We suffer daily under the appalling weight of our routines. “It is weariness upon the same things to labour and by them be controlled” says Heraclitus. It is this weariness which we suffer from every day, and from which suffer increasingly with every passing year. The older we get, the heavier the routines become – the more inflexible, the more time-consuming, the more stifling. We start off free and end up completely buried by our routines, completely eaten up by them! As Kevin Ayers says, “It starts with a blessing and ends with a curse…” and this – pessimistic as it might seem – is pretty much the story of our lives.
The dead weight of our routines increases as it does because we don’t see what is going on – because we fail to see our routinized existence for what it is. Or we could say that the burden of suffering that we carry increases because we don’t understand the difference between mechanized (or conditioned) life and the genuine article. A clear understanding of this difference between mechanical and non-mechanical life would therefore be a very useful thing to have!
We can try to explain this difference by saying that a ‘routine’ is essentially a kind of a mechanical procedure which we engage in so as to obtain a benefit at the end of it, a benefit which is quite separate from the routine itself. The routine itself is a chore, but we do it because it is necessary, because it will provide us with what we need if we complete it successfully. Life itself is full of such ‘necessary routines’ – we have to wash our clothes in order to have something clean to wear, we have to brush our teeth so that they don’t fall out, we have to mow the lawn so it doesn’t get overgrown, we have to do shopping so that we’ve got something to eat. We have to do the washing up so we can have clean plates to eat off, and so on.
In the early days of mankind’s history, the routines that life required of us were of course much less mechanical than they are now – going out hunting and foraging is a less mechanical sort of a thing, building a dwelling or shelter is less mechanical, making your own tools, clothes, or weapons is less mechanical. Social interactions were less mechanical because society didn’t have so many regulations (or divisions) built into it. With the agrarian revolution things became somewhat more mechanical, and then with the industrial revolution life started to move in the direction of becoming very mechanical indeed! Instead of interacting with nature to obtain food and shelter, we now interact with man-made systems, with supermarkets and pharmacies and hospitals and bowling-alleys and banks, with our place of employment, or with the social security office.
The interaction with nature is not wholly rule-based, given that the natural environment is a complex (and to a significant extent, a chaotic) one – if you tried to do everything by a textbook or by a book of rules you would not last long because in nature unexpected situations are always going to come up. The modern-day designed environment on the other hand is rule-based – that’s what ‘designed’ means! ‘Designed’ means it does what we want it to and nothing else. It means that we’re the boss. We made our environment this way because it suits us for it to be this way, because we like for it to be this way. A rule-based environment is predictable, safe, regular, reliable – all the things that feel good to us from the point of view of increasing security and minimizing the random element. Civilization equals ‘the replacement of the unpredictable natural world with the organized man-made system’.
Although we benefit from this arrangement in a very narrow sort of a way, we pay in altogether much more significant way, as Jean Hardy argues in Psychology with a Soul (1987. P 185-6) –
The idea had long been current in the nineteenth century that the ‘benefits of civilization and morals… had been acquired at the cost of man’s natural happiness… that civilized man remains forever an unhappy creature.’ (Henri F. Ellenberger) It is possible to see the growth of therapy as a response to the effects of industrialization and materialism on the inner life of individuals – the personal and collective load that every child in touch with feeling and not fragmented has to bear in a society with such meaningless injustices and horrors, known to all though more and more efficient communications, is considerable; this is the impact of Foucault’s writing, tracing the relationship between civilization and madness. ‘Look hard enough at reason,’ Foucault seems to be saying, ‘and you will find madness.’ And again, ‘madness came to be seen as the reverse side of progress: as civilized man became further removed from nature, the more he exposed himself to madness.’
There are lots of reasons that could be given as to why living in a mechanical environment is not a great idea. The most succinct reason is to say that in order to live in a system that is a machine it is necessary that we ourselves become machines….
Earlier on we defined a routine as being ‘a mechanical procedure that we need to carry out in order to get a benefit of some sort, a benefit which is itself separate from that procedure’. As long as we’re living in the real world this principle holds good and all is well, but when we make the move into a world that is almost entirely a designed environment – which is to say a logical system – then a huge problem crops up immediately. The ‘huge problem’ that we’re talking about here has to do with the fact that everything is now a ‘mechanical procedure’, and if everything is a logical procedure then we never actually reach the point where we get the benefit for enduring the chore of the mechanical routine. The logical procedure simply leads to another logical procedure and so we make machines of ourselves for nothing.
In a designed environment where ‘everything is there only because it has been specified in advance that it should be there’ then clearly there is nothing that isn’t a logical procedure! It’s procedures, procedures, procedures all the way. So as we have said when we get to the end of whatever routine it is that we’re doing then we just come to another routine and there isn’t ever any gap! So I finish the routine that is my work I then have to face into the routine of going home on the bus or subway train or car or whatever and negotiating this mechanical system, and then when I get home there is the routine of making dinner and whatever other things it is that I need to take care of and then after all that’s done of I can get down to the routine of having some ‘down-time’, watching some television or playing games on my X-Box or on my smart phone, or going out for a drink or to see a movie or whatever else it is that I choose to do! The point is that because my format of recreation (my ‘down-time’) is programmed into ‘the designed environment’ just the same as everything else it is a prefigured mechanical routine just like my work-time and my household chore time. It’s all part of the same seamless system. It all exists within the same structure.
Anything that has been designed or logically specified is part of the system. Anything purposeful is part of the system. Anything that comes out of my rational mind is part of the system. It’s all the system. The mind designs a structure for work, the mind designs a structure for play, the mind designs a structure for relaxation. But the problem is that whatever the mind designs is ‘work’ – work in the sense of being a dry mechanical routine that has to be deliberately operated according to a format. Not all work is mechanical; ‘non-mechanical’ work, we might say, is work that is creative – work that is essentially playful and not directed towards a fixed goal. Creativity and playfulness is how we express our own unique individuality (or how we discover our own unique personality) but mechanical work is work that necessarily requires us to leave to one side our own individuality and conform assiduously to a standardized system.
For mechanical-type work, the better you conform to the system the better the results you get, and so the whole emphasis is on adapting ourselves unreservedly to a standardized format, with the result that – unless we take great care – we are going to lose our own unique take on things, the unique take which is actually ‘who we are’. In our attempt to get the most out of the machine (or to get the best possible results within it) we end up letting it define us, which makes the whole thing completely meaningless!
This is the big danger with systems – the danger is that they will sneakily ‘take over’ so that the tail ends up wagging the dog, so that the tool starts operating the inventor of the tool. When I use the system that is one thing, but when the system uses (or ‘controls’) me then that is quite another. And when the system uses me and yet at the same time convinces me that I am still using it, this is simply how things usually work.
To go back to the basic idea of utilizing the procedure and then disengaging with the procedure so that we can then avail of the benefit that it brings about, what happens in a 100% designed environment is that the benefit is supplied by the same logical system that formulates the routine, the method. The logical system supplies everything and so there’s no need to disengage at all! This is just like playing Monopoly where the game itself supplies everything, both the incentives and the disincentives, both the 200 dollars when you pass ‘Go’ and the punitive rent if you land in the wrong square. The logic-system which is the rational mind likewise supplies both ‘the prize and the penalty’, the ‘feel-good factor and the feel-bad factor’. The system tells us what the good outcome is and what the bad outcome is; it tells us when we’re happy and when we’re sad. It tells us everything.
Another way of looking at this business of everything turning into the system is to use the example of language. Language is an extraordinarily useful tool, but – like any logical system – it has a deadly tendency to take over and crowd anything else out. Suppose I say something, suppose I express some idea in language and then I want to review what I have just said, what I have just expressed. Suppose I want to know what it is that I have just said. What I do then therefore is that I talk (or think) about what I have just expressed and so straightaway get involved in a situation where I am trying to see what language means by using that very same language. This constitutes a loop of logic and the thing about logic-loops is that they can’t tell us anything. They are quite meaningless. If I wanted to get perspective on what I have just said then I should come out of language and look at it without having this framework in place – if I don’t step out of the framework of language then there is zero perspective. I’m only going to reap delusion! I am going to get buried twice as deeply in meaninglessness when I start using language to determine something about language…
What we are looking at here is something that Jean Baudrillard calls the hyperreal. The hyperreal is where a system feeds on itself, builds on itself, validates itself – it supplies everything, so nothing else is needed. It is where the map makes the actual territory redundant. The hyperreal is the icing on the cake when there’s no more cake left – it is the glossy advert when there is no product other than the advert. Our whole lives become the advert, the commercial, the promotion, and there isn’t actually anything else other than this commercial. This being the case, the commercial is no longer a commercial at all but something else: it is the simulation of reality, the replacement for reality. It is as if I am always planning to go on some great journey and this business of planning for the trip has become far more important to me that the trip itself and so ‘planning the journey’ (or ‘discussing the journey’) has in fact become the journey itself…
The rational mind is in the same way planning life, and modelling life, and discussing life, and reminiscing about life in such a way that life itself (the genuine article, as it were) has become quite unnecessary. More than unnecessary, it has become an actual liability since it tends to get in the way of our plans, since it has a way of not ever matching up with our expectations of it. The hyperreality of the thinking mind is like ‘the ideal hospital’ where the patients themselves have become a nuisance-factor since patients inevitably have a most unfortunate way of getting in the way of the smooth running and efficient administering of a hospital. The logical solution is therefore simply to get rid of the patients, to do without them entirely! Of course we can’t actually eliminate the patients (because that would create a general outrage) but what we can do is thoroughly institutionalize them and turn then into mere ciphers, mere tokens. In exactly the same way the procedural mind – like the efficient bureaucracy it is – looks after its own efficiency by surreptitiously getting rid of reality, and replacing it with its own blank ciphers, with a mere ‘token reality’.
Our reality is in the same way a mere convenient story that we tell ourselves, a story which the logic-system which is our mind tells us, and which we automatically buy into. The problem with this – apart from the fact that it is totally phoney and not to be trusted – is that it requires a huge drain of energy to maintain it. If everything is a story, a narrative structure, then nothing stands by itself; everything has to be deliberately maintained, and this of course means that there is no genuine release in anything, no possibility of disengaging, no possibility of taking a break, no possibility of sitting back and putting our feet up. If I ‘put my feet up’, if I genuinely disengage, then the whole narrative falls apart and this is the one thing that the simulation will not under any circumstances allow to happen! This is what we call ‘cracking up’ or ‘going to pieces’ or ‘losing one’s mind’ and that – so our mind tells us – is very bad news indeed.
Not being able to ever truly disengage, ‘let go’ or relax is an awfully weary business. There is no let up, no break, no respite, and even when we do get a period of rest or recreation it is still a deliberate thing, something that I actually need to purposefully do and maintain. My so-called ‘down time’ isn’t down-time at all because part of me has to stay on duty to orchestrate it! Part of the system has a holiday whilst the other part manages the holiday, organizes the holiday, writes the script for the holiday, etc. I have to ‘do’ my own relaxation! I can’t ever really relax (which means letting go) because I’m stuck in the simulation, because I’m ‘stuck in my head’. If I let go then that’s the end of the simulation and so the simulation won’t allow that…
Saying that I am the one who has to do everything when I am stuck in ‘purposeful mode’ makes it sound like I am in control, but I’m not. I’m doing it alright, but I’m not in control of doing it – the simulation controls me and not vice versa.
This becomes obvious just as soon as we look at our thinking. I ‘do’ my thinking but it isn’t voluntary. I’m not really in control. Anyone who has ever worked with their thinking, anyone who has ever practiced – or attempted to practice – meditation knows this: a thought comes along and I have to go along with it, I have to jump on board and go wherever it takes me. Trying not to go along with the thought is just like trying not to scratch an itch – the more I resist scratching the itch the more unbearable it becomes! In the end I just have to give in and scratch – there’s no other way out of it…
Anyone who has ever been kept awake by worrying thoughts knows this – the thoughts are the boss and I just have to go along with them. If I was in control then I would be able to stop thinking them and I can’t! The same is true for our everyday ‘non-anxious’ thinking and the only reason we don’t experience our everyday thoughts as being compulsive is because we simply go along with them every time they arise. Going along with the thoughts creates the illusion that they are voluntary, that they are volitional, that we run the show and not the other way around. The truth of the matter is however that it is the simulation which is in control and we almost always just go along with it, content with the illusion of autonomy, satisfied with the paltry illusion of freedom that the simulation grants us…
So our situation is exactly as Heraclitus said it was two and a half thousand years ago! We labour upon, and are controlled by, the same old things, day in and day out. We labour upon, and are controlled by, the system which we have created in order to benefit ourselves, and this is a very weary business indeed. Why wouldn’t it be weary? We keep on giving and the system keeps on taking, and that’s the way it works. That’s the way it’s always worked. “It promises much, but delivers nothing”, as Jah Wobble says in his song Samsara. The system provides nothing but static representations and abstract signifiers, and it sells this false dehydrated semblance of life to us in place of the real thing.
This business of creating the hyperreal realm and then attempting to live our lives within it does not merely engender madness, it is madness – albeit a madness we are culturally unable to see.
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.