The Myth of Meaning
Why meaning is nowhere to be found
There is no meaning in the system, nor can there be. The system only understands, and only can understand, expansion · · · Meaning is the result of conscious being and of purposeful doing, both of which are impossible within the system and violently suppressed when they appear · · · The perfect system is therefore comprised entirely of unconscious people performing meaningless tasks.
With every passing year fewer and fewer people need to be persuaded that life in the system is meaningless, although many are still convinced that the consolations, addictions and surrogates they use to fill the void that system-life creates, are overflowing with purpose.
Meaning, or reality,comes from two places, conscious being and purposeful doing. Conscious being refers to the experience of consciousness that precedes, or is aware of, thoughts, emotions and separate sensations. This pristine sense of ‘I’ is occasionally sensed, or felt, after a long refreshing sleep, before all ‘my’ ideas slot into place, or in moments of stillness, when I am stunned by beauty or when, perhaps for no other reason than a walk in the park, I feel, all over my body, a profound rightness with life. Recognition, or knowing what is happening, takes me out of this experience into ideas, names, words and objects, which are all relative experiences; which is to say, known through relation and comparison. I know what the idea ‘The big cloud above me’ means by references to various relative scales, such as big-small, white-dark, fluffy-hard, above-below, here-there, and so on, but no such abstract knowledge is involved when the big cloud above is actually raining on me, or when I hug someone I am completely in love with, or in moments of sporting brilliance, when I am one with the ball, or after a hard day’s work when I step into the shower. Neither do I make relative assessments in moments of great shock, when I am stunned, by pain or loss or even embarrassment, into a full experience of what is. In such moments time seems to slow down and sensations become more vivid. This is because conscious being is not a partial, mental event, located in the head, but a complete physical one. The entire body is conscious—an experience which we register as vivid, bright, intense, actual and full of meaning; while mind-made time, as we normally experience it, is a relative mode of experience which takes our attention away from the conscious body and into ideas of the past and the future.
Naturally there is no problem with time, with thinking and feeling, or with picking separate objects out of the blended present. They are all useful tools; indeed the first tools that humanity ever used. The problem appears, as with all tools, when they take control of the user. When woman can no longer experience her body directly without thinking, without feeling time press upon her, without a restless need to do or to buy something; when man cannot experience the present moment directly, when all experience comes via the thinking mind, when the strange, elusive intensity of life is instantly translated into comprehensible ideas, plans, desires and theories; then confusion and unhappiness become constant companions, the planning and recollection of time-awareness become endless anxiety and worry, and all talk of the radical awareness of conscious being sounds silly, self-indulgent and, in a complete reversal of the fully sensate truth, abstract. It also feels, to the relative self, uncomfortable, weird, worrying.
The ideal, for a perfect system, is a world in which everyone is completely unconscious.
For ten millennia or more, the tool of the self has been in charge of human affairs,working to eradicate the threat of selfless consciousness, and the threat of the selfless context with which it is indissolubly blended. Selfless states of conscious being, such as empathy, spontaneity, creativity, presence, or any other uncensored response to the context, have been unconsciously perceived as existential dangers of the first order by every monarch, state, party, priesthood, profession, government, board of directors and irresponsible parent that has ever existed.
This threat becomes greater with each successive generation. When the organs of the system—institutions—are still young and ‘within reach’ of those who created them, laws, habits and customs are still, at least partly, informed by the context; they are still relevant to society as it is, and those who created them still have some kind of power over them. But when a new generation appears, for whom institutional processes have become divorced from their original context, the ‘way it’s always been done round here’ on the one hand doesn’t seem to make so much sense, while, at the same time, through expansion and reinforcement, seems more real than it ever has. Key texts—once questionable and mutable—become fixed and sacred; pioneers—once human and responsive—become deified and beyond reproach; and, most insidiously, unspoken norms become reality itself, breach of which is perceived, by specialised elites now in charge of this objectified reality, as, at best, impudence, and in more serious cases, as sacrilege, madness.
Because the original meaning of the institution cannot be so readily accessed by new generations, a great and ever greater effort has to go in to interpreting, explaining and teaching ‘the way it’s always been done’ to them, and coercing or punishing deviance, which, notwithstanding the monolithic mind-shaping organs of the system, is surprisingly straightforward. It is easy to instil compliance because, as the system evolves, the matrix of institutionswhich comprise it covers more and more aspects of life. The language, the science, the ‘facts’, the recipes, the laws, the habitual actions, the justifying myths and the pre-defined roles that form the warp and weft of institutional life increasingly define, construct, control and predict everything the individual does; and, consequently, everything he can think about what he does. This is how the handed-down reality of the institution becomes reality itself. The mind can find no escape, and all attempts at escape feel like depravity, insanity or just plain silliness (although this does not mean that silly, insane and depraved acts are effective escapes). In other words, because you can think about the human world you are fooled into believing it is somehow sensible or right. Knowledge about the world is the world. You can, and probably do, criticise the constituent elements of the system—the government is bad, our institutions are failing us, civilisation is falling apart—while, through the criticism, remaining an integral part of that ‘world’, which, therefore, still somehow makes sense, feels ‘right’, maybe even is ‘worth fighting for’.
This is how all attempts at rebellion get effortlessly subsumed into the mythos of the system. The original thought, the inspiring slogan, the radical art, the rebellious speech are all manifestations of conscious revolt; and as manifestations—definable, storable, saleable, controllable intellectual objects—they are automatically co-opted.
Likewise, everything we feel and do is absorbed by the system; once it has been made explicit, measurable, literal; graspable by the mind. Ambiguity, intimacy, vagueness, paradox (not to mention the great ungraspables, love and death) cannot be allowed into the advanced institution. They must be interpreted, confessed, recorded, posted, available. The biological model of mental illness, the mapping of all life, the systemic suppression of artistic truth (and the exaltation of entertainments in which the ineffable plays a subservient role, such as sport, cooking, travel, and all kinds of mediocre music and drama), the bureaucratic profiling of every person, action and emotion on earth (abetted by therapy, education, confession and digital communication), and the absorption of the incomprehensible, the elusive and the unpredictable into the crude literalism of science, indeed all literalism (postmodernism, feminism, blokeish common sense, etc, etc.), are all unconscious moves, fuelled by unconscious threat of the abyss, in this totalising, totalitarian, direction.
Perception of this threat has to be unconscious, for consciousness is the threat. Consciousness, and [active experience of] the context it illumines, is the only escape from the pseudo-reality of the system. This is why the system ceaselessly works to suppress consciousness, along with all its qualitative manifestations, while never recognising that this is what is happening. Dissidents are silenced for security, systems men are promoted for their talents, background music is played for entertainment, motorways are built for transport, cellular networks are made more powerful for ‘communication’, refrigerators are manufactured for convenience, forests are felled for profit, society is uploaded for efficiency, unruly folk are tranquillised for their own good, spontaneity is banished for propriety, children are locked up for their safety, everyone is under constant surveillance for their own protection, laws which curtail psychedelic drug use, handling of dead bodies, free sexuality and self-sufficiency are passed for dignity or decency or some such other thing and technologies (or rationally-organised activities) proliferate which demand standard responses and suppress, ignore or punish impulse, individuality, reverie or fully sensate awareness (such as driving a car or using a phone or playing a video game) so that we can all live ‘normal’ ‘happy’ ‘lives’. All these reasonable, fair, fun, beneficial and logical activities end up suppressing consciousness, dulling the senses, separating men and women from their own nature and from each other, and sucking the incarnate joy from life; but that’s neither here nor there for the system, or for those who serve or willingly submit to it, none of whom are capable of directly recognising what they have lost.
The second (and secondary) source of meaning, after conscious being, is purposeful doing. This means exerting oneself to achieve a meaningful goal. For the history of mankind—millions of years—this has entailed feeding, clothing, heating and housing oneself, forming close bonds with the members of one’s society, finding a mate and raising children, truthfully expressing experience and playing; and all autonomously, consciously and with an immense amount of skill naturally acquired from nature and culturewithout compulsion, or even instruction.
Needless to say, none of this is acceptable to the system, which must force humans into entirely subservient roles, and, in order to do so, must remove their capacity to provision, care for or express themselves. In a highly developed system, people find that no skill, whatsoever, is required to keep themselves alive.Only obedience. They find that they are unable to have direct relations with their fellows, which makes them feel lonely; they find that, in matters of cultural achievement, skill is a positive handicap, which makes them feel inadequate; and they find that they are prevented from directing their own activities in any meaningful sense, which makes them feel frustrated.
To counteract the prodigious loneliness, inadequacy and frustration that the system causes—and, handily, to generate further realms of market expansion—the system must provide people the opportunity to engage in meaningless activities; that provide nothing but solipsistic stimulation (porn, teevee, VR, drugs), that require minimal skill (modern art, modern university courses, collecting stickers, journalism), or minimal autonomy (schooled education, waged work, Disneyland), or, if they satisfy man’s need for independence, that have no bearing on the overall functioning of the system (cycling around the world, mastering yoga poses, getting in the Guinness Book of Records) or, if they satisfy man’s need for a challenge, that actively support the system (winning the world cup, becoming CEO of Snapchat, wealth gathering). Humans must be encouraged to believe that all of these activities are just as ‘meaningful’ as genuinely purposeful doing.They must be persuaded to pour their personalities into such hobbies and ambitions (which, again, in a totalising environment is easy) and, consequently, to violently reject criticism of them as personal attacks, thereby divorcing the cloud of oppressive futility and boredom that hangs over the planet from the surrogates and stand-ins for an authentic life which cause it.
The ideal, for a perfect system, is a world in which everyone is completely unconscious—unable to feel love, empathise, act spontaneously or honestly experience the present moment as it is, in all its mysterious intensity and strange intelligence; and in which everyone is totally dependent on the system—physically, emotionally and psychologically domesticated, deformed to fit its requirements and, ideally, not just unable to see their deformity, but actively celebrating it.
This is an extract from 33 Myths of the System. You can read another chapter, The Myth of Culture, here, and buy the book here.
We are not talking here of rational, intellectual meaning. There’s certainly little of that in life. Tolstoy said, ‘the only absolute knowledge obtainable by man is that life is meaningless’, but he was conscious there is an ineffable, intimate truth to life, and that is what I mean here by ‘meaning’.
Or, rather, one place seen from two different perspectives.
I call this ‘self-in-charge’ ego, by which I do not mean the Freudian ‘ego’. For Freud the ‘ego’ was different to the instinctual ‘id’ and the hyper-rational social ‘superego’. In truth there is no real difference between these divisions; they’re all ego.
Or ‘self-soft’ states, when I sense through the screen of the self.
P. Berger and T. Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality.
These institutions, the ‘sub-institutions’ (departments, classes, and so on) within them, and their ‘sub-universes’ of meaning, are frequently at odds with each other and jockeying for power; which gives a false impression of ‘diversity’. Ibid.
Craft too, sane specialisation, must eventually go out of the totalitarian window, along with local and even national difference. Genuine individuality is automatically ‘hollowed out’ by the monolithic pressures of institutional modernity. The certificates of professional expertise remain, the flags and football teams of national ‘identity’, the symbols of local pride (animals, plants, craft processes) but the private and particular reality that these things refer to is long dead, merged with the systemic mass.
The distinction between the two, like that between work and play, being a modern, and artificial one. See P. Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture.
With the partial exception of professionals, who must be skilled in a fantastically limited—which is to say pathologically specialised and market directed—sense. See Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined Minds.
T. Kaczynski, Industrial Society and Its Future. Kaczynski’s analysis of the consequences of being deprived of purposeful doing is peerless. The role of conscious being does not, however, figure in his work; which explains the fact that he felt killing university professors was a good idea.
Not that these activities are totally meaningless. Rather they are not as meaningful as (indeed on a completely different level of meaning to) purposeful doing. If they were genuinely purposeful, they would not be allowed. As Kaczynski says, ‘we can do anything we like as long as it’s unimportant’. There’s a parallel here with reform. Writing petitions, protesting in the street, voting, fretting over poor black people and girl’s stem grades and so on are not always completely meaningless either—but they are not in any sense revolutionary and, again, if they were, they would not be permitted.