The most valuable skill in advertising is the skill of being able to evoke or conjure up a quality that we don’t have in life (a quality we don’t have but would dearly love to) and then make it seem as if we actually could have it, if only we would do ourselves the favour of listening to the helpful suggestion of the advertiser. The sort of thing we are talking about here is entirely non-specific though – it is not wealth or status or popularity or sexual potency or good-looks or health or anything like that, even though we may well associate the quality we are missing with these things. What we are talking about here is an abstract personal quality, a quality far more elusive and insubstantial than any of the crude commodities that we have just listed. The term that comes closest to describing the personal quality we are alluding to is perhaps kudos – which, simply defined, means something along the lines of ‘glory’ or ‘widespread acclaim for exceptional attainment’.
Kudos is the kind of thing we all cotton on to immediately, but which we cannot – even so – pin down as being specifically due to this or that. It is the sort of thing that can only be apprehended indirectly, in the look in someone eyes, or in a second-hand reflection that comes back to you from somewhere else. If we were to be psychologically-minded about it we could say that kudos has to do with the longed for ‘final fulfilment’ of the ego or self-image. This final fulfilment is a tricky kind of a thing to produce or obtain however because, as we have said, it is not arrived at by possessing or attaining any particular ‘thing’. It is more like a secret that other people think we possess: they know (or suspect) that we have it and they also know that it is a very rare and exceptionally good thing to have, but all the same they don’t really know what it is…
Envy is a related idea. I may possess all sorts of wonderful things and when I do others – who do not possess them – may envy me them. As John Berger suggests in Ways of Seeing, the envy of others is an important thing to me because it confirms that what I have is worth having. I need others to envy me my attainments to complete my satisfaction, to complete my triumph – if they don’t it will in some way deflate me, take the wind out of my sails. Kudos is a public affair then, rather than something that I can enjoy in private; as Berger says, it is a solitary form of pleasure and one that necessarily isolates the enjoyer of the pleasure. Instead of ‘kudos’ Berger (1972, P133) talks of glamour, which he defines as ‘the happiness of being envied’ –
Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest – if you do, you will become less enviable. In this respect the envied are like bureaucrats; the more impersonal they are, the greater the illusion (for themselves and for others) of their power. The power of the glamorous resides in their supposed happiness: the power of the bureaucrat in his supposed authority. It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.
Kudos (or glamour) is therefore not actually a thing in itself but something more ephemeral than this – it is a thing we have because others think we have it. It has to do with ‘social relations not objects’. It has to do with a collectively-created illusion that other people can be persuaded – if I go about it in the right way – to buy into.
If I possess a particular object, such as a very expensive car or house, then others might envy me this object but there is not necessarily any personal kudos in this for me. I might at the same time as being envied be widely viewed as an idiot, a laughable buffoon, a conceited fool. Kudos can’t be tied down in this way – there is no prescription I can follow to obtain it, even though I might wish very much that there was. It is also the case that I cannot obtain long-lasting ego-fulfilment from possessing any object – no matter how valuable or rare it is. If I try to obtain fulfilment in this way it just doesn’t work out, it invariably leaves me sad and disappointed. Just to give a crude example, suppose that I have a chest full to the brim with precious jewels and metals which I pull out from under the bed ever so often and have a look at to give myself a boost. This is of course the classic ‘miser scenario’ and as everyone knows from traditional tales and fairy-stories, misers are always miserable. This tactic for ‘feeling good’ ends up having the opposite effect – there are no happy misers.
Another tactic that I might try is to find for myself the perfect fairy-tale partner, marry them quickly so that no one else can have them, and then try to live happily ever after on this basis. The problem here is that in exerting control over the source of my happiness I objectify that source and so we come back to the same old problem of trying to obtain fulfilment through the possession of an object. The more control I exert over life in any respect (i.e. the more I ‘close in’ on it) the more I convert that aspect of life into an object, a mere token of what it originally was. If I treat my life as being the ‘precious thing’ and try to keep this treasure safe and secure by taking all sorts of sensible precautions then the inevitable result of this of course that my life becomes unbearably dull and tedious, and – if I were to be honest with myself – not worth the effort of living.
Objects, because they are specific, always produce euphoria and depression in equal measure: I can gloat over an object and feel good for a while, but because I am now trapped in a rotating closed system the wheel will turn around full circle and my delight will become my despair. As Johannes Fabricius (1976, P 98) says,
Known to the Greeks as peripeteia, or ‘reversal of roles,’ this principle of irony and paradox is overwhelming in its operation in Hermetic science: that which has been worshipped as holy becomes in the twinkling of an eye a monstrous horror; the cup with the elixir of life turns into a deadly poison…
This principle of ‘irony and paradox’ always operates just so long as there is, on the one hand ‘a specific object’, and the other hand, ‘a fixed viewpoint’, and for this reason the longed final fulfilment of the ego or self-image can never be found; or rather, it can briefly be found, but then as soon as we find it what we have found turns against us and becomes the very antithesis of ‘fulfilment’.
In reality, the particular, specific or defined self (the ‘self as a particle’) can never find final fulfilment, I can never obtain final satisfaction within the only terms that are acceptable to me (which are my own terms) and so I have to learn to play a subtler sort of game. I have to adopt a more sophisticated approach than the crude games that we have touched upon here. I have to learn to infer the presence of this much-desired commodity whilst taking care not to go any closer than this mere inference – I can talk about it and fantasize about it, but this is as far as it goes. The reason this we have to be careful in this way (the reason the kudos of the self-image’s ‘perfectly fulfilled life’ cannot be directly grasped hold) of is because it is a myth, a phantom, an illusion; there is no such thing and there never can be! No matter what particular prize I secure, it is going to fade and become worthless in my sight before very long. The most legendary diamond becomes a dumb lump of mineral, the most expensive sports car a useless heap of junk, the splendid multi-million pound house a mausoleum. The most sought-after A-list trophy partner becomes an irritation (which is of course why the duration of celebrity marriages is measured in weeks rather than years). I can’t simply grab hold of the prize, and thereby secure it for myself, but I can pretend I have got it, and in theatrical terms this is just as good.
The point is that all of these prizes are worthless in themselves because what we are really grasping after is an idea not a thing. What the self-image is hankering after, fantasizing over, is a very special kind of situation – a situation which it knows to exist ‘out there’ somewhere, but which it doesn’t possess itself. The self-image senses kudos out there, it believes and participates in the myth of it (and imagines that it catches glimpses of it from time to time in others who are skilled at pretending that they have attained it themselves) but it would have to admit – if it were to be totally honest – that it has never actually managed to be admitted to this elusive inner circle of humanity, the circle made up of those who have discovered ‘the secret’ for themselves. In more commonplace terms, what we are talking about is ‘being a winner’. ‘Winner’ is the golden word, the word that never fails to simultaneously thrill us and drive us mad with envy. Not being in possession of kudos means that we are ‘losers’ and so the root of our attraction to the magical golden glow of kudos lies in our secret (or perhaps not-so-secret) perception of ourselves as being irredeemable losers.
This wrong foots us right from the start of course. We have been set-up, suckered, taken for fools. Once we start off thinking that we are ‘losers’ then nothing we do or attain is ever going to help us – no matter how hard we try. No matter how hard we work, we aren’t ever going to make this right. How could we ever ‘make it right’ when the basic assumption we’re starting off from isn’t true, and the thing that we are chasing after to cure the situation doesn’t exist? Our starting-off position is as unreal as our goal – which is itself after all only the upside-down reflection of the initial assumed position and so we are now in possession of a hunger that can never be assuaged…
This of course is the best possible news for the advertisers – if there really was a cure, if I really could obtain this elusive and much-desired kudos, then what possible interest would all these thousands of products and services have for me, given that the marketing magic is all about acquiring this fabulously attractive quality for oneself? We have to go on unconsciously thinking that we are losers or else the never-ending parade of glittering images that we are subjected to will lose all its appeal. The seductive power of these glossy, glittery images is a direct function of our unconscious (or ‘sub-conscious’) perception of ourselves as losers; to paraphrase James Carse in Finite and Infinite Games, we strive to win in order to prove that we aren’t the losers we feel everyone takes us to be. Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Success is Counted Sweetest’ makes a similar point –
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the purple host
Who took the flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear, of victory.
As he, defeated, dying,
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Break agonized and clear.
If we dissect kudos (which is pretty much the same as what Berger calls ‘glamour’) we arrive at the idea of the validation of the self-image, and applying the argument as before we can say that the reason validation is such a sweet nectar for me as the limited, fixed and particular self I take myself to be is because I am so lacking in it. The whole idea of the specifically and exhaustively defined self (which is to say, the contained or bounded self) is inherently problematical. The bounded self is like a belief in this respect – if I randomly pick or acquire one particular belief to promote and adhere to, and say then that I could not have picked or acquired any other belief to stick with through thick and thin and put forward before any other, then I am in this way locked into a constant battle. Saying what I am saying is ‘fighting against the truth’ and as soon as I get started in this then I am caught up in it full-time; from this point on I am helplessly driven by the need to validate what is essentially not true. If it were true then I would not need to validate it, and the prospect of some kind of final validation or vindication would not seem so sweet to me.
Any sort of confirmation that the random belief I have elected to promote is the right one is very welcome indeed; it is a blessed balm for the tormenting itch of my insecurity and I am certainly not going to question or look more deeply into it. Superficial or surface-level confirmation is more than good enough for me! In the same way that a particular belief has to be continually validated and vindicated if it is not to be exposed as a sham, so too the defined or ‘particular’ self needs always to be validated in order that I can continue to think that there was never any question about it. It needs to be continually vindicated in order that I should not glimpse the uncomfortable truth that it is only a superficial and arbitrary construct, and not who I really am at all. In effect, through my heedless insecurity, I have settled for a ‘crappy version of myself’, a hollow two-dimensional token, and having settled for this profoundly inadequate – if not utterly ridiculous – version of who I really am I am thrown permanently on the defensive. Because of the choice that I have made (without of course realizing that I have made any choice) I am caught up full-time in the struggle to ‘validate the false self’, which needs to be continuously validated precisely because it is false.
Another approach we can take here is to say that the false-self (or self-image) needs validating because it is inherently inauthentic. It isn’t in the least bit special – in fact it is as common as could be – and so it craves constant confirmation that it is not like all the rest. The state or condition of being just an average, ubiquitous, ten-a-penny, unremarkable thoroughly un-special old ‘false self’ is of course synonymous with being a loser. A loser doesn’t stand out in a crowd; a loser is a nobody, a nonentity – he or she has failed to distinguish themselves from the morass of common humanity. More than this, we can say that the psychological overtones or implications of being what is popularly known as ‘being a loser’ is that one has failed – in any significant way – to exist at all. As a loser I am a zero, I haven’t managed to become a person, I have no authentic being. Thus, for me the nectar beyond any price is the boon of existence or being, which I feel is something that I have to win or earn or – for that matter – buy.
But for the self-image (which is the conditioned self, the self I am conditioned to think I am) there is simply no possibility of ever attaining being. The self-image is after all only a façade, a mask, a construct of thought, an ‘arbitrary mental attitude or posture’ and as such it can never be anything other than this. Inasmuch as I identify myself with this image of who I am I can never be ‘somebody’ – as much as I would like to. I can never be ‘somebody’ because this me I say I am is only an arbitrary and superficial posture that I have adopted, and then got caught up in. The mask can never be the wearer of the mask, no matter how much it contorts itself, no matter what clever tricks and strategies it tries. The redress that I seek for my situation – the kudos that I am so enamoured of and so much in the market for – is therefore exactly this reversal, the reversal whereby the mask becomes the wearer of the mask, the act becomes the actor, and the tool becomes the user of the tool. This is like those stories in which the viceroy, the trusted servant of the King, usurps the throne whilst his master is away and arrogantly assumes the mantle of royalty for himself – however low and unworthy he might be of this station. The very fact that he – the treacherous viceroy – has abused his position of trust in this way underlines all the more just how unworthy he is, since – in the world of myth and fairy tale at least – the role of King is synonymous with courage, integrity, benevolence, honesty, and above all, divine right.
We started off talking about kudos, which we defined as some kind of recognition for a remarkable achievement, then we equated this to the idea of glamour, which Berger defines as the solitary pleasure we get from being envied (i.e. the pleasure we get from having others think that we are in possession of some secret commodity when we aren’t) and then – finally – we have equated glamour with being, which is where we actually ‘are someone’, so to speak, rather than just being some nondescript default nonentity of a person. What the impoverished and inadequate self-image craves above all therefore is to be real – to actually exist instead of being some kind of sad unsatisfied ghost, like the ‘hungry ghosts’ spoken of in the Tibetan Book of The Dead, the neurotic ghosts who populate the Preta Loka. This is actually one of the hell-realms – a psychological situation characterized by great suffering. But one thing that we can say about sad and unsatisfied ghosts is that they make a truly excellent target population for a corporate world to keep on selling superfluous products to.
Following the logic of marketing (and there is no reason not to since, in the absence of constraining legislature and codes of practice, this is the only sort of logic that does get followed) we can say that it would make very good sense to convert the entire population of the world into ‘hungry ghosts’. This might seem far-fetched but it might be argued that in the so-called ‘developed nations’ a very good start has already been made in this regard. Instead of ‘consumer’, just say ‘neurotic ghost’ instead. Robert Anton Wilson (1987, Prometheus Rising) points out that it is not, and never has been, the aim of any society that we know of, to create ‘sane, balanced and creative human beings’. Instead, Wilson says, the goal of society is
…to create [CRATE] a semi-robot who mimics the society as closely as possible – both in its rational and irrational aspects, both as the repository of the wisdom of the past and the sum total of all the cruelties and stupidities of the past.
We could equally well argue that the goal of society is to downgrade human beings to the level of neurotic ghosts who are completely at the mercy of their cravings, and who are – because of the ‘passively-identified’ state of consciousness in which they live – completely manipulable by any well-organized external agency that has an interest in doing so. And there is – it need hardly be said – no shortage of well-organized external agencies with an interest in manipulating people; this is after all a very good definition of a business corporation and there are very many of these at large on the planet [there are currently more than 60,000 multinational corporations in the world, according to Wiki Answers] doing their very best to secure an advantageous situation for themselves. Inasmuch as society is orientated along commercial lines – which it absolutely is – the logic of marketing will always underpin all other considerations, and so a particular type of environment is created, an environment in which all the incentivization is towards the endless reinforcing of our identification with the self-image, the collectively-validated hollow idea or concept of ourselves, rather than going in the other direction, the difficult direction of discovering or gaining insight into who we really are.
The socially-reinforced idea or image that we have of ourselves is always going to be vastly inferior to the actual reality. Discovering this reality would therefore be infinitely more significant than any form of ego-validation could ever be, no matter how extraordinarily extravagant that ego-validation might be. Furthermore, it doesn’t require that we buy into any delusional belief-system. It is actually real. And yet rather than going down this road I opt instead for the thankless task of trying to validate an idea of myself than was quite simply a non-starter right from the very beginning. I opt instead to try to prove that I really am the centre of the universe (or we could say, that ‘my narrow and arbitrary way of looking at the world’, my ‘conditioned viewpoint’) really is the ‘one-and-only right way’, the actual bona fide lynch-pin of everything. Even though the ‘me’ I am unreflectively promoting is a mere set of mechanical reflexes, a randomly-acquired collection (or conglomeration) of stereotyped reactions, a half-witted opinion or viewpoint belonging to somebody else .
But if my inadequate, clichéd, and thoroughly crappy idea of myself has to be central to everything, then that means of course that ‘everything’ has to be just as crappy and clichéd as I am. I get to be a blank stereotype living in a stereotyped world. I get to be someone else’s ‘token idea’ of me living in a token universe. This being the case – which it absolutely is – it is no wonder that the poor benighted self-image is in the market for as much kudos as it can possibly get…
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.