The following text was presented at the 2021 BASTARD Conference in Berkeley, CA.
The Snares of Realism
“I had always thought that such an independent movement as Surrealism was not susceptible to the ordinary processes of logic. Did Surrealism in order to survive have to involve itself in a factual revolt concerning the eight-hour day or the fight against inflation? What a joke and what baseness of soul!”
— Antonin Artaud
Of the myriad technologies that this society employs in its ongoing project of total domination, few are capable of digging their claws so deeply into us as the concept of Reality. The understanding of Reality force-fed to us by institutions of authority connotes an objective, supraindividual, inescapable actuality which we are all constantly subject to and obliged to respond. Since time immemorial, officials have recognized the importance of an exclusive, absolute conception of Reality in constructing the social consensus on which servitude is built. Particular views on what exactly this Reality looks like may change considerably from one regime to the next, but the basic necessity of its imposition remains ever-apparent. Once Reality imposes the final word on what is true and actual in the world, our individual experience of that Reality becomes of little consequence. Rather than a world that is lived and embodied (indissoluble from our experiencing it) here we find ourselves accosted by a Reality hideously detached from our singular experience of it.
An exclusive, sovereign concept of reality (inevitably one that serves hegemonic power) is isolated and invested with the incontrovertible authority of a supreme Real. This alienated existence then becomes the standard by which lives are appraised, (de)valued, and (de)based. One’s apperception of their world becomes effectively meaningless when considered in relation to this imperious grotesquerie. All self-creation must now be made subservient to the exigencies of the One Real. By acceding to this totalitarian metaphysic, not only do we abidcate our unique experience of self/world for a standardized, absolutist existence indifferent to our individuality, we also allow ourselves to settle for a pacified life of compromise, stifled imagination, and foreclosed possibility. Rather than demoting ourselves to mere pawns in a cosmic scheme, we should instead begin with the insistence that our selves and our worlds are one and the same, and from this derive our refusal of the demands of Reality.
Beginning to extricate oneself from the snares of Realism first entails careful consideration of the phenomenon of experience. It seems plainly evident to me that we can each encounter our worlds only through the looking-glass of experience. The perspectives on these worlds which organize and direct our energies are wholly unique to each of us, and this singular experience can never be directly shared with others.
We encounter our worlds only through this inalienable frame, interpreting and shaping our existence relative to our subjective experience of it. An “objective” understanding of the world depends on first accepting the world as being, in some sense, distinct from me. And yet, far from being distinct, our worlds and our subjective experiences thereof instead comprise an inseparable monad. The concepts of ‘self’ and ‘world’ (which is all these forces ultimately are: ways of mentally distinguishing and delineating different aspects of immanent, all-encompassing becoming) suddenly implicate each other and become inseparable. All disjunction between subject and object therefore collapses, leaving only immanent, relational experience where phantoms once loomed — the obscure interpenetration of self and world.
Initially such a notion of existence may seem heavily conceptual, and therefore only useful to that all-consuming, fanatical pursuit known as philosophy. In fact, the relational perspective described above describes our preconceptual experience of life (so far as it can be described using language). Before we begin using language and abstract concepts to organize and understand what it means to be alive, we experience the world entirely through the lens of perpetual singularity. Most of us have experienced moments in life where the intensity and unpredictability of living left us at a loss for words and forced to use a different sensibility when confronting them. In these moments, we can perhaps glimpse something of what it feels and looks like to gaze upon our worlds using a lens untinted by language and representation.
While this nondual perspective can help to allay the unrelenting and exhausting pursuit of self-knowledge, its inherently preconceptual nature makes it far more ineffable than an ontology that conserves the Real. This same quality makes a relational, anti-realist viewpoint far less useful in serving the apparatuses of domination. The latter should not be interpreted as implying an ascetic refusal of conceptual thought, or even of the subject/object dichothomy (as if such refusals were even fully possible). Experiencing some sort of distinction between self and world, and between the variety of different objects encountered therein, may very well be an unavoidable consequence of using language and the representational modes of thought that accompany it. Whether or not such modes are escapable in a provisional sense, the possibilities these artificial distinctions open up for communicating and sharing life make them incredibly useful tools — indispensable even. It seems to me that the more an individual allows themself to embrace and play with this notion of a monistic self-world, the more adept they become at employing the specious distinctions so often presented as objective truth while not falling prey to their traps. In other words, we develop our capacity for employing these conceptual tools in ways that enhance our self-creation and make them our own, rather than treating them as sacred objects to which deference and fealty are owed. Perhaps scores of evangelists have inadvertently been on to something profound in their glib insistence that “Reality cannot be ignored”.
Now I hope you will appreciate why the constant exhortation (not uncommon amongst self-described anarchists and egoists) to “be realistic” invariably fills me with corrosive, churning spleen. One might even suspect that such sensible sanctimony manifests in direct proportion to the degree that we are dissatisfied with the world around us and willing to view human atrocities as demanding abolishment by any means and no matter the cost. The appalling scope and severity of today’s barbarism is so viscerally repugnant that many understandably feel the urgent need to make any sacrifice in order to mitigate its effects. Often, amongst unapologetic utopians (a term anarchists should not hesitate to embrace), the seemingly-distant prospect of creating the world of our dreams instead forges a utilitarian insistence on achieving appreciable social change here and now. Too often this manifests as a willingness to collaborate with those who should be enemies and to abandon imaginative, boundless desires for achievable reformist ends that oblige us to embrace servitude. Not to mention the self-satisfied brand of altruistic moralism and toxic savior/martyr complexes which have become so indicative of the contemporary Left. The horrors that permeate our world end up justifying total conformity to the very Reality principle which allows these horrors to continue. The universal social nightmare winds up rationalizing its own preservation. Since I desire to live my life in the most delirious and excessive manner I can, I can only howl my total refusal at a prepackaged, predetermined Reality founded on obedience and compromise. The notion of an absolute, transcendent Real is yet another of dominion’s manifold tools; another insidious technology of authority which I am at daggers with.
Besides the ceaseless presentation of absolute Reality as exigent fact, there is another apparent reason for the generalized reification of life we see everywhere: though our individual realities are ultimately incommensurate with those of others, they often share enough characteristics in common to make the idea of a single, transpersonal Reality seem plausible. If we provisionally employ the subject/object dichotomy, we might think of this in terms of our selves and our worlds both comprising numerous subjects and objects. While we give our existence shape, color, and meaning in a way that enduringly determines the worlds we encounter, we are also constantly being shaped, colored, and given meaning by these same worlds. The threshold between our worlds and our selves can only be described as an impossibly complicated, infinitely recursive feedback loop. As our worlds take shape around the subjects that encounter them, those subjects are in turn acted upon and shaped by the worlds they face — often in complex and unpredictable ways that refuse easy schematization and confound efforts to make them serve crude political programs.
This dialectic between self and world, subject and object, shaper and shaped, influencer and influenced acts as a ground for the idea of objective Reality. Though no two of us experience a phenomena in exactly the same way, the self/worlds we all encounter often share a great deal of commonalities and tend toward regular, systemic expressions that we can recognize in others. Over time, these overlapping dimensions end up coalescing into the matrix of social institutions, behavioral norms, and conceptual abstractions that constitute so much of what we think of as our worlds. As these conventions subsume and smother more and more life at play within their rigid armor, their presence ruling over us and dictating our existence suddenly appears not only as objectively Real, but as inevitable. The value of all activity, both actual activity and potential, now depends on the degree to which it yields to Reality’s demands (hence the meaninglessness to which the term “realpolitik” has lately been consigned, since today capitulation to the real defines all politics). Emerging from this awareness, I offer the following axioms: no insurrection without imagination, or alternatively, Realism = death.
While breaking with Realism and indulging our imaginations as never before, it is important that we remain — not realistic — but open about what it means to refuse any Reality but those we create ourselves. Even the most basic attempts to communicate with others or act collectively seem to require, if not complete fidelity to a conventional notion of Reality, then at least the willingness to tentatively embrace its objective appearance. It is therefore no great wonder why so many dedicate their lives to developing humanity’s knowledge of ‘objective’ circumstance (Science) and adapting their behavior to its spurious truths. Nor why so many drown their passions in the bog of political activism, desperately trying to fathom why the masses do not adopt their wizened convictions about “what is to be done”.
It should by now be obvious that the relational, egoistic mode I am attempting to trace here collapses the moment some guru or technocrat redeploys it as a means toward “enlightenment” for all the world’s unredeemed children. That said, I will note in only in passing that this relational orientation is, in large part, precisely what so many mystical, occult, and gnostic traditions have gestured toward with the fraught term “enlightenment” (and this phenomenon is not exhausted by the recuperated ends to which it is often employed). But rather than the connotations of exalted wisdom that usually accompany this idea, an anarchist anti-realism might instead suggest a radical inseparability from my world; a condition where understanding cannot be achieved through passive contemplation alone.
Similarly, the willful refusal of ostensibly-objective Realism in favor of self-determined reprogrammings of reality is more or less what numerous occult and mystical traditions have meant by magick. The body of magickal practices known as chaos magick particularly brings this gesture to the fore: chaos magick eschews any systems or practices presented as universally meaningful and applicable. Rather, chaos magicians openly acknowledge that the significance of a particular concept or activity has nothing to do with their ultimate verisimilitude. Magickal practices become meaningful only insofar as the magician chooses to invest them with personal meaning and treat them accordingly. In principle, any and every act imaginable shares the same basic potential for magickal practice — their applied significance and efficacy derive not from any innate value but solely from the reality the magician actively ascribes to them. In this way, chaos magick (and all sorcery, for that matter) functions as a conscious reprogramming of my reality to reflect the ceaseless evolution of experience; allowing the tremendous energies of my will and desires to act upon reality in an acausal manner.
Lest this essay seem like pure critique, I will conclude by underlining the profound shift in one’s relationship to self/world (now deliciously indistinct) that is sparked when we embrace an anti-realist understanding of our lived experience. Once all dualistic binaries have been subsumed within immanent relationality, I begin to experience my self, my world, and my reality as three mutually-implicating elements of the same infinite game. Now allowing myself to play with these overlapping facets of existence unreservedly, the surrender of my dreams and desires on pragmatism’s leaden altar is revealed for the travesty that it is. What was once alien to me, imposed from without, I now make my own without any hesitation or limits. And so, the egoistic dimension of such an approach becomes clear. But this same shift in my senses of self and world is equally essential if collective action is to be anything other than mutual renunciation. So long as efforts I undertake with others remain chained to and guided by transcendent notions of what is Real, these projects will only betray the irreducibly-personal motives which lead us to engage in collective pursuits in the first place. As previously stated: implicit within a relational frame of mind is the annihilation of the individual/collective dichotomy. Once I recognize self and world as two dimensions of the same ineffable process, both solitary and collective activity can no longer be grounded in the presumed exigencies of a peremptory Reality, but can only take root in the all-encompassing immanence of that which is my own.
This is what it means to “base [my] affair on nothing”. The nothing within me and within my worlds. The nothing out of which I create everything.
— Lower Bottoms, 8/12/2020