Reality Fading: Are We Living Haunted Empty Lives?
‘Fear has many eyes
And can see things underground’
~Cervantes, Don Quixote
The world as we know it has gone from being flat to round; from being the center of the universe to the center of the solar system; from being animistic and supernatural to red in tooth and claw; from being particle-atomic to wavy-quantum. And now we are disappearing into the digital domains of virtual-augmented spaces and false information, bombarded with the spectacle and the image. And somewhere in the midst of all this is the human soul, still largely wrapped and unopened. If there’s a crime here then it is that we’ve allowed ourselves to become haunted – to live haunted lives that lack significance and meaning.
The ‘objects’ or values that we have attempted to live by, or that we pursue, – such as power, truth, understanding, dreams, work, love, and the rest – have all seemingly vanished into some warped, elusive reality where the presence of these things no longer tangibly exist. However, the doubt, uncertainty, and pain of their absence – or ‘fake presence’ – are indeed real enough to affect us deeply. We seek the already disappeared and stalk their substitutes.
We are now close to the stage where we end up just acting out our fantasies upon the phantasmal theatre of our lives and thinking it is reality. This theatre, or screen, of fantasies and the fantastical is like the cave wall in Plato’s allegory where the flickering shadows that move across are taken to be the real. In an updating of Plato’s famous allegory we no longer have shadows projected upon the cave wall; they are now projected upon the green screens that form the back-drop for computer-generated imagery (CGI) that adorn our movies, television programs, and video games.
Whole societies, notably in the technologically-advanced western world, are arranging for our lives to be enacted amidst a scenery backdrop of events and issues artificially projected for us as CGI onto a fake canvas. Within this encroaching visual world, full of misinformation that influences our worldview, we are made to believe in a different kind of reality. It is a reality that is uncertain and insecure, and that requires for us to hold deep obedience to our state institutions to protect us. And within this projection of reality, meanings are provided for us as ready-made meals. In other words, full of too much salt, saturated fats, and laziness.
These socially manufactured meanings are provided as a substitute for the genuine lack. Of these choices offered we often take our pick, as consumers in a marketplace. It may be career, wealth, fame, achievement, or a combination of these and more. Yet the manufactured consent in our sense of meaning, no matter how thoroughly pursued and potentially obtained, is still not genuine. And like the ready-made meal, it soon leaves us with a continued hunger. The illusion of meaning is a vital illusion, yet it still remains an illusion. We may say then that the world we have come to know is a great spectacle of illusion and play; of movement, distraction, simulation, and excess. Yet rather than critically confronting the illusions and distractions we are cleverly persuaded to indulge in them.
The world we share now is also shared with our collective doubts, fears, anger, and frustrations. And these new emotions upon the global stage are blurring our picture of the world and its future. Whilst there are many of us who are excited and genuinely inspired by this increased complexity and diversity there has been a cultural backlash, in the western nations especially, to cover this up with a sheen of simplicity through generic news, bland reporting, and excruciatingly trivial entertainment. This clash of the complex with the simple is creating an odd reality where things just don’t feel right anymore.
We are participants on a ride through the flippant and the flimsy, the significant and the necessary, as we are expected to find our foothold – our human soul – in a world seemingly on the verge of insanity. In such a world, Disneyland may seem to some as the greatest of sanctuaries; whilst to rest of us it stands as a superficial sign of our times.
Most of us do not have the capacity to verify the truth claims of the mainstream media and yet we are more than willing it accept the veracity of their claims. We suspend our own disbelief by trusting in others, especially when it comes to authority and experts. In other words, we have been conditioned to respect the positions of authority and ‘the expert,’ often without critical thought.
And this is the context which frames the telling of his-story and also our-stories. The singer-songwriter Lou Reed once sang, ‘Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see.’ Documentary film-maker Adam Curtis discusses this phenomenon of how the mainstream media projects a simplified, fake reality in his film HyperNormalization (2016). The term hypernormaliztion was taken from an account of life in the Soviet Union during the twenty years before it collapsed. In this account everyone knew the system was failing but they couldn’t envision any alternative and so everyone is resigned to maintaining the pretence of a functioning society. Over time this delusion is accepted as real, an effect termed as hypernormalization. In other words, when the fake is finally accepted as the real then we are living in a hypernormalized state. Does this sound familiar?
The question is – does Reality ever take place?
Our bodies of authority, our mainstream media channels, and our centers of learning – that is, a majority of our significant institutions – have turned, or are in the process of turning, into advertising gimmicks. They peddle publicity and propaganda as endless programs stuck on a loop. They serve to produce the appearance of reality; yet they fail to represent a sense of reality. And this fundamental difference has produced a feeling of living haunted lives. We wander as ghosts in liminal zones, hungry for meaning.
In this sense of loss we no longer seem to know, or distinguish, between oppositions. Almost all of our value systems are based on relative terms – good, bad, my history, your history, etc. Often, the values we take to be ‘our values’ were inculcated in us depending upon which culture we happened to be born into. It is true there are some values more universally shared – such as thou shalt not kill – but the majority of them are culturally relative. Take for instance, sex before marriage – good or bad? Same-sex partnerships? Freedom of religious speech? Eating pork? Eating rats? Democrats or Republicans? Labour or Conservative? Which is good and which is bad? In the case of political parties it is neither – they are false oppositions. More than that, they are also distractions. When you’re arguing (sorry, debating) over political parties you are not observing the system behind them that created this false lack of choice in the first place. False oppositions plague our haunted hinterland. We don’t see this if we are the aimless ghosts, or the walking dead. It’s not pleasant – it’s eerie. And we are in eerie times.
Modernity in its current form is haunted by a sense of loss; of not knowing where it is heading. There are a great many aspects of our age that are in disruption and dislocation. All forms of stability are in question; old and incumbent patterns and models are in dispute; and too many people are experiencing moods of despair and anguish. It is as if our human civilization has come loose from its moorings and is now adrift upon the waters of uncertainty, insignificance, and the loss of meaning.
And so it seems that our civilization is careering dangerously close to some kind of blind spot where we no longer can tell what is true or false anymore. Truth is replaced by a fake substitute and the false becomes a parody of the truth. They are the haunted spaces where the mist drifts by. It’s like a Zen joke. It’s the same as a voice whispering in the darkness saying there is no such thing as a voice whispering in the darkness. They couldn’t have written a better riddle if they had tried.
So what went wrong? Where did it all go? What is it, in fact?
A profound sense of unease has crept into many of us, and also into our social systems, our cultures, our art, our news, and into the very collective soul of humanity. It is an eeriness; an uncertain disquiet – almost an unsettling foreboding. Something has come loose, and we’re not sure what it is. Further still, most of us are fairly certain that those institutions supposedly ‘looking after our best interests’, or running the show – whether they be governmental bodies, financial elites, or shadowy organizations and cabals – are not really in control or are sure either. It feels as if something is amiss, and we just can’t quite put our finger on it. Welcome to our haunted modernity.
We have disarray over a consensus concerning climate chaos, stock market panics and economic crashes, offshore tax evasions and leaked documents, political scandals, pandemic threats and contested vaccines, state and terrorist violence, congenital anxiety and existential fear – a whole cauldron of terror, dread, disquiet, nervousness, angst, and what-the-hell-is-going-on collective confusion is bubbling both under and over in many of our societies.
We have been infiltrated with a virus and it is infecting not only our bodies but our very minds. It’s a pure mind-bending virus and it’s playing havoc with our insecurities and indulging in our sense of lostness. The Spanish have a phrase for this state – “de perdidos al río” – and it roughly translates as from lost to the river. It may not make complete literal sense in English but that’s just it; you can get the sense of it and its vagueness is exactly where we are – from lost to the river!
In such ‘haunted lives’ we can easily become accustomed to metaphysical anguish as just another pain. It is like a pulled muscle or a sprained ankle; something unpleasant and yet we continue to move around with it. In the end we learn how to direct and project this metaphysical anguish onto other things – we choose intoxicating entertainment, sports, and other cultural pastimes and diversions. Angst just becomes a factor that appears to come as a default setting with our species. There is the danger that we become accepting of the ghostly flimsiness to life, which ends up being hypernormalized so that the sense of absence of something real becomes the new reality. There is the dangerous potential here for a state of indifference to emerge and seep into our cultures, which then becomes an ennui-creep into the world until…oh, well, what does it matter anyway?
During these years of disarray and turbulence it is essential that we create meaning for ourselves, otherwise the ‘distant algorithmic’ universe that runs the life around us will create a deep sense of alienation. In a world of scrambled code and big data, transcendence will seem another chimera not within grasp or even real. Or, at worse, the very notion of transcendence will seem the delirium of unstable minds – for those people not able to ‘get real’ with the world of Now.
In this instance, transcendence will appear as a form of spiritual autism. And yet the notion of going beyond ourselves, of developing our capacities for higher perception, are the saving grace inherent within our human species. We are incomplete, and this haunts us, and yet it should also give us meaning and a higher aim in life in knowing that there is further to go. In knowing that there are tools within us for creating, shaping, and cultivating these finer faculties. In being haunted we are also being reminded of what is lacking and this urge should compel us to find a solution within ourselves. We are in fact being ‘haunted into remembrance.’
However, for many of us a haunted modernity offers us a conditioned life where there is little or no space for transcendence. In such social and cultural hauntings there are no navigable locations. We have stepped into an unsouling from the wilderness. We are compelled to walk on.
Kingsley L. Dennis