The Question of Reality

January 19, 2011 § 3 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?” – Chuang Tzu

From Plato’s Cave to The Matrix, thoughtful humans throughout the ages have found different ways to ask the same question: Are we fully cognizant of the true nature of the reality that surrounds us?

There is a basic unease to the human condition, the vague and gnawing sense that there must be something we are missing, something we have not been told; a feeling rooted, no doubt, in the fact that we are born into a world where the most burning questions have only theoretical, subjective answers.

Religion has attempted to fill this void with meaning, but even in its answers, more questions arise.

How solid is our reality? Science, so often pitted against the mystical, has the most mystically fraught of answers: not solid at all. On an atomic and subatomic level — as we all learned in school, though most likely didn’t grasp the full implication of at the time — there is space and movement between atoms. The so-called solid wall is teeming, pulsing, dancing — molecules full of wide open space.

If I put my hand on the wall, the sensation I experience as touch is the interaction between the molecules of my hand and the molecules of the wall; on an atomic level, there is a point where the difference between my hand and the wall become indistinguishable.

In other words, it has been scientifically proven in our lifetime that the reality we behold is — to some degree, anyway — illusory.

The idea that the nature of form is misleading and ultimately unreal, of course, has been in existence for centuries — perhaps most famously put forth in the Eastern concept of Maya, (found in Buddhism and Hinduism,) a word derived form the ancient Sanskritma, meaning “not,” and ya, meaning “that.” Though the details differ, Judeo-Christian philosophy reiterates the same basic idea: that things are not as they appear, and this world is but a pale echo of a brighter, truer place.

There are more sinister shades, more paranoid potential, to this question of reality. The possibility that, as in The Matrix — where humans are grown by sentient machines, imprisoned in a virtual computer-generated world —we are living in an unperceived prison of sorts. As the character Morpheus says:

“What you know you can’t explain. But you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad.”

Of course, we can clearly see that there are many things wrong with the world — war, hunger, violence, hatred. Easily, that can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it-feeling of unease can find its root in quite tangible phenomena. Perhaps it is a form of escapism to look elsewhere than the obvious issues — wishful thinking that there is some explanation which would make the world’s horrors somehow more comprehensible. And yet, true though this may be, it doesn’t hurt to probe, to dig, to question consensus reality.

The Matrix premise borrows heavily from the Gnostic tradition, wherein the world was created by imperfect gods (though within the spectrum a perfect one exists.)

These flawed creators are described as a race of inorganic beings local to our solar system, called Archons. Agents of error, they feed off human misery and hence work to deceive the mind towards darkness. Pretty trippy stuff, considering the ancient texts date back to the 3rd and 4th century.

The fact that our experience of stimuli in the world is actually an experience of our brain’s interpretation of that stimuli (rather than the thing itself) does make a Matrix-like gap between reality and perceived reality plausible.

After all, the smell of a rose is simply information recognized through sensory organs and registered as “rose.”

The light waves we see when we perceive the rose are in our eyes, not the thing seen; the molecules we smell are in our nose, not the thing smelled. They are not the thing itself, but a relayed message or impression of the thing.

In the language of philosophy, this is known as the “brain in a vat” thought experiment. Theoretically, if it were scientifically possible to place a brain in a life-sustaining liquid environment (or “vat”) & hook its neurons up to a supercomputer—generating electrical impulses identical to those the brain normally receives—the brain would perceive the simulated reality as experiential reality.

This concept is used as a  basic argument for philosophical skepticism; as theoretically it is impossible to know, from the brain’s perspective, whether it exists in a scull or a vat.

Brain in a vat

Surrealist artist Rene Margitte plays with this concept in his famous painting, The Treachery of Images, which displays a pipe, underneath which is written in French: “This is not a pipe”

For, indeed, it is not a pipe, but a representation of one. Yet our first thought upon reading the painting’s caption is to object—certainly this is a pipe. 

Yet upon reflection we must admit that the clever artist’s pronouncement is absolutely accurate and, indeed, our tendency to associate the-thing-itself with its representation has been illustrated.

How can we assume this world is as it seems, when nightly dreams themselves can seem so real? What deeper, truer, more expansive identity and truth might be revealed to us about the cosmos and our place in it upon leaving or waking from this reality?

I’m not in any hurry to get there, and as Tom Hanks says in Joe vs. The Volcano, “Some things take care of themselves,” but I do — after many a dark night of the soul wrestling with doubt — have a good feeling about it. After all, the world minus man’s debacles, is a place brimming with potential and inspirational phenomena.


I’ve heard the life-as-dream/world-as-illusion theory described as angst-producing, proof of pointlessness. I don’t see it that way. Does an inspiring nocturnal dream enrich our spirit any less because it gives way to a deeper, fuller reality upon waking? Is a great novel any less meaningful because it didn’t really happen? When you start subdividing it, the word “real” itself begins to lose meaning.

We can knock on a table and feel reassured by its bright, solid sound. But even the table is like Magritte’s pipe — both what it seems to be and also not at all. Reality ripe with paradox and potential, lots of wide open space for us to take a tip from the molecules and dance, even in the smallest spaces.

The Art of Madness

January 10, 2011 § 1 Comment

By Tai Carmen

By Minjai Lee; site credit: www.hdw.eweb4.com/search/surrealism/

“Madness is to think too many things in succession too fast, or one thing too exclusively.” ~ Voltaire

“A person needs a little madness, or else they never dare cut the rope and be free.” ~ Nikos Kazantzakis

“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” ~ Robin Williams

In his seminal work, “Madness and Civilization,” French philosopher Michael Faucault posits that psychiatry uses labeling language (known as positive science) to camouflage the bourgeois values imposed on social deviancy.

In other words, the mental health system acts as a kind of suppressive goon against nonconformity.

site credit: http://floatinginthebellyofawhale.tumblr.com/post/69345544932

Vincent Van Gogh, famous for his sunflowers, wheat fields and ear-chopping, acknowledged that:

“It is only too true that a lot of artists are mentally ill — it’s a life which, to put it mildly, makes one an outsider. I’m all right when I completely immerse myself in work, but I’ll always remain half crazy.”

From an evolutionary perspective, survival depends on some kind of social acceptance. So it’s natural that we attempt to avoid stigmatization. Yet, the seeker-dreamer feels compelled towards living authentically and will often sacrifice herd acceptance for the satisfaction of true self-expression.

Still, there is the ever-present, if subconscious, awareness that if you go too far, you could lose liberty. If you act too differently, you could be institutionalized.

Once deemed clinically insane, the individual’s rights become blurry, as with criminals.

The incarceration of psychological dissidents acts as a kind of warning to wayward thinkers; a cautionary tale to not let one’s mind run too far into the fanciful woods. 

unknown source

Edgar Allen Poe observed:

“Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence—whether much that is glorious—whether all that is profound—does not spring from disease of thought—from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” 

In the Renaissance,  the mentally ill were considered to have gotten too close to “the Reason of God.”

Tribal cultures throughout the world consider madness the first sign of a shaman’s birth into his power, marking him as one who can communicate between the physical and the invisible worlds.

Dr Adele Juda, researcher at the Institute for Psychiatry of Munich, interviewed over 5,000 people between 1927 –1943. She found what was considered neurosis and personality disorder in 27% of the artists & 19% of the scientists and statesmen studied, against the general rate of 10-12%.

The highest rates of psychic disruption were seen among poets (50%).

As French poet Arthur Rimbaud writes:

“A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences. Unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest faith, a superhuman strength, where he becomes all men… Because he has cultivated his soul, already rich, more than anyone, he attains the unknown.”

The lowest rates of neurosis were found among architects (17%).

A good friend of mine once worked as a personal assistant for an Oscar-winning talent who shall remain nameless. She has shared moments with me wherein the successful entertainer barreled through the living room in boxer shorts, a newsboy hat and cowboy boots, a manuscript of papers clutched to his chest, saying, “I’m going mad!”—after dumping his papers in a pile to play a beautiful fit of piano music & jumping up to scribble in a notebook.

He smiled of course when he said it, because he had managed to play the most beautiful hoodwink upon society that a creative mind can play: he made money being slightly mad.

And that is the art of insanity: valuing creative chaos and giving it room to unfold without premature critique or analysis. Order and reason can come later. As Nietzsche says:

“You must have chaos within to give birth to a dancing star.”

Creative process doesn’t have to make sense, and some of the world’s greatest visionaries have proven that it’s better if it doesn’t. Far-fetched processes yield unusual thoughts, and novel ideas garner more attention than pedestrian ones.

Am I suggesting that one can not be brilliant without being insane? Certainly not. But in order to have great thoughts, one’s mind must certainly be open to a broader scope than the average thinker, and when a mind is broad in expanse, the impressions therein will be unusually varied.

Madness and art are not mutually exclusive, but they do go well together, and often turn up as a pair to the same party. If you’re one of those who dreams awake and finds yourself an “outsider” like van Gogh, consider yourself lucky: you’re in good company and that much closer to doing something original.

So use your madness to your own advantage. Rather than stuffing it in a drawer, take it out to play.

“Imagination,” Einstein says, “is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

There is no genius free from some tincture of madness.Seneca

If you liked this post, you might also The Outsider, The Outsider As Visionary & The Mythology of Conformity 

Invisible Architects

January 3, 2011 § 8 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines, machines which have become the key to economic progress.” – President Herbert Hoover, (to a room full of public relations and ad men.)

Few things are creepier than the president of a country comparing its people to machines.

In the 1920′s and 30′s Freud popularized the idea that man, though perhaps appearing tame, has irrational, libidinous, uncontrollable animal desire raging just below the surface of his well-groomed exterior.

Edward Bernays, considered the father of modern commercialism, applied his uncle Sigmund Freud‘s theories of the Unconscious Mind to advertising and revolutionized commercials from a plodding industry reciting the practical virtues of products to a psychologically savvy form of not-so-subtle brainwashing.

When cigarette companies came to Edward Bernays in the late 1920′s and asked him how to improve sales to women, Bernays paid top dollar to get leading NY psychoanalyst A.A. Brill ‘s opinion on the question of what would make women smoke.

Brill told him the cigarette was a phallic symbol and represented male sexual power. If he could find a way to connect cigarettes with the idea of challenging male power, then women would smoke because then they would “have their own penises.”

Using this dubious little psychological gem, Bernays staged a spectacle at the New York Easter parade when he hired a group of good-looking young women to walk together in the parade, each secretly holding a pack of cigarettes somewhere on her person. At his sign the girls were to light up in unison. He informed the press that he’d heard a group of suffragettes were planning on attending the parade and lighting up their “torches of freedom.”

The girls lit up, the newspaper reporters snapped their picture, and all over America, cigarettes were suddenly linked to independence, freedom and equality.

It had been considered socially taboo for a woman of good moral character to smoke in public. (In 1904 a woman named Jennie Lasher was sentenced to thirty days in jail for “putting her children’s morals at risk” by smoking in their presence!)

So the connection between women’s liberation & cigarettes was emotional, but not rational. For the first time, Bernays showed American corporations that irrelevant objects could become powerful emotional symbols—embodying how people wanted to feel and be seen.

During this time, leading political writer Walter Lippman spearheaded the idea that if, as Freud suggested, human beings were driven by irrational forces, then perhaps it was necessary to rethink democracy. What was needed, he said, was a new elite to manage “the bewildered herd.” This would be done through psychological techniques that would control the unconscious feelings of the masses. In Propaganda (1928), Bernays argued that the manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”


By stimulating people’s inner desires and then sating them with consumer products, Bernays argued, he was creating a new way to manage the irrational force of the masses. This way the masses remained docile, while the economy remained stimulated. Bernays called this marketing strategy,“The engineering of consent.”

If that term doesn’t give you the willies, the following quote by leading wall street banker, Paul Maizer, ought to do it:

“We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

These words were spoken the better half of a century ago in the 1930′s, and it appears the manifesto has become prophecy.

In an age when Americans seem to be consumers first and citizens second, when the industrial spirit of creation has been overshadowed by the insatiable zeal to consume and invisible architects are burning the midnight oil trying to figure out how to better engineer your consent — every act of independent thought is a small but meaningful triumph.

Read Part 2:  “The Engineering of Human Desire”

*For more  information on this subject, watch The Century of Self documentary series. 

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