In Being and Time Heidegger claims that we have been absorbed into the world’s gossip and eventually we live for other people rather than ourselves. We live to please others, try to convince them that we are a good person and worthy of their company. We lie to ourselves about who we really are and try to become the image of how we think others see us. This is inauthentic living according to Heidegger. He goes on to claim that it is only when we step into Being and embrace the idea of nothingness, we see that the world is connected and we are a part of it.
He emphasises the importance of time to us and how it helps us understand the world. For him, we are aware of our finite time on earth. With this in mind when thinking about the future, and taking into consideration everything we have lived in the past, we are able to conceive of the present. We become aware of our Being in time. With this understanding we project ourselves forward into the future whilst using the past to make sense of the present. Lacan would later pick up on this idea and he would use it to formulate part of his understanding of the subject. For Lacan we imagine ourselves in the future, on the plains of the imaginary, but this shell of a person we imagine in the future is more perfected than we are, he called this our Ideal-I. The object view of ourselves we create during the mirror stage. As I pointed out earlier, we see ourselves as an object that doesn’t desire for anything, and we spend the rest of our lives chasing this shell that we can never quite catch up to as there is always a more perfect version of ourselves in our future that we are continuously creating. Even if we do catch the shell of our ideal-I something doesn’t feel quite right, we soon invent another fictional version of ourselves. Ever got everything you ever wanted only to change your mind and want the opposite, or something less, later on? Sounds like the bride leaving her rich handsome fiancee at the altar to go and be with her poor childhood sweetheart that she never got to be with. We all know these films. But what happens after? Of course, they both get new desires (not necessarily romantic ones) after the honeymoon period. He starts collecting airfix models and she wants a weekend without the kids.
In Madrid there are more and more shops selling t-shirts, bottles, pencil cases and more all with slogans such as ‘this year is going to be great’ ‘with you this life is great’ ‘here and now: go for it all’ and ‘I can see your future, you will get it for sure’. These vacuous phrases are just a small sample of the vomit inducing slogans we see on peoples’ chests and tote bags everyday. This is also present with the motivational quotes you see on Instagram and even on people’s walls in their homes. It is only recently that this has exploded in popularity and it reflects the human condition of being self-managed projects, or as an achievement-subject as explained by Byung-Chul Han. He goes on to explain that we are living in a society where the possibility of failure is so individualised that we end up burning ourselves out. He attributes this to excess positivity. He claims our social unconscious switches from the disobedient society’s should attitude, to the achievement society’s can attitude. This force of positiveness increases the likelihood of ADHD, depression, anxiety and more. We are exhausted by trying to be ourselves. As he says the complaints of the depressive individual, “nothing is possible” can only occur in a society that thinks “nothing is impossible” (Han 2015).
For me, Being, as a concept alone, is very individualistic, and something that today has been expanded and manipulated, but not always in a good way. Individual welfare is important but it is also key to understand where it fits in with living with others. Inauthentic living is not just your problem, it is a societal one. Meditation apps and yoga, good mental health and self care. What are they for? Are they for your benefit or for the benefit of the system so that you keep on working. And how did we get so burnt out in the first place to need all this crap? You can probably guess my answer.
But it is not new under capitalism. It has been this way for generations, look at period dramas for example, the poor were always working whilst the ladies flounced around the countryside on horse. That said it has got worse under neoliberalism with fewer opportunities for Being. We are constantly on the go and responsible for everything. Capitalism realism, which mainly deals with the business ontology way of thinking that capitalism is the last game in town, also goes further looking at how the constant need for producing and consuming, and how the hyper individualisation of society has been extended to our very mental health:
“Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect). In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS. In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James’s claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill?”
― Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?
Not only has our mental health been thrust upon us as an individual key performance indicator, but society has washed its hands of all responsibility that it has towards its citizens’ welfare. Instead, our obligation is to society and it is to produce and consume, thus leaving less time for Being. But painstakingly we are told to be ourselves.
So, whilst we battle for some time to experience Being we should also be looking at something else during that time. Heidegger believes that if we spend more time Being that we will see that the world is connected, and we are all Being at the same time. He called this, ready for another phrase, the Unity of Being.
The Unity of Being is the realisation that we are all connected by Being, Heidegger wants us to appreciate this and use it for good. By seeing that all things are existing, thus Being, at the same time we come to appreciate the world and ourselves. We see that we are a human that is Being in a time that was there before, and will be after, us. We realise the world was not made for us, we are not central to it, and it would continue to be if we were not there.
It is only by understanding ourselves that we can rise above gossip, appointments, stresses and others’ expectations, and then we can live a true life. To do this, we must accept both Being and Nothingness. We must accept that our end will be Nothingness and that no one can take us away from this. By being aware of our own mortality and embracing times of Being, these can help us overcome the false life that we trudge on through every day. He claims only then can we live a more authentic existence that is not riddled with self-absorbed thoughts and social anxiety.
On the other hand, for Lacan, we cannot know ourselves. We are always desiring new things to fill the void within us. As previously mentioned this keeps capitalism going. Can we experience Being under capitalism? Being as in making good faith choices, raising above the social world of gossip, workplace feuds and politics. For a short time yes. Holidays, time off or if you’re lucky retirement. The only ones that don’t have to wait nearly 70 years are the rich. They can choose to step in and out of society as they wish. They can just Be, the rest of us can’t so easily. That said they will never be content with just Being as they are desiring subjects. But can they desire simple things? That’s why Keanu Reeves or José Mujica Former President of Uruguay, are better role models than the Kardashians or Donald Trump.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought many things to the forefront of people’s lives. They may be busier looking after their kids, family, or community, or they have the opposite. During the lockdowns, some will have gone to work outside the home and others will have viewed the world from their social media feed. This change in our situation has led to many people questioning what it all means even leading to the great resignation in the USA where 4.3 million people quit or changed their jobs due to various reasons (Kamal 2022).
In between Netflix episodes or prolonged working hours, people have been enquiring about the absurdity of it all. The moment you catch yourself looking at an empty chair or listening to the sound of the applause for essential workers, one may question if we are really essential. Any of us. Normally, if we caught ourselves thinking like this we might snap out of it by working, or more commonly these days by swiping at our phones. But the coronavirus has removed many distractions. The situation has made some aspects of life more complicated, but at the same time it has made other things too simple.
You may think this sounds like endless self-help books from Jordan Peterson to mindfulness colouring books. The truth is they share similar properties. Concentration on the self; yet they don’t necessarily concentrate on Being. What’s more, they are there to alleviate anxiety and fear. Being wants you to do something similar but on a deeper level, however can this be achieved in a society that forces you to consume just to stay alive?
Some strands of mindfulness, amongst many other types of self-help, have been hijacked by corporate types to help boost productivity, focus on work, force attention, and sell apps and self-help books. Whilst these work for many people and are great for people that have depression and anxiety, they should not be confused with the philosophical idea of expanding our consciousness. They should not replace being-in-the-world. They should not place emphasis on the individual. We need to raise our consciousness above ourselves.
For Heidegger, Being in humans is being aware of our existence with language, and our awareness of Nothingness. It is what sets us apart from other living creatures on this planet. It creates a good form of anxiety that makes you realise that you are alive. With a lot of spare time during the lockdown many people have taken up a new or old hobby. Baking has been a huge hit with sales of flour going through the roof throughout Europe and the USA. Celebrities and influencers were sharing their loaves, and yeast became a luxury. It is safe to say Instagram has plenty of new hashtags. #baking. It is a great way to relieve anxiety, learn new skills and experiment with creativity. It gives the baker the satisfaction of completely owning what they produce, and it also fills the hole of helplessness and hopelessness. Oh, and it means you don’t have to go outside to buy bread. Personally, I got a feeling of control from it; with the world spinning but me sitting still, the government saying when you can go outside, the invisible threat of coronavirus, and the stress of work and money eating away at my brain every time I had to go shopping, the world felt like an abyss. Too much time to think never had such a real meaning. During the crisis baking has become a hobby for many, but have we chosen it for the right reasons? As Heidegger points out, by only living for others or by distracting ourselves with the menial issues of the world, we do not ask the questions we need to ask ourselves. Even with things as pleasant as baking, we could be jumping on the bandwagon away from Nothingness. But why are you baking?
In a world of checklist experiences and just doing things to post on your stories, it is hard to know what is for who. If you are baking for yourself, you enjoy it and it allows you to concentrate, then by using your hands, an important point for Heidegger, you are on the route to experiencing Being. However, if you are doing it for Instagram or because it is ‘in’, then you might not be, this is living for other people. It’s not only what you do but why you are doing it. Therefore, maybe, we should put down the recipe book, switch off Instagram and embrace the fear and the world as it really is to reclaim ourselves. We should do something for us, no matter what it is. Here is where authenticity can be useful on a personal level.
As I said earlier this concept was developed further by Sartre into good and bad faith. As I said earlier, bad and good faith for me are too black and white, but they can be useful to ask why we are doing something. Are we doing it because we think we should or because other people want us to do it? We live in ideology. We are part of it and cannot escape it. We are split capitalist subjects that keep reproducing our neoliberal ideology by the way we act. So the good/bad faith question should be am I reproducing the current ideology or am I helping challenge the current hegemony?
Sartre gives the example of a waiter living in bad faith. “Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe.” (Sartre 2020)
Sartre has been rightfully critiqued for this view and poor example. Was he playing at being a philosopher? What was the waiter supposed to do, quit and become president of France? Or just tell people to fuck off when they wanted some wine? Sartre was making the point that he is making is that the waiter is using his position in the world to act as an object for others, that is instead of the actions coming from within him and his own freedom. He is using his position as a waiter as a limit for his own freedom. Similar when you go into a supermarket and the assistant say sorry I don’t work in technology I can’t help you. Lacan may say that is the waiter’s ideal-I that has been constructed for others. I would expand this to him being a waiter for ideology. What does a waiter not on the perfect edge of ideology look like? I have two examples.
In George Orwell’s first book Down and Out in London and Paris whilst working as a pot wash in an upmarket hotel; Orwell describes the waiters as taking on the essense of their rich customers. Stuck up, rude and demanding. If you go into any posh designer’s shop or expensive department store these days, shop assistants will greet you differently depending on how they perceive your level of wealth. Normally they are nastier than the real posh people! These people are 100% in the ideology. They think they are above other workers despite often being working class. Whilst the other example is of the Spanish waiter. Unlike his French counterpart, Spanish waiters know that ideology exists (we all do) but they remain cynical towards it. That is as Zizek and Peter Sloterdijk point out “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it” thus we are cynical subjects. We know very well that ideology exists but we continue to act, which is the important part, as if it doesn’t. It’s the acting on our desires that reproduces the ideology. It’s egged on by the media, education, political will, others and all the other stuff we are thrown into. But even if we did have the freedom to go against the ideology, and I think we do, we couldn’t do it alone. We would need to raise class consciousness. This is what Mark FIsher was working on a book called acid communism. Sadly he barely finished the introduction.
Furthermore here we are given the opportunity to carry out a rereading of Sartre’s famous phrase “existence precedes essence”. In an anti humanist fashion it links well with reproducing the ideological apparatus and the ruling ideology’s hegemonic position. There is no basic human essence or human nature, we produce it via signifying chains and ideology. If we can collectively challenge that ideology both nominally and phenomenally: can we change it? Also does that mean we decide via our behaviour and approach towards things what is authentic and what is not? I think knowing what it means to live authentically means formulating a new ideology, one that does not have a master signifier as Zizek would say.
We need to remember that our individual freedom is conditioned by our facticity which are the limits on our freedom. Our class, past, financial situation, symbolic position or age. This does not mean they limit our freedom but we should consider our facticities when making choices. Instead of speculating how we could single handedly bring about the revolution in our Lenin caps, we should be planning our next move with others on how we can exploit tears in the capitalist ideology. What is realistic? Here I would argue that living in bad faith is being a shop assistant working in Chanel, making minimum wage but scoffing at people you perceive to be less worthy than you. Living in ideology as if it were true, when deep down you know it isn’t.This is what keeps the system ticking over.
Heidegger says that by doing hobbies such as writing, sports, cooking, music and making things, this is when we are at our most authentic. He himself a keen hiker, spent most of his life living in the woods of Germany. But you don’t need to live in a log cabin, travel around India or become a monk to live an authentic life. I would argue authenticity is the thing least stained by ideology or that it may not exist at all. Whilst we cannot get rid of desires, we can try not acting upon the ones ideology dictates we do. Turn from looking inward to looking outward and being with others in the world. After all, the pandemic has shown both the symbolic and imaginary orders for what they are. Conditioned by language and both individual and collective human subjectivity. As Benjamin Bratton says in his book this is the return and revenge of the Real (Bratton 2021).
For me Being is being free to question the world without ideology breathing down your neck. Maybe ask yourself why you are cooking that cake. Are you distracting yourself from something? Is it to please someone else? Are you enjoying yourself? These are not bad reasons for baking, but have you had a chance to contemplate the world, you, death or our existence recently.
By Being more we can break the veil of the ideology that we live in. But this will not be enough for society. Our individual facticity holds us back individually; it is only together that we can overcome it. We need to recognise that we are all here together, united by our Being, even the people that don’t agree with us and some that want to hurt us. Things don’t have to be this way. The first step to changing our world, and that of the one around us, is by stepping away from distractions and to start questioning what we want and what it all means. Accepting that we are all finite has never been such an important issue.
To the graveyards.
- Bratton, Benjamin. 2021. The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World: Verso Books.
- Fink, Bruce. 1997. A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique: Harvard University Press.
- Fink, Bruce. 1997. The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance: Princeton University Press.
- Han, Byung-Chul. 2015. The Burnout Society. Translated by Erik Butler: Stanford University Press.
- Heidegger, Martin. 1963. Basic writings. Edited by David F. Krell: HarperCollins.
- Kamal, Rashida. 2022. “Quitting is just half the story: the truth behind the ‘Great Resignation.’” The Guardian, January 4, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/jan/04/great-resignation-quitting-us-unemployment-economy.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. 2020. Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Sarah Richmond: Taylor & Francis Limited.
- Žižek, Slavoj. 2006. How to Read Lacan. Granta.