Identialism as the Highest Stage of DualismAn excerpt from a Victor Pelevin novel, in my translation. Part I.
May 3, 2001
From the novel Generation P by Victor Pelevin. Translated from the Russian by A. Baylin.
These ideas were originally intended for Oliva Verde, the magazine of the Cuban armed forces. However, it would be silly to care about such trivial matters now that we know that the entire plan of existence, where magazines are published and armed forces engage in action, is nothing but a succession of moments of awareness that are united solely by the fact that in each new moment, there exists a notion of the moments that came before it. Even though this succession stretches uninterrupted from a point that lies in the infinitely remote past, the awareness contained in its moments is never aware of itself. For this reason, man’s station in life is lamentable.
However, Siddhartha Gautama, the great warrior for the cause of the liberation of humankind, has pointed out in many of his works that the main reason for this lamentable state is, first and foremost, the very notion of the existence of man, life and lamentability; that is, the dualism that forces us to divide something that in reality has never existed and will never exist, into a subject and an object.
Siddhartha Gautama managed to convey this simple truth to many people because in his time, people’s feelings were simple and strong, and people’s inner world was clear and unobscured. One word could completely change a man’s life and instantly carry him to the other shore, towards unfettered freedom. But many centuries have passed since then. Nowadays the words of Buddha are available to all and yet few find salvation. This is undoubtedly related to the new state of culture which the ancient manuscripts of all the religions refer to as the coming “Dark Ages.”
The Dark Ages are already upon us. This is due primarily to the role that so-called visual psychic generators, or objects of the second kind, have come to play in people’s lives.
When Buddha said that dualism stemmed from an arbitrary division of the world into subjects and objects, he had in mind the subject/object division number one. The hallmark of the Dark Ages is that people’s lives are definitively influenced by the subject/object division number two, which simply did not exist in Buddha’s time.
To explain the distinction between objects number one and number two let us give a simple example—that of a television. When a television is off, it is an object number one, a simple box with a glass panel which we are free to look at or ignore. When a person’s eyes find a blank screen, their movements are determined solely by internal neural impulses or the psychological processes that take place in the person’s mind. For instance, the person may notice that the screen is dirty. He may decide that he wants a bigger TV. He may think that it would be nice to move the TV into a different corner. A non-working television is no different from the objects that people used to know in Buddha’s times such as stones, drops of dew on a blade of grass, or split-headed arrows; no different, that is, from all the things that Buddha referred to in his talks.
If we were to turn the TV on, however, it would no longer be an object number one. It rather would become an object number two, a phenomenon of an altogether different nature. The person looking at the screen would not notice the metamorphosis and yet the metamorphosis is mind-boggling. To the viewer, the TV would cease to exist as a material object that has weight, dimensions and other physical characteristics. Instead, the viewer would get the feeling of being present in another space which is so well known to everybody gathered here.
The only question here is, who is it that is present in this other space? Can we say that it is the viewer himself? This question is very important, so it bears repeating: can we say that the television is being watched by the person who is watching it?
We submit that the answer is no. The reason is that when the person was looking at a dead television, the movements of his eyes and the stream of his attention were directed by the impulses of his own will, however chaotic they may have been. A blank, imageless screen had no influence on the person, or perhaps the influence was only marginal, with the screen serving as a background.
A working TV virtually never receives a stationary view from a single camera. For this reason, the image it shows is not a background. On the contrary, this image is in active flux. Every couple of seconds there is a change of scenery, a close-up of an object, or a switch to a different camera; the image is constantly modified by the cameraman and the director standing behind the cameraman. Such changes of images are called technical modifications.
We ask you to pay close attention here because the following postulates, although simple in essence, are fairly difficult to understand. Besides, some might think that the things we are discussing are trivial. I daresay we are talking about the most important psychic phenomena of the end of the second millennium.
We can conceptualize the change of images on the screen that results from various technical modifications by imagining a psychic process whereby an observer switches attention from one event to another and marks those events that are the most interesting. Thus proceeds the process of an observer directing his own attention. The changes of TV images are identical to such a process except that the viewer’s attention comes under the control of a television crew. A virtual subject of the psychic process comes into being and replaces the human for the duration of the broadcast by sliding into the person’s mind like a hand into a rubber glove.
This is similar to being possessed by a spirit. The difference is that in the case of television there is no spirit, only the symptoms of possession. Although the spirit is imaginary, the moment a viewer voluntarily entrusts the task of focusing his attention on one object or another to the TV crew, he in effect becomes this spirit and the non-existent ghost comes to possess him and millions of other TV viewers.
This phenomenon can be aptly characterized as a spell of collective non-existence, for the virtual subject that replaces the viewer’s real ego does not exist in absolute terms. It is merely an effect arising out of the collective efforts of editors, cameramen and the director. Yet to the person watching TV there is nothing more real than this virtual subject.
This is not all. Lapsang Souchong from the Pu-erh monastery believes that should a certain broadcast (say, a football game) attract the simultaneous attention of more that four fifths of the Earth’s population, the virtual effect will be able to displace from the aggregate consciousness of the people the collective karmic vision of the plan of human existence. The consequences of such an event would be unpredictable (it is quite possible that a new hell would arise in addition to the hells of molten metal, knife-trees, etc.—the hell of the eternal football championship). However, Souchong’s calculations have not been verified, and in any case, remain merely a conjecture about the future. We are interested in the frightening reality of today much more than in the frightening outlooks of tomorrow.
Let us summarize the first point. An object number two (that is, a working television) has a corresponding subject number two—the virtual viewer—who has the ability to control his own attention, although a television crew does it for him. Feelings and thoughts, the release of adrenaline and other hormones in the body of the viewer, are all prompted by an external manipulator and determined by outside calculations. Of course, subject number one does not notice the point when he is displaced by subject number two since after the displacement there is no one left to do the noticing: subject number two is not real.
He is not merely unreal (which term applies essentially to everything in the human world); there are no words to describe the degree of his unreality. He is the stacking of one non-existence upon another, a castle in the air with a bottomless pit for a foundation. One may inquire after the point of wallowing in these non-existences and measuring the extent of their unreality. The answer is that this distinction between the subjects of the first and second kind is very important.
Subject number one believes that reality is the material world. Subject number two believes that reality is the material world as shown on TV.
Subject number two is the product of a false subject/object division; it is, therefore, illusory. However, there is a viewer observing this subject’s chaotically moving thoughts and moods; one could say metaphorically that subject number one is constantly watching a TV show about himself, gradually forgetting that he is a spectator and beginning to identify with the program.
From this point of view, subject number two is something utterly impossible and indescribable. He is a TV show engaged in watching another TV show. There are thoughts and emotions involved in this process; what’s missing is the person in whose mind the thoughts and emotions arise.
Quick switching from one channel to another in order to avoid commercials is called zapping. Bourgeois thought has explored in fair detail the psychological states of a person engaged in zapping and the corresponding type of thinking which is gradually becoming the fundamental one in the modern world. However, the kind of zapping that was examined by researchers involved channel-switching performed by the viewer himself.
The switching of the viewer that is controlled by the director and the cameraman (that is, inducements forced upon subject number two by means of technical modifications) is a different, compulsory kind of zapping. Research on it is classified in virtually every country with the exception of Bhutan, where television is banned. But compulsory zapping that turns a TV set into a unit of remote control over the viewer is not merely a method of organization of visual sequences. It is rather the foundation of television broadcasting, the main means of influencing one’s consciousness by the advertising/informational field. For this reason, we shall henceforth refer to subject of the second kind as Homo Zapiens or HZ.
Let us repeat this extremely important conclusion: just like a TV viewer in his unwillingness to watch a string of commercials switches channels on TV, so do quick and unpredictable technical modifications of the TV image switch the viewer himself. When the viewer enters the state of being a Homo Zapiens, he becomes a remotely controlled television program. It is in this state that he spends much of his life.
Comrades! The station of the modern man is not just lamentable; one could say that it is, in a way, non-existent because the man himself almost does not exist. There is nothing that one could point a finger at and say “This is Homo Zapiens.” HZ is merely the residual glow of the luminophore of a sleeping soul; it is a movie about the making of another movie shown on TV in an empty room.
A question that begs to be asked is why does the modern man find himself in this situation. Who is trying to replace the already dazed and confused Homo Sapiens with a cubic meter of void in the state of HZ?
The answer, of course, is obvious: no one. However, let us not be preoccupied with the bitter absurdity of the situation. To understand the situation better, recall that the main reason for the existence of television is its attendant function of advertising, which has to do with the circulation of money. For this reason, we shall now have to look at the branch of human thought known as economics.
Economics is a false science that examines the illusory relations of subjects of the first and second kind in connection with the hallucinatory process of their imaginary enrichment.
According to this discipline, every man is a cell in an organism which the economists of old used to call mammon. In the study materials of the front of the complete and final liberation the organism is simply called oranus (“mouthass” in plain English). This name better reflects the organism’s true nature and leaves less room for mystical speculation. Each of its cells (that is, each person taken in his economic capacity) has a sort of a sociopsychic membrane that lets in and out money—the blood and lymph of oranus’s body. From an economic perspective, the objective of every cell of the mammon is to maximize the amount of money let in through the membrane, and to minimize the amount of money let out.
However, the imperatives of the existence of oranus as a whole require that its cellular structure be awash in a constantly increasing stream of money. For this reason oranus has developed in the process of its evolution (note that oranus’s level of development is comparable to that of a mollusk) a kind of a simple nervous system (so-called “media”) whose backbone is television. This nervous system dispatches throughout its virtual body nerve signals which control the activities of its monad cells.
These nerve signals come in three types: the oral, the anal and the displacing wow-impulses (the latter term is derived from the advertising interjection “wow!”).
The oral wow-impulse makes a cell ingest money to eliminate the discomfort caused by the conflict between one’s existing self-image and the image of an ideal “super-self” that is created by advertising. Note that the point here is not the things that you can buy with money to help the ideal “self” materialize. The point is rather the money itself. Indeed, many millionaires dress in rags and drive around in cheap cars but one has to be a millionaire to be able to afford that. A poor person under similar conditions would suffer immensely from cognitive dissonance. That is why many poor people will spend their last penny on expensive quality clothing.
The anal wow-impulse makes a cell excrete money in order to derive enjoyment from the overlapping of the two self-images mentioned above.
Since the two actions we have just described—the ingestion and excretion of money—are mutually contradictory, the anal wow-impulse works surreptitiously. A person seriously believes therefore that pleasure is caused not by the act of spending money itself but by the ownership of a certain object. This belief is held despite the obvious fact that, for instance, a watch worth fifty thousand dollars cannot give a person more utility, as a physical object, than a watch worth fifty bucks. It’s the price that matters.
The oral and anal wow-impulses got their names by analogy with sphincterial functions, although they are more properly associated with the inhalation and exhalation of air. The sensation caused by them resembles a sort of a psychic asphyxiation or, conversely, hyperventilation. Oral-anal arousal reaches its peak at a casino table or while playing the stock market, although wow-stimulation can be achieved by any other number of methods.