When we are not deciding what to do with our lives, and sometimes with the lives of others, we are sending emails, thinking about the past, worrying about the future, predicting the consequences of actions, judging others, learning, chatting, socialising, networking or we might just be distracting ourselves. But are we ever just Being? and is that Being authentic?
Endless adverts, slogans and feel good posts tell us to be ourselves, practice self care and be happy. All this at a time when the sea is catching on fire, refugees are drowning, and trillionaires are flying into space for 10 minutes. Our way of life is changing at a rapid pace and because of a global pandemic this has been accelerated, furthermore we have an economic system that is not fit for this day and age which is killing our planet and the species on it. At a time when the world needs to work together, it has never seemed more individualistic from a western point of view. We are told to be ourselves, but our fundamental beliefs we have around society and how it works, and who it works for, are being put through their paces. If we don’t know how the world is meant to be, how are we supposed to know how to be.
If Covid-19 has shown us anything, it is that we are part of the world, not controlling it. You could say we are a bunch of hairless apes with the ability to write songs and design weapons of mass destruction on a tiny planet in a vast universe that we know absolutely naff all about. Yet, we don’t behave that way. Why?
Since the Enlightenment, philosophers and intellectuals in general had looked at the world as if they were detached from it, or not in it so to speak. Often in philosophy, they separated the autonomous human, or the subject, from the world on the outside, the world of objects. This continues in much of the world today and it is only with the realities of climate change and Covid that our understanding of our place in the world, with others, is being brought back down to earth. As a friend recently told me in a very American way, we are finding out ‘our shit does stink’
Das Sein is a word in German that means Being there. Philosophers often define words or even invent new ones to help readers understand their concepts. In German it is easier to build multi-word nouns, so when translated many of the concepts end up with hyphens. In Heidegger’s book, Being and Time, you need a specialised dictionary to understand what he means. Heidegger believed that humanity had stopped knowing what it means to be alive, it had become distracted or separated from the world. Being according to him is the moment we connect with the world around us and see that we are one with the world. He called this being-in-the-world. His objective was to overcome the subject/object divide.
Heidegger felt that our society distracted us from Being, he says we were thrown into the world. It did this by making us answer emails, earn money, worry about that photo on social media, and argue with the television. By doing this we stop experiencing Being, and in turn this makes us accept the world as it is. It could be argued that if we experience too much Being, then we may see that the world is not what we have been told it is.
Theorist Mark Fisher echoes similar claims. He says not only are we unaware that there is an alternative to modern day capitalism and our neo-liberal ideology, we are also too distracted or disinterested to even contemplate an alternative. Capitalism realism keeps us tuned into the matrix as it were. It wants us to stay tuned whilst also killing any illusions that anything else is possible. It wants us to move through life, not questioning and not speculating about the bubble that we live in. It sucks our very Being.
*If this sounds interesting to you take a look at my book Idea-ology. Whilst theoretically these thinkers may not have the same concepts, the message is similar.
Heidegger’s philosophy is often thought of as common-sensical, as it is fairly similar to eastern philosophies like Buddhism. He states that nothingness is the opposite of Being. It is the human concept of void, best described as the thing after death: Nothing. You can’t have one without the other. Yet, you don’t have to be dead to experience it, in fact Heidegger says we spend our lives fearing and ignoring it. The very thing that we are counterbalancing with our busy lives is nothingness. It is the understanding that we, as humans, are finite and that is what we are running from. Our fate and the fact no one can stop us from dying. Even though you cannot outrun nothingness, as it is everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. Heidegger even advised spending more time in graveyards to come to terms with the fact that we have not always been here, and we won’t always be.
Learning about nothingness is a fundamental part of growing up. Often our first memorable understanding of nothingness is hearing about a dead relative that died before, or close to, when we were born. One interesting observation that existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre makes about this is about a friend in a café. If a friend you expected to be in the café is not there, you notice the space where they were supposed to be. But if you never expected them to be there and they are not there, you don’t notice the nothingness where they could have been. This is also often the case with people that pass away, we realise they are not there when we feel they should be, thus showing us that nothingness is a fundamental component of Being. Without nothingness we don’t have the concept of Being. This also points out that it’s hard to understand what someone was like if you never got to meet them.
Heidegger explains that by being unaware of nothingness and not experiencing Being, we are going about as if we were on autopilot. We are living for other people. We are in a constant battle with ourselves. We are trying to be the person who we think we want to be, and, at the same time, to become the person that society wants us to be. Is it who we want to be or who society demands we be? We are pulled in every direction. He goes on to claim that we are absorbed by our world that we are thrown into, something we never asked for. He claims that we live in a world that is made up of terrible views on how to live life and meaningless tasks. We are unaware of our being, but also time itself. Here is where Heidegger starts to show his blood and soil fascistic stripes of wanting to return to nature and be one with the earth. Sartre later adapts this concept into his own and renames it Bad Faith. For him this is when we live our lives unauthentically bowing to the pressure of society and we adopt a false self, a costume to fit in, rather than live by our own values. Despite Heidegger’s wanting to return to the natural state of things (is there such a thing?), he is more forgiving than Sartre who was known for his unforgiving stances on choice. Heidegger states that you have to live an authentic life but at times it might not be possible to, whereas Sartre, of whom is the most famous of existential philosophers, would insist that everyone always has a choice, and depending upon what you choose, you may be opting to live in bad faith. Bad faith is better thought of as bowing to societal pressures despite your own moral standing. For him we should try to live in good faith which is why he was famous for his open relationships, for never really taking the academic world seriously and why he rejected the Nobel prize as he thought it was too bourgeois.
Existentialists are obsessed with authenticity. I am not even sure I know what that means in this day and age with shallow concepts, high streets that all look the same, and a world that seems more and more pastiche by the day.
Authentic, when referring to people, means being true to yourself or being sincere, whereas with things it means not an imitation, or not false. With an object it is easier to say if something is not authentic like fake designer trainers or even plastic surgery, but with people? Often people will say they get a sense about someone acting fake or insincere, but even that can be wrong. Even if you think the person is acting fake maybe they don’t think they are. Are we even authentically ourselves even when we are alone?
Regarding living in bad faith, if we knowingly act one way, say pretending to be well educated when we are not, then this is a clear example of being a fake or fraud. And what about the middle class kids like George Orwell that go to Eton and then spend the rest of their lives trying to fit in with poor people. They may say they feel more at home with the riff raff and that they are living a more authentic life, which is probably true, but aren’t they living in bad faith denying their history of privilege? What if we are all living in bad faith but just don’t know it. Is there someone to drag us out, to offer us a pill, to unplug us. It’s not surprising that ‘the extremes’ have attracted so many people. During the long nineties, ideology never needed an explanation but since the financial crash, the twin towers, Iraq and the rise of populism, people have been in search of some truth.
If you remove the concept of authenticity, then that would also do away with good and bad faith. Also if being yourself means being authentic, then what does it mean to live in this way? For many people it means doing what you want, or more specifically not doing something that you don’t want to do. If only I never had to take the bins out, help my partner dye her hair, clean the toilet or even work. I am joking, but of course there are times when you have to live in bad faith, otherwise we would all walk around telling each other what we thought of one another. It would be like one long continuous drunk work Christmas do. Or a pandemic where no one takes the vaccination, wears a mask or stays home to help save the healthcare system or the elderly. How would they have made it through the Second World War? I suppose ‘knowing your morals’ or personal values helps you lead a life in better faith, but to be either good or bad, for me is too black or white when we know that in life there are shades of grey. For others, authenticity is the shunning of post-modern cynicism and simulatric ascetics. They revel in the thought that the past was more real and less superficial, less problematic, and more simplistic. Yet, even now in 2021 people are talking about how great the 00s were! This is in the similar sphere to Heidegger’s reasoning of going back to the real world. I am sure he would have hated the 00’s and would not have been a Britney Spears fan. For him, later in his career, technology in the broad sense makes us alienated from the world as we connect through it via our relationship to technology. This, along with his comments on the modern world tearing us away from Being-in-the-world, shows a distaste for the modernist view of the world. But no, Heidegger wasn’t anti modernity or technology, he was just against how we related to the world. He wanted us to connect in a different way. Being and Time was meant to be the first in a series of books but Heidegger never finished another edition. Instead he had what he described as a ‘turn’. His later work was made up of smaller pieces which included biographies, lectures and works around poetry. His turn in philosophy would be less concerned with what being is, but rather how it develops. This is where he developed his critique of technology, language and art further.
To be continued….