

This is what it means to ‘lead the generic life’ – it means to catch a cold! It means to catch cold and never get over it because you immune system has been suppressed. This then is not by any means a small thing; the enormity of what has happened to us can’t be overstated, as we have already argued’. When Jean Baudrillard speaks of ‘The Perfect Crime’ and ‘the murder of the real’ he is essentially speaking of this (although he is coming at it from a different angle). He is talking about the murder of who we really are, which is a job that has been started by our parents and then continued by everyone else we have ever met! Obviously, this is not done with any bad intent (or at least not usually) but it is done all the same. We don’t – as parents – have any choice in this: when we are ‘unconscious’ (i.e. unconscious of who we really are) we can’t help passing on the virus. That’s what we do when we’re unconscious – we act as passive vehicles for the generic impressions or imprints. Being unconscious means that we act as a passive medium or substrate which the ‘generic identity’ utilizes in order to propagate itself; our common understanding of ourselves is as this generic self (which is essentially nothing more than a cultural meme) and so naturally we’re going to see nothing wrong with this state of affairs – that’s why we are ‘passive’ in the process. Far from seeing anything wrong about it we’re going to see the situation in which the false or viral idea of self is maximally facilitated in propagating itself (at the expense of the true or ‘non-generic’ self) as being pre-eminently ‘healthy’ and desirable. We will adopt whatever strategies we can to bring this situation about, and maintain it. This is what we consider to be ‘the state of good mental health’, after all – ‘good mental health’ (to us!) means the continued unchallenged ascendancy of the generic self, the generic identity…

 

Nothing about the generic self is true – it doesn’t exist anymore than ‘an average value’ exists. Averages don’t really exist and yet they may all the same loom large in our minds as something to be aimed at or something to be avoided. We may live our whole life in the service of these ‘averages values’, in one way or another (we’re governed by social constructs, in other words). When we lead the generic life we’re living ‘someone else’s idea of what life is’ and not only this, we’re living ‘someone else’s idea of what life is on the basis of who or what someone else thinks we are (or ought to be)’! It’s no good pretending – as we generally do pretend – that this isn’t what the socially-conditioned life is like, that society (or our peers) are actually encouraging us to be our true authentic unique selves. It would be absurd to believe this. You would have to be asleep and dreaming (you’d have to be asleep and dreaming a socially-conditioned dream) to believe this!  When we say that we’re living ‘someone else’s idea of who we are or what life is’ it’s not really ‘someone else’ of course – we’re simply trying to approximate ourselves as best we can to an abstract idea that doesn’t belong to anyone. The generic ideas own us, we don’t own them! The generic idea owns us, but at the same time it doesn’t really exist; we’re putting ourselves through the wringer trying to approximate ourselves to an illusion – sometimes we fail and then we beat ourselves up (or are beaten up by our peers), or we succeed and we then go around feeling good about this, in a perfectly absurd fashion…

 

Life isn’t a matter of fitting into the pattern that we have been given; it isn’t a matter of ‘going along with the obvious answers that have been given to us without ever questioning them’. Life is a test, but it’s not that sort of test, it’s not a ‘test of obedience’ in the way that the fundamentalist Christians tell us it is. That’s just paternalistic bluster, that’s just ‘the Negative Father Image trying to frighten us, as always’! That’s just ‘The Old Tyrant‘! Life isn’t a test to see how good we are at going along with the prevailing bullshit – how could we possibly short-sighted enough to think this? We might like to think that it’s all about doing what we need to do in order to be good girls and good boys and get patted on the back or awarded medals but that of course is just a cop out so we don’t have to think for ourselves. That’s slavery, not life, even if it is slavery that we ourselves willingly walk into. Life’s not about embracing the generic life (and feeling either good or bad depending upon whether we are able to successfully do this), it’s about seeing through it.

 

This might sound like a rather simplistic or limited way of saying what life (which is obviously a pretty big thing) is or isn’t about but it hits the nail on the head in a lot of ways. It’s a pretty accurate way of putting things; after all, it’s only to the extent that we can see through (or beyond) ‘the generic life’ that we can live at all…

 

 

 

 

The Dark Father

cronus

The ‘Dark Father’ of unbridled rationality eats his own children, just as Cronos did in the ancient legend. He might not actually physically eat them as Cronos the Titan did, but by the weight of his controlling and stultifying authority he represses their psychological growth – he prevents them from ever becoming what they could otherwise be. ‘Control’ – in this context – doesn’t just mean telling people what to do and what not to do, when to do it and when not to do it, it means telling us how to see the world. But it isn’t enough simply to say this. It’s not just that we have been told how to see the world, we are told in such a way that we don’t realize that we actually have been told how to see the world. We don’t realize that we have been controlled at all – we think that the world just is that way.

 

Cronos the archetypal dark father eats his own children. He devours them before they can amount to very much, he devours them before they can get to the stage of challenging his authority. Later on, as we know from the legends that have passed down to us, he slipped up (tricked by his wife) and failed to devour the infant Zeus and this ‘slip-up’ was the beginning of the end for him. Zeus – with the help of his mother who was naturally not happy to have all of her children eaten by their infanticidal father – and was reared elsewhere, in secret. Later, Zeus returned in all his strength to defeat his father and the rest of the Titans in the war to end all wars – the Titanomachy. So in a way we can say that Cronos was right to eat his children – he knew what would happen if he didn’t!

 

Cronos devouring his children – and the war between the Gods and the Titans that followed – has immense psychological significance, which is of course what gives the myth the power that it still has. Even in the second decade of the twenty-first century we are making films about this cosmic conflict – albeit not very good ones. The myth is a universal one – in the Norse tales the Gods (Odin, Thor, Loki, and the rest) had to contend with the Ice Giants, which was an another ‘titanic’ struggle. The significance that we’re talking about here has to do with the struggle between the dark, repressive force of unconsciousness, and the emergent consciousness, which despite being fragile in its beginnings is a force that in time – if allowed to grow and become strong – will overturn the whole order of things.

 

Consciousness is born in the dark cave of unconsciousness – it emerges from this suffocating darkness and all too easily returns to it. It flickers like a newly lit candle and is very easily extinguished again. It is not just that the newly emergent consciousness is precarious – the force of what we have called unconsciousness is actively opposed to it and is implacably resolved to snuff it out as if it had never existed. Jung draws upon European fairy-tales to highlight this archetypal scenario. The precarious situation of the emergent consciousness can be seen – according to Jung – in the motif of the young child abandoned in the forest, helpless before all the terrible dangers that have their home there. The motif of the child points to the archetype of the Self and what this type of story tells us is that in order for us to realize the Self in our lives (i.e. in order for us to become who we really are) we have to brave all these dangers as the abandoned child does and yet somehow come out on the other side...

 

That the child should survive all the dangers of the wild forest (just as Hansel and Gretel survived, just as the twins Romulus and Remus survived) seems incredibly unlikely to say the least! We might quite reasonably object that this is too improbable a story to take seriously, given the number of co-incidences that are needed for it to work. The point is however that whenever consciousness does come into its own (whenever the Self does miraculously come back into being after being broken apart and scattered to the four corners of the world) this is the only way that it could have happened – through an extraordinarily unlikely ‘chain of chance’. This is the same argument we meet in relation to the huge improbability of coming across a planet possessing the exact conditions necessary for the evolution of life. How unlikely is this? But the thing is of course that it is only after life has arisen and sentient beings have evolved that we can be in the position of asking the question. We’re looking at things backwards therefore – once consciousness has arisen then we can become aware of the difficulty in it ever arising in the face of all the forces that are ranged against it!

 

We can relate this point to Cronos eating his children. The odds against surviving as a child of Cronos were always formidably great. It is very nearly a sure thing that you will be immediately be eaten. But then again it only takes one helpless infant to beat the odds and you have a Zeus on your hands! Only one helpless child has to survive the tyranny of the Dark Father and there will to be a full-scale Titanomachy for him to reckon with later on! Or as we could also say, only one Romulus and Remus has to survive (or even just a Romulus) for there to be a Rome, and not just a Rome in fact but a fully-fledged Roman Empire with all the trimmings…

 

From a psychological point of view therefore we can say that the odds are very much against consciousness surviving very long before being devoured by the forces of unconsciousness. Consciousness is always being born, just has Cronos’s children were always being born, but it is very nearly inevitable that they will meet their end very quickly indeed, as a matter of course, as a matter of mere routine, we might say. We can see this drama (the annihilation of consciousness) being enacted all around us every day – or rather we can’t see it being enacted around us every day because we’d have to be consciously present to witness it and we aren’t. This is a crime without witnesses (a ‘perfect crime’, as Jean Baudrillard says) and so it is also a crime that goes widely unreported…

 

The reason for the lack of witnesses is because if we are not conscious in the first place then none of this talk of ‘consciousness being devoured’ makes any sense at all! When we’re safely unconscious then everything seems fine, everything seems dandy. Everything is as it should be. We can’t see that there is anything amiss with the world at all – everything seems to be in the proper and correct order and so there is simply no cause to be going on about this business of ‘consciousness being unceremoniously devoured shortly after it is born’. In a world where no one is their own true Self the lack of the Self is hardly likely to be commented upon! In a world where everyone is asleep being asleep is going to be seen as the right and proper way to be. In a world where everyone is telling the same lie, then that lie has become the truth…

 

Life – for us – has become a matter of ‘fitting into the format’ (although at the same time we don’t see that we have fitted ourselves into it or that there was any ‘format’ to fit into in the first place). The format has become invisible because we have fitted into it so well. When we adapt ourselves perfectly to the format then what this means is that we’re seeing the world in terms of that format (such that there is no element of our daily experience that remains unformatted) then this situation is simply seen as ‘the correct way to be’, ‘the only way to be’. Only it isn’t exactly seen as such but assumed as such so that the only time we bother our heads about the status quo is to notice when someone isn’t fitting in and is therefore standing out to everyone else because of this ‘failure to adapt’.

 

The formatted way of things is just taken for granted – we unquestioningly accept it without realizing that we have accepted anything. This is of course simply the way that ‘formatting’ works – to believe is not to know that we believe. As soon as we know that we are believing something then this is the beginning of us not believing it. As soon as we see that we have made an assumption about reality then we are ‘conscious of the assumption’ and when we are conscious of it then it is no longer an assumption. We are no longer ‘assuming’ anything in this case. We’re no longer taking it for granted.

 

This gives us a good way of what is meant by the term ‘consciousness’ therefore. Consciousness, we may say, is when the formatting that the rational mind is imposing upon us becomes visible as formatting. Normally, as we have said, the truths that make up our shared (or agreed-upon) world are so ‘self-evidently valid’ that it would never occur to us to question them. When we become conscious however this changes everything. The so-called ‘self-evident’ truths that everyone takes for granted all of a sudden get shown up as being not so true after all. They get shown up as being lies – lies that everyone automatically believes in, lies that everyone accepts as being true…

 

Becoming aware is an act of rebellion. Becoming conscious is as Krishnamurti says ‘the only revolution’. It’s the only revolution that is worth a damn – everything else is just empty posturing. Everything else is just a smoke-screen, everything else is just a red herring. Once we understand consciousness as the capacity to see our formatting (or ‘our ability to see a lie for a lie’) then we can see why unconsciousness has to react the way it does to the emerging consciousness. It can’t afford to do otherwise – it can’t afford to have the light turned on. The lie can pass itself off very easily indeed as the truth when there is no consciousness around to see it for what it really is. When there’s no consciousness then we all just accept the lie at face-value. We all just passively go along with the formatting, no matter what the formatting is. We don’t care what the formatting is – we just care about fitting into it. We don’t care what the rules are, we just care about how well we can obey them…

 

The ‘Dark Father’ is the male (or ‘rational’) authority that our society is based upon. It is the system that defines us, and regulates us once we have been defined. It is the system that tells us what life is and how we should live it. It is the system that tells us what is real and what is not real. Psychologically speaking, the reason we can say that society is based on masculine authority is because it is the expression of the rational mind – the rational mind’s essential property being that it defines (or ‘quantifies’). It ‘lays down the law’, which is the masculine (Yang-type) principle at work. The rational mind says what is, and saying what is also means saying what is not. By asserting a positive ‘truth’, therefore, the thinking mind restricts us absolutely. We become trapped in the stated world, the defined or ‘positive’ world, and being trapped means that we lose the ability to see what has been denied in order that this ‘positive world’ could be created. We lose the capacity to see what assumptions have been made, in other words. We lose ‘consciousness’.

 

This is not to say that the masculine principle is inherently evil in nature but simply that when it is overvalued (which means of course that the feminine principle has been denied) then it turns malign. The balance has been lost and the result is disaster – albeit a disaster that we cannot see! This idea of an imbalance in favour of the masculine principle was – according to Jung – well known to the ancient alchemists who spoke in terms of the need (as a certain point in the alchemical process) for the ‘Old King’ to be murdered and dismembered. The Young King uses his masculine power not in denial of the feminine but in order to protect the kingdom against misfortune and enemies. His is a wise, benevolent, tolerant authority, therefore. The Old King on the other hand has become a dark force, an embodiment of ‘restriction for the sake of restriction’, ‘control for the sake of control’, ‘power for the sake of power’. The Old King has come to love the exercise of power just for its own sake, and so the only thing he cares about is hanging on to his power, hanging on to the authority he abuses… As Paul Levi says in his article on the Dark Father motif on his website Awaken In The Dream

The figure of the dark father is traumatizing to others, as it traumatizes everyone under its dominion. Because it is attached to the position of power it finds itself in, this figure is not interested in change, and therefore has become calcified and rigid.

In Tales of Power, Carlos Castaneda speaks of how the benevolent guardian all too easily morphs into the despotic guard, which is the same idea applied to the ego (the inner ruler) rather than any external figure –

We are born with the useful aspect of having an ego as our guardian. But too often a guardian becomes a guard. A guardian is broad-minded and understanding, a guard on the other hand, is a vigilante, narrow-minded and most of the time despotic.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell talks of the ‘Tyrant Holdfast’, whose name alone is enough to explain what he is about –

He is the hoarder of the general benefit. He is the monster avid for the greedy rights of ‘my and mine.’ The havoc wrought by him is described in mythology and fairy tale as being universal throughout his domain. This may be no more than his household, his own tortured psyche, or the lives that he blights with the touch of his friendship and assistance; or it may amount to the extent of his civilization. The inflated ego of the tyrant is a curse to himself and his world – no matter how his affairs may seem to prosper.

 

Self-terrorized, fear-haunted, alert at every hand to meet and battle back the anticipated aggressions of his environment, which are primarily the reflections of the uncontrollable impulses to acquisition within himself, the giant of self-achieved independence is the world’s messenger of disaster, even though, in his mind, he may entertain himself with humane intentions. Wherever he sets his hand there is a cry (if not from the housetops, then – more miserably – within every heart): a cry for the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence, will liberate the land.

The Tyrant Holdfast’s grip on his kingdom is absolute and nothing is permitted to thrive in it unless it serves him. The same is true for the Dark Father of our over-valued rationality – nothing is permitted breathing space unless it agrees with the unquestionable rules of the assumed formatting. Nothing is allowed unless it serves this formatting, unless it does this formatting’s work and not its own. Independence from the framework is not tolerated, under any circumstances. It’s prohibited. As soon as we are old enough to understand language we are subjected to this insidious formatting of reality, and before very long we have lost the ability to experience ourselves and the world in any other way than the way it permits. We see ourselves via the mechanical format, via the external framework and we lose ourselves in the process…

 

There can be no part of us that doesn’t make sense within the terms of the framework. Nothing that doesn’t make sense within the framework is given any credence, any credibility at all. The only part of us that is given credibility is the part that accords with our assumptions, that part that agrees with the rules of the game that we have unwittingly agreed to play. But the ‘part’ of which we speak actually isn’t a part of us at all – it isn’t actually a part of us at all because the game that we’ve unwittingly agreed to play is ‘the game of being what we’re not’.

 

Consciousness keeps on being born into the world and the system keeps on formatting it, turning it into ‘not-consciousness’, turning it into pseudo-consciousness, turning it into a parody of consciousness. And if we think we are already conscious (and that this whole idea of over-valued rationality being the Dark Father is ridiculous) then that’s because we’ve already been devoured. That’s because the thinking mind is telling us – which it does as a matter of routine – that we’re conscious already, when the truth is that we’re not…