The Real Versus The Unreal

I love to sit and think about reality. Can it be grasped? Can it only be approached through the abstract? Ask me those two questions over the course of a year and it is likely you will catch me contradicting myself. I love to think there is the same reality for us all. To extent I suppose there is. But what if what we think is reality is not the real-reality. Don’t roll your eyes just yet. It is a really a simple concept, if you give me a moment to explain.

I came across this wonderful essay at Common Review called “The Dream of Reality.” I’ll spare you most of the details, but if you have the time, I suggest you give it read.

Debates about what is real and what is not continue to stir thinkers in every precinct, in part because it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between reality as we think we know it and the ten thousand images of “reality” disseminated in the culture every hour. The difficulty has seemed impressive for almost a century. In the 1920s, for example, the German satirist Karl Kraus wrote, “In the beginning was the Press and then came the world.” He was responding to a growing alarm, a sense that what we call the world is primarily a product of the consciousness (or “information”) industry. Another, later example: in 1962 the German poet-critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote, “The process is irreversible . . . this service is essentially the same all over the world, no matter how the industry is operated: under state, public, or private management, within a capitalist or a socialist economy, on a profit or nonprofit basis. The mind industry’s main business and concern is not to sell its product; it is to ‘sell’ the existing order.”

Suppose our reality is shaped by forces beyond our immediate control. In other words, the reality we know is established for us by the mass amount of information, media, pop-culture and mainstream influence (in a word: culture). I won’t say there is anything sinister behind this – if of course this is even the true case. At any rate, we perceive it to be reality, but it is not the real-reality. Rather it is constructed for us. Our needs, our desires, our beliefs, our aspirations, even our fears are all constructed by the influences around us. We are led to a certain reality but perhaps not the real-reality. We are presented a false-positive.

Here is a good example to that point.

In the essay, that the author mentions Johns Stuart Mill’s opinion on the “subjection of women.” Mill, as smart as he was, wondered why women, or anyone else for that matter, would adopt a silly notion that women could be anything other than what they naturally were. Meaning, women never aspired to be anything other than mothers, wives, and caretakers. After all, most women cared little about politics, knew little about current events, did not own any businesses and tended not to have an opinion outside their realm.

Based on every available indicator at the time, the reality was women really had no other role. Nor did they want one. Therefore, Mill was totally correct and even practical in his criticism toward those idealist dreamers.

Of course, that line of reasoning turned out not to be true. Once women moved out of this traditional role, things changed, and the circumstances for women changed drastically. Was this “wiling slavery” more of an outcome to tradition and social-norms, and not so much to do with reality?

Perhaps that may be the case. But if that is your reaction, then what was the real-reality all along? Were not those traditions and norms actually constructs? — Influences that represented a false-positive? In other words, everyone was influenced by the un-real as opposed to the real-reality.

How much is this case in our own lives, our own reality?

In the last analysis, the question of what are true and false needs must be answered by the individuals themselves, but only in the last analysis; that is, if and when they are free to give their own answer (One Dimensional Man).

Let me come back to this. I’m afraid I wasn’t prepared sufficiently enough when I started.

In the meantime, I’ll share with you some personal correspondence on this same subject from the proprietor of Total Perspective, Jeff. Maybe he wraps it all up better.

The J.S. Mill part was interesting. Mill’s position about women was “conservative.” But the author reminds us that Mill’s view was bounded by the rationality and the sentiments of the time. At least in this case, I believe the author seems to be saying we can’t be prisoners of the past or time and place. As for dreams, well, I think dreams are rarely fully achieved at the broad national level. But certainly the American experiment (the dream of our fathers) has been partially realized. But then since the dream is different from person to person I don’t suspect we’ll ever get there.

I think we have to realize the progress is real. It’s slow and many times disappointing, but it’s real and clearly visible in our modern world. People dream or imagine the way things could be. Certain realities serve has anchors. I think the radicalism of the 1960s was unrealistic and only served to fuel a sensual overindulgence in whatever made one happy. But the 1960s radicalism didn’t win the day. It did, however, moderate some conservative positions, and brought about things like civil rights. That was important and was resisted by conservative forces. So maybe the author is articulating a form of yin and yang. He realizes that the radicalism of his youth was a dream that, while not entirely wrong, needed to be tempered by the mature realities of what’s actually possible.


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