“I got the kind of madness Socrates talked about, a divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom and convention. I refuse to be intimidated by reality anymore. After all, what is reality anyway? Nothing but a collective hunch.”
…….– Lily Tomlin
We get this from the Wiki on Cognitive Biases: A cognitive bias refers to a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion. Individuals create their own “subjective social reality” from their perception of the input. An individual’s construction of social reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behaviour in the social world. Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality. If you look at the list of cognitive biases you get the feeling we’re all living in private hells, as if some idiot god must’ve had a bad day when he constructed the human as a malfunctioning dim-wit with all these strange and bewildering biases built in keeping us from knowing the truth about things.
One of the biases hit home: Projection Bias – “Individuals see members of their own group as being relatively more varied than members of other groups.” Doesn’t that sound like the way things are in our global society? In later Vedic texts and modern literature dedicated to Indian traditions, Māyā connotes a “magic show, an illusion where things appear to be present but are not what they seem”. Paranoia is not a modern phenomena. In the oldest pre-Vedic texts Māyā meant wisdom and extraordinary power, but from the Vedic period onwards, the word came to mean “illusion, unreality, deception, fraud, trick, sorcery, witchcraft and magic”.1 Sounds like serious issues with cognition to me.
Reading psychoanalytical literature one discovers that central to our human makeup is a form of psychosis or madness which is taken to be a withdrawal from the objective world into an inner, selfenclosed space (a loss of reality), then in Lacanian psychoanalysis psychosis or madness is paradoxically not a mere accidental state seen in certain “sick” individuals, but is the irreducible ontological background of all human existence.2
Joseph Carew’s book on Slavoj Zizek we discover that at the heart of German Idealism on the truth of the Transcendental Subject we come across Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel:
Desire in its Schellingian mode is thus an intermediary stage between nature and the violent unruliness that is the dark birthplace of the transcendental I. But what must be noted here is how desire, as the beginning of the idealization of reality, is essentially identical to the conventional definitions of psychosis as withdrawal from objective reality into self, but here at the ontological level instead of that of socio-politically structured reality. Consequently, it is Schelling and not Hegel who most succinctly describes the ontological passage through madness insofar as it is the former and not the latter who describes how the night of the world could disrupt the world into a series of membra disjecta. In this respect, when Žižek in The Ticklish Subject and Less Than Nothing proclaims that it is Hegel who is the most radical philosopher of the abyss of madness at the core of subjectivity and the minimal paranoia at the basis of order itself,he appears to be completely unaware of how strongly his reading of Schelling influences his own reactualization of German Idealism. (C, p. 175)
Carew mentions the phenomenologist Henri Maldiney whose work would bring the notion that we’re all already psychotics, that we think psychotically: the task of the phenomenological science of psychosis is to let psychosis live in its fullness, to show its true meaning. (C, p. 308) Maldiney sounds a lot like Lacan when he describes depressive realism:
The principle of Aufhebung (Hegel), “to abolish and to preserve,” is consistent with the general scheme of depressive existence. Its double meaning agrees with, amongst other things, the double dimension of the depressive dramatic as explained by psychoanalytic theory, according to which the “relation to the object” serves to signify being-in-the-world with the same unilaterality that we see in Hegel. From the psychoanalytical perspective, depression is constituted by an uncertain relation to the primordial object, to which the subject remains attached even though it has been detached from it. Compelled, after the loss of the primordial object, to search for another, in the quest for a new object it is always in search of the lost object. But each object giving way to another object, those who suffer from depression are forced to persevere in this indefinite path—a circle without beginning and end, a circle in which their thinking is ensnared, has become their only horizon. (C, p. 310)
As Carew will comment if as Maldiney suggests phenomenology “reveals that the fundamental structure of consciousness is a depressive structure, for those who embark upon it is simultaneously a transformation of the mode of existing in transcendence that is depression into a unique style of living, wherein the same structure we see in the psychopathological state of depression is made into that which bestows upon consciousness a profound and never-ending source of energy while resting all the while depressive.” (C, p. 311)
Ultimately for Zizkek the Symbolic Order is some kind of virtual recompensation for this loss of objective reality, then this originary psychosis, essential to what it is to be a subject, must be primordially repressed if it is to be successful. We must forget that the very fabric of culture is nothing but the deluded ravings of the asylum, since otherwise we are confronted with the very monstrosity—ontological catastrophe, the passage of being through madness—that it was meant to cover up. (C, p. 313) In this sense the Symbolic Order can be equated to the Vedic concept of Maya, as well as the conditional reason for our cognitive biases – that is, if you accept Zizek’s thesis. For if as Zizek suggests that in our everyday lives we are completely lost in the transcendentally hallucinated world fabricated by the Symbolic, then only the upsurge of the Real as indicative of the infinite disharmony between mind and body can enable us to gain the necessary distance towards our self-loss in psychosis and thereby render possible its free (albeit mythological) internalization within the concept. (C, p. 313) This would allow us to realize how we became trapped in an ontological solipsism, as well as a path out of this entrapment. So that depressive thinking, and thereby depressive realism is itself a way of thinking through our psychosis, a way of breaking through to the Real that does not actually transcend psychosis but rather allows the strange and uncanny Real to seep into our prison from the Outside in.
One could think of all those crank TV shows of late about obscurantist paranormal events: ghosts, apparitions, daemonic possession, etc. It’s as if within our collective psychosis we were at last discovering the cracks in the seams of the Real, and that it is not us who are contacting some invisible realm or alternate reality but is rather the truth that we are the ones who have been imprisoned in a collective fun house or House of Mirrors: a maya world of illusion, a Symbolic Order of the Unreal. And, that the supposed ghosts and uncanny beings that are breaking through from the mythical noumenon, or Other Side are actually the ones who are not psychotic, the ones no longer bound in the prison of psychoses, maya, illusion, symbolic order, etc.; that it is we who are touching the Real where life is no longer Life-in-death or bound to the wheel of “rotary drives” (Schelling). As if dialectically we were the ones in the rear view mirror of reality, and the others were seeping into our realm from the Outside in trying to lead us back out of the labyrinth of madness, mayhem, and psychosis.
As Carew will comment on Zizek’s notion after Lacan of the Symbolic Order, saying, if the Symbolic exists, then the world is, at best, a fragmented totality whimpering under its own weight—a totality that, unable to posit itself as all, in the case of at least one creature (man) is forced to withdraw into a nocturnal irreal self due to a primordial moment of metaphysical trauma in its heart of hearts, thereby establishing the primary role of dislocation in ontology. (C, p. 316) Are we doomed to wander in a world of images that are images of nothing, is irreducible in the transcendental explanation of the conditions of the possibility of experience and the Symbolic? The German Idealists came to the conclusion that something must have gone horribly wrong in the life of the absolute: for no God, no divine nature, could have wanted this to be our fate, since for both, our fate is tied up with theirs. (C, p. 317)
It was none other than Arch-pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer devoted an entire philosophy to the aim of demonstrating that existence was necessarily bad, driven by an unceasing, unquenchable, thoughtless cosmic Will to which we are all puppets, and by which we are inevitably destroyed. ‘Life is a business that does not cover its costs’, he said – all is not for the best in the workings of the universe. We are thrown into the middle of a world we do not understand and cannot control. Our desires are mad and forever outstrip our means of satisfying them. Reality is something we must constantly repress in order to function.’3 The term ‘depressive realism’ comes from a psychological study performed by Alloy and Abramson in 1979 which suggested that depressives routinely demonstrate better judgment about how much control they have over events (as opposed to non-depressives, who habitually over-estimate their control). Alloy and Abramson concluded that ‘depressed people are “sadder but wiser”… Non-depressed people succumb to cognitive illusions that enable them to see both themselves and their environment with a rosy glow.’ (B, p. 3) Maybe in the end our cognitive illusions are defense mechanisms to keep the truth of our psychosis at bay, to bind us in the cave of our illusions, comfort us in our prison house of doom and despair.
One is tempted to rethink those like Buddha, Jesus, the Gnostics, Krishnamurti, and any of a number of other would-be psychologists, saviors, poets, philosophers, etc. that have tried to break down the symbolic lies that encase us in our illusory psychosis. Each in his own way trying to lead us out of madness into the Real. Each in his own way offering a de-programming module, a way to free ourselves of the Symbolic web of maya surrounding us, locking our minds into a machine of productive illusion. Maya seems more like an Engine of Desire: a machinic intelligence that produces the symbolic universe of meaning we assume is “human”. In truth what we need is what my friend R. Scott Bakker, the fantasist, terms the Semantic Apocalypse in which we finally escape or exit the Symbolic Order of Maya and Illusion once and for all. Yet, why do we keep coming back for more, as if the “rotary drives” of death and desire were stuck in some repetitive mode of churning in the hinterlands of the cosmic nightlands had us bound forever to the wheel of illusion and maya with no way out. Maybe after all one is better off reading the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti who at least know in their dark gnosis (freedom) that we are all mad and psychotic living in a endless maze of horror and cosmic pessimism where the only monstrous thing is our own Mind revolving in a self-reflecting Void.
Zizek’s philosophy pushes the limits of a radical idealism from within the psychotic world of the Symbolic seeking to discover the gaps, cracks, and lesions in the fabric of the Symbolic Order, seeking to discover the undecidable fractures in the fun house and thereby expose the Real in the interstices of this failed world of human meaning: this is Transcendental Materialism – the psychotic Subject caught in the trap of illusion and cognitive biases seeking to slay the beast at the center of the labyrinth and reveal the light in the “night of the world”. For Zizek the Real is Void: not a realm of passive ruin, a realm of emptiness and lifelessness, but rather a realm of antagonism, a realm of Bataillean excess, and energetic vacuum full of contradiction and flux from which the “rotary drives” continuously produce the universe we see all around us. Has he succeeded in his philosophical project? One will have to judge for oneself.
In the next few posts I’ll be once again turning to Graham Harman and his progeny, Ian Bogost, Levi R. Bryant, Timothy Morton who all in one way or another tell us there is another way, a way out of the maze, a way out of this solipsistic symbolic universe of human desire and meaning, this trap of cognitive bias. What is this way? They speak of objects, of things independent of the Mind/World distinction, of things that exist independent of the Mind and its illusions, of things that act independent of our human meanings and human access. For Speculative Realists there is a way out of our collective madness, a way out of the Kantian circle of idealism, the correlative circle of the world in-itself and for-us. They seek a different path than pushing the limits of the Subject to the max. Instead they seek to let the objects, things, entities of the world perceive for-themselves, let the objects reveal their own dark secrets without human intervention. Is such a thing possible? Or is this just one more trick, a piece of rhetorical illusionary sophistry seeking to establish itself as speculative philosophy? We’ll have to find out.
I’ll take up Harman’s Guerilla Metaphysics, Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, Timothy Morton’s Hyper-Objects, and Levi R. Bryant’s Democracy of Objects. Let’s see what objects have to say.
- Bhattacharji, Sukumari (1970), The Indian Theogony: A Comparative Study of Indian Mythology from the Vedas to the Puraṇas, pages 35-37, Cambridge University Press Archive
- Carew, Joseph. Ontological Catastrophe: Zizek and the Paradoxical Metaphysics of German Idealism (New Metaphysics). (Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, October 29, 2014)
- Jeffery, Ben (2011-11-16). Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebecq and Depressive Realism (p. 1). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.