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In defense of meaninglessness

by on February 4, 2013

In order to salvage myself from coming across as stuck in the perilous undergrad-hungry nihilism vortex, I’d like to flesh out my ideas about the meaninglessness of existence. There are three ideas I’d like to look at:

1. Pop-existentialism – existence is meaningless, so you can either go kill yourself or make your own kind of meaning

2. There is some sort of ultimate teleological purpose to your measly human existence

3. Forget the whole ‘meaning’ thing and go back to what you were doing

1. Normally I dismiss number 1 on the grounds that to say that existence or the universe (I’ll use those terms interchangeably) are meaningless is to thereby ascribe meaning to them. You have fundamental law of everything #1 right there: meaninglessness. You then adopt meaninglessness as a comforting way to cope with meaninglessness. You’re stuck with meaning. But I’d like to look at this further – perhaps life is crushingly meaningless after all? At the risk of waxing…depressing, I’d like to bring in the concept of depression, which I am understanding here as the state of being unable to engage in reality and perpetually stuck in one’s own head – and all of the awfulness which that state brings along with it. As we discussed in class today, Harman’s idea of the allure of the real object involves being thrown back upon oneself, in a moment of self-reflection, the likes of in which the depressive is perpetually stuck. So is to be totally in touch with the real object to be in a state of perpetual self-awareness? That state of awareness is, after all, the mindset in which one has to be in order to overcome one’s subjective interpolation and transcend social boundaries. You can’t become conscious enough to start blurring gender dichotomies if you spend your whole life in complete absorption with your surroundings, un-self-aware. Is that transcendent realm in which one is open to limitless possibility and freedom ((in which we, as (post-)moderners dwell, and feel so much anxiety within) more ‘real’ than being unquestionably interpolated as a subject of ideology? Perhaps Harman’s withdrawn nature of the real object corresponds to the perpetually withdrawn, unthinkable trauma that the melancholic daydreamer is stuck circling around – which, not coincidentally, is called by Lacan ‘the Real.’ For Freud, the melancholic who is stuck in his head, hates himself, feels worthless, etc., is actually acutely aware of the reality of his situation. I for one find a tie between depression and reality problematic, and not merely because I don’t want to live in that kind of a universe. It would seem to me that correlation between depression and reality is a vicious outcome of a deeply mistaken worldview. But the reason I brought all this up is as a possible argument in favor of the ultimate meaninglessness of existence – it (the meaninglessness) can become manifest in the human psyche as the cognitively inescapable (you can’t get out by thinking about it) scenario of depression, which sucks, just like the stupid universe. According to this line of thought, existence is absolutely absurd and pointless. It’s just a matter of how much you are going to think about it, and how much time you are going to spend in a state of Nietzschean ‘forgetting’.

2. This is the traditional role of Religion. Come up with some comforting, edifying lie to help exploitative social systems running smoothly. For the sake of saying something, Kabbalah provides the most convincing (or perhaps just really really comforting, in the light of #1) teleological scheme of human existence that I’ve come across. It’s a complicated idea but basically, according to Kabbalah, the Universe is a vast interconnected cosmos, so anytime you do something good you are positively affecting the entire universe. Of course that raises issues about what ‘good’ is. If you feel like salvaging your existence you can either get pragmatic, or (as the Kabbalists do) look to the Bible. I’m normally not a fan of turning to an a priori infallible text, but the way the Kabbalists do it is…interesting.

3. Going back to the basic argument against number 1 (that to call existence meaningless is to thereby ascribe meaning to it), you seem to have two options as a result – either subscribe to some form of number 2 ((even if it’s just basic down-to-earth pragmatism (which I will understand once I have kids) or creating your own comforting system, because what the hell difference does it make, you have to be alive anyway), or escape from this meaning / meaningless dichotomy by getting rid of the whole idea of meaning altogether. The idea of ‘Meaning’ is a mistake. For you to assume that you are a distinct entity in the Universe, up against everything else inside your own little subjective nodule, is quite absurd. You ARE the universe, as much a part of the universe as an apple is part of an apple tree – if a tree ‘apples’ then the universe ‘humans’, in the words of Alan Watts. So I don’t know where you go from there…but that’s where you are. Maybe once you fully realize this, the whole question of meaning reasserts itself?

The message that I get from continental thought is to accept the withdrawn, fractured, asymptotic ‘real’. You have to come to terms with your bifurcated self which is sometimes absorbed in its surroundings, sometimes painfully self-aware. Sometimes I wonder if this whole line of thought isn’t just a way of avoiding delving fully into #3, because everyone is too busy and distracted and caught up in our usual way of thinking ourselves against the world. Or maybe it’s the same thing as #3, or can become the same thing?

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