Do we have a cure for experiential illness?

February 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

Is it terminal? – a conceivable question even when the “it” contains uncertain properties. Why do I feel this way? Can anything be done about it? Who can help? I know a man who knows a man.

The man that knows: In the recent book Against Everything, compiled of essays from the last decade, Mark Greif describes a modern crisis of experience caused by the unprecedented access to knowledge & connectivity. Once, “[t]ragedies were presented in small clusters on a special festival day at a rare time of the year. We do not now encounter dramas on designated days of the year” (240) but live in a year-round Carnival where media does not supplant dramas so much as pile them up. Greif calls this a total aesthetic environment, since it asks people to be constantly responding to their surroundings.

The crisis of experience exposits two extremes. The first is a frenetic energy to collect as many experiences as possible with which to build a fortress identity in “the debased aestheticism called consumerism“. (93) The second is an anaesthetic reaction to the same, where all is done to avoid “aesthetic intrusions from fictional or political drama”. (226) The former is wildly more common; in practice, it looks like ambition, an insatiable thirst for travel & money, amateur photography, a fear of disease/death, & shirtless tinder profiles. The latter, the author tells us, is much rarer – but hardly more dignified.

Anaesthetic ideologies are methods of philosophy & practice that try to stop you from feeling. Or they help you reduce what you feel. Or they let you keep living, when you can no longer live, by learning partially how to “die.” (227)

People openly practising anaesthetic ideologies have difficulties in society. They may feel more virtuous or responsible than the people around them (239) but that sense of superiority gets in the way of human connectivity [in judging others, they are likely to experience ostracism, the sense that the world lives by a different code of ethics, & this will give them further reason to reject their surroundings]. Their anaesthesia might even chemically be just that, drugs & alcohol to numb the intensity of experiences –these can conveniently be practiced under the guise of actually seeking out experience &, therefore, be practiced unnoticed for a long time. (233)

The behaviours of those practicing anaesthetic ideology – lethargy, detachment, lack of motivation, inertia, intoxication – only seem to be symptoms of depression. Anaesthetic ideologies are, I repeat, measures taken in order to stay alive. Alternately, “[d]epression does not save the self, it tells it to die”. (236) I wonder if the increasing prevalence of diagnoses of depression might actually relate to ignorance of this subtlety. That this phenomenon is particularly prevalent in the west makes perfect sense to the hypothesis, since the exposure to different & global experiences is greatest there. The reasons for this are: access to new technologies, more money to consume media & experience, people in the west face fewer immediate threats that require local responses, & they need to understand the foreign policies of their interventionist state[s]. Is it any wonder that people are suffering from experiential illness?

The known man: The man that Grief knows who might be able to help is Epicurus, student of Diogenese of Sinope [the Cynic]. The Epicurean ideal was ataraxia: imperturbability & mental detachment which isn’t the absolute avoidance of trouble, which they deem impossible, rather it’s the absence of want so as to guard from psychological disturbance. When he says that pleasure is the goal of life, he doesn’t mean the typical materialist values, but pleasure defined as the lack of pain & terror. Epicurus was the only one of the Greek philosophers to include women & servants as equals in his conception of societal organisation; rather than tyrannising over one another, he believed that people should support others to banish want, not fear death, & let pain alone since it too will pass away.

The Epicurean school is largely forgotten today, overshadowed by Plato & Aristotle of the Greek philosophers, because it represents a tradition of philosophy that is now described as peculiarly “eastern”, dealing with issues of “nonstimulation, nonsusceptibility, nonexcitement, nonbecoming, nonambition; also antifeeling, anaesthesia” (228). The fact that we look for non-attachment philosophies outside of the west is a form of orientalism. More than that, it reveals that desire is at the core of western values – any attempt at a life free of desire is treated as either alien or as depression.

Happiness has wound up in an ideology of the need for experiences. Very well. This is our “health” & our quest. But is this happiness-by-experience itself then regulated & moderated by the constant chatter of strong represented experiences, whose effect is not, finally, to stimulate strong experience in their viewers, but to make up some hybrid of temporary relaxation & persistent desire? (241)

The question Greif poses is important: to what degree is the culture of collecting experiences actually about sedating oneself, reigning in political discontent, & staying bound to insatiable consumerism? A hell of a lot is his hypothesis, otherwise there would be even more people exhibiting experiential illness; there must be something in that experience-chasing culture that keeps people in check, a system that feels aesthetic but is actually anaesthetic. The truth of the experiences don’t even matter, that they are uniquely yours & how you recount them does.

What it comes down to is that experiential illness is harnessed to a post-modern approach to information & meaning. Ironic distance prevents one from knowing. “It is the denial of any meaning to immediate experience, apart from the judgement one places upon it, that is truly anaesthetic”, (231) in Grief’s words. “Meaning starts to seem a perverse thing to ask for, when what we are really asking is what life is when it is not already made over in forms of quest or deferral”. (243) By insisting on protecting it values of desire above its citizens, the west has brought itself to this point of post-truth existence. It exports this value system to the world through economic dominance, “humanitarian” intervention, & cultural imperialism.

Experiential illness is a pandemic without language to describe itself, which is to say it will eventually become the global culture everywhere assumed, nowhere discussed. The people will be perfectly submissive, indifferent to facts, think only of themselves, happy to sacrifice their rights [or neighbours] for purchasing power. Those are dream circumstances for tyrannical leadership – that’s what’s being exported from one side & aspired to by the other sides. It’s total madness. Changing the cultural values seems to crucial to spare us from this fate, Epicurus offers one suggestion of many imaginable alternative.


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