Society Functions by Converting Consciousness Into Mere Mechanical Mentation
Society functions by converting consciousness into mere mechanical mentation, by converting awareness into pre-programmed reactivity, by converting ‘essence’ into ‘personality’. This is what it is all about – this is ‘the nature of the game’, whether we like to see it or not. As Gurdjieff observes –
Contemporary culture requires automatons. One thing alone is certain, that man’s slavery grows and increases. Man is becoming a willing slave. He no longer needs slaves. He begins to grow fond of his slavery, to be proud of it. And this is the most terrible thing that can happen to a man.
It is inevitably going to be the case that this is the way that society functions, given that in a mechanical system only the mechanical is recognized and validated. Of course the system will try to convert us into automatons! How could we possibly imagine that things could be different? How could we possibly imagine that genuine individuality or genuine creativity is going to be recognized and validated within a mechanical set-up? It can happen sometimes that genuine creativity is recognized and given value, but this happens only when there is something that comes out of the creativity that can be utilized or exploited by the system. So in this case the individuality is valued only because it helps us do what we are already doing in a better or more effective way, not because it helps us move away from our normal way of doing things, not because it helps us change – which is the proper function of the creative impulse. Creativity is never valued by the system for its own sake therefore, but only for how it can be exploited to further the mechanical ends of the system…
Society – not to put too fine a point on it – is a machine and as such it is programmed (so to speak) to accept certain defined ways of being in the world, certain defined modalities of thinking and behaving and communicating. In order for us to adapt to the machine which is society, therefore, it is necessary for us to match – as closely as possible – these specifications. The better we adapt the better we do! We just can’t afford not to adapt – not being accepted by society is not just emotionally punishing, it makes life very problematic indeed from a strictly practical point of view. When we are younger we feel the pain of social exclusion (the pain of not fitting in) particularly acutely – to be recognized and accepted by those around seems like the most important thing there is and, generally speaking, we will do whatever it is that we need to do in order to ensure that this happens. It could be said that we will be whoever it is we need to be in order to be recognized and accepted by those around us!
As we get older the intensity of the distress we feel at not being included within the group diminishes, but it remains a huge motivating factor. We all want to be approval – indeed, as Anthony de Mello says, the approval of others is like heroin for us! In addition to our addiction to approval, when we pass into adulthood there is the need to be adapted in order to make a living, in order to have some sort of livelihood, in order to have some sort of role. How are we to do this if we are outside of the system, not part of the system? Survival itself becomes problematic. Generally speaking, the more we take the values of the collective for granted, and proceed on the basis of these values, the better our chances will be of finding a livelihood, finding a role in society. Education is a perfect example of this – the more I go along with the educational process and try to succeed within the terms of that system (which necessarily means not questioning and challenging the status quo, and not exploring ways of thinking that aren’t supported by the system) the more I will be rewarded.
The generally accepted idea is that what we ‘learn’ at the hands of the educational system is some kind of actual ‘objective knowledge’ but this is of course a quite nonsensical supposition. Education isn’t about acquiring objective knowledge – education is about conforming to a way of thinking in order that we get rewarded by the society that is based upon that way of thinking. What we learn is to adapt to the culture that we are born into, the culture that we are going to have to live our lives in, and there is nothing ‘objective’ about this at all. There is no just thing as ‘an objective culture’ – cultures are just arbitrary ‘reality tunnels’, to use Robert Anton Wilson’s phrase. All reality tunnels are fictions we choose to believe in, for the sake of the ontological security they bring.
The way we have been talking about the process of cultural or societal adaptation might lead us to suppose that there is something voluntary about it – it might lead us to suppose that adaptation occurs as a result of a series of conscious choices. The way the process works is that we adapt unconsciously however – we adapt without knowing that we are adapting to anything. We certainly don’t start off in life with the conscious intention to conform to collective values so that we don’t get ostracized by society! We don’t start off by thinking to ourselves that we’d better see things the way everyone else sees things in order that we don’t find ourselves being excluded from the social matrix!
With hindsight, we can see that the process of social adaptation just happens. The conversion of consciousness into mere mechanical mentation just happens. The conversion of free awareness into conditioned reflexes just happens. The converting of ‘essence’ into ‘personality’ just happens. In a way we could say that we only see it after the event, but then this isn’t true either because after the event has happened then there’s no way to know about it! Mechanical mentation has no way of knowing that that it is merely mechanical; a mind that is made up entirely of conditioned reflexes can’t see that it is entirely made up of conditioned reflexes and personality is incapable of understanding that being converted from essence into personality is nothing short of a diabolical disaster…
It goes without saying that we don’t usually see society in this way – as a machine that degrades free awareness into a bunch of conditioned reflexes or ‘rule-based responses’. We don’t see society as something which unfailingly converts us, as Gurdjieff says, into automata. On the contrary, we see society as the means of bettering ourselves, furthering ourselves, making more of ourselves, bringing out the best in ourselves, etc. The suggestion that handing ourselves over to society lessens us, diminishes us, thwarts and even negates us seems totally insane. It sounds too crazy to be true. The idea that the social system functions by denying our true individuality, by repressing and denying who we truly are, and compelling us to be ‘something else’ (so that we become counterfeit versions of ourselves) is one that we are not likely to come across. And even if we do, we won’t believe it. The idea that society is only our friend if we play ball and passively allow ourselves to be ‘enculturalized’ and that when we do allow this to happen to us our growth as the actual individuals we are comes to an abrupt halt is not mentioned in any psychology textbooks. No ‘experts’ tell us this.
And yet when Jung wrote about the process of individuation he was more than clear about this very point – individuation (which is the arduous and un-signposted path by which we become the true individuals that we are underneath all the social conditioning) can only take place when we turn our back on the expectations that are placed on us by the collective, and go our own way in life. Jung was very clear indeed in saying that going along with the way other people think we should be (which is ‘social adaptation’) means turning our back on our true unique nature, and assures us the status of mere social units. Merging with the crowd is not good news! As Jung says in The Undiscovered Self,
The bigger the crowd, the more negligible the individual.
Individuation is a difficult process in many ways, not the least of which is the implacable resistance of the group to anyone who deviates (or shows the slightest signs of deviating) from the path that has been laid down for them by their forefathers. To deviate is to betray the collective, but not to deviate is to betray our own true nature…
This dynamic is of course understandable enough – the group only gets to be the group by virtue of the fact that everyone in it adheres to the group norms. If this doesn’t happen then there is no group! We can see that from a strictly practical point of view there are very great advantages in being in a group – advantages that can’t be discounted. For something as basic as planting and harvesting crops, or building a house, a group effort is going to make things incalculably easier and so learning to cooperate makes tremendous sense. Because it makes so much sense the logic of collectivism tends to be well-nigh irresistible and as a result of going along with it without reservation we end up taking this logic to the ultimate extreme – we value the ‘group-mind’ over the ‘individual-mind’ as a matter of course. We see individualism as being the same thing as deviance and so we treat it as being some kind of pathology, possibly a form of mental illness even. ‘Group-think’ eventually leads to the situation where the unique individual is made to feel as if they are mentally ill!
What we lose sight of in this ‘race to be normal’ is therefore that by heedlessly adapting to group norms we throw away the only thing that made the whole enterprise worthwhile in the first place – we lose the actual genuine individual. The unadapted individual is – as Jung says – the carrier of all values. The group carries no values, no matter what we might think; it only pretends to, and this is why the institution is as ugly and malign as it is. An institution is composed of socially-adapted human beings into whose charge is entrusted the powerless inmates and because the staff are (necessarily) ‘socially-adapted’ it is always the collective, the group mind that they serve rather than their own consciences. What the group thinks is what we think – whatever the consensus is, whatever the agreed policy is, we are behind it. This is true for all groups, not just the classic institutions, right up to the level of the state or nation, as Jung says. Group-think is necessarily ‘non-compassionate’ as Paul Gilbert and Choden suggest in Mindful Compassion (2013) –
Perhaps one of the greatest enemies of compassion is conformity; a preparedness to go along with the way things are, sometimes out of fear, sometimes complacency and sometimes because we do what our leaders tell us to do.
In order to fit into (or be accepted by) the group it is necessary to be a ‘regular element’ – regular elements are the only elements that can fit in! That’s what ‘regular’ means – it means that it fits into some scheme of things, some organized pattern… We might of course ask why being a ‘regular element’ is such a terrible thing. Is it a crime to be regular, after all? Is it a crime to fit in? Is it really so very essential that we should all go around being completely unique the whole time? The point is however that we already are completely unique. We don’t have any choice in this! I already am unique and there is nothing that I can do about this. I’m unique whether I like it or not. The only choice I have is to whether I be who I already am, no matter how much trouble this brings me, or whether I go for the ‘easier option’ and take up a ready-made, off-the-shelf, standardized ‘one-size-fits-all’ identity, which will of course please everyone else, everyone who has already (predictably) gone for the easier option…
Given that we have no choice about being who or what we already are then if it so happens that we are tricked or coerced into being who we are not (which is a stereotyped identity that does no justice whatsoever to our true nature) then there can of course be said to be something distinctly and unpleasantly unwholesome about this whole business, the business of ‘adaptation’ or ‘regularization’. We are being converted into lesser versions of ourselves, degraded analogues of ourselves. True substance is transformed into mere shadow-play. Consciousness is down-graded into mere mechanical mentation, awareness into mere reactivity, essence into hollow (and fundamentally insincere) personality.
Put like this, of course, the whole business sounds very sinister. If this is what’s going on, if this is the game, then we had better watch out! We had better wake up in a hurry! But even if we do watch out, even if we do wake up, how do we escape the fate of being downwardly converted, given that the mechanism lies all around us, and we have been caught up in it, entrained by it, since earliest childhood? There’s no one to warn us about this deadliest of dangers, the danger of heedless social adaptation, because there’s no one left to warn us. There’s no one left to warn us about the perils of heedless social adaptation because we’re all already adapted!
It is of course true that there will always be a scattering of misfits or oddballs – those who, for whatever reason, have not been properly processed (or formatted) by the machine, but then the thing about this is that no one ever takes any notice of misfits by virtue of the fact that they are misfits. This disqualifies them straightaway from being heard. The only voices we are interested in listening to are the voices of those who we trust because they think like us. Society elects those of us who are especially well-adapted to the exalted status of experts and we never tire of what these experts have to tell us! ‘Experts’, we might say, are simply those of us who are particularly good at repeating back what has been said to them in school and at university – this, needless to say, is what makes them so especially trustworthy.
Similarly, it is also the case – as Noam Chomsky says – that the specially favoured few who are born to lead (or be influential) are as a matter of course subjected to an extra-intensified round of brainwashing, just to make sure that they are not suddenly going to come out with something that isn’t the official version of what reality is or should be and lead us all astray. This of course isn’t seen as brainwashing but as ‘education’, which is when you brainwash somebody with what is supposedly ‘the truth’! When we are heavily brainwashed or conditioned ourselves the idea of being led or guided by those who are even more heavily conditioned than we are doesn’t seem like a bad idea therefore because as far as we’re concerned they are simply more educated, more highly ‘trained’. For anyone who isn’t so heavily conditioned it is, on the other hand, more than obvious that this scheme of things is just another case of ‘the blind leading the blind’!
Despite all of this however – despite the odds being so very stacked against us, despite the machine being so very effective at converting essence into personality – there is all the same another process at work in the background, a freeing process, a process that works the other way around so as to break down personality and release the essence that was tied up in it. One way to try to talk about what this de-converting or ‘freeing’ process is and how the possibility for it comes about is to say that ‘the machine’ (or society) is actually a test. The ‘machine’ is all about control – it all comes down to control and nothing else. What the machine says to us is “Either you conform to what is expected of you or you will be punished”. It’s Hobson’s choice – either you do what I tell you or you will be sorry. We are faced with this choice that is no choice right from the word ‘go’ and the result is the world we see all around us.
The way the machine essentially works is by ‘controlling what everything means’. The machine – or society – says what everything is, and our ‘role’ is simply to go along with this. In this society operates as the classical patriarchal authority – it exemplifies what is generally called ‘a father figure’, in other words. It is the role of the patriarch, the father-figure, to lay down the law, backed up by the crushing weight of authority that is invested in him. Those who break the law are punished and so it is fair to say that classical patriarchal authority ‘rules by fear’. This is the motif of the wrathful father. This of course sounds utterly reprehensible to us – it sounds tyrannical, despotic, ‘authoritarian’, abusive, bullying, and so on. The other side of the coin however is that the father figure is – in a sense – actually doing us a favour! He’s helping us out! He is doing us a favour because there is a part of us that really wants to have some unquestionable father-figure laying down the law, telling us what reality is. There is part of us that wants to have reality defined for us – no matter how banal and crude (no matter how cruelly restrictive) this definition might be. The machine is doing exactly what we want it to do, therefore – it is allowing us to hand over all responsibility to it!
So this is fine in one way because the weak side of us wants to hand over all responsibility to the external authority, but at the same time it is very far from being fine in another way because this ‘solution’ denies our very essence, and traps us in a version of ourselves that is wholly inauthentic – a version of ourselves which is actually a parody of the real thing. There simply isn’t a worse, more degraded fate than this! As Gurdjieff says, “this is the most terrible thing that can happen to a man”. This ignominious fate represents, therefore, the ultimate challenge that we can ever be faced with and this is what makes the ‘tyrannical father,’ the ‘despotic controller’, the ultimate test, as Paul Levy says here –
The myth of the negative father is considered to be the highest tester: One either attains liberation or becomes totally imprisoned. This means that the figure of the dark father is initiatory, in that it either destroys us or propels us to have an expansion of consciousness.
Elsewhere Levy expands upon this theme, the theme of the ‘dark father’ –
Saturn, the corrupted patriarchy, mythologically speaking, is the governor of the prison, the one who binds us and seemingly limits our freedom, while simultaneously being the supreme tester and great purifier. Paradox is the language of alchemy, as it is an expression of the unified point of view in which the seeming opposites are not so opposed to each other after all.
The archetype of the dark father has to do with domination and force over others, as compared to being in relation. The archetypal, negative patriarchy has to do with the suppression of the feminine, of feeling, of spontaneity, of life itself. The negative patriarchy, synchronistically, just so happens to be the deeper archetypal process which is animating events in our world today. Alchemy is a collective dream of our ancestors which also happens to be profoundly relevant for our world today. The archetype of the negative father is initiatory, which is to say it is revealing something to us which is most important for us to know. Seen as a compensatory dreaming process, the figure of the negative father, with its willful lust for, and abuse of power, is challenging us to connect with our intrinsic, God-given power. Our true power is a power infused with the spirit of eros, with relatedness, feeling and relationship, with love and connection, all of which are elements in the magic elixir which transmutes the poisonous aspect of the draconian figure of the negative father.
By taking away all of our freedom, the social system that we have collectively elected to define and control us pushes us inexorably into a position where what is most important and most precious, is denied us. How can we bear to stand for this? Only a test such as this can challenge us to call upon what Paul Levy calls our ‘intrinsic, God-given power’. If this test doesn’t wake us up, what will?
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.