This is an extract from Self and Unself, Darren Allen’s new ‘philosophy of all and everything’. Some of the terms herein — consciousness, self, ego, etc — may appear somewhat mysterious or abstract as they are explained in earlier sections of the book.
Self produces manifest culture, and then that culture shapes self. First, self is externalised as an expression — some kind of act or presentation. The expression appears as an object, a thing in the world, which is related to other objects, which are then reappropriated by man back into the self.
A band releases an album, a building company constructs a block of flats, an advertising agency puts up hoardings around town, an individual recounts a few anecdotes. The songs, the dwellings, the signs and the stories become part of a world which then shapes those within that world.
If self is unselfish this process ultimately begins “beyond” culture, with consciousness, to which the reappropriated modifications are subject to some kind of evaluation — I can reject the bullshit music, the ugly council estate, the advertising lies and the witless jibber-jabber.
If, however, self is fundamentally egoic, consciousness is given no freedom to operate, and the caddis case is formed almost entirely from without, walling up inner quality, and with it, genuine individuality.
First self speaks, then the words get set in stone, then the stone speaks to the self, writing its words back into the human heart, which speaks again. If there is freedom to speak, and to be heard, and to walk away, this dialogue (or dialectic) is fruitful and serves man.
But, just as if one person screws another down and forces words into her head it is no longer a conversation, so if society (culture plus self, or selves) fills its schools and lines its streets with messages that all say the same thing, with no way of escape, then we are no longer individuals participating in a society, but stackable storage units for whomever or whatever is filling us with the things we are forced to feel, eat, look at, think about and energetically engage with; in short, build our selves with.
Culture was once built from nature, and, more intimately, from the unselfish origin of that which nature and culture have in common. This is why pre-civilised man considered nature and culture to be identical. The more culture came to be built from itself, the less it served the essence of man, until it came to compel man to accept its objective validity or suffer the consequences. Not in an overt tyrannical sense, but in the unalterable fact of its existence.
You can think away culture or pretend it doesn’t matter — ignore, say, the rules of language or pretend that they are dispensable, but you will be punished, mocked, excluded, brought back into line or killed. Likewise, if your social self is at odds with your individual self, then all kinds of problems are on their way. This does not mean that I must be something other than my social self, but that I am continually compelled to harmonise the two, and if I can’t — if I cannot be in the world who I feel I really am—then I will suffer in the world, as everyone who is honest does.
Ego keeps this suffering at bay by endlessly affirming its social self. As that most unreal and egoic of sources, the average Teevee-American has it, ‘I am a cop, it’s what I do…’ ‘I am a mother, it’s what I do…’ Or, alternatively, ‘This is my town, these are my people’.
Such a ‘self’ is not something which is invented, it is there, ‘inside me’. I look inside and see that I am the cop or mother that society takes me to be (or, for the fake outsider, that I wish society to take me to be). And I have no desire to be anything else. Not that there is anything wrong with inhabiting a role, nor with identifying with a community, nor that there aren’t always elements of self that do not fit into what is required by the social world; rather that ego hides from itself in its social representation.
Man may be psychologically and spiritually deformed by his activity within the egoic group or institution, he may work in a mechanical manner, in mediated environments, in order to produce or manage things which have no recognisable human meaning, and he may be forced to conceal his horror and disgust behind an upbeat mask of emotional management, but if there is no truth beyond a self-constructed from the group, he will defend his deformity, and consequent duplicity and misery, as truth.
All criticisms of the group are taken to be criticisms of the self — ‘I am mortally offended by your prejudice’ — and all criticisms of the self are taken to be prejudice against the group — ‘It’s not because you are repulsed by my moral deformity, it’s because you are racist/homophobic/anti-white/anti-American etc’.
The seamless unity of self and society in the egoic mind explains man’s total blindness to systemic constraints, and to the fundamental paradigms of the system. They are one with his ego, which is why, today for example, man spends so much time thinking and talking about voting, about reforming teaching, about having fairer laws, about creating cleaner motorways and so on and so forth; but not a word on how disabling democracy is, or education, or law, or transport, or the encompassing system, which is as invisible to him as water is to a fish, or anger is to a van driver.
The social self and its inner component, the personality, are maintained through communication, through constant confirmation (either explicit or implied) of who I am to others. When there is nobody to validate my personality, it dies, which is why solitude is so necessary to people with character — who need to periodically let their personality wither away in winter so that spring life might grow—and so terrifying to people without character, who must exist in a constant stress of forced blooming for the world.
Likewise, if a critical avenue of personality-confirming communication is permanently disrupted—if a lover leaves, or a mother dies, or self is forced to live in another country, cut off from its culture—the whole world crumbles. The egoic self, forged through the shared reality created with a partner, a family or a society, is ripped out.
This is why people stay in abusive relations and in abusive societies. Leaving the objective world of the known is to be plunged into chaos, a fate worse than death for ego, which may even choose death in preference.
Loss of self-reinforcing dialogue is not just a threat to the individual self, but to the social body, which provides all kinds of ritualised means by which the disrupted self is expected to deal with its disarray and return soothed and placated to the ‘normal’ world. A spouse torn apart by the death of a partner is fine, we can accept and sympathise; but if the grief is too noisy or outstays its welcome, then the social world will take measures to exclude it, quarantine the infection as it were, and remove conspicuous misery from the scene, so that production and consumption can smoothly proceed.
For the same reason, madness, bizarre dreams and visions, psychotropic intoxication, spiritual extremism and all other exits from the system—including literally leaving it to gad off into the forest—are to be bricked up, or, if that’s not possible, managed by society, which deals with the void by projecting a screen of rationalisations onto it. Your visionary dream was a message from Satan, or a repressed desire, or a random brain signal, your glorious experience of the fundamental oneness of creation was a message from Allah, or a crazed illusion, or confirmation of your status as our Mystic Cham.
All of these validations are gratefully taken up by the ego, which cannot bear to be cut off, alone (or alone with unself), and prefers to masochistically submit itself to The Worldview — or, on behalf of that world, to sadistically control others — rather than have to face any kind of reality beyond the boundaries of the social known.
Just as society is threatened by loss of face and loss of reason, so it must also deal with the danger of men and women rebelling against their internalised role; finding, for example, that being a nice obedient little wife, or the upwardly-mobile manager of a car-rental firm, is something of a burden, and that they’d rather be members of a non-stop erotic cabaret or hunting-and-gathering in Botswana.
It’s fine for a man to masturbate to high-budget porn, or for a woman to spend a month on safari, but to actually do something about their dreams, particularly the genuinely wild ones, is out of the question, and again, if substitutes are not functioning, the machinery of social meaning must step in to make sure such desires are suppressed or channelled into something ‘productive’, or at least that the dreamer is reminded that if they are not, he can expect to pay an horrendously high price to realise them.
The most potent and pervasive threat to selfish society is not in this or that criticism, loss or disruption, but in consciousness itself; which is everywhere and at all times. Consciousness must therefore be continually suppressed, and man’s relation to it, to ever-present unselfish quality, continually managed.
This is largely done, on a social level, through laws, legitimations, taboos and totems. These are the rules of society — the ‘walls’ of cliched thought, feeling, sensation and activity — which range from everyday non-verbal norms of behaviour (we greet in such and such a way, we react to bad news in such and such a way), through more explicit linguistic formulations of what is right and proper (the shared ethics of society, encoded in its wisdom, its maxims, its proverbs and even its jokes), through the art, myths and folk tales of a culture (by which we learn what is appropriate or tasteful, and what is to be condemned), through the explicit legal codes of a civilisation or of its various institutions, up to, finally, the various sacred justifications or secular theories which explain, in the most abstract sense, why things are as they are.
Although all these legitimations are constantly in conflict, they work as a whole to order men and women’s responses to their own conscious impulses and the context they find themselves in. In a selfless society, these ‘orders’ are soft guidelines (or, if you prefer, flexible human laws) — useful and necessary, but fluid, and at the service of the individual.
In an egoic society, the individual must serve the laws, legitimations and taboos. If he breaks them — if he smiles when he should frown, does what the gods say never to do, questions evolution, utters the magical ‘n’ word or sends a magnet in the post — he’ll be punished.
Note that men and women must be continually reminded of these justifications and continually enjoined to affirm their commitment to them, just as communities of belief must be continually reinforced and protected. Human beings are never far away from their original nature, and easily forget what has been programmed into them from without.
This is why ritualised laws of defilement, containment of outsiders (physical or ideological), and, above all, walling off experiences of unreality (dream, madness, apostatic transcendence, death and love; even taking a shit puts one outside the bounds of history and religion and must be legitimately dealt with) play such an important, ongoing role in all ideological systems.
Today, in the West, continual reinforcement takes the form of constant affirmations of the goodness and rightness of a highly invasive, technocratic, global market-economy and of constant reminders that without the various ideological totems required to engage in it—tolerance, respect, pacifistic acceptance, keeping two meters apart from one’s fellows and keeping your trousers on in the supermarket—everything would fall apart and we’d all drown in a flood of anarcho-fascism, or die of a medieval lurgy, or be overwhelmed by the Beast.
If it looks like these reminders aren’t taking hold, then their intensity is stepped up and penalties for contravention escalate and intensify until you get your mind right.
Laws, legitimations, taboos and totems, being self-justifying and self-created, are entirely causal. The notion of law is coterminous with the notion of causality; a non-causal law is a contradiction in terms. In reality there are, ultimately, no laws in nature, in consciousness or in human affairs, because there is, ultimately, no causality in them; the world today was no more caused by the world yesterday than the morning was caused by the night before.
The laws we find in history (e.g. Hegel’s or Marx’s), or in nature (e.g. Aristotle’s or Newton’s), or in society (e.g. Confucius’ or Comte’s), or in consciousness (e.g. Leibniz’s or Freud’s), are products of self, and therefore only applicable to self; occasionally useful, as facts and causes are, but with zero qualitative truth.
The truth of an individual or society moving through ‘time’, like that of a tree, like the meaning of an act or the essence of reality, are invisible to causal consideration, which can only perceive a tumult of interrelated bits and pieces, slices and sections, and shrink-wrapped events, never the whole; which means it can never give an appropriate response to the whole (except by accident) which becomes impossible as soon as laws are set, and [directly or indirectly] enforced.
This is why people without direct experience of reality, isolated from it by money, power, fame, technology or drugs, rely on laws and legitimations, and give them the same existential status as experience. When it comes to right or wrong, for example, they cannot trust their experience, because they do not have experience, and so they cleave to factual-casual calculation.
Property is inviolable, therefore stealing is wrong; a man steals an apple, therefore he must be punished, no matter how wealthy the supermarket he steals from. Context — the history of the supermarket, the functioning of the market, the state of society — and consciousness — compassion for the man, empathic understanding of his life — cannot be allowed into consideration. To do so would disrupt one’s entire life.
The brutal inflexibility of the law-abider is sometimes seen as a ‘lack of imagination’, but imagination is part of the abstract schema that the law-maker appeals to, the series of ideas codified as The Law; it is wrong to lie, it is wrong to kill, it is wrong to steal.
When these ideas harden into eternal truths — when, in the management phase of civilisation, they are codified or written down, in holy texts or in statute books, or in the consciences of men and women — they serve, and can only serve, that which is incapable of abandoning facticity and causality, the inherently dishonest, selfish and violent ego. This is why you can’t trust a law-abider.
Self and Unself is available in the usual places, and on Darren Allen’s bookshop.
 Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality.[back]
 Ernest Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.[back]
 Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy.[back]