Isn’t the real reason that we can pierce through the veil of our illusions because we’ve all had enchanted moments that transcend the subtle feeling of unease and discontent which hangs like a dark firmament over our thoughts and actions? If we were always already in ideology, how would we be able to recognize our conditioning or desire to step out of it? Althusser used to say that the child exists as a subject of ideology even before it is born, because it is subjected to the name of the father, it’s already demarcated as a specific gender, and its future is already planned by the family, the school, the television screen and the bureaucratic machinery of society. But as infants – as novices in the ways of the world, literally, as nascent creatures incapable of speech – all of this exists in a nether world that escapes us. We are consumed by living out the immediacy of our desires, playing with everything that comes our way – the mother’s breast, the slippers we pick up off the floor and chew, the bicycle tire – everything is a mystery and an adventure. After we stumble into language, we become caught in a long, drawn-out battle to maintain the integrity of our pleasures and magical sense of time against all the repressive demands that are imposed on us. Parents, educators, social doctors – everyone around us is preoccupied with discovering the best technologies to dominate us. We are fed at regular intervals so that the economy of time may better penetrate our skin. Our bodies become something we are taught to control, restrain and civilize. The beliefs planted and watered in our minds begin to teach us to be ashamed of desire and to fear our natural inclinations. The schools impose foreign ideas, rules and standards upon us without any concern for the higher wisdom of our intuition.
For a long time we continue to inhabit these two, incompatible worlds. Outside the family and the school, whenever we play we set loose our unlimited power of transforming the world according to the reveries of our imagination. We know that every stick is a magic wand and every animal and bird can talk. Did I ever tell you about Mr. Pips, the red kitten I had when I was 6? Mr. Pips was female, but back then I had no idea about the propriety of names and genders. Besides, she had chosen her own name and whispered it to me in a dream. She often looked at me while opening and closing her mouth without making any sound, and I believed she was talking to me in a secret language that only I could understand. I knew when she was hungry or cold or when she just wanted to sit on my lap and purr. And during all those times I managed to escape the prison-walls of the home and school to steal a few hours of play with my friends, we would pack such a horde of adventures into those moments that our time did not trickle away like sand in an hourglass. Our play time was swollen by dreams of impossible worlds, by fairies, mermaids and dancing mushrooms that came to life from stories. But the parents and teachers were patiently waiting, watches in hand, for us to join their monochrome universe. Innocent of the ways of conditioning, we could not help but fall like young animals into their snare. We had no weapons to shield against the sweetness of their despotism, and by the time we became old enough to decipher what was happening, we had already lost our sense of the incomparable superiority of those vanished times. But the traces of our childhood remain with us, like an open wound.
Ideology is this entire arsenal of technologies that are intended to break the wild spirit of the child, to mold it into a tame and predictable creature. Our training is designed to teach us to accept separation, identification and lack as the inevitable laws that govern our universe. With our entry into language, the word “I” acquires the significance of a heavy lead around out necks, as all our experience begins to be carved up, demarcated into subject and object, me and my possessions, I and them. This is enforced from an early age by a system of rewards and punishments that teach us to measure ourselves, our sense of worth, and our achievements against others, to “beat” them at tests and games and sports and competitions. It inculcates both a sense of insufficiency – of not being enough in ourselves unless we can surpass others – and a desire for separation and aggression. Love and recognition from parents and teachers are not given freely and unconditionally, but are hoarded and parceled out in small pieces, depending on what we are able to do, on our measurable accomplishments. Since our sense of “I” is always precarious and defined against the benchmark of others, we learn to inflate it artificially, through identification. Identification with material objects, with possessions, with ideas, with roles, stereotypes and behaviors. The more we add, the more we fill ourselves up with external stuff, the more we believe we are approaching our eventual completion. But we can never find ourselves in all of these additions, which is why we keep searching for the next one, ad infinitum, unto death. It is the failure of finding ourselves through external objects, roles and ideas that turns the revolving door of consumer society and of organized politics.
Identification with possessions is based on a desire for appropriation, for incorporating things inside us in order to grow and expand our boundaries. But there is also identification with groups and ideologies, which seems to move in an opposite direction – that of subjugating ourselves to something that stands above us. In this twin dialectic of subjecting things to our will and being subjected to others in turn, the common element is a sense of lack and insufficiency. We either fill ourselves up with things, seeking to make ourselves grow through their incorporation, or we strengthen ourselves by being subsumed into something bigger than us, something external that has more authority and prestige than our minuscule, individual self. In both movements of the pendulum, the need to identify with something outside of us is more important than the particular content of what we identify with. The essential thing is to make us loose ourselves, to alienate us from our desires, to integrate us into ready-made experiences and teach us to us adapt to the contours of a world in which abundance appears indistinguishable from the enforced rule of scarcity.
But no conditioning can be ever be total, otherwise we would be reduced to lethargic puppets that sleepwalk mechanically through the labyrinth of life. And we would not feel a sense of dissatisfaction, of distance, of being out of step with ourselves, gnawing away at our soul. Every day we experience brief moments in which our alienations are shattered … for an instant, for an hour, for the space of a daydream. These momentary ruptures generate such an intense, powerful energy that, if it were accumulated in small drops instead of being constantly squandered, it would be enough to overthrow the illusions of our conditioning. And having stumbled upon such enchanted moments by chance, it is natural that we should seek to extend them by will into the rest of our lives. Although these moments may differ from each other and from those experienced by other people, there appears to be an unmistakeable similarity. What is common to them is that we experience no separation from ourselves and from others and that we suddenly feel light, transported, and ecstatic – as if we are literally overflowing our boundaries, seeping out through the pores of our skins and brains into a continuum of pulsating energy. These moments unfold spontaneously, easily, without effort or strain. And time begins to take on a different quality, as if it is becoming dilated and we can feel each component part of our actions precisely, from the inside and outside, in slow motion.
Have you ever been lost in a forest among the trees, feeling the vastness of rustling leaves and howling wind, or sat on the warm sand of a beach while watching the waves crash as the sun goes down? If you are really absorbed in the experience, feeling the orange-red spreading across the glowing sky, sensing the particles of heat diminishing on your body, smelling the salty wind in the air, you experience it as a continuum of grains of sand, bubbling water, cool air, tingling skin, vibrating eardrums, dilating pupils, dancing colors. You don’t think to yourself, what a beautiful sunset, it gives me such pleasure to behold it, and I hope it will be just as amazing tomorrow. Or if you do, if you’ve slipped into comparisons, memories and thoughts about the future, the miraculous nature of the experience is already lost to you. When you are really attuned to it, it has the magical quality of an absolute singularity. It is fresh, like a surge of new sensations that you are experiencing for the first time. This kind of magic, which we felt in our childhood but learned to suppress, is always open to us as an infinite potential. But the sublimity of things is usually lost to us by the force of our habits. Habits of action, habits of thinking, habits of words. Language swoops down on living experience, ties it hand and foot, robs it of its substance, and makes it measurable, calculable and communicable, but always as a pale shadow of its felt intensity. How often do we become hypnotized by words, believing in their apparent power to capture the world in a net of abstraction? But when we look at something and let it be without imposing a conceptual frame on it, we feel a sense of awe and enchantment. Our perception deepens, we experience the heightened quality of each of our senses, and their promiscuous embrace with the luminous beings of the world.
These experiences are not about expanding our boundaries through identification, which is a false connection based on lack and separation, but about experiencing expansion from the inside through a dissolution of boundaries, a sense of melting. The first is a craving to become bigger, to fill ourselves up, because we feel we are not enough. The second is an overflowing, as if we are seeping out of ourselves and merging along a continuum, like a ripple spreading gently in a pool of water. It has become a cliche to privilege the sexual communion of lovers as a paradigm of boundary dissolution and non-separation. This is not to say there isn’t some truth behind the cliche. The ecstasy of making love and the experience of orgasm can take us out of ourselves (ec-stasis literally means being thrown out of yourself), and make us feel like our sense of self is expanding by dissolving. Or, on the other hand, it can strengthen our boundaries, our feeling of “I” and our sense of possession. As with any other experience, as long as we’re absorbed in the flow of the moment and not letting thoughts and fears and projections intrude, it can be an enchanted flash that breaks with our conditioning. This flash can also happen when gazing into the eyes of our lover, when sharing a secret smile in a crowded room, or when doing nothing at all. It’s the quality and intensity of the experience that matters and not the kind of experience that it is. It is a direct communion that happens when we let go of thoughts, expectations, projections, obsessions … and really see and hear the other person. It can happen with friends, compatriots, even strangers. The most intense moments of ecstatic communion I have experienced have been of melting into a crowd during demonstrations and insurrectionary explosions. The strangers in the crowd were no longer strangers, no longer separate, atomized selves. I felt them as an extension of myself, I saw their desires reflected in my eyes, and felt my heart swell up and overflow with joy. And in my joy I realized that I loved them, without knowing their names or their histories. We became a living organism that breathed, and moved, and danced, and dreamed together.
It is in these moments that we feel as if we finally come into step with ourselves. With a self that is no longer a subject, no longer subjected to an abstract power that stands above it, or to the whims of chance and circumstance. These brief flashes are outside conditioning, not in the sense that they transcend it or seek to go beyond it. They are more like an imperceptible limit that conditioning cannot overcome, and its veil suddenly drops down and dissolves into ashes. They are the limit of conditioning because the real breaks through. Not reality, which is just another name for the consensual frame through which a particular culture or group perceives the world and which is dependent on concepts and language. It is the real that is on the other side of representation and language, and not subject to calculation and instrumental reason. And it is not, as Lacan thought, that this real is traumatic, as if it brings us face to face with an inescapable absence or lack in our being. The moments when the real breaks through are joyous. We feel no separation, no lack, no emptiness, no horror. We desire to connect, but our desire is no longer based on a sense of lack – a sense that we are missing something and have to constantly try to fill ourselves up. It overflows from a kind of intense fullness that feels like our heart is exploding and bursting out of its fleshlike capsule. This is what the experience of creation is about. When creating works of art, we feel such an excess of energy and life force and emotions surging through our veins, and hands, and eyes, and hearts that we want to throw that energy outside ourselves, to unburden ourselves. When we create love, we feel so overwhelmed in the presence of our lover that we want to give them presents, to give them new worlds, to ignite the fire of their happiness, without calculating if we’re getting anything in exchange. These moments of creation are when we really feel like we are in our own skin, and in harmony with our soul. And we know that during all those other moments in life when we are not experiencing this ecstasy of being full and overflowing we are falling short of ourselves, we are not truly experiencing the magic of our own power.
*This is an excerpt from my book Alchemy of Revolution. The sentences about the magic of childhood are borrowed and rewritten from Raoul Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life.