12 June 2009

Ego: What It Is And What It Ain't

Well, if we are to speak of egos, then mine just got a boost with the first ever real comments-box debate on this blog. Doctor John Zoidberg speaks for me on this matter:

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*ahem* Anyway, to address the subject of the controversy. In the little maze of words I have developed to express the idea-complex I call Chaos Marxism, "ego" is defined as that part of you which has developed with the express goal of survival in the Real World of Horrible Jobs. (See Aphorisms 2:123 and 2:132) Ego is the part of you which:
- can have relationships with other people.
- can acquire the goods and services necessary for survival and personal fulfilment.
- has opinions on politics, sport, music, the weather, other people, etc.

If anything I've said here could be taken to read that I advocate the annihilation or "amputation" of the ego, I've done something terribly wrong, because as you see above, the ego is bloody useful for many things. If you don't have an ego, then you have to be locked up for your own protection and people have to feed you pre-chewed mush so you don't hurt yourself with cutlery. And if you have a weak ego, you will be dependent on any weird identity, religion or other memetic device which will prop your ego up to be able to face the world. This is especially true under capitalism. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, ego is more necessary under capitalism than at any other time in history, because this is the time when the isolated individual is supposed to look after themselves independently of social networks.

However, a vital tenet of the CM approach - which doesn't appear to be in the Aphorisms yet, which probably means I need a third volume - is that since a successful ego is one which enables you to live well and comfortably in the world-as-is, it is not fit for the purpose of changing the world-as-is. This of course will explain why revolutionary parties are full of flakes and weirdos, i.e. people who haven't got that kind of well-rounded ego, so they're a bit outside the whole system. Like "Rowdy" Roddy Piper in They Live, if you're not the people the ads are speaking to, you can see the true horrror in what they're actually saying.

However, as said above, the weaker the ego, the more Ego Comes First. What this means in practice is putting the practical needs of the movement (changing the world) behind the needs of the ego (finding a niche where people like you and you can feel good about yourself). And so the party becomes a sect, a substitute religion, a lifestyle choice. So many people who escape the clutches of Big Brother just end up falling for the first Little Brother/Sister who tells them the lies that they want to hear (usually some variation on You Are The Chosen One). So the opposition to the system is recuperated, because the essential problem - the dominance of the Ego and its needs for an identity, for a place to call home, for attention - is still the same.

So what is the way out? Simply put - to have a strong Ego which is under control. This is the purpose of the Greater Work/Jihad which I outlined in "One Key and Nine Commitments". It requires the essential insight that YOU ARE NOT YOUR EGO. Your ego is a tool. It's something that you created for a purpose, and your job is not to look after its needs. Quite the opposite. What you really are - let's call it "True Self" until someone suggests a better term - has nothing to do with ego, which, as we've explained, is all about your physical and social survival and wellbeing, identity, and place in the world. "True Self" is... well, what really moves you, irrespective of all those social games.

Robert Graves, professional poet and amateur theologian, suggested that the true test of poetry is whether it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. For "poetry" substitute whatever gets you metaphysically high. It might be BDSM play. It might be the first thirty seconds of "Squonk" by Genesis (1975) (fuckin' brilliant bass line). It might be petting your dog. WHATEVER. If you can find that source of "poetry" - the language of your soul - you have a way of looking after yourself irrespective of the ego. Look, even bloody Weight Watchers has figured this out - that so many people become fat because they are eating, not for their bodies' needs or even for pleasure, but to plug holes in a fragile ego, or at least to numb the pain. Anything that you do for its own sake, for the joy of being there and existing, is the voice of your True Self. Feed that as much as you can. Anything you do because it gives you some kind of identity or place in the world or plugs a psychic gap is feeding Ego. Put it on a diet. No, that does not mean starve it to death.

I do like the metaphor of the ego as a dog. I don't want to hurt the friendly dog, but he and I will be much, much happier if he learns to stop begging for food and humping my leg.


Also, Christopher mentioned in the comments:

that sort of dancing nascent insight on this blog that really does seem to come from a stream of consciousness singing about a great deal of interconnected ideas that haven't been systematically joined, and perhaps never will be.

Yeah, that's about right. Posts on this blog are as spontaneous as anything I ever do. I get a Burning Thought - oft-times during prayer or meditation - and rush to this blog to put it in vaguely presentable form before the buzz wears off, which really is a kind of verbal "dance". This is a problem for the medium-term project of putting this into a book. I write for publication as well, and that's a completely different style of writing, and I'm not sure how well it will translate.


  1. Very nicely said! My own comments last post were kind of confusing. I added another response anyway, but there's no need with this post.

    I think it's a great point you make about how the weaker the ego, the more neurotic it is; a strong ego doesn't need to be constantly begging for fulfillment.

    This point is often lost on people who are mistakenly trying to weaken or amputate their egos---usually people in the "New Age" movement who, as it goes without saying, have grossly misinterpreted Hermetic and Eastern philosophy (ironically, for the purposes of feeding their ego: "Look at me, I'm a great spiritual master, who has progressed far beyond the idea of 'self'!")

  2. Well, this is all a lot clearer, as is your response, quantumnoir, to my last post.

    As a disclaimer, I've been going back and forth between a sense that my understanding of the reality or unreality of various mental functions-- the Ego as you describe it being one of those-- is communicable to many people. For whatever it's worth, to the greatest ability of my own self-reflection, I don't think my desire to communicate this understanding is based upon a desire for status.

    In any case, I agree that our understanding of the ego and the self-- where these things overlap and what the one's role is with the other-- is of monumental importance to human behavior, especially when that understanding becomes incorporated into someone's immediate perception of life rather than an intellectual exercise or curiosity.

    Okay. So, the reason I started commenting on this blog is because it seemed like I was on the same page as Dolores on this matter-- the insight that you are not your ego must be lived. I guess I'm still feeling, rather than intellectually or analytically sure, that I have some disagreement over how that plays out. Rereading parts of your blog, it becomes clear that you haven't really spelled that out (except for a little bit in this last post), and yet the same way I could detect that sense of a nascent song in the tone of your posts, I am willing to trust my feeling that there are points of divergence that are worth moving towards.

    There's still something about the tone you take towards the Ego which seems to me less than optimal. It isn't a dog, and it is a very powerful force, and it doesn't just need to be distracted.

    I've gone through many stages of life; the outsider kid who did need feel a need for ego-gratification (please, even if you don't like me, tell me that I'm smarter than you and scorn me for my superiority); the self-satisfied ego (I am smarter, stronger, more insightful than everyone else, and I don't care whether they know it, because I look down on them and this gratifies me); the distracted ego (I care for all people, and I love people for who they are, for them being what they are, and anyone can share my insights, and this is how, and in the mean time, I really like X, Y, and Z, and can live out X, Y and Z stylishly and well, and that fulfills me); to the ego now attempting to draw boundaries that make sense (a sense of enmity or a sense of alliance; a sense of selfhood that extends beyond my skin and a sense of difference matters, now how do I draw boundaries that can move, and boundaries that will allow the entity thus created to flourish?).

    Because even if the atomized self isn't real, the motion of thought that creates the sense of self is real-- it's a function, and a function that is essential to life; but life is additive. When life progresses it doesn't leave behind what it had before, and indeed new systems are often modeled on the old. So, if the old sense of ego-- I stop at my skin-- needs to be in some sense reprogrammed and reformed, well there are plenty of ways that man has already done this.

    Nationalism would be a prime example; and I wouldn't put Marxism (even good Marxism rather than totalitarian regimes that borrowed old Karl's moniker for dubious ends) as an ideal example. It seems in some ways the example that has least discernment. We must be one, human community, regardless of whatever distinctions we might make between humans. The distinctions between humans aren't ignored, but they aren't used as an immigration standard.

    Now, I'm not saying Marxism has nothing to teach us, but I think we can stand to maintain some kind of discernment as to what we identify as self inside a shifting living boundary. Maybe I'm here misunderstanding Marxism (another term that can mean a great many different things if you ask different people, and a writer whose work I am less familiar with than, say, the authors of the Gospels, or Milton or Nietzsche).

    So, maybe the best thing to say would be:

  3. Okay. The ego is not identical to the self. The ego is a projection of selfhood from some function of the mind that draws boundaries between what we are and what we aren't. Not only is it important to understand that these boundaries are drawn, but it is important to live that understanding and ask how to draw better boundaries.

    So, what boundaries would you draw, and why?

    I know that this isn't exactly what you've been talking about, and I guess I am still confused about how you think the Ego is necessarily tied to a consumerist capitalist culture. By my way of thinking, Nazi nationalism just expanded the German ego to include a sort of super-race-- the ego was expanded, and used to serve ends both beautiful and terrible.

    I guess I just don't agree with your distinction between the Ego and the True Self. In the course of no longer needing (nearly as much or as frequent) external status-based gratification (gee, aren't you keen?), that sense of identity, of a self in some sense distinct from its environment, whether it included many people and animals and plants or few at differing times, has maintained a driving force for what I would consider to be not only an essential function of life, but that function of life which allows growth and flourishing itself.

    I'm not saying it's everything, but I am saying that the sense of self helps us know how to relate to others, and that that's intrinsic to flourishing, growing, "progressing."

    Now, maybe you're saying there's something beyond growing, flourishing, "progressing," but if so it's something I haven't seen. What's the end beyond it, or am I still taking your talk of the ego the wrong way?

  4. Ok, time for the inane fan-boy and ego-boosting comment:

    When I thought this blog couldn't get any better, you reference Zoidberg. Sweet.

    (I feel slightly ashamed I have nothing of substance to add to this at the moment)

  5. You did hear that Comedy Central has renewed Futurama? :D

    So, back to Christopher. Let me try to give some more examples of what I'm talking about. I am a musician. What I call my Ego is the part of me which wants to be up on a stage, have people dancing and cheering and applauding and buying merchandise and wanting to have sex with me and in all other ways make me the kind of person I want to be. What I call my "True Self" is the part of me which hears a piece of music, or composes it, or plays it, and thrills as if a hole in the sky opened up and I can see reality, and it doesn't matter an underdone damn what anyone else on the planet thinks.

    In another way: my Ego is the part which kind of got tingly when IX called himself my "fanboy". My True Self is the part that knows that what I really want is constructive criticism and practical experiment. (Sorry, IX, I really do appreciate it.)

    The Ego is built to fit into the human-created World-As-Is, which in virtually every part of the globe today means fitting into the capitalist market economy and individualist consumer culture. The True Self is the part of us which exists for its own sake, and for the glory of God-However-Defined. The True Self has "nothing to lose but its chains". The Ego is dependent on those chains (the money economy and the social games based upon it) because without those chains it loses its reason for existing.

    To go back to basics, of course, this is very similar to Crowley's conception of the True Will, or RAW's talk about "something other than the accidents of heredity and environment have programmed you for". But it also has its basis in Marxist theory - the difference between a "class in itself" (something that objectively exists) and "a class for itself" (something that knows it exists). Gramsci talked about the split in consciousness between "common sense" (everything that you've been told by your culture and the authorities, meant to keep you unconscious and docile) and "good sense" (what you learn from actual experience, which wakes you up, which makes you able to change the world you live in, which is after all the fundamental point of being human). "Common sense" is the Ego - "good sense" is the True Self.

    Yes, this is the Hermetic formula applied to politics - as above, so below. Chaos Marxism suggests that the process of an individual achieving consciousness of their True Self is parallel to and inseparable from the process of humanity becoming aware of itself and seizing the reins of its own evolution and destiny, in a social revolution. It's fundamental to the political side of the idea complex that the main reason why there is no revolutionary force in the advanced capitalist countries is that working people, despite having no material state in the continuation of capitalism, have a psychic state in it - i.e. their Egos, which are flattered and caressed by media culture and which give them some kind of identity in the face of the accelerating breakdown of family, traditional community, traditional religion, class solidarity, and everything else that gave life meaning in the pre-capitalist era.

    So... what's beyond the Ego? Someone who can live in the World As Is without being dependent on it. Someone who has a clear view of who they really are, who can play social games freely but not be entrapped by them. And someone who knows that the whole world must come to such consciousness or capitalism will drag the planet down. A planetary revolution in consciousness will also be a social-economic-political revolution, and the inner and outer struggles must be waged at the same time.

    Please tell me that's a bit clearer.

  6. It is clearer. I suppose I'm not calling the ego what you're calling the ego, or even if we're calling it the same thing I'm attributing different qualities to the ego.

    I understand that part of myself that just wants a sort of simplistic gratification. It's the part of me that thought it was cool that a movie review I wrote got syndicated on a few other blogs, and then it got a bunch of hits.

    But, I guess I've thought it was pretty simple not to base my actions around that particular sense of gratification for a while, now.

    That being said, and it is clearer, the only thing I'm not clear on is whether you, as quantumnoir seems to, identifies the Ego as you have described it with the faculty of the mind that creates a sense of an individual. Because if so, I think you're confusing one very banal little voice in our minds with another very profound faculty of our minds.

    The ability to distinguish a self (and by extension, a community, because I am quite convinced this is the same faculty) is not that same voice that gets a giddy thrill when someone calls himself your fanboy.

  7. the only thing I'm not clear on is whether you, as quantumnoir seems to, identifies the Ego as you have described it with the faculty of the mind that creates a sense of an individual

    I'm not sure that's what QN is actually saying, but as for me, I would specify: no. The Ego is that part of you which compulsively clings to the sense of an individual, and in particular, the illusion of a single stable permanent individual. Enlightenment would consist, as Uncle Al said, in being able to "change consciousness at will" - i.e. to be able to switch "the sense of an individual" on or off, or even to be able to take on different identities, at will.

    This goes, as you say, for community as well as individuality - as I keep saying, the whole problem with left-wing sects is that they become about the feeling of community in being part of the group, rather than the group actually intervening in the Real World of Horrible Jobs. So community can be as much a trap as isolated egosim.

  8. Sorry about the delay in response. It would seem that when you talk about an Ego you aren't really talking about some perennial faculty of the human, then? I mean, the compulsive clinginess is not something that all humans share, I would argue; and even if many humans experience it, many don't experience it to a debilitating or fantasictally distracting degree, right?

    Right now, though, I think any confusion I may have had had more to do with the particular label "Ego" and less to do with the sort of sense you're making of things.

    I would be curious to know if, after reading this recent post of mine, you had a better handle on where I'm coming from and the possible intersection of where we're both coming from, or whether you think I'm terribly misguided.

    I used to write always in the very front of insight and revelation, without premeditation, but alas, I have trained my premeditation so well that it's very hard to turn it off these days. I'd be curious about your response.

  9. It would seem that when you talk about an Ego you aren't really talking about some perennial faculty of the human, then?

    Bingo. I think I should have made crystal clear that the kind of mass-produced ego I'm talking about here is actually an artifact of mass media / consumer culture, which is about a century old at maximum. I would, however, argue that it's virtually ubiquitous in anyone who lives and works in the market / consumer economy, which is virtually everyone on the planet today. The Ego is that personality who is addressed by advertising and propaganda, and since advertising and propaganda work, the Ego must be widespread.

    Chaos Marxism has evolved to attempt to answer new questions for new times, or perhaps the old questions but in a new and quite original form. You're right that "Ego" is probably misleading - the word that I'm looking for would probably be somewhere between the Sufi term nafs and "bourgeois subjectivity". It hasn't been invented yet, so maybe I'll have to invent it.

    I'll respond to your post a bit later, insha'allah.

  10. I would, however, argue that it's virtually ubiquitous in anyone who lives and works in the market / consumer economy, which is virtually everyone on the planet today.

    Sure, sure. I worked for Starbucks for a year and a half when I was younger; they always said that their employees (Partners [in crime?], they called them) were their most important customers. They were always trying to sell, not only coffee and coffee-making equipment to their Partners, they were trying to sell an image, and that started with the Partners. You were something because you were a Starbucks customer.

    But, in that case, why preserve it at all? It's like a cultural disease. Or perhaps I am deluding myself as to how small an impact it still has on my day to day thoughts and actions.

  11. I think that it's much easier to operate in the World-As-Is if you have some kind of "Ego". All the great politicians, musicians and commercial hustlers have had massive egos, which is how they have been able to use the ideological superstructure of society to their own advantage.

    While we don't want to be like that - because what doth it profit a main to gain the world and lose his soul - to have no ego at all is a kind of ascetism, a kind of monasticism, a kind of pulling yourself out of the mainstream of the World-As-Is altogether, which is a valid lifestyle option but not what the point of CM is. We have to work within the World-As-Is to change the world as is - unless you believe it will fall apart of its own accord any day now and we should be getting out of the way, which again is a valid way of doing things but not mine.

  12. I think that it's much easier to operate in the World-As-Is if you have some kind of "Ego".

    Sure. But easy doesn't mean right.

    ...to have no ego at all is a kind of ascetism, a kind of monasticism, a kind of pulling yourself out of the mainstream of the World-As-Is altogether, which is a valid lifestyle option but not what the point of CM is.

    While I can accept that that's not what "chaos marxism" is about, I can't understand what you hope to profit by maintaining the Ego as you have described it. Participation in the World-As-Is is probably not be the best way to change the world. To the extent that we are participants in the World-As-Is, we are also anchored to it.

    I really don't see it as a kind of asceticism, either-- pulling out of the World-As-Is doesn't mean pulling out of the world. Your "World-As-Is" is a local phenomenon, not even a perennially or contemporarily universally applicable human phenomenon.

    We have to work within the World-As-Is to change the world as is - unless you believe it will fall apart of its own accord any day now and we should be getting out of the way, which again is a valid way of doing things but not mine.

    There are other options. Cats have a World-As-Is, but you don't have to pee in a litter box to live in a world with cats in it. Dogs have a World-As-Is, but you can train dogs and live well with dogs without becoming a dog yourself. Sure, you have to understand dogs, but you don't have to be one.

    I do believe that this World-As-Is, as you put it, will fall apart of its own accord; I sincerely doubt that it will do so in my lifetime. However, our own contributions to existence have ripples beyond our own lifetimes, and I do believe that my time would be better spent preparing the way forward for those who will move forward than attempting to participate in a World-As-Is that has become so massive that large-scale change can only be achieved with the concession of treating human beings as a single, almost cancerous (my interpretation) system.

    Rather than get out of the way, I think I'll spend my time preparing for what comes next and the right time to engage in the end of what was. Expedient means.

    That being said, I would be very much interested to know how you think Chaos Marxism will actively and effectively change the World-As-Is. If there is no thing, "lightning," which flashes-- if there is no object, only activity-- what is the activity here?

    I've heard so much deconstruction (even and perhaps especially from myself) that I long to hear some construction, some creation. I am endeavoring to that goal and attempting to curtail further deconstruction until I've got something meaningful in hand is my present goal.

  13. Well, fundamentally, Chaos Marxism is supposed to "change the world" in that it's supposed to act as an support and a complement to actual, mass-based political activism, leading towards a social revolution. That word "Marxism" actually means something, you know! I suppose I felt the need of a specific application of magick and spiritual psychology to political activism, much like Robert Fripp's Guitar Craft is a practical application of Gurdjieff's exercises to guitar playing.

    I did have a brief look at your website. What struck me is that idea of "building our own culture". If by that you mean another club, or niche market, well, good luck to you, but I would consider that hiding from the world, when we are called (by the best within all of us) to try to change it. Or did you mean something that might have ramifications in the World As Is?

  14. I don't think I mean a club or niche market, though you may very well see it that way.

    Really, I don't think that mass movements are the way to go. Whenever you deal with human beings as a mass, things tend to get all bloated and cancerous.

    Again, I guess I'd just say that your "World-As-Is" is not equivalent to the world. There's a difference between retreat from the "World-As-Is" and an appropriate level of interest in it. I guess I figure that basing one's hope for the development of mankind in some kind of shift of what you're calling the "World-As-Is" (which I think is really a very small and relatively insignificant component of something as large and beautiful as the world) is a different kind of unhelpful fixation.

    But again, as I said before, we're almost all guilty of deconstruction without constructing something better. I am curious about you (you guys?), and may find my perspective shifting radically if I see something active sprout from this. In the mean time, I have a great deal more enthusiasm and hope for the success of my own experiment in crafting a new culture.

    I'm pretty sure that project isn't what you're calling the establishment of a new "niche market," but again I think this may be a confusion of words alone. If anything that doesn't require itself to be applicable to all people everywhere on the globe, regardless of circumstances, then I am trying to establish a niche market. But again, I think it's a big mistake to embrace the view of human beings as a mass or system. It's an abstraction that, in my experience, allows us to be less than what we are.