Our main preoccupation in life (we could almost say our only preoccupation in life) is eradicating space, or ‘shutting it down’. Wherever space appears, or threatens to appear, then we’re on the job, as quick as ever we can be, ready at hand to shut it right back down again. We don’t want for there to be any ‘space’ – we just want perpetuate what we’ve already got going for us, so to speak. We just want to stick with where we are already, stick with what we’re doing already. We want ‘recycle the old’, not ‘reach out to the new’. We don’t want to ‘expand our consciousness’ – we’re happy with where we already are.
‘Shutting down space’ accounts for so much of what we spend our time doing: thinking is shutting down space, talking is shutting down space, commentating is shutting down space. Day-dreaming is shutting down space. Emotional reactions such as anger or craving or envy or hatred are shutting down space. Anxiety is shutting down space. Judging or evaluating is shutting down space. Planning and analyzing and strategizing are shutting down space. Organizing is shutting down space. Engaging in an activity order to obtain a known goal is shutting down space…
All of this stuff comes down to ‘shutting down space’. It’s all just ‘shutting down space’. It sounds odd to say this – all of the above (with the possible exception of the judging and the anxiety and the emotional reactions) sound perfectly legitimate to us. Engaging in activity for the sake of obtaining a known goal for example – how could this not be ‘legitimate’? What’s wrong with this, for heaven’s sake? How could we possible survive in the world without doing this? What about the next time we’re thirsty and we want a glass of water?
The point we’re making here is very simple however – if the hidden reason for the activity that we’re engaged in is not only for what we say it is, but also for the (secretly more important) sake of shutting down space, then there’s a hidden level of intention in what we’re doing and so clearly our ‘activity’ isn’t as legitimate as it claims to be. It might be serving a genuine function on one level, but it’s also serving another function on the undisclosed level – a function which the overt level of activity is neatly distracting us from. This undisclosed move (or undisclosed intention) makes what we doing into a deception, into a trick; it’s only legitimate (or ‘honest’) on one level and so what this means is that it’s not legit (or honest) at all…
If this is so (if what we’re doing is really for the undisclosed purpose of shutting down all the available space) then the next question that comes up is of course “Why is shutting down space so important to us?” What’s this business of shutting down space all about? Why am I so damn keen to shut all the available space down? What have I got against space anyway? What’s my motivation for shutting down space wherever I come across it, in such an underhand way?
This isn’t as mysterious or as obscure a matter as it might on the face of it seem. There is a very straightforward and compelling reason why we would want to shut down space wherever and whenever we come across and this reason is to create the self!!!
Where there is space there can be no self and so naturally the overriding (if not the sole) preoccupation of the self has to be to shut down space wherever it arises. It is as straightforward as this – if the self only gets to exist by the simple precedent of ‘shutting down space’ then this makes for a pretty compelling motivation!
We could of course look at things the other way around and say that the reason the self has to be forever shutting down space is because of fear – which is the more usual way of putting it. The self has a terror of space and will do anything within its power to remove any trace of it, any sign or intimation of it. But when we ask why the self has such a terror of space the answer is the same as the one we gave before – the self has a fear of space because where there is space there is no self. Out of fear of this prospect (the prospect of there being no self) the self applies all of its ingenuity to the task of making sure that no trace or sign or intimation of space ever comes into the picture…
In one way this is very simple, very straightforward, but in another way it’s not quite as simple or straightforward as all that. The thing is that whilst the self’s overriding aim is to ‘not allow space’ it cannot ever admit this to itself, nor can it permit itself to see that this is what it is doing. This is not a ‘legitimate’ task! For one thing, life without space (which is to say, life without the possibility of meaningful development or change or ‘reaching out’, life without the possibility of ever ‘being able to go beyond oneself’) would be frankly unbearable. It would be like being fossilized in amber, or being embalmed in a specimen jar full of formaldehyde. Space is what facilitates us to live our lives after all, just as a blank page facilitates something new being written on it, or just as a pond facilitates a boat to sail up and down it. Space is the medium within which we move and so without this medium there could be no such thing as ‘meaningful movement’.
This is one reason why we can’t admit to ‘shutting down space’ – that would be like the government admitting to taking citizen’s freedom away! Governments love to do this because it makes their job a hell of a lot easier, but they certainly aren’t going to broadcast the fact. The other reason why we can’t admit to shutting down space is because if we were to know that our chief preoccupation is ‘shutting down space’ then this would straightaway tip us off that there is such a thing as ‘space’ to be shut down and this would defeat the whole object of the exercise…
So it’s very important that the self not only shuts down space wherever and whenever it arises but also that it provides some kind of a substitute, some kind of a surrogate for the space that has been gotten rid of so that it never gets missed. The space has to be taken away, but it also has to be replaced with something else, something that will ‘fill in for it’. And it is equally important that it manages to do all this without ever letting on to itself that it is doing it! This is not just ‘very important’ either – it’s absolutely crucial, it’s absolutely essential!
This – it would seem – is a pretty tall order and yet the self manages to pull it off. Obviously the self manages to pull it off – the evidence of its success is all around us! Or we could say, the evidence of its success is that we don’t even know that has pulled anything off, let alone been successful at it. This is Baudrillard’s Perfect Crime! Somehow all the above conditions have been met and the proof of this is that we exist quite happily in the world as regular old ‘selves’ (as ‘me’ and as ‘you’) without having any sense that anything untoward has taken place. In the substitute world that we have made for ourselves there is never any talk of anyone (least of all ourselves) having pulled a fast one on us. No one gets the scent of any kind of a rodent…
And yet, having said this, we ought to add that this isn’t quite true. There are times when we smell a rat. There are instances when we actually do get a feeling that someone is pulling a fast one on us and this feeling can be quite strong, quite disturbing. This kind of thing is the exception rather than the rule (and possibly some of us never experience it at all, or immediately forget about it if we do) but at the same time what we’re talking about is familiar enough (and significant enough) for us to have a name for it. We call this kind of deep-seated suspicion paranoia!
A mild form of paranoia might be having a feeling that the government and the media is feeding us false information, a feeling that we are being duped, a feeling that we are being given a totally false picture of reality to believe in. As soon as we come out with something like this, of course, a lot of people are going burst out laughing and point out that this isn’t ‘paranoia’, this is just the way things are! Other people will dismiss all such talk as being a typical example of the current empty-headed craze for conspiracy theories. But in another way it doesn’t matter whether the conspiracy theorists are right or not because what we’re talking about goes way beyond that. The point that we’re making here is that the suspicion that we’re being duped or hoodwinked or led up the garden path by some kind of global conspiracy is in its essence an archetypal type of a thing, which means that it doesn’t have to be considered in relation to some specific set of circumstances. The point is that the archetype of paranoia has universal validity – it has validity regardless of whatever local conspiracies might be going on at the time.
The archetypal paranoid perception – if we can call it this – has to do with the suspicion that things are not really what they seem, and that what we call reality is a actually a hoax that is being perpetrated on us by some kind of an all-powerful agency that really hasn’t got our best interests at heart!
Put like this, what we’re taking about sounds just like the plot of The Matrix or The Truman Show. It also sound like a lot of Philip K Dick novels (The Divine Invasion, Valis, Radio Free Albemuth, just to give a few examples) but it is also an experience that a lot of people have quite spontaneously, all on their own, without any suggestions having to be made to them from the outside, so to speak. Such an experience might entail me thinking that my family aren’t really my family, that my family situation is just an elaborate set-up to allow me to monitored and controlled at close range. Or on the other hand I might have the perception that I am actually famous and that the whole world knows me, but that for some reason everyone is pretending that they don’t know me. This is another version of the same thing even though it might not seem like it – in both cases we feel that we are mistaken about who conventionally understand ourselves to be (i.e. our ‘nominal identity’) and that other people see us for who we really are, and that there is some kind of a ‘secret’ going on about all of this. When this sort of perception arises it is generally referred to as a ‘psychotic episode’ but the point that we are making is that this paranoid way of seeing things isn’t a ‘meaningless delusion’ (evidence of no more than a malfunctioning brain) but a profound insight into the actual nature of our situation – whether we understand that insight or not.
So what we’re saying is that the ‘paranoia’ – in its pure or archetypal form – is a glimpse behind the veil of everyday appearances which shows us that we are not who we think we are, and that our situation is not what we take it to be. Our situation is not what we’ve been led to believe that it is: our identity is false and our situation is staged or contrived to support this false identity. The ‘staged’ reality is the substitute or surrogate version of space and ‘who I am supposed to be’ in this staged reality is ‘the familiar or everyday self’, the creation of which is – as we have said – the whole point of the exercise….!
To bring back the analogy we were using before, the familiar everyday ‘sense of being this self’ that is at the centre of it all is like a little sailing boat that is going around and around in a pond – the pond being the surrogate version of space that has the function of facilitating that sailing boat, facilitating that ‘self’. Take away that familiar little pond and the everyday sense of ‘being this self’ will disappear – it can’t survive outside of this safely regulated environment (any more than a little toy sailing ship, we might say, can survive very long on the open ocean). The reason the familiar sense of being this self can’t survive outside of its regulated environment is very simple – the self and the staged reality it exists within are the two aspects of the very same set up. Or we could say that the point about the ‘staged’ or ‘artificial’ reality is that it allows us to feel as if we are this self, this self which is actually no more than a faithful reflection of the staged or artificial reality. One aspect of the set-up is the ‘role’, and the other aspect is the ‘play’. One aspect is the ‘theatrical identity’ and the other aspect is the theatrical performance within which that identity makes sense…
So we could ask (in a rhetorical kind of a way) – what happens to the role I play when the play itself comes to an end? Very obviously, it is not just that this role ‘cannot exist’ outside of the theatrical performance, but that outside of the special circumstances that facilitated its existence we realize that this role never actually existed in the first place! We may forget this fact during the course of the play (this as James Carse says being the whole point of the play) but after the performance is brought to an end the various roles (or characters) making it up are acknowledged as being roles, as the actors and actresses involved all appear on the stage to take a bow…
So the role only has the meaning that it does have within the context of the drama that is being played out around it, and in exactly the same way the self only has the reality that it does have within the framework of the conditioned world that it has manufactured for itself. In order to hang onto its reality (the subjective reality that it has for itself) the self is bound therefore to put all its energies into maintaining the conditioned space of the ‘stage-managed world’, which comes down to ‘denying the existence of unconditioned (or ‘self-existent) space whilst at the same time denying that it is denying it’.
This is by any account a mind-bendingly bizarre and freakily weird kind of a situation. It is more than just a little bit reminiscent of Drawing Hands, Escher’s lithograph of the two hands that are drawing each other. By shutting down space, the self is creating the self. By denying that unconditioned space exists, the self is inventing the self, the self is maintaining the self. The self is making out that it is involved in ‘legitimate activity’ – but really all its activity is for the undisclosed purpose of perpetuating the illusion that it actually exists. So the self is secretly fooling itself into thinking that it exists when it just plain doesn’t – which is very bizarre indeed – and yet from the conditioned point of view that is being taken for granted in all of this there is nothing bizarre (or untoward, or underhand, or suspicious) about what is going on at all…
Quite the contrary is true, in fact – the freakily bizarre has been miraculously transformed into the ‘matter-of-fact normal’. The reason everything seems so eminently and irreproachably normal is of course because when we look at the world from the point of view of the conditioned self and make very sure (without letting on to ourselves that we are making very sure) never to look at things any other way then all our expectations are unfailingly met. What we see in the world is implicit in the controlled or regulated way in which we look at it and so there are never any surprises.
So this way everything gets to seem normal, everything gets to seem as if it is as it should be. Because of the way in which we stick to the prescribed viewpoint the prescribed viewpoint seems like the only viewpoint – there isn’t even any need for anyone to go around saying that “This is the only viewpoint” (like some kind of crazed fundamentalist) because it has now become a flat impossibility for us to even imagine that there might be another one. This is what ‘shutting down space’ does – it takes away the possibility of having any other point of view at the same time as it takes away our ability to know that anything has been taken away…
So the upshot of all this covert manoeuvring is that the self is completely taken in by the surface-level meaning of things (even though this is a reality that is as precarious and as insubstantial as a soap bubble) and the effect of being ‘totally taken in’ in this way is that the self in question gets validated by the absolute normality of the world that it is believing in. Being ‘superficially transfixed or hypnotized by the surface-level appearance of the stage-managed world’ is therefore the key to creating the self! Go any deeper than the precarious membrane of appearances and then things start seeming strange, things start seeming freaky and bizarre and surreal, and this is the reason the self places so much emphasis on not ‘going into things’. This is why the mechanical self is fundamentally incurious. The play is made believable by sticking to the script and to the stage-directions, not by questioning them. We follow the rules as they are laid down for us to follow, and this way everything can be relied upon to carry on looking normal. Which is the way we like it…
We could also look at this in terms of game-playing and say that the game legitimizes the player of the game (or rather that ‘the game legitimizes the role I am playing in the game’). Even more succinctly, we could just say ‘the game legitimizes the game’, which is what it all comes down to in the end. The game legitimizes the game, the rule legitimizes the rule, and the self legitimizes the self.
So I ‘play the game, play the game, play the game’ and as I do this any awareness that the game is only a game gets driven further and further away. This (rather crucial) awareness dwindles and dwindles and dwindles, until it dwindles away entirely and gets lost. The loss of the awareness that I am playing the game is – of course – the covert aim of the game. This is what I am after. I am ‘closing down space’ and ‘space’ equals ‘the awareness that the game is only a game’. We could therefore say that space equals perspective since without perspective I can’t see that the game is only game. Without perspective I am taken in by anything! Or we could simply say that space equals consciousness…
So I ‘play the game, play the game, play the game’, and the more I do this the more I legitimize the whole thing. The more I do it the more what I am doing seems normal to me, seems ‘as it should be’ to me (seems ‘not strange or bizarre’ to me), but I have to keep working at it. So what I am doing is creating this realm of utter unremarkable super-mundane super-predictable ‘normality’ and this realm of unremarkable super-mundane, super-predictable, super-familiar normality is inseparable from the self. In fact we could say that this realm is the self.
By playing the game I am creating this ‘utterly taken for granted’ viewpoint and the world that I create as a result of utilizing this unchanging viewpoint is hugely familiar to me, hugely reassuring to me, hugely comforting to me. It is hugely comforting because it is so very unchallenging and it is unchallenging because I will know (on some deep, unconscious level) that I will never come across anything that I do not expect to come across. It is unchallenging because I know that nothing will ever happen that is not in the script…
But the truly astonishing thing about all of this is that there is actually no such thing as ‘normality’! Normality doesn’t exist – it only exists if we arrange for it to exist. Normality is a fiction – its something we invent in order that reality won’t challenge us too much (or challenge us at all, ideally).
There’s no possible way for there to be any such thing as ‘normality’. How can there be such a thing as ‘normal’ in an unconditioned reality, in a reality which is not already scripted?
In conditioned reality there is a script and whatever agrees with the script is familiar and therefore unchallenging. Take away this script however and there is no more sense of familiarity. When there is no familiarity there exists an ‘ontological challenge’ and we can therefore say that reality is infinitely challenging. It is because of the infinitely challenging nature of unconditioned reality that we cannot create the reassuring illusion of the self and get away with it. The self needs a script telling it that it exists, telling it what it is, and unconditioned reality doesn’t come with a script.
Shutting down space is how we create the sense of utterly unremarkable normality. And yet the point about this is that we can never shut down space! We can’t shut it down. Space is all there is, so how can we shut it down?
The only way we can shut space down, we might say, is to incur a perfectly and immaculately self-defeating paradox, which we then have to live with on a full-time basis. We have been saying that the sense of ‘utterly unremarkable, utterly predictable, utterly reassuring normality’ is extremely precious to us, extremely valuable to us. The reason it is so very precious, so very valuable is because it protects us from fear.
The sense of normality that we are so addicted to is, as we have said, a ‘safe substitute’ for the reality that we are terrified of. It is a substitute for the unscripted (and therefore unpredictable and unfamiliar) situation, which is what is always there when we don’t tightly control or regulate reality.
This sense of ‘super-mundane, super-predictable, super-familiar normality’ is a projection of the self, which means as we have said that it is the self, and so what this means is that it is actually the self which is our ‘protection from fear’. The self is our protection from a reality that we are terrified of.
But there is something very odd about this, as we can begin to see when we express things like this. The self is our protection from fear, our protection against ontological terror, but who exactly is it that is afraid?
Who exactly is it that knows terror in the face of unconditioned (or unformatted) space?
Clearly the answer is that it is the self who is afraid, the self which knows terror in the face of unformatted space. It is only the self which is afraid, and yet the self is supposed to be ‘protecting’ us from fear! By the argument that we have just put forward, the self is what is supposed to save us from fear. The self is our escape from fear. But without this self – which is not who we are – there would be no fear!!!
Without the self there would be no such thing as fear. The self on the other hand cannot escape fear because it is fear! It is a manifestation of fear, not an escape from it.
The self is afraid of the loss of itself, which is to say, the self is afraid of the possibility of ‘no self’, which is a possibility that it itself brings about.
The self is afraid of the possibility of ‘no self’, and yet ‘no self’ only exists in relation to ‘self’, just as LEFT only exists in relation to RIGHT, just as UP only exists in relation to DOWN.
This is therefore the paradox we have to live with on a full-time basic, when we try to escape fear by shutting down space…
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.